Dinner for Sixty

by Bernard Brandt



-Boeuf Bourgignon (bacon free, gluten free) for 20;

-Coq au Vin (ditto) for 16;

-4 Quiches (9″, mushroom, onion, shallots, and bacon and shallots) for 16;

-Uzbeki lamb pilaf for 8;

-Basmati rice side dish for 60;

-Hand roasted, freshly ground Colombian coffee for 60.

It’s a long story.

For the past two years since my wife Beth died, my one live entertainment has been to listen to these guys, Simon and James, when they play the local pub at Pedro, about twice a year, in the summer and the winter.  It’s about a mile from where I live, so I usually get a reservation at the bar, tip the bartender a ten at the beginning of the affair, with the promise of another if the service is any good. It always is, for some reason.

So, between the food, which is okay, the beer, which is better but more expensive, the cover charge, and the tips to the musicians, it comes to quite a bit. As I am rather impecunious, I doubt that I could afford such more than twice a year. But Simon and James play a variety of trad music that I seldom hear in LaLa Land, so I find it to be worth it.

I’ve gotten to know Simon somewhat these last two years, and I wanted to buy some of his CDs before he performed the next time. So, I messaged him on Facebook to ask how I could do that. He told me that he would be in LA in early August, and we could meet at a mutual friend’s house to do the deal.

“Why can’t we do it when you’re at the local pub?” sez I.

“Because the pub hasn’t picked up my gig for this summer,” sez he.

Well, the thought of a summer without Simon singing in L.A. wasn’t worth considering. So, after a few phone calls and e-mails, my parish priest agreed to let me use our parish hall for an event for Simon on Thursday, August 10th, and a couple of friends said that they’d put out the word. One friend in particular, Geo. McCalip, agreed to bring his sound board and P.A. system, set it up, operate it, and break it down. Simon even put up an event on FB.

It was kinda like that scene in that B movie when someone said, “I’ve got some costumes; you’ve got a barn. Let’s put on a play!” In that spirit, I decided to bring something more to the party. Like a pot luck, where I would provide main courses for whole bunches of people.

As a few of my four or five readers of this wretched weblog will no doubt remember (with both fear and trembling), I have been wont to do some fancy cooking. Worse yet, I have also on occasion written about the dastardly deeds, in the form of food porn.

This essay will be no exception. As Dante once said, “Abandon hope, all ye that enter here.” And it is similarly written in the motion picture, The Wizard of Oz: “I’d turn back if I were you.”

Still here? Well then, as that eminent philosopher, Bette Davis, said in Dinner at Eight: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

My menu started with St. Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourgignon for twenty, and her Coq au Vin for sixteen. Basically, I doubled her recipes, and added more beef and chicken to each. I also decided to build both from the ground up, and make the beef and chicken stock for each of them. I had recently bought a copy of Escoffier’s  little cook book, and decided to model my beef stock after his brown stock. The chicken stock was a basic browned chicken stock.

The Thursday before the event, I went to the local Top Valu by bus, and got the fixings for the stocks. They did not have veal, alas, but I doubled the quantity of beef shank (at $1.99 a pound!), and bought a roast chicken and some chicken thighs for roasting.

The next day, that Friday, I started by roasting the beef shanks at 400° F.  for an hour, and had the lot of them in my stock pot by 8 a.m. There they simmered with five quarts of water for twelve hours, until 8 p.m. The shanks turned to shreds, the bones gave up their virtue, and the stock pot gave off a lovely odor as I went about my studies. At 5 p.m. I added 3/4ths of a pound each of carrot, onion, and celery that had been diced and sweated with some olive oil in my big stainless steel pan. At 8, I poured the lot through a colander, returned the stock to the stock pot, and with a water bath I cooled the stock pot until its contents were lukewarm, and then put the pot in the refrigerator to await the morning.

The next day, that Saturday, I bagged the beef stock in four quart Ziplock bags, put them in the freezer, and kept the stock fat which I had first taken off of the top of the stock. I then cleaned the stock pot, and started the chicken stock with the roast chicken carcass, a couple of roasted chicken thighs, and several pounds of duck bones I had frozen after my last cassoulet.  Fortunately, this stock only required five hours of simmering, and by Saturday afternoon, it too was cooling in the refrigerator.

So, for less than ten dollars for the fixings for the beef stock, and about five for the chicken stock, I had a gallon each of better stocks than I could have bought commercially. Go figure.

That Sunday, after liturgy, I got a ride over to the Trader Joe’s, where I bought the fixings for the quiches: a pound of baby swiss cheese, two pints of heavy cream, a dozen eggs, and four pie crusts, among other things. When I got home from the nearby Metro Green Line terminal and the Silver Line, I stowed those in the refrigerator, and decanted the fowl stock into Ziplocks which were then put in the freezer. I again saved the stock fat.

The next day, Monday, I went again to Top Valu, and got the meat, veg and the rest of the ingredients for the menu. I spent the rest of the time either at my studies, or preparing for what St. Julia called ‘the order of battle’.

