Tasmania does get cold, let’s be honest. So entertaining at Olive’s Cottage in winter has to be done inside where there is limited seating and the cooking is done just a metre or two away from the dining table.
Recently we had a dinner party for four of our family members on a Saturday night in July. At one stage, during the afternoon when the piping under the kitchen sink gave way, we thought we would have to call it off. However, we managed to get through that and the other challenges we encountered and served up the feast we had promised our guests.
The challenges of any dinner party
Dinner parties seem to be a lot rarer these days. This is despite the strong interest people now generally have in cooking: note the continuing publication of cookbooks, the proliferation of cooking programs on TV, the terrific range of restaurants Australians have access to and the availability of excellent produce and supplies. Mention food to anyone and you are likely to soon hear about their recent cooking and dining highlights. One clear fact is that many Australians now tend to be very competent cooks: most of us can throw together something that is at least thoroughly tasty and enjoyable, even if not starred-restaurant quality.
So I would hypothesise that today, when they are in their homes, Australians are cooking better and more interesting food than ever before. However, it seems this is for themselves and the immediate family rather than a special meal for others.
We fully understand why: dinner parties are challenging! They can also be time consuming and expensive. Time is taken in planning the menu, shopping, preparation, cooking, laying the table, serving and then cleaning up afterwards.
And that cleaning up can last a couple of days: just think of six of you, each with a Champagne glass, a water glass and at least one wine glass, plus a coffee or tea cup and you have, along with everything else, at least two dozen dirty drinking vessels awaiting your attention.
The two of us are fortunate in that we both love cooking and that we love sharing with others. We put effort into planning to ensure the ‘dinner party’ or get-together will go smoothly, that most of the work is out of the way before guests arrive, that costs are under control and that cleaning up will be minimised, even if not minimal.
Our recent six days staying at Olive’s Cottage was, for various reasons, our first visit for several months. For a long time we had wanted to repay our two builder nephews and their wives for their efforts in keeping the cottage motoring along maintenance-wise since they renovated the property for us over a dozen years ago. We promised them a special dinner with some of the dishes based on our recent trip to South America.
Following is a summary of what we ate and how we coped that Saturday.
The kitchen and dining room
For the warmer half of the year we can normally eat on the big barbecue table in the garden or on the main deck. In winter, though, there is no alternative but to eat inside.
Neither the kitchen nor the ‘dining room’ at Olive’s Cottage are large, but they are both very functional. In the kitchen we can easily have two or three working; when my sisters visit we might have five or six. We can fit four comfortably around the table; that night there would be six of us but we would squeeze in OK.
There is a stove top, oven and microwave in the kitchen and an electric barbecue just outside on the main deck. The kitchen is well enough stocked with utensils and crockery and we have a selected stash of dried herbs and spices and other basics available for guests. We also have a storeroom/office which is not accessible to guests where we keep further supplies and have another refrigerator.
The real hiccup during the afternoon was when the outlet pipes under the kitchen sink disconnected and any water that went into the sink and dishwasher poured onto the shelves and over the floor. One of our nephews was up within ten minutes and had it all fixed within three: he would return with the others at 6.30 that evening.
We lost a good hour or so and that meant some strategic decision making as the arrival time approached.
Launceston has an excellent choice of options for shopping for ingredients. Apart from the major supermarket chains, there are several top quality delicatessens, butchers, greengrocers and specialty outlets. We have referred to some of our favourite places to shop in other blog posts: see Sponsors. Some of the produce available is superb and rare.
In particular, we always have to make a salad using products from York Town Organics, especially their micro greens.
Thus on the Friday and then the Saturday morning we were able to pick up all we required. We already had a stock of wine at the cottage. The shopping was made so much easier by having thought about the menu a week or two before flying out of Melbourne.
The menu, preparation and the meal itself
Some of the dishes were Latin American style while others were based around some recent finds and others around the lovely ingredients available to us in Launceston.
