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Help! How do we even begin to prepare a formal dinner for 25 guys with....

  • c

two stove tops
one partly functional oven
two microwaves
4 novice cooks
and 120 dollar budget?

A group of us got strongarmed into preparing the meal for a formal sit down dinner at our church celebrating their graduation. These guys are well known for eating entire pizzas individually, disliking chocolate, and craving meat like oxygen.

Yet we're supposed to make a feast that has to look good as well as fill them up. I'm absolutely sure we're going to do a lot of prep work that can be done the day before but what recipes are prep friendly and considering that the suggestion of a five course meal, make it through the dinner?

Last year was a fiasco since food was either cooked too early and reheating proved difficult since other dishes needed the oven. The oven at church is old and cooks unevenly. We're hoping to avoid this backlog of problems this year.

Any recipes that fit the criteria are welcome and any tips or experiences with this situation. Thanks!

(As you can tell there is plenty of time before the actual event but I wanted to start planning early and your suggestions for baking bread were so helpful that everyone is now convinced I can cook--hence this task)

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  1. Take your cue from hotel banquet menus - they may not be fussy "gourmet" meals, but they ain't meatloaf and if they're good enough for heads of state, they'll do for your bunch. They're designed for maximum prep-ahead and maximum hold-before-serving.

    Also, be willing to sacrifice a little of the old "I gotta serve it very hot", both in terms of food that (at a restaurant or your home table) you expect to arrive quite warm, and in terms of planning some dishes that are served room-temperature.

    Here are some examples culled quickly from the 'net (and explained):

    This and the next from a Hilton hotel - "Grilled Chicken Chasseur - Boneless Breast Served in a
    Demi-glaze of Mushrooms, Shallots and White Wine" ... This will turn out to be your basic boneless breast, NOT GRILLED (would dry it out) but boiled or microwaved (one breast-half microwaves VERY tender in 4 minutes) and slapped on the grill to get some quick grill marks - held warm, and gets a squirt of hot and delicious sauce at serving time. You can make any number of wonderful fancy sauces in huge quantities and hold hot for a long time. Or - what the heck - gravy (I'd eat it and be happy). If you can't get boneless breast for $1.99 on sale, you're shopping at the wrong place.

    "Grilled Salmon - Center Cut Salmon Steak Served with a Champagne Dill Sauce" ... Same idea as above. For ease of cleanup, I'd go with salmon fillet. Bake, cover, hold warm, sauce at plating time.

    "U.S. Choice Roast Beef with brown sauce" ... It's roast beef, how hard can it be to get it cooked and done in about the right time?

    Salad - ONE dressing (Italian) added at time of serving, mix the greens in a huge bowl or your biggest pot, use a plastic glove, reach in and plate it in a flash at serving time - want to make an impression, put the plates in the 'fridge the day before the banquet so you can serve on chilled plates. Have a second person add a couple cherry tomatoes, cucumber half-slices and croutons on top just as they go out the kitchen door.

    Veg: Creamed spinach is a favorite at upscale steak houses - green beans almondine are going to be room-temp by the time anyone gets to eat, so cook them carefully so they're not awful and set them aside on the warm back of the stove, plate 'em as you did the salad - and, of course, for these hungry guys, POTATOES - notice you haven't done much with the oven yet, it's there to bake potatoes - at serving time, one cut in the top, pry it open a bit, add a glop of sour cream and melted butter and go!

    Dessert is a big scoop of top-brand ice cream (in a simple flavor) with some shaved chocolate on top, or (what's that oven doing while dinner's being eaten?) served over warm slices of apple pie.

    Baskets of a variety of breads and rolls at the table, PLENTY of them, with softened REAL butter on the side.

    Look how much is simple, and how much holds nicely without losing much in the way of quality.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Wayne Keyser

      There are some good ideas for a similar situation here, but first of all, I *very* much am skeptical that the chicken menu, and am just about sure the roast beef menu or the salmon menu, can not be done for $120 for 25 persons...Secondly, I wouldn't rely on a somewhat non-functional oven to make 25 potatoes or to bake apple pie....(though you could make the pie in advance and just reheat it, and I guess could do some of the same with the potatoes).

      1. re: susancinsf

        Finances: I think it's possible. Now I'm going to write as I think...

