Saturday, May 29, 2010

Holiday Cooking for A Crowd

I come from a long line of huge families. Little Brother and I were the only ones in our family. (Good thing -- any more, and we might have killed each other.) But my mom was the youngest of eight, who, with our family's exception, had 5-8 kids themselves. Since my oldest cousin is now in his sixties, with grandchildren of his own, and youngest cousin has 13 kids herself (I am not making this up), get-togethers have a zany quality that suggests the Marx Brothers married into the Three Stooges. People talking excitedly about politics and religion. (Anyone with Cumings blood seems to love to argue!) Teenagers slouching around, heads, minds and earbuds elsewhere. (Unless a cute boy is around.) Kids running everywhere, needing napkin wipes, owie kisses and trips to the bathroom.
My dad, a very quiet man, and Husband, equally quiet, viewed all this mayhem with amusement. They would settle down by their favorite person for a long, tranquil chat (for Husband, it's often Cousin Phil), keeping an eye out for when the paddles finally slowed down, and the homemade ice cream was done. A circle of kids, still damp from the swimming pool, hovered nearby, waiting for spoonfuls of the icy stuff, or a chunk of watermelon. All this while the humid breeze slowed, and the red-orange sun slowly went down.
   We still have crickets (but no's too dry here), and the wading pool's been exchanged for a hot tub. But I still love a good family get-together.
    Memorial Day, we'll be doing just that with old friends, the Robbersons, who used to babysit our girlies when they were little, along with some other old friends. Making up food for a crowd doesn't frighten me -- I grew up with a mom who catered, and have done more than a little of it myself, including weddings, graduations and ten years of luncheons for senior citizens. (One of my great joys in life is watching Daughters #1 and #2 both take on their own catering jobs -- Daughter #2 is doing a wedding in mid-August.)

    Tricks that have helped me:
*Buy everything on sale. This may mean buying early and stashing in your freezer or pantry...but it's worth it. If you must pay full price, don't buy it.
*Arrangement is more important than you think. A platter of vegetables, ranged with sprigs of rosemary. A tomato rose, blooming by the bowl of dip. Green sliced kiwi, arching around the salad. Edible flowers, ranged around the cake plate. These are simple to do, but make equally simple meals visually exciting. 
*Serve pitchers of drinks. Pop in cans can really add up, but lemonade or punch, with a spritzer or can of pop or a kick of pomegranate juice added at the last minute, tastes great and costs much less. If you must serve soda, buy some of those large plastic bottles and put them out with cups.
*Keep your veggies and fruit as fresh as possible. That's what gardens and farmers' markets are for.
*Make one or two fancy dishes -- don't worry as much about the others. The simpler dishes will only draw attention to the lavish ones. This took me years to learn. Making all of your dishes elaborate, highly sauced or nitpicky-done will be the culinary equivalent of everyone talking at once...and no one listening.
*If the main course is expensive, add a cheaper, filling one. Soup and/or chips and dip will keep people from gobbling down that New York Strip you've mortgaged your budget for. So will baked potatoes. Scooped out, then restuffed with sour cream, cheese, onion and chives, they become "twice-baked" -- and elegant. Vichyssoise sounds wonderful -- but it's just potato-and-leek (onion, if you're desperate) soup.
*Keep kid-friendly foods on hand, no matter how elegant the rest of the meal is. Nothing will steam your good mood faster than to see a kid eat one bite, then throw away the rest of that lovely NY Strip. Don't let them do it -- keep burgers and some hot dogs on the grill, as well. Serve your adult guests that cake you worked so hard on -- let the kids help themselves to the chocolate chip cookies, instead.
*Always have extras stashed away, just in case you run low on food. Bottles of pop, dry mix for lemonade or punch, instant tea. Chips and salsa, jars of sauce, grated Italian cheese, pasta. Canned crab that can be quickly converted into a hot dip with crackers. Canned or dry soup. Boxes of cookies. These all help stretch out what you've got, and can go back into the pantry for future use.
*Set out nibbles after dessert. These need not be elaborate -- a bowl of nuts, apples polished shiny, a box of Really Good cookies or chocolates. They go well with tea, coffee or that last sweet lacing of lemonade from the pitcher's bottom. Even more, though, they say, "You're important to me. Let's stay awhile and talk."

Cheap Healthy Good has their own take on this subject, especially for feeding a group of fussy people. Well worth reading...

Happy Memorial Day weekend -- and remember those many soldiers who gave of their lives and themselves so we could celebrate freedom.

image courtesy ace clip art.

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