Cooking to Impress: Big Bang for Small Money
I cook occasionally for a group of 12-15 people. They love my food (usually it's one pot stuff like stews, pot roast, braised meats) but I want to step up my game. I want to create a "Wow!" menu (one each of entree, veg, dessert) that:
-Can be prepared and cooked off-site at my home and transported 15 minutes to the venue,
-Does not require bizarre or incredibly expensive ingredients (no kangaroo blood or white truffle),
-Can be held for 1-2 hours at the venue where the most heat I'll have is a sterno chafing dish,
-Doesn't require me to take out a second mortgage to afford it.
No one has food allergies or strong preferences. Everyone likes meat.
Am I asking the impossible? Any ideas?
For your starch, I suggest baked potatoes. Buy a ten pound bag of medium sized potatoes and scrub them all in cold water in the sink. Bake them in the oven at 350 for 5 to ten minutes -- until they dry off. Then rub all the peels with a very little bit of olive oil. Bake for 3/4 hour or so at 400 (see below). Dust with salt (and maybe onion and garlic powder) and carry the hot baked potatoes there in a big brown paper bag. They'll stay warm.
Chicken legs with backs are usually cheap. I'd cut them apart into legs and thighs and remove the backs for stock. Then spice with cajun or jerk seasoning and bake at 400 for an hour or so. After removing from the oven, you can put all the spiced legs and thights into freezer strength zip lock gallon bags to transport them over.
For additional vegies, and color, I'd use a mixture of carrots and beets with a little onion and garlic. I'd use drained canned whole beets and blanched carrot sticks. This can be served hot or cold.
If you want to avoid the possibility of anyone getting beet juice stains and would like to keep things preportioned -- as with the potatoes and chicken thights -- I'd suggest vegetarian stuffed peppers. Buy 10 peppers, split them into two halves, and stuff with a mixture of cooked rice or grits with some canned chopped tomatoes and okra. Bake at 350.
A 50's staple desert that none of your guests may have had, but all would enjoy would be a dump cake. Yellow cake mix prepared with crushed pineapple and cherry pie filling, although for thanksgiving, whole berry cranberry sauce works real well.
Entree: as most people suggested, a braised dish, but I recommend chicken thighs with Indian spices, for something different and very, very cheap.
Veg: roasted root vegs: parsnips, carrots, potatoes, cut into big chunks, tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper, and leave out the parsnips if they are too expensive for you. Carrots alone works fine. Parsnips, however, are divine.
Dessert: Apples baked with struesel topping. Use a variety of apples like Granny Smith, Winesap, some kind really sour. Easy, and very cheap this time of year.
I took the liberty of looking up your profile, and it appears that you live in California - most likely Central California. You seem to like bold flavors, like traditional fare but not afraid to try things new, and were blown away by a taste from the tropics.
You enjoy entertaining and feeding groups that are like your extended family, and need recipes that are conducive to entertaining, not crazy-busy on the ingredients and within a reasonable budget (esp. with the economic muck). It sounds like you're pretty handy in the kitchen so recipes that may have a couple extra steps or have a few ingredients that may take just a bit of sourcing effort are easily within your realm.
Two sources come to mind. "Daisy Cooks," and "Tastespotting."
Daisy Martinez cooks Puerto Rican cuisine and has shows on PBS, as well as cookbooks, dvds, etc. I don't know if you've ever tried this cuisine, but it may be worth a look. Puerto Rican cuisine has it roots in Spain, Africa, local indigenous cuisine, and the US. The tropical overtones in many of the dishes give this cuisine a multifaceted dimension that I think you'd appreciate as well. Daisy's recipes are almost all family/group-oriented in terms of style and portions. Try word-searching her or Puerto Rican recipes in general and I think you'll like what you see. Cuban cuisine has some similarities - I think of it as Puerto Rican cuisine's more conservative cousin, but just the same, it's fantastic as well. I think you'll be able to find most of the ingredients at your local stores, and maybe a couple that you'd have to look a little further for (possibly specialty sausages). A lot of the ingredients that a outside the realm of the basic supermarket should be at the more ethnic Latin markets that can be found in most parts of California.
Tastespotting is a website that compiles tons of food-oriented items - mostly recipes - primarily from individual bloggers' entries. Because food blogsites are so prolific now - everyone worth their spit in the kitchen thinks their recipe is worthy of some fame - you can get some great recipes, some with unusual twists, or a series of recipes of the same dish like, "bread pudding," or "macarons," for example, where each unique in some way. The types recipes are broad in terms of dishes (apps, entrees, etc.) as well as categories (ethnic, vegan, etc.). In essence, it has it all. And that is sort of a problem. New posts pile up on top of older posts, some are repeats, and some of the older ones may not be accessible anymore. But even the pictures (which are excellent in general) and descriptions on the website can spawn some excellent ideas that you can run with. I've pulled literally hundreds of recipes from this site. :)
Funny you should ask. I just gave a recipe for beef Stroganoff here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/567966
that I've used successfully for situations similar to what you describe.
Anyway, for the two course meal, I suggest:
MAINS: beef Stroganoff (inexpensive using my recipe), enchiladas suissa, chiles relleno (lots of work but oh so good. Make mine cheese!), A really good lo mein. If you can find a good price on eggplant, mousakka is great for your purpsoe because it's best served at room temperature, not hot. A deep dish quiche Lorraine; easy to make, also good at room temperature, and you can just do two or three in a rectangular pyrex baking dish if you don't have deep quiche dishes. (No, the "deep dish" crusts at the super market aren't deep enough and most of them are now sweetened. Ruined my last lazy quiche!) In fact, any kind of quiche is cheap if you stay away from the lobster with black winter truffles kind.
