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Recently I was recruited to do the cooking for a friend’s birthday party. There were thirty guests expected. I was given only one directive: Most of the food needed to be vegetarian since that was the guest of honor’s dietary persuasion. Imagine that. Yours truly, who believes salad is the kind of food that real food eats, cooking vegetarian. No problem. I’ll just throw a T-bone in the broiler for me.
Cooking for a party can be quite challenging. There is an overwhelming array of variables to consider. The juggling act is including a sufficient quantity of appetizing foods without inundating yourself with excessive labor or time demands.
Here are some tips for accomplishing the task.
1) To begin, you will need a wide variety of foods. First and foremost because individual tastes are so variable. Now factor in the fact that Americans are beset with countless issues with many common foods. This one’s not eating carbs, that one can’t have salt, this one’s on the latest fad diet, etc., etc., etc. Good Lord. Our enemies don’t need to plot against us. We’ll all eventually starve to death.
Since the most commonly vilified food groups nowadays tend to be meat, fat, and carbs, I would plan on half my dishes being low in or devoid of these constituents. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Many dishes will meet multiple criteria. The beef teriyaki skewers you present for the meat-lovers also serves as a “low-carb” dish. Vegetable soup, salsa, or salad will all appease the low-fatters and the vegetarians.
2) If you have the time to start preparing for the party the night before, you can relieve yourself of much burden the day of the festivities. I ensure that about half the dishes in the menu can be made the previous day with no ill effects. For example, some foods will improve in flavor after resting overnight. This is true of stews, soups, some casseroles, salsa, dips, and other preparations that are an amalgamation of ingredients.
3) Find short cuts. For example, consider dishes with ingredients that can be purchased pre-fabricated. Buy the mozzarella that’s already shredded, the shrimp that’s been de-veined, the nuts already shelled and crushed, etc. These amenities will cost you more money but we’re focused on saving time and labor. Ask the baker to slice your bread, your butcher to trim your roast, and the fishmonger to remove the skin from the fillets.
4) For the cooked items, do not select dishes that must all be made in the oven or on top of the stove. By divvying them up between the oven/broiler and stovetop, you can cook multiple entrees at the same time, and thus present them together as well.
5) Consider ingredients that can be used in more than one preparation. At the party I catered, three of my dishes were chicken with sautéed onions and red peppers, a goat cheese/red pepper dip, and a rice pilaf that contained diced red pepper. By having a few ingredients in multiple preparations you cut down on the number of different items to purchase and fabricate. Cutting up one large batch of red peppers is more efficient than three discrepant items, particularly if they necessitate cleaning the cutting board and knife between each one. Of course, taking this short cut too far will thwart the diversity of your cooking.
6) Perform multiple tasks simultaneously. For example, if you were making marinated chicken, pasta, and a vegetable dish, place the chicken in the marinade first. While that’s marinating, start working on the pasta sauce. While the sauce is simmering, get the pasta water going and then start cutting up the vegetables. Thus, you have the chicken marinating, the pasta water heating up, the sauce simmering, and the vegetables being prepped at the same time.
7) In terms of quantity, remember that everyone is not going to eat every dish. Thus, if there are thirty guests, you don’t need thirty servings of every item. And the more items you make, the less amount of each you will need since people adjust their serving size in accordance with the total number of offerings.
One of the best lessons I ever learned in culinary school, one that our instructor repeatedly pounded into our heads was: “Think ahead.” To this day I still slip up from time to time in the forethought department and hear Chef Ted’s voice bellowing in my brain: “Think ahead.” Sit down with your party menu and go through each dish, step by step. Visualize preparing each recipe from start to finish. As you do, make a list of each ingredient and each piece of equipment you’ll need. Plan the order in which you will make things and where you can be addressing more than one dish at a time. Over-organizing of course, takes all the fun and spontaneity out of the process. Under-organizing leaves you in disarray and unprepared. Seek the same balance in your party planning as you do in your party menu.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - November 1, 2004
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