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Wedding catering: Better than airline food

By J.M. HIRSCH

Associated Press

Dutiful friends that we are, my wife and I have spent much of this summer trudging from one wedding to another as the single stragglers of our circle finally discover marital bliss.

But as we work the wedding circuit, clinking glasses and making inane small talk with strangers, we’ve noticed that the cost of the catering rarely reflects the quality.

Whether a $60,000 affair in Mississippi or a more modest celebration in Massachusetts, the food was awful.

Of course, we weren’t there to be food critics, and on that level the quality of the meal shouldn’t and doesn’t matter. Still, newlyweds fork over considerable sums for catering and have a right to expect better.

Perhaps the instant rice, cold stuffed mushrooms, limp baby carrots and canned cheese hors d’oeuvres (not making this up) would have tasted better had I not known the betrothed paid as much as $65 a plate.

While it has become a cliche to complain about rubber wedding chicken (full disclosure — such fowl was served at my own nuptials), we don’t hear nearly enough about the atrocious vegetarian offerings.

Then again, we should be grateful there were vegetarian options at all. Too many wedding caterers consider chicken vegetarian. Even when they get the vegetarian part of it right, everything else about it usually is so wrong.

With uncanny accuracy, I will predict what the vegetarian offering will be at the next wedding you attend.

Think pasta, preferably a bit mushy. There will be some tomato substance, but not much, and it will have no flavor. There also will be mushy chunks of vegetables, usually summer squash regardless of the season. And lots of garlic.

Mouth watering yet?

On one account, caterers can be forgiven their lack of creativity. At most weddings, vegetarians are few in number. Pasta is agreeable to most people, and it certainly is easy to make.

But who knew it was so easy to make so badly?

At my own wedding we avoided the pathetic pasta option by giving the caterer the recipe for the vegetarian dish we wanted served — roasted tofu with brown rice, steamed broccoli and spicy peanut sauce.

Not every couple will go as far as that, especially if vegetarians aren’t well represented in the wedding party. And not every caterer wants to learn how to handle tofu just to serve a few people at one wedding.

But that doesn’t mean good meatless meals can’t be had while celebrating a marriage. The ideal dish would employ common ingredients, simple techniques and (this is the tough part) taste good.

As luck would have it, the slightly obsessive chefs at Cook’s Illustrated magazine (these are the wonderful folks who test each dish a billion or so times to get it just right) have just what we need for true wedded bliss.

In the magazine’s July-August issue, the Cook’s crew offers a perfected version of pasta with vegetables. Cook’s Illustrated writer Elizabeth Germain explains that summer squash and pasta can make a great coupling.

“For most of us, however, this promise of ideal matrimony is likely to end in divorce,” she writes. “The pasta and the squash are bland, and the squash is often so watery that it quickly turns to mush.

“The resulting dish has no flavor and little texture, inspiring in the diner an intense desire for another sort of affair, perhaps a plate of barbecued ribs.”

Don’t let it get to that stage. For good vegetarian wedding food, clip this recipe and give to a caterer near you.

Pasta and Squash with Tomatoes, Basil and Pine Nuts

4 medium zucchini and-or summer squash (2 pounds), halved lengthwise and then cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces

Kosher salt

1 pound farfalle pasta

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 pint grape tomatoes, cut into halves

1/2 cup packed chopped fresh basil leaves

2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

Parmesan cheese, to serve

Toss the zucchini and-or squash with 1 tablespoon kosher salt in a medium bowl. Transfer to a large colander and set over the bowl. Let stand for 30 minutes to drain.

Spread the squash evenly over a double layer of paper towels. Pat squash dry with additional paper towels and wipe off any residual salt.

In a large stockpot, bring 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt (or 1 tablespoon table salt) and pasta. Cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and return to the stockpot.

While the pasta cooks, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat until just beginning to smoke. Swirl to coat pan with oil.

Add half of the squash and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and slightly charred, about 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the squash to a baking sheet or large plate.

Heat another tablespoon of oil in the skillet and repeat to cook remaining squash. Transfer to baking sheet or plate.

Return empty skillet to a medium-high flame. Add 1 tablespoon of oil, garlic and pepper flakes. Cook until fragrant, about 10 seconds, then add squash and stir well to combine and heat through, about 30 seconds.

Add the squash mixture, remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, tomatoes, basil, balsamic vinegar and pine nuts to the pasta in the stockpot. Toss to combine. Adjust seasonings, if needed, and serve, passing Parmesan separately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings as main dish. Preparation time: 1 hour.

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