Friday, November 30, 2007

Real Italian Pizza, pt. 2

bi-borough pizza tour fig. a: naked city

On the morning of New York Pizza Tour 2007, I woke up with some serious butterflies. I'd gone from being a lifelong pizza lover to being a minor-league pizza fanatic (the kind of person who might drive several hours in search of great pizza, or, apparently, the kind of person who might drive several hours to a famous pizza Mecca in order to then spend several hours wolfing down as many slices of premium pizza as he can get his hands on, as opposed to the kind of person who settles for the local delivery outfit), but in spite of my numerous visits to the Big Apple over the years, I'd yet to really face up to New York pizza. Sure, I'd had a fine coal-oven pizza from John's some 15 years ago that had been a real revelation, and in recent years I'd had a couple of other critically acclaimed New York pies and some decent slices, but I knew full well that my New York pizza education was spotty and that I'd barely scratched the surface. I limited myself to just a cup of coffee in anticipation of the pizza marathon ahead. Michelle, on the other hand, was remarkably calm and collected, and, ever the daredevil, she actually went ahead and had a few doughnuts with her coffee in spite of the awe-inspiring schedule ahead of us. By 11:00 a.m., though, we were both outside anxiously waiting for the Pizza Express to pull up and whisk us away on our adventure.

Di Fara

Adam arrived in the Pizza Express at around 11:15 and we promptly got on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and raced towards Midwood. Midwood is the Brooklyn neighborhood that's home to Di Fara and we had to hurry because Di Fara's renown is such that if you don't get in there nice and early you could very well end up with a 2-3 hour wait for your pizza. We had six pizza joints and seven hours of pizza eating ahead of us, so the last thing Adam wanted to do was to get caught in a snag on the first leg of the tour.

di fara pizza fig. b: Di Fara: Italian Heroes

We got to Di Fara not long after opening time and things were still just getting underway. Domenico DeMarco, Di Fara's legendary owner/pizzaiolo, was already very much in the thick of things, but the throngs had yet to show up. About a minute or two after we arrived, Dom pulled a pan full of Sicilian "square" slices out of the oven and we got our first glimpse of that DeMarco magic: he started scissoring fresh basil leaves overtop. According to Adam, these square slices usually get snapped right up, but for some reason the punters weren't buying on this particular morning. So Adam jumped in, asked for two, and deftly managed to slip in our other pizza order too: half regular, half artichoke. It was almost too easy--within two minutes we'd had a chance to look around (it doesn't get much more old-school than this), take in the scene (eager die-hards, with just a few other first-timers), get in our order (yes!), and we were already enjoying our very first taste of a Di Fara slice.

di fara's square slice fig. c: Di Fara's Sicilian slice

The Di Fara Sicilian slice is a rustic, rectangular, semi-thick-crusted number--it lacks the finesse of Di Fara's regular thin-crust pies, but it's an honest and friendly pizza slice with plenty of sauce, Di Fara's trademark trio of cheeses, and a crisp crust, and it made for a perfect hors d'oeuvre while we awaited the main event. It also got rid of any and all remaining butterflies. From that point on I was good to go.

dom's office fig. d: Dom's office

And wait we did. Not long, mind you, because we'd gotten our order in quickly and the crowd was still relatively small, but Di Fara is no grindhouse. Dom doesn't let anyone else touch his pizzas, and he's nothing if not attentive to every single pizza he makes, taking the utmost care with his dough, hand-grating his trademark three-cheese blend (bufala mozzarella, regular mozzarella, and Grana Padano), scissoring basil leaves over the pizza after it comes out of the oven, and giving each pizza a graceful spritz of olive oil as a parting gesture. Keep in mind: Di Fara is primarily a slice joint.

dom's magic fig. e: Dom's magic

the demarco boys fig. f: the DeMarco boys in action

A few years ago Dom explained his unorthodox approach to pizza-making to Jeff Van Dam of the New York Times: "Pizza has become considered a fast food. This one is slow food. Anything you do, when you do it too fast it's no good. The way I make pizza takes a lot of work." Personally, we wouldn't want it any other way, because, frankly, all that work works. You can taste the care and the attention.

portrait of the artist as a young man fig. g: portrait of the artist as a young man

difara's pie fig. h: Di Fara's regular/artichoke pie

Both sides of our pizza lived up to our humongous expectations, but it was the artichoke half that we found particularly breathtaking. Dom being Dom, fresh artichokes--not canned--are trimmed down to their hearts and gently sauteed in olive oil before they're added to his artichoke pies. We'd heard that the artichoke hearts sometimes got a bit charred, and consequently a bit bitter, when in the oven, but our first experience of the Di Fara artichoke pie was flawless, each bite literally melting in your mouth.

