Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bringing it all together

I did a fairly complex home meal last weekend for six people. It dawned on me as I was prepping, cooking, and presenting the food courses, that there's a lot of timing involved. This is likely not a revelation to anyone who cooks a fair amount of food, but it got me thinking about how I do it.

I read many years ago that Johnny Carson had a pillow at one end of a sofa in his family room, that read "It's all in the timing." The same can be said about a complicated, multi-element meal. And it's even more critical in a restaurant or catering setting. Even the simplest of "weeknight meals" requires careful timing and planning. Meatloaf, stir-fried vegetables, and garlic bread take very different amounts of time to prepare, cook and serve.

I've been doing this for awhile, so the process is pretty much on auto-pilot. Most commonly, it's just a matter of thinking about what I'm going to make, how long things take to cook, the order they'll be ready to serve, etc. But for "bigger" dinners or gatherings with a larger group of guests, I tend to wake up in the morning with the planning already going on in my head, for that evening's meal. I'm finalizing the various items I'm going to prepare, and visualizing the ingredient list (which will be finalized after my first cup of coffee ... no need to rush this while you're still in morning stupor mode).

I also try to picture how I'm going to present things on plates. My "everyday plates" are large (small platter size) white, square or round, with matching smaller plates and bowls. How's the food going to look on the plate? What goes where? How will I garnish it? Do I serve my guests or put platters in the middle of the table? How many forks? Steak knife / butter knife / both? Which table mats and napkins will I use?

What kind of appetizers should I serve? Always a consideration when you're serving a big meal. Soup or salad? Ceviche? Bruschetta? Dessert? Wines? Martinis? Mojitos? All of the above? And I haven't even gotten out of bed yet. Such is the sick nature of being conscious to the point of no return, about providing a memorable dining experience for your guests. Crazy? Maybe. Will this change soon? Not likely.

I knew Saturday's main meal was going to be a stuffed pork loin, which I'd purchased the previous day. And the pasta would be a wheat-based variety, per my wife's request to adhere to her diet. An amuse bouche / palate cleanser was a given. And I envisioned an interesting salad, which developed over the course of the morning. Dessert? Simple ... chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.

Salad course …

Mixed field greens, mandarin orange wedges, puff pastry rounds topped with gorgonzola cheese and slow roasted seasoned tomato slices, with a raspberry balsamic vinaigrette. The tomatoes are sliced about 1/4" thick, drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper, and some fresh thyme, and baked on a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet at 200 degrees for about 2 hours. The vinaigrette consisted of raspberry and balsamic vinegars, olive and canola oils, fresh rosemary and oregano, pinch of garlic powder, salt and pepper. Keeps for weeks, as well.

Palate cleanser / Amuse bouche ...

I love doing these. They can be very simple or quite elaborate, but your guests will love 'em. I've done this with scallops, ceviche, and various kinds of gelato and ice cream. For this meal, I picked up a good quality mandarin sorbet, Microplaned a sprinkle of tangerine zest on top, and served it on a Chinese soup spoon. The small plates underneath had a simple garnish of fresh mint. I borrowed this idea from the Sierra Mar Restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, which incidentally is where my "profile picture" was taken, at the top.

Pork loin ...

Half of a whole loin section, with an apple based stuffing. I'd originally planned to do the whole beef tenderloin that I enjoy cooking (and eating) so much, but this idea kind of hit me. To be truthful, my original idea was to do stuffed pork chops, then I thought of a pork tenderloin, and finally settled on a whole pork loin section, which I cut in half for this meal. This entire monstrous roast was $18.00, meaning the "half" that's pictured to the right cost all of $9.00. It generously fed 6 people, and is currently flavoring the minestrone soup that smells so good in the next room as I'm writing this. Great bargain cut of meat, very little fat, easy to cook. The stuffing was made of sauteed leeks and two diced Macintosh apples, fresh oregano and rosemary, seasoned bread crumbs, and a cup of chicken broth. I butterflied, stuffed and trussed the roast, and seasoned the outside with salt, pepper, and savory.

Pasta ...

I opted for a vodka cream whole wheat penne rigate with proscuitto (modified version of a Silver Spoon classic). A shallot sauteed in olive oil, proscuitto, tomato paste, heavy cream, vodka (no need to use up your prized Belvedere or Grey Goose here ...), Italian parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, and the pasta. Garnish with some of the extra parsley, sprinkle some fresh Parmesano Reggiano. Simple, unexpected flavor burst, total crowd pleaser.

Asparagus ...

