I have made two vast vats of chicken stew for the music society's fund-raising supper concert, following the recipe given to me by the society's secretary. The classic advice is never to try out a new recipe for the first time on guests, but I have leaped in at the deep end, making enough to feed two dozen people as instructed.
I hope it is all right. It should be. While I have not done this exact recipe before, I have cooked chicken stew often enough. As long as you are scrupulous about keeping raw and cooked meat apart, don't use the same utensils for both, wash your hands frequently, and make sure the chicken pieces are cooked all the way through, in theory there isn't much to go wrong. Nonetheless I am nervous of a recipe for four that has been scaled up to twenty-four. Suppose I have put too much garlic in? I wouldn't choose a casserole containing garlic at all for mass catering, since too many people don't like it, but the recipe I've been given says garlic. Also three red onions for twelve people, implying six for the quantity I'm doing, but how big is an onion? The ones in the bag I bought were rather small, and I put them all in.
Apparently it is the same stew we did last year, except that last year I managed to get out of doing a main course and just made apple crumbles, which felt much safer. I would really have to try very hard to poison anybody with a fruit crumble, whereas chicken can be tricky stuff. The recipe contains anchovies, which are supposed to thicken the sauce and make it more flavoursome. I never use them at home, because of the Systems Administrator's fish allergy (though one weekend when we're not doing anything I should try smuggling some in, and find out whether the SA is allergic to anchovies, or just dislikes the idea of them by association with other fish).
The recipe also contains capers, which again I never use at home, though given the SA eats tartar sauce quite happily I probably should. I bought a jar of capers while I was shopping, and then lost my nerve when I got home, re-reading the footnote that said that last year not everybody liked capers and perhaps we should use olives instead, as being easier for olive and caper-haters to pick out. I substituted some olives that were already in the larder, and now have a jar of capers going spare. I'd better start making my own pizza, anchovies and capers at my end, and pepperoni on the SA's half. I once made a vegetarian pizza, but the SA's end of it turned into vegetarian pizza with salami.
There is quite a lot of juice. Juice is always considered a good thing in our house. The SA likes juice, and gravy, and soup made from left-over, excess juice. I'm not sure there is supposed to be so much liquid, or if it means I used the wrong sort of tomatoes. I used Napolina chopped tomatoes in rich tomato juice, which were on special offer in Tesco, but it was a choice between them and Tesco own-brand. I am slightly doubtful about how I am going to transport the juice eleven miles cross country without spilling it in the back of my car. It wouldn't hurt the car, which has got a boot liner and has had worse in it, but could be disappointing for the music society's supporters, to find there is no sauce to go with their chicken portions. I'm not entirely sure the Chairman and Secretary have taken into account the fact that several of their committee members now live some way from the village. Driving at ten miles an hour up the high street to avoid spilling a casserole is one thing, but doing it all the way up the main road across the county border is another.
I had to compromise my principles and buy intensively reared chicken, since I didn't think the society's funds would run to free range. I managed to get a couple of packets of barn raised chicken thighs, that at least were guaranteed to have had natural daylight and straw bales to perch on, but there weren't enough in stock, and I had to make up the quantity with Everyday Value. I expect I eat Everyday Value chicken when I go to other events. I probably ate it on Thursday at the ladies' lunch club after my talk. Still, I feel rather depressed at buying it. The domestic rule is that if we can't find or afford a free range bird, we don't have chicken. The recipe said skinless thighs, and the only thighs I could find in Tesco had skins on, and even then I had to include some drumsticks. It took half an hour to pull all the skins off, at the end of which I was closer to becoming a vegetarian than usual.
I'm sure it's a valuable social skill to be able to cook hot foot for two dozen people. The most I have catered for so far is around twelve, so it represents a step forwards. I shall be relieved when I've unpacked it at the other end without finding a boot full of spilt tomato and wine sauce, and more relieved on Tuesday when I still haven't heard reports of a food poisoning outbreak among the music lovers of the Essex and Suffolk border.