Thursday, March 30, 2006

Northwest Passage Found!, or Bombay Choupati, rev. ed.

Idli at Bombay Choupati Idli with Sambar

We imagined a scenario in which the center of the city continued to decline and activities previously thought of as urban began to take place in the suburbs.--P. Keiller, London

It's funny, because I'd just been bugging Michelle about what she thought her chances of finding heaven on earth were earlier that day. God knows why. Who would've guessed we'd find a little piece of it in the most unlikely of places just hours later.

That godforsaken location was the stretch of Boulevard des Sources* that separates Dollard des Ormeaux from Roxboro. To be more specific, it was a restaurant in the bleak looking strip mall that sits on the southeast corner of Boulevard des Sources and Gouin: Bombay Choupati.

Despite the fact that Montreal's Indian population in particular, and its South Asian population in general, is just a fraction of the size of that of either Toronto or Vancouver, Montreal is not without its gems when it comes to Indian cuisine. Those of you who know us, and those of you who've read " endless banquet" closely, will know that we're especially huge fans of Malhi Sweets on Jarry. But as much as we love our Indian haunts, they all tend to specialize in North Indian cuisines, and from time to time we find ourselves craving the unattainable: Keralan cuisine with its wonderful fruit and yogurt sauces, Goan fish curries, etc. Although we know of a couple of places that offer an extremely limited South Indian repertoire, what we craved most of all was a place that specialized in South Indian fare, but, to be honest, we'd pretty much given up hope. Then we received an interesting tip from our friendly neighborhood Touilleuse. It took us a while to organize a ride out to Boulevard des Sources, but finally our arrangements came together.

And, ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I announce that Bombay Choupati is a real find. Not only does Bombay Choupati serve all our favorite South Indian/Madrasi delights--idli (steamed semolina cakes served in a spicy vegetarian sambar [pictured above], mixed vegetable tikki (spicy potato patties), and, of course, masala dosa (perhaps the quintessential South Indian dish: a lentil-flour crêpe stuffed with a potato curry and accompanied with sambar and coconut chutney—but they’re all among the very best we’ve had anywhere (London, Vancouver, Toronto, Bangalore,** wherever). Other highlights include Bombay-style treats like fruit chat, which showcases both their homemade yogurt (!) and their homemade tamarind chutney (made from fresh tamarinds, not tamarind pulp!). And while the emphasis here is on the vegetarian dishes that form the basis of South Indian cuisine, we were thrilled to discover that their butter chicken is a butter chicken to be reckoned with, one that may very well have raised the bar on butter chicken in this town. Throw in some big-league naan, complete with nigella seeds (a brilliant touch), and prices that are generous to say the least, and you have yourself what can only be described as a stunner of a restaurant, one that's absolutely worth the trek out to Boulevard des Sources.

In the early days of New France an area just to the west of Montreal became known as Lachine because it was thought that if you got past the rapids that sat offshore China wasn't far beyond. These days we know better. We know that the island of Montreal barely qualifies as a gateway to Toronto, let alone China. So we took a different tack. We headed northwest from the city and found our very own passage to India.

Bombay Choupati, 5011 Blvd. des Sources (514) 421-3130, Pierrefonds


* Though I've been hearing about this fabled laneway for years, thanks to the morning traffic reports that my clock/radio wakes me up with weekday mornings, this was the first time I'd had the, uh, pleasure of actually seeing it firsthand. It's a little grim at first, but as you head north towards L'Île-Bizard (talk about a place just begging for some psychic landscaping) you pass a massive, new Adonis supermarket--certainly the biggest, and many say the best, Middle Eastern specialty food stores in the area--and then you start to notice all kinds of interesting Indian, Pakistani, and Asian businesses. Who knew?

**Michelle had the pleasure of going to India a few years back on business. We had our idli and masala dosa for lunch, but as Michelle pointed out these dishes are commonly served for breakfast in South India. In fact, both were served nearly every day for breakfast when she was in Bangalore. She started most mornings with one or the other--expertly prepared, of course--always accompanied by a fresh coconut juice. Rough.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Breakfast Week 3: Soda Bread & Scones (& Mineola Marmalade, too)

Irish Soda Bread Irish Soda Bread

Just when you thought we'd forgotten and moved on... Breakfast Week 2006 continues (and concludes)...

For some reason we were possessed to celebrate St. Patrick's Day this year, so we threw an Irish brunch. Between the two of us we have exactly one ounce of Irish blood (I've been known to claim 1/32nd or 1/64th Irish heritage, though the facts behind this claim are sketchy to say the least). Our guests didn't exactly amount to the Hibernian League either. One of them started spouting off about having Black Irish blood midway through the afternoon, but that was only after the whiskey started getting passed around. Stranger still, we threw our St. Patrick's Day brunch two days after St. Patrick's Day, on Sunday the 19th.

Okay, maybe our St. Patrick's Day brunch wasn't that big of a mystery. We'd both been reading the Saveur special issue on Ireland intently, and Montreal is home to one of the oldest St. Patrick's Day parades in all of North America, and this year's parade (the 182nd) was held on Sunday the 19th, and we were looking to have some folks over for brunch anyway, so I guess things did kind of add up. Neither of us really buy that old line about everyone being Irish on St. Patrick's Day, and we're not real big on face-painting or those big green Madhatter's hats you unfortunately see dudes wearing from time to time around March 17th these days. We love a good breakfast, though, and we're all for the Irish culinary renaissance, so we threw a brunch instead.

