On travels, we've made detours to the World's Biggest Axe, Pineapple, Banana, Nickel and Apple -- and I'm only getting started. I like big things.
But one of my favourite Big Things is cooking for large crowds of people. In university, I always volunteered to cook on retreats. The bigger the crowd, the more I like the challenge. And the other part of the intrigue for me has always been cooking delicious food for cheap cheap cheap. (The secret: cook from scratch. A million times cheaper than packaged almost every time.)
So, two weeks ago, I got a call from a friend who works at Welcome Home, a refugee centre in Kitchener. She had heard that I was the weird person who liked feeding the masses and asked if I was interested in making a thank you meal for their valued volunteers. Someone else would make dessert. I said yes without looking at my calendar. (Fortunately I was free to do this.)
The last time I remember cooking for a crowd was a couple of years ago when I singlehandedly (and single-brain-celledly) cooked and served a meal for 50 people in my own home. That one was a fundraiser for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. It was during my homemade pasta stage. Don't get me wrong -- I still support wholeheartedly what they do, but by the time the guests arrived, I was ready to collapse into a pile of polenta.
This one would be different, I told myself. With age comes wisdom. Or laziness.
I would have access to the Welcome Home kitchen, which has one or two ovens with stovetops and a microwave, but during the meal itself, I would have plugs only to keep food warm. Some of the attendees would be Muslim and would not eat pork. I assumed it was quite possible that there could be vegetarians in the crowd too.
I solicited ideas but they were invariably too expensive, too time-consuming, too meaty and/or too "same old same old." I had a little idea -- ham in a crockpot with a variety of salads -- so I pulled out my cookbooks and the plan came together.
The meal is tonight. Yesterday I was talking with a friend -- bragging really -- telling her that I thought I was going to be able to make supper for 25 in less than half an hour. "I just made muffins," she said. "It took me longer than that."
It turns out my estimate was conservative, but not by a lot. So, in the interest of public education, I thought I'd walk you through the process of feeding the masses, in case you want to take it on sometime.
Thursday: In the half hour before my hair cut, I set off, grocery list in hand, to ValuMart. I bought 17 new potatoes, two pounds of asparagus (from the US -- the season approaches here!!), a pound of baby spinach, a bunch of green onions, two lemons and a clamshell of strawberries. I picked up a spiral-cut ham on a great sale, four jugs of juice, two bottles of sparkling water, two packages of bow tie pasta, four cans of white kidney beans -- and a bunch of other groceries my family needed. (Tip #2 - Multitask your shopping and food prep where you can. It doesn't have to be a separate trip or a distinct task.) I haven't separated out the grocery bill altogether, but I think the cost for the meal came to somewhere around $50 or 60, or $2-2.25/person.
Friday: While cooking our supper, I quartered and boiled the new potatoes. The boiling took quite a while, and I also knew that the recipe (a garlic-lemon-oil potato salad) worked a lot better if the potatoes were pre-cooked and cooled. Chopping the potatoes took about five minutes in total. While they steamed away, I made a salad dressing for the spinach salad -- using rhubarb from our garden, boiled with vinegar and sugar, then strained, and mixed with oil, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. (Tip #3 -- It makes a huge difference if you have a stocked kitchen. All I needed was a Tbsp of Worcestershire sauce and a teaspoon of sugar. It would have been a far more expensive proposition had I had to buy these kinds of ingredients too.) That done, I turned to the vegetarian dish. I had found a great recipe in a Moosewood cookbook, but when I went to make it, I discovered that we had indeed finally used up all the sundried tomatoes we made last summer. So much for a well-stocked kitchen. It was time for Tip #4: Know where to compromise. In this case, I substitute a can of tomatoes and decided to roast to beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic and spices, rather than sauteeing them. It worked and ended up being a time saver too. I decided to stop there because my fridge space was getting tight. The work of the day probably totalled about fifteen minutes, including time rummaging for tomatoes, but not including cleanup, which unfortunately I had to do.
Saturday: This morning, pancakes were requested of the chef and so while I stood a-flipping, I boiled the water for the pasta, cooked, rinsed and slightly oiled it so that it won't be sticky later. I also broke the asparagus into 1-inch pieces and steamed them. I decided to rinse the spinach even though it was pre-washed. I had food poisoning once and That Was Enough for me: now I don't eat cookie batter if it has eggs, and I'd rather not give people any kind of unpleasantness on my watch. I cut up strawberries for the salad and grabbed some sunflower seeds that will be added in. The potato salad, the spinach salad and the bean salad are all gluten-free and dairy-free. Just before noon, I mixed up a concoction I found in the LCBO magazine a year ago as a glaze for ham -- it's the only one I ever use anymore: almost equal parts of maple syrup and Dijon mustard, mixed with hot pepper flakes. I drizzled it over the ham (discarding the bag of gross sauce that came in a bag with the ham) and put it all in the crockpot on low. It took a while to cook the pasta, but the actual work time for all of this was probably 20 or 25 minutes.
Later Saturday: I have two last-minute tasks. The asparagus pasta needs to be tossed in a lemon sauce that's made at the last minute. Maybe not the best of plans, but oh well. It looks like a sauce that will be fairly easily made, or at least so I hope. I also have to pick up bread or buns at the store. Probably another fifteen minutes. And then to deliver it all.
And that's it. A maple-mustard ham, garlic potato salad, lemon asparagus pasta salad, tomato-bean casserole, rhubarb vinaigrette spinach salad and bread. In about an hour and a half, including shopping time.
Can you see why I like doing this so much?