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Cooking for 26!


jrshaul
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I've recently joined a local student food cooperative where, in return for having meals provided for me ~20 days a month, I must prepare food for a whopping 26 people. I have no restaurant kitchen experience, and have never cooked for this many before; most of the recipes I know, while perfectly suitable for one, aren't so efficient when cooking for a crowd. I also have an extremely limited budget - all meat, fish, and poultry save for ground pork or chicken thighs is out of my price range - and some thoroughly rubbish equipment. Can anyone suggest some recipes that scale well?

I'm thinking of tempura vegetables and tofu and some sort of pasta sauce, but beyond that, I'm stumped.

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Any sort of braise with rice or mash would work well in bulk, say a lamb shoulder (or four). It's done in advance, and easy to reheat and serve in large quantities.

Tempura anything for a lot of people will be a tough ask unless you pre-fry in advance and flash back in the oil before serving.

Pasta could also be a good choice. Just remember to keep it simple. Good luck.

James.

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I hope that CaliPoutine checks in on this - she did large meals on a tight budget and they were wonderful! If she doesn't - you should PM her. And look at her thread where she posted all the meals and issues involved: click.. I'm sure you'll get lots of help, but that's the first thing I thought of.

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Jrshaul,

I think I'd go Indian. Cheap, nutritious, filling, delicious. Start with aromatics: garlic, ginger, chiles. Add fresh toasted seeds: brown mustard seeds, coriander seed, cumin seed in about a 1:2:2 ratio. Add some carrot, onion or shallot, cook til translucent, add curry powder (take your pick). Add lentils (I like the red ones that fall apart when cooked, but YMMV), add chicken stock or water, and simmer until the lentils are either starting to come apart (the red ones) or tender. Taste for seasonings and adjust.Garnish with chopped cilantro and chiles (for heat lovers).

I would serve it with frozen naan if you can find it and plenty of steamed rice. I would guess that a half cup of lentils would be about a serving.

Thanks,

Zachary

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What's your exact budget and where are you located? Cooking for large groups can be surprisingly cheap if you're buying in bulk. If there's a Costco or Smart & Final near you, you can get pork shoulder for less than $1/lb or chuck for $2 - $3.

I've sometimes found it easier to just serve more courses rather than trying to figure out how to scale up a recipe. Provide a hearty soup, a big salad and some kind of starchy main and something like brownies for dessert with store bought ice-cream and you're making each element in 8 person portion sizes which is manageable.

A simple salad takes maybe 10 minutes to toss together, brownies can be done in a sheet pan and just sliced, a soup is basically chopping some veggies up, letting them cook and then maybe pulsing with a stick blender at the end. All of those things barely take any time at all and they mean you can focus on the main which is now manageable. It means you're boiling 2 1lb boxes of pasta in a normal pot instead of 6 1lb boxes of pasta in a monster pot.

PS: I am a guy.

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Another option I've used to successfully feed a crowd with a minimum of logistical fuss is to buy whole chickens and portion them out. Butcher each chicken into thighs, drumsticks, breasts & wings. Marinate the drumsticks, thighs and breasts in something flavorful (I used garlic, lemon zest, parsley and olive oil but curry powder, chili powder or harissa would also work), then roast in a 375 oven on a sheet pan until they're nice and brown. Make a chicken stock from the carcass and turn it into a soup. Fry the wings and glaze them in a flavorful sauce as an appetizer, serve the soup, serve a salad, serve the roasted chicken with some mashed potatoes (or rice, chickpeas or beans would also work) and veggie sides and then serve a dessert. The quantity of food means you only need 1 piece of chicken per person to keep everyone satisfied which means only 7 chickens for 26 people, something that's very budget friendly.

Edited by Shalmanese (log)

PS: I am a guy.

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I don't have much experience with Indian food, but that's a pretty good idea - I also have to provide something vegetarian/vegan every nice, and gluten-free is a major bonus. Any specific recommendations?

On a related note, suggestions for novel chili recipes would be good. I'll probably be making a lot of chili, and it's an easy thing to get sick of.