For a side dish, depending on what you use for the main, anything from a salad to pilav or cous cous. Refried beans. Mac and cheese. And check out your local farmer's market for what's fresh and good with whatever you choose for a main.
For dessert, a really great bread pudding with caramel/apple sauce? Napoleans aren't that hard to make, and with the traditional Ezsterhazy frosting treatment, people think you are a magician! Chocolate strawberries of either the you-dunk or they-dunk variety are delicious. Tons of variations on a bundt cake theme. And one of my personal favorite holiday desserts is great vanilla ice cream topped with some really good hot store bought mince meat that has been spiked with a little extra rum. But hey, I was raised on English food. Or bananas Foster aren't all that expensive and if you can man a chafing dish, it will bring all sorts of oohs and ahhhs!
Whatever you decide, have fun, may everyone swoon from dancing taste buds, and let us know how it all turns out.
Mains: carpaccio, tamales, enchiladas, stuffed grape leaves (or a cabbage or kale to save $ on leaves), dim sum or momos, ... all somewhat labor intensive but inexpensive.
Vegetables: quick Japanese pickles or salads using eggplant, cucumber, carrot, and/or daikon.
Starch: cous cous (prepared on-site) or rice
I like a lot of the suggestions already listed, here. I'd also suggest:
Kaddo bourani (baked pumpkin with yogurt sauce... you can serve it with a meat sauce to make it heartier and perhaps a main dish)
Moroccan b'stilla (phyllo wrapped around seasoned shredded chicken)
Shepherd's pie (use lamb meat, not beef), served with colcannon
Red-cooked lion's head meatballs served with white rice and a side of braised bok choy
Crepes, savory or sweet -- I *think* you could make the crepes in advance and hold, but hopefully someone can confirm
If you have the time and patience, try making a true, traditional cassoulet (using nothing canned). There are plenty of recipes using no duck fat or other ingredients not easily available. The ingredients are inexpensive and the results very much worth it.
For desserts... crumbles and trifles tend to play well.
ENTREE: Any chicken dish requiring a fair amount of liquid to cook: Coq au vin, Chicken cacciatore, Hearty Chicken stew, etc. These foods IMO have proven themselves time and time again to remain MOIST and delicious when placed over a chafing dish. The reason I only mention using chicken here is because chicken is still a rather inexpensive meat available to us. Pork is also inexpensive, but often times it has the tendency to dry up and look very unappealing when chafed.
STARCH: Corn bread, rice, or mashed potatoes. Avoid any pasta unless you intend to serve it cold and dressed with olive oil and fresh vegetables. Your rice dish shouldn't be ordinary. Plain white rice will definitely clump. Try dirty rice, fried rice, or even just add evoo to plain rice so it doesn't clump. All good choices.
VEGS: Definitely NO broccoli florets. They overcook once chafed. Try vegetables that fare well after a quick saute. Unfortunately, most vegetables will continue to steam/cook when chafed, so a great "mixed" salad would be a better choice.
DESSERT: Best to keep this cold since you're transporting it. Try banana pudding, moist brownies or blondies, carrot cake, etc. These types of desserts will get raves if they are well prepared, and best of all you won't have to break the bank.
Turkey and stuffing. You can even get them for free at some markets this time of year. Slice it up, pour over some gravy, set the stuffing on the side. Cranberry sauce is cheap too.
Braised Brisket. Cook like a pot roast. I just paid $1.79 per pound for a whole brisket at Costco. Cut about 2/3 into stew cubes or pot roasts, and grind the end piece after removing most of the fat for burgers to eat later.
Fettucine Alfrede with Chicken. Just grill some chicken breast and slice over the pasta.
My first thought was a roast pork - realtively cheap and what beats pork fat! But seeing the restrictions, this may not be the best route (or perhaps any type of roast). Then I thought of Paella, but I don't know about the quality of the goodies and rice after a coupla hours.
You're right - you're previous meals of stews and pot roasts and braises work great for the conditions you describe.
So, maybe a twist on a meal like that, or an ethnic version.
Razor's gumbo suggestion sounds very good. A few suggestions on my part;
a fish stew (kinda like ciopino or Basque style fish) can be prepared even a day in advance and warmed gently - serve with rustic bread.
French bistro style chicken or coq au vin or beef bourgignon.
Osso Bucco. Yeah basically a braise, but individual, bone-in servings can have a WOW factor. Forego the veal and use beef or pork to save a few $.
Choucroute garni. Done well can be outstanding (can surprisingly break the bank as well, so careful planning...).
Enchiladas with chilaquiles accompaniment/beans/rice/tortilla soup.
Cochinita pibil. OK not cooked in the ground, but you can get plenty of WOW with a cheater oven-made version. Served chunk style, or shredded, with fresh rolls and onion salsa for a sandwich option (sides as above).
Your main is pretty easy. A dish like shortribs or potroast or pork belly or pulled pork or even a ham or brisket or tritip or a beef stew or anything like that can be prepared in advance and then warmed up slowly. If a sterno chafing dish would burn, you can heat in a water bath or bring a crockpot or slow cooker and plug in. the problem is your starch or accompaniment -- noodles will clump and stick and get gummy if prepared in advance, and i don't know quite how you are going to prepare potatoes in advance and rewarm. rice may work. if you are doing a braised meat of some type you can chop some root vegies and aromatics (carrots, onions, celery, potato, bell pepper, zuchini, etc.) into a very large chunk (about an inch square) and add to the braise a few minutes before removing from the heat -- the holdover heat will soften and almost blanche and then the vegies will cook thru when rewarmed over the sterno or preferably in a crockpot or plug-in slow cooker.