Tips for hosting a successful backyard barbecue for a crowd
I recently hosted 65 members of my extended family for a backyard celebration. There's no way to avoid spending money and plenty of time planning, shopping, prepping, cooking and cleaning. However, some shortcuts can make it less exhausting and expensive without skimping on the experience you give your guests. I will give you a peek behind the apron into how I pulled this off and things I'd do differently next time.
As with fashion and home decorating, the general theme is to mix high with low. In this case, that meant buying ready-made items and fixing others from scratch. Go with simple things that can be made the day before, like slow-cooker baked beans. My family doesn't use any specific recipe; we doctor cans of great northern beans or baked beans with mustard, bacon, bell pepper, onion, brown sugar and barbecue sauce. You can find many recipes online or let your taste guide you. Different beans and sauces will have varying levels of sugar, for instance. You want to balance the sweet, savory and tart flavors that will meld as the beans cook down over several hours. This dish was the second most popular on our buffet table.
The most popular was another family standby, the humble cucumber salad. Again, we make it so often that there isn't a written recipe we follow. It's just thinly sliced, peeled English cucumber with Vidalia onions, good vinegar, a bit of sugar and a heap of fresh dill. We had chive blossom vinegar and mixed it with apple cider vinegar to give it a pleasant tang. Add much more dill than you think is needed; it breaks down overnight and mellows. Don't use the standard, seeded cucumber for this recipe, as you would have to de-seed, salt and strain off the excess water. You have too many other things to do for this party, so go with the English or Persian type -- the long thin ones that are practically seedless and much less watery. This can also be made a day before your party and will retain its crunchiness.
As for the store-bought items, we still jazzed them up. Someone even asked my mom who made the potato salad even though it was a bulk buy at Costco. We added chunks of hard-boiled egg, some of that chive blossom vinegar, a bit of mustard and minced French tarragon. I am lucky enough to grow that herb, but you can more easily find fresh parsley, chives or dill to enliven the flavor. We also bought giant tubs of coleslaw but served that as is.
We kept the salads cold by placing the serving bowls into one of those inflatable shallow serving trays/tubs that can be filled with ice. Not very cute, but it did the job nicely.
Grilled burgers and brats are standard barbecue fare, but we cooked 80 assorted meat items with a single grill. We needed to batch cook them. Grilled brats went into a chafing dish filled with beer to stay warm and moist. The burgers went into one of those large electric roasters typically used for turkeys. They sat atop a wire rack with beef broth simmering on the bottom. That infused them with flavor while keeping them from drying out. The plant-based burgers we served were Impossible Burgers, which the internet deems the best for grilling. They were easy to cook without sticking or falling apart, and we had none left over, so I guess they tasted good, too.
Condiments are king at a barbecue, and we had plenty of fixings for the brats and burgers. Aldi is a great source for interesting German-made mustards, so we had a selection of four types. There were also sweet onions and tomatoes, sliced (for the burgers) and diced (for the brats). Sauerkraut, ketchup and good pickles rounded out the selection.
Our drinks station included coolers (marked with painter's tape labels) with flavored seltzer, soda and beer. We also had glass dispensers with water, lemonade and a wine spritzer using citrus fruit, sparkling water and a bit of ginger beer. Make sure you put your dispensers on a riser (like an upside-down bowl) so that people can fit their glasses under the spigot. Also, label these clearly, so people know which ones contain alcohol. In fact, I labeled everything on the buffet and marked it with a little "v" for items that were vegan.
It's been much too hot to bake, so for dessert, we had watermelon, trays of cookies from Costco, and four whole chocolate cakes from Portillo's. We only needed two. The maker claims each cake serves 8-10, but we got 24 servings from a single cake. Ice cream is not practical for a crowd, so we whipped up a bowl of heavy cream and placed it inside a larger bowl of ice. I served coffee from an urn that makes 40 cups at a time, and people helped themselves.
Everyone says it's better to have too much than too little food at a party. In this case, I am still eating leftovers four days later (all still delicious, by the way.) Better to factor in the number of items you are serving and then realize that people will take much less of any single item when they are filling their plates with 5-6 different things. I estimated 1.5 meats per person, and we ended up closer to just 1 per person. If a recipe says six servings, assume it's really 10-12 small portions and multiply quantities accordingly.
I hope you'll enjoy several backyard gatherings this summer, and if you are hosting an especially large one, these tips might help.
• Leslie Meredith is the winner of the 2019 Cook of the Week Challenge and teaches people how to grow and cook "real" food. She runs Farmhouse School on a historic homestead in Campton Hills. See the school's Facebook or Instagram pages @FarmhouseSchool or contact Leslie at email@example.com.