Some food, some drink.
A Yankee’s Attempt at Southern Hospitality.
Abstract: If someone does something gracious for me, they're likely going to get a bit of reciprocity in the form of food. I traveled from Kansas to Georgia to say “thank-you” by putting on a barbeque dinner party at the home of my good friend and host. In the interest of learning from the experience of cooking a proper sit-down meal for a slew of people, I've documented my experience from start to finish. Eight different dishes for eight of the nicest folks y'all will ever meet; culminating with the barbeque phenomenon from the Midwest known as the “Bacon Explosion”.
Purpose: It's no secret that I'm not a web
designer. If you look at the footer of my site, you'll see that my
hired gun is Kelsey Advertising
and Design. Yeah, I coulda just gone with something on the
cheap, but I'd like to think that I'll be doing this food blogging
gig for a while to come, so I didn't want to do the difficult stuff
twice. I left web design to the professionals, and poured my efforts
into developing a custom database for recipe and blog post entries.
In the long-run it was the best choice for me because the time I
could have spent on designing a blog was better-spent doing what my
wife likes to refer to as my “real”
Brant is the boss-man at Kelsey Ads. He's been a good friend of mine for over fifteen years. Professionally, he's got bigger fish to fry than to be messing with the likes of me, so I'm flattered that he's taken the time and the interest to help me get my blog off the ground over the last year. To say thank-you, I traveled a thousand miles to pay my friend a visit and cook for his crew.
This week's Foodbuzz Project Food Blog challenge is all about entertaining folks with food and doing it up proper. Entertaining larger groups of folks is always a challenge, but cooking someplace besides your own kitchen is exactly like wearing someone else's underwear: Not only is the experience awkward, but everything seems to be in need of continuous adjustment. Absent equipment and pantry staples you take for granted at home can totally change the dynamic of a menu. The best-laid plans will change, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't go in without a game-plan. Here's the run-down of what I intended to accomplish for this event, complete with links to recipes:
- Crudites with my dead-simple yogurt veggie dip
- Garlic kettle chips
- The Bacon Explosion: Jalapeno Popper-style
- Grilled Portabello mushrooms (in case of vegetarian)
- Homemade buttermilk rolls (An Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day Recipe)
- Deli-style pasta salad
- Hoppin' John salad
- Mini-monster cookies studded with peanut butter m&m's and chocolate chunks.
Other than family gatherings where expectations are pretty much non-existent, I don't do stuff for this many people that often (and I'm guessing a lot of y'all don't either). So, in addition to my menu and supplies list, I took notes in a timeline fashion in hopes that they'd be useful for me (or anyone else) the next time the need arises to choreograph such an event. Here's how it went down:
6:00pm - 8:30pm – My dinner party planning started on the plane en route to Atlanta. I typed out my menu so I would be prepared with a grocery list. I'm greeted at the airport by my host, and I apologize ahead-of-time for the mess I'm about to make of his kitchen.
9:00pm – First, we gotta go to the supermarket. It didn't occur to me to get a hardcopy of my grocery list; I'll have to go from memory (so much for keeping it in the cloud). Shopping in a strange supermarket can be a problem when you're trying to hurry and you need a lot of stuff. We just ended up walking every aisle. I thought I did pretty good with filling my shopping list from memory; however in a short time, I'd be learning the hard way what I forgot.
10:30pm – After holding the supermarket open for another 20 minutes past closing, we make it to the home of my host. It's time to start cooking; but first, we're gonna need a bottle of wine, and this one ain't for the food.
11:00pm – Groceries are unpacked, a quick tour is given of the kitchen, and we get down to business.
11:15pm - 4:30am – This entire span of time is a blur, and it really can't be blamed on that second bottle of Cab Sav. All the prep for a large meal that I would usually handle gradually throughout the day (had I been at home) was shoe-horned into an all-nighter.
- I started by putting my host to work. We needed produce washed and chopped for that veggie platter, and I started the pasta and rice for my two salads – Oh. Crap. I forgot bottled salad dressing and frozen vegetables for my now less-simple pasta salad. Looks like I'll be assembling a vinaigrette, and my host cum kitchen assistant will be chopping extra fresh veggies to blanch for that pasta salad.
- While the salads were coming together, I needed to start the dough for the buttermilk rolls. A year ago, these would have been store-bought; but I know my schedule, and the methods from Artisan Bread In Five Minutes a Day have made me fearless in the face of the leaven. Dough is mixed and goes in a big bowl to rise while we attack the Bacon Explosion
- The original Bacon Explosion: Two pounds of bacon, swaddling two pounds of pork sausage basted with barbeque sauce; cooked slow and low. A meat miracle (or abomination depending on who you talk to) introduced to the world by the savant movement that is Kansas City barbeque. We put our own spin on the Bacon Explosion by lining the middle with a half pound of deli ham for the purpose of containing a pound of cheese and jalapeno. We assemble our Explosion, put everything in the fridge to turn in for a three-hour nap.
