How to cook for a crowd this holiday season

AS THE DIRECTOR OF RESTAURANT OPERATIONS at the Residence at Otter Creek, Jeff Trump knows a thing or two about preparing big meals for a lot of people. A tip when cooking for large groups: Clean up as you go so you can sit down to eat when the food is ready. Independent Photo/Steve James

As the holiday season approaches, many Addison County residents are planning large gatherings with family and friends, and with those gatherings, most will be cooking big meals. Feeding a crowd can be a daunting task, although local culinary professionals say there are ways to make the job easier and maybe even enjoyable this year.

Jeff Trump, director of restaurant operations at the Residence at Otter Creek, has a lot of experience preparing food for large groups. Trump serves as the executive chef at the Middlebury assisted living center, helping prepare and serve three meals a day to the 140 residents as well as staff members.

He said he enjoys the task, although there are some obstacles you face when preparing high-quality meals for a large group, such as making dishes that everyone likes.

“Overall, it’s a positive (experience). It’s definitely a challenge, there’s a lot of attention to detail to make sure every plate or box comes out as good as possible,” he said. “You can’t please everyone all the time. Sometimes we have something on the menu that people like and others don’t.”

Over the years, Trump has chosen ways to make preparing these meals for a large group an easier task.

“Being able to multitask, not being afraid to have several different things you’re working on at the same time. You can make a salad while something is cooking in the pan, making the most of your time,” he said. “Keep clean so you’re not stuck in a sink full of dishes after you’re ready to sit down to eat.”

Another tip is to plan ahead and prepare the ingredients before you start preparing the dish.

“Peel your potatoes the day before and do what you can to prepare ahead of time. We try to do preparations for everything the night before,” he said.

Other Addison County chefs stress the importance of prep work. Tom Morris, the executive chef at Tourterelle in New Haven, agreed that preparation can make cooking a big meal less stressful.

YOU MUST be prepared to multitask when cooking for a large group, says Jeff Trump of Residence at Otter Creek, shown in the kitchen of a Middlebury assisted living center.
Independent Photo/Steve James

“The really important thing is preparation, preparation, preparation. For example, if you’re making a casserole, set aside an hour the day before and prepare that casserole,” he said. “Anything you can do ahead of time so that on the day you can just focus on cooking the food itself and not be overwhelmed.”

In addition to saving time, both Trump and Morris have discovered recipes that work well with large groups but step outside of the traditional holiday menu. Trump said these dishes don’t have to be complicated. One of his recommendations is almond trout, a classic French dish that covers the fish in an almond sauce.

“It’s a simple dish that’s elegant and easy to make, it’s always a big hit here. People can do it at home too,” he said.

One of Morris’ favorite dishes is a stew made by cooking meat or vegetables in liquid in a covered pan or pot.

“For a lot of people, it’s easier and you can do it in a clay pot. It’s easy to scoop and serve,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about temperature because when you braise something, you cook it at a low temperature for a long period of time.”

Simplicity is key according to Morris. He said that for those planning to cook a big meal this holiday season, keeping the dishes you prepare simple can make the process more manageable.

“The more you’re cooking for people, the less complexity you really want to add to it,” he said. “At the end of the day, you just want to keep it simple so you’re not overwhelmed. And you also want to be part of the event, and the more elaborate your dinner, the less time you will have to spend with your loved ones.

Trump also had suggestions for anyone cooking for a large group this holiday season.

“Don’t be afraid. I’m trying to demystify cooking here at the residence, part of that is trying to say it’s all very accessible,” he said.

He emphasized that it is good to ask for help:

“If you have guests, get them settled. Everyone always gathers in the kitchen and people like to pitch in, so use the people around you.”

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