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Help am suddenly catering cocktail party for 50!

so I love to cook and often entertain with the help of my good friend. so when another friend asked if we would help her by catering an engagement party for one of her friends we discussed and then said sure!

My own engagement party was a small elegant affair - 20 people at they cooking buddy's house, lots of lovely snacks themed to me and the hubbies relationship - sushi rolls as we had that on a first date, mini puff pastry pizzas as hubbie loves pizza, lobster/citrus salad in endive leaves as we went on a vacation to the east coast and ate our weight in lobsters etc etc. I thought it would be a snap to do something similar.

Well after confirming the date we have discovered there are 50 to 60 guests. And she wants an open house with people coming and going from early evening into the night. I'm panicked. Neither of us has done an event of this size. And my instincts tell me an open house means people will want to eat more than if it was a cocktail party with a set beginning and end.

So chowfriends I'm looking for advice - ideas of things to serve, that hold well at room temp over a long period of time, quantities to think about for an open house vs traditional cocktail party websites that tell you how to cater your first gig - my google search has come up dry.

What have I gotten myself into?

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  1. I used to be a caterer and am still called on by friends to do stuff like this in my non-professional kitchen.

    Time of day will matter greatly in terms of quantity of food. I.e, does the open house overlap with a mealtime? If so, you'll probably need to figure on 8-10 pieces of finger food (total) per person. If it's an off time, 3-5 is probably plenty.

    I'm sure others will have lots of specific recipes, but in terms of general directions to start looking:

    spinach triangles and other filo-wrapped finger foods can be baked up to a week in advance and frozen on their baking sheets (well wrapped in plastic) then go directly into a 350 oven for 15-20 minutes of reheating.

    Frozen puff pastry dough from the supermarket is your friend. Think parmesan cheese straws, use mini-muffin tins to shape squares of it into baskets that can be filled with all sorts of yummy stuff, roll cut and fold into turnovers again filled with sweet or savory whatever-strikes-you. Like the filo these can be baked off, frozen, and reheated directly from the freezer.

    In general look for things that can be assembled, or mostly assembled, ahead of time.

    Identify available refrigerator, freezer, oven, and burner space and plan accordingly.

    Make yourself a game plan, identifying each dish, your full shopping list, what needs to be done each day, where everything will be stored before the party, and what it will be served on and with. Make a separate, detailed plan for the day of the event to be sure you have plenty of time to get everything done. Be generous with your time estimates. Nothing is "just thrown together" in these quantities--it'll all take longer than you think it will.

    Take a deep breath. Get organized and stay organized and you'll do great!

    1. I don't know how casual this event is, but I was asked by a friend to do the food for a baby shower for 40 people last year. I made an assortment of rectangular pizzas - spinach and artichoke with goat cheese, caramelized onion and smoked gouda, pancetta and potato, anda couple of others. I cooked them partially then took them to her house stacked and ready to reheat there. I cut them into smallish squares and served those with a nice, big antipasto platter and an assortment of brownies. Everyone raved about the food and had gracious plenty to eat. And it wasn't fussy to make and most could be done ahead of time.

      Another friend asked me to cook the food for her wedding reception. It was at 2:00 in the afternoon and was not TERRIBLY formal, but it was still a wedding. This was for 100 guests. For that, I did an assortment of tea sandwiches - smoked salmon on rye, watercress and goat cheese, egg salad and a couple of others. Then I did some roquefort grapes (Martha Stewart - grapes rolled in roquefort cheese, then crushed nuts), proscuitto wrapped asparagus and an assortment of cookies - almond crescents, biscotti and something else I forget now. That was on the lighter side, but again, everyone enjoyed it and she was very happy with it.

      1. In addition to passed hd's, we served a huge antipasto and a fabulous cheese plate with james, chutneys and truffle honey for about 40 over the holidays and it was well received.

        White bean dip
        Imported bread sitcks
        Cured Meats
        Fresh Roasted Peppers
        Marinated Shrimp
        Buffalo Mozz, etc.

        These are things that can be left at room temp for a period of time with replenishing when necessary.

        I also like to use the pre-baked phyllo cups for various cold and room temp items like stilon and apples with balsamic glaze. Or crab salad.

        No matter how trailer trash it is.... homemade pigs in blankets are ALWAYS the hit of any party no matter how formal or casual. We serve with fancy ketchups and mustards.

