It’s summertime, and the entertaining is easy, right? Even cheap eats—hot dogs, potato chips, watermelon, lemonade—can seem fancy and festive when you’re dining in the backyard. But by now, there’s a good chance your guests are hot- dogged and hamburgered out. Maybe you are, too. We asked two top-notch caterers for their favorite cheap party tricks that are bound to wow everyone. Here’s what they had to say:
Serve a low-cost appetizer. Trending now: deviled eggs. “They’re making a huge comeback,” says Betty Fraser, the chef-owner of Grub Restaurant in Los Angeles and As You Like It Catering. After boiling and hollowing out the eggs, Fraser recommends mashing up the yolks with a little cooked and diced chorizo, cilantro, and chopped black olives, then piping the mixture back into the hollowed egg whites and topping each deviled egg with a cilantro sprig. Even though mayonnaise is a traditional ingredient, “I don’t use it in my deviled eggs,” Fraser says.
For more great ways to serve deviled eggs, check out this ShopSmart blog post.
Bring on the brine. “Brining is a great way to improve the quality and flavor of a basic meat,” Fraser says. You can find any number of basic brine recipes online (a brine is a mix of salt, sugar, and water) and add flavor makers, such as lemon juice, garlic, and rosemary. Any less expensive cut of meat will take to brining; Fraser favors chicken thighs on the bone with the skin on. But plan ahead! It takes time for brine to work its magic. Fraser brines her chicken thighs for two days in the refrigerator before party time.
As for other cheap cuts of meats, Chris Ross, the executive chef at Bristol Catering in Louisville, Ken., recommends pork shoulder. “It’s more flavorful and less expensive that a rack of ribs,” he says. While pork shoulder can also be brined, he suggests marinating, then grilling and braising it in the oven. “Your guests will be awed by its taste and tenderness,” he says.
Tackle a trifle. Forget tiramisu or red velvet cake. A trifle is the “it” dessert right now, Fraser says. A trifle is basically layers of pudding, cake (traditionally pound cake) and fresh or macerated fruit (fruit that has been tossed with a little sugar, which brings out the flavor). You can do any combination of cake, pudding, and fruit. One of Fraser’s favorites, which she features in her restaurant: banana pudding with chocolate cake and raspberries. For fun, serve trifles individually in clear shot glasses or two-ounce plastic cups, to expose all the layers, with a mini plastic fork poked in the top.
Don’t forget about decorating. “Presentation is the key no matter how much you spend,” says Ross. “Always use a nice platter and garnish it.” Fraser agrees. For festive party touches, she also suggests using a colorful remnant piece of fabric as a tablecloth and then shopping thrift stores for accent plates and festive centerpieces.
If you serve food buffet style, display your entrees and side dishes on your buffet table at various levels by placing small boxes of different heights underneath the tablecloth. We eat with our eyes, Fraser says. “Elevating your buffet makes the food look better,” she adds.