Somebody once asked me how I come up with my recipes or how I get a meal to come together and will I share a simple recipe or two.
I never really thought about it. I just cook what sounds good and planning is critical for large meals. I say this because I've cooked or overseen others cook for large groups of people. What exactly does that mean? I have cooked for 60-70 people on campouts with the Boy Scouts. I've managed Boy Scouts who cooked meals for the sponsoring club - The Ruritans - and it was about 30 people. I've also watched and minimally assisted them when cooking for family events involving upwards of close to 80 people.
First, know how many you are going to cook for. Second, make sure you have your recipes and how much they will feed. Remember, some recipes will say 1/2 cup is a serving... and you know there is always that person who heaps about 4 of those servings on their plate. Also, consider seconds for some people. Watch your time and calculate accordingly for your schedule.
When offering multiple choice - like Swiss steak and Bacon-wrapped Chicken, most people seem to want both. You cannot assume it will be an either/or situation. I calculate 75% each. If serving 50 people, I will make sure I have 40 steaks and 40 chicken. At one meal I watched a gentleman take 2 steaks and 1 chicken... the woman behind cut a chicken in half and the woman behind her cut a steak in half. You can only guess — make it your best.
Now, as to recipes. One of the best and simplest of recipes is my Couscous Soup. That base is two basic items: broth and couscous. From there, the possibilities are limitless. First, decide if you want chicken or beef — that will decide your broth flavor, if, indeed you wish to have a meat in the soup. I've used beef with finely diced steak, and chicken shredded in chicken broth. To give you an idea of portioning, I used one chicken breast, baked in the oven with basil, rosemary, and thyme. I shredded that one breast and made soup for 10-12 people. Here is where the flavors blossom. If you want an Oriental flair, add a little ginger, soy sauce, shredded carrot, bean sprouts, celery, onion, and garlic. If you'd prefer a more European taste, add basil, rosemary, (of course, if you did up the chicken like I did, you won't need to add the basil and rosemary), cut up green beans, celery, shallot, and garlic. Now, for a Moroccan experience, use chickpeas, cinnamon, cumin and carrot and of course, garlic,
Remember, this is a soup, a broth-type item. It is NOT a stew. When I said chickpeas, I mean, maybe 2 or 3 chickpeas in a small cup of soup. Even the couscous is limited. When I make it for my wife and I, I use 2 cups of broth, maybe a 1/4 cup of couscous, a couple of bean sprouts, maybe a half (if that much) rib of celery diced up real small, and a baby carrot shredded. It's about the broth and the flavors, not about filling you up. Think — wonton soup. It's not loaded with eight or ten wontons but usually one lone, maybe two wontons in a rich, flavorful broth.
Again, this soup is what you make it. I usually cook the couscous ahead of time. It's so difficult to make — one cup hot water, 3/4 cup couscous, cover and let sit for 5 min. Voila! Done! By the way, that is a lot of couscous. As stated above, for the two of us, I use only a 1/3 cup of couscous to cook.
As to other recipes. Really, the internet is full of wonderful ideas and a plethora of recipes. Give it some thought and then go searching for something out of the usual. I found a great way to "up" the ante on carrots. Chop up raw carrots any way you want, give them a flair even. Then boil them until crisp tender, drain and put butter (not margarine) to melt over them. Add a little cinnamon, a pinch of brown sugar and a dash of nutmeg. Now you're cooking.
Potatoes? One can have the same-o, same-o mash taters or take it a little of out the ordinary and add cabbage to the mix... or cauliflower... or even carrots. I have taken potatoes and cabbage, boiled them together, added some glazed diced onions and minced garlic, and mashed it all together. Just remember the cabbage won't mash completely down to that silky smoothness, so you don't have to try to attempt that with the potatoes. Sometimes lumpiness is nice. When I added the carrots, it was just a few and of course, the mashed potatoes took on a nice orange color. Now, for the potato and cauliflower, that whipped up nice and smooth and it had that difference to keep the guests on their toes.
Cooking is about taking the ordinary and moving it into the extraordinary in the simplest way.
Green beans. Everyone boils them and tosses some bacon bits on them. Voila! Sidedish - done. Now, take it to the next step. Rather than boiling them in water, use chicken broth. Right before serving, add a dash of sesame oil (just a couple of drops) and let simmer in the bowl on the table. If you want to throw bacon bits at the mixture, you can, but they really will stand on their own without them.
So, what is my secret to cooking? Read the recipe. Read the recipe again and figure out what it is doing. Read the recipe yet again to understand how it is made. Read the recipe once more to see how it can be improved. Make it according to directions. Taste it. Next time, adjust it to make it yours.
I once asked my chef mentor - a well-known TV chef of the 70s - how much wine to add to a recipe. He told me: Enough to make it feel wanted.
That is true of all ingredients. You add enough of each to make it compliment the others. A pot of water tastes good by itself. But, if you add a potato, it tastes better. Add a carrot. Add some corn. Add some meat. Add some... Each ingredient is great on its own but together, like a symphony, it will make a beautiful mixture.
Until next I ramble on...