Long before I ventured into the catering and restaurant business, I learned to cook for large crowds by volunteering at community meals. The grey-haired ladies who cheerfully organize and prepare our baked bean suppers, chowder fests, spaghetti feeds, chili cook-offs and fundraising dinners have much to teach us. Today, when planning to feed groups of 25 or more, I still use many of the strategies I gleaned from them over 25 years ago.
Good planning is key to any event, large or small. As a foodie, I always start by thinking about the season and the menu. Slaws with cabbage and apples work best in winter, greenhouse spinach and carrot salad in spring, and heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with fresh feta and chopped basil are delicious in summer.
I like to be aware of different dietary styles, including something on the menu for both omnivores and vegetarians. If possible, I try to use egg-free recipes and oil instead of butter so that vegetarian dishes suit vegans. For those with food allergies and dislikes, I like to include items without nuts or wheat, and dishes with recognizable ingredients.
In developing a menu, consider, also, refrigeration space and oven capacity. When working in MOFGA’s Common Kitchen and many church kitchens, this may not be a problem; but in most home kitchens, feeding a larger crowd may be a challenge. Of course, when temperatures hover just above freezing, the back porch or the garage can serve as a handy “walk-in” cooler. Generous neighbors with extra frig space are nice, or make arrangements for large coolers with ice.
Multiple hot items can be heated in the oven and kept warm in electrical appliances such as crockpots and skillets. Beans, chilies, soups and stews serve great this way. In all but the coldest months, I often plan to use our grill. Mediterranean cuisines grill their foods once a day and eat them throughout the daily meals. I love salads made with grilled vegetables, such as asparagus in spring, peppers in summer. Lamb pieces marinated in chopped rosemary, olive oil and mustard, or chicken breasts pounded thin and slathered with lemon juice, olive oil and fresh thyme are equally succulent when grilled and served at room temperature.
My favorite community supper is a potluck. Usually the hostess sets a theme, and every family brings something to share. I love enjoying others’ favorite recipes for savory chicken potpie topped with hot biscuits, lasagna with meat and béchamel sauces, glistening carrot chowder, and savory seafood stew.
Now that our family has left the nest, I have few opportunities to bake, so I often volunteer to bring dessert. Two of my favorites for large crowds are Wild Blueberry Cobbler and Secret Chocolate Cake with Maple Frosting. Both can be made in a typical household oven, taste delicious, are low in sugar and high in fiber and antioxidants, and are easy to transport.
If you are the host house, count your plates, glasses and silverware, and if necessary, borrow from a friend or neighbor. Paper products may be convenient, but are not so environmentally friendly. Eating at a buffet dinner off a flimsy paper plate can be difficult, and food tastes horrible with plastic cutlery. If your place settings haven’t been used for a while, a quick washing may be in order.
A theme will set the mood and help in decorating. I like to let nature be my guide, using soft, green fir boughs, pine cones, moss and sea shells. Different colored bottles each with a daffodil or tulip stem are striking. Candles and soft lighting add a warm glow to the atmosphere, as does music. Consider the mobility of guests, and have enough places for older folks to sit and everyone else to perch.
At least a week before the supper, I make a daily list of things to do. Menu designed, I gather recipes and make my market list. Certain specialty ingredients may require a trip to the Belfast or Blue Hill co-op or Jonathan Edwards in Ellsworth. I divide the workload so that every day I’m prepping. Sauces, marinades and dressings may be prepared up to four days ahead. Baked goods can go in the freezer; be sure to add them to the list to be defrosted later. Vegetables may be chopped and stored in airtight containers in the refrigerator, many up to two days in advance. Soups, stews and casseroles often are tastiest when made a day or two early.
I learned from our church bean supper committee to make an hourly plan for putting out a supper. The bean making crew would soak the beans overnight and start cooking them at 8 a.m. They were joined by the pie chefs around 9, who turned out 20 to 30 pies. As they cleaned up, the salad makers and set-up crew arrived at 2. I started mixing biscuits at 3:30, and by 5 we were feeding hot biscuits and supper to 200 people!
