In the last few weeks I’ve been (albeit a little slowly) posting about a dinner party we had with some extraordinary company recently. G and I served pork bonbons with a fennel and blood orange salad to start; 72 hour beef shortrib with pickled shiitake mushrooms, star anise flavoured carrot purée and oxtail puff pastry tartine for main; and to finish, G’s molten chocolate cake with a creamy chocolate custard filling.
Good conversation, good friends, reasons to celebrate and in this instance a fantastic bottle of port were always going to ensure a winner. A definite conundrum though, I did not want to miss out on the fun that was happening at the table but I also really wanted to push the culinary boat out for this one. To top it all off, it was on a Friday so I’d only have an hour between getting home and popping the first cork from the bottle. In short, a lot had to be done on the days leading up to the meal, and how to manage that is what I’ll be sharing in this post. For the recipes to these delicious meals, click these links:
Dessert: Molten chocolate cake with a creamy chocolate custard filling. Basically a thin chocolate sponge shell filled with rich, delicious chocolate custard. G was on to a winner with this one!
You don’t have to do all of these dishes, or even all of the parts of any individual one but I think lots of the techniques of doing them ahead can be adapted for a weeknight dinner (do the cooking the night before or during the day) or for any special meal. Every single element of these dishes except the fennel salad is done ahead of time and simply finished for the table in under 5 minutes.
In fact, when I plan a dinner party, I always try and make sure that I’ve limited the amount of last-minute cooking to only a few elements – actually restaurants do this too. When I was volunteering as a pop-up chef in a restaurant run for charity we had seared scallops on the menu – one of my all time favourite seafood, but a total nightmare to cook lots of as they all have ot be done right at the last minute, in a searing hot pan and are really easy to over cook. So, all the other parts of the dish were done in advance, like the jerusalem artichoke purée, the pancetta crisps and the truffle oil based dressing.
There are a few classics that everyone knows you can do ahead, slow braises like the braised oxtail for the oxtail tartine or the braised ham hocks for the shredded pork bonbons are like any stew – they actually improve in flavour the next day. Howeer, even with these well known do-ahead dishes you can go one step further. You can shred the meat (remember to follow these tips) and mix in with any other bits and peices like slow cooked onions or cranberries. And you can actually shape and breadcrumb the pork bonbons up to three days before the dinner party.
In fact, the dessert here is breadcrumbed too – well not really breadcrumbed, it’s cakecrumbed. These cook best straight from the freezer and you can crumb them months before you need to cook them and store the covered in the freezer.
But it’s not just the slow braised or frozen food that can be done in advance. For those of you who read this blog often, you’ll know I’m partial to a vegetable purée. Whether it’s carrot and pea like for this dinner party (or actually for this monkfish main course as well) or celeriac purée served with pork or butternut squash purée in a risotto, ravioli or velouté – it’s super easy to cook them ahead and then gently reheat. Every restaurant in the world does it because you simply can’t do it any other way and keep your sanity. Even mashed potatoes or crushed potatoes with olive oil would be made ahead in a restaurant.
In fact, even things like the puff pastry base for the tartine or the pickled mushrooms are cooked ahead and gently reheated or brought to room temperature. The trick is actually knowing how to store things. Things like the puff pastry which can go soggy should be stored in an airtight container with some paper towel to absorb any moisture. Pickled mushrooms are best kept in a little olive oil so they don’t dry out. Purées should be covered with clingfilm and stored in the fridge, as should the braised meat or pork bonbons.
The challenge I sometimes get is how on Earth do you reheat all of this – I only have one oven and set of hobs, I don’t have a million pans and I don’t want to wash them all up! Well, you don’t need lots of gadgets – until recently I only had two working hobs (I love my new hobs very very much!) and so I realised that if you store things like the purées (or the oxtail) in ziplock bags with all the air pressed out (try using this displacement method trick – gotta love physics) then you can reheat simply by placing the ziplock bag in a pot of very lightly simmering water. Don’t worry about the bag melting, I promise it won’t and it won’t leach into the food at all. It means no big clean up, no lots of pans, no stress at all really.