Amuse Bouche...That's not English, Right?

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Oh the French, they do give us some wonderful food and great phrases.  And the one that starts it all off is the Amuse-bouche.  The literal translation is mouth amuser.  In a restaurant, this is the appetizer before the appetizer. Not ordered from the menu by a customer, but given as a complimentary single bite from the chef to start your meal.  It is meant to amuse the mouth. Get it ready for the meal. Whet the appetite and get the patron excited for what is to come. 

Only the French would think of amusing your mouth. I dare say that the Italians aren't into amusing so much, but straight up satisfying from the onset.  I do love the idea of tickling the tongue with a little nosh to get you primed.  A little food foreplay, wouldn't you say?

This practice doesn't need to be limited to restaurants. As JuanCarlos and I prepare for a trip to France, I reasoned that this was a perfect time to honor their tradition and share some ideas on the subject. So go ahead,  treat your guests to an Amuse Bouche.  You like them, don't you?  So amuse their bouche.

Remember this is meant to be just one little bite not a full blown appetizer. However,  any of these can be an appetizer. (Just love when things can do double duty).  An amuse bouche can range from the elaborate to a very simple offering. 

Here are six offerings, each providing the all important combination of salty, sweet, tang, texture to get the mouth party off to the races.

Goat Cheese & Nut Topped Grapes

These are an easy, pop in your mouth kind of bite.  Refreshing and textural, and create the "more please" effect. 

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  • Use the stemmed end as the base, as this will help the grape stand up.

  • Slice a tiny bit off the top of the grape to have a level landing spot for a dollop of goat cheese.

  • Using a small spoon gather 1/2 tsp of room temp goat cheese and place it atop the grape. (I use my clean fingers to create a little dollop)

  • Dip it in the crushed/ground nuts (such as pistachios or a mix of pecans, walnuts or whatever nut you like). These can be made ahead of time, but save the nut dipping til just before serving. You don't want the nuts to get soggy in the refrigerate. NOBODY likes soggy nuts.

Prep yourself with everything at the ready. Look how simple this is. 3 ingredients. 3 steps: Slice, dollop and dip

Prep yourself with everything at the ready. Look how simple this is. 3 ingredients. 3 steps: Slice, dollop and dip

You can store in the fridge like this with plastic wrap

You can store in the fridge like this with plastic wrap

Dip right before serving.

Dip right before serving.

Salmon Topped Cucumber or Apple

Alright, this may be two bites, but satisfying ones, for sure. These deliver a creamy texture paired with a cool crisp  and salty bite.

Salmon / cream cheese roll up a top a cucumber slice.

Salmon / cream cheese roll up a top a cucumber slice.

  • Cut a 1/2" slice of cucumber.

  • Pipe a dollop of soften cream cheese on top.

  • Place a small piece of smoked salmon laid down in a crossed fashion.

  • Pipe another dollop of cream cheese in the center and top with capers and dill.
    (You can also use the Salmon Roll method. On a large piece of plastic wrap lay the salmon down, making sure to overlay slightly. Spread softened cream cheese on top. Sprinkle with capers, then roll up like a sushi roll, Refrigerate. Once chilled, cut into 1/2” rounds placing atop each cucumber slice. Adorn with dill, as seen above.)

Refreshing on a slice of apple. This is from my   Lox on What?   idea.

Refreshing on a slice of apple. This is from my Lox on What? idea.

Pea Soup Shooter

A chilled, tall drink of spring. (I have not tried these recipes but wanted to provide a few links for your reference.)
Pea Soup Shooter
Pea Shooter
Pea Soup

These were part of the offering at a catering event I did with Regina Mallon Enterprises, food by  Special Attentions .

These were part of the offering at a catering event I did with Regina Mallon Enterprises, food by Special Attentions.

Dates Packed & Wrapped

Boy, does this one get every part of your mouth ready.  It's got salty, sweet, crunch and tang.

Another 3 step method, Slice, stuff and roll.

Another 3 step method, Slice, stuff and roll.

