The Practical Cook never backs away from a challenge, even if it’s not on her home turf. On occasion, we find ourselves needing to produce a nice meal in another person’s kitchen. Perhaps it’s a dinner at the beach house, a meal to say thanks to someone who is hosting you, or another special occasion. Unless your last name is Batali or Flay, no one expects you to show up with a caddy of your own condiments and knives, so you’ll need to make do with what is there. But how?
Thanks to Miss Clairol for delivering this challenge.
Now for the details. Miss Clairol needed to produce an elegant but easy meal in an unfamiliar kitchen, with all of the ingredients purchased on location. Original idea: trout, roasted potatoes, asparagus, bacon-wrapped shrimp for appetizer. Bacon was to be a theme ingredient, wending its way through all the courses (even dessert).
But on the day of the meal, the trout looked questionable, so it was time to punt! The Practical Cook has a few guidelines for such occasions:
- Do not shop for what is not there. No, this is not a Yoda-ism, it’s a Practical Cook mantra. Don’t waste your time on your original idea if the ingredients aren’t available, you don’t have time to execute your original plan, etc. This is the essence of punting. Free yourself from the guilt of not staying on plan and regroup based on what is available and what you can do.
- Play to your strong suit. If you like fish, and do a good job with it, stay in that food family. Cook from your roots on this type of occasion.
- Pick a unifying flavor or theme. In this case, the trout was a fail, but the bacon was still there. It’s easier to shop and cook around fewer ingredients if you’re using them throughout the meal. (e.g., add bacon to the salad or soup, the appetizer, and the main) In corporate America, this is called “putting a stake in the ground.” If that stake is made of bacon, so be it.
- Strong flavors are your friend. If you’re not able to choose the freshest ingredients, and if you don’t have access to a full complement of spices, select foods with pronounced flavors: bacon, parsley, Parmesan, goat cheese, feta, garlic, lemon, lime, pickled jalepenos, roasted red peppers.
- Presentation, presentation, presentation. You do not work at Outback. You do not have to put a gallon of food on the table. Artfully present what you do have, and everything will be fine.
Here is the final meal that was served.
Notice the artful presentation, the bacon theme, and the sensible size of the meal. What you can’t see, but the Practical Cook will tell you, is the lime juice on the asparagus, which adds brightness, and the asiago cheese on the scallops and in the grits. Strong flavors, a reasonable shopping list, and cooking from Miss Clairol’s roots. (Gentle readers, that was a pun I could not resist.)
Most importantly, the meal was enjoyed by all, and the stress of punting quickly forgotten. Great job Miss Clairol! If you’d like to see your dinner featured here, please feel free to submit your questions and pictures to practicalcook at gmail dot com.
Coming up next, more tool talk, How to Choose the Right Knife. There will probably be a few more puns used for this topic, be forewarned.