I’ve talked before about the legacy of Winthrop Rockefeller atop Petit Jean Mountain. It’s an amazing campus and you should go if you get the chance.
This week I was invited, along with several other Arkansas Women Bloggers, to attend a special class by Chef Robert Hall in the cooking classroom inside the River Rock Grill. I’ve been meaning to get back to take such a class as part of the Saturday Chefs Series for a long time now, but Saturdays tend to be my busiest day.
We all arrived around noon to sit down and watch the construction of a five course lunch by Chef Hall, which we got to try. Better than that, it was all gluten free.
Why’s that important? Well, there’s been a pretty significant rise in the number of folks diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease these past few years… and there are more folks who are choosing to go wheat free. I’m not one of them, but I am often asked about restaurants where folks can dine without the fear of wheat products and the problems they may bring.
Better than that, Chef Hall was going to make a meal featuring food right from the Heritage Farm on the campus -- fresh peaches from the orchard, fresh fruit and best of all, fresh tomatoes.
Some of those tomatoes went into the first course, the appetizer course, in the form of fried green tomatoes. Now, you may be wondering how in the world you’d be able to get around using wheat products (ie, flour) when making the little golden delight. Well, here ya go. Chef Hall gets around that by using polenta. Another option? Grits.
Seriously. Now, mind you, I thought he was going to use some War Eagle Mill products, since Doug from War Eagle was there… but I think it didn’t occur to the chef. Instead, he used Red Mill polenta, which you can find in just about any store around here. Next time he knows he can use stuff produced locally and organically right here in Arkansas.
The tomatoes were big Early Girl tomatoes from the Heritage Farm gardens. They were sliced about a quarter inch thick. Chef Hall used a two step process to batter the tomatoes. First he dropped them into a bath of buttermilk then into the polenta, to which had been added thyme, granulated garlic and onion, paprika, ground chipotle pepper and a little cayenne pepper. From there the slices went into the hot vegetable oil in a wide skillet.
It only took a few minutes to cook each tomato slice -- about two minutes total. They were then removed to a paper-lined tray to dry.
While they were draining, Chef Hall made up a spicy remoulade sauce in the food processor from mayonnaise, Creole mustard, garlic, yellow Spanish onion, red and green bell pepper, cajun seasoning blend and a little celery.
It didn’t take long at all to create a creamy pinkish sauce.
He set out one tomato slice on each of about 20 plates, topping each one deftly with remoulade and with a smattering of red and green bell peppers, quite fetching to look at.
But how did it taste? My first thought was how crunchy that polenta was! The frying process had made it crunchy but not hard, a nice contrast to the soft of the sauce and the slight give of the tart tomato slices. It held on decently well, too -- which surprised me, since I’ve had a fairly hard time of having a coating hang to fried green tomatoes without that first dusting of flour.
Chef Hall went on to the second course -- an almost ridiculously simple but still quite tasty fruit-filled green salad. While assembling it, he went through a bit about himself.
Robert Hall grew up in Searcy and went to school at UCA. He served during the Iraq War -- here in the States, where he worked as a military paralegal. He spent a couple of years at Sundance. He returned to Arkansas when his dad passed away so he could be close enough to help his mom. While at UCA, he was one of the lucky chefs who was assigned to go to the 2008 Olympics in China and serve on a culinary team there. The U of A picked him up to work at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute recently.
The salad was a nice conglomeration of things -- mescaline greens that had been dried, carrot slices, blueberries (strawberries are also a good choice when they are in season), black walnuts that had been sautéed in butter and sprinkled with sugar while they were still hot, and a raspberry vinaigrette made with champagne vinegar, raspberries, dry mustard and black pepper. It was refreshing and light.
Chef Hall had already prepared the third course -- a peaches and cream soup that was extraordinarily elegant. He had taken about a dozen peaches, peeled and pitted them and placed them in a pot, just barely covered them with Chardonnay and then left them to simmer until they had all but dissolved and reduced. He then added cream and blended them with an immersion blender into a somewhat smooth soup that still bore great bits of peach puree. He did point out that for folks who didn’t need or want the alcohol, the same thing could be done with water -- and to not strain the soup.
Thing is, I liked it with the Chardonnay. It had a different flavor. The wine added lovely elegant notes to the dish that made it taste like a four star experience.
Chef Hall also noted that if you wanted to, you could make the soup with water instead of wine and use it to make freezer pops. I’ll have to keep that in mind.
I also have to say, wow. Arkansas peaches are just divine this year, so potent and rich and sweet. It’s been a good year for them.
