Friday, April 28, 2006

"Merci beaucoup!"

Okay, one last word on Philippe de Vienne for the time being.

A couple of months ago we had the pleasure of attending one of the De Viennes' fantastic workshops/seminars on spices. Philippe de Vienne has an absolutely dynamic personality, he loves talking about food, and he's an excellent teacher. If you get a chance to take one of his workshops or classes (you can sign up for them at Olives et Épices or La Dépense) you really should, but you have to be on the ball because they get booked up very quickly. Anyway, one of the many charming things about De Vienne (and you can see this in his appearances on À la Di Stasio, too) is that his enthusiasm is so great for his topic--honest, quality cuisine with bold flavors--that he has a tendency to rattle off one recipe idea after another recipe idea after another, all of them tempting. In the language of the street, he just freestyles them. His passion for food is so great, and he's so full of ideas that it's as if they just come spilling out. When he's riffing like this, from time to time he'll talk about more involved recipes that require real patience and attention, but for the most part he leans towards recipes that are relatively simple, that feature the pronounced flavors he loves, and that pay off big on the satisfaction scale. The ones that fall under this latter category--the real showstoppers--De Vienne frequently brings to a close with a crisp, resounding "Merci beaucoup!"--a "Merci beaucoup!" that simultaneously means "that's all there is to it," "satisfaction guaranteed," and "you can invite me over for this anytime." Over the course of the three hours that we were at his studio for that workshop De Vienne fired off recipes for everything from Mexican shrimp with Pasilla de Oaxaca to Paté Chinois à la Ethné to Bengali grilled fish. The one that probably got us the most immediately excited, though, was De Vienne's shorthand recipe for Chicken Berbère: garlic, Berbère spices, butter, lemon juice, salt, mix together and rub into the skin of a roasting chicken, place the chicken in a roasting pan on a bed of onions, bake it in the oven for an hour... Merci beaucoup!

De Vienne mentioned that the same basic formula could also be used to make other dishes, including some pretty mean shrimp, so a couple of weeks later I tried it. I shelled a pound of shrimp, deveined them and butterflied them. I put 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil in a mixing bowl. I added three cloves of minced garlic. I added the juice from 1/2 a lemon, 1 generous tablespoon of Berbère spice mix, and salt and pepper to taste. I then marinated my shrimp in the mixture for 1/2 hour. Then I heated my grill and when the shrimp had finished marinating I grilled them over a medium-hot fire.

Berbère shrimp on the grill

They were medium-sized shrimp so the grilling time was real quick. No more than 2 minutes on one side, 1 minute on the other. Don't overcook them, but blackening them just a bit really adds to the flavor.

Berbère shrimp with rapini and basmati rice

When I served my "shrimp Berbère" everyone went crazy. The cats, my parents, Michelle, everyone. In short, we're talking beaucoup "Merci beaucoup." The only complaint was that I hadn't bought 3 pounds of shrimp instead of the measly 1 pound I did buy. Oh, well, next time.


P.S. Since some of you have asked...

The " endless banquet" top 6 favorite Philippe de Vienne spice mixes (in no particular order):

1. 8-pepper blend
2. Berbère spice mix
3. Panch Phoran
4. Ras el Hanout
5. Garam Masala
6. Dukkha spice blend

Other "musts" from the Philippe de Vienne épices de cru collection (again, in no particular order)

1. Tellicherry Extra Bold black pepper
2. Pasilla de Oaxaca
3. Lucknow fennel
4. Cubeb pepper
5. true cinnamon
6. Grenada nutmeg

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Top Ten #9

1. The Modern Lovers, Precise Modern Lovers Order: Live in Berkeley and Boston

2. lunch at La Montée de Lait

3. Joseph Wechsberg, Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure (1953)

4. Nashville, dir. Robert Altman + Nashville: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

5. Snow Crab

6. Cosse Maisonneuve, La Fage, Cahors 2002

7. Bob Sloan, "Mario's Excellent Adventure," Gourmet, April 2006

8. artichokes

9. Pete Wells, "The World's Best Chocolate?," Food & Wine, May 2006 + Amedei "Chuao" chocolate

1 qt. bean pot

10. 1 qt. bean pots


Sunday, April 23, 2006

Philippe de Vienne: the " endless banquet" interview, Pts. 1 & 2, rev. ed.

Pt. 1: "Oh, Canada?"

Spices, spices, spices...  Where will it ever end? fig. A: signs of an obsession: our personal collection

Those of you who’ve been reading “…an endless banquet” for some time will know that we started championing Philippe de Vienne’s line of épices de cru over a year ago now, not long after Philippe and his wife Ethné opened Olives & Épices in the new pavilion of the Jean-Talon Market. Those of you who’ve been in our kitchen know that we developed a full-blown épices de cru obsession soon after discovering their store.

