Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2017 Edition.

It only took 6 tries, but this year, I finally served a Thanksgiving dinner on-time, and more importantly, I felt totally relaxed. Although I have prepared gantt charts for the past several years, I always ended up behind schedule and needed to draft additional sous chefs to finish dishes while I was carving the turkey. This year, I was actually ahead of schedule, and like years past, I learned a few things that made it all happen. Continue reading “Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2017 Edition.”

Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2016 Edition

According to tradition, I hosted my company for an early Thanksgiving last week. Although I enjoy hosting and cooking for friends regularly, this event is by far the most ambitious as I cook a full meal for about 20 people. Each year has been an opportunity for me to learn more about hosting, and I have a few more lessons to share from this year.

In the past, I have done various ethnic and regional cuisines, but I have run short on ideas. Of course, there are plenty more unexplored cuisines in this world, but I have only picked cuisines that I think I have an edge on and wouldn’t be offending co-workers who know that culture better than I do. This year, I ended up doing a Canadian Thanksgiving, which was some combination of stereotypical Canadian food (butter tarts) and using maple syrup in everything. Continue reading “Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2016 Edition”

My Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2015 edition

Long time readers of almost exactly 1 year may remember that I cook a Thanksgiving dinner for my company a week or 2 before actual Thanksgiving. It is probably the biggest event that I host each year, and I hopefully am learning more each time about how to do it better.

Continuing my tradition of doing different ethnic cuisines, I did a Cajun Thanksgiving this year with a Creole spice mix over the turkey and a variety of spicy and rich dishes. Fortunately, I am the only person on the team from the south, so there weren’t many critical opinions in the crowd.

Overall, I think the food was fine. The turkey was overcooked, and the mashed potatoes were very salty (even after cutting down the salt from the recipe). Because Cajun is a real American cuisine, it already has Thanksgiving fare that is not so dissimilar from a traditional Thanksgiving.

The biggest factor, however, was the attendance. Last year, we had somewhere just shy of 10 people attend. This year, our 2 bedroom place hosted a total of 20 hungry people. This year, more significant others attended, and we also invited recent interns back. The team has also been growing, and all of this ballooned the headcount, expectations, and required preparation.

Overall, I think we managed to do well. Despite running out of most dishes, the guests seemed to be well-fed and enjoyed the food. Everyone seemed to enjoy the company, and the mix of SOs and former Zanbato employees made it a more special event than another meal with the people we spend 40+ hours with a week.

Here were a few of the things I learned and/or felt worked well with the party this year:

1. Create a clear, smooth welcome experience.

First impressions between people are important, and first impressions about a party also set the tone for the social experience the rest of the night. In the past, I have been bouncing back and forth between the door and the kitchen hollering out instructions while trying to dash back to my gravy. This year, I wrote up a series of signs directing guests to come right in at the front door, where to put their bags and jackets, and where to find drinks and appetizers.

2. In a small space, configure and reconfigure to make all of the space multi-functional.

With 20 people in a few hundred square feet (including my kitchen), we fit the normal dining table, an additional folding table, and a few couches around a coffee table for eating. I knew I wanted to have everyone standing and mingling during the appetizer hour, so we pushed all of the tables back against the walls and blocked out the chairs so that people couldn’t really settle in. This created a more open, standing space for people to float around and get settled.

When we were ready to serve, everyone was happy to help and rearrange furniture for dining. We cleaned just enough counter space in the kitchen to serve and moved the appetizers and beverages back off of the tables. Then, everyone found a seat to enjoy their meal.

We did find 2 things to improve. First, Julie pointed out that the appetizers were hard to get to because people were standing in front of them. They ended up being placed somewhat int he corner, so next time, I would place them more centrally. Second, I would have encouraged everyone to switch seats between dinner and dessert for more mingling.

3. To feed more people, multiply recipes instead of making more dishes.

Overall, the cooking process went very smoothly. This year, I went digital with my chart to plan out cooking, and we stuck with it. I conscripted my coworker Conrad to help cook through the last push, and we stayed on the schedule very well.

