Why have one great dish when you can have five? That’s the sentiment behind small plates. From sushi to street fare, small plates are taking over menus worldwide.  And why not? No one wants to go to a great restaurant  and sample a fraction of the menu. Small plates not only give patrons a chance to explore, customizing their own menus, they give restaurant owners and chefs more creative flexibility. Think of it as fashion. Each plate is part of a collection.  And it’s not just your typical tapas anymore. Virtually every ethnic cuisine has a form of small plates. From Mezze, to Dim Sum, to South Asian street fare, small plates are prevalent all over the world. Next time you’re in the mood for variety, look for restaurants that specialize in small plates. You can even create your own at home!

Chinese Firebomb Chicken

Firebomb Chicken is an explosion of flavor. Made with garlic- black bean sauce and fiery blackened dry chilies, this dish will definitely set your tongue ablaze. The beauty of Chinese cooking is that it can be executed relatively quickly. All you need is a wok, sauce, and some fresh ginger and garlic. Once the prep work is done the cooking happens in a flash. This dish uses black bean sauce in lieu of hoisin. Thin slices of chicken breast are marinated in a sweet soy sauce (kecap manis), giving it a deep caramel color, then wok-fried with ginger, garlic, and a spicy chili-infused oil. Serve over steaming jasmine rice and enjoy!

Ingredients (Serves 4)

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast (thinly sliced)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon corn starch

1 1/2 tablespoons kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)

1 inch ginger (grated)

2 cloves garlic (chopped)

2 dried red chilies

1 teaspoon crushed red chilie flakes

1 red pepper (julienned)

2 green onions

handful cilantro (for garnish)

Ingredients for Sauce:

2 tablespoons garlic black bean sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoons honey

1-2 tablespoons water (for thinning)

Method

To slice breasts thinly, lay them flat on the board and make vertical cuts with a sharp knife. Season with salt and kecap manis (sweet soy sauce). Then add a tablespoon of corn starch and mix everything well with your hands. Let marinate for at least 20-30 minutes. Prepare ginger, garlic, and red peppers, cutting the peppers into thin strips. To prepare sauce, simply combine all ingredients except for water, and whisk well. Set aside and reserve. Heat up two tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large wok on medium-high, then add red chili flakes and dried red chilies. Fry until flakes have darkened and chilies have blackened. Then add ginger and garlic and fry for thirty seconds before adding chicken. Toss chicken and cook for a minute or two before adding red peppers. After about another minute, add the sauce and cook everything together, tossing well, until chicken is cooked through and tender (about 5 minutes). Add a little water to thin the sauce if necessary, check for seasonings, and finish with green onions and chopped cilantro. Serve over jasmine rice and enjoy!

*Note: Kecap Manis can be found in Asian Markets and sometimes in the Asian food section of your local grocery store.

Herb Pesto & Goat Cheese Crostini

Crostini is simply toasted bread with a savory topping. You can create any flavor combination you like. It’s great for entertaining: simple, rustic, and flavorful. And best of all, you can prepare the components ahead of time. This recipe blends rich creamy goat cheese with a savory herb pesto. Simply spread over toasted slices of French Baguette. It’s easy to pop into your mouth and goes perfectly with white wine.

Ingredients

2 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley ( roughly chopped)

1/2 cup walnuts (roughly chopped)

1 clove garlic (peeled)

1/3 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt plus more if desired

freshly cracked black pepper

4 oz chevre goat cheese

1 french baguette (thinly sliced)

Method

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine parsley, walnuts, and garlic into a food processor. Puree, drizzling in olive oil, until smooth consistency is achieved. Fold in parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper. Mix to combine. Pour pesto into a mixing bowl and combine with goat cheese. Season with extra pinch or two of salt if desired. Brush slices of baguette with olive oil and toast in oven until lightly crisp and golden. Let cool for five minutes. Then spread about a teaspoon or so of goat cheese-pesto mixture onto 3/4 of each slice of bread, leaving the tail end exposed for aesthetics. Serve with your favorite wine and enjoy!

Shrimp, to me, is the perfect summer dish. In fact I rarely eat it during any other season.  Unless it’s breaded and fried, shrimp requires a healthy dose of flavor. Here’s my recipe for shrimp seasoned with five distinct spices: cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, turmeric, and mexican chili powder.  Skewered, and grilled, these spicy bites are the perfect summer appetizer. Just squeeze a little lime juice on top and serve.