That Tuesday was ‘battle day’, when I cooked the Boeuf and the Coq. I started in the morning by cutting up more than eight pounds of chuck roast into large cubes, as well as the prep work for the onions and carrots. Rather than browning the beef cubes in bacon fat, however, I used a combination of the beef stock fat and olive oil, a trick I learned from Escoffier. I used two large cast iron dutch ovens to hold the ingredients, and I put half the meat and veg, together with a bot of Charles Shaw’s three buck chuck Cab Sav and a pint of my beef stock in each. Both dutch ovens went into the oven at 325 degrees, and stayed there for three hours.

During that time, I prepped and sauteed a pound of mushrooms in olive oil, and braised a pound of TJ’s pearl onions in a second quart of beef stock. I then added stock from the onions to the contents of the dutch ovens over the course of the next couple of hours. At the end of that time, I dumped each dutch oven in turn into a colander, put the beef, onions, and mushrooms into the (clean) stainless steel stock pot, and covered it, while I boiled and reduced the now concentrated stock until it was thick enough to cover a spoon, in about a half hour. I then poured the sauce over the contents of the stock pot, used a water bath in the sink to bring the contents of the stock pot to room temperature, and then put the pot in the refrigerator to chill. That done, I transferred the lot to a gallon zip-lock, and cleaned the stock pot once again.

So, the Boeuf was done by 3 p.m. On to the Coq au Vin! Many of the operations for the Coq are the same as for the Boeuf: browning, braising, sauteed mushrooms, and brown braising the pearl onions. And so I browned the chicken in the chicken stock fat, put the browned pieces in a turkey broiler, put the covered broiler in the oven at 325° for ten minutes, then put it on the stove top while I poured in half a cup of a nice domestic VSOP type brandy. And no, I didn’t put a match to it, but let the alcohol boil off until it smelled just fine, then poured in two bots of wine and a quart of the chicken stock, covered the broiler, and let it cook in the oven for a half hour, while I prepared the onions and the mushrooms.

At the end of the half hour, I put the chicken, onions, and mushrooms together in the (again cleaned) stock pot, and put a lid on that, while I transferred the sauce to a large sauce pan and reduced the lot until it could coat a spoon. Then I poured the sauce over the chicken, onions, and mushrooms, put the stock pot in another cooling bath in the sink until all that was at room temperature, and then directly into the refrigerator again to chill until the contents could be transferred to another gallon ziplock. It was 8 p.m. by then.

While waiting for it to chill, I made a double of old style Sazarac cocktails with the unused half of the half pint bottle of brandy: two jiggers of cognac or VSOP, 1/2 tsp simple syrup, and six or so dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, poured into a glass filled with cracked ice, stirred until the mix is quite chilled, and then strained into a cocktail glass.  (Sorry, no Absinthe nor Pernod. Maybe next time) But that helped to make a fitting end to a long and productive day.

The next day, Wednesday, I baked the quiches, prepped the lamb for the pilaf, and roasted the coffee.

The quiches were a simple matter of a TJ pie crust each, with wet ingredients of three eggs beaten with half a pint of heavy cream per quiche (with pepper and dry mustard), and dry ingredients of four ounces grated baby swiss cheese and eight ounces of sauteed mushrooms, white onion, shallots, and fried bacon each. I have two 9 inch tart rings, and I baked them two at a time; first blank baking the crusts for about seven minutes, then putting the cheese and the sauteed stuff in, then pouring in the egg and cream mixture, then back into a 400 degree oven for forty minutes. Those were easy as pie (pun more or less intended).

As to the coffee, I’ve hand roasted green coffee for some time now, and it was a simple matter of taking a 10 inch cast iron frying pan, heating it until flung drops of water dance on the hot pan surface, and measuring out and pouring in a pound of the green coffee beans. I stirred the hot contents with a large stainless steel spoon while they smoked, swelled, started the first ‘crack’ of sounds, darkened, and began the second ‘crack’. In all, the process takes fifteen to twenty minutes. Hint: ventilate your kitchen before trying this.

When the coffee was the color of a good dark brown medium roast, and smelled wonderful, I poured the contents from the pan into a large stainless steel colander which I had set in the kitchen sink, and kept stirring with the large metal spoon so as to separate the chaff which the coffee beans had generated, somewhere between five and ten minutes. Then I let the coffee beans cool to room temperature, whereupon I transferred the beans to a lidded coffee can, put the lid on, and the can into the refrigerator to await grinding the next day.

Prepping the lamb for the pilaf was the thing that involved the most time and effort. I had bought four pounds of a leg of lamb, but the butchers had used the plastic packaging to conceal the fact that half the leg was fat and bone, and that they had not separated out the bone from the leg.  Worse, they took half the cut high on the haunch, so that it included a fair amount of the pelvic bone as well. Now that I’ve been fooled once, I have a better idea as to what to look out for.

