For many of us, the Memorial Day holiday marks the transition between the rest of the year and our cherished summer routines. We fill the weekend attending annual picnics, opening the Shore house, making barbecues, watching a town parade.
But not so long ago, Americans more diligently spent Memorial Day remembering those who died in battle; it was a time set aside to visit cemeteries and decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers or flags.
One tradition endures: the wearing of a red poppy on one's lapel, inspired by John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields" and its imagery of a field of white crosses and red poppies.
It inspired me to start my own tradition: making a poppy seed cake for our annual Memorial Day picnic. With small flags decorating the top, sliced juicy red strawberries and a lemon glaze, each slice memorializes the idea of paying tribute, and encourages a discussion of history. That this cake is delicious, easy to make, travels well, and can be served at a picnic to eat out of hand is a plus.
This late spring season is also filled with important commemorations of another of life's major transitions - graduations. From elementary school to medical school, these moments are worth celebrating. Whether we gather for potluck snacks in the junior high school lobby or at grand parties marking grander accomplishments, if there is a nice spread of food and drink people mingle happily together.
Menu planning for any crowd can seem daunting, so try to limit your menu to dishes that can be made ahead, that hold up well, and - especially this time of year - that taste great served cool or at room temperature.
One of my favorite things to serve on a warm-weather buffet - which I first served at a party to celebrate my own graduation from college some 30 years ago - is slices of stuffed chicken breasts, served at room temperature, artfully arranged on a platter of rice salad. A skin-on boneless chicken breast provides a simple pocket under the skin to fill with any of several tasty mixtures such as spinach and caramelized onions, or wild mushrooms and sage. Baked with a seasoned and moist filling, the resulting chicken is tender and flavorful. The breasts slice easily, displaying a stripe of contrasting filling. Laid out neatly in a row or encircling a bed of grains, they look professionally prepared. Each sliced breast serves several guests, and the slices allow for easy portioning.
Another easy and elegant main dish to serve when company is a crowd is oven-poached salmon or halibut. This dish takes about 20 minutes from start to finish, and can be served warm from the oven redolent of leeks and herbs, or prepared up to two days ahead and served cool from the fridge with a quick blender sauce such as garlic and mint aioli, or creamy mustard sauce - or even better, both. These sauces are also great with the above-mentioned chicken.
Colorful and zesty grain, lentil, or pasta salads are useful to have in your potluck and buffet repertoire. An assortment of these dishes provide vegetarians enough to eat, and complement the poultry, meat, or fish dishes for the omnivores in the group. Grain and pasta salads require a heavy hand with the seasoning as the starches absorb a surprising amount of chopped herbs, dressing, salt and pepper.
Small and delicate French lentils (lentilles du Puy), which get soft but don't fall apart when cooked, are particularly good in a salad. Pair with the small beads of the pasta known as Israeli couscous, along with cucumber, feta cheese, and walnuts for a festive and interesting salad that is almost a main dish.
Long-grain brown, white, or mixed rice colored with saffron or paprika and tossed with toasted almonds, parsley, sliced grapes, and diced peppers holds up for any sort of buffet and marries with the flavors of most cuisines. Because there are no easily perishable components, this side dish is great to bring along to an outdoor event.
An antipasto-style plate of marinated vegetables is not only easy to make ahead, the flavor actually improves with time. A mixture of cauliflower, carrots, green beans, even new potatoes is sturdy enough to hold up to a trip in the car and for the entire duration of an afternoon affair. After blanching the fresh vegetables, let them cool and then toss them in a simple garlic vinaigrette. Pair these with artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, and olives from a jar or olive bar, and artfully arrange them on a platter or mix together in a bowl.
Don't forget that many hands make for light work. Hosts, ask for help. Whether your party is completely potluck or a bring-your-own meat for the grill - as the host you should consider coordinating your group's efforts.
Too many pasta salads and no green vegetable or fruit will mean that everyone's meal will be heavy. Perhaps you can ask your guests to bring all the side dishes and desserts and then you splurge on good beer and grass-fed beef.
Be specific with the guests who offer to make something. People are grateful to be invited, grateful to have a chance to help, and especially grateful for one less decision to make.
Planning a healthful menu, letting friends and family bring a dish, and cooking most of your menu ahead allows everyone - guest and hosts - to feel relaxed and enjoy the day together. What a fitting tribute to the start of vacation season.
Summer Stuffed Chicken
Makes 10-12 servings
4 whole chicken breasts, skin on
1 to 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1 medium onion, peeled, minced fine
2 cloves garlic, peeled, minced
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
2 large bunches of fresh spinach, stemmed, washed well, and sliced thin, or thawed bag of frozen chopped spinach
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 to 2 teaspoons Aleppo or other hot pepper flakes
1 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
Grated rind of one lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 to 2 teaspoons sesame seeds
1/4 to 1/2 cup chicken stock
1. Using a sharp boning knife, carefully slice along the breastbone of the chicken and remove the individual breasts from the bone. You will have 8 breast halves with the skin on. (A butcher will be happy to oblige you in this task). Carefully loosen the skin from the flesh and spread a bit of mustard with your finger or a knife over chicken flesh. Set aside.
2. In a medium pan, heat the oil and add the onion. Cook until browned and caramelized. Add the garlic and fennel seeds and thyme and cook another few minutes, stirring often. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the spinach. Cook briefly, stirring, until spinach is wilted. Turn off the heat.
