In our 5TH post of our 2015 Holiday Entertaining Tips series, Linda Sample shares her thoughts on the first line of defense for your holiday guests – the hors d’oeuvres!
Let’s talk about hors d’oeuvres (hd’s) – especially, balancing them with the entrée/meal. Also, let’s look at some of the factors that affect both passed and stationary.
If you are serving a main dish later in the evening, consider what you’re serving and do not replicate the flavors. You also want to make sure you are not redundant with protein; beef, fish, pork, chicken, lamb, or shellfish. This holds true whether you’re doing a seated meal or a forkable station.
WORK FOR A BALANCE OF…
COLORS – Bright vs brown or all pale.
TEXTURES – Some with crunch, some soft, some in-between.
TEMPERATURE – Hot and cold. This requires thought. In the summer, we tend to feature more cold, fresh, or room-temp items; however for holiday parties in the winter – we usually suggest doing more hot ones. You also need to consider the steps required in both heating and serving and make sure you do NOT set yourself up for frustration if you are having a tough time executing everything to your level of satisfaction and graciousness!
SEASONAL – You should not get your mind set on serving asparagus, fresh strawberries or chive blossoms during the holidays. Go for the root veggies that are at their peak.
CARBS – You do not want to offer too many starch or pastry based items such as; crostinis, bruschettas, puff pastry units, sliders or other ‘bread vessels’. As we mentioned in a previous post people tend to choose what they like, without thinking of this kind of balance. This is another reason why we hesitate to give our clients “lists’ to select from.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR PASSED OR PLATTERED HORS D’OEUVRES
~ How are you going to serve them? Pass them around to guests or place on a small tray and set out on a table? If you’re going the tray route, you want to do small batches at a time so you can replenish often enough to keep them at the proper temperature. Do you need to also provide a small vessel for an accompanying dipping sauce?
~ If you have foods on tiny forks, spoons, sticks, or picks, you will need a receptacle for those items.
~ Make sure you balance hd’s that can be done ahead, as well as at the last minute. It is often easy to come under the spell of a recipe that looks captivating (damn you Pinterest!), only to realize (when you read the fine print) that you will be spending the entire time in the kitchen. I am a firm believer in not setting yourself up for anything less than excellent execution. Make a plan and decide how much time you will need to reheat/bake these items. Make sure you know the cooking, as well as the cooling time and set a timer appropriately.
~ Are you preparing your hd’s in batches or doing them all at one time? If you’re only doing one batch, that may require maintaining temperature by using a chafing dish. I will be honest, I am not a fan of chafing dishes in general, for many reasons…
First of all, a chafing dish requires a heat source placed underneath a container that holds a water bath – this can be a wonderful thing, but can also tend to steam foods vs just keeping them hot. Foods can get soggy and mushy if they are layered on top of each other, and look unappetizing. Foods such as spanikopita (filo pastry) or puff pastry straws or any hd’s that are meant to be crisp, do not work well in a chafing dish – no one likes soggy pastry. Also, be very conscious of the heat source under the vessel, as having a butane flame close to the bottom, can scorch and burn the food, a result in unplanned “sparkle”!
Foods that do work well in a chafing dish include; meatballs in a sauce, a hot bagna cauda dip for veggies and breads, fondue, or your family’s cherished recipe for a hot crab dip. Those can be big hits, assuming you frequently check the water bath and the heat source. With a chafing dish, you also need to consider “drippage” on your linens/floors, appropriate serving utensils, small plates, napkins, etc…
LET’S TALK CHEESE
Many thoughts go into setting up a cheese station. I believe that less is more. I prefer to see a limited number of cheese offerings vs a ton of different kinds, that can look disorderly and sloppy.
Remember the rule of 3! Three kinds of cheese are just the right amount. Consider a hard, firm cheese, a soft-ripened cheese and either a blue or a goat cheese (depending on your personal preferences).
I am not a fan of cheeses cut up in lots of cubes (unless we are looking at more than 500 guests where speed and efficiency is a priority). I also suggest bumping up the “extras” a bit beyond the requisite grapes. I’m sure you must have some jars of jam/conserve/preserves that you received as a gift and had no clue where or how to serve them – now is the time! Add in a few kinds of homemade jam, a local honey, roasted nuts (keep guests’ allergies in mind!), a chutney, dried and fresh fruits, an array of crackers, crisps, breads, as well as something gluten free.
PLEASE make sure you also provide the correct knives to slice the cheese. I have seen many a cheese station ruined by guests hacking and stabbing at the cheese with the wrong blade. This could be another entire discussion.
My personal preference would be to serve a gorgeous hunk of aged parmigiano reggiano. I find that people often overlook this cheese (so often regarded as a condiment), which is one of the most flavorful, soft, gentle, and unassuming cheeses of all times. Many people don’t know – but REAL parmigiano reggiano is a lactose-free cheese! Be sure to take the cheese out of the fridge about 6 hours before serving to allow it to soften to room temperature.
I may be a bit prejudiced as I recently led a group of 30 caterers (from throughout the country) on a culinary learning journey through Italy. One of the best stops was in Parma, learning the process of making this gem, as well as how it is aged, licensed, labeled, etc…… I can still taste it!
Lastly, I want to touch on the display and set up of a cheese station. Use wood boards, slate or platters that work well with a hard vs a soft cheese – and label the cheeses so guests know what they are enjoying. Incorporate different levels for a more interesting look. Utilize a container for the crackers/crisps/breads and keep the variety of crackers to a minimum. Finally, as always, use care in placing candles and do NOT place them in front of food/cheese, where guests can get singed!
This IS the season of love and joy….. burning guests is frowned upon!