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Need your expert help figuring out party food!

So I'm throwing my parents a retirement party next week. They're great, their friends are great and it's not a huge party (like 20 people) but, well, they're great so I want it to be special. I don't have much of a budget and it's not in my house so I'll want to do things inexpensively and preferably as much in advance as possible. My dad also can't have much salt, so I'd like to prepare some food salt free too. To complicate things, the party will actually be at my parents' place so avoiding messy foods would also be good. There are two ovens and a grill outside at my disposal.

So far, I'm thinking short ribs, done in advance (in the slow cooker?), heated on the day with a big pot of polenta (the baked kind people rave about here?)

For the people who won't eat red meat, I was planning on grilling some salmon, which would also go with the polenta and salad. I'd probably make some of the salmon salt free for my dad, as I don't think I can make either the short ribs or the polenta salt free and good for a group.

I was thinking of also doing a big salad so there are greens. And just doing a cheese plate and crudites as appetizers.

For dessert, I was thinking of making some vanilla chocolate chip ice cream (my dad's favorite flavor) and maybe some hot fudge, since it's easy in advance and seeing if there's time on the day to make some pies.

My worry with the short ribs is that it might be messy, but at least no one will need to use a knife with it, it tastes good and may even be better done ahead of time.

Is there any other options that would be better?

thanks so much!

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  1. You seem to have it all under control. Great idea to cook a main that you will not have to tend to all day. Even the salmon can be made ahead of time and served cold if you like it that way. It's really about your parents, so if they like the food you are making, you have no worries.

    1. it all sounds good, but you may want to do a side of poached salmon instead of trying to grill pieces at the last minute. and yes, you can do the short ribs even a few days before.

      polenta absolutely needs salt or it's lifeless. this is true with most starches.

      instead of a salad, maybe some roasted green beans. you can do these ahead too and they taste fine room temp, cold or hot.

      and rather than pies, maybe a pan each of blondies and brownies? those are great with ice cream.

      15 Replies
      1. re: hotoynoodle

        Agree about the green beans (or other cooked vegetable). Neater to eat than a leafy-greens salad, and easier on the digestive system for those over 50.

        1. re: hotoynoodle

          Agree with you on all counts. I would actually not do short ribs because I find underseasoned beef to be not as tasty. Depending on the tastes of the the guests, you may want to do a roasted leg of lamb rubbed with garlic, rosemary and lemon zest. Lamb has such a strong flavor, I don't think you need any salt. A fun prep of green beens is tossed with a persaillade - coarse breadcrumbs, parsley, lemon zest and garlic. You can also do a roasted carrot salad with a orange vinaigrette.

          1. re: Dcfoodblog

            well, my dad can have *some* salt, and the idea would be that he'll probably eat the salmon instead, which I can prepare a salt free version of too (lots of lemon zest, lemon juice garlic, pepper and generous amounts of good olive oil make for a yummy salt-free salmon) so that the salt in the polenta is less of an issue.

            my dad strongly dislikes lamb, so I wouldn't make that as a lower salt alternative in this case though it's otherwise a great suggestion. I love the persaillade suggestion too.

            1. re: Dcfoodblog

              Is it common for people to not like polenta? I thought it was one of those things that most people like. I was thinking baked potatoes are a pain if you have to plan for 20 of them, and then you'd probably want to have a toppings bar, or at least have butter out for folks to use which can get messy.

              1. re: kazhound

                I haven't gotten my SO to like it. It was a side at a wedding we went to and he said "that's weird". I think if someone isn't used to having it, it is a little odd at first. I didn't have it until I was in my 20s. I'll keep trying with him though :)

                1. re: kazhound

                  It can be a consistency thing.

                  1. re: kazhound

                    I probably didn't read this carefully enough. But how are you doing polenta for 20 people? And, if this is a buffet, polenta doesn't sound like a good choice.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      I was going to do the baking method that's been talked about here a bunch. I have this bookmarked, for example:


                      too difficult? I was thinking that maybe I would plate the polenta and the shortribs or salmon and pass out the plates. Shortribs and polenta don't look very appetizing on their own, I don't think.

                      1. re: kazhound

                        I have a 'classic' baked polenta CH recipe also. But it's for about six people max. Twenty??? If you don't want to do baked potatoes, how about mashed? I did some a few years ago that I reheated the next day in the HUGE slow cooker. Loads of butter and cream so it seemed special. Just a couple of thoughts.