As it was though, it was a simple matter to get out and sharpen my boning knife, to butterfly the leg and separate meat and bone (made more difficult by the fact that much of the bone was from the pelvis, rather than the simple round bone of the leg itself). I managed, though, to get two pounds of lamb meat from the endeavor, which was enough for the Uzbeki recipe I was using.

The next day was Thursday, when the event and the dinner were to take place. I ground and bagged the pound of coffee, prepped the vegetables for the pilaf, packaged the bags of boeuf and coq and quiches (oh my!), and got everything ready for trip on the Silver Line, Green Line, and shuttle from the Mariposa Green Line station to the El Segundo library, less than a block away from the church. (My car, in case you hadn’t figured it out,  is effectively non-operational, and it would cost too much to get things back in operation).

Arriving at the church at 1 p.m., I promptly refrigerated the lot I had brought, and contemplated the plan of battle for the evening’s dinner, over a small dish of the Boeuf Bourgignon and a simple Cuba Libre (courtesy of the local liquor store: a cold bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola, with the contents of two bottlets of Sailor Jerry spiced rum and the juice of one lime poured into the bottle and mixed). Both were excellent.

It was the simple matter of an hour to get everything ready, as the kitchen crew of the church had, as always, done a great job of cleaning up after Sunday Liturgy. It was just a matter of taking a broom to the brick floor of the enclosed but open air patio of the parish hall, and setting up the serving implements for dinner at 6. I spent the time from 2 to 5 p.m. reading a book from the extensive church library.

At 5, I brought out the quiches, covered, to get to room temperature, and set the boeuf and the coq in serving pans that could be put in a warming oven to get to the proper temperature by 6. It was a matter of a minute or two to get the water (Sparkletts) and the coffee in the 55 cup percolator, ready to turn on at 5:30. I waited a bit too long to start the pilaf and the basmati rice, however, with unsatisfactory results for each, alas. Perhaps the less said about those, the better.

My friend George arrived soon after 5, and I helped him to transport his sound system from his car to the brick patio in front of the long front lawn of the church, which we decided would be the venue for the music. And soon, the guests arrived, a good number of them bringing food and drink as well, and that needed to be organized as well.

By 6, dinner had started, and more than 40 people showed up for it, including one of my dearest and oldest friends, who had brought his charming and beautiful wife for the event. It was a pleasure to see so many people happily eating, and engaged in pleasant conversation. My friend Simon, the musician, also showed up early, and after doing a quick sound check with my friend George, also got down to a good dinner.

One of the happiest things for me, however, was that my brother Bill, who had known Simon for decades, not only came to the dinner and the concert, but had brought a half sheet pan of my family’s pineapple upside-down cake. The family had been working on that recipe for at least three generations, but that evening, Bill had managed to kick the cake up notches previously unknown to humankind. I will readily admit that my food that evening was fairly good. But Bill’s cake was a thing of legend.

At 7, it was a simple matter of moving chairs from the parish hall and patio to the nearby front lawn, and the concert began. Simon played and sang beautifully, on several instruments and alone, for the first hour. Then, after a brief intermission, he played from 8 to 9 with another musician, and the two of them did a splendid job together. The concert ended just a few minutes after 9, and the guests, after moving the chairs back to the parish hall, quietly and quickly left. All in all, it was an enchanted evening.

I managed to hitch a ride with my brother Bill to my mother’s house, where I slept on the couch that night. The next morning, I managed to get over to church in time for Friday matins at 8 a.m. After matins at 9, I got down to the work of cleaning up, only to find that the guests that evening had done most of the work for me.  Cleanup was a simple matter of washing up, taking out trash, and sweeping the brick floors again. Thus, I was out of there by 11 a.m. As I was leaving, I spoke with my priest, Fr. Alexei, who had been there for both the dinner and the concert. He told me that if the guests were as well-behaved as last evening, I could do a similar event whenever I wanted.

   *     *     *

Now, the question that those few of you who have actually gotten to the end of this little screed may be asking is this: would I do something like this again?

And the answer is, “Yes, in a New York second.”

Having learned from the experience, I would change a couple of things the next time: First, I’d make sure that all of the cooking was done before guests begin to arrive. Second, I would make sure that all of the fixings for coffee were available, and that more people knew about the coffee. Third, I would print out placards for each of the dishes I provided, detailing ingredients, so that people would know what they were eating. And fourth, I would make more of a point of saying: “Look, there’s no cover charge, tickets, or expensive food and drink here. Every thing is either free, or BYOB. Why don’t we consider all the money we have saved, and use some of it to PAY THE MUSICIANS? Maybe that way, they might come back.”

But all in all, I’d be happy to repeat the gig. Part of it is, that for the money I would have spent going to a restaurant, on food, drink, cover charge, and tickets, I was able to provide dinner for sixty people. Part of it is, how else could I (or anyone else) be a patron of the arts, and in such a satisfying way?

But a lot of it was that for that week, and even now, in memory, I found the genuine pleasure to be had from making people happy. I found the pleasure that old Fezziwig had from his Christmas Eve parties, and that old Scrooge found on and after that fateful Christmas morning.