Poolside Key West Lunch: leftover Picadillo, egg, toast wine. My iPhoto

Poolside Key West Lunch: leftover Picadillo, egg, toast wine. My iPhoto

I’m headed south today for my annual boondoggle, cooking for my cousin and his sailing crew at the annual regatta there, ten days reserved solely for personal writing, reading, and cooking (and occasional carousing—the boys are pretty persuasive in the post-dinner hours). Dinner for twenty every night, and this year a new baby girl has been welcomed to the sailing family. Dinners will certainly feature some of  the beloved standbys—Carolina BBQ, steaks, lobster. Many requested duck confit (I buy them from D’Artagnan; they’re fabulous and easy on the cook).

I usually do a huge shopping run the first day and start with six or seven chickens, breaking them down first thing so that I have stock, schmaltz, cracklins to flavor the food all week, and chicken for grilling (jerked last year). Though a cold front is moving through, so maybe a really good Bolognese and Caesar salad for the first night. It was suggested that I make bacon-wrapped fried chicken, and I just might give this one a go.

This is cooking for a big, hungry group, so it’s vats of food rather than petite, precise, à la minute meals. Vats of grits with sous vide eggs, hoppin’ john, black beans and rice.

For those who cook for big groups, I would love to hear what your go-to dishes are, especially the sides. Seriously, I’m looking for ideas! The main protein is easy—I have trouble with original sides.

© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


85 Wonderful responses to “Key West Bound”

  • Bruce

    whole fresh ham with cider glaze. 19 pounds of pig feeds a lot of people.

  • Angelo

    Lasagna Bolognese from The Silver Spoon Cookbook. (it’s online too google it) Freakin’ delicious! Mexican is always a crowd pleaser. Braise a whole hunk of hog in stock then fork shred and you have carnitas! Taco bar then consists of carnitas, whip up some slaw with cilantro, lime juice and some EVOO and also finely chopped onion. Breakfast casseroles are nice in that you prep them the night before then pop them in the oven in the a.m. Gumbo and jambalaya are great to lay a base for evening boater boozing as well. Have fun!

  • Melissa

    Big vat of sauerkraut, pork butt and beer. Let that sucker cook all day and even sauerkraut haters love this dish. Perfect for cold weather too!

  • Mike Fincham

    My suggestion is to take a couple large pressure cookers. You can do fast black beans and rice, bean and ham soup, super fast large batch starches (risotto, potato, etc). On the grill, I like wings for big groups with big planked, grilled veg.

  • Matt Dalton

    Gumbo as you’ll be close to great seafood..chile verde pork or chicken..street taco bars work great with large crowds too.

  • Jeff

    I love doing Mexican food for a crowd. Usually I set up a taco bar. I’ll do a couple types of tacos (carnitas, grilled skirt steak, braised beef, pork wrapped in banana leaf, grilled shrimp or fish, veggie), black beans with orange and cumin, rice, and various homemade salsas and guacamole.

    BBQ is also a great crowd pleaser and you can do almost all of the work ahead of time.

  • Nanci Courtney

    Hoppin John with any of the meat ideas or just with greens cooked with pork and cornbread. I like to serve it with a vat of salsa which goes with everything. Big pans of fruit crisp with and without nuts and creme angliase or whipped cream or store bought ice cream.

  • mr blur

    bacon wrapped fried chicken! goodness yes. w/ waffles and maple syrup. my favorite side by far is gratin potatoes or a pave…w/ the casserole type dish better for a big crew.

  • Robin

    spoon bread – fresh corn (or high-quality frozen if it is out of season), cornmeal, eggs, onions, butter, sour cream – I double or triple the recipe and make in my largest lasagna pan.

    Boiled new potatoes and blanched green beans dressed with a green pepper vinaigrette (whizz up O&V, chopped green pepper, herbs, S&P in the blender). Good cold or room temp.

  • K . Deer

    Suggestions for sides rite? Get the big can of hominy 100 oz, or a couple of them just because this is so yummy……..sauté peppers onions and garlic , cumin , toss in hominy with some butter. Toss all together , adjust seasoning salt & pepper , to your liking . Voila a very easy but very tasty side dish.

  • paula

    Easy, fast, cheap! Spinich with olive oil and garlic and a sprinkle of pecorino romano. My favorite side dish.

