How To Feed A Crowd Without Having A Nervous Breakdown

“Hey guys! Sure, I’ll cook dinner! Yes, of course you can bring your boyfriend/girlfriend/grandma/grandma’s boyfriend! More the merrier! How many of us are there now? Forty-seven? No worries!”

Ever gotten yourself into this situation, or one similar? I literally do it all the time. I have agreed to cook for film shoots, dinner parties, cocktail events, birthday celebrations, girls’ nights, boys’ nights, spur-of-the-moment booze-fuelled lunches… the list goes on. Honestly, I love doing it, or I would never offer. And during my crowd-feeding adventures I have learned some things. So unless you’re Jesus, and have an endless supply of bread and fish coming out of goodness-knows-where, you may want to read on.

Me, cooking for a bunch of people, looking super chill because I’m super prepared
  1. MENU-PLANNING IS EVERYTHING. Think: budget, time-frame, available equipment, how many people you’re cooking for. If you have $5000 and a whole day in a commercial kitchen to make dinner for 8 people, you can absolutely make a 12-course dinner where each course is themed around a Chinese zodiac sign, or whatever the heck strikes your fancy. If, like me, you find yourself with two saucepans, $40 and a couple of hours to feed a stupidly large amount of people, then simplicity is absolutely key.
  2. SHOP WISELY, GRASSHOPPER. It goes without saying, but make a list. I guarantee you if you don’t, you will forget the tomato paste. If you can, make your list section-by-section (i.e. fruit and veg, dairy, dried goods)  – this will save you lots of time in the hell-on-earth that is the supermarket. Look for specials and savings! Those little yellow tags add up and can save you precious $$$.
  3. DON’T LET SOMEBODY ELSE SHOP FOR YOU. They will forget the beans. They will get the wrong kind of cheese. Or say something terrible like “I noticed the parsley was really expensive, so I got coriander instead? I hope that’s ok?” If this happens, throw that person out of your house and NEVER cook for them again. You know what? Never talk to them again.
  4. MORE IS MORE. Not sure whether to get one pack of tortillas or two? Two! People get hungry and leftovers are fun! Bear in mind that running out of food at a dinner party is one of my recurring nightmares, so you know, you do you. But also, grab another bag of corn chips. Everybody loves corn chips!
  5. THINK ABOUT YOUR GUESTS. Any allergies? Vegans/vegetarians? Making sure people are catered for goes a long way towards ensuring a happy and warm atmosphere at your gathering. Also, sneaky budget tip: keeping everything vegetarian can save you quite a lot of money!
  6. IT’S ALL IN THE TIMING. You want to serve everything ready to eat at the same time – so don’t choose dishes that don’t behave well under time pressure. Things you make in a big saucepan (think pasta sauces, casseroles, curries, chilli, soup) are generally good because you can cook them for a long time and they just get better and tastier. Add fresh greens right before serving. Cook rice/pasta last. And if you value your sanity, just don’t even go near a soufflé.

ALRIGHT, so we’ve got to this point, and you’re probably chuckling along nervously, but also wondering… just WHAT are you going to cook for the ravenous mob at your doorstep? Don’t worry, boo, I got you. My go-to crowd-pleasing favourite is a Build Your Own Burrito Mexican Feast! Easily adapted for vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free diets, lactose allergies, you name it. Just hope you’re not ALLERGIC to FLAVOUR! (Sorry, that was super lame).

A Mexican Feast I made for a film shoot once – the coloured bowls made it even more enticing!

GILLY’S MEXICAN FEAST

For this feast we are going to make CHILLI BEEF and CHILLI BEANS, as well as a super simple GUACAMOLE. I suggest serving with tortillas, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and maybe some rice if you want to carb it up. Also, corn chips on the side. Corn chips are delicious. My quantities will happily feed 8-10 people. If you have more or less, just multiply or divide! Also, at the end of the recipes, I’ve included a section-by-section shopping list for you. Because, you know, I’m the best.

CHILLI BEEF

INGREDIENTS:

2 x large brown onions

1 x green capsicum

4 x cloves garlic

1 x fresh red chilli (not too hot!)

