Sunday, 11 March 2012

Food and Culture Programme #5: Franco-Italian Comfort

I'm currently a bit past halfway of my extended weekend (the students will begin their spring break tomorrow) and since my arrival to metro Detroit on Friday, I've been enjoying the comforts of southeast Michigan comfort food. And with more foodie experiences going unwritten as my camera cord sits in my apartment, the need to catch up on this past week's experiences has become more and more evident. From the inspiration taken from southeast Asian cuisine during my last food and culture residence hall programme at the start of the week, I returned to more of my comfort zone on Thursday with a menu of Franco-Italian flare.

In planning for Thursday's programme, it was important to take into account the fact that at least seven residents expressed interest in helping out with the food prep. That said, I offered the RA Jo-Jo the option between handmade tortillas and handmade gnocchi; with the latter chosen, I built the menu to include a homemade romesco sauce with sausage, and for dessert raspberry soufflés with mixed berry granita. Of the entire meal, easily the riskiest component was the mixed raspberry granita, granitas of which I typically make the night before to ensure it has properly set in time. And so, with little time to waste, I first got the oven preheating at 350°F, and got two large pots of water boiling on medium-high heat. The pre-prepping done, I then puréed a 16 oz bag of defrosted mixed berries with about 8 oz sparkling berry-flavoured sparkling water; this I did in two smaller batches and got into a 13" x 9" glass baking dish. Already with the consistency of what resembled sorbet, the soon-to-be granita was into the freezer to chill out.

As I began to toast a 2.25 oz package of sliced almonds, the residents started arriving within 20 minutes of the food prep, and so I started doling out the recipes: wash, slice X's into 2 lbs red skin potatoes and get those in the boiling water (cook 1 lb in each of the two pots of water); cut along the bias and sear three Italian sausage links (go with mild or hot); and toast and make bread crumbs of four slices of loaf bread. In addition to the bread crumbs, the toasted almonds (be careful not to overdo it or else they'll add a burnt, bitter taste) also need to be ground (also, don't over grind or else you'll start creating almond butter).

When the X's of the potatoes split, as seen above, use a knife to test each potato's readiness. If it can be easily pierced, you're ready to transfer it to a bowl of cold water to stop it from cooking. As soon as the potato is cool enough to handle, quickly peel off the skin and press it through a potato ricer; alternatively, you could just smash the potatoes like crazy to ensure a smooth consistency.

With the pots now free of the potatoes, get one of the pots boiling with fresh water and salt. The other pot also drained, heat up a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes and start building your romesco sauce. As the bite-size pieces of sausages finish cooking, add these to the tomato sauce and let the flavours cook together. Add to this a sprinkling of ground black pepper (you'll have enough salt content from the sausage) and garlic powder (both really to taste). Stir into this a healthy tablespoon or so (about 1.5 dozen leaves) of chopped fresh basil. Allow this to continue to cook on med-lo heat. At this point, check on the mixed berry purée; use a fork to scrape (if not break apart) the frozen mix, and then get this back into the freezer.

As the romesco flavours were melding together, one of the sous chefs had gone to work on dividing eight eggs; she then switched over to buttering and sugaring (much like flouring a cake pan) small ramekins for the soufflés, placing the finished ones onto baking sheets. (Note: the more butter and sugar you use, the easier it will be to not only eat the soufflé itself, but to clean the ramekin afterward.) Meanwhile, one of the other sous chefs went to work on whipping up all the egg whites by hand; when the egg whites started to foam, I added in about 1/2 tsp cream of tartar. As the egg whites started coming together to soft peaks, I put together the gnocchi dough as a few more residents joined in on the food prep. Dividing the riced potatoes, I incorporated in each batch 2 egg yolks (usually, it's about 1 egg per pound of potatoes); once incorporated (pictured directly above), I added just enough all-purpose flour to bring the dough together (though you may not use all of it, have at least 2-3 c total available).

Following a brief explanation, the finished doughs were then passed off to the residents to start forming the doughs into gnocchi. The finished ones, in their diverse shapes, were dropped into the pot of (by now) boiling water. Make sure to keep an eye on the gnocchi; as soon as they rise to the top, they're ready to be scooped out with a strainer. You can leave them in their a bit longer if you're not convinced they're fully cooked, but be sure not to leave them in their too long or else they'll become a sticky, gluten-y mess. [If left too long though, they can be salvaged by running them under cold water; the extra gluten should come off fairly easily.] As the gnocchi are cooking, add in the bread crumbs and ground almonds, as well as about 4 oz shredded parmesan (not from a bottle); almost instantly, the sauce should thicken. If it looks like it's too thick, stir in some water. Make sure the dry ingredients you just added are fully coated with the rest of the sauce. When the gnocchi are ready, you're ready to start eating.

Slightly adapting this recipe, it was time to start putting together the components of the raspberry soufflés. By this point (if not long before), the egg whites should be done. Though not quite at the point of safety where you could turn the bowl upside down and expect it to hold its shape, the whites should nevertheless be able to hold their peaks. As the gnocchi were being made, I heated in a sauce pan about 8 oz raspberry preserves; when it essentially melted into its liquidy form, I added a cornstarch "paste" of 3 tbsp cornstarch that had been dissolved in about 3 tbsp water. Stir everything together; as the sauce quickly thickens, continue to stir the ingredients until the cornstarch has been well incorporated and the entire volume has thickened (as opposed to portions of the preserves). Let this cool down before folding it into the beaten egg whites. When fully incorporated, transfer the (now) batter into the ramekins and top each with a sprinkling of granulated sugar (this helps to slightly brown the tops). Carefully place each baking sheet full of ramekins into the oven. If possible, bake one batch at a time to ensure even baking.

Back to the gnocchi, I invited each of the residents present to serve themselves. For my own serving, I topped the gnocchi off with some fresh basil and a sprinkling of parmesan, as well as a slice of Italian loaf bread. In retrospect, I decided not to toast the bread to be served, as un-toasted bread would more easily sop up the delicious sauce.


And as for dessert, don't forget that soufflés are rather delicate and time-sensitive. So be ready to time this one out carefully; they're actually done within 15 minutes or so of putting them in. With the set-up of the programme, they worked rather well; if you're making these within the context of a larger meal, getting these in about 1/4 of the way into the previous course should give you the proper window. In addition, the granita was surprisingly read for another run with a fork and was served as a cooling element alongside the hot and fresh-from-the-oven soufflé. Quite a popular and interactive program menu, I'd call this one another success; to add to that, the total grocery bill ended up being less than the anticipated $40 estimate. For additional photos, click here.

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