Friday, March 4, 2011

Cooking BIG

The big (and I do mean big) cooking project this week was Wednesday's "Feast and Fellowship" dinner at Scottsdale United Methodist Church, where I conduct the choir.  It was the choir's turn to host the weekly supper, and we decided to make chili and cornbread.

I love a challenge like this.  Cooking is one thing; cooking on a grand scale is quite another, but I've done it on and off throughout my career.  When I conducted the Glee Clubs at the University of Rochester, I used to cook a spaghetti dinner for all hundred members on the annual fall retreat.  Everyone helped, of course, but it was fun to be in charge.  We'd make the sauce on Friday afternoon when we arrived and let it cook for hours.  Then on Saturday, we'd make salad and garlic bread and cook huge pots of pasta.  There was always a ton of leftovers:  multiplying what Sue and I ate by 50 turned out not to be a good way to calculate the amount of food to make.  I remember bringing salad home in black trash bags the first year.  We had grated parmesan for months (I kept it in the freezer).  I dutifully kept notes from one year to the next to remind myself how much I had bought and how much less I should buy the following year.  Only trouble is, I never believed the notes, especially when it came to the grated cheese.  It never failed:  I'd go to the little Italian grocery we loved so much (it was called La Calabresella--the girl from Calabria--and I'm delighted to find that it's still there!).  I'd ask for whatever amount of cheese I had said to buy, and the grocer and I would both look at it at and say, "Nope.  Not enough."  Inevitably, I'd buy more and end up with twice as much as I needed, until one year I wrote, "No matter what you think, don't buy more than this!"  That finally worked.

In subsequent years, I cooked Thanksgiving dinners for choirs, had a big spread for students at Christmas with homemade rye bread, turkey and ham for sandwiches, made countless choir and School of Music cookouts--you get the idea.  It's always fun, because I get to make huge quantities of things I ordinarily wouldn't cook.  And I like trying to see if I can scale things up and still have them turn out well.  Cooking on a large scale doesn't have to be "institutional," although you do have to account for a much wider range of tastes.  My biggest project was a Passover seder for about 100 people.  We did that two years in a row at the church. 

The quantity thing is elusive, though.  I realized a few years ago that I get this from my mother.  Both of us worry that if everything is eaten, someone may not have gotten enough:  you must have leftovers.  Mom usually makes about three times as much as anyone can eat.  I get closer:  I only make twice as much.  I've generally gotten better at figuring quantities for big crowds over the years, but it's still imponderable.  The church supper is especially tricky, because you never know how many people will turn up.  We figured on about 60; about 70 came, but I probably cooked for 80 or 90.  The good thing is that people like to take the leftovers home.  For a donation, they can take a box away with them.  All of the leftovers were scooped up in an instant.

I was pleased with the chili, which started with 21 pounds of ground beef.  The challenge here is to make a tasty chili that isn't too spicy:  you can always add hot sauce if you want it spicier, but there's nothing you can do if it's too spicy.  I think we scored well in that category.  I like spicy chili, and chili that's not spicy often seems bland to me.  This didn't.  The key, I think, was good-quality spices and using smoked paprika.  I heartily recommend this:  paprika can be rather anonymous--sometimes I think it's just there for color.  Smoked paprika adds a wonderful aroma and deep flavor.  (You will note that I'm not giving the recipe.  Why?  Because chili recipes are second only to religious sectarianism for arousing violent passions.  Some people are horrified by the idea of beans in chili; others can't imagine it without, and the two factions will come to blows over it if you let them.  So go ahead and make it however you like it; I won't interfere.  But if you find yourself cooking chili for a crowd and want some tips, write to me.  I'll be glad to tell you what I know.)

The cornbread was simple:  I took the recipe that we always use--the one from an old Betty Crocker cookbook--and made 12 batches, four in each of three large trays.  I had to bake it a little longer, but otherwise, it was perfect--except that I made exactly one tray too many!  This is especially ironic because I had originally planned to multiply the recipe by eight.  But I also wanted four trays of cornbread:  I planned to put a double batch in each tray.  When I mixed up the first double batch, though, it was obvious that it wasn't enough to fill the tray, so I added another double batch.  If I had made only two trays with the four double batches I'd originally planned to make, we'd have been fine.  Somehow, two trays of cornbread didn't look like it would be enough, so I made a third one.  We never touched that one; we donated it instead to the Justa Center, a daytime center for homeless seniors.  The man who runs it, Scott Ritchey, is a former associate pastor at SUMC, and he was the speaker for dinner.  He was only too happy to serve our cornbread the next morning, thus turning my wretched excess into a good deed.

So my real advice is that if you're going to cook on a grand scale, do it either for college students or for a church.  College students will scavenge anything (and eat it at 2 a.m.); churches will put it to good use for a worthy cause.  That way, you can make too much, and instead of feeling wasteful, you can feel like you did something worthwhile.  That's always a good thing. 

(Postscript: The scones from the other day turned out fabulous. I want to try a couple of variations before I post the recipe, but it's coming. It's been years since I ate the ones at the V & A, so I can't be sure, but I do think these come close. And on another note, I have a quesillo going into the oven as I write this. I've flavored it with coffee, just for a change. I'll let you know how that comes out.)


  1. It's funny that you mention smoked paprika. I just watched an episode of Good Eats recently where Alton Brown went on a long rhapsody about the wonders of smoked paprika

  2. I think I first learned about smoked paprika from Alton Brown, whose shows I like a lot, when I get to watch them (which is not often, now). I am especially glad to have his method for hard-cooking eggs, which you told me about, Elizabeth!