Small Plates

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Small Plates: Four Easy Japanese Izakaya Dishes

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This post is part of our Small Plates series, which is brought to you by California Pizza Kitchen.

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Clockwise from top left: Agedashi dofu, yaki nasu, karaaga, and tuna and avocado nuta. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

"Only in Japan have they taken the simple concept of bar snacks and transformed them into a culinary and social art form."


Despite their proclivity for wacked-out pizza toppings (cheese-stuffed shrimp, anyone?) and un-useless gadgets, if the Japanese excel at one thing, it's taking a good idea, and elevating it to its highest, purest, and often craziest form.

Take izakaya, for example, the Japanese watering hole-cum-eateries that dot Tokyo's nighttime foodscape. It's not like Japan invented beer, bars, or even small plates, for that matter. But only in Japan have they taken the simple concept of bar snacks—small, often salty treats designed to get you to drink more—and transformed them into a culinary and social art form.

It's not uncommon to find izakaya menus dozens, even hundreds of items long, with everything from sashimi and pickles to yakitori—every manner of chicken part skewered and grilled over charcoal.

Karaage is Japanese style fried chicken that's got everything you'd want in a bar snack: crispy, juicy, and salty.

If you've got friends who've yet to be converted to tofu, try serving them agedashi dofu—fried is a pretty tough thing to argue with.

The mayonnaise-obsessed Japanese will squeeze the baby-shaped Kewpie bottles onto just about anything (yes, including pizza), but as the base for a creamy, nuta-style dressing, it's acidity and slight sweetness pair remarkably well with sashimi-quality fish and avocado.

Finally, for something a little lighter, yaki nasu is broiled eggplant that is marinated post-cooking in a dashi and soy-based cold soup. The charred eggplant soaks up the broth like a sponge, resulting in an intense smoky, salty, sweet, and savory snack.

Serve any of these snacks along with good cold sake, or a light, crisp beer.

Karaage (Japanese Style Fried Chicken)

About the author: Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments. After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and co-writes the blog GoodEater.org about sustainable food enjoyment.

From Recipes

Small Plates: Green Pea Hummus

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This post is part of our Small Plates series, which is brought to you by California Pizza Kitchen.

Green Pea Hummus. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

There are few foods that can withstand the abuse of the freezer and emerge from the other end essentially undamaged. If there's one thing that Clarence Birdseye should be thanked for, it's frozen peas.

The problem with peas is that the moment they're picked from the pod, their natural sugars start combining and converting into starches. Peas eaten one day out of the pod taste significantly less sweet and more starchy than fresh-picked peas. What does this mean for you? It means that unless you've got a pea plant growing in your backyard, a good, sweet, fresh pea is nearly impossible to come by.

Frozen peas, on the other hand, are rapidly chilled right after shucking, locking their sugars in place. Large vegetables can freeze slowly, encouraging the formation of cell-damaging ice crystals, and ruining their crisp texture. Because of their diminutive size, peas don't suffer from this problem.

In Simple Italian Snacks, Jason Denton and Kathryn Kellinger offer a simple recipe for Sweet Pea Bruschetta, in which frozen peas are pureed with olive oil before being spread on toast. Tasting the spread instantly brought to mind another puree of pulses and olive oil: hummus.

Lighter, fresher, and just a little bit yuppier than the chickpea and tahini-based original, Green Pea Hummus is like the Pinkberry of the hummus world.

Green Pea Hummus

About the author: Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments. After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and co-writes the blog GoodEater.org about sustainable food enjoyment.

From Recipes

Small Plates: Crabby Falafel 'Sliders'

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This post is part of our Small Plates series, which is brought to you by California Pizza Kitchen.

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Falafel sandwiches with crab, fennel, and harrissa mayonnaise. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I admit it up front: this is one of those wacky dishes that comes from a lot of places in general, and nowhere in particular. A plate that Archie Bunker would describe as "one of them things that's got a little too much of both, and not enough of neither."

Fortunately, we're all a bit more open-minded than Archie, especially when it comes to deliciousness.

