Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Cooking with the CCCE, Cooking with Love

Towards the end of the first semester, our Center for Cross-Cultural Engagement (CCCE) donated a dinner for the annual Denison Operating Working Staff (DOWS) auction, the proceeds of which went to help local families in need. Yesterday, the much-anticipated dinner took place and with our summer intern, Bernardo, on board, we pulled off a 5-item, 4-course menu, built around the theme of representing different forms of love: roasted green bell peppers stuffed with ground beef; chicken Marbella served over rice and with a side of green beans; brie en croûte with caramelized onions and roasted garlic, baked in puff pastry; chocolate mocha zucchini cake frosted with a homemade buttercream frosting; and whole wheat red velvet cupcakes with a homemade cream cheese frosting.

My course was the brie en croûte and began about an hour before the start of dinner service, with a large pot of water beginning to boil, the oven preheating at 350°F, a package of frozen puff pastry defrosting, and the start to my caramelised onions in process. Quite the easy delicacy to make, the only real difficulty in caramelising the onions is the amount of cooking time it takes. With scheduled timing, the fuss of time was nothing to worry about; and indeed, there's much support online (1, 2, 3, and 4) to help guide you through the process. As another process to read about though: In a deep sauté pan, heat 2 tbsp unsalted butter and 2 tbsp olive oil; as the liquids heat up, chop about 3.5-4lbs sweet onions in half, slice thin half-rings, and add them to the pan. As you go through chopping the onions, it may look like they won't fit in the pan; have no fear though as the onions will reduce in size as they continue to sauté. Simply add the additional onions as the batch reduces until all of them fit. Trust me, they'll fit. After each addition, be sure to gently toss the onions in the buttery olive oil to coat them; after your final addition, sprinkle in three good pinches of salt, give this another toss and leave well enough alone on medium heat (if you constantly move those onions around, there won't be any chance for them to caramelise).

Meanwhile, the sheets of puff pastry dough were nearly thawed out (if you're really in a hurry, you can run the sheets under a bit of water and then pat them dry); flattening it out and cutting it down to the size of a square, take the extra dough and make a braid or design out of it, as shown above. With the dough completely thawed, wrap up an 8oz wheel of brie making very sure to seal it up well. No holes allowed here, or else you'll get a bit of a deliciously cheesy mess (which I suppose isn't all that bad). With the first one complete, I moved onto the second one, making sure to top each off with my braided work. Again, feel free to make whatever design you fancy. You'll see later on why I went with the design above a bit further down this post.

If the puff pastry dough isn't ready to work with, you could swap paragraphs and prepare the garlic for roasting. As I've shared on a previous blog, carefully slice a whole bulb of garlic (papery skins and all) in half so that you've essentially cut in half each clove width-wise. Get the two halves onto a large sheet of aluminum foil (large enough to tightly wrap the bulb), lightly drizzle about 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil over the garlic halves, sprinkle salt and ground black pepper, and bring the two halves together again before wrapping them up in the foil. Make sure you've bunched everything up so that the olive oil doesn't leak out and onto the baking dish you'll be setting these on; and by "these," I mean the four bulbs of garlic you prepare using this method. 

Whatever the order your prepare the brie and garlic (all the while checking on your onions and giving them a stir so they don't burn), get them onto a single baking sheet and into the preheated oven. Other recipes put a target time frame on the garlic somewhere between 20-30 minutes, but base this batch's time in the oven on the "doneness" (read: golden brownness) of the puff pastry. 

With another stir of the caramelised onions, you should notice their colour starting to change from the original opaque white. As the liquid begins to evaporate, the onions' natural sugar will be released and make contact with the pan, browning them ever so slightly. At this point, keep an even closer eye on the onions and reduce the heat. Within minutes, the onions will turn a deep golden brown and become tender and sweet. If you happen to have the time though, reduce the heat even further to the lowest setting possible and keep your watchful eye. The longer they have to take the heat without burning, the richer and more flavourful they'll be.

Now that everything's cooking or baking away, I washed 2.25 lbs (for the number we had, about 1.5 would've probably been better), chopped off the stemmed ends and got them into the large pot of water which at this point should be boiling away (it's okay to lower the heat if it gets ridiculous). Leave the beans in there for about 5 minutes or so, depending on how crispy you want them to be, and then transfer them to a bowl of cool water to slow down the cooking process. Of course, if you want the beans to be as close to the crispness as you tasted them, get them in even cooler/ice water. Drain off any excess water and top the beans with salt (here, I went with sel gris). 

