Tuesday, February 28, 2006

In Praise of Cross-Border Grocery Shopping

Vermont bounty

Growing up in Canada, cross-border shopping meant going to huge big-box stores and stocking up on the latest cereals and snacks. People always came back from those trips proud of how much money they'd saved, and how many things they'd bought. My family never once took such a trip, though. Must have been something having to do with the fact that my parents grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain. That and a certain distrust they had for the ways of our neighbors to the south. This weekend, though, found me crossing the border to go out for brunch, stroll around, and, yes, pick up a few groceries in Burlington, Vermont. I have to say, it was not without a pang of guilt that I did so. And I certainly didn't tell my parents. So what do they have that we don't have? What would prompt someone like myself to give in to this most Canadian of pastimes?

For one, an amazing selection of Anglo-American-style cheeses. Milk in glass bottles. Artisanal flour. Butter. And, yes, a few snacks that we can't get up here. (Peanut-butter flavoured Chex anyone?)

When it came to cheese, I stocked up on two tried and true brands: Jasper Hill Farm's Bayley Hazen Blue, and Grafton Village's 5-Star Cheddar. In addition to these, I threw in another Jasper Hill cheese, their Constant Bliss [which, contrary to what you might think, is not named after a state of being, but rather after a soldier who guarded the Bayley Hazen road in 1781 and died there alongside his compatriot, Moses Sleeper], and Shelburne Farm's 3-Year Cheddar. All of these cheeses have blown our minds. The cheddars especially are unlike anything we can find up here. Anthony says he hasn't tasted such cheeses since living in England.

When I saw a shelf of milk in glass bottles, I knew I had to bring some home. I chose the whole milk, thinking it was the most versatile, and we've enjoyed it solo, as well as with our tea and coffee. I regret not picking up some cream, though. And maybe even some chocolate milk. Next time.

One of my missions on this trip down to America was to find some King Arthur flour. And find it I did. Every store seemed to have their entire line of flours. (Vermont being King Arthur's home state, I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised.) I chose the traditional whole wheat, as I had no whole wheat flour at home. Thank God I did, because on the back of the package they'd printed a recipe for whole wheat bread, which looked so good that I made it less than 24 hours after returning. I can't tell you how glad I am that I did. It's the best loaf of whole wheat bread I've ever had. It's also easy to make: start to finish in less than 3 hours (!). Perfect for a Saturday afternoon. Even perfect for a Monday afternoon. This bread is so good, so naturally sweet (partly from the honey, but also partly from the flour itself), all you need on it (all you want on it) is some butter. Vermont butter, if possible.

classic whole wheat bread

King Arthur Flour's Classic Whole Wheat Bread

3 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/3 cups water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey, molasses or maple syrup (I used honey)
1/4 cup nonfat dried milk
1 1/4 tsp. salt
2 1/2 tsp. instant yeast

Mix all of your ingredients together until the dough forms a ball. Turn out onto an oiled surface and knead with oiled hands until dough is smooth. Place in an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise 1 hour. Place on an oiled surface and shape into a loaf. Cover and let rise 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the loaf for 20 min. then tent with foil and bake another 20 min. Let it cool on a rack and enjoy with butter and honey.

In one of Burlington's used book stores, I found a re-issue of Wallace Nutting's 1922 classic Vermont Beautiful. A picture book with prose, it is one in a series he did on the American East which includes New Hampshire Beautiful, Maine Beautiful, Connecticut Beautiful, Virginia Beautiful, Massachusetts Beautiful, Pennsylvania Beautiful, and New York Beautiful that I have slowly been collecting for a number of years now. I snatched it up, of course, and came across a passage in it which I thought fitting somehow and which is worth quoting at length.

man and oxen, page 236

...the farmer, more than eighty years old, has drawn off to one side, waiting for the "auto" to pass. The old and the new generations have clashed very sharply in our age. The patient oxen, long the willing helpers of the farmer, useful all their lives and useful in their deaths, must now stand to one side... Perhaps the "auto" will pass for good. The demand for fuel in all forms is beginning to sharpen until we may all take to the woods and chop our own and let the "auto" go. The sources of coal and oil supply have only to become a little less, and civilization's wheel will take another turn; the rural life will be a necessity, the oxen will come back.

I haven't seen any oxen teams on any of my recent trips to Vermont, and "civilization's wheel" may not have taken the turn Nutting expected, but all across The Green Mountain State you find signs that people haven't completely let go of the old world. Let's hope they hold on a little bit longer.


Sunday, February 26, 2006

chez les Nordiques, pt. 1

icicles, Mount Royal

With not one but two tests currently underway at "...an endless banquet" it's starting to be like Canada's Test Kitchen around here or something. Okay, not exactly, but this time of year that's the rhythm a lot of us get into in this part of the world: a lot more experimentation in the kitchen, a lot more staying in and reading--that kind of thing.

Now, speaking of northern climes and life in the Hyperborean Metropolis--as Montreal used to proudly hail itself--coverage of Montreal often focuses attention on how "European" Montreal is. Gourmet's new special issue on Montreal, with one of its coverlines boldly proclaiming that Montreal is "North America's Most European City," is just the latest and most high-profile example. Oftentimes, however, such descriptions of Montreal and its European-ness are merely an almost knee-jerk reaction to things like the city's linguistic landscape, its overwhelmingly Catholic past, what remains of its stone architecture in the vicinity of the Old Port, and its high proportion of French restaurants, and what people fail to see is just how profoundly North American Montreal is. Of course, people have tended to have a similar reaction to New Orleans over the years, and in both cases this sense of European-ness is based on a failure to understand that the history of New France wasn't exactly a simple blip on the North American timeline. Montreal does have a lot of French restaurants--that's obvious--but as Gourmet rightly pointed out, the best of the lot draw from a vision that is at once global in outlook and passionately local, a vision certainly inspired by France, but one that is proudly North American (with an emphasis on the "North," perhaps). They're not museum pieces, they're not French restaurants in the generic sense (although there are certainly plenty of those around here as there are in most cities of the size and "sophistication" of Montreal), they're restaurants that are very much alive and are contributing to an ever-expanding sense of what cuisine--both French and North American--might mean. And while Gourmet didn't exactly dwell on Montreal's winters--it's pretty clear that the issue was drawn up and produced in the summer and fall of last year--its "Let it Snow" feature managed to capture the region's essentially Nordic character, something that profiles of the city generally overlook or elide (depending on whether they're produced by out-of-towners or locals). If the notion of terroir is crucial to understanding a region's cuisine, as the French certainly believe, than the Montreal region's unique terroir helps one understand how and why the culture here is distinctive, and why it's so different from that of France. In other words, Montreal's most European qualities might not actually be where people see them.

A case in point: gravlax.

gravlax with roasted potatoes at Reservoir

As Alan Davidson has outlined, gravlax originated in Sweden in medieval times. The first references to the dish come in the way of surnames and are based on the Scandinavian custom of naming someone according to their profession or métier. The name itself combines the Swedish word for salmon with a word signifying burial, indicating the traditional manner used in the production of gravlax. Thus, records for one Olafuer Gravlax who lived in Jämtland back in 1348 suggest that gravlax was being manufactured in that region according to tradition--which involved burying the salmon, or other fish, in barrels or in holes in the ground, then letting it ferment--at least as far back as the mid-14th century. There were essentially two varieties of gravlax--one which was allowed to ferment for a matter of days, while the other was cured for months. The terms gravlax and surlax appear to have been interchangeable for both types, although "sour salmon" appears to have been the more appropriate descriptor for the long-cured variety. Of course, the modern process for making gravlax is much simpler and much less involved than either the short-cure or long-cure versions that were traditional--burial is unnecessary, and you need only cold-cure the salmon, or other fish, for 24-36 hours to get a good result.

Now, the fact that gravlax has become a featured item on menus around town [the photo above features a gravlax plate I recently had at Reservoir that consisted of Zubrowka-cured salmon, roasted potatoes, fresh greens, and Zubrowka-laced sour cream, just one of the many reasons we feel Reservoir is the city's best brunch spot at the moment], is not exactly unprecedented within the current North American dining scene. Gravlax has been having a bit of a revival among North America's top chefs in recent years, largely because of the freedom the dish affords--as the website for the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C. puts it, somewhat stiffly, "Gravlax... gives plenty of choices to follow your own preference of flavors... Have fun with it." The difference here is that salmon is native to the region and has been a staple ever since the region was first settled (in fact, salmon is certainly one of the reasons the region was settled in the first place), and that, similarly, the curing of salmon has been an important part of the culture here for hundreds and hundreds of years, long before Cartier charted the St. Lawrence. In other words, gravlax may not be native to the region--although, who knows, the Iroquois Nation may very well have had their own version of gravlax in addition to the smoked and wind-dried forms of curing they were using--but it fits in well with the local culture for exactly the same reasons that it took hold in the Scandinavian world. What makes things interesting is that this parallel culture of salmon fishing and salmon curing was first developed through the interaction (I'm being diplomatic) of non-Northern Europeans with indigenous peoples.