Inspired by a series of conversations we’d had with De Vienne where he showed himself to be unbelievably generous with his vast knowledge on the topic of spices and the history of the spice trade we decided to conduct an interview with De Vienne to find out more about him, how he got involved in the spice trade, and how his philosophy towards the spice trade differs from that of his mainstream competitors. This interview took place late last year.

• How did you come to be a chef/traiteur by profession?

I was born into it. My mother was in the hotel business. She worked for a chain of hotels that stretched in those days from Montreal all the way to the Caribbean. They were large 500-600 room hotels, classic hotellerie.

This company had pretty high-end hotels. We were at several, and they all had their characters. I was very lucky to have lived in Boston at the time that I did because that’s where Lydia Shire* got started. She started in my parents’ hotel. So I was really exposed to fabulous stuff 30 years ago, the avant-garde of cuisine at the time. Shire wasn’t copying the Europeans but was working with local ingredients, developing a cuisine with its own character. So I was really raised on fabulous food as a child. That was the environment I grew up in and, like other family businesses, I learned without realizing I was learning. I was like Obélix [of Astérix et Obélix fame]—I just fell in the kettle when I was a kid.

• Did you go to cooking school?

No, I would say that’s why my approach to cuisine differs from that of others. I didn’t have a formal training.

• So how did you develop your passion for spices? Was it because of your time in the Caribbean?

My passion for spices came early. When I was a kid I loved curries, I loved flavor, I loved bold tastes. I would taste a dish and say, “What’s that flavor I’m appreciating right now?” I was attracted to things that were clear. It’s like a clearly written speech—you understand it, it’s not muddled. I like bold tastes, I like clear statements, I like emotions. And I always loved food that had those qualities. It wasn’t necessarily about spices. If something is sweet and sour, I like it to be sweet and sour. If it’s canard à l’orange it’s made with bitter oranges not concentrated orange juice. I always appreciated a balance of good flavors, and the love of spices is just a part of that. Good cooking is always about using good ingredients, and spices are just a part of that repertoire of quality ingredients that make for a good cook, either professional or at home.

Later, when I was in my twenties, I went to Mexico. I decided to stay, so I found myself a job in a kitchen in a hotel. Because of my background in the hotel business, I was hired as a cook and a week later I was named chef, and six months later I was the executive chef, and a year later I was the food & beverage manager of the whole hotel. And then Club Med asked me to oversee food & beverage management for a group of six hotels and finally I said, “Nah, I think I’ll go back to the stove.”

• What part of Mexico was that?

I was in the Yucatan, in a place called Cobá. In those days it was a small 50-60 room hotel situated in one of the biggest archaeological zones of all of Mexico. The closest phone at the time was in Cancún, all my staff was Mayan, and we were living in a Mayan village. I discovered real Mayan village cuisine and I traveled , and as I did I discovered that the Mexican cuisine we knew at that time elsewhere in North America was a pale imitation of the bold, wonderful flavors of the regional foods of the local people.

Going to a restaurant in Mexico is okay, but the best food is made by the signora on the corner who’s making her stuffed chilies or the Mayan lady who’s making her salbutes**. And when you go to people’s homes and you taste these dishes you say to yourself, “Wow! That’s where the flavor is.” Nice, bold, wonderful flavors that when I got back I realized I couldn’t reproduce. And that’s because the spices, even if you could get them, were so—I mean, “second rate” would be polite. Canada is known worldwide as a dumping ground for the worst spices.

• [laughs]

We discovered this ten years ago. We went to the SIAL [Salon International de l'Alimentation] in Paris and we told ourselves, once and for all, we’re going to solve our spice problem because we never get good spices in Canada. So we went to the SIAL looking to see if there was anyone who had all of the world’s best spices, the top quality. If so, we’d order from them. So we went and anytime someone learned we were from Canada they’d say, “Oh, Canada? We’ve got really good prices for you!” Whether they were from Sri Lanka or Mexico, the first thing that always came up was price. And Canada was instantly associated with that $1.19 bag of ground spices that’s mixed with flour, rice, salt, citric acid—not to mention the illegal things that might be in there. I would say Canada generally gets the worst spices.

• But why is that? Does Canada have a reputation for having a bland palate? (Haven’t they heard about official multiculturalism?)

