Thursday, 15 December 2011

Dining, Listening, Learning: Community at the Dinner Table

With the go-ahead to continue campus-wide conversations on campus this academic year, I have been part of the steering committee that leads this charged. Now known as "Listening for a Change,"  the way I've understand the work we've been doing is through the underlying lenses of community building and cross-cultural understanding through open and honest dialogue. End goals defined or not, there is a recurring theme that dialogue in itself is action and, as such, a worthwhile endeavour. This evening, I had the absolute honour to dine with most of our small group dialoguers; and where there's food, there also exists continued community development. All the theory and rhetoric aside, we were able to take a true break from the campus environment and spend some quality time together as an extended family. Before I continue, I would like to recognise the fact we were down one member, but for a very understandable reason: she recently welcomed a new baby into the world.. perhaps another dialoguer in the future? Indeed, I can't imagine the dialoguing and the dining would stop here, and I'm already looking forward to the next time we meet!

Prior to the dinner, we each took on a dish or two to bring. Our host had requested I make again the Caribbean dish I had first made at the start of the semester (sweet potatoes and black beans served over yellow rice), the directions to which can be found via the hyperlink above. I also wanted to bring something with meat and, with the winter season looming, also offered to bring an adapted take on poutine which I had made toward the start of the year. Beginning later than anticipated, the total cook time for both of these dishes was about 90 minutes from which I'd subtract time as items were prepped and as I took photo breaks. All of this said, on medium heat, I started off by crisping half a pound bacon that was cut into small strips (lardons). When the bacon has crisped, drain/save the bacon; it's not needed (!) for the poutine (though I suppose you could use it to build your gravy).

As the bacon is going, get a large pot of water + butter (according to the directions of your yellow rice package) boiling. In addition, get your oven preheating to 375 °F. Peel and dice 2 lbs sweet potatoes, add this to a large sauce pan with 2 c water, the juice of half a lemon, and that half quartered into wedges, and bring this all to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook the sweet potatoes for 20 min. Also, in a large pot sauté 1 c onion slices (1/2 large onion or 2 small onions) in melted butter (bring the heat down to low once the onion has browned, so as not to overcook it until you need it). If/When you get a chance, grind together the spice mix for the sweet potatoes to be used later. This may seem like a lot to do as bacon is going, but you'll quickly find you have the time to do so. I am also summarizing here as each recipe is available above.

After 20 min, the sweet potatoes should be fork tender. Carefully take them out of the pan, add 1 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp light brown sugar, as well as a dash each of cinnamon and crushed red pepper flakes. Let this all cook together and reduce the liquid to about 1/3 c. Add this to the sweet potatoes, give it a stir and then transfer this all to the pot with the onions. Give this all a stir, along with the addition of one 15 oz can vegetable stock. If you didn't forget (like I did), also add your spice blend of cumin, paprika, crushed red pepper flakes, and cinnamon. (Again, quantities and more specific instructions available here.) After about 10 min simmering together, add two 15 oz cans black beans and a bunch's worth of green onions sliced at the bias. Give this a final stir and you're all done with this component of the dish. Halfway through this, you should have a break to get your rice packages open and into the boiling water in the pot you set up earlier.

In the breaks of time when you're waiting for things to cook, such as the 20 min window for the sweet potatoes, batonnet six medium-larger red skin potatoes. Drizzle about a tablespoon oil (olive, canola, or whatever else you have in your pantry), and add the spices noted in the recipe (paprika, onion flakes, and garlic flakes [I used garlic powder this time around and didn't grind everything together; I also added ground black pepper]). Using a spatula (or better yet, your hands) and mix this all together on a baking sheet. Get this into the oven to bake for about half an hour, depending on how crispy you want these. (Crispier doesn't necessarily mean better in this case.)

As the rice nears completion, begin working on the chicken gravy. I'm not entirely certain if what I ended up making is really considered "gravy" by any tradition sense of the term, but it definitely does work here. In a large sauce pan, get one 15 oz can chicken stock simmering with 1 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp flour (and if desperate as I was because of timing, 1/4 tsp cornstarch). Dissolve the flour/starch as much as possible and allow the liquid to reduce by about 50%. When the potatoes are done, transfer (or scrape, if necessary) them to a mixing bowl. Strain the chicken gravy over the potatoes and while still warm add 1 c shredded mozzarella cheese and the lardons. Give this all a toss and transfer to your serving dish. And again, you're done!

These two dishes were added to a colourful spread of food which also included mango salsa, a selection of cheeses, a homemade spinach artichoke dip and a traditional Bulgarian salad called shopska salata.

...And for dessert, two pies: butterscotch cream and raspberry. A diversity of experiences and a diversity of culinary selections, the desserts and the rest of the meal seemed to act more as compliments (as opposed to the primary foci) to a lively and engaged conversation, one open to learning and understanding. Indeed, though it may be food that brings people together, it's those who are present who keep that conversation going. For the entire photo album, click here.

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