Ladies Who Lunch

Olivia, my Mom, Elena. The best assistances ever! It goes without saying, good attracts good, and these women are pure good.

Olivia, my Mom, Elena. The best assistances ever! It goes without saying, good attracts good, and these women are pure good.

Last year I had the awesome opportunity to cater a lunch for the lovely ladies of The Women’s Club from my Mom's condo community.  They are a fantastic group of vital women who meet for various occasions. They have a book club. They go to the theatre, take field trips and just enjoy one another’s company.  They regularly host parties and luncheons, and that's where I came in.  My Mom is in charge of organizing one summer luncheon each year.  After hearing about the one she organized last year, I asked if she wanted me to help her cater the upcoming one. My Mom is an amazing woman who is always willing to help others and give of herself. So, naturally I wanted to do something special for her and for her friends.  This particular luncheon is usually a casual one serving up typical summer fare, like sandwiches and potato salad and such. My goal was to up the ante a bit, and so I embarked in creating a menu that they might enjoy.  I sat down with my Mom and her friend, Elena, who helps her with this event.  As luck would have it I was just coming back from working a catering event in the Hamptons and had some leftovers with me.  Call it fate, kismet or just plain damn good luck that I had this nibbles for them to try. It was almost like a wedding tasting. As I pulled out dish after dish for them to taste test, we took notes, jotted down what they liked, what I could slightly change and what I could add, all taking into account the likes of their group.  It was great to have both my Mom and Elena providing valuable feedback so we could tailor the luncheon to offer up some delicious dishes. And so the menu was set, and the plan hatched. 

Tomato Mozzarella Puff Pastry Tartlets

Tomato Mozzarella Puff Pastry Tartlets

Main
Tomato Mozzarella Puff Pastry Tarts
Arugula & Parmigiano Reggiano with Lemon Vinaigrette
Egg Salad
Chicken Salad with Grapes, Apples & Walnuts served with Romaine boats
Turkey Breast & Swiss Cheese Roll Ups
Asian Slaw with Peanut-Tahini Dressing
Israeli Couscous with Sautéd Zucchini & Roasted Tomato with a Roasted Garlic Dressing
Cucumber Salad
French Baguettes

Desserts
Peach Cobbler with Whipped Cream
Lime Zest/Raspberry Filled Cookies
Mini Cheesecakes
Watermelon

Normally they use throw away plastic tablecloths and paper dishes. It was a hard sell at first, but I convinced my Mom that using cloth tablecloths and real dishes would make it feel special. As you all know, I HAVE tablecloths. Enough, in fact, to cover the buffet table and all the seated tables.

The luncheon was held in the condo’s clubhouse, which meant we had to set the room up with tables and chairs for 30 guests. They showed me their usual set up, but in traditional Dana fashion I rejiggered the entire space. Thankfully, I had the help of my Mom, Elena and Olivia.  Especially since I decided that we would seriously need to move most of the furniture around. They were very willing and accommodating to my suggestions. Moving the seating area that was directly in front of the fireplace gave way for a perfect place to set up the main buffet table, front and center. It was August, so no need to have access to that. With this new placement, we were able to better utilize the entire space and the built-in counters next to the fireplace. Which is where I placed the plates, napkins and utensils for a better flow.

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I was happy that they allowed me to move around furniture so we could set up the buffet table for maximum access. I placed a menu on the table with all the offerings. You can also place cards in front of each dish as a way to identify the food.

I was happy that they allowed me to move around furniture so we could set up the buffet table for maximum access. I placed a menu on the table with all the offerings. You can also place cards in front of each dish as a way to identify the food.

When setting up a buffet table, think about the flow. Think about how people will reach for the food items and make sure you place them accordingly. Set higher items in the back, and group foods together. Bread near the items like the Egg Salad and Chicken Salad, condiments close to the cold cuts, for example.

It’s important to lay the food items out in a way that makes it easy to reach, pretty to look at and in a order that makes sense.

It’s important to lay the food items out in a way that makes it easy to reach, pretty to look at and in a order that makes sense.

Make sure you have utensils for each dish and have any condiments close by.

Asian Slaw   gives a nice spice to all the other dishes. And you can’t go wrong with a few cold cuts.

