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Getting a Meal on the Table on Time

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Whether we live in a family unit, share a flat with others, or even occupy a corridor in a student hall of residence, most people would agree that a communal meal is an enjoyable way to spend time together, and has many other advantages. Cooking a larger quantity is inevitably more economical than cooking many individual portions, and it is a chance to demonstrate your favourite recipes, or to try out other people's cooking. This needs some organisation, however, and one of the main aims should be to have everything ready at the agreed time, so that participants can plan their day and will see the communal lunch, dinner, breakfast or tea as a welcome break, rather than coming to the table frustrated because they have had to interrupt whatever they were doing at the whim of the cook.

The following tips apply, of course, just as much if you are cooking for invited guests.

The main idea is that everyone comes to the table at the appointed time, the food is ready, the cook is not flustered, red in the face or full of apologies, and the kitchen is not too untidy, with nothing but a small pile of washing up ready to be seen to afterwards. Other laudable aims when preparing food are: saving energy, saving money and minimising waste.

Here are some thoughts on organising such an event.

Work Backwards

Once a sit-down time and the menu have been agreed upon and everybody is informed, take five minutes to note down roughly the jobs that will need doing. The job that will take the longest should obviously be started first. Then work out which is the second longest, and so on. Some tasks are subject to being done in a certain order - you can't boil vegetables until they're peeled and chopped, for example! This should give an idea of how long the preparation will take, and you can now work out what time you should start rolling your sleeves up. Add five to ten minutes to allow for contingencies, such as spillages, phone calls, or food taking longer to cook than anticipated.

Unless the meal involves something that will take several hours in the slow cooker, or a large roast which may take a couple of hours in the oven, such as Roast Suckling Pig1, start by making the dessert. If this is to be served cold, it can sit in the fridge until the main course is cleared away, and conjured up with no further hassle.

However, even before you start preparing the dessert, lay the table. This may sound like a 1950s housewife sort of thing to do, but it can be annoying having to shove books, newspapers or other odds and ends off the table with your elbow when you arrive with a steaming dish of delicious soup or stew, only then to watch the food cool down while you start to collect together knives, forks and plates and lay the table. Also, you will signal to the other eaters that the table is now not to be used for other purposes and dinner is seriously on its way.

An example for such a time schedule:

A roast and two veg, followed by apple crumble and custard, to be on the table at 1.00pm:
  • 11.00am - Switch on oven. Lay table, put water on to boil for potatoes.
  • 11.15am - Meat in oven along with a tray of fat to take the potatoes. Peel potatoes.
  • 11.25am - Potatoes on to boil. Chop apples, make crumble topping, grease dish for crumble, layer the apples and crumble ready to cook.
  • 11.35am - Drain potatoes and transfer them to the oven. Wash, peel and chop vegetables.
  • 11.45am - Check that drinks are ready in fridge, turn the potatoes, do any interim washing up or other odd jobs. Get some fresh air!
  • 12.15pm - Put serving dishes to warm.
  • 12.30pm - Put crumble into oven, make gravy, put water on to boil for vegetables.
  • 12.35pm - Vegetables on to boil. Make custard.
  • 12.50pm - Take the roast and potatoes out of the oven. Switch off oven, leaving crumble in to keep warm until needed. Drain vegetables and serve them up, along with the gravy.
  • 1.00pm - Carve and serve the roast.

For a very detailed example, see our Entry on Roast Pheasant.

Now that you have written your list, laid the table, and checked you have all the ingredients and implements required, wash your hands and off you go!

But not all meals are as simple as that, and sometimes things take longer than you expect. How can we prepare for delays, and how can we save time to counteract them?

Beware of Recipes!

If you are following a recipe to impress your family/guests/friends with, or simply because you're not sure of a part of the procedure, be sure to read the recipe right through before you start. Again - an unnecessary precaution? There could well be time traps hidden in the text. Possibly even among the delicious recipes here on H2G2.

  • The recipe might claim to be 'Ready in ten minutes', but the author may have cheated, and included several items in the ingredients which involve pre-preparation, such as '2lbs potatoes, washed, peeled and diced', or '4 egg whites, beaten'. The chopping, peeling, slicing, dicing, grating, egg-separating, washing and beating will all have to be added on to those ten minutes!

  • Check for surreptitious lines such as 'soak overnight' (may be stated in the ingredients, but is more likely to be hidden in the instructions) or 'marinate for 2 hours'.

  • Anything involving gelatine will need at least two hours to set before serving.

  • Some dishes - particularly desserts - will need cooling down or even freezing before they are ready. Cooling won't take long, but freezing will take a few hours, preferably overnight.

  • Some cooking times sound short, but they might involve a gadget you don't have, such as a pressure cooker or microwave oven. Many cooking times will need to be extended anyway, depending upon your oven.

  • Some recipes will require 'reducing' - boiling the liquid down in an open pan to a much thicker consistency. This can take some time, and will produce lots of steam, giving you a flustered, sweaty look into the bargain.

