Dinner for 75
June 18, 2014 4:16 PM   Subscribe

Every year we throw a Summer Solstice party that includes a buffet dinner for about 75 neighbors and friends. I cook everything because it's easier to do that than to organize a pot luck, which isn't part of my culture. Most years, I enjoy preparing this feast. This year, I am completely uninterested and fantasizing about ordering 25 pizzas and a keg. Hope me, please!

Past efforts range from simple to decadent and include roasting a whole pig, umpteen single cuisine extravaganzas, e.g., Greek, Moroccan, Indian, Tex-Mex build-your-own, etc., huge piles of grilled fish, meats and vegetables and themed deserts (ten different pies, layered ice creams, etc. all home made).

Part of my problem is I'm hung up on wanting to maintain my reputation as a good cook. And this year is especially stressful as I'm travelling all week and won't get home until Friday afternoon, when I'll have to start shopping and cooking. Frankly, this year I just don't care, even though I love the people who come to this party and want everyone to have a good time.

I'm hoping that you can offer suggestions about 1) a fun food strategy for feeding the multitudes (appetizers, main courses, side courses, salads, and desert), preferably something I haven't already executed, that will get me excited to host this party and takes relatively little time, and; 2) how to improve my attitude. Assume I have skillz and equipment. Thanks, all!
posted by carmicha to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
New England Clam Bake? You could even sing.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:18 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Could you make it a potluck this year? Maybe you make ONE thing, but then you turn to everyone else for everyTHING else. You still get the kudos for making what you made, but the whole entire thing isn't on your shoulders.

Or you could do it as an old-fashioned burgoo stew/stone soup/hot pot cookoff - you set up a big-ass cauldron of broth and aromatics (carrots, celery, onions, garlic, herbs) and you get everyone to bring some kind of meat or veg for the stew. When they come by, in it goes, and as things finish cooking you fish them out of the cauldron and onto plates and people dig in. You still do the cooking, but people bring things to you rather than you having to shop, and by the end of the day you'll have this really rich broth that probably will taste AMAZING.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:26 PM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

What's wrong with 25 pizzas and a keg? Retro/Old School/Collegish/Hipster - however you want to phrase it. Actually that sounds like a really fun time, especially with a cheap beer - taking it back to the basics. Tell people the dress code has changed to crappy t-shirts and jeans instead of sundresses and khakis.

To me, part of being a good cook is putting your heart and soul into it - if you're not feeling it, you're not feeling it. I'm sure even Bobby Flay orders cheap take out every once in a while, so don't feel bad. The focus should be on friends and memories, not the food (well sometimes it's about the food).
posted by lpcxa0 at 4:29 PM on June 18, 2014 [18 favorites]

We always did "bring your own meat to grill and a dish to share." Assuming you have access to a large grill or preferably a few, this works great! You can do some desserts to show off your cooking, people can combine their efforts, you provide the place and drinks... Instant party!!
posted by pearlybob at 4:29 PM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think pizzas and a keg might be the best solution. Or what about pizzas and fancy drinks? Put your energy into making a couple of fancy fruit punchbowl drinks - maybe one boozey and one non-. Serve ice cream and sorbet for dessert, maybe make some cookies to go with. Just tell everyone that this year you're traveling.

I am known as one of the "good cooks" in my social circle, and although people are always happy when I make something, honestly, they are just as happy if we get good-quality takeout. It's not that they don't appreciate my food, but they also like pizza.

Alternatively, what about a deluxe sandwich bar - nice local breads, nice cheeses and spreads and deli and toppings. It would be spendier than pizza, but probably not as spendy as ingredients for complex dinner for 75. And you'd be showing off your skills by planning different delicious potential sandwich combinations.
posted by Frowner at 4:35 PM on June 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

I totally popped in to say Lobster Bake (which is just like a clam bake only with lobsters in addition.) You can do this with any crustacean at all. Crabs, crawfish, big shrimp, mussels, snails...

To make it really special, you do this whole thing outside in a fire pit or in sand with hot rocks and coals. You layer your seafood with seaweed, potatoes, corn, sausages, and other veggies, herbs, fill it up with wine or beer and broth, and then scoop it out on a big table covered in a plastic lined tablecloth so it can cool enough for people to touch. Have a crock pot of melted butter with a ladle and little dipping cups for everyone.

So, assuming you have giant tubs and a firepit, or a beach in which to dig holes, or a big enough crowd happy to build a firepit or heat up rocks for you, what you need to bring are: plans, a truckload of cleaned raw ingredients including seaweed, the table and cloth, some hammers and crackers, a crockpot of butter, lobster bibs, and a keg. No prep beyond washing everything, the corn and potatoes can go in whole and unshucked. Go nuts.
posted by Mizu at 4:40 PM on June 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Outsource it to restaurants. I'm a cook too and I'd cook for WEEKS before my bashes. Then I got older and more tired.

