A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Part 2

January 28, 2011

Whole Lotta Beef

We had a kitchen full of food and we were ready to cook all of it. But let’s have another look at the rest of that kitchen:

That’s a three-sink dishwashing station with sinks dedicated to (right to left) washing, rinsing, and sanitizing. And next to it was this contraption:

Before washing, all pots and utensils had to be rinsed here, where the food gunk would collect and be disposed of. There was also a separate vegetable washing station as well as a dedicated hand washing sink.

You’ve Been Served

Why all the heavy duty washing gear? The kitchen, being in a communal area and being of a certain size, is classified as a commercial facility, requiring it to be supervised by managers who have been certified for safe food handling and preparation practices. We were told that we would have to be certified as well, but only with the starter course for food service workers.

We all took the online ServSafe Starters course, giving up fifteen dollars and two hours of our time. I strongly recommend taking the course if you cook for a lot of people, work for a caterer, or are a fast food wage slave. It will make you much more careful about how you handle and prep food. The unintended side effect is how paranoid you become for the week or so after taking the course: I found myself taking twice as long to make a ham sandwich for lunch because I was over-thinking the process.

Stir It Up

The unindicted co-conspirators  – me, Rose, and Josh – arrived in the kitchen at 10 AM on Saturday morning. Our plan was to cook as many of the meat-based dishes as possible, starting with the beef barley stew, which would take the longest to cook. All of the dishes were “dump and stirs”: brown the meat and an aromatic, add to the pot with stock and other vegetables and seasoning, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the meat was done. The beef stew was cooked until just tender, keeping in mind that the subsequent freezing, thawing, and reheating would act as additional tenderizing steps.

Once the stew was cooked (which we also checked obsessively with thermometers, damn you, ServSafe!), we left the pots on the stove to cool, transferred the contents to some of the thiner-walled pots in the kitchen, and placed them in a cooler full of ice and salt.

While the stew cooled, we prepped for the next batches, our hands and arms thankful that I chose to spend a little more on pre-cut stew beef and peeled carrots. We set up new batches on the stoves

and worked on other components that could be cooked on the ovens. Here’s Rose tossing zucchini on olive oil before roasting the slices.

We also baked off all forty pounds of chicken thighs, realizing that we would be able to cut out the searing step for the chicken stew if the meat was pre-cooked.

When the stew was cooled, we ladled it into gallon zip-top bags, a task Josh and I got good at quickly.

The bags were set into plastic shoeboxes which would then be frozen, creating food “bricks.”

Much to our dismay, after a solid day’s worth of cooking (fourteen hours), we had only completed the beef stew – thirty bags of the stuff – which we packed into the kitchen freezer and the freezer of the model home in the community.

Jive Turkey and Funky Chicken

After a too-brief sleep, we get ready to do it all over again on Sunday, knowing that the turkey chili and the Moroccan chicken stew had to be finished by the end of the day since we wouldn’t be returning. Fortunately we had help, both in the form of a few clever ideas and a lot of extra hands. One clever idea was to bake all of the turkey in sheet pans instead of browning it in the pots. Turkey doesn’t really brown anyway, and the convection ovens would cook much faster than the stovetops.

The extra hands were other members of the Arisia committee who answered a general cal for assistance put out by the chairman. We put everyone to work, either washing or chopping vegetables, measuring out the canned ingredients, or just washing pots and pans. We were grateful for the help, but one person, Tamar, really saved us.

After I watched her go through a 20-pound bag of onions, a half bushel of red peppers, and ten pounds of carrots in about twenty minutes I realized that she had to be a pro. Which, in fact, she was. Talking to her about her line cook jobs made my day go by much more pleasantly, not to mention more quickly. She easily saved us about two hours of work.

We cooked enough turkey chili to fill another thirty bags.

While the chili cooked we prepped the complete mise en place for the chicken stew.

We were done with al of the cooking by eight in the evening, but that’s when the laws of thermodynamics asserted themselves. The chili was much denser than the beef stew, which meant that it took much longer to cool to the point where we could bag it. We had pots in the coolers full of salted ice, but we still had pots on the stove that were still hot. Fortunately, the weather had cooperated by dumping a blizzard in western Massachusetts the day before we arrived, so we resorted to sticking the pots in snowbanks to cool.

By midnight we had everything bagged and in the coolers.

We packed up the assault vehicle with all of the food (both cooked and uncooked) and the equipment we brought with us, and headed back to Chez Belm.

Home Cookin’

We packed all of the unfrozen food we cooked into the fridge I had emptied out in the Deep Storage Facility. We had three days to finish cooking the rest of the items before they had to be delivered to the hotel. On Monday Josh and I (Rose had to return home to work) cooked the vegan chili.

On Tuesday we cooked Moroccan vegetable stew

and tomato sauce.

On Wednesday, we finished up by making 30 pounds of pasta: cooked barely al dente, rinsed in cold water to cool it and prevent sticking, and bagged.

While the pasta cooked I roasted the rest of the zucchini and yellow squash.

We moved all of the turkey chili to a freezer in the Arisia storage room, which would be transported  – full – to the hotel. The logistics people picked up the two coolers of frozen food we cooked over the weekend, leaving me with just a cooler full of sauce and pasta to bring to the hotel.

At long last, we were done with the cooking. Now it was time to set up and feed everyone, which wound up being the greatest challenge.

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