Tuesday, May 18, 2010

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A Positive Reception

Sophisticated and Fun Menus for Couples Tying the Knot


Back when your parents or grandparents tied the knot, they probably left most of the decisions about the menu to the caterer. They chose chicken, beef, or fish for the entrée, added a few appetizers, and let the multi-tiered cake become the showstopper. Guests left with small slices of cake to put under their pillows.

Fast forward to 2010 when savvy, well-traveled couples plan every part of the menu, from the signature cocktail to the dessert buffet. There’s barely room for a traditional cake anymore, except as a prop for a cutting ceremony. No longer is choosing the food a job just for the bride. Most couples come in together to discuss and taste the options, throwing in ideas from cooking shows and trendy restaurants where they have dined. The result is a reception menu that is equal parts sophistication and fun, say caterers around Wellesley and Weston.

Food has become a top priority, says wedding planner Kristen Weiss of I Thee Wed, LLC in Wellesley. “When I ask what’s important to couples, 90 percent are trying to wow guests with the food. They are trying to customize the menu to reflect their style, and what they’ve done together.”

Caterer Susan Lane of Susan A. Lane Events has also observed that couples want to personalize the menu, especially if they have traveled together. One pair wanted a ceviche bar; another wanted all Asian food. “When I started 20 years ago, people wanted plainer, New England fare. Now, people are a lot more excited about food and want exotic menus,” says Lane, who for many years owned The Open Kitchen in Weston.

Blue Ginger’s reputation for cutting-edge food brings couples in for their wedding receptions. The restaurant’s private dining room can seat up to 80. “People who choose Blue Ginger are really foodies, and they want their friends to enjoy a great meal,” says owner Ming Tsai. Many are frequent diners at Blue Ginger or fans of his Simply Ming cooking show.

The recession has not prevented people from getting married, but it has changed the format of some of the receptions. Formal, sit-down dinners have become less popular than free-flowing parties with many different passed courses or stations with a beautifully-arranged assortment of foods. At Blue Ginger, many people opt for cocktail receptions. “It’s more fun because people are not stuck at an eight-top with people they don’t know,” says Tsai. While a bartender makes cocktails to order, the staff passes an assortment of hors d’oeuvres that come right from the restaurant’s banquet kitchen. “We’re bringing food out screeching hot, and it works well because dishes like crispy [shiitake-leek] spring rolls we can’t put in a chafing dish,” he says.

Holly James, co-owner of Off the Vine Catering in Boston, says that small tasting plates and tapas continue to grow in popularity, as do interactive food stations like Off the Vine’s Brazilian churrasco carving station and Japanese sushi station.

Season to Taste, an eco-friendly catering company in Cambridge, plans many appetizer receptions. The food is typically passed in three different courses, starting with light, vegetable-based dishes, such as roast pumpkin soup in an espresso cup or crisp flatbread topped with seared halloumi cheese, grilled pears, and honeyed almonds. The second course might move on to grilled Alsatian tart with caramelized onions and bacon and free-range organic deviled eggs with locally-made pickles. The evening ends with what chef-owner Robert Harris calls “sweet petits,” two-bite desserts, such as Taza dark chocolate tart in a chocolate crust, topped with salty peanut brittle or apple, lavender, and local cheese tartlet.

Even when a couple starts with a “refined, elegant” dinner, they might end the evening with “a fun spin on food,” says Weiss. Late night is when popcorn, cotton candy, and mini-grilled cheese sandwiches come out. So do mini-ice cream bars. Off the Vine’s “Sliders Under Construction” make a great midnight snack with guests creating their own miniature hamburgers.


Stephen Barck, chef and owner of Tables of Content in Boston, says that offering signature cocktails such as flavored martinis is a current trend and its popularity seems to be growing as distillers continue to create new flavored vodkas including fig, pomegranate, ginger, and pear. “I honestly can’t remember a wedding recently that has not had some flavored martini featured at the reception,” says Barck.

James adds that classic cocktails are making a comeback. “The emphasis is on quality beer, wine, and spirits,” she says. “Old favorites like martinis, Manhattans, and gin and tonics are back in style.”

When planning a reception, most caterers start with sample menus, then customize according to the couple’s preferences. For a couple who loved the ocean as well as anything from a local organic garden, Lane and her staff last summer came up with a menu that incorporated seafood as well as seasonal organic produce. They decided to showcase many of the tomato varieties grown at Verrill Farm in Concord, along with some New England artisanal cheeses. “It was magnificent looking when all put together and the guests loved it,” says Lane.

Since the groom’s favorite vegetable was beets, she also made a salad with roasted red and yellow beets. The chef drove to Maine to get the blueberries for the dessert: individual blueberry-lemon cakes in a silver foil cup with lemon chiffon icing, topped with a single sugar violet.

Another couple who worked with Lane last summer wanted a mostly vegetarian menu with an international slant to reflect their extensive travels. The theme at the stationary appetizer station was Mediterranean tapas, including falafel and stuffed grape leaves. For an entrée, Lane served grilled extra-firm tofu rubbed with Asian spices and topped with a hoisin-brandy glaze. Non-vegetarians could order Chilean sea bass prepared in a similar way.

The public’s growing interest in sustainable farming has led many couples to request locally-grown produce. Some even specify that food come from particular farms, such as Land’s Sake or Natick Community Organic Farm. Season to Taste Catering specializes in seasonal cooking. Ten years ago, Harris says, the trend was for couples to hire celebrity chefs to cater their weddings. “Now, people want to know where their food comes from,” he says.

Along with serving New England ingredients whenever possible, Season to Taste recycles or composts most of the trash from each reception. Harris and his staff plan each menu according to what’s in season, avoiding summery tomatoes, corn, and fresh berries in the middle of the winter. Since he also works directly with suppliers who raise their own meat, he often puts together menus that use many different parts of the animal. For beef, he might make braised beef short ribs for one course and grilled tenderloin for another.

Barck says that the interest in sustainability forced him to change the way his company does business, and in 2009 Tables of Content became the state’s first “Certified Green” catering company by the Green Restaurant Association. In addition to the recycling, composting, and purchase of local sustainable products, the company has implemented many energy-conserving programs including water faucet aerators, energy-efficient lighting, reduction of refrigeration compressors, and the elimination of Styrofoam as a packaging material, to name just a few. “The eco-conscious couple wants to align themselves with a socially responsible company,” says Barck.

Above all, fun seems to be the recurrent theme in today’s weddings. Tsai, for one, does not miss the formality. “Weddings used to be 100 percent about the bride and the groom, and the most important thing was for them to be pleased. People are not trying to impress each other with $700 flower arrangements anymore. Now, everyone needs to have a great time. It’s all about great food, great service in a nice atmosphere, and getting the families together.”




© 2010 Elm Bank Media | Beth Furman, Publisher | Beth@ElmBankMedia.com