Amy wanted to have some people over for dinner for her birthday. This was really not a big deal. Turns out we had seven for dinner. Our original menu was Poulet Basquaise with saffron risotto, a salad with the sherry vinaigrette that I made a while back, and then she was making an English Fool. Sorry, I didn’t get a chance to take any pictures.
The English Fool was a very easy thing indeed to make. It is essentially fruit in a syrup folded into whipped cream. We decided, because we had some very local pears, to poach them in port, and fold that into the whipped cream! Port poached pears are exactly what they sound like, and make an amazing gluten-free dessert by themselves! If you want to try them, all you need to do is peel a a few pears, one per person. Leave the stem in, and maybe a little bit of the top with the peel on. Set them in a sauce pan. Then pour a full bottle of port in with them, add about a cup of sugar, a couple of cinnamon sticks, a little allspice. Bring it to a boil, and then simmer until the pears are tender. Take the pears out of the pan, then return to a boil, and reduce it to thick syrup. This is your sauce, serve it with ice cream or creme anglaise, and you are going to be amazed. In this case I cubed the pears before they went into the pot. Otherwise it worked the same. After dinner Amy whipped the cream, and folded the pears, and the syrup into the cream. It was very good.
The main course was a bit more time consuming, but fairly easy since I have done it a couple of times already. First prep all of the veggies. I had always thought that there was plenty of the veggies in the original recipe, and I didn’t even add any more this time. As far as quantity goes, the only change I made was to cook a second chicken. We bought whole birds to save a little money, and it also tends to get you a nicer bird. Parts can come from birds that didn’t hold up well during processing or for whatever reason weren’t in as good of shape. I’m not going to get into the politics of eating meat, but if you think about it as a producer you want as little waste as possible, and you’ll sell what you can.
The only thing that I did differently was that rather than searing the chicken in the pot, and letting it simmer with the veggies to finish I put the chicken on a sheet tray and finished it in the oven. This allowed me to make sure that the chicken was all cooked through, and also cook the veggies. I thought about doing it all in the same pot, but when I tried there was just not enough room.
That experiment is what caused a slight change in menu. Like I said before I had planned on saffron risotto. What we had was a saffron rice pilaf. I turned the wrong pot off when I was transferring the chicken to a sheet tray, and ended up burning the last of the arborio rice we had. Amy had some normal long grain rice, but since I already had a pot with chicken broth and saffron I decided to switch rices. I quickly cleaned the pot, and started over. Pilaf is a method of cooking rice, but you could also use it for other things as well. Just like with risotto you toast the rice in a little oil, add some onions, and then just pour in all of your liquid. Bring it to a boil, cover, turn down the heat, and let it cook for 10 minutes on low, and then turn off the heat, and let the rice sit for 10 more minutes. This gives you rice that is separate grains, and not sticky. It is also a bit simpler to do than risotto!
While guests were arriving we threw together a little cheese plate. Amy loves dairy in general, and cheese is a special favorite. We had a Tillamook cheddar, some Jarlsberg, and smoked gouda, some sliced apples, and everyone was happy to munch while dinner was coming together. I also found a couple of nicer cheeses for Amy. I got her a piece of Petit Basque, and a small piece of a cloth bound cheddar. Petite Basque is a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese which I had tried at work, and really liked. Amy and I really like sharp cheddar, and the one I got for her is certainly sharp! It is a mature cheese, and is somewhat crumbly, and has some a bit of graininess caused by calcium lactate crystals which form during the aging process. Very nice!
Everyone had a great time, and enjoyed the food quite a bit. Happy Birthday Amy!
Tonight I thought I would talk about some basic concepts that are very helpful when you are cooking for a group. Think about the nightmare that is Thanksgiving/Easter. The big problem that most people have is getting overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead of them. What you need is a plan. Write your plan down, and if you need to, break down each item into individual steps. Lets say you want to have some people over for dinner, a dinner party, and you found some nice trout. You can sometimes find some fingerling potatoes at the grocery store or at a farmer’s market, and right now asparagus are in season, so that would make a nice dinner, right? Rather than a heavy sauce, a small pat of a compound butter on your trout. Sounds pretty good to me! Start dinner with a salad, and maybe finish with crème brûlée. Now, this wouldn’t be too bad to do for you and one other person, but make it ten, and it gets a little more intimidating.
