After what I would call a pretty successful round one it was interesting to see just how quickly round two came about. I swear I had only just finished thinking about the first dinner before I was shopping for the next. As spaghetti and meatballs is a fairly standard meal (safety first was definitely the plan) I felt the urge to try something a little more complex this time. As usual the days of the week involve numerous foodie ideas going in and out of my head but to no surprise the day before the second dinner was supposed to happen I couldn’t sit tight on any previous thoughts. It just so happened that I borrowed a book from my mum’s after a recent visit to her house, a good one at that too, so I thought why not let the book decide. It was the Moro cookbook written by the two Sam’s behind the famous restaurant of the same name in London. The Moorish flavours certainly appealed, something a bit different I suppose, and sure enough I fell asleep on the eve of dinner number two with a menu planned out: marinated chicken done Moroccan/African style, accompanied by a nice bitsy pilaf, braised fennel, and some green beans. The menu also came about after consideration of one of my guests who is a celiac, a word that I find I am hearing more and more these days (I wonder if we are at the beginning of a gluten-free epidemic...!) So it was nice to think of something that she could enjoy as well, without missing out. For dessert I was going to do a flourless orange cake (celiac friendly!) but then at the last moment stumbled upon a recipe by Nigel Slater for a lemon polenta cake with a lemon curd filling. ‘Bingo!’ I thought. The lemon would provide a nice refreshment after the spiciness of the main dinner and also I had never made a polenta cake before. So finally by about midday on the day I had my dinner planned.
Now one thing that these events have shown me so far is that I am definitely not a fast cook. In fact, I would probably say that doing this course in Footscray has possibly made me slower in the kitchen. Taking my time is something I seem to need to do when cooking, and I find it hard to see myself in a bustling restaurant racing around putting food to plate in a frenzy. I happened to have the entire day off on Monday (the day of the second dinner) and still it took me a good 6 if not 7 hours to cook. That is enough for a banquet if you ask me, hardly for a quiet dinner with friends..! None the less it was nice not to feel rushed and meant that I could concentrate on each dish separately and calmly. The only real hurdle that I had to jump was dealing with the chicken that I picked up from the supermarket. Free-range and organic, cut already into pieces, I thought that I would simply take them out of their packets, wash them, dry them, and cover them in the marinade that I had made courtesy of Moro. Alas this was not the case. When I removed the pieces from their wrapping I saw that most of them still had feathers stuck in the skin and that the innards of the bird still lay nestled by the backbone. Now I’ve done a tiny bit of chicken butchery in class so far, and I will stress the word tiny here, but trying to clean up 12 pieces of chicken unexpectedly just didn’t really help with my preparation. The bones wouldn’t cut, kidneys and bits of carcass were going everywhere, and every time I thought I had got it all there was more lurking below loose bits of skin. I was trying to remember if most of the chicken I had dealt with from packets before had been like this and I was pretty sure they hadn’t. It’s definitely put me in a different mindset towards the bird and I can’t help but think that I will either get the butcher to deal with it next time, or I’ll just roast them whole. It sounds squeamish doesn’t it, particularly from someone who’s involving herself in a cooking course, and I know there will be more challenging tasks I will face than cleaning up a chicken; but something about the way I thought I had bought prepared bits of meat to cook with and then having to get a meat clever out just didn’t sit quite right.
But enough about the bird. The pilaf I did went well and I was pleased with my walnut, pumpkin seed and chickpea combination. Once you know how to do a pilaf it’s actually a really enjoyable thing to cook because you can really experiment with the ingredients that you use, and opt for particular flavours which I like. I think it’s something that people can get wrong because of rice to water ratios or not cooking it in the oven. But if you can practice just a bit and get the process right then it’s a great dish to know how to do off-hand. And the braised fennel was a hit. There is something about fennel I think... the way it totally transforms from that crunchy, aniseedy, almost tart ingredient to a soft, comforting, juicy item that just makes it interesting and a winner. I really do love it. Turns out there was plenty of food to go around as well, something I am still adjusting to in terms of how much to cook, and everyone seemed happy to munch it all down.
The lemon polenta cake I was certainly unsure about. It was the thinnest cake ever when I pulled it out of the oven and I wondered how I was supposed to slice it in half and fill it with the lemon cream without it totally cracking. Patience I have learnt is definitely key and I did in fact manage to cut two very thin pieces which I filled with a filling made simply from lemon curd and double cream. A few blueberries on top and dessert was served. Now personally I thought that the polenta itself was too hard for the cake, and I kept crunching on little bits as I ate. But other people commented that they liked that about it, so I was happy to let them decide!
All in all it was a good second effort. I am going to try and streamline my efforts a bit more as I go, maybe trying to cut down cooking time by quite a bit especially. But a meal is a meal and if people can leave here feeling satisfied and that they’ve tasted something nice then I am happy. And if I can manage to produce in some way or another what I intend to produce without burning it or poisoning someone then I am happy too. More than happy, actually.