cooking for crowds

and when I say crowds, I mean crowds.

A little over four years ago, I thought it was a big deal cooking for 2 of my friends for lunch. With the oh-so-taxing menu plan of chilli nachos. Somehow, while the end result did taste good and nobody got food poisoning (always a fear), the process involved an emergency call to one of the friends to get me hypo-allergenic elastoplast en route as I’d had issues with a knife.
Hundreds of cooked meals (for myself and for friends) later, a little over one year ago, I thought cooking for 20 people at an international dinner was a big deal. Since then, I’ve been in kitchens helping cook for 120+ people at weekends away and camp, and cook fortnightly for the student group at church whose numbers have varied from 15-40. And accumulated a fair few knife wounds and burn-scars along the way…

While some recipes I’ve used have simply been scaled-up versions of standard meals such as tagine, others have been found in word-of-mouth recipe books passed on by kind SU chefs. So I thought I’d create a page to house these recipes in list form so that others can benefit from them too. Some involve more work than others, but all are construed on a strict budget (normally about 40p-90p per person). My plan is to add to it as I find other recipes that would fit the theme.
Call me a traitor if you like, but I’ve included meaty recipes here for the simple reason that people like to eat meat. And the point in cooking for people in large quantities is to provide tasty sustenance so they can get on with the rest of their evening / weekend / camp. This does mean that I can’t vouch for the taste of several of these recipes personally, but have only included them here after good reactions from the recipients!
Quantities can be a bit variable (e.g. soup serving size depends on bowls), so adapt with common sense.

Top tips for cooking with crowds:

  • Get stuff chopped up first, before you cook it. That may seem like a small thing, but when you’re dealing with kilos of vegetables, it’s important.
  • Don’t stress about the amount of oil/salt/cream you’re using – think of how many people it’s being split between!
  • Herbs and spices are your friend. It’s amazing what even a generic jar of 85p dried mixed herbs can do for a dish.
  • Ovens don’t like having a load of cold things shoved in them, so if adapting a recipe ensure that you allow extra cooking time.
  • It’s better to get stuff done earlier then leave it warming in the oven than to take a break initially then find that you have absolutely no time. Things take longer than you’d think!
  • If possible, ensure there are lots of hands on deck. For a weekend with 128 people, 4-5 at-least-semi-experienced cooks are essential (unless you’re relying on a lot of pre-made stuff. But, yuck.)
  • Print off a copy of the recipes for each cook so they can make their own written notes on them.
  • Pick your battles. Life is too short to peel potatoes and carrots – just scrub them well. Similarly, don’t bother with cloves of garlic if cooking for loads of people; the tubes of purée are perfectly adequate. On the flip side, pre-grated cheese is literally cardboard so if you have time and money then it’s worth getting whichever cheddar is on offer at the store.
  • I may be biased, but I think that as more and more people choose vegetarian meals (whether all the time or because they don’t like sausages or mince but are fine with chicken etc), or because they are intolerant or allergic to certain components, it’s normal to have an alternative, particularly when at a camp or weekend away when you know people’s food needs in advance. Consider what you want to do with this, which can also depend on your resources. Are you going to have an option which will also tempt “normal” eaters who don’t like certain ingredients? E.g. balance a chilli con carne with a vegetarian risotto so people that don’t like spice can have the risotto. OR in the interests of time-management / if you’re short of hands, will you choose things that you can cook together and then split – e.g. béchamel sauce can then turn into mince pasta bake, or broccoli cheese.
  • At weekends/weeks away, keep some of the plastic bags that the online shop comes in. Campers will have forgotten to bring these and rumours will spread at camp’s end that you have a stash.

Do you have any tips that would fit in well hear from your experiences in large kitchens? Please comment below – I’d love to learn from people with more experience 🙂

Recipe Index (serving size in brackets, then halve/double/triple/quadruple as you like!)

Leek and potato (v) (25)
Lentil and bacon (40)
Spicy carrot and lentil (v) (df) (70)
Spiced squash and sweet potato (v) (20)

Chilli con carne (5/25)
Chilli, lentil (v) (5)
Chicken korma-ish curry (25)
Lentil dhal (v) (8)
Mince pasta bake (20)
Cheesy broccoli pasta bake (v) (20)
Pizza (v) (25-30)
Ricebake – bacon (not v – 25) or bean (v – 8-10)
Sausage and bean casserole (120)
Vegetable risotto (v) (gf) (df) (20)

Apple and berry crumble (150)
Chocolate pudding (gf) (dairy-free) (per person)
Sticky toffee pudding (150)

Italian hot chocolate (120)


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