I was recently at a very fancy catered reception at a private home in San Francisco, and all the appetizers were served in ceramic spoons or shot glasses, reminiscent of amuse-bouche in restaurants.
Every bite and shot delivered a distinct and memorable taste. It was so pleasant not to be balancing a tiny plate while trying to eat, or holding a half-eaten something on a napkin while managing my wine glass at the same time, not to mention trying to eat something with a fork. As the appetizers were passed, the server kindly waited for guests to replace their empty spoon on the tray. Voila! Free hands and no looking for what to do with an empty plate or a crumpled napkin.
It seems that everywhere I go these days, tasting portions are on the rise. In fact, I was in Healdsburg recently for an overnight getaway with my husband to visit our friend’s Sanglier Vineyards tasting room and to have dinner at Chalkboard restaurant. Before our 7 p.m. dinner reservation, we decided to go to Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar for a glass of wine and an appetizer.
The server there explained to us that all the dishes on the menu were small, sort of like tapas, and encouraged us to order several different ones to make a meal-size equivalent, or perhaps fewer, if we were just looking for an appetizer with the wine. Although we perused the menu, we ordered only a half-dozen oysters, because we anticipated a serious dinner.
At Chalkboard, the same thing happened. Our server explained that the dishes were small, and that we should order several to make our meal, which we did. Pork Belly Biscuits (worth the drive just for these), Halibut Crudo, Bucatini with Sea Urchin Sauce, Seared Scallops with Risotto Cakes, and Petrale Sole with Duck Fat Potatoes, plus a cheese course, constituted our meal. All was preceded by an amuse-bouche soup shot of foamed Jerusalem artichoke soup. Perfect.
It’s an idea that translates perfectly to the holiday season. Instead of a party with a buffet table groaning with dips, spreads, salads, meats, cheeses, stacks of little plates (plus utensils), consider setting out appetizers of interesting soups in shot glasses or demitasse cups, and tasting-size portions of ready-to-savor dishes in one-bite sizes on spoons.
Part of the entertainment is gathering pretty demitasse cups and a collection of spoons, if you like that sort of thing, and I do. It’s an opportunity to be casual – not everything matches – and at the same time to offer a sophisticated presentation of complex dishes and tastes. And, in terms of handiness, the quickly emptied spoons and glasses or cups can be placed on a tray and discreetly removed at your convenience.
Of course, the question arises, as it did in the restaurant in Sonoma, or any time that small plates or tapas are offered: How much is enough? How much is appropriate?
For me, if the shots and bites are the food for a cocktail party but are not meant to be a full meal, I’d offer four to six different ones. If they are meant to be an appetizer before a full meal, I’d serve no more than two or three. In addition, I always like to set out a few dishes of olives and salted nuts in different parts of the party area, just to help keep the crowd moving around.
Regardless of the occasion, I like to offer these tastes in mini-courses, so that each flavor experience is distinct. For example, from the recipe collection here, I’d begin with a shot of Shittake Soup paired with a spoon bite of Crispy Won-Ton Ahi, followed by the rich and elegant Vichyssoise, then Shaved Beef Tenderloin with its horseradish on its own, due to the bite of the condiment. I’d conclude with a classic taste of cheese with honey. As appetizers before a meal, I might start with a spoon bite of cheese and honey, and then follow with the smooth Cauliflower Soup with Truffle Oil to lead into the meal.
Serving bites and shots is an elegant yet practical way to approach holiday appetizers, allowing you to entertain in high style and your guests to have enough samples to be satisfied without being overwhelmed.
Most of us don’t have on hand enough shot glasses or demitasse cups to serve 12 or more, but I advise adding them to your cupboards because they are such a convenient way to serve small tasting portions. We may have enough traditional soup spoons, but even so, I recommend adding a collection of ceramic Asian-style soup spoons as an option.
