With more people choosing to entertain at home lately, I find myself uttering the phrase, “What can I bring?” quite often. Usually, I’ll offer dessert or wine, since both of these items are easy to pick up at the local store. I’ve always wished I had a signature dish.
I have long admired when people bring their “signature dish” to pot lucks and barbeques. My friend Andrea makes a fantastic cold salad with ramen noodles. It’s always one of the first dishes gone. Although she says, it is easy to make and has given me the recipe, my attempts at recreating the dish have always come up short.
Even though I cook a lot for my family, I worry about cooking for a crowd, especially people I don’t know very well. We have all seen those dishes left untouched on the buffet table. Chef, owner of Ariane Kitchen & Bar and Top Chef Season 5 contestant Ariane Duarte, says, “I’m a professional chef and sometimes even I get intimidated worrying, ‘Will people like my dish?’ We overthink what we are cooking and discourage ourselves in the kitchen.”
A good signature dish appeals to a lot of palates. It doesn’t need to be complicated or have tons of ingredients. Duarte says, “In the winter, I love chicken chili. It’s simple but crowd-pleasing. The flavors are classic, and the chicken makes a little different and healthier than the beef version.”
Duarte says. “I like cooking food that I enjoy eating. There are ingredients I avoid using because I don’t like the taste. Your signature dish should be a reflection of you, so don’t make something you just because you think others will like it. It is also harder to cook (and make adjustments) to a dish you don’t enjoy sampling.
The idea of a signature dish is that you can just “whip it up” without worry too much. A soufflé, while decadent and delicious, is too fickle to be a signature dish for the average home chef. If possible, choose a dish that can be made entirely in advance. Your hostess will appreciate you not taking up room at her stove to re-heat the dish or at the counter putting in last-minute ingredients. It will also allow you to enjoy the party if you don’t have to tend to your dish.
We eat with our eyes first, so a signature dish should look pretty. Duarte says, “There is nothing more appealing than the beautiful colors of fresh watermelon and tomato salad in the summertime.” Conversely, avocados can turn brown quickly and cheese can get hard or congeal if it’s left out too long. So be mindful of how long the dish will sit before serving.
A signature should not have rare, hard-to-find ingredients. It should be something you can make with ingredients you usually have on hand. In general, the fresher the ingredients, the better the flavor.
Don’t make your signature dish for the first time on the day of a big party. Instead, practice making it and taste test with your family to get honest opinions and make sure the recipe is just right before you debut it for a crowd.
Your signature dishes can be new recipes or ones handed down from generation to generation. Duarte suggests modernizing an old favorite by getting creative. She explains, “Right now I am making a Caesar salad using broccoli and charred cabbage instead of romaine lettuce. It has the same flavors as a classic Caesar that people enjoy. But by switching some of the ingredients, it gives the dish a welcome element of surprise.”
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