Saturday, September 17, 2011

The $5 challenge dinner party: Cooking for 40 on a budget. Step by step directions for people that don't know how to cook. YOU'RE WELCOME.

Last weekend we celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary with a group of friends. I had considered having the food catered - picking up trays of food from our local grocery store, and saving myself a lot of time and stress. But the prices were high, and I wanted the food to be hot and fresh. Besides - I love to cook.

The response from friends hearing that I was cooking for about 40 people on my anniversary ranged from "You ARE?" to "Are you sure?" to "Of course you are!" to "I am so glad you are - yummy!"

Inspired and wanting to rise to the challenge, I sat down with my cookbooks. (Yes Virginia, some people still use cookbooks. Real, printed on paper with notes in the margins cookbooks!) I wanted to find recipes that were simple - the more ingredients a recipe has, the more it will cost. A tip - if you need a spice or other ingredient that you don't use often, find a store that sells spice by weight - lots of health food stores do, and you can buy just what you need for the recipe, not a whole jar that will then sit in your pantry. Also, I have a limited diet these days SO I was hyper-aware of this, but it's a good thing to remember: You want to make something everyone will be able to eat. I decided on a big salad, daal, rice (all vegetarian and very filling, with plant-based protein) and chicken. I started cooking that afternoon and it took me about 2 hours. I had hoped to let the chicken marinate more but it just didn't work out that way, so I put them on the grill to start them off and add some smoky flavor, then stabbed them repeatedly with a fork (which also helped my stress about cooking for 40 people, since I was feeling kind of stabby by about 4pm) basted, and cooked it on a low heat in my convection oven to allow the flavors to develop slowly.

A caveat about cooking for a large group: YOU NEED BIG PANS. Big ones. And big serving dishes. And a lot of silverware and dishes. We discovered that we needed forks about an hour before the guests started to arrive.

Awesome. Added to the stabby vibe.

The following is a detailed description of the menu, with some overly-simple directions. Sorry about that.

Dinner for 40, for less than $3 per person.


The salad was set up salad bar-style. This meant that leftover greens could be bagged and refrigerated, along with with the individual garnishes. People could choose what they wanted to put in their salad, and how much. No dressing? NO PROBLEM. Hate carrots? HEY ME TOO.

The salad bar had dried cranberries, mandarin oranges, sunflower seeds, sliced cucumbers, sprouts, some goat cheese, shredded fresh and crusty french bread (better than croutons!) and balsamic strawberry vinaigrette.

Balsamic Strawberry Vinaigrette

Ripe Strawberries
Balsamic Vinegar
Salad oil blend or olive oil

I am embarrassed to even call this a recipe, actually. I chopped up a bunch of overly ripe slightly wrinkly strawberries into small pieces, put them in a bowl with their juices, poured in enough balsamic vinaigrette to cover them, stirred enthusiastically while gently giving the strawberries a little smooshing, and then let them set. Just before serving, I added salad oil (about the same amount of oil as balsamic) and gave it a good shaking. That's it! Also great with blueberries. The trick is to use a very sweet, juicy, extra ripe fruit.


For dinner I made a huge pot of rice. There is a trick to making rice of you don't have a rice cooker. If you live in Hawaii, you know what a rice cooker is. If you live in rural America, you might have no idea what I am talking about. I learned about rice cookers when I moved to Maui. They are like crockpots - but for rice. They cook rice quickly and efficiently and have an automatic shutoff when the rice is done. I don't know how they work exacty, but we'll just call it a miracle and move on. I don't have a rice cooker. I make my rice in a big pot.

Public Service Announcement: Instant rice is not rice.

Confession: this technique for cooking rice was taught to me by Kevin Flaherty during the middle of a very memorable weekend at his parents beach house off-season. He also taught me some fun things to do with climbing ropes and caribeaners. Thanks for the memories, man.

Melt a small pat of butter or heat a tablespoon of oil in the bottom of a pan. Makes sure the bottom of the pan is fully coated. Wash your rice. Just do it. Pour however much rice you need in the bottom of the pan. DO NOT STIR. Pour cold water over the rice - 2 cups of water for one cup of rice. Turn the heat to high - and when the water comes to a boil turn it down and simmer until the water is gone. You cannot put the lid on tightly - if you want to use a lid it has to be slightly off-center so steam can escape, and you have to keep an eye on the pan - once the water is gone you must turn off the heat or your rice will burn! It's easy to tell when the water is completely gone - look for bubbles on top of and between the grains of rice. Bubbles = water still cooking off. I used one cup of uncooked rice for every 5 people - so 8 cups of rice and 16 cups of water.


I used a huge, heavy ceramic-coated cast iron pot with a lid which prevents sticking, minimizes the chance of burning, and is good for slow cooking.

3 tbs butter or ghee
1 onion, chopped
1 tbs fresh ginger (I buy the prepared ginger root puree in a jar)
3 tbs garlic puree (also purchased in a jar)
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp dried chilis (Confession: I once used a package of crushed chili peppers I got from Pizza Hut that I found in my junk drawer to season my daal - Now I have a bottle of them.)

Sautee all in pan until onion is clear, then add:

1 cup lentils (I used french green lentils) stir around well to coat, then add:
3 cups water
1 cup veggie broth
1 can chopped tomatos with chilis

Bring the whole thing to a boil, turn down the heat and put a lid on it. Stir *very* occasionally, cook for 1 hour and see how the lentils are doing. They probably need another hour to get really soft. Once lentils are pretty soft, smooosh them with a potato masher to break them up a bit. Then add a little lemon juice, some pepper, and a lot of salt. You have to do it to taste - but lentils in my experience need a lot of salt. However, salt will keep them from getting as soft as they should - so don't add it until the lentils are soft.

This made enough for 10 people - so I quadrupled it. Like I said: you need big pans to cook for a crowd.


First, to clarify: This is NOT CHICKEN MARSALA. No, no it isn't.

Sauce/Marinade (enough for 10 chicken thighs)

6 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp ginger puree (same stuff I used for the daal)
1 tsp garlic puree (same stuff I used for the daal)
1 tsp crushed dried chilies
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp molasses
2 Tbsp honey

Confession: This recipe calls for marinating the chicken, but I don't have the time or the space to marinate chicken for 40 people, so I basted with the marinade and it was really yummy. If you have time and space, go ahead and marinate the chicken for a few hours or even overnight. Another problem with marinating - I used frozen chicken thighs. Bone-in, with skin, that you can cook from frozen without having to defrost. They are cheap and flavorful. The fat cooks out of them, and the skin comes off during go for it. I counted on 1/2 pound of chicken per person, and so I bought 20 pounds of chicken. Turn your oven on to 300 degrees and let it preheat while you grill the chicken a bit for flavor. If you have a convection oven, use it. We put the thighs - still frozen - on the grill skin side up. Put the heat on Medium, closed the lid, and grilled for 10 minutes watching for flare-ups due to the fat cooking off. Don't want to burn down your house while preparing for your dinner party. That's called irony.

After 10 minutes, transfer the chicken into a large pan (I needed three large pans - 9x12 with high sides) and peel off the skin and excess fat. Spread the chicken out single layer with slight overlap, which prevents the edges from getting overcooked and dried out during slow cooking.


Now drizzle the sauce/marinade all over the chicken using a spoon to conserve so that you have enough for all of the pieces. Put it in the pre-heated oven and bake for about 45 minutes.

So that's it. The bulk of the food cost was baby greens ($8), the chicken ($25), the lentils ($5 or so), and the rice was less than that, and everything was delicious!

No comments:

Post a Comment