Call me crazy, but I love cooking big complicated meals for large groups of people. (Which is probably why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.)
So I was more than happy to abandon my normal daily routine yesterday and spend the day in the kitchen, prepping, pounding, peppering and pan-frying for a group of friends and colleagues from the hubs’ office.
Want to know my secret for keeping the kitchen stress-free? Post-it notes.
Laugh at me if you want, but it works. This is my go-to method for managing multiple recipes at once. I call it Critical Path Cooking.
Back in my cubicle days, I worked in litigation consulting and we occasionally dealt with construction disputes wherein the parties were essentially fighting over what went wrong when (and of course whose should pay for it). Analyzing such situations required a form of Critical Path Analysis: basically, the dissection of a project in to its most basic tasks and arrangement of those tasks relative to their duration and dependence on one another.
In other words: you can’t carve the Turkey until it’s done roasting. And roasting a Turkey takes a while.
Whenever I undertake a complicated cooking project, I make a mini critical path on post-its and arrange it right in the middle of my counter. (I prep stuff right on top of it!) Here are the basic steps to Critical Path Cooking:
1) First, I go through all of my recipes in detail and write each major task on its own post it note. I also include measurements and cooking times and temperatures, which saves me from revisiting the recipe over and over again. For example: “Chop shallots for sauce (1/4 C)” or “Bake tartlets (25 min, 375*).”
2) Then, I lay out each recipe’s tasks in order across the counter, horizontally.
3) And then I rearrange the tasks in to an work plan that makes sense, making sure to keep the dependencies of each individual recipe in proper order – for example, the broth needs to be reduced before it can go in to the sauce, so those two must stay in that order.
4) Horizontal orientation = chronological. Vertical orientation = simultaneous. So I might have a vertical “stack” of three tasks that can happen more or less at once: for example, “Boil Water,” “Chop Onions,” “Thaw Puff Pastry.” Note that these tasks could be from three different recipes.
5) Some things to keep in mind:
- Tasks that create something that can be made ahead and sit for a while should go toward the beginning.
- Tasks that create something that should be served immediately go toward the end.
- Pay attention to time-intensive tasks and schedule them appropriately. One thing that I love about organizing my cooking this way is that it forces me to pay attention to potentially catastrophic details that are often buried in recipes: “Shit, that sauce has to simmer for an hour? But dinner’s in fifteen minutes!”
- Manage your burners and your oven. Looking at my post-its, I can actually visualize what’s going to be cooking where, and when. No more standing there with a pan full of something that needs to be simmered and four occupied burners. And the efficiency! Thing A cooks at 350*, then the temp goes up to 400* and Thing B goes straight in. Saves a lot of pre-heating and re-heating.
A few more of the benefits to Critical Path Cooking:
– It’s great for cooking with others. It is far more efficient to divide or delegate discrete tasks across multiple recipes, rather than just saying, “Oh, you make the chicken and I’ll make the potatoes.” With Critical Path Cooking, everyone is on the same page. No more competing for burners or oven space. You can even have people initial the post-it note when “claiming” a task. (I’m a nerd, I know!)
– It’s far more efficient when cooking alone, too. Have a few minutes to kill while waiting for that butter to melt? Take a look at your array of post-its and pick off something quick and easy.
– It’s highly satisfying to cross off those notes. And it really helps me keep a sense of my own progress as the day wears on.
– It’s flexible. Unlike a to-do list or written recipe or work plan, you can move the notes around. I do this often, tweaking things as I go, often realizing that there’s a better way of doing things.
– It’s kind of fun. Seriously. I mean, we’ve established that I’m a giant dork, but it really is rather enjoyable to sit down with my cup of coffee at the outset of a big cooking project and lay all of this stuff out.
Here’s last night’s menu:
Appetizer: Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Tartlets (via Food Network) [recipe]
Salad: Blood orange, shaved fennel and prosciutto over mixed greens with orange vinaigrette
Dessert: Cake Pops – yellow cake with chocolate and fudge brownie with blue vanilla. (I know these are allllll over the interwebs but they are still so fun and pretty – I used this tutorial from The Kitchn as my guide)
No photos of dinner, because I think it’s kind of weird to whip out your camera when you’re entertaining. But I did get some pics of cake pops:
In the middle of all of that crazy cooking, I managed to get out for an easy 7.5-mile run. My feet were aching from running around the kitchen all day!
Happy Wednesday! My nose will be firmly planted on the grindstone this afternoon, in a feeble attempt to make up for playing with food all day yesterday.