Recipe for Success
We had guests for dinner on Sunday night, for the first time in months, and even getting to that point took a fair bit of negotiation to find the one weekend when three work colleagues and partners could all come at once. The six-week delay between thought and deed cranked up the pressure, too, to pull off something special; yet by Saturday I still hadn’t figured out what I would cook. As official inviter, I was the one doing all the cooking, which is half the fun.
I like to cook by country for dinner parties (Italian, Indian, Thai), and suspected I had already gone Moroccan (last year’s favourite) with one of the couples before, so I was thinking French. On Sunday morning I pored over our stash of French cookbooks and picked out some recipes for soup, main course and side dishes, with the plan of adding a big pile of roast vegetables to take up any slack in the waistlines of the seven people around the table. For dessert, we would have No Dessert—just a whole bunch of French cheeses of the ripe and stinky variety. (Somewhere I’ve acquired a taste for Rocquefort, of all things. Actually, I know where: it was Prague, where they served a milder Czech blue cheese at the breakfast buffet. Now I’m trying them all, and I’ve got to say that Essence of Damp Cave is really growing on me.)
Soup was a French pumpkin soup recipe by Jean Conil, even though I have a perfectly good family pumpkin soup recipe and this one wasn’t much different. A week or so after Halloween I figured there might still be some of those big orange pumpkins in Tesco, which might bear some relation to the rich orange-fleshed Australian pumpkins that nobody here eats.
For the main course, I planned to make a French onion tart courtesy of the Australian Women’s Weekly. Conil had one too, but his called for less onion and lots of Gruyere, and I quite fancied the idea of all that extra slow-cooked onion. Plus Tesco is always a bit unreliable on the Gruyere front (and so it proved). The AWW recipe had an interesting pastry with mustard and Parmesan kneaded into it, too.
Another book had a good recipe for “Potatoes Anna”—a kilo of spuds thinly sliced and layered into a 10-inch cake tin with lots of melted butter brushed on each layer, then baked. Then it was back to Conil for French peas cooked with shredded lettuce and button onions (in the end, spring onions), which I’ve always liked and which would scale well. Finally, a couple of sweet potatoes and various other roasted vegies.
After lunch I caught the bus down to Tesco and wandered around for an hour gathering up food miles to an iPod soundtrack of Badly Drawn Boy. (One Plus One is One, which initially I hated, sounded okay this time, now that I’m used to the kiddie choruses; and after that, the kiddie-free Have You Fed the Fish? sounded even better. I might have to get the new one after all.) Sixty quid, eight bags of shopping and one bus trip later, I was back in the kitchen, ready to start cooking by four.
First up, the pumpkin soup. Tesco was devoid of jack-o-lanterns already, so I made do with a couple of butternuts, which are pretty insipid but not too bad. One of those, an onion or two, and a couple of potatoes all peeled, sliced and boiled for a while did the trick, all put through the blender and mixed with a cup of sour cream. It went onto the back of the stove to await eventual reheating.
Next, the four Spanish onions for the tart. The longer these could cook the better, so I sliced them thinly and popped them into our second saucepan to reduce down in oil and butter over the next hour or two.
Then came the kilo of spuds, peeled, sliced and layered into the big cake tin we normally use for fruitcake. I left that sitting around a while before it went into the oven, and turned my attention to the pastry, which had to chill in the fridge. Butter rubbed into sifted flour and coriander, then mustard and parmesan, brought together with a dab of cold water to make a ball, kneaded, flattened a bit to speed up the chilling, wrapped in cling film, and into the fridge.
I was way ahead of schedule, so took a short break while the dough chilled. When it came out I rolled out three quarters of it, looked for our 10-inch flan tin, realised for the umpteenth time that we only have 8-inch ones, and figured I’d better make it in the biggest glass pie dish instead. After lining it with pastry I had to blind bake it in the oven for 10 minutes with baking paper and dry beans, then 10 minutes without, to make a shell that wouldn’t turn to mush; this then awaited its onion filling, which after being mixed with a little brown sugar and red wine vinegar was cooling on a bench.
Time to chop vegetables. Two sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into big chunks. A couple of carrots. Half another pumpkin. Three or four onions, peeled and left whole, cross-cut on the ends. A few heads of garlic, wrapped in foil, which would go well with the baguettes I’d bought. I was going to roast some more potatoes, but the Potatoes Anna looked like plenty. Those were already in the oven after the pie case had come out. I put the baking trays in to join them, and realised that the oven was going to be too small to fit everything, unless I shifted those onto its floor and overlapped them at an angle. Which is what I had to do, because it was time to finish the pie/tart: three eggs beaten with half a cup of cream, stirred through the onions and poured into the case, all topped with circles of pastry cut with a biscuit cutter from the leftover dough, and into the oven.
With minutes to spare, I arranged a few cheeses on a board to ripen over dinner and then ran off to change out of my weekend jeans with the hole in the knee before people arrived, which they all did soon afterwards.
