It Is The Age Of The Snack Dinner

I think I’m starting to hate cooking. Or at least I am starting to hate cooking for myself. (I have become prone to little emotional flare ups, in the throes of which I declare I “hate cooking” in a dramatic fashion before returning to the kitchen.) I was already doing a fair amount of cooking before “all of this,” so the extra cooking made necessary by physical distancing has not been fun or relaxing. And while I’m very happy for everyone who is finding comfort in meditative brunoise-ing and reflective baking, I usually find myself a little drained by the time supper rolls around.

I suspect I am not the only one. Even if your source of income is not dependent on thinking about or cooking food, making dinner requires energy, and there are a lot of energy-draining forces at work right now. During times such as these, it’s important not to have extremely strict rules around meals and to remember that “dinner” is a construct. We should all be eating snacks for supper, is what I’m saying.

“Snack dinner/supper” is definitely not a thing I invented, but it is a thing I am embracing. Charcuterie boards, cheese plates and big bowls of popcorn are kind of all I can manage during the week, but”thanks to years of practice”I have turned the snack dinner into an art form nonetheless. Snacking is easy, but it’s also fun, and I bet you’d like to have some fun.

Start with cheese and meat

Boards are perhaps the most iconic snack dinner, and the most socially acceptable. Whether you’re working with cheese, meat or everything in-between, the key to creating a good board is balance: All five tastes should be activated one way or the other, and there should be a variety of textures for your teeth to enjoy.

Variety, however, does not necessitate a trip to your local cheese counter or grocery store. In fact, you can craft a cheese board around a single cheese with these simple combinations:

Dubliner (or a really sharp cheddar)+ Tart Apple Slices + Slices of Grilled Baguette: Dubliner is a hard, aged cow’s milk cheese that is sharp, sweet and nutty with the most delightful little crystals distributed throughout. Because it has such a complex, robust flavour, I like to keep the bread simple, and provide a crisp, bright piece of fruit to cleanse the palate. (I’ve found slices of green apple keep your mouth from getting over-saturated with dairy, meaning you can eat more cheese for a longer period of time.)

Cambozola (or any funky blue)+ Fruit-Studded Crisps + Honey: This combination of French soft-ripened triple cream cheese and Italian Gorgonzola is exactly what you would think it would be, with a milder blue flavour and a whole bunch of creamy character. I like eating with with these fig and olive crisps, but a cranberry crisp would be pretty good too. I also am a big fan of a drizzle of honey on any sort of blue cheese, and this is no exception.

Parmigiano-Reggiano + Really Good Balsamic: I got this idea from Bon Appetit”who also have some really great single-cheese plate ideas“and it is good. Get a real thick, aged vinegar for drizzling and dipping, and you can forget the carby delivery system altogether.

If you have a wedge of brie, waffle it. If you have a bunch of random cheese scraps, whir them all together in your food processor with some butter, garlic, and a splash of wine. Once you have your cheese in place, consider adding an animal protein or two. If you want a project, you can make a sous-vide terrine or chicken liver mousse; if you want something that tastes of effort but requires none, you can make this spicy prosciutto spread. If you don’t want to do a damn thing, it’s completely acceptable”encouraged even!”to buy some quality cured meats and drape them on the board next to cheese, or waffle some prosciutto crisps if you’re feeling spunky.

Then branch out

There are, of course, many snacks that are not meat or cheese. This board”inspired by the German practising of vesperning (snacking)”can be filled with any manner of finger foods. Some of my favourites include:

  • Potato chips with creme fraiche and caviar

  • Blistered shishito or padron peppers

  • Endive with a dollop of blue cheese spread

  • Pickled or deviled eggs

  • Green onions, tossed with bacon vinaigrette and broiled

  • Whatever fruit is in season, plus grapes, because grapes are the ultimate snack fruit

  • Dried fruit, particularly figs or dates, smeared with goat cheese and perhaps wrapped in prosciutto

  • All the pickled and marinated vegetables (Start with cornichons, olives and marinated mushrooms if you’re stumped.)

  • Little fish in tins

  • Dolmas

  • Radishes with butter and Maldon salt

  • Hummus and really good pita

  • Nduja, or this nduja-like spread

  • Labneh, drizzled with olive oil and studded with Kalamata olives

  • Pimento cheese, pub cheese, fromage fort, smoked salmon mousse or any sort of creamy spread

  • Any of these dips

If you have olives and cheese, consider waffling them together to create a perfect salty bite. If you have a can of beans, make a dip or an unusual hummus.

Raid your fridge for extras

All good boards need a pickle, a fruity thing and a honey, so open up your fridge and see what’s hanging out in there. Snack dinner is a perfect vehicle for those last few olives, cornichons or dollops of jam. If you feel compelled to make a thing, you can turn mushy pears into a paste, pickle some vegetables in beer or aquavit or ferment some garlic in honey (though this one takes a few days). Punctuate your plate with a raw spring onion, just to keep things fresh.

Or just say “fuck it” and make a big bowl of popcorn

A lot of people justify eating popcorn for supper by pointing out it’s a whole grain, but I don’t really feel the need to justify anything these days. Popcorn is easy to make and fun to eat, and that’s enough for me.

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To make extra crunchy popped corn, make sure you are using enough oil“I’m talking 1/2 a cup of oil for 1/3 cup of unpopped kernels. That may seem like too much, but it’s just the right amount. (If you have a bunch of rosemary you don’t know what to do with, throw it into the oil while it’s heating to infuse it with flavour.) Then, figure out your seasonings and pulverize them so they actually stick to the fluffy kernels. Some of my favourites are:

  • Furikake

  • Fried herbs

  • Old Bay

  • Everything bagel seasoning

  • Nutritional yeast

  • Herbs de Provence

  • Cinnamon and sugar (Blitz the sugar on its own first; cinnamon is already fine enough.)

  • Black pepper and citrus zest

  • Ramen seasoning

  • Parmesan and pepper

  • MSG

  • Bonito flakes

  • Macaroni and cheese powder

Also, don’t sleep on compound butters: Soy sauce butter and miso butter are really good, and whisking them into the melted stuff ensures even flavour distribution.

If you can’t choose between a board of snacks or a bowl of popcorn, make both. There are certainly no rules against such. And even if there were, now is the time for ignoring rules.

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