With all of this mind, I set about starting to experiment with gravlax myself just the other day. Inspired by my friend Caro's father's gravlax, and by Davidson's claim that "the preparation of gravlax is customarily one of the household duties allocated to men," I'd been wanting to try my hand at making some for quite some time. I also wanted to develop a recipe that would finally make good my Maldon salt promise. The results? You'll just have to be patient. I'm working on a 48-60 hour curing period.


Note: the icicles photograph at the top wasn't taken this weekend, but it could have been.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Brioche Tests, pt. 1

brioche, test #1

This year hasn't been much of a winter by Montreal standards. We haven't really had those extended periods of near-arctic -20˚ C weather that make wintering in Montreal so, well, exhilarating. We keep talking to the old-timers in our neighborhood, asking them if they've ever seen anything like it. They all seem to agree that the seasons are out of whack these days. Just how warm has it been? Well, it hasn't really been "warm", but we haven't really needed to put the heat into overdrive this year like we usually do. We've just been moving our portable space heater around the apartment when we need it, and sporadically at that. That being said, if you're feeling nostalgic, you could always bake yourself some bread. Sure, once the oven gets turned on you'll be able to benefit from the oven's ambient heat and you might even find your apartment overly warm, but up until you actually place that dough in the oven you're going to need to provide a nice, warm environment for you to be able to work the dough with ease and for the dough to rise properly. Anyone gives you guff, just tell them, "Step off. It's for the dough, man." The bill won't come for a while, your kitchen will get filled with an amazing aroma, and you'll be able to reminisce about those overheated winter days of yore.

There is nothing I like more than toasting a piece of brioche and eating it with butter and jam. The only thing that's better, perhaps, is a fresh brioche with butter, jam, coffee, and a couple of soft-boiled eggs. In either case, the problem is that I haven't found a brioche in Montreal that's to my liking. They're all too dry, too bready. When I want brioche, I don't want something with the flavor and consistency of white bread with a bit of butter in it. I want a croissant-like bread, something so decadent that when you butter it people might raise an eyebrow. I knew I'd have to make it myself. Probably a few times, just to be sure.

My first test is from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible. In her preamble she claimed that this brioche is "intensely buttery." She goes on to say that if you want even more butter, you can increase the amount from 4 oz. to 6 oz. I threw all caution into the wind and went for the 6 oz., blatantly breaking The First Rule of Recipe Testing--"Never do a variation if you haven't tried the standard."--in the process.

In most of her breads, Beranbaum uses a sponge, one that she ages anywhere from 1 1/2 to 24 hours. This ending up drawing out the process of making this loaf over three days, but not much time was spent actually working on it. While the dough was rising, you could smell the butteriness in the air, but that was nothing compared to when I actually baked it. The house was thick with the rich smell of butter. When I removed the loaf from the oven, it took all my willpower not to tear into it. Willpower, and the thought of burning my hands and mouth as I devoured it greedily in the kitchen alone. And the guilt and remorse that would inevitably follow. Beranbaum warns that you must let the loaf rest at least 2 hours after baking or you will somehow ruin it. Probably because it would collapse, or something. I didn't want to find out, so I left it to cool on a rack.

Rose Levy Beranbaum's Brioche


2 tbsp water, at room temperature
1 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp instant yeast
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 large egg

Mix the above in a bowl with a whisk until smooth.


1 cup + 1 1/2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp sugar
1 1/4 tsp instant yeast
1/2 tsp salt

2 large eggs, cold
4 oz. unsalted butter, very soft * (or 6 oz. for the butter-crazed)

Mix the flour, sugar, salt and yeast together, then sprinkle it over the sponge. Wrap with plastic wrap and let sit 1/2-2 hours. (Or 1 hours, then move it into the fridge for up to 24 hours. Remove it from the fridge 1 hour before you want to continue with the dough.)

Put the dough into the bowl of a mixer, add the 2 eggs and mix with the hook on low speed. When it is smooth, raise the speed to medium and beat 2 min. Scrape down the sides and beat for 5 min. more. Add the butter a spoonful at a time, letting it get mixed it before adding more. (This took a while for me since I have no microwave to soften my butter. See note *.) The dough will be shiny and sticky. Place it in an oiled bowl, oil the top, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours. Place it in the fridge and chill it 1 hour. Deflate the dough and return it to the fridge for another hour. Place the dough on a well-floured surface and press it into a rectangle. Fold it twice, as if it was a letter, then fold it again. Round the corners and dust it lightly. Wrap it in plastic wrap and place in a bag. Chill it in the fridge 6-24 hours. At this point, you might as well leave it overnight and finish it the next day.

Remove the dough from the fridge and shape it into a loaf. Place it in a greased brioche mold and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until the dough reaches the top of the pan, about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350°F 30 min. before baking. Place a baking stone or a sheet on the lowest rack. Glaze the loaf with 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tsp. milk. Bake 35-40 min., or until the interior of the loaf reaches 190°F. Let it cool 10 min. in the mold, then place on a rack and cool 2 hours.

* I must be one of the only people in the world without a microwave. I left my butter out all night but it was still hard-ish in the morning. I ended up having to squeeze it in my hands to soften it. Not the best method, but it worked.

a delicate morsel

The result was a brioche better than any either of us had ever had--anywhere. Light, rich, sumptuous--buttering it was out of the question, even for me. It had a delicate crumb, and kept perfectly fine on the counter, cut side down, until the next morning when we finished it for breakfast. This will definitely be a hard act for brioche #2 to follow.

Oh, yeah. As I was preparing the brioche yesterday it was as if the cats could tell something really decadent was happening: they went into their signature "Could we be any happier?" pose (actually, I think this one was one of their "Could we be any happier?"/"Could you please get that camera out of here?" poses).

happy cats

You should have seen the pose I struck after I had my first bite of that brioche.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The things people will do...

Simcha's pickles

There I was, sitting at work, minding my own business, reading my daily assortment of e-mail, when I got tipped off to some very strange Montreal food news indeed by one of our loyal readers. Remember Simcha's? Well, it seems some folks got permission from Simcha Leibovich's niece to shoot a video inside the now-abandoned premises of the once-great Plateau grocery. The idea was to celebrate the man (and Fanny, too, presumably) by shooting a documentary/homage/"posthumous pickle party" on-site. The gathering ended with the assembled party liberating a barrel of Simcha's legendary pickles and triumphantly rolling it across the street to Restaurant The Main...

Deli Main

You know how these things are.

At the time that this news was first reported, the idea was that Simcha's finest would be available off-menu to anyone who asked. While they lasted, those in the know could have a Simcha's with their smoked meat instead of one of The Main's standard run-of-the-mill dill pickles. Readers/Simcha's fanatics were urged to hurry on down to "experience the last batch." Problem is, when people did start to go on down they were told that Simcha's pickles were, in fact, not available. When they asked why, the line they got was that the barrel was being donated to local benevolent organization Sun Youth (?). When this unfortunate news came over the wire, readers/Simcha's fanatics were instructed to "speak to Peter." Hopefully he would sort things out, we were told. Intrigued by the intrigue, I passed by The Main on my way home from work. I wasn't going to miss out on my chance, no matter how remote. When I went in I was happy to see my favorite waitress was there--the one who often works the late shift with the Shawinigan Red hair. I took her presence to be a good omen. I asked her about Simcha's pickles and she gave me an uncharacteristic exasperated air. It was clear she'd been asked about them a few times already. Not wanting to break the bad news to me herself, she deferred to the smoked meat jockey behind the counter. He confirmed that awful rumor: the owner had decided to donate the barrel of pickles to charity (??). The barrel was due to be delivered to Sun Youth. When I asked him why, he told me he wasn't sure.

An untimely death. A late-night posthumous pickle party. A moonlight barrel-rolling procession. A clandestine magic pickle sale. A mysterious and inexplicable charitable donation. This town is truly bizarre sometimes.

My copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable has the following definition for the listing "Relic, Christian": "The corpse of a saint, or any part thereof; any part of his clothing; or anything ultimately connected with him" (my emphasis). Montreal is not the city it was 45 years ago or so. Post-Quiet Revolution, we find our saints and our relics in the most unlikely of places.


p.s.--Finding this a little hard to believe? You can read the abovementioned thread here. Or you can just go to The Main and ask for "Simcha's pickles." One look will say it all.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Lazy Monday

All right, maybe "Lazy Monday Night" would have been more appropriate, but it just didn't have the same ring to it.

