Archive for How do I…

Serving that Huge Group of Guests

You don’t have to be a master chef to successfully prepare and serve dinner for a medium-to-large group of people when entertaining, but it certainly helps to get a few tidbits of advice from one! As the executive chef for Golden Oaks, a large elderly-living facility in California, Justin Chinchen would unquestionably have some advice on preparing meals for a crowd.

When planning a dinner party at your home, Justin firmly believes that the first step should be setting and sticking to a budget that will cover the cost of the food.

The second step should be to decide on a theme for decoration and menu, that’s determined by the current season and functionality. Justin feels that the meal is “beyond the food–it is also about the decoration and set up. The host or hostess has to be a little bit artistic.” If your dinner party is in December, for example, it makes sense to focus on a Christmas theme.

Decor also extends to the table seating. If you’re having a party where the majority of the guests are couples, then seat them beside each other; but it this is a singles crowd, then merely stagger the men and women.

When it comes to deciding on your menu, Justin has some more advice. First off, think about how the dish will hold up for the size of your party. While you may be able to get away with cooking up a succulent and scrumptious dinner of halibut for your family of four, that same dish will dry out before you are finished serving it to all of your guests. And a plate of sauteed shrimp will most likely lose its heat by the time people start forking it in.

What’s on the menu also depends on the reason for the function. “Is it for a birthday party? Then plan your menu around the ‘pickiness’ of the birthday person–your guest of honor.” Or if you simply want to entertain people in your home “just because,” pick a few of your favorite dishes to prepare–but skip the new recipes; cook what you do best so that you are sure to impress.

Finally, decide on how you will serve the delicious meal to your guests. Will it be family style? Individually plated up? Buffet? Try to keep in mind the amount of guests, how long it will take to serve with each different style, and what would be easy on you as the host or hostess–since you will be cook, server, and entertainer all at once.

And as for not becoming “stresserated” (Justin’s five-year-old daughter’s word for stress and frustrated)?–that comes with experience and plenty of preparation. Learn to always be thinking about the next step in your meal preparation. Timing is everything. “If your pork roast needs to be in the oven for two hours…put it in! Don’t be chopping up your lettuce for your layered salad instead of popping your meat in the oven!”

Scheduling, as well as planning your budget, menu, and theme, are all crucial; down to the last dish going on the table.

~Kristin Walder, 4/26/2008


Wit and Wisdom from a Recipe Contest Vet

If you’re a novice cooking contest hobbyist, you may be able to learn a thing or two from Ronna Farley. As a previous winner, and frequent qualifier, of both recipe entry and cookoff-style contests, Ronna has no doubt earned her place in the figurative Cooking Contest Hall of Fame. With another Pillsbury Bakeoff fresh in the can until 2010 (the contest was on April 15 and is held every two years), what better time to speak with a two-time past finalist of this American institution?

It should be noted that Ronna’s competitive accomplishments aren’t limited to the Bake-off (referred to as “PBO” on the contest circuit). She’s participated in numerous challenges over the course of three decades, ranging from the very minor to the very renowned. Check out my recent Q&A with Ronna:

TM: Ronna, how long have you been entering recipe contests? Can you give us a brief history?

RF: I started entering the Pillsbury Bake Off as a young bride around 1973. I don’t remember what my first entry was, since it is so long ago. It probably wasn’t very good anyway! Then, I (was chosen as a finalist for) Bake Off #26 in San Francisco in 1975, with the recipe “Ham and Cheese Crescent Snacks.” After that, I toyed around with entering over the years, but nothing happened.

TM: We know that you enjoyed additional success with PBO later on, but did anything happen in the meantime?

RF: Around 1976, I was in a local contest – a Chun King Wok Cook Off, with my Oriental meatball recipe. They showed some of it on local TV. For awhile, that was pretty much it for cook offs. I have won some smaller prizes like wine glasses, salad bowls, and cook books.

TM: And then…

RF: In the summer of 1999, I was asked to participate in Pillsbury Hall of Fame Contest to celebrate 50 years of the Bake Off. My Ham and Cheese Crescent Snacks was voted 1st out of 3 recipes in the category, so I got to go to the Bake Off in San Francisco in 2000, and I could bring a guest. I brought my mom, since she always had an interest in the Bake Off, and we had a great time!

