Food: The feast of the two dozen

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN A WEEK when large contingents of American troops are poised to undertake what is widely called a 'humanitarian' mission in Somalia, some of you may be revolted by the notion of surplus food. But feeding the masses, in a less epic sense, has been my most recent culinary concern.

Each term it is my custom to invite my students home for a proper sit-down meal, the idea being that this is part of the civilising process. Unfortunately, my classes seem to grow more rapidly than my dining-room. We can cope, and have coped, with 12, even 16. On the appointed night we were 24, and that presented a serious logistical problem.

It meant a rearrangement of our dining- room, the hauling up of old picnic tables from the cellar, the concealment of same in dark sheets, buying extra cutlery and paper plates for the dessert, and facing a noise-level at table to which I am hardly accustomed and which was, I fear, not necessarily conducive to civilising. It also meant that I spent the better part of two hours topping and tailing more string beans than I have ever seen in one place at one time.

The art of feeding a large number of people is, of course, to keep your meal simple. And without restaurant facilities, one cannot really cook at the last minute for so many, or not if one is also supposed to make conversation at the dinner table.

A sensible dish for many is one that is prepared beforehand. The meat dish is fairly simple, save for the massive size required to feed two dozen people. My choice fell on two huge loins of boned pork - boned because otherwise the time spent carving would mean cold food on the table, something I abhor. Since no loin of pork, even in the United States (the land of gigantism), weighs much more than eight pounds boned, two were required: and two just managed to fit in our largest roasting pan. Accompanied by baked apples (which could squeeze below the roast), they would just about do for the appetites of the young.

The beans could also be done beforehand: they only needed refreshing at the last moment, a task for which I recruited three students, four of my largest frying pans and the whole top of the stove. The beans, having been boiled just short of tenderness in the wee hours of the morning, were hurriedly brought to life in lots of butter, the juice of six lemons and a little garlic - all of the above sauteed together with a little honey and jalapeno mustard before the beans were stirred in.

One of my discoveries along the way was that, even though I am used to cooking for fairly large numbers, my biggest pots (on a trip through Portugal I had bought some monumental earthenware dishes in which food could be kept warm) were inadequate. Cooking the beans, for instance, required two four-gallon pots and - another realisation which is hardly new - most modern hobs are set far too close together to accommodate such things.

Why do manufacturers persist with this design defect: too few hobs for a meal of any complexity and set so that, unless one is dealing with a maximum of six people, one cannot cook a number of different things simultaneously?

There were compensations along the way. When it came to potatoes, I had to devise some way of cooking them that would blend with (a) the relative sweetness of the pork and (b) the astringency of the beans.

The result was an invention: the failed hot potato salad. As anyone knows who has made potato salad in quantity, the difficulty is in cooking the potatoes to just the right consistency, so that they stay whole in the salad. With 30 potatoes, cut into smaller chunks and cooked in one huge pot, this proved an impossibility: every time they were stirred to make the cooking even, they would break up.

Well, the art of cooking is often that of making a virtue out of a defect. Here is how the dish finally worked out. In my largest (Portuguese) casserole, I prepared a base of two large onions finely sliced and 12 chives chopped fine. I added a quart of good olive oil and seasoned vigorously with (hot) paprika, Chinese mustard, eight tablespooons of white wine vinegar and two of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. By introducing the potatoes in small quantities and constantly stirring, I produced a dish that came out half-way between mashed potatoes and the potato salad I had started out with.

Leaving this on my equivalent of an Aga - a vast cast-iron stove that survives from the mid- 19th century and now, converted to gas, heats my kitchen - I let this dish simmer for nearly six hours. The result was stupefyingly successful.

The last thing to be done (the cakes having been prepared the day before) was the sauce: a brown roux, white wine, more of the honey and jalapeno mustard (to carry over the underlying flavour of the beans), balsamic vinegar to blend with the potatoes, crushed juniper berries and thyme. There remained only how to serve 24 people expeditiously and, by drafting three students into the kitchen to carry out two plates at a time, we managed to serve the whole lot in under five minutes.

Were they grateful? Yes. Civilised? Perhaps. But I was grateful to re-learn the art of feeding the many and to devise a new dish.