Sunday, July 05, 2009

The First Dinner Party Frenzy

Question of the Day:

How did you celebrate the 4th?

txrad and I hosted a dinner party for four friends, Witchay Woman and her husband came down from Dallas, and our two neighbors from next door walked over in the brutal afternoon heat around 6:15.

I've been saying this is my first party since the mid-1980s which is kinda sorta true, but the one I threw back then was more of a drug and alcohol party with a few dips and chips as opposed to a real sit-down-at-a-table dinner party like my mama used to throw.

I had promised to do this back in early May but I didn't set a firm date until about 2 weeks ago when we all agreed on July 4th as the best date. And it's rather funny that most of my anxiety melted away as soon as I had a concrete date set for this party.

If I was going to host a dinner party, I knew this would not be a large affair with paper plates and paper napkins and just a lot of things to munch on. I immediately set about trying to get things coordinated for a nice presentation. I had selected six bright yellow place mats, some striped muted earth tone cloth napkins, black slate coasters for our drinks, and a simple floral display or two. I didn't want a formal foo-foo affair, just a warm and inviting French rustic country feeling.

All of this was procured at Crate & Barrel for a reasonable price at no cost to me on a gift card. I also was able to pick up a set of glassware, four tall glasses and four short glasses, plus two heavy short glasses intended for savoring my scotch whisky.

It occurred to me later that I was now faced with having to mix & match glasses as well as eating utensils since I only had those in sets of four, not six. But I found an easy work-around for that: serve the four guests with the matching glasses and forks, and txrad and I would take the mis-matched pieces. Voila, problem solved.

The most time-consuming aspect of this party was simply getting the house in order. Rooms needed to be vacuumed, bathrooms needed to be cleaned, everything needed dusting, and the kitchen counters needed to be thoroughly cleaned which necessitated moving everything off them, and then moving everything back.

Food preparation was never much of a concern of mine since we cook every night of the week. I just needed to triple the effort, or so I thought.

txrad started soaking pinto beans on Friday night. Saturday morning he made the lime bars with a pecan crust (pictured left) for the dessert, then in the early afternoon he made the pico the gallo and got the beans cooking. I was cleaning up after him each step of the way to avoid having the kitchen be a disaster by the end of the night which unfortunately proved to be inevitable! But I think my efforts prevented it from being much worse than it was (and still is at the time I'm writing this).

Once his dishes were done, I needed to start prepping for the green corn tamale casserole and guacamole. This had to be carefully planned -- particularly with the guacamole.

At 4:00 I started shucking ten ears of corn. I was a bit surprised how time consuming that can be, even though I've made this dish before. It had been three years at least. Then the corn needed to be cut off the cob. I premixed the dry ingredients and set those aside, put aside the loose corn, and then proceeded to roast the four Anaheim chilies.

It was almost 5:30 and I was feeling a little tinge of stress since the guests were invited to come around 6:00-ish. I had really wanted to have everything prepped by the time guests arrived so that I could I started chopping the cilantro for the guacamole. As soon as I was done I remembered that I needed to saute some garlic and onion. I got that going around 5:45 and the pressure was building. As far as the guacamole was concerned, I needed to get that ready... now. txrad suggested we do a tequila shot to calm our nerves, and we did.

It was 6:00 when I started slicing three large avocados which was, shall we say, a messy endeavor. I was praying that no one was going to show up on time! I managed to get the lemon juiced and added to the mixture along with the lightly sauteed onions and garlic, and was dicing the tomato when the neighbors walked up.

"The door is open," I yelled. My hands were covered in tomato juice. This is the point where the train began to derail.

We had barely had time to hug when Witchay Woman and her husband (Alton II, as in the "other" Alton Brown) walked in bearing hummus dip, and bags of additional prep materials complete with serving dishes. So while five minutes earlier I felt I had a grip -- if a bit rushed -- on my activities, suddenly I had a kitchen full of people, and Alton II preparing two separate hummus presentations.

My mind started going a bit haywire. I needed to offer them drinks, I needed to pay attention to the conversation which was already loud and spirited, I needed to keep my wits about me so I would not leave out a key ingredient in my own prep work.

Alton II was happy with a Shiner beer, so that was easy. Witchay Woman wanted a glass of white wine, and the neighbors were content with ice water while waiting on the margaritas. That was another project on my to-do list. I decided to open myself a beer.

When it's just txrad and me in the kitchen, I can be somewhat intoxicated and still have my wits about me to get my portion of the meal prep together. Something about a party environment throws everything askew and I was already feeling buzzed and disoriented! In terms of my progress in getting the meal together I was not in a bad place; the guacamole was done -- although it was not up to my usual standard -- and was completely upstaged by Alton II and his hummus dip art. But it was done.