        Salad - 4 hd iceberg @99c, 4 romaine @1.50, other veg and homemade Italian maybe $6 = $16.00

        Bread - 25 rolls $7.00, butter $5 = $12.00

        Beverage - It's a church, so wine is unlikely (if allowed, 2 glasses/person 8 bottles @ $8/bottle=$64 probably too much) or coffee/tea/cola $1/person at most = $25.00

        Entree: Chicken @ $1.99/lb = $1/head = $25, roast beef is on sale these days $1.99/lb = maybe $40, salmon @ $3.99 on sale = $50, sauce in any case figure $10 at most, so $35 to $60 for the entree.

        Green veg: Call it a buck, = $25.00

        Potato: Cheaper by the bag, baked with toppings maybe $1 each, redskin potato salad at most $1, = $25.00

        Dessert: Make the crust, filling bought at the grocery about $6/pie (too much, I know), two #10 cans at a wholesaler about $3/pie, ice cream - a good brand is always on half-price sale in my area at $3/half-gallon, so $12 should do it, which brings dessert to around $30.00 - if that's too much, give 'em the ice cream with warmed cherry pie filling dribbled on top, adding the ice cream you have maybe $23.00

        Add 'em up: Salad $16, Bread $12, Beverage $25-$64, Entree $35-$60, Green $25, Potato $25, Dessert $23-$30.

        Total $161 to $232 - YOU'RE RIGHT!

        Of course, depends on what "formal sit-down dinner" is in that venue - looking at the rough specs, they're gonna have beans-'n'-franks and frozen-block-of-punch.

    2. It's a lot easier to do it family style then plate individually, but you lose in terms of fanciness, so that's up to you.

      I suggest making a main course that can be cooked entirely in advance and just reheated, like something with chicken pieces. There's a great well-known recipe for chicken pieces with prunes and olives, but the name is escaping me right now.

      Some low-cost things that are very filling- CARBS!pasta (you could serve this as a side, or as a first course, before smaller portions of chicken or meat). Use a cream sauce to make it richer and more filling.
      Rice - this can be tricky to make well in larger groups, so just be careful with it.
      potatoes- make a potato salad- one with red bliss potatoes and dill and light vinegarette will be fancier than your typical mayo based kind. this can be made in advance.

      For dessert- individual mousses can be made in advance but you need a refrigerator to hold them (use small platic wine cups). Or for easier and cheaper, make rich brownies. Heat them up, put a piece on a plate with a scoop of ice cream or whipped cream and berries if you can find them.

      You can steam green veggies easily in the micro- brocolli is a good one. Just don't overnuke.

      1. I'd skip the idea of cooking in the church kitchen on the day of the dinner entirely, and use it to reheat things that each member of your group has prepped in advance, either at home or earlier in the week/month in the church kitchen, and serve foods that can be reheated on the stove top or in the microwave. Skip the oven.

        Each member of your group can be responsible for their share of a dish, which can be made in batches and either frozen, or transported to the church's (hopefully larger capacity) fridge for storage until dinner time.

        I'm thinking you should find someone with a Sam's Club or Costco membership. I have seen and bought most of the ingredients below at Costco.

        First course:

        Romaine salad with sliced radishes, chopped scallions, and homemade or good store bought blue cheese or ranch dressing. Slice the radishes a day in advance, and put them in a tub in cold water. It'll leach some of the bitterness out of store-bought radishes, and they'll be ice cold come serving time, as radishes should be. Just buy bags of romaine hearts, chop off them stem ends, and then cut through each head into slices. Romaine can be cut and stored a day in advance in a ziploc bag (press the air out, but don't squish) without browning too much at the cut edges.

        Second course:

        Cream of spinach or cream of broccoli soup. Make it "creamless" with fresh vegetables (frozen are watery and lose taste too quickly-- with fresh broccoli, you can use the stems and don't have to buy crowns only) and puree it with cooked rice or potatoes instead of dairy, and chicken stock/broth as the liquid base. College Inn broth, which comes in big cans, is respectable. The soup can be made a few days in advance and refrigerated and/or frozen. The green won't be as gorgoous, but it will taste fine, and you can always put some chopped scallions or fried croutons or creme fraiche or sour cream on top to gussy it up. This can be reheated on the stove top or in the microwave.

        Again, things will reheat faster if they are allowed to come to room temp. on the day of the event. Maybe someone gets to the church early, and puts out all the things that need reheating by noon. Then it will all be room temp by supper time.

