Restaurant menus featuring small plates are not a new concept, but it appears to be having a renaissance around the world.
Some cynics say a depressed economy forces restaurants to offer small sized offerings at smaller prices, but the concept of tapas, tasting menus and degustation menus surely transcend any such cynicism.
A degustation is an appreciative tasting of various foods where the chef can show off his or her talents in producing small portions for people to sample. It can be as many as eight or nine courses but it is often five or six and often accompanied by matched wines.
Degustation menus are often called tasting menus and the concept has been made famous by some very famous, expensive and popular restaurants such as the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley and Per Se in New York, both owned by Thomas Keller. Per Se has been ranked one of the world’s top-10 restaurants.
Small plates and tasting menus don’t have to be in the dizzying heights of haute cuisine and I think it is a concept that every cook should embrace.
We are easily locked into the tradition that three courses constitutes a “proper meal” and more than likely one course will suffice.
However the notion of five to nine courses of taste treats served to willing and hungry guests can be a lot of fun, not to mention a bit of culinary excitement.
There are no particular rules except that the food should form some sort of logical progression and that heavy dishes should be offset with lighter, palate cleansing options.
I have selected six courses taken from different stories that I have written for the Nelson Mail over the last few years that could form a tasting menu of sorts.
Portion sizes need to be smaller than if it’s a three-course meal.
I have started with oysters served with wonderful accompaniments in a recipe from Nobuyuki Matsuhisa from the famous Nobu restaurants.
This is followed by a parsnip cream soup with subtle flavours and texture after the sharpness of the oyster salsas.
A fillet of fish flavoured with garlic, thyme and paprika and a dot or two of chickpea puree provides another sharp counterpoint.
The palate is cleared with a pear, pecorino, spinach and walnut salad before a rich confit of duck. The meal concludes with a light and refreshing blueberry semifreddo.
Try the menu some time soon with people you like to spend time with.
OYSTERS WITH NOBU’S THREE SALSAS
12 fresh oysters in the shell
4 Tbsp matsuhisa salsa
4 Tbsp maui onion salsa
4 Tbsp jalapeno salsa
Remove the oysters from their shells and rinse under cold water. Drain. Arrange the oysters in their shells and top with a little of each salsa – use four oysters per salsa.
Combine 1/2 cup (60g) finely chopped onion
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp garlic
1/4 tsp chilli oil
1/4 tsp finely grated ginger
1 Tbsp oil
Add 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley before use.
Combine 2 finely chopped jalapeno chillis
1 1/4 cups (125g) finely chopped onion
1 tsp sea salt
5 tsp extra virgin olive oil
5 Tbsp lemon juice
Maui Onion Salsa:
Combine 1 cup (100g) finely chopped maui onion
3/4 cup (105g) finely chopped tomato
6 Tbsp Ponzu (Japanese citrus-based sauce)
2 tsp orange juice (freshly squeezed)
1 tsp hot chilli sauce
Sprinkle with chopped chives before serving.
CREAM OF PARSNIP SOUP
2 stalks celery
1 lemon (for juice)
4 Tbsp of butter
450ml vegetable or chicken stock.
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
Peel and chop the parsnip into 1cm cubes.
Cut the celery the same size and put both aside.
Finely dice and sweat off the onion using 1 tablespoon of the butter.
Add the parsnip and celery and saute without adding any colour. Cover with the stock, add the bay leaf and cook the parsnip until tender.
Once the parsnip is cooked add the cream. While the soup is coming to the boil, in a separate pan cook the butter until it reaches a brown “noisette” stage. You must be quite careful here, as the butter can burn quickly. You can tell when the butter is ready by sight (it will be brown), and by smell (it takes on a distinctive nutty aroma). Once this is achieved, add quickly to the soup and puree until smooth.
Season with salt and pepper and the lemon juice.
GURNARD WITH PAPRIKA, THYME, GARLIC AND LEMON
2 fillets of gurnard, about 300g, cut into four pieces
2 tsp of paprika
1 Tbsp fresh thyme chopped
3 cloves of garlic
Rind of a lemon finely grated
1 Tbsp of olive oil
Sea salt and 1 tsp of whole black peppercorns
In a mortar and pestle combine all the ingredients except the fish.
Pound until it makes a smooth paste. Rub into the gurnard and place the rest of the mixture into a roasting dish with two more tablespoons of olive oil. Place the fish in the pan and bake for about 15 minutes until cooked at 200 degrees Celsius.
Serve with a little chick pea puree and garnish with thyme sprigs.
PEAR, PECORINO AND WALNUT SALAD
In a bowl, mix three large handfuls of the salad greens of your choice. Slice a large pear into slivers and add to the salad. Do the same with 50g of pecorino cheese. Add half a cup of toasted walnuts. Add 2 Tbsp of the best local olive oil, add the juice of a lemon, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Toss well.
CONFIT OF DUCK WITH RED CABBAGE AND BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUFFLE
You should prepare the confit for this several days in advance.
4 duck legs
A handful of thyme leaves
2 tbsp juniper berries
2 bay leaves
4 cloves of garlic
salt and pepper to taste
4 cups of duck fat
Place the duck legs in a bowl and rub with herbs, garlic, salt and pepper. Cover and marinate overnight.
The next day, preheat the oven to 150C and put duck legs in a baking dish that is a close fit for them.
Heat the fat until it becomes liquid and pour it over the duck. Make sure the duck is covered with the fat.
Cover the dish with tinfoil and bake for a minimum of 2 1/2 to 3 hours. To be ready, the meat should come away from the bones easily.
Remove from the oven, cool to room temperature, then store in the refrigerator, still submerged in the fat.
1/2 cabbage, thinly sliced
1/4 cup vegetable oil
zest of an orange
1 cup of orange juice
1 tbsp of fresh thyme
1 clove of garlic
1/3 cup of red wine vinegar
1/3 cup of raw sugar
salt and pepper
Place all the ingredients in a saucepan and cook for about 30 minutes until the liquid has almost evaporated. Set aside.
Butternut squash souffle
300g of squash
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tbsp chopped rosemary
50ml maple syrup
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
3/4 cup of milk
salt and pepper
Peel and dice the squash, sprinkle with olive oil and salt and pepper and then roast in a hot oven (200C) until it is cooked and slightly caramelised. Cool slightly.