Saturday was a massive cooking day. A couple of years ago, A showed her friend R my cooking blog, and he started following it. When he heard I was visiting, he asked if I could come to his house and make a feast. (This is a little less opportunistic than it sounds – he volunteered himself, his wife K and my friend A as kitchen hands and bought all the ingredients. And provided all the wine and other drinks.)
This sounded like fun, so I said yes, and he got very excited and started inviting his friends to a feast cooked by ‘a famous Australian food blogger’, at which point I started feeling a little concerned that I wouldn’t be able to live up to the hype.
Before we left for Dresden, A and I started to plan a menu, and R promised to order us a chicken from a local farmer. A had told me that the farmer’s chickens are always huge, so I had planned to stuff it with rice and fruit and nuts and serve it with lots of different vegetable accompaniments, which I felt would be ample for the 6-7 people likely to be in attendance.
I relayed this to R, who immediately texted back ‘are you sure there will be enough food?’
Oh, R. You read this blog. You should know better.
A’s theory was that R was viewing the chicken as the main part of the meal, as opposed to part of an ensemble, and that I had nothing to worry about, but I decided to plan another course, just to be on the safe side.
Then R texted us to let us know that the chicken weighed four kilos.
This turned out later to be a factor of R’s perverse sense of humour, but I have no idea how they raise chickens in Germany, and for all I know, Hahn is just another word for pterodactyl. More to the point, I was a bit worried about cooking times – I’ve never cooked a chicken that was more than 2 kilos or so (and of course I don’t cook a lot of meat anyway), and was a bit worried about it actually managing to get cooked through. Also, with a chicken that size, oven space was evidently going to be a problem.
Most importantly, of course, we now needed even more vegetables in the meal to keep the correct meat to vegetable ratio. (I’m not vegetarian, obviously. But a meal that isn’t at least 2/3 vegetables, preferably a bit more, always feels a bit off to me.)
Also – a four kilo chicken, and R was worried about there being enough food for six (and now maybe only four) people? What sort of people was I cooking for?
A informed me that R is basically a labrador – he will eat whatever is in front of him, and there are never, ever, leftovers, so I decided to cook as though I was feeding three normal people (me, my friend, and our host’s wife, who I already know) and four German or Swiss scientists who play soccer (our host and the three unknown guests).
I did consider removing the entrée though. If there were only four of us, I simply couldn’t imagine getting through even half that amount of chicken, let alone all the vegetable accompaniments I had in mind.
By Friday, we were back up to seven people, and I was making lists – cooking in a strange kitchen is tricky, because you don’t know what is in the pantry, and I had a reputation to uphold! This seemed to alarm R, who prefers a more freestyle form of cooking, but if I’m cooking for a lot of people I like to know that I have all the ingredients.
Also, I was getting worried because the guests had been invited for 6pm, which I felt was ambitious, especially since the chicken seemed likely to need at least three hours in the oven.
On Saturday morning, we rose late – the thunderstorm had come through overnight, finally cooling everything down, and we had sleep to catch up on. And then we drove to the market to begin our attack on my New Revised Standard Combined Shopping List, which was several pages long and appeared to inspire R with terror.
The market was rather gorgeous, even though we were there very late, and I would have liked to buy EVEN MORE VEGETABLES than what was on my list, but I refrained, because I was pretty sure I was scaring R again. (Vegetables are not frightening, R. Nor are lists. Lists are reassuring and friendly!)
We had a quick cake-fuelled consultation in a local cafe, to compare my dry ingredients list with the contents of R and K’s pantry, followed by a stop by the organic supermarket for more vegetables, and then back to our house to pick up the cake, which I had made the night before, so that I could sneak eggplant into it while nobody was looking. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like chocolate and eggplant cake, provided they don’t know what is in it before they taste it – but I didn’t think that vegetable-phobic Germans were likely to be willing to taste it if they did know what was in it. (The recipe comes from Harry Eastwood’s book, Red Velvet Chocolate Heartache, so I can’t provide it here. Just buy the book. You won’t regret it.). The size of the chicken (which turned out to be three kilos, so still *quite* hefty) made an excellent excuse to make the cake in advance…
And then A and I raced around to pick up the other ingredients, which took an amazingly long time. We wound up getting to R&K’s at 5pm, where R alarmed me by hinting that he had already put the chicken in the oven. (No! Do not mess with my recipe! Why yes, I am a control freak in the kitchen. Or at least, I am when cooking something BIG.)
First course was roast garlic aioli with crudités and olive bread. Astonishingly, the aioli worked the first time, which almost never happens. But we needed it to. And that meant that the guests would have something to snack on while the chicken was cooking.
Second course was the aforementioned stuffed pterodactyl, which I got working on while A and K worked on the crudités. We soaked fruit and nuts, cooked rice, and made the saffron, butter and lemon basting liquid (which really is to die for), and got the chicken into the oven at 5:40.
Of course, man cannot live by meat alone, so there was also a middle eastern potato salad with saffron and herbs, a big pot of my ratatouille, and a salad of shaved asparagus, mango, hazelnuts, blueberries and lettuce (from the Green Kitchen). The salad was particularly good fun, because it turns out that Germans believe that asparagus should a) be white, b) be cooked and c) be covered with either butter or mayonnaise. So definitely not green and raw and shaved into strips and tossed with fruit and nuts and lettuce in a salad.
Meanwhile, I got R to work on whipping the cream, to which he did something entirely unnatural and diabolical, and I still don’t know how he made the cream do that, so we had to send A out for more. But that was OK, because dessert was basically under control – we had the chocolate eggplant cake (I made everyone try to guess the secret vegetable – nobody could), with strawberries and whipped cream laced with cassis. Which, as everyone agreed, is practically a salad, really. So seconds and even thirds are not merely allowable but laudable.
I will say, I’ve never seen seven people get through so much of that cake.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable evening, at least once I stopped panicking about the chicken! A and R and K have lovely friends, and talk about interesting things, and I really enjoyed the company.
But mostly, I enjoyed feeding them.
Also, just for those keeping score:
Total people fed: seven, including three ‘fleisch ist mein Gemüse’ anti-vegetable German men.
Total leftovers: a quarter of the crudités, half the ratatouille, a little potato salad, a quarter of the stuffing, and a quarter of the cake. The chicken, asparagus salad, aioli and whipped cream were all demolished, which I think tells you a certain amount about traditional German gustatory priorities!
In short, there was definitely enough food, even for the vegetable-phobes. We even had leftovers, though admittedly fewer than I had imagined possible. And everyone was sufficiently full that when I threatened to make biscuits with the leftover egg whites and almond meal I was asked please not to.
(Not enough food indeed. Who did R imagine he was dealing with?)
(Incidentally, I just want to let it be known for the record that I am not the most egregious overcaterer in my family. Challenging me to make ‘enough food’ is relatively safe. But don’t try my aunts. Or anyone else on the Italian side of the family. Just don’t.)
Also, as we left, I found myself carrying the empty cake platter, which was round and flat and silver, and I couldn’t help observing that this was a very appropriate thing to be carrying on the Eve of the Feast of St John the Baptist. We just needed a severed head to put on it. A tells me that I have a very warped imagination, but really, it was exactly the right sort of platter…