DIPPED AND WRAPPED

It's not a party without chips and dip! “We have found great success with our dipping stations,” says catering chef Randy Spriggs of the Kimpton Hotel Allegro in Chicago. Featuring a selection of house-made tapenades, dips, relishes and spreads accompanied by brioche, pita chips and potato crisps, the stations not only have mass appeal but also are good options for vegetarian or vegan clients, he says. Fresh, local produce bought from farmer's markets inspires many of the savory sauces and relishes. “The sauces really complement and boost the flavor of our appetizers,” Spriggs says, citing the seared ahi tuna with pickled green bean salad and olive tapenade on potato crisps with cherry tomato jam as an example.

For meatier hors d'oeuvre options, Spriggs sums it up in one delicious word: bacon. “Bacon can be used for just about everything,” he says. “Bacon-wrapped dates and other dried fruits with imported cheeses are all the rage. The mix of savory, salty and sweet is the perfect combination.”

LIGHT AND SPICY

With spring temperatures often reaching the 100s, Las Vegas is — literally and figuratively — a hot spot for special events. “As caterers, we need to be mindful of what kind of foods we suggest to clients having events outdoors this time of year,” says Michele Polci, CPCE, CMP, director of catering sales for Caesars Entertainment. “We need to have a variety of food options that can survive in these hot conditions.”

Fried finger foods, she says, are an easy option, because they not only have great consumer appeal but also hold and present well. However, they can be heavy, especially on triple-digit days. “We have to modify our cooking styles of these items in the warmer months,” Polci says. Staples such as chicken fingers with ranch dressing are revamped as baked parmesan chicken strips with mango, papaya and cilantro chutney, while deep-fried coconut shrimp with marmalade becomes grilled prawns on sugar cane with a blood orange reduction.

In terms of cold canapés, Polci suggests replacing the traditional toasted bread or brioche base with some kind of fresh vegetable. “Taking fruits and vegetables, adding fresh herbs or nuts, and then presenting them in innovative ways that look and taste spectacular may be a basic concept,” she says, “but it works.” Some warm-weather favorites include grilled zucchini ovals topped with a Boursin cheese and pistachio crumble, and roasted beet and honey-goat cheese Napoleons topped with micro greens and a balsamic reduction.

There's a reason why places with warmer climates are known for spicy fare (think India, Mexico, Thailand) — heat helps cool the body. At Polci's Las Vegas properties, warmer months mean spiced-up carving and action stations featuring dishes such as paprika- and cumin-spiced flank steak with green chile polenta and jicama orange mint salad, and crab cakes served with sriracha cream, watermelon and basil. When it comes to serving spicy foods, “the use of clean, bold flavors is the key,” Polci says.

COOL AND CANDIED

In a city known for subzero winter temperatures, it's no surprise that Peninsula Chicago director of catering Gregory Hyder knows a thing or two about freezing — freezing food, that is. “For spring and summer months, we're doing frozen stations where we use a small, tabletop, subzero frozen surface to make frozen lollipops,” he explains. Traditional chilled soups, such as English pea and mint or green heirloom tomato, are transformed into mini savory popsicles. “They're perfect for spring appetizer menus, are fun to eat, and there's an interactive component of the whole process that's lots of fun.”

And if pairing popsicles with cocktails isn't cool enough, why not throw some cotton candy into the mix?

“A great twist that really surprises people is to top off a savory hors d'oeuvre item with flavored cotton candy,” says Hyder, whose brioche with seared foie gras topped with a poof of salted caramel cotton candy leaves no doubt. “It's a definite ‘wow’ dish that gets people talking.”

On the more traditional end, salad stations — featuring “small bite” salads composed of grilled and chilled items served in mini pastry cups — are appetizer mainstays. “Guests love the freshness and variety,” says Hyder, who favors Peking duck salad with tangerines and peanut-sesame dressing for spring and summer.

PLEASE, EAT THE DAISIES!

What says spring better than bright, colorful flowers? Edible blooms add pop to both the plate and palate. Here, chef Sonny Sweetman of the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles shares some favorite spring dishes along with suggestions for flavorful floral embellishments.

The Dish: Natural Raised Veal Loin Chop with Lardo di Colonnata, Black Garlic, Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Parsnips
Floral Accent: Rosemary flowers

The Dish: Sashimi-grade Blue Fin “Toro” Tartar with Cucumber and Salmon Pearls
Floral Accent: Arugula and cucumber blossoms

The Dish: French Langostines and Maine Diver Scallop with Tokyo Turnips, Seaweed Emulsion, Daikon, Baby Carrot and Kohlrabi-Orange Puree
Floral Accent: Borage flowers (see photo page 41)

The Dish: Young Garlic Soup with Fingerling Potatoes, Spring Onions and Chive Oil
Floral Accent: Society garlic and chive blossoms

RESOURCES

CAESARS ENTERTAINMENT
www.caesars.com

HOTEL BEL-AIR
www.hotelbelair.com

KIMPTON'S HOTEL ALLEGRO
www.allegrochicago.com

THE PENINSULA CHICAGO
www.peninsula.com/Chicago