Friday, July 27, 2012

Eating our way across Italy (La Terza Parte)

Our Venetian neighborhood.
We ended our first journey to Italy last year in Venice. Since we had rented a car to get us around Tuscany and then up to this iconic city on the Adriatic (via Busseto where Verdi lived, and Verona where we stopped for the night), we had to turn in our vehicle before we got into the city proper. (The city streets are rather damp and it’s hard to see unless you have a good periscope.)

To get to Venice, you either arrive by train, take a boat, or cross the causeway from the mainland in your car which funnels you into a very small area where there are parking garages. In late June, you can imagine the madhouse. It took nearly an hour of waiting in line to get into the garage that Hertz uses – once we figured out which one it was! You can imagine how frazzled we were. Then there were all the Vaporetti routes to Piazza San Marco to negotiate. That morning was not an auspicious start to our stay in Venezia.

But the city charmed us at once. There really is nothing else like it in the world. The weather was coolish with a nice shore breeze during our 3-day visit, unlike what we’d been led to expect (hot and humid). As we had done for the entire trip, we’d rented an apartment. It was just off Via Garibaldi hard on the park in the eastern end where the famous Biennale di Venezia art show is staged. Oddly for Venice, Via Garibaldi is a very wide street, and we discovered later that it had once been a canal.

For Venice, it’s a real neighborhood with small local shops and still with a lot of Venetians living there, something we found out is not common anymore. Since we wanted to do our own cooking, this was the ideal set-up. We quickly found a baker, a cheese monger, a small grocery store and a boat at the end of the original canal a few blocks from our apartment where we could get fresh fruits and vegetables. There was also a small street market where we bought fresh fish – something we were looking forward to during our stay.

Our apartment was down an alley and right at the start of it was a small trattoria that seemed to do a thriving business. We soon found out why. In the evenings, the owner entertains, singing and playing guitar until the wee hours. Being summer, no one sat inside, so it was sort of like a street party. We resisted going there until our last afternoon, when, dog-tired after a long day of researching for the novel I was writing, we got back to the apartment, looked at each other, and both said, “I’m starving, but I’m not cooking!” We immediately thought of the little trattoria.

I believe it's called Giorgione (no doubt the restaurateur’s name) and we had a lovely meal. Why? Because we ordered the house specialty: seafood risotto. Savoring each mouthful, Vicki and I took careful note of the ingredients and possible proportions. We were determined to recreate it at home.

Today, I’d like to share this dish with you.

Our ‘Venetian’ Seafood Risotto
Serves 2

An earlier version of the recipe with larger chunks of seafood.
Very tasty, but somehow not as good as the original.
Risotto is not hard to make, but it most be watched and stirred constantly, and it is a dish where pre-prepping everything is a must. It also has to be served immediately, because even a few minutes wait and everything starts to congeal. Having made numerous mushroom risottos, a family favorite, I felt certain we could pull this all together and give us a memory of our time in Venice. One thing we did notice at the restaurant was that the two shellfish used, shrimp and scallops, were chopped fairly finely. I figured this was a dodge by the kitchen to cut down on the amount needed, but it became clear that the finer pieces allow all the flavors to blend really well. We make this dish with slightly larger pieces of the stars of the show, but still they’re not whole or even in honking big chunks.

Serve this dish with a salad of mixed greens with a simple dressing of primo olive oil and balsamic vinegar. In Italy, you dress your own salad right at the table. Try this with guests. It’s fun. We enjoy a good sauvignon blanc with this dish, but soave or pinot grigio are also quite nice.

3 cups seafood stock
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 doz medium-size raw shrimp
4 large dry scallops
1/3 cup minced onion
1 garlic clove, minced
3-4 Tbs olive oil
1 cup arborio rice (don’t use anything else!)
grated rind of one lemon (our little addition)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbs fresh oregano, minced
3 Tbs fresh parsley, minced
1 Tbs butter
salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat the stock, peel the shrimp and cut each one into three or four equal pieces. (Reserve shells for more stock, or do this step early and make the stock for the dish on the fly.) The scallops should be cut to the same size. Have all other ingredients ready to go because you won’t have time to cook and prep at the same time! When the stock is just boiling, add the white wine, and turn it down to a simmer.

2. Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil and gently sauté the shrimps and scallops until they’re just opaque. You don’t want to cook them all the way. Remove from the pan (and leave as much of the oil behind as you can).

3. Add up to 2 more tablespoons of oil, heat over medium heat to the point of fragrance, then add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft (add two pinches of salt to help sweat them). Now add the rice and cook for about 4 minutes, stirring constantly, until most of the grains have turned opaque.

4. Now, one half-cup at a time, begin adding the hot stock to the rice. Stir it gently allowing the grains of rice to absorb the liquid. As the stock is absorbed, add more. (Stir constantly so the liquid is absorbed evenly.) Don’t have the heat too high. You want the stock to be absorbed, not boiled off!

5. Shortly after putting in the last half-cup of stock, taste the rice to make sure it’s done. You want it to be al dente not mushy. If it’s not quite done, you can add a little water or even more wine. Next time have the heat a little lower so the rice cooks more slowly. This is all a matter of feel, and after you’ve made risotto a time or two, you’ll get it.

6. Now add the lemon rind, parmesan cheese, and oregano, plus the reserved shrimp and scallops. Heat another minute or so, then melt in the butter. You want your risotto to have a nice sauce so don’t let it get too dry. Check the salt and add what you need. Just before serving (on warmed plates!), sprinkle on the chopped parsley. Pass around the pepper mill at the table.

Note: Not everyone has seafood stock lying around, but don’t let that deter you! Whenever we have shrimp or lobster, we save the shells and make stock. The shells are strongly flavored, so it doesn’t take a lot. One lobster or two dozen shrimp shells will make at least six cups of finished stock. Simply throw them in a pot of cold water, bring to a boil, then simmer for an hour or so. Strain, chill, put the stock into old yogurt containers (or whatever you use for this sort of thing) and throw it into the freezer. It will keep for six months or so. Easy, huh?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A special announcement!

One week from today, July 26th, if you’re anywhere near Toronto, toddle on down to The Revue Cinema at 400 Roncesvalles Avenue in Parkdale at 6:30 p.m.

I will be participating in an evening of great food and cinema, acting as host for a really terrific event, part of the theatre’s Epicure Revue series. The evening consists of food, in this case Italian, prepared by chefs from restaurants in the area, and a showing of the film, Big Night. If you haven’t seen what I feel is perhaps one of the best “food movies” of all times, now is your chance – and on the big screen! The 1966 release starring Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, and Isabella Rosselini (among others) is about two Italian immigrant brothers who own a failing restaurant on the New Jersey Shore.

Set in the ’50s, it’s nostalgic (including music by the incomparable Louis Prima), bittersweet, and totally engrossing. Roger Ebert had this to say about Big Night: “…one of the great food movies, and yet it is so much more. It is about food not as a subject but as a language – the language by which one can speak to gods, can create, can seduce, can aspire to perfection. There is a moment in the movie when a timpano is sliced open, and the audience sighs with simple delight.”

Taking part in the evening with me will be Chef Carmine Accogli, whose restaurant The Big Ragu stages Big Night parties. He’s ebullient, extremely knowledgable (about food in general and Italian food specifically), and an absolute delight. My job as host, interviewing him, will be very, very easy. Carmine is bringing “timpano meatballs” with him. Local eateries also in attendance will be The Chocolateria with chocolate biscotti, and Barque, bringing smoked bay scallops with a jalapeño pesto sauce. Mildred’s Temple Kitchen will also be bringing something. I will have copies of my novels there for sale, and while they don’t feature much about food in the plots, they do make great summer reads.

Tickets are $10 for members and seniors; $12 for non-members.

I’m really stoked to be a part of this event. It sounds like great fun. Read more about the evening by clicking HERE.

Be there or be square!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Home curing: “The Smoked Bacon Report”

I’ve been going through “meat-curing withdrawal” since it’s way too hot in our basement at the moment to make much of anything that requires a hanging period in a cool environment. Fortunately, we made enough guanciale in our last batch to last into the fall, so we’re good to go there, but our lonzino is nothing more than a fond memory at this point and it will be late November before we have another taste of that. Now at least there’s a good reason to look forward to cold weather!

