As I said in my “Introduction” post, this should really be the easy part – but I’ll explain why I think you should have answers to all of these questions before you get any further with your feast plans, if you want to make your life easier.
- Who are you serving?
- What is your budget?
- How much time do you have?
- What kind of tools/space do you have to work with?
- Do you have helpers?
Guests: Knowing who I’ll be serving helps me know how adventurous to make my menus (my family gets the really weird stuff, heh heh heh) and whether I need to keep food allergies or other preferences in mind. I try to include at least one vegetarian main dish whenever I plan a large meal, since that’s pretty common and everyone can enjoy it anyhow. Plus it’s usually cheaper and healthier anyway. I find it more difficult to plan for Vegans because I love me some dairy: butter, eggs, cheese. Yum.
At this point, I feel like I’ve become a connesiur of food preferences/ lifestyles /allergies. Just in my circle of friends and coworkers, I’ve found quite a wide variety. I’ve planned for gluten-free, no beef, no pork, pescetarians, vegetarians, vegans, raw only, lactose-intolerant, and a cheese-hater. That’s not counting the allergies: peanuts, pine-nuts, powdered sugar, citric acid, raw tomatoes, shellfish, and seafood. And I have a coworker who doesn’t eat anything that’s pure white.
I try not to judge too much when people like or don’t like food, but I have to admit I once lost all attraction for someone when they admitted they didn’t like onions and garlic in anything. I hadn’t realized it was a deal-breaker until that moment, but evidently those two foods are on the list of things I can’t imagine living without.
Costs: I’m not always good at figuring out the budget for things when I’m trying out new food, especially if it comes from a new cuisine, but I do know that if I want to serve a lot of people it helps to rely on starches and cheap veggies – anything based on pasta/potato/corn/rice/beans will be filling and usually not very expensive. Fortunately, pretty much every cuisine has recipes based on ingredients like these because people all over the world need cheap, delicious food.
Also, the first meal you make for a new cuisine is often more expensive if you end up buying things like seasonings that you won’t use up in the dishes you’re making. So have an idea of what to do with the leftovers and you’ll save money in the future! I don’t like cooking from gourmet magazines because they often use unusual ingredients that just sit around in my cabinet. I like cooking from cookbooks because I can see how the same ingredients are reused regularly and pick accordingly.
Time: Do you have time if any of the recipes require steps in advance (marinating, freezing, etc.)? If I’m under any kind of serious time restraints I definitely won’t be trying a lot of new recipes. If I do use new recipes, I make sure they’re from a source I can depend on to have clear, dependable instructions. It’s easier to pick a different cuisine and try new recipes over holidays, like our Christmas Eve dinner, since I can depend on most of us having at least that day free.
Tools: Every once in a while I like to try recipes that require specialized equipment. Sometimes I end up using these regularly – I love my mandoline (thanks Adam!) but others (my bamboo steamer) end up being used less frequently and taking up space. Maybe I should look for reasons to use it more regularly! If you aren’t a kitchen gadget geek, it might help to have an experienced friend look over any recipe that calls for special equipment or check online to see if there are alternatives that work just as well.
Space: If it’s your own kitchen, you’ll probably have a sense of what sort of things become a space issue: a small oven, limited surfaces to roll things out, fridge/freezer space, etc.
I’ve also found myself cooking in other people’s kitchens many times. The reasons vary – housesitting, parties, travelling, etc. – but fortunately most of them don’t seem to mind me showing up taking over some space for a while. Of course basic hospitality rules apply – don’t damage anything and don’t make a mess you don’t clean up, for one. 🙂
If I don’t know how what kind of cooking they usually do or if there will be space in the fridge, I try to remember to bring stuff I really need with me and go shopping right before if necessary. If I do know their limitations, I’ve found bringing some useful housewarming/hostess gifts is a strategy that benefits both of us. Everybody can always use more measuring spoons/cups, right?
Helpers: I’m really lucky to have a family and friends who are willing to pitch in and provide help to make these food extravaganzas happen. If you don’t want helpers because you prefer to stay in control of the whole process, I recommend starting really early. If you find multitasking stressful and frustrating, you probably don’t want to get into this kind of cooking & event planning.
For getting & keeping helpers, I’ve learned that while I don’t mind a bit of manic chaos in the kitchen just before a meal (I kind of enjoy it, actually), I need to be sure I have clear concrete tasks for people if I’m going to ask for help. Knowing how comfortable people are with knives or measuring helps too.