Saturday, 8 December 2012

ITKP: "Holiday Culinary Culture"

As many of  you may already know, I have come to enjoy and appreciate the challenge of creating complicated programmatic menus. And today's In the Kitchen Practicum--the final one for the semester--was no exception. On the proposed menu: baked brie en croûte with caramelised onions; hand made sundried tomato ravioli with roasted red bell pepper and acorn squash, topped with oregano browned butter (made solely with fresh oregano and heavy cream); dry rubbed beef short ribs with Kansas City style barbecue sauce; and homemade gingerbread with cinnamon and salted caramel swirl ice cream.

Rather than build our menu on holiday dishes prepared within various cultural traditions, I associated "holidays" with home cooking, comfort food and descriptors that relate to eating at home and with family and friends. My immediate thought was the familiarity of gingerbread (which of course needed to be homemade) this time of the year, followed closely by the rich flavour and texture of baked brie (coupled closely with caramelised onions); ironically none of these foods are associated with my family's holiday experience-- at least, not yet. With dessert and the appetizer course decided, I somehow found my way to beef short ribs and homemade pasta as our starch and the menu quickly fell into place. As I began to prep ingredients for a the ribs, I soon realised just how closely linked these courses were. On Friday night (we're gearing up for finals mode around here), I opened up one of the few books on my culinary bookshelf I often refer to: The Flavor Bible and used it as my guide for a barbecue preparation of meat. It's been quite some time since I successfully made my first batch of good bbq and this round of experimentation would prove to be continued luck. The biggest difference this time around was that The Flavour Bible gave me a bit more confidence that the spices I was mixing together would actually work. In fact, a long list of pairable (with beef short ribs) ingredients exists and when looking at the different items that just happened to be in my cabinet, I already happened to have a fair number of them: chives, cinnamon, coriander, garlic, ginger, lemon zest, onion, black pepper, rosemary, salt and vegetable oil, along with oregano, parsley and thyme which are currently growing in my windowbox herb gardens. Between the spice rub and the homemade barbecue sauce, as well as other components of the menu, these ingredients would be well incorporated.

And so, having done all my research and having rehearsed in my head the order of task completion, I began my Saturday morning by creating the barbecue sauce as it needed some time to cook down. After finely mincing three cloves of garlic with 1/2 tsp salt and sautéeing this in 1 tbsp vegetable oil on medium heat, I added 1/2 c water to prevent prevent the garlic from burning. To this lot, I squeezed in 1 c bottled ketchup, poured in  1/4 c cider vinegar and a splash (1 tbsp) of red wine (which served as my substitute for Worcestershire sauce), shook in 1 tsp hot sauce and spooned in 2 tbsp light brown sugar and 1 tbsp blackstrap molasses (make it 2 tbsp if you're using regular molasses). As this began to bubble away, I added 1/2 tbsp each of paprika and salt and 1/2 tsp each of crushed red pepper and ground black pepper. A regional bbq sauce variation, this Kansas City style sauce was influenced by this recipe, slightly crossed with this version and plays on the expectations for multiple sources of sweetness (the brown sugar, molasses and onion), tartness (the apple cider vinegar and hot sauce) and multiple sources of heat (black pepper and hot sauce), as well as additional flavour from the ketchup, red wine, garlic and salt.

Lowering the heat to med-lo, I left the sauce alone and worked on the dry rub. Referring to this as my guide, I mixed together 2 tsp light brown sugar, 1/2 tsp each of cinnamon, ground black pepper and ground ginger, 1/4 tsp crushed coriander seed and a pinch of salt. To this was also added 1 tbsp rosemary lemon and garlic salt I had received at the end of a Slow Food dinner this past October and 1 tsp of Penzey's Mural of Flavor which completed the list of herbs and spices listed above. Thoroughly combined, I cut criss-crossed slices into the meat and rubbed about half the dry rub in total into the meat. Once coated all over, the ribs went into a plastic container and then (covered) into the fridge to allow the rub to penetrate and flavour the meat.

By the time the ribs got into the fridge this was nearing completion, I had nearly forgotten about the sauce which had reduced a bit too much (really, it should only take about half an hour, I caught it about 45 minutes). The sauce wasn't ruined-- it had just over thickened. To prevent the sauce from cooking any more, I carefully took it out of the pan, making sure not to scrape the bottom of the pan which had over caramelised/slightly burned. After about two hours--the maximum suggested time to leave the meat alone with the dry rub--the sauce had slightly thickened to a great consistency as it cooled (and as shown above). In that interim, I headed over to check out "A Taste of Local Food in Licking County" which was presented by the students of this semester's Environmental Studies practicum. For photos from the event, check out this album (21-33).

Back in the kitchen, I knew that the ribs would take the longest time to cook and so I worked on getting these in the oven straight away (12:30pm) before the program officially began (1pm). After I took out a sheet of puff pastry to thaw under a sheet of slightly damp paper towel, I got a skillet with two tablespoons of vegetable oil on medium heat. I dredged the ribs in all-purpose flour and then got these directly onto the oil to brown for a few minutes on each side; here, you're not trying to cook the ribs all the way through but rather to sear the exterior. Don't leave the ribs on for too long because they can burn due to the sugar in the rub. The second component of the menu to take up quite some time is the caramelised onion; as shown in the background of the above image, slice a large sweet onion into half moons and sautée them (covered) in a tablespoon or so of melted butter along with a pinch each of salt and granulated sugar. For more info on caramelising onions, check out this post.