The menu:
freshly baked Irish soda bread
boiled eggs
colcannon cakes
Irish salmon gravlax
sour cream with Zubrowka
triple ginger scones
mineola marmalade
Irish breakfast tea
Irish whiskey

The menu was a big hit. The warm loaves of Irish Soda Bread were a great way to get things started right--they were a perfect morning bread: quick, simple, a bit rustic, satisfying. As people started to tear into the gravlax we served the colcannon cakes and the boiled eggs. The colcannon cakes are a great way to make use of leftover colcannon from the corned beef feast you might have had the night before and they made a nice break from hash browns or homefries--and, as it turns out, they were particularly good with the Zubrowka-laced sour cream, which had been meant exclusively for the gravlax. Aside from "Irish tea"--tea with cream, sugar, and a shot of Jameson's--we finished the meal with a 1-2 punch that would have made Jack Dempsey blush: Triple Ginger Scones and Mineola Marmalade.

Our Irish Soda Bread/Breakfast Bread recipe came from the March 2003 issue of Saveur, which also had an extensive spread on Ireland.

Irish Soda Bread/Breakfast Bread

2 3/4 C bread flour
2 3/4 C whole wheat flour
1 3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp butter, softened
2 3/4 C buttermilk
1 egg
2 tsp pinhead oatmeal

Preheat your oven to 350° F. Whisk the bread flour, whole wheat flour, baking soda, and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Using your fingers, work the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Gradually add the buttermilk, stirring with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Dust your hads with flour and knead the dough with the heels of your hands until the dough is semi-smooth. This should take about 1 minute. Divide the dough in half. Shape each piece of dough into a 6" round. Cut each dough round into 3 equal triangles and arrange on a large ungreased baking sheet 3-4 inches apart.

Beat the egg and 1 tsp of water together in a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, brush the tops of the triangles with the egg wash and sprinkle each with a little oatmeal.

Bake the loaves until deep golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped, about 1 hour. Set aside on a wire rack to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Triple Ginger Scones Triple Ginger Scones

This is one of Michelle's favorite recipes. They're delicious and they always turn out perfectly, but be careful because they also have the power to bring people to tears (tears of joy, thankfully). The recipe she uses is a slight variation on Rose Levy Beranbaum's Rich and Creamy Ginger Scones from The Bread Bible. Michelle's annotated the recipe in her copy as follows: "the best." Enough said.

Rich and Creamy Ginger Scones, a.k.a. Triple Ginger Scones

12 tbsp unsalted butter, cold
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups unbleached flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp grated ginger
2/3 cup crystallized ginger, cut into 1/4 inch pieces

2 tsp heavy cream
1 tbsp sugar

Cut the butter into 3/4-inch cubes and refrigerate for a minimum of 1/2 an hour, until very firm. Whip the cream until soft peaks form when the beater is lifted. Cover and place in the refrigerator.

30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 400° F. Place an oven rack at the middle level and set your baking stone or baking sheet on it before preheating.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, ground ginger, salt, grated ginger, and lemon zest. Add the butter and rub it between your fingers until the mixture resembles fine meal. Stir in the crystallized ginger. Make a well in the center of the mixture. Add the whipped cream to teh well and, with a rubber spatula or a dough scraper, stir the flour mixture into the cream until all of it is moistened. Knead the dough in the bowl just until it holds togeter, then turn it our onto a lightly floured counter. Knead it about 8 times, until you can shaped it into a smooth ball.

Cut the dough in half. Shape each half into a smooth ball, press it into a 3/4-inch-thick disk about 6 inches in diameter, and wrap well with plastic wrap. Freeze for 15 minutes, or refrigerate for 1 hour.

With a long sharp knife, cut each disk into 6 or 8 wedges. Brush the tops with the heavy cream and sprinkle evenly with the sugar. Lift the wedges onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least 1 1/2 inches between them.

Place the pan on the hot baking stone or baking sheet and bake the scones for 15-20 minutes, until the edges begin to brown and the tops are golden brown and firm enough so that they barely give when pressed lightly with a finger. Check the scones after 10 minutes of baking, and they are not browning evenly, rotate the baking sheet from front to back. Do not overbake. They will continue to bake slightly when you remove them from the oven and they're best when slightly moist and soft inside. With a spatula, transfer the scones to a wire rack to cool completely.

Once again, these scones turned out wonderfully. They were amazing just by their lonesome, maybe even a little bit better with some additional butter, and possibly even better still with a little of Michelle's mineola marmalade. Of course, the marmalade was pretty impressive on the soda bread, too.

Mineola Marmelade with butter on soda bread Mineola Marmalade

If you're not familiar with Mineolas, they're one of the new citruses on the block. Part of the tangelo family, all of which are tangerines crossed with some other citrus fruit, Mineolas are tangerines crossed with grapefruit. This recipe is very straight-forward and it works like a charm. Making marmalade has never been so easy. This recipe produces a sweet-sour preserve with none of the pithy bitterness most "serious" marmalade lovers prize. Mineola marmalade is a perfect preserve for kids or those trying to build themselves up slowly to "serious" marmalade snobdom.

Mineola Marmalade

400 g Mineolas
200 g sugar
1 lemon, juiced

Boil the Mineolas in enough water to cover in a medium-sized widemouth saucepan for 1 1/2 hours. Drain, chop finely, add the sugar and the lemon juice and boil gently, stirring frequently, until the setting point. Place in sterilized jars and can.

Mineola season is just about over. Act fast.


Saturday, March 25, 2006

Last Days?

Zeppole di San Giuseppe

Breakfast Week 2006 is suddenly turning into Italian Pastries Week 2006. There are worse things, right?

