A Busy Day with Food

Today was international buffet day at work. It was organized by a colleague as a mini-competition that would showcase food from all over the world, a fairly easy task given our very diverse company. I knew I would definitely enter in a dish, but the question was what to make. It didn’t take me long to decide on making a Latin dish to showcase my that part of my heritage, but I couldn’t decide on what to make.

My mother had shown me how to make a bean dip which would be easy to do. During last week’s cooking class, we learned how to make carne asada. That also seemed like a good choice and a way to put into practice what I had learned. Another option was to create tostones, a form of friend bananas which I saw Alton Brown make on an episode of Good Eats which I had saved on my DVR.  My last option was arroz con leche, a rice pudding dessert. As the day approached I could not make up my mind so I resolved to make a cena típica (a typical dinner) which would include all of the dishes and something to drink.

I woke up this morning deciding to work from home so I could prepare my dishes for the 12 noon deadline.  I have never made this many dishes at once before and really needed to think about the cooking order and counter space.  The steak would take the least amount of time and so I knew I would cook it last. The arroz con leche would need some time for the rice to cook and since I had never made it before it would need some guidance from mom over the phone. The bean dip was something I could make easily and keep warm in the oven so I would make that second. After the bean dip I resolved to make the tostones since they needed to be fried twice.

Arroz Con Leche

I started with two cups of rice in a big pot with enough milk to cover the rice by an inch. I also added a teaspoon of vanilla and 2 large cinnamon sticks broken up into pieces to increase their surface area and distribution. I set the stove on high heat to bring up the temperature and then lowered the heat to medium as my mom advised. The key I was told  is to watch the pot so as not to burn the rice and the milk at the bottom. I stirred occasionally and as the mixture reduced and with the rice absorbing the the milk I added more milk and some water to keep the level of creaminess that I wanted while maintaining an appropriate amount of moisture.

Arroz con Leche
Arroz con Leche

While I stirred I noticed that the bottom was getting hard in some places. I hadn’t been paying enough attention as I cooked my other items and I could tell the bottom was burning and giving the pudding a burnt flavor. The rice was still hard after45 minutes and I had to continually add milk. In the end after more than an hour of cooking as the rice began to soften I added my last bit of milk. I stirred in 2 cups of sugar and a bit more vanilla to sweeten the pudding and packed it into a serving dish to go.

Bean Dip

This was the easiest dish. I added a bit of olive oil to my pan an put in two cans of refried beans. I added both cumin and chili powder, salt and pepper and stirred.

Bean Dip Cooking
Bean Dip Cooking

Once everything was combined I put it into a Pyrex baking pan and put it in the oven to stay warm. As I neared the completion of my other dishes, I added medium salsa and mixed shredded cheese on top with a few dollops of sour cream and put the dish back into the oven so the cheese could melt.  Everything was covered with tin foil for transport. I prefer small lightly salted tortilla chips for dipping so I brought in a bag for everyone.

Tostones

I would have to say this was my least successful dish. The flavor was there, but the crispiness was not. In a pan I placed about a half an inch worth of corn oil and heated it up over medium heat. While the oil was warming up I cut up three ripe plantains into one inch thick segments which were placed in the oil for one minute on each side.

Tostones Frying
Tostones Frying

I took the plantain slices out and put them onto a baking pan and flattened them out with my knife. They were soaked in water briefly which had salt and garlic for added taste. I believe this is where my problems came from. They were soaked for too long and became mushy. Also as anyone familiar with frying would know, when placed back in the hot oil they splattered all over the place as the water literally exploded causing the oil to spray and burn my hands. I cooked them forever in the oil but they would not get crispy no matter what. With time running out I placed them on cooling racks and then into a traveling container to take with me.

Tostones Cooling
Tostones Cooling

Carne Asada

This was the best received dish of all no doubt due to style points and the very fact that it was marinated steak. Last night I created my marinade using the juice of two whole limes, 2 teaspons of white wine vinegar, 3 cloves of garlic, pepper, chili powder and enough orange juice to fully submerge my steaks in a zip lock bag.

I heated up my pan on  high heat and dropped my steak onto it one at a time for 3 minutes on each side to get a nice sear. I placed them into a casserole dish and covered them with foil for the trip to the office.

Pan Seared Carne Asada
Pan Seared Carne Asada

At the office I setup a portable grill and finished the steaks on it. Grilling in the office was quite the spectacle drawing lots of ooohs and ahhhs and eager anticipation. The steaks were very moist and tender and were cut into stripes against the grain for serving. The marinade definitely added a nice subtle flavor and tenderness to the meat that everyone enjoyed.

The Contest

Everything was setup on a table that was empty and displayed with each course placed in the order it would be served. I also had some mango juice to serve along with my dishes to enhance it’s Latin flare. Unfortunately I did not win. A member of my team at work, Jose won with a duo of roasted chicken and turkey which were I must admit, perfectly cooked. All of my cooking effort was mistimed or miscalculated. The rice and tostones took way longer to cook than I thought they would, causing me to be 45 minutes late to the hour event, meaning that many people had already eaten voted and left! I’d like to think that if I had arrived on time I would have recieved more votes. The experience was great, providing my first experience with cooking multiple dishes at once for a multi-course meal. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt cooking everything at once; granted not everything went smoothly or turned out as I had hoped, but that is the nature of learning and I am truly happy that I challenged myself.