The day before your party, make your crème brûlée, and cool them in the fridge (Make sure they are cold, and then cover them so they don’t pick up funny flavors in the fridge.). You’ll finish them later, so don’t burn the sugar yet, or you’ll ruin them. Make your compound butter. In this case, whip a stick of butter, add a little lemon juice, lemon zest, chopped parsley, and you’re set! If need be, thaw the trout. Make a vinaigrette for your salad. It’s not hard, and will be gluten-free as well. (As we all know this is not always easy to accomplish with store bought dressings.)
Early in the day, sear your trout, and leave them on a cookie sheet in the fridge until its time for dinner. Season them with salt and pepper. Start them skin side up in the skillet, and you will serve them skin side down. You want to make sure the skillet is hot, and I do mean hot, the oil should be smoking before the trout even touches it. This is a little scary, but do NOT screw with the trout! When it is ready to be flipped over it will tell you. It will actually release from the skillet. Gently shake the pan, if the fish moves it is ready to be flipped. Not until it slides. Flip it gently away from you, and wait. It will release again. Put it on the cookie sheet skin side down, and make sure that you have sprayed the sheet with non-stick spray. Place the trout in the fridge, and cool them off.
Just before your guests start to show, sprinkle sugar on the crème brûlée, and using the broiler in your oven or a torch caramelize the sugar. Carefully, there are several ways this can go wrong! You don’t want to heat the custard under the sugar, since this will ruin it, and you also don’t want to get burned, or catch anything on fire! Leave these out. Once this step is done, they will sit out, if they are refrigerated the sugar will liquefy.
Now, as you can see, all you have left is the asparagus, and the potatoes. The potatoes will take some time, so about an hour before you want to serve season them how you want, salt, pepper, herbs, etc. Spread them on a sheet tray and put them in the oven at 350F. Check them from time to time. Depending on your oven, the potatoes, etc., they will take somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 45 minutes.
How long will it take you to eat your salad? Ten minutes? That is about how long it will take the trout to cook. So, before you sit down to eat yours, pop the trout in the oven with the potatoes that should be almost tender right now.
You can pretty easily steam asparagus, in about five to seven minutes. As soon as you get back into the kitchen from eating your salad, pop your already cut asparagus into your steamer basket in your pot of boiling water, and put the lid on. Plate your potatoes, and fish, and about the time you get all ten done, grab your asparagus out of the pot, place them artfully on the plate, and then top the fish with the pat of the butter.
Sure, it will take a bit of paying attention, but this would be a great success, and you would still be able to enjoy the dinner with your friends! You might even be able to recruit a helper to clear plates, and carry the next course out to the table with you.
This is just an example, but my point is that you want to plan everything out, to the last detail. Every step, timing, every item that you need. If you have time to do it, you could even do a run through. Even if it is just for you and one other person you will be able to to get a better idea of how long things will take, and have a chance to adjust timing, or scrap a dish that doesn’t work, and replace it with something else. Maybe you would decide that there’s not enough space in your oven to roast the potatoes, and all of the trout. So you could replace it with wild rice, or if that is not in the budget, try risotto, or rice pilaf. You really don’t want to try out a recipe on guests, unless they know that is what they signed up for!
Ok, so I kind of went off on a tangent there, sorry. The other thing I wanted to kind of touch on was something that is not obvious until you are faced with a large amount of prep to finish. To use an example from something I have already written about, the onion soup I posted about. You have several items that you will be handling the same way. So, for each onion, cut off the ends, then cut them in half, peel all of them, and then slice all of them. Strangely this will end up saving you time over doing each one from start to finish. I’m not really sure why this is, but from what I have seen it is the case. The larger the task you have the more obvious it will be. It is a good habit to get into regardless.