I am always looking for opportunities to improve my kitchen and plating skills, so I jumped when Andrea (my consultant on my signature dish) asked if I could help her cook and serve at a dinner party she was hosting at her home. She had contributed a dinner for eight as a prize in a charity auction, but the number of guests had increased to twelve, which meant extra hands were needed in the kitchen.
I met with her to plan the menu, a week later she invited me back to try her first attempt at the dishes, then five days later, it was time to cook for the guests. I arrived at 2 PM to start prep work for a 6 PM dinner time, grateful that Andrea had a much larger and better-equipped kitchen than my own. A large center island, a six-burner two-oven restaurant grade stove, a logical layout – I need to remember these things when I get to renovate the Belm Utility Research Kitchen.
I set up a station at the end of the island:
Andrea had made many of the menu components ahead of time. She also had a task list and a serving timeline taped to the fridge where we could check off our progress. (Note to self: much more useful than your slowly-decaying short-term memory.) We worked on plating the appetizers first (clockwise from top left): marinated olives with orange zest, stuffed peppadews with chives, parmesan crackers with almonds, marcona almonds, and an asparagus-mint frittata.
While the guests nibbled, we plated the first course: a grapefruit, avocado, and smoked trout salad with citrus dressing.
Here’s a close-up of one of the plates, a pretty composition:
We were unhappy with the test version, so we boosted the flavor profile by adding some of the preserved lemon brine to the dressing, and including a few thin slices of watermelon radish for a peppery finish. The guests practically licked the plates clean.
Next up was the main course: baked cod with romesco sauce, garlic roasted potatoes, and wilted spinach with gremolata. This was mostly an exercise in timing and assembly. The sauce had been made that morning:
I had portioned the cod just before serving the salad:
We had two sheet pans of garlic potatoes waiting:
Lastly, the spinach was waiting in two roasting pans over two burners each in the stove:
Just before serving the salad, we put the potatoes in one oven to re-crisp, then spread the sauce over the fish and set it in the second oven. While the fish rested and the potatoes cooled enough to handle, I wilted the spinach over high heat with some olive oil, stirring in the minced garlic and preserved lemon at the end.
The plan was to form the potatoes in the center of the plate using the ring molds, set the fish on top, garnish with the spinach on the side, and then dress the plate with dots of the chive and paprika oils. Unfortunately, the plates were a bit too concave, which caused the oil to run into the cetner of our test plate. We came up with a re-plating on the fly that looked pretty good:
The guests enjoyed the meal. I was allowed to join them (even though I was the help), but my duties came to an end after the main course – one of the guests had volunteered to bring desserts, so no kitchen work was left for me after the main course cleanup.
I tried to slip out quietly, but everyone wanted to thank me and say goodbye. I reminded them again that I was just the help – a knife for hire. Andrea and I worked well together, so well that we’re thinking of trying it again.