Diner en Blanc – Part 2: Food, Drinks and Table settings
The heart of Diner en Blanc is a meal, and planning it is a little different than planning for other outdoor events, given the atmosphere and the need to carry everything in and out in one trip. Earlier this week, I covered logistics, wardrobe and planning for groups larger than 2. This is about the stuff that goes on the table. It’s not a description of specific menus, it’s things to consider when putting together your own menu, and some touches we’ve found to make the event more magical.
You will need to plan to bring dishes and glassware with you (not plastic!), whether you bring your own meal or choose to have your meal catered on site.
I use white dishes at home, so I just use those so I have a wide variety of plate/bowl sizes, etc. This lets me more easily adjust my menu planning based on what’s good when I go shopping, and how particular recipes turn out. Even if you don’t have white dishes at home, you may be able to borrow them from someone for a night rather than buying all-new stuff. You don’t need to have a matched set of dishes – mixing sets together can add a lovely texture to the table. If you really want everything to match, and don’t have white dishes, you can also rent dishes, and you don’t usually even have to wash them before returning them. Remember you can also use glass plates and bowls – mixing these with white can look lovely on the table.
I also own white bone china and crystal glasses. Which stay at home for this event. You want things that suit the colour scheme, but you don’t want anything so expensive you’ll cry if it breaks, or anything that is truly irreplaceable – after all, you’ll be carrying it in less than ideal circumstances to an unknown location with a lot of other people moving around.
Think about the cutlery you’ll need for your menu, and make sure you’ve removed water spots if you want things to really sparkle in photographs. Remember plastic cutlery is not permitted for this event. Different cities may be more or less strict about this, but I wouldn’t want to chance it.
Setting the Table
The most important thing to remember about setting a table for DeB is to try the table setting out first- the tables aren’t very big, especially once you add dishes and food, so make sure it will fit on your table before you pack it up and carry it to the event. Here are some other things to think about.
You’ll want some light as the sun sets, but at least where we are, you can only use battery operated candles. This is actually a good thing – battery operated candles stay “lit” on rainy and windy evenings that would gutter open flames. It took me a while to find candles I liked for this event, because a surprising number of them are cream or ecru, rather than WHITE, and cream looks really dingy in a sea of bright white. I also don’t like the way battery operated candles with flame-shaped lightbulbs look. I found white battery operated votives and tealights (which you’ll see in my photos) at Crate and Barrel, and use them for barbecues all summer, and tucked into holiday greenery where a naked flame would be a fire hazard.
Flowers are the only colour (besides food) you’re allowed for DeB – so if you like the look of blood red roses surrounded by white, go for it. I tend to go for white flowers and greenery. When you’re planning, remember the tables aren’t very big, so don’t plan for a large arrangement. Also, although you can take as much time as you need to pack up flowers on the way out, you’ll be cleaning them up at the end of a long day, in the dark. For that reason, I tend o use inexpensive flowers, with the understanding that I will throw them out at the end of the night (this also means I don’t need to worry about how to keep them in water). It’s also totally allowed to do a table without flowers- they are not a required part of the event.
There are other ways to decorate your table. Here are a few of my favorites. Using an overlay (of lace, or tulle, etc.) or a white table runner over the tablecloth adds texture without impeding your ability to use the table surface. You can also decorate the table with your meal – jars of truffles and bowls of berries are lovely additions. If you can, add some height to the table – tiered serving pieces piled with charcuterie or dessert, or candle holders with some height can make the event feel more special. You could also consider decorating the chairs, rather than the table – our folding chairs have a handle at the back, so I have the perfect place to attach ribbons, flowers, or other decorations. It’s quick to do, especially if they’re assembled and attached to the chair in one piece.
Put some thought into your meal, whether you’re having it catered or making it yourself. I will discuss cooking meals for DeB in more depth, since that’s what I tend to do myself, but catering is also a great option.
