Party tricks (soup kitchen, no recipe)

There’s a restaurant trick I like to use whenever I can. That tricks prepping the food. No, not preparing. Pre-preparing.

Let’s take an easy example for our first run. Let’s say I’ve got avgolemono on the menu. I’m going to make the one with orzo and breast meat. Now, breast meat gets tough if allowed to overcook, and orzo takes 20 minutes, but I want my soup in front of the customer no more than four minutes – preferably two minutes – after the customer orders.

First, I estimate how many dishes of it I’m going to serve. I make about 2/3 that much orzo and put it in the refrigerator. I pull about a quarter of the broth I need and put it in a warmer that’s at 180 to 200 deg F – and has a lid. I have the chicken cut up and par-cooked – partially cooked, so it’s just a touch pink in the center, then separated into separate servings (about half a breast each) which are then wrapped in plastic and put in the refrigerator. I take between a dozen and a quarter of total expected use of eggs and separate them. Yolks go into a bowl of water. Whites are combined in a bowl and loosely whipped so they’re slightly foamy but not yet soft peak. Finally I have a bunch of lemons. As I use these, I’ll refresh or replace based on how the day is actually going. Now watch the hands carefully.

Order in – one dish of avgolemono. Pull saucepan and put on burner set to high. Ladle in two cups of broth. Quickly squeeze in a lemon and stir. Scoop 3/4 cup of orzo (that’s more or less what the quarter-cup will become). Grab a package of chicken and put it in the soup. I’m at about 30 seconds here. Grab the whites and scoop out one white – about a quarter cup. DIGRESSION – an egg white is approximately 2 tablespoons. Beating it so it’s foamy but not quite to soft peak will just about double it.) Whip it for a few seconds to bring it to soft peak, ease in a yolk and beat that in. Temper, check the chicken to make sure it’s gotten up to temp (gotta kill the bugs), ease the eggs into the dish, toss in a dash of white pepper, and pour into a bowl. Since it’s a restaurant and this is the Bowl, not the Cup, float a slice of lemon on top for garnish.

Two minutes, max. And remember I do not have to do every bowl separately if I get orders close enough together. It’s not two minutes per bowl, it’s two minutes per event.

If you’re doing a dinner party you can use many of the same tricks. Unless, of course, you’re having the party in the kitchen to show off your cooking. Actually, and depending on your crowd, you could even do it there. Cook everything to between 80 and 98% finished – frequently as components if possible. At the last minute assemble, run through a finishing fire, and serve.

You can also do this as cook-ahead meals. That’s something the “once a week” or “once a month” cooking people use a lot. Look, let’s take lasagna as an example. You can cook the whole thing to barely done, slice it, put the servings in individual containers, and put in the refrigerator (or freezer). Time to eat you move them to ovenproof containers (thawing if necessary), heat, and serve. Or if it’s for a fancy dish, make the individual lasagnas in their dishes and hold those in the refrigerator or freezer as appropriate. Thaw if necessary, hold in refrigerator till near service time, heat and serve. All the dishes are DONE. All the mess is done, and if you have a mental failure while cooking and need to start over or time takes longer than expected WHO CARES – you’re not eating it till much later.

Now once this is pointed out I get a lot of “well duh”. Except… I never see it done. Instead far too often I see piles of labor at the last minute – at best, everything is done all in the day so dishes can be recycled – and the hosts are exhausted before the party begins. This? This is just short of letting yourself be one of the guests.

I doubt I’ll note it in any of my soup kitchen recipes, but all of them have holding points for restaurant business. With a few exceptions, even when things are busy fresh-tasting soup (not cooked forever tasting) should be in the customer’s hands within five minutes – two being optimal. You don’t have to let it get stale to make this work. You just have to pay attention to where the hold points are at which things aren’t getting old.


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