Artichaut Breton

Ever since our friend Jesper posted a comment on the subject a couple of weeks back, we’ve been obsessed with preparing a dish utilizing the "laziest simmer" imaginable. We haven’t gotten around to making such a dish yet, but today we felt like cooking something nice for dinner, so we leafed through a couple of the cookbooks we’ve had kicking around in recent weeks, before finally settling on a recipe that made use of a fairly lazy simmer (a fairly lazy simmer for a work night, at least). The book we turned to was Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef, which is yet another one of the books we’ve had on loan from our friend Étienne for an ungodly amount of time now, and which, apparently, is among his favorite cookbooks. And the recipe we turned to was Colicchio’s Slow-Braised Chicken with Artichokes. We’ve really enjoyed reading Think Like a Chef. It’s organized in a manner I’d never encountered before, with sections entitled Techniques, Studies, Trilogies, Component Cooking, and A Few Favorites, and while the book as a whole is very attractive indeed, chock-full of tempting recipes of all sorts, we’ve been particularly intrigued by the Studies and Trilogies sections, which involve thinking creatively with particular foundational ingredients or particular combinations of ingredients, encouraging you to develop a repertoire with these set ingredients. We made a few minor changes to Colicchio’s Slow-Braised Chicken—out of necessity more than anything else—just enough to warrant a slight name change, but we really liked the looks of the recipe so we tried to stay as true to it as possible. Here goes:

Lazily Braised Chicken with Artichokes

2 tbsp olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 chicken legs
4 chicken thighs
1 large yellow onion, peeled and cut into eighths
3 carrots, peeled and cut into fourths
3 celery stalks, peeled and cut into fourths
4 garlic cloves, peeled
4 sprigs of fresh thyme plus additional for garnish
1/4 cup Italian parsley, minced
1 1/4 cups chicken stock
4 braised artichokes (recipe follows)
2 tbsp unsalted butter

Preheat your oven to 350° F. Heat the oil in a large ovenproof skillet (we used our large cast-iron pan) over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Salt and pepper the chicken on both sides, then brown the chicken, about 7 minutes per side. We were able to do this in one batch because our pan is plenty big enough, but you may have to do this in batches. When your chicken pieces have been browned, transfer them to a plate.

Pour off some of the fat, leaving just enough to coat the skillet (you’ll need about 2 tbsp worth to do this). Add the onion, carrots, celery, and a little salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until the vegetables soften and begin to brown, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and half of the herbs and cook for 3 to 5 minutes more. Arrange the chicken in the skillet, skin-side up, on top of the vegetables.

Add enough stock to come up to but not over the chicken and bring it to a simmer on top of the stove. Transfer the skillet to the oven and simmer lazily, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours, adding more stock if the pan begins to look dry.

[Note: here, if you’re not still busy with the Braised Artichokes, you’ve got a while to relax. In fact, you’ve got just enough time to bust out some wine, some crackers and cheese, and do some reading. We know. We tried it.]

Add the artichokes, the remaining herbs, and the butter. Cook for another 15 minutes, basting the chicken frequently. When the chicken is done it will be very tender and well browned, and the braising liquid will have thickened. Serve the chicken with the braising liquid and vegetables, along with rice or greens or some other side dish, and garnish with additional fresh herbs.

Serves 4

Artichokes Braised in Olive Oil and White Wine

3 lemons
8 large artichokes
1 medium yellow onion, peeled
2 small leeks, rinsed, tops trimmed, green outer leaves discarded, and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 small carrots, peeled
2 slices of bacon (optional)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, peeled
freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs of fresh tarragon
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 3/4 cups dry white wine

Combine the juice of 2 1/2 of the lemons and 2 quarts of water in a large bowl. Trim each artichoke, removing the stem, leaves, and choke and rubbing from time to time with the remaining half lemon (to keep them from turning brown). Set the trimmed artichoke bottoms aside in the lemon water.

Cut the onion lengthwise then slice it thinly. Quarter the leeks lengthwise then cut them into thin strips 2 inches long. Thinly slice the celery and carrots.

Render the bacon for 2-3 minutes over medium heat, then add 1/4 cup of the oil. [If you’re not using bacon, just use the full amount of oil and heat it over medium heat.] Add the onion, leeks, celery, and carrots to the pot. Season them with salt, then reduce the heat to medium-low and slowly cook the vegetables, stirring from time to time, until they are tender but not brown, about 20 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.

Drain the artichokes and add them to the pot. Add a little more salt and pepper, enough olive oil to coat the artichokes (roughly 2 tbsp), the bay leaves, and half the tarragon and thyme. Mix gently and arrange the artichokes in a single layer. Pour in the wine and enough water to cover the artichokes, about 2 cups, and bring to a simmer. Partially cover the pot, reduce the heat, and gently simmer until the artichokes can be easily pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes.

Chop the remaining tarragon and thyme coarsely. Add the herbs to the artichokes and remove the pot from the heat. Allow artichokes to cook slowly in the braising liquid, then garnish with the aromatic vegetables (the carrots, leeks, etc.) and some additional herbs.

[Note: there’s no reason to discard the artichoke leaves entirely when you prepare your chokes. Do what we did. Put a bunch of the nicest leaves aside and steam them while you finish preparing the Braised Artichokes. When they’ve steamed to the point that they’re just tender, serve them with some mayonnaise as a dipping sauce. There’s no better snack while you’re lazily braising that chicken.]

These artichokes can be used in a variety of ways. They can be served as an appetizer or accompanying dish, either at room temperature, chilled, or warmed. They can also form a foundation for a dish such as the Slow-Braised Chicken recipe above, or anyone of a number of other dishes Colicchio lists: from Artichoke Vinaigrette, to Quick-Braised Striped Bass with Artichokes and Zucchini, to Artichoke and Tomato Gratin. Finally, Colicchio recommends using the braising liquid with imagination to make other dishes.

Vegetarians, omit the bacon and you have yourselves a delicate and wonderfully balanced side which is also ideal as a base for stews and pasta dishes (again, think Mediterranean), such as the Orecchiette with Artichokes, Cabbage, and Cranberry Beans included by Colicchio.

One last thing: you can use the same basic method outlined above to braise a whole host of other “white vegetables,” such as cauliflower, endive, fennel, or white asparagus instead of the artichokes. Colicchio urges his readers to stick to these white vegetables, though, “as green vegetables will turn brown.”

How did it all turn out? We loved the braised artichokes. Michelle was able to score some particularly nice artichokes from the restaurant, so we had ideal specimens to work with. Once you got past preparing the artichokes, which took a bit of time for novices like ourselves, the recipe was very manageable, even for a Monday night. And the Mediterranean feel of the final dish was just what the doctor ordered. I can’t wait until the artichokes flood the markets again later this year. This time we’ll be even more ready than ever. The chicken was flat-out fabulous. Everything turned out exactly according to plan, the vegetables were quite literally like candy (especially those carrots), and the chicken that resulted was succulent, juicy, perfectly seasoned, and literally falling off the bone, with a crispy, flavorful skin we haven’t seen since we visited the legendary Zuni Café in San Francisco this past summer. Very highly recommended.


illustration: Artichaut Breton by Eduardo Ruiz, 1969

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Hot off the presses!

Gourmet, March 2006

Well, last year, "we" (Montreal, that is) were the darlings of the music world, with highly sensationalistic, attention-grabbing dispatches on the "Montreal music scene" showing up everywhere from Spin, to The New York Times, to CBC television's "The National"*. Is this our year to be the darlings of the culinary world? For only the sixth time in their history, Gourmet has devoted an issue to a single city, and that city, dear readers, is Montreal. While last year's music scene stories, by and large, were ridiculous (riddled with mistakes, misrepresentations, and even bald-faced lies), I'm happy to report that Gourmet's special issue is a well-balanced and thorough, if a bit glowing, portrait of Montreal and its food culture ca. 2006.**

What prompted this issue? Well, as Ruth Reichl explains, while devoting issues to Paris, Rome, San Francisco, New York, and London (the past laureates) was a great experience for all involved (how could it not be?), there was a sense of excitement to exploring Montreal that the staff at Gourmet hadn't felt before, much of which had to do with exploring a city on the move that was peripheral to the Grand Tour. "Everybody knows that those other cities are great places to visit," she writes, "you have a good idea what you'll find there. But Montreal... feels like a discovery. You won't be surprised to learn that each of us returned determined to convince our friends they had to go to Montreal."

What can you expect inside? Among other things, you'll find...
• write-ups on Jewish Montreal, Mile End, Old Montreal, Atwater and Jean-Talon Market, the Plateau, and, yes, even Montreal's music scene.
• an overview of the French-ness that underlies so many of the city's finest restaurants
• a nice story on Elena Faita, of Quincaillerie Dante fame
• and a very well-deserved feature on Martin Picard and his truly exceptional Au Pied de Cochon, for (as we've mentioned here before) no other restaurant captures what's exciting and unique about Montreal's contemporary food culture more effortlessly

Anything we would have done differently? Well, you'll just have to compare Gourmet's account of Montreal with ours and draw your own conclusions...


