Dinner Menu Primer
An inviting menu is a balance of bland, strong, sharp and sweet tastes, with foods of different textures, temperatures, and colors.
Bland tastes, such as rice, pasta, or potatoes, contrast with strong flavors, such as meat, game, or well - seasoned vegetables, followed by the sharp taste of a vinaigrette salad, accented by a sweet dessert.
- A well-balanced menu does not duplicate taste. When cheese is served as an hors d'oeuvre, it is not incorporated in a dish served at the table.
- Because sweet foods dull the appetite, fruit is not served as an appetizer. The exception is grapefruit, which has a sharp taste that stimulates the palate.
- When a first course is served in a pastry shell, dessert with a crust is not appropriate.
- If creamed soup is served as a first course, creamed vegetables are not included in the main course.
- When sauce is served, it is presented only once.
From light to heavy, sour to sweet, each course is designed to meet a specific taste requirement.
At a four-course meal,
- a light first course, such as hot soup or raw fish, stimulates the palate; it is followed by
- a combination course of cooked food, such as meat, starch, vegetables, and garnish.
- Afterward a light course is served, usually a crisp salad tossed with a tart dressing;
- it is followed by a sweet dessert.
But at a simple meal, many tastes are combined in one dish, for example, a Mexican casserole made with meat, vegetables, and cheese is a spicy taste that accents the bland flavor of flour tortillas and is followed by a light dessert, such as delicate flan.
Contrasting Textures. Food textures promote mastication, and the menu is designed to offer both crunchy and smooth textures. The crunchy texture of raw foods, such as carrots and celery, contrast with soft foods, such as cheese or soup. Crisp salad greens balance foods made with a smooth consistency, such as noodles in a cream sauce.
Contrasting Temperatures. The well-balanced menu includes both hot and cold temperatures.
Because hot foods stimulate the appetite, a hot dish is always included in a menu, except in extremely hot weather, when a cold menu is less obtrusive to the palate.
At a four-course meal a hot first course is followed by a cold second course, then a hot main course and a cold dessert.
To maintain the right temperature, hot food is served on warm plates, and cold food on cool plates. Porcelain is naturally cold to the touch, so porcelain plates are not cooled.
For a hot course, they are warmed in a low oven (approximately 150 to 200°F, or 66 to 93°C). Plates can also be warmed in the drying cycle of the dishwasher.
Contrasting Colors. As guests feast with their eyes as well as their palates, a well-balanced menu offers a contrast of colorful foods. Imagine an all-white-food turkey dinner, such as white meat, mashed potatoes, and creamed onions.
Although the dishes may taste superb, there is nothing for the eyes to feast on. But the same dishes are inviting when colorful food is added, such as dark meat, cranberry sauce, string beans, and sweet potatoes.
These, then, are the subtleties of a well-balanced menu.
The main course is the focal point of the menu, and all other foods are selected to accent the taste, temperature, texture, and colors.
If the cocktail hour is particularly long, the palate may become dulled by hors d'oeuvres, in which case highly seasoned food is recommended for subsequent courses.
The Seven-Course Meal
The following seven-course menu can be easily adapted to a four-course meal by eliminating an appetizer course, the cheese course, and the fruit course.
To keep the palate fresh for a multi-course meal, notably a formal dinner of five or more courses, do not serve appetizers with preprandial drinks. But at a simple meal of four courses or less, a ready palate is not an issue and light hors d'oeuvres or canapés can be offered with cocktails.
It is said that soup is to dinner what overture is to opera, and the first course at a multi-course meal is light-perhaps a small serving of hot lentil soup, served to stimulate the appetite. At a simple meal, the first course is substantial, such as a small serving of pasta.
In the world of French cuisine, the second course is known as the releFe} a French word for "litt," an intermediate course served to lift the palate and prepare it for the third course.
Technically, the third course is the entree. Years ago when formal dinners were the norm, it was customary to serve three appetizer courses, the last one providing the entree or entrance to the main course.
Today, people don't eat as much as they once did, and more often the third course is in fact the main course, a course often listed on restaurant menus under entree. But when three appetizers are served at a multi-course meal, the third course is a light appetizer known as the entrée.
At a formal dinner, the fourth course is often the main course, a substantial course consisting of a combination of hot cooked foods, such as a roast beef surrounded by seasonal vegetables, a starch, and garnish.
Sorbet, essentially a fruited ice, is served to clear the palate at anytime during a meal. As the main course is the heaviest course, sorbet is usually presented before, during, or after the main course.
To revive the palate, the fifth course is a light course of cold or cooked food, such as endive salad, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, or a cold roti, a French word for "roast," such as pate de foie gras in aspic.Cheese is a digestive, and an assortment of cheese is presented immediately after the service of salad or fruit. To provide a contrast of taste, texture, and temperature, after the cheese board is presented, an assortment of warm crisp crackers is offered, along with butter served at room temperature.
Cheese is most flavorful at a room temperature-approximately 70 to 72°F (21 to 22°C). For greatest flavor, cheese is removed from the refrigerator approximately an hour before service. Cheese with a runny texture, like brie or camembert, is enhanced when kept three to six hours at room temperature.
Soft cheese. such as ricotta or neutchatel, stays firm longer when placed on a chilled marble slab. Firm cheese, such as gouda or cheddar cheese, remains hard on a wooden board.
To balance the flavors of cheese, a choice of three is offered, such as the strong taste of brie, camembert, or limburger, accented by mild bel paese, muenster, edam, or gouda, and moldy blue-veined cheese, such as stilton, roquefort, gorgonzola, or blue cheese. To prevent the flavor of one cheese from invading the taste of the others, a separate knife is provided for each cheese.
To balance the textures of cheese, serve three different consistencies, such as hard cheese, like cheddar, colby, gruyere, swiss, provolone, edam, or gouda; semisoft cheese, such as port-salut, bel paese, brick, muenster, mozzarella, or blue-veined cheese; and soft cheese, like brie, camembert, ricotta, or neutchatel.
The sixth course is a sweet course served to cap the appetite. In the sixteenth century, dessert was a memorable course made for display, more like a centerpiece today, a tall confection shaped in a complex ornamental shape, such as a castle or a topiary tree, surrounded by smaller edible desserts. Today dessert is a simple course, that, in keeping with past traditions, is as memorable as the final act in a play.
At a multi-course meal, a heavy menu is complimented by a light dessert with a soft texture, such as poached pears accompanied by crisp florentines and chewy macaroons. At a simple meal, a rich dessert caps the appetite with flair, for example, a smooth-textured ice-cream pie presented in a crust textured with chopped nuts.
Whether a meal is formal or informal, when multiple courses are served, to cleanse and refresh the palate, the meal concludes with fresh fruit. For a simple menu, the meal may conclude with a rich dessert, or with fresh fruit, such as sliced pineapple or strawberry shortcake.
- Mike Lininger, Editor, Etiquette Scholar
If you find any typographical errors, inaccuracies, or inconsistencies, or if you just have something to add, please email us.