Food

Across the Table: Cooks' mad dash

Lifestyle and LeisureCooking

Don't ask me how it happened. I can't tell you. But certainly these elements came into play: planning too far ahead, not writing things down, friends finally getting back to us with the one possible date they could come for dinner in months, visitors in town for just one night.

All of a sudden my husband and I realized we'd signed ourselves up to cook dinner parties six times in the same week. At the time, it seemed not ideal, but (almost) doable. Think of it this way, I told him, let's pretend we're private chefs for a family who likes to entertain a lot on the spur of the moment.

It will be fun.

But then I hadn't fully taken into account the shopping, the cleaning, the shopping. I've tried to train him, but my husband, who was doing most of the cooking (I concentrated on baking and desserts) can only plan one meal at a time. And that was constantly being revised as he thought of one more dish he was dying to try — an hour before dinner — and so we had to rush out for the umpteenth time to rustle up the ingredients. Did I mention he doesn't drive? And it was never as simple as eggs, milk, butter. Oh, no. It was inevitably something relatively obscure — saffron, speck, bottarga, Chinese chives, a whole red snapper — that meant a mad dash across town.

The next morning Fred would tackle the many, many wineglasses, washing and drying them by hand. And I'd take out the dead soldiers, sure that the guy who comes by to recycle the bottles noticed the uptake in volume.

First night, we performed like pros. But I started washing dishes at midnight. The second night went even better. But we went to bed at 1:30 (on a weeknight). By the third evening our energy was flagging. The shopping. The cooking. The cleaning up. And then starting all over again the next day.

We stripped the garden of tomatoes, plucked the last of the sweet basil, discovered the cilantro had gone to seed and plundered the potato bed for marble-sized new potatoes. We were doing so much cooking when I went to get a lemon, only four were left on the tree. It seemed to me it was loaded five days before.

An easier way to handle this dinner party marathon would have been to double up on some dishes — cook a giant pot of Provençal daube or slow-roast an enormous piece of pork for cochinita pibil one night and have make-your-own tacos two nights later.

But that would have been too easy.

One night we had almond gazpacho, followed by paella embellished with shrimp and cockles. On another, a series of Moroccan salads followed by bestila in the style of Tétouan. A real bear to make because someone, I'm not saying who, had forgotten to take the filo dough out of the freezer and when I tried to unroll it, the fragile pastry shattered. I finally resorted to an ever-so-brief blast in the microwave, which worked well enough. We had Chairman Mao's red-braised pork belly on Wednesday, bucatini all' amatriciana on Thursday. Barbecued flank steak with fresh plum barbecue sauce I can't remember when.

Meanwhile I deveined shrimp, filleted salted anchovies, minced garlic and pounded nuts. I whipped up pissaladière and flatbreads, galettes, flan, Mexican shortbread cookies, lime ice, and I forget what else. Appetizers, soups. I never wrote down the menus. Who had time?

Our kitchen had never had such a workout and in the midst of it all, the bottom oven decided to flake out. Great. We moved to the barbecue. And of course, while I was introducing a late-arriving guest, I managed to burn the toasts I was making for bruschetta — the last bread we had on hand. One night Fred forgot to serve the Szechuan chicken salad and we never realized it until we found that and a cucumber dish in the refrigerator the next morning. Oh, the horror.

We did get a bit frazzled, especially when some guests arrived early. After sussing out the situation they sweetly asked if they should leave and come back later. We weren't yelling at each other exactly: Let's just say tensions were high. Fred's favorite knife had disappeared and I was the last to use it. He'd stained my favorite French linen dish towel with beet juice. The beef cheeks needed so much trimming we were left with half the weight we needed. And the olive oil bottle was verging on empty.

My job was to shepherd inquisitive guests, the ones who liked to stand over the cook while he's frantically trying to finish dishes, outside for an aperitif. And sometimes, I know it's bad, I would stay out there and act like I was one of them for a little while, reluctant to go back into the heat of the kitchen.

And you know what? Despite everything, we had a great time every night. Every dish wasn't perfect, but we so enjoyed spending those relaxed summer evenings with good friends around the table. You can't have the same kind of conversation in restaurants where the noise level is often brutal. And where you don't have the leisure to sit for hours, or the time to witness a wine unfurl over the course of the night.

Those evenings are precious and worth every bit of the work.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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