Almost two months ago a very close friend of mine, Daniela, asked me to cater for her boyfriend’s, Giacomo, birthday dinner to be held near Bologna, in Italy.
I was expressly requested to provide more of a feast (not that I ever put on the table mozzarella and ham with stale breads at my dinners) than a simple "spaghettata" Italian style. The challenge grew bigger when the number of guests started inflating like proper sourdough bread. Bubbly bubbly they raised to 30+ people. I had never cooked for more than 6 people so this was starting to take the shape of a very interesting adventure. To fix the menu proved to be quite challenging. Many cups of coffee, gazes in the air, and sketches of the possible platings brought to life a 10 courses menu divided in 4 appetizers and 6 courses from starch to meat to fish, passing by a fragrant broth and ending with a fresh panna cotta grazed by some local fresh white truffle.
Arranging the grocery shopping and the required tools proved to be as challenging, will be sufficient to say that my suitcase made it barely below the limit of 20kg and I just brought my pajama as clothing, the rest were few ingredients and tools.
This time, seen the size of the guest list (that was varying every second day) I had a valid help in the kitchen: Giacomo's nephew Cristian newly graduated from hospitality high school and with a great passion and enthusiasm for the cooking job.
Many other people were flying around the fires helping where they could, there were even times when I was just spinning around trying to remember where I had put my lists or other stuff while my friends were taking care of the preparations.
But let’s back up a bit. The day started at 7am when with slit-wide opened eyes I finished to pack my suitcase and headed toward Daniela’s place. The travel was smooth and we all fell asleep on the plane like 3 babies (Daniel, an Argentinean singer friend of ours was also asked by Daniela to accompany the dinner and he was traveling with us). At the arrival in Bologna we were quite starving! Once Giacomo was arrived we hopped into his big SUV and headed south toward the Marche region, stopping for a piadina on an Autogrill on our way. We flanked the Apennines Mountains for almost two hours; its silhouette carving velvet-blue dark teeth on the warm orangey sunset sky.
On the way few telephone calls were placed to set the last of the ingredients to be sourced: the white truffle. I love to cook in regions blessed by great local goodies, being them dried sausages, vegetables, cheeses or the gastronomes’ diamond tuber magnatum pico.
Arrived at Giacomo’s house I started the kitchen inspection. The room was pretty big, as Daniela and Giacomo had already described it to me. The range top consisting of 5 fires with a pretty good oven underneath; the fridge was already full with the household groceries and an extra small one was plugged in just for the occasion. Thanks to the low temperatures outside, we could use also the balcony to stock all the required cold drinks.
Giacomo made an excellent job in finding all the ingredients on the list I had sent him and a whole 20 people rectangular table was covered from start to end with boxes of vegetables and various containers. A crate filled with shy oranges and mandarins still with their foliages were showing their presence under another crate containing a big head of celery, garlic, and a bunch of fresh onions. Full luscious branches of rosemary and bay leaves, just torn away from the garden bushes, were draped over the whole tower. Beside it, two crates full of fresh and plump swiss chard were ready to deliver their best to the guests' palates. Here and there, on the floor, crates full of golden onions and floury potatoes where waiting under summery orange carrots and deep emerald green flat leaves parsley. On the table, other carton boxes where filled with shiny disposable aluminum container of all shapes and sizes. On its leftmost corner I arranged all my tools: knives, various whips, digital scales, metal spatula, fine grater, zester, bottles of maple syrup, cayenne pepper, ginger roots, various stalks of lemon grass, a bottle of soy sauce, milk and dark chocolate, wedges of brick dough, rose water, some Chinese wine etc etc. A rapid check into the fridges and I found the rest of the ingredients: the fillets of sole, the milk, the whole 2kg of butter, the cream cheese, the smoked salmon and the chicken legs.
Once Cristian was arrived, it was time to get busy.
The first items to be attacked were the onions, the whole 10kg of them had to be thinly sliced and then caramelized. These are the situations when the familiar and social structure of Italian society comes on handy, how many of us have at home a huge 60cm sautéing pan? Giacomo's mother did! It was essential for the caramelisation of the onions (yeah, I could have done them in the oven but I like to keep an eye on my things).
