Friday, 25 November 2011

Food and Culture Programme #2: French Food Fare

Happy day-after-Thanksgiving! Alas, an upcoming season full of food and the company of friends and family has officially begun with Thanksgiving now seeming to have passed ages ago and the hectic shopping schedule fills the air. But, before I get to my Thanksgiving break posts, I still need to catch up on my second residence hall food and culture programme. Last Wednesday, in consultation with the RA of a female-only building, we went with one of my favourite cooking themes: French. (No bias... well, not much anyway.) For about $2.75 per person, some of the students helped me in preparing four dishes from four regions of France for our menu: ratatouille (Provence, southeast), poulet à la crème (Bresse, east) with an apple-based cream sauce (Normandie-inspired, northwest), brie en croûte (Île-de-France, central), and a play on brochettes de fruits frais served over vanilla ice cream.

With about half a dozen sous chefs ready and willing to help out, we started the food prep by discussing our food and culinary backgrounds while also going over knife cuts and the importance of mise en place. (You know, typical conversation on a college campus...; Prior to the students' arrival, I got a pot of seasoned water boiling and preheated the oven to 350°F. ) As we talked, we began to sweat a small, brunoised onion in a tablespoon or so of olive oil for the ratatouille. Meanwhile, knives were set to work as bell peppers (green, orange, and yellow), a medium-sized egg plant, three small zucchini and three small yellow squash each received their appropriate dices. When all the veggies were cut and added to the pot, I added three 14 oz cans petite diced tomatoes (that also included garlic in the can), 1 can water, salt and pepper, and let the ratatouille cook on medium heat (slightly off-covered) for at least an hour.

As the ratatouille cooked, the students took turn dicing components of the other dishes: two golden delicious apples, four anjou pears, and five plums. While those cuts were being made, two students got to work on the brie en croûte (a.k.a., baked brie) as I sautéed another small onion (sliced, not diced!) and, in a little olive oil, browned diced (points for consistency in cutting technique?) chicken breast (about 5 lbs for 30 people, taking the cooked chicken out of the skillet as the chicken was finished cooking).

The brie eventually in the oven, I deglazed the pan in which I browned the chicken with a small can of chicken stock and added to the pan about a cup heavy cream (I eyeballed it; ), the sautéed onions, and the diced apples. As the sauce began to cook down, I got one and a half boxes of pasta (go with a fusilli-type) into the boiling water, and into a small pot brought the diced pears and plums to a cook with about 1/3 c apple juice, then reducing the heat to low as it continued to cook until dessert time.

After about 25-30 minutes, I took the brie out of the oven and put in two baguettes to crisp the crust. By this point the pasta, chicken and cream sauce should all be finished. For the chicken dish, I divided the chicken and cream in about half and combined to allow the flavours of the sauce to meld with the chicken. In addition, the ratatouille should be finished as well and can be taken off the heat, and the eating can commence!

Whereas all of the food was set out buffet style for the students, I offered plating suggestions should I serve each dish as part of a multi-course meal. Though the second dish, I first began plating the poulet à la crème as I needed enough time to let everything set in my moulding ring. After layering those components, I plated the ratatouille, topping it off with some shredded mozzarella.

As it turned out, the layers of pasta, apples, chicken and caramelised onions--topped with freshly grated nutmeg--held its form. To complete the dish, I pseudo-successfully drizzled a light ring of cream sauce around the pile.

Though not the best plated and photographed (because of the heat of the topping), I draped the dessert of fresh fruit cooked in apple juice over quenelles of vanilla ice cream. Overall, this was a rather successful food and culture programme not only based in timing, prep, and taste, but in the wonderful sharing of stories surrounding food culture throughout the lives of the students. For the entire album, click here.

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