  • jedd63

    It’s Key West. You have to do black beans with rice and tropical salsa (mango, papaya, kiwi, pineapple, red bell peppers, red onion, lime, cilantro).

  • Carol R

    Burgers – a la Cheeseburgers in Paradise – with all the toppings potato salad, macaroni salad and baked beans

  • Matt Krantz

    Greek chopped vegetable salad. Its bright, crunchy, and just acidic enough to pair with grilled or bbq meats. Plus it’s best at room temperature and is easy to make ahead.

  • Zalbar

    Any pasta dish, rice+protein, anything long simmered/braised/stewed. Trinidad stewed chicken, macaroni pie, etc.

  • Jesse Rubin

    zucchini lasagne, sriracha cauliflower, baked broccoli, potato mousseline, sliced roasted red potatoes, polenta, steakhouse mushrooms – wish I could come.

  • lorainlouavul

    mixed baked russet and sweet potato bar- always a hit, fast, clean each potato, rub the outside with oil and kosher salt- bake in the oven and then offer up butter, sour cream, bacon bits, onion, any leftovers etc. great way to use up bits and pieces at the end of the week!

  • David Frank

    I have done a big batch of seafood pan roast. Always went over well.

  • Bruce

    Key west? Pork butts with lime, jalapeno, garlic, cilantro mojo. Very slow roast. Double fried plantains on the side.

  • Kay

    My favorite way to cook for a crowd is to sandwich the protein which really helps with budget and extends your protein portion size.

    Go to are:
    – meatball subs with a heart chopped salad,
    – pulled pork sandwiches with a crunchy slaw, and
    – steak sandwiches with a nice blue cheese wedge salad.

  • Annie

    Thinking what works for my potlucks – Baked mac and cheese is always popular. A variation of Ina Garten’s curried couscous salad http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/curried-couscous-recipe/index.html. French lentil salad with roasted sweet potatoes and balsamic vinaigrette, jazzed up with moroccan mustard and garlic. Garlic scalloped potatoes. Big seasonal fruit salads, or green salads. Pasta salad with pesto, sundried tomatoes, pine nuts and parmesan (so 90s but still good). Roasted beet salad with balsamic vinaigrette, goat cheese and sweetened toasted pecans. A variation of Emeril’s corn pudding http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/emeril-lagasse/corn-pudding-recipe/index.html.

  • Tracy W.

    I love cooking giant pieces of meat for my crowds…like a giant 24 hour pork shoulder.

  • Lori Hendrickson

    Make a cabbage slaw with cilantro and lime. Cheap and easy and always a crowd pleaser

  • Greg Berg

    For breakfast: Omelet in a bag. All you need is a bowls of ingredients to make omlet. Each person can crack a few eggs into a plastic bag then a cheese, onion etc and but into a pot of boiling water for 13 minutes.
    For Dinner: Mac and cheese is a great side dish and can be a way to use leftovers. Put some bacon in the middle of the casserole or leftover short ribs.

  • Marc Barringer

    Grits with scrapple for breakfast, “mushroom stroganoff” with lemon zest and roasted sweet potatoes

  • Bob

    My go-to dishes for groups (i.e., the office potluck) are fried rice and chow mein. Fried rice makes use of leftover rice and meat; chow mein is a stir-fry over noodles.

  • Joe Kaiser


    I’ve got 8 kids, and they like to bring friends over for Sunday dinners.

    Big pot of chicken and sausage gumbo with a dark roux, mixed greens salad, lots of garlic bread. Rice if you like.

    Sausage/meatball with rotini, and, well, more garlic bread.

    Posole. I prefer doing a red posole with red chile which I guess is a celebration posole versus the plain white one. Lots of additions on the table: radishes, onions, cheese, cilantro, more chile.

    Carnitas with real corn tortillas.

  • Katie Hurley

    Smoked sausage cassoulet, carnitas, clam chowder, slow-cooked lamb and mushroom stew over rigatoni

  • karen downie

    build your own burrito. build your own stir fry. cook some meat in the background. put a pot of rice on in the background. prep some veggies and leave everything in the mise bowls. whip up a couple sauces. they’ll love being creative at plating time and there is nothing to it for the cook

  • Bob Y

    Cous-cous is a wonderful and adaptable side – curry, chicken, cauliflower etc.

