Spring is a time for tulips, new asparagus and baby lamb--a season to savor fresh ingredients. It's when gardeners start poking around the vegetable patch and hostesses decorate tables with daffodils and apple blossoms.
Gathering up the season's bounty and sharing it with friends is the way many celebrate the end of winter. Whether you're planning a Sunday brunch, a pool-side lunch or a formal dinner, "think fresh," say a handful of experts who were asked for tips on spring entertaining. For table settings and flower arrangements as well as menus, take your cue from the garden and keep it dewy and bright.
"Anything that looks just picked is right for spring," says Patricia McCallum, owner of Huntington Harbour Florist.
Although McCallum's expertise is flowers, the advice goes just as well for meal planning. The cooks among our experts recommended an assortment of fresh ingredients: baby lamb, fresh fish and asparagus, shelled new peas, strawberries and artichokes.
Donna Barasch, who teaches cooking classes at her Villa Park home, says she prefers daytime gatherings for spring, particularly Sunday brunches and afternoon "dinners."
Donna and her husband, Ken, are habitual entertainers. Ken, a marketing and real estate consultant, always chooses the wine from his bountiful collection. Donna usually plans the menu and does most of the cooking, although Ken pitches in. Their typical gatherings are dinners for friends in their dining room or informal meals around the pool.
For a springtime Sunday dinner, she suggests an appetizer of pineapple-ham turnovers with chive pastry, an entree of baby lamb and fresh vegetables, and a dessert of strawberries in meringue baskets. Like most of her menus, her lamb dinner centers on the fresh herbs and vegetables she gets from her mother's garden.
For decorative touches to a March or April table, she makes individual bread dough nests, each of which holds a hard-boiled egg (white or decorated), and sculpts a furry-looking lamb out of butter.
For the meal's focal point, she chooses lamb for two reasons.
"Lamb has religious connotations for Jews and Christians but is also traditional because (spring is) when lambs are born, and fresh lambs are the best," she says. "I don't like frozen lamb."
She advises advance planning: early shopping and preparation of several dishes ahead of time. "It's one of the secrets of being able to cook good meals--a lot of it is advance preparation, making lists to make sure you have all the ingredients when you go to cook."
Brunches and early Sunday dinners may be typical gatherings during the spring, but evening affairs are also high on the list among people who like to entertain.
Zell Henderson, catering coordinator at the Golden Truffle in Costa Mesa, spent the past few weeks planning and organizing several spring evening parties. But the event that commanded his utmost attention was a formal dinner party for 60, held Friday at the Newport Beach home of Arthur Voss.
Henderson wanted the menu--which included four cocktail dishes followed by three entrees, several salads and desserts--to be elegant, sophisticated and filled with unexpected tastes and textures. After all, the party was costing its host $8,000.
To achieve a level of luxury, Henderson built his menu around lobster, beef tenderloin, veal, fresh tuna and vegetables. Cocktail bites included lobster and avocado beignets, beef tenderloin on toast, and seared fresh yellowfin tuna on daikon radish with wasabi (Japanese horseradish). Among the entrees were veal stuffed with pistachios, cheese and spinach; seafood paella with rice, saffron and leeks; and ballottine of chicken with coarse-grained mustard sauce. Desserts included miniature cream puffs and tuxedo strawberries.
The home cook can duplicate Henderson's beignets and beef hors d'oeuvres by deep-frying lobster and avocado pieces dipped in batter and slicing rare beef tenderloin and placing it on toast. The tuxedo strawberries are fresh berries dipped in white and dark chocolate--easy to make for small parties at home.
On a smaller scale, L. Charles Baron, an instructor whose specialty is classic French cooking, usually chooses French entrees when he entertains in his San Clemente home. Baron prepares the food and his wife, Jacqueline, who teaches courses in table settings and party planning, handles the ambiance.
For a classic French meal for spring, Baron suggests a fresh pea vichyssoise to start, followed by a classic chicken, sausage and vegetable mold called a Chartreuse, and Bavarian creme for dessert. (Baron talks about how to make these dishes in his "Bonsoir Charles" cooking classes. For information, call (714) 492-8304.)
Jacqueline Baron would serve this meal in their dining room on her Lenox Blue Oakleaf china with sterling silverware and silver water goblets, creating a formal setting to match the food. But in San Clemente, casual dining alfresco is king.