Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Gentle Art of Re-Heating

I know many of you are anxious to hear the results of the parents dinner last night.

It was a huge success, with many raves for a menu representing the work I've been doing with the kids in my "food appreciation" classes.

Besides the kids themselves, the stars were the fresh Kielbasa sausages that the kids helped me fill over the last couple of days, plus a sauerkraut that I had fermented using our bucket method and braised with onions, apples, juniper berries and carraway.

The kids have been learning to peel vegetables. Lots of peeling going on. Se we also served boiled parsleyed potatoes and glazed carrots with dill. And for desert, highlighting our exploration of certain whole grains, oatmeal cookies with dried fruits and chocolate chips.

I had been told to expect 40 for dinner, so I made enough for 60, knowing how these things go. The trick is not so much making the food. No, that's the easy part. The challenge was getting the food hot again without overcooking it once we arrived at the school.

My wife and I have spent some years in the catering business and catering is all about reheating food. Many wedding guests may not realize that their fabulous dinner was actually cooked two days ahead of time, then merely brought up to serving temperature at the appropriate moment.

Yet that's why caterers get paid the big bucks. Most of the food, especially the side dishes, are prepared well in advance then re-heated with sterno in tall aluminum proofing boxes. The proofing boxes roll of the catering trucks and cans of sterno are arranged on baking sheets and lit under the food.

Some items, such as expensive beef tenderloin, chicken breasts and fish filets, are too delicate to cook and reheat. More often than not, they've been "marked" on a hot grill to give the food a chic restaurant look. Then the cooking process is completed over the sterno.

Imagine the value of a chef who can finish off, say, 30 whole beef tenderloins to perfect medium-rare doneness at exactly the right moment to serve a hall full of wedding guests? The thought is almost frightening, yet this time of year it's done all the time.
Now we cater our own dinner parties at home. Meaning, no crazy chefs running around trying to cook a la minute, scaring the guests. We have the meal cooked ahead so we it can just warm in the oven while we enjoy a cocktail and gab with our friends.

The food for last night's event had been cooked and refrigerated in the kind of big aluminum chaffing containers shown in the picture above. But we didn't have any proofing boxes at the school where we were serving dinner. Our heat source was the school's stove and range top.

How then to get all this food hot enough to serve at the moment our parents were ready to eat?

That's where my wife, the catering chef, comes in.

The method we used was to separate some of the denser and colder items, such as the sausages and the potatoes, into separate containers. I had not taken any chances with the pork sausages. They were already cooked through, but they were really cold after being in the fridge overnight.

My wife placed two containers of sausages in the oven, set at 350 degrees. She put one container of potatoes, dressed with some butter, in a small warming compartment on the side of the oven. That left containers of sauerkraut, carrots and more potatoes to heat. We accomplished that on the range top, setting the aluminums over four burners plus a full-sized griddle.

You just keep a close eye on the food on top of the range, stirring often to make sure nothing burns.

When the time came to serve, we had an assembly line ready at our food prep tables. The kids lined up to take plates of food and deliver them to their parents. Within a few short minutes, everyone was eating.

And if you listen closely, you can hear the sighs and the moans over our delicious food.

"My son won't eat the Kielbasa I make at home," said the school nurse. "But he came home this week and said he'd eaten the best Kielbasa ever."

You'd be surprised what kids will eat when they make it themselves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hmmm. Sounds great. My daughter loved cooking in her advanced foods class, too! She learned she really could have control in the kitchen! Now she helps more often to prepare meals. Too bad she's leaving for college! I'm cooking kielbasa for her grad. party, but I'm not sure if I should cook it ahead or just heat it on the sternos