Part of it is that our ethos towards food has changed. Now some of us don’t mind spending $100 on a bottle of vinegar or $30 on a good bottle of olive oil. But traditionally we did mind spending that kind of money for food in general and especially ingredients. But spices haven’t caught up with that. Getting back to the SIAL, though, we realized that nobody was doing this. You could get the best of this spice from this dealer and the best of that spice from that dealer, but nobody had the mandate to gather all the world’s best spices and sell them. So we decided to do it.

• And when you say nobody, do you mean within Canada or North America, or are you talking worldwide?

Worldwide. Certainly nobody at the SIAL was doing it, and that’s the biggest wholesale food show in the world, so if there was somebody, without question they’d show up to SIAL. There are a few people now who do it, but ten years ago there was nobody. Now there’s a French company that does pretty good work, an American company that does pretty good work, but there’s still no one who seeks out the Château Margaux of peppers or the Grand Cuvée of vanillas. That’s the difference when you have a chef looking for his own spices.

So, for instance, on a trip to Oaxaca [early on] we came across an amazing batch of peppers*** and we found out which village they’d come from so we went and bought the whole crop. We bought 50-60 pounds of these peppers and had them shipped back to Montreal, but we also established a contact with these people and we retained this contact with these people. So they’re very often small farmers or a lady with a stall in a market or a local person who deals in spices—these are the people we deal with, this is where we’re getting a lot of our spices.

* The award-winning Massachusetts-born chef famed for her string of Boston restaurants and, most recently, her stint at the venerable Locke-Ober, an establishment that had previously been famous for its 97-year-old policy of forbidding entrance to women (!).

** A Yucatecan dish similar to sopes.

*** In all likelihood a batch of Pasilla de Oaxaca, perhaps De Vienne's favorite chili.

Pt. 2: terroir, travel, networking à la De Vienne, and “the roof of the store”

spices I fig. B: little shop of wonders: behind the scenes at Olive et Épices

• So my next two questions follow up on this material: what exactly does the designation épices de cru mean? And just how different is your approach to the spice trade than that of most in the field?

Well, épices de cru is inspired by the wine trade. A lot of the language that’s used when it to comes to spices comes from the wine business. There are three main factors which determine the quality of spices. There’s the soil and the climate, the terroir. There’s the issue of varieties. When it comes to vanilla, there are many varieties of vanilla, and some are better than others. There are many varieties of peppers, there are many varieties of chilies, and you can have one kind of chipotle and another type of chipotle and they can be very different. It’s like apples. Or grapes. Grapes are grapes, but then there’s Cabernet Sauvignon and then there’s Merlot. Or there’s Cabernet Franc and then there’s Malbec. There are varieties of spices that produce great volume but have no flavor, and there are other varieties that produce less but have a greater fragrance. So there are the varieties, there’s the climate and the soil, and then there are the people who grow the spices. There’s something to be said for people who grow apples or grapes and who learned it from their grandfather who learned it from his grandfather who learned it from his grandfather. These people, the knowledge is inborn, they don’t even realize how much they know. So those are the same main factors, and it’s very similar to wine. You know, you go to Burgundy and you see here’s the Chambertin [vineyard] and here’s the Gevrey-Chambertin [vineyard]. And there’s literally a border and they’re ten feet apart. And it’s not the same wine. Because if you look at the soil closely, or if you see how the wind comes during winter from that nook at the top of the hill, you can see that that cold wind will come down that gully, and you know that therefore this wine will suffer from the cold a little bit more than the one that’s produced with the grapes from 50 feet away.

• It’s all about microclimates.

That’s right. And it’s true for spices too. You go to places like Grenada and you find that the best nutmeg grows in a central valley that is shielded and receives the most favorable breezes, so that the soil is nourished in a way that produces the very best nutmeg. The nutmeg that grows on the other side of the mountain is still excellent, but is not quite as good as the nutmeg that grows above 400 meters in that one valley.

• Coffee would be another example of a food that is subject to similar kinds of factors and discussed in a similar way. Or tea, or chocolate.

That’s where the épices de cru idea came from. All those factors are implied by that French phrase. And there’s no equivalent in English. The closest phrase in English is “first growth,” which begins to describe things but without fully getting it, so that’s why we chose stuck with the French phrase.

• So just how grim is the realm of mainstream spices? How long has that turmeric been kicking around before it shows up in a 99¢ sachet at your supermarket?