For party tips and recipes, see Page D2
Spoon bite of shaved beef tenderloin with frozen horseradish
Makes 24 spoon bites
Most people enjoy rare, sliced beef, and probably more than one bite. The frozen aspect of the horseradish is fun – and it will freeze for up to 3 weeks – but if it is more convenient, simply add a dollop of cream-style horseradish to the beef. Remember, horseradish is powerful stuff, so don’t overdo it. I suggest trying one yourself to test the heat.
1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
One 2-inch piece fresh horseradish, peeled, and grated
1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 pound very thinly sliced beef tenderloin or London broil
1/2 cup small watercress sprigs
In a bowl, beat the ricotta cheese with a wooden spoon until very soft. In another bowl, with a mixer, whip the cream until it forms stiff peaks.
Fold the cream into the ricotta. Add the salt.
Combine the grated horseradish with the vinegar and sugar, then stir it into the cheese mixture.
Spoon the mixture into a freezer-proof container and cover it. Freeze until hard, about 3 hours. Remove, let thaw slightly, about 20 minutes, then beat with a mixer or in a food processor to break the ice crystals. Put back in the container, cover and freeze until ready to serve.
To serve, mound about 1 ounce of the thinly sliced beef into each of 24 soup spoons. Using a small melon baller, top each with a little of the frozen horseradish and garnish with a small sprig of watercress. If using prepared creamy horseradish, use a scant ¼ teaspoon or 1/8 teaspoon measure.
Cauliflower soup shots with truffle oil
Makes about 2 ½ cups, enough for 10 2-ounce soup shots
The sweet mild taste of cauliflower, with a peppery dash of lavender, is the perfect foil for the pungent, earthy truffle oil.
1 small cauliflower, about 3/4 pound
3 1/4 to 3 1/2 cups whole milk
1 medium potato, about 1/2 pound, peeled and diced
1/4 teaspoon crushed lavender
1/2 to 1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Black truffle oil
Dried lavender sprig for garnish (optional)
Cut the florets off the cauliflower. Put a pot of water on medium-high heat and bring it to a boil. When it boils, add the cauliflower, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the cauliflower has softened just slightly, about 5 minutes. Remove and drain well. Extra water will dilute the soup’s flavor.
Pour into the pot about 2 1/2 cups of the milk, add the lavender and salt, place it back over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook until the cauliflower and the potatoes are very tender and pierced easily with a fork, 15 to 20 minutes.
Using an immersible or standing blender, purée the mixture, then slowly add some of the remaining milk to reach the desired creamy consistency. At this point, for a very refined, smooth soup, strain it through a Chinoise or a sieve, pressing the mixture through with a spatula.
Return to a clean pan and, over medium high heat, bring to a simmer. Stir in the nutmeg, butter and white pepper and taste, adding more salt it desired.
To serve, ladle into shot glasses or demitasse cups and add a drop or two of truffle oil to each and, if desired, garnish with the optional lavender sprig.
Vichyssoise soup shots
Makes about 3 cups, enough for 12 2-ounce soup shots.
Although this soup is associated with elegant French cooking it is actually nothing more than a humble leek and potato soup to which cream is added. It can be served warm or cold. If serving it warm, I’d garnish it with a scattering of buttered bread crumbs. If serving it cold, with a sprinkle of minced chives.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 leeks, minced, whites only, to make about 1 cup
2 to 3 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cubed, about 1 pound
2 cups non-fat, low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream, chilled
2 tablespoons minced chives
In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the butter. When it melts, add the leeks and sweat them gently until soft, about 10 minutes. Do not let them brown. Add the potatoes and turn them several times to coat them, then add the broth. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the potatoes are easily pierced with the tines of a fork, 20 to 30 minutes. Taste and add salt as desired.
Purée with a blender, then strain through a Chinoise or a small sieve, pressing the mixture through with a spatula to make a very smooth soup. Just before serving, stir in the cold cream. If it seems too thick, add a little more broth.
To serve, ladle into shot glasses or demitasse cups and garnish with minced chives.
