At Christmas I received the annual “Dax Verbal Gift.” He always has something in mind, sometimes it has already been purchased, but more often than not, “it’s coming.” This time Kiley was in on the verbal gift that was loosely described as a tapas cooking class some Tuesday in February.
Well, the some Tuesday was this week, and the tapas were of the hot and spicy Latino family with Chef Carlos Fuenmayor. Last year (another verbal gift), Dax and I did a champagne tasting at the Summerhill LCBO (for out of province readers, it’s the Liquor Control Board of Ontario—and Summerhill is a colossal boozy amusement park for adults).
The classes at the Summerhill LCBO become even more fabulous when the LCBO product consultant steps in. Each of the dishes that are prepared are paired with an appropriate white, red or Brut and a Sommelier For Dummies introduction.
As Chef Carlos chopped at the speed of beating hummingbird wings, Ilario Gulli pointed out the abundance of orange creamsicle flavours in the Torrontes Alamos ($13.95). Did we find the nose pleasantly floral? Could we detect the orange blossom, jasmine and minerality? I tasted greenhouse and Grandma’s bath water with baby powder. Dax expressed his genuine love of the flowers with raised eyebrows.
The beauty of this class was that it was 100% watching and sampling, versus nervous slicing and dicing under the steely eye of a pacing, barking chef. Twenty of us sat semi-reclined, cross-legged, sipping our Torrontes, taking in the seductive smells of the kitchen as the chef softened onions and garlic in a pan. Cannellini beans, white wine and cumin mixed with the salty smack of steaming fresh clams.
We watched an octopus being plunged into boiling water three times, resting a minute between immersions. The banana peppers were chopped with Food Network finesse as we were wowed with pepper stats. Mexico alone has over 800 kinds of peppers. From the United States to South America? Over 3,000.
The chef surveyed the deer-in-headlights (read: starving) crowd. Could we handle the heat of the Serrano pepper? We could. He promised us a quick sweet heat that would disappear. There’s nothing more disturbing than a heat that ignites your throat and stomach lining (as witnessed in a hot chilli chocolate bar from Quebec that I dangerously bought Dax. I laughed while eating it and coughed flames for three minutes afterwards).
To start, we travelled vicariously to Brazil, where Pulpo Feijoada (octopus stew) is commonplace. The stew was thick like a bean cassoulet, jump-started with coriander, bay leaves, stewed tomatoes and beefed up with chubby clams and octopus.
I picked a fat octopus bit out of the broth and admired the tentacles. The texture was similar to escargot and Portobello mushrooms, but, I likened it best to seafood-flavoured bubblegum. We decided the feijoada would make for substantial and comforting après-ski or après-Amazon rainforest fare.
Between bites of warm baguette and a creamy chive dip, we listened to Ilario justify his pairing of Combe Aux Jacques Beauj-Vill ($15.95) with Chef’s Chicken Croquettes with Sweet Pepper Salsa. When I was in the Congo, croquettes dominated the menu (largely due to the Belgian influence). They are basically pan-fried (usually deep-fried) mashed potato snowballs with glamorous picadillos (fillings). The croquettes to be sampled were stuffed with chopped chicken breast, white onion, garlic, Roma tomato, cumin and nutmeg.
The secret of these croquettes? Panko (Japanese bread crumbs). The recipe indicated making plum-sized balls, but the sous chef was very generous on the croquette and made softballs for everyone. Fuenmayor fielded questions, exposed his secrets, praised Snappers in Bloor West Village and insisted we visit the Latin Emporium in Kensington Market. He spoke nostalgically of his Venezuelan homeland as he chopped chayote (“it tastes like nothing, but it absorbs the flavour, and is a Venezuelan staple”) and peeled celery. Yes, peeled celery! I made note of this with an asterisk because hairy celery fools me all the time. What you think is an embarrassing hair in the stir-fry is a mere celery thread. Peel it away!
I made note of other chef-isms like bringing the pan to a high heat and then adding the oil. Otherwise you burn off all the nutrients of the oil. And, you can scorch the oil which adds that ick-scorch taste to the more sensitive vegetables. Red onions were chopped and then placed in cold water to decrease the acidity. I almost believed I was ready for the Iron Chef.
The softballs were delivered to us and the panko was perfectly golden. The Serranos were like tiny embers in my mouth, but the fire did diminish as promised. Coriander was present again and offered a fresh and fragrant flash to the pow of the heat in my mouth.
The Peruvian-Chifa style Shrimp Dumplings (bolas de masa) with Sweet Red Peruvian Pepper Relish (Encurtido De Aji Rojo) took my first place ribbon though. Chopped tiger shrimp, garlic, ginger, coriander (do you sense a theme?) and yuzu (a citrusy-sour soya sauce) were tucked into neatly-formed crescents. I was immediately reminded of a failed perogy venture when my not-so-neatly formed crescents gave way to the boiling water and blew apart like a dozen piñatas. I was left with empty wrappers and cloudy potato water. But, oddly, a lot less Zywiec beer in my fridge.
Chef explained to us that this style of dumpling, El Chifa, was a term used in Peru to distinguish a style of Chinese cooking with substitutes. Chinese immigrants who arrived in Peru in the late 19th century adapted their recipes with chayote and daikon (white radish) in an attempt to replace lemongrass and ginger. Since, Chifa has become one of the most popular types of cuisine in Peru. (Chifa is derived from the Chinese Mandarin words Chi–Fan, meaning to eat rice.)
The Chifa dumplings pushed the croquettes off the map. The crunch of the julienned daikon with the heat of the peppers and ginger and zing of lime juice was worthy of a closed-eyes-and-mmmmm moment. That is, until we moved on to the grand finale of the night and the Crepes with Caramelized Goat’s Milk and Pecans were presented.
The kitchen took on an instant sweet and sugary transformation with the sweet hit of honeyed pecans toasting. This is a scent I want to dab behind my ears and spray on the nape of my neck. The cajeta (caramelized goat’s milk) tasted exactly like 1,000 Kraft caramels melted down into an obsession creating syrup. Perfect crepes, pinched with cloves and cinnamon and splashed with vanilla, were flipped before our mesmerized eyes.
The Trivento Brut Nature (Bodegas Y Vinedos $14.95) was poured as the crepes were set before us like the most marvellous presents. Ilario told us to make note of the fine mousse with floral, honey, mineral, cream and cherry aromas of the Brut. I was already making note of the cajeta and hoping that someone in the audience had a pecan allergy. Surely one in the crowd would!
The crepes won out. If you want to serve a breakfast in bed that still has you between the sheets at dinner time—make those. And the Brut with all its notes and “cheap cheerfulness” (as Ilario best described it) definitely marries well with its toasty extra dry finish.
*Editor’s note: And I forgot my camera.
**Thanks Kiley & Dax. I love verbal experience gifts!
Check out Chef Carlos here—he is also a private chef: http://www.sabrosito.ca/
When Dax and I learned about all things Champagne: https://julestorti.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/drinking-the-stars/
My last cooking class–Cambodian Cuisine: https://julestorti.wordpress.com/2009/05/05/so-you-think-you-can-cook/