This was just our first stop and already we were walking on air. We boxed up the last two remaining slices and moved on, eager for Round 2.

Verdict: home run.

franny's ext. fig. i: Franny's


After another short drive across Brooklyn, we arrived at Franny's to find Ed Levine waiting for us. He'd kindly given Adam, Michelle, and I a chance to get primed and up to speed, and now he was ready to take charge. You'll notice in what follows that the number of photos drops off precipitously. Part of this has to do with the fact that you'd be hard-pressed to find a restaurant of any stripe that's as photogenic as Di Fara. It's got personality to spare. Part of it has to do with Dom's particular form of perfectionism, which gave us plenty of time to snap away--though we hit some pretty serious pizza parlors after Di Fara, not one of them exercised an approach to pizza-making that was as, well, deliberate as Dom's. But a good part of this drop-off in photographic documentation had to do with Ed. Adam had alerted us to Ed's gift of the gab as we made our to Franny's, and Ed did not disappoint in the least. What ensued alongside our 8-hour pizza-eating marathon was an 8-hour food-talk marathon led by Ed, and, to be honest, we couldn't have been happier. We liked these pizza guys--they were our kind of people.

Anyway, Ed was more than ready, so he jumped right in and started ordering. Two pies, naturally, one bufala mozzarella number and one clam pie--the best one this side of New Haven, apparently. Neither of us have had the pleasure of sampling one of those legendary Pepe's clam pies, but I did have a clam pie at Mario Batali's Otto a couple of years back and it was something of a disaster. The pizza crust was good--thankfully, by that time Batali had cleared up the initial problems he'd had with his griddle pies, as documented in Bill Buford's Heat and by Batali himself in Pizza: A Slice of Heaven--and the clams themselves were delicious, but they'd been piled on top of the crust in their shells (?). Imagine what the clam shells and their cooking liquid did to the crust. Imagine trying to eat such a thing. Ed agreed that Otto's clam pie was something of a conceptual debacle, but he assured me that Franny's version had no such weaknesses.

franny's 1 fig. j: pizza, Franny's-style

Our Franny's pizzas arrived and they looked impeccable, which is a funny thing to say about real Italian pizza or pizza with real Italian aspirations because a lot of what sets Naples-style pizzas apart are all those bits of character that novices might mistake for flaws--charring being at the top of the list. As Dom puts it, "fresh dough bubbles when you put it in the oven, and the bubbles get a little burnt. You see the pizza, and it's got a lot of black spots, it's Italian pizza. If you see pizza that's straight brown, it's not Italian pizza." A true pizzaiolo knows that charring is the price you have to pay for a pizza that's cooked properly, that's allowed its dough to reach fruition--a true pizzaiolo also knows that it's those blisters than bring out a pizza's complexities, its full potential. These were two pizzas that had definitely reached their full potential. Franny's crust was unbelievably light and wonderfully chewy, with just enough crispness, and that bufala mozzarella pie went down easy.

The real showstopper, though, was the clam pie. Dressed with Italian parsley, just a little bit spicy, rich in clam flavor, and beautifully saffron-hued, this was the clam pizza of our dreams. Turns out the pizza's alluring color comes from the fact that the clams were gently steamed in wine and then reduced, with a touch of cream added to the mix to really push them over the top. Like I said: the clam pizza of our dreams.

franny's int. fig. k: Franny's kitchen

In many ways Franny's is a real anomaly. Andrew Feinberg, the head chef/co-owner, had never made pizza professionally before he opened Franny's with his wife, Francine Stephens. He was a professional chef with an impressive resumé, but he didn't have any of the usual New York pizza-making credentials (i.e. family ties to Gennaro Lombardi) and he apparently devised his pizza dough recipe very much on his own. Then he and Francine did something really orthodox: they opened Franny's as an environmentally responsible restaurant. In terms of approach to pizza-making, though, what interested me was that of the three standout pizzerias that we visited as part of our New York pizza tour, this was the only place that was also a full-service restaurant, including a bar, a large seating area, a full wait staff, a reasonably sized kitchen, and a full kitchen staff, including a team of pizza-makers. Top pizza establishments in the Neapolitan tradition live and die by the pizzaiolo. Those that have the best quality-control have as few as possible, and the best often only have one, so what we might call "the myth of the pizzaiolo" or "the pizzaiolo as hero" is crucial to your hardcore Naples-style pizzerias. I'm sure Franny's has a very select team of pizza-makers, but they're still open six days a week, including lunch and dinner on weekends, and their production volume is much higher than our other two standouts (especially during the warm-weather months, when they have a lovely patio out back). But by introducing the exacting standards of an exceedingly well-run top-notch kitchen, not only have they managed to offer an extensive menu that includes an outstanding selection of house-cured meats, they're also able to deliver on the promise of their big, beautiful brick oven.

