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How to Create a Tasting Menu

Tasting menu courses are small in size but not in flavor. Play with complimentary tastes, like bright citrus and greens with rich, gamey duck.
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Tasting menus are the hallmark of many upscale restaurants. After all, what patron wouldn't want to nibble her way through the entire menu when everything sounds so good?

Thankfully, there are multicourse tasting menus -- meals composed of several small servings that showcase a chef's culinary skills. The dishes may include luxurious components, such as caviar or truffles, and usually vary according to the availability of seasonal ingredients.

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For those of us with knife and fork at the ready, a restaurant's tasting menu offers a delectable window into a chef's gastronomic philosophy. More to the point, we're able to sample four to 20 courses (or more!) that feature fantastic cuisine -- something just not possible when ordering regular servings a la carte. A half-dozen full-size courses would be cost prohibitive and more than most appetites could handle.

Spice up your next dinner party by creating your own tasting menu. (Wouldn't it be more exciting than the same old roast beast?) The fancy menu is sure to make your guests feel special. Plus, it won't be much more work than usual because you can choose recipes and plating styles to suit your strengths. Simply organize the tasting menu by region (Mediterranean), theme (Cajun) or ingredient (Kobe beef), and keep portions small so guests aren't satiated before the final course arrives.

You can ensure that the tasting menu stays manageable by limiting it to five or six courses. Save difficult recipes for just one or two main dishes, and stick with simple dishes that use only a few ingredients for the remaining courses. Prepare as much as possible ahead of time, leaving only the sauces and salads to the last minute.

If planning a multicourse menu seems overwhelming, remember: You don't need to cook solo. Recruit a sous chef in the form of a friend who loves to cook or even an off-duty expert who owes you a favor. Or, you could really take the pressure off by inviting guests to bring a sampling of foods that fit within your party parameters.

A tasting menu doesn't need to focus on food alone. Instead of putting all your energy into edible fare, pair carefully crafted flights of beer or wine with simple foodstuffs, such as artisan cheeses or fresh fruits.

We'll share more ideas for selecting libations on the next page.

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The most difficult thing about planning a wine tasting menu may be trying to narrow the options. After all, there are literally thousands of wines -- but only four or five that will take a star spot in a multicourse meal.

The wines should be chosen strategically. You could opt to highlight a particular region, variety of grape or vintage. By selecting wines made from a grape varietal that grows in a specific area, for instance, you could explore how different winemaking techniques create taste differences.

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Or you could serve several different years of the same wine to discover how the flavor and aroma of a wine are affected by age and seasonal growing conditions. This is known as a vertical tasting.

You could even select the wines based on color. For example, you could serve a series of reds that include cabernet sauvignon, Shiraz, merlot, pinot noir and cabernet franc. Or white wines, such as chardonnay, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc.

Pairing a wine with each course can bring out the best in both. The fare doesn't need to be a complex mix of ingredients and preparation. A platter of cheeses, pickled vegetables, fresh fruits or jams, toasted bread and cured meats like prosciutto and high-quality salami is easy and elegant, and your guests will be able to experiment with the flavors to bring out different notes in the wines.

And you don't even need the advice of a sommelier to pull it off. Download a helpful app, like iFromage, to marry cheese and wine. For pairing wines with starters, entrees and desserts, try the Pair It! app; it matches more than 180 varietals with more than 1,000 foods.

Whatever wines you select, serve the lightest-flavored first and follow with increasingly heavy tastes. This usually means that dry wines will come before sweet, white wines will come before reds (though a strong chardonnay might follow a bright Beaujolais on occasion), and old, subtle wines will come before young, bold ones. By serving the more gentle wines first, your guests will be able to really taste the subtleties. Can we say the same of beer? Find out on the next page.

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Lightly dressed oysters always have a wow factor, and pair well with herbal or floral beers like India Pale Ales (IPAs).
Lightly dressed oysters always have a wow factor, and pair well with herbal or floral beers like India Pale Ales (IPAs).
Tom Grill/Iconica/Getty Images

Hosting a beer tasting is similar to hosting a wine tasting -- with some important differences. You could organize a beer tasting menu by selecting brews from a single region, style or brewer. However, you also could use a seasonal theme, serving several bright spring and summer ales or heavy fall and winter ales, or a multiseasonal sampling of each. Some breweries market sampler packs with a few flavors that you could use to create a no-fuss menu.

When it comes to food pairings, sometimes beer is best. Take spicy Thai food, for example. Strong-flavored beers -- such as IPAs or Belgian tripels -- can cut the heat and complement the food without being overwhelmed. Lighter fare, like sushi or salads, benefit from a delicate wheat beer (also called white beer, witbeer, or weissbeer) like a hefeweizen. And a lowbrow-themed tasting would need a clean pilsner to play against those rich burgers & brats. Websites like BeerAdvocate.com offer helpful pairing advice, as do mobile apps like Beer Match.

