~ by John C. Picardi
It’s spring and I am gearing up for the usual excruciating cries from scared
and anxiety ridden party givers. It always starts with this: “I have to throw
a party for my daughter’s graduation and I don’t know what to serve,” or
“I’m throwing a shower for my sister and I don’t know if I should call a
caterer or do it myself,” or “My husband is having his co-workers over for
an office party and I’m terrified.”
These comments inevitably end with the dreaded, “Do you think ziti and meatballs would be okay to serve?” My answer: “No they would not be okay to serve. Sorry, it’s a wholly new foodie world out there, wake up and smell the Korean-Mexican infused cuisine and besides everyone is learning how to cater their own parties these days and you should too!”
We’ve had more than our share of ziti and meatballs this winter and there’s plenty of proof of that. Just examine the extra hole you had to make in your belt last week. Look, baby I like ziti and meatballs as much as the next guy, but this season, go cold, specifically the cold buffet and do it yourself. Yes you heard me right, I said cater your own party! This Spring I double dare you to do something fun, healthy and bursting with creativity and I advise you to infuse spices, sauces and herbs used in the latest trendy ethnic foods: Korean, Peruvian, Portuguese and Mexican, but don’t limit yourself, because popularity is overrated.
GO COLD BABY
It’s been my experience that most guests like the causal, unstructured feeling that a cold food buffet offers. There is no “hurry up and eat before it gets cold.” Plus there are no worries about heating food and keeping it hot and no running back and forth to the oven and endlessly guessing if something is “hot enough.” Furthermore, an oven heating up your house is a major drag.
You can prepare colds food the day before your event; if your refrigerator is not large enough you can put things in small containers and store them in coolers and assemble your platters before guests arrive. Once you’ve masterfully created and garnished your masterpieces all you have to do is put the platters out on a table and ring the dinner bell. Let’s face it folks, spring and summer are suited for this type of fare.
BE PLUCKY AND DO IT YOURSELF
Sure people go to parties to socialize, but let’s face it they also go for the food and, in these days of cooking shows and food blogs, everyone wants to be wowed and challenged by food. People want the deliciousness of what you’re serving them to seep into their souls. They want to try your recipes at home and they want to brag to their co-workers Monday morning about the extraordinary food they had at a party over the weekend.
I promise that you don’t need to be an epicure to have your guests pleasantly surprised. All you need is a positive outlook and some basic knowledge. Remember the Internet is your friend; do research, get cookbooks from the library, check out catering menus online, look at their photos and allow them to kick off ideas. Also, wander the aisles of your favorite supermarkets and gourmet shops, ask what’s hip and new, take a pen and paper and take lots of notes. The Fruit Center in Hingham and Milton are tremendous markets to shop and investigate ingredients when planning your own party. Their produce is always stellar, their staff eager to assist and advise and mostly importantly they keep up with the latest food trends and carry a large variety of spices and sauces from around the world, plus they stock fresh herbs year round! Their cheese counter is over-the-top impressive, well maintained and a clear indication that the owners and staff are foodies making this market exactly the place you want to shop when catering the stylish kind of party I’m talking about. I was in the Hingham Fruit Center last week and was recommending (pleading really) to a manager that they sell a wonderful cheese I discovered the other day (Shy Brothers Cheese from Westport, MA) and they were more than willing to hear my appeal and reassured me, with sincere enthusiasm, that they would look into the product.
What I am saying is this: as you go about shopping, planning and creating, be wildly plucky, put on the apron and go man go, and as my hero Julia Child once said, never apologize for your cooking, do your best, love what you’re doing and it will love you back. Be fearless!
What could possibly be a better compliment than walking into someone’s home and seeing an array of colorful, bountiful and festive foods prepared just for you and your friends? A well-prepared, thoughtfully created meal is the highest compliment a friend can offer. Also consider this fact – most catering companies do a fine job, but more than likely your friends use the same one. The first rule of any catering company is “consistency” so chances are you will be serving what Mary served at her book club party last week and what Eddie served at his wife’s surprise birthday party in June. In that case, your party becomes a major, uninteresting, typical, snooze fest. Personally, I bite at the bit waiting for my friend Louise to throw her spring party because I know it’s going to be a feast of thoughtful, different foods that are going to tantalize my taste buds and ignite a desire to tackle the recipes in my own kitchen.
Food is passion, it’s nurturing; it’s about togetherness and love. Food is about all the groovy things in life rolled up in one big gorgeous sushi roll. So folks, get your groove on and cater your own party and do it with absolute passion and love. Remember cooking should not be a chore, it should be about joy and having fun and with these things in mind, I promise it will be an incredible, creative and an invigorating experience for all. If you fear it will be anything less than that, please call your caterer. I mean it because it will reflect in the food you serve. We humans are intuitive creatures and since food is so dear to most of us, we can sense when something is made with love or when something is thoughtlessly thrown together out of dreaded necessity.
