Serving the Lavish Dinner

After twelve hours preparing a multi-course small plates meal for a dozen guests, it was finally time to sit down and taste the fruits of our (and Nat’s staff’s) labors.

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Left – Tawn, Bee, and Cha pose for a picture.  Right – Bee takes a picture of the party.

The guests were a combination of my friends, Nat’s friends, and several people we know in common.  With a total of thirteen people, there was enough variety of experiences, perspectives, and opinions while having a small enough group to not be overwhelming.  I must compliment Nat’s job at arranging the seating as everyone was strategically placed to maximize the interesting conversations.

What follows is an overview of the menu that was finally served, as well as commentary on some of the last minute changes that had to happen!  I’ll also critique the dishes, as I think an important part of any culinary undertaking is, in addition to enjoying the food, to learn from the experience.

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Amuse bouche: Thai-style poke – A mixture of sushi grade yellow fin tuna seasoned with lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, mint leaves, fish sauce, and tamarind paste.  While I think this turned out nicely, I have other ideas about how it should be made, based on a dish I had at lunch the next day at a Thai restaurant.  You’ll be seeing this “Thai-style poke” concept appearing again in this blog as I refine it.  We also managed to veer off the “small plates” course from the very first dish – this serving was about ten bites, when it should have been just two or three.

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Alternate amuse bouche for one of our guests who does not eat raw meat: a slice of smoked salmon with sour cream, dill, and capers.  This was pulled together at the last minute as I didn’t realize we had a guest with dietary restrictions.  While not the most original thing to serve, I think it photographed very nicely.

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Hot Soup: We followed the poke with small glasses of a lemongrass Vichyssoise, a pureed potato and leek soup that had a fragrant lemongrass flavor.  This was very nice and was fun to drink.  It worked well both in terms of concept and execution.

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Dinner guests with their hot soup.  Several people were disappointed that the lemongrass garnish could not be used as a straw!

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Cold Soup: Tomato and beetroot gazpacho, served icy with a dollop of sour cream and a sprig of dill.  In a moment of inspired improvisation (or, at least, what I think was improvisation), Nat explained that the guests were meant to stir this soup to mix in the sour cream, at which point it would have a drinkable consistency.  That worked pretty well.  The presentation was neat, the flavor was fine but nothing spectacular.  I think we should have started with raw beets and gone for something more borscht-like.

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Pasta: Ravioli filled with pumpkin puree served on a bed of roasted red bell pepper sauce.  The staff ended up cooking the pasta some thirty minutes before we served the dish and then left it to cool in a strainer, which resulted in a pretty tough exterior.  The flavor of the filling, though, was very nice and the contrast with the pepper sauce was fantastic.  Next time, I think I need to make a dough that has some color in it, or maybe stipes, just for effect.  I’ll be making this at home sometime soon.

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Fish: Smoked salmon served on top of a piece of shiso leaf focaccia, garnished with sour cream and capers.  Nat’s focaccia is fantastic and I have to get the recipe.  The shiso leaf added an interesting, and unexpected, flavor.  I think we could have doubled the number of shiso leaves, though, and cut the serving size in quarters.  This is another example of where we lost our focus on the idea of “small plates”.  Did I mention, though, that the bread was amazing?

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Palette Cleanser: To clean the palette after the smoked salmon, Nat served a scoop of a special sorbet.  We asked the guests to guess what flavoring was used in addition to the lime juice.  This was actually something he and I had tried first thing after I got there in the morning, settling on lime juice and Frangelico, a hazlenut-based liqueur.  The combination was really nice and very surprising.  If only I had room in my kitchen for an ice cream maker, the idea of serving a palette cleanser midway through the meal is very sophisticated.

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Fowl: The sous-vide chicken breast stuffed with a shrimp and ground pork mixture, served with mango-avocado salsa.  This dish underwhelmed me on a couple of levels.  The shrimp-pork stuffing tasted very good in the morning – we fried some up just to check the seasonings.  But after four hours cooking at a low temperature in the water bath, the flavor was more like pate.  The salsa was nice, but mixing it in advance led to the avocado breaking down, causing a creamy consistency.  I think it would have been nicer to have a salsa with very distinct ingredients.  All in all, this dish probably needs a rework before it is served again.

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Salad: Simple mixed greens served with a light vinaigrette.  Nothing much to be said about this, although it could have used a cherry tomato, Parmessan crisp, or something to cheer up the plate.

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Meat and Veg: Pork loin, cooked sous-vide then pan-fried, served on a carrot puree with curried cauliflower and creamed broccoli.  I have to take the blame for this dish that ended up not being more than the sum of its parts.  Having not cooked sous-vide before, I underseasoned the pork loin.  It was very tender, which was nice, but didn’t have much flavor.  Originally, we had discussed slicing the pork then flouring and briefly deep-frying each slice, to give it a nice outer crust.  We changed our mind late in the game because trying to deep-fry a dozen pieces of pork (even with a staff to help) seemed like a lot of work.  In retrospect, I think that would have been a more successful approach than the pan frying.

As for the vegetables, we had a lack of focus and this is one place where some advance planning would have helped.  I made the cauliflower in advance, because I like the recipe, but the flavors didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the plate.  The creamed broccoli was meant to contrast with the cauliflower while having a similar shape, but it also evoked a bit of an “meh…” response on the taste buds.  The carrot puree, which we wanted to leave as a neutral canvas for the pork, could have used something other than salt and pepper to season.  A stronger flavor – cumin, maybe? – would have been nice.

At this point, we had served too many too-large “small” plates and guests were getting full.  It was at that point that we decided to skip the cheese course – sad, because we bought some nice cheeses! – and then the individual cranberry souffles were knocked off the menu because one of the kitchen staff mistook the souffle base for a sauce.  While in the kitchen plating another course, I looked at the stove and asked Nat, “Is the cranberry mixture meant to be boiling?”  The answer, of course, was no.  Scratch the souffles.

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Dessert: Peppermint ice cream.  We were left with only the ice cream for dessert.  This was meant to be a rosemary ice cream but after an hour of the rosemary steeping in the cream mixture, the flavor was indistinguishable from vanilla.  Running out of time, we settled on peppermint, added the extract, and started freezing the ice cream.  The flavor was perfectly nice and made a nice conclusion to the evening, though.

All in all, the diners had a fun time, enjoying good company and good food.  Nat and I had a fun adventure preparing this elaborate, even lavish, meal.  There were some successes as well as some mistakes, and plenty of lessons to be learned.  Nat probably put it best when he wrote in a text message to me the next morning, “I’ll be ready to do it again in about a year.”

 

Preparing a Lavish Dinner

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Saturday night, my friend Nat and I hosted a lavish dinner, some ten courses for a dozen or so guests, held at his house.  The preparations took twelve hours and we were assisted by six staff members.  In the end, despite “small” courses that filled diners so much that we skipped the cheese course, and despite having to scrap the cranberry souffles because a sous chef mistook the base for a sauce and boiled it to death, things turned out nicely and a good time was had by all.

On the grand scale of cooking styles, with “tedious planner” at one extreme and “wing-and-a-prayer” at the other, I’m more towards the later than the former.  In my kitchen, recipes are suggestions and usually are more of a starting point rather than scriptures to be followed.  However, it is safe to say that Nat is even further to the “free-form” end of the scale.  Our brief email exchanges in the days leading up to the dinner are the full extent to which we planned in advance.

Instead, I showed up at his house at shortly after 8:00 Saturday morning.  We discussed a menu and then headed to the market relying on nothing more than our collective minds in lieu of a shopping list.

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While we were working from a wee bit of a plan, there was a lot of improvisation based on what we saw at the market.  “These look good, let’s use them as a sauce!”  We returned home and started preparations, talking through the schedule of what should happen over the next several hours before guests arrived.

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We were working from this rough plan: an amuse bouche (appetizer) of a Thai-style tuna poke; a lemongrass flavored Vichysoisse (potato and leek soup), served hot; a tomato-beet soup, served cold; pumpkin tortelloni served on a roasted red bell pepper sauce; smoked salmon and shiso leaves on focaccia bread; a lime sorbet as a palette cleanser; chicken breast stuffed with pork and shrimp, cooked sous-vide and served with a mango and avocado salsa; a salad of plain greens; a pork loin simply seasoned and cooked sous-vide, served with pureed carrots, curried cauliflower, and creamed broccoli; a selection of four cheeses served with dried fruit; individual cranberry souffles served with rosemary ice cream; and tea/coffee/digestifs served with petit fours.

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Thankfully, Nat has a household staff, three of whom have worked as sous chefs in professional kitchens.  Let me strongly recommend that if you are going to have a dinner party, you get yourself a kitchen staff.  It greatly reduces the workload!  (Yes, I realize that most of us, myself included, don’t have that luxury on a regular basis.)