Shiitake mushroom soup shots
Makes about 2 1/2 cups for 20 2-ounce servings
This soup is all about the earthy flavor of shiitake mushrooms, but it relies heavily on the stock to bring out the flavor. Although it is rich with flavor, it is surprisingly light and refreshing. From “The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook” by Georgeanne Brennan and Ann M. Evans.
1/4 pound cultivated white or brown mushrooms, or shiitake mushrooms, coarsely chopped
Stems from shiitake mushrooms for soup (below), coarsely chopped
2 carrots cut into 2-inch lengths
1 large leek, cut into 2-inch lengths
1 yellow onion, quartered
2 whole cloves
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons coconut oil
1/2 cup coarsely chopped, peeled carrots
1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and reserved for broth and caps chopped (about 3 cups)
1 tablespoon canola oil
4 to 6 fresh chives, minced
To make the stock: In a saucepan over medium heat, combine all of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the vegetables have imparted their flavor to the stock, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from the heat and strain through a Chinoise or a colander lined with cheesecloth. Measure out 2 1/4 cups and set aside.
To make the soup, in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, warm the coconut oil. When it is hot, add the carrots and ginger and sauté until the carrots soften, about 3 minutes. Set aside about 1/4 cup of the chopped mushrooms for garnish, then add the remaining mushrooms and sauté until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
In a food processor, combine the mushroom mixture and the 2 1/4 cups stock and process until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the soup to a saucepan and keep warm.
Finely chop the reserved 1/4 cup mushrooms. In a small sauté pan over medium heat, warm the canola oil. Add the finely chopped mushrooms and sauté, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Reheat the soup until hot. Garnish each serving with 6 to 8 pieces of chives and 2 or 3 pieces of sautéed mushroom. Serve at once.
To serve, ladle into shot glasses or demitasse cups.
Cashel blue cheese with honeycomb
Makes 12 spoon bites
Cashel is a creamy, Irish farmstead cheese that balances mild flavor with the slight tang of blue cheese. I find it to have, with a little honeycomb added, just the right tang. The comb can be eaten and I like to use it when I serve cheese. However, this spoon bite of cheese can certainly be served with a teaspoon’s worth of the honey of your choice.
1/4 pound Cashel blue cheese or another blue cheese of your choice
1/4 pound honeycomb, about 1/2 cup
Cut the cheese into 1/2- inch pieces and place on 12 spoons.
Cut the honeycomb into 1/2 cubes, one at a time, and place on the cheese-ready spoons.
The honey will run, so be prepared to spoon it up onto the spoons as needed.
Spoon bite of ahi tuna won-ton with harissa cream and microgreens
Makes 40 bite-sized appetizers; serves 10 to 15
To make a crispy carrier for delicate ahi tuna, won tons are cut into bite-size pieces and fried, then a dollop of harissa-spiced cream is added. Lacking the harissa, use a tiny bit of minced arugula. Choose top-grade ahi and you won’t be disappointed. If you are reluctant to offer raw fish, sear the ahi before dicing it.
1 pound ahi tuna (yellowtail tuna), sashimi grade
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice, about 2 limes
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon prepared harissa (available at specialty shops or online)
10 won-ton wrappers, 3 inches by 31/2 inches
Safflower oil or other oil for frying
1/2 cup microgreens, baby arugula, chervil or peppercress
Finely dice the tuna and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the mayonnaise, lime juice, salt and harissa (a spicy North African combination of peppers, tomatoes, and spices) and mix well. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Cut the won-ton wrappers into 4 equal squares. In a Dutch oven, over medium high heat, heat 2 inches of oil. When it is hot, add the won-ton squares a few at a time, not crowding them. As they turn golden, 30 to 40 seconds, remove them with tongs and put them on a platter or baking sheet lined with paper towels. Repeat until all are cooked, reducing the heat if they are browning too quickly. If they sport bubbles, poke them with a skewer.
When ready to serve, place a few microgreens on each wonton piece, top each with a teaspoon of the minced ahi and finish with a dollop of the sauce. Place on a spoon.