We were served this dish at Torres Del Paine in Patagonia. So easy, but beautiful, light and refreshing. (Recipe to follow in a later blog.) We started with this dish as it was the only one we would plate, and we could have it ready before guests arrived. It solved another problem too in that we only had six large plates, and we would end up using them right up to the main course.
No-Knead Bread and Accompaniments:
After the zucchini, given our recent experimentation, we just had to follow with a loaf of Matt Preston’s no-knead bread. We made one using 500g of flour and cooked it in a loaf tin, sprinkling the dough with polenta. The bread would be a major part of the meal, served straight from the oven, with various accompaniments.
To go with the bread:
- Shanklish style salad made from crushed feta with onions and tomato
- Homemade pork rillettes
- Roasted seed dukkah
- Tassie soft cheese with infused truffle
- Small tin of imported French foie gras d’oie
- Tasmanian butter
Everyone loved the bread; the loaf was demolished, smothered by the accompaniments. We will post the recipes for some of the accompanying items in later blog posts.
There is the risk that people fill up early in the meal. Hence, we had planned that the dishes following the bread would be light and the serves would not be large.
White Fish Ceviche:
For the next course we made a small serving of ceviche, a dish so widely available in South America. We used the recipe we obtained from Magill Estate.
A major problem was finding sashimi quality seafood on a Saturday in Launceston; we needed seafood that was so fresh we would happily eat it raw. The scallop season had not yet begun but we managed to find a small selection of seafood, including mussels, that gave quite a good result.
Salad of York Town Micro Leaves:
We like to serve a salad as a separate course before the main course. People love them at that stage of the meal but leave them behind if served with, or after, the main course.
Using York Town greens we made a salad tossed in olive oil, adding some artisan hazelnut oil from Donzy, France. We garnished it with local goat cheese and local walnuts browned in butter.
The following photo is not of York Town produce; the hazelnut oil is what we used, however.
Duck Breast with Barbecued Vegetables and Chimichurri:
Minimising the amount of time spent cooking while the guests were there was important. Thus, the main course either had to be largely prepared beforehand or easy to finish off.
We allowed one duck breast per person and scored and salted them before the guests arrived. When required we were able to barbecue them quickly and successfully on the electric barbecue outside on the deck. For the method see Barbecued Duck Breasts.
Our original intention was to serve the duck with a selection of burnt vegetables as inspired by the famous South American chef, Francis Mallmann, and charred brassicas as inspired by the Launceston restaurant, Geronimo. However, they proved too time consuming given the plumbing problem. Thus we resorted to flashing them on the electric barbecue: shaved fennel, cauliflower and broccolini, leeks slit lengthwise and corn cobs (the kernels carved off later). We roasted tomato halves in the oven. The following photo is of charred brassicas from an earlier blog post.
Earlier we had made the base for some chimichurri, the parsley and herb based sauce that is served everywhere in Argentina. We added the hot water just at serving time so the sauce was not cold. It matched the duck breast and vegetables surprisingly well.
Dulce De Leche Deluxe with Poached Quinces and Cream:
The obvious dessert was one using dulce de leche. The deluxe cake is rich and fudgy and best made well ahead of time.
Quinces would be perfect with the cake. There is a quince tree in the cottage garden but there would be none on the tree in early July.
Our hope was to find some in Launceston but our luck was in as we found some organic ones waiting for us on the shelves of the Windermere Cafe when we stopped in on the way to the cottage. Rather than poach them whole, the day before, we segmented them and cooked them in a low oven for several hours for them to take on a burgundy colour. The cooking method used is similar to that for poached whole quinces (photo). We served the cake and quinces with Meander Valley Cream, one of the few thick creams available these days with a lovely rural flavour.
The summing up
No one had overeaten, with everyone being able to pace themselves at each course. We managed to give them some hints of South American cuisine and hints of other food we like to prepare.
They all helped out in some way: with last minute preparation, opening and pouring wine and washing up at stages throughout the evening. We had little cleaning up to do the next day, including just a handful of glasses!
We were pleased that most of what we had prepared was successful.
Everyone was happy: the meal started at 6.30 and the guests left after midnight!