Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Building a Cocktail Buffet

When we put on a cocktail buffet, we go into production mode.

One of our go-to hors d'oeuvres is grilled shrimp. We use tail-on shrimp and apply a light drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, then a spice rub adjusted to the menu theme. Most of our rubs include a few basic spices--coarse salt, garlic salt, onion powder, brown sugar and usually chili powder. For a Southwestern theme, we would add cumin. Cinnamon and coriander would give the rub a North African tilt. For an Asian flavor, we use ginger and powdered lemon grass.

Line shrimp on a sheet pan, apply olive oil and dust with spice rub. Flip the shrimp and repeat the process.

For a small group, we would favor really large shrimp and place them on skewers so they don't curl. Otherwise, for larger groups, we lay the shrimp directly on the grill over very hot coals. Flip the shrimp once and look for some nice charring here and there. They only take a few short minutes to cook through. Remove them to a sheet pan to cool.

We served these Asian-style shrimp with a mayo dip seasoned with wasabi.

Miniature crab cakes also make an excellent hors d'oeuvres. We favor large pieces of crab meat in our crab cakes, not the kind where everything seems to have been run through a food processor to resemble cat food. The cakes are bound together with just a bit of egg, mayonnaise and bread crumbs.

If you have a crab cake recipe you like, all you have to do is reduce the size of the cakes from what you are used to. My wife likes a small mechanical scoop. It looks just like a miniature ice cream scoop. In fact, these scoops come in many different sizes.

Mix your usual ingredients in a bowl, then heat about 1/2-inch cooking oil at the bottom of a heavy skillet. Use both hands and the scoop to form the crab cake mix into small rounds. Place these in the hot oil with plenty of room around each, then flatten with a narrow off-set spatula. When the cakes have browned on one side, turn to the other side. The oil should be just hot enough to cook the crab cakes all the way through without burning. You will see the oil bubbling around each crab cake.

Remove the cakes to a baking sheet lined with paper towels. We served them with a Chesapeake-style tartar sauce, just a dollop on each crab cake.

We made two kinds of miniature sandwiches for the buffet using sweet potato biscuits. The sweet potatoes are first roasted in the oven, cooled, then incorporated into a traditional biscuit batter. My wife uses a small cookie cutter to form the biscuits. After they've baked and cooled, it's quite easy to open them into two halves and lay them out on the kitchen counter for assembly.

There were two different sandwiches on the menu: roasted turkey with a sage-infused mayonaise and cranberry sauce and a glazed ham with our own green tomato-apple chutney and maple mustard.

Once the biscuit pieces are lined up, we use a small spatula to spread the condiments, then lay down pieces of turkey or ham cut to size. Once the sandwiches are finally assembled, they can easily be stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to display them. They can even be made a day ahead. Just bring them up to room temperature before the guests arrive.

A suggestion for display: Try stacking the mini-sandwiches on decorative plates placed on a three-tier stand. This brings some drama and verticality to the buffet.

Besides being loaded with holiday flavors, the sandwiches--small and tidy as they are--also have a kind of tongue-in-cheek appeal. They make you want to giggle out loud.

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