Voyages, Fêtes, Fiestas and Other Pleasures
by Barbara Probst Solomon

Copyright © 2001 Barbara Probst Solomon—All Rights Reserved

HOW TO MAKE A WEDDING LUNCH
FOR SIXTY GOURMET GUESTS

                A home wedding, like summer weather, is only romantically lovely when its elements are kept below the boiling point.  Delighted that your best friend is getting married, you impulsively promise to make a "simple and intimate" wedding lunch for the new couple.  After the initial glow passes, when you are moved at your friend's happiness, and she and the groom by your generosity, suddenly you must face: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? 

            The next stage is bumpier. The grim moment arrives when you hear yourself wearily muttering to the bridal couple that the Metropolitan Museum's Temple of Dendur might be more in keeping for what they seem to have in mind.  After a bad spell filled with misunderstandings and hurt feelings, magically, calm and reason is restored.  The number of guests becomes reasonable.  You close down shop at sixty, and you mean it. 

              When I agreed to make a wedding luncheon for a close friend I knew I would need to overcome some severe limitations.  My Manhattan apartment has neither the space nor atmosphere of a country inn.  My friend was on a tight budget, I was short on time, and the guests we planned to invite had sophisticated food tastes.  This is how I went about it. 

            As soon as we decided on our basic direction -- the type of wedding and number of guests -- I embarked on my next task.  I immediately delegated to others all areas that didn't need my direct supervision.  When I was a child my father warned me that my mind was not meant to be a garbage pail stuffed with stray facts, but an instrument for clear thinking.  To delegate means to delegate.  Don't fuss over the parts of the wedding other people are doing.  Don't bother to bone up on wedding-ology.  You needn't rehash the minutiae of your best friend's third cousin's wedding in order to give one. Remember, your time is valuable.  You are only almost a super woman.

I DELEGATED:

  • All details involving the actual marriage ceremony       
  • Invitations
  • Music
  • Photography
  • Flower Arrangements

A WORD ABOUT NUMBERS:

            The thorniest issue in planning a wedding is who gets asked, who is left out.  No matter how firmly you impress on the bride and groom that your house or apartment isn't infinitely expandable, you still will end up with a guest list at least ten per cent higher than the number initially agreed upon.  Leave a little leeway for a ballooning invitation list.  It's prudent in these times of flexible living arrangements to decide in advance whether guests may bring their roomie, casual date, or significant other.  Children who are old enough to gobble a portion of wedding cake are old enough to be counted as a guest.          

THE BASIC PLAN IS NOW IN ORDER—
HERE'S HOW TO IMPLEMENT IT:

MIXING HOME MADE AND PREPARED FOOD:

            The contemporary woman has neither the time to prepare an entire wedding lunch nor the money to hand over entirely the event to a professional caterer.  The BIG SECRET is knowing what to make yourself and what to order, and how to successfully combine these two approaches.  By making a few of the simpler dishes yourself you can drastically cut the costs of a stunning event.

            During my years of living in France I learned that French women, contrary to our assumption that they are naturally great cooks, are adept at knowing what to buy as well as what to make.  Parisian women, used to cramped living quarters and inadequate kitchens, habitually have had their goose, turkey or lamb roasted for them in a good baker's oven.  Though we do not have at our disposal either the toston of the Spanish inn or a French baker's oven, we do have equivalents.  Do as French women do, and have the main meat or fish dish professionally prepared.

            The SECOND BIG SECRET is not to serve hors d'eouvre.  Bowls of nuts conviently placed are adequate.  Passed hor d'oeuvre greatly increases the numbers of help needed, and are redundant with an ample lunch.  The basic principle is to make sure every dish is delicious, including the meat or fish main dish, thus no "fillers" are needed.  Uninspired "extras" which are meant to stretch a meal fool no one, and pile up amazingly the cost.   

                                     

WEDDING MENU

Before lunch:  Pass California Piper Sonoma Champagne and sparkling water (Pelligreno or Perrier with chunks of limes and lemons.) Bowls of nuts on tables.

amounts: 1 case of champagne and 1 case of sparkling water

LUNCHEON

Rosas's chilled Spanish string beans      

Hebbie's turnip purée

Xavier Domingo's Segovian roast baby lamb

or

Cold poached salmon with aïoli sauce

Marisol's  saffron rice

assorted breads

*

cheese platter

Fresh stemmed strawberries served with chocolate

coffee beans or crystallized pear and orange slices

*

wedding cake: Succes au chocolat au coulis de framboises

with

Piper Heidsieck extra dry champagne (l0 bottles)

