Saturday, June 30, 2012

Catering a Party: Timing and Tips

One of the hardest parts of planning a party is the timing of cooking and plating the food. I can't imagine how chefs do it in restaurants — it's kind of like a superpower, I suppose.

I'm not a pro, but I love to cater parties. I've done a high school graduation, a wedding (yep, no joke), and two baby showers. The most recent one was for my hubby Justin, which was a small surprise party for him after he finished his Step 1 medical school boards.

I did a "Happy Hour" theme because the hour after Justin finished boards was bound to be a very happy hour indeed.

Do a simple layout of the serving table

I blew the budget on balloons, so the centerpiece is old jars and clippings from the bushes in our front yard. They actually look pretty good, no?

Print out the menu to give a special touch to the layout.

I had to put this in here — doesn't Darla look like an alien?

I think it may have been the most successful small party I've catered yet. This is due to two big concepts:

1. Pick 3-4 really delicious dishes that you know you can make, and no more.

This one is really hard for me. I want to make a dozen different appetizers, a meat course, a pasta course, a veggie … and it's always way too much. For my sister-in-law's surprise baby shower I made six different apps, pork tenderloin, pasta, cupcakes … for 15 people. I had so many leftovers and had such a hard time timing everything that a couple of the would-be amazing appetizers ended up a little overdone.

It's not worth the struggle. Remember the basic rule of journalism, which applies to catering as well: KISS {Keep It Simple, Stupid}.

2. If you are inviting people you love, it will be a success.

The food is important. It has to be tasty. But people will have fun if they like each other, and atmosphere is always #1. If it's the type of party where you can have alcohol, make a fun cocktail and a few great dishes that people can chat over.

Don't stress over everything being absolutely perfect. Only YOU will notice that the salad was a little overdressed or that the decorations were a little haphazard since you put them up at 2 a.m. the night before. Indulge in good company.

For my cousin Erin's baby shower, I made 3 appetizers, 1 pasta, and 1 party favor. The cake was provided. I made one hot appetizer and two cold, to keep it easy. Most of it was made the day before.

With this basic outline, you'll be coasting through a catering job.

Here's the breakdown:
Taco Cupcakes
Mixed Salad
Fruit Salad
Penne Alfredo with Sausage and Spinach (recipe at bottom of page)
Samoa Truffles
Fizzy Pink Lemonade

The Night Before…

1. Prepare the taco cupcake filling.

2. Chop the veggies/lettuce for the salad {I put cucumbers in mine, and chopped the tomatoes and avocado at the last second}. Make the dressing for the salad {olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, honey, mayo, salt and pepper}. Reserve.

3. Chop the strawberries for the fruit salad.

4. Make the sauce for the pasta {See recipe below}.

5. Make Samoa truffles {the recipe is in the link — these things are addictive}

An Hour Before the Party…

1. I served the fruit salad in a hollowed out watermelon, which was pretty cool. If you do this, check out this video for a tutorial. My fruit salad had watermelon, strawberries, and pears. That's right, only three fruits. Remember: KISS.

2. Assemble the wonton tacos and preheat the oven.

3. Set up the serving area.

Half an Hour Before the Party…

1. Boil a big pot of water for the pasta. Remember to salt it!

2. Chop the tomatoes & avocado for the mixed salad. Put it all in a serving dish.

Fifteen Minutes Before the Party…

1. Throw the pasta in the water. Boil for 7-8 minutes. Drain. Toss in the sauce and warm it through. Keep it in the pot until people start to arrive, then put it into the serving dish. It's OK if it's not piping hot.

2. Throw the wonton tacos into the oven. Cook for 10 minutes. Let them cool for 5. These can be room temperature.

3. Set out the fruit salad.

4. Toss the mixed salad. Dress it with the salad dressing.

5. Combine the lemonade concentrate with ginger ale. 

By the time you've done all this, the party will be starting. It's OK if not everything is on the table right away — no one is thinking about food right as they walk in. 

As you can see, all these recipes are very low maintenance and can be more or less served at room temperature. This is not a sit-down meal.

