Next time you’re outside, look around. Fields, gardens and orchards are brimming with abundance—the produce we’ve been waiting for since spring: squash, beets, apples, cranberries and much, much more. It’s the stuff of comfort food, and if you’re like us, your mouth waters just thinking about it. As soon as you take that first bite—maybe even when you catch that first whiff—soul-warming memories of favorite people, times and places come flooding back.
These days, comfort food is everywhere, including on catering menus. Guests’ year-round menu expectation of spiral ham, green beans and boxed mashed potatoes is long gone (unless, of course, you want to serve it!). If you’re a food-lover who’s planning a party, Milwaukee is the place to be.
Lori Fredrich should know: Her finger never leaves the pulse of the local food scene. Perhaps Milwaukee’s original foodie, she’s encouraged others to love and respect food, too, through her writing (including for our sister site, OnMilwaukee.com) and #MKEfoodies, a group that explores new and innovative restaurants in the metro area that she co-founded with husband, Paul.
“Seasonal and local are the big buzzwords for autumn this year,” says Fredrich, who notes that preserved foods—from pickles, preserves, dried fruit and charcuterie—are in the spotlight, too. “We’ll see a move from lighter fare to dishes that are heavier and more satisfying. And there will be a turn from simple, fast cooking techniques like grilling to more time-intensive options like roasting.”
Here, Fredrich and local culinary pros explain how you can infuse autumn flavor into your meal, whether you’re celebrating your marriage or another happy occasion.
Appetizers & Late-Night Snacks
If you’re doing passed hors d’oeuvres or a snack buffet, “offer mini samples of favorite foods,” suggests Charmaine Gunther, an event designer with Zilli Hospitality Group, which caters across the metro area, and has contracts with venues like the Charles Allis Art Museum and the Milwaukee Public Museum. ZHG’s menu of miniature dishes has loads of homemade fall fare: pot pies, white cheddar cheese points served with a shot of tomato soup, macaroni and cheese cups… “Whose mom didn’t make mac and cheese?” asks fellow event designer Lori Ulickey.
Cocktail hour and late evening are ideal times to show your love for ethnic foods and other items that may encourage folks to go out on a limb. “Consider something guests would not otherwise try,” Gunther says. And, to get guests mingling, include cards that explain why the dishes are important to you.
Salad is easy to fall-ify, says Fredrich. “As we move from summer into the fall, salads don’t disappear, but they get heartier. Tomatoes are traded for beets and apples. Summer lettuce is swapped out for cool-weather greens. Candied nuts and seeds embellish the salads, adding crunch and protein.”
If you’re counting on a chilly day, consider soup or stew instead. “We are planning to do many stews, from Argentinean traditions to Brazilian flair,” says Ana Docta, owner and cook at Kasana, who incorporates South American and European flavors into her dishes. For a touch of whimsy, Fredrich even suggests having the soup served in little hollowed-out pumpkins!
“Milwaukee couples can make choices about the food they’re serving that reflect a sense of place,” Fredrich says. Lucky for meat-eaters who want to stay local, our area produces plenty of meat, from Sweet Water Organics’ tilapia to Piedmontese beef from Jeff-Leen Farm. “With the appropriate preparation, these will be just as impressive as their alternatives, and in some cases, they will come with a cost savings as well,” she explains.
When it comes to fall proteins, Docta suggests lamb and pork. “I want to do this funky dish with pork that will cook in red wine until it falls apart. It will get a glaze of pomegranate and a side of humitas,” she says. “Do not ask what it is…you need to try it from me first!” (Find out more about it at the opening of K Events, her new rental space, at the Third Ward’s Gallery Night and Day on October 19 and 20.)
With seasonal vegetarian dishes as hearty as polenta with mushroom ragu and roasted vegetable risotto, a “meat-and-potatoes” guest may not even notice what’s missing. This time of year offers lots of choices for folks with other dietary needs, too. “Seasonal baked pasta dishes are a favorite, with plenty of gluten- and dairy-free options available on the market,” says Fredrich.
One caterer who keeps these needs top of mind is Ball‘n Biscuit Catering, where the menu is particularly diverse, equipped to take care of just about any comfort food craving. “Some of our most popular dishes are pork tenderloin, cheese ravioli and empanadas,” says Maria Miller, co-owner and chef. Their side dishes are just as varied; among them, sweet potato mash, grilled and roasted veggies and wild rice salad. “We make a great sweet potato hash with tempeh,” she notes.
With flavors like cinnamon and caramel taking center stage, “an autumn wedding is the perfect time to serve dark spice cakes or carrot cake,” Fredrich says, whether it takes the form of a traditional cake or cupcakes. “It’s also possible to do something completely outside the box—like a caramel apple bar with a variety of toppings for your guests to choose from.”
Dessert stations continue to be a big trend, say ZHG event planners Gunther and Ulickey. How fortunate for guests! At a ZHG-catered event, they can try all sorts of individually sized fall goodies, from apple crisp tarts and pumpkin spice cheesecake shooters to apple dumplings served with a caramel rum sauce.
With the cold weather setting in, Docta suggests going back to basics: “Apples or pears baked with some wine, spices and brown sugar and topped with spiced walnuts and crème Chantilly.”
When you’re planning your party menu, don’t stop with the food. Beverages have seasons, too, says Fredrich: “Couples might consider swapping out part of their beer selection for hard cider, or serving mulled wine or spiced cider instead of, or as a complement to, coffee or tea.”
“I like the idea of consulting with a favorite bartender to create unique, customized cocktail options for guests,” she continues. “With the right bartender on hand, the sky is the limit.” Want specialty cocktails at your celebration? Check with your caterer. Many, such as ZHG, offer packages that include bartenders and all the libations they make.
If you’re hoping to feature something that’s not on a caterer’s menu, ask. Many are happy to prepare something just for you. “We allow couples to give us ideas whether or not an item is on our menu,” explains Miller. “A good amount of our dishes can be made into healthy vegetarian or vegan ones. We can do this because most of our food is homemade.”
“If a client wants to go over the top and have the ‘ultimate foodie wedding,’ then a locally sourced organic seasonal menu would be it!” says Justin Riege, executive chef at Coast – A Zilli Restaurant. “Nothing screams ‘foodie’ like a fully custom scratch menu that comes from a farmer just a few miles away.”
Regardless of your definition of comfort food, Fredrich’s party-planning advice is simple. “Let your own taste be reflected in what you serve your guests,” she says. “Weddings are no longer about following protocol. They are about sharing things you love with your family and friends. So, let the food you serve be a reflection of your personality.”
What comfort foods are special to you? Which will you feature at your party? Share in the comments below!
Special thanks to Eli Krondeva and Sheri Rice for coordinating with the team at Zilli Hospitality Group.