Monday, 31 March 2014

Another Ambitious Menu: Cooking Lamb for 40+

Greetings, "Learning through Food" readers! I feel an apology is in order (if not for you, at least for me), regarding my recent pause on keeping up with this blog. The semester is quickly winding down here on campus, meaning my available free time to write is becoming much more limited by the day. This said, it's events such as the one I'm about to share with you that help me get centered, to take a break from the academics and take on an intellectual experience of a different sort. The challenge--had I chosen to accept it--was not to recreate as close as possible the first initiatory banquet menu (1906) of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (1,2). Rather, it was to do so with a low-cost budget for an unspecified number of guests (though we were aiming for somewhere in the 40-person range), bearing in mind lack of on-site kitchen facilities and the main protein being lamb. Thankfully, I received the call about two weeks in advance and the dinner itself would take place during spring break. And so, challenge accepted. On the menu of which I was responsible: 1st course: selected cheese and crackers; 2nd course: creamy tomato soup, with salted wafers; 3rd course: shrimp salad on endive lettuce and broiled lamb chops, with wild apple jelly, green peas, mashed potatoes and dinner rolls; 4th course: chocolate cake with dark chocolate ganache; and 5th course: Neapolitan ice cream with lady fingers.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing me was figuring out how to keep the lamb loin chops (1,2) warm without having them be overcooked by the time they had to be plated. The eventual decision was to cook the chops last and keep them warm in an insulating bag. To that end, and knowing I'd also need oven space later to keep other dishes warm, I began tackling this menu by cooking 2.5 batches (to be baked in two 13"x9" and one 10"x8" dishes) of Hershey's Perfectly Chocolate Chocolate Cake, with my standard substitution of additional baking powder to replace the baking soda. I needed these cooled before I could think of frosting them, and so I made sure these were complete and baked before heading out to get to Church.

When I got back, next up was my take on creamy tomato soup, the entire pot of which would eventually go into a insulating bag. In the ideal world, I'd start this thing from scratch with fresh tomatoes, but with time against me, I went the way of the organic and canned. After browning one 6-oz can of tomato paste at medium heat, I added four 28-oz cans of sliced stewed tomatoes, and cranked up the heat to medium high to bring up the tomatoes to a slow simmer. (Leading up to that point, you should see wisps of smoke.)

At that point, I used my immersion blender to break down the tomatoes, and get the (now) soup to a thick yet relatively smooth consistency. To this was then added another 6-oz can of tomato paste, as well as two more 28-oz cans of sliced stewed tomatoes, blending everything together which each addition. The final additions to this were two cups of heavy cream. With a final whir of the immersion blend, I reduced the heat to low, salt and peppered it to taste, and left the soup alone to simmer uncovered, stirring every now and then for about two hours or so (probably a 5% reduction overall).

As the soup was going, I peeled and boiled five pounds of russet potatoes in salted water. Once sufficiently boiled (i.e., easily pierceable with a knife and falling apart), I pressed them through my potato ricer into a foil tray, added six tablespoons of unsalted butter, 1/2 c heavy cream, and salt and pepper to taste. This immediately got tin foiled and then placed in the oven which was heated at the lowest possible setting. By this point, Brianne arrived and helped me out the rest of the day, beginning with finishing off the second batch (another five pounds) of russet potato peeling and boiling.

With the potatoes nearing completion, I defrosted five bags of frozen cooked salad shrimp (100-200/lb count); for future reference, I think just three of these bags would be plenty sufficient. For this combined recipe derived from this and this, Brianne prepped the remaining ingredients: juicing four large lemons, petite dicing 1/2 bunch celery (about 2 cups' worth), thinly slice 2 bunches of green onions, and dicing 5 Roma tomatoes. All of these were then bagged/containered and placed in an ice-filled cooler for transport, to be constructed on-site.

