Sunday, 11 December 2011

Dining with Drummers

following our final performance as a drum ensemble...

And just like that, the end to another semester draws near. Before we get there, though, there remains an entire week full of final exams and papers, the anticipation of next term's events, and of course holiday gatherings and food. On the list of "finals" that have recently passed was the final dance concert of the semester; titled "3 plus 1," this year's concert brought together three Denison colleagues and one guest artist, three men and one woman, and three dance pieces and one drum piece. I, and eight others, throughout the course of the semester had taken lessons from the brilliant Terrence and the dance concert provided us with a great opportunity to put into practice what we had learned. Unfortunately for us and for Denison, Terrence will be moving further north for the next chapter in his life. Indeed, gratitude abounds for his unselfish willingness to teach and ultimately inspire. Especially in recent weeks, our group of drummers has become a relatively close bunch and we definitely have Terrence to thank for that. All of this said, we gathered in my apartment on Thursday after the show for a special drummers dinner.

As it always tends to be the case, my menus can err on the side of the ambitious but the timing--which still included a morning candidate interview, office work, an evening meeting and the concert itself--definitely brought this challenge to a different level. The night before, I began to dream up a menu and came up with a rather lofty idea as to how this would all work out. (And this would be why such things as reading through menus and getting your mise en place ready are especially essential in multi-course cooking!)

In any case, I tried to begin the meal prep Thursday morning by de-shelling hazelnuts, with the intent of roasting them before getting to work; however, the morning just seemed to slip away too quickly that I had to put that on hold. After lunch, I got back to my apartment and tried again, remembering that I had de-shelled hazelnuts before and use a pair of kitchen shears to get the job done. Now we're on a roll...

Pre-heat your oven to 275 °F, and then de-shell two handfuls of hazelnuts. Separate the hazelnuts from the shells and transfer them to a baking sheet; the two handfuls should yield about 1/2 c hazelnuts.

For timing purposes, don't get the hazlenuts in the oven just yet (even though the oven should be ready by the time you're done de-shelling). Instead, prepare some bread dough by activating the yeast. In a small sauce pot, warm 1.25 c whole milk and stir in 5 tbsp granulated sugar; when you see small wisps of smoke, turn off the heat and sprinkle a packet of yeast. Allow it to sit there and foam for at least 10 minutes or, if you're in a rush, until you can smell it. Meanwhile, melt 1.5 tbsp unsalted butter and in a separate bowl beat two eggs very well with a pinch of salt. When the yeast is ready, mix this in a bowl with the eggs, salt, and melted butter. To this liquid, add 2 c all-purpose flour and use a whisk to combine all the ingredients. Add another 1/2 c flour and combine, and then another; switch over to a spatula to bring everything together once it gets too tough to do so with the whisk. A total of 3 c (even less) should be good, but add a bit more if the dough is still too wet. Knead the dough until it barely sticks to your hands. Cover the bowl with a towel and set it in a warm, dry place to rest and rise.

I don't know if I've mentioned this yet, but I recently received a great set of knives from my parents over the Thanksgiving break, and it was about time I started using them. (I mention this here, as the French-style chef's knife in the above photo is new to the blog.) While the dough is rising, now get your hazelnuts into the oven for the slow-roast method (again, at 275); for the quicker, more constant checking-necessitated method, your oven should be at 350. With those components now prepping, prep 12 oz bacon into lardons, defined in this post as small strips of bacon. For me, this will serve two primary purposes: 1) to quickly crisp fairly evenly-sized portions of bacon (as opposed to crumbling the bacon and having inconsistent pieces) to serve as the garnish for one of the dishes; 2) to more quickly render the fat. This said, cook the bacon, either working in batches or dividing the bacon among multiple pots as necessary.

By the time you've cooked all the bacon, the hazelnuts should be finished roasting (about a 30 min process, or until they're golden brown and the skins become rather flaky). Take them out of the oven and transfer them to a towel. Bring the heat of the oven up to 350 °F. Effectively making a mini-satchel, close the towel and rub the hazelnuts, essentially peeling the skins. Though not needing to be perfect, most of the peels should be removed; sift them out if necessary, as working with the skins mean bringing bitterness to the party if you decide to cook with them. Next, give the hazelnuts a rather fine chop and then fold these into the dough which should at this point have risen. After you've combined the hazelnuts and dough, transfer this back to a bowl and cover, allowing it a few minutes to again rest and rise.

As the dough goes through it's second, short rise, transfer half the rendered bacon fat to a container (and not directly down the drain) and reheat it on lo-med heat. Also, prepare a baking pan with a thin layer of cornstarch. Once prepared, take your (now) toasted hazelnut bread dough and shape it on the pan. Get this into the oven for about half an hour.