  • Slice open a Meedjol date just enough to remove pit and replace with something better.

  • Stuff it with gorgonzola cheese and a marcona salted almond.

  • Wrap the date with Serrano or Prosciutto ham.

Simple set up of jamón Serrano, gorgonzola, marconas & dates.

Simple set up of jamón Serrano, gorgonzola, marconas & dates.

Just a little slice, yank out the pit and replace with yumminess.

Just a little slice, yank out the pit and replace with yumminess.

Cranked up Caprese Skewers

This is an amped up Caprese salad on a stick.

Ratcheted up a notch by grilling them until they are just warmed then dipped in grated cheese. Oh the melt, the sweet, the salt.

Ratcheted up a notch by grilling them until they are just warmed then dipped in grated cheese. Oh the melt, the sweet, the salt.

Another simple set up with just a few ingredients.

Another simple set up with just a few ingredients.

Once grilled, roll them in grated cheese. Want some heat, sprinkle red pepper flakes, too.

Once grilled, roll them in grated cheese. Want some heat, sprinkle red pepper flakes, too.

  • Skewer a grape tomato, a bocconcino, piece of basil and another grape tomato. (You can certainly serve them as is. But I highly recommend you go the next steps. Also, you can prepare these ahead of time and refrigerate until grilling.)

  • Coat with oil, salt and pepper and lightly grill, then roll in Parmesano Reggiano, and serve immediately.

Chorizo-Manchego-Olive Skewer

A one bite tapa mix that makes a hearty first nibble. 

Warm, cold. Savory, salty, creamy. Need I say more?

Warm, cold. Savory, salty, creamy. Need I say more?

Honestly, I feel like I could create one every week.  The options and ideas are 'to infinity and beyond'.  Just think of little bites that would get your guests ready for more.  Oh la la to the French for their playful amusement.  What a fun game of enticement. 

 
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Any Night Meal - Al Fresco

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That's right the weather has turned... Finally.  I'm sure you have washed off the furniture, swept the patio and tidied up whatever outside area you have, whether it be a terrace, a small deck or a rolling pasture. It's time to go - al fresco.

Of course, we are all anxious to throw garden parties, BBQ's and the like after enduring a long, long winter.  And California, please spare me the "oh, we have that all year round" remark.  We know just how special you are.  The rest of the country suffers through changes.  Which is why we are outdoor party ready.  But you don't need to orchestrate a shindig in order to delight in the summer's offering. Taking in an evening breeze while savoring a meal doesn't need to equate to a big ordeal.  A simple dinner will do just fine so you can bask in the longer days, the extended light and the brisk air of a summer's eve.

You can set the table and create warm vibes, or simply put dishes on the patio table.

You can set the table and create warm vibes, or simply put dishes on the patio table.

Cocktails - Here's a few ideas:

These Aperol Spritz cocktails are easy to drink, so be careful. If it's a school night, maybe just have one.

These Aperol Spritz cocktails are easy to drink, so be careful. If it's a school night, maybe just have one.

A dry rosé is the antidote to any long day.

A dry rosé is the antidote to any long day.

If you don't want the alcohol:

  • Cranberry juice, sparkling water and lemon wedge, or even add some frozen berries

  • Watermelon juice, sparkling water, basil leaves

  • Sparkling Water with Lemon & Lime Slices

The idea is to enjoy something refreshing.  So, go ahead and shake up a cool drink of your favorite flavors.

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The Meal

  • Summer Tart , simple puff pastry topped with farm fresh vegetables of the season

  • Large salad, it can be as simple as lettuces lightly tossed with fresh lemon juice and oil. Or a nectarine salad to reinforce that summer feel

  • Roasted salmon or grilled shrimp

  • Yogurt with honey and nuts

Puff pastry tarts don't need to be complicated. Fill them with whatever is fresh and seasonal and pop them in the oven. I always add cheese!

Puff pastry tarts don't need to be complicated. Fill them with whatever is fresh and seasonal and pop them in the oven. I always add cheese!