We thought we might have missed them, but we were happy to find out this morning that there are still zeppole di San Giuseppe to be found in Little Italy. Knowing there was no time to mess around, seeing as almost a week had passed since San Giuseppe's saint day (March 19), we went to Patisserie Alati-Caserta on Dante,

Patisserie Alati-Caserta

the Little Italy establishment that prides itself on its zeppole the most, the place that would be most likely to have kept zeppole around for an encore performance (and one of our two favorite Little Italy bakeries/patisseries). Patisserie Alati-Caserta's zeppole are not the fritters native to Naples made with candied fruit, almonds, and sometimes honey that you read about from time to time, they're the modern version, a cream puff made with choux pastry and stuffed with either ricotta, crema, tiramisu, or gianduia, but, that said, they're delicious all the same. We chose to go with the ricotta filling, which, like a good cannoli filling, came with pieces of candied fruit and chocolate bits (the reasons for the similarity are simple: zeppole are native to Naples, but are also a specialty in parts of Sicily; cannoli are native to Palermo, and common across Sicily and parts of Southern Italy). We had one just outside Patisserie Alati-Caserta's premises, in Dante Park next to the bocce ball court where games will soon be raging long into the night, and saved another one to have with our second coffee of the day.

Get 'em while they're still around. If not for yourself, do it for old St. Joe.

Patisserie Alati-Caserta, 277 Dante, 271-3013


Friday, March 24, 2006

Top Ten #8

Alice & Calvin

1. "Alice, Off the Page," Calvin Trillin, The New Yorker, March 27, 2006

2. handmade accessories by Erin Templeton

3. Richard Olney, The French Menu Cookbook

4. The Pink Mountaintops, Axis of Evol

5. Homicide, season 1

6. John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne, Pot on the Fire: Further Exploits of a Renegade Cook

7. The Wire, season 3

8. Bombay Choupati

9. Triple Ginger Scones

10. Aries


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Breakfast Week 2: Panettone and Panettone French Toast

Panettone with Mexican Candied Fruit I

A couple of days later, Michelle got up, took a look out the window, and decided she was making panettone. She'd never made panettone before, but her friend Ana had once again given her some phenomenal candied fruit from Cancun, and Michelle thought they might go to go use in a panettone.

The recipe she turned to was from Bon Appétit and it had the advantage of being a recipe that could be made in the space of a few hours, as opposed to the full day needed for most traditional versions. It also involved saffron, and we had good quality saffron on hand that was just begging to be used.

Saffron Panettone with Mexican Candied Fruit

1 cup whole milk
8 green cardamom pods
1/8 tsp crumbled saffron threads
2 envelopes active dry yeast
1 tsp plus 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, brought to room temperature
4 large eggs
3/4 tsp salt
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups high quality candied fruit*
1 egg white, beaten
8 sugar cubes, coarsely crushed

Mix the milk, cardamom pods, and saffron in small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Swirl pan around a bit to spread the saffron, its color, and its flavor fully. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Cover and let steep until a thermometer inserted into this mixture registers 110°F. This takes about 20 minutes.

Strain milk mixture into the bowl of a standing mixer. Sprinkle yeast and 1 teaspoon of sugar over the milk mixture. Let stand until the yeast is dissolved and the mixture is foamy. This'll take about 10 minutes. Mix in remaining 1/2 cup sugar, the butter, 4 eggs, and the salt. Add 2 cups of flour and beat on low speed until smooth. Increase speed to medium. Gradually add 2 1/2 cups flour and beat until smooth. Beat in candied orange peel and raisins. Continue beating until dough pulls away from sides of bowl "in long stretchy strands." This should take about 3 minutes and the dough should be sticky. Butter a large bowl. Scrape the dough into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap, then with a towel. Let rise in a warm, draft-free area (not the easiest thing in this apartment at this time of year) until doubled. This stage should take about 2 hours.

Butter a 10" x 4" angel food cake pan. Using a rubber spatula, press lightly on the dough to release some air. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, the form it into 18- to 20-inch rope. Transfer to a prepared pan and wrap around center tube, pushing and pinching the ends together and pressing the top of the dough slightly with rubber spatula to try to distribute it as evenly as possible. [As you can see in the photo up top, Michelle used traditional panettone wrappers that she found at a local professional kitchen supply store, and she made two panettones instead.] Cover it loosely with plastic wrap, then a towel. Let the dough rise again in a warm, draft-free area until almost doubled. This stage should take another 45 minutes.

Position an oven rack in the center of oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Brush the top of the dough with your beaten egg white. Sprinkle the panettone with crushed sugar cubes. Bake until golden brown and a knife inserted near the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool in pan on rack for about 30 minutes. Turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

This panettone serves about 10-12.

*Bon Appétit's original version calls for 1 cup candied orange peel and 1 cup golden raisins instead.

How did it look? Well, just take a look at the pictures above and below. Pretty, huh?

Panettone with Mexican Candied Fruit II

How did it taste? We found that this abbreviated panettone-making process resulted in a panettone that had a very nice taste to it--the saffron and the Mexican candied fruit gave it an impressive depth, even a warmth--but wasn't as fine as the panettones we pick up from local Italian specialty stores for Christmas. So it might not have had that "professional" finish to it, but we really liked it all the same. It was excellent with morning and/or afternoon coffee, but it was even better the next day as French toast.

Panettone French Toast

When it comes to French Toast, unless we're cooking for guests, we always use a halved version of an Annie Somerville recipe. The full version reads as follows:

French Toast

4 eggs
1 cup half-and-half (C'mon, live a little!) or milk
2 tbsp sugar
Zest of 1 orange, minced
1/8 tsp true cinnamon, preferably freshly ground
large pinch or two of grated nutmeg (optional)
8 slices of challah or sourdough bread (we used 4 slices of panettone instead)
unsalted butter for the pan

Beat the eggs, half-and-half or milk, the sugar, the zest, and the cinnamon (and the nutmeg, if you've decided to go that route) together in a shallow bowl. Transfer to a shallow dish. Soak each slice of bread in the mixture until moist and soaked through, but don't allow them to get overly soggy.

Melt enough butter in a large skillet to coat the pan. When the butter begins to sizzle, add as many slices of bread as will fit. Cook over medium heat until the bread is lightly browned on each side, making sure that the slices are cooked through. Repeat as needed.

Serves four.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Breakfast Week 1: Coddled Eggs

egg coddlers

Breakfast Week 2006 got started about eight days ago. Saturday the 11th, to be exact. That was the morning I turned to Michelle and said, "Hey, Michelle! How 'bout some coddled eggs?" Okay, maybe I didn't say it like that, but the important thing is that we dusted off the egg coddlers for the first time in a couple of months and gave them a whirl.

We got hooked a few years ago now when Michelle came back from a stay in New York City suddenly obsessed with coddling eggs. When I told her I had no idea what egg coddlers or coddled eggs were (my background isn't Anglo-Saxon in the least and I haven't stayed in that many B & Bs), she gave me one of those withering looks she likes to give every now and again, then said something to the effect of, "We simply must get a pair!" (Come to think of it, maybe she first encountered them that time she met one of the Lindberghs on her way back from New York. That might explain that faux-Hepburn she was affecting.) In any case, this sudden fixation of hers turned to into a 12-month quest for "proper egg coddlers" (not the kind they're pushing at Dollarama, apparently), one that finally came to an end when Les Touilleurs started to stock them a couple of years ago. As is typical with these kinds of quests, not long after we got our first set of egg coddlers, we started to find them all over the place (thrift stores, garage sales, junk shops, antique shops). Now we've got three sets of two, including the fetching ones you see in the picture above, and the extra sets come in handy from time to time when we have guests in from out of town.

"Yeah, yeah... So what in god's name are coddled eggs and why should I care?" Right you are. Egg coddlers (proper ones, that is) are small porcelain jars with a screw-top lid that essentially allow you to soft-boil eggs after having dispensed of their nasty little shells. The advantage being that you can "boil" them with any assortment of butter, herbs, cheese, meats, and seasonings, developing tasty egg combinations of all sorts. We like to keep things fairly simple: a bit of butter (a little fat is mandatory), a half teaspoon of freshly chopped herbs, a tiny bit of cheese (especially something like a gruyère or a sharp cheddar), some coarse salt (Maldon salt, for instance), some freshly ground pepper, maybe some paprika. If we're feeling particularly decadent, we might add some freshly fried bacon bits, or maybe a little dry spicy sausage.

The method: Butter the inside of your egg coddlers. Crack open two eggs for each coddler, being careful not to break the yolks as you do so. (Aesthetics, dear readers, aesthetics!). Add your ingredients to the inside of the coddler. You don't need to bother trying to mix the ingredients around evenly because this will happen naturally, to a certain extent, as the eggs cook inside. In any case, one of the pleasures of eating coddled eggs has to do with unscrewing the lid, admiring the perfection within, then laying waste to it, swirling the ingredients with abandon as you dig down through them with your spoon, finding that perfect combination of layers. Screw the lids on just so, making sure not to screw them on too tightly. Now place them in a medium saucepan and fill it with water until the waterline reaches just below where the lid starts. Place the saucepan on a burner on high heat, bring to a boil, and cook the eggs in their coddlers for seven minutes after they reach a rolling boil. This may seem like a long time, but, when it comes to coddled eggs, seven is the lucky number. The eggs will have set, the yolks will still be runny, and the ingredients will have worked their magic throughout.

We love our boiled eggs and our eggs over easy, but every couple of months coddled eggs make for a particularly nice brunch. Like this one: coddled eggs with cheddar and herbs, Hungarian paprika bacon, sautéed mushrooms, and homefries. Kind of a "Full English+".

best brunch in Mile End

Coddled eggs. They're not just for Bed & Breakfast anymore.


Note: Need your own set of egg coddlers? You can usually find egg coddlers at Les Touilleurs, Arthur Quentin, and Quincaillerie Dante (see our Montreal Food Guide for details). You can probably find them in Westmount, too.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Initials B.B.

Now what I didn't tell you yesterday was that that magical iittala casserole came complete with two vouchers redeemable for two classic meals, both French.* When we set about trying to decide what we’d make on Friday we quickly strayed away from those original two options and started to look at recipes for all kinds of things we’d never tried making before but had been dying to, everything from Bollito Misto (that Milanese specialty that dates back to medieval times and, as Patience Gray once wrote, “is one of the best things in northern Italy… to eat in winter”) to Porc Frais au Lait (we've got our eye on Paula Wolfert's version). In the end, for a number of reasons, including time restrictions—because we found out about Michelle’s day off relatively late in the game and then frittered away precious time trying to decide upon “the perfect meal”—we returned to one of the two classic meals we’d started off with.** In the end, we settled on a recipe from our friend Richard Olney that seemed to have everything we were looking for in a casserole-christening meal and that easily fit within our time restraints (one day). In the end, we came back to Boeuf Bourguignon

bouquet garni, Boeuf Bourguignon

—or as Olney is careful to name it, Sauté de Boeuf à la Bourguignonne— a dish that had been one of my two “specialties” when I was around 10-12 but that I hadn’t made in decades (a decade of vegetarianism helps to explain why), a dish that had taken on new meaning when we experienced a 72-hour version in New York two years ago at a dinner party. This version was “only” about a 10-hour version, but we’ve always had complete faith in Olney’s impeccable taste, so we weren’t worried in the least.

