Sunday, June 11, 2006

Dinner Done!

All right -- I know this isn't really about the new kitchen. But it is kitchen-related, so I'm posting it here.

For a while I'd been hearing about "make-and-take" places, where you pay to assemble dinners for future use. When John's co-workers started raving about a place in the area, he encouraged me to check it out, so last night I did.

I spent 2 1/2 hours going from station to station, making everything from rubbed chops to lasagna to Italian chicken to stuffed flank steak. The photo shows the spoils of my labor: Twelve fully-prepared meals that will serve four to six adults apiece (some are subdivided for our smaller family and picky little ones), all ready to pop in the oven or throw on the grill.

If I'd tried this when we still had the old kitchen, I would have returned home only to tear the cabinetry and appliances out of the walls myself because it was such a pleasure having perfectly designed and stocked workspaces. Although I love to cook, I rarely did anything elaborate in the old kitchen for lack of workable space; the new kitchen is perfect but I haven't had time to really dig into a big project yet.

Dinner Done takes care of everything but the actual assembly. Every workstation has detailed instructions for each particular recipe, as well as suggested changes to make items more kid-friendly. Every ingredient had its own "spoodle" (a combo spoon/ladle) in the correct measurement for the recipe, and every spice/seasoning was set out within easy reach. If anything was missing, a staff member would silently appear to provide or replenish it. Once completed, the only thing left to do was seal up the packages, stick a label with cooking instructions on it, and put it into my own designated shelf in the giant freezer.

To someone who really enjoys food and cooking, this set-up is Nirvana. I kept comparing it to junior-high cooking class -- albeit without the boys throwing spaghetti onto the refrigerator -- and a fancy-schmancy restaurant prep counter job. Out of thyme? More is right here. Don't want to handle raw meat? The gloves are right in front of you. Need a fresh bowl? Here it comes -- and the old one is simply whisked away for someone else to wash.

The only problem I encountered at Dinner Done was the popularity of two kid-friendly recipe stations. I'd signed up for two each of these particular dishes, and every time I scoped out their stations, they were occupied, with someone waiting behind. Since this kind of place is designed for busy families with young kids, it should have come as no surprise that chicken fingers and cordon-bleu puff pastry triangles would be in great demand, but as the session drew to a close I still hadn't gotten close to those stations. I did convince the staff to allow me to substitute one portion for another station I hadn't signed up for (stuffed flank steak), but even so I was scrambling to finish once the alpha moms finally cleared out of the popular places. As I was frantically forking my puff-pastry closed before heading to chicken fingers, a staff member offered to make the chicken fingers for me. "No!" I said, a little too loudly. Then, apologetically, I explained that I really enjoyed doing the recipes myself, and I'll be fast, I promise. And I was.

I left with all of the freezer containers above stuffed into a giant cooler. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll go through everything -- and if the food tastes as good as it was as much fun to prepare, I'll be returning to Dinner Done for another session. But next time, I'm going to plow down all the skinny, blonde alpha moms in their pink Capris and big diamonds and make the chicken fingers first.

This is awesome! I actually have a cookbook to do this sort of thing at home. Problem is, you need an entire weekend to do it.
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