What's your exact budget and where are you located? Cooking for large groups can be surprisingly cheap if you're buying in bulk. If there's a Costco or Smart & Final near you, you can get pork shoulder for less than $1/lb or chuck for $2 - $3.

Madison, WI. The local grocery stores want $2.50/lb for pork shoulder, and beef chuck is as much as $4.50 - and that's not even organic! I'll see if I can bum a pass into Costco; $1/lb is much more reasonable.

For some reason, chicken thighs at $0.88 to $1.30 are available perpetually at at least one local grocery store. Sometimes it's the whole leg-and-thigh section.

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Look into the ethnic cuisines that emphasize starches and vegs, not meat, like Mexican, Indian, and Asian. That's how to stretch your dollars, and eat well, too.

I recommend that you check out Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Tasty food, uncomplicated cooking, reliable recipes and plenty of them for soups, stews, bean dishes and grains. That's where I'd go to feed a food coop crowd. A preview on Googlebooks:

http://books.google.com/books?id=Ujfe46rgt8kC&printsec=frontcover&dq=madison+vegetarian+cooking+for+everyone&hl=en&src=bmrr&sa=X&ei=f4EzT9n5LMeZiAL228HkDQ&ved=0CD0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=madison%20vegetarian%20cooking%20for%20everyone&f=false

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The main thing is mise en place. No matter what you decide to cook, how you go about doing it will be the difference between success and failure.

In the professional kitchen, everything is broken down into logical steps. For instance, if you need minced garlic or diced onions for more than one dish, do it all at once. Some things you can do hours and even days ahead of time -- pasta sauce for instance. Make sure that you can be on auto-pilot the day of the event.

If you try to whip up dinner for 26, with sub-standard equipment, and you begin the process the morning of service, you'll be dans la merde (in the weeds) for sure.

I think your biggest problems will be fridge space and storage containers. Have the fridge thoroughly cleared out, so you have a place to put all this food as you work through the recipes. As for storage, got any five-gallon food grade plastic buckets?

I second the idea that Indian cuisine is a good way to go. Rice is dirt cheap. But know how to cook it in large quantities. EDIT -- If you know any fellow students who hail from Asia, I'll bet one of them has a rice cooker. Ask to borrow it. Preferably with a quickie instruction lesson prior to the event. You'll probably end up wanting a rice cooker afterwards, so buy one if you have to. They're not expensive, and you can find one in every Asian food market in North America.

And an Indian braise is dead simple -- you can knock most of that out the day before, and then reheat it. It will taste better anyway, because the flavors have more time to marry. You could easily do a braise for 26 of red lentils, aromatic vegetables, curry spices and inexpensive proteins in the roasting pan most people have for turkeys.

I wouldn't do tempura because it has a usable life akin to a mayfly. Stick with easy braises and let Isaac Newton's laws of thermodynamics do the work for you.

Edited by ScoopKW (log)

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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Madison, WI. The local grocery stores want $2.50/lb for pork shoulder, and beef chuck is as much as $4.50 - and that's not even organic! I'll see if I can bum a pass into Costco; $1/lb is much more reasonable.

For some reason, chicken thighs at $0.88 to $1.30 are available perpetually at at least one local grocery store. Sometimes it's the whole leg-and-thigh section.

Don't know if it's practical for you to get to but something like this meat market might have better prices on bulk items for you.

PS: I am a guy.

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The mise en place is critical (i.e. cooking chapatti 'to order'? Make, rest and portion the dough in advance). You maybe haven't cooked for lots of people before, but think back to preparing a complex dish (something along the lines of an Alinea or Fat Duck recipe) if you've ever done that. With so many components to get right, you need to prepare a lot of things in advance. A curry or braise isn't as complex in the sense it has lots of components, but the complexity comes instead from the logistical challenges presented by the crowd/timing on the day/etc. Prep what you can in advance. Say you opt for some kind of meat curry, a veg curry, dahl and rice. You can make three out of four of these things today then just store them (make sure you have enough fridge space) until tomorrow. Reheat while you prepare your rice. Cooking in advance, a day or two prior to the event, means it's not a big deal if you forget something. Forgetting an item when you have people rocking up in two hours and lots of stuff to do right now is a different matter altogether.