All smoked and ready for slicing!
Down at the SLM last weekend, my son and I dropped by our friends at the Sausage King where Ben showed me a gorgeous piece of pork belly when I mentioned we were thinking of smoking some bacon. I could not resist.

Back home, I pulled out Charcuterie (link in the RH column), a fantastic recipe book/treatise that covers home curing, smoking, drying, terrines and patés, etc. Not only does it tell you what to do, it tells you why to do it. I like that.

Anyway, we decided to start slowly, make the most basic recipe, and save the messing about until we gain enough experience. I also only bought half the amount of pork belly specified in the recipe (2.5 pounds instead of 5). We made up our cure consisting only of kosher salt, pink salt (curing salt) and dark brown sugar. After spreading it evenly over the pork belly, everything was put into a freezer bag and refrigerated for a week, turning it every other day and redistributing the cure over the meat, so it would progress evenly.

Once 7 days had passed, I thoroughly rinsed the meat, dried it with paper towels and then set it on a cake cooling rack in the fridge to develop the pellicule (tackiness of the surface to which the smoke will stick). Next day we began the smoking process.

The real issue was not knowing our new equipment. I started with a modest charcoal fire (no lighter fluid!) and let that build up heat. Having read some online articles, I decided pretty early on that wrapping our soaked applewood chips in aluminum foil was the way to keep them from burning too quickly. Poke holes in with a cooking fork, and the little packs (about 1 cup of chips in each) smoked for about 40 minutes.

The smoker came with a very basic thermometer, so I picked up a cheap and far more accurate one (also dishwasher proof!) at our hardware store so I would know what 200°F was, not some “Ideal Range” that looks to be anywhere between 190° and probably 230°. Our smoking probably took a bit longer than it should have because I was trying to figure out how much charcoal to add and when in order to keep the temperature nailed at 200°. The answer was a good-sized chunk every 20 minutes or so.

Three hours later came the crucial taste test. The chunk of bacon came out of the smoke with an attractive gold patina and it smelled fantastic. Cutting off some nice-sized chunks, we popped them into our mouths and chewed reflectively. The apple added beautiful notes to the overall flavor and we will definitely go with it again. It may be because of the smaller piece of pork belly used, but we all felt the bacon was a tad too salty. Since from the firmness of the meat I had felt it might be done after 6 days in the cure, I think we’ll drop that seventh day and see what we get. We could also soak the cured bacon in water for an hour or two to leach out some of the salt before drying it overnight prior to the smoking process. I’ll have to get back to you on this one after we try the recipe a few more times.

We will freeze our share of the bacon for use in cooking (clam chowders, a few or our stews, etc.) where the slight saltiness of the bacon can be compensated for with less salt elsewhere in the recipes.

The plan now is to try amping things up by doing maple smoked bacon. My son Karel really loves anything maple flavored, and we have the recipe for a slightly sweeter bacon made with both maple sugar (replacing the brown sugar) and 100% maple syrup. (Anyone out there ever used maple wood chips for smoking?)

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The problem of internet cooking “experts”

We bought a smoker last week, a cheap one for sure, but something we’re going to have a lot of fun with. Being the hands on sorts we are, it’s no problem to have to watch what’s going on, stoke the fire, regulate temperatures, etc. We enjoy doing that. For instance, tomorrow my son Karel and I are going to smoke some bacon we’ve made and sit with it, chatting for a few hours while we make sure everything is done just right. We get some great food at the end – and some important quality time together.

As of last fall, I knew very little about home curing of meat, and certainly nothing about smoking. While looking for a guanciale recipe, I stumbled across two terrific resources: Wrightfood and Charcuterie, a fantastic book about home curing, smoking and preserving food (both with links in our right-hand column). They’ve been indispensable in helping us get a handle on this very interesting – and delicious – part of our culinary heritage. I encourage you to check out both resources if you’re interested in learning more. Helpful too, have been our two friends at The Sausage King at the SLM. Ben and Reete are both experienced curers and smokers, and are most willing to share their knowledge (and talk baseball).

