Friday, 24 February 2012

Mardi Gras 2012, Part II: Less Than $1/ Serving

Every so often, I like to dabble with food and put together multi-course meals. Hmm, imagine that. And while I've cooked dishes to bring to our office, I haven't quite had the time or the focus to work on a meal specifically for our student workers... until this past Tuesday which was in itself a rather festive day of all days to prepare food. So, with about 90 minutes of solid prep time, I headed to Marilyn's kitchen where the accidental tornado of my culinary presence made its mark as I prepared a five course meal, the average cost of each serving of food being less than $1. On the menu: Brie en croûte with fresh fruit; Baked tri-coloured rotini with romesco sauce and breaded chicken under a layer of mozzarella cheese; Bagged salad with (read: saved by) goat cheese and sliced strawberries; Rocky road ice cream cake with homemade marshmallow sauce, chocolate ganache and toasted peanuts; and Red velvet pancakes with Neufchâtel icing and diced strawberries.

Before I went all out and began an alternative version to my romesco sauce, I got two sticks of salted butter out of the refrigerator so they could get to room temperature. I also took out a sheet of frozen puff pastry so that it could defrost in plenty of time to make my brie en croûte (of course, the quick defrost method would be to run it under water and then lightly pat dry). I also needed to get a large pot of seasoned water (read: with salt) boiling, as well as set the oven to 350 °F. With these preliminary things going, I also began to toast a 2.5 oz package of sliced almonds and begin to heat up a large pot with two 28 oz cans of crushed tomatoes. When the almonds were ready, I got them into my standing food chopper along with two cloves of peeled garlic; after grinding them down to a coarse powder [1], I added them to the tomato sauce, much of the water of which started to boil away. I added about 1/4 c water to the container to try and transfer as much of the ground almonds to the sauce. To this, I added a drizzling (about a few tbsp extra virgin olive oil [2]. As the brie en croûte was in the oven, I toasted in the oven two slices of buttermilk bread (they just happened to be available; use whatever you've got) and in the now empty almond pan, I toasted 1/4 lb blanched peanuts. When drier to the touch, grind these into coarse breadcrumbs and store those into the sauce [3]. Almost immediately, the sauce thickens and takes on the texture of the almonds and bread (specifically) [4].

At this point, the water was rapidly boiling and so I cooked two regular boxes of tri-coloured rotini. As noted above, I slightly flattened the defrosted pastry dough, wrapped up a medium wheel of brie and then got this into the oven. Meanwhile, I also trimmed, cubed, breaded (1 scrambled egg yolk to help the coating of flour, ground black pepper and salt to adhere to the chicken) and pan fried 10 chicken thighs. As that neared to a cooking end, I drizzled about 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, gave that a quick toss and began to assemble the baked pasta dish. At about this point, if not before, the brie should be ready to come out of the oven; it's done when the puff pastry has baked and changed colour to a slight golden brown. To actually brown the dough, I should have dabbed on an egg wash made of egg yolk and 1 tbsp of water; since I didn't do that, I set the oven to broil for a few minutes.

Between two 13" x 9" baking pans, I divided up the (now) cooked rotini. Get on top of this, a layer of romesco sauce, a layer of chicken and then a generous layer of Italian cheese blend (about 2 c per dish). This goes into the oven for about half an hour or until the cheese is melted thoroughly and has become golden brown; be certain to reset your oven back to bake at 350 °F if it was previously switched to broil.

While pasta bakes, make the chocolate ganache by heating up about 1/2 c heavy cream and one 3.5 oz bar of chocolate; here, I used chocolate with a hint of chili. In another pot, heat up another 1/2 c heavy cream and to that add a two handfuls or so of mini marshmallows and melt those into the cream; add a splash of vanilla extract. There will come a point in which this concoction turns into a sauce as smooth as the chocolate ganache. In both cases, it doesn't take long at all to make these, so do keep a close eye on them so you don't overcook/burn either (chocolate ganache, as I've made it before has typically been through a double boiler method). Due to the short prep time and the longer window before I'd actually use them (for dessert), I would wait until the last minute to make the marshmallow sauce. As it cooled, the sauce became rather gelatinous but I was able to save it by reheating the sauce and stirring in some milk to bring it back to more of a liquid state.

