The last three months have seen monsoon rains, floods, roads washed away and tourism at a virtual standstill. I have been to the US, had the US visit me and slipped an engagement ring on the finger of Kathy, the woman I will spend the rest of my life with. I have finished, except for the final editing and a few add-ons, the cookbook from La Cusinga that I have been promising my guests for the last six months. I am six days from reaching the anniversary of my 3rd year of sobriety and like everyone else down here, I am ready for the change of season.
And maybe, just maybe, this past weekend was the indicator, the advance notice, that our change is in the air. I left home on Saturday afternoon with the knowledge that I had four for dinner. Ho-hum, another four. I had enough fish cut, soup made, a jar of "Salsa de la Jungla" and part of a dessert left from earlier in the week. I wasn't much inspired by it, but I knew I needed to use it all up. In these slow times, total utilization of product is essential, though occasionally uninspiring.
I pulled into the La Cusinga driveway and as I passed Cindy she told me we were up to six. No big deal, I still had enough to cover them. I changed and when I got back to the kitchen there was Cindy again tell me we were up to eight for dinner. And then I remembered to ask her if she was factoring in the two guests who had reserved through our front office in San Isidro; "visitantes" we call them. She said she hadn't been and suddenly we were up to ten. This sudden turn of events would require some rethinking. Olga, one of my nightly helpers had been given the evening off, so I was working solo in the kitchen.
My plan to use the fish was foiled. There simply wasn't enough to cover all and in order to keep myself organized and from becoming more confused than usual, I wanted to serve the same menu to each guest. If I were a staff of two or three or four I might go for doing a choice of entrees or perhaps even more, but simplicity and clarity are essential when flying solo.
I had received my weekly allotment of two (I said business had been slow) plump organic chickens from Finca Coreotos that morning so chicken it would be. I knew I had two legs remaining in the freezer (shhh) so would braise the six legs, roast the two breasts (they're huge and four will feed 5-6 people) and divide them up among the ten guests. I had roasted tomatoes earlier in the week and had chicken stock in the freezer so that part of the menu was set. Braised chicken in a roasted tomato-basil sauce over achiote rice was the entree.
I had half a flourless chocolate cake in the refrigerator from the previous night, but that would only feed six so as I was working alone, I went to my favorite default dessert, Mandarina Pound Cake. It comes together in about five minutes and bakes in 30, so hey, piece of cake (sorry). I always accompany it with Mountain Blackberry Ice Cream and I had plenty of that in the freezer. Now I was rockin'.
Olga, bless her heart, had cleaned the entire bag of braising greens that had arrived on Thursday so I was set for one of my two vegetables. I had both broccoli and cauliflower from that morning's Feria in the reach-in, but didn't want to be messing with any extra saute pans since I would be slicing chicken breasts for the plate. I love roasted cauliflower so decided to toss large florets of both the broccoli and the cauliflower in olive oil, sea salt and black pepper for roasting. They come out caramelized and delicious and better still, don't require "a la minute" cooking.
This was coming together nicely and I was quickly into the salad course. There were small heads of organic red and green leaf lettuces from Ademar's morning delivery and a bag of nice peppery arugula; those would be the base. I had small organic tomatoes from the San Isidro Thursday Feria ripening and they would be perfect with a drizzle of the pesto I had made the day before.
I had bought a disc of locally made goat cheese from the Mennonites and wanted to pair that with some organic cucumbers delivered on Thursday. I also had some fresh palmito, so I ended up cutting the cucumber and palmito in equal size quarter moons, mixed them with strips of roasted red pepper and a small dice of garlic greens and tossed them with balsamic vinegar, mandarina juice and olive oil. The goat cheese would get sprinkled over the top after all three components of the salad were on the plate. I was nearly there.
Soup; yes I would need soup for my traditional first course of a chilled soup and it would be perfect as a starter in our new found warm weather. I had taken a small container of roasted tomato/frijole tierno soup from the freezer and since I had both the roasted tomatoes and come cooked frijoles as well, I would be able to stretch it. I put the soup and a couple of spoons each of the beans and tomatoes in a tall container and put the stick blender to them. While I was pureeing the veggies, I added a squeeze of mandarina juice for acid and blended in a stream of olive oil as well for that added suaveness. A pinch of sea salt and it was ready.
And suddenly there was Cindy again. "David, es posible para dos mas para cenar?" Could we feed two more people? We'd be up to an even dozen. And then she said he magic words, "Ellos quieren pescado". The would like to have fish. I keep a secret stash of small filets of pargo in the deep freeze and a piece serving two would be ready in no time. "Seguro, seguro", I told her, "no hay problema". And twelve it would be.
The first thing about serving four courses to 12 people by oneself, with essentially three different entrees (as I had to slice the chicken breasts and serve them differently than the legs), is to be organized; the second is to remain calm. I do have a tendency to get a teensy bit excited when I'm busy and when that happens, organization suffers. Oops, there go both needs out the window. But fortunately, Saturday night, calmness and serenity won out over the hyper-frazzle.
Once the chicken legs were in the oven with their accompaniment of white wine, roasted tomatoes and garlic and a touch of stock I knew it was going to be all right.
Just before service I poured out the twelve soups (damn I love serving cold soup) and put them into the refrigerator; Cindy would pick them up and serve them just after the guest sat. The braised chicken legs had come out of the oven looking and smelling wonderful and the four breasts were roasting at a higher heat. Against all odds, our guests came in in a perfectly staggered way. I was able to feed them two by two by two by two and then four at the end. It couldn't have worked out any better.
The salads required a bit of work as the greens needed to be dressed and placed first; followed by the wedges of sea-salted olive oiled tomatoes and their drizzle of pesto at the top of the plate. Next was the mixed salad of cucumber, hearts of palm and roasted pepper which I placed in front of the dressed greens and a crumble of goat cheese went over all.
Dishing up the chicken legs was easy. The plate got the achiote rice in the center, a small pile of braised greens (best cooked in advance anyway) on one side and a couple of florets of the roasted broccoli and cauliflower on the other. I plopped (or placed artistically, depending on your viewpoint) on top of the rice, mixed a small handful of basil in with the rich tomato-wine sauce and poured it over the chicken and rice.
The two fish plates were quite easy as I roast them to order in 7-8 minutes. By the time I needed to slice the roasted chicken breasts everyone else had been served and I could concentrate on slicing and laying out the thick juicy slices of the breast. Again, the sauce got freshly cut basil added to it, was reheated and poured over the top. Damn this was a good looking plate! And now it was time for dessert.
I had already figured out who would get the chocolate cake and who would get mandarina pound cake and had pre-cut the cakes. The plate-up was easy and the ice creams even cooperated by balancing on top of the cake. Yes. The real reward to watch as each and every plate came back nearly scraped (or licked?) clean. Yes, calmness, organization (and serenity) had won out. And better yet, it appeared that the rainy season doldrums were on their way out and we were heading into the fat part of our year; finally, a change of season. Here comes the sun...