Tuesday, February 2, 2010

O.N.C.E. in the New Year, or an evening of being a worrywart

"What course are we on?"
"Do the fish need to go in the oven yet?"
"Can someone grab more garlic?"

I'm standing at the kitchen sink at O.N.C.E in the New Year. I have a soapy sponge in one hand, and a dirty platter in the other. I know I look like I'm focused entirely on cleaning the dishware that is starting to pile up, but my thoughts are very much elsewhere.

I am worrying about the fish. More precisely, I am worrying about the haddock en papillote with wheatberries and lemongrass-sake reduction. And I am worrying about the haddock en papillote with wheatberries and lemongrass-sake reduction not so much because the haddock needs to be worried about, but because worrying about it keeps me from worrying about the vegetable dumplings that immediately follow.

If I had any spare circuits left in my brain, I might wonder how I got here. I think JJ Gonson is at least partly to blame.

When JJ announced O.N.C.E in the New Year, I expressed interest in reprising my role as minion, thinking that I'd be signing myself up for another episode of prepping and plating, albeit with less cabinet-trolley wrangling.

Instead, I found myself at the planning meeting a week before the event, brainstorming ideas for a ten-course feast composed of dishes considered to bring good luck. The menu we settled on consisted of potato latkes with sour cream and applesauce, a lucky eight-bean soup, Oysters Rockefeller, a green salad with beets, "black-eyed peas" and sauteed greens, haddock en papillote, vegetable dumplings, fresh egg noodles with short rib ragu, ginger ice-cream with benne wafers, and galette des rois.

(If you'd like to see the food, try LimeyG's writeup. Try not to drool.)

The haddock en papillote and vegetable dumplings may or may not have been the result of my mouth moving too quickly for my brain during the brainstorming. Which probably explains why I end up in charge of the dumpling-making on Thursday, and spend the hour before the meal frantically pleating little parchment packets of haddock.

Which entirely explains why I'm now worrying about the haddock in an effort to not worry about the dumplings.

The worrying is probably unnecessary. The food, from what I've tasted, has been excellent. The Oysters Rockefeller (we had a few extra) were soft and briny beneath a golden layer of spinach, cheese, and breadcrumbs. The dressed beets in the salad were sweet and tangy. JJ sauteed an extra pan of greens for the kitchen crew because we were fighting for the scraps on the platters. Our guests seem happy. I shouldn't be worrying. Really, I shouldn't.

After the fish go into the oven, I wash more dishes, try not to worry about the dumplings, and briefly wonder if it's too early to break out the beer.

The fish leave the oven and are whisked away for serving. I hear one or two remarks of "Don't eat the paper! It's not edible!", leaving me to briefly worry about choking hazards. I finally stop worrying about the fish after I try some myself, and confirm that it's nicely moist and flaky.

Unfortunately, no longer worrying about the fish means I have nothing left to distract me from worrying about the dumplings. The grapefruit palate cleanser that follows the fish should, by all rights, give me some breathing room, but instead it just gives me more time to worry about the dumplings.

Cooking the dumplings is just a matter of dropping them in boiling water and waiting until they're done. Unfortunately, the timing's a little tricky. We froze the dumplings for ease of storage and transportation, and while the filling of cabbage, onion, carrots and mushrooms is fully cooked, it still needs to thaw and heat up, and I'm not sure how long that will take.

We have two pots of boiling water going. Jack is keeping an eye on one while I keep an eye on the other, waiting for me to give the signal that the dumplings are ready. I don't really have an idea of when that will be. We finally decide that the easiest way to tell is just to cut one open and find out.

At four minutes, they're still cold in the middle. At five, they're lukewarm. I start wondering about beer again. Finally, at seven, we're good to go. We send out platters of dumplings as they cook, figuring that hot dumplings and staggered service is better than cold dumplings served to everyone at the same time.

I finally relax a little when the empty dumpling platters come back to me at the sink. All the courses that follow are those that I had no part in preparing, so my duties are limited to making sure the servers have what they need, and I can focus my energies on snagging a taste of any leftovers.

There are extra noodles and plenty of ragu, so I scrounge up a teacup and a spoon and take bites between washing dishes. The noodles are eggy and chewy, and the ragu is rich and deeply flavored. The course gets rave reviews from our guests and the crew.

Once the serving bowls for the noodles and ragu are deposited in the sink, we move on to the dessert courses. I put down my sponge briefly to help carry dishes of ginger ice-cream and benne wafers (a traditional Southern cookie) to the tables.

I had a chance to taste the ice-cream after JJ churned it, but the benne wafers and galette des rois were baked in Jen's kitchen, and I haven't had a chance to get my greedy little hands on any until now. I snag a benne wafer from the box of extras - it's sweet, light and crisp, and the sesame seeds give it a pleasantly nutty flavor.

The ice-cream dishes are collected and stacked, and Jen sets out a fresh set of plates, setting on each a slice of galette des rois (a French cake consisting of layers of puff pastry sandwiching a filling of frangipane) - and a single candle.

The candle isn't a traditional part of the galette des rois, but JJ has decided to establish a New Year's tradition of her own. She asks everyone to light their candle, set it in their slice of cake, and make a wish for the New Year as they blow it out.

I admit, my thoughts aren't on wishes. I was one of those impatient children who viewed birthday candles as a roadblock to the consumption of birthday cake, and frankly, not much has changed. My sights are set on the extra slices of cake that Jen has left out for the kitchen crew. I know galette des rois to be absolutely delicious, and Jen's version doesn't disappoint: the puff pastry is buttery and flaky, and the filling is sweet and richly eggy.

When the cake plates come back to the kitchen, dinner service is officially over. The guests trickle out, looking well-fed and happy. We break out the beer, and begin cleanup in earnest.

Upon reflection, I do have a wish: I wish I won't be such a worrywart at the next O.N.C.E.


LimeyG said...

Wow - I hadn't realized how tense it was in the kitchen while we were joyfully stuffing our faces!

Thanks for this great behind-the-scenes glimpse (and of course for the amaaazing dumplings).

adele said...

LimeyG - You're welcome!