                        1. re: kazhound

                          I agree that the polenta may not be the best choice for a group. I think a potato gratin, rice or orzo pilaf or even a seasoned couscous dish would be a better choice that would work better with the salmon especially.

                          1. re: biondanonima

                            I agree that polenta is not up everyone's alley. Pilaf is a great choice and can be made ahead. I like it made with both rice AND orzo, toasting the latter in a pan until it is golden before adding the rice, so there are two distinct colors in the finished dish. Then it's onion, spinach, chicken broth, and lots of butter.

                            1. re: greygarious

                              thanks. I'm now having a total crisis over the polenta. Can I make a giant (disposable) pan or two in the oven?

                              I'm worried about the grains of the pilaf or rice getting everywhere. But maybe that's paranoid panic talking. Can you make good mashed potatoes for that many people? I won't have a slow-cooker with me or I'd just make them in advance and warm them up there. What's the best accompaniment?

                              1. re: kazhound

                                the oven-method is fool-proof, be sure to add plenty of grated cheese for flavor. yes, you can make it in disposable pans.

                                i've never had people balk at eating it and it's a great match with short ribs.

                                mashed potatoes don't hold all that well, but you could roast chunks of small new potatoes.

                                1. re: kazhound

                                  My daughter made Hasselback potatoes for a Christmas dinner of roast turkey and prime rib in 2009. They were just beautiful there were about 18-20 people dining. She also makes an oven roasted potato *hash* with small cubes of white potatoes...sweet potatoes....seasoned with rosemary...chili powder...salt & pepper some cayenne and a sprinkle of brown sugar....coated in olive oil and roasted in a huge square casserole pan. Perfection but might not pair well with your spare ribs.

                                  1. re: Lillipop

                                    Hassleback potatoes are a great idea! They're so easy, but people always seem impressed when I serve them.

                  2. Are your parents and their friends polenta fans? If you're not positive, I'd suggest simple baked potatoes (they travel surprisingly well), a potato torte, or rice.

                    If you're feeling ambitious, a fresh fruit salad is colorful and usually popular. Fruits can be diced a day ahead and kept in separate containers, then combined in a glass bowl at the party.

                    1. You do seem to have this very under control.

                      I love this recipe for lamb meatballs - http://www.chow.com/recipes/13432-lam...

                      Very easy and I half the salt and add a salt substitute like Penzey's Murial of Flavor. but even so there isn't much salt in it and it's pretty flavorful. I serve it with whole wheat pita as well.

                      I'd add some cooked veggies to the entrees grilled, or some asparagus, broccoli, or something.

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: Sandwich_Sister

                        If it seems under control, it's largely to the credit of all of the years I've been reading this home cooking board!

                        Grilled asparagus is a great idea - so easy and good!

                        1. re: kazhound

                          I do enjoy asparagus with salmon. I'm sure your party will be fantastic!

                        2. re: Sandwich_Sister

                          Is that better than making the regular shortribs in advance and pulling the bones out?

                          1. re: kazhound

                            I assume this was directed to the post below and just misplaced :P

                            Better would be subjective here. Boneless shortribs will have much less fat/grissle to deal with, and you can portion them into lovely uniform servings. The drawback would be the loss of the bone in the braising liquid. I find braising shortribs on the bone gives the braising liquid a little extra oomph.

                            1. re: twyst

                              yep, sorry! is the gristle a big deal? I didn't really notice it too much when I made it las time. the fat will be easy to pull off since I'm making in advance

                        3. Sounds like you have it all worked out pretty well!

                          If you are worried about the mess of the braised shortrib, consider having your butcher cut you boneless short rib roasts. They average 2-3 pounds a piece and you would cook them the same way you cook the regular shortrib. What you would likely want to do is cook them a couple of days ahead of time and then cool them overnight. The following day remove all the solidified fat from the pot and take out the shortribs. Portion the shortrib roasts, while cold, into individual little squares/rectangles. Back into the fridge, and then the day of the party reduce the braising liquid to the desired level, then gently warm the shortribs in the sauce for service.

                          1. I'd go use the bbq as much as possiable - perhaps barrow antother or bring your Weber.

                            I do my turkey's on the grill Hot Smoked.... ( search the boards here - it's easy and a fun show)

                            If you wanted a spicier less thankgiving type of Turkey I would try here's recipe for Yucantan Smoked Turkey.


