I have always loved to cook for friends and family. As there is usually only Dustin and I at home, and cooking a gourmet feast for two is generally completely impractical and often completely daunting in our tiny kitchen, whenever we go to visit family I jump at the opportunity to cook up a small feast. I have been doing this (cooking up a storm for parties and get-togethers) since I was 10 or 11 years old and while things generally come together now, historically I have fallen victim to practically all of the kitchen disasters that can derail any carefully planned dinner party and put the cook very much on edge. Looking back at so many early-year party-time nightmares, I have come up with some general guidelines for myself which I would like to share with you as they keep my dinner prep on the straight and narrow path to victory (well, at least most of the time):
1) Pick a dish to plan the meal around – perhaps your Uncle Bubba is coming for dinner and you know he loves a good plate of BBQ Ribs and you want to incorporate that into your meal. Make this one dish your focal point and choose dishes that will complement it flavor wise and that will disperse the work around your kitchen.
2) When I say “Disperse the Work Around Your Kitchen,” here is what I mean… Dustin and I generally team up to get dinner on the table on time. We generally man two separate areas of the kitchen and divvy up some of the major responsibilities. For example, if I decided that BBQ Ribs was our way forward Dustin would likely take on the Rib Grilling and assist in the kitchen on smaller items that don’t need constant supervision so that he can maintain focus on the ribs. I would tackle the tougher indoor projects- the kind of things that need constant love and attention like a big pot of grandmas Mac and Cheese. This not only helps to ensure that all dishes are “covered” from a work perspective but it also divides the operation into separate work areas. And while I am on the topic of Mac and Cheese, lets move on to piece of advice numero tres.
3) Make as much as you can ahead of time. I cannot stress this point enough, determine your menu several days in advance. Pick recipes with ingredients you know you will be able to find and write out a plan of attack. This should include a VERY detailed shopping list, check and double check that you have what you need to execute and if you need to make a trip to more than one store or think you might want to order a special cut of meat or obscure produce item MAKE SURE you do this in advance. Pick at least one major component of your meal that can be prepared in advance. If you’re making BBQ Ribs you might select a good dish of Mac and Cheese and a Cake for dessert that you can make a day ahead. Salad dressings and many sauces can be made in advance. Start the steps for your mis en place. There is no reason you cannot carefully shred cheese for a salad or chop celery or bell peppers and store these in water if you have extra time in advance. This will all make dinner day run smoother and allow you to fret less and enjoy the party more.
4) For the “day of” set out a time line. If I am making a roast or slow cooking something I set up my dinner to all come out when that long term dish has finished. Make sure you include time to bring items up to temperature before roasting, grilling or pan frying. Dishes like Mac and Cheese should not go into the oven straight from the cold refrigerator. These, like meat, should come up to room temp first.
5) Make sure you have an appropriate serving platter or bowl for each dish. I have often found myself getting to serving time to realize that the only platter big enough to serve a certain roast was already in use. So, if you don’t have a great wealth of specific types of plates and dishes make sure you save these for the right use. Also, make sure you have appropriate and functional serving utensils for each dish.
6) Set the table in advance. Typically the last 30 minutes before your meal hits the table are the most stressful – this is no time to clear boxes off of your dining room table, hunt for plates, and attempt dig up enough silverware. Make sure you lay out trivets for hot dishes, serving platters will need ample room on the table.
6) Lastly, take on dishes you know you can manage. If you have never roasted a leg of lamb or have no idea how to BBQ perhaps a large dinner party might not be the best venue for an experiment of this nature. Keep the experiments centered around dishes you have the flexibility to tweak (like a salad dressing) or make ahead. Alternatively, if you are absolutely adamant about running with a temperamental and risky dish, use your family and friends as guinea pigs and test out that souffle you are dying to make a few days in advance. This way, when the day arrives, you have worked out the kinks in your process and are confident in your ability to execute under pressure.
I have made each and every mistake listed above at least once, sometimes the first time was not a good enough lesson as I have certainly been guilty of incurring the same dinner debacle at a later date! The best way to learn what not to do is to test out your own dinner party abilities! In the next couple of posts I am going to depart from my usual MO to run a series of 3 posts containing 3 recipes which I cooked for a small family gathering the other evening. These are fairly simple and straight-forward dishes which will hopefully lead to dinner time success in your own kitchen.
We have a lovely butcher shop near where my parents live. The last time I went to visit they had some fantastic looking skirt steaks in their frozen case. I had squirreled them away in the freezer where they remained for 3 or 4 months until I commenced a great freezer cleaning as part of our efforts to get ready for the move. I knew that this thin cut would work well on a high temp grill and concocted a slightly spicy Argentinian herb sauce typically called a chimichurri to propel those hearty meaty flavors into overdrive. The steak should go over high heat on the stove and only needs a short amount of time to cook. It should rest for several minutes tented on a resting board before serving. This resting time will allow you to make last minute adjustments to the other dishes and have them prepped and ready to serve by the time the steak is well rested and ready to eat.
Skirt Steak with Chimichurri
2 lb. Skirt Steak Seasoned Liberally with Salt and Pepper and “Marinated” for 24 hours
1 c. Parsley Leaves, Packed
3 Garlic Cloves Minced
2 TBSPs Fresh Oregano
2 TSPs Mint Leaves
1/2 c. Olive Oil
2 TBSP Lemon Juice
1 TSP Sea Salt
1/2 TSP Freshly Cracked Pepper
1/2 TSP Red Pepper Flakes
One hour before cooking remove steaks from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temp.
Heat grill till it reaches high heat. While the grill is heating Make the herb sauce.
Chop herbs finely and place in a small bowl. Place all other ingredients in a small food processor and blitz until smooth. Add chopped herbs to the oil mixture and taste for balance.
Grill steaks over high heat for approximately 2 1/2 mins per side. Rest on a board tented with foil for 5 mins before serving. Top with a drizzle of Chimichurri and serve with extra sauce on the side.