Thursday, March 28, 2013

When you’re too sick to want to cook, but too hungry not to eat…

The past few days, I’ve been feeling pretty punk. I might get one cold a year, but I’m currently laid low by my second, and I can’t remember the last time that’s happened.

What’s the saying? Starve a cold and feed a fever? Or is it the other way around? I can never remember, but all I can tell you is I really don’t feel like doing any cooking at the moment. Speaking of which, since I’m the one who’s in the kitchen more often than not, I’d better come up with a plan, or come dinnertime, there’s going to be a very cranky female in the house – and I’m not talking about our cat, Abbynormal who is always cranky.

But that’s another story.

Right now it’s lunchtime and I only have to fend for myself. What is needed is a good big dose of comfort food, but something that doesn’t take a lot of work and time to prepare.

My Aunt Esther Hoeldtke (actually, my mom’s cousin) lived in Buffalo. She was a grade school principal and a really wonderful lady. She lived most of her life alone due to the fact that her betrothed was killed in Europe during the Second World War. She always struck me as somewhat sad long before I was old enough to know what the cause was. Regardless, it was always fun when we went to Buffalo – where my mother was born and grew up – because we’d inevitably see Aunt Esther. I liked her a lot and have very fond memories of those visits.

Years went by, I wound up in Montreal to finish my university studies at McGill, and eventually Vicki and I moved on to Toronto. That was awfully near Buffalo. As it turned out, when our first son was very young, we decided to fly home for Christmas out of Buffalo to save some money. To make the trip easy, it was best for us to get to Buffalo the night before and catch a plane out first thing in the morning. I called Aunt Esther to see if she could put up three traveling Canadians. She came through in spades. We’d get dinner, a place to leave our car for free – and she’d drive us to the airport! To say the least, we were delighted by this news.

Okay, this was supposed to be a post about feeling ill and comfort food. Where the heck is Blechta going with this? Bear with me. The answer is just around the corner.

It being December and the location being Buffalo (not to mention the Niagara Peninsula to pass through), of course a huge snow squall nailed us when we’d nearly gotten to the border. Going was glacial as we crawled through near white-out conditions to get to Aunt Esther’s in Williamsville (a western suburb of Buffalo).

By the time we pulled up in front of her house, we were inexcusably late, famished and completely ready to be taken care of. Once we’d gotten our luggage up into the bedroom, and Karel fed and changed, we went downstairs wondering what smelled so darned good. Aunt Esther’s brother, my Uncle Ernest and his wife Katherine had arrived – and that was a pleasant surprise.

Our savior came out of the kitchen with a tray bearing steaming mugs. Auntie had whipped this up when she saw how whipped we were, and I will always associate the smell of this very simple recipe as the beginning of feeling a whole lot better. That night, by the time we finished our mugs, we were ready to take on the world – or at least the beef pot roast and vegetables.

The components are completely mass-produced, and probably not all that wonderful nutritionally, but they’re warming, taste and smell great, so I’m going to whip some up and in a few minutes I’ll be sitting in my favorite chair in the living room, reading the novel I currently have going, and probably feeling a whole lot better – if only psychologically. The origin is probably one of those newspaper filler-things or the label of a soup can, but who cares? You’re sick!

Next time you’re feeling under the weather and don’t feel a whit like cooking, try this simple remedy for misery. Maybe you’ll start to feel better, too. At the very least, you’ll be nice and warmed, and that’s sometimes nearly as good.

By the way, we finished up the evening with me thumping out Christmas carols on Aunt Esther’s piano, accompanying everyone’s best attempts at singing.

Aunt Esther’s Remedy
Serves 3-4

1 10-oz can Campbell’s lo-sodium beef broth
20 oz of Mott’s Tomato Cocktail (Don’t use V8 or tomato juice. It just won’t cut it.)
a small squeeze of lemon juice. No more than 1/2 tsp.
freshly ground black pepper

1. In a saucepan, mix the broth with an extra can of water, according to the directions on the can.

2. Add the tomato cocktail. Heat to boiling. Just before serving, add the lemon juice and a grinding of pepper. And that’s it!

