Wednesday, January 25, 2012

10 Tips on Cooking For Large Crowds

At the company where Mark and I met, a very smart lady, Adina Norris implemented a Lunch Bunch. Anyone could join as long as you committed to bringing lunch for everyone when it was your turn. Brilliant! At the time I did not know how to cook very well, and I certainly did not know how to cook for a crowd. I am certain I got it wrong on several occasions, but then so did everyone else. Through trial and error, I learned a very important life skill. One note, Adina taught me a ton about group cooking. She would often bring enough food to feed whomever wanted to eat, not just lunch bunch. She would concoct these enormous dishes of fried rice. When I asked he for the recipe she would say, "Recipe? I just put in whatever I had in the kitchen." Impressive skill cooking for 30+ people with nothing more then your kitchen items for ingredients. If you know Adina, this comes as no surprise.
In addition to learning how to cook for large groups of people, the friendships that were formed from eating together everyday were priceless.  Long after I quit working, and Mark was still there, I looked forward to coming up on the days we cooked and eating with all my old friends.
 My mother is another teacher in my journey to cooking. The single most valuable lesson she taught me in the kitchen was generosity. Her favorite saying, "We can always put another rock in the soup!” applies when cooking for a crowd.  We had very little money growing up, but we ALWAYS had enough to share our table. God always provided that "rock". I have more memories of our family dinners including other people then not. When cooking for a large crowd, you can be thrifty, but always have a mindset of generosity. 
We are now attending a Bible study, one family brings dinner every 6 weeks or so. It’s a breeze for me. Mark and I discuss our many options with no worries. I know there is a game plan that I need to follow in order to serve a successful stress free dinner. It most definitely is not perfect every-time, because I am still learning.
Cooking for large groups of people is a challenge. An expensive challenge if you do not know what you are doing. I thought I would give few tips, feel free to add more in the comments section.

1. The List: Make a list. On the right side of the page, list everything you are going to serve. I mean everything. Main dish, sides, veggies, shredded cheese for toppings, salad dressings. No item is too small if you are planning to serve it. On the left side of the page write a task list; thaw meat, chop veggies, shred cheese. I usually add other tasks that I need done, laundry, empty dishwasher, make the kids a snack. The purpose for this is so you can make an assessment of what things you are going to be doing as well as cooking. There is nothing like household stuff to derail your cooking time.
2. Start to Finish: Think through the entire process of a recipe. Do not arbitrarily choose to cook something and not think through to the finish.  Imagine your self doing all the steps, if you can see yourself on the other side, this MIGHT be the one.
3. Ingredients: Is this recipe expensive? Remember, you are going to double or even triple everything. When I cook for large groups I use two principle ingredients almost every-time: Dried Beans and Ground Turkey. The recipes available using those to ingredients as your base are endless. (If you want a few email me)  I don't always use both, but I almost always use one.
4. Food Allergies:  I like to, whenever possible, cook with the food allergy person in mind. You may choose not to. In that case, it is always thoughtful to add tons of extra salad.  If you have plenty, then that person will not feel they have taken another person’s share. Leave dressing and cheeses off salad anytime you cook for a crowd. If you cook with sauces bring the sauce or spice pack or whatever to the allergy person, they will appreciate it and feel comfortable eating your food.
5. Skill Level:  Don't pick a recipe you do not know how to cook. I made Gumbo for the first time for Lola's first birthday. If you don't know this, gumbo takes a long time to make and requires a certain skill. I had never even heard of rue before and I tried to make it from scratch for 43 people. Evaluate what you have to do from start to finish. I know I keep saying that, but it is key. You do not want to get half way through a recipe and realize you have never browned floured meat. (It does require some skill) Eliminate stress. It is stressful to feed large groups, don't add mess ups in the kitchen to that mix. Try new things, but make sure they are similar to things you have cooked before.
6. Time Frame: This has been, and continues to be, the hardest skill for me to master. If I lived by my rule, Start to Finish, I would never have a problem. Be careful when a recipe gives the time it takes to make. They do not always factor in the time it takes to chop. Chopping and prep usually takes the bulk of your time when cooking any dish, but it really takes a long time when tripled. If possible, chop all the veggies early, like in the morning. It feels great to just get in-front of the stove and have everything at your finger tips. Make desserts the day before. Make casseroles the day before if you can.
7. Crock V. Pot: My mom never used a crock pot. I never used a crock pot. Then my dear friend Laura bought me a crock pot. I use is as much as possible. When used with the right ingredients, food comes out amazing. However, if the crock pot recipe calls for a 4 hour cook time and you are unable to turn it off in 4 hours, skip it. Many times, if cooked to long, everything falls apart. Remember, crock pot recipes often call for large amounts of prep work. Be sure to take note when reading the recipe and think about your time constraints.
8. Over-plan: There is NOTHING worse then running out of food. Over plan by at least 4 people. You would be shocked at the amount of food the first few people will put on their plate. From their view they see all the food you cooked and think there is tons and tons, when in reality you have only cooked enough for everyone to have a normal portion. In large groups people eat TONS of food and more then 50% of your guests will want seconds. In addition, most large meals are buffet, so what you consider a normal portion, they may think is small.
9. Eat Last: Always be the last to eat. This gives you the ability to re-fill anything that might have run low, like cheese.  Eating last ensures that everyone of your guests gets foods.
10. Build Staples: Start building a library of staple recipes. You will find recipes you use over and over that are easy, inexpensive and crowd pleasers.

