Friday, 12 October 2012

Cooking as a Community (with DSFs)

I've often found that, in the most unexpected of ways, food (un?)expectedly brings people together, those of like or different minds and ideologies, those of different ages and experiences. And throughout the process, we can create anything from a ritualistic or a mechanical (not necessarily complimentary adjectives) framework to operating within mass chaos or overwhelming entropy (which in this case could very well be complimentary if not synonymous). The act of cooking--or more importantly participatory cooking--typically brings out an inherent support structure and desire to be helpful and considerate, in a world that's moving too fast to really think of either. And the yield is such that, in the most open and interdependent systems, it is shared and consumed by everyone. For a brief moment in the grand scheme of things, we've created a rather utopian, living-learning environment predicated on a basic need to eat, as well as the felt sense of belonging. At least, this is the internal dialogue playing in my head as I continue facilitate food and culture programming throughout campus, and which I came to better understand as I reflected on a dinner I cooked with and for Denison's Sustainability Fellows, as the kickoff to their program's first retreat. The goal, at its core, was to begin to develop a closer group dynamic and community through the galvanizing impact of food. And judging by the amount of laughter, cleared dishes and bags of compostable material, I'd say this dinner was a success.

As is often the case when it comes to hosting a program with an over-ambitious menu, as well as many palates and/or dietary restrictions and/or observances, the added success of this dinner heavily relied on both patience and adaptability (on both my part and theirs). Thankfully, the pairs of hands ready to learn and help weren't all that difficult to find, though with so many available, documentation quickly became overtaken by the whirlwind of task creation. In the end, we managed to turn the above bags of groceries into five dishes with multiple components (for the most part, from scratch).

To kick start the process, we (i.e., student co-coordinators of the DSF crew-- Kai and Alanna--and I) began by getting the oven preheating to 350°F and prepped the elements that would take the longest time to cook. Kai first worked on splitting two butternut squashes (really we only needed one) which went into the oven in a small baking dish, as well as slicing eggplant which went onto a baking sheet, both drizzled then with olive oil, salt and pepper, and a few tablespoons of water, before being covered in tin foil. Meanwhile, Alanna worked on the leche flan, as I've prepared in the past.

From there, Alanna switched over to cubing four large apples for individual apple cobblers which were then coated with about 1.5-2 tbsp cinnamon, while Kai prepped bell peppers for what would later become "ratatouille" lasagna (a dish combining the original plan of making two separate dishes-- ratatouille and eggplant lasagna). At about this time, Daniel (also a regular Food and Culture Colloquium participant) arrived and began working on my take on Rachael Ray's Portuguese One Pot Chicken recipe, the major changes appearing in the form of substitutions based on availability and budget): we went with one boneless, skinless chicken breast per person; instead of chorizo, we just threw in about 1.5 tbsp reserved, rendered bacon fat (essentially browning/cooking the potatoes in that fat); and one cayenne pepper sliced instead of the Fresno chile pepper (perhaps the better substitution would be a jalapeño). Finally, to deglaze, I used sherry cooking wine rather than dry sherry, and neither thyme nor bay leaf were added or substituted.

Alanna by this point put together individual apple cobblers, using my peach cobbler recipe for the batter (a notable addition to this recipe was a few handfuls of crushed bran flakes) which she had to make at about 1.5-1.75 times the original batch (take note the "batter" will be rather thin, but thickened by the bran flakes).

As all of this was going on, the rest of the DSFs arrived and were put to work in slicing strawberries, pushing through a berry coulis of strawberries, blackberries and raspberries, and forming, and eventually crafting fresh pasta dough and ravioli. For the pasta dough, I should note, I had yesterday taught an RA (Austin) how to make fresh dough, following the same recipe I had shared at the Food and Culture Colloquium's first In the Kitchen practicum session: one cup flour, one pinch salt, one whisked egg, and a few tablespoons of water. [In addition to linguine, Austin and I also made ravioli stuffed with a ground beef and shredded mozzarella mixture, with sauce options of brown butter sage (brown the butter and off the heat add a few leaves of fresh sage to steep for at least 10 minutes) and Mornay (one tablespoon unsalted butter, one tablespoon all-purpose flour, one cup milk, one cup cheese, flavoured to taste with salt and ground black pepper).]

We also used this same dough recipe and for this program's stuffing options, we made a purée with the butternut squash flesh that had been baking (give it at least 45 minutes to bake, or until fork tender) and to which a few tablespoons of light brown sugar were added; ricotta cheese to which a handful of fresh basil leaves from my window herb garden were julienned and mixed in; and then ground beef to which a few cloves of garlic were finely chopped and added along with salt and ground black pepper.

Our sauce options were Mornay and canned tomato. I'll note here that as the pasta was being formed, a large pot of water was set to boil; as the pasta was finishing up, each person dropped his/her batch in and waited until the batch floated to the surface (about 2-3 minutes).

In this process, Molly (DSF staff coordinator) put together the batter for a vegan chocolate cake, following this recipe's ingredients. (Caught in the cooking storm, I added unnecessarily baking powder; upon re-reading the recipe, the baking soda and vinegar clearly act as your leavening agents.) Meanwhile, DSFs worked together to chop ingredients for a fruit salad that was initially meant to top off the leche flan (which had been put directly in the fridge after baking to cool down) but instead ended up with the cake: two mangoes, one pineapple, two bananas and a healthy amount of strawberries; to this, blueberries, lime zest, lime juice and orange juice were added. (Also in the midst of all the moving around, I neglected to give them the kiwi fruits to dice up.) Back in the kitchen, the "ratatouille" lasagna was assembled; here, the reference to ratatouille is in relation to its ingredients, a sort of deconstructed version of which is presented in this new dish. First, I layered the baked eggplant (next time, forget the olive oil and just sprinkle some water over theme so they don't dry out; otherwise, they simply soak in all the olive oil and can get mushy; also, bake the eggplant just until they're fork tender, or else they'll get mushy, too), followed by the julienned bell peppers, shredded carrots and canned tomatoes. To top this all off, we added sliced zucchini and yellow squash; over the yellow squash, you'll note shredded cheese was added. And if I had remembered, I would also add in some diced or half-moon sliced onions and sprinkle half-cloves of garlic.

And with that, the last thing to put together was a salad of mixed greens, sliced strawberries and crumbled herbed goat cheese, followed closely by finally eating.

Perhaps it's needless to say that everyone ate quite a bit (though I've just typed it anyway), but somehow (and thankfully) managed to save (or make) room for dessert, both of which turned out rather well. The first was the vegan chocolate cake that had been presented to be plated with the berry coulis and mix fruit salad.

The second dessert was the individual apple cobbler served alongside black cherry chip frozen custard (pictured above) and espresso brownie frozen custard. I'll suggest here that, if your individual ramekins don't have lids, bake them covered with tin foil.

The third dessert option (or course) was the leche flan which unfortunately here split on me in the plating process. Bof, I say... it still tasted as it should. This, too, was paired with the coulis. And so, with an open heart, a full stomach and a kitchen and house in desperate need of cleaning, I sign off with fond memories of this particular event. Best of luck to the DSFs, and here's to many more community building activities in the future! For the complete album of photos from the evening's meal, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment