Cooking for a crowd

This entry is part 10 of 21 in the series: Bert's Eye View

So: I just returned from my second assignment on board a steamship in the Great Lakes. Still trying to adjust to a normal pace—although that makes me wonder what normal is …

Side note: Do not leave a half-unpacked suitcase open in your bedroom when you get a call to be somewhere the next day for work. The cat will (and did) think it was a big cushy litterbox for the next month.

am courage

I got home in Florida a few nights ago after working 32 days on a 650’ cargo ship in the Great Lakes cooking for the crew 7 days a week, 3 meals a day, plus baking and snacks. What a rush. My saving grace on this whole thing is that I truly enjoy cooking and the hospitality biz. It was kind of a luxury to just cook and bake. I love that shit. It’s almost sport for me without worrying about numbers and dealing with employees. Very cool.

When you’re on a ship, work is a serious thing. And, you don’t have the neighborhood pub to go to visit after work. Sex involving an additional human doesn’t happen—or at least nobody knows, and this makes food the big focus.

I’ve been cooking for 22 people around the clock, and with the holidays coming up, some of the stuff I worked with might be helpful for holiday entertaining. The key thing to remember for success is: method and intended outcome, and not necessarily recipe. Have basic techniques and count on the sensors in your pie hole and your snoot, and not just what you read in a pretty cookbook. Don’t be afraid to roll around in your food.

Bert-cooking

Several cases in point—

When dealing with fresh veggies, roots, fruits, and herbs, nuts, dried spices and flavoring blends, dairy products, pasta, rice, cheeses, meats, poultry, shellfish, and fish; Every time, every ingredient will be slightly different. Some ingredients called for in a recipe may not be available. Every time you prepare a dish it will have a slightly different taste.

If you rely solely on someone else’s interpretation of the final outcome of a dish without question—how the hell do you know what the thing was intended to taste like? So—what you have to do when cooking (especially for a large group), is develop a sense of how flavors interact. Of how liquid to solids ratios work, sauce reduction and thickening methods, yeast reactions, roasting, baking, poaching, grilling, sautéing, and braising methods, blah, blah, blah.

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Bullshit. It’s a lot easier than that. What you do is get an idea of what you would like things to taste like and get there. The beauty is that unless you are paying absolutely no attention, the more people you cook for, the larger the initial margin for error is, and the easier to correct. Just don’t use too much salt and you really can fix about anything. Start with a basic technique. Refer to a recipe and keep in mind that unless you’re baking, it’s to be used as a guideline and not a chemical formula. Adjust to the volume of your group and to your tastes. Allow for ample time for long preparations, and don’t get in a hurry for things like seafood where last-minute cooking is crucial.

I guess the main point here is that you should have fun preparing your food. Cook with wine. Put some in the food too and make W.C. Fields happy. Relax. The absolute—absolute worst case scenario is if you have a house full of people and you fuck it up, order in pizza or Thai.

 

For your holiday entertaining you will likely have family and friends. The law of averages says that at least one out of twelve are going to be a problem. Once your group is assembled, just do a quick count of the problems in the room. Take that number and square it. Divide this number by the total number of guests. This is called the Asshole Ratio, or A.R. Entertaining stress levels are directly related to this number. Keep it lower than a .73.

Let’s say we’re cooking for 22 people. We’re going to keep prep and cooking time to a minimum. By the way, when the guests say, “What can I bring?” don’t be tempted to say something stupid. Tell them to bring their favorite appetizer/salad/dessert. If their eyes glaze over at that point just add: “Or, something to drink.” This cuts back on your amount of work, makes things interesting, and it allows you to serve a really good entrée without breaking the bank. Feeding 22 people ain’t cheap.

Tonight we’re going to do a simple fish dish, some rice, and a few veggies. If you have a good selection of veggies you can accommodate vegetarians in the group. There will be just a little chicken broth in the rice, but if anyone asks, just lie. It won’t kill ‘em. Pussies.

We’re serving Pan-Toasted Red Snapper with Mango Glaze, Curried Rice, Caramelized Red Cabbage and Onions, and Roasted Brussels Sprouts for 22. Sounds complicated? Nah.

Prep time: 1 hour

Cook time: 1 hour

We need large thick fillets for this dish. I’m using red snapper, but any relatively firm fish will work. Grouper, codfish, halibut, mahi-mahi, snook, wahoo, cobia, etc. are all good. Make sure fish is fresh—meaning not ‘fishy’ smelling, and the meat is translucent, not cloudy or opaque.

Berts-brother-with-fish

Portion size is 6 ounces per person. For 22 people, you’ll need roughly 12-14 lbs. of fillets

Ingredients:

For Toasted Fish:

  • 12-14 lbs. skinless fish fillets cut into 6 oz. portions
  • Panko bread crumbs
  • Flour
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Eggs

For Glaze:
Note: Don’t be scared. It’s just a mango. You can cut and cube it in less than 30 seconds. Check this out–   http://www.mango.org/how-cut-mango .

