Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Good Deeds Done Dirt-Cheap

good neighbors fig. a: howdy, neighbor!

"You do one good deed for someone... I imagine it's habit-forming.
--Ben Wade, 3:10 To Yuma

All you hardened cynics out there are going to laugh, but, sometimes, when I imagine the world around me, it looks something like it does in the picture above. The trees are tall, the houses are modest but well-kept, you can smell the scent of home-baking wafting down the street, and neighbors (all of them of the good variety) call out to one another. There's a certain karma to this world. Just as the good neighbors greet each other on the street, good deeds are met by others.

The real world is a little more complicated, of course. In fact, I bought The Book of Good Neighbor Recipes a few years ago, thinking it might contain some ideas for the next time I got invited to a barn-raising. The book starts out on a promising note, with a wistful account of things "As They Were" in Texarkana, TX, of "floating island and fruit cake" and hunting trips that "netted bushels and bushels of giant pecans, black walnuts, [and] hickory nuts." But the lustre wore off quickly. The book turned out to be an elaborate advertisement for Ac´cent seasoning:

Some of our readers may be learning about Ac´cent for the first time in this book, so a few words of explanation are in order.

Ac´cent is the pure crystalline form of monosodium glutamate. Derived solely from vegetable protein sources, its distinctive and unique property is to bring out and strengthn the natural flavors in food without adding any flavor, color, or aroma of its own. It is a basic seasoning to be used along with salt and pepper...

I guess that's where the "modern tempo" in the book's subtitle fits in.

Anyway, the problem with the Leave it to Beaver-ish world you see above isn't just that you can't see what's in the cupboards of those lovely bungalows, it's also that you can't see what's outside the frame. Sure, there's a nice park and a fire station, a town hall and a library, but, like I said, it's a little more complicated than that.

A couple of weeks ago, my beloved ten-speed bicycle was accosted by thieves in the night. Thankfully, they didn't succeed in making off with it, but they plum near broke my poor bike trying. The lock was twisted and bent into a pretzel, and my forks and my front wheel were not that much better off. The lock was so mangled I couldn't even get my bike undone in order to take it to the shop. What to do?

firemen to the rescue fig. b: some girls have all the luck

Well, that's where the firemen you see in the picture above came in.

We happen to have a fire station just around the corner from AEB HQ in a queer old building that used to triple as the local town hall and library. So I dropped by to ask the firemen for their advice. They didn't even blink. They just asked me for my address and said they'd meet me there in two minutes. I ran home and, true to their word, a fire truck pulled up outside of my house literally two minutes later. Five (!) firemen got off the truck, rolled up their sleeves, and promptly got to work. Using some heavy-duty tools and a little elbow grease, they freed my bike within about another minute or so, wished me luck with the repairs, and were on their way. Now that's what I call neighbourly.

In order to thank them and spread the love, I dropped by the next day with a pitcher of lemonade, and some special-edition chocolate chip cookies to go with it.

fire house cookies (makes about 4 dozen cookies)

2 sticks unsalted butter
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp. water
1 egg
2 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup pralined almonds, chopped (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Mix together the flour, salt, and baking soda. Set aside. In a mixer, cream the butter with the sugars and beat until fluffy. Add the vanilla, water and egg, beat to combine, then add the flour mixture. Mix well, and stir in the chocolate chips and almonds. Drop rounded teaspoons onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake for 8-10 min. Cool on a rack and serve with milk or lemonade.

pralined almonds

1 cup almonds, toasted
3/4 cup sugar
water to moisten the sugar

Line a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Place the sugar and water in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Watch the syrup carefully and stir occasionally with a heat-proof spatula. Allow the syrup to begin to colour, aiming for a medium golden caramel. Quickly add the almonds, stir minimally and pour out onto the paper-lined sheet. Careful, it's really hot. Flatten the almonds with your spatula so they are evenly distributed and let cool. Break into pieces and store in an airtight container. Use in the above-mentioned cookies, or sprinkle on ice cream.

Instant karma.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

M's Mid-May Menu

SFFPFM Cookbook

This meal was inspired by a book that we've often leafed through longingly since we received it as a gift last Christmas, but which we've never actually had occasion to use because a) we don't live in California, b) it's a cookbook that takes seasonality very seriously (as you can tell by the subtitle), and c) every time we looked at it, we just wished the market was in full swing. The book, of course, is the one you see above--The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market Cookbook--it was co-written by one of our favorite food writers, Saveur's Christopher Hirsheimer,* and it's really a gorgeous cookbook that's chock-full of good ideas.