*True to form, the CBC had the nerve to turn on the unconverted to the dynamism and energy of Montreal's Anglo music-making youthquake at the same time that they were busily slashing support for Montreal-based English-language music programming.

**I'm also happy to report that "...an endless banquet" received a very generous mention.

Friday, February 17, 2006

to the Lachine Canal and back (by way of Cluny)

interior design à la Cluny

We've been huge fans of Titanic for years now. We started going there on our lunch breaks five years ago or so when we were both working downtown, and our memories of a string of lunchtime get-togethers that we had with our friends D & S are among the fondest we have. There was something about beating a hasty exit from work, hopping on our bikes, having that death-defying ride down Beaver Hall, that nice summer weather (in my memories, it was always summer), then meeting up with our late-rising colleagues, that spelled freedom. Then there was the food. Always fresh, always thoughtful, always delicious--a perfect antidote to the poor fare that dominates downtown. I appreciated the atmosphere, too: bustling. Given our affection for Titanic, you would have thought that we would have run when they started serving breakfast, lunch, and the occasional dinner (two nights a week) at their latest creation, Cluny, when it opened a few years ago. In fact, today was our very first visit. We were on our way back downtown after paying a visit to the truly amazing St-Armand paper works, purveyors of the finest handmade papers, the imprint under which master papermaker David Carruthers has been operating since 1979,

Papeterie St-Armand I

Papeterie St-Armand II

when we decided, "why not have a truly amazing lunch?" We thought about going to Titanic, then decided it was time we paid Cluny a visit, especially because its setting--inside the post-industrial splendor of the Darling Foundry Building--seemed like the perfect way of following up our visit to the banks of the Lachine Canal, the cradle of Canadian industry.

The setting was perfect--high ceilings, massive windows letting in some much-needed sunlight, and counter service from behind a big, beautiful counter--and the food was right on the mark. My associates--Michelle and K--were less crazy about the concept--something one might call cafeteria-nouveau--which involves trays and a fair amount of self-service, but I like it. Along with the communal and semi-communal tables, it makes for an unfussy ambiance. [For the record, Titanic, too, has adopted this system over the last year, but I prefer the way it works at Cluny. It just fits better with the layout of the place.] I had a panini caprese with a hearty potato salad (complete with corn niblets and cornichons), while Michelle and K had the special of the day, chicken à la Mexicaine, roasted beets, a romaine salad, and a hot flour tortilla. We finished things off with three Café Union espressos (yes!) and an order of the drop-dead gorgeous braised pear and crab apple combo.

desserts at Cluny

The crab apple we had wasn't at its prime, but the pear sure was, and the rest of our spread was just we needed on a blustery winter day.

The sun may have been shining, but we knew we were in for another wild ride as soon as we got back out on the sidewalk (the wind was gusting up to 110 km/h today), so before we braved the streets again we bundled up and braced ourselves.

Michelle & Co. I

We'll be back, Cluny. We're sorry it took us so long to visit.

Papeterie St-Armand, 3700 St-Patrick, (514) 931-8338 [note: the St-Armand paper works are only open to the public on Fridays]

Cluny, 257 Prince St. (corner of Ottawa), (514) 866-1213


Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Hungarian New Wave Starts at Home

Pride of Szeged

Just as Montreal was once a respectable city for rye bread, it was also once an important hub for Canada’s Hungarian immigrant population and, as a result, a city with its fair share of Hungarian restaurants, delis, and bakeries. It goes without saying that the virtual disappearance of these two aspects of Montreal’s former food culture is no mere coincidence. Again, it’s not that you can’t find Hungarian food in Montreal—one of the city’s best boucheries/charcuteries is the venerable Charcuterie Hongroise, which has been selling their exceptional sausages, smoked bacon, and other specialties on the Main for some 50 years now. When it comes to actual sit-down restaurants, the metro area has a few, but it’s safe to say that there isn’t a whole lot of competition in this department anymore. Gone are the days when Hungarian establishments were clustered along a good portion of St. Laurent Blvd., gone are the days when Hungarian-continental restaurants like Pam Pam (my parents’ favorite) graced the city’s downtown dining scene. When it comes to Hungarian restaurants and their dwindling numbers, though, it strikes me that Montreal isn’t alone among North American cities. It might just be my imagination, but it seems to me that Hungarian restaurants were much more of a fixture 20-30 years ago (maybe it’s just because I was spending so much more time in the Goulash Belt back then). What happened? Did tastes just shift away from Hungarian, and, if so, why? Did the clichéd trappings of your average Hungarian restaurant—the mandatory ersatz beef goulash, the strolling gypsy violins, etc.—finally suffocate the cuisine? One would have thought that the fall of the Iron Curtain might have triggered a new wave of Hungarian restaurants across North America. Maybe it has elsewhere, but if it has I haven’t read anything about it. It certainly hasn’t in Montreal. If ever there was a cuisine just begging to be revisited and revitalized it was Hungarian cuisine. We’re constantly being told how young and brash and exciting a city Budapest is (and those of us who’ve been there know that it is). I say, bring on the Hungarian New Wave!

In the meantime, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands as we did the other night. Disappointed by the last “chicken paprikash” I had in a restaurant, and having been eager to experiment with some of the Hungarian recipes we had at home, I went out to the store to get a fresh tin of hot Hungarian paprika, Pride of Szeged brand, and we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

Now the recipe I chose came from Saveur’s special issue of Food for the Holidays (Winter 2004), and it came under the unpretentious and somewhat vague title Paprika Chicken. The write-up mentioned only that it was a “home-style version of an iconic Hungarian dish,” but it didn’t specify which dish in particular. You see, things get a bit complicated when it comes to those dishes that have become know as the classics of Hungarian cuisine. First off, the Hungarian equivalent to the Anglicism “goulash” has nothing to do with stew, it’s the word for cattle driver (gulyás). This word, in turn, is associated with a soup (not a stew) called gulyás leves, meaning “soup of the cattle driver” or “soup of the cowboy,” a soup that bears little resemblance to “Hungarian goulash.” What is known internationally as “Hungarian goulash” is known in the motherland as either pïrkïlt or paprikás. Now, Hungarian cattlemen, shepherds, and pig herders had been making dishes involving cubes of meat, onions and spices (like “Hungarian goulash”) for at least 150-300 years before the arrival of paprika, and one common version involved roasting the meat over an open fire until it reached the point just prior to burning, acquiring a slightly burned surface (the quality of which became known as pïrkïl). According to Alan Davidson, although paprika was mentioned in a Hungarian dictionary as early as 1604—not too long after its ancestor pepper (Capsicum Annuum) was brought to Europe from the New World—it was not until the early 19th century that paprika took hold in Hungary (by way of Turkey and Bulgaria) and that the Hungarian people reinvented their cuisine, practically eliminating the use of ginger and black pepper in the process. When they experimented with this new spice, Hungarians discovered they could use it to reach the point of pïrkïl, flavor-wise, without actually burning the meat, and that, in fact, they preferred this variation to most ways of cooking meat that had preceded it. This new dish became known as pïrkïlt, paprikás if sour cream had been added to it, it was used to cook beef along with veal, pork, rabbit, and poultry, and it quickly became the national dish, the dish that vaulted paprika to the status of “national condiment.” What does this all mean? Well, I guess it means that the dish we made was in actuality a pïrkïlt because although sour cream is listed, it only appears in the form of a dollop alongside the dish. That being the case, you can understand why Saveur might have fudged the name a bit (in fact, some of you out there might be wishing that I had, too).

What’s important here is that the dish is a stunner. Simmer down that sauce and it turns into a thing of beauty even though it doesn’t involve a roux in any way, shape, or form (I was a bit surprised). The mix of paprika powders gives the dish an impressive depth, of course, and feel free to play around with the ratio a bit if you prefer your dishes a little spicier, but the real surprise was the effect of the green pepper, which gave the sauce a subtle flavor that I’d never been able to place before. It’s traditional to serve this dish with spätzle-like dumplings (what my Baba used to call by the Slovak word halusky), but almost as classic is the combo with egg noodles, and that’s the path we followed this time around. Lastly, that sour cream/milk mixture might seem a bit arbitrary, but it was worth doing—it improved the consistency and mellowed it out considerably.

