Sunday, November 25, 2012

Six Dishes and a Musing: Cooking for a crowd + Heartbreaker Porkchops + Pinoy Pesto + Tomato Cream Pasta + Mike's Pinaputok na Tilapia + Bulalo Steak au Poivre

I could never cook for myself or for two. There's just something about me that makes me cook a lot more than I intend to. This means I'm always more comfortable cooking for a crowd. 10 people? Easy. 20? Sure. But when you get to 30 people or more, that is when it becomes challenging. I've never had a great experience with catering, I have yet to remember one dish I've had in a wedding or a birthday party or any other catered event. Aren't you tired of the same roast beef in mushroom gravy? Of mixed buttered veg that are just "meh"? Of dry fish fillets with an overpowering and overcompensating sauce?

But man, is it easy to understand why caterers fall back on these dishes when you try to cater to more than 30 people.

I am always in awe of Bravo's Top Chef episodes where the contestants have to cater to hundreds of people, with exacting judges expecting excellent quality while putting contestants in the most challenging circumstances. The flops and miscues in these episodes are often memorable and enlightening (remember this Betty Crocker faux pas in season 1?). The moments of triumph, often glorious and magnanimous (see the season 6 tearjerker Thunderbirds episode, where Michael Voltaggio touched on his difficulty in cooking for a buffet line). But if there's one thing I've noticed in the ten plus years I've been watching the show, it's that the one difference between the caterers whose food I've had the dismay of eating and the top ranked chefs in the show is the way they attack the service.

When serving a considerable number of people, there are so many things you have to consider that one mistake can ruin the entire service. The most important part, I think, is timing. You can have the best dishes planned out, the freshest ingredients and the skills to tie them all together, but botch the timing and everything would be wasted. Let's look at catering an event from the vantage point of a town fiesta: when you cater, the goal is to cook everything in advance and be able to keep it warm enough so that your guests can enjoy it without having to wait for it. That, cabron, limits your options so much that you think up your menu considering the pre-cooking as the most important part.

Pasta, or pansit, those are the two things that we somehow always see in fiestas and catered events but are the hardest to pre-cook. We fare better with pansit, because of all the oil that we use in it. But pasta? Wow. To cook two kilos of pasta al dente and then sauce it for the buffet line just absolutely ruins it. Cooked pasta, unsauced, sitting idly, waiting to be eaten, even when coated with olive oil or butter, will lump together and become gummy, simply because it is not served immediately.

Then you have the meat temps and cooking everything in time so that you can serve them all at the same time. Handling large amounts of ingredients skews the cooking time and the process. Take, for example, frying batch after batch of breaded chicken fillets. When frying anything breaded, temp and the condition of the oil are two very crucial things. You really don't notice these things if you only have one or two batches to fry. But man, fry enough to feed 40 people and you'll see two things: first, maintaining the correct temp to FRY and not BOIL your chicken fillets gets harder and harder as the quality of your frying oil deteriorates. Don't trust me? See this Japanese study on cooking oil deterioration. As you gunk up your oil with excess flour and other minerals, it becomes thicker and conducts heat more inefficiently. That's why you get easily burned but still soggy chicken fillets if you don't change frying oil after about five batches.

So when a friend asked me to cook for his wife's birthday party, I accepted, but was really wary. The last time I cooked for 30++ was about a year ago. From the start, I knew I had to plan everything well and that I will make mistakes, because I was going to do it without much help from anyone. So here are the six dishes I prepared, and some notes as to how the batch cooking and buffet style services really put my cooking and I through the spin cycle.


Mixed veggie salad in Sweet Dilis spiked Vinaigrette

What you need:

Romaine and Iceberg lettuce
Spinach and mustard leaves
Red radish
White onions
Cherry or small red tomatoes
Roasted bell peppers
Crisped bacon
Oishi's Bread Pan or store bought croutons
Sweet dilis
Grated Parmesan cheese

My Pinoy-friendly Vinaigrette recipe can be found on this post.

