You want people to remember your party for the delicious meal and tantalizing conversation -- not a nasty bout with food poisoning. Close attention to food safety will keep your party memorable -- for all the right reasons. Start with a scrupulously clean kitchen and keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Keeping deli cuts and fruit cold doesn't have to be cumbersome. Simple bowls of ice do the trick.
Although fruit doesn't spoil quickly, deli cuts and other meats and cheeses must be kept cold to keep them safe. These foods may contain pathogens that can cause serious foodborne illnesses. When the foods are stored at room temperature, the pathogens multiply rapidly. Bacteria on people's hands also contaminates the food served at a buffet party. Keep all perishable foods at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Provide toothpicks and serving utensils so guests aren't touching the food.
To keep fruit and deli cuts cold, separate them from hot foods on a buffet table. Better yet, serve cold foods on one table and hot foods on another table. Place the foods in shallow bowls and nestle the bowls in larger bowls filled with ice. Replace the ice as it melts. Dress up the table with silver or glass bowls. For a rustic look, line wicker baskets with plastic wrap. Spread ice over the plastic wrap and top with another layer of plastic wrap. Place the fruit over the plastic. Another option is to serve the foods on small trays and bring out new trays regularly. Don't add more food to a half-empty tray. Instead, wait until the tray is almost empty and start fresh. This approach takes some vigilance, but food stays cold because it's eaten quickly. Keep prepared trays in the refrigerator until you need them.
Presenting perishable foods on ice is the best way to ensure freshness, but keep an eye on the clock, too. Discard and replenish foods -- even those served on ice -- after two hours. In hot weather, this margin of safety shrinks to one hour. Ice keeps food colder, but it doesn't provide the same consistently cold temperatures that refrigeration guarantees. When in doubt, throw it out.
Safe kitchen practices can help ensure safe party food. Wash your hands, cutting knives and cutting boards thoroughly with soap and water before you start preparations. Refrigerate the fruit and deli cuts so they start cold. Chill the serving bowls and trays ahead of time if you have room in your refrigerator. Clean, cold conditions from the start keep food fresh and safe longer.
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Julie Christensen is a food writer, caterer, and mom-chef. She's the creator of MarmaladeMom.org, dedicated to family fun and delicious food, and released a book titled "More Than Pot Roast: Fast, Fresh Slow Cooker Recipes."