Sunday, February 13, 2011

Guest Chef Night -- The Test Kitchen

With the Guest Chef Night rapidly approaching, I have to admit that I am getting a little nervous about the prospect of having to cook for thirty or more people.  The last time I worked in a restaurant was more than fifteen years ago, when I worked in a seafood restaurant to earn money during college.  I started out as a dishwasher, but quickly moved to the position of steam cook, which was a fairly easy job.  I stuffed pots full of blue crabs, spreading handfuls of Old Bay over the crabs as they go into the pot.  I also steamed lobsters, crab legs and all sorts of shellfish (oysters, claims, mussels, steamers, etc.).  Eventually, I was "promoted" to the saute and grill section, making sauteed soft shells, broiled fish and even strip steaks for tens if not more than a hundred guests a night.

However, I have not cooked for that many people since my days as a seafood cook.  The dishes that we will be making are far more complex than anything I made as a cook before.  The expectations are much higher, I think both for myself and the guests.  I have one thing going for me, in that Clare's father will be cooking with me, and he is a very good cook.

But, I felt that I needed to cook these dishes for a group of people before the Guest Chef Night.  So, I decided that I would turn our kitchen into a test kitchen.  While I wanted to invite a lot of people to serve as taste testers, I had to keep a couple things in mind, such as the size of our dining room and the cost of this little project.  I decided to invite a handful of good friends (all of whom I had not seen in a long time).  Clare and I gave our friends one task -- to provide feedback on each dish to help me as I prepare to make this meal on Guest Chef Night.  My friends provided very detailed feedback, which will certainly benefit the guests and diners who will be attending the Guest Chef Night. 

I've had an opportunity to review all of their comments, and, I thought I would share some of their observations, along with what I have learned from them. 

Mushroom Gratinate:  This is the first course, the antipasta.  Overall, everyone liked the course.  They noted the presentation, namely the toasted slices of wheat bread topped with soft mushrooms, sauteed in garlic and herbs, topped with grated Parmigiano Reggiano.  The guests liked the contrast in textures, crunchy crusts on the bread, surrounding a softer, buttery center topped with the mushrooms and cheese.  If there was something that I learned about this dish, it is to make sure that I focus on the contrast in textures, along with the balance between mushrooms and cheese.   

Sicilian Chickpea and Escarole Soup:  This is the second course.  Garlic toast is plated at the bottom of the bowl, with a soup made from onion, garlic, fennel, chickpeas and escarole.  Frank and I have modified the recipe a little bit, substituting vegetable stock for chicken stock.  I also did not use the anchovies because I wanted to make the soup so that everyone, including one of our vegetarian friends, could try it.  I also restrained myself when it came to adding salt, because I was concerned about the salt favors that the cheese rind would add to the soup.

Once again, everyone liked the course.  They liked the presentation, although one person suggested not fully submerging the bread in the soup.  All of the guests enjoyed the flavors of the soup, with one person noting there was a good balance between the ingredients, while another person noting that the flavor of the fennel really came out at the end of the soup.  Everyone also had the same observation ... the soup needed a little more salt.  They also noted that a little grated Parmigiano Reggiano gave the soup more depth.  The key for me is to monitor the level of salt, because we will be using anchovies in the soup at Guest Chef Night. 

Couscous alla Trapanese:  This is the main course.  Moroccan couscous served with either chicken and sausage or tilapia and squid that is cooked in a red tomato sauce flavored with saffron.  I decided that I would prepare the the couscous as originally called for in the recipe ... steaming the couscous with stock.  I had to make three different couscous with three different sauces.  In addition to the chicken and fish couscous, I also made a vegetarian version of this dish. In steaming the couscous, I had to jerry-rig my pots and colanders to make the couscous and that had an effect on the final product. 

I also had to improvise a little in making this dish in an effort to keep cooking times consistent so that the chicken and the fish would be done at the same.  We had some fairly thick chicken breasts, so I decided to chunk the breasts into even size pieces that would cook faster.  As it turned out, the fish still cooked faster than the chicken so I think that when we make the dish, we need to start the chicken before starting the fish.

Overall, people liked the dish, particularly the protein, whether it was the fish and shrimp or the chicken and sausage, although they thought I could have added a little more sauce.  As for the couscous, everyone noted that the couscous was a little dry or uneven.  Clare's dad suggested an alternative way to prepare the couscous, which will be the way that we prepare it for the dinner because, the more couscous we have to prepare, the harder it is to get the couscous to the desired, even consistency.

Fresh Green Beans with Romaine, Tomatoes, Oil and Lemon Dressing:  This is a cold vegetable dish that actually is quite tasty.  The beans are blanched, served on romaine and topped with onions that have been marinating in the oil and lemon dressing, along with a garnishment of tomatoes.  The one difficulty I had with this dish is that I needed two and a half pounds of green beans, but I had a problem finding that many green beans.  I should have reduced the amount of red onion, but did not do that.  And our guests picked up on that.  Everyone loved the presentation and a couple people especially noted the crunch of the beans.  In addition, everyone also loved the dressing.    The key for me with respect to the side dish is to maintain a good equilibrium between green bean and red onion.

Strawberry Banana Ice Cream: Although this was a special treat for our guests, I would be remiss if I did not note that everybody LOVED the ice cream.  Clare did an amazing job making the ice cream and it was a great way to end the night.

Overall, this test kitchen experience was a success.  Everyone provided very well thought, detailed comments that have provided a lot of assistance in terms of helping me to focus on what I need to do to ensure a great meal for the Guest Chef Night.

I want to thank everyone who participated in the test kitchen ... you know who you are.  I also want to think my amazing wife, Clare, for all of her help in preparing the meal.

The Guest Chef Night is about a week away.  Although everyone enjoyed the meal, I still have my work cut out for myself.   More to come about that ....


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