As dishes were nearing completion and getting ready for presentation, the dinner guests arrived, including Erik and many of our student employees, and soon after, Beth and her sons. Unsurprisingly, the question of what they could do to help arose (so much for them taking a break from work). And so, Erik and Necia (the two with birthdays closest in association to our dinner; check out their work in the lead photo at the top of this post) worked on arranging the accompaniments for the brie en croûte, a process which also included slicing the apples that would be served with the brie. And with the help of the rest of the students, the batter for red velvet pancakes (which was essentially my batter for red velvet cake, except the fact I only used .5 oz red food colouring because that's all I had), the Neufchâtel icing (the recipe of which is also part of the previously linked post) and the diced strawberries were all underway and soon completed.

Aside from directing me to sought out ingredients and following up on finished bowls, utensils, etc., Marilyn especially helped out in saving the bagged lettuce I purchased (clearly I'm not even close to the vegetarian end of the spectrum) by crumbling some goat cheese and slicing strawberries for the salad. To this, I dressed it with balsamic vinegar which also cut down on the "bagged" taste. And with that, by about 6pm, we were ready to eat; unsurprisingly, the food disappeared a lot more quickly than it took to prepare.

Always a hit and incredibly easy to make (in theory), brie en croûte has become a staple for our Center and many of my multi-course meals. Of all the ingredients, the single most expensive ingredient of this meal's grocery list was the brie which was just under $10 for the medium wheel. The puff pastry can also be relatively expensive, especially when not on sale (so stock up when it is), but at least you have another sheet for another baked project such as cinnamon sugar turnovers. The fruit that accompanies the brie could also be expensive; but the range of what you serve with the brie could be dictated by what's on sale. A bag of grapes and two Granny Smith apples were more than enough for this crowd, though we could have done well with at least another apple. (Don't forget to dress the apples with some lemon juice to deter them from browning.)

When feeding a large crowd, pasta anything remains as one of the most budget-friendly dishes. It helps to stretch out limited protein (though the chicken I got was relatively inexpensive and buying it in a larger quantity helped; 3-ish pounds was more than enough and I only used about 75%). The cans of crushed tomatoes store for a very long time and are oftentimes on sale (another great item to stock up on), and are definitely cheaper than fresh tomatoes (I actually prefer the taste of canned tomatoes to fresh in many--but not all--cases). The romesco sauce is thickened by ingredients (bread and nuts) which are more often than not easily accessible and may already be on site (as was the case on Tuesday). The cheese I purchased was also on sale and again is something that can store (unopened) for quite some time. As for the salad, I erred on the bagged option because it was on sale for $1 per bag (I used two basic mixes and a bag of lettuce); this time of the year, the strawberries (of which I bought 2 packages) are also on sale and were each $1 per package. 

What I particularly enjoyed about this menu was the fact we got two desserts out of it. Earlier in the semester, Necia had told me that her favourite cake was rocky road. I've never been a huge fan of peanuts and so it was news to me that such a cake took on a rocky road form. That said, my play on rocky road cake turned into Rocky Road Ice Cream Cake. The base layer the chocolate chunk dark chocolate cake I made earlier that morning; on top of this sat a quenelle of French vanilla ice cream. The marshmallow sauce went on first, followed by a drizzling of the slightly spiced chocolate ganache. To this were sprinkled marshmallows and chocolate chunks (to of course highlight the pair of sauces), followed closely by the peanuts which were earlier toasted.

I was rather apprehensive about turning my cake recipe into a pancake form, but it worked surprisingly well (at least, after figuring out the amount of heat and time it would take to actually cook the batter properly). The batter does not take too much time to cook and the texture remains relatively light and airy; this issue, I found, was that the batter is on the thinner side and so as it cooks it does spread out slightly. Make sure you have a spatula big enough to flip the pancake. The tendency would be to leave the pancake on the heat longer so it cooks more thoroughly and is easier to flip en masse. Doing so, however, leaves it more prone to overcooking and burning. Definitely try to flip the pancakes as soon as the outer edges hold their shape. With a dollop of the Neufchâtel frosting and a servign of the diced strawberries, this second dessert is good to go. [I should note we actually had a third dessert ("dots") that Marilyn had made prior to the start of the dinner prep, in celebration of Erik's birthday that had just passed.] And so, with another successful dinner completed and the kitchen eventually restored to its naturally cleaned state, another chapter in our Center's foodie affairs came to a close. Of interesting note, with many of the staple ingredients already available between Marilyn's kitchen and my own, the total grocery bill came out to just under $65. With 12 of us present for the dinner and five distinct courses / menu items, each serving easily came out to less than $1, with many opportunities for seconds and thirds to further cut down on the associated prices. Pas mal, hein ? For the entire Mardi Gras foodie album, including Tuesday's pączki, click here.

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