It is characteristic how we do not grasp certain things before experiencing them. And our intellectual capacity keeps quiet until our hands or hearts learns. I sort of knew that cooking for a crowd takes stamina and organization. But have not discovered it until anne got into the hospital and I stayed back at the kitchen of our farmhouse with 8 to feed. Every day.
Not that we could not do without my cooking. Demanding eaters in the normal conditions Turks can put up with hard times. Such as not having anne around. And they will be having Turkish breakfast for breakfast, lunch and then why not dinner. Olives, white cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh white bread and strong black Turkish tea. Add eggs – and you are good to go.
Plus Özgür got enthusiastic about the opportunity he rarely gets otherwise – to step in the kitchen and cook a meal or two. But then he stepped out soon too frustrated because of my continuous coaching I though he really needed to boost his technique and he thought it was me picking on him.
So I took up the duty of cooking for our small but proud crowd of 8 over the past week week. And here are a few learnings my hands and heart have absorbed..
1. Simplify.. everything
I am the cook who would normally go for elaborate menus and complex recipes with multiple ingredients. After grasping my mother-in-laws take’s on Turkish home cooking I have learned to simplify a lot. And cooking for a crowd is the ultimate exercise in minimalism at the kitchen. You want to be quick. Use few ingredients. Spend less time on preparation. Not fuss to much with cooking method. And make a meal without blowing off your budget.
One-pot dishes complies to all of these requirements. Having gone past pilaf (that of rice or somewhat more interesting bulgur pilaf) + something, a winning formula for a Turkish meal, I have been introducing my eaters to lots of casseroles recently.
Another way to simplify cooking for a crowd is DIY dishes. You just pass part of the hustle to the eater. The other night we had kumpir, favorite Turkish street food of stuffed baked potato. I elevated it a bit: marinaded the potato in dry thyme, red pepper flakes, black pepper, salt and olive oil, baked it in the aluminum foil and served with a few stuffings so my eaters could assemble their own meal.
2. Plan before getting started
It is acceptable to get delayed when cooking for two but when there is a hungry crowd waiting for your meal you want to be on time. As most of us do physical work around the farmhouse and outside I cannot leave people without a meal served on time.
It starts with shopping often times but because my mother-in-law does most of it once a week I am often dealing with that’s available in the fridge. From that I compose a menu for a meal.
I always break down the recipes into the small actions (skin tomatoes, simmer onions), or what they call “critical path” in project management (my business degree helps big deal at the kitchen). That way I can see which task takes most to accomplish and that would be the first task to start with.
3. Make your meals nutritious
When feeding many who are doing much physical work (at the kitchen, in the garden) you need to make sure your meals help people stay healthy and energetic. Meaning your cooking for a crows turns filling, nutritious and varied meals. The more I discover Turkish cuisine the more possibilities .. and limitations for that I see.
For instance, one of the ways to stretch a meal and feed a crowd in Turkey would be to use flour to thicken – a soup, a gravy or even scrambled eggs. And to me flour is a zero-nutritious ingredient. Unless infused with some yeast which gives it another life.
For my meals I always do my best to include simple additions that make a whole difference. A seasonal salad (like my vitamin-C powerhouse of sorrel), mixing some cacik, cold yoghurt soup which can go as a side dish to any meal in Turkey or simply fixing ayran out of strained yoghurt. Fresh ingredients with little treatment which would decrease the need to take vitamin pills. Which would be a shame for the farm-dwellers like ourselves.
4. Trust yourself
When I traveled in Morocco I took a cooking class by Souk Cuisine (which I can’t recommend highly enough). We worked side by side with a bunch of wonderful Moroccan women. All of them belonging to the cohort of the most highly regarded chefs in Morocco – wedding chefs. Given the scale of local weddings I can see how Moroccan wedding chefs are easily the most skilled of all.
Cooking for a crowd boosts your kitchen confidence (along with the skill) dramatically. Because there is nothing like working under pressure on volumes. When you need to putting a yummy nutritious meal on the table at 8 pm there is nothing more helpful when trusting yourself. If you do you will quickly develop adequate judgement.
How to double the recipe? Will it make enough portions anyways? How to adjust the cooking time then? Would it be too risky to try a new recipe? These are not high-stake life delicious to make – just make any and see what comes out. You will learn either way.
5. Ask for help
A beauty of cooking for a crowd is that you have extra hands most of the time. Someone will definitely volunteer to help you prepare it or clean afterwards. And if not, you can explicitly ask for that help.
Asking for help has always being a tricky area for me. I was a Soviet child raised by the parents who worked in the realities of planned economy and state’s calling to finish 5-year plan within 3 years. Asking for help for me was like accepting I have failed to do it myself.
I try to get rid of that Soviet rudimentary thinking and develop trust in other people. Our new staff member with super-efficient knife skills has been a big help in putting together some meals I would have taken ages to complete myself. And I encourage everybody to help up with cleaning up and table and doing the dishes. Because this is how experience of sharing a meal becomes complete - when dish washing is shared too.