How to do it:

First, and most importantly, make sure you wash all of your veg and dry them off well. Wet veg make for bad salads. Slice radish and cucumber into thin strips, as thin as you can get them. Chop onions to thin slivers so that they don't overpower each bite but act as accents. Roast bell peppers straight on your gas stove, when blackened, put into a bowl and cover with a plate. This lets you take off the skin easily. Chop them to small strips. Crisp bacon in the oven or over the stove on medium low heat, chop to bits. Chop tomatoes to bite sized pieces. Tear greens with your hands.

Create a bed in your serving dish with the greens, add other vegetables, top with half of the bacon, croutons sweet dilis. Dress with vinaigrette, make sure you don't use too much or your salad will look more like soup. Top with grated Parmesan and the remaining halves of the bacon, croutons and dilis.

Some notes:

I wanted to top this salad with fried sweet basil, but because of the scatter brained state I was in as the guests started coming in, I forgot to do so. I chose to pre-mix the veg and let the guests dress it with the vinaigrette on their own, because a salad can only hold up to dressing for a short amount of time before the greens wilt. The dilis was a risk I took because I thought, if Westerners use anchovies to spike up their dressings, this childhood favorite of mine should work too. And it did. If you are unfamiliar with this, coño, or are unable to get hold of this, here's Google's #1 search result about it from Sourcing salad greens have become a lot easier! A visit to a good supermarket will get you some organic herbs and greens. The Waltermart near me has a great selection of organic herbs (Italian oregano, fresh marjoram and two kinds of basil, gedemit!) and reasonable greens from Dizon Farms.


Tomato Cream and Chicken and Liver Flat Spaghetti

 What you need:

A kilo of chicken leg and thigh pieces

2 kilos of flat spaghetti
2 cans of diced tomatoes
4 boxes of all purpose cream
Dried thyme
Sweet basil
Italian (optional) oregano
Dried sage
Olive oil

Parmesan cheese
Quickmelt (or any stringy pale cheese) cheese 
Tomato paste 

How to do it:

Marinade chicken pieces in olive oil, minced garlic, sage and chopped rosemary, 10 minutes minimum, overnight maximum. Chop chicken leg and thigh, as well as the chicken livers to serving sizes. keeping them bone in will give you more flavor. Sear chicken pieces in hot oil til golden brown. Set aside and do the same thing for the halved chicken livers. De-glaze the pan with the canned tomatoes and add salt, pepper and spices to taste. Put in chicken pieces to cook through. When chicken pieces are done, add tomato paste, cream, the two cheeses, chicken liver and a dash of sugar. Stir until mixed thoroughly and simmer for another five minutes. Put on top of cooked pasta and top with dried sage leaves and Parmesan cheese.

Some notes:

Here's another recipe I'm including in the Gracie Diet I'm writing for a friend. It can be made healthier by choosing to use skinless chicken breast fillets, but that would change up the cooking process a bit. To keep breast fillets juicy, they should also be seared, but one should take extra care not to overcook them or they will become rubbery. I've always cooked the sauce first and try and time it so that both sauce and pasta get done at the same time. If doing this on a smaller scale, after cooking the sauce, add almost al dente pasta and some pasta water tot he finish sauce to finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.  Because I served this buffet style, I cooked the pasta first and coated it with olive oil and butter so that they don't stick together. I let the guests choose which sauce they wanted because I also prepared...

Pinoy Pesto

What you need:

Peanuts (yes, peanuts)
Cashew nuts
Exta virgin olive oil
Parmesan cheese
fresh basil, oregano
dried thyme and sage
grated garlic

How to do it:

Basically, run the nuts with some EVOO through a food processor or pound them on a mortar and pestle until you get a sort of paste but don't go to the peanut butter dark lands. Finely chop your herbs and add them to the paste with some more EVOO and grated garlic. Add cheese, mix and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add any meat or veg you want to cooked pasta and top with Pesto.

