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Planning and timing courses for a dinner for two

Actually, it's a very simple dinner I'm making on Friday evening for a friend. I'm doing a pasta dish that takes about 20 minutes to prepare from boiling the rigatoni to cooking the sausage and kale. I'm also doing a salad. I'd like to sear scallops to serve with the salad, BUT ... if I do the scallops, then I would like the salad to be the primo piatto. However, I then have to prepare the pasta for the secondo with a 15-20 minute delay. If you were a guest, would this be okay? Or can I sear the scallops earlier and serve them at room temperature with the salad?

I guess I can do the sausage and kale ahead of time, and have it sit in the skillet, and boil the pasta while we're eating the salad. But then I run the risk of the kale looking tired and changing color. Sometimes I think I should find menus where everything can just be reheated and served at once.

Orchestrating a meal where things get finished before serving is one of my biggest challenges in the kitchen. It also doesn't help that the kitchen is in a loft condo, and it totally exposed so I can't really make a big mess while I'm cooking.

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  1. Usually when people come to your house for dinner, they shouldn't expect restaurant-style service where it can be like, wham-bam! There's your food! They come over to enjoy the evening...hang out, talk, drink wine. If they have to wait between courses...it's no big deal...they'll appreciate the fact the food is prepared fresh. They can have another glass of wine and watch while you do the final touches. It'll be entertaining for them...besides, it's kinda sexy to watch someone cook.

    Did you think about doing the pasta first as a "main" with the salad to follow as a sort of light follow-up? That way, they don't have to wait as long...just for the scallops to cook. It might be too european in service, though.

    1 Reply
    1. re: msmarabini

      Yes, I did think of doing the salad after the pasta, and I think I will and omit the scallops. Now the salad is bibb lettuce with a tarragon dressing. My friend spends a lot of time in France, so I guess he is used to having the salad course later. And I've decided to make bruschetta and have it sitting there when my friend arrives.

    2. Ok I know it's tough to convey tone on a message board but when I read this the first thing I thought is- hey man RELAX!!! It's totally ok to put on some music, pour the wine (or whatever) and you can even involve your friend too- maybe they can stir the pasta?
      Whenever possible I serve hot things HOT, this may mean I sneak away but if I use high heat and a good pan, I'm back in a flash. This will work good for you because it's all open and there won't be any break in the conversation. Timing can get tricky, the key is to relax... and do lots of prep...have nibbles and drinks sitting ready... and relax...

      1. I agree with the sntiment thus far expressed: for this kind of meal, it's really okay to have a wait between courses. My husband and I have a tradition of an elaborate multi-course meal on Christmas Eve (I cook one year, he cooks the next), and one thing I've learned is that, though advance prep and planning are important, the most important thing of all is to relax and have fun.

        Enjoy!

        3 Replies
        1. re: jlafler

          Seems to me that when a dinner for two is served in courses it actually becomes a dinner for one--and that one ain't you, the cook. While the guest sits there like a dork between courses, killing time and trying not to distract you from your culinary artistry, you meanwhile have the privilege of not enjoying any of the food (except maybe dessert, since it's last), because your mind is on the next course and everything that could go wrong with it.

          With several guests, you can get away with absenting yourself to do the cooking--after all, they can talk among themselves. But if it's just you and Mr./Ms. Right, why spoil up a good thing? I say cook it all, and bring it on.

          1. re: Barry Foy

            That's a good point. I do think the pasta sauce could be made ahead of time though.

            1. re: Barry Foy

              With planning, it's possible to arrange things so that you can both enjoy the dinner. The trick is to plan a menu that can be done almost all in advance, with just last-minute heating/quick cooking/garnishing/plating and some dishes that don't require pinpoint timing, such as a braise or a warm salad. Also, if you're doing a lot of courses, then portions are really small, so something like cooking dumplings at the last minute is quick, because you only have to cook two for each person.

          2. Relax, piece of cake.

            Prep before guest arrives:

            - pasta almost to dente
            - sausage cooked through and in the pan on the stove ready for the kale
            - salad plated

            10 minutes before salad
            - turn on the pan to get it real hot
            - bring pot of water to boil

            3 minutes to salad
            - sear scallops, plate and serve

            Eat salad; clear dishes

            - bring sausage pan to temperature,
            - saute kale
            - bring pasta to temperature in boiling water; drain, add to pasta, mix in kale
            - plate and serve

            Enjoy

            3 Replies
            1. re: jfood

              Does cooking the pasta that way really work/get the same result? I've never tried it ....

              1. re: MMRuth

                takes a little practice, but it sounds like a good friend and the timing is more important than the perfect pasta texture. The old try and true keep it a little crunchy on the first pass and keep a slotted spoon around for the end game for taste test (every 20-30 secs) is real important. And its rigatoni which is a little more forgiving.

              2. re: jfood

                jfood, you said pretty much what I was formulating in my head as I scrolled down. Only differences: have the salad stuff ready to be plated, but sear scallops and plate right before sitting down to eat. Have a glass of wine together while searing scallops and plating scallops and salad. Start boiling the water to cook the pasta as you go sit down for the salad. Tend the pasta as need be while having the salad course. OK if you linger over salad: when ready for the pasta course, flame up the pre-cooked sausage, toss in the spinach, toss in and reheat and integrate the rigatoni.