        Main course:

        Boeuf Bourgignounne (sp?) or Beef Duabe. I like Julia Child's recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking the best, but Amanda Hesser, Patricia Wells, Mark Bittman ("Garlicky Beef Daube" in How to Cook Everything, which is probably available at your local library) and the Joy of Cooking all have good recipes. This is just fancy beef stew, but it can be made with less expensive cuts of beef, and can (and I think, should) be refrigerated for a day or two before the event. I have never made it in advance and then frozen it, but I have heard others have had good results, and you can freeze it in gallon ziploc bags, to be taken out the morning of the event and then reheated in pots on top of the stove or in smaller containers in the microwaves. If they are at room temperature when it's time to reheat, they can be done while the boys are eating their soup course. Serve this with plain buttered noodles, preferably in big soup dishes. (Or serve the stew family style in tureens or casserole dishes, same thing with the noodles.) You can make the noodles the morning of the event (salt the water), stick 'em in ziplocs with some butter to keep them from sticking, and if you get your beef stew hot enough, the stew should heat up the noodles if you're sending out pre-made plates. (Or don't butter them, and right before serving, put them in big colanders under a stream of hot water, and toss until warmed up, then ladle the stew on top in bowls.) A bunch of parsley, chopped and sprinkled in small doses on top of the bowls, looks nice.

        Cheese course:

        Get a good sharp cheddar or unsmoked gouda, a hearty blue cheese, and a log of goat cheese. Serve with spiced nuts made before dinner and laid out on paper bags to de-grease and cool (walnuts or almonds, tossed in a saute pan with butter or olive oil, salt, pepper, and some crushed or powdered dried rosemary), stoned wheat crakers, and sliced apples (buy a 5 lb bag) that have been cut that morning, dipped in acidulated water, and then popped into ziploc bags. Although if you've got a couple of apple corers between the group, you can do this while they're eating the stew.


        Buy some pies at a reliable bakery. Or, scoops of coffee or vanilla ice cream, served in a bowl with 2 thin butter cookies (like the belgian wafer cookies or almond thins at trader joe's) or good gingersnaps, with warm caramel sauce or dulce de leche dolloped on top.
        Running your ice cream scoops under hot water will make scooping and serving go faster.

        Another favority cheat dessert is sliced pound cake, lightly fried in butter or grilled, and then topped with slices of pineapple that have been grilled on a george foreman grill (if anyone has them at home, you can plug them in at various points in the kitchen, and hope the wiring will take it) until they start to brown. Pour warmed caramel or butterscotch sauce on top, and top with chopped almond or walnuts. Whipped cream, too, if you're feeling up to it.

        Or, depending on what part of the country you're in, buy a flat of fresh strawberries, wash them, and serve with huge bowls of whipped heavy cream with powdered sugar and vanilla beaten in at the end of the whipping.


        Coffee and tea with the ice cream. Bottled plain seltzer water, mixed with cranberry juice and either lime or lemon wedges or lime or lemon juice, and poured into pitchers to be left on the table, will go well with all these courses and will have enough flavor to make up for any lack of wine your church may or may not approve of serving.

        Game plan: I would talk amongst yourselves, and decide if everyone wants to either 1) take care of one course for all 25, or 2) make a portion of the entire menu, so they don't get bored doing only salad. I would probably take option number one, because at least then each course will taste the same (for good or for ill), since it will have been made by the same person, and also because some people will be more novice than others.

        Money: I think you're going to need $250 to pull off any kind of five course dinner for 25, though, so I would petition the moneybags for more cash. Either that, or ask if a special collection can be taken a few Sundays in advance, and put it in the bulletin, "so that we can show our pride and appreciation in our graduates." If your church is very active in the large community, and "gives back" frequently, then don't be afraid to hit up local bakers, store owners, and farmers for donations of produce.

        1 Reply
        1. re: emdb

          I'm not crazy about 2 wet foods in a row. Soup and then stew? The beef could take up most of budget too. It is not cheap lately. Also the poster said that there is plenty of time, so the weather may be a lot warmer by the time the dinner rolls around. That could greatly influence the menu. If it is June and graduation time warmer weather food may be what is called for.

        2. Based on your budget (<$5/person), have a spaghetti feed. Green salad, spaghetti and meat sauce, garlic bread, Iced Tea, ice cream cups.

          At my church, the youth groups put on lunches as fundraisers/team building. I did Japanese style noodle soup (udon) my first year, the second year I did a spaghetti feed.

          1. When is the dinner, what date? And, where are you? Before menu planning can get really serious that needs to be known. You are getting a lot of cold weather suggestions if it is warm or hot that could change a lot of things.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Candy

              Those are great questions to consider. When I think of graduation I think of the warmer months when it's easier to barbeque and fruits and veggies are more affordable and plentiful.

            2. Ham! And lots of it!

              And maybe the church needs to get a decent oven if a large formal dinner is becoming an annual disaster. Clearly funds are limited but perhaps a special collection is in order. A serviceable oven can be had used for a hundred bucks and will last for years.