Franny's was the one pizzeria listed on our itinerary that I'd had the pleasure of visiting previously. I'd visited one summer evening a year or so ago with a couple of hardened skeptics who were dead set on writing Franny's off. Four pizzas later, though, including an utterly daring, practically naked extra-virgin oil and sea salt pie, Franny's had left us terribly impressed (well, it left me terribly impressed and my companions quieted). This time around, I might have even left more impressed. The pizzas were extraordinary--especially that clam pie--but this time I also got a fuller sense of Franny's repertoire, including the distinct pleasure of sampling their house-cured soppressata, pancetta and bresaola plate as the warm-up act, and their phenomenal homemade fior di latte ice cream as the closer.

Verdict: home run.


After two utterly transcendental pizza experiences, Adrienne's Pizzabar was considerably more down-to-earth--a little too down-to-earth. We'd gone there--to lowest Lower Manhattan, adjacent to Wall Street, of all places--in order to try a well-regarded Manhattan take on that Long Island pizza micro-genre known simply as "grandma pizza," and thereby further expand our New York pizza vocabulary. What exactly is grandma pizza, you ask? Well, it's more or less a rectangular Sicilian pie that's been made with an exceedingly thin crust, just like Nonna used to make. It's a Long Island-based phenomenon whose history as an established style dates back only about 20 years, but since then grandma pizza has popped up in all kinds of unlikely locations: Brooklyn, Pompano Beach, Las Vegas--even Lower Manhattan. Needless to say, we were very intrigued.

Our "old-fashioned" (as Adrienne's calls their grandma pies) looked pretty spectacular when it arrived at the table, but one bite and we discovered that its glorious appearance was hiding a nasty secret: it wasn't cooked through.

adrienne's pizza disaster fig. l: pizza horror show

This was a major violation of one of pizza's most hallowed cardinal rules: you gotta let the pie to cook through. Ed was visibly upset. He'd already been a little taken aback by the crowd packing Adrienne's at 2:00 on a Saturday afternoon, which he took to be a sign of Lowest Manhattan's exploding population (the fastest-growing on the island of Manhattan, apparently) and not necessarily of Adrienne's astounding popularity, or the triumph of grandma pie, for that matter. But an uncooked pizza? That was too much for him. Not wanting to see a grown man cry, we quickly paid our bill and fled to the Lower East Side, hoping to get our momentum back.

Verdict: foul out.


Happened to miss Part One?  Well, here it is.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Real Italian Pizza, pt. 1

the loneliness of the long-distance pizzaiolo fig. a: real Italian pizza in the making, New York-style

Those of you long-time " endless banquet" readers with exceptionally good memories may remember that earlier this year we were the recipients of a peculiar prize as a result of our participation in Menu for Hope III. Yep, that's right: we're a litttle embarassed to say it, but somehow we walked away with a pizza tour of New York contributed by Serious Eats and hosted by two of New York's most accomplished pizza cognoscenti: Ed Levine (Serious Eats, Ed Levine's New York Eats, The New York Times and various other publications, and, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven) and Adam Kuban (Serious Eats, A Hamburger Today, and Slice, "America's Favorite Pizza Weblog!"). When we received the Good News we were absolutely ecstatic. We probably couldn't have designed a better prize ourselves. Here at AEB, any excuse to go to New York is a good excuse, but a curated tour of the city's best pizza haunts has gotta be among the best excuses imaginable.

That said, it took us a while to coordinate things--almost a year, in fact. Eleven excruciating months. But we didn't panic--not once--we just used the time to bone up on pizza and its lore (Slice, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, Ed Behr, John and Matt Thorne, David Rimmer's Real Italian Pizza, etc.). A few weeks ago, though, when the Canadian dollar suddenly surged to $1.10 US, we took that as some kind of sure-fire sign from above that it was finally time to take the plunge. We got back in touch with Adam and made all the necessary arrangements.

