[Ed. Note: For those visiting my blog for the first time coming from the Akron Beacon Journal article that Lisa Abraham wrote and published today, welcome! You are invited to come in, take your time and look around, and get comfy while reading about my adventures in food. All constructive feedback is welcome here, either in the comments area of each blog entry or in an email to me directly by clicking here. While I appreciate that not everyone will like my writing style or my take on food, I wanted to thank you in advance for taking the time to check out my little dog and pony show.
And for my regular readers, thank you for coming back time and again. Interacting with you is what makes writing this blog lots of fun!]
So the day for the main event has finally arrived: Saturday's dinner! I have to say that this has been the one day I've most looked forward to every year since I started attending these Heartland Gathering weekends. What started out with me knowing just a handful of on-line screennames and avatars on the eGullet forums has genuinely developed into real, honest to goodness personal relationships that I've come to value both on-line and off.
As has been my tradition since I started attending this dinner, this year I was to provide bread for the afternoon noshing as well as for the dinner proper. Fortunately, as opposed to last year, I had access to the kitchen at the common room of the cohousing complex where the dinner was to be hosted. That being said, because both breads I was planning on making required a poolish, or starter, when I got home from the previous night's meal at Grange Kitchen and Bar, I still needed to take a limited amount of bread equipment and ingredients to my hotel room in order to mix up two batches of the pre-ferment. I then parked both containers in the warmest part of my hotel room, the bathroom, and turned on the heat lamp for about thirty minutes to get them started. When I checked them the next morning, they were healthy and happy and I packed everything up and headed to the co-housing complex.
While the cooking would last well into the evening, my portion of the effort would start at around 8:00 am. I was intending to do two batches of French style breads and two half-sheet pans of Italian focaccia topped with a caramelized onion and reduced balsamic vinegar with fresh thyme topping. Fortunately, another eGulleter, Alex, who happened to be staying in the common house, was there to greet me and help me get started. While I started my mise en place for my first and second batches of French bread, he began the time consuming process of slicing and then caramelizing four absolutely huge Walla Walla sweet onions I had purchased the night before.
While I have previously published the recipe for my focaccia, the French bread recipe I used today was just a slight deviation from the classic formula that is still used today. Here is the classic:
Classic French Bread
1000 grams flour
600 grams water
20 grams salt
20 grams fresh cake yeast
My Tweaked French Bread
1000 grams flour
700 grams water
20 grams salt
20 grams fresh cake yeast
Why the change? The extra water gives the finished bread a lightness to it. When you cut into the bread, you can see all the irregular holes that fill the crumb. While the classic works just fine, the holes in the crumb are a bit more evenly spaced. Both taste great, but my version gives you the right artisan feel to it as well. The downside is that the extra 100 grams of water makes the dough just a bit more of a pain to work with on the table when folding and shaping. If you are just starting out, gentle reader, go with the classic recipe. Gradually add additional water each time you make the dough until you reach a level of hydration that is comfortable for you.
While this post wasn't designed to be a tutorial on how to make the breads, I thought it would be good to get this part out of the way before moving on to the dinner so that you could see my contribution to today's activities. Which, with this picture of my almost finished breads (missing the second focaccia that was still in the oven), should give you an idea:
Here was a shot of some of the French loaves cut up and sitting out on the table to be matched with another guest's homemade charcuterie:
While many Americans would think that the crust was too dark, to me it was baked to that perfect point where all of the liberated sugars from the flour had caramelized to a dark reddish, golden brown hue, the crust was chewy, and the crumb had just the slightest give when pulled apart. For a bread with only four ingredients, this recipe really delivered and had simply marvelously complex flavors.
The other bread that I did for today was the focaccia with balsamic caramelized onions and fresh thyme. Here was a side shot of a piece of that bread on my plate for the first course of our meal tonight:
This was another winner (again, notice the open hole structure) and between both breads, whatever was left over from dinner quickly disappeared into take home baggies. When I returned to my bread station to finish divvying up the remainders, I found that I didn't need to do anything because the uncut loaves had just magically disappeared. While I received many in-person compliments during the course of the day, seeing a completely empty cutting board was the best compliment I could've received. Thanks again to Alex and Prasantrin for helping me out today.