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Even so, cooking did take quite awhile between the previous evening and the day of. Seeing how we ran out of most everything, I think people would have been just as happy with having 2-3 fewer dishes and just doubling the recipes. That would have saved me a ton of work as well.

4. Don’t worry too much about the food.

Maybe people are just being polite, but I have gotten a lot of appreciation for the food despite my own opinion about the quality of the cooking. I wouldn’t say that people aren’t critical: I just think there is generally enough goodwill and merriment in the atmosphere that the food itself just doesn’t matter so much.

So whether the food is good or bad or too much or too little, I think the party depends more on the other details of the environment and the company present than the food itself. The time spent on the food will always be disproportionately high to its importance, and it is much harder to improvise than, say, a guest list.

Anyways, we’re headed into the holiday season now, so best of luck to all hosts. Don’t worry too much about the food, and enjoy the company!

My Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving

You might be wondering how I can post about having hosted Thanksgiving in the middle of November. Although it is true that I am Canadian, that isn’t the reason this time. Actually, Zanbato has an annual tradition of holding a team Thanksgiving a week or two before actual Thanksgiving, where we can share (hopefully) delicious food and get an early start on the holiday season feeling.

Last year, I did an ethnic twist and made it a Chinese Thanksgiving, with the turkey cooked in the style of Peking duck and with various Asian-themed sides. This year, I did a Tex-Mex Thanksgiving, and I dare say it went quite well. Here are pictures of how the food turned out (recipes available on foodmarks):

Overall, I think most of the dishes came out quite well. The pecan pie had some baking issues but ended up tasting fine. As gratifying as that is, however, I think the best part of the experience for me was how smoothly it went. In years past, I have been frantically cooking up to the last minute with pots and pans and kitchen tools scattered around my kitchen. This year, I cooked at a leisurely pace and was able to pop in and out of the kitchen when guests arrived. I ended up only needing Julie’s help for the last 15 minutes or so, and everything came out on-time. Here is what I think the difference was:

1. I picked recipes that that don’t need to be done right before serving.

A lot of dishes must be served fresh, or they lose their texture or temperature or flavor. When I picked the dishes, I deliberately picked dishes that could be done ahead of time so I didn’t need to do 5 things right before serving dinner. I think it was also important to do desserts that didn’t need prep, either. Both the pecan pie and flan basically needed to be paired with a serving utensil, and they were ready.

2. I threw in a couple gimme recipes as well.

At some point, I realized that it wasn’t worth putting a lot of work into baking things for most people. Most people don’t really care if you spent hours putting together a layer cake or swirling a batter in a certain way: they’re usually just happy that you did something homemade. This probably extends to cooking in general, so I put queso on the list as a great but very easy appetizer dip and salad. These buff out the menu without significant work.

3. I planned out my oven and stove usage.

It’s a bad surprise to find out that you need your veggies at 400 F and dessert at 350 F at the same time in the oven, or that you have to use the big saute pan for two things. I charted out my oven usage by the half-hour to make sure that I could get everything done, with some wiggle room as well

4. I setup my place during downtime.

Were I better prepared, the furniture, cleanup, and flatware would have been done ahead of time. I wasn’t that prepared, but I did manage to knock out a lot of that while the turkey was cooking. Although most of my attention is on the food, a good dinner party should have a good environment as well.

5. I took notes from last year.

I pulled up my recipes from last year to see approximately how much food I made for how many people, and I went over the mistakes from last time. There was a lot to learn.

Overall, I would say that the big takeaway here is: don’t leave anything to the last minute. Having a plan is good. Having experience to know what needs to be planned is better. With that in mind, I was able to put together a good experience for my guests without getting frazzled myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if this advice doesn’t really extend much past myself or perhaps is too obvious, but hopefully I’ll continue to improve as a Thanksgiving host in the coming years!

Deep Fried Day

(Author’s Note: I’ll be moving my food writing from the group blog back to my own blog now that the summer is over and I’m trying to keep my writing regular)

Beginning the summer after my freshmen year of college, I have hosted an annual deep-fried day. Having heard of delicious deep-fried twinkies and snickers from the Texas State Fair, I insisted that I could do the same, and for the past 3 years, I have worked on my technique. As of yesterday, I think it finally paid off.

