It's 8 o'clock. The host moves among his arriving guests. He has already put the finishing touches to the dinner that shortly will be served to 20 people. So from the time his guests arrive until they leave, Manuel Ramirez will need to return to the kitchen only once. The instructions he has left for the help he has hired for the occasion are carefully worked out, the details meticulously arranged. Ramirez can be a guest at his own party.
Ramirez, chief of protocol for the Organization of American States, has his dinner parties down to a science of advance planning and preparation that begins when he calls to invite his guests to dinner.
That's one of the things Ramirez has learned in his 33 years in Washington. People don't always respond to invitations as swiftly as they should, if at all. "Now it has come to the point where you call to invite by phone and then follow up with a reminder."
After Ramirez has his guest list in order he plans his menu from an extensive file of recipes he has collected since he arrived from his native Peru. He learned to cook because of his "desire to eat." Eat Peruvian food. "My first month here I was introduced to American cooking, cherry pies, hamburgers . . . But after a while I started to miss my dishes from home. The first dish I learned to cook was rice. I got the recipe from home. Then a few Latin American dishes," the diplomat says in heavily accented English. "My English will never be good," he complains good naturedly. "I speak Spanish all day lone."
Ramirez had tried to cook as a child in his family's kitchen in Lima. "I never learned to cook anything. Every time I went into the kitchen it was as if I was going to burn the whole place down. The cook, the cleaning girls, my mother, they were in the kitchen with me. They would clean the pot immediately after I used it. It was too much attention."
But Ramirez was meant to cook. After his sucesses here with his native cuisine he branched out; the rest of his "training" was through reading cookbooks and magazines. Ramirez says he has a "good eye for good recipes" and perhaps a better eye for how to improve the recipes of others.
Ramirez experiments and experiments. In addition to improving on classical recipes, he is always on the lookout for those that can be made ahead of time.
The same kind of attention to detail is essential in Ramirez' job as chief of protocol, a position he has held since 1970. He is responsible for all the social activities of the OAS council made up of 27 ambassadors, and of the Secretary General Alejandro Orfila. The job has entailed some exciting and some frantic moments.
For Ramirez, exciting has meant being responsible for all the arrangements for a dinner at the OAS for 19 presidents and 10 heads of state after the signing of the Panama Canal treaty. And it has meant having absolutely nothing go wrong when the current pope visited the OAS. "To have 2,000 people in the building and 7,000 people outside and everyone wants at least to touch the pope and everything went like a clock -- to this day I still can't believe nothing happened that wasn't expected."
But one day everything did go wrong and a very fancy lunch for 120 people had to be cancelled after the food had been prepared. "What do we do with the food? We call up hospitals but they say they can't take all this fancy food. So we returned it to the caterer and he put 120 lobster thermidors in the freezer." Eventually OAS staffers used it up. The patients never knew what they missed.
Then there was the "beautiful lady pianist from Paris who had a beautiful designer gown on. Somehow the whole back of it came off." And guess who got to pin it back on?
"I did the best I could," Ramirez said with a smile.
But some of the hardest diplomatic problems he faces are those when he must explain to people why there is no room for them at an OAS dinner they want to attend. "It's a question of physical space."
And sometimes it's a question of how to shoehorn in an important guest, even two, who have regretted the dinner invitation and then appeared at the door.
On occasion Ramirez has simply given up his own seat at the table.
Not, however, at his own dinner parties, where he has more, though hardly total, control. At a recent dinner, called for 8 o'clock, two of the guest did not arrive until 8:45 and Ramirez was concerned not only about the food but about the patience of his other guests.