What exactly does a pizza tour of New York entail? Well, aside from some gargantuan appetites, a motor vehicle, and a photographic apparatus or two to document the proceedings for posterity, it takes some good maps and some New York street know-how. The proposed itinerary for this particular tour had us traversing two boroughs--Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan--and hitting seven pizza joints over the course of about eight hours. The split consisted of two Brooklyn pizzerias and five in Manhattan, it also consisted of three seasoned classics and four brash, young upstarts. It came complete with "intel" (see links below) and it looked something like this:

"11:30 a.m.: Di Fara (the legend)

12:45 p.m.: Franny's (killer wood-oven pizza)

2 p.m.: Adrienne's Pizzabar (grandma pizza)

3 p.m.: Isabella's Oven (great New York-Neapolitan pizza)

4 p.m.: Una Pizza Napoletana (the now-legendary hardcore Naples-style place)

5:30 p.m.: Joe's Pizza (classic NY slice)

6 p.m.: Bleecker Street Pizza (great grandma slice)
[No Slice intel online :( ]"

We literally gasped when we read it. Then we did a little dance. And a couple of days later, after we'd recovered, we were on the New York State Thruway, heading south towards our date with destiny.



Thursday, November 22, 2007

J is for jam...

j is for jam

...and jelly.

C is for chutney.

P is for preserves.

E is for Expozine.

Expozine, Montreal's premier small press, comic, and zine extravaganza, rolls into town this Saturday and Sunday (yes, they've added a second day!), and once again, for the third year running, this means that the Švestka Preserves mobile unit will be in the house, hawking our usual assortment of jams, jellies, chutneys, and other assorted preserves. We'll only be there on Saturday, though, and this will be our only sale of the year, so be sure to swing by on Day 1 if you want to pay us a visit.

5035 St-Dominique
Église Saint-Enfant Jésus
Saturday, November 24 and Sunday, November 25
12 pm - 6 pm

Hope to see you there!


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Last-minute, High-temperature Thanksgiving, or Thank you, Mr. Steingarten

Thanksgiving Day turkey fig. a: the notorious High-Temperature Turkey

For those about to roast...

You know the nightmare. It goes something like this: It's mid-afternoon on an autumn weekday and for some strange reason you have the day off. You've been going about your happy-go-lucky business, doing all sorts of pleasant autumnal things, and generally enjoying yourself when suddenly you're seized with panic. Your eyes zoom in on your watch and it reads 3:00 PM. You whip your head around to take a look at the calendar that's just materialized on a wall next to you, check today's date, and, sure enough, it reads THANKSGIVING DAY. Only then do you suddenly remember that this year you happened to send out invitations for a Thanksgiving dinner at your place and in a matter of hours 12 hungry people will be turning up on your doorstep fully expecting a big, beautiful roast turkey dinner with all the fixings. You race to your bookshelf and grab a book entitled Cookbook, flip it open to the "Roast Turkey" recipe and, you guessed it, the recipe reads: "Preheat your oven to 325º... Roast your turkey 12-15 minutes per pound..." Not only do you not have the time to roast that 24-lb Butterball, you haven't even bought it yet! You look around you and somehow you've been transported to some barren post-industrial wasteland. You tilt your head back, stare deep into the sky, and yell "NO!!" at top volume. You wake up in a cold sweat.

Okay, maybe your particular version of this nightmare isn't quite as dramatic as this, but you get the point. Well, we're here to tell you that we know the feeling and there's hope.

Flashback a little over a month ago to October 8th, a.k.a. Canadian Thanksgiving 2007. As many of you know, we're big on Thanksgiving here at " endless banquet." So much so that we happily celebrate Thanksgiving (at least) twice every year. This year, however, Canadian Thanksgiving caught us a little off-guard. For some reason we hadn't gone through the usual 2-weeks' worth of deliberations concerning menu, ingredients, and approach. In fact, we were caught so off-guard that it was literally 3:00 pm when Michelle decided that we absolutely, positively could not let Canadian Thanksgiving slip by without a traditional feast. She got on the horn, rounded up a few last-minute guests, and then and only then did she get on her bike and head towards the market. By 4:30 pm she was back at home with a lovely 15-pound turkey in tow. By 5:00 pm the turkey was in the oven. And by 7:00 pm the turkey was out of the oven, resting, just minutes from getting carved and served. Our guests arrived, we sat them down and served them drinks, and by 7:30 pm we were digging in to one of the very best turkey dinners in either of our personal histories. Yes, you read that correctly: the turkey was ready in two hours (!) and it was delicious.