Without any further ado:

Paprika Chicken

1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed then peeled
2 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
1/2 tsp hot Hungarian paprika
3 fresh or canned plum tomatoes (given the season, I used canned tomatoes)
2 green bell peppers, cored, seeded, and diced finely, or, preferably, some other tastier green peppers (like Cubanelles or Italian fryers), treated in the same way
2 tsp salt
1 cup water
2 3.5-lb chickens, rinsed and cut into 4 pieces each
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tbsp milk

Heat the oil in large pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook until golden, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add garlic, the sweet and hot paprika, tomatoes, bell pepper, salt, and 1 cup of water and stir well. Add the chicken, cover, and simmer until tender, about 45 minutes, turning chicken once about halfway through (and possibly rearranging the pieces to ensure that they get evenly cooked, as I did). Remove the chicken pieces from the pot and set them aside.

Strain the sauce through a fine strainer into a bowl, making sure to press down on the vegetables to squeeze every last drop of liquid out of them. Discard the vegetable solids. Return the sauce to the pot, increase the heat to medium, and simmer until the sauce has thickened, about 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, when the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin and bones, keeping the breasts and thighs intact (to be honest, we weren’t that methodical about this step—we didn’t care if it resulted in a somewhat messier meal, we were all friends and family). Return chicken to the pot, reduce heat to low, and keep warm, tossing the chicken in the sauce so that it gets coated evenly.

Mix the sour cream and the milk together in a small bowl and set aside.

Serve the chicken pieces with egg noodles, a ladle full of that amazing sauce, and a dollop of the sour cream/milk mixture. Bread and salad is all you need to make a meal of this.

Serves 4 to 6.

By the way, we’re compiling variations on traditional Hungarian pïrkïlt and paprikás dishes. We’d be ecstatic if any you out there would send us your home recipes.


Andrew Dalby, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices
Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

From Finland with Love

finnish recipe magnets

Know anyone who's heading to Finland anytime soon? Be nice to them. Maybe they'll bring you back some of that lovely Finnish design work. If you've been really good, who knows, maybe they'll bring you back one of those unbelievable iittala casseroles we're so fond of.

Otherwise, there's always this handsome set of Finnish recipe magnets. Heavy-duty, tasteful matte finish, nice colors, an ultra-minimalist approach to the recipe, and just look at that font! Brilliant. We've always had our good reasons for going to the fridge. Ever since our friends G & S got us this set of magnets, we've had 6 more. Of course, whenever I look at these, they also make me rue the fact that there's so little good design in this part of the world. Montreal prides itself on its good design and it's not without its gems, but, unfortunately, most of them date back about 40 years (those crazy mosaics and lightboxes that grace the walls of some of our Métro stations come to mind).

Anyway, back to the magnets. If only we knew Finnish. Or, rather, if only Babelfish knew Finnish. I did manage to decipher the red one, though:

lettutaikina = crêpe batter
2 munaa = 2 eggs
5 dl maitoa = 5 dl milk
2 dl jauhoja = 2 dl flour
1.5 tl suolaa = 1.5 tl (tsp) salt
1 rkl voita = 1 rkl (tbsp) butter (melted, presumably)

Perfect for Pancake Day (February 28 this year).

I wish I could tell you exactly where to tell your friends to go and purchase them, but I can't. Maybe G or S can fill us in on the details.

Worst comes to worst, your friends could always bring you back some salmiakki.

That is, assuming you know someone who's going to Finland.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Top Ten #6

1. Le Samouraï, dir. Melville

2. "Saturday afternoon bread"

3. cranberry mostarda and making mustard from scratch

4. Ris Paul Ric, Purple Blaze

5. Maldon salt

6. Caché, dir. Haneke

7. Seville orange and whisky marmalade

the Certa's drinks menu

8. Le Paysan de Paris, Aragon

9. Simple Cooking, ed. John Thorne

10. dinner for two


Love Potion #9

"What's the secret," you ask?

Parfait Amour

15 drops essence of lemon
10 drops essence of citron
5 drops essence of coriander
650 gr quality 90 proof alcohol
800 gr chunk sugar
650 gr rainwater

Add the drops of the various essences directly to the alcohol and mix well.

Dissolve the sugar in the rainwater, and add this solution to the alcohol, add food coloring to the mix to make it pink, if you so desire, then strain this mixture through a paper filter.


[Translated from a recipe by M. Ferreyrol, Pharmacien-Chimiste.]

[Note to our readers down south and out west: please send rainwater.]


Saturday, February 11, 2006

On "Saturday Afternoon Bread" and New York-Style Rye

Between the two of us, we had some limited experience with baking bread at home and even a little professional experience*, but when Michelle decided that she wanted to get into bread baking more seriously almost a year and a half ago now, she discovered that it was even more demanding than she’d imagined. She started to collect some of the essential literature on the subject, she did a lot of reading, and she acquired things like a proper baking stone, she even got some help from a professional when it came to her sourdough starter, and all of these preparations resulted in some very good loaves of bread, but the loaves were few and far between, and the problem had to do with fitting complicated methods into a busy life. Because of this, Michelle felt vindicated when she came across a review of a half-dozen of the top North American books on bread baking in the last issue of The Art of Eating (#70) by no less of an authority than James MacGuire, the Montreal-based professional who owned and ran Le Passe-Partout for over 20 years and who now lectures at the CIA (not “the Company,” the other one), among other places. MacGuire’s generous review encompasses everything from a comparison of baking habits in North America and Europe, to a brief history of the challenges encountered by the North American artisanal bread baking movement that began in the 1980s, but for the most part he carefully examines each of the titles under discussion, and doesn’t mince words in his appraisals. MacGuire notes serious problems with most of the books reviewed, and some books even get a drubbing, but one of his biggest gripes has to do with how overly and (in some cases) needlessly complicated these bread books tend to be. He quips that with some of these books, “the necessary dedication might lie somewhere between that required by a serious hobby and a minor religion,” before singling out Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery: Recipes for the Connoisseur: “in one recipe she suggests that readers begin work at six o’clock on Saturday morning in order to have the loaves ready by about ten o’clock that night.” What mystifies MacGuire is that most of these books are both overly technical and riddled with inaccuracies and, from time to time, outright mistakes, and he ends up pointing out that there the market is sorely in need of something that’s both solidly grounded and practical:

Missing from the lineup is a short book that someone could use to bake a few loaves of bread on a Saturday afternoon, a book that would explain what is genuinely essential but still leave room for chores, errands, or even a nap.

With all this in mind, we’ve recently decided three things: that we want to bake bread more often, that we want to bake bread together, and that we want to focus on recipes that are manageable. Oh, and if we can bake something that’s hard to find or altogether missing from the local bread market (believe me, as good as Montreal’s bread can be at times, this isn’t difficult), all the better. That’s why we made our first experiment as part of this new order rye bread. We’re both serious about our caraway rye, and if there’s really a serious rye available in Montreal at present, neither of us know of it. It’s certainly been a while now since there was a true European-style rye bread (MacGuire describes these as having a minimum of 60-65% rye flour) available in Montreal, but these days it’s even hard to find a good North American-style rye (20-30% rye flour). In fact, I'd be surprised if your average Montreal rye loaf (the kind of stuff they use for the smoked meat sandwiches at Schwartz's, say) has more than 10-15% rye flour. Try to find a good caraway rye and your success rate bottoms out entirely.

After consulting a number of recipes, we settled on Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe from her The Bread Bible. Now, MacGuire reviewed this book, of course, and he criticized it for “pseudoscientific precision” as well as for “an admissibly low” ratio of rye to wheat flour “for anything approaching real rye bread,” but we’d decided that weren’t even going to try to make a true European-style rye, that we wanted to make a New York-style rye with plenty of caraway seeds, and we wanted to be able to make our loaf within a matter of a few hours (more or less). We liked the way Beranbaum’s recipe read and it met all the above criteria.

New York-style rye

“Levy’s” Real Jewish Rye Bread

note: keep in mind that we’ve only included the directions for the electric mixer version of this recipe. Michelle got a brand-new KitchenAid mixer for Christmas, so she might as well use it, right?

special equipment: a half sheet pan, sprinkled with cornmeal (Michelle used a piece of parchment instead)

a baking stone OR baking sheet

a mixer


3/4 cup bread flour
3/4 cup rye flour
1/2 tsp instant yeast
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp malt flour
1 1/2 cups water (at room temperature, 70º F to 90º F)

In a mixer bowl or other large bowl, place the flour (both kinds), yeast, sugar, malt, and water. Whisk until very smooth, to incorporate air, 2 minutes. The starter will be the consistency of a thick batter. Scrape the sides of the bowl. Set aside covered with plastic wrap while you make the flour mixture.

Flour mixture:

2 1/4 cups bread flour
1/2 tsp + 1/8 tsp instant yeast
2 tbsp caraway seeds
1/2 tbsp salt
1/2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp cornmeal for sprinkling

Combine the ingredients for the flour mixture and add to the sponge. In a large bowl, whisk together the bread flour, rye flour, yeast, caraway seeds, and salt. Gently scoop it onto the sponge to cover it completely. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow it to ferment for 1 to 4 hours at room temperature. (The sponge will bubble through the flour mixture in places while you’re waiting. Don’t worry, this is fine.)

