My cooking adventure this week (May 16th through the 20th, 2016) started with an emergency call from the John C. Campbell Folk School at 11PM Monday night. They had a Seafood Class scheduled in the Cooking Studio and the Chef was no-call, no-show. I said that I would be there, and 24 hours later I had planned, put together a recipe packet, packed, arranged my life to leave home for 3 days, shopped, and driven into the mountains, arriving at midnight on Tuesday to unload and start class Wednesday morning. Carla Owen, the Artist in Residence for the Cooking Studio had stepped in and done knife skills, bread baking and some other basics on the first day, and another Artist from on-site did a day of smoking fish and making sauces with them on Tuesday.
The smoked trout dip they made was so delicious that I single-handedly polished off an entire bowl as a midnight snack on Thursday!
When I got there I wasn’t sure what sort of mood I would be walking into. I had been told that the students (10 of them, 8 women and 2 men) were unhappy, of course, but excited to hear I was coming. I sent a proposed menu to them via Carmila, the incredibly competent Class Assistant (who was instrumental in putting this solution together) so they would have an idea of what was coming. I also warned her to tell them that it was subject to change when I got to the market, as I only had time to make one stop. As it turned out, I only had to make a couple of substitutions, and other dishes morphed, changed, and multiplied as we went on. The organic process of creating a fabulous menu was a group effort, and I think everyone in the class appreciated it.
I walked in, introduced myself, and we hit the ground running. I told them I’d heard that they had been having a lot of down time, and I said: “That’s over now.”
Heh heh heh –
I was right, they kept hopping the rest of the week, except when we were so well prepped that there was actual thumb twiddling going on while waiting for dinner to start!
We made 4 recipes the first morning, including a marinated Spanish dish called Soused Sardines, a pan of cured Gravlax, and Greek Saganaki Shrimp with a fresh tomato and onion reduction with feta cheese melted into it.
Then everyone made their own personal tilapia en papillote packet with fresh veggies, orange, lemon and lime zest and other light aromatics. The packets puffed up perfectly in the oven and were declared delicious.
The students spent the afternoon happily making lots of homemade pasta with fresh crabmeat stuffing. A lemon compound butter was also made to serve with it, and a pistachio lime butter to go on the fried fish for dinner.
Off to a great start, we played Cooking Scrabble that night. The lady in the picture who is counting her points approached the game by saying: “I really don’t know much about playing Scrabble…”. Guess who won.
The class included a dinner for all of the students and their guests (24 people) on Thursday night. I got up early and made a plan, prep lists, created teams and laid out a timeline. When they arrived at 9AM, I had a daunting prep list for everyone. I made a big speech about how we were here to have fun, if everything on the list didn’t get done that it would be fine, we were not to stress, yadda yadda. These folks were so enthusiastic that we were done with the morning’s prep list by 11 and spent the next hour making up new dishes with leftovers and unused ingredients!
We had a nice afternoon break to enjoy a brief rain shower (the spring air in the mountains during and just after a rain like that is heady), and reconvened in class at 4. I’ll let the timeline picture speak for the afternoon, other than to say it went smoothly, happily, and relatively stress-free (Team Fish Fry was nervous about their tasks, and Team Bouillabaisse were worried about their clams not cooking fast enough, but nothing bigger than that). We were so completely on-time that our guests remarked on how well-organized we were.
Each team worked perfectly within their time window, allowing everyone to spend some time seated with the guests, and some time cooking. (Team Dessert was my only disappointment, starting their service 1 minute early. Sigh. We can only strive for perfection, never attain it. 😉 )
It was an amazing experience, everyone in the class pulled together as a team, and it went so beautifully, I think it sits on the top of my list of Best Dinner Parties I’ve Ever Thrown (TM).
Unfortunately I didn’t get pics of all the dishes, I would have loved to have a close-up of our beautiful saffron-laced bouillabaisse! For those that were asking, here is the menu we served.
Dinner Menu from Thursday Night
1st Course: Wine and Appetizers –
Smoked Trout Pate in Purple Endive
Gravlax and Cucumber Sauce Amuse Bouche
Soused Sardine Lettuce Wraps
BBQ Salmon Slaw Sliders
On the Tables:
Fresh Ramp Pickle
Smoked Trout SunBursts
Cucumber Lemon Water
2nd Course: Bouillabaisse with fresh baked Brown Bread
3rd Course: Homemade Crabmeat-Stuffed Ravioli with Lemon Butter Sauce and Crabby Patties
4th Course: Pan Fried Tilapia and Bassa with Pistachio Basil Lime Compound Butter, Roasted Asparagus, Herb Roasted Potatoes and Butternut Squash
5th Course: Salt Encrusted Yellow Tail Snapper with Remoulade Sauce
6th Course: Almond Dofu with Tropical Fruit Compote (almond flavored agar (seaweed) gelatin with papaya, mango, blood orange and Korean melon)
On a local color/food history note: one of the locals gave me directions that she claimed would be a much better drive (not), and I was trying to find the turn off she told me to take, so I stopped at a local auto parts store to ask. Two men were behind the counter, who turned out to be father and son. The elder was what we’ll politely call a “geezer”. The younger was probably in his late 40’s, and had a Long Island accent. They were very chatty, and I told them that I had been teaching at the folk school, and that as part of being a food historian, I had brought the ramps up and served them. The Geezer (after asking if he could run away with me to Atlanta) said that in the local school manuals in the 1930’s they specifically prohibited kids from coming to school if they ate ramps. They said the smell would leech out of their skin and would stink the place up too much, and it was an express no-no to eat them and come to school (or presumably, go to public gatherings – maybe church?). They both remembered this as being a big deal, and kids being sent home for reeking. LOL – the Durian of it’s time!
Friday morning we got up and prepared for the final Showcase. We prepped leftovers, created a few new dishes and sauces, and went up to share with the rest of the school. The first wave of food was gone before I even got up there, luckily I was bringing refills!
We certainly weren’t the only game in town, so much great art is created every day at the Folk School. There is a Wet Room Studio right next door to the Cooking Studio. They were dying yarn rovings, creating beautiful art while they worked.
It was a magical experience. The folks in the class were good-natured and enthusiastic to jump in. One bad attitude would have made for an entirely different experience, but everyone pulled together and made it great. I am happy to say I am going back twice in 2017, once for a week in March to teach “Feeding Everyone: Vegetarian to Paleo and Everything in Between”, and for another week in July for “Culinary Essentials”. Keep an eye out for the upcoming catalogue or check the website at www.folkschool.org for details!