3. Take a sip and begin to feel a whole lot better.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy Birthday to us!

Okay, I’m really late with this, but it suddenly dawned on me this morning that A Man For All Seasonings has been around for one year. However, I missed the anniversary by nearly a month! (typical for me) If you sift back through to the beginning of (AMFAS) time, you’ll notice our first post was February 22nd of last year. That’s me, I guess: often a day late and a dollar short.

To all of you who have been loyally following my thoughts about “all things edible”, interspersed with my occasional rant about what’s being done to our food supply, my thanks. To all who have left cogent comments, even greater thanks. I really appreciate you taking the time.

We now also have a resident wine (and other beverages) expert, Frank Baldock. Frank really is a true expert on the subject and is everything an expert should be. He has vast experience, is an superlative and engaging writer, someone who’s probably forgotten more on the subject than I’ll ever know. (He’s also a marvelous dinner guest.) If you haven’t already signed up for his excellent wine newsletter, Wine Express, do yourself a favor and take out a subscription. It’s definitely worth the small cost. Just click HERE and you’ll be at his website’s contact page. As a matter of fact, as long as you’re there, take a look around website. I’ve seen plenty of wine suggestion newsletters and websites over the years, and Frank’s is the real deal. Wine Express is our go-to source when we want a special bottle for a special meal and he’s never let us down with his suggestions. His feature articles are also incredibly informative – and entertaining. Frank is one of those oenophiles who doesn’t take his subject too seriously. We’re very fortunate to have him here as our resident wine expert.

Have you thought of becoming a “friend” of this blog? We have eight so far, but it would be great to have more. The place to sign up is at the top of the right-hand column, and you’re literally a click or two away from being “an insider”. Please consider it.

We love feedback! If you have any thoughts on what is presented here, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment. If you have anything you’d like us to feature or discussion topic, please send me an email by clicking HERE. I’d love for this blog to become more of a community. For that matter, if you’d like to step on the AMFAS soapbox, just drop me a line, and I’ll set it all up for you to post.

There are plans to bring you a lot more features over the coming year, including some of our own in-house produced videos. In fact, some of them are already in the works. Please stay tuned!

Now, you’ll have to excuse me. My son Karel and I are smoking a rack of ribs today, and I have to go out to the Blechta Test Kitchens to prep them…

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Frank Baldock’s lonzino wine pairings

Lonzino – rhymes with vino – and there’s a world of vino waiting to speed-date with this air-cured treat.

You can even make a homemade vintage by adding fennel leaves.

You can’t miss with crisp, sassy whites like grassy, herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or smoky, melon-scented Pouilly-Fume from the Loire. Oaky-toasty Chardonnay has a winning way with cured meats, as does racy, food-friendly dry Riesling or razor-sharp Austrian Gruner Veltliner.

In red mode, select middleweight wines with silky tannins like delicately spicy Oregon or Ontario Pinot Noir (red Burgundy from France is killer, of course, but tends to be pricier). Take a whirl with savoury Merlot and suave Tempranillo-based Rioja from Spain with coconut-vanilla-berry from American oak aging (in Spain, they love lonzino and call it lomo).

Italy, naturally, offers perfect matches, starting with dry light whites like Pinot Grigio or Soave.

Eligible reds include Barbera d’Asti or any Sangiovese-based wine, like Brunello and Chianti, but to my mind Dolcetto, with hint of fruity bitterness and anise is outstanding as a pork partner.

From France, bring on Grenache-heavy southern Rhones with their suggestion of raspberry-licorice, or an earthy sun-burned Minervois from the Languedoc. Similarly midweight sippers like a simple Bordeaux make a happy couple with complexity and style.

Off the regular match-making radar but on the compatibility money, I’d also serve berry-rich Zinfandel or a rich, leathery red from Portugal’s up and coming Douro region, such as Quinta do Cachao. Wow!

Frank Baldock, AMFAS’s resident “beverage” expert’s newsletter about all things vino and otherwise can be found online at You can also take out a subscription to the print version of his newsletter by clicking HERE.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The A-Maze-N-Pellet-Smoker and our hickory-smoked almond recipe

I’ve had some questions about the device I use to cold smoke and maybe it’s time to do a product review here on A Man for All Seasonings.

