Event 3 - Fajitas, Mexican Rice and Catfish Ceviche

by Dave MichelFebruary 11, 2015

The South of the Border event was with the Olsons (Kris's mom's side of the family). Maggie was the first to really work the reservation system as I envisioned it, identifying who would be coming to a meal and coordinating with other family members.

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This was a sabbatical event where much of the menu was familiar to me. It was great to be able to relax a bit with dishes that I knew would work well. The four new recipes for this dinner were Pico de Gallo (which is really very simple), Mexican Rice, Tres Leches Cake, and Alton Brown's Catfish Ceviche. I've made fajitas and guacamole numerous times before. Much of this meal was make-ahead, so I could save my wild-eye, hair-on-fire look for subsequent events.

On the day of the event, I started with the ceviche, which takes around eight hours to marinate. The fajitas also needed to marinate, so they were next. I had to work fast because I had not made Tres Leches Cake before, and it needed to refrigerate for at least three hours before serving.

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I started on the cake around 1:30. The light, fluffy batter filled about 3/4 of the 9 inch pan we had. I popped it in the oven and continued with prepping vegetables. After about 15 minutes, I smelled a bit of a burnt smell from the oven. It looked like the cake was erupting and a slow lava flow was crawling out of the pan and dripping onto the floor of the oven (sorry, I don't have photos [an audio recording would be even more entertaining - Ed.]). I turned off the oven, removed the cake pan, and while things were cooling I read the recipe as carefully as I should have before I started. I guess I missed that it needs a 10 inch round cake pan. Then I got a tape measure and found that the pan I was using was actually an 8 inch pan. And I should have used all-purpose flour, not cake flour. Oops - never assume, right?

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After a quick trip to get the right pan and some more sugar, the cake came out fine (I'll work on presentation next time). Roger liked it enough that I sent some back with him.

Everything else went without a hitch. I was particularly pleased with the Mexican Rice, which had a great flavor and texture. Even though nothing in this meal was terribly spicy, I was surprised how many jalapenos I went through. I was glad I had frozen a quart ziplock's worth last summer with peppers from our CSA share.


Oh, No - Another Learning Experience!

by Dave MichelFebruary 10, 2015

"Oh, No - Another Learning Experience!" was the bumper sticker on the SUV I followed home from Whole Foods today. I was looking in vain for garlic chives ("don't carry it anymore") and vegan bread ("you mean 'certified vegan'?") This is how many of my cooking projects go, at least a little bit. Truth be told, I substituted regular chives for garlic chives in the Szechuan Salmon, and it still tasted good. But I'm not sure I'm up to baking my own vegan bread, though I might try it just to see.

These first couple of weeks (I'm counting the last week of January) have been filled with learning experiences. I've tried three different popover recipes - Alton Brown (not enough lift), another one that was awful enough I threw out the recipe, and the official Osterizer recipe my mom uses (see tennis-ball-sized results on right, with a cork for scale). I've got until Saturday to find a way to Popoverville (and Eggs Benedictburg). [More than three recipes have been tried, and the event has already happened. I still haven't gotten the results I want, so I think it's me (technique). I'm not giving up though - updates forthcoming as I experiment more.]

Happily, there have been more surprising successes than setbacks. Pretty much everything done using the grill as a smoker has so far been fantastic IMHO, including smoked salmon and pulled pork (watch out, Barbecue People). The Mexican rice recipe I used last Saturday was a real keeper - great texture - and the rice was just as good the next day. And my family, our guests and the dog have all been very well behaved and appreciative. 

But right now, I have very little energy left for yet another learning experience in the kitchen. So I'll just have some Oreos and think about something other than food for a while.



Event 2 - Pistachio Crusted Szechuan Salmon with Oriental Vinaigrette

by Dave MichelFebruary 9, 2015

I facetiously called this event "Norway's Szechuan Province", since the main dish is an interesting mashup of Atlantic salmon and East Asian flavors (both Sichuan and Japanese). Throw in boiled potatoes, an Asian-inspired stir-fry salad and traditional Norwegian desserts, and you've got a whole lot of tasty confusion.

