Early Spring Dinner: A Day In The Kitchen Part 1
There was nothing overly ambitious about the menu except there was a lot of it. An indefinite number of adults were coming for dinner – always an interesting proposition when you’re trying to figure how much food to prepare. However we knew one thing was for certain and that was no one had ever left one of our dinner parties hungry. Normally I love the research and creative process that goes along with designing a dinner party – the road testing of new recipes, the tinkering with old ones, the cocktails (as I seem to always end up in charge of the drinks). This time Charlotte and Carlie presented the plan to me as a fait accompli, it was done and decided upon before I ever knew we were planning anything. My sole responsibility (aside from the drinks) was to prepare a Mario Batali recipe for clams in habanero chive broth (in fairness Batali uses cockles but try finding those in Lexington in April). They had already taken care of putting together the rest of the menu. To be honest I was a little… hurt isn’t the right word. Disappointed? Maybe. I felt like I missed out on all the fun. The creativity was gone, the excitement that goes along with that “A-ha!” moment when you stumble upon that special something that will make your dinner memorable. My role was sadly reduced for this outing. Had I done something wrong? Did I somehow cause my culinary co-horts to lose faith in my skills in the kitchen? Or had they just been prone to sudden joint outburst of creativity at a time when, coincidently, I wasn’t around? Whatever the reason, it was done. Now all that was left was the work of actually preparation of the food.
And about all that food preparation. I quickly began to wonder if anyone actually looked at all of these recipes together at the same time and in the same place. There was a lot of stuff going on in one, not overly large, domestic kitchen. Three cooks (one doubling as a bartender) would have to share space, countertops and cook surfaces. The mis en place alone was an order of magnitude larger than what we would normally do. How many people were we cooking for again? Nobody knew. Five to fifteen was the range I was given. Five? They’ll explode if they eat everything. How would they get home? They wouldn’t even be able to fit through the back door of the house. Fifteen? There were seven dishes on the menu. Fifteen people would mean 105 plates. Who has 105 plates in their pantry? We’d need to hire a full-time dishwasher just to keep pace. And did I mention the three (“It could be more!”) children who would be there, all of whom may – or may not – eat what the grownups were eating. Well, they wouldn’t have a choice. Either they ate what the rest of us did or they’d go hungry. We wouldn’t have any other plates to spare.
Oh, and this was all to take place on Sunday. The children – however many of them there were – would all have school the next morning. That meant nine o’clock bedtimes at the latest necessitating eight o’clock departures. Any other night like a Friday or Saturday and the kids could run til dawn. On a few past occasions, that’s pretty much what happened.
Prep was slated to start at 1:30pm. Dinner wouldn’t be until six. This was going to be one long Sunday afternoon. Dutifully, if still somewhat incredulous, I showed up at the appointed hour – my bag of produce, bi-valves and personal stash of kitchen tools and knives in hand. As she always does, Carlie greeted me by showing me a bowl of fruit along with what was available in the fully stocked bar, then smiled sweetly before asking “Are you thirsty? Why don’t you fix us a drink”. My clams were slated to be the first course of the night, but the prep for them was minuscule. I had hoped to sit around, conversing, maybe peeling an orange at some point – basically I was hoping to get off easy as none of what we making were my recipes. In the back of my mind that was my little selfish payback for being excluded from the whole “let’s plan a dinner party” thing. However, thanks to Carlie’s request it appeared my bartending self was expected to be on duty early.
The cook’s drink is a time-honored ritual in our kitchens or anytime we cook together. Normally we trade-off dishes as the night progresses, each one taking their turn at the helm and dividing the labor amongst the others. Whoever is running the show at the moment is allowed one unimpeachable privilege, and that is their glass is never to fall empty. Being in charge of the bar grants to me a second, equally important right. I get to fill my glass up first.
Charlotte had procured – from her new favorite hangout, the Asian food mart – a box of herbal infused, white tea instant drink packets. I have no idea what the hell they were really called. The concept, to the best I could determine, was to place one of these pyramid-shaped sachets of… stuff… in a glass and pour… something… over them, water I guess. We decided to go with rum. And a squeeze of lemon. I never quite got my head around what we were trying to make (I use the royal “we” here as “we” was really “me” with unsolicited supervisory advice coming from the other two), and I don’t think any us felt like rushing out to proclaim “You’ve gotta try this!” At the least we didn’t bother offering it to anyone else that evening. One trial round was enough before we decided to settle on wine. The improvisatory cocktail was a bit of a disappointment as the last cooperative dinner gave birth in the wee hours to “The Blind Luck” cocktail, so named after the girls involvement in the horse industry. It was a drink we all agreed showed excellent potential for a becoming a go-to libation of our social gatherings. Truth be told I had named it “The Blond Luck” cocktail after the girls, but at the point in time of its creation no one was in any condition to hear whether I enunciated properly or not. Nor did we care.
At last, drink in hand, it was time for the fun and frivolity to end. At least temporarily. We still didn’t know how many people were coming for dinner. “It will be a surprise!” I was told. We did know what was on the menu, and that meant we needed to line everything up, divide up tasks, figure what order it all had to be completed, and start cooking. The menu, as it was finally assembled, looked like this:
- Mahogany Clams in Habanero-Chive Broth (me)
- Lemon & Mint Braised Artichokes (Charlotte)
- Merguez Lamb Patties with Golden Raisin Couscous (Charlotte)
- Avocado and Watercress Salad (Carlie)
- Potato Fennel and Basil Salad (Carlie)
- Beet and Pear Napoleons with Ginger Juice Vinaigrette (Charlotte)
- Melon Pears with Sabayon (Carlie)
- and featuring bartending duties provided by yours truly
A half past two in the afternoon we had it all figured out. It was time to go to work.