Slow Food Dinner Recap

Thanks once again to everyone who was able to join us for a marvelous evening yesterday. It’s truly a joy to cook for folks who are interested in food to the same extent I am. It was great to see so many people are interested in our work of saving, and hopefully reviving some forgotten Southern foods even as we cook for today and the future. The future is the reason we preserve the past, and I hope we made some inroads last night. Here’s a little recap.

Paul gives diners the lowdown on what's to come before dinner

We began the evening with a demitasse of sea island red pea cappuccino with puffed Carolina gold rice, bacon froth and pickled ramps. Sea island red peas & Carolina gold rice are both on the Slow Food Ark of Taste so this was a great way to kick things off. Essentially a modernized version of an old slave dish from the Lowcountry aka Reezy-Peezy, this dish typifies our efforts to bring traditional foods up to date while respecting and preserving our heritage.

The puffed rice is sprinkled on the pea puree before being topped with bacon froth

Sea island red peas are cooked with nothing more than mushroom broth and shallots, then pureed until silky smooth and supple. The flavor is sweet, earthy, and smoky. The gold rice is cooked first as a pilaf, then dehydrated, then fried in smoking hot corn oil, and seasoned with salt and pepper. Kind of like fancy, savory rice krispies. The bacon froth is made by steeping bacon in skim milk to infuse, then frothing just like you would milk for a cappuccino.

Pickled ramps double as swizzle sticks!

Next up was boucherie. I still owe you all a more detailed post on andouille making. This dish was a charcuterie plate with Cajun traditionals: andouille, head cheese, chaudin, pickled shrimp, relishes, and mustards, over toasted pain perdu (“lost bread.”) Head cheese is on the Ark of Taste, and chaudin probably should be, as its cousin, ponce, is. Ponce is a pork, rice, and vegetable sausage that is stuffed in a pig’s stomach and smoked. Chaudin is its unsmoked but braised cousin. It’s one of those things you almost never see anymore, but wow, so delicious! The proteins in the stomach seize up when heated, compressing the sausage filling (similar to boudin) so that when cooled, it can be sliced and eaten like pate, grilled, pan-fried, seared, you name it. The shrimp were Laughing Bird shrimp from Belize, a closed-loop farm-raised white shrimp that is small, sweet, and very tender when cooked correctly. Because of their sweet flavor, they are great pickled, and pickling was one way of saving shrimp (drying another popular method) during off-seasons. Laughing Bird shrimp are also sustainable, unlike almost every other farmed shrimp on Earth.

Paul's putting finishing touches on the boucherie plates before sending them to the dining room

Next up was a simple salad of Heritage Prairie Farm spinach, asparagus, scallions, and shallot-honey vinaigrette with ginger and black benne paste. Black bennes are a black sesame seed, steeped in hot water and pureed to a fine paste. Call it a fancy tahini. Fresh, springy, and very green, I thought the salad would be perfect between the unctuous boucherie and the rich gumbo.

Heritage Prairie Farm spinach was a sweet and fresh base for a simple Spring salad

Some day I’d love to talk at length about gumbo, but for me it’s hard to stop talking gumbo once I start. I chose ducks for the gumbo because the Gunthorps grow great ducks, so they are readily available to us, and ducks share a unique property with geese: they yield enough of their own fat to render and make all the roux you need for the gumbo. There is a real trick to making gumbo roux from animal fat, because if you smoke or brown the animal fat in the process of browning the flour, you will have one nasty pot of crap when you’re done. At some point, I’ll discuss the finer points of making gumbo roux from poultry fat. This roux took about three hours to cook as dark as bittersweet chocolate. It’s worth the extra effort.

We also make our own tasso, an Ark of Taste food that consists of heavily spiced, heavily (pecan-wood) smoked lean pork trim. Its sweet/spicy/smoky character works beautifully with duck, as well as much seafood. the pork is dry-cured for 5 days before a 6-hour pecan wood smoke. It’s then browned and rendered, and any fat it yields (a true tasso shouldn’t yield much) is added to the roux base after it’s browned since it scorches easily. The duck bones are roasted in the oven for 4 hours before being simmered for six hours to make the stock. The duck meat is added to the roux with the stock as the gumbo is built. The rendered tasso is added near the end, essentially like a seasoning you want to keep its own character.

There's a good day's work in a good pot of duck & tasso gumbo

Someone at the dinner mentioned that popcorn rice is on the Ark of Taste also, which I haven’t verified, but more on that soon. It should be. It’s bar none my favorite rice on earth.

Last up, I had to make calas. I’ve blogged about them here and here as well as other occasions, and they are not yet on the Ark of Taste. I hope that changes. You still don’t see these on menus in New Orleans. the accompaniments – lemon ice cream, coconut foam (a gelatin-set espuma,) and pumpkin seed pralines, are nothing endangered, but they sure went great with the rice fritters!

Drew and Paul are setting up plates for the calas, one finished plate up front

At the end of the day, we had a happy, satiated crowd of wonderful folks. It was a great day for us, I hope they all went home as happy!

A happy group of folks mid-dinner

We hope to do more dinners with Slow Food Chicago in the future, and get involved with them in any way we can. We’ve long given thought to dedicating one night a week to special prix-fixe dinners like this, and we’d love to hear what you all think!