Incorporate small-plate dining into a summer dinner party

For The Sun NewsJuly 2, 2014 

Small plates are not simply a restaurant phenomenon. They are great fun to incorporate into home entertaining as well.

Small plates provide variety and portion control along with a chance to unleash your inner collage artist. I rarely use the same menu twice for a small-plate party.

Known as “tapas” (“cover”) in Spain, these little dishes are served alongside a glass of wine in the afternoon or before dinner. They range from what we would call appetizers to delicious creations of meat. The warm climate of the Mediterranean and the eating prefernces of its peoples make these light, satisfying and fun dishes stars.

Small plates are a part of a dining tryptich along with wine and conversation. Mezze is the Middle Eastern version of the small plate delights.

Many recipes can be found at http://www.smallplatemovement.org/. Almost any appetizer can be turned into a small plate; it’s simply a way of modifying the amount served.

When serving all small plates, the variety is what brings the interest to the party – from appetizer through main course and dessert. In addition to putting out one plate per person of each item, I have reserves in the kitchen for each item, usually enough to offer each person a second serving of about the same amount, about two or three “bites” worth on the plate.

One of the other advantages for this sort of serving is that you can use bolder flavors in some of the small plates since your guests will only be eating a few bites of any one item.

The difference between a small-plate party and an outlay of tapas or mezze and then a full dinner is really just semantics, except that in my parlance, I divide the plates into appetizer, main course, side dishes and desserts.

I like to use the small-plate party to an evening for my own family or for small parties – four or five couples, maximum. Preparation time for any one item that I am offering on the list below is short but the artistic arrangement takes time. For this reason, I also rely primarily on foods that require little cooking, will keep well in the refridgerator or can be served at room temperature.

Before I start the process, I plan the array. Key to my planning is a variety of foods that are all grouped around similar spicing or complementary spicing. For a small-plate party, I usually serve cheese as one of the dessert courses, European style. I sometimes make an exception for salads, placing the salad on the table in a large bowl for self service, with the small bowls on the side.

An extensive collection of plates and bowls and lots of cleanup are not necessarily in your future if you opt for a small-plate party. Paper plates and hard plastic plates and little bowls provide a fine “landing ground” for your artistic and delicious creations. To save time in preparation, I sometimes mix bought and homemade items.

The dining room table becomes a serving table for the main course items. My guests usually sit in the great room or on the porch or in the yard. I often pass round the appetizer items, with the olives, hummus and nuts on the coffee table.

Suggested menu for summertime small plate soiree

APPETIZER COURSE

• Tomato Bruschetta

• Cream cheese with jalapeno in little tart cups

• Quick Gazpacho

• Prosciutto and melon

• In small bowls around the table I also place bowls of nuts and seasoned olives and a large bowl of hummus with pita chips around it.

MAIN COURSES

• Sausage-stuffed mushrooms

• BBQ Sliders (I purchase pulled pork from my favorite barbecue restaurant, place on slider buns and put sauces on the table.)

• Chicken Paprika with peach topping

• Chicken skewers with fruit

SIDE DISHES

• Cold pasta salad (usually left in a large serving dish for guests to self serve)

• Tomato and cucumber salad (again served in a large bowl)

DESSERTS

• Mini cupcakes

• Mini tarts

• Slices of cheese paired with fruit slices and or jam

LAST-MINUTE DETAILS

Place forks next to the items that need them. Pitchers of water and tea, open bottles of wine should be on the table for self-service, along with any other beverage. Beer and soda in bottles can be served from a tub set on the porch or in the kitchen.

Have the main courses prepared ahead and set out on the table when the guests are finishing up the appetizers. Place the side courses on the main table at the same time as the main course and allow your guests select the order. When the eating activity slows down on the main courses, clear the area and serve the desserts, coffee and tea.

Quick Gazpacho

Serves eight with 4-ounce servings.

16 ounces V-8 juice

16 ounces Hunts canned tomato sauce

4 tbsp. Worchestershire sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

Eight 4-inch long celery sticks, for garnish (with leaves)

Blend the liquids. Chill about 2 hours. Then, when ready to serve, pour into small cups. Decorate with a celery stick. Serve cold. People can drink it from the cup, no spoons needed.

Tomato Bruschetta

Makes 16.

One small baguette, plain or with olives

Two medium-sized tomatoes (one red and one yellow if you can)

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

4 tbsp. olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Slice the baguette into thin pieces, at least 16. Set aside pieces with large air holes or tomato will fall through when the person is trying to eat it! Toast lightly at least on one side. Set aside.

Chop the 2 medium tomatoes into small pieces. Mix with the garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Let sit for at least 2 hours at room temperature (covered) to blend the flavors.

Just before serving, spread onto the toasted baguette pieces and garnish with a piece of parsley or basil. Put two on each plate.

Chicken Tenders with Peach Sauce

Serves 8.

1 package chicken tenders

1 small (15-oz.) can of peach slices, chopped and drained

3 tbsp. chopped onion

Paprika (sprinkle right from can over each side of the chicken tenders)

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tbsp. olive oil for the chicken

1 tbsp. olive oil for the onion/peach mix

Handful of blueberries and some mint for garnish

Saute the chicken tenders in the olive oil. Sprinkle each tender with paprika, salt and pepper.

Drain on paper. Place each tender on a separate plate

In same pan, add a bit more oil sauté the onion until soft, then add chopped peach. Heat through. Pour some over each chicken tender. Garnish with mint and blueberries.

Easy Chicken Tender Skewers

Serves 6 or 8.

1 package chicken tenders

Drained black olives, enough for one for each skewer

Small wooden skewers

Twice the number of grape tomatoes

Drained green olives

Saute the chicken tenders in the olive oil. Sprinkle each tender with paprika, salt and pepper.

Drain on paper. Place each tender on a separate plate. Cut each tender into 3 pieces.

Place on skewer alternating with the grape tomatoes and olives. Place one skewer on each plate and garnish with mint or basil.

Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms

Serves 8.

8 large white mushroom caps, brushed and ready to sauté (If you don’t want to use mushrooms you can use bought phylly cups. These are smaller, serve 2 per person.)

1 4-ounce piecesweet sausage (Italian) cut into bits, out of the casing

1 4-ounce hot sausage (Italian) cut into bits, out of the casing

1/4 cup Progresso Italian bread crumbs

2 tbsp. grated Pecorino Romano cheese

1 egg

2 tbsp. olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Parsley and red pepper slices for garnish

Saute the mushrooms on each side, let drain on paper. While they are draining, sauté sausage, and drain.

Mix sausage with the egg and bread crumbs.

Spoon some filling into each mushroom cap (or the phyllo cups). Heat in oven just before serving. Garnish with a piece of red pepper and some parsley.

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