No trickery was used, no special tools were required, and, no, we didn't microwave our turkey. We used a regular turkey and a regular oven. We did, however, rely on some high-powered expertise. You see, it was Barbara Kafka's High-Temperature Turkey recipe* as featured in Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything, And Other Gastronomic Feats, Disputes, and Pleasurable Pursuits that allowed Michelle and I to be so remarkably cavalier about our Thanksgiving dinner. The low-down: you get yourself a 12 to 15-lb turkey (any bigger and it'll take up too much room in your oven and get scorched), you crank up your oven to its highest setting (550º), and you never baste it. That's right: you don't baste your turkey either. All you have to do is jiggle every now and again. Sounds insane, we know, but it works. We expected crazy amounts of smoke and frankly we were willing to pay that price in order to have our turkey fully roasted and ready to go in two hours, but somehow our kitchen remained perfectly smoke-free and guest-ready throughout. Nothing short of miraculous.

High-Temperature Turkey

one 15-pound ** turkey at room temperature
salt and pepper
2 onions, halved

Preheat the oven to its highest setting.*** Place the turkey in a large roasting pan, salt and pepper the interior cavity and stuff the onions inside. Place the turkey in the oven and bake for 15 min. Remove the turkey from the oven, and with a wooden spoon or some tongs jiggle the turkey loose from the bottom of the pan. Return the turkey to the oven and repeat this jiggling every 20 min. A 15-pound bird will take just under 2 hours.**** (Ours took 1 hour 50 min.) You want the thigh meat to be between 175 and 180°F. If you have a smaller oven, you may have to cover the bird with a piece of aluminum foil in the late stages of the high-temperature roasting in order to protect it from getting overly blackened, but we didn't. Let the turkey rest at least 10 min. before carving it. The skin will be an amazing auburn colour and it will crackle as you carve it. Inside, the meat will be as juicy as you've ever seen, white and dark alike. Unbelievable. Miraculous even. Plus, you'll find a goodly amount of juices at the bottome of the roasting pan which you can use to make a fittingly phenomenal gravy.

Feeds four ravenous, Thanksgiving-crazed people, and provides them with plenty of mind-blowingly delicious leftovers.

Happy American Thanksgiving!


* No, Smartypants, this isn't a recipe for giving a turkey a fever.

** Again, turkeys that are any bigger will not work for this method. If you need more turkey, cook two smaller birds.

*** Note that this high temperature will make baking side dishes impossible alongside the turkey. I made the stuffing before, covered it with foil and baked it 30 min. Once the turkey was done, I lowered the oven temperature and returned the stuffing to the oven until it was hot, baking it uncovered for the last few minutes to crisp the top.

**** Here are cooking times for turkeys of other sizes: 9-10 lbs.=1 hour 15 min., 12 lbs.=1 hour 20 min., 20 lbs.=about 3 hrs.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

ça fait durs

ça fait durs 3
ça fait durs 2
ça fait durs 1 fig. a: l-r: goose, Picard, Laprise

More thoughts on this later, but if you haven't had a chance to see Guillaume Sylvestre's Durs à cuire, his practically brand-new documentary on Montreal's two reigning culinary dons, Normand Laprise and Martin Picard, the free weeklies tell me that there's only one cinema left in town that's still playing it: Cinéma Beaubien (original French version, no subtitles).

Those of you who haven't had the pleasure yet and are still hemming and hawing (should I see it now while it's still on the silver screen? should I just wait till it comes out on DVD?) might want to know that if you go, you can see our very own Michelle lighting up the screen. Sure, Laprise and Picard, and their two chefs de cuisine, Charles-Antoine Crête and Hugue Dufour, have gotten most of the press, and justly so, but the film features a cast of supporting characters that's a virtual who's who, including Joe Beef's Fred Morin, Xavier Pellicer from Barcelona's Àbac, Nicolas Le Bec from Lyon's Restaurant Nicolas Le Bec, and, yes, Michelle.

All right, it's not much more than a cameo, really--a non-speaking cameo--but, yep, there she is.

Okay, truth be told, it's not even really a cameo, it's just a pan--and a fast one at that. You'd have to a) know what Michelle looks like and b) be paying very close attention. Actually, it'd make for a pretty good game--Where's Michelle?--except that she only shows up once, and only for an instant.