Like many others out there these days, I suspect, the banality of Boeuf Bourguignon was mostly what led us to look elsewhere for inspiration, but we came back to it hoping to rediscover the real thing and knowing that if we did we’d surely learn some important lessons. As Olney puts it,

Probably the most widely know of all French preparations, Beef Burgundy certainly deserves its reputation—or would if the few details essential to its success were more often respected. The meat must be a gelatinous cut—oxtail…, shank, heel or chuck are all good. The cooking must be slow and even—stringy, dry, cooked-apart meat and an emulsion of indigestible grease in the sauce are the inevitable results of a too-rapid cooking. The sauce must be strained, well skimmed of fat, slowly reduced and purified by skimming. Properly done, the meat will be firm, moist and tender, and the sauce, a deep, warm brown, will have sufficient body to coat all the solid ingredients. There is nothing difficult about its preparation, but there are no shortcuts. [my emphasis]

He then goes on to point out what a crucial building block a properly prepared Sauté de Boeuf à la Bourguignonne can be: “once the principles of one these preparations [Beef Burgundy and its Bourguignon kin, Coq au Vin, Sauté de Veau au Vin Rouge, etc.] is understood, the others not only become automatic knowledge, but a world of new and less traditional possibilities is opened out.” That's all fine and well, but what really convinced me had to do with memories of Beef Burgundies past. Once I started remembering how those carrots and onions turn out when the Beef Burgundy has been finalized, I was absolutely sold on the idea.

Sauté de Boeuf à la Bourguignonne

1 single 3-pound cross section of heel (bone removed)
3 oz. salt pork
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 tsp thyme
2 tbsp olive oil
1 bottle good red Burgundy wine
1/2 lb (2 slices) lean salt side pork
3-4 medium carrots
3 large onions
3 tbsp olive oil
3 level tbsp flour
1/4 cup cognac
1 bay leaf and a bouquet of parsley
2 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
about 1 cup veal stock, pot-au-feu bouillon, or, lacking either, water
1/2 pound small, firm, unopened mushrooms
salt and pepper
6 tbsp butter
30 small white onions

We didn’t have to cut up the meat ourselves because our local butcher was excited to do it for us (you should have seen him--he was visibly thrilled when we announced we were making a batch of Boeuf Bourguignon). He prepared our beef into about 18 good-sized chunks, ready to be given the B.B. treatment. Once you've got your beef in the right-sized chunks, cut the salt pork into small strips about 1 inch long and 1/4 inch square, then roll them in the chopped parsley mixed with a pinch of the thyme, and force one piece of the salt pork through a slit along the grain of each and every piece of beef. Then let the meat marinate for about 3 hours in a bowl with the olive oil, the rest of the thyme, and the bottle of wine, making sure to toss the pieces of beef well so that they’re thoroughly coated and turning the pieces in the marinade again 2 or 3 times during the soaking period.

Cut the pieces of lean salt pork crosswise into sections measuring slightly over 1/2 inch wide, cover them with cold water, bring to a boil, simmer for 2 or 3 minutes and drain. Peel the carrots and cut them crosswise into 1- or 2-inch lengths. Peel the large onions and cut them into 4-6 pieces each.

Olney points out that all the cooking can be carried out in one large sauteuse, but he recommends using a smaller sauteuse for the initial steps, then transferring everything “to an earthenware or heavy copper or enameled ironware cocotte” for the latter stages of the recipe.

Cook the sections of side pork in the 3 tbsp olive oil over a medium heat, turning (not tossing) each until they are golden and the surfaces lightly crisp. Put them aside and over a lower flame, cook the carrots and the sectioned onions in the same oil for about 20-30 minutes, stirring regularly. The onions should be slightly browned—make sure to watch them closely so that they don’t begin to burn. Remove the vegetables from the pan with a slotted or otherwise perforated spoon, draining them as well as possible of all the fat, and making certain to leave no traces of onion behind because they would immediately burn, leaving an undesirable bitter taste in your sauce.

While the vegetables are cooking, removed the meat from its marinade, drain it well in a colander or large sieve, making sure to collect every last drop of that wonderful liquid, and use paper towel to dry off each piece of meat. Turn the heat up and, again using the same oil, brown the meat on all sides, adding a bit more oil if needed, and salting only after the pieces have been turned once. (Olney points out that you have to be careful with this stage: if the pieces of meat aren’t close enough together, the fat will burn, but if they are overly packed together, their juices will be drawn out rather than sealed in and they will boil rather than sear. Use an extra skillet, or sear them in batches in order to make sure this stage is carried out properly.) Turn the flame down, drain off any excess oil, sprinkle the meat with the flour, and turn the meat 2 or 3 times over the course of 5 or 6 minutes until the flour is lightly browned. (Again, Olney stresses care during this stage: “the eventual color and flavor of the sauce depends, in large part, on the onions, meat and flour being browned to just the right point.") Return the onions and carrots to the pan, stir everything together, and pour in the cognac and the reserved marinade. Stir well and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen and dissolve anything that might have stuck to the pan, transfer the pieces of meat to the cocotte or casserole, pour the liquid and vegetables over, add the parsley and the bay leaf, tied together, the garlic, and enough boiling stock (or water) to cover [we found we barely had to add any liquid at all]. Bring the liquid to a boil and cook, covered, at a lazy simmer, the surface hardly bubbling, preferably in an oven [we found that starting things off at 300° F, then gradually turning the oven down to 250° F worked perfectly], for from 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until the meat is tender but still firm. Skim the surface fat 2 or 3 times during this period and gently move the pieces of meat around in their sauce ensure that nothing sticks to the bottom.

