Flavors: Savory Sweet, Chefs Raghavan Iyer and James Dodge

Sep 18, 2017

Raghavan Iyer and James Dodge at the MSU Billings Foundation Wine and Food Festival.
Credit Stella Fong

Raghavan Iyer and James Dodge taught cooking class Savory Sweet: Tater Love for the 25th MSU Billings Foundation Wine and Food Festival.

The two, James Beard and IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) recognized cookbook authors and teachers returned to Montana to help raise scholarships. The class, based on Iyer’s latest book - Smashed Mashed Boiled and Baked-and Fried, Too! paid tribute to potatoes from around the world.

Iyer confessed, “I have always wanted to do a book on potatoes and this is something very different for me. It takes me out of my genre, which is Indian and multi-Asian food. I felt like the potato was the best medium to launch that.” The popularity of the potato makes it the fourth largest crop in the world according to Iyer.

Dodge, Director of the Specialty Culinary Programs for Bon Appétit Management Company, has team taught with Iyer for over 15 years, partnering together for over 75 classes over time. Dodge came from seven generations of hoteliers, but it was his meeting Swiss Chef Fritz Albicker who influenced him to become a chef. From there he worked at Stanford Court in San Francisco, and then opened The American Pie, restaurant and pastry shop in Hong Kong. Eventually Dodge returned to the states to teach at the New England Culinary Institute, and finally joined Bon Appétit in 1996.

Iyer received his first bachelor’s from Bombay University with a degree in chemistry. In 1982 he came to the United States to attend Michigan State University for a degree in hotel management. It was at that time he learned to cook. Iyer shared, “I did not know how to cook and it was more of a baptism by fire kind of thing. If I did not cook I could not eat.”

Ingredients for Stuffed Potato Cakes with Spinach.
Credit Stella Fong

For the Wine and Food Festival, they taught the following recipes:

Stuffed Potato Cakes with Spinach and Golden Raisin-Ginger Sauce, Moroccan Potato Stew with Saffron Biscuits, Canadian Lamb Potato Tortiere, and Orange Meringue Nest, Chocolate Crème Chibous, Raspberries and Caramel.

In the Stuffed Potato Cakes, cooked potato was put through a ricer to break up it up. The recipe recommended saving the water used to boil the potatoes to cook the spinach. Bread slices drenched under running water and then squeezed was the secret binder for this recipe.

With the Moroccan Potato Stew, Iyer said, “I wanted to bring the flavors from North Africa and see what they do. It is a country that uses so many aromatic spices and it goes back to my upbringing. They do a lot of great stews that they braise in tagines with lots of cinnamon and nutmeg and things of that nature.” He continued, “They also use saffron in their cooking.” Iyer incorporated saffron in this dish in a creative way.

Moroccan Potato Stew with Saffron Biscuit.
Credit Stella Fong

Iyer created a biscuit using Shirley Corriher’s biscuit recipe from her cookbook, Cookwise. He modified the recipe she perfected to highlight the saffron. “I felt like saffron is such a diva. You really want to put it on a pedestal,” he explained. The “perfume quality and color” would get lost amongst the spices of coriander, cumin, cinnamon, paprika, red pepper and turmeric in the stew.

In Iyer’s new book, he recruited Dodge’s pastry expertise especially in his Canadian Lamb Potato Tortière recipe. They have such a good relationship Iyers said in his head notes, “I feel fortunate I can text him in a moment’s notice with questions related to baking.”

Amy Brown helps James Dodge make the pastry dough for the Canadian Lamb Potato Tortière.
Credit Stella Fong

The recipe came from Dodge’s mother’s family. In their version, he said, “They put in beef. If in a maritime environment, they put in seafood. The spice varies tremendously.” In situations where spice was not afforded, herbs were used.

Canadian Lamb Potato Tortière.
Credit Stella Fong

Dodge demystified working with pastry dough. Dodge said, “There’s this real fear that pastry is so exacting but if you really know what is going on and the role of each ingredient and how to manipulate them, there is a lot more flexibility.” He shared of those who are comfortable with working with dough, “They are feeling the texture, the temperature, the temperature of the dough or sponge cake. The touch is really important.” Finally Dodge shared that flour is needed to keep dough from sticking to the rolling pin and the workspace. “Use plenty of flour but when you are done rolling it brush all the flour off.” Dodge used a pastry brush to remove any excess flour.

Both Iyer and Dodge spoke of how experience does provide the confidence in cooking. With time, acquaintance with how to work with certain ingredients is established. Iyer shared, “You can tell by visual cues if something is going to work or not.”

Iyer used the example of, “It is one of those things with spices and herbs. I feel like that is my trademark. I will put things together that people will never imagine to go together.” He cited an example for a focaccia recipe from his book, “I put in some finely chopped rosemary and mint, two herbs that people will never think of putting together because they are so assertive in their own way.” But Iyer believed, “The results are spectacular.”

The Orange Meringue Nest ended the meal. When making meringues, many are intimidated but Dodge reassured, “Meringues are actually easy to make. You just have to be sure to whip them for a long time. They go from a high gloss to a satin finish if you think about paint. They you scoop them out in a pan and make a little well on a parchment lined pan and you bake them for an hour or an hour and a half until they are nice and crisp. You lift them off the pan and they are done.” Served with berries and a rich caramel sauce, the dessert provided the perfect ending.

Iyer and Dodge provided some sage advice for young people entering the culinary field.

Dodge began by saying, “I think the most important thing is to work in a kitchen where there’s not only a talented skilled chef but someone who is a good manager and conducts himself professionally and creates a healthy and enthusiastic environment. That’s crucial.”

Iyer observed with new chefs entering the cooking field, “What I see them lacking is a sense of patience or the desire or passion is sometimes not there. They want things to happen quickly. You need to put in a sense of ground work to get to the next level.”

For both, they agreed that the relationships developed during the course of cooking were invaluable. Not only were peer connections important, but those grown between growers and producers. “It all boils down to relationships. How do you interact and how do you deal with people,” Iyer emphasized. “I feel like if your are kind and you are generous it comes back to you.”

For Iyer and Dodge, the title of their class Savory Sweet may have summarized not only by their passion for potatoes, but for food, teaching and their friendship.

Recipe from Raghavan Iyer for MSU Billings Foundation Cooking Class – Sweet Savory: Tater Love, May 2017.

Moroccan potato stew with saffron biscuits

Serves 6
Continent: Africa

Potatoes are fed to severely malnourished infants when they can absorb nothing else.

Stews slow-cooked in tagines in Morocco, rich with root vegetables, spices, meats, and legumes are served alongside plates of pearl-like couscous and dollops of fiery harissa. This version of mine incorporates both regular and sweet potatoes, punctuated with assertive spices. But what makes the presentation sing is the dollop of saffron biscuit batter atop individual portions as it puffs and bakes with a sunny glow. Not native but you won’t complain!

For the stew:

1 pound yukon gold potatoes
8 ounces Jersey sweet potatoes
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup finely chopped yellow or white onion
4 medium-size cloves garlic finely chopped
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 three-inch-stick cinnamon, broken into smaller pieces
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
1 teaspoon coarse sea or kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 cups canned diced tomatoes (including any juices)
2 cans (15 ounces each) garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1 pound pre-washed fresh baby spinach leaves
½ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
½ cup thinly sliced scallions (green tops and white bulbs), beards discarded

For the saffron biscuits:

½ cup heavy (whipping) cream
½ teaspoon saffron threads
2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon coarse sea or kosher salt
¼ cup salted butter, cut into slices, chilled
1 cup buttermilk
Unbleached all-purpose flour for dusting
Additional salted butter, melted, for brushing

1.      To get the stew started, peel the yukon gold and sweet potatoes. Give them a good rinse. Cut them into 1-inch cubes and pile them into a medium-size bowl filled with cold tap water to cover them to prevent them from oxidizing and turning grayish black.

2.      Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the oil appears to shimmer, add the onion and garlic and stir-fry until they are light brown around the edges, about 5 minutes.

3.      As the onion and garlic brown, quickly grind the coriander, cumin, and cinnamon in a spice grinder (like a coffee grinder) to the texture of finely ground black pepper. Tap it into a small bowl and stir in the sweet and smoked paprika, cayenne, salt, and turmeric to creat a potent and highly aromatic blend.

4.      As soon as the onion and garlic are ready, stir in the spice blend. The heat from the ingredients in the pan are just right in cooking the spices without burning them. This barely takes 15 seconds. Quickly pour in the tomatoes, 2 cups water, and garbanzo beans. Drain the potatoes and add them to the melange. Bring the stew to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer covered, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender and the stew is slightly thick, about 25 minutes.

5.      As the stew simmers, get the batter ready for the saffron biscuits. Position a rack in the oven’s center and preheat it to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Warm the heavy cream either in a small saucepan over medium heat or in a microwave-safe bowl. No need to bring it to a boil. Stir in the saffron threads. The warmth of the cream will allow the threads to steep and unleash its beautiful aroma and sunny orange-yellow colored disposition. Transfer this to the freezer to chill it quickly as you get the flour ready.

6.      Dump the flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium-size bowl. Add the chilled butter and using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until you end up with pea-sized pellets that clump around the flour. Pour the buttermilk and the chilled saffron cream into the flour and stir it all in. The batter will be quite wet.

7.      By now the potatoes in the stew will be tender. Pile in the spinach and cover the pan again. The steam from within will wilt the leaves, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the cilantro and scallions and give it all a good stir. This is where you can decide if you wish to serve the stew in individual ramekins. I usually ladle the stew into 6 separate ramekins, each about 3/4ths full.

8.      Dump some of the all-purpose flour into a medium-size bowl. Flour your hands. Scoop out about 1/3 cup portions of the saffron biscuit batter into the bowl. Working with one portion at a time, coat it completely with the flour. Shape it into a biscuit with your floured hands and place it atop the stew. Repeat until all the biscuits are formed, covering the top of the stew.  Brush them with the melted butter. Place the individual ramekins onto a cookie sheet to catch any spills. Place them into the oven and bake until the biscuits are sunny brown with an orange-yellow hue, and slightly crusty, about 25 minutes.

9.      Serve the stew hot from the oven. Trust me, it’s a stunner recipe (looks and taste).