Since we love smoked salmon around here, I’ve been keen on making our own for quite some time. Last summer, when Karel and I bought our entry level Brinkmann smoker, I decided that cold smoking would be on the docket as soon as I could figure out how to do it without breaking the bank, because in initially looking at it, I was led to believe I’d either have to cobble together something on my own using a bar fridge and some sort of container for generating the smoke (which in itself wouldn’t have been cheap), or go whole hog, get a Bradley smoker and use their cold smoke adaptor with additional ice to cool things off enough.

Because, you see, the idea behind cold smoking is to get the smoke to what you’re smoking without raising the temperature. The things you cold smoke (salmon, nuts, cheese, etc.) need to get that smoke flavor without being cooked. In reality, in order to get smoke, you need burning (or at least smoldering) and that means heat. My research led me to the benchmark of 90 degrees F. Go north of that, and you’re also cooking your food rather than just smoking it.

Faced with spending a chunk of change, I put the idea on the back burner. Around Christmas, I decided to look further for a solution to my quandary.

Lo and behold, I found not one, but two solutions, both variations on the same idea: keeping heat to a minimum. One was the Cold Smoke Generator. It burns sawdust and got good reviews. We also found the A-Maze-N smoker which comes in two versions: one that burns sawdust and is very similar to the Cold Smoke Generator, and the other, following a similar design, burns compressed sawdust pellets. In the end, I decided on the A-Maze-N line simply because it seemed to be more ruggedly constructed. The pellets seemed more convenient to use, too.

All set to order one, I found a store, Ontario Gas Barbecue, just north of Toronto that carries the A-Maze-N Pellet Smoker, along with the pellets. Not being the patient sort, I decided to immediately take a run up there. Seeing one of these in the flesh, as it were, I was immediately impressed with the workmanship. It’s made of fairly thick steel with small holes punched in, and has two supports underneath to aid in airflow and also to stiffen the whole affair. Everything is spot welded and construction is neat and tidy.

A-Maze-N also makes excellent pellets containing 100% of whatever wood you’re purchasing, no cheaper “fillers”. We bought a few pouches: apple, cherry and pecan.

Back home, I got busy on a one-pound salmon filet we’d bought at Dominic’s at the St. Lawrence Market, curing it in the fridge with salt, sugar, peppercorns and dill for around 36 hours. I wanted a really smoky flavor, so I completely filled our A-Maze-N smoker with cherry pellets and prepared to smoke overnight. It being rather cold (-5C), I probably should have been worried about the meat freezing if everything worked the way it was supposed to.

It’s recommended to light the pellets using a blow torch. I concur. The pellets are very hard and won’t start readily any other way. The cherry pellets are especially prone to going out if they’re not lit well enough. Since that was what I was using, I decided to follow a recommendation I saw online and mixed in a bit of pecan pellets which burn more readily, and that worked fine.

Next morning, I was surprised to find the unit still smoking away after 11 hours. The temperature inside the smoker was about 1 degree C above the ambient temperature. The salmon filet had turned darker with the skin side having a nice, golden sheen.

The results? Well, it turned out to be maybe a bit too smoky for our taste, but it was undeniably not cooked and the overall flavor and texture were lovely. Needless to say it didn’t last too long!

On our second cold smoking attempt, we smoked almonds for Christmas gifts my son Karel was making. After 6 hours in hickory smoke, the almonds were very tasty. We roasted them in the oven afterwards to crisp them up, and after salting (through the use of soy sauce) the results were quite satisfactory. We’ve since cold smoked other nuts, cheese, pork chops and bacon, all with excellent results.

My opinion is that for cold smoking at home, the A-Maze-N pellet smoker is the way to go. It’s easy to use and works very well. If you want double the smoke output, you can light it at both ends through the provided holes. The construction quality means that it should last for many years. You can use it in any barbecue with a lid. Heck, you could smoke in a cardboard box if you protect the bottom of it from the slight bit of heat the unit generates. All you need is an enclosed area and a way to get a bit of a draft through it so the smoldering isn’t stopped because of lack of oxygen. To read another review from BBQ Island with some excellent photos of the smoker in action, click HERE.

