During April—which included a magnificent five-day camping trip to Death Valley during Roxy’s Spring Break—I got some new perspective on the Big Dinner Thing I threw for the visiting students. These fresh thoughts enabled me to cobble together some personal Entertaining Do’s and Entertaining Don’ts, which I share here:

Stick to cooking familiar, tried-and-true recipes for very large groups of people. For smaller clutches of friends and family, experiment away! But for any event featuring more than 6 or 7 guests, stick to the basics. It’s just less stressful.

If compelled to experiment, tuck the new recipes into harmless corners of the menu—the appetizer lineup, beverages, even a side. If people like the main dish and dessert, they’ll probably leave happy.

Put out plates, silverware, napkins, etc. more than 20 minutes before the guests arrive. If you don’t have enough of anything you can rethink (insert or mix in disposable, unearth those IKEA cocktail napkins that live in the hostess-gift stash in the linen closet, dispatch a loved one to the store).

Follow the recipe’s instructions. Now is not the time to see if firm tofu is an excellent substitute for fluffy-silky tofu.

And there’s probably other stuff, too, which I’ll learn the next time a bunch of folks come over.

So, back to the Thug Kitchen recipes I made for the students…

Baked Spicy Plantain Chips

“This is a chip with some motherfucking backbone,” opens the recipe’s introduction. A confident claim if ever I’ve read one. I also liked the unintimidating look of the 4-step process, so I added this to my menu for the night.

I made these a few hours before the dinner party so that I’d be able to serve them hot, crisp and fresh. First I “cranked” the oven to 400 degrees and misted a baking sheet with cooking spray, which I always do outside on my back deck, which feels only slightly less gross than doing it inside. Next, I attempted to peel the 2 green (as instructed) plantains I bought for the double version of the recipe. This was a sticky, annoying process—lots of peel clinging doggedly to the fruit, lots of fraying peel strings once detached. In fact, the plantain soon turned a sickly gray (from the extensive manhandling, I presume) leading me to abandon the artisanal, by-hand method and grab a knife. I did my best to get the peel-and-just-the-peel off the plantains but probably lost a lot of the fruit in the process. Had I grabbed too green a bunch?

Once I’d peeled those plantains, I sliced them coin-thin. After scrubbing all the stickiness off my hands, I pulled out two of my favorite stacking bowls (yellow and orange). Into the first went 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 4 tablespoons of lime juice, followed by the plantain coins. I mixed it all until the plantains were beautifully and evenly covered (hint: that’s not how the recipe described it). Then, I scraped the plantains into the second bowl, along with 4 teaspoons chili powder, ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper and ½ teaspoon salt, and mixed some more.

To bake the coins, I arranged them into a single layer on the baking sheet and stuck that into the oven for 20 minutes. This proved to be a bit too long for our cranky old oven; the plantains came out on the crispy Cajun-blackened side rather than “golden” as described. Crap.

The results: The recipe says to eat these chips the day they’re made for crisp retention. “Yeah that’s right, crisp retention, some highbrow shit right there.” I tried a few right out of the oven and they were tasty—albeit a tad over-spiced (although that may have been the char talking). I used one to scoop up some Cilantro Bean Dip and that combination was deelish, all sweet-spicy crunch playing nice with the cool blast from the lime and cilantro. Even with the over-baking oops, I thought the chips were a solid B.

Once the students had settled in later that evening, I scraped the plantain chips into a bowl and put them on the coffee table beside the gigantic buckets of tortilla chips I’d already deployed.

Guess which ones disappeared?

Once again, I’d failed to properly think about presentation. Dark little chips in a dark little bowl resembled compost-ready trimmings from an ancient vegetable, not a tasty appetizer. This shit, to borrow a phrase from Thug, needs bright, small and appealing to entice guests to grab and try.

I ate a bunch, Jon ate a bunch. Someone else probably did, too. But there were still leftovers.

Oh well.

Tortilla Soup

I had a hell of a time figuring out how much of this, my main course for the night, to make. It wasn’t like it was raining and cold that week. But it was Friday night after five straight days of volunteering around L.A. and these students would be hungry. Or so I reasoned.

Thus I quadrupled the recipe.

Soup, I also reasoned, would be easy. Only bowls and spoons required…choose your own amount, decorate at will. And I love soup! Other main dishes—lasagna, various bakes and ricey bowls, pad thai—just looked hard.

I made the soup the afternoon of the dinner. This involved chopping up 4 onions (which, in this case, meant opening a bag of frozen diced onions…my one shortcut), 4 carrots and 4 red peppers; spooning 16-cloves’ worth of chopped garlic from my trusty jar (I guess that’s another shortcut, but I always do that); and mincing about 6 jalapeños. Then I pulled out our largest soup kettle and sautéed the gleaming onion mound in some olive oil, followed by the carrot and peppers. Into that tastiness, I dumped the jalapeños, garlic, and veritable anthills of ground cumin, dried oregano, chili powder and salt. Once all that had cooked for about 30 seconds, I added 4 cans of low-salt diced tomatoes plus a cup of tomato paste (you know you’re cooking for a crowd when you measure out an unfathomable CUP of tomato paste). “Make sure that you stir that son of a bitch around enough so that the paste isn’t just sitting in a clump,” Thug advises. Then I poured in 20 cups of vegetable broth.

Uh, huh. 20. You read that right. And around 14 cups or so I realized there was no way all those ingredients were going to fit into one soup kettle.

I grabbed another enormous pot, splashily transferred 7 cups of soup into it and split the remaining broth between the two kettles. I let it all come to a good simmer over medium-high heat.

In the spirit of “taking [it] up a notch,” I tossed in lime juice and piles of corn tortillas (28 or so) that I’d cut into 1-inch squares with my handy kitchen scissors, brought both pots to a gentle simmer yet again and listened to it all bubble quietly away for about 10 minutes while I did some dishes.

The next step calls for firing up your immersion blender and “pulverizing that bastard” (or in my case, the bastard twins) until smooth. Watching immersion blenders do their thing always amazes me. Into the whirling blades go chunks and colors and odd shapes—out comes professional-looking uniformity. It’s a bit of a trip.

To finish up, the recipe says to add any more seasonings the soup may need—I think I put in a bit more salt—and you’re ready to serve.

The results: I chopped up a ton of different yummy toppings for the soup—avocado, cilantro, the rest of the jalapeños—and laid them out in bowls along with the bits from the tortilla chip bag—once everyone was ready to eat. The soup really smelled good: spicy/pungent and hearty without the greasy chicken undertone you often get in restaurants.

I brought out both kettles, stuck in ladles, pointed to the bowls piled at one end of the table, and welcomed everyone to dig in. And dig, ladle, splash, stir and slurp they did!

The soup was pretty spicy—I’d definitely cut down on the jalapeños next time, although I didn’t mind the chili powder and cumin—and really good, especially piled with cool, mellow avocado and tangy-bright cilantro. The soup was filling, too, which wasn’t a surprise given all those chopped tortilla squares.

The students seemed to like the soup; many had seconds and a few thirds. Jon wandered in from the office to grab another bowlful, too. Even so, at the end of the night, after everyone had Ubered off into the misty dark, I had GALLONS left. The only vessel big enough to hold it all was our giant 6.8-liter Tupperware container usually reserved for cakes and storing all the other Tupperware.

We enjoyed the leftovers for three, maybe four nights. Then, we dragged the sloshing remains up the hill and poured them into the compost.