Have fun.

Cinéma Beaubien, 2396 rue Beaubien E., 721-6060


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Czech-Slovak Bizaar

czech-slovak bazar fig. a: odd, rag-tag sign

There's always at least one point during our yearly visits to the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada's annual bazaar when we wonder whether it was worth it. It's so odd, so rag-tag, and yet for some inexplicable reason (genes? upbringing? masochistic desire?) we can't help but love it. In order to do so you have to be able to overlook the bad lighting and the stands selling windshield wiper fluid and cheap jewelry, and fixate on the positive instead. This means you take full advantage of the chlebicky table, you sniff out the traditional Czech and Slovak pastries from among the many impostors at the desserts table, you scour the books table for any and all hidden treasures, and you take in the social scene.

In some ways we had a particularly eventful visit this year. Hell, it was worth it just to see Robert, of Café Toman fame, and thank him for all the pastries and lunches we enjoyed there back in the day. Of all the Montreal institutions we've had the misfortune to see disapear, Café Toman is without question the one we miss the most. That secluded second-floor dining room, that Old World décor and ambiance, and those pastries, those beautiful Czech pastries--it's enough to make the two of us cry. And you wonder why we're so desperate for Czech desserts?

czech & slovak pastries fig. b: tea time

Anyway, when we got home we did what we always do: we put on the kettle, made some tea, and sat down to enjoy our batch of sweet treats. As always, our favorites were the ones you see in the foreground--yeasted Slovak numbers filled with sweet cheese--followed closely by the ones you see in the background--yeasted rolls that have an apple filling. Then we started leafing through the Czech children's books we'd found, giving them a closer look. That's when we decided once and for all that Czech children's books are the best. Period. I mean, just look at this:

happy hour fig. c: the world according to Czech carp

Yes, that is a big carp and, yes, he is enjoying himself a frosty one. Now that's what I call a happy hour, and that's what I call educational.

Most of the books at the Czech-Slovak Bazaar are in Czech, and I'd even go so far as to venture that the bazaar is the city's best source for Czech books (certainly rare ones), but they always have some English books too and I generally find something of interest among them. This year it was a copy of Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968), his book about the 1967 march on the Pentagon, which I'd wanted to read for a long time, but which I'd more or less forgotten about until I came across a reference to it earlier this week*. On our way home we stopped by my parents' place, and it was there that I learned the news of Mailer's passing.


* The reference appeared in Chris Marker's Staring Back. Marker too had been in attendance at the Pentagon demonstrations--he even made a film about them (The Sixth Face of the Pentagon) that same year--and in Staring Back he expresses a certain amount of awe with regards to Mailer's professionalism, his ability to spin his highly abbreviated experiences at the Pentagon into a 320-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning experiment/intervention ("History as a Novel/The Novel as History").

Monday, November 05, 2007

Tuesday Night Gumbo, Sunday-style

shrimp & oyster gumbo fig. a: late that night, Michelle sat down and started in on her bowl of gumbo

I suppose our 3rd anniversary celebrations here at " endless banquet" could have kicked off with the traditional 3rd anniversary gift (leather!), but we opted for gumbo instead. This means we've now celebrated our anniversary three different ways in three years. It also means that without even realizing it (until now, that is) we've been in the process of creating our very own set of food-related anniversary traditions, suitable for for all those who prefer apples over paper, barbecued ribs over cotton, gumbo over leather (or gumbo and leather over just leather). To recap:

1st anniversary
traditional: paper
modern: clocks
AEB: apples

2nd anniversary
traditional: cotton
modern: China
AEB: BBQ ribs

3rd anniversary
traditional: leather
modern: crystal
AEB: gumbo (and leather, if you so desire)

What tradition will AEB's fourth anniversary initiate? Stay tuned...

Anyway, there's obviously something about this time of year that gets me thinking about and a-hankering for gumbo, because although gumbo (in all its varieties) is seasonally-appropriate at any time of year, November has tended to be my most consistent gumbo month over the last few years (in fact, the last time I wrote on the subject was almost exactly two years ago). Weather is a factor, no doubt, but this time around it also had to do with the arrival of oyster season. I'd never made a gumbo with oysters before for some bizarre reason, even though a shared love of oysters is one of the strongest commonalities linking the cuisine of Cajun Louisiana with that of Quebec. Why? I wasn't 100% sure, but it probably had/has a lot to do with the fact that I'm such a big fan of oysters on the half-shell that I lack the self-control needed to shuck oysters for any reason other than immediate consumption. This time, however, armed with a new gumbo recipe (shrimp and oyster!) that I was eager to give a test-ride, I pledged to change all of that.

