Should you go for the sirloin with a salad or get creative with Asian-inspired dishes? We asked five caterers to come up with the perfect wedding menu and found that the answer depends on what you and your fiancé (and your guests) love, be it classic or a little more edgy. "There's no right lineup," is a sentiment we heard from a lot of chefs and caterers; nevertheless, these groupings are meant to guide you before you sit down with your caterer to decide what you should serve at your wedding.
A Summery Trio
For a summer bride, New York City-based caterer Peter Callahan recommends a warm-weather trio that works for both formal and informal weddings. A first course of caprese salad includes heirloom tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and red amaranth—a fuchsia-hued green with a mild beet-like flavor—with chive oil.
For the main course, "halibut is a delicious light, meaty fish for summer," says Callahan. "It's one of the most popular, and reasonable for chefs to cook one hundred or more servings at a time." Served on a bed of sautéed bok choy, his version is seasoned with sea salt, extra-virgin olive oil, and a little fresh cracked black pepper, then seared to caramelize the outside; summery vegetables accompany the fish—artichokes, Brussels-sprout leaves, yellow beats, baby carrots, caramelized shoots, and fresh herbs.
And a pleasingly simple treat comprises the final course. "Donuts remind me of summer," he says, recalling local shops in East Hampton and Nantucket that display homemade ones in the window. Of course, donuts at a wedding should be a bit different than the usual, like chocolate with coarse sugar and chocolate ganache; lemon glazed with lemon curd; and the classic donut flavor with raspberry sauce.
Inspired by the foods of her Virginia childhood—fresh garden tomatoes, lots of pork—caterer Sam Kim chose Southern classics for this menu. Her first course features two regional staples: fried green tomatoes and black-eyed peas, paired with a roasted-tomato marmalade that's savory, not sweet. "Tomatoes in the South are amazing," says the owner of the Brooklyn-based Skimkim Catering, who used to grow them in her front yard and who now sources them from local farmer's markets.
As for the main course, "you don't always have to go the filet route," says Kim. A case in point: Shrimp and grits with greens and a stylish twist—an over-easy quail egg, which is slightly milder than hens' eggs.
For dessert, Kim suggests a pecan praline and bourbon caramel milkshake. Together, the sugary caramel and the silky Kentucky bourbon offer a charming mix of kid-like and grown-up tastes—and a sweetly fanciful finish to any reception.
Dim Sum Style
A wedding menu doesn't have to be all-American, and dim-sum—snack-size Chinese dishes—gives couples a chance to branch out. "What we do is a fusion of American and Chinese dishes," explains Rick Gresh, executive chef of the James Hotel and David Burke's Primehouse. "This menu could be for a formal or informal wedding," he says, "depending on the presentation. It's a little more luxurious than other dim-sum menus." In this case, the first and main courses can be interchanged. The tapas-like dishes shown are, from left to right: mac-and-cheese, pastrami salmon, pan-roasted salmon with bok choy, tuna and salmon tartare, and Kobe beef sashimi with Himalayan pink salt.
Consider serving lobster or vegetable dumplings as well; for guests who might hanker for more familiar fare, Gresh suggests including mini cheese burgers in the lineup, made wedding-worthy with asiago cheese skins. "We deep-fry the skins and toss them with truffle oil," he explains.
For dessert, a chocolate cake layered with chocolate mousse and fudge provides a rich finish to a night of savory bites.
Inspired by "this great outdoor space we have in the back that's a little more informal," Hyatt Century Plaza catering director Duane Mah likes a first course of fresh fruits or Santa-Barbara shrimp with lemon and basil for a morning or early-afternoon wedding. Light, snappy flavors lend a festive touch to a brunch reception without being too overwhelming.
For the main course, a choice of omelets or Belgian waffles gives guests the chance to enjoy a classic breakfast. "We prepare the omelets on site and grill them there with garlic and lemon and, if people want, some pasta," says Mah, who points out that a brunch menu tends to work well as a buffet.
Unlike with an evening affair, dessert doesn't have to be served last: French pastries, apricot scones, and fruit-filled Danishes introduce just the right amount of sweetness but, depending on guest preferences (and if served as part of a buffet), can be eaten at any time during the meal—underlining the laid-back tone that makes brunch so popular. "People can go up and choose whatever," Mah points out.
A New Orleans Buffet
For brides throwing an informal affair of any size, buffets are an easy, guest-friendly option—people are likely to find a dish or two they love. Owned by brothers Dean and Jean-Pierre Pigéon (pronounced "pee-shon"), Pigéon Catering specializes in buffets that feature traditional New Orleans dishes, including Cajun-spiced meats and fresh seafood. As part of a buffet, Pigéon proposes a first course of crab and crawfish (slightly more assertive tasting than lobster) cakes, a Louisiana specialty. (If you're going the buffet route, Pigéon recommends also including lighter fare such as a Cajun Cesar salad flavored with cracked black pepper.)
