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Crowd pleasers: Expert advice on cooking for a lot of people

Published: Wednesday, April 18 2007 12:02 a.m. MDT

Placing food on different levels adds eye appeal.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

Bigger is not always better, and more is not always merrier — at least if you're the one doing the cooking for a crowd. But if you plan realistically and have lots of help or experience, you can pull off that high school graduation party, family-reunion barbecue or church picnic, say some local caterers and home cooks who host large-scale parties.

With summer on the horizon, there are plenty of events that call for crowd-pleasing meals. And there are plenty of options to consider if you're the person in charge of such an event:

Catering or do-it-yourself?

It's easy to get dazzled when you stroll through an event that's been professionally done, such as Cuisine Unlimited's annual open house for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and other potential customers. At the event last month, guests wandered through rooms with different party themes such as "Under the Sea," with the food served on an octopus-shaped ice carving, the waiters in Hawaiian shirts, and an IMAX underwater movie and fish tanks providing ambience, or a '50s-themed malt-shop room where miniature burgers, fries and malts were served to the tune of a jukebox.

But before jumping into one of these extravaganzas, you need to be realistic about your budget. The "Under the Sea" meal — lime-grilled shrimp skewers, Caribbean rice, Jamaican slaw, grilled bananas and pineapple or watermelon salad, and Caribbean Castaway punch — costs from $14.50 to $26.50 per person, depending on the number of dishes ordered. The malt-shop menu ranges from $8.50 to $15.50 per person.

If you try to do it yourself to save money, it still costs you in time and labor.

So you might actually save money by hiring a caterer, said Rob Meier Jr., of Meier's Catering, which specializes in outdoor picnics. If it's a company picnic and several employees must plan, shop, cook, set up and clean up, all on the company's clock, it might cost less to pay a caterer $10.95 per person for a buffet with grilled burgers.

That's why you need to figure the "real" cost of doing the event, said Teresa Hunsaker, home economist for Utah State University's Weber County office. She teaches a class called "Cooking for a Crowd" (the next one is in September). Factor in not just the money, but the costs in relationships, time and expertise.

"How many people do you honestly have to help, and do they have the skills and time and interest to do the kind of job you want done?" Hunsaker said. "That helps me to decide if this project is doable, whether it's a wedding, a church dinner or a family reunion."

She recommends having a committee member for every 10 guests who will be served.

However, Julie Hendrickson of Kaysville prefers to go it alone when she's cooking — including the family wedding luncheon for 125 she did last December, or meals for her daughter's drill team. "I like doing it on my own, or just with my husband to help," she said. "Sometimes you get too many people in the kitchen trying to do too many things."

You should hire a caterer if you don't have a lot of cooking skills, if the party site doesn't have kitchen facilities, or if you want to be stress-free, said Michelle Squire of Bountiful, a former professional caterer who does parties for friends and family. "Do you want to be running around doing all the cooking, or do you want to be out visiting with your guests? It takes a certain personality to be able to do both."

Choosing a menu

• Consider how the food will hold up if made ahead of time, or if it has to be transported.

"A lot of people want to save money on weddings, so they make 10 or 12 batches of banana bread and freeze it," said Hunsaker. "But do you have the freezer space to store it, and can you keep it fresh and nice during the storage and transporting?"

Pasta and rice don't hold up well when cooked in large quantities ahead of time, Hunsaker said. "I remember a wedding luncheon where the poor groom's family was having fits over how they would keep the rice from getting mushy. I said to just call a Chinese restaurant and order trays of it already done. It's cheap, and you won't have to hassle with it."

• Grilling requires vigilance. "It sounds fun, but typically what happens is that you don't have enough grills and enough people manning the grills," said Hunsaker. "So the line starts to grow, and people don't want to wait to make sure their meat is fully cooked. And that's when they get salmonella with chicken or E. coli with hamburgers. You need someone who is willing to check the temperature with a meat thermometer."

• Avoid messy items, said Hunsaker. "Chocolate fountains are the rave, but they are the messiest things in the entire universe. Chocolate gets on people's clothes, kids splash it on each other, and it gets tracked 10 or 20 feet away. And you can't get the chocolate out of the tablecloth and carpet." Use clear plastic over the tablecloth and floor, "Or just dip chocolate strawberries beforehand," she said.

• Streamline and simplify. For instance, you can order quality premade salads or sandwich fillings from a deli instead of doing it all from scratch.

