How to cook for a crowd this holiday season

AS DIRECTOR OF RESTAURANT OPERATIONS at Residence at Otter Creek, Jeff Trump knows a thing or two about preparing hearty meals for many 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 at those gatherings most will be preparing hearty meals. Feeding a crowd can be a daunting task, though 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 Residence at Otter Creek, has a lot of experience preparing food for large groups. Trump serves as the head cook at the Middlebury assisted living facility, helping to prepare and serve three meals a day for the 140 residents and staff members.

She said she enjoys the task, although there are some obstacles she runs into when preparing high-quality meals for a large group, such as preparing meals 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 each dish 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 enjoy and sometimes they don’t.”

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

“Being able to multitask, not being afraid of having a few different things you’re working on at the same time. You can make a salad while something is roasting in the pan, making the most of your time,” she said. “Clean as you go so you’re not stuck in a sink full of dishes once you’re ready to sit down to eat.”

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

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

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

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

“Something really important is preparation, preparation, preparation. For example, if you’re making a casserole, set aside an hour the day before and make that casserole,” she said. “Anything you can do ahead of time, so the day you can focus on cooking food and not feel overwhelmed.”

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

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

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

“It’s easier for a lot of people, and you can do it in a crock pot. It’s easy to take out and serve,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about the temperature because when you’re braising something, you’re cooking 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’re preparing simple can make the process more manageable.

“The more you cook for people, the less complexity you want to add to it,” he said. “In the end, you want to keep it simple, so you don’t get overwhelmed. And you want to be a part of the occasion, too, and the more complex you make your dinner, the less time you have to spend with your loved ones.”

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

“Don’t be intimidated. I try to demystify the kitchen here in the residence, part of it is that I’m trying to say that everything is very accessible, ”she said.

He emphasized that it’s okay to ask for help:

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

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