Onto a baking dish, add a bit of the bbq sauce followed by your browned ribs. After the ribs have been removed from the skillet, you'll notice a bit of the juices and brown bits otherwise known as the fond which in itself is full of flavour and should not be wasted. Deglase the pan with red wine (here's the link between the bbq sauce and the actual cooking preparation) and use a whisk to scrape off the browned bits. Get all of this into the center of your baking dish. Top off the ribs with a bit more of the sauce as shown above, cover the dish tightly with tin foil and get this into a preheated 350°F oven. I would end up leaving this in the oven for about 90 minutes or so; because of the sugar that's also present in the sauce, do pay attention so that it doesn't completely char.

As the ribs are making their way into the oven, the sweet onion slices should be a bit limp. Cut into wedges and remove the seeds from a small golden acorn and a red bell pepper. Drizzle a bit of olive oil, sprinkle some salt and ground black pepper, cover this with tin foil and get the pan into the oven.

By this point, the onions should be near completed. Finish this off by stirring in a tablespoon or so of sherry cooking wine; reduce the heat to lo and continue to cook the onions (uncovered) to cook out the alcohol. While that's going, take the time to wrap up your brie and get it into the oven for about half an hour, as well.

With all of this pre-prep out of the way, the students arrived, and the planned prep work began. Daniel arrived first and was given the task of making freezer bag ice cream which according to my estimations would take the longest time to complete. Typically, and as noted in a previous post, the process should take approximately 10 minutes and yet we ran into the same freezing issues I've been experiencing over the last handful of tries. Meanwhile, Sarah and Hastea arrived and each shook up a cup each of heavy whipping cream. After 10-ish minutes of shaking, they got whipped cream and a few minutes later began to see the cream separate, the final results being 50% butter and 50% buttermilk. By the time they finished with this dairy separation we checked on Daniel's product. I realised at that moment that not only had we double bagged the cream mixture (2 c half and half + 1/2 c sugar + 1 tbsp cinnamon) but we were using freezer bags. (Seriously, how could we expect the ice and salt to freeze--let alone chill--the cream when multiple layers of plastic were protecting the cream itself?) And so, we eventually changed gears and got the un-iced cream into a container and straight into the freezer.

As all of the dairy products were going, I got water, sugar and light corn syrup boiling for a salted caramel sauce (which eventually overcooked and got to be too stiff; time check: I still added this to the cinnamon cream mix which we had put in the freezer at this time) and then worked on a homemade gingerbread batter, following this recipe by Group Recipes poster Nycea. (It's as easy to make as it looks; the one change I made was adding only 3/4 c of the blackstrap molasses.) Before measuring out the ingredients, I got a pot of water going on medium heat (take some of the hot water from this pot for the gingerbread batter) for our soon-to-be-made-ravioli and took out the vegetables that had been roasting in the oven; Daniel took on the pasta dough (1.5 c all-purpose flour + 2 whole eggs + pinch of salt + few tbsp of water), while Hastea and Sarah took care of the puréeing and dicing of the squash and red bell pepper (the eventual filling for the ravioli), followed by a browned butter oregano sauce made with the butter that had been shaken out of the heavy cream, as well as lightly sautéed zucchini and yellow squash. Throughout this entire cooking expedition, the one thing I had forgotten to do was dry out the sun dried tomatoes I planned for us to incorporate into the pasta dough; and so it followed that Daniel's first attempt didn't go so well as the tomatoes actually had a bit of moisture to them and turned out to be relatively gummy. As he made a second batch, I tried getting some of the tomatoes onto a fry pan to dry them out that way; they crisped up a bit as I continued to flatten and chop them, and in the end they worked tolerably. Next time around, I'm either drying these out completely or going with tomato paste (1, 2). With the pasta pseudo-successfully completed, I cranked out the pasta sheets while the students took turn filling and cooking the ravioli. Also finished by this point (i.e., the time we were ready to eat) were the short ribs and gingerbread.

With our first course of brie en croûte and caramelised onion, we continued our conversation on holiday traditions as we cut into the familiar flaky crust of the puff pastry, the creaminess of the brie and the sweetness of the onion.

I then plated everyone's main course which included the majority of the many components that had been prepared. In the photo above, I'll note that the char on the rib, due to all of the sugars that went into the sauce and dry rub, is a bit deceiving; it wasn't burned and bitter as you might expect on first glance. It had certainly cooked long enough (which you can tell is the case when the meat pulls away from the bone) but was tender and full of flavour. And wow, the bbq sauce was good. As also pictured, I paired this with some fresh flat leaf parsley which had been listed under beef in The Flavor Bible. As for the raviolie, these actually turned out quite well (you can see traces of the tomato, but only just) and were topped off with a bit more of the filling, the browned butter oregano sauce and a bit of fresh oregano. (Did you notice the red, white and green going on on that side of the plate?)

In plating the dessert (later followed by a concluding taste of Askinosie dark milk chocolate ice cream), I had to be a bit creative as the cinnamon ice cream never came to fruition. So, I'm calling it a cinnamon cream sauce and surrounded a round of the gingerbread, soaking the bread a bit with the sauce to add to the already present moisture and cinnamon flavour. I then topped this off with a quenelle of espresso chip frozen custard and then a small dollop of freshly "whipped" cream (shaken by Sarah with the leftover cream from making the salted caramel, and finished with some powdered sugar). And as if the meal really needed something to mark it as being "holiday" spirited, each of us chose a different sugar topping to add some more colour. In retrospect, while holiday culinary culture wasn't explicitly evident on the plates (though if "holiday" to you also means homey, welcoming, conversation and food, then we hit the theme correctly), the spirit and intentionality of the holiday season was certainly felt. I'll conclude, too, by stating that after a long and educative series of lectures and practicums, this was a perfect capstone to this semester's food and culture programming. 

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the album of photos from this practicum, click here. The Food and Culture Colloquium will resume January 23, 2013, in Slayter Auditorium from 4.30pm-5.30pm. Colloquium lectures and practicums are open to all Denison faculty, staff and students, as well as area community members in and outside of Granville.

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