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



  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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