Wednesday, October 27, 2010

It's Like Something Out of a Dashiell Hammet Novel

Like a Hammet novel in so far as the answer can only be found once everyone has been gathered at a dinner party. Answer? I haven't asked a question yet. That's the easy part, Can I but together a dinner for 8, have it be ready on time, and make it great tasting?

Last week I decided that I wanted to have some friends over for dinner, and at the same time challenge their palates and my culinary skills. I really like oxtails when I have tried it and I've always wanted to take a crack at making it myself. I found a pretty good recipe and I dove in, planning out the timeline to have a dinner for eight ready by 8 pm Friday night. I made the mistake of telling one person what I was making and she got a little scared, so I kept the menu to myself. So I came up with a game plan: make sure no one could resist, just based on the main ingredient. Good game plan, no?

The Shopping List
8 lbs oxtails - Reading Terminal Market
4 lbs potatoes
2 bottles of red wine- Liquor Store
Large roasting pans
Beef broth
Balsamic vinegar

Primary shopping on Thursday night, and minor prep by premaking the mashed potatoes. Oxtails and wine could not be bought at the local Fresh Grocer and would be bought on Friday.

7:30 pm
Food Shopping

8:00 pm (24 hours till game time)
Peel, slice, and cook potatoes for mashed potatoes

Everything goes as planned, I'm feeling pretty good about getting dinner for 8 together.

10:00 am
Go to class then run downtown to Reading Terminal Market to pick up 8 lbs of oxtails and the liquor store to buy 2 bottles of red wine (a volunteer offered to bring wine to drink).

Reading Terminal Market is surprisingly busy at 2 on a Friday afternoon and I had to wait in a fairly long line to pick up my oxtails. But hey! did you know there is a wine purveyor in Reading Terminal Market? I get to cross Liquor Store off my shopping list. Sweet! Because by then I was running out of time. The oxtails needed about 3.5 hours total cooking time. I need to get the oxtails in the oven by 4:30, so I have have them braising by 5:15, and maybe have some time to finish the sauce before everyone is too hungry.

I don't quite manage this. Following the recipe I set in cutting off the fat from the individual joints of meat. Discarding all the excess fat from the oxtails takes longer than I anticipated. It's a slightly tough cut of meat, and I ended up cutting some corners, as it were, and leaving more of the fat on than I should have, for flavor I told myself.

They finally make it in the oven for the initial cooking time at 4:45. I took a break, opened up the bottles of wine and didn't drink too much of it.

5:25 pm
Back in action pouring in the braising liquid and herbs, back in the oven at 5:30, only running 15 minutes late.

6:00 pm
I take the mashed potatoes out of the refrigerator to come to room temperature before reheating them

7:30 pm
I start getting anxious that the oxtails are not quite fall-off-the-bone-tender yet. I need at least 20 minutes to reduce the cooking liquid to make the sauce. I put the mashed potatoes on the stove and slowly reheat them, at the same time, trying to move my desk into the kitchen to serve as a table extension because my tiny dining table will not fit 8 around. While my back is turned the potatoes start to brown at little - my first real misstep.

7:50 pm
I cut my losses and take the oxtails out of the oven and start reducing the sauce. Sadly my sauce never makes it on the table; it takes much too long to reduce sufficiently and everyone votes to start eating before I can finish it. The oxtails were still delicious, if a little tough to eat, with some fat still encasing them. My second real misstep, even though technically I left the fat on before the first misstep, this is where the less-than-desirable result shows up.

Everyone resorts to using their hands to eat the oxtails and - horror of horrors - someone asked for the salt and pepper for the mashed potatoes.

The answer to the question raised initially: I can, for the most part, put together dinner for 8 people. Things to work on for next time include doing all of my prep the night before, considering how difficult it might be to eat what I have on the menu, and budgeting more time than I think I need.

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