500g beef mince

1 x  400g tin diced tomatoes

2 x tbsp tomato paste

2 x tbsp smoked paprika

2 x tbsp sweet paprika

1/2 x tsp hot paprika

2 x tsp cumin

2 x squares dark chocolate (really!)

optional fancy bits: cinnamon stick, bay leaves

  1. Dice your onion, mince your garlic and get it sizzling with some olive oil in a medium hot frying pan. Instant heavenly smells.
  2. Pop the beef mince in. When it’s browned, add all the spices (BE CAREFUL WITH THE HOT PAPRIKA. You can always add more later. You thought your nostrils were having a good time before? Holy heck, they’re having fun now.
  3. Add the diced capsicum and the very finely chopped and DE-SEEDED chilli. You will only ever accidentally add chilli seeds to a dish once, trust me.
  4. Add the tinned tomatoes, tomato paste and the weird ingredient on the list – the dark chocolate. This is for a little sweetness and intensity. Some people swear by brown sugar, coffee and/or BBQ sauce – I prefer the chocolate. Also, the excuse to buy a whole bar of chocolate and only actually need two squares? Yes please. Add optional fancy bits here if you want (but don’t forget to take out before serving).
  5. Add a generous amount of salt and pepper, give it a good stir and turn the heat down a little. After a few minutes give it a taste. Does it need more spice? Hot paprika. More flavour/intensity? The other paprikas! More salt? … add salt! Less spice? Er… not the easiest. A little sugar in a dire situation, or more tomatoes if you have them.
  6. Let simmer on a very low heat for as long as you’ve got. Seriously, this dish only gets better as the spices release more and more.

CHILLI BEANS

800g x red kidney beans

1 x red capsicum

1 x green capsicum

2 x brown onions

2 x cloves garlic

1 x 400g tin tomatoes

1 x fresh green chilli (not hot)

2 x tbsp smoked paprika

2 x tbsp sweet paprika

1/2 tsp hot paprika

2 x tsp cumin

  1. Alright, you’ve probably already guessed, but this is going to be a similar process to the chilli beef. EXCEPT NOT. We don’t want to cook the beans for too long, ‘cause they’ll turn to mush, so we’ll add them last. Start by slicing the onion, garlic, fresh chilli (de-seeded!) and capsicums quite finely, and frying them on a medium heat until they’re softened and fragrant.
  2. Add all the spices! Again, be careful with hot things.
  3. After a couple of minutes, add the tomatoes, and a generous amount of salt and pepper.
  4. Simmer on a low heat with the lid on for 10 – 20 minutes, depending how pressed you are for time.
  5. Add the beans and cook for 5 more minutes. Ready!

GUACAMOLE

DO NOT BUY READY-MADE GUACAMOLE. Just don’t. I know, it looks appetising, and easy, and it’s oh-so-tempting. But it’s the gastronomical equivalent of running into that guy you had a crush on at school, years later, outside a bar, after a few too many pints. Next minute, you’re having a cheeky snog, and the entire experience is SO DISAPPOINTING. He is not a sex god like you once thought. He is a young man who really does not know what to do with his tongue. Store-bought guacamole is worse than this. And actual guacamole is SO easy to make! Save yourself the disappointment!

INGREDIENTS:

3 x ripe avocados

2 x fresh limes

salt

pepper

red onion

  1. Finely dice the red onion.
  2. Mash the avocados with the freshly-squeezed lime juice, salt and pepper.
  3. Mix in the onion.

Voila! Told you it was easy.

NB: Many people like to add coriander to their guacamole. These people are dead to me. If you are not a coriander-hater, I guess you could, but if you try to serve it to me I will probably stab you with a plastic fork.

And just like that, your Build Your Own Burrito Mexican Feast is ready to serve! Don’t forget to warm the tortillas, and be logical when you set everything out so people can serve themselves easily. Prepare yourself for the onslaught of compliments! For extra bonus points, serve with icy cold beers and/or margaritas.

Another Mexican Feast! I actually think this one was just a classically over-catered family dinner

MEXICAN FEAST SHOPPING LIST

fruit & veg

4 x large brown onions

1 x red capsicum

1 x green capsicum

1 x yellow capsicum

1 x red chilli

1 x green chilli

3 x ripe avocados

1 x head garlic

1 x red onion

dairy

1 x block cheddar (or bag of pre-grated if you’re feeling lazy)

1 x large tub sour cream

meat

500g x minced beef

groceries

2 x tins diced tomatoes

2 x tins red kidney beans

2 x packets tortillas (corn tortillas if gluten-free is necessary!)

1 x bag rice (if you want)

SPICES: sweet paprika, smoked paprika, hot paprika/chilli, cumin

1 x jar tomato paste

1 x small block dark chocolate

Please leave any ideas/questions/thoughts here, I'd love to hear them!