Saturday, 27 April 2013

Cooking for the CCCE Staff: Spring 2013 Dinner

We've now reached the final days of the academic year and yet somehow the number of programs has been increasing, students are spending many more hours writing up final papers, and reviews and assessments are keeping more and more folks in the office. Amidst all of this, most of our staff was able to find a small window to enjoy a break and a meal, and of course the company through which food brought us together. On our menu: grape tomato and orange bell pepper salad with orange vinaigrette, blueberry salad with feta, muesli and citrus infused olive oil, handmade whole wheat tagliatelle with fresh marina, Italian dressing chicken, baguette toasts with pasta sauce and shredded cheese, Italian cheese trio (perline mozzarella fresca, grated parmesan and ricotta, blue, and for dessert dark chocolate mocha cake with Whit's frozen custards.

After completing my focused (15-minute) grocery run, I headed home and started prepping straight away. The oven was set to 350°F, a large pot of seasoned water was heating up to boiling point, and a smaller pot with water was heating up as well. Meanwhile, two sticks of butter were resting on top of the stove top to more quickly get to room temp and I wiped down my counter top for the eventual pasta making. I also washed and cut an X into seven whole tomatoes, a few of which went into the smaller pot at one time to cook until the outer skins started to shrivel, at which point this were transferred over to a bowl with cold water to cool down before the skins were removed. The tomatoes, as you'll read below, are the base for the marinara sauce to go with the pasta, the sauce recipe of which is a combination between one I recently learned from one of my faculty friends, Anna, and the ingredients listed here (of all places).

As the tomatoes were cooking, I turned my attention to a new recipe I was trying out for a dark chocolate mocha cake, adapted from these (1, 2 and 3). The butter had softened by this point and so I used a touch of it to lightly grease the bottom of a 13"x9" baking dish. The rest of it went into my standing mixer along with 1 c packed light brown sugar. I gradually got the mixer onto med-hi speed to cream the two together. Meanwhile, I sifted into a bowl 2 c all-purpose flour, 1 t baking powder, a pinch of salt, 1.5 T dark cocoa powder and 3 T instant coffee grounds. Back to the butter-sugar mix, I added one at a time two whole large eggs followed by 2 tsp vanilla extract. With those wet ingredients sufficiently mixed in, I alternated the remaining ingredients (1/3 at a time)-- the bowl of dry ingredients and an entire 8 oz container of sour cream. The finished batter will be thick yet smooth, so use a strong spatula to transfer it to the lightly greased baking dish. In retrospect, 13"x9" is a bit too big, but you can spread the batter out to fill it. This baked in the oven for about 30-35 minutes and was set out to cool after it passed the clean cake tester check.

While the cake was baking, I switched over to prepping and cooking the chicken, as had been done during my last residence hall food and culture program. In the end, I prepped 6 large chicken breasts, and cooked them in a large skillet in about 1 lb batches, removing any excess Italian dressing and rendered chicken fat after each batch, and transferring the cooked chicken to a separate baking dish to rest. (This eventually went back into the oven to warm back up for a few minutes before serving.)

Halfway through the chicken cooking, the tomatoes had finished cooking. With hands washed, I dumped the water out of the pot and added to it about 2 T extra virgin olive oil. To this, I added a whole head of garlic (minced), as well as a whole white onion which I diced. As these two were sautéeing in the oil, I skinned the tomatoes (i.e., peeled off the tomatoes' skins) and puréed them. Each batch of puréed tomato went into the pot with the oil and garlic, along with 1 tsp ground black pepper and about 1 T chopped fresh oregano. I stirred everything together, reduced the heat and covered it to finish cooking.

By this point, it was about 4.30pm and the staff was set to arrive at 5pm, so I quickly made the blueberry salad, adapted slightly from the dish that Fresh Table's Chef Meredith shared with our FCC field study trip group last Saturday. In my version (prepped for 12 people), I got into a mixing bowl 3 pints of washed blueberries and about 5 oz feta which is shredded using my grater. [If you're really pressed for time, you could just purchase crumbled feta but buying a block of it is more cost-effective.] As I started to mix the blueberries and feta with my hands, I got worried the blueberries would get too damaged so I rinsed my hands, covered the bowl with another one and carefully inverted/turned the two together to mix the ingredients. In the process, the shredded feta naturally separated to get to the right size and texture, slightly smaller than the feta that comes already crumbled. This process also better ensures the feta will be more evenly distributed among the blueberries.

To this lot, I added about 2 T citrus infused olive oil which I bought last fall when I first visited Findlay Market, 1 tsp ground black pepper and a pinch of salt. After covering and mixing this again, I added about 1/2 c of Seitenbacher's "#2 Berries Temptation" muesli, covered and inverted the mixture, added another 1/2 c berry muesli and covered and shook the bowls one last time to thoroughly combine everything.

The result is a sweet and salty combination, with a brightness to it from the blueberries and citrus notes in the olive oil and a full bodied taste from the muesli. Transferred to a clean serving dish, I plastic wrapped the blueberry salad and got this into the fridge until it was time to eat.

With about 15 minutes to my deadline, I abandoned making mini ravioli and went for the quicker tagliatelle. I went with 3 lbs of pasta which turned out to be just the right amount for our group: 1.5 c all-purpose flour, 1.5 c whole wheat flour and a large pinch of salt, into which 3 whole eggs (whisked) were incorporated. As this was being brought together, I had a warm bowl of water ready to add as needed. When I had finished the dough, the large pot of water was beyond ready for the pasta and so I started rolling out and cooking the pasta.

Dinner hour arrived, as did more hands to help finish the remaining prepping and cooking. The perline mozzarella fresca, grated parmesan and creamy ricotta were prepped by Erik (they were supposed to go into the mini ravioli, had there been more time) and Marilyn's salad of iceberg lettuce, sliced grape tomatoes and orange bell pepper with orange vinaigrette was composed.

When all the pasta had cooked, I dumped the water out, poured the pasta back in and mixed in the finished marinara sauce.

While grocery shopping, a part of me was worried I didn't get enough food, and so I had one final dish up my sleeve. Emma and Sasha cut a baguette and a quarter into slices and topped each with pasta sauce and shredded Italian cheese, all of which went into the oven to let the bread toast and the cheese melt. To finish it off, I switched the oven to broil for a few minutes for the cheese to brown, at which point the rest of the students arrived and we were finally ready to go.

For dessert, I sliced the cooled cake into rectangular servings and topped them off with a light dusting of confectioner's (powdered) sugar. I had a few minutes prior taken out the Cookie Monster and Mud Pie frozen custards that Beth had earlier dropped off, and so by this point they were ready to be scooped out and served with the cake.

I was slightly concerned at first that the cake had been overmixed but it turned out to be richly dense in texture but relatively light in mouth feel. Moreover, it wasn't too sweet (or at least the coffee flavour balanced it out) and proved to be a great pairing with the frozen custards. All in all, it was a rather successful meal, the food of which brought out community together once more. For all of the above photos and a few others, click here.

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