Thursday, 3 May 2012

A Dinner of Dialogue to End a Great Semester

When it comes to dining, the act of sharing in its many forms can oftentimes go unnoticed as an additional diner, an agent in the dining experience that aids in the facilitation and promotion of a memorable meal. As we wrap up a busy moment of the academic year, our Listening for a Change group made it a point to do our best in sharing what limited time we had with each other for each other. Granted not everyone could make it--but they were certainly with us in spirit--and it is in this light that I want to offer the a prompt to digest: in the dialogue of food and memory, who and what is being shared? Any time we reflect and recall, analysis thoroughly and build upon, or listen and change, we're sharing in a communal experience rooted in conversation with our self and position in relationship to others. At the risk of trying to sound too theoretical for my own good, I'll stop the analogizing there and simply present here a colourful dinner of humble ingredients and humble people that gathered around the table one last time to celebrate in dialogue of everything we've accomplished this past academic year, including getting to know more about each other as people and not simply as faculty, staff or student.

from http://www.traavl.com/amalfi_coast
Over a period of what seems like months (and indeed, it probably has been just as long), there has been one set of recipes for which I had been searching the right moment to try out: dunderi with pesto al'Amalfitana. And this seemed like the right opportunity to test this out, especially as I'm currently in the process of pre-drafting my Fulbright application to Italy. (I'll admit that it's oftentimes not the best time to test drive an unknown recipe, but my experience has supported my beginner's luck in the kitchen.) Located in the upper lower third of Italy, off the country's west coast and due southeast of Naples, the Amalfi Coast and the aforementioned recipes were first presented to me through "David Rocco's Dolce Vita" in the episode "The Trouble with Pepe" which aired on the Cooking Channel this past June.

The first of these recipes, dunderi, is similar in aesthetic, manufacturing, and texture to the potato-based gnocchi. (Though, technically they're both the same thing, donderet, which comes from Piedmont.) However, one of the key difference is that instead of boiled potatoes, the core ingredient of dunderi is cheese; as such, dunderi is the term given to large gnocchi made with cheese as a principal ingredient as indicated in the previous link). Specifically, two types of cheese are used, the first of which is ricotta. And while you can make your own ricotta if you prefer, I would suggest going with one you can purchase already made. For this recipe, 15-ish oz (Rocco's recipe leans more toward 17, but 15 seems to be more common in this area) gets the job done. To this, you need to add a fine grain cheese, to which I preface with the following: If you haven't seen "Dolce Vita" before, you should try your best to do so; of the many things I enjoy of Rocco's show is the fact that his ingredients and connections to food are visibly humble. In this sense, I mean to say that his food is as local and as fresh as possible, and to the best of my knowledge, speaks to the very essence of terroir (an aspect of food that I affirm to one day make my professional research focus in life) that I find among much of "true" European cuisine. As a lesson of this, one of Rocco's necessary ingredients to this dish is Grana Padano cheese; no, it's not a "fancy" name for a type of cheese, but rather the name given to a specific cheese made within a specific geographic region. In this case, we're talking about the Pianura Padana valley (otherwise known as the Po Valley; the "grana" part comes from the type of cheese, meaning grain-like). Now if you really want to be "authentic," it's important to get Grana Padano cheese in your shopping cart. Similar to the French designation of AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) which certifies that an item (usually wine but not only wine) is true to the location for which the item is named, and therefore may be called that name (e.g., "Champagne," "Roquefort"), in Italy, the designation of Denominazione di Origine Controllata, DOC, is applied. [I should note here that other designations are employed, as well.] All of this said, I'm not fortunate to live anywhere near the northern edge of Italy or have access to Grana Padano and so I instead used a generous cup of grated Parmesan cheese.

Once the two cheeses have been thoroughly combined, add 2 tsp grated nutmeg (about 1/4 of a seed if you're freshly grating it on site), and a generous pinch each of salt and ground black pepper. To this, add two yolks that had been pre-whisked together, as well as 1 c all-purpose flour. Stir everything together very well with a spatula (and ideally, a strong spatula at that); as you can see in the two images above, I had to switch to a wooden spoon (because the handle of my plastic spatula broke). The dough itself will be soft and seem like it's runny throughout this process, but trust it will work out in the end. That said, continue to fold all the ingredients--once everything has been combined--to essentially knead them all together, and add as much flour as necessary so that the dough can begin to pull itself away from the bowl as you stir (again, note the difference between the two photos above). In the end, you should get something that looks like this. Believe it or not, that's all there is to it (for the dough, anyway). Let the dough rest for at least half an hour before shaping and cooking the soon-to-be dunderi.

In the meantime, I got a large pot of seasoned water (i.e., with salt) heating up to a boil, as I pulled together the ingredients for the dunderi, pesto al'Amalfitana. In contrast to typical pesto made of basil and pine nuts, this simple version from Amalfi is made of one bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley (stems cut, and leaves washed and dried), 1/2 c walnuts, 2 cloves garlic, 1/2 c parmesan cheese (the same cheese I used for the dunderi), a pinch of salt, and 1 c extra-virgin olive oil, all blended together. As I didn't have a blender, however, I split all of these ingredients between two smaller chopper containers, as shown above.

By this point, members of our dialogue group arrived at my apartment for dinner and while they worked on their own dishes, others (especially Amanda, Ellen, Lynn, and Michaela) helped out with delegated tasks, including the blending of the pesto Amalfitana, and grating carrots and apples, and squeezing orange juice, for the carrot salad recipe based off my Stellenbosch host family's recipe (mine being of a 5:2:1 ratio).

As the other dishes neared completion, I worked with the dunderi dough and began by rolling out a log of it (about 1" thick). After cutting the log into approximately 1" pieces, it was time to transform the dough into the dunderi form by way of the cheese grater. In one action step, use your thumb to press and roll a piece of the dough against the medium grater edge. In so doing, you create ridges which--like the ridges created by the tines of a fork for gnocchi--are used to hold the accompanying sauce. If you find the dough is still too sticky, you can lightly coat the outside of the dough with flour before rolling. Once you've got a full plate of dunderi (or however much could evenly cover the bottom of your pot which should definitely be boiling by now), go ahead and drop these into the pot. Once they've floated to the top (about 5-7 minutes), the dunderi are ready to be scooped out (and your next batch should be ready to go in).

And with that, plate the dunderi after gently folding it into the pesto Amalfitana, and top it off with shredded Parmesan and chopped walnuts.

Along with the pasta and carrot salad, our meal also included brie and crackers from Michaela, and a curry tuna salad with golden raisins from Ellen, as well as Lynn's spinach artichoke dip.

And for dessert, Ayana baked banana bread which, here, I plated with Ivan's fruit salad that he served with a rich vanilla ice cream.

Finally, to cap off a deliciously filling memory-making meal, we ended with the unexpecting "third" dessert à la my chocolat chaud. With final bites and last dishes to wash, another chapter within a chapter of this academic year came to a fulfilling close, one especially supported and made even more special by this year's L4C group. For the complete photo album from this meal, click here.

[Post completed 5/16/12]

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