Saturday 2 April 2011

Couscous and Kids: A (Long) Cautionary Tale

First and foremost, we must differentiate between "couscous", a small grain of semolina, popular in North African cooking, and "goose-goose-your-caboose" which is a game that I play with my kids, and is pretty self-explanatory. Both elicit giggles.

"Eat your couscous," I said. And Vaughn shrieked, "No Goose-Goose-Caboose!" and laughed and laughed. Couscous is a funny word, I suppose.


We had a date night set up for last night. I was very excited, of course, and called to book the babysitter. To make a really long story slightly shorter (and to edit out anything that might reflect poorly on me or my attractiveness as an employer to future babysitters), I came up empty-handed.

So, I emailed the other couple and told them that I would host instead! (After all, what better way to celebrate a night out than to stay in, with one's children, and try to host a dinner party?)

Chatelaine (which frankly I haven't put much trust in since the Infamous Mojito Pork Incident) published an article titled, Home at 6, Party at 7. Well, it claimed that you could put together a show-stopping three-course meal (plus signature cocktail) in under an hour.

You're on, Chatelaine!

Before starting, I envisioned the letter that I would write:

Dear Chatelaine,

I can't believe it! Pressed for time, and needing to impress, I attempted your Home at 6 menu, and was so happy that I did! The guests were blown away, my husband was over the moon, and I was calm, collected, and a radiant hostess, for the first time ever. Thank you, Chatelaine!

And then I pictured the next letter I would write:

Dear Chatelaine,

I just tore up the glowing letter I wrote you before my dinner party, then coated the bits of paper with cooking sherry and set them alight, causing my smoke alarm to go off for the eighth time tonight. Etc.

The actual result was somewhere in between, which was a pleasant surprise for everyone.

The kids eat at 6, and it was bath night, so the plan was to bathe them right after dinner, PJ them promptly, and allow them to play till 7:30. Our illustrious guests were due to arrive at 7 (thus exposing them to only 30 minutes of the Vaughn Show) and eat at 8. What could possibly go wrong?

Since I am aware of my limitations as a home chef, and also familiar with Murphy's Law, I decided to do as much prep work before the guests arrived as possible. So, I had all my little prep bowls (thanks, Mom!) filled with minced garlic, diced onion, measured spices, etc, and the dessert fully prepared by 5:30. The dessert, you ask? Ginger-Berry Cookies and Cream, a mixture of fresh raspberries and blueberries, ginger, and maple syrup, layered with maple whipped cream and crumbled ginger wafers (they're waffer thin!). Oh, yes, and a splash of the afore-mentioned cooking sherry to amp up the flavour (and fortify the chef). So that part was done.

After bathing two squirmy and slippery little kidlets, they were pyjammified and set to play, and I started the Green Pea & White Bean soup. I preheated the broiler, threw the relevent prep bowls into the saucepan, rinsed the beans, measured the peas, and opened the chicken broth, and set it all to boil. At about 7:35 (can you believe it? Although our guests showed up about 20 minutes past 7, I was able to wrangle the Hufflings to bed and start the gametime work right on schedule!), I puréed it with my handy-blender, and moved it to a warm burner on the back of the stove.

Two courses, done! Go me!

So, at 7:38, I got started on the Dijon-Crusted Flank Steak. I made my shallow cuts in a diamond pattern(ish), smeared on the contents of yet another prep bowl, and let it sit for 10 minutes. I then boiled the water for the Toasted Tarragon Couscous*, added another prep bowl of stuff, toasted my couscous (odd step, one which I felt very sure I was burning instead of toasting, but it tasted ok, I suppose) (also, "toasted my couscous" sounds sort of naughty, doesn't it?), added the boiling water mixture, covered it, and threw my flank steak under the broiler. After five minutes, I mixed a lot of baby arugula in with the couscous, took my pancetta rounds, which in this case were genoa salami rounds, put them on another sheet, and added them to the oven, too.

Let me just pause for a moment to note that the smoke alarm goes off in my house frequently. Frequently, as in every time that I use the oven, at least once. Ailsa used to cry (as did Vaughn, when he was very young), but she's learned that it's funny (Mommy covers her ears and yells, "Very Loud Noises!"**) and also that dinner is probably almost ready.

So, when it went off for the third time, it was 8 pm on the dot, the steak was pulled out to rest, and the soup was in the bowls, with the little genoa boat afloat, filled with cheese from a goat! (Yes, I gloat.)

We even matched it with a white wine, a 2010 Silver Point Sauvignon Blanc. In (wait for it) WHITE WINE GLASSES.


By the time we finished our soup course (it was light and fresh-tasting, and most of the diners praised it) (kaff Test Pig#1 did not kaff), we discovered that the flank steak was, well, sort of really, really rare, and also pretty cold. We plated it anyway (because Fis said I wasn't allowed to toss it in the microwave), piled on the couscous, and sat down again with a 2009 Stump Jump GSM. In (wait for it) RED WINE GLASSES.

Tadah, again! Just for that, anyone would consider a dinner stellar, non?

Anyhoo, despite its...ok, I'll say it, rawness (and short marinating time) (oops), the flank steak was pretty good. And paired with a bite of couscous and arugula, almost gourmet. A bite of couscous by itself, though, was decidedly less impressive (as noted, in detail, by TP#1). Oh well.

We finished up with some cupcakes (from our guests - yum!) and, after half a heated game of Women vs Men Cranium, the dessert (which 'twas but a trifle) was a medium hit. It could have used some more texture, such as adding the cookies at the very last minute.

So what does this have to do with kids?

Well, the lucky little Test Piglets got to sample the entire menu tonight for dinner!

Vaughn took a sip of the soup. "Do you like it?" I asked. "No," he said.

He did "ok" with the steak (usually the kid bellows "Steeeeaaaak!"), and, well, only a fool would give a toy like couscous to a 2-year-old or his baby sister. Couscous apparently looks like sand, and is fun to pile, but not to eat. I've never seen Ailsa turn away from any food (including the soup course), but she turned away and spat out the grains while giving me an infuriated what-do-you-think-you're-doing/I'll-toast-YOUR-couscous look.

The cautionary bit is more of a Public Service Announcement about how much couscous it takes to fill a whole dining room:

1 teaspoon.

* Tell you what: I'll share my awesomeness. Article and recipes are here.
** Anyone? Anyone? Oh, fine.

1 comment:

Druncle Ryan said...

'Very Loud Noises!', huh?

I raise you one, 'I love lamp'.

And a spoonful of mayo in the toaster.

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