What were we thinking? My wife and I decided to self cater a graduation party for our son's High School graduation. We anticipated anywhere from 50-100 people, which meant that we had to cook for 100 people. We prepared about 90% of the food ourselves, but fortunately we were not 100% crazy, as we hired a local chef, Dan Spitz, formerly of The Beekman Street Bistro in Saratoga Springs, but now cooking as a private chef, to help out on the day of the party. We had originally approached Chef Spitz about catering the event with a Cajun theme as our son will be attending Tulane University in New Orleans. Although he quoted us a very reasonable price for what we had hoped to do, my wife and I decided that it was still more than what we had budgeted for food. We decided that we would try to save some money and do the food ourselves. Chef Spitz graciously offered to help us on the day of the party with a reasonable fee to compensate him for his time. We accepted.
Brainstorming, my wife and I came up with a menu that we thought we could pull off and that we would feel satisfied serving. We also took into consideration foods favored by our son. Being the height of the summer growing season and living in an area with great product, we wanted to feature as much of that product as we could. Some things were standard for this kind of party. Hamburgers and hot dogs are expected, but we wanted to serve the very best that we could while also conserving time, so I sourced all-beef natural casing hot dogs from Lewis-Waite Farm and grass-fed beef hamburger patties from Mack Brook Farm. My son loves BBQ ribs, so I searched around to source ribs from Lewis-Waite and John Boy's Mountain View farms. Pasta Bolognese is a favorite and my wife makes a mean one with ground beefalo from Lick Springs Farm. Steamed clams are always a big hit so I ordered a half-bushel of Cape Cod littlenecks from Price Chopper along with 10 pounds of wild gulf 21-25 count shrimp for the dish that would be the centerpiece, retaining a bit of the cajun theme that we originally wanted – jambalaya. I was originally going to mail order andouille and tasso from Louisiana, but when I tasted John Boy's product, I determined that i didn't need to – it was pretty darn tasty in its own right with just enough of a kick to make it interesting without overpowering those who might not prefer it so spicy. We rounded the menu out with some baked beans, cole slaw and a green bean salad. For beverages, we would order beer and soda from the nearby Cooper's cave Ale Company and we would pour wine from our cellar.
We got a good jump on the preparations, doing as much shopping and ordering as we could ahead of time. Unfortunately, I fell into a particularly busy week at work that left me with little free time to start prepping early. My wife was able to bang out the beans and the Bolognese during the week, which helped tremendously.
With the party on Sunday afternoon, our work in the kitchen got serious Friday evening. I didn't get home from a very busy day until about 7:30 PM. I got down to trimming the spare ribs St. Louis style and applying a dry rub using a recipe from Mike and Amy Mills' great book, Peace, Love and Barbecue before wrapping the ribs in plastic rap and refrigerating them. Kitty was shredding organic cabbages for the slaw and making the dressing, though not applying it. After I trimmed the ribs, we chopped and combined onions, celery, garlic and red bell peppers based on a recipe for jambalaya from the May/June 2002 issue of Cook's Illustrated. The original recipe was designed to feed 4-6 people, but we multiplied it by 10. The last thing we did that evening before heading to bed at 2AM was to brown and shred 40 chicken thighs. To give an idea of how busy we were during the prep work all evening, I didn'teven take any photos!
We got up on Saturday at 7AM to get started on the day. I drove to Saratoga to pick up 4 rental chafing dishes, go to the farmers market then out to Washington County to pick up more andouille and tasso from John Boy's, stop at a couple of Studios for the Washington County Open Studios weekend and stop at Sheldon Farm Market to pick up serious quantities of green beans, corn, peaches and a pineapple. Once I got home, I went back out to pick up the clams, shrimp and hot dog and hamburger rolls. Throw in a quick visit to another graduation party for a little socializing and dinner and I was back in my kitchen and ready to work by 8PM.
Saturday night's jobs consisted of cutting up the pineapple, andouille and tasso, setting aside the pineapple, browning the andouille and tasso in the oil used the prior night to brown the chicken and then frying the rice, all 6 and a half pounds of it, before setting it aside to finish cooking the next day. I unwrapped the ribs, put them on sheet trays and placed 4 trays in the CVap to cook at 190ºF for ten hours with another set to put in in the morning. In addition, we cooked and took the corn off the cob, destemmed and boiled the green beans and straightened up the kitchen before making it to bed relatively early at 1AM.
Sunday morning we again got up at 7AM knowing that we still had a lot to do. I removed the first set of ribs from the CVap and started the second set. The ribs were nice and moist, but still falling off the bone. I separated and sauced them with bottled sauce from Dinosaur BBQ. Since it was still rather early, I put the cooked ribs in the refrigerator and moved on to other things like cutting up fruit for a fruit salad. I sliced two cantaloupes, peaches, strawberries and added blueberries and mint. To this, I added a sauce made from frozen local strawberries, balsamico tradizionale, mint and June Taylor's Buddha's Hand citron, rose & geranium syrup to add some sweetness and a little mystery. Kitty and our son were busy setting up the yard and getting ice and a graduation cake (recent local tradition) from the store. Coopers Cave delivered and set up the beer and soda kegs in a timely fashion. Time was moving quickly, while it seemed I wasn't moving quickly enough. Fortunately, by late morning the cavalry in the form of Dan Spitz arrived.
I apportioned my two tons of jambalaya rice into about a dozen half trays and added the shredded chicken, diced canned tomatoes and the liquid in the form of reserved tomato juice, bottled clam juice and chicken stock and per Dan's advice covered the pans with parchment and aluminum foil. As I was seriously in the weeds, with the start of the party fast approaching, Dan proved invaluable. He constructed the cole slaw, made a tarragon vinaigrette for my concoction of green beans, corn and piquillo peppers and put pans of jambalaya in the oven. The start time of the party, 2PM, had arrived and we were no where close to putting out the food. Fortunately with the help of my brother Paul and a few others, we had set out chips and dip and beverages, so we were not too far under the gun. By 3 PM, things started looking much brighter. The grill was started for the dogs and burgers, the salads were put together and the chafing dishes were set up. I had pasta cooked and the Bolognese heated up. The ribs were warming in the chafer. They were too fragile on the bone to even think about putting them on the grill. Fortunately they didn't need it.
Dan's training, skill and professionalism really shone through as he manned the grill, cooking burgers, cheese burgers and dogs, added the shrimp (that he had earlier shelled and deveined) to the just cooked jambalaya, kept an eye on the serving trays and whipped up some beer steamed clams that were one of the big hits of the party. With Dan smoothly running the kitchen, I was finally able to relax, mingle and enjoy our guests and the food. We were blessed with a rare for this summer beautiful day. Though we didn't get nearly the hundred people we had prepared for, we did have a good crowd of about sixty or so come at various times throughout the afternoon, with our guest list focused primarily on family, our son's friends and friends that we have made through our son. Somehow, as hectic and crazy as it was, the day turned out to be a success, without any food or other disasters.
In retrospect, I'm not sure that we saved a whole lot of money. I enjoyed the challenge and am glad that we did it. However, now that we have done it, I'm not so sure that I would want to do it again on this scale – at least not while having to do my regular job (not even including operating this blog). When all was said and done and the kitchen cleaned up (great thanks to our good friends Tom and Amy for their generous help), Kitty and I were absolutely exhausted. I had to work the next day, but fortunately it proved to be a light day and I was done early. Working side by side with Chef Dan Spitz was a great experience. Next time, I will really know better and just hire him to do the whole thing like I just should have done here!