Wednesday, December 12th, 2012 at 11:25 pm
Holiday Entertaining with Seasoned Solutions
Those of us who have committed to shifting our grocery spending to support local producers can probably attribute this shift to a number of reasons. It could be reading Michael Pollan’s seminal book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, learning about factory food practices in the wake of the innumerable food safety scares (listeria, salmonella, E.coli, the list goes on), or watching the consequences of industrial farming unfold in Food Inc. For me, one of the memorable moments I can point to is attending Gail Hall’s inaugural Seasoned Solutions market cooking classes back in 2007.
While I wasn’t cooking on a day to day basis at that time, Gail introduced me to many of the producers that I now patronize on a weekly basis at the City Market. With her knowledge and passion, it is no surprise that Gail’s market cooking classes have become a staple in the local food scene. That said, her philosophy of supporting local producers also perforates her other cooking classes, which include lessons centred around her culinary tours, and those that lend themselves to a particular time of year.
Two weeks ago, Mack and I had the good fortune to be invited to participate in one of Gail’s holiday entertaining classes free of charge. Inspired by some of the prominent food trends in Edmonton this year – namely, ethnic restaurants and food trucks – we would be cooking up a diverse menu of small bites and appetizers that anyone would be proud to serve guests.
The Seasoned Solutions classes take place in Gail and her husband Jon’s loft on 104 Street. Their home in the Cobogo Lofts is gorgeous – I am a sucker for exposed brick, but I also love their open concept plan. Their custom kitchen features a large butcher block island, and with the group of seven gathered around, it felt intimate and just right the right size for an evening of hands-on learning.
Inside Gail and Jon’s loft
Because it would be several hours before we would be sitting down for dinner, Gail started us off with an artisanal cheese plate, featuring Sylvan Star gouda and cheese curds, The Cheesiry’s queso and Fairwinds Farm chevre.
Gail also whipped up a quick holiday apple juice spritzer, spiked with whiskey. Needless to say, I helped myself to a second glass.
In preparing the recipes for the class, Gail met with the chefs and proprietors of all of the restaurants that inspired the menu, but of course, no one was forthcoming with their full recipes. But Gail, being the professional that she is, was able to piece things together based on some of the information they provided, and, well, numerous taste tests.
Mack and I were convinced that Gail’s recipe for chicken pesto calzones, if not a duplicate of Battista’s, are pretty darn close. Starting with a soft, supple dough that proofed for about an hour, each participant was able to assemble their own calzone, layering homemade marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, and chicken tossed in an incredibly fragrant basil pesto. It was easily our favourite dish that night.
Gail works the dough
Assembling my calzone
Given all of the components in some of the recipes, it wasn’t a surprise that Gail had to have some elements prepared already to expedite things. One example was cooled risotto, needed for the Corso 32-inspired arancini. As with the calzones, all participants had the opportunity to roll their own arancini, stuffing a cube of fontina within, and then dipping the balls in flour, egg and breadcrumbs. To cook the arancini, Gail shallow fried them – good news for us, as it means we are more likely to recreate them at home!
Frying the arancini
The most complicated dish was without a doubt the fish tacos, a take on Tres Carnales’ popular item. While the batter was easy enough to whip together (the secret ingredient being Mexican beer), the tacos also required coleslaw, pico de gallo, an avocado tomatillo lime sauce and warmed corn tortillas. It was great to “deconstruct” the tacos and understand how each of the components are made, but to be honest, I would probably opt to head over to the restaurant for my fill of fish tacos instead of attempting this labour-intensive dish. As expected, the final product was delicious, however, and I could imagine the tacos being the centre of a more casual gathering at a taco bar assembly station.
Assembling the tacos
In contrast, the Sofra-inspired goat cheese stuffed apricots were a cinch to put together, with Fairwinds Farm goat cheese piped into apricots. They could be served cold, or sautéed.
Mack practices his piping skills
Goat cheese stuffed apricots
Similarly, the pimento cheese spread was complete in five minutes. Gail, fresh from a tour of Charleston, South Carolina, said the dip was all the rage in the city. After one taste, we could tell why – the combination of goat cheese, pimento, mayo, cheese, Worcestershire, onion powder and paprika was deadly. This is definitely something we will be adding to our entertaining repertoire.
Assembling the pimento cheese spread
After four hours of prep and cooking, we were ready to eat! The spread was pretty amazing, and I think I can say with confidence that everyone felt like they contributed to the dinner.
At the dinner table
I would definitely recommend Gail’s class – her enthusiasm for food and local producers is unbridled, as is her knowledge. With the small group, it was interactive, and Gail was great at multitasking in answering our questions, providing helpful tips, all while proceeding with the recipes. Mack felt it was the perfect balance between demonstration and hands-on opportunities, and with the detailed recipes we took home, even novel cooks would be able to recreate the dishes.
Although her Holiday Entertaining series has finished for the year, Gail has several classes scheduled for the new year (including market cooking classes starting in May 2013). Check her website for more information. Thanks again to Gail for the opportunity to participate!