If variety is the spice of life, then there is nothing spicier than an entire meal of appetizers. All it takes is one look at the prevalence of restaurants featuring small plates to realize that this whole variety thing is a dining trend that has really taken hold. Of course, in many parts of the world, eating small plates of many different foods has been part of their culture for a very long time. But whether your idea of variety is ten different dipping sauces for your French fries or ordering a dinner entirely off the appetizer list, an at-home dinner featuring an assortment of possibly unrelated dishes will be “spicy” enough to satisfy even the most diverse palates.
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I have a friend who told me recently that he is so big on dining with lots of options that once a week he will drive through McDonald's for French fries and order with it every sauce that they offer. Of course, he ends up spending more money on sauces than he does on the French fries themselves. But by doing that he makes a standard side order considerably more interesting.
Personally, I get a twinge of sadness when a restaurant does not feature a decent appetizer section. Sometimes I don’t want a simple salad to start with a big piece of grilled fish for my main course. But I might want to try the chicken satay, tuna tartare, and corn soup, all off the app menu. Smaller portions means I get can sample more that the restaurant has to offer, plus my taste buds never tire of all the different flavors bursting from each little plate.
Around the world this concept of grazing on a variety of smaller dishes is not so foreign. The Spanish famously eat tapas, small plates of food ranging from olives to tortilla espangola, a potato and egg omelet of sorts. Greeks have meze, dishes that fall somewhere between an appetizer and hors d’oeuvres. Meze might be used to whet the palate before the meal or might be the meal itself, including dishes ranging from taramosalata, a dip of cod roe, to grilled octopus or spanakopita. And I could never forget the most famous grazers of them all, the people of Southeast Asia. Street food is a part of life all over Southeast Asia and eating your way through the day on many different dishes from noodles, to dumplings, to pork buns, to dried squid is not just a trend but a way of life.
At home I love making dinner out of apps. Especially if you have a family full of picky eaters or friends whose tastes vary, there is sure to be something for everyone. I might do a theme and make dishes from one of the small plates-oriented countries around the world, or mix all those cultures up with Tex Mex Eggrolls, Greek Pizza, and Mexican Fried Rice.
But lately I have been on a kick to bring back some old American classics that have gone the way of the record player. Swedish meatballs are a snap to make and fun to eat since stabbing a saucy ball of meat with a toothpick totally beats the old fork and knife. Spinach artichoke dip may be a staple of chain restaurants but is a breeze to make yourself. Play around with the classic by adding blue cheese, goat cheese, or some unexpected vegetables. Shrimp cocktail is a family favorite that is as much fun for your fingers as it is for your mouth. Spice up the classic cocktail sauce by adding some chopped chipotle peppers, or lose the tomato base and go green with and Indian-style cilantro and onion dipping sauce.
Appetizers may have begun as a way to start the meal, but these days they can also be the meal. A little variety is a great way to keep your taste buds and your guests stimulated during dinner. Whether offering five dipping sauces for French fries, exploring the world of Greek meze, or dressing up some old American appetizer classics, give dinner a little something different and that spice in your dinner might just lead to some spice in your life.
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