The lack of sufficient proper cutting boards left the three of us working with the two pieces of a small broken wooden cutting board and big round one.
Tears were spilled, sleeves rolled, fingers cut but the golden roots didn’t survive the attack of the three knifed-knights! Little by little they were added to the steaming pan (without blood, don’t worry) while the previous batch was already reducing in volume. They started sweating their juices as they steamed so I promptly transferred the excess liquid on a small sauce pan to let only the juices caramelize and keep the onion from stewing too much. Once properly browned, then liquid was added back to the pan. We would have forgotten about them on the fire if it wasn't for the huge pan that was blocking almost the whole cooking hobs. In an hour or so they were ready to be set aside to cool. I suppose you might be wondering how many mahogany caramelized onions 10kg of sulfurous roots give you, the answer is 2.5kg. In other words, the rendition of caramelized onions is roughly 2.5%.
The second massive task to accomplish was to prepare the chestnut gnocchi. The potatoes were cut into equally sized pieces by Cristian and boiled in salted water in 1kg batches. Once they had barely cool down, after being drained, we were scorching our fingers trying to peel them. They were then passed through a potato ricer and mixed with the chestnut and wheat flour, more salt and an egg. Despite the forgetfulness of the cooks (I used sugar instead of salt in the dough and Cristian at first forgot to put in the egg) the 5kg gnocchi dough was resting. In all this, the oven didn’t escape to the whirlpool; half slices of Granny Smith apples were lying in it drying out.
The tabletop mixer was our fortuitous accomplice for some time, while I was trying to put together the salmon mousse. Exactly; trying… the excess fat in the mixture of salmon, cream cheese, olive oil and cream provoked a separation of its oily part. Since I didn’t want to manually separate it and whip it in little by little I tried adding an egg yolk to provide some extra emulsifying power, but nothing happened. The copper colored oil was still marbling the mousse surface when I thought of using some panade (a mixture of flour or starch cooked to paste with some water). I used a cornstarch based one and few teaspoons of it were sufficient to safe the almost 2 liters of mousse. The result was more of a spread than a mousse but it was equally tasty and with an interesting texture when compared with the other dishes I served as appetizers. I had already made the muhammara and the chicken liver pate back at home and they were resting in the fridge; the hummus was in the next day schedule.
Despite all the help, the continuous borrowing of pots and pans from Cristian’s grandmother and Daniela's washing and organizational efforts; we were still drowning in things to do.
We quite promptly whipped together the orange butter by mixing the zest of 3 oranges with some chili pepper, into the 400g of softened butter. In a blink of an eye, I managed to prepare the basil-oil infusion by warming up the oil, pushing the basil into the original oil bottle and then pouring the oil back into it.
It was the right moment to attack the jellies. The rose jelly required agar powder to set while the lime one and the panna cotta used gelatin. After having spent some time determining the right amount of cream-milk mixtures to gel, we started to soften the gelatin in some of the cold milk while the rest of the mixture was warming up and being sweetened. The rose and lime jellies were quite straightforward to make; the contemporary use of agar and gelatin as gelling agents, offered me the chance to tell Cristian a bit about their differences. As the jelly making was easy, the moving wasn't as such. The panna cotta filled up the aluminum container almost completely and the fridge was in the opposite corner of the room; spilling was unavoidable. On the table, floor and even on the fridge there were splashes of panna cotta; that Daniela promptly (after having thrown a scream naturally) was running to clean. She almost fainted at the sight of the disaster into the fridge; worthless to say that she was there cleaning it till the next day. At the end, not much of the panna cotta was actually lost; the only problem was that the gelatin in it made the floor a little sticky. The rose and lime jellies didn't cause much of a problem; the rose actually gelled directly on the counter top and the lime froze up in the fridge so I had to remake it the next day. The last thing on the agenda was the chocolate sauce.