I'd never considered the prospect of a non-vegetarian falafel—particularly not one that combines falafel with seafood—until I read Cathy and Tony Mantuano's Wine Bar Food. In it, Tony Mantuano, chef at Chicago's Spiaggia presents Mediterranean-inspired small plates ranging from the highly involved (Crispy Lamb Shoulder with Peas and Mint), to the exceedingly simple (Baked Caciocavallo Cheese).

These crab and chickpea "sliders"* start with a slightly streamlined, miniaturized version of Mantuano's Falafel Crab Cakes (I use canned chickpeas, tweak the spice blend to make it more sandwich-friendly, and add a tiny bit of flour to help the patties hold together more easily during the frying stage), which he describes as from "southern Spain, which owes many culinary inspirations to the Moors of Northern Africa."

* I've included quotes, because around these parts, it's dangerous to call anything a slider.

While he matches his North-Africa-via-Spain crab cakes with Greek tzatziki in an odd but delicious combination, for my New England palate, a tangy, mayo-based sauce is the perfect complement to fried seafood. In another nod to the Moors, I spike my mayo (store-bought does just fine) with a heavy does of spicy harissa, the chile-based North African condiment that lends merguez, Moroccan cous-cous, and lablabi their characteristic complex heat.

For crunch, a good Bibb lettuce would be fine, but I like the crispness and slight aniseed scent of shaved fennel. Flatbread or a North African-style roll might be good, but Martin's continues to prove itself and the King of all sandwich breads. Their party-sized buns have a soft, mild sweetness that goes perfectly with the naturally sweet crab meat.

Plus, as my diminutive wife will attest to, all the best things come in fun-sized packages.

Crabby Falafel 'Sliders'

About the author: Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments. After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and co-writes the blog GoodEater.org about sustainable food enjoyment.

From Recipes

Small Plates: 4 Spanish Tapas That Use Only 4 Ingredients Each

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This post is part of our Small Plates series, which is brought to you by California Pizza Kitchen.

Clockwise from top left: Escalivada Catalana, Queso Idiazábal Marinado, Coliflor con Pimentón, Garbanzos con Chorizo. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

With the proliferation of "small plates" restaurants serving what often amounts to complete, multicomponent chef-designed courses in miniature, it's easy to forget where small plates began: simple, intensely flavorful Spanish tapas.

Intended as a cheap way to draw customers into drinking establishments, the most traditional tapas are easy to make, inexpensive, and go perfectly with booze. Nobody wants throwing a party to be a chore, least of all the cook. In that spirit, here are four simple tapas that, asides from salt, pepper, and olive oil, require only four ingredients and are guaranteed to get the mixers mixing and the shakers shaking.

Escalivada Catalana is traditionally made by placing fresh eggplant, peppers, and onions next to the slowly dying embers of a fire overnight, retrieving them from the ashes in the morning, and chopping them together with olive oil and sherry vinegar into a smoky, robust vegetable stew perfect for topping on crusty toasted bread, or serving alongside grilled meats and sausages. This version is made in the oven, but if you've got a grilling bent (and who doesn't have at least a minor grilling bent?), it fares even better over an open flame.

Adding olive oil and aromatics to mildly smoky Idiazábal cheese and calling it a dish is about as lazy as you can get away with being before somebody should intervene and call your mother, but it's delicious nonetheless. There's nothing like a good Spanish sausage, and thanks in large part to their spicy smokiness, Garbanzos con Chorizo has a complex flavor that belies its simplicity. The starchy liquid inside the can of chickpeas helps thicken up the sauce into a stew-like consistency.

Finally, everyone knows Gambas con Ajillo—tiny shrimp cooked in a sizzling cazuela of garlic-spiked olive oil. Well, cauliflower works just as well, if not better. It achieves a nutty sweetness when caramelized, and has plenty of nooks and crannies to soak up the garlic-scented oil.

Nurse, fetch me my porrón of kalimotxo, stat!

About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and co-writes the blog GoodEater.org about sustainable food enjoyment.