The Cheap-Ass Gourmet Cooks Dinner for Twenty

This past weekend we had a dinner party for twenty people and we decided to make it a sit-down dinner, providing and preparing from scratch all of the food.

This was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. We’ve had parties in the past where we’ve feed 70-80 people, but those have been open-house style gigs and open-house style gigs are a very different (and easier) animal. With an open house you put out food whenever it’s ready, you don’t worry too much about how much you’ve made, and you basically let the masses fend for themselves. If everyone that evening gets a taste of your cochinita pibil, fine. If the early-arriving guests can’t help themselves and plough through it all before the late-arrivers, then that’s fine too. Additionally, if someone made other plans for the latter part of the evening and have to leave before the chicken mole is out of the oven and served, well, them’s the breaks.

A sit down dinner, though — that’s a different story. You have to coordinate everything to be  ready to be served at  the same time, and you have to have enough of everything for everyone. In addition, you have to choose between threading the needle of everyone’s various dietary restrictions or being willing to serve some dishes that not everyone will be able to eat. Before this weekend, the most I’ve ever cooked for in this fashion has been ten people. As we were getting ready last week twenty guests felt not just twice as tricky as ten, but somehow exponentially more difficult.

What’s more, we decided that we wouldn’t serve anything that everyone at our table couldn’t taste if they wished to try it. Since several guests were Jewish this meant no pork or shellfish, obviously, but the biggest challenge actually came from a gentleman who, it turned out, is highly allergic to garlic. Garlic is one of those ingredients whose ubiquitousness you don’t really comprehend until you need to make an entire menu without a trace of it. It’s so near-universal, in fact, that what I ultimately had to do was choose the dishes I wanted to serve and then, if they contained any garlic, rework the recipes with different ingredients from the ground up in a way that didn’t lose the essence of the original dish.

We also decided to offer a large variety of different dishes. That way if a guest wasn’t wild about fish, there would be some lamb to compensate — and if they did’t like either there was always the steak or the chicken. If they liked all of those things, they could approach the meal as a kind of giant tasting menu. Because the weather here has been rather spectacularly sunny lately and we knew we were going to eat outside, we went with a islands-menu theme that was heavy on grilled meats, tropical fruits, and — of course — rum.

It was, without a question of a doubt, the most ambitious thing in the kitchen I have ever attempted by a very wide margin. And with two notable exceptions — the fish and the grilled bananas[1] — I have to say that I think it came off rather perfectly.

I’ve decided to make a post out of the menu — a series of posts, actually. One reason for this is that I feel like I earned the right to crow, of course. Another is that I’m considering having the next Leaguefest in Portland, and if so I’m toying with the idea of letting everyone save money on the dinner they would have bought in a fancy restaurant and instead recreating this meal for y’all.

But I also want to put these revamped recipes down somewhere and encourage readers to try them. They’re all easy, they’re all quite different from things most people probably make with similar ingredients, and they’re all perfect for summer patio eating. And so over the next few weeks I’ll be putting up recipe-posts for those menu items that I felt were particularly amazing. I’ll start tomorrow with the recipe for jerk chicken with banana-mango ketchup.

For now, though, I’ll just post the menu and do a wee victory dance, as well as one giant big-ass exhale.


Tod’s Island Dinner Party Menu

Avant le Repas  

  • Crudités with Mango-Yogurt Dip
  • Grilled Vegetable Gazpacho
  • Island-Style Deviled Eggs
  • Guacamole with Corn Chips[2]
  • Sangria Clara
  • Fresh Daiquiris on Ice


Plats Principaux  

  • Jerk Chicken with Banana Mango Ketchup
  • Whole-Spiced Skirt Steak with Smokey Eggplant Chutney
  • Grilled halibut with Stone Fruit Salsa
  • Grilled Peach & Lamb Salad with Fresh-Mint Yogurt
  • Coconut Rice
  • Spicy Black-eyed Peas with Kale and Peppers
  • Mango, Papaya, and Pineapple, Dressed with Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice
  • Chilled Bottles of Moscato, Pinot Noir Rosé, and (hey, this is Portland after all) un-chilled bottles of Pinot Noir


Aprés un Repas  

  • Grilled Bananas Brushed with Butter & Molasses
  • Coconut Ice Cream
  • Knittingniki’s Impossibly Good Brownies with Roasted Coconut
  • Various Desert Wines & Digestifs


[1] If you’re curious, each of those errors was entirely the fault of the chef.