Salad ideas

Watermelon & Feta cheese served with a crisp white wine -  La Val Albariño  from Spain.

Watermelon & Feta cheese served with a crisp white wine - La Val Albariño from Spain.

Main Dish ideas


Keep it simple and roast fish on the grill.

Roasted Salmon is perfect for outdoor entertaining.

Roasted Salmon is perfect for outdoor entertaining.

 

You can even have dessert without a fuss.  Some Greek yogurt, nuts with a drizzle of honey is the just the right amount of sweet to finish off a meal. The idea is to get outside.  Grab whatever food you have and put it on a platter, pop open a beverage and breathe in the fresh air.  And the sheer joy of dining al fresco.  

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Whole Red Snapper stuffed with lemons and parsley and grilled on the BBQ. So fresh and clean and ideal for a summer night.

Whole Red Snapper stuffed with lemons and parsley and grilled on the BBQ. So fresh and clean and ideal for a summer night.

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Yogurt drizzled with honey & nuts equals an easy, satisfying dessert

Yogurt drizzled with honey & nuts equals an easy, satisfying dessert

Salmon Burgers - San Gluten & Eggs... WHAT?

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Some of you know that I have an allergic reaction to wheat, yeast and eggs (plus a few other foods). So I try to eliminate those as much as possible.  Which means even foods containing just a smidge of bread or eggs to hold them together are quite literally my unraveling.  And thus, blacklisted from my repertoire.  Seriously, how much deprivation can one woman withstand?   I love me a fish burger, but alas most use bread or bread crumbs, and almost all use eggs. What's a gal to do?  Being stubborn and wanting what I want is when the thinking cap needs to be fully stretched and used to its fullest. Unscramble the mystery and find another way to hold the darn thing together.

I remember seeing a recipe a while back that whizzed up part of the protein to make a paste.  Paste... that definitely holds shit together.  So, with the sticky part done I needed to fill up the rest.  Here is the fun part.  You can, seriously, add a long list of accompaniments like; kale, spinach, corn, mushrooms and so on.  Alas, I only had some basics on hand:  onions, celery, peppers, scallions. So, that's what I used, and they worked out just fine. (Next time I will share experimenting with other fillings. Heck, don't wait for me. Be daring and test on your own.)

The setup of what was to become a really tasty salmon burger.

The setup of what was to become a really tasty salmon burger.

Ingredients   

Burgers - Makes 6
1 lb Salmon, skin removed
1 c celery, chopped
1/3 c yellow pepper, small dice
1/3 c orange pepper, small dice
1/4 c red onion, small dice
1/4 c yellow onion, small dice
1/4 c + 2 T scallions, sliced
2 T oil
2 T capers
1 T parsley, chopped
1 t mustard
1/2 t whole grain mustard
1 t salt
1/4 t black pepper
corn meal, potato flour optional

 

 

Relish
2/3 c yogurt
2 T Kosher dill pickles, chopped
1 T parsley, chopped
1 t capers
1. 5 T lemon juice
1 T lemon zest
1/3 c sauté mixture
salt to taste

Instructions

Mise en place all the vegetables as directed.  Then in a cast iron pan or skillet, sauté onions, celery, peppers, 1/4 c scallions in oil, season with salt and pepper.

Mise en place is French for "everything in place", meaning prep all your ingredients so they are ready to go.

Mise en place is French for "everything in place", meaning prep all your ingredients so they are ready to go.

They sure look pretty like this but go ahead and mix them together for even sautéing.

They sure look pretty like this but go ahead and mix them together for even sautéing.

 Let them cook slowly over low heat until softened. When done, set aside and let cool.

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Meanwhile, cut the salmon into 3 equal parts.  One part cut into 3/4" cubes. One part cut into 1/4" cubes. One part pulse in a mini food processor to create a paste. 

Salmon paste that will be the glue to hold the other two together.

Salmon paste that will be the glue to hold the other two together.

