Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Six Courses for Six (or More)

Greetings, dear Reader. As I'm sure you can tell from the timing of this post, I've continued the tradition of late night blogging. One thing I've recently noticed about my blog, and have had confirmed earlier tonight, is that none of the dishes I have prepared and posted on-line have not been traditionally laid out as you'll find on other blogs and websites. Indeed, my approach is to guide you step by step through the process of multi-tasking a variety of dishes; however, in situations such as tonight's dinner, whereby chronological detail would get too involved and not accurately convey simplicity without me showing you in person, I have grouped my notes as closely together as possible.

Tonight, I had five guests over in celebration of two birthdays, as well as for our post-Valentine's Day get-together. In actuality, if I served smaller portions, I think I could have served at least twice as many... but then again, I've built up a reputation from my study abroad days in France that in order to get through one of my multi-course meals, the best advice is to eat as little as possible beforehand (if not to fast completely).

Right after the class I'm auditing, I picked up my final ingredients for tonight's meal, and began with one of my most common dishes to make: ratatouille. I'm certainly no expert in the field, but I will say that my ratatouille is also one of my most consistent dishes and relies on three basic components that most ratatouilles share: onion and garlic base, charred bell peppers, and long cooking time. In addition, I should also note that while the flavour remains consistent, the proportion of the vegetables changes depending on market price, availability of ingredients and the fact I've never gotten around to chronicling my recipe... until now.

With this said, onto a dry, hot (medium heat) skillet, place skin-side down, mini coloured bell peppers that have been sliced in half, seeded, and flattened as much as possible (I used a container of mixed variety mini bell peppers often sold alongside the regular bell peppers; check out my mise en place photo). As you're preparing the other vegetables, you'll hear the crackling of the peppers and the charring of the skin; leave these peppers on until I tell you to! While that's going, in a hot pot, heat up some olive oil on med-lo heat and sweat a whole onion, diced (brunoised preferred), being sure to coat the onion with the olive oil; the onion is sweating when you see some steam (release of water from the onion pieces) and can actually smell the sweetness of the onion. To this, add a whole garlic, minced. (Remember, garlic cooks (and burns!) quickly, so be sure to add this after the onions have sweated.) Once the wonderful smell of onion and garlic fills your cooking space, reduce the heat to lo-med and cube three peeled carrots. Add this to the onion and garlic and stir everything together; slightly raise the heat of the heat source (due to the additional volume). Then, add in one whole cubed eggplant, again slightly raising the heat of the heat source. By now (if not a little beforehand, depending on your knife skills), your bell peppers should be done; the peppers will have shrunk a bit in size and most should have a few blistered/char marks. (You could also have just run the vegetable through a direct heat source, e.g., lighter.) Cube this up and add to the other vegetables, slightly raising once again the heat. Finally, cube up the yellow squash and zucchini, and raise the heat again; at this point, you should be at medium heat. Be sure you follow this order, as they each cook at different rates. This particular order also helps to give the vegetables a bit of bite while not being mushy. Your pot of ingredients should now look something like the above photo, and should also be releasing much more steam (even to the point of the sound of boiling/rapid cooking).

Calm this all down by adding one 28 oz can of petite diced tomatoes and enough water to fill up half that can. Carefully (as many of the vegetables on the bottom are really soft) stir everything up and bring the ratatouille to a simmer and then carefully stir again. Bring this to a boil and carefully stir, and then finally to a rapid boil and careful stir. Next, add in half at a time (to incorporate the seasonings, stirring carefully each time): 1 tablespoon thyme, 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper, 1/2 tablespoon salt. (Please note these are eyeballed measurements based on actual measuring spoons and not my tableware as in my previous blog meals.) Once all the seasonings have been incorporated, reduce the heat back to lo and with the lid not quite fully covering the pot, allow the ratatouille to sit for as long as possible to bring all the flavours together, stirring carefully every half hour. Final cooking times vary, but tonight's ratatouille was on the stove for about 2.5 hours while everything else was being prepped and cooked. You're certainly ready to serve the ratatouille has reduced in liquid volume and the vegetables are tender (i.e., have a slight bite but not mushy).

So while the ratatouille was going, I move onto my two batters for the night: cake and crêpe. One of the first cakes I ever made was Hershey's "Perfectly Chocolate" Chocolate Cake, the recipe of which is printed on the Hershey cocoa label. However, what's arguably even better is Hershey's dark chocolate version, which is what I edited to work for tonight's meal. Following those instructions on the dark cocoa container, my two substitutions were canola oil (instead of vegetable oil) and 1 full tablespoon baking powder (instead of the combination of baking powder and baking soda). [Aside: I should also note that while I did use a hand mixer to combine the ingredients (minus the boiling water), I used a spatula to incorporate the boiling water or else the batter would have splattered everywhere.] Into six prepped baking vessels (which hold a cup of liquid each, I poured in 2/3 c batter and put in the center a dark chocolate candy. To prep the baking vessels, I put some canola oil on a paper towel, put half a teaspoon of dark cocoa powder in the baking vessel and mixed the two together, and "painted" the inside of each vessel, repeating as necessary. For tonight's dinner, I made six mini cakes in this fashion. As for the rest of the batter, I added 1 c semi-sweet chocolate chips and baked this as a separate cake. Into a preheated 350°F oven these all went for about 30 min (be sure to test for doneness toward the perimeter, as the dark chocolate candy will most likely come out melted and may throw you off). I covered the mini cakes and stored them in my microwave until we reached the dessert course.

As for the crêpe batter, I doubled my recipe, making sure to include the melted butter this time around. In the case of both batters, I'd like to remind you here to thoroughly mix dry ingredients in one container and the wet ingredients in another. Though I used to be one of those one-bowl folks, I am definitely now one who has switched over to the separate bowls method.

