FEBRUARY 28, 2011

Last week I woke up panicked that I forgot the short ribs.  Or I forgot the oysters.  Or I forgot the dinner entirely.  Luckily those were only nightmares and not reality.  This past Saturday night was the second time that I have catered a four-course dinner for eight people as an auction item at our Cal Aquatics Gala.  Fortunately none of these nightmares came true and the dinner went smoothly without any major hitches. 

Our California Aquatics Gala is a formal dinner event that serves as a fundraiser for the four aquatics programs at Cal: Women’s Swimming & Diving, Men’s Swimming & Diving, Women’s Waterpolo & Men’s Waterpolo.  Financing these teams was always important, but it has become increasingly important over the last few years with the California State budget crisis.  Sports are being cut at many schools across the country (not only in California) and we want to ensure that that never happens with the aquatics programs at Cal. We started hosting the Gala back in 2005 and it has continued to be bigger and better every year.  I’ve donated either swimming clinics or a catered dinner each year. 

MenuThe first time I hosted the dinner for eight people was back in 2005. I still remember most of the menu: citrusy roasted butternut squash soup, warmed herbed goat cheese over frisee salad and a Frenched stuffed pork loin with apricots, nuts and liquor...  I’m like Rainman in my recall of food.  Although I did very well in school, I wish this photographic memory of mine kicked in for things other than epicurean endeavors. I’m sure I made some sort of dessert, but I honestly cannot recall what it was.  Sweets have never really been my thing.  When pressed to make a dessert I can definitely do it, but I’m much more of a savory girl.   

The 2005 dinner went quite well and I had the help of two of my best friends and Cal swimmers, Emma Palsson and Marcelle Miller.  Since that dinner however, I’ve seriously stepped up my game.  I started cooking on a constant basis back in 2001 and my skills have dramatically improved since my first escapades in the kitchen.  Of course that meant that I put an exponentially greater amount of pressure on myself to make a perfect dinner this time around.  The competitiveness that I have in the pool finds ways of seeping into other arenas in my life, no matter what I do to stop it.  It’s in my DNA. 

Being the perfectionist that I am, I prepped and prepped and prepped some more for this dinner.  I set a date last December with the family that won the auction bid.  Since then I’ve been dreaming up various menus, which I tested out on my family and friends.  My husband is one of the most enthusiastic taste testers and loves this process!  I finally settled on the menu two weeks ago and went to work.  Every item was made entirely from scratch whether it was the beef stock that eventually was used to braise the short ribs, the ricotta cheese to top the salad, the Meyer lemon granita to dress up the oysters, et cetera.  The only item that I did not make from scratch was the pappardelle and that was only because my Kitchen Aide pasta attachment is currently getting fixed.  Of course it jammed on me two weeks ago!  (Luckily this was the only hitch in the whole process of the dinner.)  Various items came from my garden and the rest from markets or the sources themselves. 

At this year’s dinner I once again had the help of my good friend Marcelle Miller, who served as my sous chef for the night.  Because of all the preparation that I did throughout last week, the only things that I had to cook at the auction winners’ home were the mushroom sauce for the stroganoff and the walnut bacon vinaigrette for the salad.  Everything else was already prepped and ready to go; I just needed to assemble it and put the finishing touches on it at their home.  Although all the food turned out very well, I must say that I was most proud of the crème fraiche and buttermilk panna cotta.  Considering that I don’t ever make dessert and am not a sweets girl, I really impressed myself with that dish.  Delicious!

I know that I don’t have the technical skill of a trained chef but I am a pretty darn good home cook.  Of course I know they weren’t expecting Thomas Keller or Ferran Adria’s level of food, but I wanted to give our generous donors the best possible meal that I could cook for them.  What those guys do in the kitchen is impressive beyond words and unbelievably demanding.  I have a passion for cooking for friends and family, but don’t have any aspirations of becoming a true chef.  Donating a dinner allows me to reach out to Cal donors that wouldn’t otherwise bid on a swimming stroke clinic.  There are plenty of former swimmers out there that no longer swim, but want to give back to the aquatics programs.

I took some video clips of the preparation that I did prior to the dinner.  There was plenty more preparation that went into this dinner, but these clips are just some of the highlights.  (I would have included pictures and videos of the dinner itself, but I didn’t want to invade the privacy of our generous donors.)

Now that the dinner is behind me I can take a breath of relief that it went well and get back to cooking food that I eat myself… much more my style!