How To Cook For A Group

September 15, 2008 | By | COMMENTS

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Journeys of self-discovery are often internal; we go to the desert, we go to the beach, we go to the forest, and, in our solitude, we unlock secrets from the past, untapped desires, revelations about who we are and why we are the way we are. Other times, journeys of self-discovery are external: case in point, my trip to Cape Cod with Craig and his film school friends a few weeks ago. It was there in Cape Cod that I discovered something about myself, something that I didn’t really know: when it comes to cooking for a group, that ain’t my thing!

If I remember correctly, there were 15 of us out there. We were the guests of the incredibly generous Rob and Kath who hosted as, as some of you may remember, two years ago on my first trip to the Cape. Days were spent lounging on the deck, sipping coffee and reading trashy magazines, taking a ride in the boat where some of us (not me) stood up on a surfboard while getting tugged along; nights were spent playing games like Mafia or Cary’s game where our friend Cary used all of our iPods to create an epic game of “Name That Tune.” In between, though, there were meals and the meals were good and good in a way that impressed me to no end.

How do you feed 15 people and make all 15 people happy?

Meet Josh’s ribs:

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Josh, who, I will reveal to you now, is my collaborator on the big secret web video project I’m working on, is a master of the rib. Well, almost a master. Apparently, a few months ago, he attempted to make his ribs for a group and because he was using an unfamiliar grill he overcooked them. Josh was determined not to let this happen again, so he made the ribs ahead of time; he made them at home and brought them with him in the car.

The secret to Josh’s ribs? “Low and slow,” he says. He cooks them on an indirect heat. “And the meat is really good,” he adds. “I get my meat from a butcher I really trust.”

Josh’s ribs were a sensation; they were the talk of the weekend. “Man, weren’t those ribs good?” was a refrain heard again and again.

Why were they so successful?

I have a few theories:

1. When cooking for a group, it is good to make something on a large scale: a spit-roasted pig; prime rib (like Craig’s dad made for a huge family gathering this summer); a big pot of chili, etc, etc;

2. When cooking for a group, you’ve got to pick something and then own it. There’s no place for wishy-washiness, for self-doubt. Josh made up his mind that he’d make ribs and he owned those ribs. And the group, which consisted of fifteen very hungry people (and only one or two vegetarians) was grateful that Josh made the decision for us. We didn’t have to argue and debate about what to eat for dinner; Josh took away all worry and concern. Like a good parent, he said, “this is what we’re having for dinner” and we, the eager children, ate greedily.

Josh’s wife, Krisse, also feeds the group with similar confidence and decisiveness. In the afternoon, for example, she whipped up something she called “dog food” which was, simply, unseasoned Chex Mix, mixed with melted chocolate and peanut butter and then sprinkled with powdered sugar:

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It’s the sort of gesture big groups appreciate but never think to ask for; we snacked on the dog food the whole afternoon and that’s because Krisse understands the psychology of cooking for a group.

Then there’s me: I discovered, on this trip, that the very qualities that make Josh and Krisse masters of big-group cooking are the very qualities I lack. I’m not good at being decisive (just ask Craig, who I drive crazy on a regular basis in talks about where to go to dinner; I change my mind about 50 times). I’m also not good at making big, sweeping gestures in the kitchen; whipping up a snack like “dog food” or making big pans of strada for breakfast, like Krisse does, feeding others plentifully and heartily. I’m better at taking instruction, in situations like these, than doling out instructions. Which is why I was happy when Josh asked if I’d make the spoon bread, following a recipe he printed out.

I gladly said, “Sure,” and felt the pressure lift since I worried that those present who knew about my food blog (pretty much everyone) would expect me to prepare something spectacular off the cuff; instead, I made this:

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Which was, indeed, spectacular, but mostly because Josh made the decision that we’d be making spoon bread; if it were left up to me, I’d still be sitting in that kitchen fretting.

Mark and Diana, who were also present, took the reins the next night and demonstrated, with equal flair, the right way to cook for a group. Here they are with the clam chowder they made:

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And here’s Rob butting his head in:

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Decisively and enthusiastically, Mark and Diana whipped up this elegant, and surprisingly light soup with local clams purchased nearby:

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They also made miso-braised cod except they couldn’t find miso, so they used a mixture of soy and mirin and wowed the crowd nonetheless:

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That night I offered to make the Caesar salad and I worried, the whole time I did it, as to whether I’d added too little dressing or too much dressing? Did I use too much cheese or not enough cheese? And did I use too much garlic or just the right amount? There it is in the big white pot with Cary leaning over it:

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As we ate, I secretly waited for the verdict. Was there enough lemon? Did I overdo the anchovy?