It all depends. Sometimes you can find good product even in the supermarkets. And in the little ethnic markets sometimes you can find fabulous spices, maybe even first growth spices, but the next week the next batch might be atrocious. You’ll find amazing cardamom one week, and then the next week when he runs out of cardamom he’ll just pick up the phone and say, “Send me cardamom!” So what we did with our label is that we made it a guarantee of what we think is the best. And our approach is not that of a typical spice trade person, it’s that of a chef, someone who takes great pleasure in cooking and in actually using these spices, someone who’s interested in going out and actually choosing our spices. It’s all about me and my wife and my kids and we travel and we sniff and we’re inspired and we say, “Oh, yeah, this is really an amazing lot.” And so we’ll buy it and then we’ll try and stay in contact with those people over the years. That’s our approach to spices.

• How far have you traveled in search of spices and how complex are your networks for getting the best spices?

Well, we travel wherever we feel like traveling. We love to travel. Sometimes you go someplace hoping to find a particular spice and you find something else instead. The furthest we’ve been so far is Sulawesi. Which is essentially as far as you can get from here. It’s basically between Borneo and New Guinea. It’s definitely off the beaten track. So we go wherever, but there are still a lot of places we haven’t been yet. But over the years you build up networks, and, of course, the word gets around, so people send you samples. So, for instance, there’s an island in the West Indies, and we developed a contact there after my sister-in-law talked to her hairdresser, and the hairdresser said, “Oh, well, my cousin grows spices on this island.” So we phoned and the next thing you know this cousin had become a regular supplier for us. And she lives in a little village someplace and she goes to the market, and when she sees something nice she’ll buy it for us and she’ll just send it. And we’ve never met this person before. The network that’s developed over the last 15 years is one that involves true people.

• So it’s safe to say that many of these contacts were made informally. Which must be the preferred way of handling this kind of business.

Yeah, I mean, our main contact in Indonesia was our taxi driver the first time we went. We started talking with him about spices and what we were looking for and it turned out he knew people. So went to all these places with him, he knows where they are, and now he goes and buys our stuff for us. It’s not a formal network.

• How much time do you set aside for traveling so that you can maintain and further develop these networks?

As much as I can. In practice it’s not as much as we’d like, but we try. We usually go away for six weeks every year, a few weeks at a time. We mix business with pleasure, so out of those six weeks maybe three weeks are devoted to working.

• I have to say, it sounds like an ideal mandate for travel. Plus, it sounds like you’re going to some of the most beautiful, most exotic places on the face of the earth.

Well… Let me put it this way. You know, you’re not going to the most touristy places. So a class 2 or 3 business hotel in some of these out of the way places is not exactly an exciting place to be. [laughs] It’s somewhere between going to Cancún and Indiana Jones. It’s sort of half way in between.

• But then I’m sure there’s that sense of adventure that a lot of others don’t find anymore when they travel.

Sure, but some of those adventures, you’re happy when they’re over. [laughs] There’s some where you say, “Okay, I won’t be doing that again because that was thoroughly unpleasant, exhausting, and physically dangerous.” Or you go somewhere and you’re completely disappointed. The information you had was just wrong, or you never connected with the right people because of the language barriers between you and them, so you’ve got to work with interpreter upon interpreter, and then things get a little hairy. But it’s all part of the experience, and it’s worthwhile when we bring wonderful things back. And especially when you come back and find that people are in tune with what you’re offering to them. We were shocked at the response we’ve had since we opened our store.

• Yeah, the response seems like it’s been overwhelmingly positive.

Our problem is supply, it’s not selling the things we have. We’re in the position of having to worry about running out before our next shipment comes in.

• A few months ago, we stopped by Olives et Épices and we got you started on the topic of Ras el Hanout and it was clear that you were warming up to a favorite topic and that you were proud of the Ras el Hanout blend that you’ve put together for the store. What is it about Ras el Hanout that’s so special to you?

Well, there’s a couple of things. The name itself means “the roof of the store,” and that’s an expression for your sign, for your signature as a spice store. It’s the signature mixture of any good spice merchant and it indicates how good your spices in general are. So you go to a spice merchant and if he’s got a good Ras el Hanout, well, that’s the benchmark by which he’s judged. And then the blends vary from about 8 or 9 ingredients in a simple blend, to about 30 ingredients for a complex one. And we’ve done our research. I’ve had Moroccan cooks work with me, and we’ve had Moroccan friends who’ve gone to Morocco to do some research for us. And eventually we wound up with seven different Ras el Hanout blends that were brought back for us from all over Morocco, from different spice traders. And with everything I learned, I created my own Ras el Hanout, which was truly and deeply inspired by the tradition, but to which I’d given my own personal twist like any good spice merchant back in Morocco. We are quite proud, and especially because we have Moroccan clients who come in and buy it on a regular basis. And they’ll go as far as to say, “It’s as good as the one I get back in my hometown in Morocco,” which is a great compliment. It is really the “roof of the house,” “the roof” of our house. We follow that tradition of there being one blend that shines above the others. The way we work is that if we get a small batch of one spice or another that is particularly special, I’ll reserve it for our top blends. So our best cubebs [cubeb peppers] will always go into our blends. This is very different from the way most spice blends today are created, where usually only the dregs get thrown in. They’re not cheap, but we feel that we’re giving people the very best that we have to offer in our blends.

