Would you like porridge or gruel?
June 16, 2010 8:10 AM   Subscribe

My cooking vs. a very picky group -- please help my cooking emerge victorious!

My boyfriend and I are on a family vacation, and we've been charged with assembling dinner tomorrow night. No problem! Except...there are roughly 11 mouths to feed and a crushing host of dietary restrictions! Eep! I love to cook, but I'm totally out of my element here and frantically looking for recipes that are:

No meat, except fish and shellfish
No mushrooms
Limited dairy (goat cheese is ok, cow, not so much)
Very, very mild spices (two supertasters and a nursing mother on hand)

Most of these are restrictions are limited to a single, but different person every time, so food that accommodates most, but not all these constraints is probably fine, if I can slap together a reasonable alternative for the one person left out.

I'm in an unfamiliar kitchen, so I'm leaning towards very simple things. So far, my best idea is making two pots of chili, one vegetarian and one with meat, and serve it all up with some cornbread and salad. I'm just worried that toning down the spices will just make it too bland, so not having a good non-spicy chili recipe at hand, I would be extremely grateful for any suggestions or alternatives. Thanks!
posted by Diagonalize to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Chili sounds like a good plan. If you're worried about it being too bland, you can pass around hot sauce/chopped onions/jalapenos/salsa and people can add whatever spices they like. Chances are that to the supertasters and nursing mom, it'll taste fine.
posted by corey flood at 8:19 AM on June 16, 2010

How about a variation on eggplant parmesan? Instead of parmesan use goat cheese, which would probably still be delicious. Serve with nice bread and a salad.

But I agree with the above that chili could work for everyone with some assorted fixings to pass around.
posted by spinto at 8:23 AM on June 16, 2010

I think the hardest thing to accomodate here is gluten free- make sure your cornbread doesn't contain any white flour, and make extra sure all surfaces and cutting boards and knives are thoroughly cleaned. Gluten hides everywhere. If you use bottled sauces or salad dressings, read the labels, have the GF people double check them, and don't dredge the meat in flour before browning for the meaty chili.

Perhaps you can provide some hot sauce so those who want spicy can have it?

As for other options:

A big giant salad, perhaps with grilled shrimp for those who want something bulkier.
Rice and beans, grill or broil some salmon or tofu or meat alongside, plus green salad.
Spaghetti with a veggie ragu, you can serve the sauce over rice or GF noodles for the GF people, and set some sauce aside to simmer a few meatballs in for the meat-eaters - be extra careful of cross contamination of you go this route.
posted by hungrybruno at 8:30 AM on June 16, 2010

Is gluten-free pasta diabetic friendly? If so, how about 2 pastas: one garlic & olive oil with sauteed garlic shrimp, another primavera with a red sauce? If gluten-free pasta isn't available, maybe substitute risotto?

Or how about a shrimp and veggie stir-fry? You could keep it low in spices. Be careful though as I think soy sauce has gluten.
posted by yawper at 8:31 AM on June 16, 2010

We have a similarly convoluted set of dietary restrictions whenever we throw a dinner party.

I often resort to soups and stews, with meat cooked separately, or a big couscous salad with vegetables, which can be flavorful without being spicy.

But the biggest success we've had so far was a baked potato bar: I just put dozens of potatoes in the oven and had all kinds of toppings available for people to pick and choose from -- a spicy meat sauce, baked beans, steamed broccoli, chopped onions, cheese, salsa, sour cream, chopped herbs, chopped tomatoes, etc. That way people can customize their plate to their own requirements, and you're not stuck serving the same bland thing to everybody. Also it's super easy to prepare and not spoiled by too many cooks (whenever I'm cooking for a group some of them will wander in and offer to help; if I'm making something complex this is sometimes difficult, but with something like this you can just hand them a whatever and say 'chop this'.)
posted by ook at 8:33 AM on June 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

Make up some polenta. Serve it either in a bowl, or in grilled rounds, or modify these fries to meet your needs.
posted by knile at 8:33 AM on June 16, 2010

Along the lines of the chili suggestion, something like build-your-own-(burrito/whatever) would provide a lot of flexibility, and allow people to add the mushrooms, cheese, spiciness etc. at their leisure.
posted by heyforfour at 8:37 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

You don't say where you are vacationing (yes, this plays a HUGE role in what to cook).

