Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Celebrating Marilyn's Birthday & the Start of Another Cooking Week

As of late, it seems, it's a rather rare occurrence for me to be writing (let alone beginning to write) a blog post shortly after a meal; with a string of cooking evening's ahead of me, I know it would behoove me to get a strong start on these postings. After a few weeks of solidifying a date and a few hours of actual time in the kitchen, the staff of the Center for Cross-Cultural Engagement (along with special family guests) celebrated one of our colleague's (Marilyn's) birthday this evening with quite a few food experiments gone right. On the menu: roasted caprese salad with balsamic served on biscotte; bacon and fried corn chowder; grilled salmon served with a mango pineapple salsa and rice pilaf; homemade raisin bread served with brie en croûte and smoked provolone; faux brown butter lemon pound cake with limoncello glaze.

Originally, today's cooking schedule would have begun at 2pm with a trip to the grocery store; however, my adaptability skills were challenged by that important thing called work and a delay to that start time, as well as a new cooking environment. This being said, I gathered items from my kitchen, got the grocery shopping done and headed to Marilyn's to prep the meal, arriving around 4.30pm. On the initial menu, I had intended on making a limoncello and apple granita but decided at the last minute to not proceed with that idea due to time restrictions; and so, I began the food prep with two of the most important (and rather commonplace) preparations to date: activating yeast and rendering the bacon fat. As has again been common practice as of late, I got 1.25 c milk heating with 1.5 tbsp granulated sugar; with wisps of smoke visible, I turned off the heat and sprinkled on a packet of yeast. (Check out this site for a video on a different method for activating yeast, otherwise known as "blooming.") Concurrently, I sliced 12 oz. bacon into lardons (small strips) and got half of those into a large frying pan. After the first half rendered the fat and became crispy, I took those out and fried three 15.25 oz cans full of drained low sodium, whole kernel canned corn, in that bacon fat. In addition, the oven was preheating to 350 °F. Also take out a sheet of frozen puff pastry and get this on a lightly floured baking sheet to slowly thaw.

As that was going, Marilyn's husband, Mark, arrived and helped out as sous chef, slicing in half a pint of grape tomatoes, and then peeling and dicing two Idaho potatoes. With the tomatoes sliced, these were put into a baking dish with a sprinkling of kosher salt, and then put into the oven to roast. 

[At this point (if not earlier), take out two sticks of unsalted butter so that it reaches room temperature and softens by the time you need it.] Meanwhile, the fried corn was transferred to a large pot to continue cooking and soften on medium heat; to that pot was added one 15.25 oz can of vegetable stock. In the same pan in which the first batch of bacon and corn were cooked, render the bacon fat from the second batch. As that's going, transfer the activated yeast and liquids to a bowl and add a pinch of salt and enough flour (about 3 c) to bring the bread dough together. Knead the dough until pliable and let it rest covered for at least half an hour (longer, if possible). By the time the dough is ready, so too should the bacon. Scoop out the crisped lardons and brown the diced potatoes, making sure to also pick up any fond (the burned bits on the bottom of the pan). To aid in this process (of softening the potatoes and getting that charred flavour), add 1 c heavy cream (half pint). Also add 1/4 c flour and stir this all together on medium heat. This should all thicken relatively quickly and will eventually aid in thickening the chowder itself. You should, at this point, be able to take out your grape tomatoes out of the oven; after about 40 minutes in the heat, the tomatoes' shape should look recognisable with the only visible difference being the peeling skins. Give this all a stir to combine the juices and salt. Once your pan resembles something like the above right photo, transfer this to the pot of corn and vegetable stock and continue to cook everything at med-lo heat. Add to the rested bread 1/3 c raisins and shape the dough on a baking sheet; get this into the oven on the upper rack.

In another bowl, beat very well five eggs, and whisk in 1 c milk and 2 tsp vanilla extract for the base of the lemon pound cake, the recipe of which I updated from my original adapted recipe with help from this one. In addition to this, zest one medium-size lemon and then add the juice of that lemon to the liquid component of the batter. As for dry ingredients, whisk in 1 c granulated sugar, 1 c light brown sugar, 1.5 tsp baking powder, a pinch of salt. Continuing to use the whisk and then switching over to a spatula if needed as the batter thickens, add in 3 c all-purpose flour. Next, add the two sticks of butter and use the whisk to help mash it as best as possible. Arguably, the butter could/should have been added much earlier so that it would've been smoothly added to the batter, but I didn't realise this until a bit too late; all told, as long as you can mash up the butter, leaving small bits of butter throughout the batter, this will work! (Like I mentioned earlier... experiment gone right...) Transfer this to a baking dish and let the batter rest. As that's resting, prep the brie en croûte by wrapping a small wheel of cheese in the puff pastry dough which at this point should be completely thawed; if it's dry, add a touch of water to soften it. If so desired, save a strip or two of puff pastry before wrapping so that you can add an exterior design element to the crust. Get this into the oven, which should still be at 350 °F (both the bread and the brie should be in the oven, with the brie on the lower rack).

Next, get ready for quite a bit of chopping. First, dice about 5 oz fresh mozzarella and add this to your grape tomatoes. To this, also add about 1/4 c roughly chopped basil and about a tablespoon (more or less to taste) balsamic vinegar. Give the flavours a chance to mingle together until it's time to serve. 

