Cooking soup with single burner portable stoves for a crowd

As I recall, I began cooking big batches of soup (eight quarts and more) for my church’s after-service social time / coffee hour in early 2013.

On a lark, I had decided one winter Saturday afternoon that it would be a good idea to make soup the following morning during the church service and serve it during the after-service social time / coffee hour. I sought out a recipe on the internet for “big batch vegetable soup”, which sent me to a recipe on the Martha Stewart website for four quarts. The recipe suggested that it was very flexible, so I chose the ingredients I liked, ignored those I didn’t, and doubled the numbers to make eight quarts, the size of a large stainless steel pot I had. The next morning, I bought the requisite ingredients on my way to church, and upon arrival, I just started making the soup in the church kitchen during the service. During coffee hour, it was a modest hit; all of the soup was served, with none left over.

Since then, my soup recipe, having evolved somewhat from Martha Stewart’s, has become a small yet (I hope an) integral part of what has become a larger occasionally recurring food event.

This is in no small part due to a comment I received from a fellow parishioner that Sunday morning in early 2013. By the time she managed to come to my service table, the soup had cooled too much for her liking; this prompted me to invest in an inexpensive portable counter top single burner electric stove. At the least, the theory went, I could cook the soup in the church kitchen, and then upon bringing it out to the hall for serving, I could keep it hot. Since then, however, I have shifted to cooking the soup in the hall where it has been served, avoiding in the process the danger of walking through a hall with a large pot of boiling soup at a time when it starts filling with people.

I have since invested in the following:

  • a double burner counter top portable stove;
  • two more inexpensive single burner electric counter top stoves;
  • a somewhat more expensive, single burner induction counter top stove;
  • two 50 foot, 12 gauge extension cords, one of which normally does not get used;
  • and, already having had an eight quart stainless steel stock pot, I bought:
    • an eight quart stainless steel pot I found at a steal of a price at a second hand shop;
    • a slightly used 16 quart stainless steel stock pot at a steal of a price at a second hand shop;
    • a new 20 quart stainless steel pot for a steal of a price at a grocery store.

In a number of ways, portable counter top stoves are central, however indirectly, to the success of the soup I make, despite the relatively large volumes of soup I now occasionally make.

Over time, I have learned how to make large quantities of crowd-pleasing soup while also discovering some of the limits of counter top stoves, as well the upper limits of the environment in which I am using them.

My single burner, traditional coil stoves are rated at 1000 watts each (8.33A @ 120V). My double burner coil stove is rated for a total of 1500 watts (12.5A @ 120V). My single burner induction stove is rated at 1800 watts (15A @ 120V).

In my experience, it is possible to make the following capacities of my vegetable soup (your results may vary according to your soup recipe):

  • 1000 watt single burners:

I find that these units may be used for making eight quarts of soup in a two hour period, and 16 quarts if you have at least three hours to make it. (As a second burner, it also allows for the frying up of vegetables that are later added to the soup pot, although depending on your site conditions, you may not be able to operate both burners simultaneously at maximum capacity.)

  • 1500 watt, double burners:

I am able to make two eight quart pots of soup in a two hour to two and a half hour period.

  • 1800 watt, single burner induction stove:

Particularly ideal for making eight quarts of soup in less than two hours, and it will handily make 16 quarts of soup in a couple of hours. It will also bring 20 quarts of soup to a boil in just over two hours.

Planning, preparation, and logistics of “mobile cooking” for a crowd

This post is not on how to cook a full, multi-course meal or buffet for a large crowd; rather, it is about just a relatively small part of it. As described later and despite describing the portable stoves as being central to the cooking of the soup which is one of the two subjects of this post, attempting to cook a full, multi-course meal or buffet for a large crowd with consumer grade portable cookware, and in environments not set up for such cookery, is impractical at best; to do so would require planning and menu design far beyond the perview of this post.

Setting up and preparation:

Often when traveling to cook for a crowd, one is doing so in an environment that is unfamiliar, and depending on the circumstances (such as the type of hall in which I make soup for a crowd), is not set up for doing so.

