Haute Appetizers!

Cheese cubes are out! Stylish hors d’oeuvres are in.

by HCTG Senior Writer Jolene Rae Harrington

articles_alt  The Wedding Day focus is usually on creating a romantic ceremony and a grand reception. But what about the humble cocktail hour, that somewhat amorphous mingle-and-munch time between “I Do” and “Dinner is Served”? Gone are the days when a hostess could throw together a few trays of cheddar cubes, crackers and melon slices to tide guests over until the chicken-du-jour was served. Today’s bride puts a great deal more consideration into what she presents to her guests, and the Bay Area bride is among the most discerning. “Our Northern California clientele is well-traveled and well-educated, which translates to a more refined palate,” observes Stephen Dennison of Dan McCall & Associates Catering. “They expect original, authentic cuisine of the highest quality.” The Bay Area’s top caterers agree that the best way to rejuvenate the cocktail hour and give it some character is to serve appetizers with pizzazz—delectable treats that make their own statement yet still tie in to the theme, style and mood of the rest of your event.

For Dennison, that special je ne sais quoi begins with the flavors of each hors d’oeuvre. Like notes in a symphony, they should harmonize yet be distinctive. He reminds us that when you pop an appetizer in your mouth, “the flavors should be bright—from the sparkle of ginger to the zing of a coarse ground French Grey Salt as it explodes in your mouth.” So what sort of concoctions have our esteemed Iron Chefs dreamed up to produce this desired result?

articles_alt  Our survey says that Fusion Cuisine is still going strong. As more and more couples tie a multi-ethnic knot, they want their food to reflect the cultural diversity of their respective families. In Northern California, Pan-Asian elements are bringing a novel distinction to traditional favorites. Laurence Whiting of Global Gourmet Catering presents their new Gingered Crab Rissole as a prime example: “It’s a twist on the conventional crab cake; we’ve crusted it in black and white sesame seeds, then topped it with wasabi cream.” Crab takes another Fusion bow in Melons Catering’s Crab Cones, a blend of delicate Maine blue served inside a crispy won ton or nori wrapper. MeMe Pederson of Taste Catering finds guests appreciate the lightness of Asian Fusion fare. As an alternative to “bread-with-everything,” Taste offers a savory Thai rock shrimp salad cradled in lettuce cups. These days, almost every Bay Area caterer has an ahi dish on their menu, and Global Gourmet serves it island-style on a stalk of edible sugar cane. Dan McCall plays with contrasts in Warm Ahi Popsicle, where the fish is pan-seared and accompanied by pickled ginger and a sweet yakiniku sauce.

articles_alt  Another popular Fusion style is Nuevo Latino, an evocative blend of California Cuisine with South-of-the-Border verve. Tom Senter of Global Gourmet Catering says their Crispy Bean Cakes with spicy red-pepper crème fraiche simply fly off the platters, and are a tasty way to satisfy any vegetarians in the crowd. Signature Catering serves their summery Chilled Gazpacho in elegant martini glasses, and whether they’re shaken or stirred, guests find them delightfully refreshing. Bar-ware also plays a key role in Global Gourmet’s imaginative Jicama Stars with guacamole and lime-cilantro marinated bay shrimp. Folks will perk up when their unusual Star of Jicama arrives atop a curvaceous shot glass, filled with fine tequila or sparkly champagne.

As chic and cosmopolitan as we are, and as stylish and light as we want our hors d’oeuvres to be, caterers have discovered our secret: deep down, we’re craving good old-fashioned American Classics. Perhaps it’s the stress of the modern world that’s thrown us into the figurative arms of “comfort food,” but who wouldn’t want to dig into Susan Foord’s tempting Mashed Potato Martini topped with a cabernet meatball instead of an olive? And on a cool autumn eve, there’s nothing like a spot of Butternut Squash Soup ladled into demitasse cups to make your guests feel warm and fuzzy. CaterMarin even reports requests for mini-Rueben sandwiches, while Signature’s Yankee Pot Roast in polenta cups are a smash hit. For the holidays, Susan Foord harkens back to our Colonial roots when she cooks up “A Dickens of an hors d’oeuvre”—bite-size Yorkshire puddings with slivers of beef sirloin and horseradish. These upscale versions of old favorites may be guilty pleasures, but your guests will instantly relax as they indulge.

articles_alt  Savvy gourmands already know that food should look as good as it tastes. During the cocktail hour, presentation is especially important, from the fresh, uncluttered arrangement of the hors d’oeuvres on the plate, to the plates themselves. Caterers like Terry Eberle of CaterMarin are always in search of interesting serving pieces. She lines teak rectangular platters with leaves, and uses tiny galvanized buckets to hold toothpicks. Odd shapes and rich colors attract the eye, and Eberle likes the way her Portuguese pottery of turquoise, earthy saffron and mint-green highlight her culinary offerings. A snazzy glass square of black-and-white checks displays Taste Catering’s Prosciutto Roulade. Melon’s serves their Asian Fusion dishes inside bamboo baskets or on burnished pewter plates garnished with polished river stones. Susan Foord is known for her elaborate floral accompaniments, like a soaring bird-of-paradise bouquet, while
Ahi and Cucumber appetizers  Dan McCall’s Stephen Dennison prefers more understated garnishes such as a perfect sprig of orchid. Chefs also create architectural elements with the food itself, as seen in Melon’s gorgeous timbale of tangy gorgonzola and spiced poached pear.

No matter what they make or how they serve it, these consummate food professionals have one thing in common: the creativity and care they put into their work. Guided by your own personal vision, they’ll make sure your appetizers are haute, indeed, and that your cocktail hour is as exciting as the rest of the wedding extravaganza. Ahi Popsicle, anyone?

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