Actually, scratch that. This meal was inspired first and foremost by a bunch of asparagus--a particularly beautiful bunch of asparagus. Michelle has a connection to Quinn Farm on Île-Perrot that produces some fine asparagus, and the first of this year's crop had just started to come in. She got a bundle so fresh, so tender, and so naturally sweet that you could actually eat them raw, but we knew that as soon as we cooked them--as long as we cooked them with care--they'd be bursting with flavor. And that was when Michelle turned to The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market Cookbook. She had a good feeling about this one, and her instincts were right on the money. She could have easily made the Shaved Raw Asparagus with Lemon Vinaigrette, but she had a taste for something warm. White Asparagus with Mandarin Orange Mayonnaise was out of the question because her bunch of asparagus was absolutely, positively green. Cecilia Chiang's Asparagus with Soy-Sesame Dressing sounded intriguing, but she was leaning towards Californian/Mediterranean. And then she came across this note accompanying asparagus recipe #4, Roasted Asparagus: "Many European cooks bundle asparagus with string and boil or steam them in salted water, but for the simplest, quickest, and tastiest preparation, roast the whole spears in the oven or, if your grill is hot, over a charcoal fire." Well, our grill wasn't hot, but Michelle liked the rest of that quote, especially the part about simple, quick, and tasty.


Roasted Asparagus

1 pound asparagus spears, tough ends snapped off and spears peeled
extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving

Preheat the oven to 400º F.

Arrange the asparagus spears in a single layer on a baking sheet. If your asparagus spears vary in size greatly, separate them into groups of thick spears and skinny spears so that it will be easier to remove the skinny ones first, as soon as they're ready. Drizzle the spears with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Roast the asparagus until the ends are easily pierced with a knife, about 7 minutes for skinny spears and 10 minutes for thicker ones. Transfer to a serving platter, drizzle with a little more olive oil, and, using a vegetable peeler, shave some cheese over the tips. Serve hot.

Serves 4.

Finding an accompanying main was easy. She just thought "spring" and "California" and the next thing she knew she was flipping through Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, and not long after that she'd found the one. Of course, this recipe requires a bit of special equipment, but then we love cooking with a brick.

Pollo al Mattone with Lemon and Garlic

4 chicken legs
Salt and pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 branch thyme
16 garlic cloves
1 tsp chopped lemon zest
1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Lemon wedges

special equipment: a brick or two

Bone the chicken legs, opening them out into large flat pieces but leaving the skin intact. Trim the excess fat from the edges. Season both sides of each piece with salt and pepper and refrigerate.

Warm 1/3 cup olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the thyme branch and garlic cloves, and bring the oil to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and stew the thyme and garlic very slowly until softened, about 15 minutes. Carefully remove the garlic with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reserve the garlic-flavored oil but discard the thyme.

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When the pan is hot, pour in the reserved garlic-flavored olive oil and add the chicken legs, skin side down, in one layer. Lay a piece of parchment paper or foil over the chicken, then weigh the chicken down with a brick or two. Cook for about 15 minutes, checking the chicken from time to time to make sure the skin is browning evenly, and adjusting the heat so the legs are not cooking too quickly. Turn the legs over and cook for 5 minutes more, uncovered. The skin should be golden and crisp, and the flesh should be tender when probed with a paring knife. Blot the chicken legs on absorbent paper and arrange on a warmed platter. Put a few of the reserved cooked garlic cloves on top of each leg.

Mix together the lemon zest, chopped garlic, and parsley (all of which should be chopped at the last minute), and sprinkle this gremolata over the chicken. Garnish with lemon wedges and encourage your guests to mingle the flavors as they so desire.

Serves 4.

You could hardly ask for a better spring meal. The asparagus did burst with flavor--especially after Michelle added those Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings and a final drizzle of olive oil. The chicken had the loveliest crispy golden skin to it, and the combination of the confited garlic and the gremolata was out of this world. A clean white wine, a tossed green salad, a loaf of bread, and you're done. Plus, neither recipe is particularly hands-on, which made the combo perfectly manageable for a weekday night.

Our first bunch of asparagus of the season... Aside from a couple of snow crabs, that's really our first real taste of spring this year. Fiddleheads and ramps must be just around the corner.


