Sunday, October 11, 2009

What to serve picky eaters

Sometimes I think, how nice it would be to have my own family to cook for. Then I quickly come to my senses when I remember that most children refuse to eat most things -- a most unattractive quality. Not to mention, children are the dead opposite of economical, unless, of course, you live on a farm. As the saying goes, if you're old enough to read, you're old enough to drive a tractor.

But back to picky eater children: I know how awful they are, because I was one. If my parents had had any sense, they would've sent me back. Instead, they put up with my nonsense for years, which meant they ate fried pork chops and instant mashed potatoes about four nights a week. Sometimes I would let my mom mix it up, literally, with some Shake 'n' Bake. But I didn't even help.

I do not blame my parents for my childhood pickiness. They tried to get me to eat a variety of foods, and my three brothers have always been agreeable eaters. The problem was me, violently obstinate in my refusal to eat, say, all vegetables. I recall one particular episode in which trying a mere morsel of baked sweet potato sent me into a fit of gags and tears. My parents knew I would simply perish if not for Hungry Jack.

Twenty years later, one night I found myself on the other side, trying to figure out what to cook for the picky kids -- specifically, my stepcousins once removed. My cousin, their stepmother, told me ahead of time what they eat, which is...pretty much nothing, or sometimes chicken. Meanwhile, my cousin is a vegetarian who eats fish, and she was going to be there, too. In my head I made a Venn diagram of things that every dinner guest would enjoy. The overlapping part of the circles was empty.

I am not so presumptuous as to think I can influence anyone's eating habits, so I was not about to force anything unusual on my persnickety-palated guests. Besides, I figure, most picky eaters eventually outgrow those palates, as I have done. But I was also not about to let anyone at my table go hungry, so I determined to make something, anything, that would sate the kids for one meal and that everyone else would be willing to eat. The only solution I could come up with was pasta. We fancy grown-ups could dress ours with shrimp and scallops, and the young'uns could enjoy some spaghetti and meatballs. It seemed easy enough.

Well. It turns out that not all children like spaghetti and meatballs. These ones like their pasta with butter and cheese only, and lots of it. Luckily, that option was available, too. Their dad, however, could not get enough of my spaghetti (well, fettucine) and meatballs, for which I was very grateful. I certainly did not make three different pasta dishes for my health.

Recipe(s): Pasta for Persnickety Palates (Pasta Three to Five Ways)

Makes about 8 servings. Basically, you make one big batch of fettucine, or whatever long pasta you prefer, and separate it into three different bowls (or more if your guests are extra particular) before serving. The tomato sauce and meatballs can be made a few days in advance.

For pasta:

A large pot filled at least halfway with cold water
One and a half boxes of fettucine (or spaghetti or capellini)
Butter or olive oil

Boil the water. Once boiling, add a couple teaspoons of salt, return to the boil, then add the pasta, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn't stick together. Drain, reserving a tablespoon or so of the pasta water, and return to the pot. If not serving immediately, toss with a bit of butter or olive oil to keep it moist.

For tomato sauce and meatballs (this should be made well in advance of the pasta, as it takes about two and a half hours in total):

1.5 lbs ground beef
2 minced garlic cloves
2 T minced shallot or onion
1 t ground fennel seeds (optional, but highly recommended)
1 piece of bread, turned into bread crumbs in the food processor
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 beaten egg
2 T milk
2 T olive oil, plus more if necessary
1 onion, cut in half
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 (28 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
1 (28 oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes
1 t dried basil
1 t dried oregano
1 t hot paprika
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste

To assemble the meatballs, mix the ground beef with the next 8 ingredients in a large bowl with your hands. Roll meatballs of about an inch in diameter (should make 30-40 meatballs). Heat the oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the meatballs, in batches if necessary, and cook till browned all around, stirring occasionally to make sure they cook evenly.

If you have guests who do not eat tomato sauce but do eat meatballs (these people do exist), or vice versa, and others who eat both, you have three options: remove enough meatballs for the anti-tomato guest to have his fill, and finish cooking them in a different pan over medium heat; or remove the meatballs that will eventually be cooked with the sauce and finish cooking the meatballs for anti-tomato guest in the original pot, then remove them and re-add the meatballs that will go into sauce; or start the tomato sauce and remaining ingredients in an entirely different pot to make a vegetarian ragu. Good grief.

