Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fall wedding cocktail party stations

Turkey with cranberry sauce and a candle and ribs
Thanksgiving dinner and ribs offered at wedding cocktail stations
By guest blogger Sharon Naylor

This is the first in a multi-part series by Sharon Naylor on fall wedding topics. 

One of the most attractive things about a fall wedding isn’t just the gorgeous look of the changing leaves outside -- it’s the menu. Think about the foods that say fall to you -- steamy, creamy lobster bisque, carved turkey with cranberry sauce and yummy stuffing, acorn squash soup and ballpark knishes -- and those same dishes are finding their way onto wedding menus.

That’s right, for many fall weddings, a new trend in catering is selecting foods that the couple has always adored at the Thanksgiving table and at football games.

Don’t panic! I’m not suggesting that you create a football-themed wedding with a stadium menu -- I just wanted you to start salivating a little bit over the two biggest trends in autumn wedding cocktail party stations: football party fare and Thanksgiving tastes. Those are just two of the biggies when it comes to scrumptious cocktail party stations, and I’ve listed a bunch more for you here!

How many stations should you plan? For the pre-dinner cocktail party, your guests will love having a nice variety to choose from. So aim for six to eight different food stations. If you’ll have a cocktail party only, without the sit-down dinner, aim for 10 to 12 different stations, and don’t forget that inexpensive pasta, salad and noodle-based stations keep costs manageable.

Here’s a little secret when it comes to planning your dream wedding for less money: When you include unique twists (check out my tradition-tweaking book "Your Wedding, Your Way: Break with Tradition and Create a One-of-a-Kind Celebration You'll Never Forget!") on menu items, even the least expensive ones, it looks like you spent more! Guests love it when you give them a creative twist on foods that they don’t get very often and don’t make for themselves. So everyone will think you spent serious coin on your ultra-affordable and oh-so-tasty autumn menu!

Okay, let’s get started on the list of fabulous fall cocktail party stations:

The Potato Bar: You’ve seen the mashed potato bar at so many weddings, and as wonderful as a creamy scoop of mashed potatoes served in an elegant martini glass can be, fall means you get to do the same thing -- but with sweet potatoes. So line up those amazing toppings: shredded cheese, mushroom sauce, creamy lobster sauce, bacon bits and sour cream for this new twist on the mashed classic. Some more twists on the potato bar: sweet potato French fries dusted with Old Bay seasoning or garlic salt; pierogies filled with plain mashed potato, spinach and potato, or cheese and potato; and knishes.

The Soup Bar: Guests love the fall flavors of hearty, creamy soups. At this station, the attendant ladles a shot of soup into tiny cups for just a taste of those filling creations. Some fabulous flavors of soup to serve: lobster bisque, crab and corn bisque, shrimp bisque, leek and potato soup, acorn squash soup, creamy broccoli soup and New England clam chowder. Add a buffet of different types of oyster crackers and your guests will love these soup sippers -- no spoons required.

The Pasta Bar: Pasta is one of the most inexpensive menu items, and guests love it when you offer them something different than the pastas and sauces they make for dinner every week. So offer a trio of unique pasta shapes like orecchiette, gnocchi, ditalini, and of course mini ravioli. Choose lobster-stuffed or pumpkin-filled ravioli, or a fabulous goat cheese and basil-filled ravioli as a treat and also as a replacement for a pasta course during the meal. Sauces are next: vodka sauce is a crowd favorite, as is a creamy white sauce (not Alfredo, though. It’s too filling!), a meat sauce with ground turkey or beef, and fall veggie-packed sauce. Fresh Romano or Parmesan cheese grated over each dish makes it gourmet!

The Mac ‘n Cheese Bar: Comfort food gets a kick with this favorite food station. Have your caterer serve up small cups of curly pasta like rotini, mini shells, or bow tie pasta for your formal wedding. Then, instead of regular cheddar, gourmet it up with a blend of three cheeses, or a spicy Jack cheese, indulgent Brie, Muenster or other creamy fabulousness. You can set out toppers like more cheese or bacon, but I’d keep those crunchy bits on the side, since some people don’t like texture in their mac ‘n cheese.

The Risotto Bar: Risotto is one of those stations that guests go wild over since it’s such a challenge to cook it just right at home. Go fall gourmet with yours by blending in mushrooms, onions, gorgonzola cheese, asiago cheese, prosciutto or even creamy seafood bisque.

The Salad Bar: Keep it fresh with fabulous, crisp fall greens in dark leafy salads with lots of chopped fresh veggies including root veggies like turnips and beets for that awesome autumn flavor, and serve with an array of crowd-happy dressings including a fall fabulous pomegranate vinaigrette.

The Asian Bar: Noodle dishes are also ultra-inexpensive, and an attendant can wok up fresh batches of crispy noodles or Pad Thai. A big fall wedding trend is autumn-flavored sushi -- and two of my favorites are pumpkin sushi with a kick of hot spice, as well as sweet potato sushi with a little crunch inside. Mix those choices in with your standard California roll and your guests will be thrilled with the fantastic fall flavors and all of that Vitamin A!

The Mediterranean Bar: Hummus of all kinds -- red pepper, artichoke, garlic, classic -- along with fresh pita squares and grilled vegetables.

The Panini Bar: The attendant makes custom sandwiches on your guests’ choices of breads -- wheat, rye, pumpernickel, and more -- and closes them into the Panini press. Think about fabulous fall tastes like ham and Gruyere cheese, roast beef and asiago cheese with horseradish mayo, classic Reuben sandwich and guests’ own creations from the spread of meats, veggies and cheeses. With a full- or half-sour pickle on the side.

The Crepe Station: Not a dessert crepe -- this one is for creamy seafood mixes, or boeuf bourguignon ladled onto a freshly made crepe, and folded in to make a gourmet crepe appetizer plate.

The Carving Station: Carving stations are often the first thing to be cut if you’re on a budget, but if your party will be an all-cocktail-party without a sit-down dinner, it’s advisable to keep this one. Guests will love their slice of prime rib of beef au jus, and add fall flavors such as honeyed ham, stuffed pork or turkey breast with gravy.

The Thanksgiving ‘Table’: You might wish to save that perfect, juicy turkey breast carver for this table instead, arranging this station to serve “Thanksgiving bites on a plate:” a few slices of turkey breast, a melon baller scoop of mashed potatoes with gravy, a tiny square bite of stuffing and a dollop of jewel-red cranberry sauce. Some caterers are going even smaller, serving Thanksgiving on a spoon with all of these iconic tastes layered on a ceramic appetizer spoon.

The Tailgate Party Collection: This station can be part of your reception, or it can be your after-party cocktail station. Some couples whose weddings are located at banquet halls with both indoor and outdoor mingling areas like to place this station outside, by the outdoor bar, to give it extra authenticity. Some dishes to include: sliders of every type -- cheeseburgers, mushroom and cheese burgers, hot dogs with traditional toppings, those pigs-in-a-blanket baked up fresh by your caterer and served with unique dipping sauces (chili, onion dip, horseradish honey mustard, garlic mustard), short ribs, chicken wings in teriyaki sauce instead of barbecue sauce, grilled portabella mushrooms, sausage peppers and onions and more. 

Sharon Naylor is the author of "1001 Ways to Save Money and Still Have a Dazzling Wedding” as well as over 35 additional wedding planning books for brides, bridesmaids and the moms.

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