On Thursday, December 25, my FND team began preparations for our Friday Night Dinner at The Natural Gourmet Institute. We arrived in Kitchen 3 at 4:30 p.m. and had a huddle. We needed to prep the various components of the appetizer, main, and dessert courses. The main entrée, a Peruvian causa, alone involved 4 separate elements.
Causa is a Peruvian potato cake with several different layers. Traditionally, this dish would have layers of meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, or other combinations, but always, there a potato layer. For our version, we had 4 layers: purple potatoes, cauliflower and almond, pureed fava beans, and seasoned tempeh.
Everything that needed to be done was written on the board. We then broke up into teams and divvied up the tasks. As expected, it fell to me to prepare the potatoes for the causa. I’d been responsible for that layer all along, so it made sense that I took ownership of it during FND prep.
We had prepared the entire dinner for 10 people a couple of times, but this time, we were making it for 100 people. Boiling and milling 4 lbs. of potatoes is one thing; boiling and milling 40 pounds is another. I filled three huge pots with purple potatoes and because the potatoes were all different sizes, they cooked at different rates. I tried grouping similar sizes in each pot, but still some potatoes cooked faster than other within the same pot. This meant that I had to skewer test and scoop out potatoes at intervals. Which was just as well because there was no way that I would have been able to pick up and drain these commercial-sized pots of boiling potatoes! If I had tried, it would have been a disaster of monstrous proportions. And I probably would have landed in the burn unit.
It took hours to peel and mill all of these potatoes, even when one of my classmates stepped in to help me peel. My arms got an incredible workout. After several hours, I needed a break and asked one of my other classmates—who was actually on the other FND team, but was there to help us out—took over the milling for about an hour.
When I was finally done milling, the other elements for the causa were just about ready, too. But we had issues with the other elements. We had started out with a lima bean puree but at some point, we switched to fava beans (I’m still not quite sure why). To our dismay, the fava bean puree was not as green as the lima bean puree had been, probably because we didn’t have enough parsley, and the minced rosemary that had been added to it was too overpowering. Fortunately, we had enough color on the plate to compensate for the bean puree’s dullness, and the rosemary flavor was tempered when the puree was combined with the other elements. To ensure that all the elements worked together, we took scoops of each layer and placed them in a bowl to taste. (We learned to do that after the last run-through because, as we discovered, each element on its own may have been perfect, but together with other elements, it may have not have been quite right, and vice versa.) We continually adjusted until we felt everything worked, except that the cauliflower remained a little crumbly.
Elyse, who had made the bean puree and was disappointed, wanted to cut out the puree and just do three layers, but I knew that this was a bad idea. We had tried the recipe 3 times using 4 layers and it might have been disastrous to use just 3, because the cauliflower was too crumbly and it needed the puree to adhere it to the causa. With tout the bean puree, it would have been a mess.
We layered 6 full-size hotel pans with the 4 elements and wrapped them up. The next day, we inverted them onto sheet pans and began cutting the portions. This was not as easy as it sounds. We had to make sure that all the portions were the same size in both width and height. We tried cutting straight down, with a sawing motion, with knives with teeth, knives with no teeth, dental floss, and bench scrapers. Despite our best efforts, we wound up with a lot of oddly shaped pieces. Fortunately, we had a lot to spare to make up for the discards.
The next problem to solve was how to serve them. We had settled on squares but now we went back to triangles, which we had abandoned during our last run-through because we felt that triangles would be too unstable. Then, as we cut the squares into triangles and tried to move them to sheet pans, we saw how fragile they were. Through a couple of hours of trial and error, we discovered that the pieces stayed together a little better if we put them on the sheet pans and heated them upside down—that is, with the almond side down. It seemed to compact that layer just enough that we could handle them. Of course, had we known we were going to do this, we would have layered the 4 elements in reverse order.
The next day was a flurry of activity in K3 as we began preparation for service. I took it upon myself to start assigning stations for everyone on the line. Then, it was time for service. We all took our positions and began plating. Would you be surprised if I told you that we had a little bit of a rough time plating the causa?
We fiddled and fudged with a couple, trying to get a feel for the pieces. We finally worked it out that I would lay down one piece and Elyse, across from me, would lay down the other piece, the triangle that would stand up. At that point, things started moving. We got those causas plated and moved them down the line for the rest of the components.
We hit a bump in road, though. We had marked certain sheet trays to keep for the” house” (i.e., for ourselves), as they were the least pretty of the batch, the ones that had crumbled or that were oddly cut. Somehow or other, a couple of these trays got pulled out before the “good” ones. When we realized the error, we popped the good ones in the oven, but the plating came to standstill while we waited for the good ones to heat up. Chef B told us that we needed to get more plates out and so we had no choice but to pull the scruffy ones together and do the best we could with them. Finally, the good ones were hot, and just when we had pulled them from the ovens, Chef B said, “Stop.” We were done. All the guests had been served. And we all groaned with a great big old “Damn it” in our voices.
In the end, it was okay because no out in the dining rooms knew the difference. All they saw was a beautifully arranged meal bursting with color and form and texture, and when they tasted it, regardless of how it looked, it was rich with complex flavors.
We also took some time to decorate the classrooms with garland, lights, and flowers. My classmate, Angie, sewed table runners and made tassels for the menus, Elyse took charge of the decorations, and I created the menu. There was a lot to be done and tensions had run pretty high as everyone struggled to make time to work on FND while still carrying on their daily lives. But we pulled it all together and we had one hell of dinner.
My brother and sister-in-law were there, as well as numerous friends and acquaintances, and I was so happy to see them all there. With the exception of one person, everyone enjoyed the dinner very much. Success!
I won’t lie. It was a bitch to plate those causas, but I am very proud of my team. We created a great meal and pulled it off despite bumps along the way. As we walked out into the dining rooms for our bows, we all held our heads high for a job well done.
For some fabulous photos of the prep and dinner by my classmate Elyse’s husband, David Prince, click HERE.
And for some less than spectacular, but still nice photos by me, click HERE.
By the way, the meal was entirely vegan and gluten free. The menu is below, as well as a recipe for Quinoa Croquettes, which got raves.
Thanks to Chef Barbara, the students of CTP 197W, the kitchens assistants, and all the guests who helped make our Friday Night Dinner a memorable night.
Buttercup Squash Soup
Quinoa Croquettes with
Pumpkin Seed-Almond Dip
Escarole with Garlic & Lemon Dressing,
Botija Olives, and Caramelized Pearl Onions
Salsa Verde and Smoky Tomato Sauce
Tamarind Ice Cream
Saffron Poached Seckel Pear
Yield: 10 two-ounce servings
¾ cup quinoa (combination of red and white), rinsed well
1 1/8 cup water
2 medium parsnips, large dice (¾ cup)
1/2 onion, medium dice (½ cup)
2 cloves garlic, fine mince
1 tablespoon EVOO
½ cup cooked lima beans (1/4 cup unsoaked)
¼ bunch parsley, fine chopped (1/6 cup)
2 scallions, thin slice
1/4 cup sunflower seeds, lightly toasted and coarse chopped
1/2 teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ lime, juiced
1 teaspoon sea salt
Oil for frying
- Cook quinoa with water. Cool.
- Cook parsnips until very soft.
- Sauté onion and garlic in EVOO until soft.
- Blend together parsnips, lima beans, parsley, scallions, sunflower seeds, oregano, cumin, lime juice and salt to form a paste.
- In a large bowl gently stir quinoa and onions and garlic together with paste mixture. Quinoa may be fragile so do not over mix.
- Form into 2 ounce croquettes. Pan fry in oil.
PHOTO: David Prince