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Planning an Elegant Buffet – How I Catered My Daughter’s Wedding From Three States Away

Planning an Elegant Buffet – How I Catered My Daughter’s Wedding From Three States Away

“How does this happen?” you ask. The secret is organization – such as the pros do it – planning every last detail. I will tell you here how you can do it too.

Here’s how it started: a few years ago we were planning a wedding for our eldest daughter, a second marriage for her. She chose to be married in Long Island where my sister and her husband have a lovely waterfront property on a point of land. What could be prettier than a wedding ceremony on a Sunday afternoon in July with the Great South Bay sparkling in the background?

So, among other preparations, we set about finding a caterer. The guest list was around forty, a manageable group. It’s important to note here that I consider myself a foodie. I never want to ingest a solitary calorie that is not up to my standards. The menus from local caterers and restaurants were sorry in my estimation and pricey for what it was. I quickly concluded that I could do just as well if not better.

Now this was possibly a stretch, since I live three states away in Massachusetts, but I am not one to shrink from a challenge. I enjoy cooking, and just as important, other people enjoy my cooking, and I am not beyond working hard.

My idea of what I wanted to serve was an elegant meal appropriate for a summer afternoon. To me that meant beautiful fresh food, elegantly presented and served cold or at room temperature. This would be a buffet. I knew I could figure it out.

Figure it out. That is exactly what it’s about.

Start with a nice clean legal pad and a couple of sharp pencils. The first step is to fashion a menu: four categories, one page each. First, appetizers to be served with drinks. Second, the main course and the third, dessert which will most certainly be a wedding cake and perhaps other goodies as well. The fourth page is drinks.

You do not have to be a wonderful cook. Let me repeat that: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE A WONDERFUL COOK. You will come up with one dish that you do well, and keep the rest very simple.

Let us here recall the KISS rule. Keep It Simple, Stupid. What makes simply served foods work is the PRESENTATION, that is the way it’s served. For example, sliced tomatoes carefully arranged on a pretty platter with a few sprigs of parsley is attractive and a worthy dish on an elegant table. But let’s get back to that list.

Hors d’oeuvres, starters, appetizers, whatever you wish to call them is what people will munch cocktail party style with drinks or champagne, perhaps just after the ceremony. For my summer party, I kept things light – not the kind of food you might expect at a Super Bowl party. Think shrimp. Tiny grape tomatoes in a bowl. An artichoke dip with nice quality crackers. Do a cheese platter with 2 or 3 cheeses with some beautiful grapes or cut up fruit. Remember that cheese tastes best at room temperature – most cheeses are tasteless when cold. (A good thing in this instance.) Use your imagination, but lacking inspiration, consider searching your cook books or the internet.

Write down all the appetizer dishes you like and sort out later. Consider buying a few prepared dishes. You will then rewrite a clean new list with your final choices. Just remember, you want to spend a minimum of time and effort the day of the wedding, so your dishes must be carefully chosen.

Next, the main course. I wanted to have some beautifully done simple meats. I chose sliced cold turkey breast and a big side of poached salmon. (At the end of this article I will include my recipes and methods of preparation.) The turkey and salmon were served on big beautiful platters. The turkey was surrounded with grapes and alongside I served in a nice little dish, a wonderful sauce which my friends could not identify. It was Ken’s Raspberry Pecan fat free salad dressing. Perfect. The salmon was served with lemon wedges & dill artfully placed around the fish. Simple? Absolutely.

But that wasn’t enough. For my centerpiece I created a large, pasta dish which was served room temperature and prepared just before the wedding party began. It went into a not so big punch bowl and just got better as it waited the hour or two before it was served. I suggest covering and hiding this beautiful dish lest your family pick away at the top. All of the parts to the pasta dish were prepared days before and assembled with the freshly cooked pasta.

Additionally, I served some salads and a platter of sliced tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella cheese, drizzled with olive oil, and decorated with gorgeous fresh basil leaves. Fancy baskets with cloth napkins were filled with fresh breads.

Back to your list. On you main course page, list several candidates. You could choose any dish you make well, or perhaps confer with someone with more cooking and entertaining experience. Or, ask a friend or relative for a recipe he or she makes well and practice making it – or even better, get them to make it for you!

Alternately you could purchase your keynote dish from a restaurant. It will cost more than it would if you make it yourself, but possibly worth the expense if this is a source of stress for you. If you decide to cook the entree yourself, consider carefully and eliminate from the list those that will not work well. Choose a dish that benefits form advance preparation and will be the least work at the last minute.

