Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Literary Dinner: Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Inspired by the awesome Christian and Julia of That Hapa Chick, my daughter and I have decided to start having "Literary Dinners" featuring food inspired by our favorite books.

To give you all a little background, my daughter Mari is 10, and has a good amount of cooking knowledge.  Her father managed to make it all the way to his 30's without learning any cooking skills, and feeding himself something he still struggles with.  To save her this pain, we started teaching Mari cooking early.   On average, she cooks dinner for us twice a month, with some grown up help with sharp things and hot things. 

We picked Percy Jackson to start with for a few reasons.  First off, my daughter got the box set of paperbacks for the holidays, and had just re-read the entire series, so it was fresh in her head.  Second, most of the food mentioned in the books is pretty familiar, so Mari wouldn't get too freaked out by something weird.  (Case in point: We originally considered starting with His Dark Materials, which Mari was reading, but she got scared off by a mention of eating eels.)

After combing through the books for food references, we decided on a Camp Half Blood dinner featuring homemade bread, cheese, grapes and "extra lean, nymph-cut barbecue".  To drink we made "nectar" and for desert, we made blue cupcakes. 

(Note:  All of the photos here are pretty bad quality.  Sorry.  I had to use my tablet, and I'm not used to the camera in it)

Our biggest question was to ambrosia, or not to ambrosia.  For me, having grown up in a family with southern roots, ambrosia is a fruit salad with marshmallows and coconut.  Like this one.  I've always found it a little bit off putting (sorry, numerous great aunts.)   It didn't look any more appetizing to Mari.  So we skipped it.  Several of my teen volunteers told me that ambrosia could be any food yummy enough to make you go up in flames if you eat too much of it.  Mari herself thought it was "like a pop tart.  But, you know, god-esque."    Not knowing how to make divine toaster pastry, we stuck to cupcakes. 

For the bread, we used this recipe from Make and Takes for Rosemary Peasant Bread.  I had made this a few times before myself with good results, and it is definitely easy enough for a 10 year old to handle.  Bonus is that it is a no-knead recipe!  It makes a delicious rustic bread, that's better to pull apart than to slice.  We got a little carried away with the seasoning on the outside, but it was still good. 

The barbecue was really tricky for us.  We figured that the barbecue at Camp Half blood was most likely a spit roasted animal.  After convincing the kid that the owner of our rental townhouse would frown on us installing a spit and getting medieval on a goat in front of the fireplace, we thought that slow-smoked pork would be a good substitute. 

My mother makes a killer smoked pork loin on her gas grill, using a procedure similar to this one for brining and smoking the pork.   However, she has the nice big gas grill to do it.  Our little table-top jobby probably wasn't up to the job.  This recipe from Tyler Florence for Oven Roasted Pulled Pork looked like it would get us to a similar place, so we decided to try it.  However, Dad forgot to tell us we were out of tin foil until after we had applied the salt rub to the pork, so we tried to cut our losses by using a crock pot.  The resulting pork came out very tender and juicy, but a little too salty.  It wasn't nymph cut, but it was 10 year old pulled, which is just as good.

Mari and I got into an argument about the sauce.  I said we should make a vinegar based sauce for our pork, as it is more authentically southern.  Mari, who dislikes barbecue sauce, or anything that's too sour,  said that Camp Half-Blood is in Long Island, and they probably don't eat vinegar sauce there.  It was her dinner, so I let her win.  I had some K.C. Masterpiece on deck, just in case.  Turns out, the pork was plenty flavorful without any sauce, so point to the kid, I guess.

The cheese we had for this meal included Edam, Havarti, Buffalo Mozzarella and Brie.  Why so much cheese?  And why no Greek cheese? Because we sent Dad to the cheese counter to get us some haloumi, and instead, he got all the cheese he liked.  We learned a valuable lesson though: never send Dad to the cheese shop alone. The presence of all that dairy based goodness overrides his brain, and he will come home with $30 worth of the wrong kind of cheese. 

Looking around online for nectar recipes, most of what we found were for thick, smoothie drinks such as this one which uses sour cream and marshmallows.   Mari thought that nectar would be more refreshing and less sweet, so we decided to make something like a spritzer, using half 7-Up and half-fruit juice.  While I lobbied for orange juice or pineapple juice, Mari decided to use Sunny Delight, which to the best of my knowledge, doesn't actually contain any fruit juice. To make it more special we added a tablespoon or so of grenadine syrup. The resulting drink was good,but I thought it was still too sweet.  Mari disagreed, and thought it was the best thing we made.  I decided to switch to Mr. D's favorite non-alcoholic drink: Diet Coke.

To round things out, we had grapes.  Unfortunately we had no satyrs on hand to peel them.  We also added apples to the mix.  Why?  Mari really likes apples.  Very little prep here, but I did cave and bought an apple slicer/corer thing-a-bob.  Mari loves it, and is no longer asking me to cut up her apples, which is all win. 

I am not a great baker (see my love of the no-knead bread above) so we totally cheated and made the mini-cupcakes from a mix.  The twist is that Mari got a mini-cupcake maker as a holiday gift, and we used it to bake the cupcakes.  If you've never seen one of these machines before, it's sort of like a mix between a George Foreman grill and a waffle iron.  You put the batter in and 7 minutes later, you get 7 mini-cupcakes.   I am not in love with this appliance.  First off, it gets oven hot, and if the lid is open, there is no way to tell if it is on, as my burnt finger will attest.  Secondly even the small Jiffy yellow cake mix we made makes 20+ cupcakes and you can only bake them 7 at a time.  Finally, the mini-cupcake maker doesn't have a timer or an automatic off switch, so you have to time your cupcakes separately.  However, Mari thinks it is the greatest thing ever, and is one of the innovations that separates us from the animals.

 We also cheated with the frosting, using store bought that we dyed blue (the photo is making it look washed out, but it was very blue).  We tried the Alton Brown trick of using a plastic bag as a piping bag, which failed miserably and got blue frosting all over us and the kitchen.  (Note to self:  disposable piping bags are not that expensive!) We topped it off with some blue sanding sugar.   The cupcakes were good but messy, thanks to our liberal frosting application.

Over all, I would call our dinner a success, and it definitely gave Mari confidence to tackle more complex meals in the future.