Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The narrative of a dinner party: a cautionary tale

Anxiety is no stranger to home cooks preparing a dinner party.

When I was young and didn't care about what I was doing, which is to say when I took it for granted, I was cocky and insouciant. I also had a group of willing sous chefs who I didn't mind putting to work. Age has made me more controlling and questioning. Any willing helper arrives as a guest to a party that has already begun. Things that once gave me a thrill now give me agita.

Take last Sunday for instance. What on earth was I thinking when I decided to make home made ravioli? For guests who have spent their entire lives going to Italy and know Italian food better then I could possibly ever know it? Well, I blame it on the ramps. They were the only thing at the market that was local and fresh and new. I wanted to highlight this uniquely local ingredient for our friend visiting from London, show him how we do it in the colonies.

Saturday I did my usual tour of the Union Square Green Market - I was hoping for asparagus or rhubarb, maybe a morel. Ramps, ramps and more ramps. I come up with this idea of doing a very delicate filling of fresh ricotta, Parmesan with lightly sauteed ramps in the middle of light and perfect pasta pillows. Generously doused in butter sage sauce. Sounds easy! What could be so hard?

The night before I make Calvados ice cream or at least I make the custard which needs to cool over night and I start the bread. As usual I stay up too late and wake later then I want, but that's OK - I have already bought the cheeses to go with the bread, but lament that the end of the season is also the start of the season and all my homemade chutneys and pickles are long gone. I push that thought out of my head. I put the cool boozy custard in the ice cream maker and check in on my bread dough, adding flour and giving it shape.

Last night in a quagmire of indecision I also pulled out a bunch of frozen fish bones and fish with the idea of making a spicy fish stew in addition to the pasta. It all seems doable at 1:30 AM. I make a new pasta dough recipe (note to self don't try something new for a dinner party of people you want to impress) and it has 9 egg yolks and 6 eggs and needs to be refrigerated for 3 hours. I have this old idea of making coconut cookies and chocolate sauce to go with the ice cream. Shit, I need more butter and more coconut and I want to alter the recipe for the cookies so I don't have to use sweetened coconut. Then angel food cake comes into my head, Passover had me looking at recipes and I remember a chocolate angel food cake that's perfect, it calling for 2 cups of egg whites which is exactly what i have after using so many yolks for the pasta and the ice cream. So I make the angel food cake. Somehow I'm thinking angel food cake, home made ice cream and hot chocolate sauce aren't enough, so I am still insistent on the coconut cookies. Besides, it's beautiful outside and I want to at least go for a walk to the Avenue A market to see if maybe there is something new there, something that might have sprouted since yesterday. Besides I need to pick up butter, coconut and, Oh Shit, sugar, too. It's getting on 3 PM as the angel food cake comes out of the oven. It looks great, if kind of pale for chocolate, I wish it were darker, but oh well the chocolate sauce will make up for that.

Out the door, it's wonderful to feel the sun. I go by Gracefully Market on Avenue A and think I should just go in there and get what I need, streamline my shopping, but it's horrifying. A half pound of butter here is what a pound is at Whole Foods and the coconut is equally over priced. I'm indignant and leave empty handed.

The market is lovely, I buy some Empire apples (just in case I want to make a cole slaw) and a 5 buck dozen of farm fresh eggs. Even though it's starting to get later then I want it t be I need to go to Whole Foods or at least I feel driven to walk there and get these few sundries that in reality I end up never using.

Once home it's almost 4. The pasta will be easy I tell myself. Jane comes by with a case of wine.
They'll all show up by 7. I shower. I look at the wild salmon cake batter I had made and frozen, it looks wan and pale, I'm anxious about the ravioli and take the dough out of the fridge. Maybe I should nix the fish cakes? Is it too late to make the fish stew?

The bread dough was proofing in a cotton dough rubbed with flour, but it's so warm out and in my kitchen and my trip out took much longer then expected I see the bread has leaked out of the towel and pooled into a gray mass on the stainless steel counter. I start to sweat profusely and swear loudly. I add a bunch of flour and swear some more. Pounding and kneading the dough into some shape, I take the dutch oven out of the preheated oven and put this limp flat disk of dough in it and cover it with the lid, I'm convinced it will look and taste like eating a brick, I'm furious. Stupid idiot! You should have done this sooner, you should have stayed home, you should have...back to the ravioli dough, it's very yellow from all the eggs, I dredge it in some corn flour.

In re-reading the extensive instructions I see I have to roll it through the widest opening on the pasta maker then fold it in thirds then repeat 10 times. This takes a while, but then I get the hang of it, I decrease the width of the rollers and try again this time for 6 go through, the pasta starts to shred, I start to sweat with anxiety. I breath and try again, every time I think it's working I move to a thinner setting on the pasta making machine and it shreds the dough into an unrecognizable heap. At one point I get out my rolling pin in hopes of trying to flatten it out again. I'm sweaty profusely, I scream, I swear and I slam the ruined and shredded dough angrily with my rolling pin. Then I walk away, it's almost 7 and now, instead of being ahead of the game, I feel hopelessly behind.

In the end I use the technique from another easier recipe with out all the folding and repeating, it works OK, not great, but with the calming help of my friend Debbie (who thought she was attending a party and not being a sous chef, though she's always game) I am able to abandon the idea of ravioli and make a lasagna with a last minute tomato sauce and a ramp infused cheese layer. In the end I was amazed how good the difficult pasta tasted, it was silk and melted in my mouth. Thought it wasn't particularly subtle nor did it reflect the season in the way I wanted it to. The fish cakes were a disaster and I new from tasting them in the kitchen that although looking good they tasted bland and boring and even the sour cream and flying fish roe couldn't save them (note to self, if you taste it in the kitchen and don't like it, don't serve it).

The final misstep in this meal of missteps was the broccoli rab. For some strange reason at the market the other green that I saw that appealed to me was broccoli rab, it was hardy with thick stocks and yellow flowers. My usual way of doing it is to poach it quickly in boiling water then chop it up and fry it in olive oil, garlic and hot peppers, finishing it off with lemon juice. The end result tasted fine, and was eaten with enthusiasm, but as one guest pointed out vegetebales need to be taken out of the water before you think they are cooked as they continue to cook, a nice way of saying it was a bit soft. Flash back to my mother's green beans which were almost a puree they were so over cooked. Indeed I will cut myself some slack here as I don't like how bitter late in the day broccoli rabe can taste so I guess if I had to make a choice I preferred it a little soft and tasty to cooked to crunchy perfection and bitter. Or maybe I'm just being soft on myself?

Dessert was just fine, I was able to sit and relax and drink some wine and feel a sigh of relief that I had made it through.

Here is the thing: don't make something new for a new crowd. Make simple things that make you happy, taste good and aren't going to make you crazy. It's important to tell this story because even cooks like me who people think are good cooks have off days. Oh and that I am my own worst enemy and critic. So note to self, and anyone else who might be able to relate to this, take a weight off your shoulder and prepare ahead of time!

Relax, this is suppose to be fun. And in the end no one else cares, everyone is happy to be eating something not out of a microwave or from a fast food chain, which is why at the end of an evening no matter how successful or not you think your meal was you spent time with friends old and new and you shared with them some love from your kitchen.

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