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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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New Year's Eve used to bring to mind visions of fine-dining experiences complete with superb food, relaxed romantic meals, excellent service, and the obligatory champagne toast. I've since changed my mind. Why?

There are two nights throughout the year when I can almost guarantee you'd have a better dining experience if you cooked at home instead of eating out: New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day. They are the two most sought-after days for dinner reservations. This means that it is in a restaurant's best interest to get as many people in and then out as possible. To make this happen most restaurants have timed seatings so they can turn over tables three to four times between 6 and midnight.

For those of you who have never served tables before, having all of your tables on the same schedule means that you are going to be running around at least slightly stressed out getting everyone's drink orders, then appetizer orders, then dinner orders, then dessert orders all at the same time. This stress is going to mean that a server isn't able to give as high-quality service as normal, things are going to go slower in the kitchen because everyone's food is going to be on the grill at the same time and you're going to spend more time waiting to get drinks, or appetizers, or entrees than normal. To combat this, the manager could hire more people to work that night, if more people can be found. Most people would rather spend the night bringing on the cheer with friends than serving cheer to strangers. If this doesn't persuade you to avoid eating out for dinner this Wednesday, then remember this paragraph before you say, "Dammit! Where's my cocktail?"

If you're going to stay home for dinner, invite your friends over. It's about time you show off some of your new culinary skills to people who may be doubting your newfound finesse with the stove.

Since this is going to be a night when you'll definitely want things that will stick to your ribs and be easy to cook and serve with little fuss, I'm going to suggest a one-pot meal. Instead of having lots of sides and fancy presentation, we're going to go with a simple dinner that can be prepared up to a day ahead of time. This will give you more time to enjoy yourself, which is what this night should be all about.

If you have trust-worthy friends you can prepare the main dish and have them bring the elements necessary for a few sides, appetizers, and dessert. This means you don't break your already thin wallet, and your friends know exactly what you want them to bring. My suggestions for items they should bring:

• Loaf of French or Italian bread, which will need to be cut into half-inch slices.
• Small bottle of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, shredded parmesan cheese, and a sprinkle of fresh-cracked pepper to be put into shallow but wide bowls or plates to dip the bread into. (If you don't have fresh pepper, skip it and sprinkle a healthy dose of basil or oregano on the oil/cheese mixture. Or, you could have someone bring pesto for dipping.

• Olives, carrots, celery sticks, bell pepper, cheese cubes, cured sausage slices, etc. for a antipasto plate that can be left out for snacking throughout the evening.

• Bag of mixed greens for every eight people expected.
• 1 tomato, 1 carrot, 1/2 bell pepper for every eight people. Here's the salad recipe we made a few months ago.

• 1 pound of tater tots for every eight people. Sounds like a lot, but trust me, those things are like sponges and you'll be happy you ate them at 2am. (The truth of this can be attested to by Ms. Shylo.)

• Pint of vanilla and chocolate ice cream (or a quart, depending on the number of people you invite).
• Bottles of fudge and caramel sauce.
• Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, etc.
• Peanuts or small candies which will get used as part of the make-your-own-sundae bar.

Now that you have appetizers, side dish, and dessert planned for, you're ready to begin preparing the main course:

Chicken (or Veggie) Pot Pie
This will serve 8-12 people
3 tablespoons of olive oil
3 tablespoons of butter
2 medium (about 1 pound) yellow onions (These can be chopped finely and carmelized, cooked over low heat for a long time, or they can be chopped in large chunks, whatever your preference.)
2 stalks of celery cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
3 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 fennel bulb (if you despise licorice flavor, skip this), trimmed, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 leek, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and washed well to remove dirt
1/2-pound of button mushrooms (or a mixed variety), rinsed lightly and cut in half
1 cup of cauliflower, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 1/2-cup cooked chicken (you can cook two chicken breasts for this, or buy rotisserie at the grocery store)
1/2-cup fresh or frozen snow peas
1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon of marjoram, tarragon, rosemary, or basil (or mix of two)
1 bay leaf
4 cups of veggie or chicken stock
1 batch of cheesy biscuit mix (see below) or, 2 tubes of refrigerator biscuits

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Over medium-high heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in skillet. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and then onions and cook onions till they turn clear. (If carmelizing onions, cook over low heat for about 15 minutes.) Put onions in separate bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add a little more olive oil and the celery, carrots, parsnips and fennel to pan. Brown slightly while stirring frequently for 5-7 minutes. Add these to the bowl with the onions and sprinkle with more salt and pepper. Repeat with leek and cauliflower, adding more butter or oil to pan as necessary to keep them from sticking. Add to the bowl and sprinkle with more salt and pepper. Turn heat to high, add mushrooms and more oil if necessary, stir frequently and cook for 5-7 minutes. Add these to the bowl also. Add the chicken, peas, and potatoes to the bowl. (These steps can be done up to 24 hours ahead of time. Just make sure to place these items into a covered dish in your refrigerator till you're ready to continue.)

Put the dried herbs (but not the bay leaf) into the palm of one hand and, holding your hands over the bowl, grind your palms together and slowly sprinkle herbs over mixed vegetables. This will release some of the oils in the dried herbs and help them flavor the dish faster. Drop the bay leaf in and gently mix the ingredients together in the bowl and then transfer everything to a 9"x13" cake pan. Place the pan in the oven and pour the stock over the veggies, being careful not to spill it in the oven. Cover the pan with foil and cook for about 45 minutes. You'll know the vegetable mix is cooked when the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork. If you want to wait for people to arrive before finishing the dish, this is when you'll stop. Keep the oven on, but place the covered dish on the stovetop or counter for up to one hour.

If you're using those instant biscuit rolls, just uncover the baking dish and layer them across the bubbling pot pie filling. Or you could make this quick biscuit recipe to put over the top:

Cheesy biscuit mix
2 cups all-purpose flour
2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold butter (if salted butter, omit salt from recipe) cut into pieces
3/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter, coat each piece with flour, and using 2 butterknives, cut the butter into the flour. The butter will slowly crumble apart; stop when the largest pieces are the size of peas and the rest looks like breadcrumbs. This will give you flaky biscuits. Don't let the flour melt or form a paste. If this starts to happen, place the bowl in the refrigerator or freezer for 10 minutes. If the butter melts, you'll get flat biscuits.

Add the heavy cream, cheddar cheese, and black pepper all at once to the mixture. Mix with a wooden spoon or a regular fork until most of the dry ingredients are moistened. Lightly flour your hands and gently gather the dough into a ball, kneading it against the sides and bottom of the bowl until you've pressed any loose pieces into the dough and the bowl seems fairly clean.

Uncover the dish and spoon dollops of the cheesy biscuit mix, or place refrigerator biscuits evenly across the top. Return to oven and bake until biscuits are done (20-25 minutes for homemade biscuit mix, or 10-15 minutes for instant biscuits). Once the biscuits are browned, remove from the oven and let sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

It's tradition in my family to give a token gift to the lucky person who gets the bay leaf. But don't let them eat it, it's for flavoring only.

If you're generally not a fan of champagne, but still want something elegant to serve with dessert, and for the final toast. Consider serving a Moscato d'Asti. This wine is a "frizzante" instead of a "spumante" because the bubbles are lighter and dance across your tongue, instead of popping. This will be a sweet, and fruity wine, but you can get an excellent bottle for less than $12.

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tasberry / December 30, 2003 11:37 AM

Saw you on movable type's recently published so I stopped in. Nice blog you have here. Feel free to stop by mine.


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