Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fried Homemade Mozzarella, Apple Chile Salad

For The Dinner to Fight Hunger, my theme for the menu was to take typical popular menu items from any given American restaurant, and then elevate them in some way. All of them were successful to some degree, so for posterity, I am laying down the recipes here. Please email me if you have questions, since a lot of this was made up on the fly, and is thus difficult to pin down in an actual repeatable recipe.

The first course was my interpretation of a fried mozzarella stick. Who doesn't love those? Literally one of the worst things you can put into your body, nutritionally, but DELICIOUS. My first step toward getting more out of a cheese stick was to make my own cheese. That sounded intimidating to me, too, but with a little internet research, a trip to the home brew store, and a gallon of milk, it was a piece of cake. My first attempt was an utter failure, but that was totally due to my inability to follow the perfectly clear and simple directions. Try #2 made perfectly delicious mozzarella. Try #3 made even better cheese, and more of it. It just takes a second to perfect your technique.

There are tons of options online that describe in detail how to do this. The one I had the most success with was this one. I used vegetable rennet solution instead of animal rennet tablets, so I just followed the dilution directions on the bottle. Also, this recipe doesn't go into detail about salting the cheese, but that was ok, since I knew I would be breading and seasoning it later on. I added about 2 teaspoonsful of cheese salt roward the end of the process, and it was just right.

Ingredients needed:
1 Gallon Milk                                    *I got the citric acid, rennet and cheese salt at 5th Season
1 1/2 tsp citric acid
1/8 tsp rennet
2 tsp cheese salt

Purists will say that what I made was not REAL mozzarella. Purists live sad, boring lives. Most Italian mozz is made from a specific breed of buffalo milk, and is made all on the stovetop, and pulled in a water bath. My cheese was made with a gallon of fresh Shenandoah Pride whole cow's milk. I finished it in the microwave and pulled it on my cutting board. Get over it.

It is utterly unbelievable that four ingredients and 45 minutes can produce a perfectly perfect pound of fresh mozzarella cheese, but believe me, you'll never buy it at the store again.

I formed the cheese into 2 inch diameter rolls, and wrapped them in plastic and put them in the fridge. When ready to cook, I sliced the cheese into 1/2 inch thick discs, dredged them in flour, dunked them into a milk/egg wash, then breaded them in bread crumbs seasoned with salt and dried parsley. Chef Keevil recommended a second trip to the flour and then back to the breadcrumbs, and this made a much better crust, so I would do that for sure. We fried the cheese in oil for about 3 minutes until golden brown, then drained on a paper towel.

They were perfectly crispy on the outside and stretchy and gooey on the inside. Best mozzarella stick ever.

Rather than serving a marinara dipping sauce for dipping, I topped it with a salad variation from a fried halloumi cheese recipe I made when auditioning for Chopped. They never called me back, which I credit to them not wanting it to be unfair to the other competitors.

Apple Chile Salad
1 sweet apple, matchsticked
1 tart apple, matchsticked
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 yellow pepper, julienned
1 hot chile, finely chopped
1/4 red onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp capers, coarsely chopped

1 tbsp dijon mustard
2 tsp honey
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all dressing ingredients except oil with a wisk. Slowly drizzle in olive oil while whisking furiously until dressing is well emulsified.
Add all salad ingredients to a bowl, and toss with dressing until all is lightly coated. Try not to over dress so it doesn't get soggy.

Serve a small pile of salad on top of your piping hot cheese stick.

I was going to brag about this being a 100% vegetarian dish, but then I forgot that milk comes from animals. I really suck at vegetarianizing. Sorry guys.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Dinner to Fight Hunger

Ever witnessed something that started with a "What if we...." and ended up with "How the heck did that happen?" That's pretty much what happened with The Dinner to Fight Hunger.

The Dinner was basically a pop-up restaurant evening at Brookeville Restaurant where I (an amateur) prepared a five course tasting menu using local ingredients. We sold tickets to the public and used the money from the tickets as a donation to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. I won't bore you, loyal reader (singular), with the backstory, but the actual event itself was a seriously unique experience, not because of the food, but because of the people.

Cooking really started for me as a hobby, but it held my interest when it became about people, and about a community. I realized how great that community really is through putting on this event.

Going into the dinner, I expected it would be a flop. Why would perfect strangers pay their hard earned money for the cooking of a perfect stranger? Why would a critically acclaimed restaurant allow an unskilled goof into their kitchen, knowing there would be a fifty fifty chance I might burn it down? Excellent questions. The answer? The food community here is full of the best kind of people, and they all care about supporting hungry people in our area.