Take a look at the lead photo to this post and dice all of the ingredients, adding them to a medium/large bowl; give everything a stir as you add them to the bowl. I began with the two mangoes, about a cup of pineapple chunks (along with some pineapple juice), two roma tomatoes and 1/2 c red onion. Finely chop and add 1 large jalapeño, zest one small lime, and squeeze the juice of the lime. Give this a final stir and let these flavours have their own party time.

Meanwhile, in bakery world, your bread should be nearly done at this point. To add that stone oven-like char, switch the oven momentarily to broil and finish baking the bread for about five more minutes or until browned. Return the oven to bake and, with the bread now out of the oven, get the lemon pound cake batter into the oven.

By now, your chowder should have been cooking down for what seems like forever. Using an immersion blender, purée the chowder ingredients. What you should get is something that resembles creamy polenta. Continuing to blend the ingredients, add about 2 c milk. Even still, the chowder seemed unusually thick (Marilyn and I were wondering at this point whether or not any of the cream or the milk itself was being whipped by the blender.) Switch over to a spatula and heat now turned off, stir in enough milk until the chowder is to a desired consistency (about another 2 c). In all actuality, the chowder has been simmering away for a long time, building up its flavour profile, so don't worry about the possibility of it being too thinned out that there wouldn't be any taste. If nothing else, you've stretched the serving capacity of the chowder. And believe me, the flavour will be there.

I typically quick-thaw my frozen puff pastry dough by running water over it which often times results in a butterier(?) crust; the slow-thaw method, however, produces a flakier crust. Depending on time, feel free to choose your method. This time around, I was quite happy with the way the brie turned out. After the brie en croûte has turned a nice golden colour (about 20-30 minutes), it's ready to be taken out of the oven. This should also be the marker to get your rice pilaf going (Marilyn had a pot of water starting to boil a bit earlier) and the salmon on the grill (for timing purposes according to Mark, 12-15 minutes on the grill and 10 minutes resting time are needed). 

The final "big" prep that needs to be done is to mix powdered sugar and limoncello together for the glaze that will be served atop the lemon pound cake. Find your happy balance when it comes to consistency and desired quantity, but I would start with about 1/2 c powdered sugar and a tablespoon or so of limoncello. Of course, if you want the non-alcoholic version go with lemon juice. The limoncello will bring out the lemon flavour of the dessert and to a certain (limited) extent will evaporate as it's exposed to air.

With the glaze now complete, the dinner courses can begin! Serve the roasted caprese salad on some petite toasts, either homemade or store-bought. I went with store-bought biscotte (a French-style-though-found-alongside-Italian-products type of rusk; I need to find one of my host parent's South African rusk recipe...). The toasts serve as a great vehicle for the salad and offer a great bite to the softer ingredients. Remember, too, there are liquids especially from the tomatoes and balsamic vinegar, so don't plate these too far in advance.

Second on the menu is the bacon and fried corn chowder which just by itself will begin to challenge those who are unaccustomed to eating the amount of food that will be served as part of this meal. It is helpful to note here that a few minutes prior, Marilyn warmed the bowls in the oven to help keep the chowder itself on the warmer side. Dare I say it but you don't need to add any more bacon to the bowl, as you can taste the bacon flavour from the rendered bacon fat very clearly; but then, again, who am I kidding? Besides the fact we're talking about more bacon goodness, it does add colour (although, some chopped parsley wouldn't hurt in the future) and some textural crunch for any otherwise thick chowder. By this point in the meal, the lemon pound cake should be finished baking. Upon checking on it, however, I was concerned because a pool of butter seemed to have formed on the top most layer's perimeter. Clearly, this was a result of the butter not having been fully incorporated into the batter. This being said, I still went with it and left the cake in the oven to keep cooking in the warmth of the oven. With no heat on, then, I also put the bread and brie back in the oven to warm up while we ate our main course.

When we began to plan the meal last Thursday, one of the things I knew I wanted to see on the menu was Mark's preparation of salmon. As it was also being served with the salsa, he prepared this salmon with lemon and melted butter. With near silence as we ate, especially by Beth's sons Chip and Carter (who led our meal in prayer, followed by Erik; I should also note that Beth's husband Jim was able to join us, too), the salmon and salsa were served with rice pilaf of the Near East toasted almond variety. And with this course, we started to climb down the hill of this experience.

Course four brought the brie en croûte and smoked provolone (which I had purchased earlier and microwaved for a few minutes to warm the interior), and the homemade raisin bread (get it, grapes and cheese?). Melted cheese and warm bread... Enough said.

Our final course and the capstone to the meal would soon arrive in the form of whatever came out of the oven. When I took the lemon pound cake out of the oven, I was a bit surprised to see the butter had cooled and browned, creating something of a faux brown butter crust because of the heat. (A true brown butter would first be heated on the stove top until the butter solids cooked.) A crackled and crispy crust had also formed.

Cutting into the cake, the interior was rather light, undoubtedly moist, and borderline dense. However, the textural challenge was relieved by the limoncello glaze and the lemon flavouring, as well as the joy of the surprise crust. What wasn't a surprise to me is that, after eating all this food, we were ready to take a break from eating for a while. Let's see how long that lasts with the coming days and food's mighty presence on our campus on the hill. For the entire album, including our leftovers, click here.

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