TORONTO - It's summertime and the living should be easy. That also goes for entertaining, and a chef who specializes in catering has come up with ideas to make sure you spend more time mingling with your guests.
"Especially in the summertime you want to really relax and kick back and not be stuck behind the barbecue for three hours sweating over a hot grill worrying if your steaks are overdone and trying to sort of enjoy a cocktail at the same time and entertain your guests," says chef Toben Kochman, executive chef and owner of Toben Food by Design Inc.
For summer, he suggests composed mealtime salads. Plan your menu, purchase quality seasonal ingredients, prepare them ahead and present them beautifully and you'll wow your guests and be able to participate in your function.
"If you buy great ingredients in the first place — like a steak or very nice tuna — and you treat it simply and serve it room temperature or cold it's going to taste just as amazing as something hot off the grill. And then it's done, and it's done the right way, the way you like.
"Throw the seasoning on it, the sauce and it's there," says Kochman, who trained in Paris at the Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts and cooked at the two-Michelin starred Apicius in the French city. He returned to Toronto in December 2002 to work at the acclaimed Susur restaurant owned by chef Susur Lee, then opened his catering company in 2005.
Establish a relationship with a fishmonger or butcher and ask what's fresh. A busy shop is more likely to have a high turnover of produce.
He recommends planning for 175 to 250 grams (six to eight ounces) of protein per person. That can be spread out over two or three small salads.
He recently demonstrated three meal salads for summertime entertaining — and with no need to be a slave over a barbecue: a chopped salad with an island theme topped with jerk-seared tuna, a kale-based panzanella-style salad topped with thinly sliced steak, and a potato, corn and asparagus salad topped with lobster.
The tuna and beef can be seared in a cast-iron frying pan on the stovetop and the vegetables can be roasted in the oven.
Because they're dressed with vinaigrettes rather than mayonnaise-based sauces, the salads can be left out at room temperature and also have a light flavour, more suitable to summer.
Serve the salads family-style on platters that can be set on a buffet table. Or set them out on small plates or in bowls, combining vegetables and proteins for each portion.
"We've found a lot of times these days the whole notion of tapas and small plates is really fun and really functional for guests. They can go up and graze as they please," he says.
Think about what you can do in advance. Make sauces, vinaigrettes and marinades a few days ahead to relieve stress on the day of your event.
Season your food and taste it during the preparation. Salt and pepper is key, and sometimes a touch of sugar can help balance flavours.
Take your time and don't get flustered when it comes to displaying your items," he says. "Really, it's all about having fun and having a really great time and in the end I think your guests will really, really appreciate the work that you've gone to."
Conceptualize your presentation and how you're going to execute it, says the chef's sister, Elana Kochman, who co-owns Toben Food by Design.
As an alternative to a traditional buffet-style presentation with linens that are ruffled and draped, it's more contemporary to use tiles and glass vases. She suggests purchasing tiles from flooring or hardware stores. These come in a range of colours, plain or with marbling, to suit your decor, and can be set on top of two florists' glass cubes placed side by side.
Space them out along the tabletop to create different vignettes. There is also extra space underneath to put cutlery, she says.
You can also use other types of vessels for the salads instead of plates, such as takeout-style containers made of bamboo that won't absorb the wet.
Toben Kochman says he also loves doing a couple of pre-prepared sweet bites. At this time of year, country-style biscuits or slices of purchased pound cake can easily be topped with strawberries and whipped cream for a decadent strawberry shortcake.
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