Monday, April 19, 2010

A Conquistador’s Feast – Salmon, Risotto, Spinach, Oh My!

Last week, I went to The Grotto, a student run restaurant at Mercyhurst College, in Erie, Pennsylvania. My nephew -- my sister’s only son -- is a hospitality management major there and he was General Manager at the restaurant that evening. It was his final exam. For what it's worth, I gave him an “A.”

The course is Food Management III, his last “foods” course. He’s graduating in a few weeks, and after that, he’s planning – at least at this point – to go back to Las Vegas, to Caesar’s Palace, where he interned last summer. He’s really not all that interested in restaurant management or food preparation. (Except the eating part.) He likes the business side and the guest relations aspects better.

But he sure managed his "Food Final" well. His job was to develop the menu, plan for its preparation, and oversee the meal preparation and serving. Managing with him were two other students, a service manager and a kitchen manager. But Chris’s job that evening was to boss it all. In the kitchen, he needed to oversee portion control, plating, weighing items to prepare for cost analysis later. In the dining room, he needed to make sure that the student servers were doing their job, too. And as many a restaurant owner may need to do, he jumped right in to refresh water or provide coffee refills.

The assignment was to theme their meal and Chris named his Spanish-inspired fare The Conquistador’s Feast. Planning a menu isn’t often easy for the home cook. To take a family meal and multiply it exponentially for people you don’t know would be a real challenge for me. I’m thinking I would get surly.

Chris’s menu had all the elements of meal planning balance my mother taught me: a mix of color and texture, protein, starch, vegetable. Something sweet, something salty. And it was pretty! It’s just that the students had to make it pretty a hundred times over!

In case you can’t read his pretty menu card that was a favor for all the diners-- paying guests I should add -- we started with a Cucumber Melon Gazpacho. It tasted good, but I’ve never been a big fan of cold soups. The garnish of shrimp made all the difference to me. The main course was a sweet-sauced grilled salmon -- Orange-Agave Glazed Salmon. It was a light sweet sauce, balanced by the citrus. The sides were Saffron Rice and simple Sautéed Spinach. We had an ice cream dessert – Caramelized Pears with Dulce de Leche Ice Cream. The cookies in the picture weren’t an original part of the menu, but they took it to the top. They were buttery almond-flavored cookies that almost dissolved in your mouth as you bit into them. Very good. Everything on the menu displayed its Spanish influence. Chris even made sure some subtle Spanish style music was in the background.

Cooking risotto is time consuming, a tad tedious. Risotto is supposed to be a creamy rice dish that gets its creaminess from slow cooking the arborio rice, standing at the stove, stirring constantly for twenty minutes, adding small amounts of hot broth at a time, letting each addition absorb before you add more. If you don't do it just right, you might get it sticky, not creamy.

How they do that in a restaurant is a secret I don’t think many would be willing to share. A microwave?

Some time ago, I learned to make risotto in the microwave. The microwave isn’t the ideal way to cook a lot of things. Popcorn, of course. It’s great for cooking fresh vegetables. And surprisingly, it’s really quite effective for risotto. I got the recipe from a cookbook called “The Microwave Gourmet,” by Barbara Kafka. She wrote the book in 1987, and it remains a staple, the best cookbook ever on microwaves, in my estimation. A well-established, well-respected food writer, primarily in The New York Times, and cookbook author, she confesses in the preface to the microwave cookbook, that she was sheepish when she told her esteemed “foodie” friends that she was writing a cookbook devoted to the microwave. She herself was hesitant, but after a couple experiments, curiosity got the better of her it seems, and off she went to create a classic.

I doubt the Mercyhurst students prepared risotto this way, but after trying it once, standing at the stove stirring constantly, no matter how traditional it is, doesn’t sound so attractive in comparison.

The Grotto must be one of the best-kept secrets in Erie. What a great way to have interesting food, a night out, with anxious-to-please students serving you-- all at a very reasonable price! Best wishes to all Mercyhurst's graduating hospitality management students. (Especially, you, of course, Chris.)

About the ingredients:
Arborio rice is the only kind of rice to use to make a creamy risotto. Regular or converted rice just doesn’t have the same starchy quality. The good news is that while Arborio used to be too exotic for grocery stores in the boonies, it’s readily available these days. As are jasmine rice, and basmati rice. I wish my husband liked rice better.

Saffron is probably the most expensive spice one can buy, but you need precious little of it and it does give a distinctive taste and color to dishes. Buy threads not powder, though. (You’ll see what a thread is when you look at them if you’re not familiar with the spice.) Saffron, too, is available right here in my back yard, although I did buy mine through Penzey’s.

Saffron RisottoFrom Barbara Kafka’s "The Microwave Gourmet"
1 T unsalted butter
1 T olive oil
½ C minced onion
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (optional)
1 C Arborio rice
4 C chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
16 threads saffron
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat butter and oil in a 10 inch quiche dish, uncovered, at 100% power. Cook onion and garlic for 4 minutes. Add rice and cook for 4 minutes more. Add broth, wine and saffron and cook for 9 minutes. Stir and cook for 9 minutes more. Remove from oven and add salt & pepper.

Serves 6 as a side dish.

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