Sunday, 23 October 2011

It Finally Happened!: Farm to Table Cooking Class 2011

Shortly after my arrival to Denison's campus last autumn, I received an e-mail soliciting event ideas for the 2011-2012 campus-wide theme of "Migrations." Now a year later, months of planning, an intensive three weeks trying to pull everything together, and cognisant of both yesterday being the last Farmers Market day of the fall season and Monday being National Food Day (ironically, this year's theme is "Transforming the Way Americans Eat), my fall food and culture program "Farm to Table Cooking Class: An Experiential Food Adventure" finally came to fruition. When all was said and done, our group of 21 registered participants and crew of 10 (myself, Ana, Dave, Lauren, Marilyn, Marlaine, and Susan, as well as Jen, Monica, and Nicki of PEAS--People Endorsing Agricultural Sustainability) somehow pulled off a truly ambitious menu. Before I share with you our program and menu, I should note the coordination of a large group of over 30 (with plans to feed at least 40, if the farmers/vendors were to have joined us) was a script I had been dreaming and rerunning multiple times in my head over the past week and, while a rewarding challenge in the end, it would have had no meaning were it not for the participants and crew that took part in the challenge. I would be remiss to not also acknowledge the wonderful support from both Denison (especially our respective offices, and in particular the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life for providing the Open House as our wonderful venue) and the Granville Farmers Market community. With this said and with much gratitude, and in the words of the Iron Chef America chairman's uncle, let us now turn to yesterday's event... à la cuisine ! [Side note: As those who are familiar with this blog should know, and as I mentioned to the participants yesterday, all of the recipes I have made have all been written out here in an on-traditional recipe style. You are encouraged to read the blog from start to finish, taking note of your mise en place (i.e., preparation, organiation and knowledge of the location of especially measured ingredients). In addition, I would also like to note that I have made most of these dishes and the recipes I've shared are my adaptations of a variety of others; if this is the case, the dishes will be linked to additional posts on this blog.]

As noted above, I had quite an ambitious menu in store for Saturday's participants, all of which were designed to feature local ingredients from the Granville Farmers Market. Certainly with a fall theme in mind, I knew the bases for the dishes had to be simple, I wanted them to be made from scratch if at all possible, and they had to have rather neutral flavours so as to heighten the ingredients being showcased. On our menu were: a fall harvest salad; a spiced pumpkin mousse served with graham crackers; handmade gnocchi with crushed tomato, garlic and basil sauce; handmade kale raviolis stuffed with squash, with crumbled goat cheese and a brown butter sage sauce; handmade tortillas with fall harvest vegetable stir-fry and garnished with fresh salsa; and an apple balsamic tartlet.

This year's program had four distinct components: visit the farmers market to purchase ingredients and practice some food ethnography; watch very brief tutorials on how to create the bases for each of the dishes; as a large group, prepare all of the dishes; eat the dishes as one foodie family. But before that could all begin, the crew mentioned above met at the Open House and quickly began the prep work. To complete the entire meal, get three large pots of water boiling (making sure to add more water every so often as time progresses and the water evaporates), a small pot of milk heating up on the stove, and have the oven preheating to 350 °F. I then sent out a few of the crew to purchase ingredients from the Granville Farmers Market (just a short walk away from the Open House) that needed the most time to cook or that were important ingredients to a recipe, i.e., potatoes, butternut squash, pumpkin, eggs, and kale. As that group left, the rest of us focused on making one of the two doughs that needs the most time to rest, tortilla dough (2 cups all-purpose flour, 1.5 tsp baking powder, 2 tsp olive oil, pinch of salt, about 3/4 c warm milk; the warm milk came from the pot that was heating it up from the start). For our group, we made three batches of dough, and eventually divide the rolled out tortillas in half (the size and quantity of which will vary depending on who's actually making it).

When the market group arrived, we scored (i.e., cut cross slits on two sides of the potato to make it easier to peel) 8 lbs red skin potatoes for the gnocchi and dropped them into two of the already boiling pots of water to loosen the skins and to soften the potatoes until fork tender. You could also just use and peel 8 lbs russet potatoes). Meanwhile, two large butternut squash cut lengthwise in half (with seeds scraped out) for the ravioli filling were placed in the oven with a drizzling of olive oil, salt and pepper. For the spiced pumpkin mousse, we sliced into wedges a medium pumpkin (specifically the sweeter, French heirloom "Cinderella pumpkin") and placed these on two shallow baking trays with a splash of water and into the oven, as well. 