        Lastly, any type of cold seafood. I usuually make marinated grilled shrimp (another good room temp item) with chili-lime aoili (a Martha recipe. It's a great dip for shrimp and crab cakes.

        Good luck! It sounds like its going to be a challenge!!!

        1. I was dragged into helping cater a wedding for about 100 and still feel traumatized by the experience 3 years later. I would suggest that you make things easier on yourselves by buying some of the eats so you're not overwhelmed by the work. Frozen canapes aren't budget busters and are easy to heat and serve. I just sampled some mini-meatballs at Trader Joe's which were tasty and could be kept in buffet trays.

          I would concentrate on making things which can be served at room temperature to avoid trying to keep everything warm or cool during the open house. I like the idea of tea sandwiches and antipasti which can be made and laid out in advance so you're not trying to cook as guests arrive. Visit your local deli counters to see what you can buy.

          1. A friend of mine asked me to help her with a party like this and specifically asked for pigs in a blanket. Though I hate to admit it, I went an bought some of those frozen pigs in a blanket because the thought of assembling enough to feed a crowd just exhausted me. Everyone loved them. Not room temp, but pretty much if the door opened, I put another pan in the oven.
            The rest of the stuff I did myself--the same kind of enormous antipasto and cheese platter idea. Plus:
            Chicken sausage nuggets on skewers served with mustard,
            Cubes of marinated and roasted cubes of beef tenderloins on skewers, served with a horseradish-sour cream dipping sauce,
            (don't laugh) chicken "fingers"--some with Buffalo wing sauce, some marinated in soy-lime-ginger, some curried
            All were fine at room temp for a while, though I refrigerated most of them in one of those sheet cake carriers.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Elizzie

              If you go with the frozen pigs in blanket, definitely go with the Hebrew National. The other brands seem to be greasier...

            2. Rent a few chafing dishes(buy them if you will use again costco or restaurant supply). This can simplify keeping hot items safe. Meanwhile you can have a variety of trays of hot yummies waiting in oven. Cover with foil and write the contents on top. The advice from Pistou is gospel. Planning is everything.

              1. I'd go with less variety--the more you have, the more people eat but if you have just enough, people won't tend to overeat.

                Stuffed endives, like what you did for your shower, sound good. You don't have to assemble them until time to serve and that takes up so much less space.

                Mini quiche ideas--you can make these in advanced and freeze.

                Chafing dishes are great, as Magnapro said--opens up your options to anything warm.

                Skewers like chicken satay are always popular.

                baked wonton wrappers/phyllo cups are great filled w/ chicken or seafood salad

                And, really easy, a sandwich bar w/ small croissants, rolls, biscuits (not all)

                depending on time of year, prosciutto and melon or a caprese salad if you can get good tomatoes and marinated mozzerella (you can use little mozzerella balls and cherry tomatoes together on a toothpick)

                1. Great advice on this thread. I haven’t done a dinner for 50 before, but if I were in your shoes, I would want to supplement hors d’oeuvres with some large platters that can simply be replenished as needed. Since it sounds like this will overlap the dinner hour, here are three buffet platter ideas and a dip that have worked well for me, that can be made ahead, and that hold at room temp.

                  1. Roasted veggies with dish of bright-red romesco sauce in the middle.

                  2. Salmon salad: Bite-size pieces of salmon on a bed of greens with feta, grape tomatoes, cucumber, onions and watermelon, dressed with vinaigrette. Toss in herbs such as cilantro, parsley tarragon, fresh basil.

                  3. Bite-size pieces of marinated pork tenderloin (you can serve them on toothpicks) served on this rice salad:

                  Cold Rice-Spinach Salad (Serves 8 or more)

                  1 pkg. (10 oz.) frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and dried (or comparable amount of fresh spinach)
                  3 c. cooked wild rice
                  1 1/2 c. cooked white or brown rice
                  1/2 c. toasted slivered almonds
                  4 green onions, sliced
                  6 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
                  (You can always add tomatoes or red pepper for color)

                  Toss with dressing (below) and refrigerate at least 3 hrs or overnight. Serve cold or at room temp. You may not need the entire batch of dressing depending on how wet or dry the rice/spinach combination ends up.


                  1/2 c. vegetable oil
                  2 T. vinegar
                  2 T. soy sauce
                  1 t. sugar
                  1/2 t. salt
                  1/4 t. pepper
                  1-2 cloves garlic, minced
                  Optional: A few drops sesame oil and chopped fresh ginger

                  4. Layered Mediterranean Dip: Roasted red pepper and/or lemon hummus, chunked cucumbers, halved grape tomatoes, halved kalamata olives, chopped scallions, chopped roasted red pepper, and feta. Served with pita triangles or crispy flat bread.

