TOP TAPAS

The casual, convivial vibe of “tapas-style” dining lends itself well to warmer days and evenings, where grazing takes the place of formal, sit-down presentations. “Dishes that may otherwise typically show up at the dinner portion of the meal are being prepared as an array of tapas or small-plate appetizers served either before the meal or, in many cases, becoming the entire meal,” says Jennifer Naylor, owner of Malibu, Calif.-based Jennifer Naylor Catering & Events. Naylor elevates traditional Spanish tapas such as gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic) by using Santa Barbara prawns served in the traditional Spanish ceramic cazuelas hot from the oven and topped with extra virgin olive oil and toasted garlic. “Any dish can be turned into a tapas-style presentation,” she says. “We serve tempura-fried soft-shell crabs as mini ‘po boys’ with crispy slaw on a brioche roll this way.”

Another serving trend that stays strong, especially for spring weddings, is family-style service, which Naylor suggests as a great way to serve appetizers. “We start off this less formal, more communal style of dining with an array of antipasti or mezze dishes already on the table before guests are seated,” she says. “The bountiful platters of appetizers become part of the centerpiece decor at each table, and invite the guests to tuck right into the meal.”

Seasonal vegetables are kind to the catering budget. “Simple, economical dishes such spring pea soup with mint, Parmigiano Reggiano risotto, or creamy mascarpone polenta with black trumpet mushrooms and chanterelles can be served in espresso cups or ceramic tasting spoons,” Naylor says. Other more exotic favorites include squash flowers filled with melting Taleggio cheese, which are dipped in a light rice flour “shatter batter” and then crisped to a golden brown.

Naylor's favorite serving pieces tend to come from flea markets and antique stores. “These places can be a source of inspiration,” says Naylor, who uses vintage mahogany pipe holders to hold miso-sesame cones filled with ahi and avocado. “They are the perfect size and lend a rich, earthy feel to the presentation.” She also fills colorful Moroccan tea glasses with Meyer lemon pudding topped with whipped cream and candied lemon zest.

STREET FOOD FAVORITES

The best place to spot a trend is on the street — a fact that has not been lost on Christophe Holmes, executive chef of Atlanta-based A Legendary Event. Taking inspiration from the hugely popular food-truck phenomenon and the cultures of the cooks in these moveable kitchens, Holmes has turned traditional lunch-truck fare — specifically tacos and burgers — into tasty bite-sized appetizers. “Here in Atlanta, tacos are a popular street food because of the high Latin population,” says Holmes, who favors a cross-cultural Korean version using bolgogi (thinly sliced, soy-herb marinated prime rib) topped with Asian slaw, fire-roasted salsa, refried beans and queso fresco. Sliders are updated with lavender turkey, meatloaf and Korean braised short ribs. “Street food is more fun — the client can choose to set up multiple stations for different types of tacos or sliders,” he says.

Buzzwords such as “local,” “hyper-local” and “farm-to-table” are becoming important selling points to clients seeking the freshest of the fresh. “It is important for us to incorporate fresh, home-grown herbs and locally produced poultry into our menus to support our local economy and to maintain cost-efficiency and freshness,” Holmes says. “These types of ingredients are not more than two days old, which creates a brighter, higher-quality, fresher-looking and better-tasting product.”

By virtue of their small size, appetizers and hors d'oeuvre lend themselves well to lesser cuts of meat, such as lamb shanks, chicken thighs and pork belly, reports Holmes, who often prefers these ingredients because they are more flavorful and their preparation usually requires more creativity. “Pork belly is similar to bacon, but it is not smoked or cured,” he says. “It can be braised, cut into cubes, and then caramelized, which creates a new flavor profile and presentation.”

SEASON'S EATINGS

Seasonal ingredients, according to superstar chef Wolfgang Puck, are a must in every caterer's kitchen. “Foods that are in season tend to be less expensive, more vibrant and more flavorful,” says Puck, who recommends shopping locally at farmer's markets whenever possible. “Spring peas and sweet corn are debuting on our event menus,” he says, naming his spring pea “nickel” pancakes with sweet crab and mint, and sweet summer corn agnolotti with summer truffles as seasonal favorites. Healthy “super foods,” such as acai berries, quinoa and kale, are also in demand, the head of Los Angeles-based Wolfgang Puck Catering says, and can be delicious when prepared creatively. “Our kale chips are extremely popular,” he notes.

Warmer months allow for cooler foods. “Try a room-temperature menu,” Puck suggests. “Unless you have your heart set on serving hot hors d'oeuvre, you can make delicious bites without all of the last-minute preparation.” Puck's taro root taco with smoked sturgeon, caviar and chives, and grilled fig flatbread with caramelized onion and black truffle are prime examples of foods that are ideal at room temperature.

Instead of serving traditional hors d'oeuvre, Puck favors tray-passing small, “tapas-style” plates, which also allows for the use of higher-end ingredients without costing as much money. “This is also an ideal way to provide a more substantial menu without having the slow-up of a buffet line,” he says. For a large event, Puck prepares two- or three-bite servings on a small bamboo plate, such as mac and cheese with toasted brioche bread crumbs and black truffles; tortilla-crusted tuna with avocado and caramelized grapefruit; or crispy chicken with blue cheese gnocchi gratin and shaved celery. “Our chefs love using mini dishes — small plates, cups and spoons — to give everyone a complete dish, but in a tiny portion.”

RESOURCES

A LEGENDARY EVENT
www.alegendaryevent.com

JENNIFER NAYLOR CATERING & SPECIAL EVENTS
www.jennifernaylor.com

WOLFGANG PUCK CATERING
www.wolfgangpuck.com