5/10/10 Cooking for the first night... the stress of it...

Post date: 13-Jan-2011 19:06:54

Now I finally had a menu, it was time to start buying FOOD and cooking it. Having recently gone to a lecture on factory farming by Compassion in World Farming (www.ciwf.org) on the terrible cruelty in factory farming, I felt pretty strongly that I didn't want to use any factory farmed animals at my dinners. This potentially could cause a problem as my budget per head is only £5! This is because £20 a head goes directly to Medecins Sans Frontieres to support their work in places like Pakistan for the floods.

Luckily for me, I live near Ridley Road market in Dalston, Hackney, and I can get large quantities of extremely cheap vegetables and fish there. Like many markets, the quality is variable to say the least, but I never buy the first thing I see, and having grown up in the Far East, where my grandmother went marketing almost every day, I do know how to choose the best and freshest fruit, veg and fish. There are certainly some real bargains to be had.

For meat, I had recently been recommended a butcher in Hoxton Market, Bull Pull, which only sells free range meat. I have to say that this seems one of the most unlikely places to find a 100% free range butcher, but it's only 10 mins cycle ride from me so very convenient. I popped in there to get my lamb shoulder for the Himalayan Lamb curry. Whilst I was there I asked if I might put up an ad for my supper club. Not only was it put up - but it was put up in a frame with a new nail knocked into the wall just for me! They also took my phone number and told me that John the owner might give me a call the next day.

Indeed, the next day, I did get a call from a very nice John, who despite me only cooking once a week or less, offered me commercial rates on all the meat I buy! That was quite a result, and I was thrilled. Now I REALLY feel like a chef!

I had intended to start cooking the day before but various things like having lunch with the nuns down the road seemed to interfere and I got zero done the day before, apart from buying the ingredients. Well, I didn't worry because I had the whole day the next day to cook. Last time I do that, I can tell you!

At 10am on the day I got going, after a leisurely breakfast and tidying up the kitchen. I had 10 hours before people came, so it seemed quite reasonable. But I did have 8 dishes to cook, a living and dining room to tidy up, menus to print, and a table to lay. I started working on the things that took the longest to do first, like the mango pudding, which needed time to set; the Dhokla, which could be done well in advance as it was served cold, and stewing the lamb, in advance of finishing it off.

All was going quite well. I was doing the first stages of all the recipes, working my way through them. However by 3pm I didn't have a single dish finished yet!! Panic started to set in, despite having 5 hours to go. The Dhokla was made but no topping yet, The lamb was done but the final spices and yoghurt were not added. The mango puree mix was sitting on the side but I hadn't added the gelatin yet. The fresh pineapple was skinned and cut up in the traditional way we do it in Malaysia, ready for currying. The cauliflower was cut up and blanched all ready for the final frying. Actually I had done a lot but I think there is a psychological thing about actually having a few things finished!!

So I quickly finished off the mango mousse and got that in the fridge. That made me feel a bit better. I finished the topping for the Dhokla and put the finished item to one side. Better still. Focussed on the pineapple curry as this was a new dish and I wasn't even sure if it was going to be any good! Yes, it was not bad and I don't even like fruit in my curries. No need to panic and change the menu then....

What I learnt from all this palava is that you really will feel better if you have a few dishes done the day before. Maybe just the desserts or a veg dish or something like that. I couldn't have done the mango pudding in advance as it doesn't keep, but I could have finished the dhokla, got the sauce ready for the fish and done the pineapple curry, for example. All of those things would have kept fine in the fridge. And I DEFINITELY could have set the table the night before. That will be a rule in future... :-)

Luckily I had a friend who came round to help do the flowers for the table and we set it together. It's not easy to fold paper napkins into an acceptable shape! That took us 20 mins to work out. (The next day I spent another 20 mins folding about 100 others into the same shape so I never have to panic about that again for quite a while!). She also took all my junk from the front rooms and dumped it in the back out of sight. :-) That was great because if I was doing that I would have got bogged down trying to sort it out and in the end I spent the day after doing that at my leisure.

In the event I was ready pretty much a full hour before anyone came. Although half an hour before, when I was just working out how to plate up my dhokla, I realised I didn't have any fresh coffee and sent Bell out in a panic to buy some! Yes there are always some last minute panics so even if you don't usually have someone to help, like me, I think it's a good idea to get a friend round for your first night. Plus if you are having a last minute panic in the kitchen (did your cake fall into the sink as recently happened to a friend of mine?!), you need someone to answer the door!

Since then I've written a check list of things I need to do each time so nothing gets forgotten. Corkscrews, wine glasses, coat racks, bicycle moving, music, candles, menus, these things are all on the list. It's a godsend for future dinners, and I learnt it all in one night!

Dinner went fine in the end. I had 7 people which was a good number to cut your teeth on. I found that leaving people to mingle before dinner was useful as people work out who they want to sit next to for the rest of the evening, so they have a better time I think. Everyone got on really well and I didn't have any total disasters, though I did have to take my green fish curry back off the dining table because I realised when I was explaining to everyone what it was, that it wasn't actually green! Because I had forgotten to put in the coriander! And my friend Bell told me that I would forget to put on the painstakingly shredded red chilli and coriander leaf garnishes, and she was almost completely right (managed to remember for the last two, Bell!) By the end there was ONE piece of lamb curry left, ONE piece of pineapple curry, some fish curry (um... it was pretty spicy! oops), and some cauli. There wasn't even a teaspoon of Dhokla left on any of the plates (wow that was a good choice then, and I'd given them big portions, see photo!), or mango pudding left...

What a relief...