A PRIME POP-UP Action stations—whether bound by a theme, cuisine or common ingredient—are the definitive mode of delivery for appetizer- or small plate-based menus. “Our small-plate action stations have been very popular and comprise most of our direct focus right now, especially for the increasing number of parties that are 100 percent hors d'oeuvre and small-plate appetizers,” says Greg Karl, president and chief operating officer of Epicurean Culinary Group of Centennial, Colo. The caterer’s newly introduced “Pop-up Colorado Steakhouse” offers hot and cold regional beef-based dishes, such as a roasted bone marrow with Colorado bourbon, carved house-smoked brisket with "cowboy caviar" (black beans) and horseradish foam, carved coulotte steak with a mini twice-baked potato and herb pistou, and buffalo carpaccio with a buckwheat and beet salad.

On the tray, it’s all about comfort and familiarity--albeit with a twist. Epicurean chef Jenna Johansen elevates peas and carrots into a single vegan, gluten-free bite—halved sugar snap peas are piped with carrot hummus and topped with a fresh pea are wedged into a cucumber round. Another favorite: “Thanksgiving in a Bite”: a ground turkey and stuffing mini cupcake frosted with mascarpone mashed potatoes topped with cranberry-orange relish. A lamb gyros ball topped with chickpea, mint and parsley with yogurt foam rounds out the comfort fare. “Colorado lamb is popular with hors d’oeuvre, but not as an entree,” Johansen says. “People just want a bite or two. This bite is familiar, yet current and developed in flavor.”

FOUR FOR YOU Guest interaction and choice are two essential components to a successful action station. Washington-based Occasions Caterers offers both with its gourmet “Progressive Pasta Station.” Guests may choose from ricotta gnocchi, lemon pepper tagliatelle or sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli. From there, they select a sauce—veal osso bucco ragout, clam and charred tomato confit, or arugula-fennel-lemon pesto. Next up, the toppings--charred tomatoes and cracked green olives, zucchini chips, grilled halloumi cheese crumbles, fried carrot threads and prosciutto crisps--followed by garnishes, ranging from grated Italian cheeses to porcini mushroom dust. A chef mans each stop of the process.

Caviar, delicately incorporated into passed hors d’oeuvre so as not to overwhelm the taste buds or the budget, is showing up on more and more menus. “Osetra, sevruga, salmon roe and tobiko are all sustainable, responsibly farmed options, making this indulgent treat a responsible choice,” says Occasions creative director Amy Lewerenz. Summer bites include melon compressed with elderflower liqueur and topped with salmon roe, garden pea mini pancakes with a dollop of caviar, crème fraiche and chives, and cucumber cups filled with crab salad topped with tobiko. However, at Occasions, the ocean’s harvest isn’t limited to just its fruits. “Sea beans add a crisp, slightly salty bite to first course salads and appetizers,” says Lewerenz, citing a small plate salad of chilled lobster medallions with beets, rhubarb, sea beans and dill gelee as example.

SURF AND TURF Seafood, says veteran caterer Lon Lane, head of Lon Lane's Inspired Events of Kansas City, Mo., is a natural choice for à la minute action station fare. His popular seafood cake stations feature a variety of fish and shellfish—salmon, lobster, shrimp and crab—shaped into cakes, grilled to order and served with a variety of sauces. High-end caviar classics, such as caviar pie, sturgeon on tiny bone spoons, and even tri-color caviar bars, are making a hors d’oeuvre comeback, as is oysters Rockefeller and oil-poached lobster, which Lane serves atop fennel crostini with Choron sauce.

On the meatier side of the menu, Lane’s “Soda Pop Mini Entree Station” features a variety of small-plate meat dishes all cooked with various sodas: root beer pulled pork with sweet potato and chipotle mash, Dr. Pepper ribs with potato, sweet pea and wasabi puree, and Coca Cola brisket with hoppin’ John.

HELLO, MR. CHIPS “The potato chip always seemed to be the lowest rung on the appetizer ladder,” says Mary Crafts, owner and CEO of Salt Lake City-based Culinary Crafts. “But with the explosion of gluten-free requests, it has become the perfect alternative to crostini or grilled breads.” And if the chips are gonna fall, Crofts makes sure they are topped with something tasty, such as salmon sashimi sprinkled with lime buds or seared pork belly with gorgonzola foam. Another snack food turned popular appetizer: flavored popcorn—chile lime, bacon bourbon and white truffle black pepper parmesan—passed in bamboo cones.

On the fancy end of the hors d’oeuvre spectrum, Crafts favors lamb carpaccio on demi forks and seared sea scallops with smoked salmon and almond caper butter. “Not every client is ready to pop for a high-end event from start to finish, but having a few high-end hors d’oeuvre sets a tone so that the rest of the meal can be a simpler presentation.”

 

RESOURCES

CULINARY CRAFTS
www.culinarycrafts.com

EPICUREAN CULINARY GROUP
www.epicureangroupco.com

LON LANE'S INSPIRED EVENTS
inspiredoccasionskc.com

OCCASIONS CATERERS
occasionscaterers.com