A recent survey of more than a thousand American Culinary Federation member chefs showed small plates — also known as tapas, mezze or dim sum, depending on their ethnicity — ranked high on culinary “what’s hot” lists.
The combination of increased consumer awareness of healthy portion size and shrinking budgets for eating out may have prompted labeling this a trend. But haven’t you ever dined with friends and nibbled on each other’s entrées? How about splitting a three-course meal of appetizer, salad and entrée, leaving room to enjoy dessert?
I think smaller plates have been a covert pleasure for a long time. But to be honest, I have often felt guilty asking the server to meet my special needs. Restaurants have responded differently, with some charging a “splitting” fee, while others divided the entrée, complete with artistic detail, and made it seem effortless. I like to think chefs’ current interest in small plates evolved as a result of these special requests from many diners like me, who are interested in trying foods, but still want to keep portion size under control.
The menu at Spokane’s Vin Rouge menu was our family’s official small-plate beginning. Bite-size pieces of tender beef drizzled with reduced stock, or hummus, marinated tomatoes and tapenade atop crostinis. They even had small-plate salads with interesting twists. We would leave with our adventurous palates satisfied and no huge hole in our pocketbook.
“It fits the healthier option to dining, and serenely fits the current economy, with the feel of going out for a night on the town,” says Corporate Chef Robert Lombardi, of Black Rock in North Idaho. “I even use the small-plate concept entertaining at home. We start around the kitchen counter sharing a glass of wine, and I serve flatbreads hot from the oven. Then on the deck, I barbecue small skewers of marinated chicken, and we nibble, enjoying the sunset. This floating from room to room can create excitement and anticipation of the next ‘small plate’ to come, and lends itself to more energy and fun.”
Spokane’s Santé restaurant executive chef Jeremy Hansen agrees that small plates are a way for diners to stay within health guidelines. “We have many small plates available, and we base our menu on healthy eating,” he says. “Low-fat cooking techniques are in everything we make. The charcuterie plate has 1.5 ounces of meat for each style.”
Dietitian’s translation? The small plate concept opens the door to tasting all foods. Duck prosciutto and salami can be enjoyed (note that at Santé they are made from scratch), and the diner need not feel guilty. Chef Hansen continues, “Santé is French for health, and this is our restaurant philosophy, as well as sustainability… Products created at Santé are 90 percent organic and sourced as local as possible.”
Vintages at 611 restaurant Chef Mike Todd and owner Tana Rekofke have created a menu loaded with small plates. “I think people are eating differently and enjoy sharing, choosing not to eat a full dinner,” Rekofke says.
“The progressive dinner is back… on a much more exciting scale,” says Chef Lombardi.
Whether you call them appetizers, tapas or small plates, these interesting little flavor-laden portions are perfect for the pocketbook and the waistline.
Whole-Wheat Naan Bread
Here’s a healthy recipe to use in your own small-plate entertaining. Once you’re confident with the recipe, try Chef Robert Lombardi’s concept of pre-making the flatbread dough and finishing it with your guests present.
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 cup warm water
1 packet of rapid-rise dry yeast
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
To prepare dough: Mix sugar and warm water in small mixing bowl, stir in the yeast and let mixture stand for 5 minutes until frothy on the top. Mix the flours and salt in a large bowl. Make a pocket in the middle and pour in the yeast mixture, stir to combine. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for 8 minutes or until dough is smooth. Shape dough into a ball and return it to the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a towel. Allow dough to rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.
To cook: Preheat oven broiler and heat a griddle. Meanwhile, punch down the dough and knead for 2 minutes. Divide the dough into 6 equal portions. Cover. Roll each portion into a 7-inch round on lightly floured surface, keeping all the unrolled portions covered.
Bake on hot griddle until little bubbles appear on the top and the underside becomes mottled. Place on a baking sheet with the uncooked side facing up. Broil for about 30 seconds or until the naan puffs up. Makes 14 servings.
Flatbread can then be spread with your favorite hummus, or sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and returned to the oven to melt the cheese and crisp the flatbread.
Nutrition Notes: 75 calories, 1g total fat, 16g carbohydrates, 3g protein, 1g fiber