Add the oil and mix with the dough hook on low speed (#2 on a KitchenAid) for about 1 minute, until the flour is moistened enough to form a rough dough. Raise the speed to medium (#4 on a KitchenAid) and mix for 10 minutes. The dough should be very smooth and elastic, and it should jump back when pressed with a fingertip. If the dough is at all sticky, turn it out onto a counter and knead in a little extra flour. (The dough will weigh about 2 pounds, 1.7 ounces.

Now it’s time to let the dough rise. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and press it down to flatten it slightly. Round the dough into a ball about 5 1/2 inches by 2 1/2 inches high and set it on the cornmeal sprinkled baking sheet (or parchment paper). Cover it with a large container or oiled plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until almost doubled, about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. It will be about 7 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches high, and when pressed gently with a fingertip the depression will very slowly fill in.

Preheat the oven to 450º F one hour before baking.

With a sharp knife or single-edged razor blade, make 1/4- to 1/2-inch-deep slashes in the top of the dough. Mist the dough with water and quickly but gently set the baking sheet on the hot stone or hot baking sheet (if you use parchment paper, just slide the loaf onto the hot baking sheet directly). Bake for 15 minutes. Then lower the temperature to 400º F and continue baking for 30 to 40 minutes or until the bread is golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean (an instant thermometer inserted into the center will read about 190º F).

Remove the bread from the oven, and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Being fans of a hearty, full-flavored rye, we followed Beranbaum’s “Ultimate Full Flavor Variation,” which meant that we allowed the sponge to ferment for 1 hour at room temperature, then refrigerated it for almost 24 hours.

Because Canadian unbleached all-purpose flour is higher in gluten than its U.S. counterpart, and therefore a lot closer to bread flour than it would be in the States, we opted to use it instead of bread flour. Michelle feels like she’s already got too many different types of flour on hand without having to buy yet another one.

Also, Beranbaum actually recommends a method whereby a cast-iron skillet or sheet pan is placed on the floor of the oven, then filled with 1/2 cup of ice cubes at the point when you begin baking the bread (the skillet or sheet pan should be pre-heated, of course). This method adds steam to the baking environment and makes for a better crust. We would love to use this method ourselves, but our oven won’t allow for it. Our crust turned out wonderfully anyway.

As indicated earlier, Beranbaum’s rye is very much a New York rye, not at all like the rich, dark ryes I got used to when I lived in Germany (and which Michelle quickly fell in love with when she came to visit). It’s got a good rye flavor, if a subtle one, and it contains just the perfect amount of caraway. It’s also remarkably sweet—not cloyingly sweet, mind you, but it’s definitely got a perkiness to it. That being said, this is an excellent loaf, and one that’s very manageable. I wouldn’t quite characterize it as a “Saturday afternoon bread,” but it’s pretty close.

Just how good is this rye? Well, Michelle’s mom (a.k.a. Helen) danced after she tasted the 1/2 loaf Michelle brought to her. Helen doesn’t suffer poor loaves of rye gladly and she doesn't dance very often, so that's saying something.

Next up: true pumpernickel.

As for that "as yet unwritten Saturday afternoon bread book"--if only MacGuire would write it. Just imagine.


*Ha, ha. That’s a laugh—I was the temporary, fill-in bread baker at a vegetarian take-out restaurant in London in the early 1990s. I had some previous experience in the kitchen, so I did a reasonable job. I did make improvements to the house cornbread recipe, though, using my American know-how. When the regular bread baker came back from “vacation” (he’d had a nervous breakdown), I was moved to food prep in the kitchen because they liked me and I was competent. I remember that the regular bread baker was a bit difficult, prone to frustration and fits of rage. The rumor was that he had a plate in his head, and that when things got hot (literally) in the kitchen/bakery, well…

Friday, February 10, 2006

Hello, Greengage plum butter

Greengage plum butter

Well, that jar of Baby Crawford peach jam from Andy’s Orchard disappeared in a hurry, and we had such a good time with it that we decided to bust out another of our California souvenirs. This time, however, we didn’t open up one of our can-as-you-go specials (although we do have a couple of those kicking around), we opted instead for one of the beauties Michelle bought directly from June Taylor last August, the day she got her personal workshop: Greengage plum.

We were familiar with the lore that surrounds Greengages, but neither of us had actually ever tried one until we visited Andy’s. Greengage season was effectively over by the time we got our tour of Andy’s Orchard, but Mr. Marinari managed to rustle up a few specimens for us nonetheless, even if they were past their prime in his eyes. Like everything else we had at Andy’s, they were outrageously good, so much better than Andy’s disclaimers would have led you to believe, and easily among the very best plums we’ve ever had. Obviously, this had a lot to do with Andy’s Orchard and the way they were cultivated, but it also had a lot to do with the variety itself, whose perfectly rounded honey-sweetness is the stuff of legends.

Alan Davidson notes that the Greengage originated in Armenia, by most accounts, but that the variety had reached France by the time of the reign of François I, where it was received very warmly indeed and was soon named after François’ wife, “Reine Claude,” the name by which the variety is still known to this day in that part of the world. By the early 18th century the variety had been introduced to England, where it also took hold, and where it became known as the Greengage (or Green Gage) because of its color and because of Sir Thomas Gage, who was one of the earliest horticulturists to develop the variety on English soil, having purchased a number of fruit trees from the monks of Chartreuse, one of which turned out to be a Reine Claude plum tree. Our favorite fruit book of the moment, The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America by A.J. Dowling (1845), lists numerous other varieties of plum bearing the name “Gage,” including Autumn Gage, Bleecker’s Gage, Hudson Gage, Imperial Gage, and Yellow Gage, but the Greengage is the one that predated all the rest and the one that has largely outlasted the rest, and in both cases the reason has to do with its famous taste. Dowling goes so far as to write, “The Green Gage is universally admitted to hold the first rank in flavour among all plums, and is every where highly esteemed… It is pronounced… the best plum in England, and we must admit that we have no superiour to it here [in New York],” and he describes its fruit as “exceedingly melting and juicy” with a “flavour, at once, sprightly and very luscious.” We couldn’t agree more. Davidson, for his part, has the following somewhat contradictory comments to make: “Greengages, being the finest of dessert plums, should be enjoyed in their natural state. They also make the most luxurious of plum jams.” We were lucky enough to have had them both ways, but opening a jar of Greengage plum butter in February (on a –20 C night, no less) was like a godsend.

So much so, that we decided to celebrate their unveiling.

1. We brewed ourselves a pot of tea to accompany our reading material.

tea and plums

2. We put the finishing touches on a loaf of rye bread [recipe soon to follow], then baked it in the oven.

rye bread

3. And, finally, we slathered butter and generous amounts of the Greengage plum butter on our still-warm slices of bread.

Greengage plum butter on bread

No question about it. This was the best dessert I’ve had in weeks (sounds crazy, I know, but you're going to have to trust me on this one). I remember June Taylor telling us about how she often feels stumped when asked for recommendations on how to use her wonderful line of jams and butters. Look no further, June.


Monday, February 06, 2006

On Mostarda, Mustard, and Mustard Oil

cranberry mostarda

Michelle and I first experienced real Italian mostarda a few years ago when we picked up a strikingly beautiful jar of mostarda di pera at Les Petits Plaisirs d'Andrea (5235 Boul. St-Laurent) back when their location was on Laurier. We really had little idea what mostarda was at the time, but the slices of pear were perfectly suspended in the syrup and it sounded intriguing so we went ahead and splurged. When we got home and tried it we were glad we'd given mostarda a chance. The fruit flavors were so delicate, and the gentle warmth of the mustard gave the blend real depth. We were instantly seduced, and we found ourselves trying to stretch out les petits plaisirs of that jar of mostarda for months.