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All joking aside, having a competent staff really did make a huge difference.  While Nat and I were both hands-on, it was helpful to have people to wash, cut, pound, etc.  The meat dishes were the first ones we prepared, since they were going to be cooked “sous- vide” or in a vacuum.  I’ll explain that in a moment.  First step was to pound the chicken breasts and then arrange them so they made a rectangle.

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The chicken breasts were topped with a blended mixture of pork and shrimp, seasoned with soy sauce.  This mixture is very similar to the filling used for wontons.  Nat then rolled the whole thing into a log so that, once served, a slice would have a pleasing spiral shape.

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The stuffed chicken breasts were then cut into three sections, each of which was tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and then placed in a vacuum bag and sealed.

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The pork loin, covered with a spice rub, is sealed in a plastic bag by a vacuum sealer.  Our cooking method for the chicken and pork was to use “sous-vide” – French for “under vacuum” – a technique in which food is cooked in a sealed bag that has the air removed from it, and then the bag is placed in a water bath and cooked at a low temperature for a very long time.  In this case, the pork was cooked for 8 hours in a 147 F water bath. 

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The benefits of this technique include that none of the moisture and flavor are lost in the process, since they remain sealed in the bag.  Additionally, the low and slow cooking ensures that the meat is cooked to the desired level of doneness without overcooking.  There are some other benefits that occur at a molecular level – cell walls do not burst, connective tissues gelatinize without the proteins tightening, etc.  More about that in the Wikipedia article here.  This was my first time cooking with this technique and I’d like to try more of it.

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To accompany the chicken, we combined white onion, mango, and avocados to form a salsa that was seasoned with fish sauce.

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The end result was very tasty, although upon retrospect I wish we had not mixed the avocados in until the last minute as the end result was creamier and less distinct than I had envisioned.

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The souffle base was made from cranberries, a decision we arrived at based on what berries were in Nat’s freezer.  After thawing them, the berries were run through a food mill to extract all the pulp but leave behind the tough skins.

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The resulting cranberry pulp was then cooked into a souffle base and allowed to cool.  Since souffles have to be made just before cooking and serving them, the whipped egg whites would be added during the dinner.

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Carrots are cooked, to be pureed into the base for the pork loin.  Broccoli florets will be steamed and then tossed in a light cream sauce just before serving.

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In the late afternoon, after the majority of the team cooking is done, Nat briefs the staff on the order of the meal, how things will be plated and served, etc.  The woman with the long hair, who seemed to be the de facto chief of the kitchen staff, took meticulous notes, longer than what Nat and I were working with.  The staff then had a few hours’ break before returning for final preparations.

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Another dish that I worked on earlier in the day (we’re jumping around, time-wise) was the amuse bouche.  When Tawn and I were in Kauai in March, we enjoyed eating poke (pronounced “pok-eh”), a Hawaiian dish made of sushi-grade seafood (usually tuna), mixed with soy sauce, chili, sesame oil, and a variety of other ingredients to make a salad.  While there, we talked about the idea of making poke with a Thai flavor profile.  First step was to buy some yellow fin tuna and dice it.

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One of the staff, an older lady who was very precise with her knife, chopped lemongrass, mint, and kaffir lime skin.

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The mixture was pounded with a mortar and pestle to release the oils, then mixed into the tuna.  I added prodigious amounts of nam prik pao, a very thick chili paste.

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The Thai poke after a few hours in the refrigerator.  Closer to serving, I doctored it with some lime juice and tamarind paste, which greatly improved the flavor.  Nonetheless, I have some thoughts about how this needs to be made differently, based on a dish I had for lunch Sunday afternoon at a Thai restaurant.

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For the pasta, we steamed Japanese pumpkins, scraped out the flesh, then pureed it with a few eggs and seasoned with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

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Making the pasta dough became a bit of an adventure because Nat’s pasta rolling attachment, in its debut use, was acting up.  One of the rollers kept freezing, which resulted in the dough being stretched and torn, rather than just rolled out.  I eventually resorted to the old-fashioned way of doing things: a rolling pin.  In this case, a very cool silicone rolling pin to which the dough did not stick, even when I didn’t use flour.

