Thursday, March 21, 2013

Anatomy Of A Dinner Party

I was so proud of my non-blue flowers
Tuesday night we hosted yet another dinner in our home.  As is usually the case, the idea starts out small and manageable but ends up ballooning into something else all together.  And true to form, this is what happened. While I can easily execute a formal sit down dinner for six or even eight without blinking an eye, numbers beyond that start to get unwieldy. When Glenn informed me that we would have a total of twelve (yes 12!) guests at the table I had a moment of panic. Sure, I have done it before but it wasn't easy and I certainly didn't enjoy it yet we were heading down that path again.

So what does it take, beyond a dose of insanity, to execute such a dinner in Albania? 

  • Plan, Prepare, and Execute:  Not only did I have to think about the dietary restrictions of our guests but I had to consider which items could be made ahead of time and most importantly what ingredients I could readily find in the local stores.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Logistically, determining one's dietary restrictions via protocol offices isn't always easy.  (Apparently while I think this is a necessary inquiry, Albanians find it strange).  On the flip side, since it only took trips to three separate grocery stores to buy all of my food, the actual shopping wasn't as cumbersome as it had been in the past. Either the supermarkets are stocking a better selection of food items or I'm becoming more adept at composing menus that are actually executable.  However, I did have to use my poor Albanian to explain that I wanted my twenty-four veal fillets to be as is and not coated with the heavy coating the butcher insisted was better.  I was proud of myself when this feat was achieved.

  • Start early:  On an ordinary night it takes me forever to julienne carrots for our family of three. Try doing this for twelve people.  The same goes with shredding all of the cheese of baked macaroni and cheese, and dicing onions for the a fore mentioned veal. Everything and I mean everything takes that much longer when you are quadrupling a recipe.  I actually started three days ahead of time and still barely finished under the wire.  And larger recipes mean the need for larger pans. I am horrible at eye balling how much will fit in a pan and only learn the hard, and messy, way.  There is nothing like having to change a pot (or two) mid-course in order to make things work.

  • Variety is key:  When we first started hosting these dinners I'd go all out with intricate details that would have been impossible for all but the professionals to implement.  The results were rarely pretty.  Now I know my limits (or as Glenn would say, I'm getting better about recognizing them).  Numerous, bite sized dishes multiplied by four just aren't practical as an appetizer.  Soup on the other hand is.  Pureed soups are elegant and can be made ahead of time.  Because the dinner includes several courses, portions don't and shouldn't be enormous.  As guests we feel compelled to eat everything on our plates and all too often we leave the table feeling over stuffed and uncomfortable.  Small portions of different items allow guests to enjoy the variety of flavors without regretting each bite.  Regardless of what I serve prior to the final course, dessert is always decadent.  (Yet another reason to go easy on the earlier portions).  For Tuesday's dinner I served tiramisu; a flavorful dessert that since it gets better with age, can be made ahead of time). To make the presentation a bit more elegant, I served the cake with hand dipped chocolate covered strawberries.  Berries are coming into season here in Albania so not only were they perfectly ripe but the guests were impressed with my efforts.  (Which actually was pretty effortless).

  • Count, count, and recount:  From plates specifically for a cheese or dessert course (these are separate plates) or to miniature pumpkin shaped soup tureens and pasta bowls, I have a lot of dishes.  But I have very few items that match in multiples of 12.  We did have 12 place settings of our wedding china but thanks to over exuberant guests at an earlier dinner, we are now down to 11 of certain pieces and as luck would have it, our basic pattern has been discontinued.  This wouldn't be a problem for a normal sized guest list but when you need every single dish and one is missing you have to get creative as to how things will be served.  I found myself re-working the menu in order to be able to use the dishes I did have.  While I wasn't completely satisfied with the plating, I suspect I was the only one who thought twice about the fact the salad course was served from our fruit bowls and the dessert was served from our salad plates.

  • Plan A, B, & C:  Last week I decided that mimosa flowers would be the perfect spring centerpiece. They would have been if the dinner had been last week.  By this week the rain had washed away all of the delicate yellow blooms.  At the same time the flowers from our own garden (Plan B) were not quite in bloom, so I had to find yet another alternative.  While Tirana does have numerous flower shops they all seem to specialize in over-dyed blue roses or charge outrageous prices for the simplest of arrangements.  Although real, there is nothing natural about them.  I think of them as the type of plastic flowers my grandmother kept on permanent display behind her plastic shrouded couch.  After several strike- outs I finally found a flower shop that had enough natural colored flowers in stock.  

  • Be Flexible:  (This one is really hard for me).  Whether I like it or not, many things are just out of my control.  As has been the case with previous dinners, we didn't have any electrical or water issues during the lead up to the dinner.  When cooking with a single oven I must plan my timing down to the minute.  Dishes go in as others come out; some items can sit while others must be eaten immediately.  All of this works if things go according to plan.  However, when the dinner is perfectly timed yet the guests arrive considerably later than expected, one needs to roll with it.  Beautifully garnished bowls of soup go back into the pot to be reheated and fresh garnishes are substituted.  I had a brief moment of panic but I think the guests were none the wiser.

  • Schedule accordingly:  All of the above planning and execution takes time.   I was relieved that we cancelled our plans to go away last weekend since this afforded me the time to grocery shop, set the table, and begin cooking but the timing of Tuesday's dinner was still less than ideal.  I had meetings to attend on Tuesday morning so I had to go into work.  Glenn was out at a business dinner on Monday night meaning I was trying to prepare for Tuesday and feed ourselves on Monday night all while trying to keep Sidney entertained.  This resulted in Sidney's dinner consisting of two slices of  bread and a cup of red orange juice (his request that I was too tired and harried to fight) and my eating tirimisu filling left overs and a lemon-Parmesan madelaine that had fallen on the floor (observing the five second rule of course) for dinner.

So what were the final results?  In the end we all survived.  Our guests arrived (finally), we all ate, and were merry.  Wine was consumed, conversation flowed, and people left with full stomachs.  Glenn told me that because he was an active participant in the dinner's preparations (due in part to my running out of time and scarily wielding a large knife in the kitchen), he now realizes how much work goes into preparing a dinner for twelve.  I was so exhausted after this ordeal that I had to take Wednesday off to recover.  And it was confirmed that I am partially insane for agreeing to do this in the first place.

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