Monday, 13 February 2012

Dance, Dance, Dance; Dine, Dine, Dine: Dinner with the Dance Department

A little over two weeks ago, I briefly mentioned a culinary opportunity I just couldn't refuse. And after a great albeit very short weekend (which included restaurant visits to The Vine, Soho Japanese Bistro and Cosimo & Susie's) with Lauren, I made my way back to Granville to prepare what I consider to be one of the biggest meals I've prepared in my limited culinary career. [Ironically, Lauren and I also saw Safe House, an especially recommended film for the RSA-fans among you.] A farewell dinner for brilliant dancers Dada Masilo and Lulu Mlangeni, yesterday's aptly determined theme (without wanting to sound like I'm boasting) focused on food fusion and the dikenga as I aimed to infuse nostalgic African themes and inspirations with my more comfortably situated Western cooking view, techniques and ingredients. It is wroth noting that Dada is especially known on international and classical dance scenes for somehow merging African dance with classical ballet (two extremes on the dancing spectrum) while Lulu won South Africa's second season of So You Think You Can Dance. In many respects, their experiences reflect similar fusion contexts in terms of dance, and their two-week residency in Granville and their time spent throughout campus undoubtedly exemplified this. Both hailing from Jo'burg, Dada and Lulu brought the spirit of S'Africa to our little section of the Midwest and especially to our Sunday evening gathering that lasted six courses in a solid four hours.

But before I continue, I must include here that the kitchen space graciously offered by Gill at her house for last night's dinner service was amazing. And for all the food that needed to be prepped, we certainly needed it! I'd also like to thank Susan for working with me on organizing the dinner (including the great invitation at the top of this post), Marlaine for her grocery shopping (highlighted by organic and food-conscious ingredients) and for all of their help with the food prep and throughout the dinner service. Everyone was absolutely wonderful in supporting the process if not in preparation, certainly in clean-up and consumption.

To kick things off, I got the base of my tagine heating up on medium heat with some extra virgin olive oil and two cloves minced garlic. Into a small sauce pan on another burner went about 1/3 bottle Shiraz to reduce also on medium heat. In addition, the oven was set to start preheating to 350 °F, and a touch over 1/2 tbsp white vinegar was stirred into a touch over 1/2 c milk.

As I brunoised half a large white onion, that's when the first of three cooking setbacks occurred. Apparently the tagine was not set up to take on direct heat; it subsequently broke cleanly (I found out later the plate under the teapot in the above photo could have served as the proper heat barrier). Thankfully the tagine didn't break after additional ingredients were added! Into a deep pot then went more extra virgin olive oil and minced garlic, shortly followed by the onion. Onto a hot skillet went segmented green and red bell peppers to char. As those cooked away, I diced half a medium eggplant and six medium carrots, and added these to the pot with the garlic.

While I worked on the above ingredients (all for the ratatouille) and got about 4 c water in a large saucepan on high heat, the sous chefs were at work: For the second course, Susan juiced two limes before working on what I called a "quickfire" version of the rusk I made last Friday, using half the ingredients (approximated) and put into a 13" x 9" baking dish. This smaller (and thinner) volume of dough baked for about 35 minutes at 350 °F, then cut and divided onto a second baking dish to be put back into the oven at 225 °F to dry until the very last minute. For the fourth course, Marlaine grated five medium carrots and two green apples into a medium bowl. To this was added the juice of two oranges. All stirred together, this was plastic wrapped and sent to the refrigerator to be served later. For the dessert, Gill filleted the segments of two oranges. About this time, I checked on the wine reduction and caught it all too late. The sauce pan cleaned out, another 1/3 of the bottle went back in to reduce 75% at med-lo heat.