TM: Your most notable accomplishment is your third Bake Off experience. Tell us about that.

RF: I found out I would be in the 43rd Bake Off in 2006, and I won the Snack category with my Choco-Peanut Butter Cups. The prize was $10,000 and a GE Trivection oven.

TM: Since you were unable to enter (due to winner limitations) this past contest, what have you been up to for the past two years?

RF: I participated in the Crisco Country Cook Off in June 2007. It was a one-week trip for two to the Country Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, including all concerts. My husband and I loved it, and I placed second in the appetizer category. I also participated in the National Oyster Cook Off in St. Mary’s County, Maryland in October 2007. There were 4 categories and I placed 3rd, winning $150. I hope to be included in that once again this year, since it was only 1 1/2 hours from my house.

TM: Finally, what tips do you have for novice contestants?

RF: Well, how many recipes I enter depends on how busy I am, but if I get inspired, I’ll enter as many as a dozen! I think I’m better at creating dessert recipes than main dish recipes, so (what you choose to enter) should depend on that, and also on what kind of recipes they are looking for.

I find it discouraging when I don’t win in a contest, but, I just shrug it off, and start to work on another contest. There are so many that I think we all “hit” with something eventually. I suggest not giving up, and just keep trying!

The Perfect Hamburger


Forthcoming sticky summer days, and lounging with friends and family in the backyard in the early evening, invite an all-American meal with the hamburger as the focal point. But sometimes a would-be tasty hamburger turns into a burnt patty topped with wilted lettuce and a soggy bun. However, those hamburgers won’t be the result if you follow some expert advice on how to cook the perfect hamburger. Stephen Ruck, a three-year professional hamburger cook at In-N-Out, one of California’s most renowned burger authorities, would of course have the expertise needed to help all wannabe hamburger chefs. he continues to cultivate and practice his expertise by cooking in his spare time for friends and family.

According to Ruck, the two key hamburger tips to remember are: freshness and quality meat. Without these important elements, you can still have a good hamburger–but not a great one.

Everything that the hamburger is composed of should be straight from the garden. Ruck recommends the freshest produce: plump, firm tomatoes, hand-leafed lettuce, onions, buns, never-frozen hamburger meat, and 100% American Grade A cheese. According to Ruck, “Wilted, soggy, mushy, and wrinkled ingredients are the worst injustice you can give to the all-American hamburger.”

The amateur cook’s temptation is to slap a fat hamburger patty on the grill until it is well-charcoaled.  Ruck gives a few key suggestions that can increase your chances of making the patty into a succulent and juicy burger. First, the meat should be of Grade A quality, and don’t use frozen patties–remember that freshness is essential. When forming the burger into a slim eighth of a pound patty, shape it so that the center is thinner than the edges, since that part takes the longest to cook. To cook, an In-N-Out secret is to place the patties onto a griddle or a frying pan that will simulate a griddle (rather than a grill) for even distribution of the heat, rather than the random cooking of flames, and season with a salt and pepper mixture.

Cook at 375 degrees until the patty begins to bubble, for exactly a minute and 20 seconds. Immediately flip the patty and apply the cheese. Ruck recommends folding over a fifth of the standard cheese square for both presentation and taste appeal, a leftover habit he developed from working at In-N-Out. At this point, the hamburger should only remain on the griddle for another three minutes, placing the top bun on top of the patty at the last minute.


Once the patty has finished cooking, you’re ready to stack the burger ingredients. And Ruck even has a certain way of doing that. Your choice of dressing of course goes on the bun first. It could be: barbecue sauce, Thousand Island, mayonnaise, ketchup, or mustard (although the strong flavor of mustard can overpower the flavor of the meat. Because of the flat nature of the onion and tomato slices, they should go on next to balance the remaining ingredients. Compress and place the lettuce on top, then complete with the bun-topped patty and cheese.

Ruck even advises on the proper way to eat the completed hamburger–start with the double-layered cheese side first, and gobble your way through the remainder of the burger, making sure that every bite includes a taste of each ingredient for ultimate satisfaction of your great hamburger. He has a special way of making hamburgers, but there is one thing that he says, upon which every cook can agree: “In the end, it’s the freshness of ingredients that makes the biggest difference.”

~Kristin Walder 4/1/08