Small Plates, Big Flavors

Talk about precocious! When Govind Armstrong was just a 13-year-old boy he managed to talk legendary chef Wolfgang Puck into letting him learn the ropes at Spago, the famed Los Angeles eatery that marked the development of the oft-imitated California cuisine.

Armstrong spent three summers at Spago, then moved on to other seminal Los Angeles restaurants like Campanile, City Restaurant, Patina and Pinot Hollywood. He packed up his knives and worked in Spain as well, at Arzak, the three-star restaurant in San Sebastian.

Armstrong has always been a proponent of his hometown's cooking and it was inevitible that he'd return home. He soon opened his own place, Table 8 (there's one in Miami as well), which features "lounge food" and small plates. In fact, his new book is called "Small Bites, Big Nights: Seductive Little Plates for Intimate Occasions and Lavish Parties" (Clarkson Potter, 2007).

Armstrong volunteered to take the Chef on a Shoestring challenge — prepare a meal for four people for under $40. Though the recipes from his book are for eight, the small portions can be doubled up.

(Makes 8 small plates)
(Difficulty Level: Easy)

8 large pitted Medjool dates
1 teaspoon diced shallot
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (or Sherry vinegar)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
1 bunch, or about 4 ounces, arugula
1 small wedge of Parmesan cheese for shaving
sea salt

1. With your hands, tear the dates lengthwise into quarters and set aside. Whisk the shallot, vinegar and olive oil together for the vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.

2. Lay the arugula on plates, then sprinkle each with the torn dates, and top with shaved Parmesan cheese. When ready to serve, drizzle with the vinaigrette, then sprinkle with sea salt and an additional few turns of the pepper mill.


1. Stuff the dates with the Parmesan cheese, wrap with prosciutto or bacon, and sauté. Serve atop the arugula.

2. Stuff the dates with Chorizo, bake at 350F for 10 to 15 minutes, then shave Parmesan cheese on top.

Grilled Skirt Steak - In Lettuce Leaves / Soy - Ginger Dipping Sauce
(Serves 8)
(Difficulty Level: Easy)

Package of bamboo skewers
3 lbs. skirt steak, cleaned and trimmed of fat
Soy sauce: 1 cup
Juice of 4 limes
1-6 oz. can pineapple juice: 1, 6-ounce can
1 small sliced onion
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp. chopped fresh peeled ginger
1 tsp. chopped garlic
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1/2-cup white or rice vinegar
1 bunch scallions
3 heads butter lettuce
4 sprigs Thai basil, plus additional for garnish
4 springs cilantro, plus additional for garnish

1. Begin by soaking the skewers in water for 20 minutes to prevent them from igniting when placed on the grill.

2. With a boning knife, trim any visible fat on the skirt steak. Then, cutting on a bias, slice against the grain in 3-inch strips and set aside in a plastic storage container.

3. For the marinade, combine in a large bowl 3/4 cup of the soy sauce, the juice of 2 limes, the pineapple juice, and the sliced onion. Mix well, season with salt and pepper, and pour over the beef. Allow this to marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour. Remove the beef from the marinade, and skewer with the bamboo.

4. For the dipping sauce, in a small bowl combine the remaining 1/4 cup soy sauce, the ginger, garlic, sugar, juice of the remaining 2 limes, the vinegar, and scallions. Check the seasoning, and transfer to a small serving bowl.

5. Light the grill or preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

6. To serve, grill or bake the skewers on a hot grill for about 1 minute on each side, and allow to cool. On a large platter, lay out the butter lettuce leaves, then on each leaf, place a few basil and cilantro leaves.

7. Rest the skewers of beef on the leaves. Have each guest grab a leaf, remove the skewer, and enjoy with the dipping sauce.

Grilled Shrimp/Green Garbanzos Bruschetta
(Serves 8 as an appetizer)
(Difficulty Level: Medium)

8 ounces of small shrimp
3 sprigs of fresh oregano
Zest and juice of ½ lemon
Small pinch of crushed red chili pepper
1/3 cup and 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups of cooked green garbanzo beans or canned white garbanzo beans
Sachet (see bottom)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4-cup diced tomatoes
1/4-cup diced bell peppers (yellow or red)
1 teaspoon thyme
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (or aged sherry vinegar)
Loaf of sourdough bread
1 medium clove of garlic

1. Place the shrimp in a small bowl. Squeeze the oregano leaves to release the fragrant oils, and place on top of the squid. Add the lemon zest, crushed red chili, and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and allow the shrimp to marinate for at least 30 minutes.

2. While the shrimp is marinating, place the garbanzo beans in a small pot, and cover with the 1/3 cup of olive oil. Pop in the sachet as well. Simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring often and allowing the beans to swell and become creamy and buttery (and delicious). Remove from the heat and allow the beans to cool in the oil. Drain once cooled and reserve the oil for later use.

3. Prepare a gas or charcoal grill.

4. Place half the cooked beans in a bowl; add half the lemon juice and the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and, with a potato masher, mash the beans into a paste. Set aside.

5. Place the remaining beans with the tomato, bell pepper, thyme, vinegar, and remaining lemon juice in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper and allow this mixture to marinate for 15 minutes.

6. Cut the bread loaf on a bias in ½-inch-thick slices and give it the Garlic Love Rub.

Garlic Love Rub: After brushing a sliced boule or baguette with extra-virgin olive oil, cook it on a wood-burning grill and rub it down down with a raw clove of garlic. This imparts an upfront flavor of the stinking rose, then you taste a little bit of the oak. The bread itself has a nice glisten, and it acts as a bridge to tie together any dish that involves just a hint of garlic — hence, the "garlic love rub"

7. Season the marinated shrimp with salt and pepper and grill for 1 minute on each side. Allow to cool.

8. Smear the grilled bread with the garbanzo bean paste, and then add the marinated beans. Top with the grilled shrimp, and serve immediately.

Sachet recipe:
4 sprigs of flat leafy parsley
6 sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of peppercorns
1 leek — dark green top cut into a 5-inch length, washed

1. Wrap the parsley, thyme, bay leaves, and peppercorns in a small amount of cheesecloth and tie with butcher's twine. For the bouquet, lay out the leek green. Place the herbs first, then the peppercorns, and fold it in half, securing the herbs inside. Tightly tie the end with butcher's twine.

(Serves 8-10)
(Difficulty Level: Easy)

8 cups fresh watermelon juice
2 cups fresh orange juice
2 cups pineapple juice
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1. Combine all the juices in a large punch bowl, and stir together. Chill with ice (at least 10 cups), and serve with vodka-spiked watermelon, if desired.