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How to cook for a crowd this holiday season

AS DIRECTOR OF restaurant operations at the Residence at Otter Creek, Jeff Trump knows a thing or two about preparing large meals for a lot of people. One tip when cooking for big groups: Clean 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 for large gatherings with family and friends, and with those gatherings most will be cooking large meals. Feeding a crowd can be a daunting task, though local culinary professionals say there are ways to make the job easier and, perhaps, even enjoyable this year. 

Jeff Trump, director of restaurant operations at the Residence at Otter Creek, has a lot of experience making food for large groups. Trump serves as head chef at the Middlebury assisted living facility, helping prepare and serve three meals a day for the 140 residents as well as staff members. 

He said he enjoys the task, though there are some obstacles you run into when making high quality meals for a big group, such as making meals that please everyone. 

“Overall, it’s a positive (experience). It’s definitely a challenge, there’s a big attention to detail in making sure that each plate or box goes out as best it can,” he said. “You can’t please everyone all of the time. Sometimes we have something on the menu that people enjoy and others don’t.”

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

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

Another tip is to plan ahead and prep ingredients before you start making the meal. 

“Peel your potatoes the day before, and whatever you can do to set yourself up ahead of time. We try to do prep for everything the night before,” he said. 

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

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

“A really important thing is prep, prep, prep. For example, if you’re making a casserole, set aside an hour the day before and prep that casserole,” he said. “Anything you can do ahead of time, so the day of you’re just concentrating on the cooking of the food itself and so you’re not overwhelmed.”

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

“That’s a simple dish that’s elegant and easy to prepare, it’s always a huge hit here. People can make that at home too,” he said. 

One of Morris’s go-to dishes is a braise, 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 scoop and serve,” he 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 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’re cooking for people, the less complexity you really want to add into it,” he said. “In the end you want to just keep it simple, so you’re not overwhelmed. And you want to be part of the occasion as well, and the more complex you make your dinner the less time you’ll 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 cooking here at the residence, part of that is me trying to say that it is all very approachable,” he said.

He stressed that it’s OK to ask for help: 

“If you’re having guests, have them pitch in. Everyone’s always gathering in the kitchen and people like to pitch in, so use the people around you.”

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