The recipe came from our good buddies the Lee Bros, who we still don't actually know, but at this point, having posted about a number of their recipes, we might as well. As I've mentioned before, a number of the Lees more classic recipes are offered up in pairs: "Tuesday night" versions versus "Sunday night" ones. Gumbo is no exception, and here not only does the "Tuesday night" gumbo amount to a simplified version of the "Sunday night" gumbo, but it's also a 100% seafood gumbo and that's what I was craving. [The "Sunday night" gumbo, by comparison, consists of what you might call a meat-lover's "home run": chicken (in the form of gizzards), beef (1 pound of beef round, beef shank, flank steak, or skirt steak), seafood (1 pound of shrimp, 6 blue crabs, and 24 oysters), and pork (in the form of Cajun andouille, or kielbasa)!] There were things about the "Tuesday night" version that I wasn't crazy about and that I intended to change--#1 being its lack of a roux*--but it also contained a trick or two that I found mighty intriguing.

Shrimp and Oyster Gumbo

1 1/2 lb headless large fresh shrimp (25-30 count)

2 1/2 qts water
homemade shrimp boil [ directions here] or Old Bay seasoning
3 bay leaves
2 celery stalks, chopped

1/2 cup canola or peanut oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup yellow onion, diced
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 28-oz can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp thyme, finely minced
24-36 shucked oysters, with their liquor
1 tbsp gumbo filé powder

Peel the shrimp (deveining them in the process, if you prefer) and put them aside in a bowl. Place the shells in a large pot, add the water, the shrimp boil or Old Bay seasoning, the bay leaves, and the celery and simmer over medium heat for 30-60 minutes. Strain the broth and return it to your pot, keeping it warm over low heat.

In a large skillet, add the oil and the flour and make a proper cajun roux, nutty brown or darker, being careful not to scorch the roux at any time. [For complete instructions consult our earlier post on gumbo.]

When your roux has reached the depth you desire, add the onion carefully (the roux is extremely hot and the onion may cause it to spatter a bit) and sauté over medium heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring constantly. Then add the garlic, the bell pepper, the celery, the salt, the black pepper, and, if you desire, the cayenne pepper, and sauté until all the vegetables have softened, about 5-10 minutes.

Add the vegetable/roux mixture to the shrimp broth, stirring (or even whisking) constantly to incorporate it smoothly. Add the tomatoes and their liquid and stir. Bring to a vigorous simmer over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 30-60 minutes. The broth should reduce a fair bit and the flavors should intensify considerably. Adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and freshly ground black pepper as needed, then add the gumbo filé and stir.

Turn off the heat. Add the peeled shrimp, the oysters, and the oyster liquor (the magic elixir) to the broth and stir. Let stand about about 5 minutes, until the shrimp are cooked through, perfectly tender and juicy. Serve the gumbo in wide bowls over hot white rice with cold beer and a selection of hot sauces.

Important note: For optimal flavor, it's apparently always best to allow your gumbo to "cure" for 24 hours in the refrigerator, but I've never had the will power to do so. If you do, add the shrimp and oysters only after you've reheated the gumbo, lest the shrimp become tough and the oysters bitter (because of the acidity of the tomatoes). Also, if you think you might have leftovers, you might want to cook the oysters by placing them in a strainer and dropping the strainer into the broth to gently cook them (like I did). That way you can just top each bowl of gumbo with a few of the stewed oysters and you won't have to worry about an oyster going AWOL and turning up in your leftovers tasting bitter. This might mean that your leftovers are just "shrimp gumbo" leftovers and not "shrimp and oyster gumbo" leftovers, but, trust me, your leftovers will not be short on flavor.

Serves 10-12 people.

[adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook]

Frankly, I was a little skeptical that that broth and that roux/vegetable combination would successfully become one, but they did. Of course, I simmered them considerably longer than the Lee Bros. did: 30-45 minutes versus 10 minutes. In the end, my Sunday-style Tuesday Night Gumbo took a good two hours to make, twice as long as the Lees' Tuesday-style Tuesday Night Gumbo, but every extra minute was worth it. That gumbo was full-bodied even before the seafood entered the picture. Five minutes later she was positively voluptuous, a true Cajun Queen.

