Proven Winners: Five Caterers Share their Go-to Party Dishes

Get some holiday hosting inspo from these Triangle food experts’ tried and true crowd-pleasers.
by Catherine Currin | illustrations by Jillian Ohl

It’s party season! From holiday potlucks to cocktail soirées, there’s lots going on. Stuck in a rut on what to bring? We asked the experts — aka, local caterers — for their go-tos when they’re heading to or hosting a holiday party. From bite-sized treats to crowd-pleasing entrees, these dishes are sure to be a hit.  

Jill Donovan’s Baked Brie, En Croute

“Who doesn’t love a delicious baked brie?” says Jill Donovan, owner of Donovan’s Dish. “This dish is fresh, seasonal, decadent and a huge crowd pleaser!”

6 ounces (one wheel) brie cheese
4 ounces chutney (Donovan loves Mrs. Ruth’s Appley Dappley)
1/2 sheet of puff pastry
1 egg
Fresh baguette, sliced Granny Smith apple or fancy crackers for serving

Directions: Remove rind and cut brie horizontally into three equal parts. Place brie on top of the puff pastry. Spoon chutney between each layer of brie, as well as on top. Fold pastry from corner to middle until all four corners are in the middle, flatten pastry and flip over. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm with Granny Smith apple and a fresh baguette. 

Jill Santa Lucia’s Apple Pie Cheddar Crisp

“I love making any kind of bite-sized appetizer that has a play on fruit and cheese,” says Jill Santa Lucia, the culinary director of Catering Works. “This recipe is fast, easy and a crowd-pleaser. I can make all the components ahead of time and whip it together right before a party. It’s also gluten free, small and has a sweet and savory component.”

Cheddar Crisp Ingredients
6 cups cheddar cheese, grated (Santa Lucia uses Ashe County Hoop Cheddar)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt

Directions: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Top a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  Drop grated cheese onto parchment paper, 1 tablespoon at a time. Spread each drop into an even layer and space about 1 inch apart. Sprinkle the cheese with cayenne pepper. Bake for 6 to 10 minutes; you want the cheese to melt and stop bubbling, but don’t let it get brown. Remove from the baking sheet and cool until ready to use. (Yields about 48 crisps.)

Apple Topping Ingredients
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup light brown sugar 
1 1/2 pound Honeycrisp or Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced 
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Salt, to taste
1 cup nuts, toasted (Santa Lucia prefers pecan pieces)
1/4 quart whipped cream 

Directions: Peel and finely dice the apples. In a sauté pan, melt butter, add in sugar and apples, and cook until apples are soft. Sprinkle a little cinnamon and salt into the mix. To serve: Top each crisp with apple filling, toasted nuts and tiny rosette of whipped cream.

Jacob Boehm’s Radishes & Butter

Jacob Boehm, executive chef and owner of Snap Pea, keeps it simple when he’s heading to a party. “I love to surprise folks by bringing a simple platter of gorgeous radishes, with the very best butter (softened, of course) and flaky salt. It’s crisp and refreshing, while still feeling elevated and indulgent. It might sound odd, but trust me — it’ll be the hit of the party!” Boehm gets Easter egg radishes from Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, makes butter from raw milk cream from Lilly Den Farm (“It’s easier than you think!” he says), and pairs them with North Carolina-sourced salt from Hatteras Saltworks

Local Easter egg or watermelon radishes
Good quality butter
Flaky sea salt

Directions: Bring butter to room temperature. Meanwhile, slice radishes into medallions or, for smaller ones, halve longways. Arrange the radishes, a large dollop of butter and a pile of salt on a platter and serve.

Bruce Davis’s Cheesy Shrimp & Grits

“This is one of my favorite and most popular dishes to bring to a holiday party,” says Bruce Davis, the food and beverage director of On Board Hospitality Management Group. “It is a simple but sophisticated dish that tells your guests you know what you are doing in the kitchen.” 

Shrimp Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds jumbo shrimp (21/25 count), peeled, deveined and thawed 
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
2 unsalted butter
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, light and dark green parts divided
1 large stalk celery, finely diced
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder 
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon Knorr chicken base
4 cups whole or 2% milk
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, such as
Salt and pepper, to taste

Grits Ingredients
1 cup of heavy cream
1 cup quick-cooking grits
3/4 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/4 cup Monterey Jack cheese, grated

Directions: Start the shrimp: Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the shrimp to the skillet and sprinkle with Old Bay. Increase the heat to medium- high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are mostly pink but not quite cooked through, about 2 minutes. Pour into a bowl to reserve during the next two steps. Melt the butter in the skillet. Add the scallions, celery, onion powder and garlic powder and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften, about 4 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and mix until incorporated. Whisk in chicken base, milk and hot sauce and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, until slightly thickened, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and set aside while you make the grits. Make the grits: In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, bring the heavy cream and salt to a boil. Whisking constantly, slowly pour in the grits. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring continuously, until the grits become thick and creamy, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheeses. Cover with a lid to keep warm until ready to serve. Place the skillet with the vegetable/sauce mixture back on the stove and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the reserved shrimp, along with any juices that collected in the bowl, to the skillet and mix well. Cook, stirring frequently, until the shrimp are cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle a handful of the dark green scallions over the shrimp (you may not need all of them).  To serve, ladle grits into a bowl and top with the shrimp-vegetable mixture.

Coleen Speaks’s Bourbon Brined & Smoked Marinated Oysters

“Oysters are such a fun party food,” says Coleen Speaks, owner of PoshNosh Catering. “This is my elevated take on the emergency pantry go-to of tinned oysters. I start with fresh shucked oysters, brine them for 48 hours, hot-smoke them and then marinate with lemon zest, olive oil and crushed red pepper.”

1/4 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon hot garlic powder
1 teaspoon hot onion powder
1 teaspoon hot black pepper
1/4 cup bourbon
A couple dashes of hot sauce
1/3 cup water
1 pint of NC select shucked oysters
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Zest of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Horseradish cream, pickled red onions and fried saltine crackers 

Directions: Create the brine: Combine the salt, brown sugar, soy sauce, bay leaf, garlic powder, onion powder, pepper, bourbon, hot sauce and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar and salt are dissolved. Let cool completely. Once cooled, add the oysters to the brine, making sure to stir them to separate. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours and up to 48 hours (the longer the better). Heat a smoker up to 225 degrees. Drain oysters from brine (you can save it for another batch). Spray a wire rack with non-stick spray and place it over a pan that can fit on your grill. Place oysters onto the rack in a single layer, then place the pan onto the grill of the smoker. Smoke the oysters for 45 minutes to 1 hour, checking and rotating halfway through. (A properly smoked oyster is plump, curled around the edges, and shrunken about 25%.) Remove from smoker. Place smoked oysters in a jar and cover with olive oil, red pepper flakes, lemon zest and salt and pepper. Make sure oysters are submerged in oil until ready to serve. Serve with horseradish cream, pickled red onions and fried saltines.

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.