Menu Planning

Anyone can host a dinner, but not everyone knows how to host a great dinner. The following are a few things to consider when planning a dinner party menu:

  • Menu theme: Whether it is a special occasion—a holiday, a birthday, or a sporting event—or a culinary theme—regional or global cuisine—having a theme or focus will help you plan your menu more easily.
  • Full menu: A full menu typically includes an appetizer, a first course, such as a salad or soup, an entrée with sides and dessert. A formal meal involves every course being served to each person at the table. A more casual meal is served family-style, that is, dishes are placed on the table and passed around and everyone serves themselves.
  • Food allergies: Know if your guests have any food allergies so that you eliminate those items from the menu. Typically, this is common knowledge among close family and friends, but it would be more difficult to know with larger groups. Just understanding that food allergies are more common than not, will help ease the surprise should a guest say that they are allergic to foods that you are serving. Nuts and shellfish are common allergies.
  • Food preferences: This is a little harder to accommodate and is not necessarily the responsibility of the host to try to meet every person’s diet requirements. Again, you typically know that a close friend is a vegetarian or doesn’t eat pork so, that is easy to plan for. If your meal is balanced and plentiful, a guest can simply have a larger portion of other items if there is something on your menu that is not part of their diet.
  • Staple items: It's easier to accommodate guest preferences if you have choices available for standard items such as soft drinks, wine, alcohol, coffee and tea. Keep in mind that if you are not a coffee drinker, your guests likely are. Since it is a typical beverage to drink after a meal, it is a good idea to keep coffee on hand.

Now let’s review ideas on what to serve and how to make each part of the menu special.

Appetizers

Appetizers are served once guests arrive and are having a beverage. This allows guests to get to know each other or, in the case of family and friends, talk about the latest happenings. It also allows time to finish preparing the entrée and allows for guests arriving late. Great appetizers can be easy to assemble with the amount of high-quality food items available in retail markets. The following are a few suggestions to consider:

Cheese platter: Arrange a variety of cheese and fruit on a platter or wooden cutting board with crackers and flatbreads. Vary the color and type of cheeses, such as yellow Wisconsin aged cheddar, white French brie cheese, and an English blue cheese. Fresh fruit, such as grapes and sliced strawberries, and other specialty items such as quince paste, Marconi almonds, and olives make a nice presentation.

Charcuterie platter: Serving an array of cured meats, such as salami, prosciutto, and soppressata, along with pâté, is a very popular offering. A wooden cutting board or a silver tray can be used. Serve the meats with rye and other dark breads and with whole grain mustard and cornichons in small bowls.

Hot appetizers: Many premium hot appetizers, such as stuffed mushrooms, quiche tartlets, and mini beef wellingtons, can be found in the freezer section at most grocery stores. Certified Steak and offers premium breaded shrimp and crab cakes which also make excellent hot appetizers.

Cold seafood: Serve cooked shrimp in a bowl over shaved iced with cocktail sauce and lemon slices. Premium cooked shrimp is available from Certified Steak and Seafood.

Flatbread pizza or bruschetta: Take pizza to another level by using flatbread as a base and topping it with premium ingredients. Roasted vegetables and unique cheeses, such as goat or smoked Gouda cheese, are just some of the unique ingredients that you can use. Serve traditional bruschetta—chopped tomato and basil with olive oil and mozzarella cheese on toasted Italian bread—or new toppings, such as olive tapenade or a sundried tomato spread.

Chips and dips: Make this easy appetizer a gourmet offering by serving roasted red pepper hummus with pita chips or a fruit salsa with vegetable chips.

Vegetables: For a healthy offering, serve raw vegetables, such as carrots, celery and cauliflower, in an unusual container, such as a glass flower pot, with an herb cream dipping sauce or a garlic aioli.

Grilled kebobs: Grill vegetables, such as zucchini, onion and red pepper, or proteins like steak, shrimp and chicken on wooden skewers. Serve them with dipping sauces such as sweet chili, peanut, or honey mustard.

Beverages: Start your dinner theme with a special cocktail, wine, or beer. For instance, with Latin inspired appetizers, such as beef kebobs with chimichurra sauce, serve a rum based mojito. With shrimp cocktail, serve champagne, Prosecco or white wine.

First Course

For a formal dinner party, you should plate and serve each course to your guests. Typically the first course is a soup or salad.

Salads: Build a gourmet salad using unique greens such as baby spinach, arugula, or mixed greens. Use premium ingredients, such as cherry tomatoes, zucchini curls, Portobello mushrooms, and julienne carrots. Make your own vinaigrette dressing using olive oil and balsamic or red wine vinegar. There are also many premium dressings found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Top off your salad with dried fruit, croutons, nuts or pepita seeds, and a flavorful cheese, such as an herb goat cheese or blue cheese crumbles.