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Cooking 101: Back to Basics – Braising, Stewing, Blanquettes and Fricasses

Friday night’s cooking class was a lot of fun. Just before class I parked down the street and walked around a cooking supply store that’s located a few blocks away. It took all the personal restraint I had to not buy everything in sight. They had everything and at reasonable prices as well. I walked out with a simple refrigerator thermometer pumped to get to class. The class focus was on moist heat cooking used in braising, stewing, blanquettes and fricassees.

I walked into the building to find our class was nowhere to be seen, one minute for six. Another classmate arrived with me and was equally as confused. Here was our fourth class and it looked like we were being moved again. After walking from kitchen to kitchen, a chef instructor found a schedule and stated that we were in the downstairs kitchen, “the dungeon” as a passer-by commented. Even more parties and couples classes were planned for the evening at the school requiring our move.

My classmate and I walked down the stairs to find everyone else waiting for us. They must have received the memo or have some sort of ESP. As usual, the class started with a review of the cooking techniques. The tougher cuts are best suited for braising we learned. The process loosens the meat fibers making them tender.

Chef Angie read over the recipes, Fricassee de Lapin (Fricassee with Rabbit), Pork and Butternut Squash Stew, Braise Short Ribs with Dried Cherries, Poulet au Vinaigre a L’Eestargon (Braised Chicken with Vinegar and Tarragon, Sea Bass over Fennel, Braised Red Cabbage, Blaquette de Veau (Veal Blanquette), Stovetop Braised Artichokes,  and Ossobuco alla Milanese (Veal Shanks in the style of Milan). Before I had a chance to consider my options the Ossobuco and Short Ribs were taken. I had come to class hungry, and could see that I was about to be tortured by a slow and fragrant cooking process.

I paired up with one of my classmates to make the braised chicken. When he asked me what my name was, it dawned on me that no one had been introduced during our last three classes. It’s funny how that works, as class four was definitely the deciding point; asking for a name during class five or six would just pass the awkwardness line. Our stations were setup and we prepared our ingredients.

The pearl onions were scored and then blanched in boiling water for one minute and then placed on ice. In a braising pot we melted butter and our vegetable oil where we would brown the chicken.The chicken came whole, and we had to learn how to carve it into pieces for our dish. It was surprisingly easier than expected, although I’ll admit precision is something that could be improved upon.

The chicken took forever to brown. We were advised to use cayenne pepper next time we browned chicken as it would be natural with respect to taste but it would help the browning process and make the chicken a brown into a richer color.

Braising: Tarragon Chicken Browning
Braising: Tarragon Chicken Browning

Once the chicken was browned, we poured off the fat and sauteed the onions which were now peeled until they became a golden brown. The wine and vinegar were added and we deglazed the pan, added the tomatoes and reduced by half. Next some tarragon was added along with the chicken which we had taken out during the fat removal while we brought everything to a boil. The heat was then reduced to a simmer for 20 minutes using parchment paper and an inverted lid of foil and the pot lid. The recipe stated that the chicken would be ready when we could poke it with a skewer without resistance. This was tough because the lid made it hard to see what was going on in the pot and blocked access to the chicken. We checked after 20 minutes and decided to leave everything cooking for another five minutes. The second time around, the chicken was ready, but our saunce had cooked down too much.

Braising: Tarragon Chicken Cooked
Braising: Tarragon Chicken Cooked

To fix this, we placed the chicken on a plate with foil to keep it warm while we worked with Chef Angie to fix our sauce. We added chicken stock and corn starch to the pot along with some white wine and whisked vigorously. the sauce started to thicken and we put in tarragon and salt to enhance the flavor. After a few minutes it was ready to go. We got out a serving platter and plated the chicken, ladled on the sauce and sprinkled tarragon on top. We also garnished our plate with tarragon sprigs.

Braising: Tarragon Chicken Plated
Braising: Tarragon Chicken Plated

The plate tasted great. I was not really familiar with tarragon as an ingredient, so I didn’t know what to expect. The sauced was salted perfectly and was no overpowering. The chicken was moist and tender. Another success, although it took forever to make. This clearly is a weekend meal.

I was also looking forward to Chef Angie bringing in a marinated flank steak that would be used for carne asada I had requested to make. As promised she brought in a marinated meat which turned out to be a brisket instead. Since this week called for braising, she seared the meat on both sides and finished in a covered pan in the oven, cooking the meat to a perfect medium rare.

Carne Asada
Carne Asada

This class was incredibly fun. The class is definitely more comfortable in the kitchen which allows everyone to be more social. Our instructor is also really encouraging and flexible, always making sure we are learning what we want to and getting the most out of class. Even though I started off incredibly hungry, and was forced to endure the sounds of delicious food cooking and smell it as it transformed from raw ingredients to wonderful dishes, I left full, stomach hurting. Especially good were the rabbit and short ribs. I can’t wait to try them out on my own.

This Friday at work, we are having an international buffet lunch where everyone that wants to gets to cook and bring in a dish from anywhere in the world. I will try out my own attempt at carne asada with the hope that I win the prize for best dish, while representing not only my amatuer cooking skills, but my latin heritage.  Stay tuned to see what I can come up with and learn how I fair during the competition.

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