We have all heard about librarian's wearing random hats. Teacher, babysitter, accountant, policeman, fireman, cthulhu, the list goes on. The one most seem to overlook is cook. I am not talking gourmet restaurant style chef, I mean basic "Hey, there's gonna be food at my random event, please come!" After-school snacks, book clubs, board meetings, and the occasional Friends of the Library meeting all have one thing in common: a healthy amount of free foods. For a while, I am betting most of us have been getting along with delivery pizza and cokes next to a bowl of ice, but budgets are not what they once were.
Beyond the jump are five easy to make cheap things that will please just about everybody:
The most basic food you can serve at your little library hoot'n-nanny is the drinks. There is a reason they are called "refreshments." They give the person something to sip on while pretending to be interested.
The most basic of these is coffee. Most of the world drinks this hot beverage. It is great for early morning, afternoon, or late night. I am not going to include a recipe here (maybe in a future post) because no one cares what your coffee tastes like. As one of the largest consumed foods in the world, people expect bad coffee wherever it is offered. Coffee is the society's episodes of Law & Order; good or bad, people expect it to be there when they flip through the channels. Just remember to have both caffeinated and decaf and if someone asks for a something-chino, put on your kung fu hat.
Lemonade and punch are almost the same thing. A cool, tangy refreshment that is plentiful and may flow from some ice thing with fruit on it. Easy and crowd pleasing, here's my recipe for great lemonade base if you have the time:
There's no real scale to this (this makes a quart and a half of strong lemonade, but quarts and gallons can be substituted for cups, just keep an eye on the final size. Keep the ratios right depending on your need.)
4 cups lemon juice (I like to fresh squeeze a bag of lemons and keep it refrigerated, the acid lets it keep a long time. Strain it before you use it if that's your thing, but I kind of like some pulp in mine.)
6 cups of water (4 cold and 2 for boiling)
4 cups of sugar
Mix the lemon juice and 2 pints cold water. Boil 2 cups water and add the sugar slowly until fully mixed with the boiling water. Combine the cold and hot, stirring with a wooden spoon. This is a strong base lemonade, so you will want to add more water to dilute if necessary. This base can be refrigerated and will last a while. For the more prepared in the bunch, make ice cubes out of the lemonade and serve with the drinks. If this is not an official function, a shot (2 fl. oz.) of whiskey per glass (16 fl. oz.) with crushed ice can liven up any party.
How do you please everybody? Salad. The weight conscious and the non-carnivorous dig in, the rest of us just pile as much meat, cheese and fat on them to make us forget they are sorta healthy. Salad can be for the appetizer or for the main course. For the main course, I would go buffet style. The secret to putting out a good salad is in the fixins. Put lots of options out for people to make their own. Lets face it, salad is cheap and you can feed an army with just a head of lettuce and a bottle of ranch.
For a base salad, you can either buy a mix or do the following:
Tear up a head of lettuce, discarding the inner most and outer most layers. You can eat the whole thing if you are feeling fun, but the leafy, healthy green just looks better. Spinach leaves seem all the rage lately instead of lettuce, so knock yourself out if you have a couple of extra bucks. Next, shave out some carrots in a bowl. Some people go for the baby carrot option, but that just looks like too much for a salad. However, if the food is going to be out for a while (say around 2+ hrs), go for the babies. Pick a couple more vegetables like cucumbers, peppers, whatever. Some tomatoes, diced or cut in fourths. Turkey, ham and chicken are cheap and can be cubed and put to the side for the meat eaters in the group. Everybody has their favorite type of dressing, but the most popular are ranch, thousand island, Italian, balsamic vinaigrette and Russian, so have a bottle of each on hand. If someone mentions honey dijon or blue cheese or something else they might like next time, make a note that that person is "whiny." We buy for budgets, freeloaders. If you would like to make your own dressing, it is really not that hard. Most are based on mayonnaise or vinaigrette. Recipes can be found online.
3. Chicken-a-la-thing, or How I Learned to Love the Yardbird
As I mentioned above, chicken is cheap. Like mayonnaise and cream of mushroom, it can be the base for just about anything. From soufflés to fried, the chicken is king. A bag of boneless breasts can be found at the supermarket for under $10 and feed a board room easily. Just a note, baking is generally the quickest, easiest, and less volatile way to prepare yardbird, especially in a non-kitchen setting like a library. See The Great Grease Fire of 2003 for reference.
There are so many recipes for chicken out there, there is no way to list them all here. If you feel like having some kitchen fun, try random things on chicken in casseroles. For my taste, I recommend soaking the chicken breasts in Italian dressing as a marinade before baking or grilling, if you plan on serving it whole. Here's a cheap casserole recipe that can be easily scaled to fit any function.
6 boneless chicken breasts
1 can cream of mushroom
1 can cream of celery
1 cup of sour cream
1 stick of butter
1 sleeve of Ritz crackers
Bake the chicken and cut it into cubes. Mix in an 8x8 baking pan with the cream of mushroom and celery and sour cream. Melt the stick of butter (1 min in microwave should do it) and crush the crackers into it. Spread the butter cracker mix over the ingredients. Preheat oven for 350 degrees and bake for about 20 minutes. I like to serve it with saffron rice and green beans, but that's up to you. Serves about 5 with a full meal.
What do you do if you just need a quick appetizer? What if the chicken burns, the salad is rotten and the lemonade blows up? It is time to get serious. It is time to break out the mini-stuff. Mini-quiche, mini-wieners, mini-pizzas, mini-cordogs, mini-fits-on-a-pan-in-the-oven-and-cooks-in-10-minutes, whatever, these can be your lifeline. Cubed cheese is another classic that belongs in this family, along with the veggie tray. Keep some bags of this crap on hand just cause they are so easy and everybody will eat them. Me, I like my food a little good, so I go with the tried and true: pigs in a blanket. Here's the easy way to make them:
Some cocktail wienies
Tube of that pre-made croissant dough
Open the dough and instead of rolling it up as croissants, cut it up and roll it around the individual wienies. Cook as described on whatever dough you bought. Watch them as they cook, checking every few minutes as the juices in the wienies may cause them to explode. I call it the Jason Voorhees when that happens. Cause, you know, he killed people in blankets sometimes.
A staple food of library break rooms everywhere, popcorn is the ultimate cheap food that nearly everyone eats.
- Have some sea salt around. It is good on popcorn.
- Buy some of those carnival bags. They are cheap and festive.
- If there is a little wiggle room in the budget or the Friends have not gifted in a while, get an actual popcorn maker. The popcorn is much less likely to burn, especially if you get one of those air poppers.
- If you go for the microwave bag, stop when the popping begins to slow. Yeah, I know, there are kernels in there, but a few dozen kernels are easier to weed out than burnt popcorn. Especially the smell. Your break room with thank you.
- If you buy one of those tins and serve it to the public, you are no longer my friend. The reason that stuff is covered in butter flakes, caramel lacquer and cheese dust is that it is bland and borderline stale. Shame.
- Have toothpicks on hand for after. That is just nice business.