Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Our homemade sauerkraut research project

I don’t post recipes that aren’t tried and true favorites. That really wouldn’t be fair to anyone who’s interested in making what I’m sharing. However, from time to time I thought it might be valuable to readers to share in the “research” aspect of cooking anything new.

I’ll start with sauerkraut. As mentioned in my previous post, we made this for the first time in October under the tutelage of friend Henry Gluch and his mother (participating over the phone). Since we like to do things using the right equipment, we bought a 3-gallon pottery crock designed for just such a use as stuffing it with shredded cabbage, salt and spices.

Several of us had a lovely afternoon and evening making about 12 gallons of kraut and Henry gladly donated his cantina to store our fermenting delicacy and also to skim it daily (something I understand is not very enjoyable because of the smell). After pounding the cabbage into submission (a very important step to start bringing out the water ), we sat down to a Polish meal washed down with wine and beer.

Then we sat back for several weeks to wait for the signal that the kraut was ready.

At the time of making it, I felt we were using way too much salt, and it turned out I was correct. The finished product tastes lovely (we used black peppercorns and bay leaf), but it was very salty. Luckily, correcting that is just a matter of rinsing the kraut thoroughly before cooking it, or soaking it in a few changes of water.

We rinsed it thoroughly before portioning it into freezer bags and chucking it into the basement to live with our stash of frozen stocks.

Last weekend when we cold-smoked a pork roast (reportage on that coming soon!), we decided we wanted some more flavors in the sauerkraut that was to accompany the pork, so Vicki went off and found a promising recipe on the Internet that used a bit of Reisling wine, juniper berries, onion, garlic and cloves. We left out the called-for duck or goose fat.

Notice something missing? We did, too – especially when we ate it. To our mind, sauerkraut needs a bit of a kick, something that usually comes in the form of vinegar. I suppose that was left out because of the wine. (Wine and vinegar don’t generally play well together, unless you’re talking about wine vinegar.) It’s a cardinal rule in the Blechta Test Kitchens here in Beautiful Midtown Toronto to never mess around with a recipe on its first try, so we went with the flow, used the wine and left out the vinegar.

Well, the kraut did taste lovely and delicate – but boring. To prove that point, we didn’t quite finish eating the portion we’d cooked up. Over the next few days, Vicki and I discussed the situation.

When it came time to clear leftovers from the fridge the other day, I heated up the bit of kraut remaining and added a couple of tablespoons of cider vinegar.

What a difference! The kraut just came alive. We felt we were on the right track at last.

So, rather than sharing this recipe now, I’m going to hold off until the next time we make baked sauerkraut and have an opportunity to mess about with the recipe. I think it could simply be a matter of adding the correct amount of cider vinegar, but we’ll see.

Any experienced sauerkraut lovers like to weigh in on this? We would welcome some guidance!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Getting ready for a weekend of cooking!

Our charcuterie just before the mouse invasion!
I just did a quick run down to Gasparro’s, our favorite butcher on Bloor Street here in Toronto. We always like to have a chicken on hand and our spare got used last week in an experiment with brining and smoking – which was a spectacular success (more about that in the future: we’re still in the research stage).

Nick Gasparro sold me a beautiful pork roast (why are all butchers suddenly “Frenching” the rib ends on their roasts?), six ribs-worth. Karel and I are going to cold smoke it on Sunday in another experiment, then hot smoke it to finish. We’ll use two different woods: maple and hickory.

Normally, Karel and I do our weekly food shopping on Saturday mornings, mostly at Toronto's fabulous St. Lawrence Market on Front Street. Today, though, I needed to get the brining of the pork roast started since it needs twelve hours in the liquid and then to rest in the fridge for several hours so the salt can spread evenly through the meat. Our goal is to have the roast lightly salted and with brining it’s pretty easy to overdo it. Since we’re using salt in this case more as a seasoning than to preserve the meat, it’s better to leave it in the brine for too little time than the opposite.

The brine recipe is from my current favorite cookbook (we have over 100), Charcuterie (link is live in case you wish to order it). It’s Brian Polcyn’s creation and he doesn’t smoke it after brining, he grills it, which does add some smoke flavor. But we’ve got a really good reason for branching off on our own: we’re going to serve smoked pork chops to enjoy with homemade sauerkraut we made in October under the expert guidance of the Gluch family – of great sauerkraut renown. Vicki has come up with what looks like a great recipe for baking raw sauerkraut (herbs, spices and riesling wine), and if it works out, we’ll be sharing that with all of you, too. As a teaser, the brine we’re using is flavored with dark brown sugar, juniper berries, fresh sage, garlic and black pepper. Right now it’s cooling on the back step and the roast will soon go in for twelve hours or so. It smells heavenly.

A CURING UPDATE: Currently, we have four hog jowls (guanciale) and two pounds of pork loin (lonzino) air-drying in our basement. It all smells heavenly. Only problem is, it also smelled heavenly to some deer mice that must have come into our house when the cold weather hit. Not having checked the two jowls finished at that time and hanging from our water pipe, I was shocked to see how much had been nibbled away. We’ve decided to let the damaged ones continue hanging after dispatching two of the little rodents (both female, thank heavens). Seeing no more of their little carcases in our traps for the past two days, I think we’re safe. We’ll just cut away the nibbled parts, and keep the remaining guanciale to be enjoyed “chez nous”, using the two we’ve cured and hung since to share with other people.

Fortunately, the little critters didn’t seem to care for lonzino (probably the fennel I used in the cure) or I would have been really put out. To combat further mice invasions on our larder, I’ve left the traps out, and moved everything to a place where they shouldn’t be able to get at it again. But the whole thing remains a huge bummer. For the future, I may need to make some sort of wire box since with our house’s foundation resembling Swiss cheese, we tend to get a few of the little buggers in every autumn.

To conclude, stay tuned for our report on the results of this weekend’s culinary adventures. We haven’t written much about German food on the blog so far, and what could be more Teutonic than Kassler Rippchen, boiled potatoes and sauerkraut?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Introducing Frank Baldock, our new wine consultant

Today, I’m very pleased and excited to welcome a new member to A Man for All Seasonings. Frank Baldock is a long-time friend and colleague who has forgotten more about wine than I will ever know.

The creator of Wine Express, an absorbing quarterly newsletter (and website!) for those looking to expand their knowledge of wine and be alerted to some incredible bargains at the same time, Frank will bring his expertise to bear on some of the recipes posted here, as well as sharing his views on relevant topics of his own. Additionally, he is an excellent writer with a terrific sense of humor. Please visit his website for lots more information about some great new wines, as well as articles and stories about wine and the wine industry, even some recipes from his lovely wife, Lavell (who is a fantastic cook). With Frank’s help, you, too, can reach vino nirvana.

Welcome, Frank!

Q: Okay, Frank, so you’re a molto experienced oenophile. Tell us, what was your first experience with fermented grape juice?

A: In English pubs as an under-age teen tippler/explorer. The house wines weren’t great but it was still a buzz! My Dad grew his own grapes in his greenhouse but no wine dynasty ever emerged from that!

Q: When someone is about to pour: red or white?

A: A light, unoaked white at first, probably, as most reds are best served with food, especially the savory, bone-dry and often tannic reds of Europe, where red wines AND food are joined at the hip and rarely served separately.

Q: Your newsletter, Wine Express (not to mention your website, is packed with wines that tend for the most part to be affordable. Why is that?

A: To me, wine is food. That is, a daily pleasure that’s deliciously affordable. Everybody (‘fess up, now!) is searching for bargain wines that taste great. I’m there as your advance scout, taste-testing 5,000-6,000 wines a year on your behalf, and reporting back on the best. Tough job but someone, etc., etc…

Q: Staying on the same topic, do you feel high-end wines are over-priced?

A: Winemaking is a huge commercial gamble. The variables for success/disaster include frost, hail, hungry birds, beasts and bugs, an army of plant diseases, and rain on the eve of harvest, to name just a few. The top producers tend to restrict the number of grapes per vine for better concentration and flavor – at the expense of volume. The artisan wineries have fewer products to sell and so they need to charge more per bottle.

Some high-falutin’ prices, however, are simply part of the marketing package, the cachet, along with tiny availability. There are always collectors with very deep pockets who pursue cult wines. Remember, scarcity is the opiate of the super-rich!

A $100 wine is not 10 times as good as a $10 wine. It becomes geometrically more difficult to improve wines the higher you go on the quality scale. I’ve been lucky enough to taste wines once owned by Napoleon, but only because I was able to share the purchase cost with a bunch of other like-minded wine freaks!

Q: What wines or wine regions should people be on the lookout for?

A: Wines are traditional products of their place of origin and good ones taste exactly of that place. Typicity is important. Regions do evolve over time, however: for example, currently in Australia there’s a laudable move to making finer wines in small batches from great (cool climate) locations, as opposed to the industrial-scale production of el cheapo plonk that competes mostly on price.