Asian Slaw gives a nice spice to all the other dishes. And you can’t go wrong with a few cold cuts.

Make your platters look pretty. Arrange the food so your guests feel that you took time and care in preparing the meal. It makes them feel special, as they should.

Chicken Salad with Fruit & Nuts     is a perfect summer dish. Great with lettuce leaves or on rolls, or just plain by itself.

Chicken Salad with Fruit & Nuts is a perfect summer dish. Great with lettuce leaves or on rolls, or just plain by itself.

Israeli Couscous  , it’s fluffy and light but satisfyingly filling. The oven roasted garlic and tomatoes give this dish it’s depth of flavor.

Israeli Couscous, it’s fluffy and light but satisfyingly filling. The oven roasted garlic and tomatoes give this dish it’s depth of flavor.

Peppery Arugula Salad with shaved Parmigiana Reggiano. It may be a simple salad but with just a few ingredients, it is a fresh, flavor punch.

Peppery Arugula Salad with shaved Parmigiana Reggiano. It may be a simple salad but with just a few ingredients, it is a fresh, flavor punch.

Lime Zest Cookies   with Raspberry filling. Tart and sweet and delicate.

Lime Zest Cookies with Raspberry filling. Tart and sweet and delicate.

Mini   Cheese Cakes  . Use the base recipe for the pie but instead of using one pie crust, use crushed graham crackers with melted butter and press into mini cupcake tins. Then fill with batter and bake. These are perfect two bite treats. Champagne grapes give a tart pop.

Mini Cheese Cakes. Use the base recipe for the pie but instead of using one pie crust, use crushed graham crackers with melted butter and press into mini cupcake tins. Then fill with batter and bake. These are perfect two bite treats. Champagne grapes give a tart pop.

We used my Soothing Blues theme but gave the tables a vibrant color pop with small centerpieces using Ribbon flowers accented with white hydrangeas cut from my garden.  Simple but striking. The best part was showing Elena, who was reluctant in arranging the flowers, just how easy it is to create a floral arrangement with impact. Hesitant at first, her confidence grew once I showed her color blocking and explained that simpler is better. And with that she finished the rest beautifully. The key; do what looks good to your eye and it will look good to others.

I had to convince them away from paper plates. These outdoor reusable plastic plates were still casual but a tad more special.

I had to convince them away from paper plates. These outdoor reusable plastic plates were still casual but a tad more special.

Strong contrast creates a striking floral arrangement.

Strong contrast creates a striking floral arrangement.

Some featured more fuchsia with white accent. Some reversed.

Some featured more fuchsia with white accent. Some reversed.

It was so lovely to be welcomed into their group and serve them food that they enjoyed.  Everyone seemed to have a good time and loved the food offerings.   

Ladies on the buffet line
Ladies waiting for the buffet
Chatting after a little dessert.

Chatting after a little dessert.

Smiles and good conversation. And yes to regular dishes but plastic cups just made more sense.

Smiles and good conversation. And yes to regular dishes but plastic cups just made more sense.

There is a simple joy in sharing food. In creating an atmosphere where people feel loved by your efforts.  Remember, no matter what we do in life, whether it be the words we speak, or the food we make, the flowers we arrange, or the door we hold open, when done from a place of purity then the world is stirred with love. Thank you to my Mom, Elena and Olivia, and to Rhona and the entire Women's Club for welcoming me to your luncheon last year.  Here’s to all of you, hoping you enjoy these memories and share many more happy adventures and good eating together!

And for the rest of my readers, I hope this brings about inspiration on how and what to serve for Ladies’ Summer Lunch. Ok, Men are welcome, too! In fact, all are welcome. Stir it with LOVE!

If you are interested in my Private Chef services, please contact me directly: dana@2fishinc.com And please feel free to pass along my info. Thank YOU!

Chicken Salad with Fruits & Nuts

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Have you ever had a chicken salad that just felt too heavy.  So much mayo that it almost leaves a slick cream streak down your throat?  Creamy is nice but heavy is not.   Especially during the summer months, salad featuring proteins should lift you up, not weigh you down. 

