Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thanksgiving, Simple Is Big

Pie? Nope, I love Pumpkin Cheesecake
Squeezed between Halloween and Christmas is a beautiful holiday called Thanksgiving. Most of us grew up with an idyllic idea of what Thanksgiving should look like and taste like. A cozy house of friends and family who are hungry and gracious, sitting before a feast as seen on the cover of Bon Appetite. We imagine an effortless holiday, from a stunning centerpiece to lump-less gravy. In our efforts to achieve such lofty goals we often miss the opportunity to actually enjoy it.

If Thanksgiving is at your house this year and your vision for its success is the magazine quality spread with a  family bonding experience, you might consider a more simple approach. What's not to love about a simple well prepared meal, affordable decor and easy execution? I realize that simplifying a holiday that is the super bowl of meals seems odd but give it a try! Long after the leftovers a stress free holiday gathering will be your reward.

Artichoke, Leek and Spinach Gratin

Here is 10 suggestions from the kitchen to the table that will help make your Thanksgiving easy as pie.

Guests- Review your intended guest list. Consider how far they will be traveling, age group, dietary concerns before you fix the time and set a menu. Time the day by considering if your out of town guests will have to leave at the crack of dawn or drive home late. Consider if you have guests with food allergies or if they are vegetarian. Older guests may not enjoy spicy foods or avoid sugar. The children may do better with a hearty side dish, like macaroni and cheese.

Menu- Start with a simple plan of soup or a salad, main dish, one to two starches, vegetable, bread and dessert. Add additional dishes after carefully considering your time and cooking space available. Let guests who offer bring support dishes bring them. Use quality purchased items to help with filling out the menu without making your job harder. Don't feel like you have to serve traditional dishes, try to include dishes unique to your family.

Planning- Build a time line that lists all activities from housekeeping to guest depart time. Be accurate to make sure you to schedule the time item needed to go in or out of the oven. Check to make sure you haven't planned anything needing the same cooking appliance. This will slow your march to the finish line. Lay out all your platters, serving tools and dish-ware ahead of time so they are in reach when needed.

Shopping- Once you set a menu, divide it into two trips. One to buy all the shelf stable items and those that can stay frozen until prep time. Trip two should be for produce and perishables. Do not shop without a list and make sure you checked off everything you already have at home. Check expiration dates on items you don't use often to make sure they are fresh. Allow 4 to 5 days in a refrigerator for a turkey to thaw.

Housekeeping- Ideally all deep cleaning projects should be finished week ahead and only tidy up needed (we all know how that goes!) Plan B is to stash clutter and stick to cleaning main traffic areas and the restroom. Prepare the kitchen for work by freeing the counters of excess appliances and collectibles. Clear out the fridge and freezer to store only the foods you need. Condiments and bottled drinks can be stored temporarily in an ice chest to gain more space.

Prepping- Chefs call it mise en place... "everything in it's place" meaning get it ready to roll! Don't under estimate how long it takes to get the basics done. Cut up vegetables and wash greens ahead and wrap in clean towels. It's okay to peel potatoes a day ahead and keep in the fridge in water with a few drops of lemon. You can measure seasoning and dry ingredients out for your recipes even a week before, just label, bag and set aside.

Decorating- Use seasonal fruits, nuts, squash, gourds and pumpkins to decorate. Fall colored leaves found on a walk can add a splash of color to your home. To keep as much room as possible on the table, centerpieces should be simple and low. Gather some small vases, arrange candles and fill with fall colored branches.

Seating- If space allows, try to fit guests at one table with at least 18 inches between settings. If one table is not possible, go with smaller intimate groupings and serve from a buffet so guests can mingle.
Avoid sticking the children at a "kids" table. Sitting together is an opportunity to reinforce good table manners and sharing a meal together creates wonderful memories.

Clearing- Ask ahead for an older child or close family member or two to help with clearing away the dishes. When the time comes it will be smoother to have designated help to move on to each course. For safety reasons put food away quickly, more then two hours in an unsafe range can make leftovers dangerous.

Grace- Remember the spirit of the holiday. Give a prayer or a toast, read a poem or elect a family member to do so. It doesn't need to be fancy or rehearsed, a simple statement of gratitude is what Thanksgiving is all about.

My Favorite Thanksgiving Menu Items!
From Cook like a Caterer Recipes

Rosemary Roast Turkey 
Sage and Thyme Dressing
Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Garlic
Porcini Mushroom Gravy
Whipped Yams with Pecans and Cinnamon Streusel
Artichoke, Leek and Spinach Gratin
Vinters Salad with Blackberry Balsamic Vinaigrette
Cranberry, Apple and Walnut Salad
Pumpkin Cheesecake
Vinters Salad with Blackberry Balsamic Vinaigrette

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Menu for a Baby Shower Brunch

OH BABY!!! Last week I catered a very special shower. I guess every baby shower is special, but hostess Sherry truly went OVER-THE-TOP with a vintage inspired baby event that photos can't do justice. Donna, Sherry's daughter in law, is a prop wizard and event planner who can transform any venue into a wonderland...She created the look and feel for this brunch in what seemed like only a few hours. Talented people like Donna, make it look easy!