Q: What wines are very popular now but perhaps don’t deserve to be?

A: People talk dry but drink sweet (or at least off-dry). California (not alone) has chosen to lead the way in big, high-alcohol reds and whites that have a fair amount of residual sugar (at the discretion of the winemaker).

The subtle sweetness flatters the wine for the first few sips but it palls with food and fails to refresh your palate during a meal.

As drinkers mature, they tend to prefer truly dry wines that showcase great food rather than smother it.

Q: What has been your best ever wine experience?

A: Too many to count, but they would include the mind-blowing introduction to my first really great red Burgundy, a Grands Echezeaux; a Chateau d’Yquem vertical tasting with the winemaker; dinners with Marie de Maigret, the Countess of Champagne, and Christian Pol Roger in Epernay; and swapping wine anecdotes over lunch with Princess Takamado in Japan.

Q: Your worst?

A: Rescuing the bruised ego of an enormously corpulent writer. He was spread-eagled like a bug after crushing his flimsy chair at a solemn gathering of the most prestigious (and suddenly hushed) chateaux owners of Bordeaux.

Q: Is there one wine of which you wished you had purchased several more bottles?

A: I’m always on the lookout for any wines of 1943, my birth year, to share at an anniversary dinner each year with close friends. I figure that if I keep buying more and more ’43s I’ll live forever!

Q: What is your absolute favorite food/wine match?

A: Chateau d’Yquem (or any great Sauternes) and foie gras.

Thank you, Frank! I’m sure I echo everyone when I say we’re looking forward to seeing your byline and contributions in the future here at AMFAS.

If you’re interested in receiving Wine Express four times a year at a very reasonable price, please click HERE for more information.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Smoking bacon

Has anyone been inspired by my previous post to try making their own bacon? I hope so, because it really is easy, takes very little actual “work time”, and the results are just incredibly good. Couple that with pork belly from first-rate pigs, raised and treated properly, and you have something that is quite out of the ordinary.

One thing I didn’t discuss is that bacon can also be savory. You still need to use some sugar in the cure, but the extra maple or birch syrup doesn’t need to be added. Instead you can use herbs or spices. Try crushed juniper berries, minced garlic, thyme, bay leaves, even cloves or allspice. The results can be amazing.

So, last post, I discussed how to cure pork belly. If you’ve done this, you now have some very flavorful bacon with no further work.

But you can also smoke bacon (or any meat for that matter) to add another whole layer of flavor. Since we like smoked foods (at the moment, I’m smoking some salmon with a cold-smoking gadget we recently bought), finishing our cured bacon with a few hours in the smoker is a must. If you smoke your home-cured bacon, I think you will agree.

First of all, you need a smoker. They don’t have to be large or fancy. The only requisites is that what you use must be able to keep the temperature steady at around 200-250 degrees (it can vary within the ideal range) and that the vessel used for smoking has a cover to contain the smoke – at least for awhile. You do want it to have a decent draft to keep it going. Never forget that you’re using a fire and fires need oxygen to burn or smolder.

Many people successfully use their barbecue as a smoker and while this does work, you have to remember that the heat needs to be indirect, otherwise your meat will do more cooking rather than being bathed in smoky heat. Direct heat will cook your meat too quickly, not giving it enough time exposed to the smoke. If you have a large enough barbecue to have the bacon well away from the source of heat (which, truthfully, shouldn’t be much), then go ahead and use it. Remember: you want indirect heat.

When we decided on purchasing a smoker, we went to look at the one suggested for home smoking in Charcuterie: one made by the Bradley firm in British Columbia. We ultimately decided to take a pass for two reasons: too expensive but we would also be captive to their special wafer chips called bisquettes (made with specially compressed sawdust). If we get really serious about this, we may one day invest in a Bradley. Certainly it seems to be well-made, has a lot of proponents and good reviews.

We saw the Bradley at nearby Bass Pro. It turned out they stocked a simple smoker made by a company called Brinkmann. It is very basic, a bit of a pain in some ways (pans can fall out at very inopportune times, but since we like to futz with things, and my son Karel (the master smoker of the family) enjoys nothing more than to tend the fire and watch the smoke rise, it’s worked out very well for us. Best of all, it cost $55 as opposed to $300+ for the bottom-of-the-line Bradley.

One modification we did make was to drill five 3/4" holes in the bottom of the fire pan to help with air cirulation to keep the charcoal and wood chip packages burning evenly. The only other thing we did was purchase a cheap oven thermometer so we could more closely monitor the temp in the smoking chamber.

For smoking meats (ribs, chicken, beef, pork,) you need to do what’s called a “hot smoke”. That means you’re also cooking the meat slowly as it smokes. Since we’re talking about bacon here, you want the temperature to be between 200-250 degrees, no higher. If you go lower, it will take much longer to cook your meat – and you’re heading into cold smoking territory (something we’ll cover in the future). Too hot and the meat cooks to its final temperature without being exposed to the smoke for enough time to give it the flavor you want.

What wood should you use? That depends. We’ve been trying different things. The first time out was apple, then hickory, then maple, and this last time was cherry. All gave very different results with hickory being the most assertive. Apple and cherry have many nice features, and the maple tasted a bit mild to my mind. But that’s the fun of doing this: you can experiment to your heart’s content.

We get our fire started with the fire pan at the bottom about 1/4 full of lump charcoal. We soak our wood chips in water for about 1/2 hour then wrap them in heavy-duty aluminum foil, punching several holes in the package.

The Brinkmann smoker has a water pan directly above the fire pan. We fill that about 2/3 full of water which easily lasts for the whole smoking period. This accomplishes two things: it adds moisture to the smoke (a great thing for cooking ribs and brisket) while keeping the heat from below reaching the meat directly.

Then we put on our bacon and sit back. Using an instant-read thermometer, we monitor how the bacon is cooking. Our results show that about three hours of cooking time is about right. The flavor of the smoke on the meat is optimal. You know when the bacon is done when the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees.

Now comes the payoff. Slice off a bit of your bacon and try it. We do this every time and every time it knocks our socks off. Before slicing (unless you’re serving right away), chill the bacon thoroughly.

While it’s still hot, though, is the time to slice off the rind (unless you like it on). Have the rind side of the bacon up. Just slip a sharp knife under it, keep it pointed slightly upward towards the rind as you gently slice it off, making the sharpness of the blade work for you. And don’t throw that rind away! We cut it into squares and freeze it. It gives fantastic flavor to stews and soups.

So to close off, anyone can enjoy some fantastic eating, avoid the “additions” that are put into store-bought, mass-produced bacon and not have to work very hard to do it. Since bacon freezes so well (we don’t eat it all that often), we just slice it and package it in air-tight bags, peeling off what we want, when we want. A few minutes in the frying pan or under the broiler and it’s ready.

I will say it one last time: you will be amazed how easy it is to do and how great it tastes.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Makin’ Bacon (Adventures in Home Curing)

The photo to the right is three pieces of bacon my son Karel and I just finished up yesterday. Looks great, doesn’t it? That was the response yesterday when I posted the shot on Facebook as a sort of a teaser for this post. The thing is, the bacon tastes as good as it looks, but the news is: it’s very easy to make your own bacon.

And you should. Here’s why:

Obviously, this rather scary video leaves out some important pieces of information, such as what exactly is in the “flavorings” they’re adding to your bacon. Look at a package of supermarket bacon and you’ll find out. Here’s what’s needed to make your own bacon at home: salt. That’s it. Cure the meat for several days and you’ve got bacon. I’m not saying that the taste will be the best ever, but if you only used salt, you’d have bacon and it would taste pretty good, especially if you purchased pork belly of superior quality (farm raised and pastured). The sugar (or whatever sweetening you use) is there to mitigate the harshness of the salt, as well as giving the cured meat a good flavor. So, I’m not advocating that you try bacon without some sort of sweetener, just that you could use just salt and cure the meat perfectly well. In other words, salt is the active ingredient in the curing process.

In the manufacturing process outlined in the video above another thing they don’t tell you is when they’re injecting all those flavorings, they’re also injecting water. Bacon manufacturers would tell you they need the water for the process. They do, but not for the reason you may think: water adds weight and weight means more profit with very little added cost. That’s why this kind of bacon shrinks and sputters in the frying pan. The water is evaporating away.

So have I convinced you that there are good reasons to make your own bacon? Don’t have time? Think it’s too complicated. Can’t do anything in the kitchen but boil water? I’m here to tell you that anyone can make bacon. It isn’t hard, doesn’t take many minutes of actual work, and the result can be (and will be, if you follow my directions) utterly fantastic. The only thing I haven’t worked out is how to make it safe for you to eat it large quantities – because you will want to. So if you value your waistline and your arteries, proceed with caution. There be sharks in the waters ahead…

As mentioned above, bacon can just be cured. It doesn’t need to be smoked. So if you don’t want to go there, you don’t need to. That being said, smoking your bacon makes it so utterly fantastic that you should seriously consider doing it. In any event, we’ll deal with this in two steps: the curing process followed by directions for smoking.