Soups: A soup is a great first course choice for a winter meal. A light, broth based vegetable soup—such as celery, roasted tomato, or corn chowder—or a lighter, cream based soup—such as mushroom or lobster bisque—are easy to make from scratch. Fresh-made soups are available at grocery stores in the refrigerated deli section, as well.

Entrées

The main dish or entrée is the highlight of the meal. Protein selection is usually the first decision to make when meal planning, as all courses of the meal are planned around that. As mentioned earlier, consider guest food preferences before deciding on an entrée for your dinner.

Beef: Tender cuts of beef, such as filet mignon, rib eye, and strip steaks, are premium beef choices to serve to guests. Pair them with a peppercorn brandy or red wine reduction sauce and you have an easy-to-make entrée. They are also good choices to grill, particularly on an evening when the weather is conducive to being outdoors. You can purchase the highest quality beef from Certified Steak and Seafood’s website.

Pork: Lean pork tenderloin is a good choice to grill or bake. Make it special by stuffing it with dried fruit and cheese and serve it with a flavorful sauce. You can also slow roast a pork shoulder and then shred it for a Latin inspired meal.

Seafood: Unique seafood such as lobster tail, scallops, sea bass or swordfish are very nice options. You can even serve Surf and Turf by pairing lobster tail with filet mignon. Certified Steak and Seafood’s wide assortment of quality seafood provides you with many options.

Chicken: Chicken is a typical weeknight meal so, be sure to use a special recipe when serving it to guests. It is great to grill for a summer cookout.

Sides

As we learned in Lesson 1, every meal should include at least three of the food groups—protein, vegetables, and starch.

Vegetables: Add color, flavor and texture to the plate with vegetables. Don’t limit yourself to just one vegetable either. Serve them in two different formats—a carrot and sweet potato purée adds a warm orange hue and steamed broccoli brightens the plate with a green hue. Grilling or roasting vegetables is an easy side to make ahead of time. Steaming vegetables, such as carrots and broccoli, is something that can be done just before serving time.

Starches: Potatoes, grains, and pasta are considered starches. Baked Russet and sweet potatoes are easy side items that can be served topped with sour cream and chives. Sweet potatoes need only a little butter as a topping. Grains, such as brown or white rice, wild rice, couscous, or barley can be mixed with herbs, nuts and dried fruit to make a delicious side dish. It is always a good idea to serve these with a green vegetable, as well.

Beverages

Wine: Wine is generally served with the entrée, except at a barbecue or when serving a Mexican meal, where beer is usually served. As we discussed in Lessons 3 and 4, white wine pairs well with seafood, pork and chicken, while red wine is best to serve with beef and pasta dishes with red sauce. Sweet wines are served with dessert.

Other beverages: Some of your guests might like to drink water with dinner so, have a pitcher of chilled water on hand. Others might also like a soft drink with the meal. Be sure to have coffee ready to make to serve with dessert. After dinner drinks, such as brandy or Bailey’s Irish Cream, are also nice to offer guests.

Dessert

Conveniently, dessert is a course that can be prepared in advance. When choosing a dessert, consider the entire menu, keeping in mind that a lighter dessert is appropriate if the meal was a heavy one, such as steaks or pasta dishes. A simple dessert, such as seasonal fruit with an unusual ice cream flavor, works well after a heavy meal. The following are additional dessert ideas.

Cakes: Whether you bake a cake yourself, or purchase one, your guests will enjoy this classic dessert. Mini-cakes and cupcakes are always favorites, especially flavors such as chocolate and carrot cake. Strawberry, raspberry, or chocolate chip cheesecake is another classic dessert. Cheesecake and other desserts can be ordered from Certified Steak and Seafood’s website.

Brownies: Add gourmet appeal to brownies by serving them cut into different shapes—small circles and triangles—or top with flavored icing—orange or Kahlua cream cheese.

Parfaits and Trifles: Pudding makes a nice presentation when layered in a parfait glass with fruit. Make a classic trifle by layering fruit and rum soaked sponge cake with pudding in a large glass bowl.

Ice cream: Select premium brands and unique flavors of ice cream—such as chocolate cherry, coffee, or banana split, and serve with a warm topping—such as a hot fudge or salted caramel. A premium vanilla ice cream, topped with fresh fruit or warm fruit compote and a splash of liqueur, is an easy, flavorful dessert. Other options are flavored sorbet, which is a frozen fruit purée, or gelato, which is an Italian-style ice cream. Both of these are readily available in retail markets.

Cookies: Homemade chocolate chip, peanut butter or molasses cookies, or premium store bought cookies are a nice accompaniment to ice cream and easy to serve at an outdoor BBQ.

Pies: Warm apple or cherry pie, served with vanilla ice cream, are other favorite classic desserts.

Cobblers and Crisps: If you aren’t a pie baker, it’s very easy to make a fruit cobbler or crisp. These can be made in advance and reheated just before serving. Topped with vanilla ice cream, they are another favorite dessert.

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