Some notes: 

Pesto is traditionally made with Pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and olive oil. But pine nuts sell in the country for about 200 pesos per 100 grams, so, yeah, screw that. In supermarkets, you can find Tobi's or Grower's premixed nuts, with almonds, cashews, macadamia and peanut mixes. Just make sure you don't get the one with green peas and cornick. That'd just be stupid. Pistachios can be bought separately, I have found that they provide the crunch, as the other nuts are much more oily and cannot stand up to the grinding as well as pistachios.

I will also be providing recipes that would be perfect for people who live alone, I'm calling those post Bachelor's Fridge recipes. This pesto recipe would fit that bill to a tee. You can prepare a large batch of the sauce, portion it out in microwaveable containers and reheat when needed. A quick pasta boil and a pan seared chicken or pork filet later, you got a healthy and fast dinner. I started cooking because of necessity and know exactly how hard it is to eat right while living alone and leading a busy life. This is my way of helping out.

The Heartbreaker: Bacond-crusted, Sausage and Cheese stuffed Pork Chops with Caramelized fruit glaze

I got too excited to eat it to plate it better to get a better picture. So, sorry for this crappy one.

What you need:

Custom, thick cut pork chops
Strong flavored sausages (I have used Alaminos longganisa, but for this one, I chose fennel-rich Italian sausages and Chinese Chorizo)
Stale bread or, again, Oishi's Bread Pan
Enough bacon to wrap pork chops
Regular processed cheese
Parmesan cheese
Worcestershire sauce
Cane vinegar
Six cloves of garlic
Olive oil
Enough oil for shallow frying
A dash of sugar

Fruit Glaze
Brandy (as in Empi light, pare)
White sugar
Canned pineapple slices
Fresh pears
Orange slices
Cherries (optional)
Salted butter

How to do it:

First, don't be afraid to ask the butcher at the supermarket for custom cut meats. The fact that we have more meat suppliers side by side means that they are now more willing to accommodate special requests. I had a Garcia's Meatshop butcher cut 1 and half inch thick pork chops, had her cut pockets into them. Marinade the chops in a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper and the herbs provided above. Set aside. 

Prep stuffing by chopping up the chorizo, removing the casing of the sausages and chopping the meat up. Sautee garlic 'til lightly browned, add sausage and chorizo and brown. Add vinegar, sugar, bread and Worcestershire sauce. Cook until bread starts to absorb oil and sauce. Take off of heat and put in a bowl. Mix in cheeses while stuffing is still hot, set aside.

Create the glaze as you are marinating the chops. In a sauce or shallow pan, put in a half part of brandy, one part juice from cherries and pineapple slices, add sugar, ensure that the liquid to sugar ratio is 1:3/4. Simmer over a low heat until liquid is reduced by half and the sides of the mixture start to bubble and start caramelizing. Do not stir. Let mixture simmer until thick and light brown. Spend this time peeling the oranges and separating them to wedges, making sure you get rid of as much of the bitter white veins as you can. When you get a viscous yet still light caramel, add in pineapple slices. Core and slice pears to wedges and add to the glaze. Let simmer again as the juices from the fruits will water down the caramel. Again, this is a glaze, so that's OK. When you get to the right consistency again, add a dash of salt, cherries and orange wedges, cook until orange wedges are soft but still intact.

Start assembling the monster. Stuff the thick chops with the cooled stuffing, get as much as you can into the sucker. While throwing caution and good sense to the wind, generously wrap the chops in copious amounts of bacon. Make sure that the skin of the chops are covered and that you say a prayer to your god that you wake up in the morning. Done correctly, it'll look something like this:

Aint that a sight from popped arteries

Heat a pan and fill it with oil that will cover the chops halfway. Make sure the oil is hot and that you start off on high heat. Drop the monstrosities in, reduce the fire to medium low and cover the pan. This will make sure that the chops cook through. The great thing about wrapping the chops in bacon is that you get a built in timer. When the bacon browns and crisps enough for you to move the chops, much like how you'd treat fried fish, then you know that it's time to turn them over. Turn when you get to this point, still in medium low heat, finish chops off uncovered.They should look like this:

Please help yourself from tearing through this.
To serve, cut up into serving sizes and top with fruit glaze.
Still unapologetic about the bad picture. I was licking bacon fat off of my finger a few seconds before I took this photo.