Ingredients

1 lb large, de-veined shrimp

2 cloves garlic (minced)

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon coriander powder

1 teaspoon mexican chili powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil

handful cilantro (chopped)

lime wedges for finishing

Special equipment: about 4-5 grill skewers

Method

Place shrimp in a nonreactive mixing bowl with chopped garlic. Mix all of the spices plus salt and pepper. Rub shrimp with spice mixture and pour in oil. Mix everything together until shrimp is well coated with marinade. Let marinate in fridge for one to two hours. Grease and heat grill at high temperature. Carefully skewer shrimp (if using wooden skewers make sure to soak in water before hand) and cook for about 2-3 minutes on each side. Serve with extra garnish of cilantro and freshly squeezed lime juice. Enjoy!

Ginger-Chili infused Simple Syrup

Simple syrups are used to sweeten cocktails or mocktails. Usually, they consist of fifty percent sugar and fifty percent water. It’s as simple as that, hence the name. Not only do they sweeten your drinks, dissolving easily into whatever your mixing, they provide an opportunity to add great flavor. Mint. Ginger. Cinnamon. Whatever you like. Simply allow the mixture to steep, much like tea, and you’re ready to go.

Ingredients

1 cup plain white sugar

1 cup water

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 inch ginger sliced into quarter-inch rounds

Method

Mix sugar and water together into a small pot. Over high heat, bring to a slight boil,  then add ginger and cayenne pepper and remove from heat. Whisk until sugar has dissolved and let steep and cool for about twenty minutes. Use in cocktails or juice blends for a spicy-sweet kick!

With its colorful, baroque interior, you wouldn’t expect to find yourself in a Chinese restaurant. But that’s exactly what Opera is. Well, a modern variation. Gone are the  plastic-covered high-back chairs. Absent are the statues of fat, smiling buddhas.  The only thing you’ll find here are the occasional bare breasts, discreetly plastered across the walls in a sort of Chinese newspaper graffiti. Though the trend for Asian-Fusion restaurants in Chicago is at an all-time high, Opera is definitely leading the pack. No offense to its somewhat generic cohorts, *cough* P.F. Changs *cough*, but Opera brings a fresh approach to modern, regional Chinese cooking. The menu unfurls somewhat poetically, divided into “sky”, “land”, and “sea”. Appetizers range from Main Lobster Spring Rolls to Twice Cooked Crispy Wings and everything in between. Unfortunately, one of the menu’s most refreshing highlights has disappeared: an Asian-style nacho plate made with crisp wonton wrappers, avocados, duck-meat, and a savory-sweet plum sauce.  Perhaps they didn’t like using the word, “nachos”. Entrees at Opera include dishes from the south-east, like Massaman Braised Short Ribs and Singapore Noodles, as well as more familiar Chinese menu items. The Firecracker Chicken, a nod to traditional Kung Pao, is perfect for those looking for a more familiar tasting Chinese-American dish. The Kung Pao Tofu doesn’t even taste like tofu. Its texture and flavor have been embellished so much so that you wonder if you’re eating chicken. Patrons looking for a more modern approach should check out the “grilled” section, where they can choose from items such as a 1/2 chicken cooked Vietnamese style, NY strip steak with a ginger-soy sauce, and even a Kobe beef burger with fried egg on top. Though it may seem a little whimsical on the inside, part circus, part underground Chinese gang land, the food at Opera is definitely focused. Creative concepts, succesful executions, and an atmosphere that is both imaginative and strange. What more could you ask for?

 

Green Chili Frittata

Omelets can get kind of boring. Heat up your breakfast or brunch with this Green Chili Frittata. Tomatoes, onions, and fresh cilantro give it a southwestern feel. Green chilies will pop on your palate. Serve with toasted bread, or a Mexican potato hash flavored with onions, peppers, and smoky cumin.  But leave the salsa behind. This frittata is full of flavor. The only thing you’ll need is a dollop of sour cream to cool things off.

Ingredients (Serves 1)

2 eggs

1/3 cup chopped red onion

1/2 roma tomato (chopped)

handful cilantro (chopped)

2 small serrano chilies (chopped)

1/2 cup 2% milk

1/4 cup shredded mexican cheese blend

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Freshly Cracked Black Pepper

Method

Set oven temperature to broil at 500 degrees. Break two eggs and whisk together in a bowl. Add chopped red onion, tomatoes, and cilantro. Mix well. Then add 1/2 cup milk, 1/4 cup cheese and whisk. Season with salt and pepper and mix well until dissolved. Grease a medium sized fry pan and heat over a stove at medium temperature. Once pan is hot, pour in egg mixture and let cook for about 3- 5 minutes or until the sides pull from the pan and underside is lightly browned. Transfer to top rack of oven (make sure it’s directly below the heat source) and cook another five minutes or until top is cooked. Slide onto a serving plate and cut into halves or thirds with a pizza slicer. Garnish with fresh cilantro and sour cream if desired and enjoy!