Our latest blend is our 8-pepper blend, which was created because everyone kept asking us for a 4-pepper blend. You know, white, black, green, and red. Our clerks kept telling us we need a pepper blend because they were turning down at least 3 or 4 people per day. So I put my mind to it, and it took me 6 months to come up with a blend I was happy with. And it all paid off because it took off immediately. People have become almost addicted to it, and there are some that come for more of the 8-pepper blend every month or every six weeks. So this approach—doing what I think is right—is what has really made a difference. It’s not about taking the easy route, it’s about going about things the right way.

My final question had to do with what kind of influence De Vienne thinks that he and his family had had on the culinary culture of Montreal. Understandably, De Vienne was a little embarrassed by the question, reticent to assess “the De Vienne effect” himself. As he put it, “I take what I do very seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously.” However, it’s safe to say that the De Viennes have left a rather significant imprint on the food culture of Montreal over the last few years through their catering company, through De Vienne’s regular appearances on local television and radio, and through the excellent cooking classes they offer, but especially because of their groundbreaking approach to spice importation. Their retail spice shop, Olives et Épices, has been a massive success and has forever changed the way many home cooks here in Montreal approach and use spices (including ourselves), but the other thing to keep in mind here is that De Vienne has been making his spices and spice blends available to the city’s chefs for a number of years now and many of the best kitchens now depend on them. If Montreal’s food culture at present is worthy of note, if something extraordinary actually is happening here at the moment, as Gourmet and others have been reporting lately, Philippe De Vienne and the incomparable quality and variety of his épices de cru are a good part of the reason why.


You can find Philippe de Vienne's entire line of épices de cru at Olives et Épices (7070 Henri-Julien, (514) 271-0001, Jean-Talon Market)

And you can reach Ethné and Philippe de Vienne at:
5235 rue de la Savane
Montreal, QC
H4P 1V4
(514) 739-7071


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Easter Monday

Yesterday we had dinner with my parents, and quite the meal it was. I wasn't 100% sure why we'd opted for an Easter Monday dinner instead of an Easter dinner proper, but later I pieced together that at least part of the reason had to do with the fact that I was born 30-some-odd years ago on Easter Monday (I've never actually gone back to verify this story, but that's what I'm told), although not on the 17th of April. Fittingly, I suppose, our Easter Monday meal had three parts to it.

baby artichokes

1. By now some of you out there are probably rolling your eyes at yet another mention of artichokes, but what can we say? The artichokes have been beautiful and plentiful this year, and they've rarely tasted better to us. So good, in fact, that we had them three times last week and I could have easily had them again tonight. As promised, I went looking for some more purple Sicilian artichokes just as soon as I could last week, but I came up empty. I'm not sure if some of you " endless banquet" readers out there beat me to the punch, or if they just didn't come in this week, but when I couldn't mind those lovely purple artichokes I sure was happy to see that both Chez Nino and Chez Louis had plenty of baby artichokes. We had some on Sunday and on Monday, and both times we simmered them for 20-30 minutes, then served them with my homemade mayonnaise.

2. I've mentioned this before, but for years I was convinced that Montreal just wasn't a crab town. Having grown up in not one but two of North America's premier crab-harvesting and crab-eating regions--the San Francisco Bay Area and the Chesapeake Bay region--this has always been a source of concern to me. Life without the occasional crab feast is a life that I'm not sure I'm willing to live. Few meals generate the sense of communion that a crab feast does. It's got something with the time it takes, the way the meal rewards those with patience, the simplicity and, frankly, the indelicate nature of the whole affair, and the way good crab inspires states of near-ecstasy. When you live with cats and have the added feature of seeing them circle the table wildly in search of any scraps that might fall to the floor, the experience is compounded. Michelle had never had fresh, quality crab until our trip to San Francisco last summer. Having Dungeness crab (even if it had been brought in from Washington) was just one of the revelations Michelle experienced on that trip, but it was hardly an insignificant one. Not being the season for local Dungeness crab, however, we didn't have the luxury of buying quantities of crab, so Michelle was none the wiser when it came to the joys of the crab feast. Of course, we could have had a crab feast right here in Montreal last year, but we'd squandered a golden opportunity. You see, one of the bonuses that came with the grand opening of Jean-Talon Market's new pavilion last year (as you may remember, we definitely had mixed feelings about this new addition at the time, although, in retrospect, there's no question that the pluses have far outweighed the minuses since) was that all of a sudden we found out that Quebec had an indigenous crab--the Snow Crab--that came from the Gaspé region, and that nothing was stopping Montreal from becoming a crab town. Unfortunately, we were so unprepared for this discovery and the Snow Crab season was so short (2 months) that, before we knew it, the moment had passed.

