The way we entertain and spend time with friends and family has changed dramatically in 2020. But gatherings can still be enjoyable while observing any precautions needed to minimize the risk of spreading viruses. Food experts like Larry DiPasquale, chairman and founder of Epicurean Family of Businesses, and Syd Sexton, general manager of By Design Collective, including Catering by Design and Décor by Design, have adapted to a new normal, providing festive experiences for small at-home events while still maintaining both host and guest safety. They offer some advice to those who are ready for a little fall revelry during a dinner or cocktail party for a few guests.
As parties have become smaller, less extravagant food has become more popular, says DiPasquale. Cooler fall weather means dinner items can be heartier, with menus that include slow-braised meats, roasted vegetables and more robust flavors.
Not every event needs to include a sit-down dinner. “Small plates blur the line between a formal dinner and a happy hour where people can mingle and typically be more social than when you are sitting at the same table with the same people,” says Matt Heikkila, chef de cuisine for By Design Collective.
Elbow-to-elbow seating is mostly a distant memory thanks to worries about spreading dangerous germs. Even during cocktail parties, a certain amount of social distancing is recommended, especially as events move from the backyard to the living room. “We’re doing less sofas and more chairs, more individual seating,” Sexton says.
Food display—always an important component of a festive event—now calls for a bit more creativity by necessity. Both DiPasquale and Sexton recommend staying away from any shared items. “That’s the trend in entertaining, with each person getting his or her own plate,” says DiPasquale. And that goes for everything from appetizers to desserts. No more passed hors d’oeuvres trays or buffet lines or ingredient stations where guests can add a variety of ingredients to a base food.
The idea should extend to sauce containers and utensils, too. “What you have to think through is that nobody can touch something that someone else has touched,” Sexton says. Previously, her team might serve two different salad dressings in beautiful bowls with a spoon; now each guest can choose their favorite dressing contained in a one-serving labeled jar.
Despite these precautions, presentation doesn’t have to suffer. Both DiPasquale and Sexton encourage hosts to get creative in the way food is served. Sexton’s teams use small fry pans, tiny metal dishes, Asian spoons or mini- Mason jars to hold individual portions. They also use compostable materials like bamboo. “There are cute plastics (available), but we don’t want to trade the planet for COVID,” she says.
Hostesses don’t have to purchase or rent special plates, but instead can use what they find in their own cupboards to add fun and flair. DiPasquale suggests serving a salad in a martini glass or desserts in shot glasses.
Hosts can simplify the party preparation by cooking the entrée but purchasing side dishes and dessert. Or consider turning over the event to professionals. Although both DiPasquale and Sexton are used to serving larger gatherings, they continue to provide in-home services on a smaller scale.
“We absolutely love the chance to be in people’s homes to provide them with an experience they wouldn’t normally get,” Heikkila says. “Food is something that is very important to us, and we love to be able to create an experience with it.”
Fall means a return to heartier fare that can be served on small plates or as a sit-down dinner. Kick off your party planning with this sampling of menus from Matt Heikkila, chef de cuisine at By Design Collective, and Larry DiPasquale of Epicurean Catering.
Cocktails with Seasonal Small Plates
Menu designed by Matt Heikkila. He suggests serving three to five small plates with cocktails. If desired, serve something sweet as the party is winding down.
Queso De Cabra (Baked Goat Cheese with Saffron Tomato Sauce)
Makes 4 small plates
1⁄4 cup white wine
1 pinch saffron
2 cups marinara sauce
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 goat cheese log
1 ounce fresh basil, chopped
1 French baguette, sliced and warm
SAFFRON TOMATO SAUCE: Add the white wine to a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Turn off heat. Add saffron; allow to steep for 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in marinara sauce and red pepper flakes.
TO PLATE: Preheat oven to 350 F. Place goat cheese log into a baking dish and pour the saffron tomato sauce over top. Bake in oven until the contents begin to bubble, about 30 to 35 minutes. Allow to rest for 5 minutes. Add basil on top and serve with warm slices of the baguette.
Colorado Lamb Rack with Carrot Puree and Mint-Roasted Radish
Makes 4 small plates
1 stick butter, cut in 8 1-tablespoon cubes, at room temperature
3 jumbo carrots, peeled
1 quart heavy cream
1 bunch red radishes
1 ounce fresh mint, chopped
1 bunch parsley
2 sprigs rosemary
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 Frenched lamb rack
CARROT PUREE: Dice the shallot and add to a medium saucepan with 4 tablespoons of butter. Cut the peeled carrots into 1⁄2-inch rounds and sauté with butter and shallot until the butter begins to brown and smell nutty. Add the quart of heavy cream and simmer on medium-low until carrots are tender. Add contents to a blender. Blend on high, adding 2 tablespoons of butter to create a smooth and airy puree. Season with salt. Keep warm.
MINT-ROASTED RADISH: Preheat oven to 350 F. Remove tops of radishes and cut in half. Place in a baking dish and lightly coat the radishes in cooking oil. Season with salt and add 2 tablespoons of the butter to the dish. Cook until browned and fork-tender. Remove from the oven and let stand for 2 to 3 minutes. Add mint to the radishes.
ROASTED LAMB RACK: Preheat oven to 350 F. Chop parsley and rosemary and combine in a small bowl with mustard. Coat the lamb rack with the mustard and herb mixture and season with salt. Place on a baking sheet and roast until internal temperature reaches 120 F. for a perfect medium-rare. Remove from oven and allow to rest 7 minutes before slicing into individual racks.
TO PLATE: On a 6-inch plate, spoon 3 tablespoons of carrot puree in the center of the plate. Place 2 slices of the lamb on top of the puree. Place 3-4 roasted radish halves around the lamb.