Now that you've seen my contribution to dinner, let's take a look at the pre-dinner activities. One of the other guests brought four different kind of homemade dried sausages (aka the charcuterie I mentioned above). He had made them months in advance and then simply frozen them until he needed them. Having been vacuum packed in heavy plastic bags and gently brought back to life in the refrigerator, each presented its own unique flavor and texture.
Here we have pepperoni, sopressata, finocchiona, and lombardia. To me, the true revelation was the humble pepperoni. While a simple combination of pork and a ton of paprika, this was unlike any other pepperoni I have ever had. When I asked the progenitor of the sausage how it was on pizza, his eye twinkled just a little bit and he said, "Unbelievable." I bet. Also visible in the picture above was some smoked Pacific salmon that another member from the west coast had brought, too.
After spending the afternoon casually cooking, noshing, and generally having a good time, it was finally time to get down to business: a six course, plated dinner of today's culinary efforts by six different teams of people.
The first course was a chilled poached Michigan shrimp with tomato and corn salad:
This was the perfect way to start our meal. The Michigan shrimp had been poached in a lobster and shrimp stock and then chilled. The salad consisted of corn, multi-hued grape tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and was dressed in a light vinaigrette containing lime juice and rice wine vinegar. The green "sauce" on the bottom of the plate was actually a fresh basil oil made from the basil leaves plucked right outside the front doors of the common room. This was quite tasty and the portion size was perfect for this type of meal.
The second course was a play on the famous dish Bison and Beets from the Alinea At Home cookbook. As there were several vegetarians at tonight's dinner, instead of making a meat course and vegetarian option, another participant decided to just go with an all vegetarian dish. Here was her homage to Chef Grant Achatz's original dish:
This was a sous vide beet on top of a fennel puree accompanied by pickled blueberries, a freeze-dried blueberry and dehydrated beet crumble, and a toasted Spanish cheese wedge. While I have never had the original dish at Alinea, I can tell you that the level of dedication in order to pull something like this off was quite remarkable. The dish, as much art for the eye as for the mouth, combined many different flavors and textures to make it sort of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" type of course. While this type of cooking isn't for everyone, I definitely found it interesting and playful (as well as tasty).
Our third course tonight was a playful reinterpretation of a popular Portuguese and Brazilian soup, caldo verde:
This was a soup shooter containing a potato and kale soup that had been topped with a chorizo foam. Keeping the vegetarians in mind, the soup had been made with homemade vegetable stock and an alternate "foam" was used to top the non-meat shooters. Personally, I loved the chorizo foam. It was spicy and creamy, but not overbearingly so. The soup itself was luxuriously smooth, warm, and soul-satisfyingly good. You could really taste the kale and the potato with each sip.
In addition to doing the breads for today, I had agreed to help out long-time friend and fellow foodie, Edsel, with his course tonight, hake en papillote. He had originally wanted to do a meat course, but when someone else stepped up and picked grilled lamb, Edsel saw the opportunity to do something wonderfully light. He picked up about five and a half pounds of hake, a sustainable white fish, and between a small group of us, we prepared the vegetables that went inside, portioned the fish, and wrapped it all up in these cute little parchment pouches:
After baking for roughly twenty minutes, we plated the pouches, cut a slit into the parchment to facilitate eating, and distributed them to the guests. Here was a shot of my pouch, completely torn open:
The fish was exquisite (and not just because I had a hand in making them). It was moist, tender, and perfectly seasoned. The fish had been topped with a combination of red dragon carrot coins, batons of zucchini, two different types of oyster mushrooms, and sliced shallots. The vegetable medley had been gently sweated in olive oil and then dressed in a vinaigrette of sherry vinegar, olive oil, a scant touch of toasted sesame seed oil, salt and pepper. While I knew that there were still more courses to come, because a few extra packages remained after serving this course, I had a second helping; it was simply that good. Bravo, Edsel!