 I had never met Jennifer and Harrison Keevil, co-owners and chef (Harrison) of Brookeville, going into this, but they are passionate about food, and fully invested in giving back to this community. They never hesitated to welcome me into their place and spent tons of time and energy helping make The Dinner a success. They were there for any stupid question I had, they were a great resource in my search for local ingredients (no resto does that better in Cville), and one of the highlights of the whole thing for me was a lesson in Plating from Chef Harrison himself. These two have about a million things going on in their lives, but they took a ton of time (on their day off) to help us make this possible, and that is a rare thing. Go down there immediately and celebrate their benevolence with Chicken & Bacon Waffles.

I never really expected people I didn't know to pay for tickets to this thing. We offered 20 tickets, and I thought more than half of them might be tough sells. I was shocked to see that once the word got out, we sold out within a day and a half of the announcement. What-the-What? I can promise you it wasn't the legends of my good cooking that brought them in. The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank is doing powerful work to feed the hungry in our area, and good people here just jumped at the opportunity to pitch in. When we had cancellations along the way, someone would contact me out of the blue and snap up the empty seats. We were literally destined to reach our overall goal.

Just like the last big dinner, gathering the ingredients was one of my favorite parts.We were about 85% locally sourced this time, and the quality of the results definitely benefitted from it.  Getting to know the food producers around here is a ton of fun, and they are all really terrific people. They were all very excited about the opportunity to help out for this Event. Watching them sneak in a discount or add a few more potatoes to the bag after they weighed it was just more evidence that people care about people.

Every time help was needed, someone gave it. Austin and Jessi were my loyal sous chefs/servers/dish washers, and they were ON FIRE. Not literally. Figuratively. It would have all screeched to a halt without their work, and they were 100% volunteer. Except for the free beer. And meatballs. Kevin, one of our diners, volunteered to help me prep vegetables, and he came out to the house on Saturday and chopped onions like a champ! Who does that? It turns out he has some experience cooking for causes, and we are already talking about collaborating on future events. Wendy Edwards, a local radio talk show host and DJ, offered her help for the evening  and did a phenomenal job hosting and speaking on behalf of the Food Bank and how donation dollars go to help our hungry neighbors.

By the time the doors actually opened, I was riding on a super high of positive energy from all the people who had gotten involved to get us to that point. It could have been awkward to put a bunch of strangers at a farm style table for five courses, but everyone there was ridiculously friendly, and I really believe that they came in as diners and left as friends. It was a really fun room to be in.

There are great people here, and I am glad to know them. It was my priviledge to put a few plates on the table, but 21 of our neighbors provided money that will make its way through the BRAFB's system and provide meals for literally thousands of hungry people.
Ba-Bam! That just happened!

The Dinner To Fight Hunger
First Course:
Fried Cheese Stick
Homemade Mozzarella Cheese, Apple, Red Pepper, Chile, Honey
Wild Wolf Ginger Lager
Soup and Half Sandwich
Double Buffalo Slider. Bison Patty, Smoked Buffalo Shrimp, Appalachian Cheese
Potato Cheese Beer Soup Shooter
Devil's Backbone Striped Bass Pale Ale
BBQ Special
Bacon Wrapped Smoked Meatball, Fall Slaw, Pickled Vegetables, Habanero Pear BBQ sauce
Brew Ridge Trail Black Tripel Ale
Pot Roast & Mashed Potatoes
Beer Braised Short Rib, Smashed Sweet Chipotle Sweet Potato, Bacon, Hickory Syrup
Blue Mountain Dark Hollow Ale
Chocolate Pie
Dark Chocolate Ancho Chile Tart, Raspberry Lime sauce
Devil's Backbone Skull Crushing Ape Lager

I'd like to give a special thanks to all the local food producers and distributors who contributed to the dinner. I will list them here in no particular order. Please go out right this minute and buy food from these people. It will positively make your dishes taste better.
Appalachia Star Farm
Timber Creek Organics
BBQ Exchange
Albemarle Baking Company
Gardens of Khmet
Planet Earth Diversified
Mountain View Orchard
The Organic Butcher
The Spice Diva
Radical Roots Farm
Brookeville Restaurant
Devil's Backbone Brewery
Wild Wolf Brewery
Blue Mountain Brewery

Recipes for all menu items will be coming very soon!

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Dinner to Fight Hunger Recap...teaser anyways

Full story to come later. Hey, I have to go to my REAL job, do get off me. I'll have the full Monty by tomorrow