Do-Ahead Party for a Crowd – Easy Appetizer Menu (Part 1 of 3)

“Cabbage Bowl” and Vegetables Ready for Dressing and Service

When our son Alex, who lives in New York City, asked for help with his upcoming “house-warming” party, I was delighted.

ME:  Would you like me to fly out and help?  The party sounds like fun!

ALEX:  Well, I hate to trouble you.  If you could just send me some ideas, that would be nice.  I was especially interested in the recipe for those Asian rolls.  

ME:  Oh, I’m shocked.  You don’t want your parents to attend your first big party?? 🙂

Needless to say, the end result was not a trip to New York – just this blog post and plans to see the new apartment some other time.  It is probably all for the best.  I get to blog, Alex and his girlfriend Amelia get help with their party, and they don’t have Mom and Dad hovering when their guests arrive.

On to party planning.  As a private chef, I learned that the secret to a successful client party was the right menu. So, the first thing I do when planning a menu is set my criteria – for the final menu and for the process of getting there.  If I was only concerned with the final result, I could plan any kind of last-minute, labor-intensive, prohibitively expensive menu. But that would not consider the limits of my process (time, skills, kitchen attributes, budget). I’ve made foie gras for a crowd of 50, but that was working in a commercial kitchen.  Nearly anything is possible with a small army of hired cooks, a commercial kitchen and a big budget.  But for most home cooks, that is not reality.

So, when Alex and Amelia said they are serving appetizers to about 40 people, I started  by setting menu criteria.  He lives in a small apartment (does anyone live in a large apartment in NY City?), so kitchen space is limited.  Since this is his first very big bash, he is willing to accept a moderate (rather than chintzy) budget.  He and his girlfriend both work long hours so time is a big issue. This leads us to the following process:

  • All items must be do-ahead except for heating, cutting and plating.
  • Most items should be served at room temperature due to kitchen (oven) constraints.
  • At least two items should be vegetarian and gluten-free since there are too many guests to determine dietary restrictions ahead of time.
  • Many of the items should score high on style and presentation –  as there’s nothing better than some eye appeal to get people intrigued by your food.
  • Include a mix of basic dishes (for the fussy eaters) and some international fare for the  more adventurous.

In the vegetarian category, I’ve selected two cold trays and a warm (or room temperature) tart.  In the meat category, there is one hot meatball dish as well as two cold meat dishes.   If you would like to go a bit heavier on the meat, you can add a plate with a cured meats next to the cheese board. An Italian deli will offer a good variety – ranging from mild to spicy.


Kefta in Tomato Sauce (Morocco)

Parsnip, Onion and Tomato Tart with Fresh Tarragon (France)

Vegetable Platter with Roquefort Dressing (United States)

Traditional Cheese Board (England)

Thai Chicken Salad in Wonton Cups (Thailand)

Asian Rolls  (China)

If you would like to make this entire menu, follow the links to the highlighted recipes; the other two are described here.

Other ideas for elegant, easy, do-ahead appetizers:

Chard, Cheese and Smoked Bacon Mini-Tarts  

Crab Muffins

Pickled Cucumbers

Root Vegetable Baskets

Vegetable Platter with Roquefort Dressing (United States)

The vegetable platter components, “cabbage bowl” and the dressing can be prepared ahead – the dressing up to a few days before and the vegetables the day before (if properly wrapped) or the day of your event.   When vegetables are cut/chopped ahead, the closer to service is best, but, in a pinch, these can be made the day before, wrapped in damp paper towels and then tightly closed in plastic bags.  The bags keep the moisture in, and the paper towels keep a bit of air between the vegetables and the plastic bag.  Cut celery and carrots can be stored in plastic containers in a bit of cold water (not submerged — just a bit on the bottom of the dish).

Almost any vegetable selection will work, but it won’t surprise you to know that I like to mix my colors.   So, I try to get green, yellow, red, white, etc.    The tray shown includes broccoli, daikon (Japanese radish), yellow squash, carrots, celery and sweet red pepper.  I always use a red cabbage for the dressing bowl as it give a great dash of intense color.

Tools for Making Your “Cabbage Bowl”. Cabbage Shown with Top and Bottom Trimmed.

To hollow the bowl you’ll need a sharp paring or birds beak (shown) knife and a large “melon baller”.   First, slice a thin layer off the base of the cabbage – to keep it steady on your serving platter.  Then slice off a bit more on the top – enough to create an opening for your “bowl”.  Carefully (!) cut at an angle towards the center all the way around – leaving about 3/4 inch for the rim. Then use the “melon baller” to scoop out balls of cabbage until you get your desired bowl shape (reserve cabbage for another use). Be sure you don’t poke through the base of your cabbage (or you’ll lose all your nice dressing in a puddle).

“Cabbage Bowl”

For service, place your bowl on the platter and arrange cut vegetables around it.  You can add fresh herbs or colored peppers for further garnishes if you like.  Cover and keep chilled if you do this more than 1 hour before service.