3. Turn this mixture onto a cutting board (or into a food processor). With a large knife chop until spinach and onions bits are small. (If using a processor pulse two or three times). Add the parsley, pepper flakes, bread crumbs, lemon zest, and salt and pepper. Stir well. Taste for seasoning. The mixture should taste a bit salty and peppery - as it must season the chicken during cooking. If the bread crumbs you used were dry, add up to 1/4 cup chicken stock or water to moisten. The mixture should just be moist - not soggy.
4. Divide the filling evenly among the breasts and stuff each breast under the skin carefully. Tuck the breasts snugly into a baking pan, sprinkle skin well with salt and pepper and sesame seeds, and pour 1/4 cup chicken stock into the bottom of the pan.
5. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes - or until a instant-read thermometer stuck into the chicken reads 160 degrees. Remove and let cool slightly. If the skin isn't well browned, run the pan under a hot broiler for a few minutes to just crisp the skin and brown evenly. Slice each breast into 4 or 5 slices, taking care to retain the integrity of the filling. While this dish is great to eat right from the oven, it is especially nice if allowed to cool and served sliced into 4-6 slices per breast. If serving the next day, remove from the refrigerator one hour before serving to allow the dish to come to room temperature.
Per serving (based on 12): 213 calories, 18 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 11 grams fat, 42 milligrams cholesterol, 281 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Oven-Poached Salmon or Halibut
Makes 10 to 12 servings
1 leek, white shank only, trimmed, sliced very thin, washed well & drained
1 carrot, washed well, sliced thin
12 2- to 3-ounce pieces of salmon or halibut, filleted and skinned
1 small sprig fresh thyme
1/4 cup white wine mixed with 1/4 cup water or fish stock
Fresh ground white pepper
Optional garnishes: Leaf lettuce or other greens, sliced lemons, springs of fresh dill, young radishes, thin-sliced fennel, sliced cucumber
Creamy mustard sauce (see note)
1. Preheat oven to 375.
2. Scatter the sliced vegetables on the bottom of a lightly oiled baking dish large enough to hold the fish. Place the filets on the baking dish close together but not touching (the fish may be on top of some of the vegetables). Pour the wine into the dish. Add thyme. Sprinkle each filet with salt and pepper. Cover tightly with foil and place in hot oven. Cook for 12-15 minutes. Remove from oven and leave covered until cool.
3. Transfer fish filets to a serving platter, which can be lined with romaine or tender kale leaves, along with some of the cooked vegetables. Garnish with sprigs of dill, small tender whole radishes, lemon and/or other vegetables. Serve with creamy mustard sauce.
Note: To make creamy mustard sauce: Combine 2/3 cup mayonnaise with 1/2 cup good quality prepared mustard (grainy Dijon or Honeycup.)
Per serving (based on 12): 233 calories, 12 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 19 grams fat, 35 milligrams cholesterol, 365 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.EndText
French Lentil Salad With Toasted Israeli Couscous, Feta and Walnuts
Makes 10 to 12 servings
2 cups dried lentilles du Puy (French lentils)
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only, optional
3 cups Israeli couscous
3 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and chopped into small cubes
1 yellow pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped into small cubes
3 plum tomatoes
1 large bunch Italian parsley, washed, stems removed, and minced very fine
8 to 10 ounces French feta cheese, crumbled
1 cup toasted walnut pieces
Vinaigrette (see note)
1. Cook the lentils in lightly salted water with thyme if using for 12 to 20 minutes until just cooked. Drain.
2. Preheat oven to 400. Place the couscous on a baking sheet and toast in hot oven until just lightly browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Shake the pan once during browning.
3. Cook the couscous in a large pot of boiling water for 8 to 12 minutes until soft. Drain.
4. Toss the cooked lentils and couscous together with all the chopped vegetables and herbs in a large bowl. Add vinaigrette to moisten. Taste and add more dressing and/or salt and pepper as needed.
5. Just before serving, toss in the feta and toasted walnuts.
Note: To make the vinaigrette, mix a half-cup of olive oil, a quarter-cup of sherry vinegar, and 2 cloves of minced garlic.
Per serving (based on 12): 396 calories, 13 grams protein, 46 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 17 milligrams cholesterol, 274 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.EndText
'In Flanders Field' Poppy Seed Cake With Lemon Glaze and Strawberries
Makes 10-12 servings
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Scant 1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (two sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
Rind of two lemons, zested or grated fine
1/2 cup fresh poppy seeds
For the glaze:
Juice of two lemons
2/3 cup sugar
Optional Memorial Day garnish:
Fresh strawberries, washed, hulled, and sliced (leave two or three perfect berries)
Small American flags
1. Preheat oven to 350. Prepare a bundt or tube pan by greasing and flouring.
2. Combine the dry ingredients in a small bowl. Set asisde.
3. Beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until creamy and smooth, scraping the bowl from time to time to ensure complete mixing. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add a third of the flour mixture and a third of the buttermilk and mix until the flour is just incorporated. Repeat twice more, adding the rind with the last bit of buttermilk, scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl, and mix until the batter is smooth.
4. Bake in the center of the oven for 40 to 50 minutes until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for about a half hour and invert onto serving plate.
5. Mix the glaze ingredients together and brush onto the cake while it is still warm.
6. Garnish with small American flags and serve the berries on the side, or use them to fill the hole in the center of the cake.
Per serving (based on 12): 482 calories, 7 grams protein, 71 grams carbohydrates, 45 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, 112 milligrams cholesterol, 276 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText