exotica

>I don’t often take cooking classes, out of the misguided notion that I could learn most of the material just as well from a book. But Culinary Communion offers the occasional oddball class — “Foie Gras”, “Sauces”, not to mention “Blind Wine Tasting” — that strikes my fancy. And so it happened they recently had a class on Exotic Meats.

Who could resist the prospect of eating snake and zebra? Aside from all the vegetarians, teenagers, pescetarians, vegans, and other culinary dullards. And observant Jews and Muslims. And Heather. Most of the world, then.

More for me.

It was with some trepidation, though, that I signed up for the class. Would I remember how to cook? In December 2005, I made Sunset magazine’s Pinot-Braised Duck with Spicy Greens. On January 8, 2008, I made a butter chicken curry. Nothing in between.

What is “braising”? Something to do with farming donkeys, I imagine.

*

We greeted the Five Sea Urchins. ($5 each at Uwajimaya — to check freshness, make sure that the thingie isn’t sunken into the hole at the bottom.) I named them after the Seven Dwarfs, which meant one urchin was called “Grumpy-Sneezy”, and another “Sleepy-Dopey”. Chef Gabriel flipped one over and cut across it, off-center, to crack it open. We pulled out the eggs, tasting some raw — I can’t imagine anyone but my mother actually cooking them — and reserving the rest for a Sicilian pasta dish. Someone boiled six quarts of water with a cup of kosher salt so that the pasta would get more flavour. After the pasta was ready, the eggs were mixed in and melted around the pasta. That’s all there was. (Perhaps olive oil. I think I missed something that helped give the water more of an oceanic flavour). This was great, I sang a toast to Scruffy and his brethren. I wish I’d taken more of the leftovers.

Melvin the sea cucumber ($5 at Uwajimaya) quivered on the table. “Oozed” might be the more appropriate word. Gabe first sliced a portion as though it were a cucumber. It tasted mild, of the ocean.

Melvin proceeded to puke out his guts, which are reputedly an aphrodisiac. In the name of science, I sampled some, but my willie remained wonka for the duration of the class. (A couple also tried a bit; to my disappointment, they managed to behave appropriately. They should’ve drunk some wine.) Gabe sliced Melvin laterally to reveal his muscles, and then peeled off the skin. He’d mentioned that El Bulli makes sea cucumber crackers, and they tried to make it. It ended up looking more and tasting like — I now realize — corolla — Indian bittermelon, I guess is the English term. The sauteed muscles tasted good.

For snacking, someone fried wild boar bacon. That was tasty. And then came the buttermilk-fried Crocs with a cajun remoulade that was regrettably rubbery. Actually, the alligator was good. (While I was working on the roo, another student pounded on the gator to tenderize it. “Say you’re sorry!” she yelled. I squealed, “Uh, uh! I’m sorry! I was bad! I’ll behave!” She paused, and collapsed onto the butcher block in laughter. It wasn’t that funny.)

The remoulade, as listed on the recipe card and prepared by four students, was potent and strong. Gabriel added sugar to soften the sauce, without taking away the spice. Another student insisted on adding sour cream to one bowl, to lighten it further. Personally, I preferred the version without.

I volunteered to prepare the pan-seared caraway and herb-crusted kangaroo medallions. Before I cut it open, I admired the pretty purple packaging. Then I discovered that the packaging was clear. After washing the meat and cutting away the trivial bits of fat in an effort to feel in charge, I found myself immediately stumped. “Uh, Gabriel? What do medallions look like?”

My neuroses kicked in. Is it seasoned enough? Is the parsley minced, or merely chopped? Am I packing the herbs on the medallions correctly? Another student started the sauce, reducing the veal stock and madeira, but it was for me to finish, after I seared the kanga in a heavy cast-iron pan — and I do mean heavy. I could barely lift it with both hands. The recipe said: “Do not disturb for 1 minute. Flip and cook blank side for 2 minutes.” Without a watch handy, I started counting, and because I easily lose track, I muttered the numbers under my breath. A student giggled at my madness. Once the meat was done, I finished the sauce.

I held my breath as it was served, bracing myself for screams of horror, for Gabriel to run up to me and say, “You wasted $30 of good kangaroo meat to make this?”

I heard nothing. I took a bite.

Much to my surprise — particularly since I’m critical of my own cooking — I liked it. I ate some more, and took the remaining piece home. A couple of students, politely or not, said they liked it as well, or at least the look of it. One woman took a single bite. How wasteful. I wrote down her name and while driving home, defaced her Myspace profile using my iPhone.

The recipe called for serving the roo with soft polenta with olives and basil. I’m not crazy about polenta, but I remember liking this. (Unfortunately, I don’t remember why.) I liked the garlicky lemon escarole so much more, though — I regret not taking all of it home for leftovers.

The puree blanc was also good, if not remarkable. The broiled python was disappointing, tough and chewy. It didn’t get much flavour from the soy sauce, lime and mirin marinade. Grilling — as indicated on the recipe card, but for want of a grill — would have been better than broiling.

As for the antelope stew — the stew itself was nice, but the antelope itself was uninteresting, tough. It probably would’ve been better served cooked for several more hours.

Alas, antelope! You died in vain.

Perhaps we’ll have to try zebra sometime.