  • 1 fresh mango or frozen pieces or jar
  • 1 can mango nectar
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Hot sauce
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Butter

For Rice and Vegetables:

  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Red Cabbage
  • Spanish Onions
  • Celery
  • Red Sweet Pepper
  • Apple
  • Raisins
  • Cilantro or Parsley
  • Green onion
  • Curry Powder
  • Cumin
  • Chicken Broth
  • Basmati Rice
  • Fresh or powdered ginger
  • Garlic

So, this is what you need to have on hand. This is going to be easy. Just allow enough time to prep the vegetables. I’m going to give you timing so that everything is ready at the right time. A good part of this meal will be done in the oven. Get help. Have someone washing pots and pans and utensils as you go. If you have a sober friend, give them a knife and cutting board and put them to work. When it’s time to serve, have an assembly line and someone running food. Don’t get nervous. You can do this. It’s all in the timing. Don’t over-think.

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Don’t be in a rush with the knife. Some good knife work tips can be found on the Alla Cucina web site.

Let’s start with the fish fillets

  • Rinse the fillets  in cold water and pat dry.
  • Lay fillet lengthwise, horizontally on a cutting board.
  • Work your way down the fillet cutting into 6 ounce pieces. Don’t wig out. Just remember to cut into  pieces about the size you would be served in a restaurant. As you work your way down the fillet toward the tail, it gets thinner, so your portion will be greater in length.
  • Refrigerate.

The Glaze

  • Cut and cube your mango. If using frozen or jar, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • In a small sauce pan, pour can of mango nectar and heat to a simmer.
  • Add about a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and about ¼ cup of water.
  • Allow to simmer until reduced to half volume and coats back of a spoon.
  • Add mango pieces. Cook for another 5 minutes or so and remove from heat.
  • Taste. It should be both sweet and tart.
  • Add salt and pepper and hot sauce to taste. Set aside.
  • Let cool a little and whisk in ½ stick of butter cut in ¼’s (Used later at room temperature. If butter separates, just stick in freezer for a few minutes. It will come back together.) Don’t sweat it.

The Rice

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  • While the glaze is reducing, chop a large Spanish onion.
  • Chop 3 stalks celery.
  • Chop ½ sweet red bell pepper.
  • If using fresh ginger, peel (with a teaspoon—no knife), and chop about a teaspoon. If using powdered, ¼ teaspoon.
  • So, throw a little olive oil and all the above stuff into a good sized sauce pan or large saute pan.
  • Sweat the veggies at medium heat until onion becomes translucent.
  • Add 3 cups of basmati rice.
  • Stir into mixture. Allow to toast a few minutes.
  • Add enough curry powder so that flavor is distinct but not too strong. You should have a good strong yellow color in the mixture.
  • Add 6 cups of chicken broth to pan and stir.
  • Curry powders vary in strength and flavor so this is where your sense of taste comes in.
  • Add a little cumin to the mix. Taste it. It should be a little strong but not crazy.
  • Pour into a good sized baking dish or a large sheet cake pan.
  • Rice will expand 3-4 times size of mix so use a big enough pan. Add some chopped peeled apple—maybe 1/2 cup and maybe ½ cup of raisins and 1 tbsp. chopped cilantro or parsley.
  • Cover and put into oven. Work done. Bake for about 40 minutes and then uncover and go another 5 minutes or so or until top is dry and liquid is absorbed.
  • Fluff with a fork, cover, and set aside.

Brussels Sprouts

  • While rice is baking, wash Brussels sprouts and throw into a baking dish single layer or on a cookie sheet.
  • Throw on maybe 6 garlic cloves. Don’t bother peeling.
  • Toss in liberal amount of olive oil and salt and pepper.
  • Slam these babies, uncovered in the oven for 40 minutes. Work on this is finished. 40 minutes and done.
  • When finished remove from oven and cover and set aside in warm place. Allow 6-8 per person.
  • Leave the oven on.

Cabbage

  • Cut cabbage lengthwise and remove core.
  • Lay flat and thinly slice from side to side (like cole slaw).
  • Do the same thing with a large onion.
  • Throw into a large sauce pan with some olive oil at medium heat and stir before it sticks to pan every now and then until cabbage and onions are caramelized (onions will be slightly brown).
  • Add 1 teaspoon sugar and cook for another 5 minutes and salt and pepper to taste.
  • Cover and set aside. Easy.

While the cabbage is cooking, mix 2 cups of panko crumbs with 1 cup flour in a bowl. Remove fish from the refrigerator and put in a cake pan into a mixture of 1 beaten egg and ½ cup of water and toss so that fish is lightly coated and salt and pepper the fillets. Heat a good size non-stick skillet or saute’ pan with    vegetable oil just coating the bottom. Not too much oil. Too much grease will give you those jiggling things on the underside of your arms and a big ass.

When the pan is good and hot (sprinkle a little of the bread crumb mixture to check temperature), take fillets, one by one, and coat in dry mixture. Place in pan. Don’t crowd, and cook in batches. Brown on each side, turning once. Remove to a sheet pan. Between batches, wipe pan with a paper towel and add new oil if pan is burned. Brown all fish and put pan in oven along with pan of rice and sprouts to reheat. Turn on cabbage on stove at low heat. Leave fish in oven for 10 minutes. Remove everything from oven. Arrange fish, rice and veggies on plates. Spoon glaze over fish so that it runs down the sides—not too much. Garnish with thin wedge of lime and a toss of chopped green onion top. Just throw it at the plate. Random is good. Nothing too arranged or neat. Wipe edges of plates and send to the table.

dinner with bert

Damn! You’re good!!

Later,
Bert

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Bert Woodson

Bert Woodson currently lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast in Cortez, with his Rhodesian Ridgeback, Colt, and Colt’s kitty Woof. (Yes, he named him.)

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