Some things are really nice, such as chapatti made at the last minute (you can make the dough a hour or two before, then just drop pieces one by one into a hot pan), but aren't so nice as to be worth the stress if you're new to this kind of thing. Forget anything like that.

Edited by ChrisTaylor (log)

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My preferred cuisine when dealing with these situations is to go for Cajun/Creole dishes--things like Gumbo, Jambalaya, Red Beans & Rice. It can be made well in advance, makes economical use of very flavorful meats, gets stretched further with rice, and as an added bonus many if not most people have ever had a truly great example of the cuisine unless they are from Louisiana (and even then...:sad:). Downside: it would be difficult to adapt these to be meatless, and if you're making gumbo the right way it won't be gluten-free.

Andy Arrington

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Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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I'll second all of the people that have recommended you think through logistics first: prep space, storage containers and space, tools, stove/oven space, mise en place, even serving utensils and containers. I'd also think through service: how are you going to transmit food into the mouths of the gang of 26 once it's prepared?

Several of us here are planning fiends, using tools like google docs to organize big meals/events with shopping lists, prep and cooking timelines, needed tools, etc. (I'll send you a sample if you PM me.) There's something very reassuring about having everything down on a couple of sheets of paper or your computer screen, knowing you have every ingredient when you start cooking, knowing that if you stick to your 15 or 30m goals you'll get the job done.

As for the food itself, many previous suggestions are excellent. I'd also suggest a big Middle Eastern mezze meal, with hummous, baba ganoush, tabouleh, vegetable crudite, and pita bread. Everything can be prepared in advance (and most stuff benefits from sitting out at room temp for a bit), and with a little effort you'll make food that will probably blow people's socks off.

Keep us posted! As you can see, we're an (excessively?!) helpful bunch.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Two suggestions:

One, my go-to meal for a crowd is a pork loin (for 26 people, maybe two 1/4 loins). Rub down with spice rub of your choice, refrigerate overnight, roast in a 375 oven until the internal temp hits 155. Take out of the oven, tent, and rest for 20 minutes. I can catch quarter loins on sale fairly regularly at my supermarket for 1.79 a pound. I'd think two quarter loins should serve 26.

With it, you can go with a cornbread dressing for your starch, and a salad or a ratatouille or succotash type vegetable medley. Maybe potato soup as well. Dessert should be something that is pick-uppable, like brownies or cookies or butter cake bars.

Are you doing pick-up service (my guess for meals "provided to you" during the month), and if so, do you provide the transport containers or do people bring their own? If it's pickup, I'd keep everything stored in large containers in the fridge and fill the travel containers as people arrive to pick up; should make the storage issues easier, and they'll be warming things when they get home, anyway.

Sounds like a neat idea.

Don't ask. Eat it.

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Third'd (or whatever'd) for the planning. I do catering for groups of up to 200, and it all comes down to having everything misée and prepared before you start going for it. Prepping ahead will save your arse when it comes to the day of cookening, particularly if you've got an underequipped kitchen to work in. Third'd also for thinking about logistics - self/buffet service is probably the easiest way to get hot food into 26 mouths - big events, unless you've got loads of help in your kitchen, are not the time to think about picture-perfect plating. It sounds like you're going this alone, so I'd focus more on spectacular taste than great presentation.

I'd also suggest looking at Latin American cafecito menus, which are generally for 20-30 people and use a minimum of protein with abundant inexpensive starches and proteiny grains like lentils. For 26 students, I'd be tempted to get the chicken thighs (or the whole chickens, if you can get into Costco), marinate them for at least overnight in Aliño (finely chopped red onions, garlic, cilantro, and cumin, with a bit of oil) or Adobo (pepper paste with achiote and a smidge of tomato), then roast 'em in the oven. If you go the whole chickens route, you've got the wings and carcassy bits for stock, to which you simply add potatoes and squash or white beans to make a tasty locro (spicing to taste) - this can be held in the fridge overnight and reheated day of, provided you've got fridge space. If not, then just make the stock ahead and simmer the veg into it day of.