Next, the third page is the wedding cake. Be sure to order it well in advance from a bakery you trust. If you wish you can also serve chocolate covered strawberries, sliced pineapple, mangoes or whatever else is available or traditional for your family.

Page four. Coffee? You’ll need to round up a good sized coffee pot, creamers, sugar and packets of Splenda.

You also need to consider what wine, cocktails, beer, sodas and non alcoholic drinks you plan to serve. How about after dinner drinks? Since you are going to be quite involved with the food, assigning the matter of the drinks to someone else is a stellar idea. Lacking a trustworthy friend or family member, you will have to assume this as well. I am fortunate in having a husband who has had years of training (our previous parties) so I was able to confidently leave this to him.

Let’s get back to that list. You have now decided what exactly you are going to serve. Here is where you will work like a pro and take the stress out of this major effort.

You should now have four lists – appetizers, main course, desserts, drinks. These are your master lists that you will refer to even up until the day of the party.

The next step is to make a copy of every recipe you will be using – don’t count on your book – have a separate copy. Everything. This ensures you will forget nothing at the last moment.

Once you are settled on what you will serve, the next list is your shopping list. This is a separate piece of paper. Or three. Go over the ingredients for each dish from the recipe pages and make a shopping list. If you will be going to more than one store – I went to Costco and a super market – have a separate list for each store. Check your pantry for the things you think you have on hand and be sure they are fresh and you have enough. If a trip to the liquor store is necessary, this is a separate list.

Let’s think about the serving platters you will use. On each recipe page – I like to put this info in the upper right corner, write down the particular serving platter or plate you will use and the utensils you will need (fork, spoon, perhaps both, tongs, etc.)

On a clean piece of paper start another list for serving platters. If you don’t already own all of the plates or platters you will need, you could borrow, rent, or go out to Target, TJ Maxx, Home Goods or wherever you know you can get a good looking plate or two without breaking the bank. For me, this list was essential the day of the party, and equally necessary when I was loading platters, layered between towels, into my trunk when I was getting ready to drive to New York!

So now you know what you will serve, what you need to buy in the way of groceries, and what exactly you will be using underneath all this food.
A time line is next – working backward from the day of the wedding.

You must first assess what your preparation will entail for each dish. You will not, for example slice your tomatoes until the last moment, but you will chop any onions you will be using well in advance and have stored in a zip-lock.

Remember where I said the pasta dish was assembled just before the party -once the pasta was cooked? Having all components ready to use is called
MISE EN PLACE. This is a French term that, when it refers to food preparation, means that everything is readied in advance and ready to use – just the way things are done in restaurants. .

Mise en place is a key step is making this entire effort less stressful. So you need to go through your recipes and determine what you can do a day or two in advance, what can be done a few hours before, and what has to be tended to last minute. Say your party is on Saturday. Your Thursday list might include chopping onions and garlic and packing each into airtight plastic bags. You might unwrap your cheeses and rewrap, again in an airtight manor such as tight saran to avoid the commercial packaging hassle when you’re down to the last few minutes before your guests arrive. That cheese, by the way, should reappear on your ‘few hours before’ list to be taken out of the refrigerator to come to room temperature.

As tedious as this extensive list making may seem, the work you do now is your insurance that panic will not set in later AND it will make it much easier for anyone helping you!

Plan how you will arrange your platters on the serving table. Do you know what table you will be using? Perhaps you should think about renting a table. You may need to rent several dining tables and chairs. Also think about table cloths and linens. If you don’t want to use paper, elegant dishes can be rented and you can return them dirty. Recently I had a formal party for 20, and rented the items mentioned above for $150. Everything was beautiful – they picked up, delivered, set the tables up and then picked up the next day all in the price.

Will you be transporting your food from your home to another location? Here’s how to make that more efficient. Have a separate box for each dish with the prepared components, recipe page and any last minute notes and special kitchen tools packed into each box. Boxes from the liquor store are ideal because they are abundant, smallish and very strong. You can also add cold packs to each box near those foods that are perishable as I did when I was transporting my wedding party food to New York.

Lastly, if this is a large group you will need help. The best of all worlds is to hire someone to help you starting an hour or so before the party and throughout to clear tables and wash dishes. This will insure your guests feeling comfortable about not having to be in your kitchen helping, and you will enjoy the party. You can check in from time to time.

The person you hire need not be a catering pro. You could hire at $10 or $15 per hour a mature high school girl with common sense who knows her way around a kitchen Do what you can afford. If hiring someone is out of the question, you will have to rely on a family member or two to help out.