Our fifth course tonight was to be a playful effort by another attendee to showcase some locally caught rabbit in two ways:
On the left side of the plate was a rabbit confit that had been tossed with some grainy mustard and cream and homemade fettuccine noodles and topped with some micro-greens. To the right was a pan-seared tenderloin of rabbit poached atop some lightly pickled cucumbers and onions, drizzled with just a light honey sauce and finished with a small piece of lemon cucumber. Another compliment to portion size must go to the chef of this course, as it could've easily become overwhelming.
The flavor of each component was separate, but at the same time the common element, the rabbit, unified both flavors together nicely on the plate. While rabbit isn't something I have very often, both elements were cooked quite well and plated nicely. I especially liked the acidity that the quick pickled vegetables brought to the pan-seared rabbit loin and the honey sauce added just an ever-so-slight sweetness to the dish that didn't interfere with its savoriness.
Our sixth, and final savory course for the evening was a joint effort between Team Lamb and Team Lebanon:
To the left was a perfectly marinated and grilled leg of lamb and to the right was a wonderful Fattoush that had been prepared by Team Lebanon, Chef Crash and his wife. The lamb was marinated in fresh garlic, rosemary, and some olive oil and sat in the marinade for most of the afternoon. Then, at the last minute, it was cooked on an outdoor gas grill. I was worried that it might be too well done, but as you can see from the picture above, it was cooked to a textbook medium-rare.
The Fattoush was a nice contrast to the lamb as the sour element that the sumac brought to the plate helped cut through the fattiness of the lamb. The toasted pita chips gave the salad a nice texture contrast and overall, while I haven't had the opportunity to enjoy this dish in the past, I think it will be on my "to taste" list the next time I stop in for Lebanese food at my local Cleveland, Akron, or Canton eateries.
While there had been six savory courses to tonight's meal, what people easily forget is that there's always the hidden seventh course, DESSERT! And tonight's participants delivered mightily in that department. While I certainly didn't (and honestly couldn't) taste everything that people brought, I did take pictures of most of it and at the very least, I will tell you what eager eGulleters brought for the sweet end to our amazing meal.
First up were some chocolate cupcakes that had been frosted and decorated with actual edible flowers:
Next up was some homemade baklava that I was fortunate enough to taste:
Adorned with just a little bit of crushed pistachio on each triangle, these were truly delicious. It was sweet without being cloying and the texture of the nuts, phyllo, and honey syrup made this a decadent way to end my meal today.
Next up were some liquor filled truffles and chocolate bark:
And a Four Berry Pie from the Achatz Baking Company as well as some homemade black currant pate de fruit:
Another Lebanese treat that was prepared by two of the guests was the K'nafeh B'jibin:
Made from semolina, a soft Lebanese cheese, and doused in a simple syrup containing both rose and orange blossom water, this was an unusual (to this American anyway) but delicious treat that I was delighted to have a chance to try.
Besides the entire tray of fresh baklava, a smaller pan of Detroit's finest also showed up:
Finally, the same guest responsible for the chocolates and pate de fruit also made a creme Chiboust:
This was a pastry cream that had been lightened with fresh whipped cream, spread out onto foil and then frozen. This allowed the dessert to be cut into squares, placed atop fresh raspberries, sprinkled with a little bit of sugar and then bruleed until the tops were crunchy and brown. Unfortunately, I didn't have any more room in my stomach so I never got to try this.
Our meal now complete, everyone went from cooking, plating, and eating mode to clean-up mode. After cleaning up my bread station and repacking my car with all of my equipment, I was off to return to my hotel room, much more full and weary than when I arrived this morning. Even with me being tired and a little sore, I still had a blast today and would do it again every day without question. While we ended up with roughly thirty guests to feed tonight, I would encourage you to try this on a much more scaled down level. Visit the market in the morning, cook with your family and friends in the afternoon, and just have a great time being around one another the entire day. Sharing a meal with my friends today was just as important to me as cooking the food and I encourage you to do the same.