How to cook for 28 people

Here was the challenge. What began as a small celebratory family dinner for nine grew into a large extended family for 28. It would have been 32, but one family of four couldn’t make it. Not at my house, but at the home of part of the extended family, because they had more room. So far, so good. The challenge had to be taken seriously when I realised that on the day of the dinner, I was to spend the day at Mitchelton winery. It was a visit that had been arranged some time in advance, the idea being to get in before vintage, and if it were to be re-scheduled, it would be weeks later, after vintage.

Could it be done? Of course. Difficult is never a reason to say no.

It was all about planning. I decided to make things a bit easier. We would start with platters of smoked salmon (Tassal’s Regatta Point, available in-store at the Kew shop www.tassal.com.au ), pickled cucumbers, and some dips that I knew everyone liked.

Then we would have herbed roast chickens, warm potato salads, and ratatouille, with green salads. For those who did not eat meat, we cooked a double side of salmon on the Webber, well wrapped in foil. Yes, in theory that meant there were two salmon courses for those who did not eat meat, but we had to make some compromises.

Of course there was dessert. There were platters of fresh peaches and grapes, along with creme caramel, and flourless orange cakes to finish.

I cooked the flourless orange cakes two days in advance. I made the ratatouille two days in advance. I made the creme caramel the night before. All those were taken around the night before and stored in the refrigerators, along with the fruit and salads and so on.. Lots of serving dishes and platters, too, because we were going to put platters and bowls on the tables so the all guests could help themselves.

On the day of the dinner, I prepared the chickens and trussed them, and took them around to the other house first thing in the morning (back in good time to head off to Mitchelton). The request I made was that the chickens be taken out of the refrigerator at 4pm, and the oven turned on, so that when I arrived the birds could go straight into the oven.

I arrived at about 4.15. The chickens went into the oven, basted liberally with sparkling wine. While they were cooking, I washed the lettuces. I chopped herbs.Then I peeled the potatoes (lots of them), cut them into large cubes, and cooked them in three different pots so they cooked more evenly. I made a simple vinaigrette. I also made a simple sauce for the salmon: grated fresh ginger, some mirin and cider vinegar, and soy sauce, and chopped spring onions for garnish.  In the meantime, the others were setting the tables.

For warm potato salad, I simply drained the potatoes when they were cooked, and added a good amount of wine vinegar. shaking the potatoes well. When they had cooled very slightly, I added EVOO, salt, pepper, and handfuls of mixed chopped herbs (parsley, dill, chives), turned them gently. The potato salads were served at room temperature.

That took about two hours. At around this point, someone offered me a whisky (Glenlivet, and very welcome).

The chickens came out of the oven so they could rest.

Then it was a matter of arranging everything on platters, ready to go on to the table. And cut up the chickens, each into eight pieces. Guests had started to arrive sometime around 6.30. By 7, I was ready to leave the kitchen and greet everyone. Hot, yes, distracted, a liitle. But the party had started.

It was one of those excellent nights when strangers go on splendidly, and everyone spoke to everyone else. Good will, good food, good wine all around. And someone employed to do all the dishes. Magic.

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