                  Good luck!

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: intuitive eggplant

                    All of the suggestions so far are fantastic...pizza coming out towards the end of the night would be a fun touch.

                    If it does overlap w/an early meal time you can make a deconstructed Niçoise salad -
                    bake a few dozen chicken breasts w/herbs de provence, olive oil and lemon - let cool completely and slice - arrange on a platter
                    surround the platter w/fresh chilled veggies (green beans, tomato, cucumber, chilled boiled/steamed potatoes, olives, etc)
                    serve with a simple dressing of olive oil, lemon and dijon

                    i have made this several times for showers and it is always a big hit and can all be done in advance! all of the different colors and healthy foods are a crowd pleaser.

                    aidells sausage has a great trio of mini sausages...they are fantastic and a great alternative to the pigs in a blanket.

                    if you live near a home goods or ikea you can get some very cool/inexpensive serving platters...i have found many fun pieces that are much cheaper than some of the disposable gladware...of course the big aluminum pans are going to be the cheapest and easiest to clean up! if you are serving warm foods, you can get very inexpensive aluminum buffet servers at sam's club or costco

                    good luck!

                  2. The pigs in a blanket is always a big hit. But you can make your own with any type of good sausage that you like - or an asortment. Just cook you sausage all the way. Then roll in puff pastry dough that has been spread with a mixture of dijon and stone ground mustard. Brush wil egg wash and bake. You can serve with a mustard dipping sauce if you want. They can be made the day before and jsut baked for about 20 minutes before serving. I had two parties over the holidays and served these at both. They were the first things to go - especially with men. I think I got the recipe from Barefoot Contessa. But really you can just wing it. My husband calls them "foodies pigs ina blanket" :) Good Luck. And just get organized - you'll do fine. Oh, and don't get stuck in the trap that you ahve to make everything from scratch. You can buy prepared antipasti fixings,salamis, etc.. that always go over well and add a lot of color. Also - seve plenty to drink and everybody always has a good time!

                    1. I can recommend 2 books that have helped me through numerous large gatherings-
                      Cooking for a Crowd by Susan Wyler, and The Buffet Book by Carole Peck. For example, you could do a few hors d'oeuvres coupled w/ a few larger dishes to anchor your offerings. (A large room temp fillet, along w/ a side of salmon, or a ham.) I love both books because their recipes are organized by both season and event, and include proportions for crowds. (I haven't always been successful at quadrupling). Both have great recipes, and include helpful prep timelines. I bet your local library might have copies.

                      1. How formal is this party?

                        I suggest a few beautiful appetizers (meat and vegetal), two desserty items, then some make-your-own sandwiches. We have a New Year's Eve open house every year that I make a big batch of BBQ pulled pork, served with slaw and small rolls to make your own sandwiches. People *love* it. If pulled pork is too informal for this party, you could have a large roast beef that can be cut on-site with horseradish cream as the condiment with the nice small rolls. Or you could have both and really cover your bases.

                        The BBQ pulled pork recipe I use is more vinegar-y so it's not the heavy BBQ sauce you might imagine - it's from the Food Network site. The beauty is that the pork cooks slowly overnight in the oven and then you just pull it and toss with the sauce the day of serving.

                        1. I've done a bit of catering also and Pistou is right - frozen puff pastry is your friend. Here's a few make ahead ideas from a stint I did with a friend of mine for about 80 over the holidays.

                          -Toast Points with Melted Brie, Caramelized Apples, and Crumbled Bacon. Four components can all be prepped before hand and only need to be assembled and thrown under the broiler until the brie melts before serving. Huge plus - we froze everything but the brie and defrosted it the day of the party.

                          -Mini Potato "Skins" stuffed with Steak, Gorgonzola, and Caramelized Onions (we like caramelized onions - can you tell?). Halve baby yukon golds (approx. 1.5-2" diameter), scoop out insides w/ spoon leaving atleast 1/4", brush w/ olive oil, salt, bake. Stuff w/ cubed grilled steak (I like to get whole tri-tips and the slice them after grilling), crumbled gorgonzola, and top w/ onion. These only need seconds under heat for the fillings to meld.

