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Holiday Catering

Holiday Catering

Cranberry Pesto Goat Cheese Crostini. —The Cranberry Institue

For a fun presentation, mix prepared carnitas (shredded pork) with toasted corn and butter lettuce. Let guests fill salt-edged Margarita glasses with the mixture and top with their choice of salsas, either fresh-made or purchased. — Hormel Foods

Although barbecue season still reigns, the time is actually ripe right now to start thinking about holiday catering for wintertime festivities. Here's what some onsite chefs and catering managers already have up their sleeves to ensure this year's events are the best-run, most memorable yet.

Getting the word out
In the fall, Brenda Ryan-Newton, director of catering for University of Massachusetts at Amherst, always starts getting her prospective holiday catering customers in the groove with a call-out on the university's website.

"We set up a special area for holiday catering with photos from last year, or we'll even create some displays with new ideas for the coming season and take shots of those," she says. "That gets people thinking about the holidays, and really helps us in selling our services."

Shortly after putting eye-catching new marketing materials on the web, Ryan-Newton sends out postcards to on-campus clients as well as businesses in close proximity to the school, advertising holiday packages and discounts on early bookings.

Working with local vendors, she puts together baskets of specialty items from the area (such as local maple syrup or chocolate truffles) as well as some goodies from the university's bakeshop, and sends them to some of her best and most consistent customers, and occasionally to any new prospects she has her eye on.

Although clients are free to make offmenu selections and order as many special touches as they want, many small departments or office groups don't have the budget for full-blown holiday events. For them, Ryan-Newton creates a special option.

"We send out the message, 'don't fret,'" she says. "We let people know that we will have a huge room reserved on a certain date in December, complete with live entertainment such as a jazz pianist, holiday foods and decorations, so that several offices or small departments can go in together, but still have their own tables and get in on the full holiday party spirit without the prohibitive cost. The idea is that they get Ritz Carlton treatment without the price tag."

At the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Catering Manager Carol Pooler sets up an annual catering expo, complete with themed tables and food samples, and invites all departments on campus to attend. "This way, they can see the different levels of service available, and get started thinking about which way they might want to go," she says. "Hosting the expo has resulted in a big increase in our business."

Planning the menu
Dean Frangopoulos, Aramark executive chef at Goldman Sachs in New York, creates menus emphasizing seasonal tastes, colors and textures for holiday catered events.

"At that time of year, I like to highlight foods such as winter squashes, savory herbs, dried fruits and nuts, and hearty, rustic cooking methods like braising and confit," he says.

Ten seasonal appetizer ideas Frangopoulos suggests for a holiday menu include:

  • Pepper-crusted beef carpaccio with date chutney and Maytag blue cheese.
  • Roasted butternut squash with Asiago cheese and aged balsamic vinegar on puff pastry rounds, garnished with a micro green.
  • Duck confit on crispy rice paper with pink peppercorns.
  • Seared foie gras on brioche toast with cranberry relish and crackling (rendered skin of the duck).
  • Braised short rib of beef with julienned, fried horseradish, served on crostini.
  • Spiced venison with red onion marmalade on crostini.
  • Pear and cranberry chutney on red endive with goat cheese and spicy walnut topping.
  • Vegetable tapenade on papadam ( Indian lentil chips).
  • Tuna tartare and avocado in a martini glass with micro cilantro and chive oil.
  • Vichyssoise in a shot glass with a toast of caviar, crðme fraiche and purple Peruvian potato chip on the side (see recipe, page 66).

At Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, Senior Executive Chef Steve Miller, CEC, CCA, likes to bring in a note of whimsy at the holidays with miniaturized appetizers. Using the small slices of cocktail bread, he makes blue crab and brie mini grilled cheese sandwiches, and stands up a wedge in a shot glass of creamy tomato soup.

Trios of mini tacos are made with gyoza skins fried in little baskets that hold them in a V-shape (gyoza are similar to wonton skins). "They fry up in 20 to 25 seconds, and we can make up to 500 an hour," Miller says. "It produces a big impact and is very inexpensive."

Filled with three different kinds of meats— from cumin/coriander chicken to shredded beef with cactus syrup, fresh fish or lamb —the mini tacos are accompanied by a variety of fresh salsa and displayed on rectangular platters on which a row of guacamole has been piped down the middle. Miller then stands up the tacos along the line of guacamole, which holds them upright, and drizzles thinned sour cream over the tops.

For desserts, pairing sweet with savory or spicy works well at holiday times, such as dark chocolates with jalapeño sauce, suggest U. of Wyoming's Pooler. Also try chocolates paired with specialty salt, or chilespiced mousse.

