Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Effortless Entertaining: Finding Your Swing in Meal Preparation

There are times when we all would prefer a home cooked meal at the end of a long day, yet are too tired to even begin thinking about making it. Prepping everything ahead of time, similar to what restaurants do, will have you eating in more often. If you're lucky, you'll even find your swing.
Near Effortless Meals: Goat Chops with Chickpeas and Couscous
Swing: the hard-to-define feeling when near-perfect synchronization of motion occurs in the shell, enhancing the overall speed and performance. (Source)
In college, I was a coxswain for the men's rowing team. At practice, our coach often spoke of swing, something that we as a team should aspire to. For a Type A personality it was as if a gauntlet had been thrown down. But that was the irony of swing. The more you tried. The more you forced. The less achievable swing was. Swing required you to let go. To simply be in the moment.
I never raced, but I did experience swing. I was a novice coxswain so to have achieved swing with a crew speaks more to the experience of the varsity oarsmen in my boat that day. It also reflects on my ability to recognize we had it and to do nothing but breathe. Besides seeing who's dragging or early and getting them in line, coxswains control the direction the boat goes with a rudder. Many novices, myself included, saw back and forth on the lines, forcing the team to do more work and never getting the boat in balance. When the rudder is completely straight, the boat is in balance and it's up to the oarsmen to catch, drive, finish, feather, recover, and release in unison. The morning the pair I was in achieved swing the fog was just beginning to lift over Lexington Reservoir. Our coach had sent me out with the varsity pair to learn a light hand. We went almost three quarters of the course in swing, something I'll never forget.
Planning Ahead For Near Effortless Meals
Why a story about racing in a post about effortless entertaining or stress-free, mid-week, dining in meal? Because a perfect dinner service at a restaurant or a flawless plated dinner for VIPs carries the same adrenalin rush. You can't force either. Sure you can prepare ahead of time, but past that you have to trust. You have to let go.
When I first started working at the Thai restaurant and began single-handedly cooking and plating four-course dinners for monthly salons preparing ahead of time was a hard lesson to learn. Movies about people who leave it all to open a restaurant and cookbooks don't share what happens behind the scenes. Sure it's obvious you need to hone your skills. To practice. But the planning and timing of your prep work and the order and timing of when you fire a dish none of that is spelled out. (You see the effects of when a brigade is not in swing on Hell's Kitchen. Hint for those who haven't seen the show: it's a train wreck.)
Station with Ingredients that Were Prepped Ahead
Here's how I approach meal planning and preparation.

Tips for Staging Meal Preparation and Cooking

  1. Choose sides and a main that have similar cooking times. If two or more items require an oven, make sure the temperatures are the same. If not, and you're using a toaster oven for one of the dishes, double check the broiler pan or baker you're planning on putting in the toaster oven fits.
  2. Do all knife work earlier in the day. Store ingredients in individual airtight containers. Group containers for the same dish together in the refrigerator so that you aren't having to search for anything later. Also, using masking tape or painter's tape note the order in which the items are added to your dish along with any special instructions.
  3. Premix or precook any items that need time to develop flavor. For example, if you're making a gravy, reduce your homemade broth ahead of time so that you just need to heat and thicken.
  4. When you're ready to make your meal, pull everything from the refrigerator and set up your stations. In addition to the ingredients, place the recipe nearby or a Post-It about what needs to happen t finish the dish.
  5. If possible, delegate some of the cooking. The benefits are two fold: 1) You have company in the kitchen. A party is always more fun when you're in the thick of it. And, 2) The need for switching context -- remembering which dish gets sautéed and which gets roasted and in which order -- is reduced.
Last night, after Gates went to sleep, we had Harissa Marinated Goat Chops from 4505 Meats served over Stewed Chickpeas and Couscous with fresh Asparagus delivered that day via Farmigo. In roughly half an hour, from pulling everything from the refrigerator to putting the plates on the table, we had a meal to excite the tastebuds in less time than it takes to order delivery. The only hiccup was that I forgot to double check that the broiler pan for the chops fit in the toaster oven. Oops. We had to finish roasting the asparagus before we could broil the chops.
What do you do before your guests arrive?
Bon Appetit!
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