Interlude 1: This was the period during which we took the time to relax with a glass of wine and have an asparagus appetizer. We’d noticed that the “spring” asparagus had started to be on offer at our local grocery store last week . We’re not sure where they’re coming from (California?), but they’re slender and beautiful and we couldn’t resist. Michelle picked up a bunch and she prepared them according to Olney’s directions found in one of his spring menus, tiède and à la vinaigrette. Steam the asparagus until perfectly tender. Serve them on a plate and issue each diner a bowl in which to prepare their own vinaigrette, instructing them to mix the salt and pepper with the vinegar before adding the olive oil in a thin, steady stream. Each diner then takes one asparagus stalk at a time and dips and rolls the stem in the vinaigrette before eating it. As Olney points out, “Vinaigrette (or, simply, olive oil, salt and pepper) is less an accompanying sauce than an essential seasoning that permits a total appreciation of the asparagus, unadorned.” Sound good? It is. And spring suddenly felt that much closer at hand.

Rinse the mushrooms rapidly, drain them, dry them in paper towels and toss them, salted and peppered, in half the butter, over a high flame, for a couple of minutes, or until they are lightly colored and any superficial moisture has evaporated. Peel the small onions and cook them whole, seasoned, in the remaining butter, preferably in a small pan just large enough to hold them, over low heat, tossing them or turning them from time to time, until yellowed and tender, but not browned.

Remove the pieces of meat and carrot from the sauce (using a spoon, not a fork), discard the parsley and the bay leaf, and pass everything else through a fine sieve. Return the meat and carrots to their pan, add the pieces of browned side pork, the glazed white onions, and the sautéed mushrooms and keep covered while finishing the sauce.

Bring the sauce to a boil and, keeping the saucepan to the side of the flame, simmer and skim regularly for 1/2 hour. [This may seem like a wholly unnecessary step, but as Olney explains, skimming is one of the essentials of French cuisine (not surprisingly, given the amount of butter and other fats that are used). Elsewhere in The French Menu Cookbook, Olney describes the three different types of skimming essential to true French cuisine. These include écumer (to scum)—which, I must say, sounds quite a bit nicer in French—dégraisser (to degrease), and dépouiller. Of these, Olney notes that the first two are “generally understood and respected,” but that the last one—the one used in the making of Boeuf Bourguignon—“is too often misunderstood or merely sidestepped, even by professional cooks, in the mistaken belief that it does not make that much difference.” However, Olney insists, “It makes, among others, the supreme difference between a sauce that is absolutely digestible and one that is not.” This is because any other method winds up throwing the “fat and other impurities back into an emulsion in the sauce,” making the sauce harder on the system, and seriously reducing its flavor.] After half an hour, if the sauce still seems too thin, raise the heat to high and reduce the sauce for another couple of minutes, stirring constantly. [We found that we didn’t have to take such measures. Our sauce was already perfect after the dépouillement phase.] Pour the sauce over the meat and its garnish, return the cocotte or casserole to the oven, and simmer gently for another 20 minutes.

Interlude 2: It was here that we had a touch more wine and some cheese with crackers and baguette slices.

Serve the Sauté de Boeuf à la Bourguignonne in its cocotte or casserole. Olney recommends steamed potatoes as an accompaniment, but we took a page from our friend H’s book and served our Sauté the way she’d served us a Beef Daube once, with egg tagliatelle.

egg noodles

Make sure to have a nice crusty loaf of bread on hand to sop up that wonderful sauce. A green salad is always nice afterwards.

Serves 6 to 8 handsomely.

How did it turn out? Ask yourself, has Richard Olney ever steered you wrong?

Boeuf Bourguignon

This meal was long, involved, even a slight bit finicky, but it was fun, rewarding, and absolutely fantastic, and there's no question that it delivers on everything Olney promises. Just the aroma alone was worth the effort. The fact that we’ve gotten two full meals (with a lighter lunch yet to come) out of it is just icing on the cake.


Richard Olney's The French Menu Cookbook: The Food and Wine of France--Season By Delicious Season--In Beautifully Composed Menus For American Dining and Entertaining By An American Living in Paris and Provence was originally published in 1970. It was republished in 2002 by Ten Speed Press.

* No, these vouchers did not come from iittala. Nor did they come from Les Touilleurs.

** For some bizarre reason, this reminds me of a story Mike Leigh once told about the pre-production for his film Naked. He went into the pre-production knowing he wanted to work with David Thewlis. They’d worked together on Life is Sweet and Leigh was so impressed by Thewlis’ acting that he decided that he wanted to make him central to his next film. He told Thewlis to work up some characters, then come by for a visit, and they’d discuss how to proceed with the project. Thewlis showed up and started to act out the various characters he’d developed, describing their back-stories, their tics, and their idiosyncrasies in some depth in the process. And Thewlis being Thewlis, he ended up spending an entire day there in Leigh’s office and running through some 500 different characters. When he was done, he turned to Leigh and said, “So, Mike, what did you think?” To which Leigh responded, “I liked the first one.”

Saturday, March 11, 2006

On "against throwawayism" and other matters

casserole 1 (looks good, feels good)

So, as you may remember, a number of weeks ago we featured an iittala casserole on one of our top ten lists (top ten #4), and we left a brief, cryptic nod to iittala’s philosophy of “against throwawayism.” If you are an especially discerning reader, you might have concluded that this casserole was received as Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa gift (you would have been right). You see, a few months ago now—it must have been around October—Michelle and I made one of our regular trips to Les Touilleurs, around the corner from here, to check to see if they had anything new and interesting in stock and to generally ogle the merchandise. And on that fateful occasion we came across the iittala casserole you see above. It was so well designed, so appealing to the eye, that we noticed it from across the room and literally charged over to take a closer look. It was even better looking up close and in personal: gorgeous lines, sturdy cast-iron construction, beautiful enameled interior, and a clever detachable wooden handle that doubles as a lid-removing utensil. Michelle was nearly moved to tears (I wish I was exaggerating) and she immediately started to fantasize about “the cottage” (the one that exists only in Michelle’s imagination) and how we’d bury that casserole in the fireplace’s ashes and slow-cook our meals while we read and toasted our feet in our respective easy chairs and the cats lolled about beside us. (It’s safe to say that Michelle has an active imagination, but her fantasy life is only stoked when she comes across images like this one

