To be totally honest, I would rather host 50 people at my house for a Shabbos than travel overnight with my kids. So that means if I don’t want to miss the big family party, I’d better bring the party to me.
The idea doesn’t faze me at all because Hubby and I resolved long ago that we would fill our home with guests, and we’ve stuck to the bargain. There’s a reason for it, of course. I came to New York City at the age of 18, attended NYU and then landed my dream job at CNN. My schedule was so hectic, I usually couldn’t go home for the holidays; most often, I’d crash at new friends, who soon became like family. I could never get over their awesome hospitality, the way they would host 10 or 20 people with warmth, flair and calm confidence.
When Hubby and I got married, so many people opened their homes and hearts to us that we were moved to do the same. Over the years, we’ve taken it to the next level. And so we’ve hosted countless Shalom Zachors, Kiddushes, major family Yom Tovim, Chanukah parties -- and even a Shabbos for 50 when I had a five-week-old newborn. No, I’m not superwoman and I don’t try to be! I delegate like crazy, and it works out fine.
That’s one of my secrets, and now I’m ready to share more secrets of cooking for a big crowd without going bonkers. We’ll call this list Jamie’s Quick & Kosher Yuntif Lifesavers – though, of course, you can apply these to any special occasion, any time of the year. Essentially, the tips break into two categories: Menu Choices, and How to Make It Happen.
1. Plan your menu with the precision of an astronaut going to the moon.
It should consist mostly of make-ahead dishes -- foods that can be frozen, or at the very least prepped the day before the guests arrive. There are many recipes that aren’t affected by freezing and, in some cases flavors may even be enhanced by the re-warming process (as with braised meat dishes.) Plan your menu so you can cook and freeze whatever is possible ahead of time: soups, stews, briskets, meatballs, lasagnas, the list goes on – there are many options.
2. Delegate, delegate, delegate.
Don’t be too proud to accept offers of help. I have had people bring the main, the dessert, the side, the drinks -- whatever they offer and whatever is easy for them. People love to feel part of the festivities, to feel they’ve contributed. You’re doing them a favor by letting them! Usually, they have a specialty dish they’d like to bring, so be careful in the conversation not to keep the options too open-ended, unless you haven’t planned your menu yet and you’re ready to plan around their favorites. I find the easiest thing to delegate is dessert – because you can always use a few options. One dessert doesn’t cancel out the other and it’s easy for people who don’t bake to pick up something at the bakery. Don’t forget things like drinks or paper goods: these things add up in dollars and many people prefer those easy options to contribute to the party.
3. This is why G-d created turkeys.
Plan to cook dishes that naturally serve a lot of people; a turkey, a large roast, are both good choices. The idea is that you are making one big thing instead of fiddling with 50 meatballs, or 30 patties, or 200 Buffalo wings.
4. The more people at your table, the simpler the menu should be.
Stay with your tried and true favorites; this is not the time to experiment. A stressed-out host or hostess is definitely not chic. No matter how good the food is, your emotional state will set the tone for the meal. So you want to minimize room for error by cooking something you could do in your sleep. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try something special or creative, do a new salad or a different soup, or even try one new side – but don’t experiment with every course, and the main never should be the New Surprise. The surprise could be on you, and just worrying about it will curl up your hostess apron.
5. Stay ON the beaten path.
Super-spicy or off-the-beaten-path dishes will be fun until you find out that one of your guests can’t eat the stuff due to medical reasons, allergies, or otherwise. Make an effort to find out about allergies and other caveats in advance – and stick to the guidelines you’re given. (i.e. don’t sneak in peanuts or peanut oil if someone is sensitive to them!) Think about who is in your crowd – kids, foodies, traditionalists -- and play to their tastes. It’s safest to go for well-known crowd pleasers to get those plates licked clean. When Great Grandma comes don’t serve sushi salad but rather stuffed cabbage unless of course, you have a really funky great-grandma.
How to Make it Happen
6. Watch out when multiplying ingredient quantities for larger yields.
Most recipes can be multiplied, but be careful. With certain ingredients like salt, garlic and strong spices, you don’t want to overdo. Remember that people can add salt at the table. Another example: oil needed for sautés need not be multiplied exactly -- just be sure you have enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Watch cooking times more carefully too. They may take less or more than double time, depending on so many factors. So watch things cook, regularly: use your oven light (instead of opening and closing the oven door) and use a meat thermometer for big, important pieces -- like expensive roasts which are the star of your show.
7. Be realistic about your equipment and your space.
Don't expect a complete meal to come out of your oven if your oven is really small. Last- minute reheating is crucial too. So try to spread the job to all of your appliances -- stovetop, microwave, portable grill, crock pot, toaster oven, Boy Scout campfire (just kidding.)
7 1/2. Refrigerator space has a way of shrinking too.
As you get closer to the party, you will need every bit of storage space. Take out any foods that can safely be left unrefrigerated for a while, such as condiments. And be sure to have enough plastic wrap, foil, storage bags, and storage containers for wrapping and storing food.
8. Relax (yeah, right!)
You should be busier the day before Yuntif (or your big party) than on the day itself. There are always last minute things to tend to, whether it’s for yourself, your kids, your guests or the puppy next door. When your guests arrive, you don’t want to be a harried, sweaty mess frantically trying to finish up in the kitchen.
I learned this the hard way when I hosted a BBQ for friends we see, at most, once a year. Some mishigoss got into my head that I had to make French fries. When they arrived with their five kids, I was so preoccupied with making the fries that I couldn’t even go to the door to greet them. Throughout the meal, I was darting back and forth into the kitchen, frying batches of potatoes and watching that they don’t burn. It was a terrible performance, believe me, and I totally missed out on relaxing with old friends and enjoying their company.
When it comes to cooking for the holidays, the benefits of make-ahead recipes are obvious. You have time to clean up after yourself, so your kitchen is not a mess when guests arrive, and you don’t rush into candle-lighting all panicked out about your meal.
9. Two small platters are better than one big one.
A traditional Yuntif meal is not usually served buffet style, so you have to consider space on the table, and the fact that people will be passing the trays and bowls. One big, heavy platter means they have to really heave that thing from person to person and then find a huge space for it to rest on the table – until somebody asks for it to be passed again. You’re better off with smaller platters placed at each end of the table, so the food can be circulated easily. That way, you create a more relaxed ambience, conversation will flow, and everyone can focus on your terrific food, not on how hard it is to reach it.