Anyway, my suggestion would be a cioppino.
posted by TheBones at 8:38 AM on June 16, 2010

Individual (gluten free) pizzas or quiches. You make up the bases and provide the toppings, the picky people arrange their own toppings and you cook the results.

In a similar vein, any form of Mexican food involving bread wrapped around a variety of fillings can be done like this - provide a few bowls of "stuff" and people wrap their own.

Roasted vegetables with pesto and goat cheese covers a lot of your bases.
posted by emilyw at 8:41 AM on June 16, 2010

I'd do something that doesn't rely on seasoning as much as chili does. I'd probably go with:

fish: roasted salmon with gluten-free sauce on the side (salmon is delicious on its own, and you can make a mild sauce like this one)

build-your-own salad: big bowl of mixed greens, smaller bowls containing potentially problematic ingredients (goat cheese, nuts, beans, fresh or dried fruits, vegetables, croutons), and two dressing options--this way you don't have to stress out about getting every ingredient exactly right for every guest all at once and guests can make giant salads to suit their tastes

mixed rice and wild rice: check to make sure it's gluten-free, and cook with vegetable broth and maybe some mild herbs

steamed or roasted green beans, asparagus, or another in-season vegetable
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:45 AM on June 16, 2010

Put together a salad bar/buffet! Let everyone assemble their own salads using a variety of yummy edibles that they can pick and choose from. Variety of lettuces, goat cheese, sliced pickled beets, chick peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, croutons, baby corn, artichoke hearts, broccoli, mandarin oranges, hard boiled eggs, onions, ham chunks, pepperonis, a selection of dressings, etc.

It's always a hit. People can pass up stuff if it doesn't fit within their dietary restrictions or if they don't like a particular item.

It's easy. It's fun. It's a great summer meal.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:47 AM on June 16, 2010

This lentil and potato stew is amazingly tasty and I don't think it's too spicy. I usually include an onion and some carrots as well, but plenty of people who have followed the recipe as it is written are reviewing it favorably.

Of course, I'm a vegetarian. Some people, I know, don't consider a meal, a meal unless there is a meat involved somehow. However, my meat-eating roommate will sometimes steal portions of that stew out of my pot when I make it for my lunch on a given week.
posted by ZeroDivides at 8:55 AM on June 16, 2010

I'd go with build-your-own fajitas. That way everyone who has a restriction can avoid what won't work for them, but even skipping key ingredients (no meat => veggie fajita! no tortilla => fajita bowl! no hot sauce => mild fajita!) you end up with a really good filling meal. You can add on sides like a big salad to round the meal out.

In my fajita bar there would be:

*Corn tortillas, which are set in a hot pan or directly over an open flame on a gas burner for 15 seconds per side right before eating (makes the tortilla SO MUCH BETTER)

*Rice, ideally mixed with some chopped cilantro

*Black beans

*Sauteed/carmelized onions and bell peppers

*Meat, if that's your thing (I like mine veggie but chicken could be nice addition for meat-lovers)

*Pico de gallo or fresh tomatoes

*Sour cream, gaucamole, and shredded cheese

*A variety of hot sauces
posted by iminurmefi at 9:12 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Taco night! Make all the fixing you care to -- meat, fish, beans, guac, cheese, onions, olives, limes, tortillas, greens, tomatoes, taco shells, hot sauce, mild salsa, chips, etc etc etc. Lay it all out on the table and let people go to town. Someone might make a giant bean taco, someone else might make a taco salad without the meat, etc etc etc. Works every time.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:13 AM on June 16, 2010

unless I missed a restriction, you could do an frittata to go with any salad option you did.
posted by mercredi at 9:14 AM on June 16, 2010

Hey ... not so hard ... serving 11 is a few people ... but we just need to look at easy options with a lot of pre-prep.

