Cooking for a Crowd
This is the season when home cooks become caterers, the time of year when the online cooking consulting company I work with is inundated with requests for help from people planning events. A typical question: "I'm cooking two, 5-pound pork roasts. Can I cook them at the same time?" or, the rather vague: "I'm planning a graduation party for 75. How much food do I need?"
It's hard to know how to even begin answering such questions. It's as if someone decided to personally fly a plane from New York to San Francisco and their first question is: "Do I need to get a plane at the airport?"
Nevertheless, catering a large event yourself isn't impossible. But it does require careful, even obsessive, planning. My cutoff point is 25 guests unless I have access to a professional kitchen and have professional help. And even then I'll only do it with the right menu.
Last weekend my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. We picked a date when we could gather a large number of family members at my sister's farm in Virginia. It coincided with my brother's marriage so the celebration was doubled, and I was "volunteered" to prepare the feast.
There would be 20 adults and five children. Aside from the kids, I knew the guests would be open to anything: no vegans, no celiac disease, no allergies. I knew three of the children were picky eaters and initially declined to cook for them. Then I realized I'd have three sets of parents competing with me for cooking space at 6 p.m. So I took responsibility for feeding the kids as well. For an event like this you need to own the kitchen space, and given that I'd never seen the kitchen I'd be working in, that was even more important.
I began menu planning by choosing a main dish, then built the meal around it. I started with arrosto di maiale al latte, milk-braised pork, for several reasons: It's absolutely delicious; it's unusual; I have a roasting pan large enough to cook enough for the entire party in a single oven; and it cooks for two and a half hours but can go as long as three hours, so serving time is flexible. Best of all, once in the oven, I can almost forget about it, leaving me free for other tasks.
I spent a couple of weeks thinking about side dishes and ended up with roasted beet and feta salad, leeks with anchovy butter and rhubarb mousse. I could roast the beets, parboil the leeks and make the mousse a day in advance. The salad is quickly assembled just before serving, and I added the leeks to the menu when I discovered I had two ovens available.
With only one oven, I wouldn't have done both the leeks and the pork. They can't go in one oven together because the pork cooks at a low temperature while the leeks require a high temp. With two ovens, however, I got to use another seasonal vegetable.
I prefer to use seasonal produce, but when preparing for an event such as this I don't let that preference dictate. It's far more important that the dishes be doable within the less flexible constraints of time and equipment. However, that doesn't mean I'd serve a dish that relied on an out-of-season item. A tomato salad, even in May, is a bad idea.
Whatever the party's size, the key to success is detailed planning. This requires several passes, with each pass becoming more refined. A few tips:
• Choose dishes that you can completely make a day or more in advance — and consider refrigerator/freezer space in the equation.
• Choose dishes that can be at least partially prepped a day or more in advance.
• Choose dishes that can be completely cooked or prepped prior to the party. For example, prepping a green salad a day in advance will produce a wilted salad, but it can be prepped two or three hours in advance of serving and then dressed at the last minute.
• Think about the pots and pans required and the need for stovetop or oven space. Make a list of equipment required for each dish.
• Repeat previous steps until you have no conflicts between pots and pans, refrigerator/freezer space, burners and oven. And, do you have enough kitchen timers to track everything?
• Now go back through your menu and work out a schedule for each dish. The schedule can be vague for early items (Friday afternoon: Make chocolate mousse) but should become more detailed and specific as you get closer to serving time
(Saturday, 2:50 p.m.: Remove roast from fridge and warm for 2 hours.)
• At this point you will almost certainly have found new conflicts and need to go back through the menu yet again.
• If you have helpers, assign them tasks at this point. And think about kitchen space in general. Decide where prep will occur and who does it. Who will man the stovetop? Who will man the oven? It might be the stovetop person, but it might not. And think about how much "people space" the kitchen has — you may not have room for Aunt Maude to make her famous peach surprise.
And on the subject of helpers. I once cooked a meal for 15 of my cooking buddies. I had access to a large, well-equipped kitchen; I had two fellow cooks who had volunteered to help; I had a detailed schedule that allowed for distractions (I built an extra 30 minutes into the last two hours of the schedule); and yet still served the meal half an hour late. Why? Because my helpers didn't help much. They both wandered off to join the party and left me to do the work I'd assigned them. Keep this possibility in mind.
You cannot overplan cooking for a large party. Start early, make lots of notes, iterate and reiterate, and divide the last two to three hours of your schedule — and the tasks that remain — into 10-minute intervals. This fine detail will help you avoid getting overloaded. And by the way, the anniversary party was a complete success.
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