To cure any meat, it needs to have contact with salt, either a dry cure by rubbing salt on the outside of the meat and allowing it to soak in over a period of days and react with the meat at a cellular level, or salt in the form of brine in which you submerge the meat. For bacon you don’t want to expose it to more water; you want to draw water out of the meat, so you use a dry cure.

The cure for bacon usually involves sugar of some sort (although you can make savory bacon). For this recipe, we’re going to be using maple sugar as well as maple syrup for additional sweetness and flavor.

[Sidebar: Actually, this time out we used birch syrup which is quite delightful and different than maple syrup. First of all, it’s not as sweet, but it also has a more pungent flavor. We stumbled on this twist by accident. We were about to start curing the pork belly and discovered we were out of maple syrup! Since we’d already started the process and the stores were all closed, I dug through the fridge and happened on a small bottle of birch syrup I was given by friends. Some of the best things happen by accident. The resulting bacon tastes fabulous. Try it if you can get your hands on birch syrup. It’s not widely available and it is expensive since it takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make a single gallon of syrup (due to the lower sugar content than maple). Check on line to find where you can order it.]

Now we get to the sticky part. Most recipes also recommend using a bit of what’s known as curing salt to remove the risk of botulism, as well as other bacteria and fungus. Curing salt is salt mixed with a small amount of sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate. Both additions do the same thing. In the fantastic book, Charcuterie, authors Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn advocate also using curing salt for the flavor it adds to cured food. Here’s the rub, though: many people have adverse reaction to nitrates and/or nitrites. And in large quantities (way more than we’re using here), it can be dangerous.

If I were making cured/dried sausage like salami or csabai, it could be downright dangerous not to use curing salt do so, but some people (usually very experienced at curing) will even leave it out here.

Bacon, however, is less dodgy since it is a whole piece of meat, plus you will also be cooking it before eating. So unless you plan on eating your bacon raw, you can leave the curing salt out of the cure if you wish. But just use your head, okay?

This post is going to deal with curing your bacon. Later this week (after your bacon has had time to cure, I’ll lay out the smoking portion. And please note, you don’t need a fancy (read: expensive) smoker. In fact, you can probably do it right on your barbecue as long as it has a cover to contain the smoke.

Maple-Cured Bacon
(Makes as much as you want)

Pork Belly (Bellies are generally about 10-12 pounds each. Get a smaller piece.)
10 gr Kosher Salt per pound of meat
2.5 gr Curing Salt per pound of meat
10 gr Maple Sugar (or you can use dark brown or demerara sugar) per pound of meat
12 ml Maple Syrup per pound of meat

1. Mix the appropriate amount of dry cure (salt, curing salt, and sugar) for the weight of the pork belly you’re curing. This is why I suggest you don’t rely on volume measurements but use weight. It’s far more accurate. (A small kitchen scale can be gotten pretty cheaply.)

2. Coat the pork belly thoroughly with the dry cure, rubbing it well into the meat on all sides. Now place the belly in a plastic freezer bag. This is far easier than using a vessel of some sort to hold it (although you can, just make sure there isn’t a lot of excess room in it). Next, pour on the maple syrup and distribute it on all sides of the meat.

3. Refrigerate for up to a week, turning the meat every day and redistributing the cure on the meat, rubbing it in well. It will throw off water as the salt pulls it out of the meat. This is a good thing and you want to use that self-created brine to help cure the meat. Curing is finished when the meat portion of the belly feels nice and firm. Charcuterie (where this recipe originates) recommends curing for a week. We find this creates a bacon that’s a bit too salty for us. As we’ve gained experience, we know what fully-cured meat feels like, so we remove it at that point rather than waiting a full seven days. Remember: the thicker the pork belly, the longer it takes the salt to do its work. A one-and-a-half-inch thick belly generally takes between 4 and 5 days.

4. When you feel the meat is cured, take it out of the bag (or vessel) and rinse it thoroughly to remove the salt on the outside of the belly.

That’s it! Your bacon is ready to eat, if you wish. Fry up a bit and taste it. Lovely, yes? Now for that exceptional flavor, you’ll want to smoke it. The bacon you buy in supermarkets is generally only cured with maybe some liquid smoke added to give you a sort of smoky taste. I suppose you could add some if you don’t want to or can’t smoke your bacon.

A tip: get the meat nice and cold to firm it up before slicing. It will be a lot easier. If you don’t like rind on your bacon, now is the time to carefully slice it off by running a sharp carving knife just underneath it. If you’re going to smoke the bacon, wait to de-rind and slice until later. Before you slice, though, square up the piece of bacon by trimming any bits sticking out, but keep those trimmings for things like soups and stews. We also cut the rind into pieces and freeze those as well for flavoring soups and stews. Waste not, want not!

Next post, I’ll tell you how we smoke the bacon for maximum flavor. Stay tuned.

Note: The reason pork belly in the photo at the top was cut into thirds was so that Karel could use a slightly differently cure (he added a BBQ pork rub to the one on the right ) and because one end of the belly was thicker than the other and got an extra 12 hours of curing.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Protecting yourself from big agribusiness

I’m probably dating myself, but I remember a time when people didn’t die from eating a hamburger. The spinach in our salads didn’t send us to the hospital. We could use raw eggs in things like mayonnaise. You didn’t have to cross your fingers when you bought some sliced ham at the deli to make sandwiches for your kids’ school lunches.

Things have certainly changed, haven’t they?

Now I’m not saying that bad things didn’t happen back in in the “good old days”. I’m sure they did, but we didn’t have catastrophic food recalls like the recent one at Alberta’s XL foods where millions of pounds of meat were recalled and eventually destroyed.

What’s changed?

Almost every bit of your daily food, available at every supermarket, is now grown, harvested and processed by big business. In order to keep the price as low as possible, these businesses must work with large quantities and must produce them in the cheapest way possible. Margins are small and competition is fierce. Only the strong will survive and to be strong you must be big. Small producers just get swallowed up or are driven out of business.

Let’s focus on the recent XL debacle. It started at the US border around September first when some burger meat from XL failed a routine E. coli test. By the time things came to a head, millions of pounds of meat were involved and over 1,800 products were recalled across North America.

At first it looked to be just hamburger products, as usual, since in the grinding of the meat, E. coli bacteria which will be found on the surface of beef gets mixed in and spreads throughout the hamburger because of the grinding process. When you’re dealing in the quantities plants like XL does, a huge amount of product is then going to be suspect.

More surprising, though, was the fact that as the XL investigation proceeded, steak products also began to show up in positive tests. That is exceptionally disturbing. Here’s why:

The reason you generally are never offered rare burgers at restaurants anymore is that they get their ground beef from the large producers. Since that source is suspect, burgers must be well-cooked in order to assure any E. coli present has been killing. Well and good. Restaurants are just wisely covering their butts.

But what about steaks? Steaks are seldom served well-done. Since E. coli, if it’s present, is on the surface of the steak, it is killed in cooking even the rarest of steaks, thus neutralizing the danger. Now we find out that whole muscle cuts from XL have been found with E. coli present on the interior of the meat where it will not necessarily be killed during cooking.

What happened?

Needle tenderization appears to be the cause. This is a way for tougher cuts of beef to be tenderized and therefore more attractive to consumers. In other words, producers and retailers can sell cheaper cuts of meat to be cooked as steaks (the most popular way of cooking beef) and keep the price down.

The problem is that a needle tenderizer also drives any surface contaminants into the center of the cut, where, if it’s a steak, won't necessarily be cooked to a high enough temperature to kill things like E. coli.

Again, when you’re dealing in huge quantities and widespread distribution, something like this is a nightmare. As far as I’m aware (and I’ve looked), no one died from eating any contaminated XL beef, but many were made ill. It could have been far worse.

What I found almost laughable in the aftermath was the food industry, in order to better the public’s perception of what was happening, went after the “mom and pop abattoirs”, stating that their record was much better than the smaller operators. If you only take into account the quantity of meat processed, of course the big operators like XL foods will come out better. They process thousands of cattle every day. A smaller abattoir will handle just a fraction of that amount. However if something goes wrong at a small operation, the amount of damage will be less severe and probably more localized. We’re talking apples and oranges here, folks.

It’s also since come out that XL’s plant was not operating within its own safety guidelines, let alone the government’s. That’s never a good thing, regardless of the size of the operation.