Risotto (in a pressure cooker)
Polenta (in a pressure cooker)
Fish en papilotte (in the oven)
A big salad

Are all easy to make for large numbers, and meet all of your requirements.

Also curries (Thai especially), Chilli has been mentioned, sushi/shami/Japanese food in line with the requirements,

Or, if you really feel enthusiastic, tapas.
posted by jannw at 9:22 AM on June 16, 2010

If you want to grill some fish and need a side dish, try braising some chick peas with kale. I don't know the real name of the dish, but I saw Nigella do it on TV once and have used it ever since. It is very tasty.

In a large skillet, heat up some olive oil. Toss in 2 chopped garlic cloves and about a teaspoon of cumin. Once you can really smell the garlic and cumin, add in two drained cans of chick peas (garbanzos) and heat through. Add about 4 heaping handfuls (1/2 bag?) chopped kale. Add in about 1/3 bottle red wine. Cover and let the kale braise until tender.
posted by onhazier at 9:26 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Perhaps a soup/stew of beans & greens would be more satisfying than an un-spicy chili. You could add sausage for the meat eaters, and have bread & cheese on the side for those who want to add either. White beans + kale or spinach is a nice combination, and you can get a lot of flavor without a lot of spice by adding carrots, parsnips and fresh herbs. You might find some inspiration on 101 Cookbooks, which has a wide assortment of delicious vegetarian recipes.
posted by judith at 9:43 AM on June 16, 2010

Do wraps and corn soup! This solution is easy and solid because it lets people pick and choose the ingredients they want in their wrap (taking care of the varied dietary restrictions). Make a "salad bar" of contents, stuffing, sauces and toppings...Chicken, fish, cheeses, vegetables, diced onions, etc. give the option of corn or flour tortillas...
Corn soup is an easy and flavorful soup that doesn't require much spice to give it flavor.
posted by allfortheBoss at 9:47 AM on June 16, 2010

My Shrimp Etouffe is very rich, not spicy, and pretty easy to make. Serve it over a bed of Rice, with a tossed green salad (perhaps chopped walnuts, dried cranberries, and snow peas) and steamed broccoli. Maybe add French Bread for those who can eat bread.

Shrimp Etouffe (serves 6)

1 or 2 lb of fresh shrimp
lemon juice
3/4 C chilled, unsalted butter
1/2 C finely chopped onion
1/2 C finely chopped scallions
1/4 C finely chopped green peppers
1 C finely chopped red bell pepper
1 C water, vegetable, or chicken stock
1 ripe tomato, peeled, seeded chopped
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp salt

Prepare the shrimp by peeling, deveining, and then dropping in salted, boiling water. Cook 2 minutes. Drain. Spritz with lemon juice and set aside.

Melt 2 TB butter in a large frying pan and add all the vegetables and 1/4 C water or vegetable stock. Simmer until water has boiled away -- about 5 minutes.

Add tomato and 3/4 C of water or vegetable stock and continue simmering until vegetables are very soft-- about 20 minutes. Do not boil. Add spices.

Add remaining butter, 1 TB at a time stirring constantly. When all of the butter is incorporated, add the shrimp, always stirring in the same direction. Serve over rice.

Notes: I would double the sauce and buy about 5 or 6 lbs of shrimp depending on how much money you want to spend and how big an appetite for shrimp people have. When I make this, I figure 1/4 lb of shrimp for myself and 1/2 lb of shrimp for my husband. Also if the vegetables seem daunting you can easily chop them finely in a food processor with a few pulses, however it is easy to overchop onions which turn out to be a watery mess.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:48 AM on June 16, 2010

Individual packets of fish en papillote. Just thinly slice your choice of veggies, and lay a small fillet of your fish of choice on top. A very forgiving technique, works baked or grilled, and you can totally do it with foil instead of parchment. Serve with rice pilaf and a green salad with vinaigrette. Or perhaps sauteed squash with onion (squash is yummy this time of year).
Or maybe make a campechana (seafood cocktail). I've made them with shrimp, crab, clams, oysters, and even poached and flaked fish. Serve with avocado slices and corn chips. Let people add their own Cholula to their taste. FWIW, I happen to know that Tostitos are totally gluten-free.
posted by Gilbert at 9:48 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

