My passionate interest in food surprises me at times; much like when we moved to the country and I fell in love with gardening. I thought I had a scathingly brilliant idea of starting a cooking club a year ago but none of us have the proportionate size kitchen amenable even to a small group. Our meetings ended up being more of a chore for some and the whole idea was just to have a good time. We did of course, but consumed more wine than food. Not that there is anything wrong with that! I love to entertain so I recently hosted a cocktail party to introduce our new neighbors to some of our friends. After two caterers bailed on me for that date (yes, the invitations had gone out); I knew I could prepare all of the food myself. Now, I am not a caterer by any means but I had a ball planning the menu and getting my ‘MES’ (mise en place) together. The biggest lesson I learned was the amount of staff required to help me pull this party off. The hors d’oeuvres required too much last-minute prep for less than three servers in the kitchen. Thankfully, when one server called to say she was ill, my terrific friends helped out (thank you from the bottom of my heart Linda and Bobby, Miriam and Willem, Midge, and my gal pal, beautiful Beccah). Because I was the hostess, they knew I could not remain in the kitchen for long nor did I want to micromanage.
Kudos to Ali for this party as one guest asked me if I would consider catering a get together that her friend was hosting – great referral but I don’t cater. It was a huge stroke to my ego though and it gave me an idea for a small business. I promise to share that idea at a later date! I want to share the menu that I created for this little soiree by the river and hope that you will prepare some of these appetizers/small plates for your friends.
The following menu is a duplicate of the food I served. A HUGE thank you to Chef Ian Campbell at Bistro Poplar for providing the incredible pâté.
COCKTAILS BY THE CHOPTANK
Passed hors d’oeuvres:
Pea puree on mini-parmesan crisps
Tuna tartare with wasabi dressing
Gorgonzola cheese truffles
Chef Ian’s pâté de campagne with croútes
Chicken Caesar salad bites in phyllo
Southern pickled shrimp and okra skewers
Polenta crostini rounds with spicy sausage
Maryland crab macaroni and cheese cups
Fresh fruit: watermelon, pineapple and strawberries
Mini-ice cream cups
Mini-candy bites (I used Milky Way and Snickers)
Mini-éclairs and cream puffs
M&M candies in a beautiful silver bowl (they matched the color of the napkins, flowers and tablecloths; naturally)
Party favors: frosted cake balls – courtesy of the Cake Ball Lady (a lovely way to say thanks for coming but I am exhausted now…)
I did not prepare any of the desserts but they were small, fun and went like hotcakes! Just plate all bites in mini-muffin paper cups on tiered dishes and watch them disappear. My friend Bobby and I tried to polish off the M&M’s but we started to feel sick from the sugar rush.
Now, you are probably thinking that this was a cocktail party not a dinner party so why so much food? I don’t do anything on a small-scale and everyone left satiated after enjoying the full bar. I have no hard rules for a party. However, take into consideration when creating a menu the temperature of dishes, texture, color and even taste. Naturally, not everyone will eat the same foods so strike a balance for your guests. I always make sure to know my friends’ food allergies as well. Estimating the quantity is really a matter of preference, especially for a cocktail party. Whether passing hors d’oeuvres or offering a buffet or both, I generally think 5-8 pieces per person for a three-hour event.
I will share just a sampling of this menu. I never make the same recipe twice without tweaking it. A chef never points out his/her misgivings but I am a cooking enthusiast who assumes that you will learn from my mistakes! I can only hope that you might use some of these dishes at your next party – the perfect complement to give any cook.
Tuna Tartare with Ali’s Wasabi Dressing
- 1 tsp. fresh ginger, grated
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 T. mirin
- 1 T. soy sauce
- 1 T. prepared wasabi or wasabi horseradish**
- ¼ c. rice vinegar
- ¼ c. peanut oil
- 2 T. sesame oil
- ¾ pound fresh tuna***, diced
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 1 English cucumber, sliced ¼ inch on a diagonal with a mandoline****
- Fresh chives, snipped for garnish
- Combine first six ingredients in a mini-food processor, process until smooth.