8:00am – Ibuprofen and hydration, stat! At this point, it could either be the sleep deprivation or the fifth of red wine responsible for my pounding headache. All I know is that we'll need at least three hours to get our Bacon Explosion done, and luncheon guests will be here at noo- what? You guys eat lunch at 11:30? Hmmm. Wise, we were to assemble our Explosion the night before. We set the grill up for smoke with a packet of wood chips and a temperature of 250F-ish and then get our bundle of pig a-cookin'.
9:00am – When preparing a big meal, I always forget about dessert. Knowing this ahead of time, I decide not to sweat it and just make cookies. Monster cookies are my wife's favorite, and I figure if they're good enough for her, they're good enough for guests. As I assemble cookie ingredients, I discover that some people still make no distinction between butter and margarine. Have mercy.
10:00am – The buttermilk dough comes out of the ice box, and I proceed to shape rolls. You know it's going to be an odd day when you can say it's been less stressful to make fresh bread than it has to make cookies. All the while, my gracious host is watching the grill temperature like a hawk, and begins basting our masterpiece with some of the best damn bottled barbeque sauce I've ever had. It's like the Williamson Bros. had the Bacon Explosion in mind when they made this sauce. It bastes beautifully.
10:30am – All hands on deck! The explosion has sprung a leak! Apparently, we weren't careful enough about sealing the end with enough sausage so as to hold in the cheese. We capped the end with foil and hoped for the best.
11:00am – Seriously? Who the hell shows up for lunch at 11am? I get that your boss is out and all, but you're sneaking out early to go to his house. The only rational explanation is that y'all missed breakfast on purpose, and this is why we have appetizers. Introductions are made as folks trickle in and I sneak back off to the kitchen to pop the rolls in the oven and start the garlic chips.
11:30am – The Bacon Explosion has reached an internal temperature of 165F. We're careful to initially measure the meat temperature and then push on thru to the core to test the filling as well. My grill-hand skillfully removes the cured-meat fantasy come-to-life to the kitchen for a 30 minute rest and a photo opportunity. The party moves from the patio to the house so that all may gawk in disbelief as the Explosion is sliced.
11:45am – I dish up the (crack-like) garlic chips and set them out with the rest of the spread so that people have nosh while the table is set. Because of the overnight stint in the fridge, salads are in need of a refresher of additional dressing. We also throw some Portabello mushrooms on the grill so that anyone with an aversion to meat still has a main-course option. Finally, the just-out-of-the-oven rolls are sliced.
High Noon – Dig in (and how!). My hangover is instantly cured with one bite of Bacon Explosion on those fresh-baked buttermilk rolls. Truthfully, I was expecting my sandwich to be a greasy salt-bomb, but what I get instead is a well-seasoned bite of pork with a spicy surprise finish, courtesy of the jalapeno cheese. It's really good. There is magic here on a few levels. Everyone enjoys the food and company so much that they even hang around to help with the dishes!
I learned a number of important things while putting on this dinner party:
- When cooking in a foreign situation, it's best to assume the worst, and add all your ingredients to the shopping list. Surplus is ok; as the extra cost is well worth avoiding what could be a catastrophic hassle. I would also recommend actually physically writing down your list on paper.
- Regarding menu planning when you're unfamiliar with the location: you can't rely on novel ingredients. Go with pantry staples, and if you're unsure of the quality or availability of fresh ingredients, there's no shame in using canned or packaged food in a pinch, as you'll be assured of consistency.
- Choose dishes that are heavy on do-ahead. This expands your planning window, and give you more flexibility in the face of the unforeseen. It also gives a host more time with guests.
- If you have kitchen help, make sure they stay busy. Good help will always be keen to chop, wash, shuffle around pots and pans, and watch a timer.
- Drink in moderation and get plenty of rest the night before. Or don't - and remember how much “fun” you had doing that same sort of silly business in college.
- There had better be stuff for folks to nosh on while they're waiting. This also buys more time if something is taking longer to finish than you expected.
- You should be fashionably late to the table with your food. Appetizers have stoked the palate, and if your cooking isn't quite up to your expectations that day, hopefully a guest's growling stomach will be the smoke and mirrors that help keep everything tasty.
I won't whine or complain about the fact that I was handicapped by an alien kitchen. In the end, I think that everyone enjoyed themselves and got plenty to eat. Even if my cooking was sub-par that day, I doubt the Southern graces of my guests would allow them to tell me so (I'm still trying to beat a truthful critique out of them). Beyond holidays, I don't do larger-scale meals like this that often, but if I had to give an all-encompassing piece of advice to someone else cooking for a mess of folks whilst out of their element, it would be this:
You gotta relax, be ready to improvise, and truly take the time to enjoy your guests. If you're doing the best with what you have and you're doing it with a smile, the food will always taste good.