menu planning help

I could make a day out of planning a menu.  I can actually make two days of it.  I just proved that, but now my time is running up.  For the past two days I’ve been trying to craft a menu for my birthday dinner.  I’m not a very good planner; it’s why most of my friends are lawyers.  They need to be in control, and I’m all too happy to let them have it.  When it comes to food, though, I need to be at the helm.  Lasagna is a possibility because it’s good for large groups.  I also considered an early Thanksgiving with all the trimmings, but I fear the turkey would be missing (because we don’t have all day to cook).  I’d like to make use of the outdoor grill while it’s still warm. 

When I was growing up, we’d celebrate Christmas eve with my Italian cousins, which meant fish.  A fish night.  Cherry tomatoes stuffed with lump crab meat salad, tuna tar tar towers, shrimp cocktail, and oysters for starters.  Linguine with clam sauce, grilled pesto salmon.  Seafood ravioli.  It was insane.  Christmas day my mother made two lasagnas. The traditional lasagna and a green spinach noodle lasagna with bechamel sauce.  My father grilled fillet mignon outside, in his coat.  I’m struggling because I really want something with a theme, not just, let’s pick up fish, pasta, and some steaks and see what happens. Perhaps a pasta swap where we make three different types of pasta?  Without a doubt, I know everything will be wonderful.  I’d just like it to be wonderfully coordinated as well.  I was first thinking of doing a nostalgia dinner with grown up versions of my childhood favorites. 

"Pigs in a blanket:" fire-grilled sausages, wrapped in puff pastry, Dijon mustard.
"Pizza Bagels:"  bagel chips with a smear of goat cheese, jersey tomato, chiffon of basil, kosher salt and stone-ground pepper.
Oozy mac & cheese using Canteen’s recipe.
Buttermilk fried chicken.
Tater Tots because I don’t remember the last time I had them.
Grilled corn on the cob with spiced butters.
A romaine salad with actual croutons (no one eats croutons anymore!)
Strawberry shortcake

But then I got nervous.  It’s not a very sophisticated menu for a Saturday night.  What if someone actually wants to be healthy?  I wanted to make a leg of lamb, but that takes hours that I won’t have.  Perhaps I should construct a Harvest Menu using the best of the season, make an onion cheese tart on puff pastry for snacking and sipping Riesling.  Follow it with Thai steamed mussels in coconut milk, crusty bread for dipping.  Chicken pot pies.  I’m having a hard time deciding.  Any menu theme ideas for a 30th birthday dinner for about 16 people?



  1. What a delicious post! How about a Mexican fiesta complete with icy margaritas, fajitas, enchiladas, jalapeno poppers with jalapeno jelly? But actually, everything you listed above looks just fabulous too. If you go with the grown-up favorites, just buy a vegetable platter for the health nuts. Now I'm hungry.

  2. Go Greek? Souvla, Stuffed Vine Leaves, Kleftiko, Grilled Haloumi – all fairly simple to cook but very delicious – am drooling at over my desk! ….have a fantastic 30th, make it memorable – on mine i kissed 30 men in one bar!

  3. I'd say go for a theme as the end/beginning. Either choose to celebrate the end of summer/20s or choose to celebrate the beginning of fall/30s. Plan the menu according to the season/age and link it with the party music. Very fun!
    Oh, and the food will be great no matter what, and while food seems important, the people are so much more so. Don't stress out. Enjoy the people.

  4. Since we will be wine tasting all day, what about a dinner centered aound cheese?! Ok, selfish idea…

  5. It's your birthday … cook what makes you happy … or better yet, have someone cook it for you! Tomorrow is my 31st birthday … I hope you're not freaked about turning 30, as it's not as bad as it sounds! :) Happy birthday, Stephanie!

  6. I really liked the nostalgia theme you were thinking of. It might be fun and instead of birthday cake you could do cupcakes (magnolia, cupcake cafe-wherever) or even ice cream cake. It's your day so don't worry about people wanting to be healthy.

