Green Plum Cooking School - Sat., Jan 9th, 2010
NOTE: The recipes used in my Green Plum Cooking School classes can be found in my online cookbook, “Eat Where Your Food Lives,” available for purchase at http://www.ChefMonicaPope.com)
So, I admit it, things got a little, shall we say, off-color in this class.
I don’t know how it happened but I’d like to blame it on the SUV I’m using to drive off Alice Waters’ yellow brick road and onto Monica Pope Parkway. I told you it was going to be a bumpy (and sometimes dangerous ride!).
During class, I told a very disturbing story about me in my little Mini Cooper, in my own parking lot, instigating a very large West Indies woman in an even larger SUV. I know what I did was wrong and I won’t ever do it again but, suffice to say, things turned ugly quickly and my encounter with this woman soon became one of white vs. black. Or so I thought. One audience member came up to me and said that maybe it was more of an SUV-related incident and not so much a race-related incident. “You know how those SUV owners are,” she said.
In any case, that story got me talking about race and acceptance and who’s whiter and who’s really black and who’s not and the cultural differences between what you eat and what you like to eat and that somehow got me on the Culinary Tour I’m doing with Marcus Davis from The Breakfast Klub next door. These tours (sold out already – http://www.visithoustontexas.com/culinarytours ) are hosted by the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau; Marcus and I are going to take 20 people on a bus to “people’s mama’s houses” — my mama’s house, Marcus’s mama’s house and then other people’s mama’s houses — to eat good food and drink St. Arnold’s beer and have lots of discussion, I’m sure, about food and community and race and sex and all sorts of taboo subjects, I guess. One of my friends – who is black – (some of my best friends are black and possibly some family members from San Diego, but that’s another story I told to the class) was eating in my kitchen at t’afia and he said, “I love eating in the kitchen with you. Maybe your mantra should be “eat where your food is cooked.” For him, that’s mama’s kitchen…well, Moni’s kitchen.
A few days after this class, I’m watching CNN and there are three panelists — two black and one white — talking about Harry Reid’s remarks about President Obama. I didn’t even get all the details, but I loved one panelist saying that his own experience is that the darker the skin (he’s dark-skinned), the angrier the man (he’s perceived as angry) and that lighter- skinned people are more acceptable; he said that we often talk about these things, meaning how blacks and whites are treated, we just don’t do it in the same room and finally, if we don’t talk about it, we can’t learn from it.
In the midst of this race ruckus, we’re cooking…sort of. Today I made Portobello Carpaccio, which is just a fancy, Italian word for raw. On the menu at t’afia, I have an Avocado Sashimi — that’s just a fancy word for raw, too. For the Carpaccio, I used a Japanese mandoline to slice the mushrooms thinly, but with some bite still left to them. I choose to leave the gills on.
In my kitchen, we remove the gills to make a mushroom stock, but most of the time we keep them on. I’m also using the LeBlanc Pistachio Oil that I love and some of spiced pistachios (an Alice Waters’ recipe that we had done in class once), some Romano-Pecorino, Meyer lemons (which I literally have tons of from local growers, most of them customers with backyard lemon trees) and salt and pepper. I get everything ready and on the platter but I wait to dress them until I’m done with our other dish (which is dumplings). For some reason, I also brought avocados up so I sliced those and put them around the plate, too.
I talk about the layering of shades of the same color on a plate – like, carrot with lobster or avocado with pistachios or beet with the pomegranate dressing I’m going to use on the Carpaccio. I took our pomegranate syrup (a Middle Eastern condiment) and mixed it with maple syrup, ginger and fragrant spices (this is our Pomegranate Marinade that we sell at the Midtown Farmers Market at the restaurant) and then turned it into a dressing with the pistachio oil.
Next, I make a mushroom mixture (using the recipe from last week’s class that we turned into a pate) and fill wonton wrappers and form those into little packages.
These little dumplings cook up very quickly in salted, boiling water (no more than a few minutes). I use a sauce that I had just read about and had Benjy make: a mascarpone-soy-mint sauce. I know! Even Benjy looked at me funny when I told him what was in it. But it sounded intriguing to me and turned out delicious.
An off-road note: The night before the class, I had to fill out a questionnaire for an article a magazine was doing on chefs and their favorite things. I’ve had to do a lot of these and the questions are always the same after 20 years: “What’s your favorite piece of cooking equipment?” or “What ingredient can you not live without.” My answer now for what ingredient I can’t live without is Benjy (the guy who keeps my kitchen running) and salt.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten says, “Each plate leads to the next.” We have to talk about food, share it and eat it together and talk to each other about it. Often, for me, the next idea for a dish comes from someone sharing their experience. For instance, a customer told me that my nut cake (a mixture of cashews, walnuts, Texas brown rice and herbs) is more like real Israeli felafel than the version of falafel we eat here. For me, that exchange is profoundly meaningful. I don’t know how anybody else felt in the class after my story, but no one got up to leave. There was some laughing and many open mouths, but, in the same way that each plate leads to the next, so does each story about how we treat each other lead to changes in the way we treat each other (or at least I hope so). What I realize now is that if we don’t go there, we won’t get there. That’s my new mantra, for food and life.