From a cooking perspective, this means that I normally do more than simply collect the soup ingredients and throw them into a pot, hoping that tasty soup will come out a couple of hours later. Often, this means now that while cooking the soup takes place in the church hall, I prepare the ingredients in advance at home, typically the day before. Fresh vegetables are cleaned, chopped, and placed in containers for transport. Usually, they are mixed together, and even the olive oil is added and mixed in. Frozen vegetables are taken out of the freezer the day before in order to defrost them at least somewhat, so as to reduce the amount of time required to defrost them during cooking. I also transport all the fresh food in a cooler.

Equipment-wise, I bring most of what I need for the cooking part. (Fortunately, my church has tables, tablecloths, chairs, dishes, a commercial dishwasher, and the like.) Of course I bring the portable stoves and my pots, however I also bring my own cast iron fry pans and cooking utensils, such as spatula, ladle, and can opener. I even bring my own towels for cleaning up my area, which of course I launder myself.

Real life challenges to using portable stoves in areas not designed for cooking

I once agreed to making the soup for my church for the Fall Fair Luncheon, at which the soup would be the main dish. This was in contrast to my normally serving it informally in a mug as I usually do during Sunday coffee hour — sometimes on its own, sometimes as part of a modest luncheon — after the church service. This meant that I attempted to make a total of 44 quarts of my soup simultaneously in the same church hall. I came upon a reality of what I can only presume is a common condition of many halls not expressly designed (or recently upgraded) for high electrical demands, such as cooking for the very crowds they were designed to welcome. “That’s why there’s a kitchen, silly!”

I ended up learning definitively that the hall in which I was cooking the soup had only one electrical circuit, with what I was told (and which I later confirmed) was a 20 amp fuse. A quick addition in my head indicated that at its peak when I was trying to bring all 44 quarts of soup to a boil simultaneously, I was trying to consume between 29.6 to 31.7 amps on what proved to be a single 120V / 20A circuit!

(Note: I live in Canada, where the mains voltage is 120 volts, and unless specifically designed otherwise, circuits and circuit breakers — and in the still common situations where fuses are still used — are generally designed and set for 15 amp loads. I can only assume that the 20 amp fuse in place upon which I normally rely is there legitimately.)

It also led to what I consider to be an unfortunate conclusion, in the context of my desire to publicly (as opposed to hidden away in the kitchen) make my soup for a large crowd: The electrical outlets in many halls, designed and built decades ago, are often served by a single electrical circuit. Hall and home builders simply never envisioned nor intended for cooking, which often requires a large amount of electricity, to occur outside of a kitchen; at most, they may have assumed that someone might plug in the equivalent of a plate warmer, possibly two, to keep a casserole or two warm.

This led to my realizing that making my soup for the church had its limits. With some patience, I could still make my soup in relatively “small” quantities — usually up to 16 quarts at a time, and perhaps if I reduced the heat a bit at certain times, perhaps fry up the vegetables at the same time. However, the fuses blowing a few times confirmed that large quantities of soup — and more generally, large scale cooking — could not be cooked simultaneously in an area not set up for the loads required for cooking. This means that despite the fact that a “large hall” may have many outlets, unless the hall was designed or since upgraded for heavy electrical loads, there is a good chance that the many outlets are in fact all on a single electrical circuit.

Although I purchased all of my portable stoves for cooking in non-traditional areas, as I’ve learned, their value for cooking in certain circumstances is limited to actual cooking of relatively small amounts of food — as in, depending on which stoves are chosen for use, that which may be cooked on one or two portable stoves at a time — and only keeping warm to hot larger quantities of food that have already been heated up, only then using more of my portable stoves at once.

Which leads me to the following conclusion: Portable cookware are very useful tools for the traveling cook, but one must not have have illusions of “feeding the multitude” based solely on these tools.

Captain Obvious Update Comment: Putting aside (possibly sardonic) suggestions of “use the kitchen, silly”, it has occurred to me that some may say “well use a portable gas stove to avoid the problem with electrical limits”. To me, the obvious issue becomes one of ventilation being required to avoid the buildup of combustion gases, particularly carbon monoxide. Some may well bring a fan to prop in a nearby open window in order to assure extraction; this would require such a window can be conveniently located. Yes, I have an opinion on that subject, too, to the order of old windows that were never designed to be opened, or which have been long since painted shut. 🙂

Document Formatting When Joining Texts From Various Sources

I have mounted, on a volunteer basis and in a lay capacity, the annual reports for a community group to which I belong since about 2008.

