Monday, December 3, 2007

Playing With Food For A Crowd And Taking It On The Road

Bob and I just returned from Cincinnati Ohio, where we "guest cheffed" for Friday evening's dinner at the Cincinnati Regional Gathering for a club we belong to. This annual event, like the one that motivated me to start this blog, is a fund raiser for the local group scholarship fund, in addition to being a fun party that is held in a hotel and lasts the whole weekend. The theme this year was "Revolutions," which we were free to interpret any way we wanted. The expected attendance was between 150-180 people.

We prepared most of the food ahead of time and froze it, squeezing every possible millimeter of space out of our three freezers as well as the fridges attached to them. We re-heat at the event using electric roasters and butane buffet burners, as you will see.

First - a couple of "before" photos. As per usual, we start playing with our food before we even start cooking - coming up with a menu that embodies the theme, however tenuously. We then start to physically play with the food a few weeks in advance; this time, we took full advantage of the long Thanksgiving Weekend not just to cook, but to feature Turkey in our menu.

Bob's Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Bob cooked these (all 164 of them) in an 18 quart roaster (in several batches), and it worked quite well. This photo was taken before he poured his tomato sauce over them and turned up the heat.

This was my mise en place for the Spin-ach and Sweet Pea Soup I made, which was a huge hit.

Stuffing for Turkey Roulades

Turkey Roulade Ready for the Oven

Fully Cooked - A Beautiful Thing

And so, having literally strained our three cold boxes to their breaking points, we proceeded to pack up Thursday morning to head to Cincy. As we started to unload the freezer portion of the fridge in our outbuilding, we realized that something was terribly wrong - the Turkey Soup Bob had put out there a few days before was not frozen at all.

Luckily, there were enough items in that freezer that were solidly frozen such that the temperature in the freezer was still around zero. (Freezing the Turkey Soup was just extra paranoia on my part; it was going to be served within a week of manufacture! And thank goodness I had frozen the meat separately, and stored it our main fridge's freezer.) But this development meant that we not only had to get everything out of that fridge, but we had to find other freezer space to store our food, which included premium pork for sausage making and frozen tomatoes from our garden! And, we had to clean up a drippy mess. We are guessing that the compressor died; Bob will confirm the diagnosis today.

So - we started out a little later then we'd planned. We had breakfast at Jim's Open Kitchen (which will be the subject of a separate post) , then hit the road for points south!

The prep room was already put together, and equipped with 2 full size rented refrigerators when we arrived at the host hotel in Cincinnati.

I set up 5 butane cookers and my bucket warmer, and other volunteers washed all the dishes that were in storage since last year's event.

Blessed Are Those Who Washeth The Dishes

Yes, that is a work sink over a commode. They supply water to the faucet from the showerhead pipe.

The drying rack is rather ingenious, too.

More drying space - we use a lot of dishes!

We managed to pack both refrigerators and freezers to the max, plus several small fridges in some of our hospitality suite rooms.

After a good night's sleep, we began prepping for Friday's scheduled 7pm dinner opening around noon, hoping to "soft" open around 6:30pm.

With help from volunteers, we succeeded in getting the buffet line open at 6:24pm! It was a fabulous spread, if I do say so myself.

First - Salad. I didn't photograph the big bowls of Lettuce Mix (bagged iceberg salad tossed with Spring Mix), Grape Tomatoes, and Peas. The following photo is from my last event in September, but it gives you the idea:

The next photo is from last weekend - I wanted to do all round salad bar items, but my budget ran out so I had to take what I could get (but note that the sliced beets and cucumber are round):

The order of the serving line was determined, in part, by room logistics - since the hotel had recently updated the room with additional electrical outlets on the wall that fell naturally near the end of the serving line, the soups (served in crock pots) came after the entrees.

So, instead of the soups coming right before or after the salad, the "cold" entree was next - three varieties of Pinwheel Sandwiches on two varieties of flat bread (white and wheat):

I need to thank Marie Beltrame, and the other volunteer who relieved her at 4pm - I believe her name was Kathy Tyler - for putting these together for me - it took a couple of hours.

Next up were the hot entrees, on the long wall conducive to 4 chafing dishes.

I have to say that the GFS tortellini were quite good. I par-cooked ready-to-eat broccoli florets (also from GFS), then tossed the broccoli and cooked pasta with a bit of Olive Oil that was already mixed with some fantastic chopped organic stem garlic. A little cracked pepper and salt, and it was done! I think that using fresh, rather than frozen broccoli made a huge difference in the success of this dish.

I had 2 full breasts, each from a 20# turkey (so figure about 16-20# of meat total). The turkey was the only item that didn't yield any leftovers, and I know it didn't last long enough for anyone to get seconds. Not that anyone went to bed hungry this night.

Bob made a total of six varieties of rolled, stuffed breads: White Meat Chicken, Dark Meat Chicken, Pepperoni, Sausage, Mozzerella & Tomato and Cheddar Cheese. Since they were frozen and/or refrigerated for the time between manufacture and service, we wanted to serve them in a chafer so they'd be warm and benefit from the steam. Since we only had one chafer available for this purpose, we had to rotate the types!

Next came our selection of soups:

This was where the rest of those two 20# turkeys went! I roasted them for a bit, then made soup and stock (since, together with the carcass from our Thanksgiving Turkey, I had enough fixings for 2 pots). I reserved the remaining meat, and added that and fresh carrot shreds, snap peas, and frozen corn to the soup as it was heating for service.

Again, I think this dish really benefited from the fresh (though "ready to eat") spinach; I don't know if frozen spinach would have made as wonderful a soup, though the peas were frozen.

This Mint Cream was fantastic! Again, the fresh mint really took it to great heights. Too bad that I couldn't think of another use for it besides the soup, since a little went a long way.

We completed the meal with a selection of GFS pies - people were asking us who baked them, so I guess they were pretty good!

After the meal ended, we played with the food one last time by packing up some of the leftovers and pitching the rest - and then we got to relax for the rest of the weekend (Saturday was Bob's birthday). I never got around to photographing the other meals, in part because we were late for them!

Saturday breakfast included our usual continental items, as well as "Santa Claus" making pancakes - I am so sorry I slept through that!

Saturday lunch featured made-from-scratch Sloppy Joe meat, Chicken Salad, Tossed Salad, and a selection of made-from-scratch Indian food that was fantastic - Tandoori Chicken, two types of Basmati Rice, Stewed Vegetables, Dal (lentil soup) and 12 Bean Stew.

Virginia's Saturday dinner also started with a salad bar (which included a Beet Salad and a Corn Salad), and featured Meat and Vegetarian Meatballs with Mushroom Gravy and Noodles, and Chicken Teriyaki with Rice, and ended with her home made Potato Soup.

After dinner, the attendees enjoyed "Death By Dessert."

Sunday morning was leftovers. Sunday afternoon, we packed ourselves back up and drove home. And for dinner - we had leftover Turkey Soup and Chicken Stuffed Bread - we'll keep playing with this food until it's gone!

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