                            Finally, I live in SF and don't have the luxary of a smoker or a bbq - when I do Pork Spare Ribs - I rub them the night before - Braise them in Apple Juice for a couple of hours in a low oven. I divide them into indiviual serviings after they've cooled from the braising - take them too the bbq - hot smoke them on over the coals over indirect heat for 40 minutes or so and then finally carmelize them over the hot coals with bbq sauce. Many of my friends are bbq puriest and say my ribs meet the test.

                            Finally, a ham that you've cooked and just warmed up at your folks house is always good. With Rolls and potato salad?

                            some other Idea's Cantlope and Prosciutto

                            Also, 5 lbs of shimp or so - either cooked before or grilled - you could either do peel and eat or peeled depending (chilled with Cocktel Sauce?


                            For a big crowd - I love to make Bruchetta - very easy on the grill - I pre-mix my bruchetta topping, grill the bread, scrape a garlic clove on the bread - Top, (my favorite is very good tamatoes, Garlic, Olive oil, fresh basil and Balsamic with Gorgonzola) In this case add the Gorgonzola after the tomatoes and put back on the grill for a minute or two;

                            I too am on a budget when I entertain - a bunch of nice tapas style apps like this past around fills up a crowd as the eating is slower and everyone is statisfied - it's also much more fun that a sit down dinner IMHO.

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: sparky403

                              I'm a little sad, as I have an electric smoker but it's in storage right now as I (hopefully temporarily) don't have any outdoors space. My parents' grill is a gas one so I'm not sure I'll be able to get something like that really good.

                              We're jewish but not kosher so weirdly that means that ham won't go over well with this crowd but shrimp would so thanks for the suggestion! The bruchetta sounds delish but I'm worried about fussing over them on the grill. Will definitely try another time! You do make me think that maybe I should make a pizza on the grill and cut it up into small appetizer pieces though...


                              1. re: kazhound

                                You don't have to do the bruschetta on the grill. You can toast the bread in the oven ahead of time, prepare the toppings and delegate the assembly.

                                1. re: kazhound

                                  the Bruchetta takes maybe 5 minutes - split the whole loaf down the center - grill each side, Rub with fresh garlic, top and back to the grill for a couple minutes.... it's super easy.

                                  Anyway, sounds like you'll pull it off well..

                                  Congrats to your Dad and you - have a great time.

                                  1. re: sparky403

                                    my one thought that came to mind with short ribs for 20 people was yum! then ugh. I personally cannot imagine browning and cooking that many short ribs, and I doubt they would fit in a slow cooker (the ones I get are quite large). I think the idea of boneless is a good one, and means no one needs a knife which is great if you are looking at people eating on their laps. I have never worked with boneless shortribs so cannot comment on the cooking process or taste.

                                    Consider using a cedar plank for your salmon (use a side of salmon). So easy and makes for such a tasty, tender, juicy salmon. If you have never done this and it interests you, let me know as I can give you some tips.

                                    I Love polenta and think it would be absolutely perfect for short ribs. :)

                                    Sounds like a lovely meal.

                                    1. re: cleopatra999

                                      I was thinking about this this morning. Even boneless short ribs IMO need cutting. Also, as you mention, fitting enough for 20 into even a large SC would be a problem. Maybe borrow a second one.

                                      I still wonder about that much polenta. I've only made it in a wide saute pan that pretty shallow. I suppose you could use a huge roasting pan. I'd avoid the disposables as that much polenta is going to weight a good bit. And I still feel like that polenta gonna thicken quickly. Will the last people to serve themselves be getting something not so wonderful?

                                      A complete step away from what you're thinking so just press the 'ignore' button. What about big pans of baked pasta (ziti?), with big salads and bread? Not as "gourmet" but the results would be more predictable. Just a thought.

                                  2. re: kazhound

                                    If you are in N California near Lodi wine country I will come and help you cook and serve:) It sounds like you are doing this all on your own for your parents:) Wow that is a very sweet loving gesture!

                                2. That's so awesome that you're making them a special party.

                                  For an alternate veggie option, the "summer pea soup" at SimplyRecipes.com is delicious. Drink your greens! It's so fresh and lightly sweet. We like it best with low salt (1/4 tsp per batch) and unsalted non-tomato veggie broth because that way it's sweet without added sugar. It's also great for make ahead because it's tasty both warm or cold and can be served in little cups for less mess.