The theme for our weekly potluck this past week was “deep-fried food” to continue my tradition. Sensing that others might be tired of this, I presented this as an opportunity to think of other things we might deep fry, traditional or not. It worked out perfectly, with falafel, goat-cheese wontons, fried cheese in a salad, and sweet potato fries as good options. What worked best about it, though, was that all of these required different sauces and ingredients to accompany the deep-fried bits. Our dessert, though, was twinkie, oreo, and snicker-ful.

Given the improvement that we’ve managed over the years, I thought I might put together a few thoughts on deep frying. I tried to organize them, but the topics overlapped too much, so it’s just paragraphs.

You can use just a regular pot to do it and use a canola or vegetable oil for it. You can buy a deep fryer, but it isn’t necessary as long as you’re careful. As far as the size of the pot, I have been using something about 8 inches. Bigger takes a lot more oil, and smaller doesn’t give you enough space (though don’t worry about that too much as I will explain soon.
Have a thermometer with you and try to keep the heat between 350 and 375. You can be on the 350 for things that need to cook through but won’t soak too much grease (falafel) but hotter on the things that will soak it up (oreos). On my slow electric burner, I can get to 375 below medium, so you don’t need to crank the heat too much.

What will happen, though, is that when you put things in the oil, the temperature will drop. Thus, my strategy for deep frying has been to keep the heat just below medium until I get to the desired temperature. Immediately after adding things to fry, I turn the heat up a little, then watch the thermometer. When I start approaching the original temperature, I bring the heat back down.

As far as adding things to the pot, always do batches so you know how long things have been in the oil. If you try to stream items in and pull them in and out over time, you can’t maintain a steady temperature. Similarly, try to keep the batches small (that’s why an 8 inch pot works) so that the temperature doesn’t drop too much.

As far as adding and removing things, dumping in with a slotted spoon (even plastic) should work just fine. I tried to move things in and out with chopsticks before, but gripping battered food will coat the chopsticks in a layer of fried batter quickly. As far as other equipment goes, have lots of paper towels around and try to pat dry things immediately after coming out of the pot. Things cool very quickly, so don’t be too afraid about burning yourself on the food.

For the batter, pancake mix works just fine. It should just barely be thick enough to coat things. Make sure all surfaces of the food are covered, but don’t worry too much about getting a thick coat; as soon as it hits the oil, it’ll puff up and harden.

Go slow with it. You can only eat so much fried food, but you’ll feel better about it if you spread it over a few hours. Or maybe even days. As long as the oil doesn’t get too hot and go rancid, you can reuse it a few times.

And to be intentionally didactic, make sure you do it safely. A pot of oil can ruin your day quick. Keep the lid nearby in case you need to cover the pot at any point. Don’t put water/ice/water-based stuff into the oil, or else it might begin to sputter.

You can google around to look for things to deep fry (pretty much everything), but here are a few things I or my friends have done. Most are successes, but failures are notable too

  • twinkies – they work fine even if you don’t freeze them. Batter and top with powdered sugar.
  • oreos
  • PB & J sandwiches – battered. It’s delicious
  • Snickers – I’ve only done frozen before, but I think that’s the way to do it
  • Onions & mushrooms – great with BBQ sauce
  • gummy worms – these disintegrated quick, but liquified gummy worms are delicious
  • ice cream – haven’t done, but I hear it’s delicious. These take preparation
  • falafel – good as a meal on its own. Pair with traditional things
  • sweet potato fries
  • goat cheese
  • fried wontons

Dining Super Bowl Style

If my cooking blog hasn’t made it apparent, you should know that I really like food. I’m not much into truly fine-dining, and I don’t think I have any in-depth knowledge of particular cuisines or cooking techniques, but thanks to 2 sisters and a mom, I really enjoy being in the kitchen and watching The Food Network.

