Planning the menu for our gatherings is always an interesting puzzle. The recipes must require enough effort so that everyone can participate—which usually means plenty of vegetables to chop! But the preparation can't be so elaborate that we're overwhelmed. And the number of participants needs to be factored in... as do the tastes of the cooks (and the imagined tastes of the folks at the shelter). Plus, we need to take our limited oven/stove space into account. And then there's my own desire to experiment with new recipes. So it can all get a bit complicated!
For this meal, at Maria's prompting, I decided on lasagna as our main course. And knowing that this dish can be time-consuming to prepare, I made the rest of the menu simple:
Date: Sunday, March 7th (served at BFWC the next evening)
Host: Jenny Michael
Menu: sausage and wild mushroom lasagne with red pepper tomato sauce, caesar(ish) salad, garlic bread, milk chocolate pudding
Participants: BB Borowitz, Monica Eppinger, Bob Fagan, Larry Jensen, Maria Massolo, Dave Menninger, Jenny Michael, Deborah Pruitt, Pat Raburn, Rita Shuster. Many thanks to you all for your generous contributions of time and money to support this project. I love these days spent in your company!
Photos: Rita Shuster (whose fault it is that there are so many shots of me in this batch! :)
I returned to my old friend Epicurious for inspiration. One of my favorite kinds of lasagna is a wonderful vegetarian version with mushrooms and artichokes in a béchamel. But it's very rich, meatless, and—I thought—perhaps a bit too odd for the (imagined) tastes of the shelter residents. I wanted something more traditional for this meal. So again, I went with the raves and selected a recipe that had originally appeared in Gourmet: sausage and wild mushroom lasagne with red pepper tomato sauce. The reviewers did mention that it was pretty labor-intensive, but I figured we would have lots of hands to help out—and it sounded wonderful.
I'll not belabor the story: it was extremely labor-intensive (and also very delicious, I'm happy to report)! Preparing the sauces took several hours, even with everyone participating. And then the assembled dish took another hour to bake. We didn't eat till nearly 8 p.m. but, fortunately, the Oscars provided some distraction while we waited for dinner...
And, happily, the meal was worth the wait. At Cole's suggestion, we did not bake the casseroles destined for the shelter but sent them along uncooked—with baking instructions. So that solved the oven problem we'd experienced last time around.
So what did we learn from this experience? First, if you're going to choose a complicated recipe, it's best to read it through carefully in advance and then figure out the best way to organize the preparation. Had I planned this better, we would have made the béchamel while people were chopping the vegetables for the red sauce, instead of making it afterwards. That would have saved some time.
If you're going to make multiples of a recipe, (#2) double-check your math! I miscalculated how much cornstarch was needed for ten recipes of chocolate pudding and had to run out and buy another box, when it became clear that the pudding just wasn't going to thicken... Also, (#3) consult an experienced caterer (Cole! Michael!) about quantities, so that you don't end up with a vat of red sauce left over. I'm still not sure how that happened (see all the jars of leftover sauce in the photo, below!)—not that we couldn't figure out something to do with what remained...).
Finally (#4), cheese and red peppers and wild mushrooms and on-the-vine tomatoes (even from Costco) are expensive. Menus like this one should be scheduled only occasionally, so we don't break the bank. Veggie-focused meals are both healthier and more affordable.
Oh, and most important (#5), don't forget to be patient with the process, take a break now and then to sip some wine, and enjoy the company of your fellow cooks.