  7. Why not do a last ditch of summer menu? Assuming you'll be on the Hamptons (you mentioned grill)? Corn roasted on the grill is amazing this time of year…as is lobster (and plentiful)…as are potatoes…You could make a zucchini and couscous salad (there's a great recipe in this month's Gourmet). and the apples are just starting to be perfect for baking (tarte, crisp, pie). I'm getting hungry just thinking about it…

  8. The first thing you want to do is scratch any accomodation to friends who want to be healthy. That's not celebratory. They'll get over it. Next: it's so damn simple:
    Spaghetti and meatballs. Make sure it's done perfectly. And start with a gourmet fancy schmancy salad. Tons and tons of wine. An array of desserts that everyone will be too full to even look at, and you're done. I AM SENOR NUMBNUTS.

  9. Great post! I come from a large Italian family, and every Christmas Eve is this huge seafood fest. Now, in my thirties, I have become allergic to seafood, so I resort to the pigs in the blanket and other artery clogging munchies.

  10. Our friends invited us to a macrobiotic Thanksgiving dinner. Not really understanding the concept, I brought banana bread straight from Pillsbury. All night, people kept saying, "That is the BEST bread in the world. I need the recipe."

    Another possible theme: Sin Food from the various stages of your life: childhood, high school, college, 20s and maybe a surprise for what sins your 30s will bring.

    If it were me….I would ask your cousin to cook your meal while you enjoy. It's your birthday!

    Does anyone remember those nasty hot dogs pre-stuffed with Cheez Whiz? I say nasty, but I spent many an MTV night eating them in my day.

  11. How about a WRAP party?…whole wheat or regular pita type wraps (laced with olive oil and warmed over the grill)…and dozens of yummy grilled things to choose from…veggies, chicken, lamb, etc…plus 3-4 special creamy sauces to choose from….everyone makes their own.

  12. Go Mexican!! A Fiesta theme as 3teensmom would be great. We do Mexican a lot here in TX well b/c we live in TX. ;) We often do chicken and beef fajitas fajitas w/ sides of either refried beans or a pot of pinto beans and Spanish rice. I also have corn black been salad that's delish I make a lot. Then you would have all the condiments for your fajitas w/ different kinds of tortillas, sour cream, fresh guacamole, cheese dip, and grilled onions and bell peppers. Then your appetizers would be cheese dip (or caso dip as we call it in TX), home made salsa and of course a ton of chips. Then to top off the food w/ a yummy dessert of flan. Of course don't forget the tasty Ritas.

    Good luck w/ your menu and party! :)

  13. if there is even the slightest chill in the air, we should totes do s'mores! oooh, and marshmallow hot chocolate and spiked, spiced cider…

  14. oh healthy smealty…

    i think your grown up childhood favorites sound really yummy. however, i also agree with mexican night, that way people can choose whatever they want in their taco/fajitas.

    wow im reaally hungry right now. oh and i loooove croutons!

  15. "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." (Leonardo da Vinci). Let the theme be, "It's all about Stephanie". Not a very new concept, but perfectly timed, as it IS your day! You could stick with your nostalgia idea, asking everyone to bring one of your favorite dishes. Surprising you, or if you really want to be in control, give them a list (and/or the recipe)! I would prefer the surprise, but hey – planning is fun too! Many Happy Returns. (What does that MEAN??)

  16. Go trailerpark. Meatloaf, fried chicken, mac'n'cheese, frito pie or, if you're really feelin' it, a tur-duck-in. Oh, and beer in cans. And wear a wife-beater.

  17. I LOVE the idea of comfort foods…..with a little variation of course! This is different for everyone so here are some of ours. (My fiance and I did this for our housewarming party.)
    Grilled cheese – with swiss and proscuitto on focaccia
    Mac n Cheese – with cream and gruyere and white cheddar
    BBQ chicken (no modifications needed there!)
    Chicken Quesadillas – with grilled veggies like red onions, roma tomatos, zucchini, red and yellow peppers, and grilled chicken (or the BBQ chicken is yummy too!)
    We always do a plate of various crusty breads, cheeses and roasted tomatoes with dipping sauces when we entertain…'s a big hit!
    There are many others that we have done but these are by far my favorite!

