Wednesday, 23 May 2012

An "A" for Admissions: A Participatory Cooking Class

For at least the past week, another dinner had been occupying my mind alongside our dinner for Institutional Advancement. This time around, it was a celebratory dinner of many occasions to wrap up the academic year for the Admissions office. Sarah was kind enough to lend her home for the gathering and in working with her and Mollie, we settled on a Franco-Italian, participatory cooking experience for this evening. Steeped in a sociocultural history I'm fairly familiar with, the bowls and plates were many and held components of French and Italian culinary history that were eventually brought together with an efficient team of helpers and learners. On the proposed menu, I planned for: Prosciutto e melone with a balsamic mint reduction; Inspired salade lyonnaise; Dunderi with pesto al'Amalfitana; and Linguinetouille.

Before heading over to Sarah's to cook, I chose to prep a few things in advance, the first of which was the balsamic mint reduction. Balsamic vinegar is one of the quintessential Italian ingredients in my book, and it was amazing for me to also find at Meijer a balsamic vinegar from Modena. Produced by Monari Federzoni, we can again verify that we have for our use as true a balsamic vinegar as possible by the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) marking on the bottle. As the history of this Italian trademark goes, families of the small towns of Modena and Reggio--which comprised the Emilia Romagna region just west of Bologna and about an hour east of Parma--were the original producers of balsamic vinegar. The region, ruled by the Este family, had transferred based from Ferrara to Modena and by the 19th century, aceto balsamico became a precious commodity of the region. Archudke Francesco IV has presented balsamic as a symbol of friendship, and it is in this context that I find it to create a harmonious flavour link between the salty and sweet notes in the appetizer course described further below.

Along with sugar that was added to the reduction, I also included chopped fresh mint that was inspired by this recipe and guided by this one, as well as the fact I didn't have enough small mint leaves to top off each melon ball. To a small saucepan filled with 1 c Modena balsamic vinegar and 4 tbsp granulated sugar, then, I added an entire 3/4 oz packet of fresh mint leaves that I had washed, dried and chopped; as it turned out, there were just enough leaves for two batches (quantified by the previous link) of the reduction. Of all herbs, mint especially works contextually with the reduction, given that mint originated in Europe and the Mediterranean and was used by the Romans to flavour wines and sauces. Stirring regularly, allow the balsamic mix to simmer until it gets reduced by half; cover the saucepan with a lid and keep everything covered for at least 15 minutes. After time has elapsed, strain the reduction through a sieve and allow it to cool down before transferring it to a squeeze bottle for later use.

As the mint steeped in the reducing balsamic, I went on to cooking 2 lbs of bacon; using both the fry pan and baking methods, I've come across a technique that remains pretty consistent: preheat your oven and nonstick baking sheet at 375°F. Carefully line your baking sheet with as much bacon as you can without overlapping too much and bake the bacon on the second to lowest rack until the outer edges start to brown (about 5-7 minutes). Instead of then flipping over the bacon, switch your oven to broil and broil the bacon for another 3-5 minutes or so, checking after the 3-minute to make sure the bacon doesn't overcook/burn. Depending on your oven, you may need a little bit longer. Once cooked to your desired doneness, transfer the bacon onto some paper towel to cool off and reserve the bacon fat in a heat proof bowl for the salade lyonnaise dressing.

With the above three components finished, I knew I would be in a much better spot in terms of not needing to have to deal with rather finicky components and extra cookware. After unpacking and arranging groceries, then, the first bit of prep work I did at Sarah's involved preheating the ovens to 350°F and getting two pots of water boiling. Of the many components ahead of us, the pasta dough for the linguine needed the longest rest time. Though I've typically used my fresh pasta recipe for previous cooking experiences, I decided to stretch my "winging it" a bit more. Combining my previous recipe with a bit of guidance from the Pioneer Woman, I went with a general ratio of 1/2 c flour per egg. In a mixing bowl, I whisked very well five whole eggs about a touch less than 1 tbsp salt, and then mixed in 1/2 c flour at a time until the dough reached the right consistency and texture (i.e., it barely stuck to my hands but was still rather pliable). In total, I used about 2.5 c + 2 tbsp all-purpose flour. I covered this with a damp paper towel and set it aside to rest. Since it would only take about 2 minutes to cook a set of pasta, I saved this for one of the final tasks to be completed.

