Are you the designated bridal shower giver this season? Don't let the happy occasion of your daughter, your best friend's daughter or even your fourth cousin-once-removed's daughter give you the jitters. This is a time to be joyful. A time to be extravagant. A time to spend, to gorge, to impress.
Of course, we don't have to fork over $50 a person for an overcooked lunch brought to us by a surly waitress at a trendy restaurant. Maybe hosting parties should be a kinder, gentler experience. Maybe it's about gathering our favorite friends and family, kicking off our shoes and toasting the bride and her beloved.
Make it Friendly
Formal, sit-down bridal luncheons are totally last century. Today's guests would rather pick up their food and kibbitz with their friends. Mingling is more fun than complacently sitting in front of a calligraphic place card, at a stiffly set table, terrified to move.
Because showers cater to close friends and family, keep the menu simple. If you're relaxed, everyone will enjoy the festivities -- not be racked with guilt they should be in the kitchen with you. Besides, you don't want to shout "Have a happy life" from the kitchen.
Hosting a shower is not an endurance contest. Brilliant cook or not, you shouldn't have to slave over a hot stove -- or a cold sink -- all week before the big day. Consider typing up the recipes, then sending one to each guest. Nobody minds a little cooking. You can paste the recipes into a book as a practical remembrance for the bride. Who knows? Next time it might be her turn to host the shower.
Keep It Simple
Everyone enjoys sampling myriad flavors, textures and consistencies, and we love holding food in our fingers. The conclusion: finger foods. No forks, no knives, just cocktail napkins and paper plates.
Don't cover every inch of the buffet table with food. Leave space so people can put down their plates and spread their tartare.
Since our menu is designed so guests can work the room, forget the crystal champagne flutes -- get out the sturdy French juice glasses. They won't topple over and if they break, you can just say, oh well, it's bonne chance and buen suerte for the bride and groom.
Since toasting with champagne not only intoxicates, it also dulls your taste buds; each dish might need a little more spice. Taste everything before serving it (no matter who made it). Also, insist on designated drivers.
Choose a Color Scheme
Anticipation is the first joy of eating, and food is always more appealing if it's presented on a beautifully set table. Pinks, lavenders light shades of blues and greens are traditional for showers, but you can make your table more dramatic by throwing your favorite shade into the mix -- red, purple, green. Think Gauguin, Matisse, Van Gogh or one of your favorite artists from the last several centuries.
Now, let's set a stage for the food.
Buffet tables crowded with food, all at the same level, is out. Assemble a variety of boxes -- different shapes, sizes, and heights, making sure each one will accommodate a platter of food. Drape a cloth over each box -- you can create a collage effect with different patterns or simply an inspiring accent within your color scheme. Use colorful trays of silver, porcelain, wood, or glass; place a platter of food on each box. The effect will be a gorgeous, colorful table with food floating at different levels.
Place plenty of candles on the table. They produce a beautiful effect as the light and shadows bounce off the dishes.
At this time of year, bulbs such as freesias, narcissus and amaryllis are in bloom. Set them in pretty pots or, for a more casual look, leave them in their terra cotta containers and place them among the trays. Or you might want to use bouquets of cut herbs, tied with colorful ribbons. For more color, set out bunches of lovely cut flowers. Try adding curly willows or eucalyptus to your vase -- they're a wonderful accent.
Give guests a party favor -- it's a thoughtful way of making them feel special. Wrap spring bulbs in cellophane, tie it with a ribbon; affix a decorative sticker. Simple and beautiful.
Now for the Food
A lavish meal need not be unhealthy.
Stand up to dried out and tasteless chicken breasts and heavy sit-in-your-stomach potatoes. Say hello to Olive Tapenade and Salmon Tartare. Say goodbye to bulbous bobkas and cholesterol-caked kugels. Say shalom to Champagne Strawberry Granite.
This festive menu doesn't have to give guests a coronary thrombosis to be appealing, delicious and worthy of showing your young bride that Jewish food can be light, healthful and delicious.
Take some comfort from the experiences of cooking teacher/caterer Jean Brady of Pacific Palisades.