In the case of the fish, when we make this dish for ourselves we normally grill whole, thick filets. With this dinner I decided to cube the fish and put it on small skewers so that it would be easier to serve. Sadly, I miscalculated the amount of time I should grill the skewers and the fish ended up being overdone, not at all the moist and flakey dish we normally have.

In the case of the bananas, I made a mistake by grilling them right before we served dinner and letting them sit in a warming oven. By the time we served desert, they had gotten overly mushy, and the butter and molasses had had enough time to seep in and take away much of the taste of the banana, which is supposed to be the dominant flavor. Had I to do it over, I’d have still grilled them early, but I’d have put them in the fridge and served them cool.

Live and learn.

[2] Okay, okay… I might have actually bought the corn chips from the store.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

30 thoughts on “The Cheap-Ass Gourmet Cooks Dinner for Twenty

  1. Store bought chips? Savage!

    Even though I am not a food kinda person, the whole thing sounds delightful. I love social gatherings. I am hoping to be able to make the next league fest, though my current movements are restricted.

    (I do 3/4 of the cooking for my wife and I, and it is like pulling teeth. That is just for the two of us, for 20… You are a brave man!)

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    • It’s probably easier for me than it would be for you, simply because of the different ways we each feel about food. I’m glad to hear, though, that this kind of gathering is still a thing that appeals! If we do this for Leaguefest, it would be awesome to have you there.

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  2. Sounds yummy, but Todd, “Since several guests were Jewish this meant no pork or shellfish, obviously, ”

    None of the jewish women I’ve dated had all those restrictions. One chomped down on mussels (on the prohibited list I hear) and pork. The other, seafood, including scallops.

    But I guess there’s all KINDS of jewish-ness :)

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    • Those are pretty standard Kosher restrictions. Of course, not all Jews keep Kosher (and even those who do will follow different rules/standards based on any number of criteria). But unless you know for sure that your Jewish guest doesn’t keep Kosher AND if you want the sort of inclusive meal that Tod is describing, best to take the route he did.

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      • Naturally@kazzy

        Of course the second date I had with the Jewish Israeli school director, she was tucking into a dozen mussels and asked me “if I’d found Jesus Christ as my savior”. The cognitive dissonance stunned me for a moment. :)

        Indeed, as I do as well. But the thing that got me here was, being less familiar with jewish things, I sought council from a coworker who was jewish and he gave some some info. Of course that was “common” stuff. My girlfriend wasn’t “common”. She was a few standard deviations from the norm.

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    • But I guess there’s all KINDS of jewish-ness :)

      Yah. Same here. I also know some catholic women who use birth control, and even a few quite content protestant men who don’t seem to Protest all that much.

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  3. Lots of yummy sounding food. Bonus points for the Brueghal:

    Peasant Wedding by William Carlos Williams

    Pour the wine bridegroom
    where before you the
    bride is enthroned in her hair

    loose at her temples a head
    of ripe wheat is on
    the wall beside her the

    guests seated at long tables
    the bagpipers are ready
    there is a hound under

    the table the bearded Mayor
    is present women in their
    starched headgear are

    gabbing all but the bride
    hands folded in her
    lap is awkwardly silent simple

    dishes are being served
    clabber and what not
    from a trestle made of an

    unhinged barn door by two
    helpers one in a red
    coat a spoon in his hatband

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      • Ballsy! I can work the grill for large quantities of food if we’re talking burgers or sausage or dogs, but the sort of temperature control over multiple cooks (assuming you did) is hard if we’re talking about a fish. Does the BGE regulate temperature better than a gas/propane grill?

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  4. This is one of those times when a catering/rental place (for serving/holding dishes, particularly) can make a huge difference. Dishes, chairs, glasses, etc; don’t keep that stuff at home if you don’t do this regularly, rent it.

    Awesome job.

    Want to know the Island Style Deviled Eggs. I love deviled eggs. Currently, I’ve been making them with a little homemade mayo, mustard, mild curry powder, minced shallot and celery, salt, and dusted with tandoori seasoning instead of paprika.

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    • Oddly enough, I think I do have enough plates and glasses and all for 10, at least. (Thanks to Amazon, for free glassware!). Of course, they’d all be mismatched and that… but I couldn’t possibly invite people who would care about that!

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  5. This is pretty impressive. We do Thanksgiving for about 25 every year but most of the dishes are very forgiving and the Crockpots come in handy. Doing a meal like this where you have to get the timing right is quite ambitious. Kudos and looking forward to reading more about it.

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