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How to Make a Big Meal No Biggie: Heather’s Tips on Lead Cooking

Heather’s Note: I’m the copy editor at a food magazine, which is pretty much my dream come true. As part of my job, I occasionally write for the Everyday Food blog, and recently my editor asked me if I could write a post about the cooking I do at St. Lydia’s. While my magazine’s readers are not necessarily looking for tips on how to run a dinner church, there are some tricks to scaling up recipes and working in large quantities that we thought our readers might find useful. At Rachel’s request, I’m mirroring the post here on the St. Lydia’s blog for the benefit of enthusiastic cooks in our community who are considering tackling The Big Show (as it were). I would also encourage you to take a look at Everyday Food. Before I worked for this publication, I was a longtime subscriber, and I’ve been cooking its recipes for St. Lydia’s as long as the church has been around. I hope you enjoy. And do remember that there are many ways to tackle the challenge of making food for 30-ish in less than an hour. Other lead cooks run the kitchen differently and there’s nothing wrong with that! After three years of Lydian meals, I find this method works best for me, but your own mileage may vary.

A couple times a month, I have a unique challenge to tackle. I’m one of the head chefs at St. Lydia’s, a dinner church in Brooklyn. Each Sunday, in under an hour, it’s my job to get a meal on the table to feed approximately 30 people. I only have a single, somewhat dodgy stove to use, and groceries are delivered right before I can begin prepping. Did I mention the meals have to be vegetarian? It’s a big job, any way you slice it. Fortunately, I get helpers — we work together to prepare the meal or set the table — but there’s no guarantee they’ll have any kitchen experience, so I try to break down my tasks into easily teachable and achievable chunks and make my meals as simple as possible. I also keep in mind those things that children can do, as sometimes my helpers are little!

Even before I started working for Everyday Food, I turned to the vast online recipe archive to help me find new, interesting, quick vegetarian mains, so I’m not serving the same old boring meals every week. As you know, I’m a big fan of planning meals out in advance; I make up a task list, in order, and keep it handy in the kitchen. That way, when someone comes in and asks how they can help, I can see at a glance what needs to happen next and don’t have to spend time thinking about what we still have to do. I do the same thing when I cook for dinner parties at my own home, or for big holiday meals, so I’ll walk you through the steps I take to break a really big meal down into smaller, achievable parts.

Scale up your cook time, too
At St. Lydia’s, I’m usually only making one or two dishes, but the principle is the same even for complicated meals like Thanksgiving dinner, or when cooking for fewer guests. When scaling up a recipe for a large group, I try to remember that anything, even the quickest little recipe, takes a lot longer when you have to multiply everything by about 8. Chopping one onion or bringing a couple quarts of water to a boil may be quick chores, but chopping eight onions or heating enough water to cook six pounds of pasta…that’s gonna take a while. If a normal recipe takes 45 minutes, it won’t work for my purposes, once scaled up. Because I don’t have access to a large oven, I also try to avoid anything that takes a long time to bake. Toasting some crumbs or nuts to finish a dish is fine, baking four frittatas is not.

Parse your tasks
Recently, I took inspiration from Everyday Food‘s free daily newsletter (click that link to watch editor-in-chief Sarah make this dish!) and made Fettuccine with Parsley Pesto and Walnuts. Once I’ve selected my recipes, I do some quick math and write my shopping list.  For four-serving recipes, I usually multiply quantities by eight. Sometimes I round particular ingredients up or down depending on their cost (oh yeah, I have a really tight budget, too). Once I’ve placed my grocery order, I go down the recipes’ ingredients lists and itemize all the prep tasks — say, chopping garlic, washing parsley, or juicing lemons. Then I read the steps of the recipe and add in any critical points there, like putting on a pot of water to boil, or making a dressing. Then I start arranging the tasks in order of priority. If I don’t want the tomatoes to juice-out in my salad, I leave their chopping to the end of the list so they won’t sit long in the dressing. I always place chores like putting water on to boil or heating the oven at the very top so I don’t forget to get them underway immediately.

Time-stamp critical events
To help keep myself in line, I add specific time markers — for instance, when food should go in/come out of the oven. If I know the pasta has to cook for eight minutes but will still have to be drained and then tossed before it can go on the table, I work backward from 7pm and give myself a generous buffer (in this case, 6:40pm). That way I know that I’m on track and I don’t do anything too early or too late. It’s easy to lose track of time in a hot kitchen! The goal is to keep moving for the entire hour, zipping cleanly through tasks so that they come together at the right points during the preparation process. Once in a rare while, I miss my 7pm cutoff and am scrambling, but I’m glad to say that’s rare. I usually find that with a few extra hands and some thoughtful planning, a big meal turns into no biggie.

Below, you can see my prep list for that Sunday dinner, which included an improvised salad made with tomatoes and cucumbers from the St. Lydia’s garden. I’m pleased to report that I saw more than one person reach for third helpings of the pasta. It’s delicious and so easy to make (particularly if you’re only making it for four). What’s the largest number of people you’ve ever cooked for? Do you like hosting a big group, or would you rather let someone else take the reins?

TO DO (Fettuccine with Parsley Pesto and Walnuts for 32, plus salad and bread)

  • Put water on to boil (two covered pots on largest burners, filled just less than halfway with very hot water)
  • Heat oven to 375 for bread
  • Wash 8 bunches parsley and let dry on paper towels
  • Wash tomatoes and let dry on paper towels
  • Wash cucumbers
  • Juice 6 lemons
  • Peel 10 garlic cloves
  • Roughly chop 14-ounce package of walnuts
  • Grate 1 pound Parmesan [I chose to order it freshly grated from my grocery, saving me a step]
  • Make pesto in batches [I ended up having to do about six batches, using a smallish food processor, which I just eyeballed]
  • Put bread in oven by 6:30
  • Salt water generously and put 6 pounds pasta in pot by 6:35 or 6:40
  • Make dressing with remaining lemon juice, olive oil, dill, honey, S&P, and red-wine vinegar if needed; add to very large bowl
  • Thinly slice onions with mandoline; add to salad bowl
  • Thinly slice cucumbers with mandoline; add to salad bowl
  • Cut tomatoes into wedges; add to salad bowl
  • REMOVE 4 CUPS PASTA WATER [I put this in bold so I don’t forget. It’s critical!]
  • Remove bread from oven at 6:45
  • Drain pasta at 6:45 or 6:50
  • Toss pasta with pesto, spinach, 2 cups pasta water, and S&P; add additional pasta water if necessary
  • Transfer pasta to serving bowls and top with remaining walnuts
  • Put bowls of remaining Parmesan on tables (with spoons)
  • Slice bread, place in baskets, set on tables

ON TABLES: Plates, forks, knives

Citrus reamer

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