olney's fireplace

in Richard Olney’s The French Menu Cookbook). That’s when I knew things would become obsessive if someone somewhere didn’t take action. Sure enough, every time we passed by Les Touilleurs for the next couple of months, Michelle found herself unable to resist the lure of that casserole, and over and over again I found myself taking part in yet another edition of Fantasy Cottage. There have been times in the past where I’ve seen her react similarly to other kitchen utensils, but never with this level of enthusiasm (in the full-on religious sense), and, frankly, this time I secretly agreed with her. That iittala casserole came with a rather significant price tag, but compared to a lot of other items on the market, this one seemed absolutely worth it. It all has to do with “against throwawayism.” If you didn’t bother to follow the link to iittala’s every-so-stylish website, you might have found yourself wondering, “What the hell is ‘against throwawayism’”? Well, it’s more or less exactly what it sounds like: the radical belief that home furnishings should be well designed and well constructed so that they’ll last a lifetime and you’ll never need or want to replace them. In the realm of casseroles, with names like Le Creuset and Émile Henry on the market, “against throwawayism” doesn’t seem all that unique (or radical), but in this day and age in virtually every other aspect of our lives it’s an approach to life that's absent (Remember when everything from cars to shoes to furniture was designed and built to last? Unfortunately, I don’t. But I know they were.)

casserole 2 (well designed, too)

Well, lo and behold, what should turn up under the Christmas tree addressed to Michelle but her very own iittala casserole. And that casserole promptly made its way onto our top ten list, but as opposed to the Global chef’s knife that some other lucky devil received that very same Christmas Day, it made it there purely on its wonderful design, not on its actual functionality, because we never actually christened it until just the other day. Partly it was because we were left in awe by its mere presence. Partly it was because we never found ourselves with a day where we had the hours needed to properly slow-cook a meal the way that casserole demanded. Partly it was because we were having a hard time settling on what meal to christen it with. Well, when Michelle found out a few days ago that she’d received an unexpected Friday off from her regular duties at Les Chèvres, we knew that was some kind of sign and we quickly set about trying to finally decide on a meal. We consulted at least half a dozen cookbooks and two dozen recipes and tossed around innumerable possible options before we finally settled on something. What meal did we christen that casserole with? Well, you’ll just have to come back and see tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Brioche Tests, pt. 2

Still life with Brioche, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin

Often in life we're put in the position of having to relearn that age-old lesson about judging a book by its cover. We all learned this piece of advice at an early age, but we still manage to fall into the trap over and over again. Looks are by definition superficial. It's what's inside that counts, right?

Well, over the years, I've learned this is doubly true for dough. Maybe your dough looks awful and you think to yourself, "why bother baking it," but then you throw it in the oven anyway just to see what'll happen, and out comes the most beautiful thing you've ever seen, perfect in all kinds of unexpected ways. Other times, your dough looks lovely, you strut around the kitchen a bit, displaying a bit of hubris, and when the timer goes off, some god-awful bread-like thing has replaced the loaf you thought you'd made. These are, of course, the most extreme of scenarios. There are infinite variations in between. And then, every once in a while, the stars fall into line and things are exactly as they seem--a beautiful-looking batch of dough results in a beautiful-looking, beautiful-tasting loaf.

I was really happy with the taste and texture of the first bricohe test, but the method was a bit too drawn out, and the butter was difficult to soften without a microwave. I searched for another way and came across one in The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion. Rather than making a sponge the day before, their instructions were to let it sit for 45 min. and then continue with the rest of the dough. As for the butter, they leave it cold, but beat it with a rolling pin until it's pliable. I ventured forth.

I mixed my dough, I pounded my butter, and starting adding it to the dough by the spoonful. What happened next was magic. Never in my life have I seen such a beautiful dough. I looked around as if to say, "Do you see this?" but aside from the cats there was no one home to admire my work. The butter incorporated itself immediately, unlike the first test, and made the dough super shiny and elastic. It glistened happily in the mixer as I fed it its last bite of butter, and then let it rise.

Its rise was glorious. Such a perfect surface, what a colour. I was in love with this dough. I had fantasies of making a massive batch, curling up and taking a nap on it. Had I had a larger mixer, I might have even tried it. I left it in the fridge overnight and awoke with great anticipation the next morning. I formed two lovely loaves and let them do their final rise. I baked them. I cooled them. I couldn't wait for Anthony to come home to try them so I...gasp...cut into one by myself (this is the bread equivalent to not making eye contact during a wine toast, I think, right up there with in the bad luck league with snapping a baguette in two to make it easier to transport). But the taste was... Not bad. Not at all bad. Very good, in fact. Better than your average brioche. But not really all that exciting, certainly not as interesting as the last one. Yes, it was actually a bit boring. The butter was present, but not at all show-stoppingly. The texture was good, but not flaky enough. The taste was flat, lacking in pizzazz, well-intentioned but lackluster.

As far as I'm concerned, boring is just about the worst insult for a homemade loaf of bread. I tried not to show my disappointment to those poor loaves as they looked back at me from the counter. They seemed to say, "You thought we were beautiful once, and now you cast us aside like a tired fad." I felt guilty. We quietly finished the loaves over the following two days and spoke no more about Brioche Test #2.

If anyone is interested in the recipe, I'd be happy to include it here, but since I haven't exactly done the best job in selling it, I can understand if you don't want to spend 2 days and a half a pound of butter making a boring old loaf of brioche. Such beautiful dough, though.