  • Things can go wrong: cream or eggs can curdle or separate, and you may have to start whisking or cooking them again. Check the recipe for anything that requires a bain-marie2 or asks you to stir something with eggs in it over a low heat.

  • Your cookery book, or your butcher, will tell you how long to roast a joint of meat, but don't forget it needs to stand outside of the oven for five to ten minutes once it's cooked. Carving will be much neater and easier, and the meat will look and taste slightly better once it has had this rest.

Time-savers and Corner-cutters

Even if you have allowed for a few setbacks and included a ten-minute buffer in your time schedule, it is useful to have a few ideas to hand which will save you some time. Let's deal with the cases mentioned above first:

  • Accept offers of help3. That chopping, washing, grating and beating can be done by anyone who pokes their nose round the kitchen door. Give clear instructions and provide all the tools for the job, as well as receptacles for the finished product.

  • Buy the ingredients ready peeled and chopped. There's nothing wrong with reverting to a packet of frozen vegetables, or even a tin.

  • Using vegetables from a tin will also reduce the cooking time, and with pulses, such as chickpeas or kidney beans, it will cut out the 'soaking overnight' all together.

  • You don't have to marinate for as long as the recipe says. As long as you pour plenty of the marinade over the dish whilst it's cooking, and use some more to serve it up, the taste will still be there.

  • As a quicker alternative to gelatine in some desserts which involve heated or boiling milk, you can thicken these with cornflour. Just stir a teaspoon or two into a small amount of water, add some of the liquid, then tip the cornflour mix back into the liquid which is to be thickened, stirring vigorously. Continue cooking for a minute or so, then leave to cool.

  • If you're making a pudding which needs to set and keep its shape, but only consists of cold ingredients, adding melted butter or chocolate or stiffly whipped cream will give it shape in a shorter time than gelatine, provided it is well chilled.

  • If you see that a gravy or jus4 is going to have to be reduced, be more sparing with the liquid in the first place. Add it a little at a time.

  • To cool down the contents of a saucepan or bowl quickly - this is particularly necessary if you're going to add whisked egg whites - half-fill the washing up bowl, or a larger saucepan with cold water and ice cubes if available, and plunge the saucepan or bowl into it. Stir well. If your saucepans have a bi-metal bottom (a very thick bottom, possibly with a layer of copper visible from the side) they may not react favourably to this treatment - if you think this may apply to your saucepans, pour the contents into a plastic bowl and place this in the cold water, leaving your saucepan to cool down at room temperature.

  • Mention of a bain-marie indicates the need for careful treatment of the food, and while it's not absolutely necessary if you have a hob which does low temperatures, you mustn't take your eyes off the food for a minute. Keep stirring the egg mixture and don't let the temperature get too hot.

And here are some more general suggestions:

  • Cook or bake smaller portions. Boiling half a potato takes less time than boiling a whole one. Baking a roll takes less time than baking a loaf. Be prepared to change your plans!

  • If you do have a pressure cooker or a microwave, use them to cut corners for boiling milk (microwave), cooking vegetables (pressure cooker or microwave), or a dozen other jobs. Butter can be softened in seconds in the microwave, making it much quicker to work with.

  • Use a disposable piping bag for filling canelloni, making meatballs, distributing cream on the top of cakes, trifles, etc.

  • Avoid crossing the kitchen repeatedly - collect scraps and garbage on a sheet of newspaper where you are working and drop it all in the bin in one go when you've finished.

  • Work out a logical order for using the chopping board, starting with the least messy item and finishing with the messiest, so you don't have to keep cleaning it between jobs, but remember to avoid cross-contamination between raw meat and other food.

  • Empty the dishwasher and the sink before you start, so that you can put used utensils straight out of the way. This will preserve your sanity and save a huge clear-up just as the appointed mealtime looms, or, worse still, afterwards. You're saving time by only picking up the item and putting it down once.

  • Don't put water on to boil in an open saucepan. Even if you are going to leave the lid off later on, boil the water up with the lid on, or use the electric kettle.

  • If an ingredient needs peeling and chopping, do all the peeling in one go, then all the chopping - especially if you are using different tools for the two jobs.

  • Keep your knives sharp. Use a good quality metal grater. It means less hassle when cutting/chopping/grating and gives a more pleasing result.

  • Cut things in handfuls, not singly. Eg slicing carrots, celery, green beans: lay two or three carrots, or a dozen beans next to each other and slice/chop them in a fraction of the time taken to do each one individually!

  • Use scissors - they are great for snipping herbs, but also for smaller vegetables such as runner beans and spring onions, or for cold cuts, bacon, and even for cutting slices of cheese, toast or bread into strips.

  • Put chopped fruit, meat and vegetables into bowls or on to plates instead of on to boards. The upturned edge will prevent the juices oozing over the work surface, saving wiping-up time, and saving the juices!

