I started my fondness with over-the-top cooking in Florida. It was the first time in my life I was living in an area where off the vine tomatoes were available in November.
Since then, I bought cook books of many cultures, trying to learn how to make dishes I've tried at restaurants, or things seen on food TV shows. So many of these cook books have bindings cracked, food stains splashed on pages and occasionally some notes penciled in the margins. A couple of meals in Rochester was just the beginning. When Steve and I moved back to Ohio, the tradition moved to February after reading another magazine spread on New Orleans cooking. I also managed to learn to make home made marshmallows and gave them to all the dinner guests along with instructions to bring their own tupperware. A few years later, a good friend got me a subscription to a cooking magazine. I would drool through the pages in a similar way that some women read the Vogue bible. I taught a couple of basic cooking classes (even a Turkey 101) at a local store. Recipes shared with musician friends also became treasured assets in my kitchen.
Then I remembered the Beethoven's Birthday meal my Aunt Bernice would offer her friends. I was invited to two of them as a teen. I remember eating some AMAZING things, and people would say, "She works too hard at this." Work is not hard when you're doing something you love.
When I was in grad school, cooking was a great distraction from studying or writing papers. After I graduated, cooking became the thing I did that consumed my mind in reading recipes, learning new techniques, watching TV chefs demo new (to me) appliances. It was the thing I did to stop thinking about work, stop worrying about grant deadlines, office politics or avoid thoughts of failures, anxiety or general stupidity.
Putting together a 12-course meal starts with collecting menu ideas from various sources.; TV, online, NPR features, or something I ate at a restaurant. This year, I made another Beef Wellington in homage to Aunt Bernice. Each year, I try to learn a new technique, or try an old fashioned recipe. Typically, one or more of the dishes doesn't turn out exactly as planned. Something gets over cooked or undercooked because I didn't time things well. I end up shoving food down my guests throat for the same reason. This year I tried to make the dishes more about a taste, less about volume.
It takes about a day to put together the cooking schedule, a day to gather all ingredients and prep the kitchen. Now that the kids are older, I can count on Steve to direct them to gather the clutter and hide it in other places of the house so we can open the dining table to its full extension.
I'm not taking pictures, tweeting or even talking to people. I prefer not eating with the guests, because I'm happiest dancing between finishing dishes, clearing dishes and keeping things where I know they are. Anyone offering to help is gently told to go away - or I'll get pulled out of the zone.
Timing is getting better. Some of the dishes turned out OK. I'm not the best judge of that because guests are too kind, and I'm my own worst critic. I'm pretty happy with the results of this year, even if two of the courses didn't happen at all.
Some people run, take on home improvement projects, knit, blog, play sports or music.
Here was the menu:
olives, cheese (from Wegmans) and Sausage (from Tenuta's) platter, mixed nuts [forgot to put out]
Course 1 – Pasta
* Pumpkin Ravioli with Sage Butter
I have a ravioli form which helps this go much more quickly than shaping each pillow by hand. Rolling out the pasta sheets takes another person to hold the pasta maker because I can't attach it securely to my counter. When my helper and I hit our groove, it's kind of like a dance. Lady B was very helpful on this.
Course 2 - Salad
* Harvest Slaw
A really pretty red salad. Crushing the caraway seeds in my little mortar and pestle was so old school.
Course 3 - Poultry
* Frenched Chicken Leg
Course 5 – Lamb
* roasted brussel sprouts
This recipe was ridiculously simple. Lessson: not all food has to be difficult to make to be tasty. Just make sure you pan sear both sides. When the directions say, "set aside to rest meat," do it.
Course 6 – Shellfish
Not the most successful dish on the menu. The shrimp was over cooked to make sure the bacon was crispy. I think I'm over bacon wrapped food.
Course 7 – Beef
* Beef Wellington - I used the recipe in Joy of Cooking
Having made this before, I remembered to trim the meat to a consistent log shape. I think was kept the meat moist was the butter coating, resting in between initial roasting, and resting after final baking. I didn't taste this, so I hope it really was OK.
Course 8 – Seafood
I learned at the beginning of the meal that one of the guests is allergic to shellfish. And since by this point, stomachs were getting full, I skipped this. At least I know the fancy dish for Christmas Eve!
Course 9 – Pork
This was my favorite dish of the night. Out of the park delicious. Steve also found the cutest tiny bowls at Party city. I was thinking about making the other two sourbet's of the NPR feature, but Steve talked me out of them. I'm enjoying the left-overs, too.
Course 11 – Cheese course
* Warm Goat cheese over crostini and white grape, drizzled with honey
Skipped this. Made it last night for dinner. It's something I tasted at a Lehigh alumni event. It's a great snack for movie night, too.
* Julia Child Reine de Saba - From her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
I slightly over baked it - but what the heck, when you've had a few glasses of wine by this point (to help the digestion, of course!).....
I'm thinking next year, I'll forgo the 12 courses and try either a Turducken or maybe feature a chapter from Sundays at Moosewood. I've done the chapter on Ethiopean dishes a couple of times.
Then again, I've got about 350 days to figure it out.