Enjoy yourself, have fun. Remember, no matter what you cook, everyone is grateful they are not cooking. Happy cooking.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lemon Veal Stew

Yum. I mean, yum-yum-yum. Wonderful, lovely and rich is an accurate description.  The flavors are elaborate and unusual. If you are a seasoned foodie this is the dish for you. If you are drawn to simple cuisine, this would be the perfect dish to step out of your comfort zone. It requires quite a few ingredients and, while not complex, does entail prep work.

It would be the perfect thing to serve to guests on a cold Saturday night.

Lemon Veal Stew
21/2-3 Pounds Veal Stew Meat
1/3 Cup Rice Flower (You can use regular as well)
2 Teaspoons Salt
1 Tablespoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Red Onion Chopped into strips
4 Cloves Garlic chopped
1 Tablespoon Chopped fresh Tarragon (2 Tablespoons dried)
1 Tablespoon Chopped fresh Rosemary (2 Tablespoon dried)
6 Red Potatoes Chopped into cubes
Juice of 4 Lemons
1 (8 oz) Can Artichoke Hearts
1 Bag Wild Mushrooms (You can use 1lb Button as well)
4 Cups Dry White Wine

Coat veal cubes with flour. Heat olive oil on medium in large dutch oven and add veal, cook long enough to brown on 2 sides, not long enough to cook through. Do not over crowd, work in several batches. You might have to turn down your heat as you cook as your pot will heat up in the process.

Add all other ingredients,  to the crock pot. Add veal when you are done browning. Cook on High for 6 hours.
Perfect served with a spicy greens salad. I would like to say that is what we did, but no, it was Ceaser from a bag.

*I did not take very good pictures this time, so I am playing around in Picasa to see what affects I like best.

Prepping the Meat
Sorry Mark, you lost out on the wine this go-round! Good thing, it was AWESOME!

Happy Eating.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Roll With it Baby...

So, there is a problem with recipe surfing. Sometimes, when you have surfed several recipes on an item, say veal stew meat, you get confused and forget cooking times. I spent a great deal of time yesterday perfecting the perfect combination of veal stew recipes. Cara’s Cravings would be the base, and I would add and subtract other stuff.
I really liked her use of lemon and not wine. I LOVE to cook with wine, Mark on the other hand, always the gracious husband will usually curl his nose and say, “Oh, you used wine.” Not the response I am looking for. I, on the other hand love to use wine when cooking. I love the tangy, rich and deep taste it adds to a dish. However, I am cooking for others not always myself.
I digress. So, today at 3:30 I went to look up the base recipe and low and behold it was a 6 hour crock pot version. Whoops. Veal is defrosted, what to do? Thank you HEB quick-sale beef pinwheels stuffed with feta and spinach.
Defrost beef: Check; Veggie: LOTS of fresh spinach; Starch? , I just happened to have purchased a box of Mac and Cheese for the kids at random. (Pantry staple)  HELLO SUPER MAMA!
Since Mac and Cheese from a box is NOT gluten free, I abstained. The kids on the other hand, thought it was Christmas dinner. Every once in a while, I find digression is fun.

HEB Beef Pinwheels Stuffed with Feta and Spinach
Grill on George Forman or regular grill. Babysit till done, about 5-7 minutes.

Sautéed Spinach
1 pound fresh spinach washed ends trimmed
3-4-5-6-7 garlic chopped (Stop chopping garlic when you get tired)
7-8 dried Japanese chilies chopped.
1 tablespoon sesame oil

Heat wok till searing hot. Add garlic and chilies; cook till crispy, about 3 minutes. Add spinach and sesame oil. Toss till spinach is wilted.  

Box Macaroni – Nuf said.

The end result of this shifting of dinners was GOLD. Everyone loved everything and I win. The kids did not eat the spinach. I did not offer it to them. There are some things I like spicy and do not want to alter for their delicate palate. They got raw chopped red bell. 

Veal stew tomorrow! I promise.

George Forman ROCKS!
Fresh Spinach
Cooking Garlic and Peppers
Helping Mom
Spinach Stir-fry
I LIKE dinner. (Usually hates dinner but eats)
I always eat whatever Mommy makes with a smile.

Coming Soon

Sarah Hart called me today and gave me some great feedback about the blog. Specifically, she gave me ideas for future posts. They were brilliant! I have a sneaking suspicion that the envelope, I wrote said ideas on, will travel from the desk, to the counter, to my bedroom, back to the desk and eventually end up in the trash or stashed into some random opening in my bookshelf. Instead I will write ideas on blog thereby killing two birds with one stone. I can dispose of agonizing envelope and hold myself accountable to writing future posts.