He need not have worried. A trifle late or not, the dinner went off without a hitch. Ramirez had begun cooking on Sunday night for the Wednesday night meal. Sunday he prepared the dessert, a creme brulee. Monday be prepared and sauteed the "veal"(turkey cutlets). Tuesday he made the quenelles, the sauce for them and the mashed potatoes for the potatoes madeleine, and peeled the asparagus. Wednesday morning he made the hollandaise sauce for the asparagus; Wednesday afternoon he finished preparations for the potatoes madeleine, prepared the marsala sauce for the "veal." The last thing he did was caramelize the brown sugar topping on the creme brulee. Ramirez uses a salamander to caramelize the sugar. Lacking one, the sugar can be caramelized under the broiler.
When the help came, all they had to do was cook the quenelles, reheat the three sauces and cook the asparagus, jobs that require no particular skill. Ramirez had given them a thorough explanation of what was required as well as which food went in which serving dishes.
Ramirez never has anything catered and never uses convenience food. "You don't get any convenience in convenience foods. They always take you for a ride."
Ramirez doesn't speak idly. He spends a lot of time looking at products. That's how he discovered the he could achieve the same results with liquid lecithin as others get with a can of Pam. "I grease all my molds with lecithin. It's cheaper and its healthier. I read the ingredients in Pam and figured out what you were paying for."
Ramirez always keeps an eye out for baragains. He has a home at Rehoboth and inspects the summer roadside stands looking for things like overripe tomatoes. When he finds a bushel of them he makes gallons of gazpacho -- "never in a blender, always in a food mill" -- sauce bolognese and ratatouille, both of which he puts away in the freezer.
He collects gadgets by the dozens. Every time he visits a cookware shop he buys something. "Now I have to buy two of everything, one for here and one for the beach house. And I have a problem. I am running out of space."
Ramirez remodeled a two-car garage and an apartment over it by reading how-to books and following the directions. He left only the plumbing and wiring to professionals.
Ramirez has left nouvelle cuisine to others as well. He prefers the classical, the traditional. When is the last time you had a dinner with three dishes that contained heavy cream and three sauces, two of which contained spirits, loved every single bit . . . and had it love you back? Seafood Quenelles* (8 to 10 servings) Rich and delicate, a little goes a long way. 1/2 pound scallops 1/2 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined (reserve shells) 1 cup heavy cream 1 egg white Salt and white pepper to taste Butter for pan Sauce (see recipe below)
Either blend all ingredients in food processor until smooth or grind shrimp and scallops twice with fine blade of meat grinder and mix with remaining ingredients. Adjust seasonings. Chill at least 2 hours in refrigerator or overnight.
Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before baking. Butter a 1 1/2-quart ring mold generously and fill with quenelle mixture. Press out any air pockets that may form. Cover with buttered waxed paper. Place ring mold in pan filled with simmering water, enough to come 3/4 of the way up the side of the mold. Place in 300-degree oven and poach 20 minutes, until quenelle mixture is firm.
To unmold, run knife around edges and unmold on serving plate. Serve with sauce.
*Most people would think of this as a mousse rather than quenelles. QUENELLES SAUCE (Makes 1 1/4 cups) 1 small onion, finely chopped 1 rib celery, finely chopped 2 tablespoons butter Shells of shrimp reserved from quenelles 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon dry vermouth 2 tablespoons tomato paste 1 teaspoon soy sauce 10 small pieces scallops 5 or 6 ounces fresh claw crabmeat.
Saute the onion and celery in butter until onion is tender. Meanwhile boil the shells of the shrimp in 1 1/2 cups of water until liquid reduces to 1/2 cup. Takes about 1 hour. Add vermouth to onion mixture and bring just to boil. Remove and place ingredients in blender. Add tomato paste and puree. Return to saucepan.
Place shells and liquid in blender and puree. Place some of puree mixture in 8 thicknesses of cheesecloth or in a clean towel. Squeeze out liquid into measuring cup. Discard residue and repeat. You should get about 1/3 cup shrimp essence. Add to onion mixture with soy sauce. Refrigerate if desired.
