12/22/10 - 11:45 Filed in: Prep Tip
Perhaps I’m a chicken, but when it comes to holiday meals or other special occasions I like to play it safe. I like to do dry runs ahead of time for dishes that are new to me so there are no last minute surprises. I don’t want to be one of the family holiday horror stories that get retold every year. There are enough things that can go wrong when you are prepared, there is no sense adding in a whole bunch of surprises to the mix. This blog will talk about some of my reasons for advanced prep and test runs, complete with real world examples.
The first thing, and I have talked about this in several other blog entries over the years, is I try to cook in all kinds of weather. On a regular weekend it is quite easy to cancel or not make plans because it is too cold, too rainy, too windy or too snowy. But what better way to learn what you can and can’t do under less than ideal conditions? A few years ago at Christmas we had bitter cold temperatures and high winds. It was tempting to cancel cooking the roast on the smoker and do it inside. Only problem was we were having lots of power outages in the area, so I had no assurance I would have power available to use the oven. Because I had already faced these conditions I knew what to do: Start extra early, light more charcoal in the chimney, make a windscreen, allow more time for the smoker to warm up, and run the smoker at a higher temperature so that the losses from the wind gusts won’t be as severe. If I hadn’t done some casual smokes in these conditions I might have failed. As it was I had my hands full, but I knew going in I could do it.
Lately I have been making multiple items for most meals. This requires developing some good multi-tasking skills, which I am trying to learn. No matter how good you are at multi-tasking, the one thing you can’t do is be in two places at once. I like to try out the various items I am going to make ahead of time. I can get a sense of how long they will take, where the breaks are and where the critical points are when you have no wiggle room and must attend to a task and not leave. I don’t make the whole multi-item meal, just the items I’ve no experience with. This allows you to find the areas where the recipe may be less than clear at a time when you aren’t under pressure and have some time to react. I set low expectations going in. I tell myself (and any one else who may want to try it) that this is a test run and it may be great or I may crash and burn. This way I am under no pressure. I can think more clearly if there are problems, since a failure does not spell a holiday dinner disaster. I’ve never had a total failure on a dry run, but if I did I would probably schedule a second dry run to get things worked out completely. A dry run also allows you to correct for little mistakes or, better yet, find ways to improve the second time around.
Another reason for a dry run is I often like to make spicy foods. For example: My parent’s are in their 80’s and sometimes spicy foods don’t like my dad. By making a dry run I can see what the “spicy quotient” of a meal is before serving it to guests. I can also send the leftovers to my parents house. This my dad can sample the wares and let me know if it is too spicy for his tastes. If it is too spicy, I don’t make it for them. Or if my mom really likes it, I will make it for everybody but my dad and cook him a steak. If it is an appetizer or one of the side dishes and I can simply steer my dad away from that particular item. But this way I am not finding out at the dinner table that something is too spicy for one of my guests. At that point it is too late to deal with it.
The biggest thing a dry run does for you is expose you to the prep and cooking process for that item. How long does it REALLY take? Are there places where you can be doing something else while the food is cooking or resting? Can you do some of the prep out of sequence or ahead of time? Yesterday was a prime example of this, and not once but twice. First was lunch. I have been experimenting with some new bread doughs and the batch I was working with was said to be perfect for pizza dough. Since this dough is tricky to work with, I decided I would make a test pizza using this dough for lunch. Having already played with some of this very wet dough, I knew rolling it out would be a challenge. That was an understatement. The dough stuck to everything despite liberal applications of flour or cornmeal to everything it touched. Even my foul language directed at the dough was no help. I rolled the dough out three times before I got something useful. Then the dough didn’t want to release from the pizza peel either and getting it on the grill was an adventure. A process that normally took 5 minutes or less, took 30 minutes. I am glad I stuck with it instead of tossing the dough down the sink, because it turned out to be the best pizza dough I’ve made. I am going to have to work on this some more because I am not ready for prime time in terms of rolling out the dough.
The second adventure yesterday involved one of my potential side dishes for Christmas. It was called Creamed Corn with Bacon and was something I had seen quite by accident on the Food Network. It involved making a stock using the corn cobs and then reducing it. Now on the show while the corn cob stock was reducing, the chef started working with a second pan. He sauteed onion, garlic and added the corn kernels. At just the right moment after 45 minutes of reducing, the stock was ready to go straight into the pan with the kernels. The recipe looked excellent, but I wanted to try it for several reasons. The most important one was: Did I like the end product? The second reason is I wanted to see how long it REALLY took to make, including the prep before you begin cooking. The last reason is it involved not one, but two, places where you were doing a reduction. Rarely, if ever, do I find a recipe in which the reduction takes anywhere near the time the recipe says. With al of that in mind, I made a test batch yesterday afternoon right after my grilled pizza. Right off the bat: Cutting everything up took just over an hour and longer than the 45 minutes I guessed going in. Then there was the reduction involved making the stock out of the corn cobs. Instead of the 30 minutes they talked about on the show, it took 1:20. Now sometimes I wonder if I am not using the right amount of heat, but in this case I’d seen it on TV and my “lively simmer” was as “lively”, if not more so, as the one on TV. Then there was the reduction that occurred after the corn stock was added to the second pan. It took 12 minutes, not 3. All in all, between 20 minutes extra prep time, 50 minutes of extra reduction time for the stock and 10 more minutes of extra reduction time, the recipe took far longer than I ever would have guessed. It was worth it in the end since the corn was good. I now know I need to start it much earlier on Christmas Day. I also know when the corn stock will be REALLY be done and I can start the second pan going without having to wait for the corn stock to finish. I now know when it will finish and can start the saute process knowing the corn stock will be ready when I need it. Bottom line here: If I hadn’t done this I would have been serving the creamed corn for dessert, not as a side dish. Just ponder that for a minute: Would you be able to deal with a side dish taking 80 minutes more than you’d planned for it? Sure, if you knew in advance. That is why I do dry runs before special occasion meals.
There you have some of the reasons I am a big proponent of making test runs of new dishes or cooking methods. I almost always do it for new dishes to be served for a special occasion to get the timing right. I also make a test run if I am worried about the spice content. It just makes things easier and more relaxing for me on the day of a big cook. Most importantly it saves me from serving the creamed corn side dish for dessert.
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