Friday, August 7, 2009

eG Heartland Gathering: Dinner is Dandy, Part II

In my previous post on the main event of the eGullet Heartland Gathering, namely our dinner on Saturday night, I detailed all of the work that went into the preparations for our meal. In this post, I'm going to build upon what was already written and cover the wonderful seven courses that we put together for ourselves.

The first course, although not technically a course, was the amuse bouche. An amuse, which literally translates to "entertain the mouth", is supposed to be a single bite that is used to whet the appetites of the diners. This year, two of the attendees (a father and daughter team) decided to use some of their freshly smoked trout to create the amuse. Here is a shot of the amuse bouche being plated for dinner:

And here is a shot of the finished product:

This was a smoked trout canape served on a toasted rye round with chives and a basil flower on top. It was served with a little bit of fleur de sel and cucumber crudite. This was a wonderfully rich and delicious way to kick off dinner and the smoked trout was really outstanding; it was neither too smoky or too fishy.

The first actual course was the one that my rosemary and garlic focaccia would be used. Here is a shot of the plating of the first course:

And a shot of the plating of the accompanying cold corn and avocado soup:

And, yes, it was someone's job to actually use a toothpick to make the design in the top of every single cup of soup. The next shot is how the course was presented at the table:

On the left side are a combination of the rosemary and garlic focaccia and a wonderfully fresh corn fritter that had been topped with some of the smoked salmon that two members from Seattle had flown in with and topped with just a little bit of avocado and lemon dressing. On the right was a chilled corn and avocado soup topped with just a bit of creme fraiche and a little bit of cilantro oil for decoration. Even though we had been served a smoked fish for our amuse, the smoked salmon had a much different flavor to it. The cold soup also had just a bit of kick to it, not enough to overpower the flavors of either dish, but enough to make it very interesting.

Here are a couple of close-ups:

And I wouldn't be the "bread guy" if I didn't include a close-up of the internal crumb structure of the focaccia bread:

This turned out better than I had even hoped. Considering the origins of the dough, and the fact that I was baking in an unfamiliar oven, the crumb structure on this turned out just beautifully. This was not only lovely to look at, but tasty to eat as well.

Our second course consisted of a duo of dishes, the first of which was a green chile risotto:

And a platter of braised cabbage with bacon and roasted vegetables:

It's interesting to note that some of the courses were individually plated (like the amuse bouche and the first course), and some were served family style so that you can serve yourself. Here is a shot of my plate after filling it with a little bit of each:

The risotto had a wonderful green chili flavor and kick to it. It was probably the spiciest dish of the entire evening, but it wasn't too bad. However, if you don't care for spicy food, it probably would've been too much, though. The braised cabbage was really a successful dish for me. The cabbage "smell" that is a turn-off for a lot of people was completely missing and in its place were a wonderful assortment of roasted vegetables and some nice pieces of rendered bacon. The creator of this dish also thoughtfully threw in some small cherry tomatoes which exploded with a burst of flavor and juice when bitten into.

The third course was a wonderfully plated pulled pork dish. Here is a plating shot:

And a shot of the dish as it arrived at the table:

This is a griddled strip of cornbread with some of the heritage pulled pork on top with purple-hulled beans, green zebra tomatoes, creme fraiche and a little cilantro for garnish. Along with the plated dish, we also were served a platter of fresh heirloom tomatoes dressed simply with basil and salt:

Here is a shot of my dish after serving myself some of the tomatoes:

This was probably one of my favorite courses of the evening. I honestly feel that there is nothing better on this planet than a ripe, still-warm-from-the-sun tomato served with nothing more than just a little kosher salt. The tomatoes had an outstanding flavor that just screamed of late summer. The cornbread and pulled pork dish was also very successful. The seasoning was perfect, the texture of the grilled cornbread was just lovely, and the creaminess of the pulled pork and creme fraiche made this mouthful of food something to really savor.

Our fourth course took us around the globe to Thailand. First up a shot of the Jasmine rice that was served with the course:

While I didn't get a shot of the vessel that the Thai chicken curry was served in, I did manage to take a photo of my plate before I ate it:

Imbued with the pungent aroma of fish sauce, this chicken curry was among the better renditions I've had. The person who made this thought it might be too spicy, but I think the spice level was just perfect, being somewhere between mild and moderate. I would've been happy to have an entire plate of this course as my entire dinner, but I knew there was another course and dessert still ahead of me.

Besides making the bread for the appetizers and the first course, I also agreed to be the sous chef on the fifth course. My friend Edsel (who's Flickr pictures can be found here) decided to do a braised short rib and mashed potato combination to be served alongside some fresh patty-pan squash and zucchini dressed in a sesame seed oil and rice wine vinegar dressing:

This was a wonderfully hearty and tasty way to end our multi-course tasting menu. It was served family style and although the short ribs looked huge, once you got through the fat, there was a manageable amount of meat. The short ribs were completely tender and the flavor from the marinade that they were braised in made a wonderful sauce. The mashed potatoes were done using a two step cooking process. The potatoes are first heated until they reach a very specific temperature. At this point, the potatoes have liberated quite a bit of starch. They are then quickly cooled under running water to remove some of the excess starch.

When close to service, they are then reheated and cooked until they are tender and falling apart. At this point, Edsel and I proceeded to rice all twenty pounds of potatoes (which went fairly quickly, to be honest) and added a combination of butter, cream, and salt until they were the perfect texture and flavor. I had thought everyone might be too full at the end of the meal for something so rich, but it turned out that there was a bigger gap in service between courses four and five, so people had a chance to digest a little before it was served. Needless to say it was well received.

After all the plates and platters were cleared, it was time to start dessert. First up are a couple of homemade apple pies alongside the chocolate "bark" I talked about in my last entry:

Along with the pies, someone else made a fresh blueberry cobbler infused with cinnamon. I managed to snag a shot with only just a tiny bit left:

Also on hand was a fresh peach cobbler served with some of the wonderful Shatto cream to pour over top (just to gild the lily even more):

As good as all of those desserts looked, it was at this point during the day when I finally cried, "Uncle!" and had to concede defeat. I did manage, however, to try one of the other attendees chocolates. This was my lone dessert for the evening:

This was a chocolate cup filled with a strawberry-rhubarb cream. It seems that my meal was going to finish the same way it had started, a single bite of something tasty. The strawberry-rhubarb cream was perfectly balanced, sour and sweet and the combination with the chocolate flavor from the cup was nicely matched. Truly a remarkable end to a remarkable meal.

We had started dinner at 6:30 PM. By the time I had finished my chocolate treat and started to clean up and gather my equipment, it was close to 10:30 PM. While I was completely happy with how the dinner had turned out, I was also pretty darned tired. I offered the remainder of the focaccia that hadn't been used for dinner to some avid fans who took some. I took the remainder back to my hotel room with me for a late night snack and began reliving the entire day as I started processing the photographs I had taken. I am already dreaming about next year's meal and wondering if it's even possible to surpass what I had just experienced.

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