Wednesday, August 5, 2009

eG Heartland Gathering: Dinner is Dandy, Part I

While the annual eGullet Heartland Gathering has grown to include events during the days on Thursday and Friday, the dinner on Saturday evening is always considered to be the main event. Saturday morning is spent at the local farmer's markets and other local purveyors collecting all of the amazing produce, meats, and grocery items that will find their way into a multi-course tasting menu to be served during the evening. Unfortunately, since my contribution to the dinner over the last four years has been bread, I have generally been unavailable for this morning excursion. It was no different this year as I was babysitting the dough I had made in my Best Western room, waiting until our kitchen space opened up at 2 pm so that I could finish panning and baking the doughs off.

This year our group managed to acquire a nifty space for the dinner. Studio 2131 is located at 2131 Washington Street, Kansas City, MO 64108 and their website can be found here. It was a wonderfully large and, most importantly, air-conditioned space. When we first arrived, I took a few initial photos, but then had to get to my main objective: baking off the focaccia breads for later consumption. Here is a shot of the kitchen space:

And to the right of the kitchen area is a nice wide open area for setting up tables or just hanging out:

In my previous post, I discussed all of the fun I had making the pre-ferment and dough in my Best Western room. When I finally got to Studio 2131 around 2 pm, I fired up the oven and got to work panning up the fermented doughs. First out of the oven was the kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper focaccia:

This was to be served during the pre-dinner hors d'oeuvre course with a selection of cheeses, jams, and pate. Here is a shot of the interior crumb of the focaccia:

I let the organizers of the hors d'oeuvres cut the bread up the way they wanted and they opted for squares. I was concerned that with all of the extra bread and crackers that were brought along that my focaccia might get forgotten. Not a chance. I managed to snap the above photo with only four pieces remaining and before you knew it, the cutting board was completely empty.

Besides the salt and pepper focaccia, I also made two half-sheets of the rosemary and garlic focaccia which are always a big hit:

Once my focaccias were baked and out of the oven sitting on cooling racks, I had a bit of down time on my hands. So I wandered around and checked out some of the other delicious looking food. First up is a simple tomato salad with shallots, basil, olive oil and kosher salt:

This was quite tasty and a gentle reminder that sometimes the best way to serve something is simply dressed with a bit of olive oil and salt. This was served during the appetizers.

Next up is a shot of the pastrami-cured short ribs that a fellow Cleveland eGulleter made at his home in Oberlin and then re-warmed and served at the event:

These were tender and flavorful and the cut on the ribs reminded me of Korean beef. These were also served during the appetizers. The pastrami flavor was quite remarkable.

Another attendee brought already prepared pulled pork for the appetizers (and was later used in one of the courses):

What I didn't realize was that this was supposed to be a pulled pork comparison. The pulled pork in the left pan was made from a locally raised heritage breed of pig. The one on the right came straight from the supermarket. Unfortunately, no one explained this to anyone, but I was fortunate enough to taste the version made with the heritage breed. And boy, was it juicy and tasty!

Finally, a shot of the incredible cheeses, breads, crackers, jams, and pate that were put together for our noshing pleasure:

The breadth of food shown in the picture above was simply stunning. Although there were tags next to some of the cheeses identifying which was which, I simply walked down the line and picked up a few that caught my attention. Here is a shot of my (thankfully) small appetizer plate:

Some focaccia, three kinds of cheese, some pulled pork, charcuterie, and the pastrami short ribs. This was the perfect amount of food to hold me over for the big dinner. Others went back for seconds and thirds, but having participated in this dinner before, I knew not to make the mistake of filling up too soon.

After finishing my nosh, I decided to wander around to see what some others were up to. One table had an amazing variety of ingredients that just seemed like they wouldn't normally go together. Melted chocolate, cooked bacon, fish sauce, basil leaves ... hmmm ...

As it turns out, one of the goodies to come from this table was a chocolate "bark" with crumbled cooked bacon and smoked sea salt. Here is a shot of the cooling bark:

This was particularly delicious. The strength of this dessert really played on various tastes: sweet, salty, smoky. While this was available for nibbling during the course of the day, it's primary purpose was to be served later in the evening for dessert.

Here is another shot of the rosemary and garlic focaccias:

During the course of the afternoon, I had to surrender the cooling racks to another cook who needed them for her corn fritters. I manage to find a nice large cutting board for the breads to rest on until they were needed.

One of the wonderful things about the timing of the Heartland Gathering is that we always manage to be at the opening of the tomato season when they are just starting to get sweet and delicious. This year proved no different as the amount and variety of heirloom tomatoes was overwhelming. Here are a couple of action shots with this year's crop:

These were destined for a tomato salad to be served during one of the courses of our dinner later that night. If it weren't for the bevy of sharp cutting instruments being used here, I probably would've reached right in and grabbed a sample. You know, for quality control purposes.

Here is a shot of the toasted rye bread rounds that another attendee had made for the amuse bouche that was to be served as the opening taste for dinner:

What always amazes me about the cooking of dinner at this event is the amount of camaraderie shown by everyone involved. Clearly there are a lot of cooks in a small space, but everyone was polite, everyone was focused, and honestly we just managed to have a lot of fun in the process. When you are in the thick of it, you don't really think too much about it, but when you have a chance to step back and take a look from further away,

you suddenly realize how well things are just humming along.

Knowing that I would need the energy for later, I stopped by our resident barista to grab a late afternoon pick-me-up:

This was an iced hazelnut latte which was a perfect way to get a little sugar and caffeine into my system for the final push to dinner service. Promptly at 6:30, everyone stopped what they were doing for just a moment as our fearless leader, Fat Guy, took to the microphone and announced the commencement of dinner.

I hope I've whetted your whistle for the amazing meal that was about to come. To hear more about what we actually had for dinner, you'll have to read my next entry.

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