The Happiness of a Big Event

bowl of foodI have a separate blog called Intentional Hospitality, but my purpose in writing this post isn’t so much to give you recipes and timetables as to talk about a major source of happiness–and nervous breakdowns—in my life: throwing parties.

I have always liked to cook, going way back to my grade-school days. In fact, one of my fondest memories from about fourth grade is the time that my mom put me in charge of cooking dinner and I made everything from the

Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls. I’m pretty sure I made meatloaf and I know green beans were included. What I remember most clearly is that I made “ice cream cone cakes” for dessert. You make regular cake batter and then pour it into flat-bottomed ice cream cones to bake. Why the cones don’t burn is a mystery, but they don’t, and it’s actually a very clever idea, although one that I’ve never tried since. (I just took the time to find the picture in the book; it’s on page 74 if you want to use the “look inside” Amazon feature by following the link above. No wonder it takes me so long to write these posts! My cupcakes didn’t look like the picture, I’m afraid.)

Okay, back to my actual subject, which is party throwing. While I was known as a pretty good cook throughout my adult life, I didn’t get involved much with big events until we joined Capitol Hill Baptist Church in 1999. Somehow word got out that I liked to cook and I was asked to help out with a big wedding reception. I think I made the ultra-rich chocolate cookies from Ann Hodgman’s cookbook Beat This, but I’m not sure. All I really remember is how thrilling it was to throw open the doors to the reception hall and have the crowd descend upon all of our carefully-prepared food. As I said to Jim, “It was like the plague of locusts in Egypt!” And I was hooked.

This past weekend included yet another in the long series of events I’ve orchestrated or participated in since that first one almost 20 years ago. I’ve written extensively about my involvement with the Cherry Creek Chorale over the past few years; I can honestly say that this organization has been a tremendous source of happiness for me. Be sure to follow the link in the previous sentence to see info about our October concert. It is going to be so cool! (Tickets are not yet on sale; be sure to come back in a few weeks!) And then read my “Behind the Music” post about one of our pieces, “Vincent” by Don McLean. Our theme is “Starry Night,” and every piece has some connection to . . . stars and night. It’s a very unusual set of music.

We have a picnic every year to kick off the new season, with 90-100 people in attendance. For two years we had this event at our (now former) house. What a ton of work that was! Very gratifying to have that many people at your house having a great time, but we had to schlep tables and chairs over from church and out to our back yard and do the complete setup. Then we had to take everything back. After the second year I said, “No mas!” So I asked a woman in the Chorale who had hosted the picnic before and she very kindly allowed us to come last year and this year. A truly delightful place, out in the country with a jaw-dropping view of the mountains. Last year I did the main meal and the dessert and a couple of appetizers. This year I outsourced the appetizers and desserts, just concentrating on the meal itself. Even that was a ton of work, but at least it was somewhat contained. I had my usual last-minute nervous conniption, but it wasn’t too bad. And we had plenty of food and a great time. Whew! Everything went off great.

So, even this isn’t a recipe blog, I’m going to include instructions for two of the items I made that were very, very easy and very, very good. You can put these in your back pocket for use any time you need to make a lot of food and you don’t want to buy the pre-made stuff. First, I give you:

The World’s Easiest Homemade Potato Salad

I got several compliments on this. Here’s what you do for enough potato salad for about 40 people:

Scrub and de-eye (but don’t peel) 5 pounds of red or Yukon Gold potatoes

Cover with cold water in a Dutch oven or other big stovetop pan, adding 2 tablespoons of salt to the water.

Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook until potatoes can be easily pierced with a knife—10-15 minutes after water has boiled. Try not to let them get too mushy, but you certainly don’t want them to be crunchy.

Drain thoroughly in a colander, then spread the potatoes out on a baking sheet to cool. (I do not subscribe to this idea of dressing potato salad while the potatoes are still hot.)

Meanwhile, finely dice one fairly large red onion.

When potatoes have cooled, dump them into a bowl and add the onions and enough Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing to coat the salad well. (For 10 pounds of potatoes I used one entire 40-oz. bottle.)

