Once you have your guest list and menu in place for your big dinner party, all the organizational skills you possess come into play. Rule number one to avoid any (well, most) last minute disasters is simple. Make lists, and plenty of them. Start with a list of your menu items, in the order you will be serving them. Check through each recipe carefully and make sure you have every ingredient listed. For my party my shopping list was split into three parts: what I needed from the grocery store, what I needed from the farmers' market and what I needed from specialty stores. Check the staples in your cupboard before you go shopping and make sure you have enough of the things that you normally take for granted, like spices and flour.
Write down the amounts you need so that you don't stand in the store thinking ... did I need two lemons or two teaspoons of lemon? Be prepared to substitute if you can't find what you want. Can't find arugula anywhere? Use spinach and don't worry. I had the plan to make stinging nettle soup, but it occurred to me that the guy selling it at the farmers' market had been there for the first time the previous week and might not be there on the Thursday before my party. I decided to see if I could get fiddleheads at my organic market as a backup plan. I got them, and the nettle supplier wasn't at the market, so we had fiddlehead soup instead and my problem was averted. This is something you have to bear in mind when you are serving local and seasonal food. Some items have a very short season and you have to be ready to use what is available. I changed my dessert entirely on Thursday when I saw the first Ontario strawberries. I had planned on a rhubarb crisp, but those strawberries were too good to pass up. As it turned out, it was 32C on Friday, so the menu change was fortuitous.
Make a general list of what needs to in the days before the party. List which days you will shop and when you will cook something. If your recipe says you can do something in advance, do it. I look for recipes that allow you to make something one or two days ahead so that the last day isn't too hectic. My lamb dish was marinated on Wednesday, grilled on Thursday and served room temperature on Friday. The Jerusalem artichokes were made a week in advance. I try to organize my prep time and cooking so that I can devote myself to one recipe at a time so that I don't make mistakes, but if you have chopped onions in a couple of recipes, go ahead and chop them at the same time and just set them aside until you need them.
Next make a detailed list of what is needed to be done, working back from the arrival time of your guests. Read your recipes through several times, making sure you know exactly what is required and when you can do it. I had two last minute items on my menu, one appetizer and one dessert and both were simply assembling the components which were already prepared. My schedule looked something like this:
7:00 guests arrive
6:45 heat soup
6:30 get changed
6:15 assemble biscuit appetizers, remove lamb and cheeses from refrigerator
5:45 do dishes, clean up kitchen
5:15 salad, asparagus, pickles into serving dishes
5:00 assemble tart
4:30 carve and plate lamb
That schedule goes all the way back to 7:00 am when I started baking the biscuits. Things don't always go in the order that you've scheduled them, sometimes things take a longer or shorter time than you expected and you have to juggle a bit, but at least everything is accounted for so that you don't sit down at the table and realize that you forgot a major component of your meal. Check the items off as you complete them. It's satisfying, but it also lets you see what is done, and what is left to do at a glance.
Because the soup was the only thing that was served heated, I had everything plated and ready to go by the time the guests arrived. The kitchen was clean. At the end of the evening, I loaded the dishwasher and went to bed. The only clean up in the morning involved washing the wine glasses and the serving dishes.
I cooked my lamb a bit longer than this recipe called for, it was probably about 30-35 minutes all told. I ended up cutting out the thin part and allowing the two thicker parts to cook a bit longer. Organic meat has a different texture. It is firmer and more dense than regular meat and it was meltingly tender. Just be sure not to overcook it.
Grilled Lemon and Garlic Organic Leg of Ontario Lamb
1 4 pound leg of lamb, trimmed of excess fat, boned, and butterflied by butcher (each 4 to 4 3/4 pounds boneless)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
6 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano leaves
1/2 cup chopped fresh rosemary leaves
3 tablespoons coarse salt
1/2 cup olive oil
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Put leg of lamb into a large sealable plastic bag, folding meat if necessary.
2. In a bowl whisk together remaining ingredients and pour into bag. Seal bag, pressing out excess air, and place in a shallow baking pan. Marinate lamb, chilled, turning it once or twice, at least 8 hours and up to 1 day.
3. Prepare grill. Remove lamb from bag, discarding marinade, and grill on an oiled rack set 5 to 6 inches over glowing coals 8 to 12 minutes on each side (medium-rare for thin parts of meat and rare for thicker parts). (Alternatively, lamb may be broiled 3 to 4 inches from heat.) Cool lamb to room temperature. Lamb may be cooked 1 day ahead and chilled, wrapped well. Slice lamb thin and arrange on a platter. Bring lamb to cool room temperature, its surface covered with plastic wrap.
Garnish lamb with herb sprigs.
Adapted from Gourmet, September, 1996
Difficulty level: Moderate