- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Diners at Chicago’s Butter restaurant expect the likes of a deconstructed sashimi Nicoise salad or grilled duck with pickled rhubarb. They don’t expect potato chips, but the home made chips, along with truffled popcorn, marinated oyster crackers and Parmesan crisps, arrive first to tables to quell the munchies.

“It’s a great way to give people something to nibble on while they’re looking at the menu. I don’t want them to eat bread and not be hungry for what’s coming,” says Butter chef Ryan Poli.

Upscale restaurants from Butter in Chicago to Sona in Los Angeles, which serves lotus root chips, and Earth & Ocean in Seattle, purveyor of pre-dinner spiced almonds, have gone the convenience food stores one better, by making their own nibbles for sophisticates. Ideal for cool summer entertaining around the pool, these homemade bites are simple but loaded with impact.

Skeptics may question the value of cooking something common to 7-Elevens everywhere. But fans say there’s no comparison in terms of flavor and the care that something homemade communicates to guests.

“It’s creative and it’s easy for anyone to do,” says Mr. Poli. “It’s important when you’re entertaining to make an effort, rather than opening a bag of something.”

“These are fun, kitschy foods,” says New York caterer Justin Jones of Urban Events, which specializes in cocktail parties that may include newspaper cones filled with truffle and Parmesan popcorn. “They’re tweaks on things you’ve had before, which makes people pay attention. You can put your own touch on them.”

Certain foods lend themselves to experimentation more than others. Popcorn, for example, is the blank slate of snack foods, changing with the addition of everything from fresh chopped herbs to sriracha hot sauce and kosher salt. Nuts take a variety of spices well. And deviled eggs can go Asian with wasabi and soy in the yolks or Tex-Mex with chilies.

“It’s old school with a new twist,” says John Sheely, chef-owner of Mockingbird Bistro in Houston, who sprinkles pickle juice on his popcorn and chilies into his deviled eggs. “It’s offering something different.”

Different but familiar, says Mr. Jones, engages partygoers more than caviar on crackers. “Everyone can relate to snacks and it starts them talking. Food becomes the icebreaker itself.”

While snacks aren’t necessarily health foods, they can be improved by preparing them at home. “Homemade snacks are better because you can control what goes into them,” says Jenny Lass, co-author of “Grain-Free Gourmet: Delicious Recipes for Healthy Living” (Whitecap Books), who often makes her own spiced nut mix.

“Most prepackaged foods are high in sugar, fat or salt and low in nutrients because they’re overprocessed,” she says. “Making snacks from whole foods ensures that you’re not eating empty calories and you can more easily control portion sizes.”

Munchies make ideal openers for a pool party. They are casual but impressive and largely shelf-stable for several hours (except the eggs, which must be kept very cool). Beer and sodas are natural go-withs, but don’t be afraid to pop the bubbly either champagne or sparkling cider. Give it a tropical twist with a dash of something colorful (try creme de casis or cranberry juice), a garnish of pineapple and a spring of mint.

“I love champagne with salty foods,” says Mr. Poli. “It feels special.”

Deviled eggs with truffle mayonnaise

John Sheely of Mockingbird Bistro in Houston likes to start parties with this souped-up classic.

Water

2 tablespoons white vinegar, optional

6 large eggs

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 pinch cayenne pepper

1 small black truffle, chopped in small dice, or truffle oil

Salt and pepper

Paprika for garnish

Chives for garnish

Get ready a pastry bag with ½-inch star tip for filling eggs, if possible. Or just use a spoon.

In a 3-quart saucepan, bring 2½ inches of water to a boil. When water reaches a rolling boil, add white vinegar if desired (it helps make the eggs easier to peel). Place eggs carefully into water and boil for 13 minutes. Transfer eggs with slotted spoon to a bowl of ice water to stop them from over cooking; let chill for 8 minutes.

Peel eggs and halve lengthwise. Carefully remove yolks and mash with a fork in a bowl until smooth. Add mayonnaise, mustard, cayenne and chopped truffles. (If you cannot find truffles, add a dash of truffle oil).

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Fill pastry bag with yolk mixture and pipe into egg whites, or simply use a spoon. Sprinkle with paprika and chives for garnish. Makes 6 to 10 servings.

Truffled popcorn

Chef Ryan Poli of Butter restaurant in Chicago offers diners this upscale munchie.

3 tablespoons corn oil

1 cup (7 ounces) unpopped popcorn kernels

1 teaspoon white truffle oil

1 teaspoon minced chives, or to taste

Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large, heavy pot, heat corn oil. Add popcorn kernels, cover and cook over moderate heat until they start popping. Cook, shaking the pot continuously, until popping has almost stopped. Carefully pour popcorn into a very large bowl. Add truffle oil and toss well. Season to taste with chives, salt and pepper and serve immediately. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Lotus root chips with creme fraiche dip

Chef David Myers at Sona restaurant in Los Angeles often serves these stylish homemade chips, subbing lotus root for potatoes.

Chips:

3 lotus roots, whole (see note)

Canola oil

Salt

Dip:

1 cup creme fraiche

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt and pepper

To make the dip, mix creme fraiche and lemon juice together and season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill. Makes 1 cup.

Peel lotus roots and slice thinly with a mandolin or by hand 1/16-inch thick. Heat 4 inches of oil in a deep pan to 325 degrees. Gently drop lotus root slices, one by one, into hot oil, being careful not to splash or crowd them. Fry until crisp and golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Place chips on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: Lotus root is available at many Asian markets.

Sweet and spicy mixed nuts

Justin Jones of Urban Events caterers in New York suggests serving these nuts in small paper cups to guests.

1 egg white

Water

1 pound mixed nuts

1/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

Beat egg white with 1 tablespoon water until frothy. Toss nuts with egg mixture and drain in a colander for about 2 minutes. Combine sugar, salt, cumin, coriander and pepper and toss with drained nuts until coated.

Spread nuts on lightly greased baking sheet and bake in preheated 300-degree oven for 10 minutes. Reduce oven to 275 degrees, shift nuts with spatula and bake about 10 minutes more. (Watch carefully to make sure they do not burn.) Let cool before serving. Makes about 4 cups. Nuts will stay fresh in airtight container up to 5 days. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Spiced marcona almonds

Maria Hines, chef at Earth and Ocean in Seattle, changes the spices daily on the almonds that greet diners at her tables. This variety uses the tart Middle Eastern spice sumac.

2 cups marcona almonds

1 tablespoon lemon oil

1 tablespoon sumac

1 tablespoon medium-grain sea salt, or to taste

Place almonds in a single layer on a sheet pan in a preheated 300-degree oven. Stir almonds every 5 minutes until golden brown, about 20 minutes. (Watch carefully to make sure nuts do not burn.) Toss almonds with lemon oil and sumac in large bowl. Gradually toss with salt to taste. Makes 2 cups. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Spiced edamame with Hawaiian sea salt

Oliver Beckert, executive chef of Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay, serves these Japanese-style soy beans in the cocktail lounge.

2 pounds frozen edamame

Water

Salt

1 teaspoon Italian parsley

1/4 teaspoon hot red chili flakes

1/4 teaspoon red Hawaiian sea salt or kosher salt

Boil edamame in 1 quart salt water for 60 seconds, drain and toss with parsley, chili flakes and salt. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 8 to 10 servings.


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