It happens all the time: We go to a nice restaurant and begin our meal with an appetizer that is simply amazing.
And then the rest of the meal fails to live up to it.
Maybe chefs try harder with appetizers. Maybe appetizers are where restaurants feel free to experiment with new ideas. Maybe restaurants concentrate on appetizers because they bring in more profit, relative to cost, than entrées.
Or maybe appetizers just catch us diners unaware. They are usually the first thing w e eat at a restaurant, so we are impressed by how good they are. While the other dishes may be just as well-crafted, they don’t hit us with that same element of surprise.
Personally, I think appetizers are just better than entrées. It’s a simple, irrefutable fact, like breakfast is better than dinner.
To test my theory, I made three appetizers.
And I was right. They are better than entrées.
Grapes rolled in goat cheese was the easiest app I made, and perhaps the most intriguing. You take seedless grapes and coat them in a thin layer of soft goat cheese, which you then roll in a mixture of toasted walnuts and chopped chives.
That’s all there is to it, but its simplicity belies its well-balanced and complex flavors. The sweet pop of the grape is contrasted with the creamy tang of the cheese, which is mollified by the earthy nuts and the soft bite of the chives.
Marinated mushrooms are always popular as an appetizer because they manage to be casual and elegant at the same time.
The ones I made lean toward the elegant because they are marinated in a liquid that is largely made up of wine.
Equally appetizing: herbed quesadillas. Here we have four elements that sing together in perfect harmony. The creamy base contrasts with strips of grilled red pepper and red onion.
When lightly browned and stuffed with melted cheese and savory vegetables, a good tortilla makes the rest of your meal pale in comparison.
½ red onion, peeled and cut into ¾-inch slices
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
8 (8-inch) flour tortillas
1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and cut into ½-inch strips
8 ounces low-fat mozzarella cheese, grated
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
Pinch of ground black pepper
Preheat a grill or broiler. Brush the onion slices with 1 tablespoon of the oil and grill or broil 6 inches from the heat for 4 minutes on each side. Separate the rings and set aside.
Heat a skillet over high heat. Soften the tortillas by grilling 30 seconds on each side.
Mix the onion, red pepper strips, mozzarella, garlic, marjoram, oregano and pepper. Divide evenly between 4 tortillas and top with the remaining 4 tortillas, pressing them down gently.
Heat a skillet at least 8 inches wide over medium-high heat. Place a quesadilla on the hot skillet and cook until bottom is lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook until other side is lightly browned and cheese has melted, another 2 to 3 minutes. Cut into quarters and repeat with the remaining quesadillas. Yield: 16 servings.
Adapted from “The Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook” by Ellen Brown.
Per serving: 124 calories; 5 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 9 mg cholesterol; 6 g protein; 15 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 318 mg sodium; 173 mg calcium.
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons minced shallots
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound small white button mushrooms, washed and trimmed
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Place the coriander seeds in a dry skillet over medium-high heat. Cook a few minutes, stirring frequently, until the seeds are fragrant. Remove to a plate to cool. Grind to a powder in a spice grinder, with a mortar and pestle or by carefully crushing with a cast-iron skillet.
In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of the oil over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and garlic and cook until soft but not browned, about 4 minutes. Reduce the heat if they begin to color. Add the thyme, coriander, bay leaf and pepper. Cook for 1 minute.
Stir in the mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt. Add the wine and tomato paste, and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook until soft, about 10 minutes more. Cool the mushrooms in the cooking liquid.
To serve, spoon the mushrooms and some of the cooking liquid into a bowl, drizzle with the lemon juice and the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Sprinkle with the chopped cilantro. Yield: 6 servings.
Adapted from “Bistro Laurent Tourondel” by Laurent Tourondel and Michele Scicolone.
Per serving: 190 calories; 12 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 3 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 394 mg sodium; 16 mg calcium.
GRAPES ROLLED IN GOAT CHEESE
4 ounces goat cheese, room temperature
24 red or green seedless grapes, rinsed and patted dry
1/3 cup finely chopped toasted walnuts
Divide the goat cheese into 24 equal-sized balls. With your fingers, mold the cheese around each grape until the fruit is completely covered. Keep cold.
Mix the walnuts and chives together in a small mixing bowl. Roll each coated grape, one at a time, in the walnut mixture until covered. Place in a single layer in a low, flat dish, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Note: These may be prepared up to 6 hours in advance.
Recipe from “The Berghoff Family Cookbook” by Carlyn Berghoff and Jan Berghoff with Nancy Ross Ryan.
Per serving: 81 calories; 6 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 7 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 4 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 53 mg sodium; 28 mg calcium.