  • Abigail Blake

    Some good starchy sides for a crowd are potato gratin, a mixed vegetable gratin (potatoes and whatever looks good at the market), grits soufflé, spoon bread, potato salad, Caribbean peas and rice (a must if you jerk anything), rice salad, Indian curd rice, tabouleh. One of my favorites is a mustardy cabbage salad from Susan Hermann Loomis (from The French Farmhouse Kitchen). Especially wonderful with grilled sausages or pork. Not sure how the growing season is in FL and what’s in season but a ratatouille is always welcome. Grilled plantains are good as is Trinidadian mango or pineapple chow. Roasted tomatoes, succotash. I’ll stop now.

      • Michael

        Depends on the island but they can be black beans, pigeon peas, garbanzos, etc..

      • Jan

        Pigeon peas, used for peas ‘n’ rice, or rice ‘n’ peas through much of the Caribbean island chain. Sometimes with onion, tomato paste, clove, thyme, coconut milk in various combinations, depending on which island you’re visiting.

      • Abigail Blake

        It’s the dish that’s Caribbean, not the peas. The classics are pigeon peas or kidney beans. It varies from island to island but it’s a hoppin’ John type of dish usually seasoned with thyme, coconut milk and scallion. Add a whole, uncut scotch bonnet pepper when you’re cooking it and remove it before serving. Served with just about anything down in the islands and is especially good with barbecue.

  • ruhlman

    Thx all! Fab ideas, made list and know the brain is rolling. Will have menu by wheels down. Seriously, thank you.

  • Steph @ Lick My Spoon

    I just got back from 10 days of cooking for 13 people in Maui 🙂
    Here are some sides that were a hit:

    Bean Salad (https://lickmyspoon.com/recipes/mississippi-caviar-bean-salad/) — made this as a side for a taco night, turned leftovers into a layered dip with cheese, guac, sour cream.

    Roasted Eggplant Salad (http://lickmyspoon.com/recipes/roasted-eggplant-salad-with-almonds-feta-and-mint/)

    Watermelon, Feta, Mint salad with a bit of olive oil

    Sugar Snap Pea Salad (http://lickmyspoon.com/recipes/sugar-snap-pea-salad/)

    Wheat Berry Salad (http://lickmyspoon.com/recipes/wheat-berry-salad-with-cranberries/) — versatile, I did a version with wild rice

    And this is always killer:
    Frozen Key Lime Pie (http://lickmyspoon.com/recipes/frozen-key-lime-pie/)

    Hope this is helpful! Happy cooking/writing/sunning!

  • Marshall

    Easy side of pasta salad. Tri-color rotini, lots of garlic, red onion, cilantro, garbanzos, and/or kidney beans, add in peppers if you like, tossed in Ken’s Northern Italian Dressing…fresh parm. Preferably left in the fridge in the fridge overnight and then seasoning and then garnished with more parm, olives, blah blah to taste.

  • Lee

    My advice is to always be thinking three days ahead. I work on boats, as a chef, (usually 20-25 POB),and my advice is always to be planning down the road, so that when you are cooking something, parts of it (or the leftovers) are then used or added to something else the next day. It’s important to have the menu thought out in advance too, so you can mix/match your proteins, starches and veg so that you aren’t repeating too quickly, or serving something that would taste better with something else you are planning for tomorrow etc. Obviously you have to use most perishable things first, so that’s plays into your menu too. Prep stuff in groups (peel and/or chop lots of onions,peppers, etc)esp the first day, Bake several desserts at once. Work smart, not hard. That way you can also enjoy yourself. Love love love KW. One of my fav ports to dock at. Have fun, Michael!

  • Kath the Cook

    potato leek cheesy casserole; mediterranean orzo salad with olives, feta, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, oregano, onions, etc.; Smitten Kitchen’s cranberry bean salad w/ walnuts & feta; quinoa salad w/ veggies; potato salad; Bayless’ Green Poblano Rice (look on Epicurious) with carnitas; homemade hummus w/ pita & veg for snacks; bagna cauda.

    One night have a big Louisiana seafood boil Florida-style: shrimp, crab, sausage, potatoes, corn, onions, lemons, Zaterain’s liquid seafood boil – dump it all out on a picnic table outside when ready!