                          -Mini Croissants Sandwiches w/ Grilled Zuchinni, Dilled Cream cheese, and simple Green Leaf lettuce. So simple, so good.

                          -Mini Brioche Sandwiches w/ Cheddar and Chutney (Ina Garten's recipe). Sharp cheddar and Majoy Grey's chutney - no cooking!!

                          We also did a few other things that included a cheese platter, a fruit platter, shrimp cocktail, and a baked brie that had been wrapped in puff pastry. I often do salads which are such a time saver, served in butter lettuce cups.

                          If you have a Costco near you, check it out!!! I was amazed to see the variety of hor d'eurves they had in stock over the holidays. GOOD LUCK!!!

                          1. Wow thanks to everyone!!!! This is amazing information. Puff pastry will be my best friend!

                            1. Sam's Club also carries a good assortment of hor d'eurves.

                              A huge veggie tray or antipasto as mentioned before fill in the gaps.


                              1. I just posted the tomato vodka cream sauce recipe under the simnple sauce suggestions and thought of you. I made it for a crown for a house warming party a few years ago and it went over well. I made the sauce and cooked the pasta ahead of time. At the party, I just warmed it all up together. Might be an option if you want to serve something more substantial. Also, I bought at Costco for the holiday s some inexpensive chafing dished that I think were $30. And the even better deal was a set of 4 white bakeware/serveware with black iron serving parts. It was a steal.

                                1. As a caterer*, my first question to you would be: "What is your budget?" Only then can you really start making food selections.

                                  My other question to you - will you be providing food for the party and attending, with some minor duties getting the food out? Or will you be "catering" the party. The time you want to spend in the kitchen during the party will also help guide your food choices.

                                  There are a lot of good ideas in this thread; some of them will work and some will not, depending on your situation.

                                  Also, it seems that you and your crowd are pretty down to earth and this won't be a black tie affair. Do you want to strictly do a finger food thing, or have some fork fed foods, like chicken pasta or a rice dish? Or do you want to minimize the dippy type appetizers and focus on single-bite foods? You can really do anything... from steak, red onion and blue cheese quesadillas, to spinach and artichoke dip, or lobster ceviche to smoked salmon and caviar. Let me know if you are interested, I can post a list of easy, sure-fire appetizers.


                                  * I'm not a professional caterer, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

                                  1. Lots of great suggestions above, especially the ones to plan and prep ahead.

                                    I did an open house 2 years ago for the day afer xmas. The invite was for 1-5 pm, (some people came very late), and all the food held up well. Here's what I bought/served:

                                    Baked Ham and Breast of Turkey, baked the morning of the party,
                                    with assorted cocktail breads & mini rolls, assorted condiments (mustards, mayo),
                                    Pasta Salad, made 1 day ahead
                                    A huge crudite tray with dip, veggies cut up the night before
                                    Spinach frittata, made a few days before, cut into wedges, frozen, then reheated as needed day of party
                                    Glazed mini chicken apple sausages, made day of party
                                    Assorted chips & salsa (for my son & his friends)
                                    Brie & crackers
                                    Assorted desserts (cookies and bars) made a few days before
                                    Assorted nuts and candies, in small bowls on tables throughtout the house

                                    I set up a coffee/dessert station on a table separate from the main buffet, and also had a cold beverage station (soft drinks, wine, beer) in the adjoining family room/kitchen. I arranged the main buffet (on the dining room table) a few days in advance to make sure all the platters/serving pieces fit and was an attractive display.

                                    I know the menu above isn't very "chowish" but it was manageable, and I had more than enough food and variety. I found that people didn't eat as much as I thought so I had lots left-over (but I probably made too much anyway).

                                    Good luck, just keep planning and thinking it thru, and you'll be fine.

                                    1. Get a whole ham. Bake it. Cut off skin, score fat into squares, decorate nicely with whole cloves, rub over the fat some brown sugar mixed with a little mustard, and return to oven to glaze (10-20 min @ 400*). Spoon melted goo over ham as it cools. Remove ham to nice platter with maybe some parsley. Set on buffet table. Next to it put a big basket of tiny rolls (order from bakery---ask for finger rolls) which you have cut about halfway through. Also put several kinds of mustard out and a big knife. Cut off a couple of slivers of ham to start the ball rolling then let people carve bits of ham to make their own mini-ham sandwiches. This arrangement is a) simple to do b) will hold at room temp for for hours---you don't need oven or refrigerator space during the party c) is always wildly popular.