*Hirsheimer is the former executive editor and one of the co-founders of Saveur. She's still a contributing editor to the magazine.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Top Ten #25

kim jung mi fig. a: the now sound

1. Kim Jung Mi, Now

king of kong fig. b: the good, the great, and the ugly

2. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, dir. Seth Gordon

3. potsticker potlucks (call a bunch of friends; have them each make a different potsticker filling; buy potsticker wrappers; assemble the potstickers posse to fill and seal the potstickers; steam and/or fry them to perfection; devour; repeat as needed)

"Okay. Act natural, boys..." fig. b: bang, bang

a mickie most production fig. c: a mickie most production

4. Terry Reid, Bang, Bang, You're Terry Reid + Donovan, "Wear Your Love Like Heaven"

5. Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, dir. Crowder & Dower

nigeria special fig. d: get off

6. V/A, Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues, 1970-1976

7. Peanut-Butter Destroyers

8. My Winnipeg, dir. Guy Maddin

9. chicken gumbo and gombo zhèbes

destroyer fig. e: just one of those days

10. Destroyer, Trouble in Dreams

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Italians Do It Better,* 4th rev. ed.

olive pickers 2 fig. a: Italians doing it better

There were all kinds of surprises waiting for me when I got home from work the other day.

flowers fig. b: Atwater flowers

First off, no one could accuse Michelle of not bringing me flowers anymore because she'd visited the Atwater Market early that afternoon and picked up these beauts. Okay, they weren't exactly for me, but still...

Her real adventure, though, began not long after her trip to the market. That was when she made arrangements to visit Antonio Pettinicchi all the way out on Sauvé East. That was when she got the real treats.

olive tree fig. c: olive tree

Now if you're not familiar with Antonio Pettinicchi (we sure weren't until about a week ago), all you need to know is that on his farm in Molise he produces exceptional olive oil strictly according to traditional methods (hand-picked olives, cold pressed, stone millstones, etc.), all of it is absolutely organic, his only North American outlet is in Montreal, and the quality/price ratio is such that many of the city's finest kitchens have taken note. Every year he comes to town for about a month so that he can do a little wheeling and dealing, and every year he sells out swiftly.

Antonio was there to greet Michelle and he immediately took a shine to her--the fact that she'd arrived by bike didn't hurt. He let her sample both his extra-virgin olive oil and his extra-virgin wild olive oil and Michelle was suitably impressed. Both were outstanding--light, yet intricate--but the extra-virgin wild olive oil was the one that really blew her away--it had a wonderful pepperiness to it the likes of which she'd never encountered before.

antonio pettinicchi olive oil 2
antonio pettinicchi olive oil 1 fig. d: olive oil bottle composite

Then Michelle got introduced to the rest of the Pettinicchi line, including...

green olives fig. e: green olives

...beautiful, plump green olives...

pomodorini fig. f: canned pomodorini

...lovely canned pomodorini, artisanal cavatelli, heaven-sent balsamic vinegar and vin cotto, and a gorgeous array of confettura, including quince-apple, Barbary fig, and...

confettura di melone fig. g: confettura di melone

...this exotic white watermelon number. In other words: abbondanza!

It didn't take us long to begin enjoying our spoils. We uncorked a bottle of wine and opened up the green olives, and a little later we transformed one jar of pomodorini into a simple, delicious sauce for the cavatelli that highlighted the natural sweetness of the tomatoes. We were going to just wing it, but then we decided to see what Marcella Hazan had to say, and we found this comment introducing her Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter: "This is the simplest of all sauces to make, and none has a purer, more irresistibly sweet tomato taste." She adds that this sauce is "unsurpassed" for potato gnocchi, but that it's also excellent with certain factory-made pastas, such as spaghetti, penne, or rigatoni. We took liberties and had it with the cavatelli.

Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

1 cup canned imported Italian pomodorini, with their juice
2 1/2 tbsp butter
1/2 medium onion
salt to taste
1/2 - 3/4 lb pasta
freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

Put the canned tomatoes in a saucepan, add the butter, the onion (don't chop it), and the salt, and cook uncovered at a very slow but steady simmer for 45 minutes, or until the fat floats free from the tomato. Stir from time to time. Taste and correct for salt. Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with the pasta. Serve immediately, sprinkling liberal amounts of parmigiano-reggiano overtop. (You'll find that the cheese marries particularly well with this sauce because it's one of Hazan's specialty butter-based pasta sauce recipes.)

Serves 2.

[based on a recipe from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking]

Marcella was right about that sauce, but then she's never led us wrong. And its butter base allowed us to keep Antonio's olive oil strictly for bread-dipping.

The next morning we trotted out the white watermelon preserve and discovered that it has these incredible caramel notes to it and that it's equally good on toast or on yogurt.

