I was asked to cater an event showcasing the traditional and unusual cooking techniques I teach in my classes. I had never catered before and was feeling somewhat apprehensive.
My menu was simple enough:
-Gluten free sourdough bread toasts topped with kefir cheese and home cured salmon, also know as Gravlox*(recipe below)
-Four types of highly digestible beans for dips:
Italian White Beans,
Frijoles Negroes (Spanish Black Beans)
-Veggie Plate of raw vegetables not commonly eaten raw
Small bowls of seasonal lacto-fermented vegetables which at this time of year, was swiss chard and summer squash & onions.
-Amaranth Bread Pudding
Since I learned about these foods I have gained a better sense of using seasonal and fermented foods and what that really entails. For produce it means using and eating what is in season. For fermented foods it means having patience as the food can take hours or days or even weeks to reach perfect palatability. For sourdough bread it means planning a starter well in advance of when I want the finished bread. For beans it’s about carefully planning some simple steps.
Cooking this way is a very different process than going to the market and buying cans of beans, tubs of cream cheese, loaves of bread, already smoked salmon and vacuum packed jars of pickles. This food is very different as everything is carefully hand made from scratch, rendering it highly nutritious, easy to digest and exploding with flavor. When I serve some of these foods to Europeans they get very excited because it reminds them of the foods their grandmothers made. These old fashioned techniques, practiced around the globe for centuries, seem to preserve the inherent integrity of the food. Since most of us have not grown up with these foods they may initially taste unfamiliar or even strange. Perhaps it is an acquired taste and many of us notice that the body begins to crave these foods after having them a few times.
These foods can take from a few hours to almost a month to be finished. With careful planning it doesn’t take much more time, just a different usage of time. It only takes a few minutes to create bread starter. It takes just a few seconds a day to feed the starter. It takes half a minute to put kefir grains in a jar, fill it with milk and cover it. Timing is everything for lacto-fermented pickling. I boil and salt the water the night before so it will be room temperature when the vegetables are ready to be harvested or brought back from the farmer’s market.
So when I agreed to cater I got out my calendar, marked the day of the event and started counting backwards:
- 3-6 weeks before the event start lacto-fermenting seasonal veggies.
- One week to start the kefir milk in small batches
- Four days for the bread starter plus one day for rising.
- 2 days to cure the salmon.
- 24 hours to soak the beans and slow cook.
- 7 hours for soaking the amaranth with water kefir before cooking.
Additionally, I like to use my fresh or fresh ground herbs and spices whenever possible:
- Make garam masala for the lentil dish.
- Harvest dill, thyme and parsley from the garden. Rinse and let dry for easy chopping at the right time so it can be used well before it loses its vitality.
I like to attend to every aspect of the menu; every ingredient should be a quality ingredient. I once ate a layered cake that became part of the model for my cooking. There were 4 separate layers to this cake: the cake itself, the outermost hard-shell frosting, an inner frosting layer and an inner jam layer. I decided to taste each layer separately and found each layer was a completely satisfying taste in itself. Then I took a bite that included all the layers. I experienced all 4 layers of tastes and textures in a beautifully artful balance. Together they became a perfectly balanced contrapuntal experience. This became an important model for my cooking. Every aspect of a meal or menu would be of high quality and properly prepared without hurry.
So with this intention I began my tasks: counting days, doubling and tripling recipes, making shopping lists, making a daily task schedule, and soon enough it was time to start preparing food. Throughout the tasks I was aware that people I did not know would be eating this food. I felt honored to create this beautiful food for them. The question “would they like it” popped up many times but I just continued forward with my tasks.
The day of the event arrived. My helpers and I carefully packed the food, transported the food, unpacked the food and set up the food. I was nervous.
At most events most of the socializing centers around the food. Soon there was a small crowd around the table. People began eating. Some people just happily ate the food. Some people with food restrictions were happy to know they could safely eat the food. Some people realized the intricacies of the food and slowly tasted everything with eyes closed.
One man made comments on each layer of the salmon cheese toasts, the sourness of the bread, the sweet and sour nature of the kefir cheese and the delicate texture and salty-sweet taste of the home cured salmon. Another woman pondered the strong, though not overpowering, blend of Indian spices (homemade garam masala) in the lentil dish. People kept nibbling at the lacto-fermented veggies trying to identify all the tastes. I heard questions like:
“What makes this sweet?
What makes this sour?
Why doesn’t it taste like it has vinegar in it?
How did you get it be so delicate?”
When I told them the only ingredients were vegetables, dill, salt and water they had trouble believing it but continued nibbling.
I was very happy that almost all the food was eaten and appreciated. The one dish that wasn’t quite right was The Amaranth Bread Pudding. I had used sourdough bread and the characteristic sourness of the bread clashed with the sweetness of the honey-sweetened amaranth. Since then I have learned some tricks for minimizing the amount of sour taste in sourdough bread.
I continue to deeply enjoy creating all types of slow food. Seems there is always more to learn, share and enjoy.
Home Cured Salmon/Gravlox Recipe
1 lb fresh salmon, a uniformly thick piece from the middle of the fish
1 ½ tablespoons salt
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
1/2 bunch of dill or cilantro
A flat dish
Clear plastic wrap
Line the flat dish with a piece of clear plastic wrap large enough to wrap up the salmon so it’s tightly closed
Lay the salmon skin side down on the plastic wrap
Mix the salt and sugar together in a bowl
Take the dill and rinse it, leave it to dry, then chop the leaves off the large stems discarding the large stems (use for soup)
Mix the chopped dill leaves with the salt and sugar mixture and lay it on the salmon flesh so it completely covers the flesh.
Wrap the fish and dill mixture firmly in the clear plastic wrap.
Cure in refrigerator for 1 ½ -2 days.
After 1 ½-2 days unwrap the fish and scrape off the dill mix. Wash off the fish and blot dry with a paper towel.
Slice fish thinly on an angle.
Fish will keep for a few days.
Some people make 2 pieces at a time laying them on top of each other flesh side touching with dill mix in between and on top.
Some people also make an entire side at a time. Just double or triple the ingredients.