You can purchase these units from retail outlets (there’s a list on the left-hand side of the page) or directly from the company. Amazon also sells it.

So if you’d like to try your hand at cold smoking, the A-Maze-N pellet smoker is the best way to go, to my mind.

Here’s our smoked almond recipe to whet your appetite. It’s adapted from a recipe given to me by Michele Jacot (thanks, Michele!), who doesn’t smoke the almonds first…yet.

Roasted & Salted Hickory-Smoked Almonds
Makes 2 pounds

2 lbs Raw, unsalted almonds (go for quality!)
Hickory pellets
Soy or tamari sauce (with some sort of spray bottle so you can mist the nuts)

1. First you need to cold-smoke the almonds. Sounds complicated and expensive, doesn’t it? It isn’t. You only need an A-Maze-N pellet smoker and a bag of their hickory pellets, some sort of mesh tray or a sheet of aluminum foil with a lot of holes punched in, your BBQ, a butane barbecue lighter (we use a blow torch). Read the directions for the smoker carefully and trust them. They know about what they talk!

2. Fill the A-Maze-N smoker with about a 6-inch length of pellets (one inch of pellets works out to about an hour of smoke) and light as per the instructions. Once it is smoking well, place the almonds into the BBQ and cover it. We try to keep them as spread out much as possible to improve the exposure to the smoke.

3. We like to go out and shake up the almonds every 30 minutes so they get exposed to the smoke evenly. When the smoke stops, you’re done with this step.

4. Heat your oven to 375°. Put the almonds on a couple of baking sheets and roast them in the oven for 10-15 minutes. It’s good to keep checking them after 10 minutes. You want them to be slightly browned, but they can burn quickly so don’t leave them unattended.

5. As soon as you take them out of the oven – and leaving them on the baking sheet – mist the almonds with soy sauce. It’s critical to spray them while they’re still really hot. They will let off some steam (totally normal). Spray once, stir them around and spray again so they’re more evenly coated. Taste one. If they’re not salty enough, spray them more. This is a feel sort of thing. If you mist them more than twice, slip them back into the oven for another minute to aid in keeping them crisp.

6. Let them cool, thoroughly. They will snap, crackle and pop, again totally normal. If you try them before they’re completely cooled, you’ll be disappointed because they will seem soggy and “stale”. Just be patient. When they’re down to room temperature, they’ll be satisfyingly crispy.

7. Store the almonds in a tightly-sealed container or plastic bag to maintain freshness – but they probably won’t last long!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lonzino, part 2: Air-drying

Our two pieces of pork loin, cured and rinsed.
My previous post was all about curing a boneless pork loin with salt and herbs (mostly fennel seed) to make the Italian salumi delicacy known as lonzino. Now it’s time to air-dry the cured loin which intensifies the flavors and gives your creation a lovely texture somewhere between prosciutto and bresaola.

If you haven’t followed our homemade guanciale project, I’ll need to tell you about the conditions for air-drying meat successfully. It’s not all that difficult. What you need is a location with a fairly steady temperature of around 55 degrees and stable humidity around 75%. Some airflow around the meat also helps in the drying process.

Where do you find an appropriate place to dry around the house?

It can be tough, but doable with some ingenuity. First thing that went through your mind, I’ll bet is “winter because it’s much cooler”, and you’d be right about that. Many basements have conditions similar to that – if you’ll let them. Our basement is basically unfinished and we don’t use it for much other than storage and laundry, so it was a simple matter to close off all the heating ducts down there to cause the temperature to drop a bit more. Over two winters of curing, the temperature has not dropped below 50 and stayed below 60 until early April. So we have that requirement covered.

The first thing you need to be able to do is reliably measure temperature and humidity on a daily basis. If you’re in Canada, Canadian Tire sells an indoor digital thermometer/hygrometer (temperature/humidity reader ) for only $19.99 (product #42-9931-0). We have a copper analog one from Lee Valley Tools (, product #KD245) that mounts on a wall or a stand. So you don’t have to break the bank on this.