                                  On the dessert front, you might be interested in the Gramercy Tavern Gingerbread. I thought of it because you've got a lot of comfort food there and the GT gingerbread is total comfort food. It's very special tasting, easy, and best when made at least a day ahead. Cost-wise, it's not too bad if you already have the spices.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: 1MunchieMonster

                                    I am smiling because you hit on a great food memory of mine. Warm home made gingerbread with fresh sweetened whipped cream that my late mom would make maybe once a year.Your idea is wonderful.That is some delicious stuff. I also had a nurse friend who baked home made gingersnaps for her husband and brought me some one afternoon at work. I was in cookie heaven.

                                  2. Your menu sounds wonderful, but I wonder if instead of short ribs you'd consider brisket. At least around here short ribs have gotten crazy expensive, and it seems like most of what you're paying for is bone not meat. With plenty of brisket you'll still have gravy for the starch, and it's easy to eat.

                                    Love the idea of roasted asparagus. In fact I'd suggest advance-roasting a whole range of veg, with simple olive oil, s+p: red potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, asaparagus. Then just reheat them on sheet pans.

                                    You may also consider spreading dijon mustard on the salmon before roasting or grilling.

                                    You're so thoughtful, I know it will be a wonderful memory for all of you.

                                    1. Are you setting this up buffet style? I disagree that it would be harder to make & serve the short ribs...it's no messier than serving chicken or any other protein & having to use a knife..leave the bone in. Cook the day (or a couple of days) before then chill and defat the meat, use the drippings to make a gravy or jus. Re-heat slowly in the oven before serving.

                                      In terms of the salmon, unless you are going to cook & serve the salmon straight off the grill, I would consider making it wrapped in pastry and cook it in the oven to rare then it will continue to cook to mid rare while waiting to serve. It will stay moister than a salmon over cooked on the grill. Personally, I would not welcome cold salmon at this time of the year but that's just my preference.

                                      About the starch, I'm with some of others in that unless your crowd likes polenta, I'd stick with something more familar like a hash of diced potatoes, carmelized onions & garlic (can be done ahead and re-heated in the oven) or pilaf that can be cooked in the oven to start with...even a potato casserole would be good with both entrees.

                                      I like the idea of a salad; unless your guest will be balancing their plates on their laps, I don't see why it would be hard to eat it, but even with a salad, I think you should have another hot veggie on the plate...if you're on a budget or unless you can get a good price on asparagus, I think it would be expensive to serve it. Instead, I'd go with whatever is more affordable, perhaps broccoli/shaved carrot/red bell pepper saute or brussels sprouts with a grate of lemon zest and a little butter.

                                      I make homemade ice cream all the time; it's not cheap to buy ingredients to make it for 20...consider buying a good quality brand of choc chip ice cream and make some nice cookies to accompany the ice cream, perhaps a french macaron using egg whites and vanilla beans.

                                      1. Just two days until the party and I'm now totally starting to freak out. I've been thinking about your comments and I worry that polenta is a terrible idea. I started making the shortribs today (they are in the oven now and smell great). I went with the Anne Burrell recipe on the food network so of course obsessively read all of the reviews and saw that a few people mentioned having it over pasta. Egg noodles is a classic pairing for shortribs, right? Can I just make a bunch of egg noodles for the party? Isn't that way easier than polenta or potatoes?

                                        Based on what you've said, I'm definitely doing salad and asparagus now,

                                        I'll bake or grill the asparagus and salmon right before the party, slightly undercook the salmon and tent it with foil. Dessert is still up in the air, but i've got one batch of ice cream made and I'll probably make another, plus my sister's bringing a fruit platter and I'm thinking of making some hot fudge and whipped cream to go along. There may still be pie as my husband is a pie genius.

                                        Appetizers are just a cheese platter, carrots and olives.

                                        11 Replies
                                        1. re: kazhound

                                          Don't freak out. Egg noodles are a classic pairing for short ribs, and I think they'd probably go over better than polenta. However, I think they make a sort of boring side for the plain salmon, unless you sauce them with herb butter or something similar. I still vote for rice or orzo pilaf, which would be easier than either polenta or egg noodles, hold better at temperature and be a more interesting accompaniment to the salmon. However, the party will be lovely no matter what starch you serve!

                                          1. re: biondanonima

                                            oh genius! I should make some dill sauce for the salmon or something like that, which would be delicious over egg noodles. I think the rice or orzo pilaf is a good suggestion, but I'm imagining finding little grains of food in my parents' carpet so I'm more inclined towards the noodles. Also, I got the idea and got excited :)

                                            1. re: kazhound

                                              noodles are a good pairing, but again tough to eat if not seated at a table.