To my mind, one’s best bet is to deal with meat that came from a smaller scale operator, preferably one your butcher knows and trusts so you can be more sure of what you’re buying – or at least as sure as humanly possible. You can’t do that in your local supermarket when your burger meat may be coming from another country and contain the meat of several thousand cows.

When I was a kid, we never thought as we bit into a juicy, rare burger at a backyard barbecue, “Gee, I sure hope this doesn’t wind up killing me.”

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Christmas Cake Conundrum

Fruit, nuts and spices ready to marinate in bourbon for 24 hours.
In early November every year we always make our special holiday fruit cake. (“Fruit cake? Oh please, dear God, he’s not going to go on and on about this abomination, is he?”)

I’m well aware that many people are ambivalent about this creation, if not downright hostile, and I can understand that. Many fruit cakes are rather nasty – especially store bought ones. The main reason is cheap ingredients. Since these are the only example many people have been exposed to, they have a poor basis on which to form an “informed opinion”. Another problem is candied citrus rind (lemon, lime, orange) is very tart and to my mind doesn’t have a terrific flavor.

Around twenty years ago now, our good friend Sandy Lasky sent us a postcard while visiting Ireland. Knowing that I’m partial to Bushmills Irish Whiskey, she picked up a card while visiting the distillery which had a recipe for their fruit cake flavored with whiskey. It piqued our interest, so we made one that Christmas. It was pretty good, too, but as Vicki and I made our way through it over the course of a month, we discussed the flavors, what we liked and didn’t like, and made plans to experiment the following year.

Experimentation went on for nearly ten years as the Blechta Test Kitchens staff carefully swapped ingredients in and out (keeping records of what had been done) in our search to find what flavors, textures and proportions really worked for us. Some years we made two cakes with subtle differences between so we could easily make an A/B comparison. (This is also where we discovered how many people “hate” Christmas cake when we solicited responses!) In fact, we’re still experimenting: this year we decided to leave the fruit, nuts and spices “marinating” in the whiskey for a full day. An update will be available around December first as to how this may or may not have changed this year’s cake.

Covered with pecans and ready to go into the oven.
Almost everything except the amount of eggs, butter and flour has now changed from the original. We changed the almonds for walnuts and then for pecans. We eventually changed the Irish for rum, then Scotch and finally settled on Bourbon since it works so well with pecans. The candied citrus rind disappeared after only a few years and was replaced by more glacé cherries (in red and green), candied pineapple and candied ginger (Vicki’s phenomenal idea). Spices were also swapped in and out in varying proportions. The only thing outside the batter that stayed consistent throughout was the inclusion of golden raisins.

Eventually, we came up with a cake that is moist, exceptionally flavorful and keeps extremely well. As a matter of fact, I was cleaning out the back recesses of our bread drawer in late summer, found the butt end of last year’s cake, still carefully wrapped in plastic. There wasn’t much, but after unwrapping and smelling it, I tried a tiny piece. It was still excellent, if a little dry. (Many people keep wedding fruit cakes for several years to enjoy on a significant anniversary.)

We got ours done on Tuesday this week, which is slightly late for us since we like our cake to “age” for 2-3 weeks after adding the final bit of bourbon. Aging does make the cake more moist and flavorful.

All we need to add is the rest of the bourbon – and then wait!
One last thing: we do know that Jack Daniels isn’t technically bourbon, it’s the Woolsey family tipple of choice (Vicki is a Woolsey), so we use that. It has a stronger, more pronounced flavor than your typical bourbon. In our cake, it is by far the best of the various liquors we tried.

So, it’s not too late to whip up one of these fruitcakes for your holiday festivities. We usually serve thin slices with a bit of confectioner’s sugar sifted over the top and an appropriate tipple. Jack works fine, but we’ll use whatever is on hand: Scotch, Irish, even a late-harvest Reisling that Creekside Winery sometimes makes (or used to).

Give it a try and see what a good fruitcake can taste like! You may become a convert. Also, please share your fruitcake ideas and variations with everyone by using our comment section. Anti-fruitcake rants are also welcome.

Fruitcake with Pecans and Bourbon

1 cup red glacé cherries
1 cup green glacé cherries
1 cup candied pineapple
1 cup ginger preserved in syrup (pieces cut in half if large)
½ cup golden raisins
1 cup whole pecans
1½ tsp cloves
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp mace
1 lemon, juiced and rind grated
1½ cups 
Bourbon (we suggest using 
Jack Daniels)
1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
4 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

1. Combine all fruit, pecans, lemon juice and rind, spices and stir in half the whiskey. Cover tightly and soak overnight.

2. Preheat oven to 300° and line the long side of a 9" loaf pan with 2 thicknesses of parchment paper. (We use the ends of the parchment paper as a handle to lift the cooled cake out of the pan after loosening the ends with a knife.)

3. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Now beat in the flour little by little. (If the batter begins to separate while you’re adding in the eggs, don’t despair! Simply beat in a few tablespoons of the flour.)

5. Fold the prepared fruit and nuts into the batter. Make sure the cake batter is pushed into all corners of the pan. Smooth the top. If you want, cover the top with pecan halves. We do this some years, others not.

6. Bake for 1½-2 hours or until a skewer comes out clean perfectly clean. Cool in the loaf pan.

7. Using a skewer, poke a lot of holes in the cake. Using a teaspoon or an eyedropper (I also feed Vicki like a baby bird from the eyedropper), carefully drizzle the remaining whiskey over the cake, letting it soak in. (I sometimes take the cake out to do this on the top, bottom and all sides, but you have to be more careful because the precious liquid can run off. Keeping it in the loaf pan helps contain the liquor.)

8. Wrap the cake very tightly in plastic and set aside for at least 2 weeks to let the cake age. Don’t cheat on this!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Leaving France with a bang: a classic dish that is so worth the effort

We forgot to take a photo, so I “borrowed” this!
Sorry it’s taken me two weeks to get back to AMFAS, but I’ve been rather busy. This post was scheduled for last week to finish off our series on French cooking (done as a salute to the publication of my eighth crime fiction novel, The Fallen One, which takes place for the most part in Paris), but, well, life tends to get in the way sometimes, doesn’t it?

Anyway, to my mind, I’ve saved the best for last. Call it the showman in me, but I feel it’s always best to go out with a bang. I have two French cooking bangs in my repertoire, and for the past month I could not decide which one to present.

One is cassoulet, a dish that can best be easily described as “pork and beans on steroids”. It is something that takes a few days to prepare, but the result of that labor is so mind-bogglingly good, that one mouthful will erase all memory of the effort put in to create such heaven.

Two beautiful tournedos about to be cooked.
The other is Tournedos Rossini, classic French cooking, the kind you find only in the best French restaurants. You will also pay a lot of money for this dish. I went for it because, well, my novel is about opera and the composer for whom the dish is named was one of the most famous composers of opera.

So you get the Tournedos, but don’t worry, I’ll share the cassoulet recipe sometime soon since it’s the perfect winter dinner party meal.

Rossini’s operas made him a very wealthy man, so wealthy in fact, that he didn’t have to work. William Tell, which premiered in 1829 when the composer was 38, was his last opera, but he lived to his 76th year. What did he do during that time? He mostly ate, and ate very well. By all accounts, Rossini was an excellent cook, as well as a noted gourmand.

Today’s dish, Tournedos Rossini, was supposedly created for the composer by master chef Marie-Antoine Carême, and making it is not for the faint of heart – or faint of wallet , either, since it uses some pretty expensive ingredients. If you are up for it, though, the rewards are great. It will make a very spectacular meal.

One quart of meat stock cooked down to 1/2 cup – heaven!
In a nutshell, the recipe consists of a tournedo (the larger middle part of a beef tenderloin) cooked rare. This is placed on top of a toast round, then there’s a slice of fois gras followed by some slices of black truffle. The whole thing is then sauced with a very rich madiera sauce. Since the sauce along would make this recipe way too long, I’m going to point you to a couple of internet sites that show how to make it. Yes, it’s time-consuming and involved, but certainly worth the effort. If you are morally opposed to foie gras, just leave it out. The dish will be diminished but still plenty good.

[Sidebar: Complex sauces like the one used here are no big deal for the kitchen of a French restaurant, since they make stocks and demi-glacé sauces in large quantities almost daily. But even the most sophisticated home kitchen has to start sauces like this from scratch. Certainly, you can find easier ways to do a Madeira sauce, but if you’re a dedicated foodie, just once you should make the full-on, no shortcuts French version, so I’m giving that here. If you’re going to go out and buy expensive cuts of beef, foie gras and truffles, you might as well go for The Full Monty. The sauce starts off with a brown veal stock. If you’re wise, you’ll make a full recipe of that and freeze whatever you don’t use for later cooking projects.]