How about salmon burgers, steak fries and a big side-salad? They can be eaten with or without the bun depending on the person. Or grilled shrimp and veggies shish-kebab over a tasty rice or couscous?
posted by platinum at 9:58 AM on June 16, 2010

I was also coming to recommend frittata. It's super delicious and you can make several with different things. It's filling and with a salad and/or veggies on the side a wonderful meal. For the dairy free one, it's easy enough to substitute the parmesan for goat cheese. It will come out just as good.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:33 AM on June 16, 2010

I'm gonna vote chili and like 5lbs of cooked shrimp with tails and a couple of bowls of cocktail sauce. You're already in an unfamiliar kitchen cooking new recipes, no reason to get super complicated. Fritatta is good, too.
posted by rhizome at 11:08 AM on June 16, 2010

I would suggest grilling, if at all possible. Grill the entire meal.

Go to the market and get some fresh veggies that catch your eye - perhaps zucchini, bell peppers, asparagus, or whatever looks tasty and possibly for dessert even some pineapple, and bananas which are delicious grilled. Season vegetables with olive oil, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper. Tomatoes are also nice grilled - halved is usually least messy. Carrots would work as well. I know you said no mushrooms, but if there are people who do like mushrooms, portabellos are a great grilling vegetable - add herbs as preferred.

Pistachio crusted halibut works really well on the grill. (Grind up some pistachios, egg wash or oil wash the fish, coat in crushed pistachio, very very simple and quick!)

Non grilled appetizer/snack: Shrimp (tail on or off) soaked for about 30-60 minutes in sugar water (about 1T to one cup of water), quickly wok fried/pan fried in a little oil. If you want a little more flavor, throw in some garlic while frying and sprinkle with paprika. Serve warm. No need for any additional sauce to dip.
posted by kirstk at 11:38 AM on June 16, 2010

This recipe for Pilaki is my go-to dish for dietary restrictions.

It is vegan, gluten-free, no major allergens, not spicy, and DELICIOUS. I think it would be diabetic-friendly but I am not positive.

I like it served with french bread but it's plenty of food all on its own. For 11 you might want to make a double recipe, but a single recipe with a big salad and some bread would also feed 11, I think.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:48 PM on June 16, 2010

Eyebrows McGee - I've eaten that served over rice or quinoa and it is indeed very delicious and filling.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:08 PM on June 16, 2010

I have an awesome recipe for you!

Packet Fish

12 T butter
6 onions, diced
6 carrots, diced
3 red peppers, diced
12 fillets mild white fish (filet of sole is perfect but super-expensive; halibut or tilapia are fine, too)
12 12"x12" squares aluminum foil
4 tomatoes, sliced
4 lemons, sliced thinly
thyme (if you have fresh, great; if not, dried is fine)
12 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 400.

Saute onions, carrots, and peppers in butter, seasoning with salt.

Lay out a square of aluminum foil. Layer: carrot/onion mixture, 1 fillet fish (salted, peppered), 2 slices tomato, 2 slices lemon, a sprinkling of thyme, and a bay leaf. Bring sides of foil up along long sides of fish; roll edges together to seal; bring other sides up and roll to seal.

Repeat with other 11 squares and rest of ingredients.

Bake on a couple of cookie sheets at 400 for about 20 minutes (depends on type of fish and how thick fillets are -- check one packet for doneness).

Serve over rice. (I personally prefer white, but it's up to you.)

This recipe is completely delicious, and I make it for dinner parties all the time, with or without guests with dietary restrictions.
posted by palliser at 1:13 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I made this Tomato Fish Stew a few weeks ago for my boyfriend and I and it was fandango-in-our-mouths-AMAZING. It's tasty, cheap and easy. The short list of ingredients meets your criterias. There was suppose to be enough for one bowl for me, two for him and leftover 3 bowls for my lunches that week. Little did I know we'd be licking the pot (well..he did anyways) by the end of the night.
posted by vilandra at 8:48 PM on June 16, 2010

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