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Pretty and portable, verrines offer layers of satisfaction

Layers of crabmeat, avocado, and grapefruit make this verrine lovely to look at and to taste. Layers of crabmeat, avocado, and grapefruit make this verrine lovely to look at and to taste. (Béatrice Peltre)

Most Americans know what a parfait is, but take that same idea and make the layers avocado salad, crabmeat, and pink grapefruit, and you get an entirely new dish called a verrine (pronounced vair-EEN) from the French word for glass (verre).

Parisians have fallen completely in love with these little dishes. Savory or sweet, cold or warm, sophisticated or casual, verrines seem to have captured every cook's sense of creativity and imagination. Think seasonal salads, salty olive tapenade, cheese mousse, slow-roasted onions, vegetable caviar, lace cookies, or flavored whipped cream. Any of these can go into a verrine, as long as you keep to one rule: Layer the food to create a dish that is visually and tastefully surprising.

Verrines are served to start or finish a meal. In France, they're celebrated in cookbooks, the top food magazines, pastry shop windows, and restaurant menus. Now they're slowly making their way across the Atlantic.

Although verrines started on the dining scene with only a handful of talented French chefs, they have become extremely popular among home cooks too, as a new way to entertain stylishly without much trouble. "The great thing about them is their visual appeal," says Steven Brand, head chef at UpStairs on the Square in Cambridge. "One that I have used in the past has been heirloom tomatoes, whipped goat cheese, and fresh raspberries soaked in vinaigrette." Verrines offer a new form of dining, where plates are no longer necessary. For many people who entertain, sitting around a table is no longer the rule either, and this is where verrines are particularly handy. They're also practical because they can be prepared ahead of time, and fun because of the element of surprise.

Many French chefs like Philippe Conticini say they have known and used verrines for years. His cookbooks, "Tentations" and "Concentre de Delices," are only available in French now. Walk into a shop of Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé, and you'll discover well-arranged lines of elegant seasonal desserts in glasses. His verrines take the form of art, like paintings in which each layer is carefully thought out. His "emotion vanille" is composed of three different complementary layers: a vanilla gelee followed by a vanilla baba and a vanilla mascarpone cream. The surprise can also come from finding the crunchiness of an almond cookie over a delicate passion fruit mousse, before ending on a taste of white chocolate. Customers find them irresistible.

In France, you can buy small glasses in a wide selection of styles, with matching spoons, all intended to enhance the looks of the food. On my last trip back from France, my cabin bag included no less than three sets of six glasses each. At 20 euros a set, I thought they were a bargain.

If you like the thought of a dinner party where you can walk around with your food or, if you believe in the idea that miniature means cute, you will probably appreciate verrines as much as French home cooks already do.

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