Tournedos Rossini
Serves 4

4 beef tournedos, about 7 oz. each (you can also go smaller and use filets mignons)
salt and freshly-ground black pepper
3 Tbs butter
1 Tbs vegetable oil
8 oz foie gras (preferably fresh)
3/4 cup of veal demi-glace
1/4 cup Madeira
4 slices of bread (French bread works well)
1 medium black truffle
1 Tbs butter (for finishing the sauce)

1. Two days before you’re going to serve this, make the veal stock from this recipe: (It’s also a very interesting page with good background information from a very knowledgeable chef.) It would be wise to use veal bones instead of beef, or at least more veal than beef. Once your stock is finished, de-fat it by cooling it overnight in the fridge. (Letting the fat solidify in the fridge and then lifting it off is far easier than skimming it when warm.)

2. The next day, carry on with the recipe given in Step 1 and make a brown sauce (sauce Espagnole) out of some of your veal stock. The secret of a good brown sauce is to cook everything slowly and reduce the stock a good deal to concentrate the flavors. Cooking the roux carefully will get you a good golden color without burning it (easy to do). If it burns, chuck it and start over. (Trust me on this. I made a huge mistake once.)

3. Carry on and make the demi-glacé from the same recipe. Cook it way down to really concentrate the flavor. Don’t season it yet. Chill overnight.

4. On the day of your big meal, make sure you take the tournedos out of the fridge a good hour or two to bring it to room temperature. Otherwise, the outside will be cooked too much before the inside even gets warm. I suggest having someone help with the preparation of your dinner by handling the cooking of any accompanying vegetables and potatoes. That way you can give your full concentration to the tournedos. I like serving this with pommes parisienne and buttered French green beans.

5. Prepping everything is the key. first, season the tournedos with salt and pepper. Then, in a small saucepan combine the demi-glacé with about 2 teaspoons of chopped black truffle. Thinly slice the rest of the truffle. Slice the foie gras lengthwise into 4 equal portions. Trim the slices of bread to the shape and size of the tournedos. Measure out the Madeira.

6. Put the demi-glacé on to heat very gently. Over medium heat, melt 1 1/2 tablespoons of the butter with the vegetable oil in a skillet big enough to eventually hold all the meat and quickly fry the slices of bread until nicely browned on both sides. Remove and set aside.

7. Now add the other 1 1/2 Tbs of butter and sauté the tournedos over high heat for about 4 minutes per side for rare (my suggestion) or around 5 for medium-rare. Don’t go past this for meat this good! When they’re done, remove them from the pan and place in a warm oven (200°).

8. Place the foie gras into the skillet and sauté them for a generous minute on each side over high heat. They’re fragile, so handle them carefully. When they’re done, place one on each of the tournedos. Now is the time to heat the plates on which you’re going to serve this!

9. Discard all the fat from the skillet, and add the Madeira to the skillet (having reduced the heat to medium). Scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan as you stir. Add the demi-glacé and bring it to a boil quickly. Remove from the heat and melt in the last tablespoon of butter to finish the sauce. Now check the sauce for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste.

10. Working quickly, on the heated plates, place the vegetables and potatoes on one half, and one of the croutons in the middle of the other half. Top each crouton with a tournedo and its slice of foie gras, then garnish with a few slices of truffle and spoon an equal portion of sauce over each. Serve immediately and be prepared for the accolades.

If you’re cooking something this good, do yourself a favor and have an excellent bordeaux would be the perfect wine to serve with it.

Let someone else clear the table and do the dishes!

Monday, October 22, 2012

My favorite French dish

Apologies for the crummy photo. I'll take another next time!
From the first time she made it, I have adored my wife’s coq au vin – not that I don’t adore other things about her, too! Making it plays to her strengths, too. She’s great with “stew-like objects” where she can prep everything, put it all together and then step back. Ala minute cooking is not her forte.

This is provincial French cooking at its best. To be really faithful, you need a rooster, but that can be tough unless you know a farmer who raises poultry. Since this fowl will be on the elderly side, it needs slow cooking at a low temperature for a long period to come out tender. While that’s admirable (and well worth the effort of finding a stewing hen), most people don’t want to bother with that. I’ve done it, and it is fantastic, especially what the slow braising does to the sauce using my cast iron Dutch oven. The recipe given here is for using a good-size roasting chicken.

For me, the whole peppercorns make this dish with a bit of very nice heat when you bite into one. Vicki and one of our sons generally pony up with most of their peppercorns, which I don’t mind at all. We’re also blessed with our home-smoked bacon, which adds another whole layer of flavor.

Julia Child made this dish famous in the US, but our recipe is a bit easier and quicker to put together. Vicki generally takes the skin off the chicken pieces these days which keeps a good deal of extra fat out of the sauce, but it’s also not quite as tasty, in my opinion. A good suggesting might be to keep the skin on some of the pieces like the legs, wings and maybe one of the thighs.

It’s important to brown the chicken well. This also adds a lot of flavor. Once you’ve dismembered the chicken, wash it thoroughly and get it thoroughly dry so it browns well. If the two breasts are on the large side, I suggest cutting them in half. They’re easier to manage on the plate and if you have a hearty eater at table, he or she can just have both halves.

We’ve been serving spelt pasta with this lately and it stands up well to the rich sauce. You won’t need as much, either, because it’s more filling. Try it. Any Italian grocer will have it, as well as health food stores or supermarkets with a health food section.

One other thing: as with most stews, this is always better reheated. Keep that in mind for your next dinner party, although you want to be careful with overcooking it.

Bon appetit!

Coq au vin
Serves 4-6

1 3 lb chicken cut into pieces or chicken parts, skinned if you want
3 Tbs olive oil
¼ lb thick-sliced smoked bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch lardons
1 cup onions, chopped
½ cup carrots, grated
2 tsp garlic, minced or pressed
3 Tbs all purpose flour
2 Tbs fresh parsley, minced
2 Tbs fresh chervil, minced or 2 tsp dried chervil
3 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 Tbs fresh thyme, minced or 1 tsp dried thyme
1 Tbs black peppercorns
¾ tsp salt
1½ cups full-bodied red wine (burgundy is traditional)
1½ cups mushrooms, sliced
2 cups baby carrots

1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Have all ingredients at room temperature. In a heavy pot such as a Dutch oven, sauté the bacon in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over low heat until the fat is rendered. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Add the onions, grated carrots and garlic to the fat, sauté over medium heat for 3 minutes. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside.

3. Add the rest of the olive oil, and sauté the chicken pieces until they are lightly browned on all sides, taking care not to crowd them. Remove them from the pot and set aside. Drain any remaining fat from the pan and discard.

4. Return the vegetables to the pot, add the flour, parsley, chervil, salt and peppercorns. Sauté for 1 minute over medium heat, stirring frequently.

5. Add 1 cup of wine, stir well. Reduce the heat to low. Tuck the bay leaves into the mixture. Arrange the chicken parts on top of the vegetables, pour the remaining wine on top of the chicken. Cover tightly. Place in the oven.

6. After 30 minutes, stir everything thoroughly, making sure the chicken pieces are turned over in the sauce, then add the baby carrots to the pot.

7. Fifteen minutes later, add the sliced mushrooms and the bacon pieces to the pot, stirring them in as best as possible. Add more wine if necessary or it’s gotten too thick. Cook 15 minutes longer.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

On the lookout for a fantastic out-of-the-ordinary hors d’oeurves?

We don’t entertain all that often, but it seems that whenever we do, we spend the most time trying to figure out what to serve while we’re sitting around before dinner. The ideal thing to serve is something that doesn’t need last-minute cooking, so when everyone arrives we can just bring the hors d’oeurves out of the kitchen.

We have some tried and true recipes, but one can’t keep serving those to the same guests. Our grilled mussels are always a favorite, but they can’t be made in winter or when the weather is wet.

A number of years ago, we were browsing through cookbooks looking for something new for an upcoming dinner party when we happened across something really quite fantastic in Lulu’s Provençal Table a source of a number of our favorite recipes – including grilled mussels (moules à la Catalane) and ratatouille – two recipes we’ve already featured on AMFAS.

Today’s recipe is called pissaladière, something best described as a French version of what the Italians call a “white pizza”, since it has no tomatoes. The dish seems to have originated in southern France, and it’s often found as street food, being served room temperature from carts around markets.

At first reading, the ingredients seem a bit of an odd fit in the same dish, but believe me, the combination is inspired, and as long as your guests appreciate anchovies, I guarantee they won’t fail to be impressed – and surprised. The tender, buttery crust and the sweetness of the almost-dissolving onions work perfectly against the salty jolt of the anchovies and the fruitiness of the olives.

Often pissaladière is made with a bread dough much like that used in Italian pizza, but Lulu’s recipe uses a pâte brisée which I think works better with the flavor and texture of the onion base. You need to only use salt-packed anchovies for this. We once made it with those filleted anchovies that come packed in oil in little tins, and frankly, the result was very disappointing. The choice of olives is also important and niçoise seems the best choice here.