Here are some more recipes that work great for a crowd:

Endive Salad Cups {recipe follows}
Tequila-Lime Fish Tacos with Mango-Avocado Slaw {recipe follows}

Endive Salad Cups
{Printable Recipe}
2-3 heads endive, washed
2 Roma tomatoes
1/2 cup marinated artichokes, chopped
1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded, chopped
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
Olive Oil
1 lemon

Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze out some of the pulp so the salad isn't soupy. Chop them into chunks. Combine the tomatoes, artichokes, cucumber, a splash of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon. Dust with Parmesan cheese. Toss. 

To serve, cut off the base of the endive, separate the leaves, and spoon the salad mixture into the endive cups. 

Tequila-Lime Fish Tacos with Mango-Avocado Slaw
{Printable Recipe}
1 lb tilapia
1-2 tbsp Tequila-Lime seasoning (available at Soulard Market)
wonton wrappers
1/2 bag slaw mix
1 mango
2 limes
2 tsp honey
1 tsp olive oil
Salt & Pepper
1-2 avocados

Marinate the tilapia in the tequila-lime seasoning for at least an hour. Combine the lime juice, olive oil and honey with some salt and pepper in a large bowl. Cut the mango and avocados into small cubes. Toss the in the vinaigrette. Add in the slaw mix and toss to coat. Let this sit for about an hour to soften a little and absorb the flavor. Not a good idea to do this the day ahead — you don't want it to be too wilted!

Saute the tilapia for three minutes per side until you can flake it easily with a fork. In the meantime, place the wonton wrappers into a cupcake tin to form little cups. Toast them in the oven at 400 degrees for ten minutes until golden. Take them out, let them cool. 

To serve: Fill the wonton cup with a tablespoon of grilled fish and top with the mango-avocado slaw.

Penne Alfredo with Sausage & Spinach
{Printable Recipe}
1.5 lbs penne pasta (this is for a crowd, you can always scale back though!)
1 quart half-and-half
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
1 bag baby spinach
1 lb Italian sauge
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
Chicken broth (no real measurement here - it’s just to thin out the sauce when it gets too thick)
Salt and Pepper
  1. Brown the Italian sausage until done. Drain off all the sausage onto a paper towel to get the grease out. Wipe out the pan (unless you like a little sausage grease in the food - which is totally fine!)
  2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the flour and whisk it around for 2-3 minutes. The flour thickens the sauce.
  3. Add the half-and-half, whisking constantly. When there are no lumps (just a few minutes), set the temperature to medium-low and let this go for ten minutes.
  4. The sauce will thicken up over time. Add at least a teaspoon of salt...probably more like 2-3. Taste it as you go for desired seasoning.
  5. When the sauce has reached Alfredo-like consistency, add the spinach and sausage. Let the spinach wilt into the sauce (this might take a little while depending on how high the heat is on your pan - you can always crank it up if you want it to move faster).
  6. Cook the pasta and toss it in the sauce. Let the pasta cook in the sauce for five or ten minutes to get it really soaked up.
  7. If your sauce gets too thick, just add a splash of chicken broth to thin it out. At your shower, I cooked the pasta at the last second, tossed it in the sauce, warmed it up in the big pot, and added chicken broth to get it to the right consistency. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.
And Remember: A Happy Chef = A Fun Party


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Watermelon & Feta Salad

This is a recipe that Justin and I tasted at the Ocean View Delight in Fort Lauderdale, FL. It is surprisingly simple, refreshing, and has a great sweet/salty/tangy flavor profile. The owner of the restaurant told us it's a very common Turkish summertime dish.

All it is really is sliced watermelon and feta cheese. We had ours at the Ocean View with pita bread as well, which is great.

To kick it up a bit, we added some blood orange olive oil and and cranberry-pear balsamic from Di Olivas olive oil store. The citrus punch really elevated the dish and gave it an extra dimension that really sends it over the top. Highly recommended. You an add some blood orange juice and a splash of olive oil on top of the salad if you don't want to buy the fancy stuff.

Perfect for the blistering St. Louis summer heat — which isn't supposed to dip below 100 degrees this week, incidentally.

Oh, well. With this salad at hand, bring it on.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fort Lauderdale Feasts

Justin and I just got back from our much-needed vacation to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Mainly we wanted a beach to lay on, and yes, Hurricane Debby did put a dent in our plans. We were still able to hit the shores everyday since Debby was mostly northwest of us (and then later northeast), but in the interims between pool time and beach time, we indulged in a lot of eat time.