By the time the rusk was ready to get into the oven to dry out, the bell peppers had been taken off the heat (they're ready when they've charred on both sides), slightly cooled, diced and added to the large pot. To that was also added two diced, medium zucchini, a 28 oz can of diced tomatoes and about 1/3 can water. All stirred together, the heat was reduced to med-lo and covered to replicate the same effect the tagine would have had on the vegetables. Into a large fry pan, I heated up some olive oil and soon added two cloves garlic and 1/4 c white onion, minced and diced respectively, by Susan. To the pan were added four large raw prawns and additional cooked shrimp of varying sizes. As the crustaceans began to turn pink, about 1 c lemon lime soda was added to the pan to finish cooking them. One cast iron skillet over, five mild Johnsonville sausage links were off and cooking thoroughly. By this point, the saucepan water began to boil; to this was added about 2 c cornmeal whisked into about 1.5 c water. Taking a cue from this tutorial, the cornmeal (soon to be polenta) was whisked well to ensure there wouldn't be any lumps and then left alone to continue to boil and cook away. Intermittently, the polenta would be stirred to break up any lumps that may have been in the process of forming.

Meanwhile, Marlaine worked on the katchumbali by dicing four Roma tomatoes, two cucumbers, one large, white onion, and a medium carrot; to this was added the juice of two limes and a touch of salt. As you'll notice in the aforementioned link, katchumbali is a particularly interesting salad because it doesn't require lettuce (not much unlike the vinegary Filipino dish kamatis) and instead relies on fresh coriander. Between menu planning and the actual execution of these dishes, I for whatever reason didn't connect that "fresh coriander" is in fact cilantro (thanks to Sandy for reminding me!). In any case, I was ready for the alternative version (presented below) and instead asked Marlaine to grind about 1/2 tbsp coriander to be added to the lime juice and minced garlic Susan had worked on. And perhaps this was a safe move, as cilantro in itself tends to be more of a polarizing ingredient than the coriander [seed]. Unbeknownst to me at the time, coriander is one of many "typical" ingredient used in ratatouille and as such would serve as a [very underlying] bridge between  the second and third courses. Speaking of ratatouille, at this point I added about 1.5 tbsp fresh thyme and some salt, gave that all a stir and continued to cook down the ratatouille covered.

As Marlaine worked on the katchumbali ingredients, I petite diced the ingredients for my spicy mango salsa, consciously aiming to evenly dice two roma tomatoes, two 1/3"-ish thick slices of pineapple, two jalapeño peppers, one barely/just-ripe mango, and 1/2 a medium red onion. About halfway through this part of the process, the prawns should be fully cooked and taken off the heat (there should still be quite a bit of leftover cooking liquid).

After the salsa was completed, 11 filets of tilapia were prepped and transferred to the bowl of lime juice, garlic and ground coriander to marinate. Next, about 2.5 lbs chicken were diced (about 3/4"-1" cubes) and brought to the cast iron skillet on med-hi heat to cook with some olive oil, salt and ground black pepper. As the chicken cooked, the polenta had nearly finished. To the polenta, heavy cream, 3 tbsp unsalted and a quick dash of salt were stirred in; once it had reached a smooth, slightly runny yet thick texture (enough to coat the back of a spoon), I used a measuring cup to scoop out about 1/3 c polenta onto a medium saucer. Within a minute or so, the polenta set (i.e., it held its shape). Though the second wine reduction hadn't thickened much, the flavour was nevertheless concentrated. Using a spoon, the reduction was then drizzled on top of the polenta. As the sauce soaked into the polenta what was left behind appeared to be a series of red wine Rorschach tests; perhaps you could guess the kinds of images this group of artists saw (above left photo)? On top of these unexpected dance representations, were nestled duos of prawns for the pescetarians of the group. For the rest of the dishes, I went with a bit of a surf and turf and added slices of the seared Italian sausage. Against the creamy, neutral polenta, the flavours from the sausage and shrimp carried through quite nicely. In relation to the southern cross of the Kongo cosmogram, this first course was inspired by South Africa, an iconic meal being the braai (essentially a more intensive barbecue). A staple of such gatherings is southern African staple cooked cornmeal in the form of  mielie meal (pap) which for this dinner had been translated to polenta.

As the first course was being consumed, Susan arranged half a head of shredded lettuce and the katchumbali onto eleven plates for the second course. Meanwhile, I pan seared the filets in a bit of olive oil and then transferred to the lettuce beds when the fish meat turned an opaque white. Moving counterclockwise to the right arm of the dikenga, this second course takes us to Kenya and eastern Africa. This fish course had been inspired by this recipe and topped off with a spoonful of the spicy salsa, the cayenne of the original marinade being translated to the jalapeños in the salsa).