Warm beverages to consider for imbuing events with holiday spirit include sipping chocolates, chai cider or chai nog, pumpkin-or ginger-spiced coffee drinks, or steamers with wintry syrups like peppermint, cinnamon, or cranberry.

It's all in the presentation
Catering directors agree that so much of the success of holiday—or anytime— catering hinges on presentation and eyecatching displays.

Some ideas from Pooler and Ryan-Newton: Twinkle lights under sheer linen; granite slabs held up by martini glasses filled with shimmering gel or flowers; forked appetizers imbedded in rice, sand or river rocks; shelves or layers of glass held up by green apples, persimmons and/or pomegranates; wide-ranging holiday themes such as Candyland, Winter Solstice (lots of blues), Mardi Gras Christmas (lots of different colors); the "outdoors brought in," with plenty of greenery, holly, berries, pinecones, topiary, seasonal plants; candles and lighting behind screens to create a stencil effect.

Even though your tastebuds may still be enjoying heirloom tomatoes and fresh peaches, it's time for your mind to be thinking cranberries, pumpkins and peppermint.

The Cheese Course

A cheese course makes an elegant and sophisticated presentation prese presentation for catered events. For seated functions, provide it as a seperate separate course—as the appetizer, served before dessert, or even as dessert itself dessert itself. For cocktail parties or receptions, the cheese "course" can take the form of an individual station or passed hors d'oeuvres.

  • Be sure to include some easily recognizable favorites of different colors and consistencies—a hard, aged cheese like cheddar, semi-soft such as Brie and a blue, for example. But also use the occasion to introduce some lesser known, more exotic cheeses—artisan, mellow cheese rounds wrapped in stinging nettle leaves; French Cantal cheese (buttery, less-sharp-than-cheddar) or Jean Grogne (soft, triple cream); or a Corsican sheep's milk (Brin d'Amour, for example).
  • Offer a variety of styles made from cow's, sheep's and goat's milk to provide wideranging savory experiences for an in-depth cheese tasting.
  • Highlight American-made cheeses, imports, or local artisan products—or a tempting mixture of all. For an international selection, keep in mind Latin cheeses like panela and queso Chihuahua, Irish cheddar, Dutch Goudas, British Gloucester and Stilton, Italian buffalo mozzarella and toma, Danish Havarti, Swiss Gruyere, German butterkase, French Reblochon and Morbier, Spanish manchego and some American favorites like Vermont cheddar, Wisconsin homestead, Oregon smoky blue.
  • Accompany the cheese course with such complementary foods as quality artisan bread slices or rounds, toasts, crackers or crostini; warm nuts; roasted tomatoes, olives, capers, brined vegetables, chutneys; and fruit pastes, dried fruits, and/or seasonal fresh fruits (a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds, fresh cranberries, halved kumquats, citrus slices or wedges).
  • If appropriate for the guests, serve a cheese course at a more casual event paired with a beer tasting or even beer sorbet.
  • Serve the cheese at room temperature for best flavor.

The Humble Potato
—In Holiday Attire

Potatoes make a great basic ingredient for holiday catered menus, since they're a low-cost, readily available item that's easily dressed up for high impact.

  • Cook and halve small potatoes—white, red, gold, purple, blue—as bases for innumerable toppings, in place of more traditional toasts, bread rounds or crackers.
  • How about twice-baked mini potatoes, using creamers or other baby-sized potatoes—and achieve the comfort and appeal of the usual over-sized side dish as a two-bite appetizer? Jim Willard, corporate executive chef for Compass Group's Eurest Dining at McGraw Hill in Columbus, OH, combines fresh potatoes with convenience packaged mashed potatoes to speed the process of making twice-baked potatoes, then pipes out the filling into the potato skins for an attractive presentation.
  • Mashed potato bars can go from casual to upscale, depending on presentation. At Harvard University, the Crimson Catering division offers a "potatini" bar featuring gourmet mashed potatoes like Yukon golds or Peruvian blues with toppings of caramelized onions, roasted corn, crðme fraiche, crispy bacon, etc. Guests dish up their own servings in martini glasses for the final decadent touch.
  • Pre-mix mashed potatoes for a buffet or at a potato station with such appealing combinations as smoked gouda and pancetta; spinach, artichoke hearts and feta; or wasabi and crumbled, gourmet bacon.

Grape, Blue Cheese and Almond Truffles
Autumn Pork Loin with Fruit & Nut Stuffing
Spinach and Mushroom Cheesecake
Crab-Filled Potato Bites
Petite Rolls with Lamb, Mushrooms and Red Onions
Coconut Shrimp with Plum Sauce
Cashew Encrusted Butterkäse
Cranberry Pesto Goat Cheese Crostini
Vichyssoise in a Shot Glass with Caviar, Creme Fraiche and a Peruvian Potato Chip

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