Saturday, 20 August 2011

Back to Basics (with Jazz Included)

Finally settled into my apartment on campus, I was fortunate last weekend to make it to the Granville Farmers Market located just a few blocks away. I had gone on a dual mission: first, to find initial contacts for a food program I'm organising in relation to our campus theme of migration; and second, to purchase fresh, local, and organic, produce from the area farmers. I wasn't sure what I would find exactly, but I knew I somehow had to feed it into my menu planning for a dinner I had been anticipating the week prior: my former roommate in Paris, Trevor, and his girlfriend, Helena, are on an amazing across-the-country road trip from Pennsylvania to California, and Granville, OH, made it on their list of stops. Both aspiring film makers, they are also wonderful photographers. Following below are the meals I prepared for them but if you'd rather see their great photos first, head over to their blog post here.

When I typically prepare a menu, I tend to begin with a specific dish and build the other courses around it (generally speaking by theme, followed by projected execution and timing). However, my approach to this meal was different in that I let the ingredients (pardon the cliché) "speak to me." Indeed, I would say this was the first meal which relied on my limited "Chopped" mystery basket-like training to find inspiration. Or that could all be rubbish and one could argue that it's been my latest attention on the food program focusing on local food migration which has served as my thematic inspiration. In any case, the night prior I had restocked my pantry with the staple baking goods and my fridge with dairy and protein; all that was missing then were the fresh ingredients. Apparently the season has been a bit off due to the late arrival of rain and so I was lucky to have arrived to my first farmers market of the season with a considerable amount of available ingredients. As I walked through the open air set-up (albeit a substantially smaller resemblance to those I saw throughout France), the tomatoes, bell peppers, squashes, and egg plant, stood out... as did the idea for ratatouille. I had also seen many of the market goers leaving with pecks of large peaches, a fruit of which I don't typically turn to. I purchased 1/4 peck and received 7 juicy peaches, quite ready to be eaten... peach cobbler, even though I have never made one, let alone ever try. And so it began, the whirlwind decisions from course to course: ratatouille on tri-coloured pasta, using the aforementioned vegetables; pork chops with a red wine chocolate sauce (even though I've never cooked pork chops or made a chocolate sauce that went with anything other than a dessert); and peach cobbler with... blueberries. No, that would be too easy. And so I decided to pair that with a homemade blueberry punch sherbet (despite never having made a sherbet before).

Since Trevor and Helena were to arrive on Monday, I decided to make the sherbet first, but not before spending more time than necessary comparing this recipe to the myriad offered here; I had gone against sherbet's close cousin--sorbet--i.e., the lactose intolerant-friendly option--as well as making an ice cream, as the folks at The Short Story Brasserie had done. For what eventually became blueberry punch sherbet, I puréed 1.5 c fresh blueberries (from the store) and gave another 1/2 c a quick spin in the food chopper. In a metal bowl, I added to the blueberries 1 c berry punch and 1 personal serving size container of blueberry yogurt (which took care of the corn syrup, initial sugar, and Greek yogurt proposed in the first recipe, as well as the additional liquid called for in other recipes). For the additional thickening agents, I added 1 tbsp cornstarch and 1 whole lightly beaten egg. In any case, after all the ingredients were well incorporated, it was time for a taste; essentially, the goal is to get this liquid to taste as you would like it to in the end. At this point, then, if you desire something sweeter, add sugar to your liking. With the liquid tasting as I would like my sherbet to be, it's time to play the waiting game: put the sherbet liquid in the freezer and every hour, give the sherbet a stir. In the ideal world, everything would be timed perfectly so that in six hours' time you can serve this. In the event you leave it overnight as I did, be sure to plastic wrap the bowl so you don't form any ice crystals. Otherwise, be sure to allow enough time in the planning process to defrost.

As the sherbet was forming, it was then time to move onto my immediate go-to recipe: ratatouille. I've made ratatouille multiple times and have blogged about it before so I won't bore you with that process (go ahead and search "ratatouille" should you need any further explanation; also, here's a link to a YouTube clip on making ratatouille), but I will say that using the amount of vegetables as I did this time around (one green bell pepper, two skinny eggplants, two tomatoes, and two yellow squashes, along with four cloves of garlic, dried onion, and a bit of my go-to spice, thyme) yielded more than enough ratatouille for the three of us, especially as I would end up serving it with tri-coloured spiral pasta. Ah, yes, and I should also note I added about two glasses of water, and allowed this small amount of ratatouille to simmer for about two hours following the initial boiling stage.

Perhaps it was because I only made a small amount of ratatouille over a relatively long amount of time, but I found much of the flavour going into the resulting vegetable broth. The ratatouille itself was an easy fix with a bit more thyme, salt, and pepper, but I made sure to save the vegetable broth for another dish. Once cooled, the strained ratatouille and the vegetable broth both went into the fridge.

Into the following work day, I continued to finalise my mental mise en place... and then I received a message saying Trevor and Helena would arrive a bit later than expected. Within my now three hour window of preparation, I relaxingly returned back to my apartment and eventually went to work on my peach cobbler. Basing my first attempt on this tried-and-true recipe, I first began by setting the oven to 375 °F and prepped four large peaches for peeling, the process of which is akin to deskinning tomatoes.