But all of these resources are not enough to answer every question I have. I like to know as much as I can about things that are new to me. In the case of food, alternate recipes, cooking methods or just general information can really be useful. One of my pet peeves is recipes that tell you to do something a certain way and then never tell you why. Sometimes the why is the most important thing!

I’ve spent a lot of time online during the past week, trying to find out as much as I can about smoking. For instance, we enjoy ribs on occasion during the summer, and the best ribs I’ve had have always been smoked. How do you get the best results out of a smoker when making ribs? How hot? How much smoke? How long?

When you Google “smoked BBQ ribs”, it returns a dizzying number of sites all offering help. At the top of the stack are the usual recipe sites, but I’ve learned long ago that the offerings there are generally by amateur cooks, many of them fine, no doubt, but also from a number of people who really don’t know very much, but are just enthusiastically sharing their recipe. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who really knows what they’re talking about. Same thing when you search on YouTube, although here, watching the people do their thing, it’s easier to suss out the real experts.

Blogs are no better. It’s easy to set oneself up as an expert, but do you really have the credentials to back that up? I’m not talking about diplomas or job experience (although that most certainly helps), I’m talking about knowledge of your topic, use of that knowledge and the ability to help people cook better.

So what does one do to separate the wheat from the chaff? It can be difficult. Some of us have enough skill to be able to see where there might be problems with a recipe or technique, although I’ve certainly been fooled a few times. If one is using expensive ingredients, errors can become really costly – not to mention embarrassing if you’ve invited guests to share in your special dish.

One hard and fast rule we have is to never make anything for the first time and serve it to guests. Too many things can go wrong, or you may find you simply hate the dish. With some of the sketchier recipes, you are really taking a risk – especially if your skill level or experience is not that advanced. I’ve made some horrendous gaffs over the years (grist for a future “tell-all” blog posting), and if I can help anyone to avoid embarrassment, I will consider it a job well done.

Wrapping up this post’s topic: stick with the pros as much as you can. Most professional chefs will not put something on the internet which is not of a high standard. If nothing else, they risk ridicule within their profession, and believe me, that can be a virulent thing. Home cooks are just that. It’s buyer beware when you listen to them or try their recipes. Anyone can put anything on the internet. Always look at things with healthy scepticism.

And if you find me making any mistakes, please call me on it. I don’t mind. One of my life mottos is “I’d rather be good than right.” If you have any questions about any of the recipes I post, for heaven’s sake ask! I’m only too happy to help or clarify.

Happy cooking.

And I promise to let you all know how the bacon smoking turns out.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

One solution for leftovers

Leftovers are something that everyone has to deal with, whether you enjoy cooking or not – or even if you don’t cook at all. There is little that’s more depressing than finding a bowl of a green and fuzzy substance in the dark recesses of your refrigerator and realize that something that was never finished has now died and gone to food heaven, rather than being enjoyed.

Leftovers can be a great boon or an albatross hanging around one’s culinary neck. After a long day, it can be quite wonderful to realize that eating that evening is simply a matter of heating up something not finished at a previous meal. Leftovers become a chore, though, when you realize food is on the slippery edge of going bad and must be eaten or thrown out – and maybe you have other plans for dinner. Our moms always chided us as children about not wasting good food, and that early conditioning still hangs on with much guilt being felt when we don’t do what we know we should. And as I said in the opening, there is genuine sadness as well as guilt when you find that terrific dish that got pushed to the back of the fridge and is now working hard to produce penicillin.

Casseroles, soups and stews, leftover roasts and some vegetable dishes work very well just being reheated. Other things are not so good, and we’re often left wondering what to do with them. (Other things should never be eaten as leftovers.) We all have horror stories about that, I’m sure.) Whole cookbooks have been produced on the topic of leftovers, and some of them are quite “creative”. Another solution to the perennial problem that is often overlooked is to just not cook so much in the first place. Sound simple, doesn’t it? So how come we don’t do it?

