By Pam George
When Amy and Rodney Hill were planning their wedding, they wanted a reception with a high energy level. So they nixed a sit-down dinner. “I never like sitting through long dinners at a wedding,” she says. “I want to be socializing or dancing.” At the same time, they’re self-professed “big eaters.” “It was important to us that everyone was well fed,” she says. The solution, provided by Blue Moon in Rehoboth Beach, was a wide selection of passed hors d’oeuvres with bar snacks, three dinner stations and a dessert station.
Merritt Cooch followed the same approach for her wedding to Shawn McDonald. “It was really fun to change it up from a traditional sit-down dinner,” she says. “That’s something my husband and I never wanted. We wanted to have a sort of cocktail party theme—albeit with lots and lots of food.”
As these couples demonstrate, appetizers are no longer limited to the start of a reception or rehearsal dinner. “They’re the fun part of the wedding,” notes Meghan Gardner, who with her husband Lion owns Blue Moon, a restaurant that also handles offsite catering.
Even if you opt for a traditional meal, creative appetizers and hors d’oeuvres can set the tone for what’s to come. What should you serve? Follow the dining trends, Gardner says. Make it small. Make it fun, and make it special.
Sliders, smaller versions of popular sandwiches, have become the ultimate finger food at wedding receptions. Jen Myers, head chef of Lewes, Del.-based Plate Catering, has packed little buns with pulled pork, chicken salad and crab cakes. At Harry’s Savoy Ballroom, located near the Delaware-Pennsylvania border, the restaurant’s famous prime rib makes for a succulent slider. Barbecued brisket is another popular option, says Cindy Bene, director of catering at Harry’s.
Because Hill is from Maryland, she ordered mini-crab cake sliders, mini-fried oyster BLTs and bowls of chips dusted with Old Bay. Her husband, Rodney, is from Claymont, Del.—they met working at Blue Moon—so they also offered thinly sliced Italian hoagies. Similarly, for a couple devoted to baseball, Myers of Plate Catering made mini-hotdogs and cheesesteak eggrolls—a fun take on ballpark food. Blue Moon has even made mini-falafels with a variety of toppings for well-traveled couples.
As is the case in restaurants, Latin flavors have crept onto reception menus. Mini-tacos are huge, says Kathy McDonald, director of catering for Rehoboth Beach-based Nage. Hard- and soft-shell tacos are available. Myers gets many requests for make-your-own taco bars. Shrimp-and-chorizo pinchos provide a lot of flavor in one pop. (Pinchos, which are usually served speared on a toothpick, is northern Spain’s version of tapas.) At Cooch and McDonnell’s reception, one table was devoted to several different kinds of guacamole with bowls of toppings, including salsa.
Big flavor combinations don’t intimidate modern couples. The Hills’ reception, held at Nassau Valley Vineyards, featured a “Hudson Valley” station with duck confit and smoked salmon tarts. For events at the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art, Chef MacGregor Mann, owner of Junto in Glen Mills, Pa., has topped small circles of rye bread with chicken liver mousse and Huckleberry preserves. For vegetarians, he makes crispy beet “cracklins” with tarragon crème fraiche; bite-sized grilled cheese sandwiches made with cheddar, Camembert and green tomatoes on sourdough; and flatbread topped with foraged items in season, such as wild ramps and garlic mustard.
Going small makes adventurous foods more palatable for non-foodies, Gardner says. Consider a passed appetizer of venison tartare with a quail egg. “It’s just a bite; it’s not like you have to commit to a whole meal,” she says.
When it comes to reception appetizers, the presentation should be as whimsical as the food. “The food itself is smaller but cute mini-vessels are really popular at the weddings we cater,” says chef Dan Butler of Toscana to Go in Wilmington. He places toasted grilled cheese rectangles across a demitasse of soup and has also served seared tuna tartare with an Asian salad in small Chinese takeout containers. Each guest gets a set of chopsticks.
Forget crackers. Nage uses mini-ice-cream cones to hold fig and goat cheese or foie gras mousse. To serve, the cones are nestled into a bowl of black rice so they stand up straight.
Instead of a mundane carving station with roast beef or ham, Nage sets up a whole tuna atop a slab of ice, and servers cut wafer-thin slices of sashimi from it. “We offer a quick sear as an option,” McDonald says. “It’s a wow presentation—there’s nothing ordinary about it.” She’s also served it in half-pint takeout containers.
All night long
Revisit the grab-a-bite approach an hour or so before the reception ends, particularly if the party goes beyond the usual three-to-four hours—which is often the case.
Nage, for instance, has brought out sliders and mini-pizzas as the dancing winds down. Another fun way to end the evening is with a popcorn bar featuring shakers of seasonings, such as Parmesan and Old Bay.
Pretzels, McDonald says, are “huge this year” in all forms—long or short. Tuck warm pretzels in bags and serve with mustard. At the end of the evening, Merritt Cooch and Shawn McDonnell’s guests delved into crisp French fries in small cartons. Just a small bite of something delicious can leave your guests with lingering memories—and full bellies.