With the tortilla dough done and a burner now free, cook down the kale to be added to the ravioli dough. At first, I ripped the leaves off the stem and in a rush cooked them down but not nearly long enough. When we added them to the dough, they ended up being too fibrous and would easily create holes when run through the pasta maker. And so, we made a fresh batch of ravioli dough (made in bowls instead of on a floured surface: 1 3/4 c all-purpose flour, pinch of salt, and two eggs) and for the second go around, I cut a "V" into the leaves of kale, i.e., to remove the tougher, bitter stem, and chopped the leaves very fine. Put these into a sauté pan with a light drizzle of olive oil and some salt and when slightly crisped, give the kale another fine chop. The goal here was to colour the ravioli dough green, as could be done with spinach; however, that didn't turn out so well (though still better than the first try) with the autumn-available fresh kale, but still definitely usable. Speaking of ravioli, for this group, we prepared three batches of ravioli dough and made a fourth batch (vegan style) with just flour, salt, and water.

By this point (9:20am), the participants started arriving and so we continued the prep work. Concurrently, the potatoes were nearly finished cooking; as a fork was able to pierce the potatoes, they were taken out of the water, de-skinned (i.e., peeled), and then run through a potato ricer. As the potatoes were nearing their completion, the squash and pumpkin both passed the fork test, were taken out of the oven, and then their flesh scraped off the skins into separate bowls. Both the squash and pumpkin were then separately mashed.

As all of this was going on, I finally (9:40am) got around to greeting the participants. To start things off, we began with introductions and briefly described our personal food migrations, from heritage (what we grew up eating, the flavours we were used to, etc.) to today (what we like to eat and cook now), providing contextual information and influences that guided our food choices. We certainly had quite a mixed crowd and it was wonderful to see the teamwork and feel the energy in the room as the day went on. After having gone through the schedule, and catching up with time, the participants were divided into three groups responsible for buying ingredients for two dishes. In addition to simply purchasing ingredients from the Granville Farmers Market, they were prompted to ask the following questions (the food ethnography component of the program):
  • From where did the item(s) originate?
  • Where is/are the item(s) produced (distance from Granville, etc.)? What is its migration story?
  • What is a good recipe to use these ingredients?
  • Why did you choose to produce the specific crops, products, etc., that you're selling here?
  • What was/is your motivation for participating in local/organic/sustainable food production? How long have you been involved in the Granville Farmers Market?
  • How did you first get into this business? Did you start this up, or take over the family business?

Sent out with money to purchase the ingredients, the participants headed off to the market and were told to arrive no later than 10:45am. Meanwhile, some of the crew got to work on the gnocchi dough (the 8 lbs of boiled and riced potatoes mentioned above, divided into two bowls; in each were added two eggs and "enough"--about 2+ cups--all-purpose flour), while others boiled and deskinned tomatoes (photos here) for the gnocchi sauce, and others still caught up on dishes and keeping the kitchen clean. The crew then picked up more tasks as the ingredients arrived from the market and as we approached demo time. After straining as much of the liquid from the smashed pumpkin as possible, one of the dishes we then completed was the spiced pumpkin mousse, following Aimée's spice mix recipe. For our group, we blended and whisked into the pumpkin enough ingredients equivalent to three batches (3 tbsp of the spice mix, 12 oz softened cream cheese, 3 c cool whip, and 6 tbsp granulated sugar). Once thoroughly combined, this went straight into the freezer to set.