The secret with drying meat is to have it proceed slowly and evenly. If the humidity is too low, it dries too quickly and unevenly, simply becoming too hard. With guanciale, that isn’t as much of a issue, because most of a hog jowl is fat. Lonzino is nearly all meat, so low humidity is a problem. This is also the reason for using some sort of casing on the outside (more on this later). You don’t want the outside to dry before the inside has a chance.

For us (and probably for you), a consistent humidity of 75% will probably prove trickier than temperature. Last year, for some reason, the humidity in our basement was pretty good in that regard, never falling under 70% and generally staying between 73% and 77%, in other words, perfect for air-drying. I was certainly lulled into a false sense of security by 2011-12.

This year it’s been all over the place, probably because Toronto has been much colder and snowier. Humidity has been as low as 62% and never higher than 74%. What to do?

There are lots of examples of people using drying boxes. Since temperature isn’t a problem, that might be the way to go when our humidity isn’t optimal. Recently though, I used a small humidifier and fan to bump things up a bit since we hang things from the ceiling rafters. A box that would concentrate the effects of humidification will be the next thing I’ll try. If for some reason your humidity readings get too high, you need to use a de-humidifier to get it down, otherwise you face an increased risk for the growth of mold.

On to getting your cured lonzino ready for drying.

Stuffed, tied and ready to be hung and dried.
As stated above, you don’t want drying to happen too quickly because of low humidity. The traditional casing for this is called a bung. It’s the front portion of a ruminant’s stomach. Pork and beef bungs are available from butcher suppliers. For this you’ll need a beef bung since pork bungs are too narrow for a pork loin. Chances are that you’ll have to buy a few of these, but they’re dried and salted so they can be kept in the fridge for quite some time. Bungs are long enough that you can encase two pieces of lonzino from one bung. Simply cut it in half.

Soak the amount of casing you’ll be using for at least 1 hour in some room temperature water with a splash of white vinegar added. I generally leave it in for 3 hours so the bung is nice and pliable.  Rinse the bung throughly several times with clean water. Squeeze out as much water as possible from the casing before stuffing the loin in. It you want to use artificial casing, the process will be pretty much the same.

Stuff the cured loin gently into the casing. Tie off the bottom end using a bubble knot (info on this kind of knot is HERE (from Matt Wright’s excellent blog). Carefully squeeze out any air pockets between the bung and the meat. Now tie a bubble knot around the top end.
Next, tie the meat up, using butcher’s loops and knots, much the same way you would tie a roast. Here’s a good Youtube video that shows how to do it:

When tying lonzino (or sausage) leave about a 6 inches more string at each end than is shown in the video. At the bottom of the lonzino, I tie the string around the bubble knot for little extra security – probably unnecessary if I’ve tied a proper bubble knot. At the top, you definitely want to tie both ends of the string around the bubble knot, rather than what’s done on the above video. then tie together the ends of the string so you can hang the lonzino while drying. The last thing is to prick the casing several times. This aids in more even drying.

Our lonzino has finished drying!
Hang the meat and check it daily to monitor how it’s doing. You might get white mold growing on it during drying (what you often see on a salami). This is no big deal. What you don’t want is green or especially black mold. If you catch these quickly, all is not lost. Carefully wipe down the lonzino with a cloth soaked in white vinegar. The cause is probably excess humidity, but it can also be caused by too much light. Our basement is pretty dark, but if your location is bright, it might be a good idea to black out a window or two. Many Italian homes in Toronto have cantinas built under the front porch. These are absolutely perfect for air-drying meat and sausages. If you have one, use it, and know that I’m very envious.

Now all you have to do is wait (a tough thing for us). I weigh my lonzinos every few days to monitor the drying. When it’s lost 35% of the weight, it’s ready.

Slice thinly to serve and use it any way you’d use prosciutto. We also put diced lonzino in our pasta e fagioli soup (recipe to come in a future post). As part of an antipasto plate, lonzino is fantastic.

Really, this is an easy thing to make and you will be knocked out by the flavor and aroma of this little-known Italian delicacy.