‘Tis the season to entertain and many of us will be cooking for a crowd. I mean let’s be real for a second. In most of our cases it only takes a portion of our family to qualify as a crowd. Now, if you want you can skip the cooking entirely, Salma will show you how tomorrow, but some of us are genetically hard wired to not be able to resist cooking for a crowd. I’ve grown up watching my mother, aunts, and just about every one cook amazing spreads for a crowd and here is what I have learnt.
Tips When Cooking for a Crowd
1. Plan Ahead:
The number one tip for cooking for a crowd is to PLAN. Make a menu, figure out what you need to do and when you will do it. In other words, be an excel sheet ninja. Try to keep the bulk of the work to the day before. Don’t forget that knowing what dishes you will use, laying the table, cleaning, picking up disposable cutlery if needed – this is all work. Write it down!
2. Know your Guests:
Think about what your guests will enjoy. When I invite my uncles and cousins over I tend to split my food between desi and non desi. With other crowds I may want to go all desi. If you’re going to do the work you may as well do the right kind of work. If I am having kids over then I usually make sure I have at least one of the following – a mild Pulao (veg or chicken), a mild biryani, a kid friendly pasta dish, or if I am rushed, pizza from the guys around the corner. Save your friends the stress of having to pick out chicken from your achar chicken and wash it over to reduce the spiciness.
3. Pick your Showstoppers:
You’re inviting your family for dinner and you really want to wow them. Stop and think, what are the things you know you can make like a Boss. Plan around those. Make a killer roast chicken? Awesome. Serve it with roasted veg, bread rolls, a flavoured butter if you’re feeling fancy, and a side salad (look at No.5)
4. Make Ahead:
Choose as many dishes with make ahead components as possible. For example if you’re making biryani, make the masala a day ahead, that way you’re only boiling rice and soaking the day of. Want to make kababs? Try a baked kabab dish like galawat ke kabab that you can marinate 2 days in advance and bake on the day of.
5. Smart prep:
Value your time. Cook smart and use what you can to speed it up. Perhaps a chopper like the one here to chop onions. Or scour your grocery store for prepped vegetables.
6. Hands free dishes:
Most of your dishes shouldn’t require that you hover over a stove while your guests are there. In other words keep the frying, grilling, etc minimal. Choose dishes that reheat well in an oven or a microwave. Points if you can heat multiple things at the same time (like kabab + roti)
7. Buy your fillers:
I know, I know, this is a post about cooking for a crowd, but let’s be real shall we? Making fresh roti is more of a time/effort sink than anything else. Buy it. Shredding lettuce for an ever popular Caesar salad isn’t worth it when you can buy a large well priced one from Costco. In a samosa making mood? Save yourself the labor and buy ones that you can bake up; cute mini ones for appetizers work too!
8. Be Real aka Cut Yourself Some Slack:
My aunt has a full time job, goes to the gym on a regular basis, looks amazing every time I see her and has never served me less than 11 things. Even when I drop in for chai. That woman is impressive, but I am not her. I cook within my limits. Can I make one biryani for 35 people? Um no. My largest pot cooks 6.5 cups of rice. That isn’t feeding 35 people. What I do know how to do is to cook smaller quantities of multiple things. What I also know how to do is to use a Haleem mix when needed. And disposable plates and cups, especially for the kids, because you know what I don’t own 30 of those multicolored ones that every parent has.
9. Desserts in advance:
There is almost no reason – apart from your own overwhelming urge – for you to make a dessert the day of. There are many delicious desserts that can be prepped a day ahead and served in a large dish or individually if you want to up the ante. I would make an exception for warm brownies with ice cream, because hell, who doesn’t want a warm brownie.
Unless you have extra arms and don’t require sleep you can’t do this on your own. Get the kids involved with simple tasks. Let your friends help with clean up. Enlist the reluctant dudes (what’s up with that!?!) and get them to put stuff out and away.
Do all this (and drink lots of coffee) and friends you may actually have fun. For all the stress related to prepping for a big event there is nothing like the joy of bringing people together. There is a point in almost every dinner when you can pause and take it all in. A moment when everyone is enjoying their food, when you hear the laughter of good-natured ribbing intersperse with the gentle ting of utensils on plates. Bask in that moment and remind yourself that this is what makes it worth it.
Those are my survival tips, but I know I have a lot to learn! How do you manage cooking for a crowd?