Wednesday, 22 May 2013

In Recognition: A Cross-Cultural Gastronomic Tour

Greetings from Granville, dear Reader! As I look back at the date of my last post, it's quite striking how quickly time is flying by here on the Hill. Denison's Commencement exercises were held earlier this month, I participated in my final Division meeting (and a great potluck that followed) and I recently returned from a trip this past weekend back home to celebrate my parents' 30th wedding anniversary. Amidst all of the celebrating with colleagues, friends and family over the past few weeks, food was, of course, a central piece. And last night, the same was also true. For those of you who don't know, I've been living this past academic year across the street from Denison's outgoing (literally and figuratively!) President Dale Knobel, who will be retiring with his wife Tina after 15 years of service to the University. I had at some point last semester mentioned to him that one of my bucket list items before we both leave Denison was for me to cook for both of them. A few changes in date later, and with the help of the CCCE, our dinner finally came to fruition. It was certainly a relaxed dinner both in celebration and appreciation for everything the Knobels have done for Denison and especially for our office. Concurrently, for me it was also an opportunity to reflect on the myriad food and culture programmes and foodie experiences that I have enjoyed and which have cultivated my interest in food studies over the last 31 months. On our menu: white wine apéritif, with selections of cheese, fruit and crudités; Lyonnaise-inspired salad; carne asado with chimichurri sauce and roasted garlic mashed potatoes; pancit canton; zucchini chocolate mocha cake with buttercream frosting and strawberries; and beskuit, with coffee and rooibos tea.

The first course was organised by Erik, who selected a Chardonnay for the white wine apéritif. This popular, dry variety, with a robust yet simple flavour as far as apéritifs go, was a perfect start to our progressive dinner which began at my house. To accompany this wine from Cooper's Hawk (which happens to have a Columbus bar and restaurant location), Erik selected and arranged (with due pride and precision, I must add) two Naturally Good Kosher cheese produced by Red Apple Cheese--double cream Brie and extra sharp Cheddar--and a wonderful rosemary and olive oil Asiago produced by Sartori. In addition, he also arranged both a selection of fruit (raspberries, grapes and blackberries) and crudités.

Shortly after Michelle's arrival, we continued our French-inspired start, and walked over to Marilyn and Mark's house for our next course. Thankfully we ended up not needing our umbrellas the entire evening!

In preparation for our second course, i.e., a Lyonnaise-inspired salad which I had made for a food and culture cooking class with the folks in our Admissions office, I had earlier cooked 8 slices of bacon. Of course there's more than one way to cook bacon, but lately I've gone with 8-10 minutes on a baking sheet at 375°F, followed by 3-5 minutes under the broiler on high. After the bacon had cooled, I crumbled them up and reserved the rendered bacon fat (/bacon grease.. there probably should be a better term), which turned out to be the perfect 2 tablespoons I needed for the dressing which would eventually bring the salad together. 

To the rendered bacon fat which I poured into a clean mason jar, I added 4 T extra virgin olive oil, 2 T aged white wine vinegar, 2 tsp dijon mustard (this one was coincidentally made with Chardonnay), and a good pinch each of salt and ground black pepper. After giving this a good shake, I adjusted the dressing to taste. In addition, I need to note that I did go through the process and made homemade croutons with a demi baguette, extra virgin olive oil, salt and ground black pepper, brought it to Marilyn and Mark's along with other prepared items and then totally forgot to add the croutons to the plates. Oops...

Anyway, at Marilyn and Mark's I caught some intriguing glances when I took out a small glass, made a small pouch with some plastic wrap, cooking sprayed the plastic wrap, cracked an egg into the pouch, and tied it all up with a twist-tie. This I did seven more times in order to poach them, a technique I had once seen on Around the World in 80 Plates and had eventually gotten right at the aforementioned Admissions cooking class. Along with the bacon and frisé that's typical of the salade Lyonnaise, I'd say the poached egg (which I garnished with a touch of fresh oregano from my herb garden) is part of the trifecta that identifies this salad among the rest. In small batches, I added the wrapped eggs to a barely simming deep pan, and left them to cook for about 4-ish minutes. And with Beth's confirmation, all 8 turned out. Whew! 

Et voilà!

