`Bite Size' by the renowned pastry chef / restauranteur, Francois Payard is a simply delightful book with enough good ideas for a book twice its size and price.
I'm comparing it specifically of Christopher Styler's oversized and under conceived `Working the Plate', a demonstration of about two dozen plating techniques listing at $40, with poor photography and informative but not instructive biographies of `plating technique' notables. While Styler's opus has several good ideas we don't find in other books, it still does not meet expectations.
Payard's book exceeds normal expectations and almost surpasses my standard for books from nationally known culinary artists. While it has a boatload of nifty ideas for appetizers and cocktail parties and nibbles in general, all it's ideas are easily doable by an amateur with a well-equipped kitchen and a modicum of baking skills. In this regard, the book is much more practical than Rick Tramonto's `Amuse Bouche' while offering far more elegant fare than the usual antipasto / hors d'ourves book such as Penelope Casas' `Tapas', Joan Goldstein's `antipasti', or Carol Field's `Italy in Small Bites'. While these are superior books, and are the books of choice if you are interested in following an ethnic theme, Payard's book is the reference of choice if you want to simply impress big time!
It seems as if everything about the book is well conceived. The introductory chapters on `Equipment' and `Speciality Ingredients' are unpretentious, but offer some important little insights into cooking small. My two most interesting finds are the importance of using fine-mesh sieves in preparing small dishes and the fact that mini-muffin pans are the utensil of choice for making miniature tart shells or `tassie' shells. The most interesting ingredients are the ficelle, which is a shrunken baguette and `truffle juice', sold in small cans. I really like the fact that `The Basics' recipes are put in the front of the book rather than in the back. It is so easy to overlook these utility recipes if they are in the back and you are not inclined to snoop around into all the darker corners of a book before starting to cook. While many of these recipes are pretty standard, there are some surprises, such as the `black bread mini burger rolls' made without rye or buckwheat flour!
The four main recipe chapters combine the height of simplicity with the novelty of making cheese a star performer. These chapters are:
Vegetables, 18 recipes, almost all of which represent some new approach to an old standby. While many of the dishes have familiar names or components such as guacamole, Panna cotta, frittata, Caesar salad, mushroom tarts, Madeleines, polenta, risotto, and gnocchi, each and every dish with these components speak of a new take on the old ideas. The vegetable frittata, for example, looks much more like a strata than a frittata, especially since it's baked in a loaf pan. The value to this is that squares cut from the depanned cake are visually much more interesting than the usual eggy wedges cut from a frittata.
Cheese, 10 recipes of familiar dishes all done with a fresh approach. The Greek salad, for example, is served up on a skewer. And, the Parmesan cups (molded Parmesan frico) are filled with a Lilliputian Ratatouille. I confess the cheese sticks and gougeres (cheese puffs) are simply good versions of old standards.
Fish and Shellfish, 24 recipes with plenty of tartares and ceviches (European answer to sushi). It is not surprising that there are more of these recipes than in any of the other groupings, as fishy dishes are the most popular starters. What is more than usually novel in this chapter is the number of `delivery systems' made from fruits and vegetables, such as dried apple slices and radish cups. This chapter also seems to have the most fun with cone-shaped preparations. I'm also tickled by the recipe encrusting scallops with hazelnut and pear puree. Whee! For a little surprise, we also get a salmon version of `Croques Monsieur' with gruyere (contrasted the classic toasted ham and cheese sandwich). While almost all these dishes are relatively easy to make, they will still tend to the expensive, especially if you get high quality, fresh ingredients.
I generally don't find a strong urge to need good color photographs of finished dishes (step by step procedure picture series are a different matter), but for this subject, they add a big advantage to the instruction on how to prepare the dish. As the tip about the fine mesh strainer should warn us, making things small is no easy task. Material has to be diced with greater precision and cooking times are more fussy. So, every main recipe in this book is accompanied by a superior full color snapshot done at close range. And, since you only really need to see one small finished piece, the fuzzy background detracts nothing from the value of the pic.
Best of all, this little gem lists for less than $20. The only drawback of the modest price is that someone may mistake it for a bargain title. While the price is right, the contents are more than just right. They are, like Payard's earlier book, `Simply Sensational...'. It is a perfect companion to Cindy Pawlcyn's book 'Big Small Plates', but if you can have only one, pick Payard.