*

coffee (milk or cream, sugar, equal)

a good brand of decaf tea (optional)

*

wines: with lamb: Petite Chateau Red Bordeau (10 bottles)

with salmon: Macon Villages Louis Jadot (10 bottles)
or Benziger Chardonnay (10 bottles)

WHICH FOODS YOU SHOULD ORDER ALREADY PREPARED:

            It makes sense to order the lamb or salmon and the wedding cake from a caterer or professional cook, and to make the marinated string beans, puree of turnips and the saffron rice yourself.  I've had good luck in working with a local Greek restaurant for my roasted lamb.  When my husband was a professor at the University of Texas in Austin we ordered grilled roasts from a nearby German Smoke House.  Poached salmon should be prepared by a first rate fish store, or a cook or caterer specializing in fish.  Have the fish store prepare a quart of a¬oli sauce to accompany the salmon.  This delicious garlic mayonnaise, which must always be made with fresh homemade mayonnaise, is the favorite fish sauce in the south of France, where it is also known as beurre de Provence and in Spain, where it is called ali-oli.  Unless it is a speciality of yours I wouldn't suggest the eve of the wedding as practice time. It's very tricky and it can, at the last minute, curdle.  Leave this item to your salmon-makers.

            Whether you use fish or lamb, aïoli or an equivalent sauce, insist on a sample taste of what you are ordering.  An attractive presentation is crucial in creating an inviting buffet.  Design with the chef with whom you are working how you want the platters to look. Decide how the meat or salmon should be garnished and served.  If you are supplying your own platters, arrange the pickup in advance.  Be adamant in insisting that the lamb arrive at your home at the last minute, and piping hot. And if you are serving salmon insist that the fish is well chilled.  Remember, a restauranter has a certain flexibility in keeping costs down for items not on the regular menu, but ordered in bulk.  Ask him/her to provide you with baskets of attractive breads at no extra cost.

THE WEDDING CAKE:

            The THIRD BIG SECRET is to order a wedding cake that is truly serendipitous. It should be the desert.  The days of dry-as-dust chalky wedding cakes as a sentimental preamble to Vienna tables of patisserie are over. Contemporary couples have a very distinct ideas of what a wedding cake should be.  My younger daughter and her husband chose as a wedding cake a Succes au Chocolat au Coulis de Framboises from Tentation, Potel & Chabot.  The three layered confection of almond meringues filled with dark chocolate mousse was served with a raspberry coulis and decorated in dark chocolate and white powdered sugar with sprigs of real wild flowers. The guests swooned over it.  If your cake happens to be chocolate, in place of bowls of chocolate coffee beans accompanying the platter of fresh stemmed strawberries, edge the platter in a pastel border of crystallized pear and orange slices.

                       

NEGOTIATING STAFF AND RENTAL SERVICES

            Pre-wedding preparations tend to take on a dramatic edge.  Nervous tension will be sensed by the professionals with whom you are dealing.  My tendency, whenever possible, when I am negotiating for services, is to omit the word "wedding".  It makes the prices go up!  I rather more coolly refer to the "event for sixty."  Instead of stressing that one wants superlative service because this is a once-in-a-life time occasion, I do just the opposite: a once-in-a-lifetime event in the supplier's mind translates into your being a once-in-a-lifetime customer.  The professionals you are using for the wedding hope to increase their roister of steady customers.  You might casually say you are interested in their work because you and your friends give many events.  And, indeed, the easier party giving becomes to you, the more parties you will give.

            The agency I chose as most expedient supplied all rental goods, the ice and ice tubs for the wines and champagne, plus the waiters.  Check out the agency's references.  Selecting the right one can use up an enormous amount of your time -- don't forget, your time is costly.  One short cut is to pick the brains of your smartest party-giving friends, and act on their advice without dilly-dallying.    Provisioners for small museums and savvy foundations tend to be another good choice.  Institutions are more cost conscious and demanding of excellent service than the average party giver.  Don't think you are automatically getting a bargain by hiring arts and craftsy moonlighters who are doing this work on the side.  In my experience amateurs can end up charging you double of a seemingly posh service -- partly because they don't know the ropes, and partly because their turnover may be too small for them to be efficient.  Just because people act virtuous, doesn't mean that their services come cheap.  You can't afford bumblers.  One practiced waiter is worth more than three fumblers.  Make sure the agency comes to your home, and understands your kitchen and party space.  Map out a game plan for the bar, where the tables should be set up, and where the buffet should be located. 