We’ve since tried a couple of different types of mostarda, including the most famous version, the version you’re most likely to find on the shelves of your better specialty stores (especially Italian ones), Mostarda di Cremona. We’d never tried to make any though. Then a wonderful confluence occurred this weekend. On the one hand, my continued adventures with Edward Behr’s The Artful Eater had led me to his rather fascinating chapter “On English and French Mustards,” which ends with a discussion of the work of Rosamond Man and Robin Weir on mustard and its effect on the flavors of foods of all kinds. There, amidst a brief overview of Man and Weir’s obsession which mustard (“The problem was not, as so many had asked, whether there was enough to write a book about mustard,” they're quoted as writing, “but to know how, and when, to stop.”), which involved everything from uncooked fruit to chocolate (whose flavor was “especially heightened,” apparently), Behr pauses to mention the Italian fruit-mustard combinations that have come to be known as mostarda, which stand out as being among the only dishes in the modern Italian repertoire to use mustard in any form, and which Behr speculates “must almost certainly [be] medieval survivals.” On the other hand, my continued adventures with Mario Batali’s The Babbo Cookbook had led me to his recipe for Bollito misto (an Italian “mixed boil” consisting of beef brisket, capon, sausages, and vegetables)—which Batali describes as being the most satisfying of dishes “during cold weather”—and the Cranberry mostarda recipe that accompanied it. Behr’s chapter inspired me to hustle on up to Olives et Épices to pick up the finest mustard seeds I could find so that I could start mixing my own mustards at home; Batali’s recipe inspired me to make yet another accompaniment for our regular cheese courses and to lay the groundwork for a future Bollito misto dinner.

I knew if I went to Olives et Épices that I'd most likely be getting the newest crop of mustard seeds—both yellow mustard seeds, most of which now come from Saskatchewan, which is by far and away the world's largest producer, and brown mustard seeds, which originated in the Himalayan region. But, as it turns out, I needed to go to Jean-Talon Market so that I could get another specialty required for the recipe from Olives et Épices' sister store, La Dépense: mustard oil. I’d tried a couple of local gourmet shops and a few local Italian specialty shops thinking that there must be some Italian mostarda makers in town who need their mustard oil, but all I got in return were puzzled looks, so I called La Dépense. Bingo. However, when I asked how much a bottle of mustard oil cost over the phone, I was surprised to hear that they were selling them for $2.00. I’d been figuring that something that was this difficult to track down had to come with a real price tag. When I got to La Dépense the next day I found out exactly why the price was right. Closer inspection of the bottle revealed a label that read “FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY.” I'm not sure I actually would have gone ahead and made the purchase given this warning, but luckily for me, Mr. Philippe de Vienne himself was in house to field my questions. When I asked him what this warning meant, he wasn’t too specific, but he mentioned that some claimed that mustard oil had a toxicity to it that sometimes made people sick and that a few years ago there’d been an incident involving mustard oil whereby numerous people had gotten sick and died from having ingested mustard oil. Ever since, countries like Canada (and the United Kingdom, apparently, because that’s where the brand of mustard oil that I was holding in my hands came from) had placed a ban on food grade mustard oil. The Indian community, however, continued to claim that there is nothing dangerous about mustard oil, he assured me, and they continue to use it in their cuisine. He added that anyone with any lingering doubts had only to heat the oil to the smoking point before use to guarantee that the oil would be perfectly safe for consumption. So I went ahead and bought that bottle of mustard oil, and I followed Mr. De Vienne’s advice, and, as you’ll soon see, everything turned out fine. What I learned later, though, was that the incident Mr. De Vienne referred to in passing was an absolutely massive controversy in India, where mustard oil has been held in very high esteem for hundreds and hundreds of years. Yes, there was an incident involving tainted mustard oil, and, yes, dozens of people actually died as a result, but the specifics of the case involve a struggle between local, homegrown, and inexpensive products (in this case, mustard oil), and their genetically modified, North American-grown, multinational-produced, and relatively expensive counterparts (in this case, soy bean oil), documented evidence of sabotage, and charges of corruption and corporate conspiracy. Given multinational capital's ever-increasingly rapacious outlook towards India, as well as its absolutely appalling record of corporate misconduct there in particular, these charges not only seemed credible, they seemed likely. If you need convincing, you might find Vandana Shiva's 2001 article from The Ecologist illuminating. I had no idea what I was getting myself into at the time I purchased my little bottle of mustard oil, I had no idea that mustard oil had become a rallying cry for a larger struggle in India, but in retrospect this seemed like an oil actually worth fighting for (even if mine was bottled in England and probably had very little or nothing to do with India).

Anyway, I raced my bike home from the market and got to work on my mostarda. The execution was very straightforward and the jam that resulted turned out perfectly, with a brilliant red hue to it and just the right amount of gel. Better yet, it tasted great—decidedly North American (cranberries are known as mirtillo Americano in Italy, after all), perhaps, but otherwise it had all the qualities one might have expected from a true artisanal mostarda: nice complexity of flavor, not overly sweet, excellent with meats, ideal with cheeses [such as the pecorino pepato pictured above]. Hell, it even made for an outstanding grilled cheese sandwich today for lunch.

Cranberry Mostarda

2 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar
1 lb fresh cranberries (I used 12 oz and the recipe turned out just fine)
3 tbsp Colman’s dry mustard
1 tsp mustard oil (as mentioned above, you may want to heat the oil till the smoking point, then allow it to cool, before using it)
2 tbsp black mustard seeds
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Add the cranberries and cook over high heat for 10 minutes, or until the cranberries begin to burst.

While the cranberries are cooking, place the mustard in a small bowl and add just enough water to form a thin paste. Add the mustard oil, black mustard seeds, and salt and pepper. Stir this mixture into the berries and cook over high heat until the mixture is thick and syrupy, 10-20 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. The mostarda can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week. It can also be canned, if you like.

Prep time: well under an hour.

Yield: 3 cups.

Is the mustard oil absolutely necessary? Probably not. You could probably compensate for its omission by adding a bit more dry mustard. Is it dangerous? No. Is the resultant mostarda delicious? Yes.


Thanks once again to Edward, Mario, and Philippe.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

A Man After My Own Heart

three types of salt

Since she found herself a secondhand copy of Edward Behr’s 1992 gem The Artful Eater on a daytrip we made to Vermont back in December, Michelle’s been rather possessive of this recent acquisition. It was sitting there in plain view on her bedside stand as she methodically made her way through the text, and she was constantly talking about the book, bringing up this or that “lovely” and “wonderfully written” essay of Behr’s, all of which I was “going to love” at some unspecified time in the future, but she wasn’t exactly making the book available. Finally, I could take it no longer (I mean, The Artful Eater made it onto our Top Ten #3 list and onto our Best Food Writing 2005 list, after all). I had to take matters (or matter—reading matter—as the case may be) into my own hands. I waited for the perfect moment—Michelle was away at work, and would be for hours—and when I was sure there were no prying eyes lurking around—not even those darned cats of ours—I struck. Now I fully understand her behavior. Had I been the one to crack it first, I’m not sure I would have even left it on the bedside stand—I might have even toted it back and forth between home and work. I’ve since read a number of chapters—don’t worry, Michelle has been duly briefed on these goings-on—but it only took one chapter (okay, maybe one chapter + one preface) to make me a believer. As the subtitle—“A Gourmet Investigates the Ingredients of Great Food”—suggests, Behr’s book consists of a series of chapters on 18 different foodstuffs, ranging from “Atlantic Salmon” to “English Walnuts.” But what sets Behr’s writing apart here is his uncanny ability to invest insight and life into what might seem to some to be the most mundane of foods and beverages, from “English and French Mustards” to “A Cup of Coffee.” Fittingly, his very first chapter is entitled “The Goodness of Salt,” and what a perfect introduction it makes for Behr’s overall project, allowing him to touch on everything from its former glory and its beleaguered stature in a “health-conscious” and overly bureaucratized world (ca. 1992, when Behr’s book was first published), to its history, its effect on flavor and taste, and its metaphorical applications.

Having read Behr’s excellent preface, I started with his chapter on salt. I did so not only because it was Chapter One, but also because I’d found out quite by accident that it was the key to understanding one of my Christmas gifts. Sounds mysterious, I know. You see, truth be told, what had finally pushed me to illicitly grabbing The Artful Eater off Michelle’s bedside stand was an exchange the two of us had had the day before. I’d been teasing her about a gift she’d given me over Christmas—a package of the one and only Maldon sea salt, “the chef’s natural choice”—saying something about the fact that she’d really bought it for herself, after she quite brazenly pulled the unopened package off the cupboard shelf where it had been sitting since late December and used some in the salad dressing she was making. She responded by complaining that I hadn’t shown adequate interest in this venerable package of salt, and it was only then that I was informed that its purchase had been prompted by Behr’s salt essay. I feigned insult, of course—you know, “How could you?” etc., etc.—but secretly I cherished the fact that I’d finally been granted an incontestable excuse for surreptitiously reading Michelle’s book.