[Sidebar: I have a horror story from my youth about leftovers. It left me forever scarred. My mother, like everyone who lived through the depression, never threw out any food. Every morning in the winter, she’d make hot chocolate for us. If we didn’t finish it all, into the fridge it would go, usually in a glass jar. One day, I arrived home from school, and being cold, searched the fridge to see if there was any leftover hot chocolate. I found two jars with enough in them to make a large mug with maybe seconds! Not paying much attention, I threw the liquid into a saucepan and while reading something, lazily stirred the pan so the HC wouldn’t scald. Pouring it into a mug, I took a taste and immediately spit my mouthful out. I didn’t know that mom had heated up some Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom soup for her lunch and hadn’t finished it. Believe me when I say that Chocolate Cream of Mushroom soup is unlikely to ever become a gourmet treat! (It also shows you just how little mushroom they include in the soup.)]

Regardless, everyone has to deal with leftovers, whether we want to or not. But what are problems without solutions? I’m here to over one small solution to a problem I bet you’ve faced on numerous occasions: what to do with that leftover baguette?

Baguettes can be wonderful things. Here at the Blechta Test Kitchens in Beautiful Downtown Toronto we’re particularly fond of the country grain baguettes made by Stonemill Bakery located in the basement of the St. Lawrence Market. If you live in the GTA (greater Toronto area), you may also be able to get these at your local supermarket. Down at the SLM on a Saturday morning, we often find them still warm from baking, and taken home and eaten immediately, they are wonderful things indeed.

But all baguettes have a very small window during which they’re at their best. Even if you store them in a carefully sealed plastic bag, they’re not very good the next day, especially if part of them has already been used. The delightfully crispy crust gets soft, the inside dries to cardboard, and even putting them briefly in a microwave to soften the inside or reheating them in a low oven for 10 minutes to crisp up the outside never restores a baguette to its full glory.

In Paris, where the baguettes are truly wonderful, one can purchase smaller ones, or half of one (cut by a terrifying guillotine-type contraption), but here in North America, those options aren’t available. So we’re often left with a length of bread that we can eat more out of a sense of obligation than anything. And if it’s a few days old, that’s not even be an option.

We often had that problem…and then we discovered crostini. Actually, it was part of a recipe for an olive tapenade we make. In the recipe, we were told to make crostini from a fresh baguette, but then I thought, it will work with stale ones, too. Our problem with leftover baguettes was instantly and forever solved. Stored in an airtight bag or container, they’ll keep for several months – although ours always disappear quickly and mysteriously, especially when the boys are around.

The basic recipe is utter simplicity and the only thing of any difficulty is slicing the baguette really thinly and evenly. Once you’ve got that down, you can change that leftover food into something quite wonderful in a matter of minutes. Add some dried herbs or a touch of salt and pepper if you want, and you’re off to the races!

Make as much as you want or have baguette for

Leftover (or fresh) baguette
Olive oil
Additions to consider: sea salt, pepper, garlic, dried oregano, powdered rosemary, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, etc.

1. Slice the baguette about 1/8" thick, and as evenly as possible. You’ll need a sharp bread knife for this. Spring for a good one. They’re not expensive and they last forever if treated well. If you want to be fancy, slice the baguette on the bias.

2. Lightly brush one side of each slice with some good quality olive oil. If you’re using extra flavorings, but them on this side. For garlic, just slice a clove and give the bread a few swipes only. For any other additions, you just want a hint of their flavor, so go lightly!

3. Arrange the slices olive oil side up on a baking sheet, and put under the broiler. Keep the door open and light on so that you can watch the crostinis like a hawk. You want them lightly toasted, not burnt – and they burn quickly. I usually turn the pan a few times, so everything toasts evenly.

4. When the first side is done, flip them over and toast them a little less. Again, watch carefully! You want the crostinis to be dried out completely so they’ll store well and not go moldy, but no more. If you’re going to use them immediately, you can toast them a little less. They won’t be as crisp, but that can be nice, depending on how you’re using them. For longer storage, you want them pretty crisp.

5. Cool your crostinis thoroughly and then store them, tightly wrapped in a cool, dry place.