  18. YOU are the birthday girl…..GO OUT!! May your new year ahead be full of love and peace. ~ cassie

  19. Suggestion: If you want to make a last ditch effort at summer and utilize your grill – pick a color and serve foods centered around that color. For instance with red, you could grill up red peppers with any kind of meat you like, serve red colored drinks (whichever you like), sliced tomatoes w/ oil or even stuffed tomatoes etc. Green could mean recipies with pistachio or lots of veggies…etc.

    If you want to usher in the fall season – go harvest – you can use lots of spices and pumpkin…and the smores idea? Gold.

  20. I like the idea of comfort foods. I mean, I understand being healthy and all but your only 30 once…be happy!

  21. Take the opportunity to have an Autumn Dinner. So damn cozy. Cider, pumpkin pies, carrot and pine nut salad. Bowls of cinnamon apple chips, sweet potato lasagna. Better yet, carmalized sweet potato foccachia. Casserole and carrot cake. Chickens and chestnuts. I could go on and on and on…

    Part of bringing it all together, into a theme, is table settings too. Candles, pine cones, twine, a mustard yellow table runner. Add the fall food favourites to the table and it looks like something from Martha's October magazine.

    Good luck! And really, try the sweet pot. lasagna. Recipe is somewhere on the internet. Email if you need it.

  22. My birthday is in 9 days. But we're celebrating early, as my cousin's wedding is the weekend of my birthday. So hold your wishes for the 29th, when I'll need 'em! And no, 30 on the 29th doesn't bother me.

  23. I like the idea of a harvest dinner, but I can't think of an easy main course for 16 peeps…so here's salad and dessert. How about a mesclun greens salad w/ fresh figs, carmelized spicy pecans and goat cheese w/ a fig basalmic vinegarette. And for dessert, make an apple crumble w/ vanilla ice cream. Both figs and apples are in season right now and both courses are fast and easy.
    Pork tenderloin is a quick cooking meat…maybe some roasted patty pan with butternut squash or herb dijon roasted new potatoes…?
    I just made myself hungry.
    Well, good luck and Happy 30th!

  24. um, why not ask your readers to think about something other than your menu…like…perhaps the menus of the people living at the astrodome. two whole days devoted to planning a menu? i think you're gettting a little carried away with yourself and your new found 15 minutes of fame.

  25. Dude, did you just get critical of someone asking for help picking a menu for their birthday? Man, who needs perspective now? Eat well, sweet Stephanie Klein.

  26. i am trying to fig out the same thing for a dinner party this wkend, and my bday on oct 1. the idea of figs roasted in proscuitto comes to mind. and baked acorn squash w/ butter and brown sugar. a pork loin. pork is the perfect food.

  27. How about a "fun to say, fun to eat" party? Chimichangas. Bouillabaise. Bananas Foster. Baked Alaska. Tzimis. Kugel. Mu Shu.

  28. Hey- I thought you were celebrating your 30th with friends in the Hamptons? I thought it was a big plan?

  29. tapas & Sangria.
    lots of little plates… and so many you can make ahead. i seriously could eat hors d'oeuvres for every meal. happy happy birthday.

  30. My B-day's the 29th too!! You're the first cool or interesting person I've met that shares my Birthday. That's awesome!

    What time's the party??

  31. Do a "breakfast for dinner" theme… i used to love when my parents did that when i was younger…. although i'm sure yours would be slightly fancier than bacon and eggs.

  32. perpective…. how could you be reading blogs at a time like this? when people are starving? and dying? shouldn't you get off you ass and move to new orleans to devote your life to the rescue mission? how can you be so selfish as to sit at your computer and read somebody's blog? oh my god. get a life.

  33. You could do a Sushi Party. I threw one with my friends once and it was a great success. We provided the fish, rice, avocado, sprouts or whatever other fillers and everyone made a roll or two and then we sampled eachothers. But I don't know if the majority of your friends like sushi….

  34. Your post reminded me of a recent trip to Toronto. In the area called Indian Village, for obvious reasons, they have the best grilled corn on the cob with spices. Yummy!!!!! I bet there's a recipe on the internet somewhere. I think the spice would go perfectly with the Mexican suggestions, too. …Then you could use the grill too.

    Megan, what are you doing at your computer? Why aren't you in NE? Obviously you have extra time….

