This Sunday past was the Chefs Night Out benefit for the Polk and Marion county Foodbanks at Willamette Valley Vineyards, just outside of Salem. As any of you who have attended one of these events know, a donation is made, a wine glass and plastic plate are offered and the feeding and drinking frenzy is on. This particular rainy afternoon we shared the main tasting room (and outside tent in our case) with 17 other restaurants/caterers and 18 wineries.
The general battle plan for a company such as ours is to prepare a massive amount of "bites" or "tastes" (in our case 850) which can be easily transported and assembled on site. In the past I have tried to do more ambitious productions and it has never ceased to cause complications. Simple is better; simple and good is best.
Since we are just at the tail end of a great season of local sweet corn, I decided to feature Willamette Valley corn, grilled and made into little corn pancakes. Our topping would be a bit of corn (grilled again) and black bean salsa and we would top it all off with a dollop of roasted poblano chile/cilantro sour cream. Simple enough, but still no simple operations when one is trying to run a busy catering kitchen around putting together 850 hor's d'oeuvres.
The Saturday before the event we had two lunches that needed to be delivered along with buffet dinners for 66 and 125 that evening which were, fortunately at the same location, the aforementioned Willamette Valley Vineyards. Naturally there was a whirlwind of prep going on for the Saturday events and there were stacks of produce boxes, rolling racks, plastic-wrapped platters and prep tables heaving with veggies, meat and chicken all being prepped. Despite all that, we did manage to set up the propane grill out in the parking lot and grill off the three donated cases of corn, 144 ears. When you passed by you could hear them popping merrily on the grill grates.
When we loaded our two vans Saturday afternoon and set off to serve our dinners we felt as if we were in good shape for Sunday's event. The corn was grilled and a plan was set. Now we just had to serve dinner to 200 or so.
Pedro, Adam and I straggled back in Sunday morning after our long Saturday and while I started cutting the kernels off the 144 grilled ears of corn, the two of them put together yet another two parties that were to go out by noon; ahhh, catering.
My plan was to first put together the salsa, a simple concoction of the grilled corn kernels, cooked black beans, roasted red pepper and a couple of handfuls of chopped cilantro in an orange/chipotle/cumin dressing. Simple enough yes, although one does forget how long it takes to strip the ears of their tasty kernels. I tend to favor laying the cob down on the table to cut rather than standing it on end as it seems to leave the cut parts of the corn on the cutting board, rather than firing them around the room.
Once the salsa (almost a salad) was assembled it was time for the pancake batter. I used a recipe I like that incorporates the corn into a mix of cornmeal, cumin (again), finely minced jalapeno and a bit of green onion. Into that dry mix goes a wet solution of Greek yogurt, egg yolks and olive oil. The final step is whipping the separated egg whites and then folding them into the entire mixture. This gives the pancakes a nice little "rise" when they hit the griddle.
CORN PANCAKE RECIPE
1/2 Cup fine grind cornmeal
1 1/4 cup Cooked corn kernels
3 Green onions, sliced as thinly as you can
1 Jalapeno, chopped fine
1/2 Tsp Cumin (seeds toasted, then ground)
3/4 Cup Greek yogurt (I prefer the full fat rather than the low fat)
3 Egg yolks
1 1/2 TBS Olive oil
3 Whites separated and whipped to light peaks
Mix dry ingredients together and mix wet ingredients (omitting the egg whites) in separate bowls. Mix the wet into the dry and then fold the whipped egg whites in, just to incorporate.
Heat a skillet and lightly brush with oil. When it is just short of smoking, drop the pancakes onto the skillet off the end of a teaspoon into small circles; pat down into pancake shape. Fry on one side and then turn.
Mixing the batter in large quantities was, of course, a bit messier than I'd intended, but the batter came out nicely. It always seems a bit denser than I expect, but that is from the quantity of fresh corn that I use (I tend to err on the side of using more than less corn). I found that by multiplying this recipe eight times, I got just over 400 pancakes from it (not counting the ones that didn't quite make it in the pan due to bad flipping technique).
Since, sadly, we do not have a flat grill, which would have made this child's play, I hauled down our big cast iron skillet and heated it up. This particular skillet is on the thin side so the heat needs to be constantly adjusted, another caveat I had failed to factor in. And so the production began. It took me about an hour on my own, then Pedro joined me, using a smaller pan, and we stood and panfried our 850 corn pancakes in just over two hours. We laid the cooked cakes out onto sheet pans and then re-heated them in the oven just prior to leaving. We packed them into smaller pans and put them into a Cambro, an insulated plastic box.
Adam had packed the salad/salsa for us and had put together the sour cream sauce by pureeing the roasted chiles and two bunches of cilantro in the Cuisinart with a couple of cups of sour cream. The van was packed with the Cambro, the salad and the salsa and we were ready. Pedro and I had our black chef's coats, a big stack of business cards, plenty of bottled water and miraculously we were on time and off to "Chefs Night Out".
We'd heard a rumor that we were going to be stuck in the satellite tent outside the main room and sure enough, that was the case. Our table had been decorated quite nicely by Sue, who does a lot of our event staging and all we had to do was haul in our Cambro, the beautiful copper platters we'd chosen and a few bowls. This was the point where I was ever-so-glad we had decided to go simple. I watched other caterers struggling with chafing dishes, lighting sterno and hunching over cutting boards in frenzied last minute prepping; ugh. Not for us; no way, no how.
Pedro and I put on our coats, assembled a couple of trays of the pancakes and stepped back. We were in a corner of the tent between two wineries and that was just fine. It was a bit misty outside and chilly, but the main room was going to get packed and stifling. This was better.
The first wave of guests had VIP passes and got to arrive an hour earlier than the teeming masses. It was all quite civilized and there was time to chat a bit with our visitors. People were leaving their cars in a big parking lot at the bottom of the hill (the winery sits atop a beautiful peak that looks out over the Willamette Valley) and being shuttled up which allowed for a good flow of guests, at least early on.
After the first hour the crush set in and the feeding and drinking began in earnest. There is a certain type of person who comes to events such as these to see just how much he can slug down his throat and cram into his mouth and there were plenty of these guests in the second wave. The tent filled, the musicians turned up and the volume swelled. Blessedly, this is when the time seems to fly and Pedro and I concentrated on traying, topping and saucing our little cakes.
The two middle hours flew by and we went through our product in a fairly predictable way. I was relieved to see that we were definitely going to have enough and not suffer the indignity of running out early. The final hour of events like this are, unfortunately, generally dominated by those who just can't bear to leave, need to have just one more (or three more) glasses of wine and who tend to stand in clusters and shriek and scream. This is the point of the festivities when the wineries start pouring larger and larger glasses (generally due to customer demand) and the drinkers seem to dominate the proceedings.
Pedro and I packed up as best we could, gritted our teeth through our painted on smiles and kept replenishing the trays, although not much eating was being done at this point. As the blessed hour of 7:00 drew closer, we packed up everything we could and began to plan our escape. I sent Pedro for the van about quarter of the hour and it was, nearly over. It had been a success, we had garnered much praise for our little pancakes and had gone through nearly all our product. The day was long, but the getting was good and we splashed down the winding winery driveway through the raindrops and puddles, tired and ready for the barn. I was quite glad that we were a few minutes ahead of the final drinkers who would hit the roads all too soon...