Sunday, 3 April 2011

An Early Afternoon at The North Market & "A French Menu"

After months of waiting, the time had finally come for me to attend my first cooking demo at The Columbus Dispatch Kitchen in The North Market, one of my favourite weekend locations in the Columbus area. A centralised collection of specialty tastes--from a wide array of cheeses to fresh poultry, breads baked daily to freshly squeezed juice, soul food to Indian flare--The North Market is my go-to locale for a taste of the international...in Ohio. 
As for the cooking demo itself, today's instructor was Columbus Dispatch food editor Robin Davis. Alongside more than a dozen folks, we gathered on the second floor of The North Market to join Robin in her studio kitchen as she harnessed northern and central French flavours using "grocery store" ingredients.

First up was a goat cheese and strawberry tartine, based on a recipe found in Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan. The French tartine, very similar to the Italian crostini, is essentially an open-faced sandwich which presented here serves as a great vehicle for an appetizer. Tossed with a bit of sugar, black pepper, and balsamic vinegar, fresh strawberries sit atop toasted baguette sliced at the bias (read: diagonal, for more surface area) and layered with spreadable goat cheese (here, Lake Erie brand). The toasted baguette added great, crunchy support and textural contrast for the creamy goat cheese, the typically strong taste of which was cut by the sweetness of the strawberries.

For the entrée, Robin cooked chicken Normandy served over buttered noodles. After seasoning with salt and pepper and a light dredge, four chicken breasts cooked in butter and olive oil (as we were reminded, no one did ever promise a "light" French menu). As those rested most of the way cooked, the chicken renderings were met with the sauce's base ingredients of chopped gala apple, brunoised onion, and sliced mushrooms, to which chicken broth, Calvados (apple brandy) and heavy cream (the cream of which is unavoidable and certainly a must... my kind of cooking!) were later added when the chicken returned to finish cooking. Despite the fact, as she said, serving the chicken with spinach would be more of the French route to take, the noodles were great in this case, as the sauce was too good to just leave alone on the plate. Oh, and for those who may want to use light cream instead(!?), the advice is to use more broth, more brandy, less cream, and a longer cook time, to allow the sauce to thicken more properly. As for pairing this dish, two choices were presented: a crisp and acidic wine to counter the richness of the dish or, in this case, a (buttery) oaky Chardonnay to compliment the flavours.

After a brief break, we moved onto course three, the palate-cleansing salad. Bright, refreshing, and perfectly dressed, Belgian endives (pronounced "ahn-deeve") cut down the strength of the otherwise peppery (do not read: bitter) arugula, and are given additional help from a dressing of orange juice and zest, white wine vinegar (don't use distilled), olive oil, and salt and pepper. Topped with orange segments and toasted walnuts, this salad is definitely one for the culinary repertoire.

Palates now cleansed at this point, we finally set our sights for dessert: ("every bowl in the kitchen") chocolate mousse. Similar in texture to my pot de crème which is cooked in the oven in a water bath and without eggs, mousse is a stove top dessert that also sets in the fridge. After tempering 4 whisked egg yolks, 3 tbsp sugar, and a pinch of salt, with scalded 3/4 c heavy whipping cream (i.e., the point when you start seeing little bubbles alongside the edges), the egg-cream mixture gets back onto low heat and cooks (making sure to stir constantly without scraping the bottom of the pot) until the mix has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. The mix is then strained to remove any bits of egg that curdled (read: scrambled; the heat went past the 165°F mark) during the cooking process, to which 1 tsp vanilla extract and 7 oz melted bittersweet chocolate are added. As this mixture cools, the remaining whipping cream is beaten alone until it reaches soft peaks. Before proceeding, make sure the chocolate mix has cooled down or else the heat will aid in the deflation of the cream you just beat.

Upon "lightening" the otherwise thick chocolate mix (i.e., whisk a quarter of the whipped cream into the chocolate so that it thins out just a bit... or else the air whipped into the cream will deflate because of the chocolate mix's high viscosity at this point), the rest of the whipped cream is folded into the chocolate in two smaller batches. Continue folding until the white streaks are gone (otherwise you get chocolate swirl mousse). Divide the mousse into your serving vessels (glasses, ramekins, etc.), cover, and chill for at least six hours to firmly set the mousse; let the mousse stand at room temperature for about 20 min before serving. Garnishes could include fresh fruit such as raspberries (pictured above) or strawberries (as I had done with my pots de crème), while toasted hazelnuts or a sprig of mint could be equally delicious. As for flavouring the mousse, suggested flavours included espresso, grand marnier, and cinnamon. Or, just eat the mousse on its own; it's that good.

After this great cooking demo, Robin took some time to chat with me about her culinary journey, including her James Beard Award for Journalism for her feature article, "Sushi American Style," as well as her experiences at Bon Apétit magazine. Just as I have experienced throughout The North Market, there's something of a transporting and ethnographically academic quality to learning about folks' amazing journeys-- what has influenced them, how they get to where they are, etc. Especially here, each person is a specialist of his/her trade, all the while being appreciative of others' expertise and contributing to the interconnectedness that exists in sourcing different components of a dish from various vendors in the market. If I'm correct in my assumptions of food anthropology, this is certainly a field I want to continue to be a part of; this is certainly a time to be learning about others through food.

Ah, and before I forget, I want to make a quick note that a French menu which began with influences from Normandy wouldn't be complete without the purchase of cidre from Normandy, which I first tasted during my semester abroad in Paris. In addition, and as if I hadn't had enough food already, I felt it was time to finally try the unique flavours coming from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, one of the vendors at the North Market. Though I had a delicious trio of poached pear riesling, violet and meringue, and dark chocolate ice cream, the flavour of the day is my new favourite ice cream...ever: askinosie dark milk chocolate.

And with that, I sign off for the night. To view the many photos I took during today's cooking class, click here.

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