Cooking for Others: Know Your Audience, However Large


EVENT: Chili Cook-off
VENUE: Phoebe’s Apartment, Flatiron
PARTY SIZE: 18 – 20, mostly male with notable appetites
TYPE: Casual Buffet
MENU: Keith’s Spiked Meat-Lover’s Chili (recipe not included; interested parties can beg Keith for it), Phoebe’s Smoky Chipotle Vegetarian Chili, Cornbread, Spinach Salad with Corn, Avocado, and Cilantro Citrus Vinaigrette
DESSERT: Mexican Wedding Cakes, Cinnamon-Mocha Dulce de Leche Bites (see Cara’s post, below)

What I’ve come to realize from hosting over the past few years in a variety of different venues, with the use of many ad-hoc kitchens, is that our audience—the over-extended student, the overtired first-year analyst, and the over-eager eternal dilettante (whose time is slightly more flexible)—requires very few reasons to have fun. Make the food simple, but impressive. Keep the setting casual, the vibe relaxed. Add a theme and, when in doubt, don’t be afraid to err on the side of nerd-dom.

Which brings us to the Chili Cook-off. My good friend Keith, a spice-master in his own right, agreed to take me on in front of a relatively non-judgmental taste-testing crowd of our hungry friends. On my stove, he warmed two versions of the meat chili he’d brought over—one spicy, one milder—and I reheated my smoky, vegetarian version on the remaining burner. Because of the size of the crowd (about 20), I employed a few of my rules of thumb when dealing with so many guests: reduce the number of dishes served; use paper or plastic, not glass; and, most importantly, serve buffet style or directly from the stove.

The tips paid off, and, with the exception of the unfortunate, cocky few who mixed in too much of Keith’s lethal batch with their portion of mild, I can assure you that when two pots of chili face-off, everybody wins.

From my small (yet often spicy) kitchen to yours,


Keith giving his chili some love.



Smoky Chipotle Vegetarian Chili
Makes 10 – 15 servings
Budget $50

Chili is the ultimate gift to cooks in small kitchens. It requires only one pot, the result is a hardy, filling meal that can feed a fleet, and, in the case of my Vegetarian Chipotle version, it’s also extremely cheap.

Though the dish has long been hailed as a meat-lovers’ favorite, I’ve found that if done correctly, the familiarity of the flavors is what makes people want to eat it all night long. In this version, the chipotle compensates in flavor for the absence of slow-cooked beef brisket (my chili meat of choice) by giving the dish a down-home, rich smokiness.

If the spirit of competition strikes, plate servings of chili yourself to ensure each bite is accompanied with the perfect balance of garnishes.


2 15.5 oz cans kidney beans
1 15.5 oz can black beans
1 15.5 oz can pinto beans
2 medium zucchini, quartered and sliced
1 yellow squash
2 large sweet onions
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
1 orange pepper (if unavailable, double up on red)
3 14.5 oz cans fire roasted diced tomatoes (I used Muir Glen Organic Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes in Adobo)
½ quart veggie stock
1 7oz can mild green chilies
½ 7oz can whole chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons cumin
1 tbsp oregano
3 cloves garlic
1 bottle dark Mexican beer, Negra Moderno if they have it
1 bunch cilantro stems (leaves to be used for garnish and salad dressing)


Handful cilantro leaves
Shredded Monterey Jack cheese
2 limes, cut into thin wedges (12 total)
Crushed tortilla chips
Diced avocado (not pictured, but a necessary element!)

In a large pot over medium heat, sauté onions and peppers until beginning to caramelize, 8 minutes. Add the zucchini and the squash and sauté until tender, 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and continue to simmer. Meanwhile, add garlic cloves, cilantro stems, green chilies, and chipotle peppers to a small food processor (see tip at bottom). Puree mixture. Add ½ cup of stock, and pulse to combine. Pour mixture into pot of simmering vegetables. Rinse beans thoroughly in a colander to get rid of the canning liquids, then add to the pot. Add salt, chili powder, cumin, oregano, beer, and the remaining stock.

Simmer with the lid off, stirring frequently until the liquids begin to thicken and the vegetables have begun to break down.

The chili is best if made the night before, and can keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.


Spinach Salad with Corn, Avocado, and Cilantro Citrus Vinaigrette
Makes 10 servings

I’ve found that the fatal error of buffet-style dinners is fooling yourself into thinking that the table must be filled with as many sides as a Thanksgiving feast (though my mother and I do operate under this philosophy during the actual holidays), so I like to choose one or two basic dishes that easily lend themselves to large portions.

To offset the heaviness of the chili and offer a palate cleanser in between the competing bowls, I made this big, simple salad. The ingredients are minimal, but the dressing is so good, my roommate once tried to drink it. There are several different herbed variations that can be added to the base of shallot, Dijon mustard, and lemon, but to stick to my budget and round out the Mexican flavors, I used the remaining cilantro and a hint of pickled jalapeño.


2 limes
2 avocados
1 cup corn kernels. Use fresh if in season (about 2 ears) or canned (rinsed in a colander)
10 oz baby spinach
1 lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1 medium shallot
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 bunch cilantro leaves
2 slices pickled jalapeño (optional)
olive oil

For the dressing:

In a small food processor, combine the cilantro leaves, shallot, Dijon, salt, jalapeño, and the juice of 1 ½ limes and 1 lemon. Puree the mixture until all elements are fully minced. Stream in olive oil until the texture becomes a frothy liquid. Taste the dressing, and if it is too tart, add in more olive oil.

For the salad:

Cut the avocado into rustic chunks and add to a large salad bowl. Squeeze the remaining ½ lime over the avocado so it does not begin to brown while you are waiting for your guests to arrive. Add the corn and spinach. Right before serving, add the citrus cilantro vinaigrette and toss.

TIP: for both recipes, I use the Cuisinart DLC-2ABC Mini Prep Plus Food Processor. It’s only $35 at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, multi-purpose, and takes up half the space of a blender. I’m obsessed. For the chili, if you do not have any type of blender or food processor, just make sure to finely mince the aforementioned ingredients. The dressing is harder to achieve manually, and I would highly recommend the purchase for this reason alone. You don’t know what you’re missing.

Spice-masters recovering from the heat of battle.
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