Looking for an easy snack or starter for your next dinner party? Well, as was I this past New Year’s Eve. And what’s worse, I was on a budget having already spent most of my allowance on other dishes. Essentially, what I needed to do was come up with a dish that tasted like a lot and cost next to nothing. Now there’s my idea of a good time.
After a bit of initial research and thought into combinations and flavor boosting properties of various ingredients, what I came up with were these little canapé flavor bombs of cured beef, sweet onions and pungent aged cheese, all served on top of a crunchy crouton to add a little crunch and contrast.
They are by no means culinary rocket
surgery science, just a simple combination of things that go really well together and are packed full of that wonderful, indefinable sixth taste known simply as umami.
Umami? Umami is a loanword from Japanese used to describe a taste sensation that is decidedly meaty and brothy without actually being derived from meat. Umami can be translated into something along the lines of “pleasant savory taste” which is actually a brilliant name, because while pleasant, the taste of umami is incredibly hard to describe. It tastes of pretty much nothing on its own but can be used to significantly boost the flavor profile of meats and other savory. Umami flavor compounds are present in many things including, but not limited to, ripe tomatoes, fish sauce, hard cheeses and mushrooms and when used properly can really boost the flavor profile of meat dishes. Read more about umami on Wikipedia.
The result are little snack bites that are crunchy and chewy, sweet and savory, light and heavy, and other contrasts as well! But most of all they are delicious, and incredibly simple to make! The entire procedure, honestly, is so simple that I won’t even bore you with a recipe, just five simple steps to side dish perfection.
Step one: Get a nice loaf of French or Italian style bread
The basis for our canapé is a crouton, so get yourself a nice loaf of bread and just leave it laying around for about a day to go slightly stale. Then slice it up into relatively thick slices and cut each slice into as many flat, relatively large, bite size croutons as you can.
Dry the croutons in a 150C oven for a few minutes until crisp, but not brown, transfer them to a pan and fry carefully in a generous amount of butter until well brown, crunchy and delicious. Set aside. You can easily do this a day or two ahead.
Step two: Beef it up!
You’ll need a bit of quality beef to top your croutons. The choice is yours here. I used bresaola (Italian cured and salted beef), but you can use pretty much any sort of cured or smoked beef or game product. Actually, if you’re decadently inclined, Carpaccio of raw beef would probably work very well indeed.
You’re aiming for at least one generous, flavorful slice per canapé here, but if you’re feeling generous and not on a budget, go for as many slices as you like. If you get top grade stuff, though, you don’t need much. The flavor is all the more intense. Less is more the way I see it.
Before topping each crouton, be sure to generously apply a good, organic, European-style butter to one side of the crouton. Remember, kids, in the case of butter, less is not more! 😉
Step three: Pile on onion confit!
For my New Year’s Eve serving, rather than a simple onion confit, I used a left-over portion of my World’s Best French Onion Soup which I reduced until almost all liquid had evaporated and then sautéed in a mix of butter and beef fat for about half an hour.
If you don’t happen to have French onion soup leftovers laying around and are starting from scratch, you’ll need the following ingredients:
- Onions (use more than you think you need, they shrink a fair bit during cooking)
- White wine
- Thyme leaves
- Beef broth
- Splash of Cognac (optional)
And follow this procedure:
- Cut onions into wedges and place in a pan over medium heat along with a generous amount of butter (or olive oil) and a sprinkle of salt.
- Cook onions stirring not too often until sweet, brown and thoroughly caramelized.
- Turn heat to medium-low, add a glass of white wine and reduce until nearly evaporated
- Add thyme leaves and beef broth and repeat.
- Season with salt to taste.
- You can keep cooking for pretty much as long as you want, adding more wine and beef broth as you do, the flavor will only intensify.
- If so inclined, add a splash of Cognac at the end of cooking, letting it cook just long enough for the alcohol to evaporate.
Do this and you’ll end up with a very nice and slightly less complicated onion-y mess that you can use to top your beef.
Step four: Top with cheese
Finally, top each canapé with a small shaving of your hard, aged cheese of choice. You’ll only need very little here, so get something nice, expensive and full of character and flavor, preferably something with a bit of age to it. I used a wonderful seriously strong vintage cheddar from my local cheese monger, but I imagine Parmesan, Gruyere or Comté would be awesome choices as well. If you took my suggestion above making these canapés using Carpaccio of beef, I’m pretty sure Parmesan is mandatory.
Pro tip: Hard cheeses like Parmesan or Gruyere, even aged cheddar are packed full of umami! Not only will they lend a nice pungency to the dishes they’re used in, they’ll also help boost the meatiness of the dish.
Step five: Dig in
That’s pretty much it. All you have to do now is to layer ingredients semi-attractively on top of one another, it’s more time-consuming than hard, really.
Serve these as a pre-dinner snack, or hors d’oeuvres, preferably accompanied by a glass of bubbles. This is a pretty flavorful little bite, so something dry, heavy and complex would be ordeal. I served a bottle of Bollinger 2002 La Grande Année which worked beautifully, but you can easily get away with something much less fancy!
As for portion control? I served two little bite-sized canapés per person on New Year’s which turned out to be just the right amount if served alongside one or two other little snacks. If serving as the only snack before dinner, I’d probably go three or four per person.
The great thing about these canapés is that every one of them are little flavor bombs, packed with deep, rich flavors, umami and lip-smacking goodness from the butter used. The flavors compliment and bring out the best in one another and make for an all-together rich and intense bite.
Why this works so well? Great dishes are, at their core either a combination of components that really suit or compliment one another or add interesting contrasts to one another. This particular dish is a bit of both worlds: the beef and the cheese add a musky depth and pungency (compliment) while the onions add a welcome moist sweetness (contrast) along with an added beefiness (compliment). The crouton on the other hand adds a very contrasting crunch and dryness. There’s just so much going on in these simple, little, relatively inexpensive bites that it totally catches the eater by surprise and ends up a thoroughly memorable bite.
I served these rather simply as they were on a tray, but you can certainly jazz them up with various micro greens or other fun stuff. Heck, you could even add a side salad and a spicy mayo or other sauce, perhaps some sautéed mushrooms and plate a couple of these canapés up per person up for a pretty elaborate first course.
Hey, there’s a new idea right there! Anyways, I hope you give these a try, and if you do, please report back and let me know how it went down!