USING YOUR OWN RESOURCES:      

            For the luncheon I gave I persuaded my once-a-week housekeeper to work full time the day before the wedding and the day of the wedding.  She knows me, my foibles, and she knows the house.  She was essential.  The day of the luncheon I had four professional waiters plus Anna. 

            On a cool, calm morning several weeks before the wedding the two of us went over what had to be done in the house.  I made a list of all provisions, and ordered them.  In addition to the food supplies, I had added soaps, toilet paper, a few bottles of summery lilac cologne, and guest towels.  Anna was in charge of the last minute dressing up of the guest bathrooms.  Extra hangers for the two coat racks also went on the master list.  We picked a good place to stack wedding presents.  Anna suggested that I ask one of my friends to be in charge of borrowing and filling enough pepper and salt shakers so that a pair could be placed at each table.  We walked through the apartment, making careful decisions on excesses and breakables to be removed and locked in one of the back bedrooms.  The next item is sticky, but let's face it head on: things at parties do disappear.  On our list of things to be locked up we included nick knacks and things with an irresistible appeal to the nosy, such as word processor disks and address books.   I made sure I had a good cake knife for the wedding cake, as well as other serving utensils. I took out my platters that needed polishing.  My plan was to use what I had, which is a mixture of silver and ceramic.  That same morning I also ordered the wines, sparkling water, and champagne. 

THE DAY BEFORE THE WEDDING:

            All the provisions including the wines and champagne now were in the house. The agency had delivered the dinner ware and tables, which they set up according to our prior plan.  A friend, a theatrical designer, had made pale floaty apricot colored tablecloths out of scrim.  Had she not so cleverly made these I would have ordered white tablecloths from the agency.  In a crowded room I like tables to look uniform -- it gives a spacious air.  The friend in charge of flowers arrived with small baskets of purple African violets.  Their deep green leaves worked perfectly with the apricot colored cloths. They don't wilt in the heat and don't require last minute attention.  My friend also brought a massive arrangement of dogwood, laurel, lilacs, peonies and wild flowers.  We placed it in a deep, wide copper tub, which allowed the branches to spread in a thick luxurious way.

COOKING:

I spent 3 hours with Anna making the saffron rice, chilled Spanish string beans and Hebbie's turnip purée.  The burned yellow, deep green and sunlit orange Mediterranean colors go well with both the barbecued spring lamb and the rosy poached salmon.  To do this efficiently you should have, or borrow, extra large pots.  Marinated string beans are wonderful because they eliminate the necessity for a separate salad, which requires too much last minute fussing, extra plates and forks.  

WEDDING MORNING TASKS:

            The marinated string beans were already refrigerated and ready to go and the cheese platter was put out to breathe.  Anna needed only to heat the saffron and the turnip purée in a 250 degree oven and make the coffee.  Our system was to put all food on double platters, when one platter is emptying it can be whisked off and another immediately set in its place.  Nothing is less appetizing then seeing extra food dished onto a wilted buffet platter.       

            Just before the wedding ceremony Anna attended to the last minute details.  She placed a few bowls of nuts in the living and dining room.  She washed the strawberries, leaving on the stems, and arranged them on a silver platter bordered in crystallized pear and orange slices.  The agency staff, the wedding cake, and the Greek restauranter, who had done himself proud on the lamb and elaborate bread baskets, arrived on schedule. 

RECIPES:

ROSA'S CHILLED SPANISH STRING BEANS

l5 pounds fresh green string beans

9 cloves of garlic

4 cups of diced smoked ham or proscuitto

3 cups of Italian or Spanish virgin olive oil

4 teaspoons thyme

4 teaspoons regular salt

pepper, kosher salt to taste

            This is a speciality of my friend, the Barcelona novelist, Rosa Regas.  Her friends delight in visiting her in her home in Lliofriu, on the Costa Brava, where she serves us her fabulous cooking, and good Spanish wines, and delights us with her inimitable way of seeing the world and telling us about it.

            Once you've snapped off the ends of the beans, the preparation for this dish is swift.  Cooking in quantity needs a slightly different approach.  I find my Demeyere steamcooker, which has a 9 quart stock pot, and two steamers on top of it, each l0 inches in diameter and 5 inches high, indispensable.  Divide string beans into three batches.  Bring 7 quarts of salted water to a boil in stock pot.  Add a 5 pound batch of beans to the vigorously boiling water and continue boiling.  At the same time steam the remaining 2 batches of beans in the two steamers stacked above the stock pot.   When the beans in the stock pot are firm but not mushy (about 12-15 minutes) remove them from pot.  Continue the steaming of the remaining two batches until those are also finished.  Do not rinse string beans in cold water.  