He started on the fourth course, our entrée for the afternoon, Steak au Poivre with Arkansas Succotash. To start with, he started some Petit Jean Meats brand bacon cooking in one pan -- extolling the extraordinary virtues of our locally produced smoked pork. For myself and another blogger who is a vegetarian, he started a separate pan with olive oil. These pans were for the succotash and rice dish he was going to make for the steak.
Why was it Arkansas succotash? Because instead of lima beans, Chef Hall used PurpleHull peas. Awesome.
He first added some cooked Rainbow Grain rice mix from Whole Foods. This blend contains wehani, white and wild rices. He cooked them with butter, garlic and cream for extra goodness.
He also took a portabella mushroom cap and rubbed it real well with olive oil -- to cook up for our one vegetarian in the crowd. That was awesome.
Chef Hall got the rice going in both pans, then added the vegetation for the succotash -- fresh grape tomatoes from the Heritage Farm, PurpleHull peas that had already been boiled til almost done and corn cut straight off the cob.
With all those ingredients heating through and cooking, Chef Hall turned his attention to the steaks, beautiful little filets from beef tenderloin, seasoned with salt and a pepper melange -- a LOT of pepper. After all, Steak Au Poivre is by its French name Pepper Steak.
He steamed that portabella with cognac, by the way. Just in case you’re keeping notes.
He took some of that beef stock along with butter and cognac to create the peppery butter sauce for the dish, stirring constantly as the butter dissolved in the heat to keep it from scorching or the sauce from breaking. This took several minutes.
And then it was time for assembly. Each plate was dolloped with the succotash rice, then the beef placed on top and the sauce spooned over the top. A cheddar cracker was added to each plate. It was elegant and delicious.
The filets, which had been seared and then cooked at 350 degrees until reaching medium rare in the oven, were pot roast soft and could be pulled apart with a fork. We ate with butter knives. They were more than adequate to the task.
I have to admit, I was already getting full. We peppered the chef with questions as he got started on the final course of our repast -- a flourless chocolate cake. No, really!
He told us he used just nine eggs, a cup of sugar and a pound of semi-sweet chocolate to make each of these fine cakes. He baked them in advance so they’d be ready and cooled before we arrived. To bake said cakes, it’s just a matter of cooking them at the default temperature of 350 degrees until a toothpick comes out clean. Sounds so easy! The eggs are what give it the lift to be a fluffy cake and not a sodden, chocolate pool of messiness.
While we finished our steaks, Chef Hall made whipped cream. He started with the cream itself, allowing the 2 cups of heavy cream to start forming the barest of peaks before adding a quarter cup of sugar and a tablespoon of vanilla to the mix.
“Whatever the recipe says to add of a spice, double it. You know how when you go to a restaurant the flavor of the food seems more robust, more vibrant? The chef just made the flavor stronger by adding twice as much,” Chef Hall told us. That’s something I’m going to keep in mind from now on.
He also cautioned us not to beat our cream too much -- else it might become butter. Good advice. I’ve made that mistake before.
Then there was the raspberry couli… Chef Hall made his with two pints of fresh raspberries, about a quarter cup of Chardonnay and a half cup of sugar. The couli was very similar in production to the peach soup -- the raspberries and the wine sautéed together until everything was soft, and then blended together with the sugar.
In the end, the last course was all about assembly. The chef spooned a little raspberry couli onto each plate. Hecarefully cut the cake, slid out a 12th of each cake into a pretty chocolate wedge onto each plate, then dolloped each with some of the freshly whipped cream. To that he added a couple of raspberries and served it forth. That was it.
And the cake was remarkably good. It was clean, yet had nice dark chocolate notes I adored. Chef Hall says he uses semi-sweet in this recipe because using bittersweet would be just too much, and I totally get that.
I have a slideshow on Facebook; you should go take a look.
So, here’s the thing. I still want to go back and experience the Saturday Chef Series myself. And you will, too. It’s more than just a cooking class -- it’s an opportunity to attempt, taste and take home new dishes to your family. The cost is $95 a person -- for that, you’re in class for five hours, you get to make several dishes -- and if you bring your own containers, you get to take home some with you too. That’s a big bonus for folks who will be wiped out after such an intensive course and won’t want to make dinner for the family. I can applaud that.
There’s also a deal where you can pay $50 more and stay at the Institute overnight in a double-occupancy room. I’m thinking that’s the way to go. Seriously!
If you’re interested, give the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute a call at (501) 727-5435 or check out the website. I think it’d be a heck of a way to spend a weekend!