Antonio is only in town for a couple of months, he's rapidly running out of some of his products already, and once he's gone he won't be back again until next year, but if you'd like to get in on the action you can contact him and arrange your own personal rendez-vous. Of course, certain specialty food stores in Montreal and environs carry Pettinicchi products, but wouldn't you rather buy your olive oil from the man himself?

Les Importations Antonio Pettinicchi
1579 Sauvé East
Ph: (514) 996-1900

Personally, I was so impressed and so eager to meet Antonio that I convinced Michelle to take me to Sauvé East just two days later.

Pettinicchi's Montreal office fig. h: Pettinicchi's Montreal offices

Once again we took our bikes (that's Michelle's there on the right).

Pettinicchi olive oil fig. i: Pettinicchi's wild olive oil

And when we got back home we sampled some more Pettinicchi wild olive oil.

Need one last final push? Check out what Nancy Hinton of La Table des Jardins Sauvages & SoupNancy has to say about Antonio and his olive oil.


* Of course, there are exceptions to this rule:

Those of you with an interest in Patience Gray, edible weeds, Tuscany, Italian cuisine, and Italian culture more generally might want to check out Adam Federman's "Paradise Lost" at The Whetting Stone, which chronicles the melancholy story of Carrara, its fabled marble, and those who sought it (including Gray and her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens) through the ages.

File under: "It's a strange and beautiful world"

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Mon pays c'est...

An interactive map based on Gary Paul Nabhan's new book Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods appeared in The New York Times the other day. The map is essentially a fancier, interactive version of this map

RAFT map fig. a: RAFT map of North America

and it highlights the plight of the 93 endangered foods discussed in Nabhan's book--93 out of his ever-expanding list of over 1,000 such foods. As you can see, in order to do so it divides North American into about a dozen food "nations"--geographic regions that share particularly strong food-based commonalities. Rolling over each region with your cursor allows you to see a list of some of the region-defining foods that are now endangered there. Thus, the Pacific Northwest gets the name Salmon Nation because of the Snake River Chinook salmon's threatened status, and the region's other endangered foods include everything from the Gillette Fig to the Olympia oyster. On the other hand, the Southwest's Chili Pepper Nation designation refers to the threatened El Guique New Mexican chili pepper (and not necessarily to the region's musical preferences), and its endangered foods range from Chapalote popcorn to the Wild Tomatillo of the Continental Divide. The Northeast consists of Clambake Nation and Maple Syrup Nation.

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about, or can't picture the interactive aspects of what I'm describing, or if you'd just like to take a look for yourself, you can find the fancy interactive map here and the accompanying article here.)

As The New York Times makes clear, the book's somewhat paradoxical advice is that, in most cases, consumption is the key to preservation--reintroducing many of these foods to your plate is not only a way of rediversifying one's diet while also eating more regionally, it can also be a way to ensure that these foods don't disappear entirely.

In the case of the Montreal region that would mean reintegrating three endangered items--"hand-harvested wild rice," the Chantecler chicken, and "American eels of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River"--into your diet. "But, wait," you say. "What about the 'Sugar Maple of the Allegheny Plateau'? I thought we lived in Maple Syrup Nation." Well, I haven't read Nabhan's book yet, so all I can do is go by the the maps (schematic though they may be), the article, and the online information provided by RAFT and Slow Food USA, but by the looks of it Maple Syrup Nation sweeps right around Montreal (forming a crescent to the south, east, and north) and we actually belong to Wild Rice Nation, which encompasses a long swath of land that cuts across Southern Quebec, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, slivers of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Saskatchewan, and a healthy chunk of Ontario.

Now, we're no Ontariophobes, but I'm not sure how attached Michelle and I feel to Wild Rice Nation. We like the idea of the famous Chantecler Chicken (the pride and joy of Oka, QC) being raised in a sustainable manner and we definitely wouldn't mind if the unagi at our neighborhood sushi bar was local, but neither of us have ever really associated this region with wild rice. We were pretty sure we were living in Maple Syrup Nation, or Fiddlehead Nation, or maybe even Ramps Nation. And from time to time we'd been known to decamp and show allegiance to Clambake Nation, Crabcake Nation, Corn Bread & BBQ Nation, Gumbo Nation, and Chili Pepper Nation too. But, seriously, if we're not a part of Maple Syrup Nation, why the hell do we have a bottle of fresh eau d'érable

eau d'erable fig. b: the elixir of life

in our refrigerator at the moment? (One that we bought not two blocks away from here, no less.)

Still, it makes you wonder. What are the foods that define us as a region? What are the foods that we can't afford to lose? And how does the RAFT map affect the notion of a distinct society?