The soup was soon reheated, and made exactly seven perfect bowls. Before I carried the bowls out I had to rinse the saucepan to hold the peas (the spring onions were already simmering in butter by now). Once I’d shredded the entire iceberg lettuce and started wilting it in the saucepan, I realised there was no way that was going to hold 1.2 kilos of petit poise as well, even after the lettuce had bedded down. So I rinsed the second pan too, split the onions and now-wilted lettuce between the two, filled them both to the brim with frozen peas, and topped them with water to cook for 15-20 minutes, one on the front left hotplate, one on the back right; medium heat so they wouldn’t burn but wouldn’t sit there frozen all night. Meanwhile, the pie had come out of the oven, as had the roasted vegetables and potatoes, and bench space was at a premium; I put the pie on the cold front right hotplate and the others onto various wooden chopping boards. Somewhere in the middle of all this I’d served the soup, and now was able to go out and eat mine.
Nice soup. Not a big pumpkin flavour, but still enjoyable. I accompanied it with my first glass of red in a while.
Just as we were all finishing the soup and I was thinking of getting up to serve the main course, one of our guests smelled burning at the same moment I did. But what could be burning? There was nothing left in the oven...
I had turned on the wrong bloody hotplate to cook one of the two pots with the peas—the once-cold hotplate where I’d put down the onion tart was now thoroughly hot. I lifted the pie carefully in my oven mitts and checked the bottom, which through the glass plate looked well scorched. Damn, damn! And the peas at the back were still frozen. That oven has always given us trouble with its hotplate dials—they’re arranged in a completely arbitrary way unlike every other we’ve used (in a straight line but clockwise, front left back left back right front right), and have no lights to indicate what’s on and what’s not. So we’re always switching the wrong dials on, and when I’ve got stuff on rarely-used back-burners and am juggling a lot at once I’m liable to make mistakes. Bah. But maybe I could rescue something, I figured, so I put the dish down on the chopping board next to the oven—
—and it EXPLODED.
The sudden change in temperature from scalding hot to cold made the Pyrex dish explode. Not just crack, but literally explode. There was glass everywhere.
“Well that was spectacular,” I said.
Jane came and helped sweep up the glass from the floor, which really had gone everywhere, all over the lino and onto the carpet in the living room, and then went back to entertain the troops while I surveyed the damage.
The once-perfect pie sat flopped over the edge of the chopping board, still remarkably intact. It almost looked rescuable. If I could somehow slice off the burnt layer and pick out those sprinkles of glass... No. Beautiful though it looked from above, it was a write-off, so into the bin it went.
The roast vegetables sitting on the bench looked okay at first—but there were one or two tiny specks of glass in the edge of one tray.
At first, in my daze, I considered rinsing them off and drying them in the oven—okay, I admit it, I did actually rinse them off and put them back in the oven for about forty-three seconds, but then came to my senses and thought no, I can’t serve my guests ground glass (and my wife, and myself). I had visions of the Roman emperor and practical joker Heliogabulus, who reputedly served broken glass to his guests at a banquet and insisted they eat it... so that all went into the bin as well.
Which left two large pots of lettucey peas—fortunately still with the lids on—and the potatoes, which in their high-sided tin sitting right next to the laterally exploding pie had avoided aerial assault from flying shards. So I could at least offer my guests peas and potatoes. French ones, mind you.
While I cleaned up the benches and carefully removed as much of the glass as I could, I wondered how to fill the onion-tart shaped hole left in the meal. I could whip up some pasta, but it wouldn’t really go with the potatoes. Then I remembered some mushrooms I’d bought, and hit on the idea of slicing up those and using half a dozen eggs to make a frittata. Big frying pan, more butter, fry the mushrooms, bit of thyme and salt and pepper, eggs well beaten, et Robért’s votre oncle. I was all done in pretty much the time it took for the cold batch of peas to cook.
The garlic was the one roasted vegetable that had survived (because it had been wrapped in foil), so I served that up for everyone to spread on hunks of baguette, which staved off their hunger pangs during the wait. And because I’d cooked vast amounts of everything, nobody ended up going hungry, even with two major dishes gone. I had enough peas leftover to feed the two of us again the next night.
In fact, I seem to have impressed everyone more by rescuing dinner after the main dish EXPLODED than if it had remained in one piece—certainly more than if I’d only burned it. It was a shame, though, because after all that preparation I’d been looking forward to trying that tart, and now I’ll have to make it all over again just to taste it.
Thank goodness I hadn’t tried to follow all of that with an elaborate dessert. With dinner taking an extra hour, the cheeses had plenty of time to ripen in the open air—the Ossau-Iraty was delicious, and it was the runniest Camembert this side of the Cheeseshop Sketch. Everyone still seemed to enjoy themselves, and I ended up drinking rather more than my share of red wine.
I was still finding stray shards of glass today, even after thoroughly cleaning the kitchen and vacuuming the dining room on Monday morning. Fortunately, nobody has reported any renal failure; but it’s going to be a while before I put a glass dish onto a hotplate again, cold or not.