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Cooking for 6 to 12 People : Menu Selection

August 31, 1995|BOB BLUMER

Visualization and planning are the keys to a smooth-flowing and disaster-free evening. Begin by selecting a set of recipes with which you feel comfortable. When creating a complete menu, mix recipes that can be fixed in advance with those that need to be prepared or finished during the party.

A few days ahead of the dinner, spend half an hour during your commute to work (or whenever your mind tends to take cat naps) and focus on the number of guests, the food, the cooking facilities and the working space in which you will be cooking.

Picture yourself preparing the dishes you intend to make and serving them in the manner you have chosen. If the act of visualizing the preceding steps causes butterflies in your stomach, select alternative recipes, simplify the menu and/or plan to do more of the cooking in advance.

If you are a certified dinner party phobic attempting to overcome your anxieties, select a recipe that can be prepared earlier in the day (i.e., a curry) and serve it with a simple salad of baby greens. Buy a finger food and a dessert or, simpler still, ask two guests to bring them. In so doing, you can put the mental block of food preparation behind you and focus on the deep-rooted source of your phobia.

Pre-production

It is not always possible, and never crucial, to prepare all of the food during the last 90 minutes before your guests arrive or in their presence. The flavors of some foods, like soups and curries, actually improve after sitting for a day. Other foods can be prepared in advance and frozen--although I confess to having little experience in this area because the freezer section in my aesthetically pleasing '50s refrigerator functions exclusively as a frost factory.

The corollary to food improving with time is that some foods lose their zest if prepared too far in advance. Before serving any food, taste it. If necessary, "refresh" it with salt, pepper, lemon and/or a generous portion of the same herbs that were used originally to flavor the dish.

Sizing the Servings

Unless you have specifically asked how hungry individual guests are, it is desirable to make all portions equal.

The first phase of portion control takes place when shopping for ingredients. Sometimes a little hardball may be required. For example, if you were to request twelve one-inch thick salmon steaks from your local fishmonger, he would probably cut them from a single salmon. Unfortunately, the cut from the middle of the fish can be twice as wide as the cuts nearest the head or tail. There's almost always another salmon "in the back," and you must stand your ground to get what you need. After all, you are the customer and, per the retail credo, that makes you always right.

To avoid running out of food, prepare a little extra--even if it means having leftovers. When planning for casual parties when additional guests may drop by or arrive in tow with your invited guests, it's always wise to prepare extra portions of the main dish. At least be sure to have lots of something (i.e., salad, bread, veggies, etc.).

If you are assembling plates for a seated affair, don't let any plate out of the kitchen until you are certain that you have enough of everything to complete the remaining plates.

Timing is Everything.

Having settled on a menu and decided which items to cook in advance, slide back into the visualization mode for a moment and imagine that it's 15 minutes before show time. Will everything be ready at the same time? Are the garnishes prepped? Did you put the rice on?

Return to the present and create a "critical path" by establishing the sequence in which each dish needs to be started, refreshed or reheated. When in doubt, scribble out a running order and stick it on the refrigerator.

When show time arrives, wait until the last minute to put the finishing touch on delicate foods. As a rule, begin steering your guests toward the dinner table before tossing a salad, adding shrimp to a sauce or steaming vegetables.

The Accelerated Assembly Line

Assembling a large number of plates quickly is a challenge for professional chefs and amateurs alike. Before you begin, think about how you would like the food to look on the plate and how the colors, shapes and textures will interact. Create a blueprint in your mind and plan to assemble each plate identically. Then:

* Have all of the food and garnishes ready to be dished out.

* Have the appropriate serving utensils in hand.

* Set the (warmed) plates out on the available counter space.

* Confirm that all of the guests are seated.

* Make up the first plate according to the blueprint in your mind.

* Then, with the help of one or two guests-cum-chefs, dish it all out as quickly as possible, assembly-line style. (If you have a cassette deck in your kitchen, play the William Tell Overture.)

* Wipe any drippings from around the edge of the plates with a clean dish towel and check that garnishes are in place before allowing each dish to leave the kitchen.

Space Oddity

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