Three-Bite Tableau

I like small sized food. I like its charming appearance, its potential for fanciness, and, not least, its ability to fool otherwise intelligent people ((i.e. yours truly) into thinking they can eat extra, because it’s so petite it must be calorically harmless as well.

To qualify, I think this sort of food must be consumable in three bites or less. Ideally this should be possible without a fork, but of course (especially with desserts) there are exceptions to this ideal. At any rate, three-bite foods should be attractive to the eye, enticing to the nose, and should carry far more flavor than seems possible for their small size.

Here are two I’ve constructed recently: one that turned out to be a snack superstar, and one that carries as yet underrealized potential for true greatness

Artichoke Spinach dip cups

Two of our colleagues and dear friends got married in Long Island recently. As N. and I were both teaching a summer class (and subsisting on graduate student salaries), we were unable to jet-set across the country to attend. But to our delight, G. (the bride) informed us that her father would make a toast to friends and family not physically present. We gathered with some friends, some wine, and some snacks, and at 4:10 pm PST we raised our glasses to G. and T. I brought these little dip cups, bubbling and creamy in brown crisp phyllo shells. This is an adaptation of a recipe for hot artichoke dip that I usually make in a pie plate, but the elegance we were attempting to emulate and the stark truth of half a box of phyllo sheets in my refrigerator made me change my plan. Note that these ingredient amounts are almost all approximations.

In a medium bowl, I mixed:

4-6 oz. cream cheese

½ cup mayonnaise

5 oz. spinach, steamed or boiled, drained, and roughly chopped

1 14 oz. can artichoke hearts in water, drained and roughly chopped

2 TB parmesan cheese, divided

black pepper to taste

After a serious taste test and careful alterations, I set the dip aside and considered my phyllo. I had about 10 sheets, which I swept with butter and layered in the usual way, before cutting into twelve even stacks (3×4). I pressed each stack carefully into a mini muffin tin, letting the edges point out every which way in hopes of creating crisp, crunchy tips, and then loaded the buttery vessels with spoonfuls of dip. I probably used about 2 TB per cup, topped each with a generous extra grating of parmesan cheese, then stowed them in a 400F oven for 20 minutes. Depending on your oven, they are ready when the edges of the phyllo cups are dark golden and fragile, the parmesan cheese atop the dip is beginning to color, and the dip itself is slightly bubbling. Or just when the phyllo is brown, if you are impatient.

We were impatient. How could we not be, when the smell of cooking cheese was filling the kitchen, and the promise of that perfect balance of crispy and creamy whispered how wonderfully it would compliment our champagne?

Crab cakes

Now visiting family in California for a few weeks before the term begins again, my mom and I have been bonding the way I like best: in the kitchen. Three days ago, we decided to make crab cakes and salmon cakes to go with a half dozen luscious ears of sweet corn.

I like crab cakes, but like pesto, I am still searching for the right ratios in my collection of ingredients. This version, while tasty, is no exception, particularly because while we did look up a recipe, we ended up barely consulting it and, ultimately, not following it at all.

Working delicately in a medium bowl, so as not to break up the crab too much, we mixed:

3 6 oz. cans of crab meat (1 lump, 2 regular if you’re skimpy like us, all lump if you’re really looking to impress)

1-2 TB each, or to taste, finely chopped green onions, dill, and flat-leaf parsley

2 TB lemon juice

2 tsp lemon zest

scant 1 cup or less fresh bread crumbs

1 egg, lightly beaten

salt and black pepper, to taste

I recommend adding the egg last, so you can taste and test flavor balances and add extra herbs or lemon before dousing the mixture in raw egg. I also recommend adding the bread crumbs a little at a time, because depending on how you like your crab cakes, a full cup might be too much. Crab has such a sweet delicate flavor that too much bread or too many herbs will hide it completely.

Again, with extreme care, we patted the mixture into five palm-sized cakes, trying to help it hold together without overworking it. We plopped our fragile quintet onto a plate and refrigerated them for about 45 minutes to let the flavors meld and the cakes mesh together more firmly.

While they were chilling, I mixed up a little dipping sauce in the food processor, dropping in:

½ cup mayonnaise

2-3 generous TB strong horseradish

5-6 basil leaves

3 TB flat-leaf parsely

3 garlic cloves

generous squeeze of lemon juice, to taste

When the cakes had thoroughly chilled and our stomachs were rumbling with anticipation, we heated just enough vegetable oil to cover the bottom of a large skillet and carefully patted the cakes with dry bread crumbs, sliding each into the heated oil as soon as it had received its crisp coat. We fried them for 4-5 minutes a side, or until the bread crumb coating had become crunchy and golden. They threatened to collapse into pieces, and two cracked severely down the middle, but with careful coaxing and dextrous spatula work, we managed to keep them together fairly well.

They tasted good. They were light and herbaceous and not eggy at all, but they didn’t scream “crab.” Oh they suggested seafood, but I think we overdid the quantity of bread crumbs, and playing it cheap by adding leg and claw meat might have been a miscalculation. Topped with the horseradish mayonnaise, however, they were delightful. It was creamy and smooth, but the spice hit the back of your tongue just as you swallowed, and lingered for a moment or three.

Three moments of spice, three piles of herbs, three cans of crab. What does it really matter, then, that it took me five bites to finish my cake? At its core, this was a three-bite item. Matching delicate flavor with delicate table manners was my downfall. I should have, as my tongue urged, anxiously cut bigger pieces, urgently indulged, finished the whole little patty in only three tasty bites. Everyone else did.

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