Wedding-tested appetizers are true finger food

It’s a tradition in my family to invite all relatives and out-of-town friends to wedding rehearsal dinners.

The concept is appealing for a clan that has dispersed to just about every corner of the continental U.S., as well as Scotland, northern England and western Canada. One extra night — at the expense of the groom’s parents, of course — to gather for stories and hugs.

So, whisper the word “wedding” and they all come running, a bottle of single malt whiskey in hand, and a schmaltzy mile-long toast on the tip of their tongues. Which is why, I suppose, the guest list for the rehearsal dinner my fiance and I were throwing for ourselves exactly 37 years ago today had ballooned to 85 people.

The task of feeding 85 guests isn’t too overwhelming if you’re a bonafide caterer. But this was something Steve and I wanted to do without the aid of paid professionals or financial backing from parents. That way it would be more personal, more intimate, and more of a sincere thank you to the parents who had brought us this far in life.

Yeah, right. Memo to self: next time the idea of creating such a mentally and physically brutal experience 24 hours before a major life event, just bash thumb with hammer; quicker and cheaper.

When Steve and I had planned this feast, it seemed completely doable. The theme was “An Eclectic Celebration,” a culinary nod toward the blending of our different cultures (Steve grew up in Pendleton, I was a California girl), and commemoration of our British heritage (Scottish on my side, English on Steve’s).

We were keeping it simple: Simple appetizers, such as smoked salmon and a make-ahead stir-fry salad; a salad bar; an easy starter course featuring fresh Pacific shrimp and avocados atop tomato slices with a zesty vinaigrette; Scottish meat pies prepared by a fabulous cook and family friend; English trifle for dessert prepared by my mother.

But any decent banquet needs a party-planner’s undivided attention. Formal weddings need not apply.

Nevertheless, preparations for the main event were in high gear. Mom and I fielded an endless barrage of questions from the caterer, florist and country-club hostess, coordinating airport pickups, enduring photo sessions, and continually checking off chores from a list that refused to get shorter.

Meanwhile, this great-idea-of-a-rehearsal-dinner was turning into the Event From Hell. The day leading up to it, and even at the 11th hour, a mountain of tasks hovered over us. I can still feel the panic as I recall some of the more tenuous moments:

• An exhausted mother/daughter team stir-frying several gallons of minced vegetables and turkey at midnight. (Recipe follows!)

• My poor father, hunting down extra ice and frantically taping party streamers into place as guests were arriving.

• A bartender who had a personal crisis 10 minutes into the party and left.

• The friend who had volunteered to coordinate the serving of each course, but was a part of the bartender’s crisis; she left.

• The scheduled dinner hour arriving, even though the meat pies hadn’t.

I could go on and on. Yet, flipping through the wedding album, it seems that none of this chaos was captured on film. There was a golden dusk outside, and San Francisco Bay sparkled through the picture windows. Friends were laughing, toasting, eating, crying and celebrating. The warmth and gratitude I feel to this day for all who jumped in to help tend the bar, serve the food, put elegant finishing touches on the centerpieces, and anticipate a dozen unspoken needs, is intense.

Do it again? Not on your life. But since we were blinded by love, ignorance and the exuberance of youth, we’ll always have the memory. A joyful one, after all. Happy Anniversary, my sweet.

Jan’s Rehearsal Dinner Hors d’oeuvre

This truly is a fabulous Asian-style melange of finely chopped turkey and vegetables. We served it that night as an appetizer. It was surrounded by crisp lettuce leaves that guests used to transport the zesty offering from platter to mouth. A large wok or tall-sided wide skillet is an essential part of the preparation.

1 (10¾ ounce) can double strength chicken broth, undiluted

¾ cup dry sherry

2/3 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

2 tablespoons corn starch

2 tablespoons hoisen sauce

1 tablespoon prepared Chinese mustard

About 2 pounds boneless, skinless raw turkey breast, minced to measure 3 cups (see note below)

About 6 tablespoons salad oil

2 cups each finely chopped: onions, celery

1 cup each, finely chopped: zucchini, carrots, green bell pepper, water chestnuts

Lettuce leaves for wrappers

In a bowl, whisk together the chicken broth, sherry, soy sauce, ginger, corn starch, hoisen sauce and mustard. Add the turkey, stirring well to combine the marinade with the meat, then cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours.

Place a colander in a large bowl, then pour the marinated turkey into the colander and let the marinade drain off for about 5 minutes; set the marinade aside.

Over medium-high to high heat, using a large heavy-bottomed skillet or wok, heat 2 tablespoons of salad oil until hot. Add the drained turkey and stir-fry quickly for about 2 minutes, or until the turkey chunks have developed a golden-brown coating. Juice will develop in the bottom of the pan as you are stir-frying; Spoon it off and keep frying; remove turkey to a clean platter or large bowl. Add another tablespoon of oil and stir-fry about half of the vegetables for a minute, then add about half of the reserved marinade (be sure to give the marinade a stir before adding so the cornstarch gets blended into the liquid. Remove the first batch of vegetables to the platter of cooked turkey. Add a bit more oil if necessary, then stir-fry the remaining vegetables, adding the marinade after about a minute.

Return all of the meat and vegetables to the skillet and continue stir-frying to mix and heat through.

Remove from heat and scrape into a container. Can be served immediately, or (preferably) chilled. To serve, place the platter of salad on the table, surrounded by lettuce leaves measuring no larger than 4 or 5 inches in diameter (larger leaves may be torn to size). Remember, this is bona fide finger food: Each diner spoons individual bites of the turkey mixture onto leaves, then rolls or wraps the lettuce around the filling. Yields enough salad to serve 8 to 10 people as a very generous appetizer or light entree.

NOTE ABOUT TURKEY: To achieve the right size (¼-inch bits), cut the breast meat into 1-inch chunks, then pulse briefly in a food processor; do not over-process or you will get ground turkey.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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