Tuscan Fall Dinner
Menu designed by Larry DiPasquale Hors d’oeuvres: Lamb Lollipops with Tarragon Aioli; Fresh Burrata
First course: North Beach Salads
Entrée: Braised Short Ribs over Epicurean Polentas
Dessert: Butterscotch Budinos
Aperitif: Lorenzo’s Housemade Limoncellos
All of the menu recipes can be found in Recipes from a Lifetime of Fine Food and Celebrations from the Epicurean Experience, which contains recipes from Epicurean and numerous chefs who have worked with the Epicurean family over the years.
Carved Grilled Tomahawk with Roast Garlic Mash and Cherry-Butternut Squash Mustard
Makes 4 small plates
2 ounces diced butternut squash
2 ounces dried cherries
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 stick butter, divided
5 Yukon potatoes
1 tablespoon roasted garlic
1 cup half-and-half
1 bone-in Tomahawk steak, 16-22 ounces
1 teaspoon Hawaiian black salt
CHERRY-BUTTERNUT SQUASH MUSTARD: In a medium saucepan, heat the butternut squash, cherries, shallot, ginger, vinegar, water and sugar on high until the mixture begins to simmer. Reduce heat to low and cook until the mixture has absorbed all the remaining liquid. Increase heat to medium and add mustard and 2 tablespoons of the butter, then simmer for an additional 2 minutes, stirring frequently. The mixture should be thick. Remove from heat. Season to taste and set aside to cool.
ROAST GARLIC MASH: Preheat oven to 350 F. Place washed potatoes on a baking sheet and bake until potatoes are cooked through and soft, about 55 minutes. Place in a bowl and mash with a potato masher. Add in 6 tablespoons of butter and the roasted garlic and continue to mash. Once butter is incorporated, add the half-and-half and mash until fully incorporated. Season with salt to taste and keep warm.
GRILLED TOMAHAWK: Generously season steak and grill on a hot grill until internal temperature reaches 120 F. for perfect medium-rare. Allow steak to rest 7 minutes before carving. To carve, cut off the bone then cut 1-inch thick pieces straight down.
TO PLATE: On a 6-inch plate, place 1/3 cup of the mashed potatoes in the center of the plate. Place a piece of the grilled steak over top of the potatoes and spoon some of the cherry and butternut squash mustard over the top. Sprinkle a pinch of Hawaiian black salt on top.
North Beach Salad
Serves 8 as a side, 4 as an entrée salad
1 head Romaine lettuce, chopped
1⁄2 cup kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1⁄2 cup garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1⁄2 cup pickled beets, sliced
1⁄4 cup red onion, sliced
1 cup croutons
1⁄3 cup high-quality red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2⁄3 cup extra virgin olive oil
SALAD: Put lettuce in a large serving bowl. Sprinkle kidney beans and garbanzo beans over lettuce. Arrange beet slices around the border of the serving bowl. Top lettuce with red onion. Right before serving, top with croutons.
DRESSING: Pour red wine vinegar in a small bowl. Add granulated garlic, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. Mix well. Let stand for one hour, stirring occasionally. Whisk in extra virgin olive oil. This dressing separates, so you will need to shake it or stir it right before applying to the salad.
DiPasquale says the braised short ribs recipe is foolproof, whether you are preparing dinner for 6 or 600.
Braised Short Ribs Over Epicurean Polenta
3 pounds short ribs, trimmed
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup onion, chopped
1⁄2 cup carrots, chopped
1⁄2 cup celery, chopped
1⁄2 leek, chopped
1 cup tomatoes, seeded and chopped (canned or fresh)
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley, chopped 2 quarts beef stock
1⁄2 cup red wine
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 cup pear tomatoes, sliced in half
Rub ribs with salt and pepper. In a heavy pot, heat olive oil. Sear ribs in oil until brown on all sides. When all ribs are brown, add onion, carrots, celery and leeks. Saute 1 to 2 minutes until lightly brown. Stir in tomatoes, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, parsley, beef stock, red wine and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook covered until very tender, about 21⁄2 hours. Saute pear tomatoes in olive oil until soft, about 1 to 2 minutes, and sprinkle around ribs during final plating. Goes great with mashed potatoes, polenta or mashed sweet potatoes.
5 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup dry polenta
1⁄4 cup mascarpone cheese
1⁄2 cup Parmesan cheese
1⁄2 cup heavy cream
1⁄2 teaspoon truffle oil
In a 4- to 5-quart pot, bring water, salt and butter to a boil. Add dry polenta and cook until soft, approximately 20 minutes. Stir frequently to avoid scorching. Add mascarpone and Parmesan cheeses and heavy cream. Mix with a hand mixer or immersion blender until smooth. Stir in truffle oil and serve.
Lorenzo’s Housemade Limoncello
Makes 1 quart
10 organic lemons
1 750 ml bottle of grain alcohol
1 3⁄4 cups granulated sugar
2 1⁄2 cups water
Select organic, thick-skinned lemons with smooth skin. Wash completely. Organic lemons don’t have wax on them and are easier to clean. Zest lemons with a microplane zester. Do not get any of the pith when you zest or your limoncello will be bitter. Filter the alcohol 2 to 3 times in a clean glass jar and combine with the lemon zest. Screw lid on very tight and let it sit for 45 days. Mix sugar and water in a pot and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Let cool completely and add it to the lemon alcohol mix. Reseal and let it sit for another 45 days. At this point, the limoncello must be filtered 3 to 4 times to remove all the zest and any impurities. This is an important step and really influences color and flavor. Use a coffee filter system or a Brita system.
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