You know that beautiful-looking brioche in the painting by Chardin above? Well, apparently it tasted a little boring, too.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Top Ten #7

1. homemade brioche

2. Kings of the Sky, dir. Deborah Stratman

3. Bonnie Prince Billy and Matt Sweeney, Superwolf

4. Ralph Rumney, The Consul (trans. Malcolm Imrie)

5. homemade gravlax

6. Benjamin Smoke, dir. Jem Cohen

Blind Blake

7. Blind Blake, Rope Stretchin' Blues

8. Bill Wasik, "My Crowd," Harper's, March 2006

9. Vermont

10. homemade whole wheat bread with butter

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Latest Kitchen Accessory

heart-shaped pot holders

Those of you who have seen our kitchen know how packed to the gills it is with cooking tools and knick-knacks of all kinds. Those of you who haven't need only imagine stacks of pots, pans, ceramics, jars, canisters, bowls, molds, mixers, spatulas, shredders, grinders, funnels and the like all enclosed within a good-sized but increasingly claustrophobic kitchen. This near-crisis situation (I'm exaggerating, of course--in reality, it's cluttered, but homey) doesn't seem to enter into my thoughts--or, rather, it's easily banished from them--when I spy just one more kitchen thing I need to make my life and kitchen perfect. I had such a moment when I saw these heart-shaped pot holders/"heat handles" from Nid Royal's "Neverending Heartbeat" collection.

Locally designed and made by the lovely and talented Ms. Claudine Hart, they are white with a hot pink border, fashionable and 100% functional. Included is a tiny pocket for love notes. [I am still waiting for one to appear.]

Interested? You can contact Ms. Hart via her website. Alternatively, if you live in Montreal, apparently there are a few available at Cocoa Locale (4807 Parc Ave.).


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

chez les Nordiques, pt. 2

For those of you who’ve been sitting on the edge of your seats, just dying to hear how that gravlax turned out… Well, it was absolute heaven. I mean, just look at it:

Hendrick's Gin Gravlax

When I set out to make it, I compared a half a dozen or so different recipes before finally settling on a what I deemed to be a classic version: Mark Bittman’s Salt-and-Sugar Cured Salmon from Fish: The Complete Guide To Buying and Cooking. I found all kinds of interesting variations on the Swedish original, but for my first gravlax I wanted to start with the basics. Bittman’s recipe was exactly what I was looking for: it includes all the staples—salmon, a roughly 50/50 salt to sugar ratio, and dill—and it also includes spirits. His ingredients list looks like this:

1 3- to 4-pound salmon, weighed after cleaning and beheading, filleted, skin on
3 tbsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 good-size bunch dill, roughly chopped, stems and all
1 tbsp spirits

Most recipes for gravlax—including Bittman’s, as you can see—work on the assumption that you have a whole salmon in front of you, either because you just caught it, or because you’re going to be feeding a sizable party a suitably substantial appetizer. Since I was only making this gravlax for the two of us, and because I was experimenting, I used a small 8-oz fillet instead. My variation went as follows:

1 8-oz salmon fillet, skin on
1/2 tbsp Maldon salt
1/3 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/8-1/4 cup fresh dill, roughly chopped, stems and all
1/2 tbsp Hendrick’s gin

As you can see, I didn’t hold back on the seasonings. Using Bittman’s recipe as a blueprint, I went with what felt right. I wasn’t worried about using more salt than Bittman recommended because I was using Maldon salt, which has a finer edge to it. Originally I intended to make my gravlax with vodka, but when I realized that I didn’t have any on-hand and that I did have some Hendrick’s Gin , my decision was made. All of a sudden it all made sense. Those beautiful Hendrick’s aromatics were exactly what I was looking for, and because of that, as with the salt, I wasn’t worried about using a little extra. If you can’t get Hendrick’s gin where you live (we had to import ours ourselves from New York City last year) and you want to work with gin, go for something that’s similarly aromatic, like Bombay Sapphire. Finally, by all means, don’t skimp on the salmon. Ideally, you want to start with a wild salmon. It’s going to cost extra, but if you’re only working with an 8-oz fillet, like I did, it won’t be that expensive, and with gravlax a little goes a long way. Whatever you decide when it comes to type, make sure your salmon is “spanking fresh,” as Bittman puts it. There's absolutely no point in using anything less.

At last, the instructions:

Rinse and pat your fillet dry, lay it on a plate skin-side down, then sprinkle it with the salt, sugar, and pepper. Spread the dill on top of the fillet, covering the top as completely as possible, then sprinkle the gin all over it. Wrap the fillet tightly in plastic wrap. Place the fillet in a small plate and then sandwich another plate on top of it, using something that weighs about one pound (a bag of black-eyed peas worked perfectly) to press the top plate down (thereby pressing the salmon). Place your gravlax-in-the-making in the refrigerator.

Open the package every 12 to 24 hours and baste the salmon all over with the juices, putting it back in the refrigerator tightly wrapped each time. After 2 or 3 days (I waited about 60 hours), when the salmon has lost its translucence, slice it thinly as you would smoked salmon, making sure to follow the bias and to avoid the skin. Serve.

Some recipes recommend that you wipe off the dill and pepper first, and maybe even rinse it (although Bittman doesn’t), but I found this completely unnecessary. I just started slicing the gravlax —dill, spices, and all—and served it up on Finn Crisps with fresh chervil.

It’s hard to describe just how perfect this gravlax turned out. It’s firm and perfectly cured, it’s full of flavor but yet has a real delicacy to it. It’s so easy to make, but it nevertheless gives you great satisfaction—probably because you have to attend to it for a couple of days, probably because you have to be patient. I can’t imagine how satisfying it would have been had I actually caught my salmon myself.