Lentils and/or pinto beans are an excellent side dish, particularly served in their own gravy (menestra, anyone?), and a heap of rice to go with that rounds out the meal. Soup first, then main and salad, then dessert if you've got budget left over for it. The easiest and cheapest dessert for large volumes is probably flan or jello (sad to say), but cut fruit is also a good idea. If you follow the LatAm style of menu, this needs only to be a small helping to sweeten and clear the palate.

I'm not sure how expensive veggies are at this point in the season in Wisconsin, but if you can get a deal on lettuce or other leafy greens, salad is a great idea for large volumes, and very easy to prepare to boot. Then you just need a bucket / jug of dressing on the side.

Sorry for the novel, and best of luck! Let us know how it turns out.

Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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Jrshaul,

ScoopKW and Chris have it right. Dinner for 26 is mainly an exercise in logistics more than anything else. Plan out the menu, then break each item into logical steps. Have everything prepped and ready before you do it.

By the way - the place you'll want to spend a good portion of your money is an Indian Grocery. It looks like there's a place called Bombay Bazaar at 753 S. Gammon Rd in Madison. Usually, places like this will have good stuff, and cheap. If you have extra money, you'll be able to buy frozen naan and just warm them. If you have the money (and remember... you should buy the best spices you can - they provide tons of flavor for the volume you use), find a Penzey's and buy a small jar of Sweet Curry powder.

If you have extra money still, and you want meat, buy chicken thighs, marinate them in yogurt and spices (again, Penzey's Tandoori is very nice), and broil them until they're cooked through.

This is effectively how I make this, but scaled up for your needs. It ought to serve 26, especially if you have rice and other sides. This is vegan and gluten free.

Masoor Dal (for a crowd)

6 c. Masoor Dal (red split lentils)

12 cups water

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon curry powder

4 medium yellow onions, chopped

6" ginger, peeled and minced fine

6 cloves garlic, minced fine

3-6 chiles (jalapeno or serrano), deseeded and chopped fine

1 tablespoon brown mustard seeds, whole

2 tablespoons coriander seeds, whole

2 tablespoons cumin seeds, whole

6 tablespoons oil

2 bunches of cilantro, stripped and chopped (garnish)

3 chiles, deseeded and chopped (garnish)

In a small skillet, dry toast the whole seeds over medium heat, shaking frequently, until they're aromatic. Remove from skillet and set aside.

In a large stock pot, heat the oil over medium high heat until hot. Add onions, and cook for 2 minutes until they turn translucent (some color is fine here), stirring frequently. Add ginger, garlic and chiles, and saute until aromatic, about 1 more minute.

Add the reserved seeds, and stir to coat with oil. Add the curry powder, and stir in - cook until the curry has coated all the aromatics, about 15 seconds. Add lentils, and stir them to coat in the oil. Once they're coated, add the water and salt.

Bring this to a boil, reduce the heat until the water simmers, then cook, uncovered, until the lentils are falling apart - be sure of this... you don't want any resistance when you bite into the lentils. This should take 30-40 minutes. As the lentils fall apart, this will thicken a bit. You're going to want to stir this to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot, especially if you have thin/cheap pots.

Serve over steamed rice, and garnish with cilantro and chiles. Serve naan on the side, or samosas, which Indian groceries should have frozen.

Thanks,

Zachary

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My preferred cuisine when dealing with these situations is to go for Cajun/Creole dishes--things like Gumbo, Jambalaya, Red Beans & Rice. It can be made well in advance, makes economical use of very flavorful meats, gets stretched further with rice, and as an added bonus many if not most people have ever had a truly great example of the cuisine unless they are from Louisiana (and even then...:sad:). Downside: it would be difficult to adapt these to be meatless, and if you're making gumbo the right way it won't be gluten-free.

We're thinking along the same lines. Red beans & rice is practically the cheapest thing you can make, it is gluten-free, and is easily made in delicious meatless versions (or made as meaty as you'd like). It is screamingly easy to make, and it scales up very, very well. You can even do the beans in a slow cooker (try borrowing one if you don't already have one) and the rice in a rice cooker (again, look to the people in your life with established kitchens--neither of these items is exotic and most folks with a full kitchen own one or both). Here's a slow cooker red beans recipe from the NOLA Times-Picayune: http://www.nola.com/food/index.ssf/2011/05/slow_cooker_is_great_for_red_b.html

Add some chopped parsley or green onions to the hot, cooked rice for eye appeal.