Learn from our mistakes. Stick to what the recipe calls for to avoid disappointment! You may have to work a bit harder to source the exact ingredients, but it will prove worth it. Salt-packed anchovies can be found at good fish monger, especially those with a more southern European bent. The nice thing is that they keep practically forever in a tightly closed container in your fridge. (We generally keep a half-dozen on hand.) Niçoise olives can be found at any shop specializing in good olives. Do yourself a favor and buy pitted ones if you can – unless you have a good olive pitter.

Another thing: pissaladière is best when freshly made and served warm-ish, but I think you’ll discover that’s not a problem since it usually disappears rapidly.

Serves 8

2 cups all purpose flour
¾ tsp salt
10 Tbs cold butter, diced
4 Tbs cold water (approx.)
4 Tbs olive oil
2 lbs sweet white onions, thinly sliced
8 whole anchovies, rinsed and patted dry, then filleted
½ cup Niçoise olives, pitted
olive oil

1. Sift the flour and salt together into a mixing bowl, add the diced butter. Rapidly crumble the butter and flour together between your thumbs and fingertips. Above all, don’t overwork the pastry. Add enough water to gather the pastry into a ball. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before rolling out.

2. Warm the olive oil in a heavy sauté pan, add the onions and salt, and cook covered over very low heat, stirring occasionally, for an hour or more, or until the onions are so soft as to form a semi-purée. Remove the lid and continue to cook until much of the liquid has evaporated; the onions should remain uncolored. Season with pepper.

3. Preheat the oven to 375°. With the palm of your hand, flatten the ball of pastry on a generously floured surface, sprinkle over with plenty of flour, and roll it out to a thickness of approximately ⅛". Roll it up on the rolling pin and unroll it onto a large baking sheet. Roll up the edges and crimp them.

4. Spread the onion purée evenly over the pastry, press the anchovies and olives into the purée, then drizzle a bit of olive oil over the surface.

5. Bake for 30 minutes or until the edges of the pastry are golden and crisp. Let it cool a bit before cutting into two- or three-bite sized pieces, making sure each has a few olives and some anchovy filet.

Note: To filet a whole anchovy, use a sharp paring knife and start just in front of the tail, gently lifting the meat from the backbone. If you work slowly, you should be able to peel of most of the meat in one go. If you don’t get it all, simply pull off any that remains with the tip of the knife or your fingers. Then, flip the fish over and repeat on the opposite sides. If there are any large bones at the front end where the head was removed, pull these off with your fingers. The rib bones are so tiny you don’t have to worry about any that remain in the meat. Once you’ve done a few, it gets pretty easy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Meanwhile, back in France…

Back in town again after a trip down to the States for a book signing in Ann Arbor, MI, and an appearance at Bouchercon (the big crime writing conference) in Cleveland, I was in severe cooking withdrawal. With yesterday being Thanksgiving up here in Canada, I was out in the kitchen making the usual turkey dinner. We’d gotten an absolutely delicious, Mennonite-raised bird from our friend Nick at Gasparro’s down on Bloor Street.

But that’s not what this post is about.

One of the things the French do very well are salads. It’s not the sort of thing one automatically thinks of when one is contemplating French cuisine, but during our trip to Paris in the fall of 2008 to research the novel I was writing (The Fallen One, which has just been released), we had some absolutely terrific cold plates of exquisite greens, vegetables and other nice things. To be honest, we never had anything evening approaching a bad one.

Beauvais’s rather odd-looking cathedral. That’s all there is!
When we returned home, we spent a lot of time discussing the food we’d experienced, and I kept commenting on a salade composée, especially. Was it found at a fancy restaurant with 3 Michelin stars? Nope. We were out in Beauvais, a sleepy backwater market town in Picardy, northwest of Paris, a place so quiet that they started building a grand cathedral 800 years ago – and never finished it! It’s quite a strange place that goes more up than out.

The salad was found at a restaurant that I decided to use as a setting in my novel for a pivotal scene: Café Victor.

A salade composée is just what it sounds like: everything is laid out artistically on the plate with an eye to colour and texture, as well as flavor. While the traditional way to add the dressing is to do each component separately, letting some things marinate longer than others, and then assembling the salad, most people just lay out their work of art, then carefully dribble a classic French vinaigrette over everything so nothing is disturbed. The way this dish looks is nearly as important as how it tastes.

Since researching it, and trying every one I come across on any menu, I can say that what goes in is very much a free-for-all. The recipe I’m offering today for this classic is the combination my wife Vicki favors, and to be honest, at the height of summer on one of those scorching days where you almost don’t want to eat, I can’t think of a better luncheon choice or first course. With a crisp white wine and crusty bread, I can’t think of much better. Try it and see if you don’t agree.

Salade Composée
Serves 4

1 head Boston lettuce
4 strips prosciutto, thinly sliced (this is definitely not traditional, but bear with us. It’s fantastic.)
12 spears asparagus
4 hardboiled eggs, quartered lengthwise
12 slices 
roasted red peppers, approximately 2" long and ½" wide
1 large vine ripened tomato, cut into 8 wedges
12 whole Kalamata olives, pitted
some fresh tarragon leaves
“a bit of” red onion, thinly sliced
3 Tbs tarragon white wine vinegar
7 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
salt & freshly-ground white pepper to taste

1. Place the strips of prosciutto on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Broil until crisp. Let cool. Meanwhile put the salad plates you’re going to use into the freezer to chill them completely.

2. Steam the asparagus until just done but certainly not soggy. We usually pop it in the freezer to cool it quickly.

3. Pull off 8 whole lettuce leaves from the head. Wash and pat throughly dry. Place two on each plate.

4. Arrange the vegetables and prosciutto on the lettuce. Sprinkle the tarragon leaves over the salad.

5. Whisk together the vinegar, oil and mustard. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

6. Carefully drizzle the dressing over the salad.

Note: To give this a bit of southern French feel, you might want to include a couple of salt-packed anchovy filets. I like a small piece of these with a quarter of the hardboiled eggs, but that may be just me…

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

And now for a short break in Germany!

I’m getting ready to hightail it out of town tomorrow for the States for a spot of book promotion and won’t be around for several days. I had planned on dovetailing my previous entry (confit de canard) with one of my favorite recipes: cassoulet, since it uses confit as one of its ingredients. Problem is, the recipe is rather long and involved (and somewhat difficult, truth be told), and I just don’t have time to get into it today. But I will, so stand by for that one!

Today, I’m going to share one of the Blechta family’s favorite summer recipes, Peach Kuchen. It’s a recipe we inherited from my mom, and I’m pretty certain that she got it from her mother. How far back it goes is anyone’s guess, but I’ll bet it’s pretty old.

Judging by the name, it must originally come from Germany where her people were from a few generations back. All of us make it at least a few times when those fantastic local, tree-ripened peaches show up. This just isn’t worth making with peaches that haven’t seen a tree for several weeks. Get the best peaches you can find. Usually, they’ll need a day or two on the counter to get to that perfect stage of ripeness.

My sister Lynette is the queen of this particular dish. There was one summer year’s ago when she seemed to produce one every night for about 2 weeks. Not that anyone complained! It turns out best when the peaches are really ripe. That way the skins come off easily. My suggestion is to use one of the thicker-skinned freestone peach varieties. That way they’ll skin easily and you’ll be able to pull the fruit off the pit with your fingers or with minimal knife work.

We generally serve this two ways: with vanilla ice cream or with whipped cream. Either way is quite nice, but some good homemade whipped cream tastes best in my opinion.

We’ve also shared this recipe with lots of people who love it as much as we do. Now it’s your turn. Do yourself a favor and make two!

Elsie’s Peach Kuchen
Makes 1 8-inch kuchen

2-4 peaches, depending on size
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp baking powder
1 lemon rind, grated
1 egg, slightly beaten
2-3 Tbs dark brown sugar

1. Preheat oven to 375°. Have all ingredients at room temperature.

2. Dip peaches in boiling water for 3-5 minutes to loosen skins.

3. Skin and slice peaches into eighths.

4. Cream butter, then add sugar, and beat until fluffy.

5. Add flour, salt, baking powder, lemon rind, and egg, and mix well.

6. Press the batter into an 8" pie pan with a fork and arrange the sliced peaches on top. A spiral design really looks nice, but concentric circles are easier.

7. Bake for 20 minutes, sprinkle with brown sugar and bake for another 15 minutes. Watch that the crust doesn’t get too brown. Let this cool a fair bit so it will set up, but it should still be slightly warm.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

My favorite duck recipe: confit de canard

When I wrote about Brasserie Julien, the Paris restaurant that features in my new novel, The Fallen One, I promised our recipe for confit de canard which I enjoyed there that day. Today’s post fulfills that promise.