While Brianne worked on the shrimp salad ingredients, I heated up a total of 3/4 c heavy cream. Once wisps of smoke could be seen (prior to the edges simmering), I turned off the heat and added a total of 1.5 12-oz bags dark chocolate chips (apprx. 3 cups). Slowly stirring everything, the ganache came together into a lusciously smooth concoction. This lot was then divided up and spread among the three cakes.

Once the cakes were tin foiled and readied for transport, I got a large pot of salted water boiling, to which I then added six small bags (next time, three, if not two, bags should suffice) of frozen green peas. After about 12-15 minutes, carefully stirring the lot to ensure heat distribution, I transferred these into a foil tray, added a total of three tablespoons of unsalted butter, and salt and pepper to taste. This then got tin-foiled and put off to the side.

Around 3pm, I prepped two baking sheets by covering them with tin foil and lightly coating them with vegetable oil. I then took the 40 lamb loin chops out of the refrigerator (Erik mentioned there may be a few more showing up, and so Brianne also got 6 lamb rib chops, for which I prepared a third sheet). The oven was set to broil, and as it heated up, I salt-and-peppered each chop.

The first side got broiled for about 8-10 minutes, flipped, and then broiled on the second side for another 5-8 minutes, until just resistant to the touch. Once cooked, I transferred the chops between foil trays (two layers for each), tin foiled them, and placed immediately into an insulating bag.

When the lamb was put away, I added all of the pan drippings to a sauce pot and added a 32-oz of low sodium chicken stock, bringing this to a rapid boil. In the meantime, I whipped together 3T all-purpose flour and 3T room-temp butter (microwave for 5-10 seconds, if needed to soften) into a beurre manié (as compared to a blonde roux; it should look something like this) and added it to the pan to cook with the jus. As this boiled away, I brought the oven heat to low and warmed up four 12-count dinner roll packages (one package per foil tray), as well as the potatoes and peas. Given my time constraints, it was time to pack everything else up and head over to the event site, by which point I was only able to let the jus reduce about 10-15%.

Once on-site and everything unloaded from my car, Brianne, Erik, a few others, and I, set everything up and got to work throughout the evening plating each of the dishes. (As an aside: we had a few dishes going with Sternos, but eventually shut the heat off because they started to burn the food.)

First up were the cheese and cracker plates, for which I selected smoked gouda, smoked mozzarella, white cheddar, and brie to be served alongside an assortment of butter crackers and crackers with dried fruits and nuts.

As the first course was underway, with the plates being passed around in the other room, we ladled and portioned enough soup for just over 40. To finish each bowl, I added a light touch of heavy cream, chiffonaded fresh basil, and freshly grounded black pepper. Saltines, it should be noted, were served alongside the soup.

With course two out of the way, I quickly put together the shrimp salad, mixing Brianne's prepped ingredients with half a jar of mayonnaise. I also gave four avocados a rough chop and added these to about a third of the lemon juice. This was served atop a small spoonful of the shrimp salad, which itself was served on a (Belgian) endive leaf. Plated across this was a serving of green peas (the entire tray of which was monumentally more than what we needed), and between the two at noon a scoop of mashed potatoes (the two trays I had were more than enough).

Missing from the plate above, but nevertheless across from the potato scoop was placed a dinner roll which was still relatively warm. On the centre of the plate was its star-- the lamb, which turned out to not only be warm, but perfectly cooked. A small dab of apple jelly topped off the lamb, before spooning on some of the still-warm jus.

Course three's completion marked the easy plating prep for our final food courses, in the form of dessert. The chocolate cake was presented first and cut into richly dense wedges completed with dark chocolate chips to decorate.

Finally, the Neapolitan ice cream--which I left in the cooler the whole time and which also happened to be produced in Ohio--was in the perfect condition to scoop. A single lady finger accompanied each bowl, and with the final placement, dinner service--a marathon endeavour so it seemed over the course of 120-odd minutes--and now this post were over. Until then, and into the future, who knows what culinary adventures await? For these and additional photos, click here.

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