Let me start my stating my preference---some would say obsession---for small bites. Long before the current tapas, small plates, and dim sum trends I explored the world of small foods. I much prefer the creativity, beauty, and flavor-diversity inherent in a large selection of small offerings and would sooner cater a cocktail party then a sit-down dinner.
So it should surprise nobody that I anxiously awaited my copy of Finger Foods. Dealing as it does with one of my favorite food subjects, and written by one of Europe's most creative chefs, it had to be a major contribution to the art of food miniaturization.
The book is certainly not disappointing in that regard. Humbling, yes, but not disappointing. As Stefano Scansani says in his introduction, â€œImagine haute cuisine suddenly miniaturized, its normal proportions transformed to those of jewels.â€ With Finger Foods you don't have to imagine it, because. Heinze Beck has made it a reality. And in the process revolutionized the nature of party foods.
Too often we find small bites to be, with minor modifications, nothing more than a mathematical reduction in the size of other dishes. And the results, such as my own popular canapé version of Kentucky Hot Browns, are appealing in their own right. But, after all is said and done, how creative is that, really?
Beck---the award-winning chef of La Pergola, said to be Rome's finest restaurant---doesn't take that approach. Instead, he brings the same attention to detail, the same concern with melding flavors, the same eye appeal to his miniatures as he does to all his menu items. The result isn't a collection of reduced-in-size entrees, but a whole new cuisine, many items of which can be literally balanced on a finger.
Take his Smoked Salmon Mousse with Cucumbers. A rectangle of mousse is topped by a coulis of chopped salmon and cucumbers, all of which is flanked by a pair of nut crackers. The entire thing measures a mere 1 x 1 ½ inches. For perspective, that's the size of a 35mm negative.
Friend Wife really loved these bites, but I thought the crackers a bit too sweet against the salmon.
Or look at his Squid Tomato & Puntarelle Crostini. On a toast raft measuring a scant 1 x ½ inch is an S-folded strip of squid, topped by chopped, partially dehydrated cherry tomatoes, and strips of puntarelle and sprigs of marjoram. The bitterness of the puntarelle acts as a foil for the sweetness of the tomatoes, all of which melds with the lemony hotness of the squid strips. As beautiful as it is tasty, this is one of the few recipes that can be replicated as-is by the home cook.
Which brings us to the book itself. Finger Foods is not for the home cook, except, perhaps, as an inspiration. Rather it is a letter from one chef to others, discussing how he creates miniature masterpieces. Far too often the recipes require equipment either unavailable to the home cook, or economically unfeasible to acquire. For instance, Beck often uses miniature pastry cones that are made around special molds. Not the sort of thing a home cook will have laying around. Or take his Shallots Stuffed with Venison Ragout,. Beck garnishes the appetizer with potatoes cut on a special Japanese utensil. Obviously, I left out that garnish when testing the dish.
One professional writing to another is not a fault, by any means. What is a problem, though, is that Beck doesn't speak the same language (unless you're an Italian chef). So the book suffers several ways in matters of translation.
Sometimes the ingredients are unfamiliar. I had to look up â€œpuntarelle,â€ and â€œmazzancoleâ€ for instance. Although there is a glossary, it is woefully incomplete.
Other times there is an obvious problem in translation when converting metric measurements to English, particularly when it comes to oven temperature. Crispy shallot rounds, supposedly ready after drying at 158 degrees F for an hour, took me almost twice that time at 200 degrees.
And sometimes, too often, in fact, ingredients and/or directions are unclear because the final version was not proofread by somebody who really understands what's going on. Just one example: Crispy Sesame Cones with Salmon Tartare and Asparagus. At no time, within the recipe, does it tell you when to coat the cone dough with the sesame seeds.
None of these are problems that a professional can't figure out fairly quickly. But another reason the home-cook needs to be leery.
What nobody need be leery of is the beauty of the book. Similar in layout to James McNair's books, each recipe is flanked by one of Janez Puksic's incredible photos. Both the food styling and the color-intense photos are sure to get anyone's gastronomic juices flowing.