While the mini cakes were in the oven, I then turned my attention to my sherry mushrooms. In a large sauté pan, I melted two tablespoons butter on medium heat, and tossed in (to coat) two 8 oz packages of washed and pre-sliced mushrooms (if you're not comfortable tossing your vegetables, feel free to stir... though the point of a sauté pan is to make those vegetables jump...). To this I ground some freshly ground black pepper and sea salt (more pepper than salt) and again tossed this all together. Now prepped in the sauté pan, I covered the mushrooms and cooked them for 10 min, tossing them once halfway through the cooktime. After those 10 min, you should have not only been smelling the mushrooms, but also seeing the water released from the mushrooms; the mushrooms should also be softer at this point. Taking a cue from this site, add 2/3 c cooking sherry wine. Note I just said cooking sherry wine; this already has salt added to the sherry, which is why I didn't add an equal amount of salt to the black pepper earlier. Cook all of this for 15 min, uncovered. As you check on the mushrooms, stirring as necessary, note how the smell of the sherry slowly dissipates. After those 15 min are up, sprinkle 2 tsps (1 tsp at a time) flour over the mushrooms and stir that into the liquid and helping it dissolve as much and as quickly as possible to prevent clumps. Lower the heat and allow the sauce to slightly thicken.

These sherry mushrooms are one of the ingredients in the crêpes described further below, the other principal ingredient being chicken. Prepare the chicken as you wish and mix these in with the mushrooms so they absorb some of that flavour. I cut mine into small strips/bite-size pieces and cooked this in some olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice (six chicken breasts cooked in total; 1 lemon used).

While the chicken and mushrooms were cooking, I cut out little rounds out of some wheat bread, using one of my small ramekins. With the cakes done before this point, I toasted the bread slices in the oven to create the vehicle for what I called "petite toasts." I topped each toast with a garlic powder-enhanced six cheese pasta sauce: 1.5 c-ish pasta sauce and about 1 tsp (eyeballed/to taste) garlic powder; let this reduce to about 4/5 the initial volume. On top of the sauce is a bit of crumbled goat cheese and some freshly chopped basil. And voilà ! Finally, the first course (appetizer) has been served!

Up next, round 2, was the soup course (i.e., the ratatouille). Served alongside this was a parmesan tuile: onto a baking sheet, grab a clump of shredded parmesan and form a little mound; flatten this into the desired shape (here, a round) and bake at 350°F for about 5-10 min, checking after 5 min to make sure it hasn't burned. Flip this over and bake for an additional 5 min to crisp the other side. Use a spatula to lift these off the baking sheet, but leave them on the sheet during the cooling process; the tuiles will harden as they cool. The parmesan tuiles certainly add a flavour contrast (adding salt and a secondary texture) to the vegetables (which at this point may or may not have retained the initial salt added to the ratatouille). Of course, feel free to add additional salt/pepper to taste; you definitely taste the thyme. [Another aside: Whereas the final colour of tonight's ratatouille was darker than previous versions (e.g., click here...), again the taste and texture was still very much the same. I believe the biggest difference is I had used only one can of tomatoes and had watered down the soup a bit to handle the longer cook time.] I should note I served 2 c ratatouille per bowl; 1 c certainly would have been enough.

While my guests were eating the ratatouille, I set off to work on the crêpes, which I knew would take the longest time to make during dinner (as everything else was pretty much good to go). When adding the filling, be sure to add some of the sauce to the chicken and mushrooms. For an added creaminess, I added a little bit of shredded mozzarella when cooking the flipped side of the crêpe, before adding the chicken and mushrooms. Having doubled the recipe, I made enough batter for 4 crêpes per person. I ended up making 11 crêpes total, 4 of which were not eaten by the end of the dinner. I also served green beans to go along with the crêpes (pictured at the start of this blog post): cooked with 1 tbsp butter and on medium heat, covered, for about 15-20 min (tossing every 5). Alors, course 3 (entrée).

Before I sat down to eat my crêpe, I rolled out a sheet of frozen puff pastry dough (note you can run the dough through some water to drastically speed up the thawing process). Reserving four thin slices of dough, I then folded up the corners and sides to fully enclose a round of brie. To clean up the seal on the top of the brie, I weaved the four slices together; of course, you can make up your own design. Then, I made an eggwash of one yolk and 1 tbsp of water (I believe that's a standard technique) and soaked a bunched up paper towel and dabbed the mixture on the top of the enclosed brie. Next, I put the brie onto a baking sheet and then into a preheated 350°F oven for 15 min (baking directions on the puff pastry box). I then set the oven to broil to speed up the browning process for the top of the brie; broil for about 3 min or until the top is golden brown. Leave it in longer if you'd like, but definitely remove this before it burns! I served this (now) baked brie with red grapes and, as pictured above, look how nice and gooey that cheese gets! Course 4 (almost done): cheese and fruit.

While we enjoyed the baked brie, I was heating up 1 c heavy cream. Upon it boiling, I turned off the heat and stirred in 1/2 c at a time, a total of 2 c semi-sweet chocolate chips. Once everything's smooth, this (now) ganâche is ready to go. I spatulaed some of the ganâche onto each of the mini cakes and covered them with their lids. I put these into the oven on warm until my guests were done with the cheese and fruit course. Taking the mini cakes out of the oven, everyone revealed course 5 (their individual mini cakes for dessert) and had the option to sprinkle some powdered sugar.

FINALLY, and to aid in the eating of the cake, we moved onto course 6, which has been the traditional closing for any big meal I have ever made over the past two years: M.A.'s international chocolat chaud (pictured here, 1.5 c each). Enough said. ;-)

For more photos from tonight's dinner, click here.

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