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Monday, August 23, 2010

DIY: Hindsight for those Self-Catering Their Receptions

First let me say this. I'm so so very thankful that we're NOT self-catering our event. I don't know whether we would have saved money or not, but I do know that I would have gone crazy.

As you know we're having two ceremonies. The first - 8 days from now - is happening at Burning Man at Syzygryd. In my copious spare time, I've been coordinating the support camp for Syzygryd. Part of that coordination has involved catering. While no wedding venue's environment will be as extreme as that we're facing at Burning Man, my experience will probably still be helpful for anyone who's planning on self-catering an outdoor wedding.
Vegan Yellow Curry with Tofu
Discovered as I started cooking that it didn't fit in one container. Oops.
Luckily I had an extra burner and an extra 2 qt pot.
The Vegan and Non-Vegan Yellow Curries Simmer Nicely Side-by-Side.
The Non-Vegan curries almost filled both an 8-qt stock pot and 8.5-qt pot. I had to watch them very carefully to prevent them from boiling over.

Major Lessons Learned
  1. Everything takes longer than you think it will. Remember you're doubling or tripling recipes. What typically takes an hour to prepare is going to take twice or three times as long.
  2. If you're storing food, account for all the time. The time it takes to cool the food. The time it takes to transfer the food from pots and pans to storage containers.
  3. Just because you can make everything, it doesn't mean you'll be able to store it or serve it. If you're planning on making and serving from pots, think about whether you've used the same pots for multiple dishes. If you have, you'll need another way to serve some of the food.
  4. Get extra of hard to find ingredients. If you're crunched for time, recipes might be prepared wrong and you may need to remake a dish. Be sure you have an insurance policy.
What We Did
We have 60 people in our camp that we need to feed. 16 are vegan. We also have people who are allergic to bell peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes. If you were planning a wedding reception with a Thai theme you would want to offer a couple of entrée choices so I've included both curries in this example. For our camp at Burning Man the dishes we prepared are not going to be served on the same day - they're two separate meals.

The Vegan Menu (serves 20 people)
    • Tom Yum Soup with Tofu
    • Yellow Curry with Tofu
    • Red Curry with Tofu
    • Jasmine Rice
The Non-Vegan Menu (serves 50 people)
    • Tom Yum Soup with Shrimp (no tomatoes)
    • Yellow Curry with Chicken
    • Red Curry with Chicken
    • Jasmine Rice
Specific recipe changes that we made for dietary preferences and allergies were as follows:
  • Thin soy sauce was substituted for fish sauce in all vegan recipes.
  • Vegetarian tom yum paste was used for the vegetarian tom yum soup.
  • Vegetable broth was used in place of chicken broth for the vegetarian tom yum soup and to thin both the yellow and red vegetarian curries.
  • Maesri red curry paste was used in place of Mae Ploy red curry paste for the vegetarian red curry with tofu.
Due to poor planning and finding out too late, we realized that we didn't have enough Vegetarian ingredients on hand to be able to make the base curries or soups in bulk. Had we planned further ahead we would have been able to purchase more of the Vegetarian ingredients online and have them shipped to us in time. This would have simplified preparation.

16.5 Qts of Tom Yum Soup
Successfully transferred to 1.5 gallon Ziplock bags and cooling.

From Hindsight: Things to Keep in Mind as You Plan
  • How familiar are you with the recipes you'll be cooking?
  • Do you have enough people to help with preparation as well as cooking and serving?
  • Do you have pots and pans large enough to accommodate the cooking?
  • Do you have enough refrigeration and freezer space to hold all of the prepared ingredients as well as final dishes?
  • Do you have vehicles with enough cargo space that you can use to pick up the ingredients for cooking?
  • Do you have vehicles with enough cargo space to take final dishes to the site?
  • Do you have coolers for keeping the final dishes refrigerated prior to reheating on-site?
  • Do you have enough containers to store the finished meals prior to serving?
  • Do you have enough burners for rewarming the final dishes on-site?
  • Do you have chafing dishes or soup pots large enough to serve the dishes on-site?
  • Do you have serving spoons and/or ladles for serving the dishes on-site?
  • Do you have a rice cooker large enough to make and/or keep warm the rice on-site?
What We Didn't Have
    • Enough appropriately sized pots. We had to serialize cooking and split dishes across multiple pots.
    • Readily available stocks of hard-to-find ingredients or substitutes. We had just enough Vegetarian Tom Yum paste for one batch of soup. When I accidentally put Tom Yum paste into the Vegetable broth it could have easily been the Vegetarian Tom Yum paste into Chicken broth like I had feared. I was able to go get more Vegetable broth. I wouldn't have been able to get more Vegetarian Tom Yum paste.
    • Vehicles with enough cargo space. We needed to make multiple supply runs.
    • Containers for storing finished meals. We had to break finished dishes out into portions that would fit in 1.5 gallon Ziplock bags.
What We Had
    • Familiarity with the recipes. The recipes used were ones that I've been preparing for almost twelve years. Even still for one of the recipes I forgot that the ingredients were already scaled for events rather than individual family sized portions. For example, instead of making a yellow curry that would serve 10 people, I tripled the recipe. We ended up with a curry that would serve almost 30 people.
    • Another pair of hands to help with prep. The sheer number of mushrooms and onions alone that we had to slice was overwhelming. We had 4 pounds of mushrooms and 3 pounds of onions. A friend who had experience using a knife and preparing for large numbers of people volunteered to help me out in the kitchen. Besides the actual help having someone else in the kitchen was great for morale.
    • Refrigeration and freezer space. We had a commercial kitchen with lots of refrigeration and freezer space available to us. Not all dishes were prepared there - so refrigerator and freezer musical chairs was played.
It's so easy to think that because you've been able to cater a meal for 30 to 40 people that you can easily scale up to 60 people. Also for dinner parties I've never been cooking solo. I've had a cadre of sous chefs. With a tight deadline, a strict budget, and limited volunteers, cooking - a task I typically love - is not so fun and is quite stressful as we couldn't afford to make any mistakes.

Luckily I had a friend who joined me one night for preparing 3 pounds of onions and 4 pounds of mushrooms. It made the task fun again. Later in the week when I had more entrées to prepare I almost lost it when I was unable to split open kabocha with a cleaver. More friends to the rescue and a night off to celebrate friends' birthdays. That time out was huge for my well being.

A misplaced Costco card this past Saturday could have also resulted in a meltdown but another friend came to my rescue and I was even able to laugh about the wild goose chase I was sent on. (And luckily a stranger pointed out that instead of Jerky fit for humans I'd just picked up dog treats.)

The incident with the cleaver. The near feeding of my camp mates with dog food. These are all things we can laugh about now, but had this been in the hours leading up to our wedding, I wouldn't be laughing, I would be crying hysterically.

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