While the milk and the cream were warming up, I chopped the darkest Lindt chocolate with some milk-chocolate couverture. One white truffle, finely minced was added to the chocolate right before the hot milk-cream mixture. Stirred gently, the chocolate melt in a shiny silken dark and fragrant sauce that was then put on another aluminum container, covered and refrigerated.
By then it was already 2am so we decided to have a rest before the next busy day.
The night was quite short unfortunately; Giacomo had to work and his office is settled on a side of his house. While sipping my coffee I started to carve thin strips out of the grapefruit peels; they had to be caramelized and served with the fish course. They were already on the fire when we decided to start shaping the gnocchi. Nobody of us had done it before but Daniela had a gnocchi grater in one of her kitchen drawer (I guess you might even find the lost Arch of the Covenant, if you look long enough in her apartment).
The dough was far too loose to retain any kind of shape and it was sticky enough to require continuous flouring while handling it. That's why we decided to precook the gnocchi. It was then that the heat started building up in the kitchen.
A huge pot of water took forever to boil and when it did, each of us in turn was there cutting pieces out of a sausage of dough using a scissor directly into the salted water and taking out those that started to float cause ready. They were then immersed in cold water to stop the cooking, then drained and stored. This activity went on for almost 6 hours! We had to cut 5kg of dough into fingernail sized pieces after all.
In between the steaming pots for the gnocchi (we tried on using two of them at a certain point), Daniela found some space to whip together a fast and delish spaghetti dish with zucchini, garlic and chili for the lunch of the whole working crew. We were close to 10 starving people; Cesare, Giacomo's brother, was helping me printing the menus while other friends and colleagues were bringing in the wines, the salad and the expressly made wooden boards to use as extension for the big round dining table.
Once filled up and ready to go back to work; we briefly boiled the chestnuts and to peel them it took us a good hour and some of our fingernails. I didn’t want them to be fully cooked, since they had to be candied in maple syrup and to peel them leaving them whole it was quite a task. In the meantime the gnocchi blanching procedure went on, till almost 6pm!
Triangles of brick dough, brushed with a butter-cocoa-cayenne mixture were going in and out of the oven, piling up on the counter ready to be served with the chicken. When the gnocchi were finally over (3 big aluminum trays of them) it was time to braise the chicken legs in Chardonnay wine with onions, shallots, celery and bay leaves.
The amount of braising liquid was such that I could finish cooking them out of the stove; stoves were as precious as gold at that point! The court bouillon for the soles was the next item to care of while the chestnuts were now candying in the oven. While I was taking care of all this, Cristian was cutting the 5kg of mirepoix in medium dices ready to be sautéed in olive oil with fresh rosemary (did I tell you that the branches of fresh herbs made the table look like a bush??).
While people were starting to stream in, I was whipping together the hummus and I was so taken from it that I was a bit unfriendly to one of the guest (I still feel guilty for it) but I made it up afterwards. The hummus was ready and the aperitif platters were being set and decorated. The arrival of guests naturally meant the start of my social duties; the entryway to the house was by the kitchen after all. So a bit of chit chat and introduction, explanation of my work were exchanged while Cristian was continuing with his work.
By 10pm the dinner started (we were indeed in Italy). The aperitifs were served and people start serving themselves.
In the kitchen, we were attending to the salad.
The little baby salads (“Misticanza” in Italian) that the grocer brought me, needed tending care to be ready for service: remove their roots, wash properly, tear apart etc. Cristian in the meantime was slicing the zucchini with the potato peeler as I showed him. The white bread croutons were by then ready, the oven was free to soften the zucchini ribbons. Once cut the dried apricots, we were ready to serve the salad.
While guests finished their salads, we started whipping together the starch course. The butter slowly melted in the big pan, ready to flavor furthermore the chestnut gnocchi. On another pan, garlic and dried chili were sautéed in olive oil ready for the swiss chard.
To avoid smashing the gnocchi, we had to proceed in batches and when we reached the last batch the chard was almost over; thankfully the salad mixture had nice bitter greens that could fill in for it. The dish was plated and served, not without streaming of people in and out of the kitchen; helping, tasting, chatting, asking question, bringing back comments.
