Throughout most of the world right now, we’re starting the season for "Big Food." From Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah, through Kwanza to Yule, this is the time to tuck in, gather at the table with those we love, and feast. The foods may differ and the traditions change, but in every case there’s food and there’s love.
But, how much food? I might be the wrong person to ask. As a die-hard re-worker of leftovers, my usual response to “How much?” is “ALL”. Make all the things!
Have two different types of stuffing if you’d like, and five different types of vegetables if the mood strikes. Feast! Celebrate! Live large, if only for the moment. That’s not practical for anyone really, and it can be a fine line between not enough food, and an excess that could potentially lead to waste. Here’s my take on what to make.
Let’s discuss the elements of a “Big Food” meal. In my world, a feast such as this easily resembles a fantastic stage show. With the opening act, there’s the appetizer trays set out as your guests arrive. These usually are cheese, cold meats, crackers, veggies, pickles, and assorted whatnot that allows your guests something to nibble on as they smell all the wonders coming from the kitchen. Next, is the main course, your main event. Within the main course is the protein (meat), starch (potatoes, etc.), vegetables, and sides. Then, dessert as your grand finale. And at last, a “light bit to tuck in the corners” for guests to enjoy before leaving. Because who doesn’t love an encore?
This is how it all lays out.
Keep this simple, this is just the opening act. A serving tray set with a couple of varieties of cheese, some cold ham, turkey, or roast beef, a few carrot and celery sticks with dip. A small tray with pickles, olives and such, and some small crackers works nicely. Lighter beverages and aperitifs work well at this point too. A sweeter white wine, champagne, or a martini would be very appropriate. Non-alcoholic choices can easily include warm cider, tea, or a basic sparkling punch.
Quantities: You want to serve just enough to spark the appetite, not sate it. I would recommend no more than four slices of cheese per variety, ¼ lb of meat, and a mere handful of veggie sticks per person. This is just for initial nibbling, to give your guests something to do with their hands. If you feed them too well now, they’ll be full by the time the main course comes around and that would be tragic. One note: Try to avoid the same cold meat as you’re making for your main course. If you’re doing a turkey for dinner, there’s no sense in having sliced cold turkey on the appetizer tray.
Main Course Time:
Now is when to roll out the BIG food! We’re through the opening act, and now it’s time for the headliner. You’ve been sweating this moment since you first agreed to host this thing, so let’s get it right and break this down element by element.
Protein (the meat): Under any normal circumstances a solid recommended portion size is anywhere between ⅓ and ½ a lb per adult, and then round up for kids. That’s going to be WAY too light for a holiday feast. If you’re serving a bone-in meat (turkey, goose, standing
rib roast, etc), plan for a lb per adult. Really. The bones will make up at least 25% of the total weight, and won’t be eaten as part of the meal (check back in the very near future for the bone broth recipe). So, your 10 lb turkey really has about 7 ½ lbs of food. Further, depending on your carving skills, you might not be able to break down the bird enough to get all the meat to the table in a style you want to present. With 10 adult guests that gives you 7 lbs of actual food, or just short of ¾ of a lb per person. Suddenly seems very reasonable, doesn't it? One other note: Two smaller portions will cook together, in half the time as one large one. In other words, if you’re doing Thanksgiving for 20 people get two 10 lb birds rather than one 20 lb. You’ll have better control over the cooking time, the presentation, and if you’re feeling truly daring you can make two different styles of bird. The same holds true across the board, with the possible exception of a prime rib. Here you gotta know your audience. If most prefer their rib rare, get one large one. If they prefer more medium to well done, get two smaller ones.
Starches (potatoes, etc): Figure about ½ lb per person, finished product. Unless you’re inviting me, in which case add an extra pound or two. Me and ‘tators go way back. The exception to this rule would be if you’re planning a more eastern-style dinner (chineese, etc.) in which case, flip the proportions from the meat and the rice.
Veggies: ¼ lb per person. With both the veggies and the starches, it sometimes helps to think backwards from the plate to the pot. Assume the average size per serving to be about the size of your hand for the meats, your fist for the starches, and your palm for the vegetables. As you're cutting carrots into the pot, put in one portion per person. You’re going to be pretty close to the marks I’m providing.
This is the polish to the meal, all the bits and pieces that make it truly great. When guests ask what they should bring to the event, here’s where to delegate a bit of the job. Ask for a bowl of jello salad, assign another with a special family almond dish, or maybe a nice cold green salad. And, of course, there is the legendary bread stuffing all fall into this category. Take what you get, make what you can, and feel your table groan from all the dishes upon it. But, when it comes to stuffing, there can never be a thing as too much stuffing. It’s unheard
of. I’ve been known to prepare two different styles of stuffing - one a simple sage standard stuffing and one filled with wild rice and sausage for those willing to walk a bit closer to the wild side. Get all the stuffing to the table, and you’ll never go wrong!
Excellent beverages for the main event would include a quality red table wine, darker beers, water, milk, a festive sprite with a splash of cranberry ... you get the idea. You need something hearty to wash down a meal of this proportion.
This is the grand finale, the fireworks at the end of the evening. At this point the table is no longer groaning, but your guests might be. Please keep it elegant and sweet, but not cloying or overbearing. A slice of pie, a bit of Yule log, maybe a modest portion of cake should be all your guests can handle at this point. Focus more on presentation and taste, rather than quantity. Of course, there’s an exception to this rule. Before, when dealing with kids, we’ve simply rounded up after figuring the adult portions. ALWAYS make sure you have a full portion of your desert for every child at the table. No skimping here. Every guest, from toddler up through
elder, gets a full portion. Woe betide those that bend this rule! Upon thine head be it! Serve up dessert with coffee, tea, a nice brandy, maybe some sherry or port wine.
Last “Bits and Tuck-ins”:
We’ve taken our guests from the opening act, through the main event, and given them a fantastic fanale. But what performance would be complete without an encore? We’re looking for something to tie it all together, to bring back the hits from earlier in the day and allow our guests a chance to enjoy it all one more time. Bring out some good rolls and breads, lay out the cold meats including some thin slices of the primary meat from the main event, the cheese, the salads, holiday cookies, and let your guests make up a small plate to truly bring everything together. Keep coffee flowing along with a cool fruit punch, and you’re golden.
This is how we did it. This was my childhood. This was Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and Easter in my small town world. This was family and friends (both old and new) gathering together, holding hands to sing grace, and enjoying amazing food. This was my Grandmothers’ making blueberry pie and sweedish meatballs, my Mother and my Aunts pouring heart and soul into every gravy and perfectly prepared turkey. Showering us with the fruits of their labor of love. This is where my love of food was born, as well as my daily desire to share love through food. More than anything else, this is me.