              1. Onion tarts
                Butternut squash soup and simple salad
                Beef short rib "osso buco" and risotto (or polenta or noodles)
                Fresh green vegetable
                Granita (see lemon sorbet recipe below-or other flavors)

                First course:
                individual onion tarts - just pizza dough with carmelized onions on top with a garnish of fresh rosemary sprig (maybe you can get free from someone's bush? it grows like wildfire). No cheese needed. Simple, inexpensive, tasty, gourmet. 25 for about $10.

                (maybe put some bricks in the bottom of the oven to control/retain the heat as well as bake on quarry tile that will retain heat) minimal cost that the church might pick up because they keep them. $10 tops. (or/and these can be pre-made and just reheated in oven, too. And, they are okay at room temp because no cheese.)

                Second course: butternut squash soup. Just make it simple and let the butternut squash flavor shine through. This is a rich flavor soup, so you don't serve too much of it. 25 - 6 oz. servings for @ $25 (Or, make less, serve it in shot glasses and have a simple green salad next to it-toss with oil and red wine vinegar and either Konriko (or Cavendar's) Greek Seasoning or a seasoned salt) Green salad is simply iceberg and romaine lettuce mix, diced green onion, cherry tomatoes (they are more tasty and cost nearly same as slicing tomatoes)

                Third course entre: a mock ossu buco - made with beef short ribs and cubed stew meat. One or two short rib bones per guy and more stew meat. Served with a very simple mushroom risotto or in a wreath of pasta or egg noodles.
                Meats can be found for about $1.99 a pound and short ribs is a VERY flavorful cut.

                Vegetable: green and simple
                green beans or broccoli or zuccini - what have you. Steam, saute just enough to coat with butter (or oil)and Italian spice blend (or herbs de provence is better), salt, and serve.

                Dessert: Granita 25 servings for $25
                See, http://whatscookingamerica.net/IceCre... and know that you can make a granita from any one of these recipes. It's just a technique of freezing And, where is calls for alcohol, you can use something else. Look at the serving dish for the lemon sorbet at http://whatscookingamerica.net/Sorbet... (you can actually halve them and it would be a better container-trim bottom slightly to set flat on plate instead of in a glass if you want) The grapefruit star anise is good. Or, there's a root beer one.

                You'd be surprised how inexpensive all this is. Expecially if you make a deal with the grocery store to start getting the meat now and freezing it. Ask them to call you when they rotate their stock and take all the "quick sell" steaks - it's often half off. Cube it for stew beef. And, also ask your grocer butcher for some of the trimmings from good steaks. They sometimes just throw this out instead of making stew beef. Add that for more meat (trimmings doesn't have to be a perfect cube shape or even that large to add it to the other stuff
                Here's a few recipe variations: http://www.newitalianrecipes.com/osso...
                except, don't use butter buds or green pepper (because of the taste).
                or use this one
                or his one
                get the idea?

                If you can borrow a few large crock pots and braise the meat in those for 8 to 9 hours-that's best for tenderness. Then add them all together in a big pot to reheat on the stove the day of. This dish is better after a day or two. But, the meat will stay more tender if made in covered crock pots.

                It's actually easy, but ask for directions as needed.

                1. Don't know if you can do 5 courses for under $5/person. How about 3 courses? Salad, main course, and dessert.

                  For the main course, you can make individual beef or chicken pot pies topped with store-bought frozen puff pastry lids.

                  For dessert something easy like fruit tarts made with either pastry cream or lemon curd.

                  Use the rest of the budget for cheese, crackers, dip, and (if appropriate) wine.

                  1. c

                    Thanks for the great tips everyone. Sorry, my internet connection was down (I now truly know the depth of my addiction)...

                    These are AMAZING suggestions. I will definitely begin with a bevy of fresh rolls and butter to fill them up before hand and am sending this link over to my friends.

                    A big thank you to everyone who responded esp to KC girl and Wayne for listing the specifics. You guys are a life saver! The event is in May and although the food is made for cold weather, the event is indoor and at night so it won't be that much of a problem.

                    We do need a new kitchen but quite honestly I think we're barely making it on maintaining the facilities on hand so there's not much we can do. =D (wishing for professional quality kitchen with a gas range is a little too much)

                    But once again, thank you all. I had no idea even where to start planning and this is more than enough to get us started. Have a great week!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: collegenewbie

                      Collegenewbie, just a note about starting with bread and butter - butter is $4.25 a pound and I suggest you don't use the money that way because of your budget. One big guy might even eat 1/8 of the pound himself. You might end up spending $15 on butter alone!