  • Martha

    I cook for a shelter (~50 people) a couple times a month. Hits have been Cabbage Jambalaya, blanched mixed greens stirred into buttery mashed potatoes with cheese (colcannon casserole I guess), shredded brisket with pepperoncini peppers on rolls, corn pudding, kale and apple salad, ribs and vinegar coleslaw, steamed organic carrots and green beans with lemon olive oil or butter, quinoa/cauliflower mash smothered with chicken and gravy, basmati rice with lentil/spinach sauce. Sounds like a very tony crowd, though – confit and bacon-wrapped fried chicken? yikes!

  • Jason G

    For sides, hummus and crudites for dipping works well. I like to make a big batch of it and then serve it in a large platter with different garnishes on different areas. A pool of olive oil in one area, chopped pickled peppers in another area, toasted cumin, coriander, and sumac in another area, and Indian pickled lemon or lime in another area. It’s very versatile.

    Fresh rice paper rolls are good for large groups but are rather involved to prepare properly.

    Jalapeno poppers of some description are another great side/app.

    Corn souffle baked in ramekins is excellent. Shaved carrots cooked with orange juice and garlic. Vegetable fritters taken the tempura way or the pakora way, win.

    Grits, done straight or as a souffle, set, cut, and fried or deep fried and garnished with finely grated parmigiano or grana padano.

    Corn fritters. Chickpea fritters. Chickpeas cooked any number of ways. There’s so many ways to go, it depends what you have available and what is good for the context.

    But for do-ahead, low-fuss, the hummus is a really good one.

  • Jason G

    Rice is also a pornucopia of possibilities – south indian lemon rice, south indian yogurt rice, mushroom pilaf, jambalaya, naked with any of the many hundreds of Indian rice admixture powders or pastes and clarified butter. Curry leaf powder and ghee is one of my favorites, as is the tamarind paste called puliyogare. But there are so many.

  • Marisa

    Couscous with roasted eggplant, caramelized onions, garlic, raisons, roasted peanuts, and seasoned with masala, cumin, corriander, paprika, cayenne, and tumeric spices.

    Curried tuna salad with peanuts or cashews, topped on a salad with a mango lime dressing and a quartered hard boiled egg.

    Any biryani, easy to make, easy for large groups

  • Victoria


    Potato Gratin Dauphinois if you have access to an oven. I use Lydie Marshall’s recipe; everyone loves it, and it’s easy. I would think you can make a pan of it as large as you like. And it goes so well with steaks.

    I think Macaroni and Cheese is a great side for fried chicken.

    Elizabeth David’s Green Bean Salad

    Ziti Salad from The Store Cookbook

    A Savory Bread Pudding

    Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Salad – sounds like nothing, but it is delicious

    John Besh’s Cauliflower Puree

    Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage – with anything chicken or pork

  • Gail Craig

    I do a great butternut squash. Simply peel and cut into small pieces. Toss with 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt and drizzle with 1 tablespoons olive oil. Spread on sheet, bake 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Fast, nutritious, and delicious. email if you need help cooking. I’m in Key West for the winter.

  • Jim Dixon

    Here are a few of my go-to cooking-for-a-crowd dishes:


    This is even better with satsuma mandarins (peel, break into sections, and slice each in half) and Louisiana dried shrimp (not sure of you can find them in FL)


    Surprisingly delicious, but depends on true extra virgin olive oil, not the supermarket refined blends


    Perennial favorite beans


    Repurpose leftover bread, this just an outline for endless variaitons depending on your leftover inventory


    Cubed squash cooked on the stovetop and/or oven


    Classic, but amazingly good


    Lately been making this with grated raw winter squash (use the cuisinart, stuff is hard to grate by hand) instead of beet, but both very good


    Uses simple, oven-made roux, can always add more pork


    Whole grain mustard or red onion, honey, sage

    Nice side, or serve on toast


    Use plain white or brown mushrooms instead of chanterelles, the “miseaux” of miso, mustard, & vinegar is good added to damn near anything

  • Skip

    I would suggest a triple-batch of your wonderful mac’n’cheese from TWENTY. I’ve done a double-batch for a big group, 14 and it was great.

  • Kevin

    I tried to post some items that don’t usually make the pot luck dinner realm but should….

    Blaukraut – can be served hot or cold and cabbage yields a lot of bulk per head. I love this German dish (and it goes so well with game), but could be made with a more delicate cabbage and different seasonings to suit the protein.

