Sunday, September 12, 2010

Multi-Tasking in the Kitchen

Food and multitasking don’t always go well together.  OK, yes, you must be able to multitask to get dinner on the table.  You simply cannot cook one dish at a time and expect to be able to serve a hot, satisfying meal.  But there is also something to be said for concentrating on the task at hand. 

This past holiday weekend pushed my multitasking abilities past my limit.  The loml and I had dear friends come for dinner Friday evening and stay over at our place at the coast.  Plus the next evening we held one of our “auction dinners” that we host for our favorite charity (the theme was seafood).  Knowing that I had to serve a particularly good meal for our “paying” guests Saturday evening  I thought I would make things a bit simpler and begin the “before” stuff on Tuesday before the big weekend.

I finalized the Friday and Saturday menus on Tuesday evening.  Wednesday evening I created three shopping lists – one for the “do ahead” stuff that I could do on Thursday, one for our Friday get-together with dear friends, and the Saturday day-of-event last minute list.  Thursday morning I remembered that I would have little time nor the energy to cook “do ahead” that evening because I had to attend the annual beginning-of-the-school-year staff party – an especially big event this year since it was to be hosted by our brand new (to our school) principal.  So the three-day cooking plan got tossed into a two-day plan.  I had faith that it would be all good.

Fortunately I was able to leave work early on Friday (oh dear, I think I forgot to report that on my time card…) and did some quick but major grocery shopping upon our arrival at the coast – I picked up the ingredients for our simple but elegant supper for Friday and the prep-ahead items for Saturday’s feast.  Even more fortunate to my timing issues was that our Friday guests got a late start and arrived even later than expected.  Friday’s menu was grill-out simple - asparagus veggie and salmon and steak main course.  Enough rice for both Friday and Saturday was boiled up.  A simple fruit salad and flourless chocolate cake (decadent and so quick and easy, recipe to follow) filled out the menu for Friday. 

Before our Friday guests arrived, I started in on the tuna ball tapas appetizer for Saturday.  It was a simple recipe that only required exchanging rice cracker crumbs for the bread crumbs (myself and one of our guests are gluten free).  While I was puttering along with the preparations for Saturday our Friday friends arrived and despite the fact that I was mixing the “do ahead” part of the tuna balls, I dropped everything.  OK, I didn’t actually “drop everything”, I neatly spread my mixing bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerated the dish.
Friday’s dinner was wonderful – great company, good food, good wine – what more could one ask for?  Apparently on Saturday, while finishing the tuna ball appetizer, I found out that I should  have asked for the ability to remember to mark my place in a recipe...

The one key ingredient that I omitted was a raw egg.  Unfortunately, the exclusion was not immediately apparent.  I was able to form the tuna mixture into appropriate sized balls, I sautéed them in a light olive oil until golden and they held their shape.  The next instruction was to add wine and chicken stock to the fry pan, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.  I lifted the lid to a mess of deconstructed tuna balls.  I had left happy, plump, individual tuna balls to swim with the wine and broth and they melted into a flat mess.  Plus there was little among the mess to call “wine sauce”.  Re-reading the recipe, I surmised that the one small, raw egg, omitted from the mixture would have firmed up those delicate fish balls and enable them to declare themselves as individual servings of tuna.  How could I possibly serve flat tuna mess without sauce and call it “Spanish tuna balls with wine sauce” for this supposedly fancy (and expensive) dinner?  This  disastrous dish was caused by trying to multitask while visiting with wonderful friends.

Friday’s dinner was great.  The best part was the perfectly grilled steak, tender fish, grilled asparagus, fresh fruit salad, and flourless chocolate cake.  OK, the whole meal was great.  And I had leftover salmon from the bbq (salmon leftovers are always good the next day). 

Saturday morning was up-and-at-‘em for two of our party who wanted to put in a ten-mile walk before breakfast.  The two “chefs” were left comfortable in our beds until a decent hour rolled around and we started puttering around the kitchen.  It turned out that we began puttering around well before our “exercisists” returned.  We slowed our cooking-selves down with the reading of books. Our walkers finally arrived close to noon. A delicious French-toast and sausage breakfast was quickly cooked and served.

After breakfast-at-noon our dear friends left to destinations north.  And I began to prepare for the Saturday “extravaganza” (or, simply put, one heck of a good meal).   First step was the final shopping trip.

I had hoped to do an appetizer with small squid but none was available.  Substituted cheese and crackers.  Neither was there “pulled” (shell-less) crab meat for the salad-recipe causing a menu change on the shopping floor!  And I had an almost total meltdown in front of the avocado display.  For my “crab and avocado salad” I at least needed fresh avocados.  I had already thought about substituting leftover salmon from Friday’s bbq for the crab.  But how can you do an avocado salad without fresh avocados?  Finally, after (gently) squeezing at least 20 of them, I found two that were acceptable.

Arriving home from the shopping expedition, I needed to deal with the failed tuna ball issue.  I could not serve my “seafood dinner” guests a no-seafood appetizer course.  Fortunately, a dear friend recently gave me a set of really stylish, small ceramic plates decorated with crabs so I scooped up what would have been two tuna balls onto each plate and served them with tiny forks.  It turned out to be a tasty and elegant, although flat, dish.

The grilled, leftover salmon paired very well with avocado layered on mixed greens that were dressed with creamy ranch dressing.  I received lots of complements.

The main dish, served with warmed up, left over rice (aghast? no one noticed!) was a Greek dish of shrimp, tomatoes, red bell pepper, onion and feta cheese.  Cheese with shrimp??? – in this dish it worked wonderfully!

Dessert, I am happy to say did not have any seafood involved.  I served a blackberry meringue roll - a light and tasty dish thanks to Martha Stewart. 

No one can claim that they ever leave our beach home hungry!  But from now on, I think one dinner party a weekend is sufficient.

Flourless Chocolate Cake (Gourmet Cookbook, The. 2004, pg739)*
Serves 10 to 12

8 ounces good bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), chopped
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter [plus extra for buttering the pan]
1 ½ cups sugar
6 large eggs
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus additional for dusting
[I add 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract]

Equipment: 10-inch springform pan [and parchment paper]

Put a rack in middle of oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Butter pan, line bottom with a round of parchment or wax paper, and butter paper.

Melt chocolate with butter in a medium metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring until smooth.  Remove bowl from heat and whisk in sugar.  Add eggs one at a time, whisking well after each addition.  Sift cocoa powder over chocolate and whisk until just combined.

Pour batter into pan.  Bake until top has formed a thin crust and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of cake comes out with moist crumbs adhering, 35 to 40 minutes.  Cool cake in pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove side of pan.  Invert cake onto a plate, [remove bottom of pan and liner and ]reinvert onto rack to cool completely.

Dust cake with cocoa powder before serving. [Serve with vanilla ice cream or slightly sweetened whipped cream.]

The cake can be made up to 3 days ahead and kept in an airtight container at room temperature.

*My recipe changes/additions are enclosed in [ ]

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