Friday, December 21, 2012

Back Story

There is a lot of cooking to be done for the holidays; everything from office buffets to a full sit down dinner for the entire family and it all takes planning.  That's what we're going to address today, how to strategize and plan so that your meal comes together your way.

Your two most important tools during the planning process are pen and paper, making lists of all kinds is crucial - and the larger, more complex the meal, the more lists you will need.  A typical holiday meal asks only for shopping, prep and timing lists, but I know of one busy caterer who routinely made a master list of lists for each job.

I can almost see the curious eyes out there lingering over the timing list, wondering about it's nature.  The timing list helps to coordinate all the small components and bring them together at the same time for one beautiful meal.  The soul of good cooking is in good prep and the best prep always starts inside the cook's head.  Think around the corners before they become roadblocks and you will be a more consistently productive chef.

What I'm about to tell you may sound wrong, but it is the very best piece of advice I could give to anyone wanting to create anything from a well balanced plate to an eight course meal.  Work backwards, see it clearly in your mind first, see the plate or the table filled with serving dishes; see it all clearly and that is where you start.  Envision the main course, all the sides, sauces, garnishes and condiments; every single thing that you want to be available to your diners.

Ask yourself many questions during this process, is your menu well balanced?  Are all the ingredients easy to source?  What kind of prep time does each component require?  Do you have all the equipment/serving dishes required to prepare everything?  How much food storage space is there in your kitchen?  Are any special needs guests like diabetics being left out?

All of those questions and many others should be asked and answered during this beginning phase of your cooking.  Once you have worked out your menu, creating the shopping and prep lists are a snap, so the last thing to think about is your timing list and this part requires painful honesty in order to work.

In order to make a good timing list, you need two things; the menu and the mealtime.  Working backwards from the time you want to serve, start making your prep list.  Most big meals feature some kind of large roast, so resting and carving time are the first factor, so you deduct thirty minutes from your mealtime as the time for you roast to come out of the oven.  Working backwards from that is your target time to put the roast into the oven and back even further to prep/dress your protein.

Now repeat this step for everything you have envisioned, working backwards as you go, and you will find out ahead of time if there will be enough burners when needed.  It's a kitchen dance that needs choreography and it gets easier with practice.  Just be honest with yourself about how long it takes you to get things done and make a reasonable timing list, consider everything from how much counter space is available to how much wine you plan to drink while cooking.

Many of us cook for the joy of cooking, the joy of watching others eat; don't frazzle yourself unnecessarily.  Thirty minutes of brain time will help make your cooking thirty times more joyful.

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