At service, fill your bowl with dressing and you’re done!

Vegetable Platter with “Cabbage Bowl”, Sage Garnish and Roquefort Dressing

My favorite dressing for this platter is Roquefort (below).  And I insist on Roquefort (blue cheese from Roquefort, France) and not just any old blue cheese.  It is expensive, but you don’t need much and it makes a better dressing.  Another fun dressing is Green Goddess.   While the store-bought variety is uninspired, the home version is delightful and it adds great color to the platter.  If you’d like the Green Goddess recipe, just let me know.

Roquefort Dressing

Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC

1 cup mayonnaise, do not use low fat
1/2 cup sour cream
5 ounces Roquefort cheese
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon pepper, black
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste


1. Chop/crumble Roquefort cheese.  Roquefort makes a better dressing than many other blue cheeses, so I always stick with Roquefort. It is soft and silky which gives a good texture to the dressing, and it has a lovely sweet flavor. 

2. Place cheese in a mixing bowl.  Add all remaining ingredients.  Whisk briskly until well blended. (Do not puree or your dressing will be a dull grey color.)  Chill for at least an hour so flavors blend and store up to a week.  

Traditional Cheese Board (England)

Cheese Board. Clockwise from top, White Cheddar, Stilton, Warwickshire Truckle, Cornish Yarg and Double Gloucester

For the cheese board, I like to select a variety of cheese that include:  both hard/soft textures, light/dark colors and sharp/mild flavors.  You can garnish with grapes, nuts and/or small bowls of chutney/fig/quince, all of which complement the cheese.  The cheese board shown includes a sharp white cheddar, Cornish Yarg (with blue-green nettle rind),  Double Gloucester (bright gold), Warwickshire Truckle and a Stilton.    Depending where you live, these particular cheeses may not be available, but they represent a good balance of flavor, color and texture. Look for a similar mix of these characteristics.

For service, I like to have  my tray and all the components planned, wrapped and ready in the refrigerator.   About an hour before guests arrive, I unwrap and assemble.  It can and should be left at room temperature to bring out the flavors of the cheeses.  Serve the whole mix with a cracker assortment (which can also be placed in your service dish and wrapped ahead of time).

Cheese Board with Cracker Assortment

Putting it All Together

Once I have my menu selected, I usually put together a shopping/preparation schedule for the week.   If you can’t work out a schedule, it probably means you are trying to do too much.  In this case, you could make fewer items (more of each) or add some store-bought items.

Include in your shopping paper plates, utensils, glasses and cocktail napkins if you don’t have enough regular dishes in stock.

Finally, I like to think through serving dishes and service location.   If there is sufficient space, it may be nice to put food out in two places.  This will keep all your guests from crowding into one space.  Or you can just keep bar items in one location and food in another — as that will usually keep people traipsing back and forth 🙂

That’s it.  Relax and enjoy the preparations.

19 thoughts on “Do-Ahead Party for a Crowd – Easy Appetizer Menu (Part 1 of 3)

  1. What an awesome Mum you are, J! I, too thought the cabbage was inspired (and so gorgeously colourful).

    I had my Mum & Dad visiting from NZ last week and I made my Dad an oxtail casserole – one of his favourites. I told him it was a labour of love, and one that I would only do for him… I have no doubt the time will come when your son will cook for you in NY.

    Great post! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Do-Ahead Party for a Crowd – Easy Appetizer Menu (Part 2 of 3) | A GLOBAL GARNISH

  3. Pingback: Do-Ahead Party for a Crowd – Easy Appetizer Menu (Part 3 of 3) | A GLOBAL GARNISH

  4. I wish to be clear that I am not a pushover for food photos. At least I didn’t think so. These arrangements so well done and photographed so well are truly enjoyable.I am going to keep looking at them if you don’t mind.

  5. Very clever planning and good food choices. Particularly liked your caveat with regard to mayonnaise “do not use low fat”. I can’t think of anything “low fat” that is anything but “low taste”. I’m impressed to see that many good English cheeses in the States – they’re certainly not in France (outside Paris, that is)

    • That plate of cheeses was made and photographed in the UK. Although I have found a good source of European cheeses now that we are back in the U.S., it does not include many of my favorites. Good thing we still spend a lot of time in the UK 🙂
      Thanks for commenting. Cooking in Sens led me to your blog as I’m about to get a new camera and am looking for inspiration!

  6. I love the cabbage bowl idea! Will definitely try that next time. It’s so true that for a party, menu planning is really half the “battle.” It allows you to multi-task and manage your time with most efficiency. The actual cooking is the fun part!

  7. The cabbage is truly a show-stopper. I love it. I’m always looking for new, prepare-ahead appetizer ideas and this is excellent. Thank you so much. All the best, Terri

  8. Pingback: Easy Summer Outdoor Party Celebrating Seasonal Produce – Part 1 of 2 | A GLOBAL GARNISH

  9. Pingback: England at its Best – and a Shepherd’s Pie | A GLOBAL GARNISH

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