  35. (Megan was simply mocking perspective's earlier comment.)
    I think that the grown-up nod to your childhood favorites is a great idea. It's your party if they don't like it, too bad. It sounds fun.

  36. when you mentioned corn on the cob i immediately thought of the corn from cafe habana on prince and elizabeth. It is the absolute best! corn with butter, special cheese, chili powder and you squeeze lime over it. Not the typical childhood corn, but absolutely amazing.

  37. Have different wines combined with different dishes (no macdangerous or mexican things…) I could suggest – Nero d'Avola – Rapitalà
    – Sassicaia- Tenuta San Guido

    Dessert wines:
    – Albana Passito – Domus Aurea

    A una giornata indimenticabile!!

  38. I fully understand the "time" issue with lamb. Here is my solution:
    Take one leg of lamb (with or without bone) and trim as much fat off as reasonably possible. Place into CROCK POT with my "1-2-3 Mixture" – 1/2 C. Lemon juice, 2/2 C. Honey, 3/2 C. Chablis wine. Be sure to premix these items sufficient to dissolve the honey. Total prep time is less than 30 minutes. Set the CROCK POT on High to cook for 4-6 hours, or Low for 8-10 hours. Then walk away until time for dinner. BTW, the residual sauce is excellent over wild rice! Enjoy…

  39. This may have alrady been said by someone else, and they probably said it far better than I'm about to. However, it's your birthday, Stephanie. Who the hell cares what everyone else wants the menu to be or if they are on a diet or if they might not feel comfortable? It's your birthday. Stop trying to please people. God.

  40. Whatever you do, DO NOT attempt to change, alter, or in any other way try to improve on pigs-in-a-blanket. They are already a perfect food.

  41. why don't you ask your friends at the Food TV Network. Weren't they recently at your apt filming something?

  42. Hi Stephanie

    I am always in favour that for special occasions, large group gatherings and such there is no need to have "healthy, light" food.
    Just pick what favours you the most.

  43. a couple suggestions: have you seen this month's issue of wine spectator? it's ALL ABOUT FOOD, so that might give you some other good ideas. i don't know if that just makes things more complicated, but i just love love love wine, so picking food around wine is never a bad idea.

    also, if you do go with mac&cheese, i have a FANTASTIC recipe i have to share! i got it from a nyc foodie friend, and every time i make it, people ask me about it. i'm sure canteen's is excellent, but it never hurts to look at all your options. let me know if you want it. oh, i'm drooling just thinking about it…

  44. any of these ideas are great….on my 30th I served beef tenderloin in a port wine sauce with roasted shallots, along side of garlic mashed potatoes, with sliced tomatoes and balsamic vinegar, spanikopita and tons of booze. and of course cake to round it (and me) all off……email if you want recipes.

  45. Didn't I read somewhere that you are part Greek? Being a half Greek girl, I say embrace your roots. Moussaka and pastitsio are great alternatives to lasagna, baklava is the best for dessert, a simple Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, green pepper, slices of feta on top (Or serve on small tray beside it with greek oives) and olive oil drizzled on top. There are tons of appetizers and dips you could serve too like tzatsiki(cucumber and garlic dip), melitzanosalata(eggplant dip-sounds gross but is scrumptious!), tyropites(cheese pies), spanakopites(spinach pies). These pies are teeny and individual, not in large pie pans! All of the food I mentioned (except for the salad) can be made ahead of time and frozen. The dips can be made one day before or that morning. Hey, EVERYBODY LOVES Greek food! (and it's healthy) Happy Birthday!

  46. Menu them: countries that have not recently pissed off the world. A Celebration of the different but nice people in the world.

    1. Thailand
    Grilled Thai Shrimp with Coconut Dill Rice
    Takes 20 Minutes and is amazing.

    2. Morocco
    Tagine with Pistachios, Jerusalem couscous, cherries, apricots and whatever else you damn please

    3. Sweden
    Fondue…Fun do…Fun don't…Fun don't stop
    No work, yummy easy and so is the food.

  47. re: the lamb cooling too long issue – ask the butcher to butterfly it (cut it off the bone) Takes about 5 minutes or less on each side under the broiler, spread with a paste of rosemary, thyme, garlic, kosher salt, and a little olive oil. Yum.

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