The section we were at on Ft. Lauderdale beach was pretty quiet, but there were some pretty amazing restaurants within a block of our hotel. The OceanView Delight was a true delight. Homemade food made from scratch with inspirations from Turkey, South Africa, and Venezuela. 

Justin had a watermelon and feta salad that we had to reproduce at home, and their wraps were fresh and flavorful. I had an Ahi Tuna wrap, a Middle Eastern wrap, and a veggie burger over the course of several days. All of them were A+. 
The veggie burger

Justin had the hummus, Israeli salad and homemade pita one day — incredible. I can't describe how perfect the balance was between smoothness, tahini, tangy vegetables, and soft pillowy pita. We're not even vegetarians (obviously), but we mostly ate veggie dishes here.

Hummus with Israeli salad and pita

Another great restaurant was Thai on the Beach. We tried the green curry, the Pad Thai, the sushi (sooooo good), and the Thai iced tea. All of them were delicious, flavorful, and thought I'm no expert on Thai food, it all seemed very authentic. Their steamed buns, chicken wings, and red dragon roll were exceptional. We're totally having Thai night in our house soon — stay tuned for green curry and thai tea.

Red Dragon Roll

Thai Iced Tea

Other notable eats: Southport Raw Bar (great seafood), LuLu's Bait Shack (amazing smoked fish dip and Mahi Mahi tacos), and Primanti Brothers (good pizza).

Most importantly, we've come back from the tropics refreshed, revived, and inspired to create more in the kitchen.


Sunday, June 24, 2012


The blog has been on hiatus for a few days due to the fact I've been maxin' relaxin' in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

But never fear. I have had some amazing dishes here that I can't wait to recreate back home. Here's an amuse bouche for you to chew on till I get back.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Cuban Sandwiches

You know that line in 27 Dresses when Katherine Heigl says "I feel like I just found out my favorite love song was written about a sandwich?"

I believe I have found that sandwich.

It deserves a love song. Justin made pulled pork that roasted for 15 hours, we pickled our own cucumbers, and toasted it all on crispy Italian bread.

I'm typically not a meat-on-meat sandwich kind of girl, but this has changed my tune.

It seems like everyone has their own pulled pork recipe, so I'm not going to go into too many details here. We cooked a pork shoulder (~3 lbs) low and slow at 225 degrees for 15 hours. Yep. Overnight.

One big tip I'd give for pulled pork is this spice rub: Soulard Grill's Spice rub from Soulard Market.

Soooooo good.

We also made our own pickles, which is surprisingly easy. Slice the pickling cucumber thin, and let it marinate for an hour in a combination of vinegar, sugar, peppercorns, and salt. We got the recipe from Tyler Florence. But we added jalapenos, because we're daring like that.

All assembled, these sandwiches were the best I've ever had.

Nope, no real recipe here. But be sure to get Italian bread, Virginia ham, Swiss cheese, make your own pickles, and use Dijon mustard. Holy moly.

We had avocado-tomato quinoa on the side with lemon/olive oil

Make sure you make this one this summer, readers. Promise me you will.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ginger & White Peach Jam

It's white peach season! White peaches are divine — such a summertime treat. The flesh is pale, extra sweet and juicy, and just more peachy than normal peaches. My mom and I used to stalk Theiss Farm every summer for when these elusive little fruits made their seasonal appearance, and we were never disappointed. Sliced up fresh with some whipped cream, tumbled over ice cream, or enjoyed whole on the pit — doesn't matter. They're incredible.

Ginger and peaches just seemed like it would be a great combination. I bought way too many white peaches at Soulard Market a few days ago and thought I could make the extras into peach jam — of course with a twist.

Better act fast, though — white peach season is pretty short (I can usually only find them the month of June).

{Printable Recipe}
1 lb white peaches (about 4 large peaches)
1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger + 1 tsp-sized knob whole ginger
2 tbsp vanilla sugar (or 2 tbsp sugar + 1/2 tsp vanilla extract)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Zest of 1 orange

Important: The peaches have to be ripe. I kept mine in a paper bag for a day or two to ripen them.

