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Mapping Out a Meal

December 23, 2013

We’re in the thick of the holiday season. Sure, Chanukah and the winter solstice have passed. But there is still Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Eve. That means more eating. And where there is eating, there is bound to be cooking.

Generally, I cook simply. Very, very simply. There are almost never multiple dishes on the table at dinner. Maybe it will be some kind of legume over rice. Perhaps we’ll have some kind of pasta. There could be a soup or stew served with toast. Sometimes I’ll make a nice frittata.

If I’m lucky, I’ll have found a way to squeeze vegetables into the main dish. Occasionally, I’ll prepare some very simple side, just so I can say that I served my kids a vegetable.

Festive meals are another thing entirely. We’ll be traveling on Christmas day, so I wholly suspect we’ll have a very Jewish Christmas dinner at some Chinese restaurant in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. New Year’s Eve we’ll be hosting a potluck for a few families at the Institute. So I may be done for the year. But just last night I prepared dinner for eight with three different entrees that required all four burners and the oven.

Naturally, I drew a map.

Last night was one of the several birthday party celebrations we are going to have for Little Miss Fussy. Man, that girl loves birthdays.

This was the one where my mom came down from Providence with a bag full of treats from Venda Ravioli. So perhaps it’s a bit disingenuous to imply that I cooked dinner. Really, it was more a matter of reheating. But dammit, it was reheating with precision.

There were stuffed shells, meatballs, and mushroom agnolotti. The agnolotti came with a creamy mushroom sauce that I was going to supplement with additional sauteed mushrooms, and to go with the meatballs, I was going to make spaghetti.

Thinking about all of the food, I wasn’t sure I would have enough room on the stove to deal with it all. So I drew a schematic.

The shells would go in the oven. The smallest burner would take the cream sauce. The high output burner in front would take a giant pot of salted water for the mass amounts of spaghetti. The other back burner would take the meatballs, which I would cover with crushed tomatoes.That left one burner free to tackle the gently boiling water required for the agnolotti.

Once I knew where everything would go (and identified the best cookware for each job) getting everything ready at the same time was just a matter of working backwards from how long everything would take to complete.

So here was the order of operations:
1) Pour a glass of wine
2) Preheat oven
3) Get the spaghetti water started
4) Prep the shells in a casserole dish with crushed tomatoes
5) Start sauteing the mushrooms (in another pan on the front burner)
6) Get the agnolotti water on (on the back burner for starters)

When you get a good start, everything else just falls into place:
7) Get the shells in the oven (covered)
8) Prep the meatballs
9) Finish the mushrooms and add into sauce
10) Get the meatballs on the back burner
11) Tinker with temperatures

As it gets close to the time we plan to sit at the table, it’s go time:
12) Salt the pasta waters
13) Drop spaghetti
14) Drop agnolotti
15) Remove cover from shells and put back in oven
16) Drain pastas, combine with sauce and serve
17) Pull shells from the oven and bring to table

It’s always fun to have four burners and the oven going. Damn, that was a lot of food, though. Perhaps I should have thought about that a little bit more before starting the project. Now we’ve got the creative challenge of using up leftovers. My spaghetti and meatball frittata is usually a hit, and I have no shortage of eggs. But that’s another story

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