Do a theme, say dumplings. Then call your local restaurants and order a bunch of different kinds.

But you have my permission to do Pizzas, subs, brownies, Doritos, M&Ms and a keg.

That will STILL be a blast!

Can I come?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:40 PM on June 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

Anything that people can take the lead on assembling themselves seems like it would be the least effort while still being "home made": fancy sandwich bar, fancy burgers, tacos and burritos, etc.

Though frankly, pizzas and a keg sounds just fine too. If you really want to make it special, get a wide variety of pizzas, make fancy drinks, and/or throw all your culinary effort into dessert.
posted by yasaman at 4:43 PM on June 18, 2014

How do you feel about enlisting 2+ people (maybe in the spirit of teaching the younger generation!?) to help out with shopping and food prep/cooking?

I would opt for an one pot dish (soup or chilli) + rolls + salad + dessert. Salad, rolls and dessert like cookies can be store bought. Then you only have to prepare the main dish. Here is a nice collection of recipes for large crowds. Skip the appetizers and side dishes this year and save your energy and ideas for the coming one. Then you'll wow them again. Have fun!
posted by travelwithcats at 4:45 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

You don't mention a budget. How about catering the event with a theme of your choosing?
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:45 PM on June 18, 2014

Is there a shortcut you could take? Like, say, make the appetizers and desserts and get the main dishes catered? (Or the other way around?) That might be a good compromise and depending on your travel schedule, possibly something you can do while you're on the road.

Rather than making it a general pot luck (I find them to be kind of dicey at best, but it depends on the crowd), do you have some friends you could trust to help you out? Like ones you know are good cooks? Like you could have three people be responsible for two desserts each, and three people do the appetizers/salads/etc.? I bet people would be happy to help (even happier if you promise to pay them for ingredients and such!).

Mostly, though, I bet people are just going to this because it's fun and they like you and not because they care about the food. My friend has a celebration every year (except last, because he was in the process of moving) called Meatfest. I'm a vegetarian, and while he's generous and happily makes sure the vegetarians are provided for, I'm obviously not there for the "star" of this cookout. I'm there because I like my friend and because it's a good time. So if it's pizzas and a keg, it's pizzas and a keg. People will still have a blast.
posted by darksong at 4:47 PM on June 18, 2014

Whole Foods caters.
posted by four panels at 4:49 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I totally understand this and am like this as well. Ambitious menus are usually really fun, but if your heart's not in it, it will be such a drag on you. BUT I would probably just cook too, so here are some ideas, if you don't want to go that route.

- Corn on the cob and other grilled veggies, with different compound butters to dress it up (like a chive butter or chile butter; here's a general how-to)
- Build-your-own grilled pizza bar
- Build-you-own-kebab bar
- Build a bonfire and do silver turtles! You could do s'mores as a dessert here.
- Build-your-own ice cream sandwich bar, with several types of ice cream, cookies, magic shell chocolate/dips, and sprinkles

And then I would do a big salad bar with any of the above.

I think the key is to keep your prep to shopping, cutting up things, and then presenting them in a cool manner.
posted by topophilia at 4:50 PM on June 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Maybe a tack you haven't tried before, like a non-food-related theme? There are some fun and not horribly time-consuming recipes out there based on Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, and other things.

If the potluck idea really turns you off, what about a picnic instead? Bon Appetit has tons of ideas.

Or simple comfort food. A huge platter of spaghetti and meatballs can induce starry eyes in a lot of people (some kind of childhood fantasy, I guess), and there's still a huge difference between simple spaghetti and meatballs made by a skilled cook and ... you know, by me.

I hope you have a good time.
posted by wintersweet at 5:16 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

It might be the wrong time of year but a soup and bread bar with some side salads. You could work with a bakery on breads and dessert and even croutons, and see if you trust a couple of friends with the salads. For toppings have crumbled cheeses, bacon, croutons, sour cream, toasted nuts, etc.

Depending on the soups you choose you could freeze & thaw and you could definitely make the stock in advance.

Another 'bar' idea to add in is a sausage bar with toppings like kimchi slaw, chutneys, etc. Many of the fancy toppings can be made in advance (or purchased). You need a vegetarian options though.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:28 PM on June 18, 2014

order the pizzas, but make them special content sun themed for the solstice.

Lemon sorbet.

Light Pilsner.