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Next chop the parsley and rest of scallions.  In a bowl, add all three portions of salmon. Then begin adding all filling ingredients:  1/2 c of the cooled sauté mixture, capers, the mustards, 2 T scallions and parsley.  Mix together until well combined, then form patties, and refrigerate for 15 minutes to 1/2 hour.  

Salmon prepped in 3 sizes: Big cubes, smaller cubes and a paste.

Salmon prepped in 3 sizes: Big cubes, smaller cubes and a paste.

Start building the burger flavors by adding the vegetable sauté.

Start building the burger flavors by adding the vegetable sauté.

In go the capers.

In go the capers.

Then the mustard, and so on.

Then the mustard, and so on.

Then form your patties. This makes 6 medium burgers.

Then form your patties. This makes 6 medium burgers.

While the burgers are chilling out, move onto the relish. All it takes is a bowl to combine all the ingredients together, stirring until well incorporated.  Then refrigerate until ready to serve.

The lineup for the relish.

The lineup for the relish.

Homemade relish is so fresh and delicious. It can be used on baked potatoes, or over rice even.

Homemade relish is so fresh and delicious. It can be used on baked potatoes, or over rice even.

After the patties have had their chilled rest and are firm, they are ready for frying. You have choices at this point. You can either fry as is without any coating, or dust them with either potato flour* or corn grits**. Using my 6 burgers I experimented making 2 of each kind to see which we liked best. Jill and JC liked them plain with no coating. I also liked the purity of the plain one, but I liked the corn grits coating due to the outer crunch.  And if you search your memory banks, or this blog you will remember that I love crunch.  Test which one you like best.  

NOTE:
*If you use the potato flour coating, cook these at a lower heat since the the finer powder texture cooks faster and will burn if heat is too high.
** Corn grits are a larger grain, which gives it the crunch. But if you don't want as much crunch factor, then you can use a stone ground corn meal which has a finer texture.

Corn grits. See those grains of ground corn? That's what gives it Crunch!

Corn grits. See those grains of ground corn? That's what gives it Crunch!

Potato flour is much finer, almost like talcum powder.

Potato flour is much finer, almost like talcum powder.

About to make crunchy goodness.

About to make crunchy goodness.

I like using a cast iron skillet because the pan retains the heat and gives a nice outer crust. Fry on both sides until you see the salmon turn pink, about 2-3 minutes each side, depending on thickness. 

Front left has potato flour coating. Back center has the corn grits, while front right is sans any coating.

Front left has potato flour coating. Back center has the corn grits, while front right is sans any coating.

The final lineup from left to right: Potato coated, no coating, corn grits coated. You can see how much darker the potato coating got.

The final lineup from left to right: Potato coated, no coating, corn grits coated. You can see how much darker the potato coating got.

Serve immediately with slices of tomato, arugula or boston lettuce, and some cornichons. Any lettuce works fine, but I really enjoyed how the spicy flavor of arugula plays off the salmon,  Don't forget the homemade relish. It's tangy, sweet and delicious. JC and Jill both told me that they don't usually like relish, but plopped spoonfuls of my homemade version on their burgers.  The next night we had fish. They broke out the relish again!

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Hey, since this is such a healthy version of a burger, no bread filling or bun, go ahead and splurge by serving up some fries or a baked potato.  You can even use the relish on that, too. With Memorial Day steaming down the tracks, these could be a great addition to your outdoor party.
(Note: I would not cook these directly on the grill, as they need a flat surface in order to form a crust to help hold them together.) 

Just because I need to eliminate some foods doesn't mean I can't enjoy things I love.
And just because these are sans bread and egg definitely doesn't mean they are sans flavor!

Brunch Made Simple

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Brunch is supposed to be a relaxed, chill vibe. A time to hang with friends and family. The whole idea is rooted in the premise of sleeping in, then eating lazily in the late morning.  That is true if you are going out to eat, or to someone else's home.  But if you are hosting, it's a bit harder to sleep in. Plus it can feel a bit overwhelming, knowing there are mountains of ideas on what to serve.  I am guilty of wanting to offer up more options than are possible to consume.  (Or to make, for that matter.) The essence of brunch is that beautiful crossover of food from breakfast items to lunch or even a few heartier items. There in lies the rub.  All those choices create a mind numbing battle of what to serve when the possibilities seem endless.

