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WHAT'S ON THE MENU?

Latest Trends in Reception Dinner Planning

by Armand Dean Poisson

Whether you're planning to utilize the menu and kitchen of your reception location, hire a caterer to provide the fare at your selected venue, or have a do-it-yourself reception with the food and beverage selections provided by yourselves or your family and/or friends, the final decisions for your menu and libations are your responsibility and a major part of your wedding planning.

Three things are generally happening in this area:

1. Steering away from the norm to individualize your presentation;
2. Taking advantage of seasonal, local produce;
3. A step toward elegance, most times coupled with ethnic tradition.

Couples are trying to steer away from the obvious in menu choices, in other words, the standard fare for a geographic location. For instance, in the greater Rhode Island area (as as well as most of the rest of southern New England) we tend to go with an family-style Italian-based dinner:

  • Soup and/or Salad family style
  • Pasta family style
  • Chicken with Potato and Vegetable individual dinners
  • Bread and condiments on the table
  • Dessert, most often Wedding Cake/Ice Cream on the side
  • Red and White house wines and water pitchers on the table
  • Open or Cash Bar, self-service and/or wait service

This is, of course, a perfectly acceptable menu and a charmingly traditional one at that (not to mention an economical one as well). However, if you asked a Rhode Islander how many times they've had that same dinner at a wedding reception or other gathering they'd answer "almost every time." (And we're not just picking on southern New England. For example, almost three-quarters - %75! - of all Texas weddings offer a BBQ (barbecue) menu at their
receptions.)

The result is boredom and predictability, two things you certainly don't want associated with your wedding.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

The first step to adding some flair to your menu is to "personalize" at least one of your choices. Some examples:

VARY ONE COURSE
Choose one course you're bored with and try something exciting. For instance, a Caesar or mixed greens salad instead of the regular tossed salad (iceberg, tomato, cucumber); French Onion soup instead of minestrone or another chicken-based soup; Cornish game hens instead of half a chicken; a fresh whipped-cream wedding cake eliminating the need for an accompanying block of harlequin ice cream.

ADD ETHNIC FLAIR
For one or more of your courses, select items which reflect the ethnic heritage and traditions of one or both of your families. Good examples recently glimpsed have been Greek stuffed grape leaves or Polish-style cabbage rolls replacing both the salad and pasta courses; Escarole as a vegetable side; Rice Pilaf as a starch side; Lamb or Veal Parmesan as the main course; and an Irish (or New England) boiled dinner (Corned Beef or Ham with potatos, onions and carrots) served family style. All of these choices are unusual for wedding fare, but certainly not far out as common fare. The addition of an item like these will lend a unique and personalized flair to your reception and stand out in your guests' memory as a welcome, if different, offering.

LOCAL/SEASONAL ITEMS
The trend toward offering locally produced, seasonal fare is probably the strongest throughout the country. As this publication originates in southern New England, we'll use the New England Clam Bake as an example. This menu has something for everyone and is basically, except for the dessert course, an entire meal in itself covering all the courses. The components, in season, are truly affordable and can be a lot of fun. Lobster is often seen as an unobtainable main course. In season, however, small to medium lobsters are definitely affordable in southern New England, especially culls (or lobsters missing a claw). And when combined with all of the other fare, a small lobster would be more than enough: clams, a sausage selection (perhaps locally made chorizo, chourico/linguica, kielbasa, hot dogs, Italian sausage, etc.), potatos, corn on the cob, onions, etc.).

Even if you're only looking to customize one course, check around for some of the options available in your area: early Spring equals Asparagus; Fall means apples, especially in southern New England; when is deer season - venison is now considered highly elegant and desirable as a main course and truly affordable in season; summer means tomatos and corn, and lots of it! Don't try for a strawberry dessert in mid-winter, go for cranberries! A raw bar when the items are in season and/or at their most plenitful (oysters, clams, shrimp, sometimes even scallops) is a truly affordable and different approach to the standard cheese and crackers offering during cocktail hour. Squash or pumpkin sides during the fall lend a festive air to any meal.

ISN'T THAT ELEGANT!

The latest trend is the inclusion of a "gourmet" component at some point in the dinner. Now don't go skipping to the next paragraph! Adding a touch of real elegance to your menu is easier and more affordable than ever, especially with the help of a caterer or other professional.

Caviar has become the must-have item on your menu. It is no longer the unaffordable, mysterious, unobtainable food item it was once considered. For one thing, one must realize that a fish egg is just that, a fish egg! All fish produce "caviar". It has come about that we've finally come to the conclusion that caviar doesn't have to come from a rare, possibly endangered, species to produce tasty and desirable caviar. There are many, many options (many from local fisheries) when deciding to include caviar in your plans. Just look at your local grocer's shelves; we bet you'll be surprised to find a nice, affordable ($3-$15) selection of caviars tucked away in the "gourmet" section. Especially to the uninitiated, caviar can be a most welcome surprise and a great, new experience. Some ways to introduce it to your guests would be the standard dip/scoop presentation: iced platter or bowl of caviar, toast points and/or crackers, sour cream as a garnish; deviled eggs with a caviar garnish; or a champagne and caviar sauce over fish, veal or game. Let's face it, cheap sparkling wine and $3 lumpfish will make a perfectly acceptable sauce when served as an accompaniment making it more than afforadable! The more expensive caviars are also affordable when one considers that a little goes a long way. One small to medium sized presentation on an appetizer table would give all of your guests a taste or two of this delectable treat.

The same goes for other delicacies such as prosciutto ham and imported provolone, or smoked fishes, or pates: a little goes a long way and everyone can have a real treat for just a little more than your standard onion dip with raw vegetables platter! Attend an upscale brunch in your area for ideas. Then you can talk to your caterer about making a presentation, downscaling or downsizing if desired or necessary.

SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS

Even using a somewhat different approach to menu planning does not preclude pleasing and accomodating those of your guests with either special needs like low sodium, -fat, or -cholesterol content, vegetarians, or those with a limited sense of adventure. Your chef, your caterer or you and your families can still use flair to provide exciting choices for these guests. Include the standard items, just make additions. Let's say you're serving Cajun items. A great, different approach would be pitchers of ice cold draft beer on the table! However, make sure the standard, house table wine(s) and plenty of ice water or seltzer are available to those who don't like beer or do not drink alcoholic beverages. For a Tex-Mex appetizer, re-fried beans with sausage nachos are terrific. Simply have every third platter outfitted with plain bean and/or bean and cheese nachos for the vegetarian or low-fat diet guests. Use your imagination and the expertise of those assisting you.

The sky's the limit these days. With even a limited budget, any meal can be customized or accessorized to reflect your personal tastes and to give your guests a little bit of the unusual with flair and panache.


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