Simple yet conceptual.
posted by effluvia at 5:32 PM on June 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

I like a sandwich bar for this kinda thing. Big platters of sliced deli meat and cheeses, one of toppings (tomato, onion, pickle etc) huge basket of sliced rolls. I like to add a veggie and dip tray, olives, grapes and a big Greek or garden salad. Seems like a lot of effort but it's very little prep, just open and arrange on trays.
posted by saradarlin at 5:35 PM on June 18, 2014

Hrm, past Solstice parties have included herbed butter with bread, a mini crockpot with chocolate and fruit for dipping, and bring your own dish, sit around the patio and have fun games like someone holds up a Tarot card on their forehead and everyone else guesses at what it means, then we all drive out to a labyrinth and walk that with gifts at the end.

The overall theme was people who appreciated being invited to such an event, some as far away as Australia, artists and others, and sort of a come as you are attitude. I mean, people who are into the Solstice events will bring a dish if you ask. Or even some chopped up watermelon. Dude, it's the Solstice, you are welcoming the Sun. You should not be stressing over this, you should send 'round an email saying "hey, I am busy bring what you want and let's party." Marsha or Bob can organize if you're busy. It's paganism, not "judge you for not being a perfect host." Ask for help and then let it fly.

But I do recommend making herbed butter and having bread. Other people are good cooks too, you know. And they might love a chance to come in and organize your party and have you as a guest. Perhaps you need to sit back and receive instead of planning it all and driving yourself nuts. Let go and let it in, sister. It won't be perfect but it will be fun!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:54 PM on June 18, 2014

Order the pizzas and create a salad bar. Get a couple of kegs. Ask folks to bring a dessert to share. Have fun.
posted by mareli at 5:58 PM on June 18, 2014

Can you do a spread of fruits, cheeses, salami, basic salad bar, and quiche? Use frozen pie crusts, make a biiiiiig bunch of the filling, then throw different things into each pie crust to make different flavors (ham and green onion, mushroom and sundried tomato, etc). You can only bake two or three at a time, so that will be a pain, but it will mostly just be baking time where you can walk away from the oven. Easy peasy, cheap, filling.

Follow up with an ice cream selection for dessert.
posted by samthemander at 6:14 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Part of my problem is I'm hung up on wanting to maintain my reputation as a good cook....Greek, Moroccan, Indian, Tex-Mex build-your-own, etc., huge piles of grilled fish, meats and vegetables and themed deserts (ten different pies, layered ice creams, etc. all home made). I would say your reputation is well established. Shit, give your neighbors a chance. :]

I used to go to a Friday night race at the local [downmarket] yacht club outside of SF. They provided salads, pasta and veggie, and bread. They had a big grill and they provided veggie kebabs, chicken, fish, steak, pork chops.

The grill is a great gathering point for people, like how people always end up in the kitchen at indoor parties.

I think most people come to these things to socialize and you sound like the host with the most. I'm personally uncomfortable when the host does everything. I live in the south and boils are all about hanging out.

Can I come?
posted by vapidave at 6:16 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Send out invites that say, "I've done this the last X years. Now it's your turn. Bring me food to amaze and wonder or I am ordering 75 pizzas." Those who fail you don;t get next year's invite.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:27 PM on June 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

I like samthemander's suggestion, and if you're not in the mood for quiche, I like the idea of nice breads, fancy cheeses, a big salad, and prepped ingredients for people to make their own pizzas. Grilled sounds lovely, if it's feasible, or inside would also be fine, if you can work the assembly line magic. (Like, instead of everyone doing their very own, maybe have people group together for similar tastes, such as several people brainstorming on a white pizza with artichoke hearts and spinach, or whatever, and setting it out on the buffet while the next pizza is baking.)
posted by instamatic at 6:51 PM on June 18, 2014

Can you get away with just appetizers? Then you could do a "breads and spreads" party and just buy a bunch of tapenades and shmears and spoon them into bowls. No one has to know.
posted by egeanin at 7:42 PM on June 18, 2014

Your profile says you're in Wisconsin. How about brats?

Build a fire, get out the skewers, and have everyone roast their own while you provide paper plates, buns, condiments, cheese curds, and beer. Tell everyone they have to bring a side dish.

Given WI's rep for dairy, you could do a wine and cheese tasting. Lots of local cheeses, summer sausage, crackers, a bunch of wine. Finish off with a good frozen custard.
posted by magstheaxe at 8:12 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm feeling better already and yes, any Mefites in range of Door County are completely welcome! MeMail me for directions.
posted by carmicha at 9:14 PM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd suggest doing a pseudo-tapas theme:
- cheeses
- little pickles from a jar or Whole Foods deli
- variety of olives
- salami and other cured meats
- little toothpick skewers with half a cherry tomato, mini mozzarella ball, and ribbon of basil. Pile them on a plate and drizzle with olive oil, balsamic and salt & pepper. Seriously delicious.