First we have to peel the peaches. The easiest way to do this is to make a small X on the bottom of the peach with a paring knife. Just cut lightly so you don't gash the flesh of the peach — we just want to lightly score the skin.

Blanch the peaches for 1 minute in simmering water. Only 1 minute. You don't want to cook the peach, only just loosen the skin.

Drain the peaches and let them cool slightly. Peel off the skin. Using your hands, just squish the flesh off the peach pit into a small ceramic pot. 

I made vanilla sugar a few weeks ago when I made olive oil cake. This stores in the pantry forever, and adds a nice kick to pretty much any dessert.

Add the sugar, ginger, lemon juice and orange zest into the peach mash.

Let the peach mash bubble away at medium-low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally so it doesn't burn. The natural pectin in the peaches will thicken the jam slightly, but not so much that it's gelatinous (I don't really love that about store-bought jams).

Serve with ice cream, cake, biscuits, fruit, crackers, whatever your heart desires.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Crab & Wasabi Deviled Eggs

My mom makes deviled eggs for pretty much every family function we have all year: Thanksgiving, Christmas, July 4th, Labor Day, you name it. Her deviled eggs are amazingly easy to make — the recipe was a hand-me-down from an old family friend of her parents. Here it is:

12 hard-boiled eggs
1 jar Durkee Famous Sauce

And that's it. Hard boil the eggs, pop out the yolks, mix the yolk and the Durkees, then re-fill the whites.

The only person who doesn't eat deviled eggs during these family festivities is Justin. He doesn't like the creamy-on-creamy texture, the snob (just kidding, babe). So a few weeks ago when we went to Annie Gunn's Smokehouse market, we picked up some Lemon Wasabi sauce that went perfectly with tuna tartare.

And somehow my mind made the jump: Hey, this would be great with deviled eggs. And crab!

Who doesn't love wasabi and crab? Seriously, if you don't, I'm afraid we can't be friends.

And because everything is better with bacon, I thought I'd add that too.

The verdict? Justin actually really liked them. He asked if I was going to blog about it, and when I said yes he noted "Good. These are worth blogging about."

For him to say that about a deviled egg, ya'll, that's something.

Now this recipe only makes 2 servings, because it's just Justin and I. But this is easy enough to make for a crowd, too. I typically estimate about 2 deviled eggs per person, or 1 full egg per person (unless you're in my family and you have to double it). So you may have to up the amounts.

{Printable Recipe}
2 eggs (1 egg per person)
2 tsp Lemon Wasabi sauce {If you don't have this, just combine some prepared wasabi with some lemon juice and maybe a touch of sugar, since this sauce is slightly sweet}
2 slices bacon
1 can lump crab
Squirt of lemon juice
Salt & Pepper

I took Anne Burrell's advice on how to hard-boil eggs: Put the eggs in a pot of water, bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and put a lid on it. Let this steep for 13 (or so) minutes. Rinse with cold water.

Peel. This is the hard part. Something about hard-boiled eggs always trips me up at this point, and the eggshell always sticks to the white. I hate that.
Mom always called these the tasters.

Cut in half. Look at that perfect yellow yolk! No green rings here.

Pop out the yolks into a bowl. Add the wasabi sauce, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.

Crisp up the bacon in a pan.

Mmmm bacon.

When it's done, drain it on a paper towel and chop it up fine. Reserve a sprinkle or two of bacon as a garnish. Fold the bacon and the crab into the yolk mixture.

Spoon the mix into the egg whites. Top with bacon.

We had some leftover filling, which I imagine will be lovely on toast tomorrow morning.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Pistachio Ice Cream

While Justin and I studied abroad in Rome, we were quite literally addicted to gelato, the creamy, fluffy version of ice cream that Italians guzzle in near identical quantities as wine. The best part about gelato is the vast assortment of flavors they can come in, from walnut to blackberry to my favorite, cioccolato [chocolate].
Love, in so many ways

When you order a gelato, you can usually get up to three flavors smashed into one cone or cup, which allowed for maximum experimentation. It almost became a challenge to determine the perfect blend of flavors, since by the time you finished your cup it was all one syrupy mass anyway.