Around 4:00 pm, Kris suggested that I make a checklist again, and I realized a couple of steps in that I would have some previously unanticipated resource issues - not enough burners on the stove (I needed two simultaneous pans going for salmon for nine). I quickly rearranged the order of things, making the potatoes first, the salmon second, and the stir-fry salad last. Since the sauce for the salmon is made in the pans, I could plate the salmon and then make the sauces and stir-fry salad at the same time. It worked great, actually, with the potatoes staying nice and warm in their pan.

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The guests had the same kind of reaction Kris and I did when we first had this salmon dish at Tour de France so long ago - what a great combination of flavors.

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Rosettes and Almond Cake both came out well (the second time around - I guess that's why I'm practicing).

The only thing I'd change about this meal is to somehow get the pistachios to adhere better to the salmon. I recall a lovely, delicate and crunchy crust at Tour de France. Maybe next time I'll do an egg white wash to see if that could take the pistachio texture to the next level.

Event 1 - Seared Scallops in Tomato Beurre Blanc

by Dave MichelFebruary 9, 2015

The first event was on January 31 (Holy Gallopin' Scallops), and was the most technical of all of them. In addition to making a beurre blanc and searing scallops for eight (requiring multiple batches), I was simultaneously sautéing asparagus and making couscous. This was the one meal I needed to plate, so timing was critical. I had practiced this meal four times with small quantities, and the only time I got both a good sear on the scallops and had the beurre blanc turn out was the very first time I tried it (go figure - do I over-think things?). There are lots of ways for this to go wrong. The last three times I made beurre blanc, it broke.

I decided to make a "preflight checklist" so I'd know what to do, down to the minute:

5:00   Prep chocolate soufflés
5:25   Soak sundried tomatoes
5:27   Soak asparagus
5:30   Prep and freeze tomato butter
5:45   Prep salad and dressing, refrigerate
6:40   Oven to 350°
6:40   Prep ingredients for beurre blanc and scallops
6:50   Prep ingredients for asparagus and couscous (including water in pot)
6:58   Bread in oven (6 min)
7:00   Salad on table (guests arrive)
7:04   Bread done – oven to 170°, plates in oven (2nd rack), put bread on table
7:04   Start on beurre blanc (Calphalon nonstick)
7:10   Heat water in bowl in microwave for keeping beurre blanc warm
7:16   Beurre blanc to warming container
7:16   Sauté asparagus
7:18   Boil water for couscous
7:18   Heat pan for scallops
7:20   Sauté scallops, keep early batch warm in oven
7:30   Add scallops back to last batch, add butter and parsley, plate
Oven to 375°
Bake soufflés (20 min)

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Kris already had cheese, crackers and wine out when the guests arrived (she is awesomely supportive of this crazy endeavor - more on that later), so I was left to being a sautéing octopus in the kitchen. The souflles, bread and salad were done or prepped, and I was just finishing up the beurre blanc, being very careful not to overheat, when it went ahead and broke anyway with the last cube of butter. I had read that cold water or cream could bring it back, so I added about a tablespoon of cream and whisked the bejeebers out of it, and after a while it was back to thick and shimmery. Whew!

Once the sauce was in the warming bowl, I was on to the asparagus. Happily, no one was around when I realized that my chosen (and currently very hot) pan was just too small for two bunches of asparagus. Since the scallops were already going, though, I didn't really have a choice but to carry on. Things turned out fine in the end, with a bit of the asparagus slightly softer than I would have liked. The scallops and beurre blanc were really good, especially with the crunch of the wasabi microgreens I grew for the occasion.

To top it off, I made individual chocolate soufflés. They're not difficult, but the wow factor is high, especially if you like chocolate Laughing A real nice start, and the hardest one done.

A What?!?

by Dave MichelFebruary 7, 2015

Yes, a Cooking Sabbatical. to learn some new techniques in the kitchen. And have guests over. A lot of guests. Just for a month (more on that later).

