There's usually a starting point for your menu creation. Maybe you have a lovely leg of lamb you want to use, or your garden has just exploded with tomatoes, or you have a favorite recipe you're in the mood to make. If you're honoring someone, they might have a favorite ingredient or recipe you want to be sure to use. Or maybe there's a particular cuisine or country you want to feature. This decision is your anchor and from there you can begin to build you menu, taking the following into consideration:
• 1. Style: Is this a buffet or a sit down dinner? Indoors or outdoors? Casual or a little fancy? Several courses or all at once?
• 2. Timing: If at all possible, try to minimize as much last minute preparation as possible, as it can take you away from your guests and cause too much stress. This is where a roast chicken or a joint of meat can come in handy, as it needs to rest for several minutes before serving leaving time to focus on the sides. Lasagna is another good main dish as it is easy to prep in advance and is basically hands-off once it's in the oven.
• 3. Repetition: Try to avoid using the same or similar food in every course. It's easy to do this with cheese, for instance, or lemons. Conversely, you could do an ingredient-centric menu by highlighting a certain ingredient, showing the many ways it can be transformed in each course.
• 4. Color: Picture what your meal will look like on the plate and think about coloring. It's very easy to accidentally create an all-white meal, for example, such as chicken with mashed potatoes and cauliflower. A solution would be to swap out the cauliflower for broccoli (or add the broccoli to the cauliflower along with some slivered red pepper.) Or make mashed sweet potatoes instead of regular spuds.
• 5. Temperature: It's nice to vary this if possible. A salad course is a classic way to introduce a cool temperature. On a slighty different note, consider the time of year and avoid hot heavy meals in the summer or cool, light meals in the winter.
• 6. Balance: Don't overload the meal with too much of one flavor or texture. If you're serving a fatty cut of meat, try serving something acidic or sharp to balance out the plate. If your meal is spicy then be sure to have a cooling element, such as the classic raita with Indian food.
• 7. Familiarity: If you are planning for a dinner party, do yourself a favor and avoid recipes that you are unfamiliar with. Or, if you're a crackerjack cook and confident of your skills, at least try not to have everything be brand new to you. It's nice to rely on the tried and true for at least a few of the elements.
• 8. Cost: It's easy to go overboard when day dreaming about a menu. Unless you have unlimited funds, it's important to keep an eye on the expensive ingredients. If you do want to celebrate with something a little fancy, try limiting it to just one stellar ingredient, such as a little truffle or a gorgeous cut of meat and let it shine on its own.
• 9. Seasonality: Even if you're not a locavore, there are certain things that you want to avoid unless they're in season. Serving a salad that features raw tomatoes, such as a caprese salad, is best left until summer when tomatoes are at their best. Or take advantage of the brief fava bean season to usher in spring.
Other Considerations: The food allergies and limitations of your guests; holiday themes and traditions; space, both in your kitchen and in your dining room; dishes (do you have enough plates for a salad and a dessert course or will you have to wash them in between?)
What things do you consider when planning your menu? Any tricks or hints?
(Image: Dana Velden)