Dinner for 2,600

| July 19, 2005

"Mamma Mia!" You think you've got problems fixing dinner for eight guests? Try a multi-course Italian dinner (with at least three choices per course) for 2,600 guests. That's the task that faced the Star Princess' galley staff during a recent cruise.

As the baker was pulling the bread for afternoon tea from the oven, Alfredo Marzi, Corporate Executive Chef for Princess Cruises, took me through the Italian dinner preparations. I looked at the menu, told him what I would choose for dinner, and he walked me through the work schedule step-by-step, giving me a few cooking tips and recipes along the way.

The evening's bread would be mixed and proofed at three in the afternoon. It would be baked an hour before each seating.

From the antipasti menu, I selected shrimp, squid and mussels in a Mediterranean marinade with lemon mayonnaise. The fish had been cleaned in the fish preparation area yesterday. Two hundred pounds each of squid and of mussels were cut up. At 7 a.m. today, the seafood was cooked, then cooled in a blast chiller. At two in the afternoon it was marinated in olive oil and herbs and would remain refrigerated until 10 minutes before serving.

For the "zuppe e insalata" course I chose the Rustic Minestrone with Rice and Herbs. Yesterday the chef sent the vegetable requisition to the storeroom. All the veggies were cleaned and cut in the vegetable preparation galley, then put on trays in the holding refrigerator. This morning beef and chicken stocks were mixed to create 600 liters of broth. At 2 p.m., the trays of vegetables were moved from Deck 4 to Deck 5. Onions were braised in olive oil, then the other vegetables were added, all braised together. The broth was added, and the mixture simmered for two hours. At 4:30 p.m. the soup was divided into four big pots. Two went to the Deck 5 galley and two to the Deck 6 galley, where they were put on the stoves. At 5:15 p.m., the rice for the first seating was cooked in one pot; the second pot would get its rice at 8 p.m. for the second seating.

"Brasato di Manzo al Barolo" would be my "Secondi Piatti." Translated, it's Pot Roast Braised in Red Wine with Cornmeal Cakes and an Array of Tuscan Fresh Vegetables.

This is not simply a pot roast. Marzi calls this meat dish "one of the most complicated dishes to make." Here's why.

Figuring around 800 to 1,000 portions, the chef sent a requisition three days ago to the butcher to cut four- and five-pound pieces of beef, about 300 pounds total. Yesterday the beef was marinated in red wine (Italian Barolo), carrots, onions, celery and various seasonings, including rosemary, sage, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns. This morning the containers were drained and the meat, vegetables and liquids were separated. The meat was dusted with flour, salt and pepper. (Don't add salt to the marinate, Marzi advised. "It will toughen the meat.") Between 7 and 8 this morning, two people braised the meat until it was golden--an hour-and-a-half process--then removed it from the pots. The vegetables went into the same pots for braising until they became golden. At 9:30 a.m., the meat and its wine marinade went back into the pots, cooking until the wine mixture evaporated. Then water was added, and all simmered for three hours. The now-tender beef was removed, the sauce was reduced, then blended with the vegetables.

The result? Succulent, flavorful, delectable, tender slices of beef. I'll have to try Marzi's recipe.

While the meat was in the pot, the polenta was prepared from 18 kilos of cornmeal, 50 liters of water, five kilos of butter and two kilos of salt. After cooking for an hour or so, the mixture was spread on trays in 3/4" thick layers. After a stint in the blast chiller, the polenta was cut into half moon shape, put on buttered baking trays and dusted with a bit of Parmesan.

At five, Marzi, who designs the presentation of all dishes, arranged a sample presentation dish of the "Brazasto de Manzo al Barolo," polenta and vegetables for each galley chef.

Marzi adapted his grandmother's recipe for one dessert, Stuffed Peach with an Almond Soufflé. Here's the recipe--for a crowd. "Drain 65 six-pound cans of peaches, put them on trays. Mix 20 pounds of almond paste with egg yolks, almond flour and sugar. Pipe this on top of the peaches." Then they are refrigerated. At 5:30 p.m. they are baked very slowly, then dusted with vanilla sugar. They are served on a swirl of vanilla sauce with some chocolate decoration.

You can't feed a shipload of guests without extensive planning. After all, you can't flag down a passing ship to borrow a bag of sugar! Preparations for the Star Princess' 26-day inaugural cruise in February from Singapore to Los Angeles began last August with menu planning, progressed to requisitioning in September, purchasing in December and loading in January.

Of course there is plenty of help and equipment. The staff for the Star Princess' seven galleys numbers 208, including the head chef, sous chefs, bakers, pastry cooks, butchers for meat, butchers for fish, vegetable preparation teams and 52 dishwashers. Everything served onboard is made from scratch, even the marzipan-rose decorated wedding cakes for the "Hearts and Minds" chapel. Three bakers work through the night preparing at least 7,000 croissants, Danish and muffins for the next day's consumption. The equipment is the best available, manufactured around the world. The 400- and 200-liter soup vats are from Italy, the four-foot-high bread mixing machine is from the U.S. The ten $138,000 dishwashers run dishes through a pre-wash, wash, rinse, sanitize and dry cycle in 39 seconds!

I think I'll forget trying to fix an Italian dinner at home. We'll just all go to sea to feast.

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