It all started with a string bass.

But first, some background. I've worked for Magenic Technologies for ten years, and every ten years of service earns a three month sabbatical (yes, a very generous program). I can take the time off to do anything I wish, or cash out all or a portion of the three months. After 37 years of gigging on Paul Henry's already old and decrepit Kay string bass, I thought I'd cash out a month and get a decent instrument. After trying numerous entry-level basses, I finally found one that I love. A two month cash out, then.

So, what to do with the third month? After considering many options, I realized that I'd like to expand some skills. I must have been hungry at the time, because I started thinking about cooking. I looked into cooking schools - ouch! That would be the whole last month cashed out, and with no time left to actually attend (in honesty, I was looking at some really cool destination schools in Boston and Napa). But I like experiential learning, so I really wanted a hands-on approach. Why not do what I do for work - find a project or task, research on the interwebs, and start flailing around until stuff starts working? Frugal me thought I could just watch some Food Network and YouTube videos and take a few local classes. With the money saved, I could buy ingredients and equipment and get some real hands-on.

So I came up with some menu ideas, and then the snowball slowly started rolling downhill. Wouldn't it be fun to have friends and family over to subject them to my kitchen experiments? But I didn't want the responsibility of assigning them to a particular meal. It would be cool to have a reservation system, so invited guests could choose which meal they want to attend. It would be even cooler to allow them to see who is already going to each event, so they could also choose an event with someone they'd like to spend time with (or avoid). So I started work on a web-based reservation system in late November 2014 (sorry, it's what I do).

The core of the reservation system was done by mid December, and had some automated email capabilities so I would know who had logged in and made a reservation. Oh, oh.The snowball's about the size of a large dog by now, and the event list had grown to nine meals, including two larger parties (up to 18 guests). The guest list was pushing one hundred. Kris was of the opinion that it needed to be pared back, while I thought that a 25% participation rate was pretty optimistic (we ended up inviting 162 individuals, who could each bring a guest. In all, we had 128 invited guests attend my sabbatical events, plus some crashers - you know who you are).

By Christmas week the reservation system was complete to the point of my wanting to test the email stuff live on my web site (snowball about the size of a Volkswagen). For development, I had a small number of email addresses I was using for testing, but I pared the list down to just me. I put it out on the live site, logged in, made a reservation, and POP - got an email saying I made a reservation. Excellent! So I started working on the mass invitation email, and testing that. Perfect!

Then about five minutes later, POP - I got an email from my manager at Magenic. He had made a reservation for the first event. Huh? First thought was "Rats, another bug" (typical developer outlook). Wait. Oh, yeah - I had added some code to automatically add users from a different file, so this wasn't a bug. My mass email had not gone to just me, but to the eight test emails I had been working with earlier (thank goodness it was just eight). After another five minutes, POP - I get an email that my Mom has made a reservation for the first event. So, the site was now truly live. On December 23. What a stoopid time to send out invitations for something like this.

I finished the guest list, put it out in the wild, sent out the real mass invitation, and started getting emails. Lots of emails. How I FeelWithin two days, every event was filled. Not so surprisingly, almost every musician I invited didn't respond (they're often a bit busy Christmas week), so I added a couple more large events in March, and by the first week of January everything was filled up again. Sheesh - I guess free food is popular. And the snowball's the size of a Norwegian hytte.

So that's some of the back story. Now, let's talk food!


Welcome to Dave's Cooking Sabbatical Blog

by Dave MichelFebruary 6, 2015

I told everybody I wasn't going to blog about my February 2015 Cooking Sabbatical, but here it is anyway. I at least have to vent about everything that went wrong (that I couldn't tell the guests), and crow a bit about the stuff that went right. The events and menus are here (as well as the reservation system, if you're an invited guest). I'll share some recipes, too.

And yes, I did watch "Julie and Julia" - I'm not going there.

About the author


Dave is a recording engineer, musician and software developer in Minneapolis. He's found that a cooking sabbatical is more work than normal life.

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