Not Cafeteria Spaghetti ~

16 04 2009

Open House night has come and gone for another year.  Once again, we served a spaghetti dinner for the families.  In the past, we served dinner so parents who were pressed for time, juggling Little League schedules and such, had a way to feed their families at a low-low cost, and make it to Open House night in the process.  We started out using the school cafeteria spaghetti 5 years ago.  After serving it for 2 years, I asked if I could make the spaghetti instead of ordering it from them.  I was serving it, but I also knew I could easily cook spaghetti for 200.  School spaghetti doesn’t have much flavor, and the gals don’t have a lot of time to put TLC into the product because they’re jamming the extra work in between other chores.

Permission to go my own way with the spaghetti was granted 3 years ago.   The first year, I was able to find Italian sausage fairly easily.  I learned a lot about timing and how incredibly long it takes a 30 quart kettle to come to a boil.  Talk about a watched pot!!  The second year, I couldn’t find Italian sausage to save my soul.  I hunted and hunted…in all the wrong places I guess.  This year, I was afraid we were running into the same situation this year, except I found some spicy Italian Sausage pizza topping.  It was all meat and spices.  Go figure.  So…the weight of the package was the yield, there’d be no further loss due to cooking.  Hey…not too bad!  And all that spice mellowed in the sauce really nicely.  I use half ground beef as well, but that I had to cook.  That was fine.  It gave me an opportunity to remove the grease from the meat, and then season it to my taste.

Recently someone asked me where one even begins to cook something like spaghetti for 200…and I’d never thought of it that way.  I have school food service in my background, so it kind of comes relatively easy for me, mostly because feeding that many doesn’t make me shake.  We used to feed over 400 kids every day at my school.  Do that for a few years, and you quit worrying about numbers like that!  LOL!!  But it got me thinking…how would you find out where to start??

When I get into a project like this, I start with an estimate of how many servings we’re going to need, and how many we really expect.  The two can be different by quite a lot.  Let’s use the spaghetti…  Last year we fed 150.  The student group that was benefiting from the dinner has had huge turnouts for their events, and sold out of everything at their last event (family movie night) before intermission!  So…200 sounded like a reasonable number.  We have 280 students enrolled, so it’s a conceivable number.  Next I go to a reference book for quantity cooking, Food for Fifty.  They have a buyers guide which tells you how many servings you will get from how much purchased food, and it has recipes.  So, I take the recipe for spaghetti with meat sauce for 50 and multiply everything by 4.  I figure out my shopping list, translating cups to quarts, half-gallons and gallons, and tablespoons to ounces or portions of cups.  Be careful of quantity recipes though.  Sometimes the quantity of ingredient is just ridiculous.  For instance…2 cloves of garlic for 50 servings of spaghetti.  Get real.  Yes, I said cloves, NOT heads.

The next step is to calculate my game plan…How long does it take to boil a kettle of water for pasta?  What pans do I have for that?  How am I going to store, the cooked pasta until assembly the night of the dinner?  What am I going to cook meat in?  How long does it take for 10 pounds of ground beef to cook?  How long does it take for spaghetti to get hot all the way through?  How many servings can you get from a loaf of french bread?  Then I work backwards…the dinner starts at 5:30 Wednesday night.  It takes this much time to toss salad together; it takes that much time for the spaghetti to heat up; it takes this much time to mix up the pasta, meat and sauce components.  I not only can, but need to prep cook the ground beef and the pasta.  The meat will benefit from being cooked and seasoned in advance.  The flavors will have more time to blend and come out.  The pasta can be cooked almost al denté, rinsed, oiled and bagged until it’s time to mix the spaghetti.  So…one night before, I’ll do the pasta.  Two nights before I’ll cook the meat.  I’ll shop the afternoon before I start cooking.  Sketch out the time frame, as close as you can, figure out how and where you’ll store your components, and put your plan into motion when it’s time.


I cooked the meat on Monday after doing the “fresh and frozen” shopping.  This also included the dry and non-food components.  I wanted the bread to be fairly fresh, so I wanted until Spaghetti Day to buy that.  I bought ground beef in 5# “sausages”.  I unwrapped the meat, and broke it into chunks in the pant.. Don’t press it in.  I cooked 2 of the chubs at a time, in my turkey roaster, at 350º, covered with foil for about 45 minutes to an hour.  Pour off all the accumulated fat.  Break up the meat as much as you want at this time.  Add 2 chopped onions and seasonings to taste.  Add 2 cups of water to the pan, cover again with foil, and bake another 45 minutes.  Cool rapidly.  So…there’s an hour and a half, probably more like 2 hours for cooking 10# of beef, if you only have 1 oven to work with.  I cooked 3 pans of meat, and it took around 6 hours.  That’s pretty accurate!  I used a big tub to hold the cooled ground beef until I had it all cooked.  Then I stirred in5 pounds of frozen Italian sausage crumbles.  That cooled the ground meat down!  We put the cooled meat into a BIG Ziploc bag and got it into the refrigerator somehow!


Tuesday was pasta cooking night.  I had 20 pounds of pasta to cook.  The pasta came in 4 pound bags.  I was able to cook 2 pounds of pasta in each of 2 soup kettles at a time.  While the spaghetti only takes a few minutes to cook, once it returns to a boil, it takes awhile for that much water to start boiling.  Even starting with the hottest water I could get it still took almost an hour for the first pans to come to a boil initially.  Once we got rolling, it was taking about 40 minutes to cook 4 dry pounds of spaghetti.  When it was cooked, I pulled it out of the water with tongs, and into a colander with cold running water to stop the cooking.  I rinsed the pasta until it was cold, drained it and poured it into a large container where I sprinkled it with oil…olive oil would be my first choice.  From there, the pasta went into a 2-1/2 gallon Hefty zippered bag.

Now…I use a marinara sauce and work it over for my sauce.  I’m not too worried about my sauce being seasoned much, because the meat is.  Mix the sauce however it works best for you.   Make sure you have enough sauce for all the spaghetti.  It seems like a lot, and it is…but it’ s really easy to NOT have enough!  Then, mix it all together.  Spray down a pan with release spray, put in hot pasta (refresh in hot or boiling water), meat and sauce.  Lift and fold the mixture to work the sauce throughout the entire pan.  The meat will be worked through at the same time.  Cover and bake at 350º for 1 hour or until temp holds at 165º.  Maintain a temp not lower than 140º.  I started at 2:30 to mix the spaghetti, mix the salad, and slice, butter and portion 12 loaves of french bread.  I was finished panning up the spaghetti and cleaning up the kitchen in an hour and a half.  I would have had time to do the salads and the bread, but I had some volunteers who could help before the dinner but not during the dinner, so they did the bread and salads.  Score!  LOL!

I don’t know if I EVER want to know how much a 6 inch deep hotel pan full of spaghetti weighs.  All I know is I hate lifting pans that heavy, but I sure set myself right up to do that last night.  And I know better than to store something that heavy even a little high up, but there’s not much room in the walk-in right now.  I have body parts that are not being kind to me.  I know I had a workout last night! LOL!



One response

18 04 2009

Thanks for the detailed info about how you pull this off! I’m impressed!

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