Just out of the oven and ready to be “canned” for storage.
I know, probably because of the fancy French name and the perception that French cooking is complicated, that most folks wouldn’t tackle making duck confit, but it really is not difficult at all, and the rewards are a dish of really exceptional flavor.

The making of confit is seen as a speciality of Gascony and was simply a way to preserve meat in the age before refrigeration. The idea is simple: salt cure a piece of meat (generally duck, goose or pork) with herbs and spices for flavoring, then poaching it slowly in its own fat until it’s tender and practically falling off the bone. After that, the confit is completely submerged in the fat in a sealed jar. In a cool, dark place, it will keep for several months. We feel a few month’s aging in the back of the fridge improves the flavor.

Anyway, that doesn’t sound difficult, does it? Actually, the only difficult thing (or rather expensive if you’re just buying it) is getting enough duck fat assembled to cook the dish. In a pinch, we’ve just used lard and it has worked out well enough. Generally, we just save up all the fat from roasting a few ducks and we’re good to go.

The standard way of serving the dish is to remove it from the fat, then heat in a frying pan until the meat is warmed and the skin nice and crispy. There are two standard accompaniments. One is potatoes fried up in the duck fat and the other is red cabbage slowly cooked with apples and red wine. My suggestion is to do both! At Brasserie Julien, the confit was served with écrasé de pommes (see my post two before this one). But crisp potatoes that have been fried in duck fat is utterly decadent and utterly fantastic. You simply must try it at least once.

Confit de Canard
Serves 4

4 duck legs
½ cup kosher or pickling salt
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
freshly ground black pepper
4 bay leaves (fresh if possible)
1 qt rendered duck fat

1. Mix together salt, garlic, thyme and a good grinding of pepper. Rub this mixture into each duck leg on all sides.

2. Lay the duck legs in a glass dish, skin side down and place a bay leaf on each leg. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 24 hours. Some recipes say 36 hours. We feel this makes the confit too salty.

3. Remove the legs from the container, thoroughly rinse off salt mixture and pat legs completely dry.

4. Preheat oven to 220° and melt duck fat on the stove over low heat.

5. Place legs in a pan large enough to fit them in one layer, but small enough to not have much excess space. Cover the legs with the melted duck fat.

6. Place in oven and bake for at least two hours. Traditionally, you can tell the confit is ready when you stick the meat deeply with a toothpick and it slides out easily. Depending on the duck, this may take over three hours.

7. You can eat this right away or store it in the refrigerator for up to 6 months. The flavor will improve over this time. We usually leave it for at least a month. If you are going to “age” the confit, put the legs in a container where the legs will be completely covered by the fat by at least ½". We use quart mason jars which will hold 2-3 legs, depending on size. Seal tightly once cool and put it in the fridge.

8. To serve, take the confit from the fridge and melt the fat by placing the container(s) in boiling water (make sure you loosen the lids). Remove the duck legs from the fat carefully so they don’t fall apart.

9. In the bottom of a cast iron or other ovenproof frying pan, heat the legs, skin side down for around 15 minutes in a 350° oven. Then turn on the broiler and brown the legs, skin side up until they’re a nice mahogany color. Careful! It can burn quickly.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Possibly the most French of dishes

I’ve been running my own unscientific poll the past few days to find out what’s the first dish that pops into someone’s mind when I mention the phrase “French food”. So far I’ve asked 21 people – and not all of them gourmands, either. Twelve have answered quiche, which doesn’t really surprise me.

So that’s what today’s posting is all about, specifically quiche, the famous French custard and cheese pie.

As is usual with country foods that have been around a long time, getting to the roots of this dish is a long and winding road. It originally had no cheese, the base was a bread dough and there are doubts that it actually originated in the disputed région on France’s border with Germany. Whatever is the case, this dish had become indisputably popular around the world. As it’s spread and different chefs have got in on the action, a myriad of things have been added (spinach, tomatoes, different cheeses, mushrooms, etc), but for a traditional quiche lorraine (the most famous variation), it seems the recipe should include eggs, cream, bacon, and cheese. According to purists, if you use Gruyère cheese it becomes a quiche au gruyère. If you add onions or leeks, it then becomes quiche alsacienne.

Confused yet? Welcome to the world of French cuisine.

As a luncheon dish, I think it’s unsurpassed. Accompaniments can be simple: a tossed green salad and a glass of dry white wine work for me. In France, quiche is often served cold. It’s thicker than you’d expect and the crust seems more like a secondary thought. It’s delicious, but not quite what I (and a lot of other North Americans) enjoy best: hot or at least warm and with a healthy top edge to the crust.

Since my recipe today includes leeks, I guess I’m leaning to quiche alsacienne, because I think they add a lot to the overall flavor. I won’t turn up my nose to this dish without leeks or onions, but if I had to pick, the dish would include onions. I like to use the milder Emmental cheese, which isn’t even French, so I don’t what the heck you’d call my recipe

On to the kitchen!

I must let you know that I make a really good short-crust. It’s flaky and tender and tastes wonderful. My shortcoming is that the top edge often collapses a bit during baking, so don’t expect my photo to look like it just came out of the kitchen of a 50-star restaurant in the heart of France. I’ll hold off on that recipe for another blog post, so the recipe below just says “one short-crust recipe”. Supply what you like: store bought or homemade.

Rick’s sort of Quiche Lorraine/Alsacienne/Suisse/Whatever (it still tastes fantastic!)
Serves 4-6

3 smoked bacon slices (we use our own home-smoked bacon which is heavenly)
½ cup leeks, the white & light green parts sliced thinly
1 cup grated Emmental cheese
3 eggs
1½ cups cream
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
freshly-ground white pepper
1 shortcrust recipe

1. Preheat oven to 450°. Roll out a pie crust into a deep 9" pie pan.

2. You’ll need to blind bake the pie crust to keep it from becoming soggy when the custard is added and cooked. Do this by pricking it all over with a fork, then baking it for about 4 minutes or until the surface is opaque.

3. Cut bacon into ¼" pieces and sauté these in a frying pan over medium low heat so the fat renders out completely. When nearly crisp, remove and drain on paper towels. Reserve the drippings.

4. Cook the leeks until tender in 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings.

5. Cover the bottom of the partially-cooked shell with bacon, leeks and cheese. (Can be made ahead to this point.)

6. Beat together eggs, cream, salt, nutmeg and pepper then pour gently into the pie crust. Mix lightly with a fork to spread things out again.

7. Bake for 15 minutes at 450°, then reduce heat to 350° and bake another 15-20 minutes or until a knife stuck into the quiche comes out clean.

8. Let the quiche cool for 10-15 minutes to set more firmly. Serve warm with a tossed salad and a good dry white wine.

Hint: Only reheat quiche in the oven. Microwaving will ruin the crust!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Eating out in Paris

During our 2008 research sojourn in The City of Light, we did keep costs down by cooking as much as we could in our limited kitchen. To be truthful, a lot of it involved buying and then heating prepared foods. From the street market at the bottom of the hill, we bought a rotisserie coquelet (small chicken) with potatoes carrots and onions cooked in the juices (lovely), rabbit in mustard/creme sauce (even more lovely), and our favorite “hotel room cold meal”: sausage, paté and other charcuterie, handmade cheeses, sliced raw vegetables and all washed down with a red from the south of France, all hot-grape flavors and only 2.50 euros.

We only ate out a few times, and this was mostly when we couldn’t be carrying food with us. We had a rather unmemorable dinner in a small local restaurant and another when we visited Beauvais, a provincial town north and west of Paris that figures in the plot of the novel I was researching.

The main dining room at Brasserie Julien. Sumptuous, is it not?
But we did have one very memorable meal, a lunch actually, in a Parisian landmark from La Belle Epoque, Brasserie Julien. It’s located near the theatre district on a street that begins with a large triumphal arch. I mean this thing is huge and looks as if someone pushed a few buildings to the side and plopped the thing right down on the street. To be honest the area is a little dodgy but the restaurant itself is a real charmer. Each table has its own coat stand, topped by a large light, there are mirrors all over and art nouveau glasswork and paintings.

When we were there midweek, the place wasn’t all that busy and our waiter and the maitre’d were attentive and excellent…but this is beginning to sound more like a restaurant review than I’d like it to.

I don’t remember what Vicki ate (fish, if memory serves), but I ordered duck leg confit, something I’d never had. To quote Soupy Sales, my brains fell out with the first bite: full on duck flavor seasoned discretely with thyme, bay leaf, garlic, and I believe a bit of juniper berry. It had been fried to crisp the skin and was placed on pommes écrasé (potatoes mashed with a fork and mixed with olive oil). Oh yeah, there were some green beans, too. Our wine was the house red from bordeaux and quite excellent. Our dessert was a sampler plate of that day’s offerings.