Maybe one featured salad. I had one with grilled haloumi, watermelon and mint. Or pick a few of these delicious grilled foods suggested by Mark Bittman (i.e. grill bread. whiz in processor to make bread crumbs. throw in some parsley if you have it. grill asparagus. top with fresh bread crumbs. can be done ahead.)

Then make make something from this epic thread of spreads on breads.

One or two special salads, two or three special spreads, a pile of fresh bread and other crackers and crudités, cheese and pickles -- super easy, special with in-season foods and less expensive than catering.

One other idea - do you have a food truck in the area? What about renting one of the trucks to come feed your guests? Put out some music and make it your own backyard street fair :-)
posted by barnone at 11:21 PM on June 18, 2014

The traditional Australian solution here would be to have a barbie. Grill up a huge bunch of sausages (you can do vego ones as well, probably best not on the same grill), chops, burgers etc. Seafood if you feel really lavish. Grill lots of onions to accompany. Have buns/rolls/bread. Several different salads. If you have lots of variety, vegetarians who don't like fake meats have something to eat too. Toppings for sausages/burgers like cheese, sauerkraut, lettuce, tomato, sauces. Make a couple of pavlovas, slice up some watermelon, you're set.
posted by Athanassiel at 3:30 AM on June 19, 2014

Clearly, this occasion cries out for a good, old-fashioned Wisconsin-style fish boil!

These are a lot of fun - so much so that my not-quite-wife-at-that-point and I held one for our wedding rehearsal dinner. It's very simple to do, and the burst of flames just before serving (yes, I said "burst of flames") is a real crowd-pleaser.

Cooking- and prep-wise, it's actually not very much work at all. Hardest part: digging a fire pit, which you can do well in advance.

And I just now noticed that you're in Door County, WI, the epicenter of the fish boil!
posted by Dr. Wu at 6:27 AM on June 19, 2014

I think you have some great suggestions here, but let me offer two more:


Rice based, relatively easy "set it and forget it" kind of foods and can basically have whatever you want in them. Outsource salad, bread, dessert, etc.
posted by Flamingo at 6:39 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

One more New Englandy suggestion, much cheaper than a clambake: an old-fashioned Ham and Bean Supper. Baked beans (can do in crockpot, or, I suppose, buy canned), bread, ham. I guess you really ought to offer some kind of vegetable, but maybe you could ask some people to bring salads?
posted by mskyle at 7:17 AM on June 19, 2014

It's not easy to come up with a new menu every year. Hamburgers and or brats/ hot dogs with a huge range of toppings. Add corn bread, potato salad, coleslaw, watermelon, and baked beans for a classic cookout. Baked potatoes with lots of toppings. I went to a baked potato fest where all guests brought toppings. Fun and tasty. Or make several kinds of macaroni & cheese - with lobster, pancetta, spinach, jalapenos, (not all these things together) or whatever other options you can find. Served with lots of fresh green salad. You might be able to start with frozen mac& cheese for easier prep.
posted by theora55 at 8:21 AM on June 19, 2014

Response by poster: So the party was last night and a good time was had by all. I decided to keep the theme to myself, but thanks to your advice it was "simple stuff that tastes good at room temperature so I'm not running around like a maniac and can enjoy the guests." Here's what I made:

Appetizers - hummus/pita, salsa/tortilla chips, dip/crudites, and shrimp/sauce A guest brought paté.

Main Courses - grilled salmon (the only last minute dish), corned beef (spent all day in the slow cooker), and two chicken salads that were very CPK - one like their Oriental Chicken Salad (hoisin-based dressing) and one like their BBQ Chicken Salad. One guest brought a pan of lasagne and another brought smoked wild turkey. I planned to make a jambalaya, per Flamingo's suggestion, but I bagged when I learned about the volunteer lasagne and converted the shrimp into an appetizer.

Sides - Dill-centric potato salad, roasted vegetables, fancy green beans

Desserts - Cheesecake, chocolate cake, and a massive blueberry crumble. I originally planned to make ginger cookies, but I decided the above was enough.

I did the shopping Friday night on my way home from the airport and started cooking around 8 am, with a 90 minute break to go get stuff I forgot to buy. All in all it went well and, most important, I had a good time and enjoyed feeding my friends. Thanks for all of your help!
posted by carmicha at 10:44 AM on June 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

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