"If you're going to serve 250 people funeral potatoes and they have to be made with fresh potatoes, you'll kill somebody off just prepping the potatoes," Hunsaker said. "Who is really going to care if you use frozen hash browns?"

Likewise, when the bride requested made-from-scratch mashed potatoes for her wedding luncheon, Hendrickson did baked potatoes instead.

"But you don't want to take so many short-cuts that you give up the taste of the meal," Hendrickson said. "The bottom line is it's got to be a worthwhile meal. That's why I don't order things premade."

• Consider your preparation options, said Hunsaker. "If you're doing sloppy joes for 200, should one person stand at the stove and brown all the hamburger, or could five different people make one batch each in crockpots to bring to the party?"

Serving the meal

• If you have a self-service buffet, people generally will take more food. "If you're doing it yourself to minimize the cost, you may need someone dishing up the food for portion control," Hunsaker said.

• The more variety on your buffet, the more food people take. "If you serve both turkey and ham, people will take a little of both, and the combined amount will be more than if you'd just served turkey," Hunsaker said. "So it's more challenging to calculate how much food you'll need."

Even so, Meier says it's a common mistake not to have a variety of foods on the buffet — and enough food, period. "You need to have a variety to please everybody. Also, I've been to reunions where they run out of food, because they don't know if they're going to have 150 or 250 people, and everyone shows up just in time to eat."

• Serve the least expensive side dishes first, said Hunsaker. "If you watch anyone who caters, that's exactly how they set it up, so people will fill their plate with the tossed salad first, then go on to the side dishes, and the main dish last, because it's the most expensive."

• Have a separate table for drinks and desserts. "The traffic flow is better, because the line isn't held up by indecision at the drinks or dessert portion of the table," said Hunsaker.

• Create eye appeal by placing the dishes or trays at varying heights atop sturdy blocks or pedestals. "Sometimes using different elevations isn't just for eye appeal, but it's a good way to make enough space to fit more food onto a buffet," said Maxine Turner of Cuisine Unlimited.

• If several people are bringing food, as in the case of a pot-luck dinner, have post-it notes or labels available so guests can jot their name and place it on their bowl or platter. This will help everyone identify their belongings at the end of the evening, said Turner.

• If you've got a beach theme, use fishnet on the table and throw some brown sugar on the buffet. "You can't use sand because you don't want it getting into the food. You don't mind if a little brown sugar blows onto the ribs," said Turner.

Food safety

Private parties aren't regulated by the health department, said Michelle Cook, food safety program manager at the Weber/Morgan Health Department. "But if you're inviting the general public, such as a church fund-raiser, we request that you get a temporary permit from us, and at least one person in charge has to have a food-handler permit."

The cost of food permits varies among the different county health departments, she said.

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Food held at room temperature should be served within two hours, and within one hour if the weather is around 100 degrees, Hunsaker said. Food-borne bacteria multiply rapidly after that.

Plan ahead how you'll keep foods safe at the site. "If everyone brings both main dishes and desserts that all need the refrigerator, pretty soon that one fridge won't cut it," said Hunsaker. "People may think they'll all just plug in all their crockpots or roaster ovens, and there goes the electrical circuit."

Serve food in the shade, and place salad bowls into bigger bowls filled with crushed ice, said Hunsaker. Bring coolers with plenty of ice for the leftovers.

"People hate to waste food," said Hunsaker. "So they want to save that little bit of sloppy joe mix that has sat out for four hours, and they take it home in a hot car with no ice. They're better off pitching it."

VEGETARIAN SPRING ROLLS

1/2 cup bean sprouts

1/3 head of green cabbage, chopped

5 green onions, chopped

1 cup thin noodles, precooked (vermicelli or cellophane noodles)

1/4 cup fresh herbs (use cilantro, basil or mint, your choice)

1/4 cup carrots, grated or julienned

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated (optional)

12 spring roll wrappers

Toss together all ingredients — except wrappers — in a large bowl. Submerge wrappers in hot water until pliable, about 15 seconds. Place about 2 tablespoons of mix on wrapper and roll. Makes 12. — Maxine Turner, Cuisine Unlimited

TERIYAKI CHICKEN

60 boneless skinless chicken breasts

SAUCE:

4 cups soy sauce

4 cups brown sugar

3 cups water

3 cups apple juice

3/4 cup ketchup

2 tablespoons red pepper flakes

12 cloves garlic (can use equivalent minced bottled garlic)

24 tablespoons cornstarch

3-4 cups water

Mix all the sauce ingredients together, except for cornstarch and water, in a large container.