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We were originally going to make tortelloni, which are large tortellini, serving a single one per guest.  But neither of us were sure how exactly to fold the the pasta.  We decided to instead make ravioli, something less complicated, and the results were good.  This reminds me that I really should make fresh pasta more often.  It is very easy – especially with the Thomas Keller recipe for pasta dough which includes just a little bit of milk – and tastes so much better than dried pasta.

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The tomato and beet soup.  This was a recipe that kept evolving, trying to get the right flavor profile.  The big mistake we made was using canned beets, which turned out to be pickled.  The soup then had a very vinegary flavor.  More tomato puree corrected this and eventually we ended up with something with a nice flavor of herbs de Provence.

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We wanted to serve a cold soup immediately following the hot one, an opportunity to have contrasting flavors as well as temperatures.  To do this, Nat actually placed the tomato-beet soup in the ice cream maker and started freezing it.  It was served icy.

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The other soup, served hot, was a Vichysoisse, a classic potato-leek soup.  This was flavored with lemongrass for a few hours, which was then removed before the soup was pureed.  Interestingly, the lemongrass gave the soup a light brown color as it steeped.

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A picture of the dining table with the kitchen in the background.  Notice all the glasses on the counter, which were used to serve various courses.

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Nat’s focaccia bread, which was divine, topped with shiso leaves.  These leaves, also known as perilla, are common in Japanese cooking but I’ve never really been properly introduced to them.  When you eat them on their own, they have a pleasant citrusy flavor.  I’m going to have to play around with these as an ingredient.

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The staff helps prepare the salmon on focaccia bread while the mango and avocado salsa comes up to room temperature for serving.

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The staff, now back from their break and attired in service uniforms, listen as I explain how we are going to plate the poke appetizer.  They were enormously patient with my Thai.

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My instructions must have been clear enough, as they did a good job plating.  All I had to do was wipe the plates before they headed out.

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Tawn and a few guests arrived early, so we opened a few bottles of sparkling wine and visited as Nat, his staff, and I put the final touches on the dinner.  One thing that was nice about having the staff was that we were able to be at the table most of the time and the staff finished plating and bringing things out at the right time.  That said, I think we could have modified the menu a bit so that even less time could have been spent in the kitchen during the dinner service.

Some twelve hours after the day started, our guests had arrived and we finally sat down for dinner.  The finished products will appear in the next entry.  Stay tuned!

 

Cooking for 80 – the Results

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Whew!  The big day has come and gone: cooking for a group of up to 80 for a community event called the River Space Dinner Party and Talk.  Reservations for the event were coming in faster and earlier than ever before in their several-month history and the day before, Yvan, one of the organizers, suggested I prepare for as many as 90 diners.  Thanks to a little rain, we ended up with about 70 people, still more than any previous dinner.

Much like I imagine one feels after running a marathon, I’m very glad I had the opportunity to tackle this challenge.  Now I know I can do it.  But it was exhausting and took a lot of hard work, not to mention the support of several friends who pitched in, so I’m probably not going to volunteer to cook for such a large group again anytime in the near future!

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The preparation was spread over three days leading up to Tuesday’s dinner.  Most of the prep work involved careful planning – extrapolating my recipes into larger batches, creating shopping lists, and checking prices to ensure I would stay within my budget of 80 baht (US$ 2.63) per head.  When it came time to do most of the shopping on Tuesday morning, I had to go to three stores, managing to clean out two stores of their supplies of cilantro, radishes, and cherry tomatoes.

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Tuesday morning I also baked more than 80 buttermilk shortcakes, which would be part of the dessert.

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The grains for the mixed grain salad were cooked in batches and then sealed in bags.  Note the carefully-written labels.  Four parts (each serving about 20-24 people) with bags A, B, and C providing the different mixtures of grains.  Bag A contains brown rice, GABA rice, and Job’s tears.  Bag B contains brown rice, black beans, and small red beans.  Bag C contains pearl barley and corn.

I used large plastic storage containers to divide the ingredients by dish.  Some dishes took several containers, which completely filled our car.

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The River Space is located on the second floor of a building in a local market on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, next to the Millennium Hilton hotel.  Since the street is some distance away from the building entrance, we temporarily parked (during rush hour!) and Tawn hired a porter from the market to help us move everything into the space.  That cost 200 baht (less than $7) and was the best 200 baht I’ve ever spent.

