On Saturday, December 22nd, I seated and served 20 people in my small, midwestern home for an early Christmas dinner. Other than spilling part of a bottle of wine, the dinner was a complete success.
How did I do it? Mostly, I followed the advice of my previous blog post.
One, I delegated. I was only making the meat--turkey and lamb--and some dinner rolls. Each family member brought side dishes, salads, or desserts. My family was extremely gracious and helpful in making sure there was enough to go around.
Two, I kept clean-up to a minimum by using plasic plates and silverware. I found some nice looking stuff at the local warehouse store that didn't look paper-plate chintzy. I also rented some 8-foot tables to seat everybody, from a local rental company. I got 2 tables and 25 chairs delivered, set up and picked up for under $100--money well spent. I also used green disposable tablecloths, which complemented the red place settings nicely.
Three, I did a lot of the prep work and the cooking in advance. I brined the turkey and marinated the meat a few days before. I set up the tables the night before. I set the tables early in the morning. The meats were cooked nearly an hour before the first guest arrived. The roll recipe I used was also largely done in advance. All I had to do the day of was let the rolls rise, then bake them at the last moment.
I did break my rule and tried two new recipes, rather than one new recipe, for the event. I'd never cooked a leg of lamb before, and I'd never done homemade dinner rolls. However, I had a superb marinade for the lamb, and a good recipe in a cookbook that I trust. I also had kitchen thermometers in both meats, to make sure that I did not overcook them.
I did make a bit of an error with the thermometers, though. For both the turkey and the lamb, the thermometers said the meats were done when they still needed a good half hour to an hour more of cooking. Now, I know that each oven is different, and that cooking times in recipes are just guidelines. However, my cooking times were coming up a good 45 minutes to an hour short of the times in the cookbooks. Something was definitely off, and it was either the recipes, or the thermometers.
This is where having confidence in your recipe comes into play. I knew that I could trust both recipes, and that the cooking times shouldn't be more than 10 or 15 minutes off of what was listed. So, I reasoned, I must have made a mistake when placing the thermometers; I must have placed them too shallow. I jiggled the thermometers to place them a bit deeper into the meat, and, lo and behold, the internal temperature went down a good 20 degrees.
It's also about your confidence as a cook. Even if I wasn't so sure about the recipe, I would still have checked the thermometers, jiggled them a bit, or even pulled them out and put them in a different spot of the meat, to see what the problem was. If my second readings had told me the bird was done, then I'd have pulled the bird, even though the recipe may have given a longer cooking time.
The dinner rolls were more of a wild card. However, the recipe was from Cooks Illustrated magazine, another source whose recipes I trust. Rolls are also similiar enough to breadmaking--and I've done enough breads that I felt fairly confident with them. And, with all the other side dishes coming, if the rolls did not work out, no one would miss them. I confess, I was not 100% sure about the rolls until after they came out of the oven, and I palmed one and ate it under my breath. I still had time to shuffle them to the garage if they weren't any good. Thankfully, the rolls were lovely.
A huge thanks to my family for their hospitality and for coming out to my house, some of them for the first time. And a big thanks to my husband, who did a lot of the final cleaning and running to the store for me that day. It was a little stressful to plan, but the execution was beautiful, and the cleanup was a breeze.
Versatile meat marinade
Adapted from from Cooking New American by The Editors of Fine Cooking (The Taunton Press, 2004).
I got this marinade from a Splendid Table Weeknight Kitchen E-mail, and adapted it for my own use. I've used this marinade with great success on beef and lamb. It would also be good for a pork tenderloin. It's probably too strong for chicken, but you could try it, so long as you don't let it marinate too long.
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds, crushed lightly
Pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Juice and zest of one lemon
Juice and zest of one orange
Sprigs of cilantro or mint
Lightly crush coriander seeds with a mortar and pestle, or by nesting a smaller glass inside a bigger glass and pressing gently but firmly. Stir all ingredients together, except for the cilantro or mint, until well blended.
If you like, reserve a few tablespoons of the marinade to drizzle over the meat after it's cooked. Reserve it before you add the meat.
Put your meat (beef, lamb pork) into a zip-top bag or shallow dish, and add marinade. Bruse the herbs by rolling them roughly between the palms of your hand like you are warming up your hands on a cold day. Add some herbs to each side of bag. Marinate for at least a day, two would be better, turning at least once. I like to turn it every few hours--before work, then after work, then before I go to bed.
Before cooking, wipe meat off to remove the coriander seeds and any bits of herbs that are hanging on. Cook meat in your standard way, whatever that may be.