Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to cook for 100 people

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Cooking for a crowd requires advance planning and helping hands (photo: Robyn Davis)

Every summer I throw a party called Trufflepalooza. It's just what it sounds like - many different dishes, each one loaded with Italian black summer truffles (even the desserts). This year I'm planning 17 different dishes for more than 100 people. It's a zoo. It's a lot of work. And I love it.

People's eyes get big when I tell them that I make food for 100 people in my home kitchen. It's time-consuming, but it's doable. I've learned a few things over the years and I'm happy to share what's worked for me. These tips will help you whether you're throwing a big party like mine or a smaller party like the ones saner people have. The secrets: planning, accepting help, and only obsessing over the things that really require obsessing.

Fair warning - it's a long list.

Say yes to helping hands (photo: Robyn Davis)

How to cook for 100 people - Erika's tips

  1. If you're making something new, test the recipe ahead of time. You need to know how long each step will take, which parts (if any) you can do ahead, where to get the ingredients, and whether there are any obvious shortcuts. I start testing recipes for Trufflepalooza at least six weeks in advance.
  2. Keep the decorations simple. You can't do food for 100 and Martha Stewart decorations, or at least I can't. I get large amounts of one kind of flower, usually something white and fluffy, and make many small bouquets in identical containers, often canning jars. That's as Martha as I get.
  3. Pad the menu with a few easy dishes. If you're doing a complicated main dish, make the sides no-brainers like oven-roasted vegetables, a beautiful salad, or a rice pilaf. If you're making fussy appetizers, roast some fish for your entree and make dessert ice cream sandwiches with store-bought ice cream and bakery cookies.
  4. Use all your appliances. You won't be able to fit everything in the oven, and you only have so many burners on the stove. Make sure your recipes are divided between things that get baked or roasted (oven); things that get sauteed, boiled or steamed (stove); things that just need reheating (microwave); and cold or room temperature dishes (none of the above). And don't forget about your outside grill if you have one. My husband recently used ours as a warming oven when his book group came over and he discovered that our bottom oven was broken.
  5. Choose recipes that can be made ahead, in full or in part. I end up making or prepping the food for Trufflepalooza over three or four days. Even if the final dish can't be assembled until the last minute, I make all the components ahead of time. For my radish and truffle butter tartines, for example, I slice the radishes up to two days ahead and store them in a container with ice water in the refrigerator. I make the truffle butter, which goes into several Trufflepalooza recipes each year, three days ahead. I buy the baguettes the morning of the party, slice them, and store the slices in zip-top bags until we're ready to assemble.
  6. The buffet is your friend. I can't do a seated dinner for more than 20 people without a significant amount of paid help. Buffet is the way to go. Line up the serving dishes and hand out plates. Unless your party guests are invalids or very young children, they are capable of serving themselves.
  7. Make a prep schedule. Break down each dish into its component tasks and spread them out over a few days. My party is on Saturday. My prep schedule starts Wednesday night and contains a detailed list of tasks for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For instance, one of the dishes I'm serving again this year is truffled pork and shrimp shu mai dumplings. The dumplings need to be assembled and steamed the day of the party, but I'll make the filling on Thursday. The creamy mushroom soup with truffles can be made a day or two ahead, too. It's all on the schedule.
  8. When friends ask if they can help, say yes. It's fun to cook with your friends, remember? Invite people over the day before the party to help with the prep. When they show up at the party and say "What can I do?" I find them a job. I have a big collection of aprons, which always comes in handy when guests volunteer to chop or stir.
  9. Make detailed shopping lists at least a week in advance. Go over each dish; think not only about the main ingredients, but about pantry staples and serving needs. Put the list away, then go through each dish again a few hours later - I always miss something the first time around. Trufflepalooza requires shopping at seven different stores, so I really need to plan out when I'm going where. Did I mention I have a full-time day job? Fitting in the shopping is no trivial matter for me.
  10. Stock up on staples. I'm talking about aluminum foil, plastic wrap, zip-top bags in several sizes, butter, olive oil, eggs, mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, peppercorns, chicken stock. I use all these things without thinking, and I definitely don't want to run out the day of the party. I also buy a bunch of inexpensive plastic containers so I can send people home with leftovers.
  11. Make the important stuff, buy the less important stuff. I am biting the bullet and making 300 5-inch corn tortillas for the truffled tacos I'm serving this year. It's time-consuming and tedious, but homemade tortillas make a big difference in the finished dish. On the other hand, I'm buying good-quality ricotta cheese for the truffled leek canapes - I could make my own, but in that context store-bought will work fine. I admit to being a little crazy in this department. I realize that most people would buy the tortillas.
  12. Play great music while you prep. Loud, happy music that makes you wiggle and dance, puts a smile on your face, and gets you singing at the top of your lungs. 
  13. Avoid menu creep, aka "while we're at it" syndrome. My husband suggested adding this one right after I said "Hey, if Erin's figs are ripe, maybe I'll do those roasted figs with goat cheese and truffle honey again!" Be more disciplined than I am. Set your menu and only deviate if you can't get an important ingredient or if you find something amazing at the farmers' market.
  14. Ready the house a day early. If you need to move furniture, bring up folding chairs from the garage, or wipe down extra tables, do it the day before. While you're at it, get down the good dishes and wine glasses and make sure they're clean. I always have to wash mine when they come out of the cabinet.
  15. Keep the drinks simple. For Trufflepalooza we serve one red wine, one white wine, sparkling water and flat water. That's it. It's partly because I'm avoiding drinks that compete with the truffles. But it's also because I'd much rather buy a lot of bottles of one thing than a few bottles of a lot of things. I am not a big drinker, so your mileage may vary on this one.
  16. Hire someone to wash dishes. It's the best money you'll ever spend. If you can't afford to pay someone, barter dishwashing services for childcare, dinner delivery or something else you're good at.
  17. But don't hire servers. When guests ask me if there's anything they can do, I put a tray of hors d'oeuvres in their hands and tell them to go make friends. Everyone wants to talk to the person with the food. This is particularly useful for shy people who are uncomfortable striking up conversations with strangers. With a tray in their hands, they have a purpose. Older kids and teenagers also like serving.
  18. During the party, remember to take care of yourself. Drink lots of water and wear very comfortable shoes. I don't drink wine until all the food has been sent out of the kitchen. I'm too afraid I'll burn myself or drop something. (Remind me to tell you the story of the Thanksgiving pumpkin-pie-turned-souffle sometime.)
  19. Befriend neighbors with extra refrigerators. I'm lucky - all our neighbors are amazing people. But it's a huge bonus that my next-door neighbor saves me a few shelves in her extra refrigerator every time I throw this party. She also happens to have a great collection of trays and bowls with which she's very generous.
  20. Choose an amazing husband, wife or partner. My husband does a huge amount of work for this party every year, including moving furniture, buying wine, reminding me whom I forgot to invite, cooking the steak, setting up folding tables and chairs, removing the laundry from the bathroom, and listening to me obsess about my prep schedule and shopping list. He also gives first-class shoulder and foot massages. I could never throw a party like this without him. I hope he knows how grateful I am...maybe I'll go remind him now.
How do you keep yourself organized when you throw a big party? Add your tips in the comments!