COLD IDEAS 101
I know some of you macho pre-historic beasts have been eagerly waiting all winter to turn on the grill and throw on a porterhouse, the dogs and burgers. Even serving a cold buffet, you can grill the day before your party and serve your fixings chilled; like shrimp you marinate in lime juice, olive oil and garlic. After skewering them, grill quickly (making sure there is a bit of charred black goodness around the edges), chill thoroughly, take them off the skewers and arrange them on a bed of lime infused cucumber, mango and cilantro salsa or some Baja Slaw, a favorite with everyone, (you can find millions of salsa and Baja slaw recipes online.) If you’ve never grilled shrimp before you must because something special happens to them when grilled. The shrimp’s natural flavors deepen and it makes your eyes roll back until you look like a lunatic, but it’s worth it, I promise. Try grilling sea scallops and alternate them on a platter with the grilled shrimp. By the way, cold and very lightly charred scallops are delicate, slightly woody and are always exceptional. Or grill some small pieces of Salmon and chill them and serve them on a bed of ginger, lemon grass, and tri-colored pepper and mandarin orange salsa. Don’t forget to add a big dash of love.
And what’s better than a copious platter of grilled vegetables laced with a balsamic and garlic olive oil dressing? Or if you have black truffle oil, finish it off with that and presto it’s a lavish earthy treat. I have heard that real truffles are not used to infuse the oil. Yet, I must admit that some of those oils are successful in replicating the deep nutty, ozone and musk flavor of the prized truffle. Many chefs would agree with me and some would chase me down with a meat cleaver.
How about grilling beef tenderloin pressed with green and red peppercorns then wrapping it tightly in foil and chilling it overnight? The next day, slice it thin and fan it out on a giant platter, alternating those beautiful slices with small bundles of fresh watercress. In the center, offer a bowl of roasted corn, sour cream and horseradish sauce or grab some fresh rosemary, mince and mix with sour cream and a tad of mayo. Rosemary cream and cold beef is the perfect, sexy combination.
Pasta salads? Make a couple of those for sure. My favorite pasta salad is more wintery, but who cares? The hell with the rules! Rules are for grumpy, egotistical chefs who yell and scream and chase food writers down with a meat cleaver and that kind of chef is passé, boring and dangerous. This is the age of the happy chef. Your kitchen is your oyster, you make the rules! Here’s how to make my pasta salad crowd pleaser: boil some bowtie pasta and chill and then tell the little bows you love them and after you do add chunks of your favorite blue cheese, chop up dry figs and walnuts, add olive oil, crack some black pepper and toss it with a big smile. This pasta salad is sharp, tangy and salty from the blue cheese, nutty from the walnuts, and nectarous from the figs. There isn’t anything much better than the combo of blue cheese and dried figs, except of course blue cheese and fresh figs. Pasta salads are wonderful to make because the possibilities are endless. I once had a cold pasta salad in Tampa that knocked me dead. It featured fusilli pasta, thinly sliced New York sirloin (black on the outside and pleasingly pink in the center), cucumbers and mint (the greatest combo ever), Thai fish sauce (give it a chance), lime juice and honey. Each flavor, perfectly layered, introduced itself to me as I devoured it like the ill-mannered beast I become when I fall in love with something I’m eating. I thought I was doing something illegal when I was eating it. Guess what? The host told me she made up the recipe and giddily confessed she was a novice at cooking.
I make this gorgeous chicken salad that’s elementary to make. Buy a few roasted chickens at the supermarket (or roast your own) and take the meat off the bones, chop it up in good-sized chunks, and bathe it with a few sexy splashes of cream sherry. Then add sautéed golden onions that have been chilled. Toss in a bunch of raw chopped pears, chopped pecans, a tad of good mustard and real mayonnaise (no sandwich spread) and toss gingerly. You want it to be on the loose side and not overly coated with mayonnaise. Place this over a bed of watercress, top it with some chopped scallions and more pecans. I serve it with a wheel of Brie and a basket of French bread pieces. I call it French Country Chicken Salad.
Who doesn’t love Prosciutto? Make a large platter of this internationally famous treat by gathering the slices and arranging them into little wrinkle bundles for easy handling and finally fanning out each bundle on a platter. Reserve space in the center of the patter for small cherry size buffalo mozzarellas that have been tossed with olive oil and garnished with basil. This is simple, elegant and a major crowd pleaser.