Up to that point, the group’s annual reports were individual committee reports delivered to the secretary, individually printed out as and when received, and then stapled together with handwritten pages numbers when it had to be distributed, with an added cover page, and an extra page listing the reports and their page numbers. This did have the charm of not requiring a herculean effort and time requirement in both mounting the report, and on “printing day”, to print literally a thousand pages or more, depending on the number of pages to the report and the number of copies to be drawn. Admittedly, it does not take into account possible collating, as per how one might print out the reports (ie. pages with colour drawings and photos vs black and white, etc.).

The year I took on mounting the annual report, I believed that the annual reports should have been in an electronic format such as PDF so that it could be placed on the group’s website. But that was barely the beginning of why I took on the job.

To fulfill the technical goal of making a PDF for download from the website was not too difficult. Two easy options would have been to either scan the report once produced the “old fashioned way” and produce a PDF from all the images, or, at least for those received in electronic format, create individual PDF documents plus scan for those received on paper, then use a PDF joiner to string the PDF files together into a single document. In fact, at the time, I gathered as many previous annual reports as I could and scanned them, making them available on the website.

However, going forward, I did not consider either option to be satisfactory.

The aesthetic appearance of the annual report irked me. It wasn’t the old school printing on paper — to this day, I still print lots of paper copies for distribution. Rather, I saw an opportunity to put to the test some angst stemming from a bit over a decade earlier when the community group’s recipe book to which I’d contributed led to my having had a few ideas on improvements to the text’s basic formatting and overall layout. (The actual recipes, variety, organization, editing, and recipe testing that I learned went on behind the scenes, and the like, were beyond the scope of my interest, although one common error, separate from my angst, was a mild nuisance.) I of course wisely kept my opinions to myself, both at the time of the recipe book in the mid 1990’s, as well as at the time of initially volunteering to mount the annual report.

As can be surmised from the above, each report came from almost as many different people as there were reports, depending on how many committee reports given individuals would take on. Each person would typically type their report on their computer and email it to the office, or perhaps print it out at home and drop it off at the group’s office personally. They used whichever word processor they had: Sometimes simple text editors, or MS Write, or MS Word, presumably ranging through Word 98, Word 2003, and Word 2006. Presumably some people had Macs with whichever word processor they might have had. I believe that the secretary, who was sometimes typing up the reports which were submitted handwritten, was using a version of Wordperfect. Finally, I was submitting my reports at that point using OpenOffice.org. Presumably, there may have been other text editors or word processors used. Each instance presented a random opportunity for default settings to be different, as well as for the user to change the settings to those that suited their own personal taste.

As a result, each report predictably had formatting unique to each author, sometimes unique to each individual report, if two or more reports were submitted by the same person.

The various differences in formatting in the reports received included the following, without being an exhaustive list:

– varying text fonts and font sizes, and occasionally, more than one of either or both in a given report;
– varying line spacing;
– varying paragraph indentation, including lack thereof;
– line jumps or lack thereof between paragraphs;
– varying page margin widths;
– varying text alignment, typically either left justified, or left and right justified;
– the occasional use of italics over the whole document, beyond that which would normally be used;
– the inclusion or lack of section titles, sometimes (or not) rendered bold and/or italicised and/or underlined and/or capitalized;
– tables listing figures in formats unique to each table and report, or simple lists with varying bullet styles;
– varying spelling conventions, ie. American vs. British vs. Canadian spellings (ie. neighbor vs. neighbour, or center vs. centre);
– varying naming conventions: Sometimes full names, sometimes initialized first names with full last names, sometimes full first names with initialized last names, or sometimes very informally with only first names;
– varying honourific format conventions: sometimes honourifics, titles, and/or ranks would not be used, with persons simply named, and sometimes referred to with variations of their title such as Reverend, Rev., The Reverend, The Rev., etc.
– varying naming conventions for committee names, multi-word names, places, and the like, which were sometimes fully spelled out, and sometimes initialized, abbreviated, and / or contracted;
– etc.