Tori @ The Shiksa in the Kitchen said...

Great tips here Erika! So sorry I won't be in town for Trufflepalooza, it's the second year in a row I'm missing this awesome event. I'm sure it will be spectacular as always!

Presley's Pantry said...

Can't wait for the big day.... I want to come help with the tortillas. :)

Dorothy at ShockinglyDelicious said...

This is a spectacular party, with fantastic food, and now the secret is out: it's a ton of work, too! Good thing you are organized!

Andrew @ Eating Rules said...

Hooray for Trufflepalooza!

Unfortunately, I can't make it for the main event, but I'd love to come over and help cook during the day beforehand... let me know if I'd be helpful or just in the way! :)

Anonymous said...

How does one get invited to this fabulous event??

Erika Kerekes said...

@Tori I'm sorry you won't be here - but I hope whatever is keeping you from coming is lots of fun.

@Presley I will definitely need tortilla help. Will message you. @Andrew ditto, I have plenty to do the day before!

@Dorothy It's a lot of work, but I like it. I'm weird that way.

@Anonymous well, are you in LA? Are you in the food blogger or restaurant world? Are you a friend of a friend? Do you promise that you're not a serial killer? :)


Just looked at the posts from your last 2 Trufflepaloozas. Can't wait for Saturday. Once again, thanks for the invite and I look forward to meeting you. Take care and God bless.

Anonymous said...

Ah, my kindred spirit! You've got it down! I thought I might be the only sole left on earth to run a big annual party (my neighborhood Halloween House has been going strong for over a decade) -- where I serve 250 bowls of chili from my stove top. My computer To Do List starts a month in advance and morphs with strike-outs and yellow highlights until 30 mins prior to showtime. I save it as a souvenir and it gets better each year like fine wine.

Cathy @ She Paused 4 Thought said...

That is really good information. Thank you for sharing your experience with us! I am so excited about this event.

Brooks at Cakewalker│The Sweet and Savory Collection said...

Erika, this list is sensational but no more than the gifted hostess of the party! You remind us that you can't do it alone—people and food pair perfectly and in social landscapes, everyone is willing to lend a hand. You inspire me!

Erika Kerekes said...

@RichSistah I am very glad you made it to Trufflepalooza 2012!

@BakeThisCake I think we were separated at birth. How many pots does it take to make that much chili? I can only imagine.

@Cathy I am quite sure you could have written this list in your sleep. I know about the parties you've thrown.

@Brooks for sure you can't do it alone. And that's the fun of it, right?

Unknown said...

Great tips! This would surely help anyone planning a home party, but wants to cook the food themselves. Preparing food is already a time-consuming task, let alone preparing to serve 100 people. And I think choosing recipes that can be made ahead saves anyone from pressure as the time before event runs out.

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