After years as a chef, one of the things I've become really comfortable with is cooking for crowds. At the Shaw Centre, most days involve large-scale food preparation, sometimes for multiple simultaneous events. Yet even after a particularly busy week at the Centre, I still love cooking at home for family and friends.
When I set out to plan for a party, I don't always have a set menu in mind as I prefer to cook with whatever ingredients look the freshest. Having said that, I do recommend that home cooks consider a menu incorporating their 'best' dishes, which are the ones that people consistently rave about, rather than trying to prepare something for the first time. You will be less stressed and enjoy the process more if you already know the outcome.
Assess your fridge space in advance of a party. How many times have you had to cram your fridge with various items stacked on top of each other because you simply don't have enough fridge space? Do a quick cleanout ahead of time to free up some space; you can even remove condiments from your fridge keep them in a cooler until your party is over; this will free up much needed space and result in a fridge that is clean and organized.
In terms of serving, a buffet is a great option for a crowd rather than trying to do all the plating in a home kitchen. An added advantage is that all the food will stay hotter and guests can choose what they want most. For my buffets, I typically offer a host of fresh vegetables which are seasonal and prepared differently depending on what they are. I'd also serve one or two proteins and a starch. For dessert, I'll offer two elements: fresh fruit accompanied by something decadent and delicious.
I recommend doing as much work ahead of time as possible. You can make dips, sauces, chutneys, salsas, etc. a few days in advance, which often makes them more flavourful and eases the pressure on your event day. Similarly, you can prepare all your vegetables the day before - this is also a great way to get children involved in the prep and it gets them used to using kitchen tools. If you peel, trim, blanch, drain and refrigerate vegetables ahead of time, then all you will need to do is finish them before serving. I do a lot of roasted vegetables when I entertain so that I can have all my veggies blanched, seasoned and oven ready the day before, then all I do is pop them in a hot oven and allow them to roast.
Another tip for home entertaining is to consider asking a friend or two to help with the cooking and serving, or hire a responsible neighbourhood teen. Extra hands are useful when setting out the hot food, as well as for clearing plates and refilling glasses.
Here's a sample menu that you might want to consider for your next party. I'd start off with a trio of Homemade Dips (Olive-Tomato Tapenade, Lime-Cilantro and Chickpea Crush, Fresh Tabouleh with Homemade Crisps and cut raw vegetables. But don't overdo it on the appetizers as guests will fill up and won't enjoy your dinner as much. Speaking of dinner, Indian food is so popular right now and offers a great range of textures and flavours for a buffet. I'd make Chicken Tikka with Riata, Cauliflower Curry with Roasted Eggplant and Tomato, Coconut Curried Prawns, Sweet Onion Chutney, Green Chili Daal, homemade Naan Bread and steamed Basmati Rice with Cinnamon, Black Cardamom and Butter. For dessert, keep things simple with sliced fresh fruit and a Cinnamon Crème Brule which can be made ahead and torched just before serving. Finish the meal with a cheese course and some port and your guests are sure to be very full and happy.