And with all of this prep work wrapping up (alongside Erik finishing off his stuffed bell peppers and Marilyn her chicken Marbella, as well as the room being set up and the bread toasting away), our guests from Institutional Advancement arrived and we were on our way to a truly memorable dinner. Before I continue, I want to again express our thanks to Laura (the winner of our auction donation) and everyone from IA who were able to join us.

For our first course, titled "Daddy's Love," Erik shared with us a family favourite prepared by his dad growing up: stuffed green bell peppers with ground beef. Just as Erik's ingredients aren't technically "measured" (which makes things a bit difficult to share recipe-wise), it was certainly clear the peppers were outstanding, immeasurable, and undeniably the best way to have started our meal. What can be shared however is that the green bell peppers (after being hollowed out) are boiled in a mix of olive oil and water for five minutes to soften the skins. Stuffed then with cooked ground beef and spices (ground black pepper, Lawry's seasoning salt, garlic powder and a touch of cayenne), everything's topped off with shredded cheese (here, cheddar; alternatively, you could mix the cheese in directly with the beef) before getting them into the preheated oven. The bell peppers should cook just until they become fork tender; the sure sign they're done is to keep a close eye on the upper perimeter of the pepper which should be charred ever so slightly and curving inward.

Marilyn's course, "Family Love," translated the familial sense of community and role of food brought each time to the dining table through chicken Marbella, a traditional large group dish. Marbella (as both a city and municipality) is situated in southern Spain, an ideal location for such chicken Marbella ingredients as capers, prunes, and olives. A truly random-looking list of ingredients is pulled together in this balanced, beautifully-flavoured dish, which is again so perfect for a large group dinner that the quantities are listed for a group of 10-12. Marilyn did share that she uncharacteristically followed the Silver Palate cookbook's version of chicken Marbella as precisely as possible, and in retrospect she would advise using a little less brown sugar than what the recipe calls for. It's also important to note that instead of 4 whole chickens, Marilyn went with a mix of boneless and with bone chicken breasts and thighs.

I next took on the traditional cheese course and presented my brie en croûte, "Wrapped in Love." Leaning on my personal preference for Franco-Italian cooking, the brie (a cheese I often associate with comfort food, especially warmed) was more literally wrapped in the puff pastry which in itself is layered with butter. In addition, I couldn't help but notice that the garlic and warmth were also wrapped in the aluminum foil (do be careful of the heat when you first disrobe the garlic). The richness and buttery-ness of this particular dish complimented the equally warming and almost nutty flavour of the caramelised onions (some of which were served within the braided ring created prior to baking) and natural sweetness of the roasted garlic cloves. In both its presentation and taste, both the savoury and even the sweet helped fill the room.

And then, as if we hadn't had enough to eat, we made our way to dessert. The initial, planned dessert was presented by Beth in her course "Peace and Love" which took the form of a chocolate mocha zucchni cake frosted with a homemade buttercream frosting. I know I've said it multiple times now in person, but I have been waiting to try this particular cake for at least a year now; this was certainly worth the wait. Incredibly moist, lightly sweet, and richly chocolate (most likely because of the zucchini and chocolate pudding baked into the cake), we couldn't quite taste the mocha (perhaps because of the type of coffee used) but that wasn't exactly something to complain about... especially when we consider this a healthy food (well, there are 2 cups of zucchini, so it's basically part of the veggie food group, right?). As for the specific recipe, Beth based her's on this one, and of important note specifically uses a German chocolate cake mix. Sprinkled with chocolate sprinkles (or jimmies as they're also called), everything about this cake is spot on (including that frosting).

Though our summer intern, Bernardo, wasn't a part of the planning process for the dinner all the way back in the fall, he has quickly become a part of our CCCE family and contributed a surprising but nonetheless very welcome fifth dish: whole wheat red velvet cupcakes with homemade cream cheese frosting. (I'll go out on a limb and claim these, too, as healthy, because of the whole wheat flour he used.) A play on the phrase à la mode, Bernardo settled on "Love à la Vogue" for this dish, given apparent American sensibilities around red velvet cupcakes. A turn of the 20th century dessert most commonly associated with the 1920s or 1950s/1960s era, and with potentially deeper roots in Canada, everyone according to Bernardo seems to either fall into one of two camps: those who have tried and loved them, and those who haven't tried them but have been meaning to try them. Let's also not overlook the fact that the cupcakes are indeed red and thus fit into our theme even more perfectly. As for the recipe?: no wonder it's so good, Bernardo based his cupcakes on Paula Deen's, with additional vanilla extract than what the recipe suggests.

All in all, I'd have to conclude this was a successful dinner, made even more successful and memorable because of our IA guests and the spirit in which the dinner as an auctioned item was crafted. For even more photos to help relive the experience, click here.

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