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During a tasting, serve beer -- like you would wine -- in order from the lightest-flavored to the strongest. This usually means serving bitter beers before sweet ones and light-colored beers before dark ones, but also pay attention to the alcohol content (sometimes expressed as ABV -- alcohol by volume -- or gravity) and serve less-alcoholic beers first.

No matter what the beer, the pour is crucial. Tip the open bottle into a tilted glass; if there's a lot of foam, pour slowly as you shift the glass to an upright position. The goal is to produce about two fingers (approximately 1 to 2 inches or 3 to 5 centimeters) of foam atop a full glass of beer.

The size and shape of the glassware will also affect the way the bubbles and head form, which will impact the aroma and taste of the beer. For example, a tulip-shaped beer glass is perfect for Belgian strong ales, fruity lambics and Scotch ales; the glass helps preserve both a foamy head and the flavors underneath. Many breweries sell signature glasses to enhance their beer, but if you can't afford to buy them you may be able to rent them from a catering company.

What else should you do to present a libation -- and its paired food -- in the best possible light? We'll share a few tips on the next page.

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Serve single bites in individual dishes, like Asian-style soupspoons, and garnish simply for ease of eating and understated flair.
Serve single bites in individual dishes, like Asian-style soupspoons, and garnish simply for ease of eating and understated flair.
Inti St. Clair/Getty Images

As guests arrive, prime their taste buds -- and the mood -- by serving canapes or an amuse bouche (a single bite of food to entertain the senses -- sort of like a teaser for the coming courses) and sparkling wine -- cava and prosecco are budget-friendly alternatives to champagne.

Prepare as many dishes as you can ahead of time. This will ensure that you won't spend the entire party tucked away in the kitchen instead of out where the action is. Plus, you can invite guests to help prep the salads or plate the courses. This way, you won't have to be host, sous chef and waiter all rolled into one.

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As for presentation, keep the dishware simple. Solid colors are typically better than patterns -- patterns may detract from the food itself, which should be presented with a garnish or drizzled with a sauce near the edge of the plate. Be sure you have plenty of cutlery; guests should receive a clean knife, spoon and fork before each course is served, along with any specialty tools like a demitasse spoon.

You might also consider serving a palette cleanser between courses, such as sorbet, gazpacho or even a small glass of champagne. This will add a feeling of decadence to your tasting menu, but also allows guests to better taste the subtleties of the next course.

And when it comes to the courses, be sure to vary the textures or serve surprising combinations of ingredients. This way, just as guests begin to think the next course is predictable, you can wow them. This is especially true for the dessert course, which can be a real showstopper. For example, serve beer as dessert by drizzling a strong, dark stout over a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or try poaching fruit in a thematically appropriate wine. Whatever ingredients you incorporate, remember that fresh, in-season herbs and fruits pack the biggest flavor punch.

Although a tasting menu can be a complicated affair, it doesn't have to be. The key to keeping it manageable is to plan ahead, select a theme and give your guests an evening they won't soon forget -- filled with fabulous fare.

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Sources

  • Anglin, Nadine. "How to Create an At-Home Tasting Menu." (July 18, 2011) FoodNetwork.ca. http://www.foodnetwork.ca/Create+Home+Tasting+Menu/2177760/story.html
  • BeerAdvocate.com. "Glassware for Beer." (July 18, 2011) http://beeradvocate.com/beer/101/glassware
  • Cherpack, Peter. "How to Conduct a Successful Beer Tasting Event." (July 18, 2011) http://www.beerappreciation.com/HowtoBeerTasting.pdf
  • Le Draoulec, Pascale. "World's Most Expensive Tasting Menus." Aug. 17, 2007. (July 18, 2011) Forbes.com. http://www.forbes.com/2007/08/24/food-menu-tasting-forbeslife-cx_pl_0827food.html
  • Ramsey, David. "Pairing Beer with Food." (July 18, 2011) MensJournal.com. http://www.mensjournal.com/pairing-beer-with-food
  • Squires, Mark. "How to Organize a Wine Tasting." (July 18, 2011) MarkSquires.com. http://marksquires.com/art_organizeTasting0505.htm
  • TuscanyTonight.com. "Wine Party Themes." (July 18, 2011) http://www.tuscanytonight.com/Pages.php?Page=wine-tasting-party-themes
  • ZenCanCook.com. "A 'Small Plate' Tasting Menu at Home." Oct. 2, 2010. (July 18, 2011) http://www.zencancook.com/2010/10/project-food-blog-a-small-plate-tasting-menu-at-home/

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