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Call them tapas, or call them bocaditos ... call them meze, dim sum, antipasto or just plain finger food, small dishes featuring bite-size treats have a place in just about every nation's cuisine because they're quick, easy and fun to eat, a natural choice for casual street food.
Now small plates are becoming trendy in more upscale restaurants - and among with-it home cooks - for all those reasons and more: They're a natural choice for dining light, or for mix-and-match dinners featuring a variety of contrasting flavors ... and, if you like, wine tastings to match.
I recently ran across a handy little cookbook called, appropriately, "Small Bites," by Jennifer Joyce, and thought I'd share a few ideas from it with you today. A colorful, glossy small book with large photos of many of the dishes, it includes a couple of hundred full recipes in its 224 pages, with shorter how-to ideas (which is really all you need for most of them) for dozens more.
Its 10 chapters subdivide the book into mostly useful categories, from "Fried" (crunchy bites like Indian pakoras and Roman fried artichokes) to "Sweets" (from down-home chocolate cupcakes to more exotic cardamom-poached apricots with mascarpone cheese and pistachios). Separate chapters are devoted to meats, fish and vegetables, salads and dips, things served on skewers and things wrapped, tied and rolled.
I've found the book just about as useful for browsing and grabbing quick concepts that I can use as inspiration for my own inventions - fresh figs cut into thick slices, topped with halved mozzarella boconcini balls, garnished with a leaf of fresh basil and wrapped with prosciutto to make bite-size savory packets, for instance. Or tiny new potatoes rolled in olive oil and smoky paprika before roasting 30 minutes in a 400F (200C) oven. Or beef cubes marinated briefly in Asian spices and roasted on skewers made of lemongrass, our FoodLovers Ingredient of the Month featured in last week's FoodLetter
There's a United Nations round of goodies, from China (pork and shrimp dumplings with garlic oil) to Mexico (crab and Gruyère nachos) to Italy (Sicilian artichoke bottoms with provolone and capers) to the Middle East (saffron chicken skewers with sweet tomato jam). You'll find enough ideas in here to last for a long time: Highly recommended.
I modified this simple Chinese regional dish, <b>Hainanese chicken</b>, to add aromatic lemongrass flavors, and bulked it up just a bit with a simple dish of sesame noodles in place of the cookbook's suggested sweet-hot soy dipping sauce to make a cool, light summer dinner. It takes just a bit longer than most of the small-bites dishes because you have to poach, then chill, chicken breast meat, but it's well worth the short wait.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves twl)
<b>FOR THE CHICKEN</b>
1 chicken breast (see note)
2 cups (480ml) chicken stock
2 cloves garlic
1-inch length fresh ginger
1 stalk fresh lemongrass
8 crisp, fresh romaine or iceberg lettuce leaves
1/2 of a thin English cucumber, skin on
<B>FOR THE NOODLES</B>
4 ounces Japanese udon or soba noodles
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
Vietnamese sriracha sauce or other hot sauce to taste
Chopped scallion for garnish
1. Bring the stock to a simmer in a saucepan large enough to hold the chicken breast, put in the peeled and smashed garlic and ginger and the lemongrass, and simmer very gently for 30 minutes or so until the chicken is cooked through and infused with the aromatics. (NOTE: You can use a boneless, skinless chicken breast to save time, but I like the flavor and texture contributions of bone and skin in a whole breast, and you'll save a little money that way.) Remove the chicken breast and remove and discard the skin and bones if necessary. Let the meat cool - I put the meat back in the broth and stuck it in the freezer for a half-hour or so to speed the process - while you work on the rest of the dish.
2. Trim the lettuce leaves to make four natural "cups" to hold the food. Cut the cucumber lengthwise into paper-thin strips with a little green skin along both edges. Mince the scallion and cilantro.
3. Boil the noodles per package directions until <I>al dente</I>, drain and cool briefly under running water to stop cooking. Put them in a small bowl with the peanut oil and sesame oil and stir well so all the noodles are coated, to avoid sticking together. Stir in the hoisin sauce and hot sauce to taste, and chill.
4. Curl a couple of cucumber strips into the bottom of each cup. Cut the chicken breast into eight pieces of equal size and put one piece atop the cucumbers. Garnish with the scallions and cilantro and serve, plated with a portion of sesame noodles.
<B>WINE MATCH:</B> Any crisp, dry white should be fine - it made an outstanding match with the recently featured Lucien Albrecht 2005 "Cuvée Romanus" Alsace Pinot Gris, with extra credit for the affinity of the wine's citric-lemon character with lemongrass and ginger; I'd expect an Austrian Grüner Veltliner to make an excellent pairing also.
<B>BUY THE BOOK ONLINE:</B>
Jennifer Joyce's "<I>Small Bites</i>" is available from Amazon.com in hardcover for $13, a 35 percent discount. Click
to order online.
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