But, as everyone stuffed their faces, I realized that’s not what big group cooking is about. When you cook for a group, you can’t wait for compliments on your salad; you’ve got to make a big gesture–you’ve got to bring a steaming plate of ribs to the table, you’ve got to set a baked Alaska on fire. My salad? I’m sure people enjoyed it, but it’s like being a flute soloist at a football game.

The truth is that to impress a large group of people, you’ve got to cook large. Some folks are better at cooking large than others; I’ve come to discover that I am far superior at cooking small. I’d much prefer to cook for four than to cook for fourteen: I’d rather roast a chicken than a whole pig, I’d rather man a single skillet than a giant grill.

Which is why those who cook well for groups have my utmost respect and admiration; it’s a task I find incredibly daunting and slightly terrifying. My nightmares don’t involve showing up naked at school, they involve showing up foodless at a dinner party where 30 guests are staring at me hungrily. “We’re starving!” they yell. “Where’s the dinner?”

Enter Josh, Krisse, Mark and Diana in superhero costumes as I flee the scene. When it comes to cooking for a group, I’ll leave it to them!

Tags: , , ,

Categories: Cooking, How-To

  • http://bakingbynumbers.blogspot.com Edd

    I would have to agree completely i am exactly the same. I love to cook but when im asked to cook for a big family event things tend to get a but hectic and stressful. I thinks its the pressure to get everything right, i mean im only 23 and only been cooking really for a couple of years and i guess i dont have the confidence yet. The waiting for the verdict is spot on, at a recent family gathering i was asked to make a dessert and i stupidly chose an elaborate summer fruit charlotte (that i have never made). I must have bugged everyone asking “is it okay” over and over but hey i guess i need to hear from someone else

  • marianne

    I know the “dog food” you snacked on as “puppy chow”. I think my version sounds a little more appealing.

  • http://www.travelingculinaryartist.com Jimbo

    You’d be surprised at how easy it is to cook “large”. Many years ago I was a fashion buyer for a small company in Chicago with three stores. I took a job to do the same thing with a company in Indianapolis with 100 stores. Many of my coworkers asked me how I was going to manage buying quantities for that many stores and my answer was simply: Buy a calculator!

    That may be an over simplification but it’s truly easier than you think. Usually requiring more pots and pans or as in your case of the spoon bread two larger pans instead of one smaller, etc.

    I did have an advantage when I learned to cook, we were a family of 5 with voracious appetites and Mother liked leftovers for lunches, so most of her recipes were suitable for 10! When I started cooking for my wife and I, I actually struggled to cut down to cooking for two!

  • http://designadventure.blogspot.com Amy

    I am the complete opposite! Usually I make way too much food. I think it might be a whole Jewish mother overfeeding thing, but anyway… I was wondering what was in the spoon bread. It looks delicious!

    PS- I really enjoy reading your blog!

  • emm

    I get it exactly! I have one brother who is meticulous and gourment, but my other brother and I love to have have the big family dinners. Christmas for 30? bring it on! end of summer bar b q for 25? now orries- and bring your freinds.

    As much as I enjoy the immediate family special dinner for 4, I get a charge out of shoipping and dicing and stirring big pots and bakers of enough food to feed a crowd. it is just fun for me

  • Mer

    You need more powdered sugar on that puppy chow!! now that is one thing I know how to make without looking at a recipe! yumm

  • http://smitaservesyouright.blogspot.com smita

    My dearest Adam,

    Tut tut, its puppy chow, dear boy. “Dog food” is an aberration in the glorious history of this sugar high confection.

    Very truly etc,

  • zeep

    Interesting post AG – I definitely hear what you’re saying – cook BIG or go home, true? I think in addition it really helps if you are doing a big dish that you’re really familiar with and has proven itself over time to be a crowd pleaser. My guess is that it is something of a challenge, for most folks anyway, to cook a great meal for two, let alone a dozen people – and there is definitely something of a nail-biting thrill to cooking for a big ole crowd – but anyone who is willing to give cooking a shot is great in my book, regardless of the meal’s scale.

  • Jim M

    Adam

    You undersell yourself. You enjoy cooking for people so you can see their enjoyment. For a bigger audience, you get even more joy and greater leeway for some failure. In fact, you have had great success — two grest Thanksgiving dinners for a large family. That’s the Mt Everest of group dinners. It just has more structure for you.

    For breakfasts and brunches for large groups — simply buy some cookbooks based upon bed and breakfast inn’s cooking. They provide the roadmap for simple delicious memorable meals not requiring mastery of a fast service grill cook and relieve the pressure of many plates to a few big dishes.

