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FOOD FOR FETES: SEASON'S EATINGS FOR HOLIDAY MENUS

CATERERS AND THEIR clients concur: The holidays are no time for dwelling on diets. In line with the ongoing trend, this season will see a bounty of traditional comfort foods, rich sweets and festive cocktails on party menus. But keeping up with tradition doesn't mean shying away from innovative twists in presentation.

ALL AMERICAN

Its New England location means that The Catered Affair, Hingham, Mass., Must cater to some of the country's most traditional tastes — especially during the holidays. Among clients' most-requested seasonal menu items are hearty beef and Yorkshire pudding, which hearken back to the region's British roots, and turkey and stuffing — a nod to the company's proximity to historic Plymouth, Mass.

But vice president of sales and marketing Andrew Marconi says even classics are being updated to keep pace with the current culinary scene. For instance, instead of tried-and-true lamb with mint jelly, The Catered Affair might prepare an espresso-rubbed leg of lamb and serve it plated with a trio of mustards. “It's the same traditional lamb, but more contemporary in flavor and feel,” Marconi explains.

On holiday buffets, he says, event guests “love to see heavier foods, and they love the ‘bad’ starches.” To satisfy those seasonal cravings, the company will stock stations with items such as cranberry-glazed duck and acorn-squash risotto spiked with cinnamon.

The Catered Affair also is careful to make sure vegetarians are included in the hearty-but-hip approach to holiday catering. This season, Marconi says, his vegetarian diners can expect such signature specialties as the company's sweet potato “firecrackers” — stuffed pasta tubes tied on each end with chives, resembling the traditional “Christmas cracker” toy.

SO SOUTHWEST

Down in Austin, Texas, holiday dining often is an on-your-feet affair, according to senior event planner Myra Adkins of the city's Word of Mouth Catering.

To accommodate guests who tend to party-hop, Adkins says, her company focuses on “one- or two-bite butlered items” and lively buffets. Popular nibbles include wild mushroom tartlets served with crème fraîche, and Chambord-glazed figs with brie. Meanwhile, stations might feature pecan-crusted salmon, or smoked beef tenderloin with salsify-horseradish cream served alongside potato rolls so guests can assemble sandwiches. Accompanying reception-friendly foods, Adkins adds, are seasonal beverages including spiced cider, wassail and cranberry margaritas garnished with sugared cranberries.

Because of the area's location and heritage, Mexican-influenced items also are in demand for the holidays, according to Adkins. The most beloved, she notes, is the tamale, which Word of Mouth turns out in various versions including lobster, duck and the traditional poblano pepper and Jack cheese.

All the spice is nice, Adkins says, but Word of Mouth makes sure to satisfy sweet-lovers as well. Guests might find themselves enjoying a chocolate “babycake” topped with peppermint frosting and crushed peppermint candies, accompanied by a hot chocolate “shot” with from-scratch marshmallows. The Catered Affair's signature dish is a molten chocolate bombe featuring a warm liquid center.

BAY VIEW

While Austin residents are keeping it casual, San Francisco-based Global Gourmet Catering's holiday clients are leaning toward formal, sit-down dinners. Says director of marketing Laurence Whiting, “I think that's because it feels more intimate, and we're in a time when people want to feel like they're drawing closer together and creating a stronger sense of community.”

While dining style tends toward the traditional, Global Gourmet's culinary creations are anything but. At holiday parties, hors d'oeuvre are likely to include lobster mousse in demitasse spoons, or sushi cones filled with tuna tartare. Entree choices may include grilled lamb with a Cabernet jus, or pan-seared striped-bass fillet with a caper and Meyer lemon butter. It's a food trend Whiting calls “very California holiday — stick to your ribs, but still with that style.”

“And, speaking of California,” he adds, “there's a lot of consciousness here of the environment, and of seafood and fish that are over-fished or endangered.” To help clients keep close to the spirit of the season, Whiting might suggest Pacific striped bass — a fish in abundant supply — instead of nearly exhausted Chilean sea bass, he says.

Whatever tack clients take with their menu choices, the most prevalent trend of this season's celebrations is “not so much toward lavishness, but to leaving guests with the impression that time, attention to detail and care have been put into the party,” Whiting says. “A lot of corporations stopped doing their holiday parties. I find that the ones that are doing them are making an effort to make guests feel special. And they're ordering champagne.”




RESOURCES: Global Gourmet Catering, 415/701-0001; The Catered Affair, 781/982-9333; Word of Mouth Catering, 512/472-9500

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