Now that that issue has been taken care of, however you decided to approach it or not, add the two onion halves to the pot, plus a tablespoon or so of olive oil if the pot has dried up, and cook over medium-high heat. Once the onions are softened (after about five minutes), add the tomatoes, basil, oregano, paprika, and bay leaves. Break up the whole tomatoes a bit. Bring sauce to a simmer, then reduce heat to low and cook for two hours. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For seafood sauce:

3 T butter
1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 lb scallops
2 T cream (optional)
2 T chopped fresh parsley

Heat the butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Once melted, add the shrimp and cook for a couple minutes on each side, till both sides are pink. Remove from pan and set aside. Add scallops to pan, and cook for about a minute on each side, or till both sides are slightly browned. Remove from heat, and return shrimp to pot. Add cream, if using, and parsley.

For plain boring sauce:

4 T (half a stick) butter
1 C grated Parmesan
a sprinkling of salt

As if you need explanation: just add this to some cooked pasta.

To tie everything together for your Party of Persnickety Palates:

Make the tomato sauce and meatballs well in advance of the dinner gathering. About a half hour before guests arrive, start peeling and deveining the shrimp, grate a whole lot of Parmesan, and chop up some parsley for the shrimp and scallop sauce. About 20 minutes before guests arrive, set the water to boil, and cook the pasta. While it's boiling, reheat the tomato sauce and meatballs, and cook the shrimp and scallops. When pasta is done cooking, divide it onto at least three platters or large bowls, depending on the number of sauce varieties you make, and sprinkle all with extra Parmesan. Garlic bread and a salad are the only sides you need.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

First Catering Gig: Lessons Learned

My friend Sara was kind enough to refer me to her parents, who hired me to cater a luncheon they hosted today for a group from their church. I was, of course, disappointed in my debut, but, lucky for me, the hosts were very kind and easy-going.

I've thrown enough parties that I thought this affair, a lunch for just 14 people, would be a no-brainer, but I was wrong. Under pressure, I made a lot more mistakes than I usually do (which, in total, means a LOT of mistakes), but this time the stakes were higher. Yes, I was getting paid, which is both fantastic and completely new, but any time something goes wrong at a party I'm hosting at my house we can just drink enough to compensate, and, I presume, my friends will still like me either way (if this is not true, dear friends, please speak up in the comments section and I will find another hobby). Cooking for someone else's party, I found, was a whole 'nother animal.

I didn't make anything that difficult; even my two poached salmon were surprisingly easy -- you just make a foil pouch for each fish, fill it with chicken stock and some lemon juice, and bake it for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. But, for some reason -- I think a combination of nerves, carelessness, bad planning, and inexperience -- things didn't go as smoothly as I hoped. Some lessons:

1) It's difficult to cook and serve at the same time: I am both cheap and controlling, but it would've been well worth it to pay for a helper or two.

2) There are shortcuts I normally don't take when cooking at home that I absolutely should have taken this time; e.g., when catering a party, don't make your own chicken stock or your own bread. No one can tell the difference, or, at least, no one cares.

3) Strictly follow recipes you know to be reliable, or don't stray too far off the beaten path. I tried to get fancy with potatoes -- potatoes! my favorite and my staple -- only to find I had tried too hard. I made scalloped potatoes with feta and olives, something I've mentioned before in this blog, but, fearing that this quantity would not bake evenly, I boiled them for too long before baking them, thinking it would help the baking along. The result was waterlogged potatoes soaked in brine. Too bad, because other times I've served them they've been a huge hit.

4) There are few things worse than lukewarm soup -- I put a pot of butternut squash and roasted garlic bisque on the burner at a point that I amateurishly deemed too early, and so turned off the burner prematurely. The problem came when I started ladling the room temperature soup into bowls, complete with a garnish of homemade garlic bread croutons and fresh sage. The result of this oversight was a mad rush, and a rejuvenated appreciation for the microwave.

5) If you are serving some kind of spinach dish as the vegetable, and you have prepared it ahead of time at home, do not reheat it at the party. Just serve it at room temperature. Trust me! No one wants to eat airplane food on land.

6) With apologies to Laurie Colwin, who said the same thing in More Home Cooking, always buy more lemons than you think you need (this involved an extra trip to the store at 7:30 this morning).

7) At the same time, don't be discouraged if not everyone squeezes lemon juice onto their salmon -- even after you "plated" lemon slices as a pretty and functional garnish.

8) Though it may depend on the crowd, make a bit less than you think you need (see #6 -- there are exceptions made for particular ingredients). This goes against everything I ever learned about cooking for a party, but I fear it's true: I eat more than most people do, and my views of a serving size are skewed.

9) A good dessert can always help you redeem yourself after a mediocre meal. Try this upside-down chiffon cake, and use whatever fruit is seasonable. I used apples this time.

10) Realize that you, as the caterer, care much more about food perfection than any of the guests -- and possibly even the hosts -- do, and try not to beat yourself up over little mishaps, especially on your first try.