That was my dilemma a while back when we hosted a brunch for our dear friends Carl and Malcolm. I had all sorts of ideas, but I was determined to keep it as simple as possible.  In the end, I felt like I accomplished that, so much so that I recreated the same menu for a Sunday brunch with our other dear friends, Nicki and Jeff. 

A little forewarning, in order to keep this post manageable, each recipe below is a hot link, bolded and highlighted in blue. Just click to be whisked away to see how to make it.

Let us begin:

There were two slight changes to the menu for Nicki and Jeff versus the original. I didn't serve the polenta cake, but did add an amuse-bouche of Ibérico ham, Marcona Almonds, olives.  It was a nice way to greet our friends and settle in a bit as we caught up on our life tales and the many moons that had passed.

Now, you've heard me say many a time that it is essential to serve warm items, room temp and chilled items. This holds especially true for brunch.  Certainly, if I were serving brunch in the winter I might lean on a few more warm plates, but this combo seems just right for the rest of the seasons. Plus, as we head into summer we are in prime time for more entertaining in general, especially outdoors.  Brunch is ideal for backyard entertaining.

 

 

After the nibbles that amused our mouths and whetted our appetites, we started off with a chilled dish, then moved on to all the other plates. Let the party begin with a refreshing and clean burst of citrus.

Citrus Salad Martini

A 'brighten your day' start to Sunday, or any day for that matter.

A 'brighten your day' start to Sunday, or any day for that matter.

Next up was a continuation of fruit, transitioning to savory with this lightly tossed salad.

GRAPED UP BOSTON SALAD

Boston lettuce with grapes, fennel, celery, scallion. It's bright and light.

Boston lettuce with grapes, fennel, celery, scallion. It's bright and light.

Something warm with...

TOMATO & GOAT CHEESE PIE

Warm and savory. The sweetness of the tomatoes balances the tang of the goat cheese.

Warm and savory. The sweetness of the tomatoes balances the tang of the goat cheese.

Something room temp and hearty...

Salmon Salad Platter, Deconstructed

Polenta Cake

Polenta cake cut into slices.

Polenta cake cut into slices.

Ingredients

2 c polenta (cook according to package)
1.5 T butter
1/4 c chives, chopped
1/3 c goat cheese
salt, pepper

Instructions

Once the polenta is cooked, remove from the burner and stir in the butter, goat cheese and chives, salt and pepper until combined.  Lightly oil a cast iron pan and pour in the polenta. Bake at 350 degrees until a crust forms. Turn onto a board or plate and cut into wedges.  Best served warm but room temp is good too.

What I love best about this meal is that so much can be done in advance. The big plus is that any of these can be served at room temp, therefore, less stress about timing and getting the plates to the table.  

Then for dessert, I kept with the same theme of simple.  Prepped ahead of time and waiting on the kitchen table, I brought out a small platter of fresh cheeses (Manchego & Ibores),  grapes, strawberries and Sweet Olive Oil Crackers. Certainly, you can go sweet at this stage of the meal, but this felt right, and I believe our guests thought so too.

So, although YOU might not be sleeping in as late as everyone else, but taking the homemade brunch route doesn't have to stress you out.  Create the perfect crossover meal.  

 
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Sunday Brunch - Part Homemade/Part Not

A bounty of yum.

A bounty of yum.

Hosting a brunch can be easy, or a lot of work.  It can be made up of all the usual suspects, or a mash up of the expected and the unexpected.  I am never one to shy away from hard work, but I am also a huge fan of working smarter not harder.  So the idea of creating a sumptuous brunch spread that would serve up that mix with as much ease as possible was what I was aiming for.

