Verrines: A Glass Act
A few years ago, I ran across a blog post about verrines by someone who had recently returned from France. I'd never heard of verrines. I learned more, and now I have become an advocate for this layered dish that is as much about how it looks as how it tastes.
A verrine can be an appetizer, an amuse-bouche, a salad, a side dish, a dessert (the most common application) and, I suppose, even a complete meal, with the right ingredients and the right glass.
Verrines are made by layering ingredients -- either sweet or savory -- in a small, transparent glass. The word verrine translates as "protective glass." When choosing the ingredients, the cook thinks about taste and presentation, color and texture, mood and theme.
A verrine can be an appetizer, an amuse-bouche, a salad, a side dish, a dessert (the most common application) and, I suppose, even a complete meal, with the right combination of ingredients and the right sort of glass.
Verrines are clearly linked to the parfait, a soda-fountain treat popularized in the middle of the last century, as well as other layered dishes, such as the Cobb salad and the English trifle. Verrines, however, are individualized, with a single serving in each glass and yet as carefully arranged as the famous seven-layer salad of Super Bowl Sunday fame.
You might combine -- from the bottom up -- something green (peas) with something brown (mushroom duxelles) with something golden (sauteed onions) with something white (pureed potatoes). This arrangement also layers -- from the bottom up -- textures such as slightly mushy peas, grainy duxelles, crunchy onions and silky-smooth potatoes. Each layer provides its own flavors, and all of the flavors, tasted in turn and in combination, bring their own brilliance to the assemblage.
Verrines are tremendously popular in France, where they're sold in bakeries and served in bistros and high-end restaurants. Some upscale American restaurants have begun offering them, but they have yet to catch on. It may be because they appear to be a lot of work, which they can be. They're certainly not something to make on a Wednesday night after working all day.
They can, however, kick a birthday or anniversary dinner up a notch. They look stunning for a party, are not really that difficult to make, and are well-suited to advance preparation -- always an advantage for entertaining.
Don't worry too much about what glass you use other than to choose one that is the right size for the dish (smaller tends to be better) and one that is clear. Even a plain juice glass can be magnificent when the colors and texture offer appealing contrasts.
Although verrines can involve complex preparations in fancy restaurants, they needn't in your home. I've developed a collection of ideas that I can prepare in advance using mostly off-shelf ingredients and then store in the refrigerator overnight.
Imagine ending your Halloween party by offering your guests a glass layered with pumpkin puree (pie filling works), whipped cream, crumbled cinnamon graham crackers, a bit more cream, and a few kernels of candy corn for garnish. It's a pumpkin pie in a glass -- an elegant presentation that is also a fun way to finish a meal. And this is the real point of a verrine -- having fun with your food.
Colors: Choose either contrasting colors or complementary colors as you prefer. Whichever you do, make sure the colors are distinct. Bright-red fresh strawberries and pink strawberry mousse have complementary but different colors. Pink cocktail shrimp paired with chopped avocado offer contrast.
Textures: Choose contrasting textures. Crisp cookies contrast nicely with a smooth mousse, while somewhat chewy shrimp are a good foil to silky avocado.
Flavors: The flavors have to work together. Sweet strawberries and tart rhubarb are a classic pairing. Season the shrimp and avocado both with a bit of lime and pepper, and they're perfect mates. The layers shouldn't be eaten singly; in fact, they should all work together, but in practical terms, people tend to eat one layer with a taste of the next, working their way down.
Preparation: Use purchased ingredients to cut down on your workload. Include some special ingredient of your own, such as your signature guacamole recipe or barbecued shrimp. Store-bought cookies can be a great addition to a dessert verrine, while pre-cooked shrimp work well in a savory dish.
Deconstruction: Use a new approach with old standards. Layer vanilla wafers, vanilla pudding, sliced banana and drizzles of caramel sauce on each layer in a glass to deconstruct something as homey as banana pudding.
Presentation: In choosing glasses and ingredients, think about how you will apply the layers. You don't want ingredients catching on the lip of the glass and then spilling down the sides -- except when, for artistry's sake, you want something spilling down the sides. I also find that both demitasse spoons and iced-tea spoons are great tools for positioning ingredients.
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