Think simple for at-home weddingsProper planning should help you put together a memorable affair

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Scene 1:

”Hi Mom, I have a great surprise for you: Ilsa and I got married last week here in Berlin. We are coming home next month so you can meet her. Do you think we could have a small wedding at the house for some friends and family? No big deals, please.”

Fade to speechless and stunned mother.

Scene 2:

”Honey, I met the most wonderful man at my line-dancing class. We are getting married next month. Can we do a small reception for 25 at your house? Nothing fancy.”

Fade to shocked and frantic daughter.

Whether it’s the first or second time around, an at-home wedding sounds like a big deal, even for something as small as 25 guests. On such short notice and at the height of the season, caterers are likely to be unavailable and you want to do better than deli platters. Don’t panic. You can do this. Breathe deeply and start planning. It is easier than you imagine and actually can be fun.

Think cold. Think simple. Think single-ingredient dishes. Prepare about two hours a day starting four days in advance. Hire – or coax – someone to help on the day of the party and you can feel almost like a guest. The goal is to reduce the amount of slicing and dicing, chopping and schlepping so you have a smile on your face that is sincere.

Serve buffet-style with several tables around for seating. Pull out all your dishes; things do not have to match. Four of this, six of that, eight of something else makes the table interesting. Serve foods that do not need to be cut, reducing the amount of cutlery. Roll the fork in a napkin for easy handling when going through the line. Prepare two large platters of each item so you are ready to replace an empty plate instantly.

It is important to spend money on quality ingredients; they will save you time in the end. Shrimp that is shelled and deveined is more expensive , but you have saved your back hours of standing over the sink and thus have time to make a more interesting marinade. Although more expensive than a whole turkey, fresh turkey breasts are easy to cook and go a long way. Rub with fresh rosemary, coarse salt, and pepper. Roast and baste with V-8 juice. Refrigerate and slice the next day.

Roasted vegetable medleys are great but not when you are cutting, peeling, and trimming several varieties for 25 people. Better to make a spectacular splash with a comely mound of asparagus and a great dressing.

When cooking, keep in mind that buffet servings are not calculated the same as sit-down meals. With several choices, guests usually take less of each one. Figure about 1/4 pound of meat per person and about 3/4 cup of each side dish. Shrimp defies calculations; rule of thumb is 4-6 per person, but we all have seen people park themselves in front of these platters popping shrimp in their mouth at an alarming rate. Buy plenty.

An open bar is unnecessary. It doesn’t matter that Uncle Max likes 25-year-old scotch. Nor do you have to have every brand of soda on the market. We often anticipate negative waves that just don’t materialize. One type of juice, usually cranberry, sparkling water, cola, wine, and perhaps a Bellini cocktail (made with Asti Spumante or non-alcoholic sparkling cider and crushed strawberries) are nice offerings for a summer’s day. (Remember, this is lunch.)

Now for dessert. A big glass punch bowl full of strawberries makes a beautiful presentation. Don’t even remove the hulls. Serve with bowls of sour cream and brown sugar for a traditional New England dipping experience. Then try this strawberry-filled Angel Food Tunnel Cake as a creative alternative to a traditional wedding cake. You can assemble this light and delicious cake a week in advance. It will be festive, seasonal, and most important, you never turn on the oven. You will not be sent to cook’s purgatory for using a store-bought cake. This is a snap.

Shop with a list, stick to your menu, and don’t get seduced by great buys. They are not great if they create more work. Try not to second-guess yourself; that is the hardest thing.

Jo-Jo’s Spicy Marinated Citrus Shrimp (Adapted from a recipe in Gourmet 1999 – Serves 25)

6 pounds uncooked large shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 orange
1/4 cup water
2 limes
1/4 cup sugar
2 lemons
2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon coriander powder
4 tablespoons kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons McCormack’s pickling spice
3/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons tarragon

Remove the zest (skin) and pith (white inner coating) from the orange, lemons, and limes. Squeeze the juices into a large bowl. Add zests, coriander powder, oil, vinegar, sugar, tarragon, mustard, red pepper, water, and 3 tablespoons kosher salt, and mix well with a whisk.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pickling spices and 1 tablespoon salt and cook the shrimp (in two batches, if necessary) for about 11/2 minutes. Drain in colander and put shrimp in marinade while warm. Mix to coat.

Divide into large plastic bags and refrigerate overnight in flat layers.

Serve Cold.

Cold Grilled Flank Steak in Honey French Dressing Marinade (Serves 25)

7 pounds flank steak
Make this easy honey French dressing or use bottled.
2/3 cup honey
2/3 cup chili sauce
2 cups salad oil (canola is best)
3/4 cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 onion, grated
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

Wash and dry flank steaks. Place in deep foil pans. Rub in garlic and onion powders, salt, pepper and paprika.

Mix all marinade ingredients together well. Pour over steaks and refrigerate at least four hours or overnight. (To prepare even further ahead, place steaks and marinade in plastic bags, seal, and freeze. Thaw before cooking.)

Fire up the grill and cook steaks 7-8 minutes per side. Remove from grill. Let cool. Wrap in foil and refrigerate.

Slice steaks when cold, against the grain. Serve with grained mustard.

Asparagus with Sesame Mayonnaise

5 bunches asparagus
1 lemon, sliced
1 cup light mayonnaise
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 cup plain yogurt
2-3 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup roasted sesame seeds
kosher salt

Trim bottom off asparagus spears. Cut spears in half on diagonal.

Bring a large pot of water to boiling. Add lemon slices. Cook asparagus for 3 minutes, in batches if necessary. Plunge spears into cold water and drain. Chill up to one day in refrigerator.

Mix all dressing ingredients except sesame seeds and salt in a large bowl.

Pile half the asparagus on a large serving plate. Toss with 2-3 teaspoons kosher salt.

Just before serving put on half the dressing and toss. Sprinkle on sesame seeds. Do same with the second platter.

Strawberry Mousse Angel Food Cake

This no-bake wedding cake is an assembly project and can be done a week in advance. Make 3 cakes for 25 people.

1 store-bought angel food cake
1 quart strawberries – half for filling, half for decorating
2 cups whipping cream or non-dairy whipped topping
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1 teaspoon vanilla
boiling water
fresh mint for decoration

Cut a 2-inch deep slice across the top of the cake. Remove the piece and reserve.

Cut a bowl from the interior of the cake, leaving walls and bottom of cake at least 1 inch thick. You are creating a cavity for the filling.

Crush 1 cup fresh strawberries with a potato masher.

Whip 2 cups of fresh cream with 1/2 cup powdered sugar. Stir in vanilla.

Soften gelatin in 1 tablespoon cold water. Mix with 2 tablespoons boiling water until dissolved. Add to crushed strawberries.

Place half the whipped cream in a bowl. Reserve remainder for frosting. Fold in strawberries.

Fill the cavity of the cake with mixture. Place circle back on top of the cake.

Let set in refrigerator for an hour. Freeze and then frost while frozen with remaining whipped cream.

Remove from freezer 1/2 hour before serving. Place on platter. Decorate around the base with strawberry halves and fresh mint.

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