By Chef Martin Lopez
It is a fact that, no matter the culture or traditions, a central element of holiday celebrations is food – and the more food, the better! Therefore, the end of the year is a great time to splurge on a menu that brings an added level of celebration to your meetings and events. It is also a good time of the year to break from the usual holiday food traditions and create a new menu for your guests to enjoy. Considerate professionals have actively made the transition from using the traditional “Merry Christmas” greeting to using the more inclusive “Happy Holidays.” Similarly, as culinary professionals, we should learn how to prepare culturally and religiously diverse food items and meals that can please all our guests.
For corporate and group holiday celebrations especially, it may be best to avoid many of those traditional holiday offerings that could carry undesired religious or secular connotations. In the end, the holidays are a celebration of love; time to nourish the body, mind and spirit. Alas, what better way to make the holidays merry than to focus on celebrating good food and good times, regardless of individual beliefs or traditions?
Here are some of my ideas and tips to help you pull off a spectacular holiday season:
If your meeting or event calls you to provide a full meal or multi-course menu for your guests, you can introduce a variety of foods from around the world, generally found during holiday celebrations. From appetizer to dessert, pull your inspiration from a different culture and holiday tradition for each course. For your appetizer, showcase the Moroccan dish that is served at most celebrations: Pastilla – a mix of sweet and savory flavors enclosed in several layers of thin phyllo-like dough. For the salad, move your guests to the Middle East with the traditional Lebanese tabbouleh – a cold salad prepared with parsley, onion, tomato, and bulgur. Each course can represent a different part of the globe and broaden your guests’ understanding of fantastic holiday fare.
If your event is serving hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail-style party, you can provide guests with holiday-themed small bites with fun names and bold flavors. Imagine how guacamole spread on pita triangles sprinkled with queso fresco will become delicious snow-dusted trees. Panko-coated meatballs will become crunchy pine cone balls. Your imagination is the only limit to what you can offer, helping your guests celebrate with holiday style as they nosh their way through the night.
Action stations are gaining popularity in the culinary industry because they give guests the ability to interact with chefs and allow them to customize creations. The next time you are hosting an event, load up a station with fluffy whipped mashed potatoes served in martini glasses. Watch as guests take advantage of the truffle oils, meats, finely diced vegetables, creams, cheeses, and more, to build customized and creative loaded mashed potatoes.
Another fun and festive DIY idea for the holiday season is a hot chocolate station. Give guests the opportunity to create their favorite hot cocoa with a selection of chocolate mixers and provide them with a variety of syrups, extracts, candies, whipped creams, and more. An alcohol-friendly event can add another level of creativity and entertainment to the station with shot glasses of crème de menthe, coffee- or cinnamon-flavored liqueur, flavored vodkas (marshmallow! whipped cream!), and a variety of others. Speaking of alcohol, don’t forget to celebrate in style with holiday-themed cocktails. Use those popular winter flavors – cranberries, pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger, candied fruit, nuts, and peppermint – to create festive cocktails that feature the season’s favorite flavors.
Perhaps the most popular food during the holiday season is dessert. But dessert doesn’t always have to be the tried-and-true holiday offerings. Dessert time is another opportunity to draw inspiration from desserts around the world to create memorable dessert fusions. For example, combine the French Bûche de Noel with gingerbread. Merge the Austrian Linzer pinwheels with the similarly spiraled rugelach. Make a fruitcake babka. Or turn Mexican wedding cookies into cut-out cookies in a variety of shapes and sizes. Again, the only limit here is your creativity.
Whatever the focus of your holiday meeting or event, it is important to remain mindful of the various dates and events that are important to a wide range of cultures and religions. Not only does it show your commitment to inclusiveness and cultural awareness, but it will also open up your culinary offerings to infinite possibilities.
To learn more about Chef Martin Lopez, visit his website at www.ChefMartin.net.