We were not about to make the same mistake this year. To date we've already been to the LIVE CRAB stand twice this year. Once, just to run a quality assurance test and make sure these Quebecois Snow Crabs were up to snuff--they were, and I used the meat to make a very fetching pasta with crab, asparagus, and peas dish [recipe soon to follow]--and a second time, yesterday, to have a full-on crab feast. If you've yet to try them, these Snow Crabs are a true delicacy. They have long, spidery legs, not unlike an Alaskan King crab, but because they're so much smaller than their Alaskan brethren, they require a fair bit more work, a fair bit more patience in order to get at every last delicious morsel. The flesh is remarkably sweet, with a delicate brininess to it, and really it requires no accompaniment at all. No butter, no nothing. Inspired by a shrimp appetizer that was prepared for us by Philippe de Vienne a couple of months ago, I made a New Orleans-style remoulade, and used it with every 4th or 5th bite of crab. The combination was fantastic, and if I were to make some Crab Rolls for a party or something, I think I'd definitely enlist the services of that remoulade, but, like I said, that Snow Crab meat was just fine on its own. More than fine, actually. Heavenly.*

Michelle looked like a kid in a candy store. The crab feast was definitely her kind of meal: leisurely, a bit finicky even, the kind of meal that rewards those with an attention to detail with an enormous payoff. Little did she know that the fun was far from over.

key = lime

3. The third and final part of our Easter Monday meal was a definitive Caesar. You may remember that we ran a feature on Caesar Salad, including its lore and its place within my personal history, last year. There, we printed the Caesar Salad recipe that's been the standard in my family for some 35 years or so: Salade Caesar à la Terry. As I mentioned at the time, this was a classic recipe, a recipe true to that Ur-Caesar created in Tijuana some 80+ years ago. Maybe not exactly Cesare "Caesar" Cardini's original, but something that was at the very least faithful. Turns out I was right. A couple of weeks ago we watched an old episode of local food celebrity Josée Di Stasio's TV show from the "à la Di Stasio" DVD box set. The topic of that particular episode was real Mexican cuisine and the featured guest was none other than Philippe de Vienne. Somewhat cheekily, De Vienne included a recipe for Caesar Salad on his Mexican menu for that day, and he claimed that this Caesar Salad was in fact the recipe for Caesar Salad, Caesar Cardini's original. You'll notice that it's very close to Salade Caesar à la Terry, with one crucial difference. De Vienne claims that lime juice, not lemon juice, was the touch that gave Cardini's salad a little taste of Tijuana and his claim makes perfect sense. Better yet, the lime juice truly elevates the Caesar Salad, making it taste lighter, fresher, more spritely. Looking for the perfect Caesar? The key = lime.

Caesar Salad à la Caesar Cardini

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, finely minced or pressed
6 anchovy filets
1 tbsp lime juice
1 dash Worcestershire sauce
1 egg, beaten
Romaine heart
1/4 cup Parmesan, freshly grated
freshly ground black pepper
8 slices of day-old baguette rubbed with garlic

Crush the garlic and the anchovy filets in the base of a wooden bowl with a wooden spoon. Add the lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, and egg and mix well. Add the olive oil in a steady stream stirring all the while. Wash and gently dry your Romaine lettuce leaves, then coarsely chop them. Toss them in the dressing, making sure the dressing coats the lettuce leaves relatively evenly. Add the Parmesan and toss once more. Season with black pepper to taste. Toss in a tablespoon or so of capers. Serve each portion with 2 slices of baguette.

Serves 4.

Everyone was ecstatic about this recipe. Michelle was particularly impressed. She promptly announced that this was the very best Caesar she'd ever had. Hands down. I'm still devoted to Salade Caesar à la Terry, but I'm sure I'll be making my Caesars with lime juice from now on more often than not.

You can find live crab at the Atkins Frères LIVE CRAB stand at Jean-Talon Market Friday, Saturday, and Sunday until mid- to late-May.


