Spas used to be thought of as “fat camps,” where people who were of a jolly size would go to slim down and get healthy. Sometimes “spa” was euphemism for mental institution (of course, well-to-do people went to spas; everyone else went to the “nut farm”). Today, the word “spa” connotes something completely different. They are places where people go to indulge themselves, to pamper themselves, to make them feel human again. Or better than human.
However, spas do still have weight-loss and wellness programs. Those are the spas where people go to for several days or even weeks. They are usually luxurious resorts (or part of luxurious resorts) that are designed to make guests feel as if they have won the lottery and taken a jet to another world (I guess for some lucky people, it’s just another weekend getaway).
And, of course, cuisine is a huge part of that. Back in the day, spa meals were low fat, low calories, low sodium, low flavor, low appeal, low satisfaction. I can just imagine how much cheating went on when all one got for dinner was a bowl of clear broth, a plate of alfalfa sprouts with half a celery stick, and a prune for dessert. Okay, I’m exaggerating. But not by much. Today, spas aim to not only get people healthy and teach them the ways of healthy eating, but also to sate hunger and please all the senses.
It’s also a lucrative career path for chefs, because health consciousness (is that the right term?) is growing exponentially. So, the Natural Gourmet Institute includes spa cuisine in the curriculum. Here’s what we made in class the other day.
Yellow Squash Soup
Garden Bouquet Salad
Roasted Garlic Dressing
Minnesota Wild Rice Salad
Fish en Papillote
Mushroom Consommé (with and without clarification)
Vegetable Polenta Napoleons
Phyllo Tart with Fresh Berries (one with tofu cream, one with yogurt cream)
Fruit Skewers with Chocolate Sauce
I made the zucchini soup and phyllo pastries with tofu cream.
This was one of the most time-consuming menus we’ve had to make so far, because each dish had several separate components. For example, the zucchini soup required getting the vegetable stock ready (although we had homemade stock available, it was frozen, so it had to be simmered in a pot), cooking the vegetables, pureeing the soup in batches, and making an herb puree to blend into it. Not really that complicated, but when you’re trying to make a multi-step pastry at the same time, it becomes a little bit of a challenge. One of my classmates sampled the soup and said that it just tasted like vegetable mush to her, but I think it was really the texture that gave her that impression. The recipe called for 6 tablespoons rolled oats to be added to the soup as a thickener, which gave it viscosity that could very well remind some of baby food. In fact, that’s exactly how someone else described it. However, I thought it tasted pretty good and others thought so, too. I poured it into a white bowl and garnished it with a basil leaf and a leek knot.
The tofu cream for the pastries really took a chunk of my time. It required blanching the tofu, processing it with other ingredients, cooking agar (which takes a while), making a kuzu slurry and adding it the agar, then adding that to the tofu. Tofu is a tough thing to make into a tasty cream, so there was a lot of adjustment, and then it had to set.
We were to present our plates at 3:00. At around 2, I started to panic because the soup was taking a lot longer than I’d expected. I’d made the tofu cream but I had not yet even started with the phyllo dough, which can be a painstaking process, depending on how cooperative the phyllo is. Luckily, I only had to layer 3 sheets and cut them into squares. The instructor took over that part, so that by the time they were ready to go into the oven, I was free from the soup and could continue the process.
One of my classmates, Angie, was doing the other version of phyllo pastries (with the yogurt cream) and almost burned hers (but she pulled them out just in time before crossing that line). So I watched my phyllo in the oven like a hawk and they came out perfectly. Luckily, Angie has such an artistic way and an eye for beautiful design, so her pastries came out gorgeous. She also did the fruit skewers with chocolate sauce and her presentation was fabulous. (She makes clothing for a living, so what else could I expect?)
The seeming simplicity of the final products was deceiving. A lot of work went into those dishes. But I think the class did an awesome job. Everything was delicious. But I didn’t expect anything less.