Stuffed Portuguese Artichoke Bottoms
Adapted from "Cynara Erotica" by A. C. Castelli (A.C. Castelli Associates, 1995)
8 medium artichoke bottoms, fresh or canned
1 tablespoon olive oil plus more for sautéing
2 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground sea or kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 large onion, chopped
4 medium tomatoes, chopped coarsely
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh basil
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
If using canned artichoke bottoms, remove from water; rinse well. Place in pan with 1/2 cup water, olive oil, one clove garlic, salt and pepper. Cook over low heat for 20 minutes. Drain.
In a separate skillet, sauté remaining garlic and onion in olive oil until golden brown. Add tomatoes and cover. Cook for 10 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and dried herbs. Place mixture over artichoke bottoms; cook for additional five minutes over low heat. Transfer to serving dish. Sprinkle with parsley and, if desired, Parmesan. Serve at room temperature.
El Cholo's Classic Mole Sauce With Chicken Drumettes
Adapted from "El Cholo Cookbook" by Merrill Shindler (Angel City Press, 1998). This is our piece d'resistance and requires more preparation time than the other dishes.
1/4 pound unsalted butter or more as
needed for sautéing
1 cup onion, peeled and chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 bay leaf
2 whole cloves 6 pasillo negro chilies, stemmed, seeded and roasted
6 ancho chills, stemmed, seeded and roasted
1 teaspoon pasilla chili powder
2 1/4 ounces Ibarra Mexican chocolate (1 bar)
1/2 cup pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup raisins
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
2 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds, toasted
1/2 ripe plantain, peeled and quartered
2 quarts chicken stock
4 dozen chicken drummettes, broiled, baked or pan fried until light golden brown and no pink is showing
1 cup cilantro, chopped
1 1/2 cups ripe tomatoes, chopped
Melt butter in sauté pan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; cook until soft. Add spices, chilies, chili powder, chocolate, prunes, raisins, nuts, seeds and plantain; continue to cook, stirring constantly, approximately 10 minutes. Add chicken stock; cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Place mixture in food processor or blender; puree until smooth. Return to saucepan. Cook five minutes over medium heat, stirring often.
If mole is too spicy, add brown sugar. To deepen the flavor, add more chocolate. Add chicken to mole sauce; simmer until meat is hot. To serve, place in chafing dish, keep warm. The cilantro and tomatoes should be served in separate bowls and guests can sprinkle them on top, as they wish.
Serves eight to 10.
Fresh Salmon Tartare
Adapted from "Country Weekend Entertaining" by Anna Pump with Gen LeRoy (Doubleday, 1999). For this recipe, you should buy the freshest salmon available.
1 1/2 pounds fresh salmon, finely chopped
1/4 cup minced onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoon fine brandy
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup imitation sour cream
1/4 cup salmon roe
4 lemon wedges for garnish
In a bowl combine all but the last three ingredients; blend gently but thoroughly. Chill for three to six hours. To serve, divide mixture in half, pile salmon onto two serving platters. Form into two nice-looking mounds. Top with imitation sour cream and then salmon roe. Garnish with lemon wedges. Serve over ice. Place one tartare on the buffet, the other in the refrigerator as backup. Serve with hot grainy bread.
Adapted from "Country Weekend Entertaining."
2 cups good quality pitted black Italian,
French and Greek olives (use oil-cured olives, if available)
2 garlic cloves, quartered
2 anchovy fillets, drained (optional)
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons Cognac
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground blackpepper
Combine all ingredients in bowl of food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Or, place ingredients in wooden bowl and chop by hand. Store in refrigerator. Serve with black pumpernickel rounds or crusty country bread.
Serves six to eight.
Champagne Strawberry Granite
From Josiah Citrin, chef/owner of Melisse French restaurant in Santa Monica.
4 cups fresh strawberries, stemmed
1 cup champagne
1/3 cup sugar
Blend strawberries in food processor or blender. Add sugar and champagne. Blend until smooth. Strain strawberry juice into a large shallow dish (juice should be 1/2-inch thick). Freeze for two hours, making sure dish is level.
Scrape iced strawberry champagne juice in dish for a light and flaky granite. If not cold enough, freeze for another hour and continue scraping until all the iced juice is made into a snowy granite. Cover with plastic and keep in freezer until needed.
Serves four to six. n