            Cut ham into small pieces.  Cut the cloves of garlic into tiny pieces -- do not mash or grate the garlic.  Heat 1 cup of olive oil in large skillet.  When oil starts to bubble add the garlic.  When the garlic turns golden and crusty, push to one side.  Heat pieces of ham and thyme in same oil skillet.  Remove from heat. 

             Combine hot oil, garlic, ham and thyme with warm string beans.  I usually do this in two oversized salad bowls.  Add kosher salt and grated fresh black pepper to taste. Correct seasoning.  The best way to distribute evenly the garlic, ham, seasoning and oil with the string beans is to toss mixture with your hands.  If more oil is needed, heat it first in the skillet.  The hot oil seasoned with crusty cooked garlic and ham permeates the hot beans, giving them a more pungent taste than the traditional cold marinade.  Cool.  Decorate with parsley shavings.  Cover with foil and refrigerate.    

HEBBIE'S TURNIP PURÉE

l4 pounds young turnips           

3/4 cup of butter

5 lemon rinds

l tablespoon of lemon juice

4 tablespoons brown sugar                  

2 quarts heavy cream

freshly ground nutmeg, thyme, salt, ground black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons gin

            Hebbie, my German nanny, made this for us when I was a child.  She served it with spring lamb or roasted veal.  I hung about the kitchen, sniffing up its warm nutmeg-and-cream odor.  Sometimes Hebbie would add mashed potatoes or carrots, she never made it the same way twice.  When she was in a good mood she would add a splash of gin at the end, saying: "it brings out the flavor."  And so it does.

            Wash and discard any fibrous or "horsy" turnips.  Cut them in coarse pieces and put them in a heavy wide-bottomed pot of boiling lightly salted water -- the water should amply cover the turnips.  When the turnips are tender, drain and purée them in a food processor. Return them to wide-bottomed pot. Grate into the purée the rind of 5 lemons, and add a tablespoon of lemon juice.   Melt butter in a skillet and stir into purée.   Gently heat cream (keep under boiling point) in a separate pot, and slowly stir in the sugar. Remove pot from heat.  In a thin stream add cream and sugar to turnip purée stirring constantly.  Add freshly ground nutmeg, thyme, salt and grated black pepper to taste.  Drizzle mixture with a splash of gin.  Cool.  Cover with foil and refrigerate.  Remove turnip purée from refrigerator several hours before reheating it in stove.              

XAVIER DOMINGO'S LAMB SEPULVEDA

leg of lamb split in 2 pieces

coarse salt

salt pork lard

            Your chef or caterer will have his own ideas on how to grill or roast lamb, but Xavier Domingo's recipe for lamb is my favorite. It's a version of the lamb that my friend Marisol served at her daughter Teresa's wedding in Segovia, where it is a popular dish.  When I first knew Xavier he was a runty kid, a Spanish exiled anarchist adrift in post World War II Paris.  Villa Milo, his first novel, is about a young man, the son of a Madam, raised by whores in a Barcelona brothel, who dreams of better days.  Maybe escaping to Paris. Which he did.  After Franco died Xavier returned to Spain and became one of the main editors of the newsweekly Cambio 16, and the top food and wine critic in Spain.

            Unlike French lamb, which is basted on a rack, and has herbal seasoning, as does most American lamb, Spanish lamb, which is very young and tender, is frequently prepared by a sort of "sweating" process closer to the North African style of cooking meat.  A leg of lamb cut in two is placed directly in a large earthenware shallow dish filled with water.  It's only seasoning is lots of coarse salt rubbed into its skin and underside.  The lamb is cooked in a preheated 350 degree oven skin side down for one hour (in North Africa the lamb is cooked on an even lower and longer heat.)  The pieces of meat then are turned over and brushed with melted salt pork lard.  The lamb is cooked on the second side for an additional 45 minutes.          

 

SAFFRON RICE

7 1/2 pounds of arborio rice

4 teaspoons of ground imported saffron threads

salt

virgin Italian or Spanish olive oil

            One of the first things I learned when I was living in Spain was how to make was good rice. Goya Chueca, the wife of the architect Fernando Chueca, taught me.  Once you get the hang of doing it right, it's a blessed aromatic never-fail staple that will see you through your daily and partying life. With or without the saffron.  