As such, as alluded to in a previous post, minor changes and differences in formatting between the individual reports created subtle (or, depending on the changes, more obvious) visual changes in how each report appeared compared to each other, when joined and printed on paper or read on a computer screen. Multiple permutations and combinations of the above formatting issues often led to creating wildly varying end results which go beyond the subtle, creating a patchwork of formatting over the multiple reports joined together into a single document. This may be jarring to the eye of some readers, particularly when it is not a subtle, unified, overarching design choice, but rather the result of a decided lack of unified design choice.

This link shows a hypothetical example of how such a report could look (you’ll need a PDF reader) — with various individual reports each having unique blends of formatting as compared to each other. Note that I intentionally use the “Lorem Ipsum” text so as to highlight the formatting.

The obligatory let’s tie it all together part at the end:

When I collect the individual reports and create one document, I cut and paste all the electronic reports (and rarely, type up handwritten reports) into a single document, imposing a uniform text formatting throughout in the form of a standard font, font size, line spacing, (lack of) paragraph indentation, page margins, and standardized and / or uniform versions of the other items above. Pages are automatically numbered, and standard page headers and footers are automatically added throughout, with date codes to distinguish between earlier and later versions. Basic spelling and typing conventions are applied and made uniform. Note that I don’t dictate or edit writing style, so one report might have section headers, while another may not, nor do I edit for turns of phrase and the like.

This link shows the above hypothetical report changed (you’ll need a PDF reader) to show the same reports with some basic text formatting across the whole document made uniform, while allowing each author’s text flow (and implicitly, were each text to be unique, writing style as well) to remain relatively untouched.

Have I addressed my angst from the mid 1990’s? Yes.

Is the document formatting on the annual reports I produce every year a work in progress, with subtle improvements, changes, and the like every year? Of course.

Ubuntu and Fedora LiveCDs — Ubuntu a clear winner!

I’m trying to convince a certain group to wipe their virus infected (and no doubt with trojan horses, key loggers, and spyware) computer over to linux, and so I’ve burned the Fedora 12 Live CD and the Ubuntu 9.10 Live CD.

I don’t want to bother giving them the Fedora Live CD. The Ubuntu CD is far too slick. And, the Fedora Live CD is far too vanilla. And that’s despite my usual rivalry with Ubuntu; at first glance, the killer is the inclusion of OpenOffice.org on the Ubuntu CD, while Fedora has the lightweight (albeit otherwise capable) AbiWord. Even the brown looks bright and welcoming, as opposed to Fedora’s more conservative, dull greyish-blue.

Add to that the directory of various files introducing Ubuntu, what it’s about, and even a sample mortgage calculator, and it’s little wonder that Ubuntu gets a whole lot of first timers straight out of the gate, or that first timers settle on Ubuntu after trying a bunch of other distros. As a marketing tool (at least for the desktop), the Ubuntu CD wins hands down; I’m not even sure that fully set up via traditional means from the DVD or full set of CD’s Fedora is this flashy.

I’ve been telling people for a while that “I use Fedora, but you’ll find Ubuntu easier”. I’ve just seen the proof. Seeing the CD, I would want to start afresh with it. I won’t of course, but I was impressed.

I’m wondering, though, which is the real killer — the inclusion of OpenOffice.org, or the directory introducing Ubuntu? I bet that were Fedora to mount a similar directory, including how to expand upon the base supplied on the CD, that people might take it up a bit more. I’m thinking of things like “Accustomed to OpenOffice.org? Go here and this is what you do.” or a “top five” “what to do once you install the Fedora base (or even just the Live-CD)” based on “Common desktop tasks”, “Setting up a home file and media server”, or the usual choices found in the standard anaconda setup.

I’m even thinking that the Ubuntu Live CD is productive — and “complete” — right away with its little directory, forget having little tutorials.

I guess that I should find out about whether or not Fedora does something like this, though … 🙂