Place chicken in crock pots — you will need five or six crock pots, depending on the size of the pots. Divide sauce evenly into each crockpot. Cook on low for 6-7 hours.

In the last 20 minutes, mix the cornstarch with water and add an even portion to each crockpot. Cook an additional 30 minutes. — Julie Hendrickson, Kaysville

POT STICKERS

1/4 cup plum sauce (see recipe below)

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

3 green onions, chopped

1 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves, loosely packed

2 cups finely chopped pork loin, fully cooked

1 egg, separated

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

24 wonton wrappers

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 14-ounce can fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth

Combine plum sauce and soy sauce in a small bowl; stir well. Cover and set aside.

In food processor, add green onions, ginger, cloves and cilantro. Process until fine mixture. Remove and place in large bowl.

Place pork in food processor; pulse until pork is finely ground. Add pork to green onion mixture. Stir in egg yolk, salt and pepper until thoroughly combined.

Working with 1 won ton wrapper at a time (cover remaining wrappers with a damp towel to keep from drying), spoon 1 rounded teaspoon pork mixture onto center of each wrapper. Moisten edges of dough with beaten egg white and bring 2 opposite corners together. Pinch the edges together to seal, forming a triangle. Place pot sticker on a platter; cover loosely with a towel to keep from drying. Repeat procedure with remaining pork mixture and won ton wrappers.

Heat 1 teaspoon sesame oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Arrange half of pot stickers in pan. Cook 3 minutes on each side or until lightly browned. Remove from pan; set aside. Repeat procedure with remaining sesame oil and pot stickers.

Return pot stickers to pan; add broth. Bring to a boil. Cover, Reduce heat, and simmer 3 minutes. Drain on paper towel. Makes 24. — Maxine Turner, Cuisine Unlimited

PLUM SAUCE

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/2 ounce minced ginger

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 cup brown sugar

2 cups water

1/4 cup hoisin sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 teaspoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/2 cup plum preserves

Mix all ingredients in a saucepan. Simmer until thickened stirring often approximately 5-6 minutes. Serve in a small bowl. — Maxine Turner, Cuisine Unlimited

COLE SLAW

SALAD:

3 cups shredded cabbage (1 12-ounce bag)

1 finely grated carrot

2 cups jicama, cut into strips

2 cups oranges sections, cut in half

1/2 medium green pepper, yellow pepper and red pepper cut into strips

1 small red onion, finely chopped

DRESSING:

4 tablespoons salad oil

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

GARNISH:

1 whole orange with peel, thinly sliced into rings and slit halfway through

Cilantro stems for garnish

Combine all salad ingredients and toss well. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Combine dressing ingredients and mix well in a blender. Pour into a container and refrigerate until ready to serve the salad. Shake dressing again and lightly toss with salad until all ingredients are well coated.

Pour salad onto platter and garnish with orange braids and stems of cilantro. — Maxine Turner, Cuisine Unlimited

SNAPPY CHEESE FILLING

3 pounds sharp American cheese, chopped

1 1/4 cups mayonnaise

1 cup evaporated milk

2 teaspoons prepared mustard

1 tablespoon paprika

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients; mix well. Makes 50 sandwiches with 2 tablespoons filling per sandwich. — Teresa Hunsaker, USU Extension

TUNA SALAD FILLING

4 9 1/2-ounce cans tuna

8 eggs, hard-cooked, chopped

5 cups celery, chopped finely

1 1/2 cups pickle relish

2 teaspoons salt

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Combine all ingredients; mix well. Makes 50 sandwiches, 3 tablespoons filling per sandwich. — Teresa Hunsaker, USU Extension

BARBECUED BEEF

12 pounds ground beef

1 cup butter or margarine

2 cups onions, chopped

4 cups celery, chopped

4 green peppers, chopped

1/2 cup vinegar

1/2 cup lemon juice, optional

1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 quarts ketchup

2 quarts tomato juice or sauce

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup dry mustard

1/4 cup salt

Pepper to taste

Brown meat; drain. Melt butter; add onions, celery and green pepper. Cook covered until tender (heavy sauce pan or fry pan advisable). Add remaining ingredients; then add meat and simmer for 30-40 minutes. Serves 50. — Teresa Hunsaker, USU Extension


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com