One of the keys to achieving success; a good mash up of homemade items with banging good store bought items.  This greatly cuts down on the amount work.  Another huge help is asking guests to bring an item or two.  I'm sure your guests, as do ours, always ask, "what can I bring?" This is the perfect time to say "Bagels, or lox".  Or both!

Such was the case when we hosted a Sunday family brunch.  Our guests provided the bagels, lox and cream cheese. While we prepared the remaining dishes. 

For me, the perfect brunch is a like a moveable feast.  As with any party that isn't a sit down meal, there should be a decent variety of items ranging in temperatures and protein choices. A to and fro of movement.  Nibbling here, picking there. Foods that can last for several hours of conversation without too much fuss.

Here is what we offered up, and what was consumed with zeal.

When you buy quality products, the best plan is to let them shine with maybe just a few embellishments. That was the case with all of the "some assembly required" items. The Spanish sardines were enhanced with cucumbers and tomatoes. 

Spanish sardines with cucumber and fresh grape tomatoes.

Spanish sardines with cucumber and fresh grape tomatoes.

Cucumber slices bring a crisp, freshness to the intense sardine.

Cucumber slices bring a crisp, freshness to the intense sardine.

Plate them simply and use the rich oil they are packed in.

Plate them simply and use the rich oil they are packed in.

You've seen me use boquerones before. This brunch crowd loves them so, of course, I would serve them.  These fresh anchovies dressed with chopped garlic and parsley and good olive oil always get gobbled up.

I selected fish shaped dishes for these two under the sea selections. I love the shape and cobalt color. I've had these dishes for 30 years. Yes, you read that number correctly.

I selected fish shaped dishes for these two under the sea selections. I love the shape and cobalt color. I've had these dishes for 30 years. Yes, you read that number correctly.

Cheese/Charcuterie platters are another easy to assemble ahead offering that everyone loves.  And a perfect brunch item.  So go ahead and create one chock full of your favorite combinations.

It's always good to have a full board of charcuterie and cheese mixed with fruits, olives and nuts.

It's always good to have a full board of charcuterie and cheese mixed with fruits, olives and nuts.

The lentils were partially homemade, in that I used delicious precooked lentils that I get from Despaña but enhanced them by sautéing onions, carrots and celery then adding the lentils to warm through.  That simple.

This group of guests hadn't had my Eggplant Gemolata dish yet, so why not make it again. I did alter the feta topping, keeping it simple and not using the sun-dried tomatoes, olives and lemon zest but adding oven roasted tomatoes to finish the dish.  It was a huge hit with no left overs. This is one of those dishes that you can prep, then cook right before serving.  The flavors are powerful and beautifully melded. It has never let me down, no matter the event or the guest.

Eggplant with feta gremolata.

Eggplant with feta gremolata.

A little something for the meat lovers. Pork belly, lovingly prepared by JuanCarlos, cut in bite sized chunks and simply served on a wooden board.

Pork belly does take some time, as it is twiced cooked. Slow oven roasted to render the fat, then seared crispy in a skillet.

Pork belly does take some time, as it is twiced cooked. Slow oven roasted to render the fat, then seared crispy in a skillet.

The usual brunch suspects, bagels, lox, cream cheese are always welcome and always the perfect Sunday comfort food.

Bagels, lox, cream cheese, capers. Also served was Sushi grade Salmon Sashimi.

Bagels, lox, cream cheese, capers. Also served was Sushi grade Salmon Sashimi.

Eggplant, lentils and a bowl of the extra oven roasted tomatoes.

Eggplant, lentils and a bowl of the extra oven roasted tomatoes.

Make your life easy with the table setting.  Throw a graphic cloth down the middle as a landing strip for all the dishes. Then a simple stack of all the right plates, bowls and utensils in an easy to grab fashion keeps the laid back feeling going.

Finish with a little something sweet, Apple Tart.  And that's how part homemade/part not is done.

Create the vibe you want by selecting food that fits that mood.  A spread that spreads love.  One that invites conversation and fills their bellies and their souls.  What a great way to mark a Sunday, or any brunch day.

 
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