Dish of the Week

5 Hors d'oeuvre

The analogies between food and sex run as wide as they do deep, but perhaps nowhere are they more apt than when comparing hors d’oeuvre to foreplay. In both, inspiration and imagination go a long way to making you feel an evening holds great promise, while a lack of either does not bode well.

The best hors d’oeuvre should be visually beautiful, with an abbreviated aesthetic that makes you smile, not smirk. Unlike the plated dishes that follow in a meal where the complexities of taste have time to resonate, hors d’oeuvre need to be one bite wonders, a kapow to the senses. They have strict limitations however. The most important is that hot or cold they can’t be messy ~ you aren’t sitting down when you reach for one but talking, laughing, flirting, and most likely juggling a glass of wine or a cocktail in the other hand. A contrast in texture is also crucial, and given the brevity of time you will spend eating and enjoying them, there needs to be an easy congruity to discerning taste ~ these are haikus of flavor, not short stories or novellas. Martha Stewart, an undisputed queen of the hors d’oeuvre party, got it right: “all good things start here.”

Here are our notes on five hors d’oeuvre Ryan served on Friday to a snazzy group from West Palm Beach celebrating a wedding rehearsal dinner in the Studio Gardens.

On paper, Barndiva’s Goat Cheese Croquettes (a BD Classic) and Ryan’s take on Spanakopita (in the style of an empanada, with a deft switch from feta to ricotta) could both be described as basically hot and creamy. But where the goat balls had a thin carapace of golden crunch, followed by warm creamy goat cheese and finished with a hidden nugget of sweet tomato jam, Ryan took the Spanakopita in another direction. Here hot and creamy hid beneath layers of flaky puff pastry in a mouthful that was a rounded tome to the Mediterranean flavors of olive, spinach, ricotta, and garlic confit, with a punch of lemon zest in the finish.

BLTs are another BD classic, but unlike the croquettes which are never off the regular menu, only available at events as they are one of the more difficult hors d’oeuvre to pull off for a large crowd. While the crispy pancetta (a stand in for bacon) and brioche toast squares can be made in advance, the quail eggs need to be fried à la minute, swiftly composed with aioli and cress and served immediately. The reward is a beautiful presentation followed by a mouthful that is pure umami (or as one guest this weekend shouted, "oh mommy") wonderful, triggering every great memory of BLTs and Eggs Benny you ever had.

Cucumbers are an hors d’oeuvre standby ~ they come with their own easy delivery system and are a great base to pile other ingredients upon. The downside to using them is a bland crunch and not a hell of a lot more. Chef uses them here hollowed out, with fresh crab and shaved apple ~ a combination where sweet plays off the salt and sea ~  in a light dressing of tarragon and aioli. They are finished with a slice of perfectly ripe fig and a touch of citrus.

Watermelon cubes compressed with lemon verbena rounded out the hors menu. While they are the simplest hors d'ouevre we produce, they are always welcome (especially by bridesmaids in form fitting dresses) as the ultimate in cool and refreshing.

At the end of the day creating anticipation is perhaps the greatest technique in both the chef’s and the lover’s skill set. A great hors d’oeuvre should be fresh ~ not just the ingredients, that’s a given ~ but the feeling you get when you pop them in your mouth and think, wow, this is new, this is good, I can’t wait to see what comes next. Like candlelight and music and flowers, some things never get old when done right. So it is with flavors you’ve had before but never stop craving, like bright vinegars and sultry sugars which in combination fire the imagination.

We all want to feel that anything is possible in life. Especially true when the night is just getting started.

Eat the View

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted.)