If you’re having the meal catered, you have two options. You can add a meal to your event ticket, and pick it up on site. This is a great option if you’re pressed for time, or rushing from work to the event. In this case, plan your table set up so it can be accomplished by one person. The lines for picking up food can be quite long, so the best way to approach this seems to be for one person to set up tables and chairs and one person to pick up meals. In a larger group, one person can pick up meals for more than two people.
You can also get takeout from a favorite restaurant for this event. You’re aiming for three courses – a soup or salad, an entrée, and a dessert or cheese course, with the option for bread as well. It will be challenging to keep things hot or cool from the restaurant to the event, so your best bet is to choose items that can be eaten at room temperature. If you’re coming from an area with lots of great restaurants, you can also get each course from a different place. Just stack the takeout boxes in your basket or tote bags, and you’re good to go. This can be an ideal solution if you want a catered meal, but none of the options available on site thrill you.
If you’re cooking the meal yourself, you’ll have to be much more organised than I am, or plan to take the day/afternoon off work. I won’t lie, assembling a three-course meal that can be transported and arrive intact is a challenge, but I’ve always enjoyed doing it.
DeB expects you to bring a three-course meal. There are two basic approaches to this. The first is to find an elegant menu that can be served cold. This takes more work in planning, but is easier to carry because you don’t need to find ways of keeping food hot. Planning to serve a hot meal opens up a lot of food options, but introduces more logistical challenges to keep hot on the way to the event (perhaps more worthwhile in a larger group). Remember that coolers can keep foods warm as well as cold, and if you don’t have a white cooler, you can wrap it in white paper (some events are stricter than others about everything being white). Just make sure you plan to keep hot foods hot- food that was supposed to be hot eaten cold is not a particularly pleasant experience.
Salads make a very easy first course. You can wash and dry greens, and put them right back into bag they came in to pack them with you. Add a container of chopped vegetables and fruit to add depth, and one of nuts/croutons/parmesan crisps for some savory crunch. When you arrive, all you have to do is plate the salads. At the start of the meal, dress salads olive oil and balsamic vinegar, which can also be used to dip bread. On the way home, your containers can stack and fit inside one another, and the greens are gone entirely. Since DeB is a summer event, a trip to the market will provide lots of lovely options for making excellent salads.
One year, given a forecast of a cool, rainy evening, I did soup instead. We were going in a larger group, and one thermos would not hold all the soup we needed, so I made the same soup twice, once with orange carrots and once with purple. When we served the soup, we poured both soups into the bowls at the same time, one from the left side of the bowl, one from the right, to create the effect you see in the photo (you can also see how much it was raining by the pockmarks in the soup…). If you’re going to carry soup, remember to fill thermoses with boiling water for 10-15 minutes before you put food in them. If your forecast is warmer, a variety of delicious cold soups are also possible.
I generally find the logistics of hot entrees more than I want to deal with, so I work around that. I’ve served quinoa with chickpeas and cranberries with marinated vegetables, and vegetable and feta tarts. The tarts definitely invited a lot of comments from out neighbors. I didn’t want a tart I’d have to cut and serve on site, and wanted a “meal sized” tart. I didn’t have that size tart pan, so I made my own. This is actually simpler than it sounds – I just took three layers of heavy-duty alumninum foil and folded them into an open-topped box of the right size and creased the outside to hold things in place (let me know in the comments if you need to see photos of how to do this). Then line with pastry, bake blind, and fill with the appropriate filling before returning to the oven to finish. The one you see in the photo is roasted peppers, tomatoes, zucchini and beets, held together with a bit of egg and topped with feta. Like salads, this is easy to carry home, because you just dispose of the tart pans when you’re done and carry on.
For desserts, I’d recommend planning for individual servings. It winds up looking special without a lot of on-site plating, and you don’t need to bring serving implements or risk having left-overs to take home. Ramekins or small bowls filled with mousse or crème brulée, or individual cakes, tarts, or petit-fours all work. In my photos you’ll see my favorite chocolate mousse topped with raspberries, and individual apple rosette tarts with brown butter- both are delicious. For less sweetness, a chees course also works well, and you can simply have the staff at a cheese shop or good grocery store recommend a selection for you.
