The word itself is cozy. It's got a lovely long vowel sound that makes one pout, followed by one that encourages a smile. a kiss and a grin - worthy of replacing the word "cheese" during a photo shoot. So why is it that I find myself gritting my teeth when I bring this word to mind?
The kind of nerves that 18th century aristocratic French women used to get. The vapours. Anxiety brought on by committing to an amateur version of "come dine with me". But, unlike that show on the BBC, where they hand-pick 5 people that are polar opposites, of varying cooking ability, and generally fit into the typecasts of snob, comedian, geek, earth mother and slapper, in our version are 5 food lovers with food blogs. And its a competition. The event was planned for Saturday lunch (so the light would be suitable for photography without a tripod.)
What do you cook food bloggers? This is not your standard menu-planning operation for any old dinner party. These are not forgiving friends. They are epicureans with insatiable appetites for perfection. There are several factors that need to be satisfied.
History. All dishes must be something cooked previously. The thought of trying a new recipe and have it leave egg on one's face either figuratively or literally is enough to break out the smelling salts. No, it must be tried and tested.
Presentation. It MUST look good. These people are food stylers and photographers, but not only that, so are you. They expect the food to look as good as it does on your blog, or as good as the food looks on their blog - whichever is better. They are snap-happy maniacs who bring tripods to lunch. They plan how they are going to plate up their recipes the night before they cook them. These are the kind of people who fight hungry hands off plates of delicious treats until they are cold and unappetising, just so they can take 45 photos to get that good one that will be featured on tastespotting.com
Taste. A pitiful third on my decision making list. But I am not just talking about something yummy. I am talking #nomnomnom yummy. The kind of yummy that makes them shut up for five minutes and just enjoy the food. These people dissect the flavours in food like the would a laboratory frog in biology class. Ideally you also want to wow them, just a little. But heaven forbid you scare them. No offal, truffles, blue cheese or anchovies. You must also remember that these are not chefs, conditioned to appreciate all flavours. No, they might still be picky, and not only that, we have an Englishman, an English woman, a Tanzanian and a German in the mix - all with different palate histories.
Mastery. It must involve a technique or knowledge that you believe you may "own" in the group. Something that makes them say "wow - you can do that?!?". It must be something they would not cook themselves, and even better, could not cook themselves.
Fifth, and finally, preparation. It must be easy to prepare whilst under intense scrutiny. No hours in the kitchen leaving your guests time to discover the skeletons in your closets. No unpleasant sights involving intense perspiration, bespattered clothing, dribbling mascara or explosions verbal or actual in the kitchen. Preferably, you want as much cooking out of the way as possible, with just reheating and plating taking your time.
We had to submit menus one week earlier. I am a spur-of-the-moment cook, relying heavily on fresh seasonal ingredients, so opted for first position, hoping that ingredients needed more than a week to become unseasonal. I cheated, and avoided supplying details of the side dishes, and came up with the following:
- Salmon carpaccio
- Barbecued lobster with tarragon and mustard
- Sticky Date Pudding with caramel sauce
You will notice that I completely ignored my own advice listed under 'taste' and 'scaring guests' and decided to serve raw fish.
Friday morning. Hangover. Followed by birthday party. Fortunately not a pool party, so I found a lurid lime beanbag in the corner and allowed it to suck me into obscurity for the duration. And in my hungover state in this chlorophyll colored cocoon, I made my shopping list, including ingredients for my side dishes, which stupidly included risotto. Risotto of course breaks cardinal rules of both 'presentation' and 'preparation'. It involves 20 minutes of standing around stirring it on a stove, and no matter how well you cook it, its appearance is pretty much lumpy mush. Unfortunately it also breaks the 'history' rule, because although I have cooked it several times in the past, it always ends up with the texture of Clag or Oliver Twist's gruel.
So I went to the supermarket, still shell-shocked from the morning's activites, with Goldilocks in tow. And instead of meticulously picking out all my ingredients, then checking and double checking, I spent the time fending marshmallows out of the trolley, glaring at old women who dared to assume I cannot control my noisy child, and playing zoom-zoom trolley games to stop Goldie throwing out the few ingredients I had managed to tick off the list. Fresh Tarragon? Unavailalble. Scottish Salmon? Old and slimy. Tasmanian Salmon? Only fresh, not frozen (I have no idea how they can call Tasmanian Salmon fresh - it takes me 14 hours just to fly to Melbourne, and I don't have to get off a fishing line, on and off a trawler, over the docks, through quarantine, through a delivery bay and to the supermarket. Although, I guess they have the benefit of not having to stop by the duty free...). At least there were some beautiful, still frozen Omani lobster on special. Jackpot. (yes, I like frozen fish, particularly when I am cooking it the next day)
Take two. Saturday. Hangover. Hambone disappears to the office for a couple of hours to escape my moans and groans and quite possibly a little bit of nagging, and two children who for some godforsaken reason seemed to want some attention. Fortunately I have Mother Mary to help me in these situations, and although I felt it would be cheating to have her do any food prep, I was more than happy to offload all other responsibility. The shopping trip was more effective this time around, saving my rising blood pressure just a little. The only downfall was a continual lack of decent salmon. Why did I pick Carpaccio? I'm out of my head. Quick change - tuna. This of course resulted in a complete change of side dish. Bugger.
My prep went well - besides being elbow-deep in lobster entrails for far too long, and taking off half my knuckles in the first batch of lemon zest, it went without incident. Sally has detailed the rest of the day here. She has kindly neglected to mention the inevitable slovenly pile of al dente glue that the risotto became, the burning of the first batch of garlic butter and my nead to steady myself with several glasses of Sauvignon Blanc. But, I must say, that apart from that, the day was considerably less intimidating than I expected. I also met them all again this week at Sukaina's house, so think I managed to feed them without poisoning them.
So, now you know the inner workings of my neurotic character as a precursor to this luncheon, do you think you could steel your stomach and "Come dine with me"?
Other competitors are Sally from My Custard Pie, Anja from Anja's Food for thought, Sukaina from Sips and Spoonfuls, and Jonathan - our token male and non-food-blogging gourmand. The girls also contribute to tabletalk.me
I'll be popping the recipes up on my pages in coming days - the sticky date pudding can be found here.
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