As two longtime vegetarians, we do a lot of complaining about the lack in variety of the vegetarian options in campus dining halls. Last Monday evening, we were excited to venture out of the realm of vegetarian naanwiches and mushroom tofu stroganoff and try our hand at preparing a creative, home-cooked meal.
About a dozen of us aspiring chefs were taken under the wing of the Manager of the Zilkha Center’s Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program Brent Wasser, who is also a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a cheese expert. Our quest: to use proper culinary technique, particularly knife skills, to prepare a gourmet five-course vegetarian meal. Our humble dinner party was also the inaugural event in the state-of-the-art kitchen in the new Kellogg House.
Wasser first took us through the proper technique to peel and dice carrots and onions, demonstrating perfect “medium diced” cubes. Then we broke into groups, each of which focused on creating one or two elements of the meal.
Huang’s group was in charge of making the black pepper and cheddar buttermilk biscuits, learning the strategy of preparing a biscuit mix by cutting butter into flour. Wasser emphasized the differences in techniques between creating doughs, pie crusts and biscuits, whose different textures and weights result from different methods of incorporating butter to allow for glutinous or non-glutinous consistencies.
Meanwhile, in the group practicing knife skills on vegetables, Bjornlund was weeping. No, fortunately, she had not yet nicked her finger finely chopping carrots, a credit to Wasser’s expert tutelage. She was cutting onions for the soup, and it was a lot to handle. Wasser explained a brilliant technique that uses the onion’s unique pattern of layers to easily create uniform dicing. Bjornlund also discovered a hidden talent for medium-dicing carrots. Walking by the small pile of orange cubes, Wasser remarked: “This is awesome. You should fly to Paris right now. All the three-star Michelin restaurants are going to want you.” Quite the compliment coming from someone who has worked at a three-star restaurant in France himself.
Around us, the kitchen buzzed with activity. The lasagna team, finding themselves with extra roasted butternut squash, tried to force us all to try it. It did live up to the hype, but we were saving our appetites for dinnertime. Huang struggled with the fancy German-engineered oven in Kellogg kitchen, which had a touch-screen interface apparently too complex for someone who has owned an iPhone since early in high school.
There was one snafu, which luckily neither of us was responsible for. In their excitement about all the local, organic ingredients, some members of the dessert team confused tapioca granules for organic sugar, mistakenly dumping a cup and a half into a massive bowl of berries that were meant for a separate element of the same dessert. Luckily, with Wasser’s deft problem-solving skills, we quickly strained out the errant tapioca and got to work on the original recipe.
After two arduous but educational hours of culinary adventure, we gathered promptly at 9 p.m. around a common table to share our feast. The soup was the least unusual of our dishes, but the garlic – and the impeccably square pieces of vegetables – set it apart from other common vegetarian soups. The lasagna with butternut squash and fresh mozzarella was standout, a perfect combination of ingredients that Wasser invented sans recipe or guide. The sautéed Swiss chard was surprisingly exceptional thanks to the creative addition of maple syrup mixed with soy sauce. It was so popular, in fact, that Wasser got up to make more as we ate. Moving across courses, we found that the biscuits were delicious dipped in soup and, in a less expected option, even dipped in the extra berry compote intended for the tapioca parfaits. The parfaits themselves, presented in mason jars that seemed to reflect the farm-to-table culture of the evening, were so amazing that we ate every bit even though we’d already eaten two dinners.
We’re grateful to the Zilkha Center and Brent Wasser for organizing this opportunity for students and look forward to participating in more such real-food-centered events. Also, the class was a great introduction to the awesome kitchen and facilities in Kellogg, which are open to all student to use. We’re looking forward to taking advantage of this great new space and cooking many more delicious meals.