For our third course, we moved to the northern component of the cosmogram and into North Africa. Though the food fusion technique would have been made more apparent if the ratatouille had indeed been cooked in the tagine, the natural flavours and texture of the vegetables were at least present in this preparation. In addition, the ratatouille was served with East Asian's parmesan couscous, couscous of which is not only a northern African staple starch but a great ingredient for serving with typically sauce-heavy dishes. Ratatouille (at least the way I typically make it) is usually served with cheese and so the parmesan in the couscous worked very well. I did not plate this course for everyone and instead offered my plate as an example of how I would plate it, chicken and fresh thyme included. [As an aside, if you find your chicken to have ended up on the more-cooked-than-I-would-have-liked end of the spectrum, get the chicken (while still warm) into a bowl, drizzle some olive oil, give it all a stir and cover until ready to serve. Especially with the moisture from the other ingredients, the chicken will work itself out.]

While we enjoyed the third course, I burned a first batch of toasted coconut for dessert as I sat down to (attempt to) more fully eat sitting down; I then returned to the kitchen to keep a closer eye on the coconut for the second time around and until toasted golden brown. As it was toasting, Susan prepared the whipped cream for the dessert, using an electric hand mixer to whip up about 2.5 c heavy whipping cream. Once that held to soft peaks, about 1/3 c powdered sugar (I'm severely eyeing the quantities here) was incorporated into the cream, along with 1 tbsp dark cocoa powder. Meanwhile, I sliced two red apples as thinly as possible; each slice was transferred immediately to a bowl with lemon juice to prevent them fom browning. When ready, I arranged each plate with the thinly sliced apple--carpaccio-style--and topped each with a quenelle of the carrot salad that had been prepped earlier by Marlaine. Each plate was finished off with freshly zested lemon rind. For this fourth course, which I called an entr'acte between the heavier portion of the meal and the dessert to follow, this carrot salad which I first had in Stellenbosch is the one recipe I have altered the least and have made the most consistently in the three and half years (give or take) that I have become more fully engrossed in food.

For dessert, I prepped our fifth course with an intentional reconstruction of this West African tropical fruit salad which returns us back to the cosmogram and the left arm of its structure. Similar to the preceding preparation, I thinly sliced the pineapple rings and put in the center equally diced ripe mango and banana that had been lightly coated in a liquid mixture of the juice of one whole lime and two tablespoons brown sugar. Served along side this were two segments of the earlier filetted orange segments. With the fruit now set up, I took the rusk out of the oven which had dried out beautifully in the short window of time it had to do so; because of the higher temperature though they did turn slightly darker than the first time I had made them at the lower setting but for a longer period of time. Some of the rusk were then slightly cooled and then crumbled (the rest left alone for later consumption). The accompaniments ready, the pile of mango and banana were then topped off by a dollop of the dark chocolate whipped cream, a sprinkle of toasted coconut and then finally the crumbled rusk, as we were brought back to the setting sun and South Africa.

As the Kongo cosmogram dictates, the sun on the southern component of the dikenga represents midnight (and actually by this point it was a bit past 11pm) and the period of renewal. Throughout the evening, the flavours (however coincidental) became brighter (think of the movement of the sun) and the portions more and more filling as we continued to eat. Close to the expected food coma of similar meals, it was finally time for the one course I've been known to finish such meals as this: my chocolat chaud. As readers past can attest, this is the one course of which its process and preparation I keep to myself. And so with the course complete and warm bowls of chocolate finished, the meal came to a fulfilling end. Indeed, as I had prepped this last course, Stafford and Marlaine had asked me what about the entire night was the point where I found fulfillment and the most joy in cooking. Upon reflection, while I enjoy the entire process (including the long "soak day" dishes that follow meals made in my apartment), I determine success and by extension fulfillment on the final output, i.e., the sense as to whether or not what I had previously researched and planned was translated and transposed to the plate as envisioned. Without a doubt, this was one meal I will especially remember and for many great reasons.

And so, with notes and recent memories of cleaning up the kitchen (led by Jamie), packing away migrated ingredients and kitchen gadgets, and clicking to Miriam Makeba while doing dishes, I sign off with our group photo [unfortunately without Lucy (John's dog) or Olivier] and a truly ndihluthi kind of feeling. For the full dinner album, click here.

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