Earlier this month, the husband and four sons that we share moved out to Michigan for summer lake fun, built around "The Highland Games." This is the largest group of mad Scots in America, who gather clan by clan to spend a day reenacting something that feels too much like Mel Gibson's "Brave Heart" for my Irish sensibility. My father-in-law, who wears the McIntyre kilt whenever remotely appropriate, loves participating in and sharing his heritage with his extended family.
This has been a work summer for me. Since I couldn't get away for the holiday, I volunteered to fly to Michigan on Saturday and prepare a celebratory dinner for the clan--16 of us in all--for that night, after the family would have spent an exhausting day at the Games: eating haggis, drinking Scotch and watching large men throw telephone poles, interspersed with dozens of bagpipe regiments pouring out that special sound for hours. It was, I admit, a major extravagance of money and effort. But there are times when doing something over the top is the the right thing to do. Not to mention the benefit to the marriage.
After my impetuous offer to prepare dinner had been accepted, I had a full-blown panic attack. My sister-in-law, Jane, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, a trained sommelier, a lifelong professional in the foodie world, and the one who has prepared every special meal for the Michigan family. My motives had been pure, sort of: to give Jane a break from shopping and chopping, and to make up for the fact that I would be in Orchard Lake for only 18 hours.
"First, develop an action plan," I tell my patients. And that is what I did.
1. Prepare the menu.
Fresh figs wrapped in thinly sliced prosciutto
Smoked whitefish mousse with homemade Genoa toast
Steak (these Scots are hearty men after all)
White rice salad
Fresh-that-day mozzarella, to be purchased at the Vinegar Factory on Thursday night, with fresh basil and drizzled with balsamic vinegar
Haricots verts, steamed and sautéed in olive oil with garlic
Peasant bread with extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh peaches and blueberries marinated in just a hint of Triple Sec
Birthday cake for sister-in-law (Jane in charge of this one)
Iced tea, bottled water, white wine, red wine
2. Email the Michigan shopping list to sons and husband.
One cheeky reply: "Thought you were making this dinner." Forwarded to the husband; no further complaints from shoppers. The list included several items requiring the admonishment, "Find the best," among them balsamic vinegar and olive oil, fresh peaches and blueberries, peasant bread, farmstand tomatoes and basil. And of course, enough steak to feed a clutch of ravenous athletes and their kin.
3. Prepare New York shopping list for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
A. Wednesday: Gracious Home
This is a mecca for all the housewares, moderately-priced linens, pots and pans and insulated coolers on wheels that you might ever need. I finished work at 6 p.m., rushed off to find the salesman I had bonded with on the phone as I cajoled him into doing my shopping for me in advance. Great bonding, wrong store. It seems I had become BFFs with the guy at the West Side store, not the East Side store. No matter, I made a new BFF who helped me find: four baking sheets, oversized zip-lock bags, eight red cotton napkins and eight dark yellow cotton napkins, six half-gallon flat plastic containers, one small, thin container for liquids--all with tight fitting lids--two insulated coolers on wheels, one large roll of duct tape, and several icepack coolants.
B. Thursday: Vinegar Factory
Here the list included, among other things, a 36-ounce container of Jasmati long-grain white rice, Eli Zabar ficelle bread (bought at the end of the day, so almost day-old), fresh figs, haricots verts, six balls of freshly made mozzarella, and several cans of Le Seur baby peas. And I won't lie: even though fresh basil was on the list for Michigan, I bought extra, just in case.
C. Friday: EAT (Eli Zabar's)
This is my favorite food store--the best whitefish salad, the best prosciutto, and fabulous service. I called my order in and the young woman on the phone insisted on knowing how I was using the prosciutto so that she could slice it just the right way. I gave my credit card, asked for her name, and 15 minutes later found her with my wrapped foods ready to go. In and out in three minutes, buying myself some treats along the way. A cook has to eat, too.
4. Preparation of Food
My secret agent, Raya, was waiting for me when I rushed back to the apartment on Thursday night. She is Russian and we have prepared many meals together. She had driven in from the country, after a long day's work in Westchester County (where I used to live), to see me through one more crisis.
