They may be stacked, stuffed or skewered, wrapped, rolled, filled or folded. They may be spicy, salty or sweet. They may be tasty bites, mini-pieces or little sips.
Appetizers and snacks may be many things, but one thing is for sure: these two-bite dishes are the perfect culinary playground and imaginative onsite chefs are capitalizing on the opportunity to create new, exciting and signature dishes.
As customers opt for appetizers and snacks as meal replacements, such creations are also helping chefs revamp and expand their grazing menus.
As Scott Keats, director of culinary development for Aramark Corp., explains, snacking in the traditional sense is undergoing a sort of renaissance. “Consumer knowledge of food and the wanting to try something different has taken us from the pigs-in-a-blanket environment to doing something like sausage or chorizo wrapped in phyllo dough.”
To that end, Keats notes that appetizers — often relegated to catered and special events — are now finding their way into other parts of the operation as those who thrive on “grazing and noshing” eating patterns look for unique, flavorful bites throughout the day. In response, Keats is making it a point to develop smaller portions with multiple choices, very similar to tapas-style items that are nontraditional in the corporate-dining atmosphere.
“Because value, variety, health and convenience are the driving factors for our customers, we came up with a line of petite sandwiches,” explains Keats. “It allows the customer to get full value in a small portion. They're a little less expensive than a full-size sandwich, which allows customers to pick two different kinds for the full-size price, satisfying their interest in variety. All of the sandwiches have low-fat spreads on them, and that appeals to customer interest in more healthful food.”
Appetizers and snacks hold particular flexibility for adaptation to other parts of the menu.
Chuck Voltmer, general manager of Dining Services at Missouri Valley College, Marshall, MO, combines the concept with his custom appetizer bar, which serves long-time favorites alongside new unique and interesting dishes.
“The students love it when we do wings on the appetizer bar,” he says. “We'll offer a few different kinds of wings — some traditional like barbecue or mild — as well as some more unique and interesting kinds, like parmesan roasted garlic or honey glazed barbecue. That gives them the opportunity to sample new flavor combinations.”
The appetizer bar — which is simply a hot well specialty station on wheels — tends to be one of the most popular stations in the café, according to Voltmer. “It's a really great place to try out new items that we might want to offer in larger portions,” he explains.
“It's also a great place to be experimental with your offerings. We've done everything from a Terrine of Pencil Green Asparagus with Goat Cheese Puree to Chilled and Grilled Black Mission Figs with Mascarpone Foam and Prosciutto di Parma to a simple Fresh Fruit Kabob with a caramel dipping sauce to a fruit flavored Chantilly Cream or Kiwi Soup with Watermelon Cubes.”
The Start of Things to Come
“We like to give our patients and customers variety,” says Mark Abbott, general manager of Nutrition Services, St. Mary's Health Care System, Athens, GA. “What we're competing against today is the expectations of our patients and customers. So our food — our appetizers — have to be of the same caliber as what's offered on the street in nearby restaurants.”
Such is the demand for upscale appetizers. The menu at St. Mary's boasts slightly pumped up versions of traditional favorites such as butternut squash ravioli with cranberries, Riesling and pecans or eggplant and mushroom hushpuppies with bleu cheese and pico de gallo.
“We try to incorporate different flavors that complement each other without overpowering one another,” says Abbott. Some of his more unique cold offerings include Watermelon Salsa with in house Smoked Fish and a Layered Smoked Cheese.
When it comes to preparing savory appetizers, operators are letting their tastes and imaginations help them develop signature dishes. Mae Collins, manager of Nutrition and Food Services at Saint Francis Health System in Tulsa, OK, uses her marinated cheese as the ace in her pocket that consistently leaves the whole hospital hungry for more.
“Its a very colorful and tasty appetizer,” says Collins. “Because it has such a stunning presentation, it is a great dish for the holidays. Though, because of its popularity, we offer this at almost every function and gathering we have.”
Collins' signature marinated cheese combines olive oil, white wine vinegar, fresh parsley, green onions, sugar, basil, salt, pepper, garlic and pimento as the marinade. She cuts a block of cheddar and a block of cream cheese into ¼" thick slices and alternates them in a shallow baking dish. She pours the marinade over the cheese and refrigerates for at least eight hours.
“We serve it with crackers and it's simply divine,” she adds.
Meanwhile, across town at SouthCrest Hospital, Tulsa, OK, Troy Schulte, executive chef/co-director, offers a light and airy homemade crab cake appetizer that is his signature dish.
“Because of their size, we served them as an appetizer, but you could make them larger to be served for the main course,” says Schulte, who uses lots of fresh herbs and edible flowers as a garnish. “The crabmeat's sweet and mild flavor is sparked by the blend of other ingredients.”