Jambalaya is another natural for large groups....also pretty inexpensive. (In case you ever have to prep jambalaya for way more than 26, here is a spreadsheet to calculate ingredient:water:rice ratios: http://www.tigerdroppings.com/rant/p/26150638/Jambalaya-Calculator---Free-Download.aspx ) But if you've never-ever made it before in any quantity, I'd hesitate to fiddle with a large batch as an initial try.

If beans & rice alone seems too pedestrian, consider enhancing it with a big ol pan of bread pudding for dessert. Again, very inexpensive, easily prepped in advance, and so easy to make in a huge pan. Fancy it up with a few different sauces: rum, whisky, chocolate/white choc. Plus, you can buy stale bread from a bakery seconds store (or try asking to buy stale stuff at an independent baker or nearby sandwich shop).

It's almost Mardi Gras, which gives you an excuse to use a Louisiana theme anyway. If you wanna go crazy, bake a king cake from scratch....

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I've cooked for large groups for most of my life and I want to stress to you that, as you're thinking it over and planning, you completely jettison the 'tempura' idea for the immediate time being.

After you have the hang of preparing these meals, and know your 'audience,' equipment, etc., better, if you want to try something that last-minute labor-intensive, you always can.

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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I've sometimes found it easier to just serve more courses rather than trying to figure out how to scale up a recipe. Provide a hearty soup, a big salad and some kind of starchy main and something like brownies for dessert with store bought ice-cream and you're making each element in 8 person portion sizes which is manageable.

I've seen this approach when I've stayed at Green Gulch Farm and the Esalen Institute. I always like the food there. The menus are simple: soup, salad, veg and/or bean stew or braise, a cooked grain, and bread. A pan of something (brownies, fruit cobbler, sheet cake) is dessert. It's all served cafeteria style, for the residents as well as the dozens (or hundreds) of people who are passing through. Your food coop experience can be a chance for you to try out the different grains (not just rice), like quinoa, millet, amaranth--to name just a few. Those whole grains are surprisingly filling and satisfying.

Don't overlook the winter vegs that are available now, like onions, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, winter squashes, beets, cauliflower, celery root, cabbage and broccoli. That's what I'm cooking with. The root vegs and squashes can be rubbed with olive oil and garlic, S&P, a few drops of vinegar if desired, then roasted. Easy.

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Indian or middle eastern food isn't guaranteed to be a hit unless you have an adventurous group. Out of 26 college students there might be a few who will only eat mac and cheese with hot dogs LOL. I'd do a poll and see if there are any hated cuisines among your audience.

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Without knowing food preferences I'd go Italian. Spaghetti w a bolognese sauce and garlic bread is easy and reasonably quick unless you do the Full Batali. Or a "sunday gravy" with pasta.

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If anything the army taught me the brilliance of a one-pot dish. If you have no aversion towards anchovies, combine raw potatoe that've been cut to sticks with chopped onion, anchovies and mix the oil from the anchovies with cream enough to cover the potatoes. Put all this in a bain marie and bake in the oven on medium heat until the potatoes are cooked.

Any type of casserole would do the trick, just mix and match, so you can provide the starch, protein and sauce all in one.

Edited by Karri (log)

The perfect vichyssoise is served hot and made with equal parts of butter to potato.

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Here is a pasta sauce the works with chicken thighs. Skin, bone and cut up the thighs. Brown them in some oil. Sweat some chopped onions in oil, add lemon zest and dill weed then cook with the chicken until done. At the end add some high fat Greek style yogurt. Beware the yogurt sauce will break if brought to a vigorous boil.

I cooked for 100 people once so I say pasta is the way to go.

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I totally agree with lentils or rice dishes. Lentils in particular are nutritious and filling. If you want something scalable but with less of a one pot feel, I'd be thinking about a vegetarian lasagne served with salad. You could also do a vegetarian Moussaka.

Edited by nickrey (log)

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

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