Delicious, innovative food made with high-quality ingredients served with style — in this economy? Absolutely! Here's how:

MITCHELL'S CATERING & EVENTS, RALEIGH, N.C.

PENNYWISE PLATES: Trim down. Managing partner David Casteel suggests buying trim products: underutilized cuts of meat, seafood or poultry that are of good quality but can't be sold as whole products. “If a customer wants only center-cut tenderloin, then the rest of the item is sold off as trim,” he explains. “It's still tenderloin, but can't be sold as a filet mignon.” Casteel finds such trim items, including broken shrimp and smoked salmon trim, highly cost-effective options for gumbos, barbecue, stir-fry dishes, and noodle bars — any dish where the meat is shredded or finely chopped. “The customer is still getting quality chicken breast, but for about a third of the price,” he notes.

(CENTS)IBLE SERVICE: Keep the plates small. “Using small-plate presentations controls portioning on items that are perceived as high-end, which allows us to offer big impact on a tightened budget,” Casteel says. Among his company's favorites: lobster bisque “soup sips” topped with cognac crème fraiche, and small plates of tuna sashimi served over sesame seaweed salad with miso vinaigrette, which are served as hors d'oeuvre or at food stations.

PRESENTATION SENSATION: Play with your food. “Our ‘blowtorch salmon’ food station creates a big bang — in terms of both presentation and cost,” Casteel says. For this dish, fresh, individually pre-plated, thinly sliced salmon is seasoned and seared with a blowtorch, then topped with frisee, lemon vinaigrette and fried capers. “The guest experience is tremendous — and they get freshly cooked food at its flavor peak,” Casteel says. “The actual fish portion is barely one ounce, and, as far as fish prices are concerned, it's still fairly inexpensive.”

PUFF 'N STUFF CATERING & EVENTS, ORLANDO, FLA.

PENNYWISE PLATES: “We're noticing a big shift toward high-flavor, low-cost proteins,” says event planner Kenneth Heidt. “We've created some unique dishes made with short ribs and beef brisket for those clients who cannot afford beef tenderloin.” Among the favorites: espresso-glazed short ribs on hazelnut mashed potatoes.

Menu items such as this tie in with another money-saving option: comfort foods. “The craze is still comfort food with a twist,” Heidt says. “For example, sliders are hugely popular, but they don't have to be boring.” An inexpensive though impressive update: Swap manchego for cheddar and add chipotle-spiced ketchup. Heidt notes, “Now you've got a fun, creative slider without impacting your budget.”

(CENTS)IBLE SERVICE: Make it personal. “Parties are less elaborate than they used to be,” Heidt says, “but they are much more personalized.” To that end, Puff 'n Stuff has perfected the mini-plate action station, where chefs plate the food item (such as the short rib dish noted above) on a small dish and present it to guests. “It greatly reduces food waste, controls portions and cuts cost,” Heidt says.

PRESENTATION SENSATION: Turn something simple into something sophisticated. Case in point: The chocolate brownie, which can go from humble to haute merely by changing the baking pan. “Why cut it square from the pan?” asks Heidt. “Using an individual-sized, differently shaped baking dish adds dimension and a sense of customization. It's the same cost for the client, but it looks like an expensive, gourmet dessert.”

BLUE PLATE CATERING, CHICAGO

PENNYWISE PLATES: “Using seasonal ingredients is still one of the best ways to deliver big taste on a small budget,” says sales producer Loren Johnson. To keep costs down during the winter months, Blue Plate incorporates hearty produce — winter squash, pumpkin, beets and pears — into many menu items, such as its spaghetti squash finished with parsley, pecans, shallots and Parmesan.

ANOTHER TIP: Make it yourself. “Overall, it is cheaper to make products such as stuffed pastas and Italian sausages,” Johnson says.

(CENTS)IBLE SERVICE: Pass on the tray-passed and get creative with food stations, advises Johnson, who serves winter soups such as pumpkin and fennel soup shooters and seasonal house-made pastas such as roasted butternut squash ravioli with sage brown butter sauce station-style.

PRESENTATION SENSATION: Spoon it up. “We do miniature versions of our house-made stuffed pastas served on individual tasting spoons either passed or at food stations,” Johnson says. Using fresh herbs and such seasonal favorites as cranberry compote or pomegranate seeds as garnishes adds color and taste.

CREATIVE VISIONS MENU

BY MITCHELL'S CATERING & EVENTS

A SELECTION OF PASSED HORS D' OEUVRE

Velvet Lobster Soup Sips topped with Cognac Crème Fraiche and Chives

Blackberry Barbecued Duck Ruffles with Fresh Blackberries

Warm Roquefort and Walnut Tarts topped with Pear Salsa

Beef Carpaccio and Arugula Bites with Minted Mustard

Cheddar-Scallion Biscuit with Roast Chicken and Lemon-Thyme Aioli

ACTION HORS D'OEUVRE STATIONS, SMALL-PLATE STYLE

“Blowtorch” Salmon

Fresh Wild Salmon “Blowtorch”-seared and topped with Fried Capers, Frisee and Lemon Vinaigrette

Uptown Barbecue

Eastern-style North Carolina Pork Barbecue on a Roasted Corn Cake, Topped with Creamy Coleslaw and finished with a Drizzle of Western North Carolina-style Sauce

Boats of Crab, Shrimp and Sausage Gumbo served over Creamy Vidalia Onion Cheese Grits

PASSED DESSERTS

Assorted Cheesecake Lollipops

Petite Pistachio and Raspberry Opera Bars

RESOURCES

BLUE PLATE CATERING

312/421-6666
www.blueplatechicago.com

MITCHELL'S CATERING & EVENTS

919-847-0135
www.mitchellscatering.com

PUFF 'N STUFF CATERING & EVENTS

407/478-2733
www.puffnstuff.com

COMFORT WITH A TWIST MENU

BY PUFF'N STUFF CATERING & EVENTS

Tomato Bisque Shooter with a Chive Stir Stick accompanied by a Spicy Jack and Havarti Grilled Cheese Wedge

Braised Short Rib Action Station with Dijon Mashed Potatoes and Frizzled Leeks

S'mores Indoors Station with Three types of Chocolate — Milk, White and Dark

CITY SPICE MENU

BY BLUE PLATE CATERING

Uniformed chefs serve the these dishes station-style from oversize copper pots

Green Mole Braised Pork with Fava Beans, Purslane Micro Greens, Queso Fresco and Chicharron garnished with Corn Tortilla Strips

Baby Vindaloo Lamb Chops

Truffle-scented Potato and Portabello Gratin

Farro Salad with Asparagus, Oven-dried Tomatoes, Lemon Oil and Thyme

Fall Panzanella with Poached Sunchokes, Brioche and Sage with Sherry Vinaigrette