Some notes:

This is one of those "Diet? Ano 'yun?" recipes where I throw all caution to the wind and forget that I am overweight with blood pressure problems. This dish is basically giving the finger to the whole healthy food movement, but also, indulgence is something one must savor a few times in one's life. 

Also, please note that the Eden, Ques-O and other cheeses we usually buy are processed cheese products, not cheddar cheese. Much like how Dari Creme is flavored margarine and not "butter". We have to read labels more and really know our ingredients. 


Mike's Pinaputok na Tilapia

 What you need:

De-scaled and cleaned whole Tilapia
Red onions
Siling haba/pansigang (Not Filipino? Try this description from Philfoodie)
Fish stock cubes
Butter or margarine
Aluminum foil

How to do it:

Chop tomatoes, onions and sili and mix together. Put some Sprite in the mixture to keep the sili from oxidizing and turning brown. Crumble fish stock cubes and mix in.

Salt the outside of the fish, cram as much of the veg mix as you can in the cavity that you used to house the poor bastard's innards and gills. Lay as much foil as you need to create a loose envelope for the fish. Brush one side with softened butter or margarine, lay down fish and fold over foil.tightly fold over the sides while leaving the top part open. Before sealing the top part, pour in some of the juice from the veg and more Sprite.

If you have a sizzle plate because like me, you are a sisig addict, you can use that to cook these bad boys. Or you can grill them over charcoal. If sealed correctly, the envelopes should balloon up because of the steam created by the cooking liquid. You can tell if they're cooked when they've ballooned to the point they can balloon no more.

Some notes:

I used to play Counterstrike before the boom of MMORPGs, think Starcraft II time frame. Counterstrike players hate opponents who peek at opponents' screens to know where they are, we call that, COMSAT-an (from the Starcraft II Terran skill). This recipe is from Mike, a weird-in-a-fun-way waiter in St. Bede's Kitchen, the now-defunct resto Marvin, Bojji Catama and I opened in 2008. Comsat Cooking will feature recipes from different sources, either as inspirations, or in this case, a direct rip off.

I've tried fiddling with this, adding flavors and tweaks, but man, Mike nailed it the first time, so when I cook this, I stick to his recipe.

Bulalo Steak Au Poivre

What you need:

Bulalo (beef shank) cut into steaks
Onion leeks
Star anise
Patis (fish sauce)
Red onions
Dried bay leaf
Worcestershire sauce
Cream style canned corn
Cracked peppercorns
Beef stock cubes

How to do it:

Boil beef shanks with onions, bay leaf, onion leeks, star anise, beef stock cubes, pepper and salt in water just enough to cover it add water when needed, but liquid should be reduced by half when you finish cooking. When fork tender, Remove steaks and set aside. Strain and save cooking liquid. Put liquid back into a sauce pan, add cream style corn and (if cooking a kilo of shanks, about a cup of) Worcestershire sauce. Reduce to half, add more beef stock cubes and peppercorns, finish with cream.

Some notes:

Marvin and Bojji hate my previous recipe for Bulalo steak. But for some reason, a lot of my friends love it. Here it is:
Crappy picture taken with a camera phone in 2009.
I'll try my hand at it again and share it with you. But as for this version, the three of us shared a few beers recently they and showed me a video of 3-Michelin Star, Mentor-to-Gordon Ramsey, super idol Marco Pierre White.
 The video just shattered my notions about stock cubes and made me want to try it. But I also was craving for some Bulalo steak, so I mixed the flavors together. It was great, I was told, but I will continue fiddling with the two variations.





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