Bean salad is a satisfying and vibrant treat. Pick out seven of your favorite beans, but I suggest including navy, kidney, cannellini, black, brown and chickpea on that list. Make sure you rinse them in cold water thoroughly. Then mix chopped red peppers, cucumbers (cut lengthwise, deseeded, and cut into one-inch strips), garlic, white balsamic vinegar, fresh thyme, and olive oil. Toss with baby spinach and spread the salad out on a large platter. Garnish with fruit slices of your choice. If you can find some blood oranges, use those. If that dressing doesn’t work for you, use tarragon, oil and shallots and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. It’s an old fashioned favorite that makes the unadventurous feel safe, but has a modern day twist.
Another favorite is the traditional but always superb Salad Niciose. Place cooked dark tuna (you can use canned tuna; I will not tell) in a large bowl. Next add steamed, chilled and cut Haricot Verts (or just green beans) capers, chopped anchovies, olive oil, Nicoise olives, chopped onions, minced garlic and fresh cracked pepper. Squeeze a few lemons over this and toss it gently and thoughtfully as not to break up the tuna too much. Spoon this phenomenal mixture on a platter and make a hefty mound. Then alternate sliced boiled eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes, cubes of boiled and then chilled potatoes. Put your own twist on this classic by using Yukon gold or purple potatoes, which are crazy fun and have a slight nutty flavor, around the edge of the platter. Sprinkle the entire creation with chopped parsley and serve this with plenty of crusty, French bread. You can serve this with a white wine or a pitcher of fresh lemonade. Hell, it is so good you can serve it with Cherry Kool-Aid.
It looks like Peruvian cuisine is next Big Thing on the culinary ethnic scene. So try making Ceviche. This appetizing dish is native to coastal regions, especially South America. Basically raw fish marinated in citrus juices and spiced with chili peppers, Ceviche can be light and refreshing or hot and spicy. Chefs are now experimenting with an array of ingredients like passion fruit, coconut milk, octopus, shark, avocado, Papaya, mango and more. There are all kinds of Ceviche recipes online so check them out!
Speaking of the next big thing, Korean Tacos are taking over California and everybody seems to be into kimchi (a fermented vegetable dish). These are all the rage and have gained huge popularity on the food truck scene in Los Angeles. There are an abundance of kimchi recipes and, based on climate and season, some are mild and hot, others crazy spicy and overly pungent. You can make a spectacular, simple kimchi using thinly sliced cucumbers. Salt the cucumbers for 20 minutes, drain them and then add vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, hot pepper flakes and cayenne pepper. I urge you to try other kimchi recipes as well.
Try a cold Roasted Beet salad. Gather some yellow and red beets, peel and roast then in olive oil and then chill. Serve the roasted beets on a bed of wild arugula that you toss with raspberry-shallot vinaigrette. Call it a rainbow beat salad. You don’t like raspberries in your vinaigrette? Okay, another option would be a lavender-shallot vinaigrette. If you haven’t tried lavender salt yet, please do. It adds a lovely flowery scented flavor to salads and performs magic with roasted meats, especially the way it blends with and transforms the gamey flavor of lamb.
Offer fruit platters galore – one for berries, one for melons. Fruit is so brilliantly colorful, use your imagination and get in touch with your inner Picasso.
Place pitchers of water everywhere and float lemon and lime slices on top. Make white and red sangria and put them in funky, but clear pitchers. Sprinkle a few edible flowers on the table next to pitchers. Go wild man, but make sure your displays don’t look kitschy either. In other words, don’t overdo it!
Near your bar, set up a crostini station (little toasts) and offer bowls of toppings including chopped wild mushrooms and fresh sage, tomato and basil, olive and caper, herb and cucumber, black bean and roasted pepper. Make your own hummus and a white bean dip using any one of the countless recipes on the Internet. Always use the best olive oil you can fine. Another alternative or addition to your crostini station is sliced cured meats and cheese, such as prosciutto, dry salami, capicola, mozzarella, pepper-jack, Manchego, marinated vegetables, peppers, olives sliced baguette, and water crackers. Or set up a salsa station by making an assortment of salsas. There are countless salsa recipes online but make sure to include one salsa with roasted corn in it and one that has some sort of fruit in it: mango, peach, or pineapple in salsa is always groovy. Make one super hot salsa for the daredevils and try a green salsa using tomatillos, shallots, garlic cloves garlic, green chile peppers, chopped fresh cilantro, lime juice, and fresh jalapeno peppers! Green salsa is bursting with tart, fresh flavors and I highly recommend it. Plus, everyone is going green these days, so go green and cold and make a refreshing splash into this year’s Summer party season.
John C. Picardi is the author of the new adult fiction novel, Oliver Pepper’s Pickle and the Off-Broadway Plays The Sweeper and Seven Rabbits On A Pole and the Popular Food Blog, Mastering The Art Of Pigging Out – My Life In Food