Last minute lunch for 50: tips, tools and tastes

Once a year, my mum puts on a lunch for over 50 people to celebrate Jewish New Year. This is no ordinary lunch… it’s a banquet, meticulously styled and planned down to the last basil leaf and elevated ceramic platter. I usually sit down with her weeks in advance to discuss the menu and the way in which we’ll do something special. It’s a process we both absolutely love and look forward to each year. Unfortunately this year, my grandmother became quite unwell and my mum cancelled her soirée two weeks prior. However,my gran’s condition stabilised and the lunch was reinstated, just 48 hours prior to the guests arrival. This obviously meant that the many hours of baking, shopping, chopping and setting up were drastically reduced and we had to come up with a new plan. But if you know my mum, that was never going to mean lowering her standards.

I was so inspired by how she managed to pull it all together at the last minute – here are some of the lessons that can be learned.

view from the top: salad bar with grains, garnishes and extras *

A salad bar was always the plan for the lunch, and this is mostly last minute work anyway. so the menu at large didn’t change much.  But one thing I have learned, is to get help! Peeling, chopping and roasting is very time consuming, so where possible:

Prep tip #1buy ready cut veggies (worth the extra cost when you are so short on time). also, specialised kitchen tools are very handy. My mum recently picked up this Chef’n® Stalkchop Cauliflower Tool in New York – its incredible and how much time and trimming it saves 🙂

Prep tip #2: get someone (or 2 people) to be your kitchen hands.

Salmon sashimi with wasabi peas

Style tip #1: food en masse looks great. My mum’s huge selection of large bowls and platters always look amazing filled with her gorgeous cooking and baked goods.

roasted tomatoes with fresh basil, roasted corn with chilli, lime and coriander

My mum artfully presented all the elements of the salad piled up on a long wooden board, with certain ingredients such as the feta cheese in herb oil and the grains, served on the board in bowls of different colours and textures, creating beautiful height and a bright array of colour, making the whole board look so appealing. This also helps to engage all your senses. Nothing was too preciously laid out and so people weren’t afraid to tuck in and help themselves.

deluxe make your own salad bar
Menu tip #1: make sure all dietary requirements are catered for. Quinoa and freeka, both gluten free, were the grains for the salad, alongside soft white bread for dipping and zesty za’atar bread (deliciously not gluten-free) soak up all the goodness. Dairy was kept separate and some salad without glazed salmon on top was kept aside for a vegan guest.

Menu tip #2: serve a selection of hot and cold food to really engage the senses. Combining temperatures in one meal enhances the flavour experience. A gorgeous kale, spinach and feta pie was served fresh from the oven to contrast the cold salad bar.

Mediterranean flavours: roasted baby tomatoes, whole salmon with date syrup glaze on chickpea and date salad,  smokey babaganoush and hummus with soft bread

Prep tip # 2: accept help from your guests. My mum and I usually do the majority of everything ourselves. Baked goods and ice creams are usually frozen a couple of weeks in advance saving a lot of stress in the days leading up to the lunch. However, this year was different. My mum is lucky to be surrounded by beautifully caring, very generous friends, many of whom brought a dessert. It also helps that said friends are talented bakers, assemblers and ice cream makers!

chocolate crunch ice cream, choc chiffon cake, peppermint crisp pudding and baked cheesecake *

On the menu was a creamy baked cheese cake, chocolate crunch ice cream, chocolate chiffon cake, caramelised mango and creamy yoghurt, peppermint crisp pudding (golden layers of caramel condensed milk, coconut biscuits and crumbled choc mint candy), double chocolate rocky road,  two huge fruit salads – one “red” filled with fresh berries, watermelon ruby red grapes and pomegranate jewels, and another tropical “yellow” one of pineapple, paw paw, papaya, mango with a ginger, honey and mint syrup. There was also an array of mini chocolates and nougat, a variety of indulgent biscuits and biscotti and a huge tray brimming with a sugar rush of brightly coloured lollies. Lets just say I didn’t have much in the way of a savoury dinner that night with all this delectable dessert left over!

double chocolate rocky road, caramelised yogurt with mango pudding, cheese cake with caramel crunch topping *

On another note, while decor and presentation is vitally important to creating the right atmosphere, there is nothing wrong with simple.

Style tip #2: grocery store flowers are usually good enough quality and reasonably priced. Instead of the annual early morning  trip to the flower markets, a stop in the floral section at Woolies while picking up fruit and veg the day before was perfect for this last minute lunch. My mums stunning collection of vases and serving-ware ensured that style was not forgotten, ensuring that the visual sense was definitely well catered for in this multi-sensory experience.

At the end of the day, despite the aching feet and a lot of cleaning up to do, my mum was thrilled with her decision to host her lunch as usual. The most important thing at the end of the day is that all our friends and family were together, celebrating the new year in as we always do, and of course that no one was left hungry (for days to come!) and there was certainly enough sugar involved to send everyone off with blessing of a “sweet new year”. Well done mum, I’m always so proud of, and inspired by you!

*photos by Ingrid Shakenovsky, with thanks