On truly American holidays, though, one must return to truly American cuisine. This past weekend was the Super Bowl, and I had the privilege of determining the menu to serve ~25 people. Here’s what I came up with:

  • 10 2-liters of assorted beverage
  • 6 bags of chips
  • 1 jar salsa, 1 jar queso
  • 6 Pizzas
  • 40 Pizza rolls
  • 60 Chicken wings
  • 2 bags of cookies
  • 1 Veggie Platter

When I was initially creating the list, I considered trying to find classier stuff to eat, but I quickly realized that a Super Bowl party with cauliflower quiche and sparkling apple cider simply would be as good as a bag of Doritos and a can of diet soda. When we left the grocery store with our cart-full, I realized that it was difficult to believe that anything we had bought could actually be called food. Anyways, for the most part, it went pretty well, I think, though there are some lessons in this. Let’s take an item-by-item breakdown:

Drinks

This I was particularly worried about. I found 2 answers about portions, which said about 2 2-liters per 5 people. I discovered that 1 2-liter is apparently equal to about 5.6 cans of soda, which was taken into account in buying. The breakdown went 2 bottles of coke, 2 bottles of sprite, 2 bottles of diet coke, 2 bottles of lemonade, 1 bottle of fanta, and 1 bottle of mountain dew. The coke ran out, but we had leftovers of the sprite, diet coke, and lemonade, meaning that we probably roughly had enough to drink.

Chips

6 was definitely low-balling. 2 bags of tortilla chips and 2 jars of dip was definitely the wrong ratio, but moreover, the chips went quick. The ratio I found was I think around 1 bag per 4 people. Instead, I’m going to vote that 1 bag per 3 people is the correct way to go. Besides, that gives more variety.

Pizzas

As far as dinner plans go, people only seemed interested in either a) burritos or b) pizza. Because we didn’t put in our pizza order a week before, it seemed better to not worry about delivery issues and breaking the bank, so we got frozen pizzas instead, which were extra-cheap for the Super Bowl sales. I found a few recommendations for how much to get, but ended up buying a little less since I figured that people would be full of other snacks. In retrospect, I probably should have stayed at the recommendation, being roughly 1 pizza for every 3 people.

The bigger difficulty I had, however, was that our dorm oven isn’t particularly big. It also only has 1 rack. A little overlap on the corner allowed 2 pizzas onto the 1 rack, but that’s still pretty slow. So if you’re not well-equipped, I think delivery pizza might be a better option in any case.

Pizza Rolls and Chicken Wings

I was trying to think of good, somewhat substantive junk food to eat, and that’s what I came up with. Both are very easy to pop in the oven frozen to cook, and they both went fairly quickly. The wings I got were actually of the boneless variety, but were still fine. As far as pizza rolls go, I don’t think you can get much further from real food than pizza bites. Let’s go down the ladder of foods that it evolved from:

  • Real food. Real food has a recipe.
  • Pizza. This might be an urban legend, but I believe that pizza was originally just something made at the end of the day to use up extra ingredients, which is believable.
  • American Pizza. In the land of convenience, we took the art out of it and reduced it to the key ingredients: dough, tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings (mostly meat). A friend once mentioned seeing someone use ketchup instead of tomato sauce. That doesn’t sound tasty.
  • Frozen Pizza. It’s too difficult to make real pizza, so we have them package up all the bits, and we just throw it in the oven.
  • Chicken tenders. Too difficult to prepare the chicken. Just bread it and deep fry.
  • Chicken nuggets. Mix the chicken in with something starchy and bread it, and freeze it. Comes in nice bite-size chunks that can be eaten with fingers.

And so frozen pizza + chicken nuggets = pizza rolls. So probably not real food, but it’s okay: they’re still delicious.

2 bags of cookies

I figured we should have something sweet to balance out all of the salty. These ran out fairly early as well, so I think I would double the amount of sweet to bring along.

1 Veggie Platter

This was my token attempt to ensure that not everything we were eating would shorten our lives. I think it failed, because the ranch dip it came with was pretty good as well.

So that was that. It was educational in terms of figuring out how much people eat and will certainly help with future party-planning. I think the #1 lesson, though, is that in these things, don’t lowball. Real food is expensive. Fortunately, nothing we bought was expensive. I don’t think anyone would’ve complained about an extra bag or two of chips to stash away for a later snack, so here’s the rule I’ll be running with from now on:

Determine how much food to get. Get 25% more than that.