Chef challenge: An hors d'oeuvre party in two hours

By Jane Black and Bonnie S. Benwick
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mini quiches. Smoked-salmon pinwheels. A set of nut-covered cheese logs.

Your food GPS knows where you are: at a party catered off the shelf.

We here at the Food section are not above such store-bought soirees. The holidays are busy; guest lists grow. You might have use-or-lose vacation time to burn, but how much of it do you want to spend on a gathering?

However, we like to think a little expert strategy can work wonders. So we presented a New Year's Eve challenge to Shannon Overmiller, chef of the Majestic in Alexandria, and Tom Mueller, chef and co-owner of Pineapple Alley Catering in Clinton: Shop at one store (mostly) and put together a last-minute spread of hors d'oeuvres for a party of 12. Most of the ingredients should be that store's prepared and often-recognizable products.

Overmiller went the Costco route, and Mueller chose Trader Joe's. Strangely enough, both chefs said they had never shopped at either place. They were allowed to pick up a few grocery-store items and use pantry staples such as olive oil, condiments and spices. At Costco, Overmiller was surprised to find chanterelle mushrooms and Meyer lemons, but she had to deal with mega packages and make plans to use remainders efficiently. On a first pass, Mueller was almost overwhelmed by the number of party-ready options, so he had to edit, and re-edit, his choices by the time he hit the checkout counter. Even then, a few items were left unused on the kitchen counter.

We kept track of time and receipts; the chefs created their dishes at different locations on different days.

Overmiller, 33, a graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, exercised her prerogative with an initial once-around in the Costco aisles at Pentagon City. Her menu was easy and unfussy. She decided to do a crowd-pleasing cheese and salumi platter that featured Medjool dates stuffed with blue cheese, pecans and a touch of balsamic vinegar. A container of Jack Daniel's pulled beef proved attractive because, she theorized, "who doesn't like little brisket sandwiches?"

For vegetarian guests (the people who don't, she reckoned), she chose a box of frozen oversize spinach and cheese ravioli, with plans to deep-fry them in canola oil and serve them with a tomato dipping sauce.

Crab cakes and smoked salmon are party mainstays that Overmiller wanted to upgrade. Rather than buy prepared hockey pucks, the chef crafted her own tender mini crab cakes, starting with bargain-priced cartons of Phillips pasteurized jumbo lump and lump crab meat. From picking over the crab to frying, the effort took 30 minutes, not much longer than heating up the ones that come in a box. She also filled turned-up pieces of Kirkland smoked sockeye salmon with Gold Coast brand smoked salmon spread. She placed the bites on thick-cut potato chips and garnished them with a lemony homemade twist on gremolata.

Mueller went halfway 'round the Beltway to shop at the Trader Joe's in Baileys Crossroads, drawn by the square footage that makes it among the largest of the chain's Washington area stores. The chef had a series of elegant bites in mind. He snagged frozen pie crusts and saw possibilities in using just half of the contents of an Indian frozen entree to create savory turnovers. He planned to turn prepared pizza dough into flatbreads with a topping of dried mushrooms reconstituted in cream, plus a combination of fontina and truffled cheeses, the latter being a splurge item offset by the small amount he needed. Or maybe the flatbread would need an application of artichoke spread; he grabbed a jar.

The 43-year-old CIA-trained chef's catering experience lent itself to shot-glass offerings (TJ's lobster bisque, gussied up with cooked langoustines and ouzo-flavored whipped cream) and squares of pistachio-coated ahi tuna resting in Asian soup spoons and drizzled with chive oil. "Ease of eating is what we're after," he says. Perhaps, but that kind of presentation might entail an additional trip to a party-goods store; he had catering partner Nancy Goodier on hand to help gather perfect little vessels from the storage room at Mount Airy Mansion in Upper Marlboro, their regular base of operation. Mueller said regular soup spoons or demitasse cups could work just as well.

His moment of carnivorous inspiration came when he spotted vacuum-sealed packs of Australian racks of lamb, although the first thing he did after opening the package was to detach the strip of loin meat from the bones. Some sort of go-with was in order, so he thought he'd try a chutney using dried Black Mission figs, shallot, mustard seeds, red wine vinegar and Virgil's root beer. He skipped dainty red new potatoes in the produce department in favor of packages of the house-brand frozen mashed potatoes. Blended with Manchego cheese, sour cream and bits of crisped applewood-smoked bacon, a twice-baked, bite-size retro canape came into focus.

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