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.


Sarah Hart said...

yes. the chopping time can kill you. for sure.

Jenny Miertschin said...

Most of these are based on the ever present demon when cooking, TIME.