My recent cooking adventures afforded me the opportunity to cater for my Mom's 'Ladies Lunch'. I had proposed a couple of different menu options but they didn't want me to go too crazy, fancy.  Understandably so, they needed food that would have a broad appeal for everyone's palate, which makes total sense given a group of 30. Chicken Salad was suggested.

I must admit that making chicken salad didn't thrill me.  It was my job to give the 'clients' what they wanted but also introduce them to chicken salad with pizzaz. I like to create flavors that pop, and really wanted to make something different for these special ladies.  Instead of creating a new dish, the creating came in the form of how to take bland, regular, mayo slathered chicken salad and make it lighter and more exciting.  Once I realized that they were open to a more zippidity-do chicken salad, I starting thinking: summer, lighter, texture and crunch. That's when I got more excited.  Texture would come by way of adding crunchy, crisp fruits and toasted nuts. And I dare say that the fruits also help to lighten the load. Check off the texture category requirement.  Now how to lighten up the dressing that is typically globs of mayo?  Yogurt is light. It's tangy. It's zingy and is still creamy.  Gosh, if only I could be more like yogurt...
So, that was it.  I would cut the mayo in half using Greek yogurt and add a couple of other zesty ingredients to lighten it up.     

I got the thumbs up from the team leaders, my Mom and Elena. Onto the plan. I went back and forth about whether to use dark and white meat, whether to roast or poach.  In the end, I choose to use organic chicken breasts and to poach them using aromatics to subtly impart flavor.

Ingredients 

(This batch was made for 30 people. And it made about 10 c.  Scale down for your needs.)
For the Poaching
9.5 lbs Chicken Breasts *                                       
4 bay leaves
4-6 lemon slices
2 t peppercorns
1 carrot, chopped in chunks
1 celery stalk, cut in pieces
parsley sprigs

For the Salad
2 c red seedless grapes, thick slices
2-3 red apple, peeled & cubed
5-6 scallions, thinly sliced
1 c walnuts, roasted & rough chopped
* You can also use leftover chicken and add the dressing.  

Dressing
1.5 c Mayonnaise
1.5 Greek Yogurt
2-3 T Lemon zest
1/3 c lemon juice
2 T mustard
salt, pepper
 

Instructions

1. Clean and rinse the chicken well.  In a large sauté pan, add the chicken in one layer in the pan.  Add the aromatics and enough water to almost cover.  Bring to a boil, then cover and let simmer for 8-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the chicken.  Use a thermometer to ensure that the interior is 165 degrees.

2. While the chicken is cooking, make the dressing by whisking together all the ingredients.

Creamy, tangy and light.

Creamy, tangy and light.

3. Once the chicken is done, remove from the pot and let it cool.  Meanwhile, roast the walnuts for 5-7 minutes and rough chop them.  Cut the grapes, apples, and scallions. (Squeeze some lemon juice over the apples or submerge in lemon water to keep them from turning brown.)

Chicken
Red grapes
Apples

4. Either cut the chicken into chunks or shred.  Your choice. Mix all the ingredients together with the dressing.  Some people like their salad moist, others dry. Dress as desired.

Chicken Salad lighter

You can serve this on rolls, or French baguette.  I decided for summertime, and for a healthier option, to serve them with small romaine lettuce leaves to act as boats.   All the ladies enjoyed this light and tangy chicken salad. 

A huge bowl full of light and crunchy, savory and zesty chicken salad.

A huge bowl full of light and crunchy, savory and zesty chicken salad.

The ladies taking a little bit of all the offerings.

The ladies taking a little bit of all the offerings.

Since I made a ton of chicken salad and had so many other offerings, I had some leftovers.  I brought home some chicken salad, and the Israeli Couscous  and Asian Slaw with Tahini/Peanut Dressing and made a bountiful  lunch plate for JC.  At first he said, "That's way too much food."  Not too much later, I found the plate, empty, not even a grain of couscous left.  Apparently, it wasn't too much. He loved it enough to have the rest the next day.  

And since I had some of the chicken salad dressing leftover and I love to share, I gave some to my neighbors who are a foodies. They just happen to have some roasted chicken.  What serendipity.  They mixed up my dressing with their chicken and loved how the lemon zest and juice really brightened it all up.  Why did the neighbor cross the road?  Ask the chicken.

