My friend Stephanie Hibbert, aka Chef Stephanie the Culinary Mistress, is a caterer in San Francisco. I’ve known her since we cooked together at Millennium. I’ve always admired Stephanie because she keeps a cool head under pressure, and that’s not easy to do when you have a roomful of hungry guests waiting on you. These days, Stephanie is the catering mastermind behind Locally Grown Weddings, a cooperative of green wedding vendors who plan eco-chic weddings from start to finish. I can’t think of anyone better to give advice to cooks on staying calm and organized throughout the holiday season. I asked Stephanie to share some of her catering secrets, and here is what she said.
Louisa: At this time of year, when people cook elaborate meals for big groups, it’s easy to get stressed out. What advice would you give a home cook on how to stay organized?
Stephanie: Make lists! Shopping lists, prep lists and even a timeline for what you plan to accomplish each day and at what time. Look at your menu and determine what must be prepared the day of the event, then work backwards. You can design a menu that allows you to prepare many items a day or two ahead of time, freeing you up to focus on fewer dishes the day of your party. Creating structure will allow you to enjoy each step of the process.
L: When throwing a dinner, should you be adventurous, or stick with good old tried-and-true recipes?
S: That depends. If you are confident when trying out a new dish and know how to adjust flavors that don’t taste quite right, I say, “Go for it.” However, if you would be nervous in that situation, play it safe and stick to dishes you know will be successful.
L: How do you politely keep guests (or husbands/wives who aren’t cooking) out of your way in the kitchen?
S: I hand them an apron and tell them to put it on and help out, or get out of the way!
L: Do you like to cook in front of guests, or do you prefer to have everything done ahead of time?
S: I don’t mind when guests arrive while I am still prepping, because many of my friends like to jump in the kitchen with me and help out. It’s fun to share tips with them like knife skills and how to season certain dishes.
L: In the tradition of the great Julia Child, do you like to sip wine while you cook?
S: I prefer to reward myself with a glass of wine after the work is done. But if I pop open a bottle for a recipe, it’s usually a little too tempting not to have a little taste.
L: Of course you want your meal to be fabulous, but when you’re hosting, you also want to look gorgeous. At what point do you put down your knife and go do your make-up and hair?
S: About an hour before the party starts, I take a break from cooking and “freshen up”. This gives me enough time to put the finishing touches on myself before putting finishing touches on the food.
L: Shopping at the farmer’s market can be unpredictable. As someone who likes to cook with seasonal and organic ingredients, and support local farmers, how do you keep meals locally sourced when you’re under time constraints?
S: I go to the farmer’s market first and get as many ingredients there as I possibly can, and then I go to the grocery store for anything that I couldn’t find. It actually works out well, because these days, more and more grocery stores have information about where ingredients are sourced from, giving you the opportunity to buy a local and/or organic product there. You can still be really organized and shop at the farmer’s market if you’re familiar with your farmers and what they will have available. I regularly stop by the farmer’s market when I am not shopping for an event, just to see what’s there and to get inspiration for my next menu.
L: What’s a simple, foolproof snack to serve to guests before a big meal, without filling them up? Could you share the recipe?
S: Seared ahi tuna on cucumber chips with black sesame seeds. I love this dish because it looks beautiful, and it’s super easy. It’s also light, so it won’t spoil your guest’s appetites for the main meal. Have a platter of these out when your guests arrive, so they can munch on them over cocktails before sitting down to eat. You can make back-up platters and pull them out of the fridge when you need them.
Seared Ahi Tuna on Cucumber Chips with Black Sesame Seeds
Black sesame seeds make a dramatic garnish. You can find them at Asian grocery stores and natural food stores. On top of the bright pink tuna, the black seeds make this hors d’oeuvre look like a tiny watermelon slice! Serves 12 as an hors d’oeuvre.
¾ of a pound of Ahi tuna, 1 ¼-1 ½ inches thick
2-inch piece of fresh ginger
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon tamari (soy sauce)
1 English cucumber
4 tablespoons black sesame seeds
Peel the ginger and finely grate it on a microplane zester. In a small bowl, whisk the ginger with the sesame oil and tamari. Coat the tuna with the ginger mixture and marinate in the refrigerator for ½ hour.
Sear the tuna in a hot pan, 1-2 minutes on each side, until just the outside turns white. The inside should still be pink. Let the tuna cool in the refrigerator.
Slice the cucumber into ¼-inch thick “chips.” Slice the tuna into squares ¼-inch thick. The tuna pieces should be smaller than the cucumber slices, so they fit on top easily.
Top each cucumber slice with a piece of tuna. Season with a pinch of sea salt and the sesame seeds.