In the dining room, between one course and the other, Daniel sang some songs to warm up the mood of the crowd (and give them time to digest a bit) and did I tell of the little squirrel by the name of Linda that was jumping left and right among us?
It was the turn of the chicken course. The tray containing the caramelized onions went into the oven to warm up as did the chicken legs. On a burner I tried to whip together the sauce (I had to do it way ahead of time instead, noted mistake; once done, next time avoided). Some songs, chat and few sips of water and the chicken course was ready to be plated. It went straight to the dining room.
The next course was the Oriental broth. I had already started brewing it since some time (unforgetful of me to forget the Galangal roots at home, naturally you don’t get them so easily in Italy).
A call for a break, yelled by the dining room came in like the first bird singing Spring arrival. We had the time to prepare the improvised little tray that had to host the rose-mint jelly and mandarin wedges that had to go with the broth.
After little tweaking, the broth went in the dining room followed by the jellies. The reaction of guests? The rose jelly was like soap to them. Yeah, we are not used to roses aroma in food in Italy.
Time to poach those soles (they were actually plaits fillets, pretty tiny too). The fillets were thawed and they had to be rolled up as paupiettes. The fanny thing about buying this kind of frozen fish is that the fillets coming from the bottom of the fish have still their skin attached so we had to take it out. Thankfully we had the help of one of the guests, pretty skilled with fish I must say.
The paupiettes were so tiny that they were poached in the court bouillon for roughly 3 minutes. The sauce was whipped together (again, I had to do it, but actually how you do it when you haven’t yet poached the fish?). The mirepoix was warmed up in the usual big pan and the plating started. The fish course was ready to be served.
People were quite bursting of food and many of them just came into the kitchen to sit behind the table I was using to exchange few chit-chats and helping me out with the panna cotta. Here the plating was a bit more crucial, so I took care of it while Cristian was trying to make caramel cages.
The panna cotta portioned rectangles were cut diagonally in two triangles and put on the plate sliding one respect to the other along their longest side. The dried apple was put in between them, a generous helping of the truffle-milk chocolate sauce spooned in one side and a bit of the lime jelly on the other.
To complete the work, a thin slice of white truffle was balanced against the border of the apple crisp and a golden wiggle was painted using edible paint.
It was DONE!
We could finally breathe and start ravaging through the leftovers (we didn’t really had anything to eat from lunch time and it was 4am when we finished the service).
Daniela and Giacomo popped by to congratulate for the dinner and to call me to the dining room where I was welcomed by a standing ovation from all the guests. I guess by then, I was as red as a strawberry and almost speechless.
It was a great experience; loved the exchange of impressions, emotions, family recipes, tricks that only Italian guests can give. Worthless to say that the kitchen was pretty messy, thanking God for the dishwasher! Once set up everything, another hour or so of work, I was brought to my hotel room where I just dropped as dead on the first bed I found on my way.
The sleep wasn’t long unfortunately, the next day we had to head back to Bologna to catch our flight back home naturally not without fetching another piadina and buying some pretty interesting books.
A special thank goes to all the people that gave me a hand to make all this possible, first of all my right hand Cristian and the official photographer Rita (who got so hungry in the middle of the dinner that she forgot about her assignment or was she asleep? both I guess). Daniela and Sabine who helped organizing the event and naturally Giacomo for letting me messing up his kitchen.
And for all of you, a little surprise; my Muhammara recipe.
Muhammara (makes 1.3 kg)
- 500g roasted peppers, peeled and seeded;
- 450g walnuts;
- 3tbsp pomegranate molasses;
- 1tsp vinegar;
- 2tsp roasted cumin, grinded;
- 2tsp sriracha sauce;
- salt and oil to taste.
Dice the peppers and put them with all the other ingredients in a blender. Blend till a smooth paste, in case adjust its consistency with some oil, water or breadcrumbs. Refrigerate for at least 1 day before service so to let the flavors mix up.