My plate full of love that I made for JC's lunch. Boston lettuce pockets filled with zingy chicken salad, couscous and peanut slaw.

My plate full of love that I made for JC's lunch. Boston lettuce pockets filled with zingy chicken salad, couscous and peanut slaw.

Why did the chicken cross the road?  To mingle with a few fruits and nuts and slather herself in a light yogurt lemon dressing, of course.

 

Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Spinach, Feta & Goat Cheese

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I love when we have friends and family stay with us.  It gives me even more motivation to cook and find some new dishes to test out.  Such was the case when my brother came to visit from L.A. for an extended stay.  He was in town to research and write a movie script which the timing of his visit just so happened to coincide with my mom's knee replacement surgery.  Lucky for me, he was able to do all the heavy lifting in helping her recup. He bopped back and forth from our house to my parents, where he did all the cooking while staying at their house. So naturally I wanted to give him a break when he was at ours.  He is most definitely into healthy eating and steering clear of wheat and bread.  Which was perfect, since so do I. We enjoyed a few good meals mixing up the proteins and sides but mostly keeping it simple.

With chicken on the menu for his last night in NY, I wanted to make it slightly more special than just oven roasted.  You can count on me to rev up the creative juices when the fridge is full with stuff that needs to be used.  Hence, "let me stuff chicken breasts with spinach, feta and goat cheese."  All of which were in some crazy abundance in the fridge that week.  (The goat was was originally destined for a tart idea that's been brewing. The spinach was supposed to have been a side dish. And the feta was one cheese that my brother asked for salads and for Greek inspired dishes. So that explains it.) 

Besides just enjoying his company, I double downed on my good fortune of having him around as he snapped photos while I prepared this meal. Among his many talents, add photographer with a keen eye. So while my hands were full or messy, he documented the prep work.  I'm telling you, as much as I love taking photos of what I make, it was a real treat to be able to just cook and not worry about cleaning my hands, taking the shot, then back to mixing, stirring or chopping.  I'm spoiled now.

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ingredients

4 chicken breasts
14 oz baby spinach*, sautéed
2 T shallots, minced
2 T garlic, minced
1/2 c goat cheese
1/2 c feta cheese
1/2 c white wine (I used Muga Rosé, as it was leftover)
Oil roasted tomatoes
Magic 3 (Olive Oil, Salt, Pepper)

* I used 20 oz of spinach which was more than enough for filling but I used the rest as leftovers the next day to make corn quesadillas with feta.

Instructions

Sauté the shallots, garlic in oil seasoning with salt and pepper.  Add the spinach, cooking until wilted, then set aside to cool. 

I chopped the spinach because I thought it would be easier to eat as well as insert into the chicken.   Photo credit: Robert Perri

I chopped the spinach because I thought it would be easier to eat as well as insert into the chicken.   Photo credit: Robert Perri

Clean, wash and thoroughly dry the chicken breasts.  Then cut a pocket into the thick middle of each breast. (Note: making sure your protein (chicken, meat, fish) is thoroughly dried ensures you will get a good sear.)

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Stuff each one with spinach then add the goat and feta cheeses into the pocket.  Secure with a toothpick. 

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Season the chicken with salt, pepper and olive oil, then sear them on both sides in a cast iron skillet.  Add wine and oven roasted tomatoes and then place in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the chicken.

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

It just so happened that my sister, Jill, was also in town, which made it a nice send off.  It was too bad that my other sis, Alyssa, couldn't make it.  Since we were a party of four I needed some side dishes.  Pulling items out of the fridge, here's the list of extras.

And there you have a goodbye meal that felt like we were sending him back home with love.

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

He doesn't like his photo to be taken, so you will have to take my word for it that he enjoyed the meal with a smile.  Enough so that he ate some of the leftovers the next day before we drove to JFK. And just the other day he told me that he recreated this dish when he got home. A Winner.
I think this could also be a good brunch dish.  If you slice the cutlets in thick pieces, place them all on a large platter and pour the juices and tomatoes over top, it's an easy pick up and go dish for a buffet.

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Feeding the people you love is what cooking is all about.  Whether you are making a meal for someone coming into town or someone who is leaving, nourishing their bodies and souls is always better stirred with love.  A most wholesome gift indeed.