Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Food and Culture Programme #3: Low-Budget Cooking

Last week, I received a request for a food and culture programme in one of the residence halls. As fate and timing would have it, Wednesday happens to be a Top Chef night and by default a cooking night, albeit the already packed week of multi-course prep. In the end, however, the fact that students were willing to take time out of their finals study time to actually take a break and talk about food is motivation enough. I offered the resident assistant a choice of three dishes per course (appetizer, main course and dessert), all of which I was convinced could be prepared under a budget of $70 for potentially 10-15 people. What I would consider staple ingredients aside (flour, sugar, salt, eggs, oil, etc.), the total for additional ingredients ended up $22.96. For our group of 10, the menu included: mixed salad served in an Italian cheese bowl; crêpes served with mozzarella, ham and/or Parisian-style vegetables; dark chocolate microwave cake and Nutella-filled strawberries.

A rather straightforward meal, begin by getting a frying pan (or two) heated on medium heat. As the pans are heating up, get your mise en place ready: have two bags of shredded cheese open (or grate your own cheese blends), as the cheese bowl-making process goes by fairly quickly; have a set of actual bowls nearby, flipped upside-down; and put together your salad (in our case, half a bag of pre-washed lettuce mixed with a bag of pre-washed mixed greens; both were on sale for 2/$3). Depending on how fast the pans heat up and how much time the cheese bowls actually take to cook, as well as your comfort level with multi-tasking and how your own window of time to cook, you should be able to prep the other dishes as you are making the cheese bowls. Mise en place will play an important role in pushing out the rest of the meal, as these are inherently quick to make and college-friendly in regard to not only budget, but time and convenience, as well. This being said, sprinkle some of the shredded cheese onto each of the frying pans (about 1/4 c should do; add more or less depending on how big you actually want the bowls to be). Let the cheese fry and turn a deep golden brown. When the outer perimeter has browned (anywhere from 15 seconds to a minute, depending on how much heat is on the pan-- do adjust to make sure you're browning and not burning!), do a quick check to make sure the center of the fried cheese has also browned. If this is the case, use a wide spatula, a pair of tongs, or some chop sticks (or if you're comfortable with heat, you should be okay just using your fingers; I definitely don't recommend this if you've never cooked before/don't understand what could potentially go wrong..) and flip the layer of cheese you've just fried.

When the perimeter has browned, give the underside a quick check: here, you just want to make sure no melted cheese is visible (i.e., it's okay if it's not completely browned). If this is the case, it is safe to transfer the cheese to one of the bowls. Take another bowl and rest it right on top of the fried cheese to create a bit of a mould to shape the cheese itself. The cheese will harden quickly, so move fast or else it will crumble.

After the bowls have cooled and hold their shape, they are ready to serve your salad (or whatever else you want to put on there) alongside your favourite dressing (this evening, we had French and Italian dressing options which represented my Franco-Italian cooking preference). With two pans going (or even just with one), you should be able to make 16 cheese bowls (dependent on the size of the bowls and the amount of cheese you used) within 10-15 minutes. Similar recipes you may find will suggest to make the bowls using an oven (the big advantages being able to make multiple bowls within a short window and to have the ability to focus on other components of a meal), but I've always made these on the stove top because it is easier for me to get into a groove of making and checking the doneness of the bowls. Another option, especially for college students who don't have easy access to either an oven or stove, is to make these in the microwave (great for convenience, but it does require need parchment paper, etc., to prevent the bowls from sticking).

As the bowls are being made, and again depending on your multi-tasking skills (or appreciation for entropy), prep the other components of the meal; of course, you could handle each part of the meal separately, given the time you have. Make sure you have all of your ingredients ready for making the crêpes, including the fillings (ham slices, shredded mozzarella, and vegetables which could be prepared at the start of the cooking process or prepped while cooking the cheese bowls) and the batter. For this meal, I altered a doubled version of my simplified batter recipe, whisking very well together 2 whole eggs, 3 c milk, pinch of salt, 1/2 c canola oil, 1 tbsp granulated sugar, and 2 c all-purpose flour. After the cheese bowls have been made, wipe the pans clean and begin making the crêpes on medium heat, and adjusting the heat level so the crêpes don't burn. When the crêpe starts to bubble and you can slide a spatula underneath it, flip it over to cook the other side; as that side cooks, put your fillings on to warm them. When that underside is golden brown, fold over/roll the crêpe and transfer to a clean plate. Similar to the cheese bowls, this process goes by fairly quickly which is why it is important to have the fillings and batter prepped before actually beginning to make the crêpes. This batter was more than enough to make a dozen crêpes with additional crêpe batter left.

As the crêpes are being made, gather all of your dark chocolate dark chocolate chip microwave cake into your microwave-safe dish (make sure it's a dish that can actually fit in your microwave!): 1/4 c dark cocoa powder, 1/2 c all-purpose flour, 2 large eggs, 6 tbsp canola oil and 6 tbsp water. Combine these ingredients and microwave the (now) batter for 3 minutes. Check on the doneness of the batter and sprinkle on top some dark chocolate chips; at this checkpoint, I noticed the batter itself didn't rise. Do NOT do what I did and beat the eggs in advance; instead break the eggs well as you combine everything together in the dish. (Over)beating the eggs in advance will yield a result similar to what happened tonight and what happened to the brownies I tried to make on my birthday-- a dense, rubbery-like, though still edible, brownie-type cake. Do continue to cook the batter though until it passes a clean toothpick/knife test. In total, this took 4 min 30 sec in the microwave to cook.

Served with the microwave cake were Nutella-filled strawberries. I can't remember if I ever prepped this in France, but my memory bank clearly remembers having made these during my last visit to New York City as part of another multi-course meal. In any case, as we transitioned into our discussion on the students' connections between food and culture, we passed around a bowl of washed strawberries and a jar of Nutella. That in itself could be its own meal, but the taste of having Nutella inside the strawberry as you eat it is certainly something to try out; in contrast, it's also definitely easier to eat than the more common chocolate-covered strawberry (hint, hint for National Anything Covered in Chocolate Day on Friday). Along with the bowl and jar, I also passed around a strawberry corer which is perhaps one of the handiest kitchen gadgets to have around (I happened to get this one on clearance at Meijer). If you aren't able to invest in one of these, a small paring knife will do to hollow out the strawberry and get rid of the leaves and slightly bitter interior. Of the entire meal, I should note that this component (along with the shredded cheese) is the most "expensive" part of the budget. Even still, smart grocery shopping (both the Nutella and cheese happened to be on sale) in advance can bring down actual costs and provide a less stressful budget. And that stress factor can definitely be reduced by keeping up with the staple ingredients I mentioned at the top of this post. Meanwhile, as you seek to reduce that stress, take a look at some photos à la the complete album here.

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