Have you ever considered that the best idea for a meal might not follow the traditional pattern of entree, salad or side, bread or starch, maybe dessert?
Of course you have, because the idea of tapas have slowly insinuated themselves into our culture--the Spanish notion of serving "snacks" of various types for the early evening eating that takes place before the real evening meal, which occurs much later than when we Americans typically eat. So now we have tapas restaurants in most of our cities.
And in more expensive restaurants, where there is plenty of money to be made from serving "small plates" that have cheap prices, at least until you realize that a bunch of $11 small plates with not that much food on them add up quickly when you share them, we have other offerings that begin to riff on the traditional tapas menu.
But have you ever thought that you could do this at home? It's pretty easy, because there are no rules. For my recent Oscar "meal," for example, I served the following:
Broccoli and cauliflower with Curry Dip
Guacamole with tortilla cigars
A cheese plate with New Zealand Cheddar, a blue cheese, a goat chèvre and fig jam
A crab spread with cream cheese, sweet chili sauce, cilantro, and rice crackers
Pretzels with homemade honey mustard
Not fancy, not complicated, but a meal. A real meal. You get your veggies, you get you protein, you get your carbs, you get your fat (which is back in vogue). And you can eat as much or as little as you want of any or all of it.
You don't think kids would love a meal like this? A meal that looks like a party spread?
It's a pretty cheap meal, too. Any kind of a grazing menu is bound to downplay the meat, and even if you buy expensive cheeses, you don't put out that much of them. They'll be there for another version of this.
But what I really like is the variety. You aren't stuck in Mexican, or Asian, or American--you can put together a whimsical spread of all three, and more. Offerings like this also lend themselves to a creative use of leftovers. The meatloaf you served two nights ago returns as meatloaf sliders. The leftover crab legs your father passed on to you are reimagined as a dip. The last fourth of a jar of, really, any fruit jam makes a simple cheese and cracker "pop." Leftover deli ham or turkey finds its way to a toothpick with a grape tomato and a cube of cheese and, yeah.
The other pleaser at work here is the your ability to offer a little bit of a lot of things tends to make bored eaters more excited. Instead of a meat-and-two concept, all of a sudden, with very little work, you've got five or seven different things worth trying. It feels like a party, which isn't a bad thing mid-week or on a Sunday night.
And though I'm not a cheap person. I really like the frugality of it. Because I like to use up what might be forgotten in a freezer. And so, some frozen rotisserie chicken becomes a quick chicken salad. A half a box of egg rolls or pierogies suddenly becomes pretty enticing, when all you need is a good sauce to go with them. The last stalks of celery, the rest of a bag of carrots dip conveniently into a salad dressing that has been forgotten in your refrigerator for a couple of weeks.
Sometimes the best meal allows you and yours to be culinary dilettantes, dabbling here or there, as part of your own, improvised tasting menu.