    For dinner, the roadmap is provided by cookbooks done by individuals who have run catering companies (especially in upscale vacation communities)e.g. your/our beloved Ina, Anna Pump, Sara Foster. Their recipes present food that looks great (for marketing to customers or large groups) are very tasty and enjoyed by a wide variety of tastebuds, and are in fact fairly easy to do. Remember, catering shops need to show hourly paid folks how to reliably produce the same product with high taste on a repeated basis.

    Adam, this is where you can be king. Its easy to produce such a meal with these guideposts and then you can sing food songs during dinner — on a ukuhle (spell?? a tiny guitar like instrument, generally thought of in Hawaii)easier to carry than a piano.

    I want your web show, to show how you can pull this off — easily.

    Unlike most folk, I learned how to do this first. I bought a vacation house and as a single man used that to invite all the people that had invited me to fabulous small dinners that I needed to return, in gratitude.

  • Janice

    Adam, how about the recipes for the spoon bread (it looks really good) and the puppy chow? Thanks!

  • rebecca

    Adam,

    I’m heading in the reverse direction – after quantity cooking for four sons all these years, they’re all one by one getting married and leaving the nest, leaving me with just me and the hub. Now I’m PARALYZED by cooking so “small”- and am tempted to serve cereal in desperation.

    One good thing about crowd cooking is that I tend to fuss less over the details, and that perfection is less the goal as it the satiation of appetites with good down-home food. When I’m doing a small dinner party, on the other hand, I agonize over each stupid detail and am overwhelmed by the variety of possible options. Thus the paralysis.

    I think too, that in a crowd the focus is less on the food and more on the fellowship, whereas with a small group (say, 4 or less) it’s much more on what’s on the plates.

    I love the honesty in your writing!

  • http://www.ambitiousdeliciousness.com Ambitious

    Thanks for this post. I get SUPER DUPER stressed out when I’m cooking for a large number and always worry that I’ll run out of food.

    Now I’m in the mood for some of that puppy chow!

  • Michelle

    We LOVE puppy chow (or as you called it, dog food) in our house. A huge bowl of it will be gone within minutes of setting it out! Hope you enjoyed! I think I’m going to run to the store now and get the stuff to make it!

  • Laura

    I love cooking for a group, and will spend hours planning the menu, thinking about what everyone likes and trying not to duplicate when I’ve served them recently. I’ll put spreadsheets together with prep and cooking tasks, and go to town, making enough food for probably twice the number of people expected.

    Somehow, though, I’m never organized enough about the other details of having lots of people around – setting the table, thinking about serving utensils/dishes, etc. So I’m running around like a crazy person at the last minute, which tends to make me stress out a bit!! Ah well, can’t be perfect!

  • http://www.gourmetsettings.com QueenJane

    Adam- it’s obvious that most of the JOY at your gatherings is found in the company you keep. Good…and apparently accomplished friends

    ( especially ones that bring RIBS….) make for memorable meals. I agree with Rebecca – there tends to be less stress in the planning of the larger events -eveyone is there for a good time – hence your fantastic photos!

  • http://www.gourmetsettings.com QueenJane

    Adam- it’s obvious that most of the JOY at your gatherings is found in the company you keep. Good…and apparently accomplished friends

    ( especially ones that bring RIBS….) make for memorable meals. I agree with Rebecca – there tends to be less stress in the planning of the larger events -eveyone is there for a good time – hence your fantastic photos!

  • http://www.gourmetsettings.com QueenJane

    Adam- it’s obvious that the true joy at your event can be found in the company you keep.

    I agree with Rebecca- larger events are easier and less stressful than small gatherings.

    It’s all about the good times – hence your fabulous photos!

  • http://chewonthatblog.com/ Hillary

    Haha I see your point. Those ribs do look good but your salad sounds good too! I would freak out about feeding a large group too. I hate hosting things at my house because I feel solely responsible for the level of fun and enjoyment. The pressure is all on me so I can relate!

  • Chef Wolfie

    Good Ghods, if I tried to “own” a slab of ribs and serve it to my Burning Man camp, they’ve had heard the screaming, be-wailing and gnashing of teeth all the way from Timbuktu to Ulan Bataar by way of the Black Rock Desert.

    But, in the absence of desert-driven histrionics, cooking for a big group can be FUN. I love doing dinner parties. The trick is to do it only 2-3 times a year so you don’t drive yourself nuts. My ultimate foodie dream is to do The Camel; a 6 x 8 x 10-foot cooking pit is required, as is at least $10,000 for the various ingredients!

  • Tiffany

    The main thing I have learned about cooking for groups is a conglomeration of your points above: I personally must have everything done (or at least in the oven) before guests arrive. I cannot think or make conversation or answer questions and cook well at the same time. So the decisions are made and the food is cooked by me, with no distractions so it’s done the best I can do it.