One of our favorites was pistachio, which up until studying in Italy, we had no idea could be made into an ice cream flavor. To my memory I haven't seen it anywhere in the States. For our wedding we got an ice cream maker, so we put two and two together, and, well...
1 quart heavy cream
1 cup cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1.5 cups crushed salted pistachios + 1/4 cup sugar

Put the pistachios and 1/4 cup sugar in a food processor and blend until they are very fine, but not so fine that they make pistachio butter!

Meanwhile, warm the heavy cream in a saucepan. Add the sugar, vanilla, and pistachio blend and warm through for about 20 minutes just to get the flavors really melded. Don't boil it!!

Pour the mixture into a large container, cover with plastic wrap on the surface of the actual mixture so it doesn't form a skin, and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Pour into an ice cream maker. Let 'er roll.

Justin's all-time favorite.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Food Truck Friday STL

Yesterday Justin and I headed up to our first Food Truck Friday in Tower Grove Park. Food trucks are kind of new in this neck of the woods, at least for this couple. But now that we've found them — and there are a good number in the city now — we will never ever let go.
Along with live music, there was Y98 there for coverage.

Holy. Moly.

These trucks are good at what they do. We ate at three of them: Chop Shop STL, Go Gyro Go, and Hot Aztec, and we scored 3 for 3 in the delicious department.

Kind of hard to see with the trees, but the place was packed, the streets lined with trucks.

For me, the winner was Chop Shop. I'm a sushi fiend and the spicy tuna roll we got was enormous and tasty. Instead of cutting up 8 pieces for you to nibble, they leave the roll mostly in tact, only cutting it in half. It's like a sushi log, so full of fresh fish and rice it practically bursts out the nori.

Sit on that one for a minute.

We devoured the roll so fast I forgot to take a picture. Here's a visual from Feast Magazine:

Photograph by Laura Ann Miller
For Justin, the winner was Feed Me Bahn Mi's meatball bahn mi. We didn't even eat there last night, but we've had the bahn mi before and yes, it is that wonderful. The traditional bahn mi is a little sweet and has traditional Vietnamese flavors, which you may or may not be familiar with (think cinnamon, clove, spice...). The meatball has a flavor profile that we've a bit more used to, and it's juicy, complex, spicy, crunchy with the pickled vegetables, and the local-made bread from Fazio's is dynamite.

Go Gyro Go is obviously a gyro truck. We got the traditional lamb and beef gyro. The meat was incredibly tender, and the tzatziki sauce was honestly the best I've ever had.
Look at the line!

There may have been a touch too much sauce, but the upside is that it's not too pungent — in fact, it's mild enough that it didn't interfere with the flavor of the meat at all. We squeezed a bit out of the pita bread (which was soft, fresh, and warm) and used it as a dip for the homemade chips that come with the gyro. Heaven.

Hot Aztec is gourmet Mexican, and has some really interesting things on its menu. We were really excited to try the mole chicken taco and the cochinita pibil, a succulent pork shoulder roasted in banana leaves and also wrapped in two fresh corn tortillas. Both big winners in our book.

The chicken was my favorite. I'd never tried mole {say: mole-ay} before, and now I can say I'm a fan. Justin's favorite was the pork, so we conveniently did not have to fight over a last bite.

All I wish is that we could've eaten at more trucks. There were some really good-looking ones, but by the time we'd demolished three courses, we were kind of full — not to mention the lines started getting pretty long. Some other ones we wanted to try were

Falafelwich Wagon
2 Girls 4 Wheels
Holy Crepe
Shell's Coastal Cuisine
The Sweet Devine
Sarah's Cake Stop
Papa Tom's Fancy Franks
Cha Cha Chow
The Sausage Syndicate
LuLu's Local Eatery
Guerilla Street Food
Seoul Taco (which I've actually had before…a MUST try!)
{Yes, that is all of them}

Also, there's a new food truck in town … Steamroller STL is a bagel & deli truck that I'm wanting to try. And Sarah's Meltdown grilled cheese.

This is making me hungry.

All these guys are on Twitter — go follow them now so you can share in the feast.

Food Truck Fridays are the 2nd Friday of every month from 5-8pm at the Southwest side of Tower Grove Park.


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