            The basic principle is that by sealing the grains of rice in a skillet of hot olive oil, your rice will remain fluffy and separate.  It can be refrigerated and reheated and never stick or become mushy.  This is as true for Carolina long-grained rice as it is for arborio, the Italian rice used in risotto dishes.   

            I can't get the type of rice used in Spain for paella, so I use Italian arborio rice.  Grind the saffron threads into a powder with a mortar and pestle.  Anything heavy, even the bottom of a glass will do.  As you will need to make this amount in two batches prepare two large pots with boiling water.  The rice needs 3 parts water to 1 part rice.  Add 2 teaspoons of the ground saffron threads and 1 teaspoon of salt to each pot.  Cover your largest skillet with 1/2 inch of olive oil.  It is important that the oil be of a fine quality, as the oil and saffron will give the rice its rich, suggestive-of-the-Mediterranean flavor.  Divide the rice in two equal batches.  When the oil starts to bubble put in one batch, and, much as though you were popping corn, shake the rice in the skillet until the grains start to turn from translucent to opaque.  This signals that the grains of rice are sealed.  Don't let the grains turn brown or burn.   Add the batch of sealed rice grains to the first pot of boiling water.  Cover. Slightly lower the heat.  Cook unopened for l5 minutes.  The water should be completely absorbed. Check after 13 minutes, as rice can suddenly burn.  Repeat the same process with second batch of rice and second pot of water.  When cool, cover the rice with silver foil.  Leave it in its cooking pot and refrigerate.  Remove from refrigerator two hours before using.  Add a little water to the rice, just enough to keep it from burning, cover and reheat in a 250 degree stove.

  

CHEESE AND CRACKER PLATTER

l 1/2 pound Stilton

1 1/2 Saint Andre

l 1/2 pound Coach Tomme (or Tomme Fleur Verte) goat cheese

1 1/2 pound aged Gouda or Manchego

assorted crackers

            My idea of paradise is a piece of Stilton with fruit. Its nutty intensity makes it an excellent rite of passage between the main course and desert.  The four cheeses I've selected are distinctly different from one another in appearance and taste.  The Saint Andre is velvety and sweet.  The goudas and Manchego are hard, moderately sharp cheeses, and the tomme has the light taste particular to the goat family.  We Americans are now making excellent domestic goat cheese, the Coach tommes are superb.  If you're a stickler for French goat cheese the Tomme Fleur Verte or Le Grand Caprin works well with this platter.  I've not chosen a runny cheeses such as Brie.  It's use is overdone.  Brie is awful when served hard as a brick, and looks messy on the buffet when gorgeously runny enough to be divine in your mouth.  Six pounds of cheese is more than enough for sixty guests.  People are consuming considerably less of it these days, preferring to splurge their calories on fantastic deserts.  Give the cheeses time to breathe and serve on a platter decorated with a variety of biscuits and breads and a few strawberries or grapes.      

TERESA'S AIOLI SAUCE

10 top quality fresh garlic cloves

2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 egg yolks

1/3 teaspoon of salt

1 pint of virgin olive oil

(makes slightly over one pint)

            Aïoli or Ali-oli, a staple of Mediterranean cuisine, is really homemade mayonnaise blended with fresh garlic. When my daughters Carla and Maria were children, Harold (my husband), and I, spent many summers with our friends Teresa and Josep Pallach in Collioure on the French side of the Spanish border. Carla and Maria's happiest memories are of swimming off the great conch-shaped Collioure beach so adored by the Fauves and Matisse.  After splashing in the Mediterranean the children would buy chocolate biscuits from a beach vendor, later our two families settled into a late afternoon main meal of seafood and fish in the same beach restaurants frequented by Picasso and Matisse. Ali-oli was served on the side in colorful Mediterranean bowls.

            Use good fresh garlic that has a nice snap when touched, and mash cloves (already peeled and chopped) with a pestle. Keep mashing until mixture has a velvety consistency.  Now transfer mixture into a non-metal bowl.  Very slowly add juice of fresh lemons and keep mashing. Add very, very slowly egg yolks and a pinch of salt to the mixture. Keep pounding and mashing the mixture.  After it thickens very slowly blend in virgin olive oil. Now, the basic secret of the sauce, indeed, of all homemade mayonnaise, it that the olive oil must be added drop by drop.  Keep pounding and mashing.  In the final stages use a whisk.  All homemade mayonnaise can be thinned out by drizzling in minute amounts of cold water. Use the same day. Remember, a¬oli is tricky.  So if you want to make it yourself experiment with it a few times before the big day. Consult the fish caterer for the amount of sauce needed.