  • The greatest time saver of all must be: don't do it! Don't peel potatoes if you are going to boil them whole. The peel will come off much easier, or you can just serve them up in their jackets. Don't peel fiddly little cloves of garlic, just put them in whole. Don't wash up the frying pan - just wipe it with a dry cloth or paper towel.

  • Consider cooking things in the oven rather than in saucepans on the hob. Vegetables, rice and meat can all be cooked in the oven in a covered oven-to-table casserole dish. This will save you time spent on washing up, and transferring the food to another bowl, as well as guaranteeing that the food stays hotter longer and saving on energy.

  • The microwave, if you have one, is invaluable for warming up dishes that have been pre-prepared. Failing this, items made earlier and needing just a warm-up can go into the oven ten minutes before they are needed.

  • Use cheap, disposable, surgical gloves for very messy jobs, particularly those involving raw meat. They can be peeled off and thrown away when you've finished, saving time which would have been spent washing hands.

  • A particularly frustrating hold-up can be caused by lids not coming off when and how you want them to. We have a solution to that problem for you.

  • To save time on conjuring up separate dishes for people with allergies or simply dislikes, where possible serve everything separately, so that everyone can mix and match as they wish.

  • Don't let anything distract you from stirring anything which might go lumpy. Keep your eye on it! Having to strain a gravy or sauce because it's not nice and creamy and smooth is a frustrating waste of time, and the sauce probably won't turn out as you hoped anyway. If the recipe calls for a tin of tomatoes, which then need straining, just use ready-strained tomatoes from the start.

  • And finally: Never apologise for anything that has, despite all your efforts, gone wrong. Never say (for example) 'I was going to do mashed potatoes, but I ran out of time, so you've just got the boiled potatoes. I sprinkled some parsley on to make it look as though that was all intentional'. Never explain how you got out of this or that mess. As far as they know, everything is exactly as it was planned, and they don't care how the food got to the table.

Prevent Accidents

Your greatest potential time-'waster' is the danger of injury, breakages or spills. Don't take risks! At all times in the kitchen, do all you can to prevent any accidents or spillages - these are all potential hold-ups, which, at worst, will incapacitate the victim and put a complete stop to the meal.

  • Don't leave the above-mentioned sharp knives in a bowl of water or anywhere where someone could inadvertently cut their fingers.
  • Wipe up spillages immediately - particularly from the floor.
  • Don't put hot glass or china dishes into cold water.
  • Wear non-slip shoes.
  • Use oven gloves, but be sure to get a good grip before picking up hot, heavy dishes.
  • Keep a pack of sticking plasters in a drawer for minor disasters.

Silly Little Jobs that You Suddenly Can't be Bothered to Do

You may have planned some little touches that you leave out at the last minute because these involve an extra effort. Worse still, you might simply forget them. Do these before you start, or very early on in the proceedings when you still have plenty of time ahead of you. These could include:

  • Popping out to the garden, the shed or the garage for something to make the meal a little more special: a bottle of wine, or some fresh chives or parsley to sprinkle on the finished dishes.

  • Putting a couple of candles on the table because you have a drawerful of them which really ought to be used up some time!

  • Reminding people to come to the table. It would be a shame if one chair is left empty, after all the anticipation and preparation.

Make Time go Faster

Despite all the warnings given above, cooking a meal should be a relaxed, enjoyable affair. Don't worry about little setbacks - finding ways around them is a challenge for your creative instincts. Have a glass of wine or a cup of coffee on hand, take a sip between jobs; create a party atmosphere in the kitchen with background music; enjoy the smells and tastes of the wonderful food! In a relaxed atmosphere, things are less likely to go wrong, and hold-ups are less likely to happen.

Think Forwards!

While you're chopping, snipping, peeling and frying, think about how you can save time for the next meal. Many main dishes start with frying onions. So fry double, or treble the amount, pack them away in the fridge, and you've knocked the first five minutes off the preparation for tomorrow evening's stew.

Similarly, if rice is on the menu for today and the day after tomorrow you expect to be making a curry5, you could boil up double the amount now and put half in the fridge ready for that next meal6.

Bon Appetit!

Once everyone is sitting and eating, there should be no need for anyone to leave the table to fetch condiments or drinks. It'll be thanks to your organisation that the family or group can enjoy an undisturbed meal. If the cook can sit serenely at the table with no signs of having 'slaved over a hot stove', the atmosphere will be conducive to pleasant conversation and everyone will want to repeat the experience!

1In which case, you would get that cooking first.2Also known as a double boiler - A pan-in-a-pan construction, with boiling water in the lower pan, which keeps the contents of the inner pan warm but off the boil, often used for delicate egg dishes such as zabaglione or egg-based sauces, eg hollandaise or bernaise.3On the other hand - have no scruples about shooing people out of the kitchen who aren't helping or when it gets overcrowded.4The juices of oven roast meat.5Another curry idea here.6Remember to reheat the rice thoroughly to destroy any bacteria that may have found it in the fridge.

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