Thursday, 18 April 2013

Food and Culture Programme: College Cuisine

On and around the Hill, it's becoming more and more difficult to deny the fact I'll be heading out at the end of the academic year. And indeed the list of lasts [for now] seems to be getting checked off quicker than I'd like. One of these items is the last food and culture program in a residence hall, which took place this past Monday in East Hall with RA Jaime and her residents. On our "An Italian Affair" menu (the planned budget of which was $60 for 20 people): handmade whole wheat tagliatelle with roasted vegetables, handmade dunderi with fresh pesto al'Amalfitana, Italian dressing chicken, handmade lemon meringue cookies with raspberry sherbet, and fresh lemonade with strawberry coulis.

Though a bit unconventional given how I usually write my blog recaps, I'll present here each recipe separately from the others, as this was one of few programmes that actually had enough hands to concurrently prepare each dish. With this said, we first began by breaking down (trimming excess fat and then dicing) about 5 lbs of boneless, skinless chicken breast and quickly marinating the cubed pieces in Italian dressing. In small batches, the chicken was cooked on a fry pan and transferred to a baking dish to rest. After all the chicken was cooked, I transferred the dish to the oven to keep warm. The chicken turned out to be perfectly cooked and incredibly moist.

As the chicken was going, the oven was preheating to 350°F while our vegetables (zucchini, red bell peppers, and grape tomatoes) were being cut. With a healthy drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, salt and ground black pepper, the vegetables were placed in a baking dish and set off to roast in the oven for about half an hour. Two batches of pasta dough were also made (for each batch: 1 c white whole wheat flour, 1 c all-purpose flour, two eggs, a touch of extra virgin olive oil and enough water to bring the ingredients together), one of which proved to be a sufficient for our group. Bringing out the pasta roller, the pasta was shaped into tagliatelle and dropped into a large pan of salted water that had been heating up from the start of our prep work. The pasta turned out to be lighter and less doughy than previous whole wheat pasta attempts, and the roasted vegetables added a nice flavour to the overall dish.

Meanwhile, a large pot of boiling water had also heated up in preparation for our dunderi, of which we also made two batches (in total): 32 oz ricotta, 2 c grated Parmesan (though, we used a full 8 oz container which should equate to 1 c...?), 4 tsp nutmeg, 4 egg yolks, 2 c all-purpose flour and salt and pepper.

As the dunderi were being handformed, the ingredients for the bright pesto al'Amalfitana were being chopped together (1.5 times the original amount): 1.5 bunches of curly parsley (instead of flat-leaf/Italian parsley), 3/4 c walnuts, 3/4 c grated Parmesan, 3 cloves garlic, a touch of salt and 1.5 c extra virgin olive oil.

While I enjoy the idea of pasta made predominately of cheese, there's always been something peculiar in taste about this dish. This time around, something seemed "wrong" when everything was mixed together. And after having a few days to ponder what may have gotten wrong, I've narrowed it down to one of three possibilities. First, we didn't measure the amount of nutmeg grated into the dunderi dough, and even then we didn't use a whole nutmeg (which typically equates to 2-3 tsp); though I think this is the least likely reason as the overall dish tasted extremely salty to me rather than overly bitter or even sweet. Second, because I picked up on salty almost immediately, I was certain at the time the dish was off because of having too many salty components (the Parmesan, walnuts, and additional salt). My hesitancy now is the fact that even the actual amounts of the ingredients we used, in retrospect, don't seem to be nearly as much as we were estimating at the time. Third, and what I now think is the most likely reason, I believe the curly parsley is to blame. As noted above, we used that instead of flat-leaf parsley; while curly parsley is claimed to be more associated with decoration and is flavourless, the aforementioned link also notes that it can taste more bitter than its relative. And with the dish already containing something bitter (i.e., the nutmeg from the dunderi), the parsley of the pesto amplified the bitter quotient rather than balancing out the dish. Of final note, I would claim that 1 bunch of curly parsley does not equal 1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, and as such we were trying to chop up more of the grassy-tasting greens, thus necessitating the need for more extra virgin olive oil flavour and throwing off the dish completely. All of this said, separately the components were well executed and we could've done without as much pesto as was made.

And the chicken definitely helped to tone down the aggressive flavours.

With all of the components in the works, the cookie dough for the meringue-topped lemon thins (à la The Little Guides's Cookies, which I've had on my bookshelf for the longest time) were being formed. Since I didn't have an electric mixer with me, I blended together 1 c softened, unsalted butter and 1/2 light brown sugar with my hands until I could no longer feel any chunks of butter. To this, I added the zest of three lemons, 1/4 tsp baking powder, 1/4 tsp lemon extract, a pinch of salt and 2 c all-purpose flour. Once thoroughly combined, I lightly greased a baking sheet and hand-shaped the cookies (by-passing the refrigeration time needed to sufficiently roll out and cookie cut them), a dozen at a time given the size of the sheet. Each cookie was then topped off with a few teaspoons of a meringue mixture made of 2 egg whites (reserved from the eggs that had been earlier separated) beaten to soften peaks and then about 2/3 c granulated sugar, further beaten to medium-stiff peaks. Before getting each batch into the oven (still at 350°F, the cookies were completed with flaked almond slices). The finished cookies were given some time to cool while we ate the main dishes, and then paired up with raspberry sherbet (the only thing we didn't make from scratch). Incredibly easy to make, especially after the individual components have been prepped, this adapted cookie recipe is one I look forward to making in the future, the lemon flavour of which could do with some further experimentation.

And finally, as the cookies were baking and the pastas were being cooked in small batches as they were being made, the lemons were being freshly squeezed and added to a pitcher of water. Rather than adding sugar, a pint of strawberries were cut up, pressed through a sieve to make a coulis and added to the lemonade. Definitely not too sweet or sour, the lemonade added a nice balance to the overall meal.

For one of my final residence hall meals, if not the last one, this is certainly one to remember, and one which reminds me why I've enjoyed sharing my limited culinary knowledge and enthusiasm throughout the last year and a half of food and culture programming. For these and other photos from this meal, click here.

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