-Photographs by Dennis Wise | Styled by Theresa Crim-
Sure, this is the portion of the party that's typically all about apps anyway; so why not serve up something a little unexpected? Kurt Beadell, creative director for Vibrant Table Catering & Events, suggests mixing in uncommon meats like rabbit confit on brioche with sweet mama chiles, and blini with smoked duck, cherries, and creme fraiche), or adding flair to old favorites, like panko calamari, fried lemons, and aioli or tater tots with smokey-spicy ketchup. Regardless, keep in mind that mosts guests will also be holding a drink, so one- or two-bite items are best, Beadell says. He recommends large grazing stations for easy access—which also means fewer plates for you to rent.
Crisping is the new "pickle it." Beadell is a fan of duck rillettes on beet chips with dried apricots.
SPICE OF LIFE
We're talking about variety, of course. Culinary Artistry chef Jenn Louis recommends picking at least three distinct options: meat, seafood, and fresh vegetable or fruit. "Think common enough that people know what it is," Louis says, "but with a fun flavor or twist that makes the bite extraordinary." She loves rich ricotta fritters with sage and lemon, and crisp fried-chicken bites topped with togarashi-spiked Alabama white BBQ sauce.
DRINK IT UP
When the cuisine is unique (deconstructed crab pho in a cup, anyone?), the cocktails should be just as creative. Try Louis's local flavor-infused Oregon Raspberry Jammer with vodka, lemon, and beet juice, or a latest-craze boozy punch.
At weddings, food should facilitate conviviality, says Courtney Sproule, owner of Din Din Catering. For that reason she's fond of dinners that marry picnic side dishes and passed proteins. "If the table is set with platters of room-temperature vegetable and grain salads before guests are seated, your caterer can spend time making them look as beautiful as possible without having to hire a ton of help," Sproule says. "Guests can immediately start eating, and then servers pass a couple of hot, show-stopping entrees that are an ode to the specialness of the occasion." Her Francophile dishes—like brandied heirloom tomato and bergamot zucchini ribbons, lentils du Puy in Dijon vinaigrette with Bleu D'Auvergne, leg of Reister Farms lamb with Jimmy Nardello pepper sauce, and salmon a blanc with sorrel salsa verde—will certainly give loved ones something to chat about.
Fun and flavorful Spanish cuisine is a small-plates no-brainer. Scott Ketterman, owner of Crown Paella, recommends having six or seven tapas (e.g., Spanish octopus tosta, Dungeness crab croquetas, manchego tarta, Andalusian gazpacho shots, figs wrapped with jamón serrano, and grilled hanger steak skewers) waiting for guests to descend on whenever they're ready. Then use a high sideboard to present a couple of fresh salads and a pair or hearty paellas (one vegetarian), and let guests serve themselves straight from the pan.
Whether passed by servers or creatively displayed on tables for grabbing and getting right back on the dance floor, tiny treats make a sweet meal closer. "Offering an assortment means even the choosiest guests will find something they'll love," says Amy Feehan, event planner for Reedville Catering (see her menu ideas below). Share your personal favorites, or link them to the theme or season, like pumpkin and apple handpies for a fall feast, or ice cream sundaes in bamboo cones for a summer soiree.
EAT THESE WORDS
-Petite caramel apples with Belgian chocolate and filberts
-Whoopie pies with peanut butter cream and strawberries
-Fresh waffle cones with chocolate mousse and raspberries
-Deconstructed apple pie with bourbon caramel in a shot glass
-Lavender cheesecake squares with blueberry compote
"We're seeing interest in passed dessert cocktails with corresponding bites, like a crème brûlée martini and chocolate caramel." —Amy Feehan
TAKE THE CAKE
It's the tasty trend in no danger of abating: couples opting for a charming little cutting cake surrounded by a sea of delectable bucky cakes (cupcakes with pointy dots of frosting), says Juli Bailey, manager of Palace Cakes, the sister bakery to cookie-centric Two Tarts. Are you guys cuckoo for coconut, but not sure your crew will concur? This way you can slice into your favorite flavor while also offering other crowd-pleasing (and no-fork required fare), like Palace's "enriched uranium," a classic yellow cake with malted chocolate buttercream.
Let your guests get in on the action—we're fans of dessert bars for shaved ice with fresh juices, s'mores with specialty chocolate, or doughnut holes and an array of dipping sauces.
Make guests feel warm and a little less fuzzy (let's face it—most folks have had a bit to drink as midnight approaches) with a second round of good eats, says Chloe Fennell, co-owner of Eat Your Heart Out Catering and Culinary Events (her menu leads below). She advises giving revelers a hint about what's to come: top an empty table with a cute sign that says "Wait for It, Wait for It..." or "TBA. Love Snacks."
EAT THESE WORDS
-Gourmet popcorn bar: brown butter sage, mac and cheese, caramel bacon
-Spiced nuts: curried cashews, rosemary hazelnuts, caramelized black pepper pecans
-Classic junk food: mini corn dogs, sliders, pizza rollups
-Heirloom tomato soup in espresso cups with grilled cheese bites
-Root beer-float shooters
POP IT LIKE IT'S HOT
A snack need not be fancy, but it should still have style and, after all that drinking and dancing, be filling, says Charles Stilwell, owner of Devil's Food Catering. You can also make it part of the entertainment. Stilwell recommends a ramen shack—staff it with a chef to prepare each steamy bowl to order, and serve with kimchi crepes and avocado smoothie shooters. Prefer tacos? Stilwell suggests chef-assembled options plus plates of chile-roasted-vegetable and cheese empanadas and mini churros with rich chocolate sauce.
Breakfast for second-dinner is always a delight. Top biscuits with fried chicken and pickles or scrambled eggs and bacon, says Stilwell. We also like plates of fancy hash browns, artisan sausages, fruit skewers, and yogurt parfaits.