For the main course, a garlic stuffed roast "is always a big hit at weddings" says Pigéon accounts director Gina Lopinto; servers carve the chicken on the spot. Kiwi-and-strawberry tarts "go well with most wedding cakes" says Lopinto; their fresh flavor cleanses the palate, and the bright hues lend a cheerful tone.
An Italian-inspired Lineup
Known for his seasonally-appropriate menus and chic presentation, Peter Callahan came up with a European- and Tuscan-inflected menu for brides. His first course: an artichoke tower with artichoke bottoms, wild mushrooms, parmesan, baby celery, and bok choy flowers—which have a hint of the sweet-cabbage taste of baby bok choy—with basil oil.
For the main course, "osso bucco is a classic recipe and a great hearty fall or winter dish," says Callahan, whose take on the Italian dish of veal shank includes a demiglace, lemon fontina polenta, sauteed brocoli rabe, roasted garlic, and caramelized shallots. And topped with chestnut puree and whipped cream, a Monte Bianco—Italian for "white mountain" and made with toasted meringue—offers a rich and decadent end to the evening.
Caterer Sam Kim of Skimkim Catering likes to shake things up. "Part of my job is changing the way people think about food," she says. Instead of a dainty first course, she recommends a group of flavors that's both outdoorsy and subtly sophisticated—watermelon with goat cheese, fresh mint, and arugula. "It sounds like what? when you read it but it's the most refreshing salad ever," says Kim.
In keeping with the picnic-worthy dishes, Kim suggests roasted pork shoulder with grilled corn for a main course; butter-bean succotash and hush puppies drizzled with honey-butter maple syrup offer a medley of sweet and mild flavors that contrast nicely with the fresh corn and rich pork.
For dessert, try a playful twist on a campsite favorite: s'mores, or what Kim calls "smash n' burn s'mores on fire." In her version, a torch is used to crisp the marshmallows and melt the chocolate, but the real fun is in the serving: The s'mores are placed over an espresso glass filled with rum or another flammable liqueur and individually lighted for each guest, who can decide how crispy the marshmallow should be.
For a bride and groom who'd like a more conventional wedding menu—but with seasonings and ingredients that make it stand out—a salad with super-fresh ingredients makes an excellent first course. Baby iceberg lettuces, tomatoes, red onion, blue cheese, and watercress drizzled with a tomato vinaigrette provide a light-but-invigorating collection of flavors.
Executive chef Rick Gresh at the James Hotel suggests a bone-in filet or salmon as the main course; the key to ensuring the dishes live up to the occasion lies in the preparation. "Ours is incredibly tender due to the cut," explains Gresh of the filet, while the salmon is seared to create a crispy skin and flaky inside; lemon zest and bok choy add "some Asian flair" that elevates the dish above the everyday.
"For the dessert I thought it would be fun to have our cake-in-a-can instead of the traditional wedding cake," says Gresh. The idea is that the red-velvet cake is baked fresh and then iced with vanilla cream-cheese frosting right at the table, where it's served with triple vanilla bean ice-cream; guests are sure to feel cared for.
A Fancy Fete
For a big, upscale wedding, Duane Mah, catering director at the Hyatt Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, suggests an elegant first course of spiced poached pear with chilled asparagus soup sip. "We like to customize our menus to what the bride and groom love, and we also suggest what's in season at the time—what's fresh," says Mah; pears and asparagus are generally in season in spring or summer, depending on region and type.
For the main course, Mah recommends a delicious, much-loved classic: center-cut prime filet mignon. At a large, traditional reception, the wedding cake is, of course, likely to take center stage for dessert; in addition, Mah likes to set out platters of petit-fours in colors that complement the party's palette. Overall, the evening starts with mild, fresh flavors, segues to a rich main course and finishes with small, sweet treats—a stylishly complementary array of flavors.
Comfort Food, Louisiana Style
For a fall or winter wedding, consider richly-flavored meats complemented with festive, tropical flavors. New Orleans-based Pigéon Catering suggests starting with "a local favorite," says staffer Gina Lopinto: miniature muffalettas-tiny sandwiches stuffed with salami, ham, olives, and garlic.
For the main course, try comfort food with a kick-meatballs enlivened with Cajun spices. (And for a buffet, both of these items work well with the dishes suggested in the previous slide.)
Bananas foster-bananas and vanilla ice-cream drizzled with rum and sprinkled with brown sugar, cinnamon, and rum and then lit on fire to lightly caramelize the sauce-make an excellent dessert choice because "guests get a show," points out Lopinto. As waiters flambée the tropical concoction, the flames that shoot up and then fizzle out will cast a sweet glow over the reception.
For more menu ideas, visit the Brides.com Planning Your Wedding Menu feature.