    Hot potato salad – doesn’t have to be German, seasonings change it up completely to suit whatever protein is on display. Fat, some aromatics, acid, and herbs are really all that’s needed. (for that matter cold potato salad is just as good if the weather is hot, but the hot is a little more impressive and comforting)

    Beets – hot or cold, easy to prep, can roast them, use them in a salad with goat cheese, etc… the possibilities are endless and the colors impress

    Greens – Im a big fan of swiss chard and kale. Both can be used to make great “stews” to be served with the protein. Add in some beans, smoked sausage, and aromatics with either and you have a delicious dish that yearns to be served with something off of the grill.

    Roasted veg – fresh herbs, olive oil and heat…what could be better. As many trays as fit in the oven. Potatoes and onions, carrots, beets, parsnips, whatever is available. That slight char always goes with grilled anything.

    Hope it helps. Enjoy the trip.

  • Ruth

    Chili – never gets old. Or Clam chowder. And if those are too damn simple, make cassoulet with that duck confit and some of your toe-curlingly yummy charcuterie.

  • Rachel

    I fell in love with a charred corn salad last year — it’s a great way to use up leftover grilled corn too, and it generally benefits from a sit in a fridge (whether an hour or overnight) so it’s one of my staples for big picnics and dinners when I’m doing all the cooking, especially because it’s got pretty fresh bright flavours amidst a sea of often creamy sides. I’ve linked up my recipe which is scaled down to a small portion, but it scales up really easily too, I just budget maybe half an ear of corn per person. 🙂

  • Dean

    For sides: Grilled veggies dressed with olive oil mixed with roasted garlic; savory bread pudding (match the herbs to complement the protein); stuffed poblanos; mushrooms and potatoes (parboil 1/2″ cubed potatoes, then saute with mushrooms shallots until potatoes get a crisp brown edge).

  • Karri

    Cooked green beans then tossed with lemon juice, hazelnut oil, s&p, and sambal. Best if made the day before so the beans get a chance to quick pickle in the lemon juice. Sauteed spinach with garlic and shallots, drizzled with dijon mustard.

  • Sara

    Cochinita pibil (using pork shoulder), big pot of black beans, stack if hot corn tortillas, pickled red onion.

  • Rosie

    Savory bread puddings with mushrooms and/or greens is a good side dish to accompany proteins. Not only can it be made in large quantities but its hearty. I also like making a slaw when feeding a crowd-its one of those dishes that tastes even better prepared in advance and you can get creative with either a traditional green/red cabbage slow or go ‘fancy’ and use shredded brusssel sprouts with pecans, cranberries, shaved ricotta salata, etc.

  • witloof

    Polenta with garlic, butter and cheese — you can bake it and it comes out even better that way. Mushrooms quartered and tossed with salt, pepper, and olive oil, roasted on a big cookie sheet, then tossed with parsley and garlic, to sprinkle on top.

    I often make dinner for the musicians and caller who play for our local contra dance. One thing that’s really easy and wonderful is frozen artichoke hearts sautéed with lots of onions and garlic, seasoned with thyme and red pepper flakes, mixed with grated cheese, eggs, bread crumbs, and parsley and baked.

  • LD

    This isn’t a fancy meal. But it’s good, satisfying, and simple. This is a go-to lunch at my fire station. We will usually have about 10 firefighters eating. You can modify this to fit your needs and taste buds. This is how I make it:

    Use a very large skillet (or two skillets).
    Brown 3.5 lbs of ground turkey (can substitute ground beef).
    When 3/4 way browned I will drain off fat drippings.
    Keep cooking.
    Add 2-3 diced peppers (red, green, orange, your choice).
    Add 1 lg diced sweet onion.
    Add approximately 40 ounces of diced tomatoes.
    Add 4 or 5 12-ounce cans of beans (red, black, navy, white, your choice).
    Add Italian dressing, oregano, basil, salt, pepper, and mild hot sauce (Red Hot).
    Let simmer for a while.

    Prepare plain white or brown rice. Usually 1-2 cooked cups per person.

    Serve the turkey and beans over a bed of rice.


  • Denny Nusad

    An excellent “side” for any meal that involves meat, poultry, or fish is KASHA — plain or with veggies like corn or peas. I have even created a main dish buffet “salad” that I call “Kasha Mexicana”.