Guinea Pigs

Recently I catered a very nice affair for 100.  It was advertised as the premiere of a documentary film about the camp I run, but it was really just an excuse for a bunch of camp alumnae and staff to get together in a setting that involved heels, dresses and wine rather than dirt, bears and disgusting red punch.

The night started with passed hors d’oeuvres — seared ahi on a bed of ginger and sesame-scented arugula atop a fried wonton with wasabi aioli and a roasted nori chip; Mediterranean couscous salad served inside a lemon peel cup; warm, savory French toast cubes stuffed with pesto, tomatoes and parmesan; and shrimp, red onion and fennel salad served on an artichoke leaf with feta cheese and oregano.  I wasn’t worried about the appetizers, because a) these were camp women who were used to being served saltine crackers and peanut butter, b) the servers were cute teenagers whom they’d never seen dressed in anything but filthy shorts and campfire smoke-scented sweatshirts, so the guests’ attention would be diverted from the food they were being served, and b) alcohol is forbidden at camp so I figured they’d be more interested in the Camp-Wine connection than in what they were actually eating.

However, dinner was another matter.  Guests were given the opportunity to choose one of three entrees when they purchased tickets to the event: cornish game hen, seasonal fish, or vegetarian.  I knew I could pull off 50 or 60 pomegranate glazed game hens, and I knew I wanted to do Milennium’s famous vegan beggars purses for the vegetarians.  But what of the fish?

Enter one more reason why it both rocks and stinks to be a camp director’s kid — not only did they act as servers for the affair (the “stinks” part, though I know they had a blast), they were also my guinea pigs when it came to deciding how exactly to serve fish to 40.  Adding to The List never entered my mind until after the tasting party began.

#13. Tilapia with Tomatoes, Fennel and Olives in Parchment

The tasting party in full swing

So one night a couple weeks before the big dinner, I fixed a dozen or so different combinations of fish in parchment, numbered each one, and set them out around the big dining room table.  Some had tilapia, some had mahi mahi; each was folded/tied/encased in parchment differently; each had a different combination or arrangement of vegetables (On top or below the fish? Shaved thin on the mandoline or chopped like salsa? Sauteed first or packed raw?), some had capers, some did not; some had sundried tomatoes, while some had roasted, sauteed or raw plum tomatoes; and each had a different sauce — a few varieties of beurre blanc, some with only lemon and olive oil, etc.  I knew what I liked, but since I also like vinegar — really really like vinegar — I tend to not trust myself when it comes to feeding sauces to the masses.  Plus, if people didn’t like it, I could always blame the kids (“It was their choice!”).

They started out tentatively, examining the outsides of the packets first to determine which looked the most edible and the least like a diaper (yes, one kid said one of my packets looked like a diaper…I cringe when I think of what those camp women would have done with that packet), making their notes and keeping their scores a secret.  Then they began tearing or cutting into each packet, scoring it on presentation and finally, finally they began tasting.  After every kid had scored every packet, they began ripping me to shreds as though this was an episode of Iron Chef or Chopped or something.  In the end, they all — count ’em, all four — overwhelmingly preferred packet number 6, making it not only onto the catered dinner menu, but also earning its placement at #13 on The List.

Coincidentally, #6 was the way I first envisioned the dish, before self-doubt and too-many-choices were added to the mix.  But as far as the kids are concerned, they chose the dish, not me.  I even overheard one chatting with a fellow server that night, taking credit for the fish dish.  I usually let the kids build their own packets when we do fish in parchment at home, but it’s nice to know I now have a standard List entry to fall back on when I don’t want eight extra hands (really, four extra loud voices) in the kitchen.  Find the fish in parchment recipe here.

The list currently sits at 13…

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3 thoughts on “Guinea Pigs

  1. I take issue with the idea the evenings hors d’oeuvres were throw-away. The leftover seared ahi was the cornerstone of my dinner that evening, during rest periods and after the 300 platings we did in an hour. The entire experience brought out the best foodie traits in our well-dressed backpackers.

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