Even if you’re enjoying a potluck supper, a bit of organization comes in handy. I often ask families what dish they prefer to prepare – appetizer, salad, main dish or dessert – and keep a running list. This helps ensure a balanced menu. If needed, I round out the offerings myself, often testing a new recipe.
Even with the best planning, the unexpected can happen. At an open house we hosted once, I had set a beautiful table adorned with hors d’ouevres in the conservatory. When I went to the front door to greet our first guests, our young Nova Scotia retriever devoured the whole platter of mini ham sandwiches. I returned to the kitchen just before he could start on the chicken satays…and the rest was spared. Fortunately, our initial guests were dog lovers and we all enjoyed a good laugh.
When cooking for large groups, I learned so much from our community supper volunteers: Remember traditions, keep things easy, and use good planning and lists. Welcoming people to your table is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with family and friends. The simple pleasure of breaking bread and renewing friendships around our local, seasonal, organic food is really what community is all about.
WILD BLUEBERRY COBBLER
This delicious, low-sugar cobbler can also be prepared with blackberries. Both fruits are excellent sources of phytochemicals and antioxidants. Recipe adapted from The New Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas.
12 c. frozen or fresh Maine wild blueberries
1 1/2 c. sugar
3 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 1/3 c. water
1/3 c. lemon juice
2 2/3 c. whole meal flour (or 2 c. all purpose and 2/3 c. wheat germ)
1/3 c. sugar
Generous 1 tsp. baking soda
Generous 2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
8 Tbsp. butter, melted
1 1/3 c. liquid buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large, non-reactive pot, combine the water, 1 1/2 cups sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice. Stir to dissolve, then add the fruit. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat and cook for a few minutes to cook the cornstarch. Taste and correct the sugar or lemon juice if necessary. Pour the mixture into a greased, full–sized hotel baking pan (or two 9- x 13-inch pans).
In a medium bowl, mix the flour, baking soda and baking powder, sugar and spices. Melt the butter and whisk it into the buttermilk. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. The batter will be sticky. Drop by spoonfuls onto the fruit. Bake until the topping is golden, about 25 minutes. Makes 25 servings.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 184 calories, 3 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat (0 g trans fat), 111 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
SECRET CHOCOLATE CAKE
Ask folks if they can taste the “secret” ingredient in this cake, and give them the hint that it is a root vegetable. Beets add a depth and richness to the chocolate. This cake is so good it doesn’t even need frosting! Adapted from a recipe in Simply in Season.
3 c. cooked beets
3/4 c. applesauce
3/4 c. baking cocoa
2 tsp. vanilla
Puree in the food processor until smooth. Set aside.
2 1/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. canola oil
3/4 c. plain yogurt
Beat in the bowl of your electric mixer.
Add the pureed beet mixture. Beat for about 90 seconds.
3 3/4 c. whole meal (or whole wheat) flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
Sift together and gently mix into the beet mixture. Stir in 3/4 cup chocolate chips. Spoon the mixture into a greased one-half sheet pan (13- x 18-inch). Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven until a toothpick comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Let cool on a rack. Makes 36 servings.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 172 calories, 3.5 g protein, 27 g carbohydrates, 6.7 g fat (0 g trans fat), 103 mg sodium, 2.5 g fiber. Good source of trace minerals manganese and selenium.
MAINE MAPLE FROSTING
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1 4-ounce stick butter
1 1/2 pounds powdered sugar
1/4 c. maple syrup (or more)
1 tsp. maple flavoring (if desired)
2 tsp. (or more) heavy cream
In the bowl of your electric mixer, cream together the cream cheese, butter and powdered sugar. Beat in the maple syrup, flavoring and heavy cream. Add more cream or maple syrup to adjust the consistency. Beat well and spread on cake. This makes a very generous amount and will not all be needed. Store the remainder in the refrigerator.
About the author: Cheryl Wixson is MOFGA’s resident chef and organic marketing consultant. She welcomes your questions and comments at [email protected] or 367-5003.
For more recipes for a crowd, put cooking crowd into an Internet search engine.