We agreed on the preparation of the rice: wash it five times at least. We used five cups of the Jasmati rice and six cups of water, heated in a flat, wide, heavy pan with fitted lid over a moderate flame until wisps of steam appeared; then we turned the flame down low for 15 minutes. At this point, lift the lid, stir with a fork, and taste for texture. Place the rice on baking sheets until it cools and loses any extra liquid. Perfect rice.
While the rice was cooling, I made the secret family vinaigrette, "Three to One Plus Tasting:" 2 cups olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 teaspoons Grey Poupon mustard into the blender. Quick mix. Then drizzle 1 cup lemon juice into the blender on lowest setting. Taste. Add salt and a bit more mustard. Taste. A bit more lemon. Perfect.
We moved the rice into a large stainless-steel bowl, then added the vinaigrette. About two-thirds of it seemed right. Then three cans of Le Seur baby peas. The white rice salad would be finished in Michigan with chopped green onions--more of the green than the white--and then extra vinaigrette, which would be transported in its special Gracious Homes container. The rice salad was placed into the half-gallon containers for eventual transport in the cooler.
The Genoa toast is easy but time consuming, so I made it Thursday night. Sliced the day-old Eli Zabar ficelle bread very thinly, then brushed mixture of extra virgin olive oil and a tiny amount of crushed garlic on each piece, into oven preheated to 250 degrees. Check in one hour: golden and perfect. Repeat three times. The toasts were cooled and placed in the remaining half-gallon hard plastic containers, with paper towels between each layer to prevent them from breaking into bits.
Raya helped me do a run-through with the two coolers once again. The thick containers of frozen coolant went in first. Next, the now-filled rice-salad containers and the two containers of Genoa toast. We chose the right place for the haricots verts, the fresh basil, the container of vinaigrette, and the six balls of fresh mozzarella in their own insulated bag, which had enough support to prevent them from becoming deformed in travel.
All was going so well: then the fig crisis. It was clear that my precious figs were going to be crushed. Raya talked me out of a half-filled plastic container of rice salad; instead, we cleaned it out and used it for the figs. We wrapped each fig in a piece of paper towel and placed it carefully next to its siblings in its protective container. Crisis over. Prosciutto could go almost anywhere in the cooler and there was room for a quart container of whitefish mousse, to be made the next night.
We emptied the coolers, then double-wrapped everything that could possibly leak in plastic wrap and gallon zip-lock bags, putting it all back into the refrigerator until the final packing on Saturday morning. It was midnight. Raya has a Russian sense of tragedy and was clearly suspicious of airport security authorities and their underlings. As she left for the drive home, she muttered: "After all this work, even if they let you put this on the plane, they will open it and steal it." Great.
Friday night was uneventful. I made the quart of white fish mousse. (And, no, you can't have that recipe. I gave you the ones for Ro Howe's perfect rice and the secret family vinaigrette "Three to One Plus Tasting," more or less. That should do.)
I laundered the new napkins and ironed them. Packed my clothes and personal items and went to bed reasonably early, but had a restless night due to nightmares of waking up too late to get to the airport early enough to accomplish my Homeric task, interspersed with visions of those Russian men in army uniforms and guns who allowed me to place my coolers of food on the plane ... then ate it all up.
5. Transportation of Food
Saturday morning, I woke at 6:30. The coolers were packed in 10 minutes. Everything fit just as planned.
Next on the agenda was the airport drama. I had given much thought about what to wear, since I knew that getting through this process meant having to look glamorous and important, but with a dusting of fragility. I chose a pale green, delicately printed Italian silk three-quarters length tunic over stovepipe white pants, matching green suede heels, and wonderful green triple stranded beads that fit closely around the neck. Big Italian sunglasses. You never know.
The car dropped me two hours before the flight in front of the Delta doors at LaGuardia. The driver had become another BFF, since I'd told him all about my coolers and the food inside. He agreed to help me find a skycap but had to say, "I never saw anyone taking food like this on a plane, doc."
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