Hiring someone to cater your party is a wonderful luxury, but it’s not always in the cards.
Preparing the food on your own for say, 24 people, might seem a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s all a matter of planning—knowing how to choose the right (i.e. easy!) menu, what to buy and what to make.
Get your seats…
Extra tables, chairs, plates and silverware can be rented (try Hall’s Rental or House of Rental), or you can go to Bed Bath & Beyond or Cost Plus and stock up on inexpensive glass buffet plates that you’ll use again and again; Costco is another great source for buffetware. For glassware, Schaefer’s Wines is a host’s secret weapon: If you order your liquor from them, not only will they deliver, but they will provide you with wine and rocks glasses, which they will pick up after the party along with any unopened beverages.
Then your eats…
I always find that a unifying flavor theme, like Italian or Mexican, is the best way to go when planning the menu. Chicago is filled with ethnic groceries where you’ll find a wealth of ingredients that will set the tone for your meal, and you’re on your way! There are also myriad delis and gourmet food stores that can provide help; if you want to buy a ready-made entrée, no one will dwell on it. They’re eating your food and drinking your booze and happy to be your guest.
Here’s a sample menu for an Italian Feast. There’s no shortage of table decorating ideas on Pinterest and other sites, so let your imagination run wild.
- Negronis (gin, vermouth, Campari)
- Italian Greyhounds (vodka, Campari, fresh grapefruit juice)
- Pinot Grigio
- Barbera d’Alba
- Set up an abundant Antipasti, with grissini (thin breadsticks) and Tuscan crackers; mozzarella bocconcini and Parmesan shards; sliced salami, prosciutto, mortadella and braesola; roasted, marinated veggies like mushrooms, artichoke hearts, red and yellow pepper strips; and of course, fabulous olives and marinated sun-dried tomatoes. Mix and match platters, jars and baskets for a country feel.
- A platter of Pinzomonio (seasoned, extra virgin olive oil served with crudite, like carrots, celery, fennel and radishes, for dipping)
On the buffet:
- A big mixed green or Caesar salad (easily thrown together; don’t be afraid to use bottled Caesar dressing if you need to!)
- Grilled or broiled sausages, served with mild and spicy giardiniera, a variety of mustards, and crusty garlic rolls
- 2 different pastas: Farfalle with Kale Pesto and White Beans (recipe below); and Baked Ziti or Lasagne (make casserole earlier in the day, bake during appetizer hour…or order from The Noodle!)
- A selection of purchased sorbetti and gelati
- Fresh berries marinated in limoncello and chilled
- Homemade or purchased selection of biscotti
- Purchased mini cannoli
With the money that you save catering your own party, you can afford to splurge a little on good wine and someone to serve, clean up and do the dishes. Because after all that effort, don’t you deserve to enjoy the fruits of your labor?
Tuscan Kale Pesto
Makes 2+ cups, enough to sauce about 2 pounds of cooked pasta
- 1 large (or 2 small) bunch Tuscan (dinosaur or lacinato) kale, rinsed well, ribs removed
- 3 large cloves garlic, germ removed, smashed
- 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
- 3/4 cups extra virgin olive oil
- Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
- 1/4 cup grated Pecorino cheese
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Salt and fresh pepper to taste
1. Blanch the kale in boiling salted water for about 3 minutes; remove and plunge into cold water. Drain and squeeze out excess water. Use the same pot to cook your pasta.
2. Place drained kale into work bowl of your food processor and pulse a few times. Add garlic and pine nuts, and pulse a few times until finely chopped. With motor running, slowly add olive oil, lemon juice and zest. Add cheeses and pulse to combine; season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Toss with cooked pasta and a little of the pasta water; you can add in a can of drained and rinsed cannellini beans. Serve with shaved Parmesan and red pepper flakes on the side.
Italian Food Sources
- Bari, 1120 W. Grand Ave., Chicago, 312-666-0730
- Caputo Cheese Market, 231 E. Wisconsin Ave., Lake Forest, 847-482-0100
- Convito Café & Market, 1515 Sheridan Rd., Wilmette, 847-251-3654
- D’Amatos Bakery, 1124 W. Grand Ave., Chicago, 312-733-5456
- Maria’s Bakery, 410 Sheridan Rd., Highwood, 847-266-0811
- Panozzo’s Italian Market, 1303 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, 312-356-9966
- Piatto Pronto, 5624 N. Clark St., Chicago, 773-334-5688
- The Noodle Café, 708 12th St., Wilmette, 847-251-2228
Photos by Anjali Pinto. Food styling by Julie Chernoff.