With the doughs now completed, everything as cooked and prepared (including washing any fruits and vegetables) as possible, and everyone's hands washed, it was time (11:00am) to begin the demo component of the program, following a brief discussion on what the participants learned from the market. After demonstrating how to pull the three doughs together, I began handing out assignments: one group focusing on rolling and shaping tortillas; two groups rolling and shaping the gnocchi; and one group using my pasta maker to roll and shape the ravioli, filling the ravioli with the baked butternut squash to which was added additional salt and ground black pepper. In addition, a pair was sent to get the goat cheeses I neglected to assign earlier, while one group was assigned the task of chopping up the vegetables intended for the salad, another to crush the deskinned tomatoes referenced in the paragraph above for the gnocchi sauce (to which was also added finely crushed and chopped garlic; a handful each of two types of basil were also being chopped as a garnish, while a smaller handful were julienned to be added directly into the sauce), yet another to put together the fresh salsa à la Aimée's fresh salsa spice mix (we just made about 2.5 batches, adding the spice mix to equivalent tomato and cilantro quantities), and a final group to slice vegetables for the stir-fry and apples for the dessert.

As all of this work was being completed in the room adjacent to the kitchen, gnocchi began to enter the kitchen ready for cooking. Again, the pots of water continued to be kept boiling and were thus ready for the gnocchi. To know when the gnocchi are ready to be taken out of the water, simply check to see if they've floated to the surface and if so rescue them; add these to the crushed tomato, garlic, and basil sauce as they're finished cooking. One burner should still be free at this point, onto which the tortilla vegetables should be cooked with some olive oil in a large skillet; once all the vegetables are done, wipe the pan clean and begin cooking the tortillas as those are being finished.


In any of the available pots, cook the ravioli in batches as they're being completed and transfer them to clean plates after floating to the top (if they're struggling to float, they're not yet done).

Amidst all of this, you should be well set to start the dessert, the recipe of which I've adapted from a close family friend and first learned during the 2010 FIFA World Cup; before you criticise, I acknowledge the fact the puff pastry we used here was not handmade, but it still highlights local produce. Take out some frozen puff pastry, running it under some water if need be to quickly defrost it. Lay out 2-3 rectangles on a baking sheet (your choice to grease the sheet or not) and on top of this, spread a layer of preserves (we used strawberry) and then layer the thinly sliced apples. Sprinkle some light brown sugar, lightly drizzle some balsamic vinegar, and then get this into the oven, which should still be set at 350 °F. Keep the tartlet (or in our case two tartlets for our group) in the oven until the puff pastry has browned and the apples have softened. Once the tartlets are out of the oven, you can turn the oven off.

The final component of the meal to work on--which can be completed after all the pasta has cooked (turn off the burners as the last batches of pasta are cooked) and as the tables are wiped down and the farm to table feast is being set--is the brown butter sage sauce for the ravioli. In a small sauce pan, pour the microwaved (i.e., now melted) butter and cook the butter until it starts to crackle and literally turns brown. As I've forewarned in previous posts, do be careful that you don't overcook the butter as it can turn black and bitter very quickly. After you pick up the nutty aroma from the butter, take it off the heat and steep 24 sage leaves for about five minutes. Concurrently, someone should be breaking up graham crackers into individual pieces and transferring the spiced pumpkin mousse into serving trays. By this point, the butter should be cooled; strain out the sage leaves and transfer the butter into bowls  to be added to, and passed around, the dining table. And if this isn't enough to do, crumble the soft goat cheese (to top off the ravioli), grate the harder goat cheese (to top off the gnocchi), put together the salad as the ingredients are finished being sliced and diced, and slowly microwave about half a pound of butter (as a side note, our cheese and butter were produced locally). 

Whew! And with that, the cooking component of the program was completed and it was onto the final component: the eating! After first taking brief inventory of what the participants learned and enjoyed about the overall experience and congratulating the participants on the work they accomplished, we passed the food around our fall-time Thanksgiving-like main and side support tables. 

It can be said that in taking a bite out of a colourful cornucopia of culinary art, this fall's farm to table cooking class was based on simple cooking complicated by an array of vegetarian options and arguably too many cooks in the kitchen. And yet, I find this program's "success" to have been motivated and reliant on cooperation and common themes: food and by extension recipes--no matter how far or distant from one's experience--are migratory and insofar as can be appreciated each have their own stories. With again much gratitude, we finished writing this program, especially as the leftover food and ingredients were taken home, the dishes were washed, and the Open House was left in a similar fashion to the plates wiped clean, as analogised  in my culinary point of view, i.e., ready for another meal, another experience, another story.

Many thanks to Jen Trimmer and Marilyn Andrew for taking photos! To view Jen's photos, click here; for Marilyn's, click here. For the few photos I took, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment