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Cooking to Impress: Big Bang for Small Money

Hey All;

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?

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  1. 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.

    2 Replies
    1. re: nosh

      I was going to suggest short ribs as well as tri tip. I just made a 1.5 lb. tri tip, well marbled, natural (not grassfed though), and it was only $11. Its a really good cheap dish.

      1. re: nosh

        Use soft polenta to bed your short ribs (or other braised meat). You can reheat and assemble on site. Polenta's pretty durable.

      2. My go-to dish for such events is chili. I make a very spicy but very flavorful version that always gets raves, even from people who don't normally eat very hot food.

        Recipe is at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/494801

        1. What about gumbo? Serve with salad, french bread? Maybe bread pudding with rum sauce for dessert?

          1. 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).

            1. i would suggest a potato gratin for your starch, as its easily made for a number of people, in a hotel pan and easily reheated....