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Appetizers can serve as cultural ambassadors

Appetizers can serve as cultural ambassadors

October 27, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

For chefs, appetizers are bite-sized opportunities for creative culinary flair. For diners, choosing from a palette of interesting hors d'oeuvres is an occasion to customize a meal filled with diverse flavors.

Appetizers have become "a venue for chefs to either explore their creative side a little bit more, or to emphasize the authenticity of ethnic foods," said world appetizer cookbook author Jon "Mick" Vann. "And people are getting a lot more tuned in to constructing their own little meals."

Austin, Texas, residents Vann and Arthur L. Meyer tested and tweaked 400 starter recipes from 28 regional cuisines for their comprehensive cookbook, "The Appetizer Atlas: A World of Small Bites" (Wiley, 2003). Meyer is a chef, cooking instructor and commercial bakery consultant. Vann is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer for The Austin Chronicle.

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"The Appetizer Atlas" was honored as the "World's Best Foreign Cookery Book" at the 2004 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Barcelona this past spring, Vann said.

"The whole approach of our book is kind of a sequential look around the world," he said. "We cooked the regions of the world, heading west."

Vann and Meyer advocate experimenting with hors d'oeuvres from other cultures. They suggest building an appetizer menu around one or more regions, making sure that flavors meld if combining dishes from vastly different areas. While the "really assertive tastes" of Northern African appetizers likely would clash with the milder flavors of Scandinavian fare, Vann said, "I think Moroccan and Indonesian would go together splendidly."

It's important to use fresh, seasonal ingredients for appetizers whenever possible, Vann said. He said the Internet has made it possible to quickly obtain ingredients not found in local markets, and advance preparation takes some of the sweat out of preparing more complicated recipes.

"As a general rule, there's very few things that can't be done in advance," he said. "There's always a shortcut."

For example, Vann discovered that roasting flour on a sheet pan before making a dark roux saves more than an hour of cooking time. He said he and Meyer dissected the original recipe for every ethnic appetizer entry in their book for quicker ways to get comparable results.

"We would look for a simple way to accomplish the same thing," Vann said. "We'd look at the procedure and think about how a restaurant chef would do it. There's always a simpler way."

Vann also recommends inviting diners to participate in appetizer preparation.

"It's actually a great way to get people involved, especially if it's a group where everybody doesn't know everybody else," he said. "Folding potstickers is a great thing. Rolling sushi is a great thing. Just setting up a tray, say it was Thai or Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, just noticing what one person picks to go in there as opposed to the next person. People start interacting really well."

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