I stood there munching on carrots dipped in hummus, pita bread, and chips with guacamole, in a slight daze for what might have been 20 minutes. Then I realized 7:00 was fast approaching. My goal had been to have the meal ready by 7:30 at the latest. Reality kicked in and I needed to slice the Anaheim chilies, and line the casserole dish with those and the cheese. I had to puree the corn in two separate batches, dump that in a bowl, and stir in the dry ingredients, plus add sour cream and 4 ounces of soft butter.

At this point I was feeling completely frazzled. I quickly "softened" the butter in the microwave (translation: I put it in there just long enough for it to soften on the outside, not so much on the inside of the stick) and dumped that into the corn mixture and began to stir vigorously until I thought everything was well-mixed.

As I poured the corn mixture on top the cheese and Anaheim chilies and began to spread it out, I saw a big glob of unmelted butter. Shit! I thought to myself, "man, you have got to get it together, you are out of control."

I spooned a lot of the corn mixture back out of the casserole dish and into the mixing bowl to get the butter mixed a bit more thoroughly. I was hoping when this was baked that somebody wasn't going to bite into a big spoon of butter.

Knowing that this would need to bake for probably 30-35 minutes, I was able to breathe a sigh of slight relief once I had that in the oven. I could move to to making the margaritas which were now overdue, and txrad could handle making the rice which would complete the meal.

I quickly emptied the frozen sweet Lime juice concentrate into the blender, added lots of ice, a very generous amount of tequila, and a shot or two of Bauchant orange liqueur. Within seconds I had a thick frozen blender of margaritas which I served up to the guests. After one sip I knew these were incredibly strong, and almost icky-sweet. I pondered that for a few minutes and realized I forgot to add fresh lime juice which cuts the sweetness and provides more balance to the drink.

I jumped up and sliced a couple of limes and explained my error. Some seemed to enjoy the margaritas as they were, and others were eager for the fresh lime juice. I promised to remember to add more fresh lime juice to the next batch.

Meanwhile, txrad was on his own in the kitchen and he motioned for me to come over. It seems he had accidentally turned off the rice prematurely at some point and he showed me the pan of rice sitting in tomato water as it was waiting to come to a simmer again. Ugh! More dinner party drama!

My plans for a 7:30 at the latest dinner serving was now on the verge of running an hour late. The casserole was out of the oven, the beans were ready, everything was ready except the rice. After 15 minutes or so, an inspection of the rice gave the appearance that it might have worked out after all.

I whipped up another batch of margaritas -- including fresh-squeezed lime juice -- and dinner was served.... probably around 8:30.

While this was not the best meal we've ever made, nor was it the best green corn tamale batch I've ever made, it was decent, and appeared to be well-received and enjoyed. Afterward, the lime bars with the pecan crust capped everything off nicely, even if there was a bit of lime overkill between those and the margaritas.

Mission accomplished. Dinner served to four guests without any major mishaps. But there were some lessons learned from this experience. Prepping as much as possible before the guests arrive is a key factor, especially if you are not accustomed to food preparation in the midst of distractions. I am definitely making a note to self on that point.

I walked away from this with an enhanced appreciation for people who are able to do this type of thing fairly often, as my mother used to do. She would have dinner parties for 8, 10, even 12 people sometimes, with down-home southern meals involving a meat dish, several different vegetables, salads, and dessert, and then coffee. I also am amazed that there are people who can simultaneously get a meal together while remaining involved in conversation with their guests.

Honestly, I am awe of that talent. I suppose it gets easier with practice, but still.

It was a long day and a lot of work. And there was nothing I wanted more than a good long night of sleep after the guests had departed around 11:00. Unfortunately, there was yet another unexpected party surprise awaiting me. txrad and I are not big consumers of sugar. We rarely have any kind of dessert in the evening, nor do we drink sweet cocktails at night.

Aside from a small sweet lime bar for dessert (not to mention the corn casserole which was sweet), there was the issue of the Lime-Ade concentrate which was packed with high-fructose corn syrup. Two batches of that and 2-3 margaritas later, I was both exhausted and wired. As I commented earlier this morning on my Facebook status, "high-fructose corn syrup in the margarita lime-aid is like LSD... like the "brown acid" at Woodstock."

I may have logged about 3 total hours of sleep last night, and even that wasn't quality. Another note to self: no sweet margaritas unless it's a lunch party! Or better yet, make my own margarita mix and control the sugar.

All in all, it was a fun gathering though. And I now know through experience what I can do to make the next one go just a little bit smoother. I'll plan that for sometime in 2012.

Time for me to get in the kitchen and finish cleaning up this carnage. I threw my first dinner party ever, and was so befuddled I didn't manage to get a single picture while the guests were here. Just a before shot, and an after shot. It didn't even cross my mind while they were here!

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