Perhaps you’ve seen the phenomenon of ceviche.* It might begin with a happy hour group sipping half-priced margaritas at a Mexican restaurant. Around 7:30, they start eying the menu. One person suggests yucca fries to share, another the spinach quesadilla. Then one gets a mischievous look in her eye and places her finger firmly on the name of a dish. She looks meaningfully at the group, eyebrows lifted. “How about… ceviche?” She says.
Inevitably, it must be explained. A few in the group already know and say that eating raw fish in a sushi restaurant is one thing, but in this place? (At this point, someone may point toward the bartender in his tank top, standing in a puddle of spilled Corona and lime pulp). Then one of the cheap drink revelers begins a rapturous defense of ceviche — what a fresh-tasting delicacy it is, and how he used to eat it all the time when he studied abroad in Latin America somewhere. Some are convinced. Most of those who try it are enraptured; ceviche converts who take a tiny forkful at a time and savor it.
Before a recent trip to Mexico, I had only tried a bite of fish ceviche. I thought it was pretty good, and believed the ecstatic looks when others ate varieties of the dish. After all, Iâ€™d only tried one kind. Maybe shrimp ceviche was really the stuff to die for. When I made my way to the coastal farm near Puerto Vallarta where I was to work for two weeks, I noticed a lot of ceviche. Several small wooden storefronts in the town put out a hand-painted shingle that read vende ceviche.
It’s not such a big deal there. Why? I’m convinced it’s abundance — abundance and cheapness. I wouldn’t be surprised if many a gringo returned to the states with little more respect for ceviche than for canned chunky tuna.
I’ve seen a similar phenomenon with sushi and tapas. I found myself falling for it last weekend when I ordered something with a long name that lost me after “cebolla.” The English description involved grilled sweet onions, pine nuts, and a Spanish cheese I’d never heard of. The dish was basically three slabs of onion sprinkled with about eight pine nuts and a teaspoon of blue-green cheese.
It was actually quite lovely. The onion was caramelized but still a bit firm, the pignolis were toasted just right, and the cheese was intense. I ate slowly, putting some of the onion on pieces of good bread and taking breaks to sip my sangria.
Would I have appreciated this if I was at a potluck and came upon a pile of cooked onions garnished with puny bits of nuts and cheese? Probably not.
What do these so-called delicacies have in common? Here I go with my psychological theories of food, which are not even original. But I’ll argue if you create a few simple factors at home, you can have people licking their plates, or at least daintily lapping at their fingers in a way befitting the cuisine.
First, make sure your dish is a small, precious sample that is never quite enough. Use some bold, complex flavors with a few expensive ingredients that you wouldn’t find at the local Safeway. Make sure there will be puzzlement around these flavors. When a diner can’t quite place a taste, they are more likely to appreciate it. Itâ€™s delightful to be mystified sometimes. The two crucial parts of the rapture, I am convinced, are the mystique and diners’ willingness to eat small bites, contemplating each one.
So now, I’d like to give you a few ideas for hors d’oeuvres and cocktail appetizers. I can’t promise they will do everything just described in the previous paragraph, but your guests will like them. I chose dishes that are meant to be snacky, because that’s the only time I’ll do moderation. (When I invite someone over for a full dinner, I want that person to have access to enough food to have him or her rolling home. I’m not willing to compromise my need to feed by trying this small plate psychological game, or to take hours preparing a main dish the size of a quarter!)
If you’re experienced enough with cooking, you can follow the main principles and invent your own objets d’art. Your process might go something like this:
1) Pick out a few rare, flashy, or super tasty ingredients like goat cheese, a blue cheese, truffle oil, fresh herbs, spring roll or ravioli skins, or a gourmet condiment like wasabi or an Indian chutney
2) Choose a few everyday ingredients to compliment them like sourdough bread, crackers, sliced or shredded vegetables, a run-of-the-mill cheese, tofu, or eggs (think Spanish tortillas)
3) Chop, dice, slice, broil, bake, or grill your ingredients and then assemble your creations
4) Garnish and name them with great ostentation. (Look up ingredientsâ€™ French names if necessary)
5) Serve with dessert plates and tiny forks or toothpicks
If you like a little more direction, check out these recipes:
*A dish generally made with raw fish, lemon or lime juice, and cilantro. This post deals a lot with this dish. Sorry if you don’t do fish or seafood. No actual denizens of the sea were harmed in the writing of this post.
This concludes our post for today! Coming up soon, to address your other entertaining needs: new twists on cocktails. If you have ideas, send them to me or add them as a comment.