                                              is your mom freaky about her carpet? lol. you'll need to vacuum after everybody leaves anyway!

                                              1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                heh we're setting up tables so that everyone can sit and eat. My mom isn't freaky about her carpet, but she's *just* recovered from Sandy and so a lot of it is new and I wanted the party to be as low impact as possible. They're friends are great and I love them but some of them are likely to tilt their plate...

                                                the shortribs are good, but I went light on the salt and so it's not as delicious as short ribs can be. everyone knows my dad needs to cut down on salt, so I think they'll understand.

                                                we tried the dill sauce last night with some fluke my mom cooked up and it was great! so whew! I've made the salad dressing already and my husband says he's keen on making some pies so we're in business!

                                                oh the only other thing is that I made three batches of awesome vanilla chocolate chip ice cream and froze them in a single big glass container and when i was packing up to go it fell on the ground and shattered into a thousand pieces, speckled like the chocolate chips in the ice cream. so that had to be tossed. but we got some ice cream from a favorite local shop, so sad but not a problem!

                                                  1. re: kazhound

                                                    Sounds like a lovely celebration--good luck. About your dad's low-sodium--can't you portion out his and then up the salt for the other guests? I used to do this all the time when my mom need very low sodium dishes, but I didn't want everyone else's portion to be flat.

                                                    1. re: pine time

                                                      I could have, but I thought it would be nice if I could find a way to make everything delicious without much salt so that at a party that was for him (or half for him) he could just eat with everyone else and not worry. I made it pretty clear to everyone that the meal was low salt and that they should feel free to add some, but I didn't see anyone adding at all! Just taking seconds.

                                                      Thanks for all of your help everyone, the party was awesome and the food was a big hit. Everyone raved about the short ribs and 3 people asked for the recipe. I kept them on low in the oven for a couple of hours before the party to come up to temperature and then turned the same oven up high to cook the salmon, as my husband was making pies in the other oven. I had the pot of water on the stove early at a low temp too and then was able to bring to a boil very quickly and boiled the egg papardelle (thank you trader joes') right after the salmon went into the oven. I only made like 2/3 of the noodles this way and caught the hot water when I drained the first batch so that I could have water ready to go for the rest and could add fresh pasta for the folks who didn't get to the food right away. I doused the pasta with good olive oil on the serving platter and it gave them a good side dish flavor while keeping the noodles from being gloopy or sticking together. I had 3 salmons and I staggered the last one in the same way so that freshly cooked salmon was added for the slower guests. I think the dill sauce was a nice accompaniment, especially given the low salt preparation on the salmon (tons of garlic, olive oil, lemon zest and fresh pepper) The asparagus, grilled 2 hours earlier held up fine. People also loved the salad, which I kept fairly simple and served with feta crumbles, sunflower seeds and homemade vinaigrette on the side (i never understand why homemade dressing is so impressive to people).

                                                      Guests loved our theme drinks (one in honor of each parent) and I made a key lime pie (served with fresh unsweetened whipped cream) and my husband made one nectarine pie and one mixed berry pie, which we served with the store bought ice cream. We also had fruit and a very pretty cheesecake that my sister bought. People went crazy over the homemade pies, which was awesome. I'm so thrilled with how it went - my parents were so happy. Even the ice cream shattering incident started to become funny!

                                                      I think in the end, people were impressed that we cared enough to cook the food and that's probably what mattered most.

                                                      1. re: kazhound

                                                        an inspiring story! congratulations to you and your parents (their retirement, but also having so loving and considerate child). So sorry about your ice cream mishap, but good for you for dealing with it. Yes, cooking the food yourselves is really key...that's true hospitality. Love the tip about how you cooked the noodles.

                                                        1. re: kazhound

                                                          Wow--nothing better than a party that's planned and prepared with such love and attention to details. Happy Retirement to your folks!

                                                          1. re: kazhound

                                                            You must have been exhausted!!!! But congrats on pulling it off so well.

                                                            1. re: c oliver

                                                              thanks! and I just made some salmon cakes to throw in the freezer with the leftover salmon. (that big space in the freezer that was taken up by the ice cream was perfect) We made salmon thai red curry last night also with some of the leftover veggies from the veggie platter. Now if I could just figure out something to do with all that leftover butter and cream based shallot dill sauce I'll be styling...