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 we 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 five appetizers that span the spectrum from hors d’oeuvre to first course. And I was right. They are better than entrées.
The first one actually could be served in larger portions as a main course, but the restaurant where I first encountered it — the legendary the Frog and the Redneck in Richmond, Virginia — made it an appetizer. It’s all a matter of perspective.
I’m calling it grits risotto, because it cooks grits the same way you’d cook risotto. And while there are subtle differences between grits and cornmeal, basically what you are doing is making polenta.
In fact, that’s what I did; I used cornmeal instead of grits because it’s what I had on hand. To this, I added sausage and a healthy amount of shiitake mushrooms sautéed with garlic and shallots, and finished with chicken stock and butter and parmesan cheese.
It takes some effort. It’s worth it. Oh, how it’s worth it.
On the other hand, 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.
Next up was a salsa, but it’s one without tomatoes.
This one begins with a mixture of black beans and white beans (actually Great Northern). It gains momentum with chopped red bell pepper and red onion, is enlivened with lime juice and garlic and gets a nice kick from a jalapeo. Oregano, chili powder and cumin give it the spice it craves.
To be honest, I’ve seen prettier dishes. Called black and white bean salsa, the name promises a more appetizing appearance than it delivers. But the taste?
After your first bite, preferably on a tortilla chip, you think, “This isn’t bad at all.” After your second bite, you think, “This is quite good.” After your third bite, you think, “Yes, I am definitely enjoying this.”
And after your 96th bite, you think, “Who ate all the salsa and chips? Where did it go?” And you stand there feeling guilty, but inexplicably happy, when you realize what just happened.
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. In other words, don’t use a bad wine. It doesn’t have to be especially good, but the chefs’ rule — don’t cook with wine that you wouldn’t drink — is especially important here.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression: The mushrooms aren’t marinated in wine alone. The mixture also has garlic, thyme, bay leaf, tomato paste and coriander seed in it — it’s so much better if you toast your own — and it is finished with olive oil, lemon juice and cilantro.
My last appetizer was equally appetizing: herbed quesadillas. Here we have four elements that sing together in perfect harmony.
It begins with a relatively bland cheese, mozzarella, so it can combine with fresh spices (oregano, marjoram) without overpowering them. This creamy base contrasts with strips of grilled red pepper and red onion.
And you don’t even have to grill them, though you can if you want. I didn’t. I charred my pepper over the gas flame on my stove, which creates a smoky grilled taste without a grill. And I did the same with my red onion by cutting it into thick slices, like onion rings, and broiling it.
The fourth element is the most important but also the most easily overlooked: the tortilla. When lightly browned and stuffed with melted cheese and savory vegetables, a good tortilla makes the rest of your meal pale in comparison.
Yield: 8-10 servings
1 cup stone-ground grits, polenta or coarse cornmeal
4 cups plus 2 tablespoons chicken, fish, veal or vegetable stock, divided
3 tablespoons butter, divided (2 tablespoons cut into small cubes)
Salt, to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms
Black pepper, to taste
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 small shallots or 1 large shallot, peeled and finely diced
12 ounces cooked, high-quality sausage, cut into cubes, see note
6 ounces Parmesan cheese, see note
Note: This recipe makes a restaurant- quality dish, complete with all the calories. To lower the calorie count a bit, use 10 ounces of sausage and 4 ounces of cheese.
1. Heat the grits or cornmeal and 4 cups of the stock in a medium or large pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the cornmeal is soft, 20 to 35 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the butter and add salt, if necessary.
2. Meanwhile, remove stems from the mushrooms and discard. Lightly brush any dirt off mushrooms and cut caps into 1/8-inch slices.
3. Heat a large, heavy pan, preferably cast iron, until it is very hot. Add oil. Add mushrooms and sauté for 30 seconds, sprinkling with salt and pepper to taste while cooking. Add garlic and shallots, but keep stirring so they do not color or burn. After 1 minute, remove from heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of stock to stop the cooking. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of cubed butter and stir constantly until it is melted and thoroughly coats the mushroom mix.
4. Mix the grits or cornmeal, sausage, shiitakes and 3 ounces of the cheese. Spoon onto plates and top with the remaining cheese.
Per serving (based on 8): 383 calories; 29 g fat; 12 g saturated fat; 59 mg cholesterol; 16 g protein; 14 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 1,189 mg sodium; 280 mg calcium
Adapted from “The Frog and the Redneck Cookbook” by Jimmy Sneed
GRAPES ROLLED IN GOAT CHEESE
Yield: 8 servings
4 ounces goat cheese, room temperature
24 red or green seedless grapes, rinsed and patted dry
1/3 cup finely chopped toasted walnuts
1/4 cup minced chives
Note: These may be prepared up to 6 hours in advance.
1. 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.
2. 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.
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
Recipe from “The Berghoff Family Cookbook” by Carlyn Berghoff and Jan Berghoff with Nancy Ross Ryan
Yield: 6 servings
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound small white button mushrooms, washed and trimmed
Salt, to taste
2 cups dry white wine
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
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
Adapted from “Bistro Laurent Tourondel” by Laurent Tourondel and Michele Scicolone
BLACK AND WHITE BEAN SALSA
Yield: 8 servings
3 tablespoons corn oil, divided
1 1/4 cups fresh corn kernels or frozen, thawed
1 (15- or 16-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15- or 16-ounce) can Great Northern beans, drained
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
3/4 cup chopped red onion
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 garlic cloves, minced, pressed or mashed
1 large jalapeo, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
Note: Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a heavy, large skillet over high heat. Add corn and sauté until light brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to skillet along with both beans, pepper, onion, lime juice, garlic, jalapeo, oregano, chili powder and cumin. Cook just until spices no longer taste raw, about 2 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Per serving: 175 calories; 6 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 7 g protein; 25 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 360 mg sodium; 58 mg calcium
Adapted from “The Bon Appétit Fast Easy Fresh Cookbook” by Barbara Fairchild
Yield: 16 servings
1/2 red onion, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch slices
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
8 (8-inch) flour tortillas
1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-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
1. 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.
2. Heat a skillet over high heat. Soften the tortillas by grilling 30 seconds on each side.
3. Mix the onion, red pepper strips, mozzarella, garlic, marjoram, oregano and pepper. Divide evenly between four tortillas and top with the remaining four tortillas, pressing them down gently.
4. 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, 2-3 minutes. Flip and cook until other side is lightly browned and cheese has melted, another 2-3 minutes. Cut into quarters and repeat with the remaining quesadillas.
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
Adapted from “The Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook” by Ellen Brown