In creating this evening's menu, though, I recognised a theme which more clearly leaned to Italian food fare, rather than the more equal Franco-Italian approach I had in mind. And so, I needed a dish (or at least a prominent component) that spoke to this French part of my food identity. I also needed a participatory dish to incorporate into the experience, and so the prepped handmade pasta was a clear route to go with, despite the fact it added another tally to Italy. I took a shot then and worked in a Meditteranean theme, by pulling in eggplant and tomatoes; in doing a little research, thankfully, my initial plan was apparently linked to a dish that's defined as more clearly "French": eggplant Provençal (the linked recipe of which also includes chicken, a third ingredient I initially threw in; another version of this dish which I used as more of a base for this dinner may be found here). In addition, it's interesting to note that the principal ingredients of eggplant and tomatoes, alongside garlic and onions are essential to another Provençal favourite I enjoy cooking relatively often, ratatouille. Due to all the knifework involved, I turned to the vegetables and chicken next (I had a window of an hour to roast everything, but in actuality I only really needed half an hour). In one baking dish, I washed and placed whole large cherry tomatoes and cut two whole bulbs of garlic width-wise. Over all of this I drizzled about 1 tbsp or so of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled some salt and ground black pepper. In a similar manner, I diced two small eggplants and also drizzled the olive oil and sprinkled the salt and pepper, before covering both in aluminum foil and put into the preheated upper oven.

For the bottom oven, I chopped three zucchini and one large white onion in half moons and seasoned everything the same one as I did for the other baking dishes; this, too, was covered in aluminum foil. In a large skillet, and in two batches, I sautéed another large white onion and lightly browned 5 lbs of cubed chicken breast (adding salt and pepper in that cooking process; the chicken doesn't have to be fully cooked at this point). With a another tablespoon of olive oil to keep the chicken moist, and a small sprinkling of additional salt and pepper, the chicken dish was covered with aluminum foil and put into the oven along with the zucchini. Again for all four dishes, keep them in the oven for at least half an hour, and a bit longer if you have the luxury of time to do so.

By this point, the reinforcements began to arrive and tasks were being doled out and autonomy was entrusted upon everyone who participated in the preparation and cooking process. Everything seemed to happen surprisingly smoothly but nevertheless in a bit of a blur (and so I apologise in advance if I miss someone's participation in the meal; if you're reading this, know that I appreciate your help and my memory is zooming by quicker than I can type!). The first of the tasks, including dicing up a baguette for homemade croutons (fried until crisped and even slightly charred with extra virgin olive oil, salt and ground black pepper) and preparing components for the salad, were given to Mollie; additionally, she was given the glorious task of working with the prosciutto. To kick off our Franco-Italian-themed dinner, perhaps one of the best openings is Prosciutto e Melone which translates as prosciutto and melon (simple enough, eh?). On their own, wrapping cantaloupe with prosciutto is a refreshing blend of salty and sweet, a combination which I've served before in France. It's amazing though to consider the history and especially relevance this dish brings to the dinner. The "real" prosciutto is known as Prosciutto di Parma, an imported meat selection coming specifically from Parma in Western Italy, with other varieties coming from Tuscany. Indeed, in order to receive Italy's "DOP" distinction (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, similar to France's "AOC"), and thus have the right to actually be called Prosciutto di Parma, Academia Barilla notes "the prosciutto, or ham, must come from pigs raised in a specific area (either Emilia Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Lazio, Abruzzo, or Molise) and produced in a precise area in the province of Parma." In our case, we used Fiorucci's Riserva Prosciutto that I purchased from Meijer which uses the same Italian aging process as Prosciutto di Parma but is in fact produced domestically, i.e., outside of Parma. Connecting back to this link between France and Italy, it's equally important to note that true prosciutto dates back to the early days of the Romans and its roots are situated at the heart of Cisalpine Gaul (a region you can see by the previous link is situated between modern day France and Italy). For more in-depth information of this king of all cured meats, click here. For the appetizers, I bought 12 oz of prosciutto just to be safe and cut these into smaller strips.

The second main component of the dish is the summer melon known in North America as "cantaloupe" though in actuality is otherwise known as "muskmelon." Today, the most commonly cultivated version is the Charentais cantaloupe, which originated from the Poitou-Charente region of western France in the 1920s; I'm not sure what type of cantaloupe we were actually working with (other than the fact that it was perfectly ripe), but Alison took the lead in scooping out two small-medium melons with a melon baller, while Mollie topped each off with the prosciutto. In total, we roughly got about 80 mini appetizers this way, all of which received the balsamic mint reduction.