Please comment and let me know what YOU would like to read about.

Envelope Future Blog  ideas:

Good Bones - A discussion about how to pick recipes online or in cookbooks; How to tailor recipes to your ingredient list, cooking skill and time frame. 

Kitchen Staples - What consistent ingredients do I purchase every-time I run out, even if I do not have a specific recipe in mind?  What can you find on a daily basis in my freezer, refrigerator and pantry. What key ingredients do I think EVERY person needs in their kitchen to cook on the fly.

Leftover ReCreations - How to turn yesterdays leftovers into today's new creations.

Gluetn Free - A discussion about my journey; commercially the options are getting better, but the general public are still uneducated insensitive to food allergy ; how it is not as difficult or limiting as you might think!

How I Shop - My mind and budget in the grocery store. How do I feed my family on budget serving gourmet and gluten free.

Favorite Appetizers - I cannot WAIT to write this one, I will be gleaning from many sources, as this is my favorite thing to eat, period.

So, there you have it, the future. Let me know what interests you. These will all take time and some research, so in the meantime keep your eye out for how my veal stew turns out tonight.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Arise from the Dead and Make: Gluten Free/Dairy Free Italian Turkey Sausage Pasta with Smoked Paprika Vinaigrette

No big deal, it has been 5 years since my last post, lets just pick up where we left off.
Holy Mother of all things good to cook. I hit one out of the park. I thought this would be good, I had no idea it would GREAT, like no leftovers great. (I would have doubled had I known)
One of my very favorite things to do is purchase quick-sale or reduced meats. I know there are a few categories of people that find that practice abhorrent. I, on the other hand, have cooked many meals that I could not otherwise afford to eat using this method, and I can add other fun stuff when I get a deal on things I purchase all the time. We have never gotten sick, and I always cook by the date it recommends, even if that means cooking it that night. Germaphobe category people, avoid this practice.
The real reason I like it? The thrill of the hunt. I then go home, look up dozens of recipes online and proceed to mash them up into what I think is the best flavor combination and based on my ingredient list. What to look for when surfing? Recipes with good bones. Uber Meal Planners, another category of people, this practice may not be for you.
If the meat is super weird, and you are a HEB zealot like me, ask the chefs at the Cooking Connection. They always have great ideas and good tips.
Side note: I do have my limits to "super weird". Yesterday took a big, I mean BIG step away when the reduced for quick sale item was sweetbreads..

So, this brings us to dinner tonight. I bought Italian turkey sausage links for $2 yesterday at HEB. All HEB turkey sausage made in house is MSG-free. After much perusal, and very little options online, this is what I came up with.


Gluten Free Turkey Sausage Pasta

1 pound of Italian Turkey Sausage Links
3 Cups of Chicken Broth
1 Red Bell Pepper cut as strips
1/2 red onion cut as strips
4 cloves garlic crushed
3 heads of Broccoli, cut florets from stem
1 can of Fire Roasted Tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil (Fresh would be AMAZING too)
salt and pepper to taste, be generous.
1 box of gluten free pasta. (shells, rigatoni, macaroni shells) cooked to instructions.
1 cup Smoked Paprika Vinaigrette (Recipe to follow)

Place sausage in crock pot on high. Add enough chicken broth to cover. Slow cook for 4 hours. You can do this step ahead if needed.

When 4 hours are up, remove sausage and cut into rings. Reserve chicken broth for later use. Heat dutch oven with a few tablespoons of olive oil, when oil is hot add sausage rings. Cook until they are a nice crispy brown. Remove and set aside. You can eliminate step one and two and put sausage on grill. The added steps adds juice to the meat and insures no drying.

Add a bit more oil and add onion, garlic and red bell. Cook at a medium heat for about 15 minutes. You want them to cook slow and long so they are soft.

Add broccoli and turn up the heat. After you have sauteed the broccoli for a few minutes, 3-5, add a few tablespoons of chicken broth and a few tablespoons of Vinaigrette. Cover and let steam for 3-5 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Add canned tomatoes, oregano and basil. Deglaze pan and let simmer for 3 min. Add reserved veggies, meat and 1/2 cup of Vinaigrette. Toss and heat, add cooked noodles and toss more. Add more Vinaigrette if you feel you do not have enough sauce.
Yummy, cheap, gluten- and dairy-free, definitely NOT flavor free

Smoked Paprika Vinaigrette

1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup Cooking Sherry
1/2 cup honey
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
Juice of 1 lime
3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 teaspoons smoked paprika
3 cloves garlic
1/2 finely chopped red onion
1 teaspoon oregano
1 pinch white sugar (optional)
1/2 cup olive oil
Blend the red wine vinegar, honey, mustard, lime juice, pepper, salt, paprika, garlic, onion, oregano, and sugar together in a blender until thoroughly mixed. Drizzle the olive oil into the mixture while blending on low. Chill at least 1 hour before serving

*This makes TONS. Use as marinade for fish, shrimp chicken or beef. Or, novel idea, salad dressing.