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Trying to be a chef-matician

It would take a month and a half for my little family of three eaters to finish off 400 homemade meals, yet it only took parts of four days to polish off that many servings of my cooking last week. This was one of the family reunions I mentioned last week, although it wasn’t actually my family reunioning — my family and I were just tagging along.

By request, of course; although I enjoy the idea of crashing someone else’s reunion, in this case I was commissioned to make the food. While I did entertain the thought of boldly passing out hugs with exclamations of “Wow, it’s been so long since we’ve seen you, cousin!”, Brian appropriately encouraged otherwise. They did, after all, fly us there to be working in the kitchen, not to be assuming the identity of some long-lost relative. 

That’s right, fly: this was a destination catering, in Michigan! I’ve been looking forward to and working ahead for this trip for months now, and the experience did not disappoint. We packed up our two kids and four carry-ons, and took two flights in order to get to Ohio and meet up with my parents to finish up the five-hour drive to the 26th state in the union. The six of us stayed in apartment #6, my mom and dad watching Benson and Kiah while Brian helped me serve eight meals to 55 people. 

There are so many numbers involved in cooking — from servings to ingredient amounts to temperatures and beyond. Units range from degrees to minutes, ounces to adults, tablespoons to chickens. I’ll forever choose crossword puzzles over sudokus, as the realm of words is my strong point instead of numbers, yet math is thoroughly interwoven throughout cooking. Even with my slapdash cooking style, there are numbers typed, penciled, scribbled, and rewritten all over my planning pages. The “recipes” that I wrote to be purely eyeballed still had to have a shopping list, so whether it got followed or not, there still had to be estimated amounts. 

It’s a tricky business, that of estimating. Especially for crowds. If you added an extra cucumber to a salad for six, not a big deal — but if you did that times ten, suddenly that’s almost a dozen extra cukes. Not the end of the world, but also not ideal (unless it’s late summer and any excuse to use up cucumbers is a good one). The reverse happens as well, when either by mathematical error or fluke of eating habits the dish does not last through the end of the serving line; running out of food is the stuff nightmares are made of for a caterer, particularly one like myself who is steeped in generations of abundant Mennonite hospitality. 

So the numbers have to be correct, both in projected estimation of serving needs and in actual mathematical function. And yet, they rarely are, often through no fault of anyone. I crunched the numbers just right to correctly measure and bake the six-converted-to-eight-muffins recipe times two flavors times 24 batches minus two tasters to equal 190 muffins for three mornings for 60ish people...but I couldn’t know that the breakfasters would prefer one kind over the other, resulting in only one leftover sweet potato chocolate muffin and maybe two dozen banana cardamom mango. 

It’s easy to calculate that “a serving” of shawarma-spiced chicken is a half cup, but difficult to know exactly what those nine different-sized whole chickens will yield, and impossible to know how much people will actually take. I’ve made rice for large groups many times, and while my math plus past experience pointed to a certain amount, this family clearly didn’t eat in nearly the quantity anticipated.

And while I try hard to avoid it, sometimes the numbers go awry in the calculation process. I’m not sure what happened, as I know the ratios of dried beans to cooked in cups and pounds and all around, but looking it over again, I see why I had so many chipotle pinto beans left over: because I cooked almost twice the amount we needed. Three gallons of beans is simply too much. 

Fortunately, my brain is getting a little much-needed break from kitchen math now that the big catering job is done. And the only number leftovers need is what to punch in on the microwave.

Mexi-terranean Taco Salad

My immediate family had a little vacation directly after the catering reunion, and I was delighted to take a few various leftovers along to avoid cooking (although 14 is such a small number to feed in comparison). We had a little something left from all five main meals, so we amalgamated them into a pseudo-cohesive build-your-own adventure plate, with some interesting notes of correlation between Mexican, Mediterranean, and American style dishes. No math involved.

Prep tips: you can use freshly made components or leftovers, and in any combination. 

• tortilla and/or pita chips

• rice seasoned with cumin

• salad greens

• pinto beans

• hummus

• leftover cubed/shredded meat (we had lamb)

• shredded/crumbly cheese

• diced tomatoes and avocados

• pickled onions

• creamy sauce(s): we had yogurt, tzatziki, and ranch

Layer to your pleasure. 

Amanda Miller lives with her husband, two young children, and whoever else God brings them through foster care on the family dairy farm in Hutchinson. She enjoys doing some catering, teaching cooking classes, and freelancing, but mostly chasing after her kids. Reach her at