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While I thought I had prepared a pretty simple recipe, one that required only one dish to actually be cooked on-site, there was still a lot of peeling, slicing, chopping, and dicing that needed to be done.  Thankfully, a half-dozen friends came early and rolled up their sleeves.  Little did they realize they would spend the next four hours in the kitchen!  From left to right, Bee, Ken, me, Sophie, and Linda.

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At moments like this, I imagine that a Cuisinart food processor might be a worthwhile investment!  Except they would have decimated the tomatoes.

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Very organized, I had instructions for pulling together each dish, including plating diagrams, prepared and taped to the kitchen walls.  These aren’t exactly a recipe, but helped everyone keep track of what steps we needed to complete and what the finished items were to look like.  This is for the dessert, a buttermilk shortcake topped with macerated mango and ginger whipped cream.

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We had two burners to work with, although a second-hand stove was recently acquired that has three burners, significantly expanding the capacity.  Here, I start frying batches of the green curry marinated chicken while organizer Yvan prepares his signature garlic bread recipe.

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Done with the mixed grain salad, my volunteers (now joined by Tammy and Tawn) slice mangoes for dessert while Doug, the friend who roped me into this event, supervises.

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Doug also wandered around with my camera, documenting the action.

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By 8:30 the crowd was ravenous, the best way to have them!  People started pouring into the kitchen and my friends expertly plated the meal, controlling portion size and garnishing with chopped cilantro and sliced almonds.  Unfortunately, in the chaos, nobody snapped a picture of the finished product!

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After everyone ate, the guest speaker took the microphone for about 20 minutes.  Since this is an art space, they try to have someone at each dinner who can talk about a project they have worked on, usually with some relevance to Thailand or the local scene. 

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In this case, it was Thai photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat and German writer Tom Vater, the photographer and author, respectively, of Sacred Skin, a book about the history and contemporary practice of Sak Yant, Thailand’s spirit tattoos.

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These tattoos, written in ancient Khmer, are said to provide powers of protection from accidents, misfortune, and crime.  You see these tattoos peeking out from under monks’ robes, the shirt collars of young men, and even on Angelina Jolie.

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The crowd seemed very interested in what Tom and Aroon had to say and enlargements of Aroon’s photos had been placed on the wall, startling images that sparked many discussions throughout the night.

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As the talk concluded, we served our dessert, complete with a mint garnish.  Again, in the rush we managed to not get a picture of the finished product!  Next time, I need to bring my own media people, right?

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We received a lot of compliments and had no troubles convincing people to take zip-loc bags of the extra mixed grains salad home, which is perhaps the best compliment of all.  We ended up with about 70 people and a final cost of 7,400 baht.  Based on the 90 people we prepared for, this was just ever-so-slightly over budget, coming in at 82.2 baht per person, or US$2.70.

To say I was exhausted when we returned home at about 11:00 is an understatement.  I’ve rarely been so tired, ever.  Working in a space that is not well-equiped for group cooking, I gained a new appreciation for the work of caterers and restaurateurs.  Thanks again to all my friends (and my husband) for helping me pull it off!

 

Preparing to Cook for 80

This weekend I’ve been scrambling to prepare for a dinner on Tuesday night, at which I will cook for up to 80 people.  This will be the largest group I’ve ever cooked for by a factor of three, and I’m excited to take on the challenge.  Oh, and an added challenge: I’m working on a budget of 80 baht (US$2.63) per head.  How did I get roped into this?

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Two months ago, my friend Doug, an expat American to whom I was introduced by a friend from the San Francisco Int’l Asian American Film Festival, invited me to an event called the “River Space Dinner Party and Talk”.

The dinners are inspired by Jim Haynes and his famous Paris dinners which have lasted for more than 30 years. Jim’s son, Jesper, helped launch the Bangkok dinners at the River Space a few months ago.  Jim described his dinners during a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered:

Every week for the past 30 years, I’ve hosted a Sunday dinner in my home in Paris. People, including total strangers, call or e-mail to book a spot. I hold the salon in my atelier, which used to be a sculpture studio. The first 50 or 60 people who call may come, and twice that many when the weather is nice and we can overflow into the garden.

Every Sunday a different friend prepares a feast. Last week it was a philosophy student from Lisbon, and next week a dear friend from London will cook.

People from all corners of the world come to break bread together, to meet, to talk, connect and often become friends. All ages, nationalities, races, professions gather here, and since there is no organized seating, the opportunity for mingling couldn’t be better. I love the randomness.