For the second dish, I went with a salade lyonnaise, a choice inspired by last week's "Around the World in 80 Plates" adventure in Lyon (check out Curtis Stone's blog post here), arguably recognised as the gastronomic capital of the world. Technically, I feel that I could only really call this one an inspired salade lyonnaise, given the only greens I could find were not the sole traditional frisée but a spring mix that included it along with other varieties. This said, there are four main components to a proper salade lyonnaise--inspired or otherwise: the greens, bacon, dressing and poached egg. A technique which I had never seen before but which makes perfect sense (and could certainly have used in the past), I learned from the AtWi80P chefs to simply wrap up a whole egg in plastic wrap, tie it up and cook it in simmering water. Taking an additional cue from this site, I instructed Kim and Alison to lay a sheet of plastic wrap in a small cup or even the egg holder and spray it with some nonstick (vegetable) cooking spray; onto the plastic wrap, an egg should be cracked. Take the perimeter of the plastic wrap and bunch it up as tightly as possible, using a string or (better yet) a twist-tie to secure everything in place. Make sure there are no holes and that the twist-tie is tight. Any chance for the egg white or yolk to escape will make it quite easy for the egg to escape. With water simmering away, simply drop the egg packages into the water (it's okay to slightly overcrowd, but don't go too crazy) and leave them there covered for about 3-4 minutes. Before you take them out you can gently test and inspect each package to make sure the egg yolk is surrounded by cooked whites (or as the amazing gastronomist Hervé This would call them, the "egg yellows"). Seriously, if the above is followed completely and any anxieties go away, this method does work and works fairly consistently (at least, more so than previous methods). And if you still don't believe me, click here for further "proof."

To plate this dish, the salad still needed to be dressed. Using this site as my guide, and these sites (1 and 2) for further support, I eyeballed a touch over 1 tbsp warmed, reserved bacon fat (refer to the pre-prepped items toward the top of this post), 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 1 tbsp white wine vinegar, 1 tsp Dijon mustard, salt and ground black pepper, and whisked everything together before tossing it with the salad greens (which had been preshredded by Mollie). I made the dressing three times over, dressing two of the salad bowls (with about 10 oz spring mix greens in each) and reserving the third bowl of dressing just in case we needed to dress another batch of salad. To finish off the dish, add your croutons, bacon, and a poached egg. When you break into the egg, the yolk should still be runny and adds a rich touch to the lightly buttery dressing that cuts through the bitterness of the frisée, arugula and other mixed greens.

As all of this was happening, Ann Marie did a marvelous job in pulling together and rolling out the dunderi with Alison's help. I instructed her via the same recipe I've used in the past, though doubled here (the only difference here was that I had purchased a 32 oz container of ricotta). I'll spare you the sociocultural context here, as the recipe and all of that information may be found at the previous link. As for the pesto al'Amalfitana, put together by Sarah with others' help, the sauce was doubled; but because I neglected to buy more walnuts, we used 1/2 c walnuts and 1/2 c pecans.

And then there was one. Between Trish and her daughter, they rolled out, slightly dried, and cut the dough that had been prepared all that time ago. With the dunderi completely cooked by this point, water was swapped out to cook the pasta which finished within 2-3 minutes (and don't forget to add a bit of olive oil to prevent the individual noodles from sticking!). The original aim, though, was for linguine which, as many a website conveys, is Italian for "little tongues" and fits somewhere in width between spaghetti and fettucini. According to the author of the previous link, Liguria where linguine originated is on the coast of Italy, which was why Linguine and seafood became a natural pairing. As it turned out, perhaps fate realised I wasn't pairing it with seafood but rather poultry; okay, or maybe it was just that the dough was still fairly moist by the time we got to it and since there wasn't enough time to properly dry out the dough for linguine, we shuffled over to making fettuccine ("little ribbons," and indicative of cuisine from Bologna) instead. Ironically, a common sauce to serve with fettuccine is ragù di pollo (chicken ragu) which isn't too far off from the aforementioned ratatouille. Speaking of that lot, Alison helped to mix all of the roasted items together into a single group of ratatouille-inspired flavours; together, the natural juices melded together to form both a great broth and dressing for the fettuccine that would be paired with it. This, of course, has led to this course's final title as "Fettuccitouille," yet another thankful representation of--at least in my little world--Franco-Italian cuisine.

With London broil, marinated salmon, potato salad, Waldorf salad, fresh guacamole, and an array of desserts including homemade cherry pie and Texas sheet cake, among everything else added to the party, this was certainly a (ful)filling dinner! And again one tied together by food, culture and community. Many thanks again to Sarah and Dan for opening their home to us all, and to everyone in Admissions and all those who joined us in prepping, cooking, eating, and/or just by being present; I'd also like to especially thank Marilyn and Lynn for their help toward the end of service. For the above photos and the others taken throughout the experience, click here. Oh, and for those of you who are reading this now, check it out "Around the World in 80 Plates," if you are able! Tonight, the cheftestants head over to Barcelona.

No comments:

Post a Comment