Every nook of Sherry's pretty backyard was treated to a nostalgic vignettes of vintage inspired decor in a soft palette of champagne, pink, lavender, sage, butter yellow and chocolate. Donna created comfortable seating areas of various sized tables and varying heights with eclectic toys, children's books and floral centerpieces to highlight the theme.

My contribution to the day was the menu and catering brunch stations for guests to visit. Hostess Sherry, selected Omelette's, Crepes and Beignets for the main station dishes and fruit, pastry, and sides. Tray passed items were available when guests arrived.

 Omelette Station
Made to order omelet's with fillings including; mushroom, tomato, bell peppers, green onion, jalapeños,  keilbassa, ham, cheese, salsa, sour cream, and hot pepper sauce.
Thick Cut Bacon, Sausage Links, Roasted Baby Dutch Potatoes

A chalk board from a vintage tray to let guests know the station options.

Crepe Station
Hand made Crepes filled with Chicken Breast or Spinach & Mushroom, served with a creamy mushroom sauce

 Beignets Station
Hot freshly prepared Louisiana Style donuts with dusted in powdered sugar
Served with Chocolate, Pomegranate or Strawberry Sauce

Rolling out Beignet dough in view of pool
Nothing like a freshly made Beignets!
Guests use snow cone cups for fresh Beignets.
Fruit and Pastry Table
Croissants, Zucchini bread, Chocolate Chip mini bundts, lemon pumpkin bread, cranberry scone, blueberry mini muffin, pumpkin bread, butter and peach preserves.
Fresh sliced fruit and berries

This darling little tray passed appetizer was the hit of the party...who can resist fried chicken and waffles?
Tray Passed
Fried Chicken and Waffle Bites
Endive with Chèvre Pear and Pecan
Smoked Salmon Bagel with Red Onion Jam and Chive

Vintage baby blocks make great accents for a baby shower. I like to use them in glass vases to hide floral stems or in glass cylinders for pillars to hold glass at stations.

View of Sherry's lovely backyard baby shower and Donna's creative creative decor.
Such a beautiful event... best wishes for baby!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Catering A 50th Anniversary Luau

Fond memories of Hawaiian celebrations motivated Ruth and Wayne to nix the idea of a stuffy, fussy, gold leafed 50th Anniversary celebration and embrace a colorful tropical themed event. Having catered for the family many years, it was a great honor to be part of such a special occasion.

The Fresh Ideas Crew prepared salads and cooked on site. Guests enjoyed delicious grilled Teriyaki Chicken and Kalua Pork served from a theme decorated buffet. The following menu is fresh and simple, perfect for any Luau Style entertaining.

50th Anniversary Menu for 120

Tropical Fruit Array,
Island Fresh Spinach Dip with Vegetable Sticks,
Pacific Shrimp Cocktail,
Spicy Mango Cheese Ring with Crackers

Buffet Dinner
Hearts of Palm, Jicama and Papaya Salad
with Coconut Green Onion Dressing,
Sesame Noodle Salad,
Teriyaki Chicken with Grilled Pineapple,
Hawaiian Rice 
Kalua Pork with Guava Habanero Sauce,
Assorted Rolls

Banana Cake

Plate from the dinner buffet and server, Olivia, setting shrimp out on the appetizer table.

Guest tables are islands of color dressed in poppy, coral, lime and hot pink. The canopy offered shelter from the sun. The temperature soared in the 100's, but the relaxed setting kept guests comfortable.

Celebrating 50 years of marriage, Wayne and Ruth relax and have fun with family and friends. 

The festivities included renewing of vows and inspirational words from those who have been closest to them. 

Blessed with a family of musicians, the entertainment was home grown.

Tropical touches on cake tiers blended tradition to theme. The banana cake is resting on glass vases of various heights. 

The vases hold sea shells I collected and use for tropical events. Other desserts would also do well presented on clear plates over these same vases.

Very clever, Ruth created these darling treat bags with fun little things to play beach party at home. Island inspired goodies are fairly easy to find in party supply stores or on line to make your own great giveaways.  Easy and breezy-sea shells, leis, fish net, Hawaiian print fabric, bamboo items, palm leaves are all affordable items, perfect for low cost party decor.

A few simple theme props set the stage and entrance to the backyard event. A collection of island and beach items were organized to create a designated back drop for memorable photos.

While Polynesian style is most often reserved for birthday, retirement and graduation parties, a Luau will add delicious fun for any special event. Have you ever hosted a tropical theme event? I'd love to hear your ideas!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Skewer Happy! Kebob & Brochettes on the menu

 Chicken Kebob, Photo Renee Fontes, Cook like a Caterer using marinade from Rosemary Lamb Skewers recipe
After a balmy spring weekend, I'm ready to crawl out of my coat, how about you? Thoughts of patio parties, sizzling grills and skewered delights are dancing in my head...maybe it's spring food fever!

