The Trial Run
When discussing food or cooking in general, the conversation and focus of attention is usually on the food itself – it’s taste and presentation – as it rightly should be. But there is another extraordinary side to any good meal, particularly one that involves multiple courses or, even more remarkably, one that has to be prepared in one place then transported and finished in another. When hosting a large event, especially one that has been ongoing for almost a decade, people tend to come hungry and with certain preconceived notions about how it’s all going to look, feel and taste. Newcomers have heard the stories, like “Oh you should have been here two years and tried the …” or even more flattering “We’re still raving about last year when you cooked…”. That’s why you do it, why you put the effort into it, why you foot the bill. Throwing it all together at the last minute would be unthinkable. More than your own reputation is at stake, you have the expectations of your friends to live up to. Being barely successful would equal failure. The only option is to consistently, year in and year out, raise the bar. In the end, it all comes down to logistics and timing.
That you should try out a recipe beforehand is a forgone conclusion. No one wants to turn their guests into a culinary version of a lab rat. The purpose of doing a trial run is not just to get the taste, texture and presentation correct, it is crucial to nail down the timing it takes to prepare the recipe. This is even more critically important when hosting a large gathering with multiple dishes, all requiring a certain amount of the chef’s attention to complete. When preparing multiple recipes a chef also has to take into consideration the draw on common resources. Most home cooks do not have an industrial size pantry or multiple similar sized cooking vessels, so you better make sure that the pot you have simmering on the stove for hours isn’t needed 30 minutes before your guests arrive for some other purpose. How many measuring spoons do you have? Unless you are like me and own three sets, prepping for a large dinner or party will probably requiring you to do a fair amount of wiping and washing. I got tired of doing just that, which is why I now own three. Next to my lime juicer (more on that in a future post), the things I use most in my kitchen are my prep bowls. I have over the years collected around 30, a combination of glass and ceramic ones that also double as small serving pieces for sauces, etc. When getting ready for the annual steeplechase tailgate party, all 30 will be in a perpetual state of moving in to and out of the sink to be washed and quickly returned to the counter to await their next task. I have lids for all but the smallest sizes, so I can work several days in advance in some cases saving valuable minutes the night before that would otherwise be spent measuring ingredients.
Despite the best intentions and plans, problems do occur. The military strategist Carl von Clausewitz called this phenomenon “friction”, the force that makes things which are simple under normal circumstances difficult in stressful times. The battlefield analogy isn’t too far off in the final hours before an event launches. How much refrigerator space will the prepped items and dishes take up? What can be prepared the night before and what has to be done last minute the day of? How long does the meat need to sit in it’s marinade? And now the fun part – how are you going to transport all of those cooked or prepped food items 10 miles down the road maintaining everything at its individual correct and safe temperature, set up a complete outdoor kitchen with serving tables, both a hot and cold buffet table, a fully functioning bar, a grill, a smaller secondary grill, a prep station, and oh yeah how much propane do you think you’ll go through in the course of the afternoon and did you bring an extra tank just in case the one you are currently using to cook 40 lbs of crawfish turns out to have less fuel in it than you thought? Whose responsibility is it to get enough ice to fill the coolers the morning of? Did everything make it out of the fridge and into the proper coolers or did anything get left behind, like the Bloody Mary’s (2006) or the scallops (2007)? Also, you didn’t forget to water for the chafing dishes did you (2004). Is your cell phone charged so you can call for help on items forgotten, like water (again, 2004). And finally, how much help do you have with the set-up so you can concentrate on cooking? Who’s in charge of setting up the tents (not me, ever again, 2008)? Do the people helping you set up understand what they are suppose to do or will they just be randomly messing around with things causing you to have to intervene thus delaying the food prep? Are the people helping you set up close enough friends that they won’t take offense when you start barking at them like a Prussian Drill Sergeant (pick a year, any year)?
All this brings us to last night’s crawfish prep, an item which I’ve eaten many times but never prepared. Doing a test batch of 40 lbs worth of crawfish is not economically feasible in this or any other year. I settled for 2 lbs of crawfish on the stove and what must have looked liked an episode of “How to Boil Water” on my deck. From the later I had two specific questions I needed to answer. How many gallons of water does it take to fill the cooking vessel? Since we’re tailgating in the middle of the Kentucky Horse Park all the water has to be carried in with us. After it’s filled, how long does it take to come to boil? The answers are 4 gallons and 15 minutes. Inside, I needed to estimate the amount of seasoning required. Answer, a lot. Having completed the test run, my chances of pulling off a successful crawfish boil in a timely fashion have now increased exponentially, not to mention I got to eat my experiment. The odds of success are vastly greater than the odds of failure. Although I can’t help but laugh at the neighbors who kept walking over last night wondering why I was standing on my deck, looking at a pot of water boiling, while timing it all with a watch. I don’t care if they think I’m a little eccentric. They’ll thank me later.
When I tell people that it takes months to plan this tailgate party, coming up now in exactly four weeks, they think it’s because of the creativity of the menu. Truthfully, that’s the fun part. But only after the menu is locked down can I start to think about it’s execution. After nine years I’ve compiled a reasonable amount of tools and lessons learned to make this less of a burden than it was in the early days. I know now how to make a kitchen portable. I know to clear out the fridge of anything not related to the party so a quick visual inspection shows me if everything has been loaded. After growing from one grill to two, I’m back down to one solely through better time management and a more logical cooking order for the menu. Most importantly, I’ve learned what I can’t do – what I need help doing. I’m better at delegating than a few years ago, although I still have a tendency to bark orders until everything is set up and the cooking begins.
So if you stop by the house during the next few weeks and see me counting plastic forks, attaching fuel gauges to propane tanks, or laying out serving pieces on a table in my garage to see which ones fit, realize I haven’t lost my mind or suddenly seen my OCD escalate to new levels. It’s all for a good time and a good cause. In the end, I’m doing it all – for you.
For more information on the 2009 High Hope Steeplechase and the charities it helps fund, go to www.highhopesteeplechase.com. Or visit my Tailgating Steeplechase Style page for information on this and previous year’s parties.