As we ate through our second course, Mark's grilled steaks were resting in the kitchen. Paired with a deliciously garlic and herbaceous Chimichurri sauce, the carne asada of Argentina (the classic combination of which I had somehow just learned about a couple of months ago) was our South American representation of the meal and was (unsurprisingly) extremely well executed. To go along with the meat, Marilyn and Mark had earlier roasted three heads of garlic, boiled about four pounds of Yukon gold potatoes and mashed them all together, topping this lot off with fresh curly parsley from my herb garden. Clearly, we're a garlic-loving bunch.

Served at the same time for this third course, we added to our plates a taste of Asia à la the Philippines and pancit canton. I've grown up eating this flour noodle dish all my life and had cooked this only one other time: my first official food and culture programme. Thankfully, this time around I got it right.

Just prior to prepping the items for my salad earlier in the day, I filled my 3-qt sauce pan about 2/3 full of water and added to it a good pinch of salt and half a medium-sized white onion which I had cut into sixths. Bringing this lot to a boil, I removed the skins off four chicken thighs, added them to the water and reduced the heat (cooking the chicken with the lid slightly offset). After half an hour, I took out the chicken, let them rest for a few minutes, removed the meat from the bones, kept the meat covered with another plate to retain moisture and then put the bones back into the water. I left this alone for about an hour or so to continue to flavour the water and thus create my chicken stock to eventually cook the flour noodles. During this hour, I didn't cover the pot. The stock level reduced to about 5-6 cups, at which point I transferred this over to a container; ideally, you'd want to get this into a fat separator.

As the stock was reducing with the bones in the water, I got to all of my veggie prep work: half a head of lettuce, chopped into thirds and then shredded (julienne each segment); four peeled carrots, matchsticked; about 1/3 lb green beans, trimmed and sliced into fourths on the bias; the other half of the onion, diced, if not brunoised; and two large garlic cloves finely minced. 

With the prep work done, I heated in a large sauté pan about a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil and sautéed the garlic, followed by the onion, two steps I had neglected the first time I made this dish on my own. To the garlic and onion aroma, I added the carrots since they needed the longest time to cook; to prevent this lot from burning or cooking too quickly, I added 2/3 of the homemade chicken stock. This was then followed up by the green beans and then the cabbage. As soon as I added the cabbage, I turned off the heat and covered the pan to allow the residual heat and created steam to cook the cabbage and finish off the rest of the veg.

Next, I poured about half the stock into a large pot and added the flour noodles (which I had purchased during our field study trip stop at Jungle Jim's). I added the stock as needed to cook down the noodles, in the end using all but 1/3 c or so. When the noodles were finished cooking, I added the vegetables and covered the pot to keep everything warm and moist, as I pan fried three links of Chinese sausage which I had cut at the bias in thin slices. After separating some noodles out, for more of a flexitrian/semi-vegetarian/no red meat option, I added the sausage and chicken to the remaining noodles and veg to complete the dish. 

Oof, course three. Accompanying this round were additional wine guests, Cabernet and Pinot Noir.

Originally intended to be two separate courses, we merged our final dishes together for a relaxed, closing course. Beth had made her infamous chocolate zucchini mocha cake which I had tried for the first (and only) time exactly one year ago, during our CCCE dinner for Institutional Advancement. Apart from the fact that this particular cake, enrobed in a wonderful buttercream frosting and topped with strawberries, is simply amazing and memorable, it turns out that its core ingredients are rooted cross-culturally. Zucchini and other squashes were among the staple ingredients to be found in the New World Americas; Columbus brought the seeds over to the Mediterranean and Africa, though it seems our contemporary understanding of zucchini comes from Italy. As for mocha, Marco Polo (wow, the connections may seem like a stretch, but are nonetheless interesting to ponder) first encountered Mokha in the Arab world, and more specifically Yemen. 

Paired with the cake, we concluded where arguably humanity began: Africa. In my case, I brought us to South Africa with the beskuit I had baked overnight. Perhaps the most consistent item I continue to make as part of my repertoire, I first tried beskuit while in Stellenbosch during my study abroad semester in South Africa about four and a half years ago. I loved it so much that my host mom, Liesl, sent me home with the recipe and then helped me work through the recipe after I got back State-side. Since the initial adaptation, translation and subsequent success of the resulting recipe, which yields only a third of Liesl's, I have rarely erred from it ever since. Served with both pieces of foodfare were coffee and rooibos tea.

And with that, we ended an evening full of reminiscing and looking forward, storytelling and sharing, congratulating and appreciating, fully fed by this most enjoyable experience. For these and additional photos from our progressive dinner, click here.

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