Blanched, chilled asparagus spears with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, fresh ground pepper, a few shavings of parmesan cheese (use your potato peeler), and fleur de sel (Mediterranean sea salt). Again, unexpected flavors, and likely something that your guests don't have every night.

Dessert ...

Loyal readers know that I'm not much of a baker or a sweets person in general. I do a few dessert items very well, but I'll leave the masterpieces from Rose Levy Beranbaum's "Cake Bible" to bakers like my friend Nicole, who tackles them with aplomb. Fancy baking scares me to death, so I opted for simple decadence consisting of three kinds of chocolate ice cream (white, dark, mocha), a drizzle of warm Dove chocolate topping, sprinkles of Scharffenberger chocolate "nibs" and whipped cream. Can't miss. They wanted more!

Wines were mainly interesting zinfandels, most notably an excellent Quivira from the Healdsberg Dry Creek Valley area.

Process ...

- I started the tomatoes early in the day, as they take a couple hours at low heat, and I wanted them chilled, to serve.

- Likewise with the stuffing, as the leeks and apples needed sauteeing in a butter and olive oil combination, and this also needed to cool before I stuffed the tenderloin.

- The asparagus takes six minutes of boiling, an ice water bath, then covered and refrigerated until it's time to serve.

- Took the tenderloin out an hour before it was to go into the oven, trimmed all the visible fat and silver skin, butterflied, stuffed, and trussed it with butcher's twine. This was wrapped in foil and allowed to come to room temperature.

- Chopped the proscuitto and parsley for the pasta.

- Made the vinaigrette, which I also like to leave out so it's at room temperature.

- Cooked the puff pastry (15 minutes), following the tomatoes, so the rounds would cool.

- Started the tenderloin at 500 for 15 minutes, lowered to 350 for another 90 minutes (150 degrees internal temperature is perfect).

- Cut, cooked the pasta sauce ingredients, put the pasta on to boil.

- Assembled the salad plates and served. (They really looked great)

- Served the between-courses amuse bouche sorbet.

- Opted to serve on platters, allowing guests to help themselves.

- Finished it off with the afore-mentioned chocolate, chocolate, and of course more chocolate.

Everything came off perfectly cooked and timed. My guests went home full and smiling, which is always the goal.

Plan ahead, know your cooking times and your prep times. Anything that can be prepared in advance is a good thing. Writing things down works for some people, but ultimately you'll get into a flow with the prep work. I was asked to cater a good friend's daughter's wedding two summers ago, and it came off like a "scaled-up" version of this same process. I was cooking for 100 and of course there was just a tiny amount of pressure to produce a killer meal and to have everything done at the right time, but the same process applies, and it worked perfectly.

Also, for those of you who don't cook as much as I do, or who shy away from anything more than take out / canned / frozen / whatever meals during the week, the same methodology works for weeknight meals. I work a very demanding full time job Monday thru Friday, and I still shop every day and prepare a fresh meal for the two of us every night. And so can you. There are so many options that you can have on the table in about an hour. Steaks, chops, BBQ's, chicken, fish, stir-frys, rice, potatoes, pasta sauces, tacos, enchiladas, burritos, even soups like the one I'm preparing with leftover pork loin, can all be done in an hour. And it's fresh, and you'll be happier and healthier for going to a little extra effort.

Cook something fun and healthy tonight, and start looking forward to your next complex dinner party! And that's the end of today's lecture, boys and girls.


Risa said...

Ahhh! Brings back memories--I still think I could pull off a well-timed, complex meal--It is like a dance (which you know I so love). Cooking was second nature to me before I got out of high school even though my Mom was head chef (both at home and at work) since I was responsible for preparing dinner for 2 other siblings when Mom worked two jobs. I am grateful and thankful every night to have such lovingly prepared meals by "lscooks" himself. Much fun to watch "your dance"! rms

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent blog this time Larry! Timing IS everything when serving a meal to folks, whether it is a family of 6 kids or a more formal get together. It's an art and you do it well!

Colleen (little sis)

Sue said...

Will you marry me? My husband might object (or maybe not), but I just love a man who plans a meal so assiduously.

Lisa said...

So sorry I missed it, but I would not have been good company that night. The meal sounds fabulous, but I would expect nothing less knowing your talents. Hope we can get together soon!

Karen Brown Letarte said...

This was quite a feast! I used to do dinner like that for 12 people when I was in grad school-- young and full of energy! I so agree with you, an hour spent cooking an evening meal for the household is so worthwhile. So many wonderful meals can be prepared in an hour, as you point out.

I don't think I could survive shopping every day, however!
:) K