From now and into the fall, bits of meat, vegetables and fruits can very simply be transformed into delicious art on stick. Food served in this style is impressive adding to the celebration and creating a buzz at the buffet table. Skewered offerings are your opportunity to get creative the extra touch will garner compliments from happy guests.

First a few notes about skewers themselves, the stick like holders of food. Skewered meats and vegetables go by many names; kebabs, brochettes and even pinchos, depending where your from.
Barbecue Chicken Brochette, using Bourbon BBQ Sauce from Cook like a Caterer, photo Renee Fontes

The traditional go to skewer is the metal blade with a flat or rounded shaft, pointy end and preferably metal handle. I love these for smaller parties, you don't need to worry about burning it away, they are sturdy and food slides on and off easily.

Threading small items like shrimp, look great and can make turning and serving them easier.

Shrimp Skewers, using Lemon Vinaigrette as marinade, Cook like a Caterer, photo Renee Fontes

Bamboo skewers are available in all sizes and have made cooking convenient. They are inexpensive, easy to find in stores and disposable. Soaking the bamboo sticks ahead will help with burning. Wooden sticks are also available, these are usually thicker and longer, good for heavy meats and produce.

I leave small gaps between food on skewers to make sure cooking is even. For best results, marinate the meat squares before threading and don't marinate the vegetables.

 Chicken Kebob, Photo Renee Fontes, Cook like a Caterer using marinade from Rosemary Lamb Skewers recipe

I have used sturdy barbecue rosemary (there is actually a variety called that!) as sticks for lamb appetizers. The best way too grill them is with a strip of foil under the leafy end to keep it from burning.

Rosemary Lamb Skewers, Cook like a Caterer, Photo Renee Fontes

Grilling is my preferred form of cooking for any outdoor event and I've never met a guest that didn't spontaneously drool over food laden sticks roasting on the fire. Remember, skewers are not limited to heated dishes, they can also be holders for cold appetizers, salads, fruit and dessert. 

 Chicken Kebob, Photo Renee Fontes, Cook like a Caterer using marinade from Rosemary Lamb Skewers recipe
These Mediterranean Chicken skewers marinated in herbs and lemon. After they are grilled, splash them with more lemon, and serve on a bed of rice or couscous. A crisp salad of Kalamata olives, red onion, cucumber and fetta cheese sprinkled with good olive oil is the perfect on the side.

Chicken Satay, Cook like a Caterer, Renee Fontes

Every country has a form of food on a stick, making it easy to theme parties with authentic dishes like these chicken satay. A variety of skewers are perfect for an appetizer party.

There is always room for dessert, strawberries are a spring favorite. Slide on a stick with Angel Food Cake squares and top sweet soft cream or give them a little dip in chocolate. Simple fruit kebobs are popular as a dessert too.

Fruit Kebobs, Cook like a Caterer, Photo Renee Fontes
I hope you enjoyed a few of my favorite dishes to inspire your own skewering frenzy. I would love to here your ideas as well. So stick to it... slide some food on a skewer and fire up the grill!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Engagement Party Appetizer Menu

I truly realize just how lucky I am. I don't just work in an exciting industry where the special event is king, but the unique opportunity to have a part of those small but monumental moments in a family's life. One such occasion that certainly deserves a celebration is a couple right after the announcement "were getting married!"

Isn't it great to be at the beginning? Before the showers, rehearsal and the epic reception....a sweet little gathering to kick it engagement party!

An engagement party is traditionally thrown by the bride's parents, but many gatherings are hosted by the grooms family, friends or the couple themselves. Plan the event within a few weeks to a couple of months after the engagement. The purpose of an engagement party is to introduce family and your closest friends, so keep your list guest list small. Your entertaining style should allow for guests to meet and mingle, so consider appetizers on buffet as an option.

When deciding a buffet appetizer menu, choose foods that are portable, simple to eat and appeal to multiple generations. Even if you know the bride and groom to be, you may not know any special diet and eating patterns of the other guests. Having a varied menu will make your guests feel comfortable.

The following is the menu from an Engagement Party for 40 guests. It offers a balance of hot and cold appetizers as well as many meat free and gluten free choices. More importantly, it's good!

Ginger Sesame Pork Loin Platter with Sesame Noodles
Caprese Skewers
Goat Cheese Tart with Red Onion Marmalade
Roasted Red Pepper Hummas with Pita Chips
Shrimp Gazpacho 
Crab Stuffed Mushrooms
Blue Balls of Fire with Raspberry Chipotle Sauce
Petite Stuffed Potatoes 
Chicken Potstickers with Sweet Chili Sauce
Sweetened Marscapone Stuffed Strawberries

Arranged on a dining room table these dishes become the centerpiece of the party where best wishes and congratulations add sparkle. The party becomes the kick off for exciting wedding plans and a beginning of a beautiful... celebration marathon!