Meanwhile, with the Asian-style santoku knife, brunoise a small onion and then brown this in the rendered bacon fat. Also dice washed red skin potatoes, using a general formula of (number of guests)/2 and add an extra. After the onions have browned in the bacon fat, add in the potatoes. As these cook, wash and chop into thirds about .75 lbs green beans. Add the beans to the pot and cover, cooking the veg for about 20 minutes in total, stirring halfway.

By this point, the bread should be finished (so take it out of the oven!). Also by this point, I needed to leave for my evening meeting, so I turned the heat off the veg and off-covered it to keep in some of the heat and moisture.

Upon my return to the kitchen (i.e., after performing our drum piece, following the evening meeting), I had less than an hour to finish the main course and get dessert in the oven. One of the first things I did, though, was to set the oven on broil, to get a large pot of seasoned water boiling and to warm on low both the veg cooked in rendered bacon fat in the original cooking vessel and the crisped lardons in a small sauté pan. Put the bread back in the oven for a few minutes (i.e., keep checking on the bread so it doesn't completely burn!) to get a stone oven-like char on the crust; when finished browning, be sure to switch the oven from broil to 350 °F. In addition to the bread, which I would be serving as part of the appetizer course, I wanted to serve Nutella but definitely didn't have enough to serve on its own. In response, I added peanut butter (pb:Nutella ratio of about 1.75:1) and whipped it up with a bit of salt until smooth and rather creamy.

As the bread nears its browning stage and with the peanut butter Nutella mix ready to go, it's time to work on the main course. When I asked the drummers what they wanted to eat, one of the suggestions was a fajita. Knowing that I wanted to serve something with orzo (and that I would have insisted on making homemade tortillas if I went with straight out fajitas), I aimed for what I called a chicken "faux"ita, relying on taco seasoning to bring out the fajita-like flavours. Julienne as best you can 2.5-3 lbs chicken breast and, in a fry pan, cook the chicken in two batches with freshly ground black pepper and taco seasoning. Transfer the cooked chicken and the juices into a bowl, and cover it with a plate to keep in the moisture as the chicken rests.

While the chicken does cook, julienne two medium-ish green bell peppers. After the chicken is cooked, deglaze the pan with about 2 tbsps water and add the bell peppers, cooking them uncovered on medium heat. As they cook, large grate three peeled carrots; add these to the pan and finish cooking everything together covered on low heat. Somewhere in this stir-fry preparation, the seasoned water in the large pot should be boiling; cook your orzo.

At this point, I had some time to start pulling the dessert together, the most important component of which was the zucchini bread. I've made zucchini bread before but for whatever reason just couldn't seem to find the latest recipe I had previously used. To add to that little snafu, I couldn't find any zucchini at the super market and had to take a slight risk with the closely related yellow squash. I also went on a limb and made a dark chocolate version of the bread. All of this is to say I recreated my "zucchini" bread recipe to take into account this changes. First, grate 2 c yellow squash (1 medium yellow squash = apprx. 1 c). In a mixing bowl, whisk very well 3 whole eggs, 1 c vegetable oil, and 2 tsp vanilla extract.

As I added 1.5 c light brown sugar to the liquids, the drummers started to arrive, and so I served the appetizer of homemade toasted hazelnut bread served with lightly salted whipped peanut butter Nutella spread and a choice of monterey jack-based cheeses (monterey & cheddar and pepper jack).

Returning to the dessert batter, whisk in 3 c all-purpose flour, 1.5 tsp baking powder, 1 tbsp ground cinnamon and 1 tbsp dark cocoa powder. (If at any point the batter gets too thick, switch over to a spatula to combine the ingredients.) Add to this, the grated zucchini and 1 c dark chocolate chips. Transfer this into either two loaf pans or (in my case) a large 10" round baking dish. Top this off with even more dark chocolate chips (or switch these out for walnuts if you prefer). Get this into the oven and bake for about 30 min or until it passes the clean toothpick test.

Along the way, your orzo should be al dente. Knowing some of the residual heat will continue to cook the orzo, drain as much of the water as possible, and stir in the stir fry and chicken (along with the juices). Serve the chicken fauxita stir fry of green bell pepper and shredded carrots served with orzo either warm or cold. With this dish, also serve the red skin potatoes and green beans cooked in rendered bacon fat and topped with crisped lardons.

And amidst all the conversation and eating, don't forget about the dark chocolate dark chocolate chips yellow squash bread! As it turned out, the bread, though dense, was particularly moist-- a result of which I think comes from the relatively more moist yellow squash.

Even after all the food, I served this very rich (and inexpensive-- I would like to note that, all base ingredients aside, the meal only cost about $4 per person) dessert with a quenelle of vanilla bean ice cream and a drizzle of Hershey sauce.

And of course, no multi-course meal would be fully complete without my chocolat chaud, of which I went with a smaller version for a clearly full group. Speaking of full, for the full album of our drummer dinner, click here.

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