I believe in introducing people to people.

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Here in Bangkok, the dinners are held twice a month in a second floor flat on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, immediately next to the Millenium Hilton hotel.  The space is used for various arts events and is mostly just a large, open space.

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The space is spectacularly situated, though, just above a small market and adjacent to the local ferry pier.  The reflection of the setting sun bathes the banks of the river in shades of purple and pink as residents who live on the west side of the river commute home.

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The dinners are cooked by volunteers in a kitchen that is, to be generous, under-equipped.  But there are plenty of hands willing to pitch in, which is the important thing.  As I’m preparing to cook on Tuesday, most of my thoughts are about the strategy of how I’m going to do this in the most organized manner.  What tools will I need, what equipment, what supplies?

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The meal served when I attended in April.  Potato salad, green salad, quiches (made at home by the head chef), and a wonderful strawberry triffle.  One of the things I’ve realized is that to cook effectively in this space requires a lot of advance cooking at home.

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When I say “under-equipped”, you get the idea when you watch Doug contorting himself as he tries to make garlic bread for what was about 50 people using only a tiny toaster oven.  Needless to say, I was dragooned into the kitchen, willingly, and helped prepare the garlic bread.

So that’s the challenge I’m facing.  Having given a lot of thought to the meal, I’ve adapted, updated, and revised my proposed menu several times.  Finally, Friday night I cooked a “proof of concept” meal, to make sure the recipes worked (at a small scale) and would be on-budget.

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The menu as it stands today: Mixed grains and vegetable salad with a sherry vinaigrette; stir-fried chicken marinated in green curry; and a yogurt relish with cucumbers and tomatoes.  The homemade bread and hummus will not make the cut.  Instead, the garlic bread and a green salad will be provided by another person.  And for dessert?  Saturday night I did another “proof of concept” and served homemade buttermilk shortcake with mangoes and ginger whipped cream. 

Stay tuned to heard how it all turns out!

 

Food in LA: Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner

One of our dinners, per my sister’s request, was at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner restaurant at Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park.  Knott’s Berry Farm is “the other amusement park” in Orange County, located just up the road from Disneyland.  Jennifer requested that we go to Mrs. Knott’s as she had fond memories from a visit there when we were children.

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The history of Knott’s dates back to 1920, when Walter Knott and his family sold berries and preserves from a roadside stand.

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In 1934, to make ends meet, Knott’s wife Cordelia (1890–1974) reluctantly began serving fried chicken dinners on their wedding china. For dessert, Knott’s signature Boysenberry Pie was also served to guests dining in the small tea room. As Southern California developed, Highway 39 became the major north-south connection between Los Angeles County and the beaches of Orange County, and the restaurant’s location was a popular stopping point for drivers making the two hour trip in those days before freeways.

These days, the wait for dinner is still long.  Admittedly, we were a larger group than normal – about 10 people – but the wait was still about an hour.

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Prices have gone up over the years (by about 100 times) but the menu remains pretty much unchanged.  Frankly, this was more food than I wanted to have, as I was more interested in the boysenberry pie than anything else.  Walter Knott was responsible for naming and popularizing the boysenberry, a blackberry, raspberry, loganberry hybrid cross-bred by Rudolph Boysen of nearby Anaheim.

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The interior of the restaurant, made up of several medium sized dining rooms, looks very run-down, badly in need of a makeover or, at least, a deep cleaning.

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Buttermilk biscuit – okay, but not nearly as flaky or tasty as mine.

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Rhubarb compote served chilled as a starter.  Very, very sweet.

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Very sad salad.  “Farm fresh”?  Pathetic, really.

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The main course itself – three pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and corn.  The food was okay, although I found the chicken a bit oily and, like pretty much all chicken in the US, the meat lacked any discernable flavor.

The dessert – the boysenberry pie with ice cream – was pretty good.  So good that I managed to not get a picture of it!  But overall, the meal proved the conventional wisdom that things are better in our memories than they are in real life.  At least I was surrounded by family, so in good company for an otherwise mediocre dinner.

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A nearly full moon climbs over the structure of GhostRider, the park’s wooden coaster.

 

Unexpected Wrench in the Tday Plans

Two years ago Tawn and I hosted a lavish Thanksgiving dinner for 14 guests.  I cooked the whole menu (except the bird, which I had done at the market and delivered) and we sat at a neatly decorated table on the patio next to the pool.  It was quite impressive, if I do say so myself.  It was also overwhelming so last year Thanksgiving was hosted at someone else’s house.  This year we are doing it again… although a wrench was just thrown into our plans.