                      If you have pizza dough (home made is really inexpensive or $1.00 at Trader Joe's for a large pizza amount > that is 8 thin 5" appetizer pizzas), it is as expensive as rolls and has a denser and more chewable quality, so they don't eat as much as fast. And, if it's already topped with something (inexpensive like garlic oil or herbed tomato or grilled onions or olive paste or tapenade) they won't have a want of something to put on it and you can control the portions. But, it's still starting the meal with bread.

                      Price it. Consider it. Best wishes.

                    2. Looks like I'm late again.

                      For your budget you're going to be looking at substituting labor for money. You can make your own pasta (flour, eggs & a little olive oil) which can be stuffed. Stuffed pasta (italian or chinese) can be made ahead of time frozen and then all you need is boiling water. You can get a course out of soup. A 1lb tub of base is $5, which will make 5 gal of stock. You can make a pasta soup, otherwise potatoe or onion based. Potatoes are a cheap filler. You don't have a pit to bbq in, so if you're stuck on meat it'll be pork shoulder (boston butt). You can braise this ahead of time, shred it for sandwiches (or stuff in pasta), or braise the day of on the stovetop and slice with a sauce. With a questionable oven, I don't see any other cheap cuts of meat that'll feed 25 on your budget. If we can squeeze dessert out of this, I'm thinking lemon or lime. A lemon chiffon tart in May will be perfect.

                      1. I've done dinners for 50 where all it is is reheating but they've been fairly low rent. Just remember pasta is your friend. You can cook it till VERY al dente ahead of time and then dump it in boiling water at the last minute to reheat. I'd recommend a pasta bar with different shapes and sauces accompanied by salad and bread with brownies and ice cream for dessert. You can do this upscale for the budget you are looking at. Here's a menu that I would recommend in your budget. I am assuming people can bring things like olive oil (which should be lying around their house) and salt and pepper.

                        For example:

                        Old Country Pasta Bolognaise ($25) -

                        Spaghetti ($2)
                        Canned tomatoes ($6)
                        Italian seasoning (which hopefully someone has in their cupoard
                        Salt, pepper, a little sugar
                        Onions and garlic ($3)
                        Red Wine (choose a $5 bottle)
                        Cheap stew meat (beef or lamb) ($9)

                        Sear the meat and then saute the garlic and onions in meat juices and then add tomatoes and spices. Add meat and wine and simmer for an hour or so. (this is kind of based on Nigella Lawson's lamb stew recipe). Easily reheated.

                        Chicken Penne alfredo ($25)

                        Penne ($2)
                        4 pounds of chicken breasts ($15)
                        Garlic ($1)
                        Parmigiano Reggiano($4)
                        Quart of cream ($4)

                        Grill or broil chicken breasts ahead of time and then slice along the bias thinly. Saute garlic in olive oil. Add chicken and then add cream. Toss with pasta and top with cheese. Salt and pepper to taste.

                        Roasted tomato sauce ($15)
                        Linguine ($2)
                        Plum tomatoes ($7)
                        Chicken broth ($2)
                        Basil ($3)
                        Garlic and onions ($1)

                        Cut plum tomatoes in half lengthwise and toss in olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes until caramelized at the edges. Saute onions garlic in olive oil. Add roasted tomatoes and chicken broth. Simmer for about 20 minutes until reduced. Blend until saucelike. Simmer another 10 minutes. Toss with pasta and chopped basil.

                        Bread and butter ($10)

                        Salad ($15)
                        Costco box of field greens!!!!!

                        Dessert (Amaretto Tiramisu) $30
                        1 box marscapone (5)
                        1 8 oz package of cream cheese ($2)
                        3 eggs separated (1)
                        1 bottle of amaretto (8)
                        2 boxes of ladyfingers or pound cake(8)
                        1 bag of unsalted almonds (5)

                        Roast the almonds for about five minutes in a 350 degree oven and then grind them to the consistency of masa harina. Whisk egg whites until light and fluffy. Over a double boiler (a metal bowl over a pot of boiling water works fine) whisk egg yolks and 1/2 cup of sugar, 2 tablespoons of amaretto together until thickened. Take off the heat and then throughly mix in the cream cheese and marscapone. Fold in beaten egg whites. Dip ladyfingers in amaretto and layer at the bottom of a glass baking dish. Put on top a thin layer of ground almonds. Add a layer of the marscapone mixture. Repeat and then add a final sprinkling of ground almonds.