If you've got your reservations about cooking oysters, just do what we did: buy some extra and serve yourself an oysters-on-the-half-shell appetizer while your gumbo is busy simmering. I mean, you're already buying oysters anyway, and if you look around you can find pretty good deals on small cases of oysters from Malpeque and elsewhere, so...

And while you're at it, you might as well buy some extra shrimp--let's say a quarter pound per person--and make yourself a proper shrimp boil for lunch. You're going to need some energy (and some patience) to make that gumbo properly, why not throw yourself a shrimp doubleheader?

boiled shrimp fig. b: earlier that day we luncheoned on spicy boiled shrimp

Simple Shrimp Boil

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup white vinegar
2 tbsp (+ a little extra) homemade shrimp boil [again, you can find directions here] or Old Bay seasoning
1 lb shrimp, in shells

Combine the first three ingredients in a saucepan and bring them to a boil. Add the shrimp, stir gently, and cover. Cook until tender, about 3-5 minutes, depending on the size of the shrimp. Drain the shrimp, reserving some of the broth for dunking. Sprinkle one teaspoon (or more, if you like them extra spicy) shrimp boil over the shrimp, toss, and serve with crusty bread and a salad for a light lunch.

Serves 2-4.

[recipe adapted slightly from the back of a McCormick Old Bay seasoning tin]

Now that's fast food. And who can deny spicy shrimp? We sure can't.


* I'm definitely one of those "it just ain't a gumbo without a roux" types of people, but it's more than just the taste--it just isn't any fun to make a gumbo without making a roux, regardless of what night of the week it is.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Chocoholics, report!

le brownie "reservoir" fig. a: take-out version of le brownie "Réservoir"

The city's best chocolatier just got, well, chocolatey-er. Yes, Les Chocolats de Chloé now has brownies, and not just any brownies, but Carlin's brownies. Chloé has long been a fan of Reservoir, and it was never any mystery to us that she should be--we, too, have been known to sing their praises from time to time. What we didn't know was that a good part of Chloés magnetic attraction to Reservoir had to do with the chocolate brownies Carlin would make for dessert on occasion (we'd never had the good fortune to encounter them there, so we were none the wiser). Well, meetings were held, deals were hammered out, and now Carlin's brownies are available at Les Chocolats de Chloé, all done up with premium Valrhona chocolate and given Chloé's trademark design touch.

packaging, les brownies "reservoir" fig. b: yep, that's Carlin

Be forewarned, people: this is a serious brownie; a deep, chocolatey brownie studded with pecans that's not for the faint of heart; a brownie so chocolatey, so totally intense, it was able to thoroughly enchant the owner of a chocolate shop. A+.

Les Chocolats de Chloé, 375 Roy E., 849-5550

Reservoir, 9 Duluth E., 849-7779


Saturday, November 03, 2007

Heads up: Czech and Slovak Bazaar

Ever since we ran this post almost three years ago now, people always ask us, "When's the Czech and Slovak bazaar?" Well, if you're into that kind of thing (we are--we're primed and ready to go), it takes place one week from today, which means all this week many of the city's Czechoslovak bakers will be busy making homemade Czechoslovak goodies for the bazaar's famous sweets table.

busy Czech bees fig. a: Czechoslovak baking in action

The details:
Czech and Slovak Association of Canada Bazaar
St. Ignatius Parish Hall
4455 West Broadway
(adjacent to Concordia's Loyola Campus)
11:00 am - 3:00 pm
Saturday, Nov. 10, 2007

Show up early for the good stuff and be ready to jostle and get jostled a little.


[image courtesy of Ondrej Sekora's Chrobák Truhlík]

Friday, November 02, 2007

Our kind of DQ

There's a new kid on the block here in Mile End.

Everyone's favorite independent comics/graphic novels publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, has literally opened shop on Bernard. You'll find pretty much every release the folks at Drawn & Quarterly have ever put out, plus a very nice selection of titles from fellow travelers like l'Oie de Cravan. Now, while it's hard to characterize this tidbit of information as being food-related, we're pretty excited about this (much-needed) addition to the neighborhood, and they did have some pretty nifty vintage soda fountain/diner art for sale the last time we passed by.

Wowsville, drawn & quarterly boutique fig. a: wowsville

Drawn & Quarterly Store, 211 Bernard W., 279-0691