Our dessert plate. Small portions and all exquisite.
Okay, we’re in Paris. It’s expensive to eat in Paris, right? Not here and not on that day. It probably would have cost us about 120 euros at dinnertime, but we got out of there for less than half that and I would have gladly paid more.

I’m running a bit out of time here. The launch for The Fallen One is this evening and I still have a lot of things to get ready. When I return, it will be laden with the recipe we got from another French source for making duck confit at home. It’s easy, but a bit time-consuming. However, the results are well worth any effort. In a word, it will make a spectacular dinner for anyone you care to impress.

Monday, September 10, 2012

When an abundance of summer vegetables overtakes you, take the French way out!

As part of our series on French food this month to celebrate the launch of my “French” mystery novel, The Fallen One, I’m going to look at one of our favorite recipes to make at this time of the year. When you’re tripping over ripe vegetables in your garden, what do you do?

If you’re French, you probably consider making Ratatouille, a fantastic vegetable stew! “Peasant food” it may be considered by those snooty Parisian restaurants, but it is honest, tastes wonderful and not difficult to prepare.

Having just gotten through our annual tomato sauce party yesterday with 6 really good friends (over 100 liters produced), I’m of course thinking of tomatoes. These are one of the key ingredients in ratatouille. Other commonly grown garden vegetables go into it as well: onions, zucchini, eggplant and peppers.

Have these out back and wondering what to do with all of them? Today’s posting can help.

One of my early blog postings here was about a favorite recipe: Grilled Mussels. This recipe comes from a fantastic cookbook, Lulu’s Provençal Table by Richard Olney. A favorite of mine to just browse through – it really is a lovely volume – we noticed early on that it had an interesting recipe for Ratatouille.

Having made this dish for years in a sort of haphazard way, just throwing things in that happened to be around –  with haphazard results – we were intrigued when we found Lulu’s take on it. First of all, her recipe looked pretty rigorous, but it also had an interesting approach: each of the vegetables were to be cooked separately, then combined for a final simmering.

It is a bit more work, certainly, cooking the dish in this manner, but the results are spectacular. Each ingredient stands out more, the textures are marvelous, and the flavours, especially after some mellowing in the fridge and reheating, get better and better. After our first try, we quickly declared this our Official Recipe.

If you make it, I’m confident you’ll feel the same way!

Lulu’s Ratatouille
Serves 6-8

2/3 cup olive oil (the good stuff only!)
1 lb large sweet onions, split in two, then finely sliced
1¼ tsp salt
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
1 lb zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut into ¾" sections
1 lb firm, young or baby eggplant, cut into ¾" cubes
1 lb tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered
3 large sweet peppers (1 each of red, green and yellow), grilled, and cut lengthwise into 
narrow strips, juices reserved*
2 bay leaves
3 fresh thyme sprigs, tied together
salt & freshly-ground pepper to taste
2 Tbs olive oil

1. In a wide, heavy 8-10 quart pot, cook the onions in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, covered, over very low heat, for at least 30 minutes, or until they are melting and simmering in their own juices, but uncolored. Remove the lid, raise the heat, and cook, stirring regularly, until they are uniformly light golden brown. Add ½ teaspoon of the salt, garlic and the prepped zucchini and continue to stir regularly.

2. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, sauté the eggplant in 4 tablespoons of the oil with ½ teaspoon of the salt until the pieces are softened. Add them to the pot with the onions and zucchini.

3. Add more oil to the frying pan if it is nearly dry. Over high heat, add the tomatoes and ¼ teaspoon of salt, and sauté, shaking the pan and stirring constantly until the liquid has evaporated. Remove them from the heat before they start to disintegrate, and add to the pot with the other vegetables.

4. Add the peppers and their juices to the pot, plus the bay leaves and thyme. Simmer over low heat, uncovered, for about 2 hours, stirring from time to time, until all excess liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are coated in a syrupy sauce. Adjust the seasoning.

5. Serve warm or at room temperature. This dish benefits from 1 of 2 days of refrigeration in order to allow the flavors to ripen. Bring to room temperature and stir in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil at the last minute.

*Special note: If you’ve never grilled peppers before, it’s really simple. You can do it in the kitchen (okay) or outside on your barbecue (better) or over a wood fire (best). Here’s how to do it.

If you’re doing it in the kitchen, your broiler is probably easiest. On the barbie, put the peppers right on the fire (charcoal or propane). On a wood fire, let it get to the point where you have good embers and throw the peppers on. Using tongs (long ones are best outside because it will be really hot), turn the peppers until they’re totally charred on all sides.

Next, put them into a pot with a tight lid and leave them for 10 to 15 minutes. This will loosen the skins. To remove the charred skin – and working over a bowl to catch the juices – pull and rub and it will come off. For any stubborn bits, use a sharp knife to pull it away. Still over the bowl, cut out the core and the seeds and any ribs inside the peppers, and you’re done. Strain those juices you’ve caught (they add a marvellous, smokey flavor) and carry on with the recipe.

Here’s a link to the winery Lulu and her family own: Domaine Tempier. It’s well worth a visit.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Heading away from tomatoes and Italy for a while

I’m sure everyone reading this blog will be pleased to hear that we’re taking a break from our focus of the past two months – with another focus: France and French cooking. This is also a bit of BSP (Blatant Self-Promotion for those not in the book writin’ game) since this month sees the release of my eighth crime fiction novel, The Fallen One.

You see, a large part of the novel is set in and around Paris. Being the type of person I am, Vicki and I had to go there and scope out the locations that I use in the book on a 9-day trip in autumn 2008. As Vicki expected (having been there a few times before) I fell in love with The City of Light.

In order to save money, but also just as much to really experience the city, we rented an apartment in the 13th Arrondissement near Butte aux Cailles. Our one-room apartment turned out to be just perfect for us, so perfect in fact that I eventually used it for the climactic scene of the novel.

In an amazing example of convergence, it just so happened that the large road down the hill from us, Boulevard Auguste-Blanqui near Place d’Italie, hosts a big street market on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. It appears magically on the sidewalk before dawn and disappears by 3:00 in the afternoon. The result of finding this lovely resource on our doorstep was that we had the perfect place to buy nearly everything we would eat during our stay.

There were stalls of fruits and vegetables picked the day before. One of my favorite places was a cheese monger, or should I say a group of artisanal cheese-makers, who pooled their resources to present their wares with a different person in attendance each market day. We bought the best roquefort I have ever eaten, not too salty and sold at the absolute peak of perfection. Just down the row was a fish monger selling catches that were made the night before, fish so fresh, all you could smell was the sea. I expected them to start moving.

And I shouldn’t neglect to tell you about the prepared foods. A Spaniard was cooking and selling paellas right out of the largest paelleras I have ever seen. The smell was intoxicating. Another stall had rabbit in mustard sauce. My favorite sold rotisserie poultry of all kinds: ducks, small turkeys, capons, coquelets, game hens, all cooked on large electric rotisseries. The best part was that, at the bottom, collecting all those fantastic drippings, were chunks of potatoes, carrots, sliced onions and peppers. Everything was cooked to perfection, ready be brought home hot and enjoyed immediately.

To say the least, even though we didn’t have a real kitchen, just a coffee maker and a combination toaster oven/microwave, we managed to make some fantastic meals with the booty from our forays to the market down the hill. The piéce de résistance was a Dover sole we bought from our new “favorite fish monger”. His brother had caught the sole he was displaying the night before. You can’t get fish this fresh anywhere but within a few miles of the sea. We had him clean it, bought some fingerling potatoes, baby spinach, a knob of sweet creamery butter, rosemary, parsley, almonds, and a head of garlic.

Back at the apartment, I cooked everything in shifts, first the potatoes, roasted gently with rosemary leaves and stems (for extra flavor), then the spinach, wilted with a bit of butter and minced garlic (try doing that with a pocket knife!), finally the almonds were toasted with some more butter. Everything was kept warm on a plate that we put on the top of our little oven. Finally I was ready to broil the fish — gently and just enough. You don’t want to ruin something this precious by even a minute too much cooking! The real trick was actually undercooking it to the point where I could put everything back in for a final heating-through without the fish going past the point of no return.

The cooking gods (probably Julia Child and Escoffier) were smiling down on us that night because we sat down to a meal of “sort of sauteed” Dover sole, perfectly cooked (by dumb luck more than anything) with buttered toasted almonds, roasted new potatoes and wilted spinach, all washed down with an exquisite bottle of Pouilly Fuisse we’d bought for under 4 euros. It was probably the best meal I’ve ever turned out, perfect in every detail. Cooking it was a horror show to be sure, but the memory of of doing it makes us chuckle now.

Only in Paris…

Stay tuned for more memories of Paris, and some of our favorite French recipes (and we have some good ones!) in the coming weeks.