This may seem like a small amount of potatoes to serve so many people, but many years ago when I asked a professional chef how many ounces I should allow per serving of potato salad he said, “Two.” I thought that sounded way too small, but he’s been proven right many times. People like potato salad, but they don’t eat a ton of it, especially when there’s a lot of other stuff to eat. I’m sorry to say that I made twice as much of this for the picnic as I should have: 20 pounds of potatoes for about 90 people when I should have just done 10. You want to know how much I had left over? Right at half. We’re going to make a valiant effort to eat as much of it as we can, but there will come a point on Friday when I’ll say, “This stuff is a week old! Out it goes!” (Just don’t tell my mother-in-law.)

Note: You can add crumbled bacon to this if you’d like, but since I was putting bacon in the beans I thought I’d keep this vegetarian.

Second, I give you:

Debi’s Famous Gussied-Up Baked Beans from a Can

I know I’ve written about this before on my hospitality blog, but this time I paid attention to the amounts. The only part that requires any work to speak of is cooking the bacon, which I do in the oven. As above, this is more of a procedure than a recipe:

For each half-pan of beans, serving 25-30:

Start this recipe at least four hours before serving in order to allow plenty of time for the beans to cook.

1 104-oz. can of baked beans—usually VanCamp’s brand is available in this size, but you may see Campbell’s and Bush’s also. Any of those brands is fine. You don’t have to go to a warehouse store to get this size, as it’s usually available in the “family size” section of a regular grocery store, along with stuff like jalapenos and ketchup. If you can’t find the big size you’ll just have to buy enough smaller sizes to equal this approximate number of ounces, but it’s easier and cheaper to buy the big one if it’s available.

1 pound regular-sliced bacon—You don’t want the fancy thick-sliced stuff for this.

1 large yellow onion, finely diced.

1 cup ketchup.

½ cup brown sugar.

First, cook your bacon. The easiest way to cook bacon is in the oven. Use a rimmed baking sheet, the biggest you have. Mine are 11 x 17, but if all you have is 10 x 15 you can work with that—you just won’t be able to spread the bacon out as much. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Cover your baking sheet with foil for easier cleanup and then lay the bacon out in as much of a single layer as you can. Do an initial baking of 10 minutes and then flip the bacon over. If you had to overlap your slices you’ll find that with shrinkage they’ll be easy to separate. Give them another 5 minutes and then check. Depending on how hot your oven runs and how even the heat is, you’ll probably start seeing that outer slices get done first. Take them out and let them drain on paper towels while you give the rest of the pan 2-3 minutes more per time, checking carefully. You want the bacon to be fairly crisp, but the line between crisp and burned can sometimes be tricky. Let the bacon cool and keep the bacon fat.

Pour several tablespoons of the reserved bacon fat into a large skillet and dump in your onions. Fry over medium heat until onions are softened and somewhat browned. Yum! Chop up your bacon and add it to the onions, mixing well.

Put a 10” x 13” x 2 ½“ disposable foil pan (or a regular half-size chafing-dish pan; a 9 x 12 baking dish will not be big enough) on a foil-covered regular baking sheet to support the bottom of the foil pan (if using) and to catch the drips (for both types of pan). Dump in the beans, which will almost fill the pan. Persevere! Carefully mix in the onion/bacon mixture, the ketchup and the brown sugar. The contents of the pan will be right up to the top of the pan. Put the whole shebang–carefully- into a 350 degree oven and bake for about three hours. You want that thinnish liquid to cook down into a thick sauce, so don’t cover it. Every hour or so you need to stir the mixture up from the bottom and the sides so that you end up with something fairly consistent. If you think that the beans are having a tendency to burn on the bottom, turn down the oven temp to 325 degrees. You could do this cooking process in a big crockpot, but it would take just about forever, and you’d have to leave the lid off. Why people think they can make proper baked beans in a crockpot with the lid on is beyond me. You want at all costs to avoid the dreaded curse of the runny baked beans.

If at all possible, serve the beans from a chafing dish or an electric warming tray.

Give these two ideas a try and see if they don’t save your bacon one of these days!

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