To serve, add raw scallops and crabmeat to sauce and cook until mixture is hot. Adjust seasonings and serve over quenelles. "VEAL" CUTLETS WITH MARSALA (10 servings)
Not one of the guests at Ramirez' dinner realized the "veal" was made from turkey cutlets, which are available at many supermarkets. They come 7 to the package. They must be handled carefully os they don't fall apart. Ramirez used truffles in the dish because he was given some for Christmas. Ordinarily, he says, he is "more sensible" and uses mushrooms. 3 packages turkey cutlets Flour Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup butter Marsala Sauce: 1 1/2 cups heavy cream 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons bottled glace de viande (bottled meat glaze) 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1/2 cup marsala Truffles or 1/2 pound mushrooms sauteed in 2 tablespoons butter.
With a knife carefully cut the top off the package of turkey cutlets. Invert the whole package onto double thickness of paper towel. With a spatula separate each cutlet. Lift cutlet onto paper towel, top side down. Sprinkle seasoned flour on waxed paper and with spatula transfer cutlet to waxed paper. Sprinkle cutlet with more seasoned flour. With rolling pin press cutlet to make it thinner. (Do not beat.)
Saute the cutlets in butter at low temperature for about 1 1/2 minutes on each side. Place cutlets on cookie sheets. If you wish to prepare them ahead, cover and refrigerate. To serve, warm in very low oven. Arrange on platter and spoon marsala sauce over.
To make sauce: Mix cream with glace de viande. Spoon a little of mixture into cornstarch and mix to smooth paste. Return to cream mixture in pot and cook over low heat until mixture thickens. Add marsala and cook until heated through.
If using truffles add them just before serving. If using mushrooms, saute sliced fresh mushrooms in butter until limp and liquid has evaporated. Add to sauce just before heating.
If desired the sauce may be prepared earlier in the day, refrigerated, well covered and reheated just before serving. POTATOES MADELEINE (10 to 12 servings) 2 pounds boiling potatoes 3 tablespoons butter Salt to taste 1/3 cup milk 1 cup water 1/2 cup butter 1 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 4 eggs at room temperature
Cook potatoes and mash with butter, salt and milk. This can be done a day or two ahead. To make pate a choux, bring water to boil. Reduce heat to low and add butter, flour and salt. Cook, stirring vigorously until mixture leaves sides of pot and forms compact ball. Remove from heat. Cool slightly. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition until smooth and glossy. Combine 1 1/2 cups of pate a choux with the mashed potatoes.
If you have madeleine molds, grease well and drop tablespoons of mixture in mounds in each mold. If you do not have molds you can fill 30 well-greased medium-size muffin tins 2/3 full or spoon ovals about 2 1/2 inches long on greased baking sheets. Bake at 400 degrees, 20 to 25 minutes for madeleines, 30 minutes for muffin tins and 25 to 30 minutes for ovals. Serve immediately. HOLLANDAISE SAUCE
Hollandaise sauce is reheatable, following Ramirez' directions. If you make the sauce in the morning you can leave it, covered, on top of the stove, until it is needed at night. To reheat, warm the container of the blender. Turn blender on. Spoon by spoon add the hollandaise sauce to the blender until it is completely blended. After blending keep the blender container in lukewarm water. Serve over asparagus. Allow 1/2 pound of asparagus per person. CREME BRULEE (8 servings) 2 pints heavy cream (not ultrapasteurized) 8 well-beaten egg yolks 1/3-inch layer brown sugar
Bring the cream to the boiling point, stirring and boil exactly 1 minute. Remove from heat. In a slow steady stream pour in the yolks. Beat constantly. Return to heat. Cook over low heat, stirring until nearly boiling. Placed in greased baking dish. Chill well.
Within 2 or 3 hours before serving cover creme brulee with a layer of dark brown sugar. It is best to sift the sugar over the creme so that it is even. If you do not have a salamander for browning the sugar, place the dish in a pan of ice cubes and place it under the broiler, keeping the door of the broiler open. Watch very, very carefully. You want the sugar to carmelize and form a crust. You do not want it to burn and that it can, very quickly. Chill again and serve.