I have two additional thoughts for making your evening’s menu special, which are also helpful in making friends with the people sitting near you. First, recognise that you’re likely to do some waiting at your meeting site before you leave for the event location. Having an elegant snack to share can be lovely. One year, I had extra melted chocolate from another recipe, and wound up pulling a few dozen cherries out of the fridge to dip in chocolate. They were delicious, if a bit thrilling to eat in an entirely white outfit. When we offered them to other attendees, we wound up having some truly lovely people sitting near us. On the savory side, home made cheese crackers, or roasted nuts, could also be an excellent choice.
The other thought I have is that chocolates for the end of a meal just make it better (I run a chocolate subscription, what did you expect I’d say?). After your meal, you’ll want to go people watching and visiting, and being able to come back to your table for a delicious truffle makes it that much more magical (thinking about offering truffles to our neighbours is actually what prompted me to write about this event on the Coffret blog in the first place). You can make your own, or buy them at a local chocolate shop, and if you bring enough to share, you’re likely to be pretty popular with your neighbours. Just remember that if you want to put them out on the table, you’ll want a white or glass container to keep them in, and you’ll want a lid for the container. Initially, I just put the truffles in a glass jar because I wanted them to look pretty, but it turned out to be very useful, since it kept them dry in a downpour. In the photo, the tablecloth is absolutely soaked, but the truffles are dry.
First, be aware that, in most of North America, you can’t bring your own wine to this event. The selection of wines available to purchase may not be entirely what you’d choose, but please don’t bring your own. Event organisers require you to buy wine on site, and limit the amounts, because the liquor licences require them to do so. Depending on the jurisdiction, people not following these rules can cause a lot of difficulty in getting licences for the following year. There are regional variations in what is and isn’t allowed, but please follow the instructions you’re given about alcohol. I say that as someone who’s been a table leader and has had to ensure liquor laws were followed at a wide range of events.
If you’re ordering with for pick up on site, the same considerations as picking up meals on site apply. The line can be quite long, it’s worth sending someone to pick up wine as soon as possible, and remember whoever’s picking up wine can’t help set up tables and chairs.
Most events will also allow you to pick up water on site (some include a bottle of water with the purchase of a bottle of wine). This can save you from carrying water (which can be quite heavy) with your table and chairs. My recommendation would be to do this if you’re also getting wine (it’s usually the same line), but skip it if you’re only aiming to get water – the lines can be long, and it’s more fun to visit with friends than stand in line.
I’m not the biggest fan of bottled water, so I generally pack some of Ikea’s glass bottles of water for DeB. These allow me to bring infused waters, which elevate things a bit. It’s easy to tuck chopped mint and limes into a bottle before you fill it, and if you do it early in your prep and tuck it into the fridge, it will have a lovely flavour by dinner time. You may want to bring some water with you even if you are picking up on site – it can help clean up the odd spill, and have you covered if the line for water is really long.
Depending on your menu, you might also consider bringing still or sparkling lemonade, to serve with berries in the glasses, or sparkling water and good white balsamic vinegar for traditional Italian sodas, especially if, for whatever reason, you aren’t serving alcohol.
Another thought with drinks, and probably the one that’s prompted the most “I wish I’d thought of that…” comments from other attendees, is packing mugs and hot drinks for later in the evening. A thermos of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or spiced soft cider will cap off your evening beautifully. This is especially true if the weather is cooling off, or it rained during the event. It’s an extra little touch of magic for when the light is fading, and you’re visiting with other attendees, and one of my favorite parts of the evening. Like soup, preheat your thermoses to make sure everything is still warm at the end of the night.
Those are my thoughts about menus and food. Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see specific recipes. Who knows? I may get inspired to post sample menus and table settings, wit recipes and instructions. Enjoy Diner en Blanc this summer if you’re lucky enough to go.