To save some myself some of the hassle, this year we billed it as a Thanksgiving Poolside Potluck Picnic.  Instead of cooking everything, I’ll just do the bird, stuffing, and gravy and let others fuss over the side dishes and desserts.  We’re also dispensing with the fussily decorated table and are instead just using the tables and chairs already available on the pool deck. 

Well, that is what we were going to do.  Until Tuesday, when the condo management posted a notice in the elevators announcing that a two-month rehabilitation of the swimming pool would commence the next morning.

Now, the rehabilitation is much needed.  There are many broken tiles (I cut my foot badly a few weeks ago and considered posting the pictures but they are just too bloody) and this work should have been done a few years ago.  But must it begin this week?  And with only one day notice?

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So the question was, how would this affect Thanksgiving?  We’re expecting about two dozen guests and there is no way I can put them in the house and serve food.  Poolside is out, of course.  Thankfully, three weeks ago a small cafe with outdoor and indoor seating opened on the ground floor of our condo.  It is a pretty space and hasn’t started to get a lot of traffic yet.  Tawn and I went to talk with the owner yesterday and she agreed to rent it to us for the afternoon (we’re holding the dinner on Saturday since everyone is working here on Thursday).

We’ll see how this new space works but I’m glad we didn’t have to cancel.  The cafe has an oven and refrigerator, so we’ll actually have better facilities at hand than if we were by the pool and had to keep running up two stories to the condo.  Whew – Thanksgiving is saved!

 

Baked Stuffed Peppers

An entry a few months ago by Sonny got me thinking about stuffed peppers.  Stuffed peppers were a regular dinner main when I was growing up, one that I had mixed feelings about.  In general, I liked them.  But there was something about the taste of the green peppers after they were baked that I didn’t enjoy, finding them slightly bitter.  In fact, Roka won’t eat green peppers, pointing out – rightly – that they aren’t ripe yet, so maybe there is something to that.

Tawn has been saying of late how he’d like to eat at home more.  Unlike in the United States, it is actually easy to spend less money and eat more healthfully by eating out here in Thailand.  This, of course, assumes that you are eating Thai food, which is inexpensive, freshly-prepared, and free of most of the bad things that eating out in the US provides you.

The two things, Sonny’s entry and Tawn’s entreaty, came together and I decided to pull together a meal of stuffed bell peppers.  Since Tawn is avoiding red meats and poultry, I had to come up with a vegetarian option.  The various recipes I found online were not satisfactory so I concocted my own recipe. 

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The main ingredient was Job’s Tears, a barley-like grain that is indigenous to parts of Southeast Asia.  I added to that a sauteed mixture of celery, corn, Japanese onions (like leeks but a stronger flavor), the chopped tops of the peppers, and garlic.  These were sauteed in a little olive oil, a jigger of vermouth, a few tablespoons of dark soy sauce, and a teaspoon of wocestershire sauce.  After the veggies were softened, I added a teaspoon of brown sugar and some tomato sauce, cooked it for a few minutes to blend flavors, then mixed it in to the Job’s Tears and added three chopped boiled eggs.  I added salt and cracked pepper to taste then chopped several handfuls of fresh basil leaves and added that with about 1/2-cup of shredded Parmesan cheese.

While the mixture cooled I parboiled the peppers for about two minutes each then cooled them under running water.  Stuffing the peppers and arranging them in an oiled baking dish, I cooked them covered with foil for 40 minutes at about 350 F until the interior temperature reached 150 F.  I uncovered the dish, added a dollop of ketchup on top of each pepper and another shaving of cheese, then baked for 15 more minutes until finished.

The result was delicious and beautiful.  There’s still a little something missing, a meatiness that is not there yet.  I think I could pan-roast some mushrooms to concentrate the flavor then chop them up and add them to the mixture.  Maybe.

 

Thanksgiving Day 2007

Cornucopia In most any big city on earth, the vestiges of your own foreign culture and traditions can be found.  From the little Ethiopian enclaves in Los Angeles to the Bangladeshi community in Stuttgart to the remaining bits of the French in Laos, we bring a bit of ourselves and our cultures wherever we go.

