As I mentioned in my last post, this week I’m cooking dinner for 30 people. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve made this much food, nor is it the first time I’ve done it at home without commercial kitchen equipment. But I thought it might be interesting to keep a short diary of what happens, the planning, prepping and cooking, and what inevitable goes wrong in Kitchen “Mayhem.”
First let me note that I love cooking these dinners: no one asks me to do it, I volunteer. Every year I push myself to cook new items as well as some favorites. As much passion as I have for cooking for people, at some point in the week I will be reminded of why I no longer do it professionally. Cooking for a crowd is 20% mental planning and 80% physical labor. After you have de-boned and stuffed your third whole chicken, well, you are simply over the novelty of it. At least until you start planning next year’s menu. (It might be some sort of illness: friends, feel free to offer up your diagnosis).
Sunday: I’m up early today. It’s the deadline to finalize the menu for Saturday. The past couple of weeks the 20 Southeast Asian cookbooks I own have been plastered with sticky note tabs. Despite extensive handwritten notes I’ve lost track of which recipes have made it to the final round of my own personal “Next Thai Food Idol.” A final sweep through the finalists eliminates roughly one third as too complicated, too hard to eat at a party, or having too much last-minute cooking. Amusingly, several new items have been added as well. Darn those beautiful cookbook photos. By early afternoon I have a workable shopping list.
Then its off to shop: There are two main Asian markets I regularly shop at, and a third I want to explore. Each one has its specialties, one more Vietnamese and Thai, another has a wider selection of hard to find veggies and herbs, the third is a major Asian supermarket with extensive varieties across China and Southeast Asia as well as some Indian. In addition I’ll stop at Costco and BJs to compare meat prices: my price list comparing the major meat outlets is at least a year old.
Four hours later 90% of my list is complete. Far East Market doesn’t have the fresh selection it used to, but there are a few new items like Vietnamese cilantro. I love the neighborhood feel: small size, low shelves, the kid buying a snickers bar with 8 dimes. At Costco I give in and buy a new rice cooker; I’ll not use it more than once, but likely I can sell it to someone at a discount (or convince myself I need it as third slowcooker. I need one more, right? Right?). After looking at a coconut cake in the store, I decide to save some time by not baking. Discovery: the new store on my list, Saigon Mart, has a good selection of kitchen tools such as sticky rice steamer baskets and carries pennywort, several varieties of basil, and tiny Thai eggplants. I mistakenly arrive at Grand Asia Mart 10 minutes before closing – just enough time to pick up major items, but not enough to select some more unusual things they carry: kaffir lime leaves, pandanus leaf, and long beans. No one seems to have cilantro roots or pre-shredded fresh green papaya, something I used to find regularly. The final short shopping trip will take place Wednesday on my way home, to pick up fresh meat, and the last of the items on the list.
Car unpacked, items piled on the kitchen table: I’ve purchased more black soy when there was a full bottle in the pantry and really needed “light” (regular) soy. Overall not a bad haul: found the right size bamboo skewers, pineapples were a great price and close to ripe, kabocha squash is in season, limes were on sale. Operation Thai Dinner is underway. To unwind, I open up a new cake cookbook (and turn on the Packer game), discovering what looks like an amazing recipe for coconut cake filled with lemon curd in which I think of substituting lime. I change my mind about baking a cake and add fresh coconut to the shopping list. Packers win.
Monday: Morning arrives too soon along with the realization that in addition to a long day at work and I have a class tonight (assignment not done) and won’t be prepping any food. I debate the value of the continuing ed “enrichment” class vs three – four hours of prep time. While it will throw off my schedule a bit, a few hours of brain challenging fun are needed to balance out the long physical week. On the way home I swing through Food Lion to take advantage of their super low price on boneless skinless chicken breasts that runs out tomorrow. At 10 PM its me and another lone woman shopping in the bright fluorescent light, crossing paths in the sale meat area and beverage/snack aisle.
The clerk is new and can’t figure out how to ring up my bulk dried peppers. I’m a bit amazed that Food Lion has a large selection of fresh coconuts, but then again, I’m not sure I’ve ever been specifically looking for coconuts, so maybe every grocery has them. I have time to think waiting for the pepper ring up: how long can I live with a cell phone that works half the time? Which items on the dinner list will fall by the wayside this week? Is Wednesday too soon to bake cake layers? How effectively can I grate coconut in the food processor? I have more questions than answers.