*"No picture of the crab?," you say. That's how good that crab was. It would have been a travesty to try to represent it photographically.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Artichokes, One for Three Dollars!*

purple Sicilian artichokes

An important part of our Jean-Talon Market ritual is a little move we like to call the L & N Shuffle. As the name suggests, if a little vaguely, this move involves a breezy visit to Chez Louis and Chez Nino on the south side of the market to inspect the very best in the city's produce. If there are two better greengrocers in Montreal we'd be surprised. If there are two better greengrocers that sit adjacent to each other in this town we'd be flabbergasted. It's rare that we find ourselves buying a lot when we go to either Chez Louis or Chez Nino--unless it's Meyer Lemon season--because most of what they have to offer is a bit out of our league, pricewise, but we love to waltz around their premises and just admire the merchandise. Some people like to go on inspection tours of places like Holt Renfrew or Birk's with their free time and ogle expensive clothes and extravagant jewelry, others get a similar thrill from visiting places like Chez Louis and Chez Nino. Not only do such visits get our pulses racing, but they can be downright educational too. It's not quite like a visit to the Montreal Botanical Gardens, but it's rare that I don't see something that's totally new to me.

We'd already taken advantage of the 3 bundles for $5 asparagus special out in front of Chez Louis, when we eyed their purple artichokes. We'd rarely seen vegetables so beautiful. They looked like a vision from one of those Chez Panisse lithographs or something. Problem was, we had no idea how much they'd cost. So we stepped inside, took a look at all the other goodies, and made our way to the second display of purple artichokes they had next to the counter. We asked the woman working the till how much they were, and when she told us $2.99 we decided to get some more details. $2.99 apiece is kind of steep for the likes of us, but these were king-sized artichokes and they had their stems on them, so we figured we might be able to get some mileage out of them as a centerpiece for our dining room table. And they were purple. Then she told us that they were known for having a deeper, richer flavor than their standard green counterparts, and that their customers had been raving about them all week, ever since they first arrived. That was all it took. Before we knew it, we were the proud owners of our very own pair of purple artichokes.

We let those artichokes brighten our dining room for a couple days in a big old mason jar (none of our other assorted vases could hold their big, thick stems), then the other night we decided to have them as the appetizer to our Mario Batali skirt steak special [more on this later--Michelle called dibs on this one]. We placed them in a saucepan filled with enough water so that the artichokes were partially submerged, we added a couple of squeezes of lemon juice to keep them from going from purple to brown on us, and we simmered them for 30 minutes. Then while they were simmering I made some fresh mayonnaise. I'd just finished grinding my first batch of homemade Dijon-style mustard [more on this later], and we had some big, beautiful farm-fresh eggs from the market in our fridge, so I figured making some mayonnaise was the only appropriate thing to do.

I consulted a few different mayonnaise recipes, then chose the one from The Gourmet Cookbook because it seemed the most optimistic (i.e. it didn't offer any pointers in case of eventualities, it just laid things out clearly and simply). If you're one of those people who equates mayonnaise with Kraft Mayo Real Mayonnaise or even Hellmann's you really need to make your own at least once in your lifetime. There's nothing like a freshly made batch of mayonnaise, and depending on how long you whisk it you can use it as a spread, a dip, or a sauce, and, hell, people have been making egg and oil-based sauces for at least 2,000 years now. 2,000 years of mayonnaise makers can't be wrong, can they?


1 large egg yolk, left at room temperature for 30 minutes
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp white pepper

Whisk together the yolk, the mustard, and the salt in a small bowl until everything is well combined. Add about 1/4 cup of the oil drop by drop, whisking constantly until the mixture begins to thicken. Whisk in the vinegar and the lemon juice, then add the remaining 1/2 cup of oil in a very slow, thin stream, whisking constantly until well blended. If at any time it appears that the oil is not being fully incorporated, stop the stream of oil and whisk the mixture vigorously until it is smooth, then continue adding the oil. Whisk in salt to tase and the white pepper. When your sauce is to the consistency that you like, refrigerate it, keeping the surface of the sauce covered with plastic wrap, until ready to use.

Makes about 1 cup of sauce. Takes about 10-15 minutes.

Well, no question about it, those were the very best artichokes I've ever had--so tender, so flavorful, with a depth to them that was truly impressive and even a rich nuttiness to the taste (like hazelnuts). We absolutely devoured them, leaf by leaf, making full use of that tangy mayonnaise, and then we reached the hearts. Truly sublime. So good, in fact, I'm planning on going back to Chez Louis as soon as I can for some more. If they weren't so expensive, I'd buy a bunch, grill some of them, and preserve the rest in oil. At that price, though, I'm happy to just steam them and savor them.