Yesterday evening our bit of American culture in Khrungthep was found in a restaurant located down a scrappy soi behind a theatre with a marquee proclaiming it as “the best female impersonator show in Bangkok”.  That was where our slice of Thanksgiving Day was located.

P1020300 Left: Roka and Jhone, after she told Jhone (who is in sales) that she would never buy anything from him.

As Roka, Markus and I walked from the Skytrain station to join the ten other people in our party, I was thinking about how exciting my blog entry the next morning would be: a play by play account of the experience of a Cajun/Creole Thanksgiving Dinner at the Bourbon Street restaurant.

Sitting down to write this morning, there are certainly plenty of things to tell:

I could tell you how disappointed I was that Tawn couldn’t be there, since he was at the airport picking up his partents.  I could tell you about the chaotic mess and disorganization that left our group waiting, even though we had reservations, for a half-hour before we were split into two tables and, eventually, reunited to one table.  Or I could tell you about the buffet which, while the food was tasty, was constantly running out – especially of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin and pecan pies, the staples of a Thanksgiving dinner.

But before we arrived at the restaurant last night, as we walked by Benjasiri Park, there was a beggar in the middle of the sidewalk, legless, pulling himself by his hands and holding a plastic cup in his teeth.  A man crawling like a worm.

So as I sit down to write this morning, as those of you in the United States are just finishing up your turkey dinners, let me instead tell you this about last night’s little slice of Thanksgiving in Khrungthep:

I am thankful for the health I and my friends and loved ones enjoy, giving us the means to earn a living, enjoy our lives, and walk upright in this world.  I am thankful for the bountiful food we had and the means by which to eat so well.  And not least, I am thankful for the pleasant company and the six new friends I met, the opportunity to visit and talk and laugh and learn about different lives and different experiences that brought us all to the same table.

Whatever your worries, whatever your ills, remember to count your blessings and be thankful for them.  For if you have the means to access a computer and the leisure time to read or write a weblog, you most likely are among the fortunate.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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From Left around the table: Marc, Piyawat, Stuart, (a friend of Doug’s whose name I did not catch), Steve, Markus, Roka, Jhone, Nicha, Doug, Brian, and Tri.

First Thanksgiving in Bangkok

Thanksgiving weekend came and went and not a single turkey was sighted in Bangkok.  In fact, Thursday was another “regular” day for me – not that I’ve been here long enough to have truly established a routine.  The good news is that I was able to get several days’ worth of work done while my colleagues in the US were busy eating and then digesting their holiday meals.

On Friday morning – Thursday dinnertime in the US – Tawn and I started two separate phone calls to the States to talk with relatives.  The day concluded with the gala 32nd birthday celebration and housewarming for Tawn’s high school friend Eddy Ritthiworachart.  Eddy and his partner, Lek, purchased a 3-bedroom house in a suburban Bangkok development almost two years ago.  Eddy’s responsibility since then has been to take it through an extensive finishing process to create a tranquil oasis for Lek, a doctor who usually works seven days a week and wants somewhere to unwind on his occasional days off.

Eddy partnered with Ble, a fairly well-known designer here in Thailand, to shop for antiques and pull together a design for the house.  The results, as you shall see below, are fantastic.

Sadly, Eddy has no experience throwing parties so he asked us to host the party for him.  His new kitchen is still unfurnished, so it really turned into a catering event of sorts for us.  Things worked out beautifully and the dozen or so guests had a wonderful time.

Image 1: Living and dining room area in Eddy’s house with a gilded Naga horn in the style seen atop temples in northern Thailand.

Image 2: Tawn with his friend and Hill & Knowlton colleague, Mon.

Image 3: Tawn looks on as Ble, the house’s designer, unveils his contribution to dinner – a variety of Thai-style appetizers very creatively presented in a huge bamboo steamer.

Image 4: Chris and Tawn in the lovely outdoor courtyard of Eddy’s house.

Image 5: Eddy figures out how to handle the trick candles we put on his birthday cake.  After blowing them out, they would relight, much to his shock and irritation.  The house ended up filled with smoke.  Finally, some water was brought in as the solution.

Image 6: Tawn’s friend Kat, Eddy’s boyfriend Lek, Eddy, and Kat’s friend Candy have a good laugh in the foyer.

Image 7:Tawn and his friend Tao have a good laugh over an antique Chinese drum that Ble and Eddy used as a side table.

Image 8: Party-goers – from the left: Ble, Mon, Eddy, Tawn, Candy, Kat, and Lek.