Salt-free cooking has been a pet peeve of mine for years now. I figured out a long time ago that salt was key to most flavor in food, and I’ve resented being told otherwise ever since. Of course, I’m partial to briny dishes—things like olives, and capers, and anchovies—and I know there are people out there who can’t stomach such flavors. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t crave smoked fish (in fact, I still remember the first bar mitzvah I attended being as close to heaven on earth as I’d ever experienced to date, in large part because of the smoked fish bar), but then again, relatively speaking (relative to someone who grew up in the Mediterranean region, say), I was a late-bloomer when it came to an appreciation of olives (18 or 19 years old, if memory serves). That being said, I’m definitely not someone who over-salts his food. I just understand that judicious use of salt, preferably good salt, is a crucial part of what distinguishes cuisine for something else. The fact that I lived with some salt-free folks in a shared house on the West Coast a number of years back explains in part why this subject is so meaningful to me. They never could figure out why my meals always tasted better, or at least they refused to face the music. The reasons had to do with my ability to choose a recipe, use it, adapt it, but mostly it had to do with salt. They never understood that salt is a pillar (pardon the pun) of civilization, that salting one’s food isn’t any more of an aberration than lighting a fire to cook it. Then again, there are those that find lighting a fire aberrant.

Behr comes down hard on those who’ve tarnished the image of salt solely because of the, “seventh or tenth of the population whose blood pressure is salt-sensitive.” There’s certainly an argument to be made that many of us have been living under an unnecessarily high in sodium regime (and poor sodium at that), but Behr doesn’t make it. Instead, he closes his chapter by honing in on those who have fueled distrust in something as basic, as essential as sodium chloride. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that the anti-salt brigade ever seemed quite so menacing, but much of what he's writing here is rhetorical, stated in order to lay down the philosophy that underlies the book’s remaining chapters:

A salt grinder, shaker, or dish should always be on the table so that individuals can season food to taste, especially such food as roasts, which don’t come fully salted from the kitchen. I respect and sympathize with those who have to restrict their used of salt, but some zealous puritans would like everyone to cut down on salt because a small percentage would benefit from abstinence. These fearful proselytizers have no spirit, no joie de vivre. Does the sensual, the aesthetic, have no value in life? To those with high blood pressure it may be an injustice on the part of Fate, but it is impossible to enjoy food fully without salt. Salt is part of the structure of taste. Its use isn’t a weakness, but an intelligent application of the senses.

What does all of this have to do with Maldon sea salt? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see.


Edward Behr’s The Artful Eater was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1992.

To find out about his “quarterly letter," The Art of Eating, check out www.ArtofEating.com, or write to: The Art of Eating, PO Box 242, Peacham, VT 05862, USA.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Our Dinner With Mario

One of our friends was kind enough to loan us his copy of Mario Batali's The Babbo Cookbook recently, and we've been leafing through it longingly ever since. Like a lot of other showcase cookbooks by today's celebrity chefs, the book is very stylish indeed, and to a great extent it features the intricate sorts of recipes that establish one's signature and cement one's reputation in today's culinary world. The book has a nice balance, though, and many of the recipes are simple, warm, and approachable, with clear, concise instructions, ingredients whose pursuit won't give you grey hairs or bust your bank, and methods that aren't overly precious or finicky. Thus, on the one hand, you find recipes like Grilled Quail with scorzanera alla romana, braised dandelions, and blood oranges in the Terra e Bosco (From the Earth and Forest) chapter, while, on the other, the pasta chapter in particular has numerous recipes that are ideal for a worknight (as we found out), recipes like Penne with zucca, onions, anchovies, and bread crumbs, Ziti with Tuscan-style cauliflower, and, the one we were most immediately attracted to, Bucatini all'Amatriciana.

We had a special occasion for two lined-up, so we decided to have a homestyle Italian night with a homebaked loaf of rustico bread, a couple of Italian cheeses (a Piave and a peppery Pecorino), a nice bottle of wine, a hearty pasta dish, and a panna cotta for dessert, and we turned to The Babbo Cookbook for all the necessary recipes. In the end, it wasn't exactly a Lady and the Tramp Italian dinner [that's coming, so stay tuned]--among other things, we didn't bust out the red-check tablecloth and the Chianti-bottle candleholders--but it was still very nice.

As you know, Michelle has been on both a cocktail kick (inventing them and mixing them more than drinking them, truth be told) and a blood orange kick of late, so it was only natural that we should start the evening with one of Batali's Blood Orange Bellinis. The preparation couldn't have been easier, but the finished product was a hit as an aperitivo, drop-dead gorgeous to look at, delightful on the palate. Perfect with the cheese and cracker appetizer we had before stepping into the kitchen to make dinner.

blood orange cocktail

Blood Orange Bellini

1/2 oz. blood orange juice
3 oz. prosecco (as you can see, we went Spanish instead of Italian with our choice of wine, but the results were still brilliant)

Pour the juice into a flute (or a stem-less Chardonnay glass, if you just bought one and you're dying to give it a test ride, as the case may be), and top with prosecco. Serve immediately.

Serves one.

Once we'd finished our drinks and had our appetizers, we opened our bottle of Italian red--a feisty little Falconera, Conte Loredan Gasparini, 2001--and moved into the kitchen to prepare our pasta dish.

Bucatini all'Amatriciana

3/4 lb guanciale or pancetta, thinkly sliced (we still haven't found a reliable source for guanciale here in Montreal, so we opted for the pancetta--we also used quite a bit less than 3/4 lb and the results were still excellent)
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 red onion, halved and sliced 1/2-inch thick
1/2 - 1 1/2 tsp hot red pepper flakes (Batali recommends 1 1/2 tsp, but elsewhere in his cookbook he talks about using habaneros for a pasta dish in order to make it "incendiary," so his threshold for spice is evidently quite high--we love our spicy food, but we recommend starting with 1/2 tsp and then working your way up to your desired level of spice)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups basic tomato sauce (we used something closer to 2 cups) [*recipe follows]
1 lb bucatini
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves only (we found that 1/2 bunch was perfect for us)
Pecorino Romano for grating

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tbsp salt. If you add oil to your cooking water, Batali recommends against it. Among other things, it makes the pasta less receptive to the effects of the sauce.

Place the guanciale or pancetta slices in a 14-inch sauté pan in a single layer and cook them over medium-low heat until most of the fat has been rendered from the meat, turning from time to time. Remove the meat to a paper-towel lined plate and get rid of half the fat, leaving enough to coat the garlic, onion, and red pepper flakes. Return the guanciale or pancetta to the pan with the vegetables, and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, or until the onion, garlic, and guanciale or pancetta are light golden brown. Season with salt and pepper, add the tomato sauce, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Cook the bucatini until al dente, being very careful not to overcook and keeping in mind that the pasta will continue to cook a bit more once it's added to the sauce. Drain the pasta and add it to the simmering sauce. Add the parsley, increase the heat to high, and toss to coat. Divide the pasta among your bowls, making sure to warm them first. Top with freshly grated Pecorino and serve immediately.

Like Batali, we're both big fans of bucatini. I got turned on to its charms a number of years ago when a friend of mine came back from a summer in Italy armed with authentic homestyle recipes from the Piedmont region. She had a bunch of us over and made an outstanding bucatini pomodoro soon after her return. I made a point of scribbling down the details and have been making it ever since. Batali points out that bucatini are sometimes referred to as "garden hoses" not only because of their unique tubular shape, but also because of their uncanny ability to make quick work of a businessman's tie. I wouldn't recommend making this dish for a first date, unless you're someone of impregnable self-confidence, but Michelle and I are well past those kinds of hangups. Plus, we don't wear ties very often.

*Basic Tomato Sauce

1/4 C extra-virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
2 28-oz cans peeled whole tomatoes (or 1 jar homemade tomato sauce, as the case may be)
kosher salt to taste

In a 3-qt saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and cook unitl soft and light golden brown, about 8-10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot and cook for 5 minutes more, or until the carrot is quite soft. Crush the tomatoes with your hands and add them with their juices. Bring to a boil, stirring often, and then lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the sauce has a thick consistency (Batali suggests that it be "as thick as hot cereal"). Season with salt and serve. This sauce will keep for one week in the refrigerator or 6 months in the freezer.

I can't tell you how happy I was to find carrot in Batali's Basic Tomato Sauce. I'd just had a conversation with my mom about carrot in tomato sauce (her standard tomato sauce always contained carrots back in the day) and I'd been looking around for such recipes since. In this case, the main thing is that this sauce was a perfect match for the bucatini dish. You wouldn't believe how much the shredded carrot added to the overall effect, both in terms of texture and in terms of flavor.

Our dessert was also taken from Batali's book, despite the fact that the preamble to the recipe called it a "flavor poem." Note to cookbook writers: sometimes less is more.

Saffron-Orange Panna Cotta

250 ml heavy cream
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. saffron
zest of 1/4 of an orange or lemon
1 1/2 sheets gelatin, hydrated
1/4 c. milk

Bring cream, sugar, saffron and zest to a boil. Add gelatin, stir. Let infuse until well-flavoured. Add milk and strain into glasses or cups. Chill several hours. Serve in glasses or unmold onto a plate, with fruit or without. Delicious.

Thanks to Mario for joining us for dinner. Thanks to Etienne for making this dinner possible.