It's the biggest question each time holiday menu planning rolls around: What should the show-stopping, center-ofthe- plate ideas be this year?
Sure, everyone expects turkey, ham or prime rib, but what’s an unusual twist that can be applied to those main proteins to make them extra-special this time?
At Stryker, the orthopedic manufacturing company headquartered in Mahwah, NJ, Catering Manager Bill Doyle, CEC, was determined to do something different from “the ubiquitous poultry dishes” for his holiday menu last year.
What he came up with was a coffee-rubbed pork loin served with a bing cherry sauce for customers at this Whitson’s-operated account. Combining ground kona coffee with some cocoa powder, cinnamon, orange zest and salt and pepper, Doyle created a simple yet intriguing rub with a sweet-bitter balance that was offset by a savory wine and cherry sauce.
“It was really popular,” he says, noting that customers especially welcomed the out-ofthe- ordinary presentation. “We’ll definitely do it again.”
Mix It Up
After success with his “diversity meals” (special theme menus highlighting different global cuisines) in the cafeteria of Holy Spirit Hospital in Camp Hill, PA, Sodexho Executive Chef Tom Long decided to borrow the idea as a springboard for the annual doctors’ holiday dinner party last year.
To get his guests into the seasonal party mood first, though, he carved a Christmas tree cocktail luge ice sculpture, complete with funnels and tubes, that trickled out green cosmopolitans and apple martinis to the duly impressed attendees.
Then, using “a taste of holidays around the world” as the theme, he featured a slew of creative entree choices, including: Italian mussels marinara; Spanish-style skewers with manchego cheese, chorizo and olives; and Jamaican jerk chicken with banana salsa; Native American venison sausage and grilled onions on fry bread; Cajun blackened scallops with remoulade sauce; Grecian baby rosemary lamb chops, flambéed with brandy; English peppercorn studded tenderloin of beef (on carving station) and French veal cordon bleu (on carving station).
“People seemed to be very excited about this approach,” Long says. “We usually have about 125 guests at the dinner, but word got out about the theme, and we ended up with around 175.”
Up the road at Pennsylvania State University, Corporate Executive Chef Bill Laychur and staff planned an even less traditional meal for last year’s festivities.
“We had done Winter Wonderland type of presentations in the past, but thought it was time to do something a little different,” he explains. “So the holiday theme meal committee came up with a Miami Ice Dinner idea, as a break from all the snow here in central Pennsylvania.”
Decked out with pink flamingoes, glittery palm trees, some sand, sun lamps stationed over chaise lounges and other southern Florida touches, the dining halls welcomed students in a “borderline tacky way—on purpose, of course,” says Associate Director Lisa Wandel. “The students loved it.”
And who wouldn’t, with entrees such as spiced and grilled turkey breasts with orange, apple and cranberry salsa, and roasted and carved Miami-style pork loin garnished with green chive oil and red pepper coulis (they had to get those Christmas colors in there somewhere). Elsewhere on the menu, students indulged in mock hurricanes, Cuban coffee punch, Miami chowder, black beans and corn, mashed sweet potato casserole, key lime pie, and more.
One of the greatest boons to holiday menu planning comes from easy-to-use ingredients and embellishments that can create a surprising and celebratory effect, transforming common center-of-the-plate proteins into instant holiday presentations.
These days, chefs are turning out holiday entrees with lots of eye-catching, sparkling glazes and sauces, from Zinfandel, cranberry and cider based glazes to berry or champagne vinegar/orange juice sauces, and sweet garlic or pomegranate reductions.
Chutneys and savory marmalades also vie as popular accompaniments, and can lend a fall fruit theme or even bring a little taste of summer into a winter dish. Good picks range from Granny Smith Apple, malt apple, and sour cherry to fried green tomato, rhubarb, mango, peach, red onion, and others.
Simply topping entrees with a fan of fresh, sliced, seasonal fruit (like persimmons, kumquats or tangerines) or poached/roasted fruit (such as quince, pears, apples and cranberries) provides an extra dash of flavor, color and festivity, too.
Lots of simple crusts and rubs are popping up on holiday main dish preparations now, such as the packaged hashbrowns mixed with herbs and seasonings idea that Executive Chef Alan Zimmerman created to make his special occasion Potato-and-Herb-Crusted Chicken at SAS in Cary, NC. Shredded sweet potatoes make for another seasonal take on crusts, along with pumpkin, sesame and other seeds; seasonal and exotic nuts; varieties of sea salts; pink peppercorns; smoked paprika; and other herb mixtures.
College holiday customs have come a long way from the staid—and, by today’s standards, none-too-inviting—roasted pig with an apple in its mouth approach, as depicted above in this old, Oxford tradition. Here are some of the center-of-the-plate specialties that recently graced the December holiday menus for cafeteria or catered events at several U.S. colleges and universities:
• Carved, Marinated London Broil with Seasonal Sauces—Virginia Tech
Pan-Roasted Duck Breast in Walnut Crust with Spiced Apple Malt Chutney
Roast Cornish Game Hens with Sautéed Blueberries and Garlic
Lamb Leg with Roasted Potatoes
Wild Shrimp and Scallops with Orange Juice
Coffee-Rubbed Pork Loin with Bing Cherry Sauce
Blackened Sea Scallops with Remoulade Sauce
Zinfandel Orange Glazed Fried Turkey
Potato & Herb-Crusted Chicken