As the peaches cool in the ice water, microwave 1/2 c (i.e., 1 stick) unsalted butter in a microwave-safe bowl for about 30 seconds or until melted, and allow this to cool off in a 13" x 9" baking dish. In a separate bowl, combine together 1 c all-purpose flour, 3/4 c packed light brown sugar, 1 tbsp baking powder, and a pinch of salt. Once fully combined (make sure to break apart the brown sugar), pour up to 1 c milk to this dry mix just until it gets evenly moist. In actuality, you'll only need about 1/2 c milk, and take note the resulting mix will look something like cake batter. Once this is all combined, layer the mixture evenly over the butter and make sure not to stir both layers together. This step now complete, return to the peaches and peel, slice, and roughly dice them. They, along with as much of the juice as possible, are then put in a small pot on medium heat, joined by 3/4 c granulated sugar and 2 tbsp limoncello, and brought to a boil. Once the liquid begins to boil, carefully transfer the peaches and any resulting liquid onto the milk-flour mixture. Put this (now) three-layered dish into the oven for about 35-40 min. The cobbler should have no problem browning in the oven, so what you're looking for in terms of it being "finished" is a rise in the actual crust (the flour-milk mixture) which should be fairly sticky from both the sugars and peach juices. When indeed finished, leave the cobbler to cool either on the counter or even in the oven with the heat turned off.

As the cobbler was baking, it was then time to multi-task and finish up the rest of the components of our meal. In one pot, I reheated the strained ratatouille, and brought some seasoned water to a boil in another pot to then cook the pasta to serve with the ratatouille. I could not have asked for better timing, as Trevor and Helena arrived as this first course was nearing completion. [This would also be the point in which I note the opening photo, the above photo and those which follow were taken by Trevor and Helena.] With a throwback to our spring semester in Paris, we enjoyed course one alongside a cold glass of cidre from Normandy (which you could find at the North Market in Columbus), eating to the jazz beats coming from the television radio station. Served on a simple bed of cooled pasta, the warm ratatouille--a humble and rustic French dish--was finished off with a sprinkling of cheese and certainly is one dish in my collection that always brings to mind a sense of calm and nostalgia for a collective culinary and cultural history. [In retrospect, and if I'm not mistaken, I became particularly interested in cooking ratatouille after watching this scene in particular, the tone of which mimics my previous statement. Indeed, the release of Ratatouille (Pixar, 2007) directly preceded my general return to cooking the following fall, as noted in my first post of this blog.]

At the midway point of our first course, I lightly floured and seasoned thin, boneless pork chops, and fried them in a bit of olive oil for about 3-5 minutes on each side. Transferring the cooked chops to a plate and leaving them to rest under another plate to also keep warm, I diced three red skin potatoes and pan fried the exteriors in olive oil. With the potatoes browned, I added thyme, salt, and pepper, reduced the heat and covered the sauté pan to allow the residual liquid to steam the potatoes and finish the interior cooking process (until fork tender). As the potatoes were cooking, I deglazed the pork chop pan with about 3/4 c of 2006 Chasing Lions; once uncorked, finish within a week, or else prepare to use it solely for cooking afterwards), added 1/2 tbsp of unsalted butter, and allowed the wine to reduce slightly before then adding about 1.5-2 oz dark chocolate (Hershey's, or whatever else you happen to have in your pantry) to taste. The (now) red wine chocolate sauce is done when the chocolate has thoroughly melted; the chocolate takes in the concentrated flavour of the red wine (so don't let the wine reduce too much or else you won't have any flavour to be absorbed!), resulting in a warm sauce with an undoubtedly heavy chocolate tone with an almost spicy undertone from the red wine. 

Plated with the sauce beneath the pork chops and then drizzled on top, this combination of chocolate and meat is one I highly encourage you to try. In addition to the finished potatoes at this point, the pork chops were also served with short grain white rice (which I began cooking as soon as I plated the ratatouille) that had been cooked with the [ratatouille] vegetable stock plus 1 c water, the result of which had the consistency and taste of risotto. Unsurprisingly, the wine pairing for this course was a glass of Chasing Lions which added not only an additional warmth to the meal but of course brought out the flavour of the sauce.

With course two now behind us, it was time to plate dessert. Using my moulding ring, I built a tower of still warm peach cobbler (the noted stickiness above which aided in holding everything together) to which I then topped with a cannelle of berry punch sherbet. (Again, make sure to plan enough time to defrost the sherbet to the right consistency.) In addition, I also sprinkled the plate with a freshly diced peach for added temperature, textural, and visual contrasts.

Following this course was the signature end to my meals in Paris, and certainly here in the States: my chocolat chaud. While I'll only share this basic recipe in person, I will say that one addition to this particular serving was that of freshly hand whipped cream, an addition of which I may continue to use in the future.And so there you have it-- my first multi-course meal following my trip to France and a return to three basic symbols of Parisian nostalgia: Normandy cidre, jazz, and hot chocolate. But alas, there's one more: Trevor doing the dishes.

The following morning, I cooked nutella-filled crêpes (the batter of which I prepared right after the kitchen cleanup) topped with lightly sugared blueberries  before heading up the Hill for work and saying farewells to Trevor and Helena as they continued their westward voyage. For my photos from this dinner, click here. Again, to check out Trevor and Helena's photos within the original post  from which the latter half of these photos were taken, click here.

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