- With motor running, slowly add oils to emulsify.
- In a medium bowl, combine dressing, tuna and shallots.
- Top each cucumber slice with dressed tuna and chives. Serve immediately.
Makes 3 dozen cold appetizers.
*I will use this dressing on a green salad in the future. The color was a pale brown and quite frankly not that visually appealing although quite delicious.
**Prepared wasabi comes in a tube and is much hotter than horseradish wasabi. I used 1 tablespoon of the horseradish and I found it to be quite mild. Add more to taste for desired spiciness.
***This note is extremely important – use only sushi or sashimi-grade tuna purchased at a reputable fish market. This grade is inspected for strict freshness and used by chefs for raw tuna preparations. Tell the monger you are serving it raw and use it the day of purchase.
****I find that cucumber makes a lovely presentation and tastes so fresh. However, if I had the time, I would serve this dish on home-made potato chips.
Ali’s Polenta Crostini with Sausage
- 3 tubes prepared polenta*
- 1 lb. fresh hot sausage of preference (I use chorizo as I like the herbs and spices in the links)
- 2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 small onion, minced
- 1 quart Ali’s canned plum tomatoes
- 1 T. tomato paste
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3 T. melted butter for crostini
- Fresh basil, chopped for garnish
- Fresh mozzarella or Parmesan cheese, grated for garnish
- Heat a large non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Add sausage, breaking up the meat and cook, stirring until no pink remains, about 5-7 minutes.
- Transfer sausage with slotted spoon to drain on paper towels. Discard fat from pan.
- Return pan to medium heat and warm the olive oil. Add garlic and onion, sauté about 5 minutes until soft.
- Add tomatoes, paste, bay leaf, salt and pepper and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Cook slowly until liquid has evaporated and mixture is thick.
- Preheat the broiler. Cut polenta rounds into 32 pieces. Place on a broiler pan and brush the tops lightly with melted butter. Broil in batches for 5 minutes, turn and broil 4-5 more minutes until golden and crisp.**
- Transfer polenta to a plate, top each with a teaspoon of sausage topping and garnish with fresh basil and cheese, if desired. Serve immediately.
Makes 32 warm appetizers.
*Who knew polenta comes packaged in pre-cooked tubes. If you cannot find it in the specialty food aisle, make instant polenta as directed, cool and cut into any shape your little heart desires. Follow recipe after preparation.
**This step can be tricky so watch the crostinis. Broil 3 inches below the coils and don’t leave the kitchen. Nothing worse than soggy or burnt polenta! You can grill the polenta as well.
This post would be a short story if I included all of the recipes. All of the dishes were my spin from my collection of cookbooks. A few handy tips to take into consideration that I learned from this gathering:
- I will serve the chicken salad in home-made Parmesan cups and the macaroni and cheese in phyllo or foil-lined muffin cups.
- IF I ever serve tuna tartare at a gathering again, I would NOT mix it with dressing. First I would slice the fish as thin as I could, then place it on a cucumber slice. Next I would perhaps place a thin slice of pickled ginger on top of the fish then ‘paint’ a design on with a bit of wasabi. Raw fish is a tough call – you either eat it or you don’t. I should have gone with my first choice – country ham on corn blinis!
- Of course it’s okay to use prepared foods like the desserts and pate – be kind and take some of the pressure off of yourself.
- Have enough help for a larger party when you are ready to serve and remember never let them see you sweat.
- Oh, and always relax a few minutes before guests arrive with the beverage of your choice!
Bon appétit and Happy Summer!
I would be remiss if I did not mention the floral designs that my friend Jeanne Bernard created. This party was outdoors which can always be risky but the weather was glorious and the table arrangements stunning. Sadly, my photographs do not do justice to their beauty! Flowers are always on my tables at a party – it makes or breaks the decor. Jeanne has a small floral art and design firm, Artemesia, in which her creations are mostly called upon for weddings and private parties. She really should be on staff at the White House. Thank you dear friend!