Monday, January 5, 2009

Iron Chef Freehold

A few weeks ago, I had received a message from Aaron, the boyfriend of one of my oldest friends, the incomparable Meghann Williams. They wanted to head up to scenic Freehold for an evening of cooking and eating and drinking. Oh please...twist my arm! I met Meghann during orientation during our freshman year of college (10 years ago!) as she lived down the hall from me and I was desperately in love with her roommate, but I lucked out in ending up with a great friend. I don't get to see her as often as I'd like, so I was definitely looking forward to this event. Oh yeah, Aaron's pretty cool, too! (Here ends the sappiness).

So after a bunch of traded Facebook messages and phone calls, we sort of semi-finalize our menu...which of course gets changed a bit when we get to Wegmans, and definitely altered once we realized our stomachs couldn't keep up with our will to keep eating. Either way, it was an absolute blast spending the day with Meghann and Aaron, and we can't wait to do this again soon! After the break, there's a full description of everything that was eaten, with pictures, thank you Stephanie!

Aaron's cooking repertoire resides in Italy, which presented a short mental roadblock to me, as my favorite flavors to work with usually involve soy sauce, citrus and ginger. However, I'm always down for a trip to the Mediterranean, so I scoured some cookbooks and came up with some good ideas. Here's how things went:

Course 1: Haloumi with Peppers and Honey

I'd never eaten haloumi before, and it was definitely a tasty treat. Aaron had also brought some special honey from California to go with this dish, which was simplicity itself. He cut up the cheese into bite-size pieces, then sauteed them in a little bit of olive oil until golden brown, then mixed in some sauteed diced peppers and the honey. The cool thing was that the cheese didn't melt, but maintained a firmness that was pleasant and made this fun squeaky sound when we bit into it. Definitely something I'm going to work into my repertoire.

Course 2: Butter-Poached Garlic Shrimp

Here's an old stand-by of mine. Big 13-15 count shrimp, marinated quickly in a bunch of minced raw garlic, olive oil and some red pepper flakes. A big pan of butter (with some olive oil) heated up over a low flame with 5-6 crushed garlic cloves, until they are nice and golden. In goes the shrimp, and they are poached slowly and carefully until they are tender and delicious. Pour the whole thing out on the plate, and serve with some crusty bread to sop up the sauce. Could've used a bit of lemon to cut through the rich butter, though. Alas, forgot it.

Course 3: Fried Zucchini and Mozzarella

Pretty straightforward course from Aaron, with the tomato sauce being full of onion and garlic flavor. I'm not a fan of zucchini, but I still gave it a try.....and I'm still not a fan of zucchini. I'd have passed the mandoline over to Aaron, as it's way more fun to cut vegetables using the mandoline than with the knife. The mozzarella was tasty and gooey and everything it should've been. A very successful dish!

Course 4: Potato, Bacon and Rosemary Pizza

Something I had read about, and was definitely interested to make. I rendered down the bacon and cut it into lardons (should've reversed that), sliced my red potatoes super-thin on the mandoline, picked some rosemary leaves, arranged it oh-so-artfully over a pizza crust, sprinkled with parmesan, then threw it in the oven. I'd have liked the potatoes to crisp up a bit more, but I was afraid of overcooking my crust. Despite that, a successful dish, one I am definitely going to be making again.

Course 5: Roasted Cream of Tomato Soup and Grilled Four-Cheese Sandwiches

This was a combination of our efforts, with Aaron making the sandwiches and me prepping the soup, which is a recipe I've made before. I dont' recall the three cheese in the sandwich, but it was coated in egg and parmesan then fried. The combo was delicious, and you can see how much we enjoyed it here and here.

Course 6: Transparency of Manchego Cheese

This was something from the Alinea cookbook, which I've been dying to cook something from. In this case, it was a dish that had a super-thin slice of manchego cheese melted over a pool of olive oil pudding, squares of roasted peppers, cubes of sourdough, some chopped anchovie fillet, roasted garlic and dehydrated olives. I dehydrated the olives at 350 while I roasted the garlic, and they came out crunchy and super-concentrated in flavor (Meghann and Aaron loved them). My first attempt at the olive oil pudding did not work out quite the way I had hoped (as I believe I did not get it up to the proper temperature) but my 2nd attempt came out way better. So on the plate went some of the pudding (squeezed out of a mustard bottle), with the various garnishes over, finished with a super-thin slice of manchego, melted with a blowtorch.

Unfortunately, Steph, at this point, was nursing both a pretty fierce buzz and an upset stomach, so she didn't snap a pic. Meghann, did you? This was really rather interesting, with some cool temperature contrast between the cool pudding and the warm cheese. Each of the flavors was extremely complementary and was all-in-all a delicious dish. I was very happy how it came out...and even more happy that I had made my first recipe from the Alinea book!

Course 7: Gnocchi with Parmesan Cream and Prosciutto

At this point in the meal, everyone was flagging, and this was bad because we still had tons of things left to serve - spinach with cara navels and candied almonds, spincah-ricotta dumplings with pecan-sage-butter, sole with lemon and capers, meatballs with amaretti, sous-vide lamb tenderloin with wine-braised red cabbage, date compote and rosemary (another Alinea dish), chicken stuffed with locatelli and cheese...but this dish was where we drew the line.

The gnocchi were soft and tender, and the sauce set up and thickened very nicely after a few minutes. I'm a tremendous fan of gnocchi, and I never eat it, and these made me very happy to nosh on. What's not to like about starch, cheese and pork products?

So at this point, we decided to call it an evening, even though we had a refrigerator filled with prepped food. That's what we get when we start eating tons of starch and cheese and don't pace ourselves as well as we should. Cooking with Aaron made me reflect a bit on my own practice, as I was amazed watching him just throw ingredients together, without much regard for amounts...simply cooking on feel rather than on strict method. I, on the other hand, am a bit more OCD, making careful measurements and going so far as to use a kitchen scale to portion out my ingredients (something I have become more and more of a fan of as I have grown as a home chef). Steph points out (rightly) that it's the science vs. art dichotomy, where I'm more driven by measurement and precision (as the scientist) whereas Aaron can exercise that creativity and freedom from rigidity (as the artist). I didn't think of it quite like that, but as I've mulled it over, she may be on to something.

Despite the stuffedness and the 3 lb I put on, I had a great time cooking with Aaron and getting to spend time with him and Meghann. Can't wait to do it again!