Chez Louis, 222 Place du Marché-du-Nord, 277-4670
Chez Nino, 192 Place-du-Marché-du-Nord, 277-8902


* For some reason, I've never been able to shake a joke I was told once when I was in grade school--it was fourth grade, if I'm not mistaken--the punchline of which was the sordid headline from a tabloidy newspaper: "Artie Chokes Three For A Dollar!"

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

No car? No time? Fret not, tire* is here

tire d'érable ice cream

If you haven't had the time to make your way out to a cabane à sucre and you're afraid you won't but you're still yearning for a tire d'érable, you do have some options right here in the city of Montreal...

1. You could look for one of those tire stands (not unlike the one that we found at Constantin Grégoire) that you find scattered across the city during sugaring off season. You can spot them from a 1/4 mile away. Like the buckwheat pancake stands you sometimes see during the summer, they always dress themselves up with a kind of rural Quebecois take on a Potemkin village. Jean-Talon Market has had at least 2 of these stands serving tire to fanatics and maple sugar freaks for the last 2-3 weeks.

tire stand, Jean-Talon Market

There's also usually a stand outside the Mont-Royal Métro station at this time of year. Your best bets tend to be on weekends.

2. You could head over to Le Bilboquet for their unbelievably decadent tire d'érable ice cream [pictured up top]. Le Bilboquet makes fine ice cream, but their tire ice cream, where the chewy goodness of the tire is offset by the creamy smoothness of the maple ice cream that envelops it, may very well be their very finest flavor. Get it while it lasts because they only make it and serve it during sugaring off season. Their tire d'érable flavor, like the original, is a real overload of maple-sugary sweetness--a "mini" is as much as either of us can handle. Good thing, too, 'cause a "mini" of this limited edition flavor sets you back $1.90. It's worth it, though (if you look closely at the photo above, you can see the healthy-sized chunks of tire embedded right in the ice cream). Especially if you're not going to have a chance to make it out to the country this year to hit a sugar shack.


*rhymes with beer, here, and dear.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Maple Sugaring, an Even Earlier Spring in the Northern Woods, or Sugaring Off 2006 pt. 2

Now, the trick with finding a cabane à sucre in the spring is not unlike the trick involved in finding an a "U-pick" apple orchard in the fall. You want a place that's got good maple syrup, of course, but in this region it'd be pretty hard to find a place with poor product; you don't want a place with lots of bells and whistles (you don't want it to feel like a Ronald McDonald Playland or something); and, fundamentally, you want a place that actually serves good food at a decent price, 'cause god knows there are dozens and dozens of places that are playing on people's nostalgia for yesteryear just so they can laugh all the way to the bank. It's really hard to find a maple farm that still uses the traditional pails to collect the maple sap, instead of the complex networks of plastic tubing that have become commonplace as the industry has become rationalized more and more, and that's had a detrimental effect on the look of most maple farms, not to mention the post-meal walks throught the woods that used to be customary, but you can still find plenty of places that are friendly, honest, and not super-sized and that still serve a nice, big multi-course sugar shack breakfast. We've always been fond of the Lanaudière region just to the northwest of the city--it might not be the most dramatically beautiful region of Quebec, but its back roads still get rather lovely and it's down-to-earth and friendly and not nearly as touristy as the Laurentians or the Eastern Townships--and we've had pretty good luck with finding cabanes à sucre there. We found a place we really liked near l'Éphiphanie a few years ago with our friend Caro, but this year we wanted to go someplace different and we got tipped off to another place we were told was a real classic (they've got 14 kids, after all) near St-Esprit: Cabane à Sucre Constantin Grégoire.

How to spot a good cabane à sucre in a few easy steps:

What's the atmosphere like? Is it a bit rustic, is it welcoming?

Test #2 has to do with the fixins that adorn the tables. Are they generous? Are they well-made? Do they at least have ketchup aux fruits and homemade pickles along with the mandatory house maple syrup?

cabane à sucre fixins

Sample the ketchup aux fruits. Is it everything you hoped for in a homemade ketchup? Now, most importantly, sample the maple syrup. Pour yourself a spoonful and savor it. Is it a fine maple syrup, well-rounded and rich in true maple flavor? And, finally, take a piece of bread/toast or a bun and slather it with the cretons. Are they savory and spicy just like Matante Simone [substitute the name of whichever relative of yours made the best cretons] used to make? Do they make you want to slather many more pieces of toast with them?

Your standard cabane à sucre breakfast will consist of a real barrage of dishes: a bowl of French Canadian-style pea soup (usually made with whole yellow peas), eggs prepared simply (scrambled, for instance), baked beans, bacon and/or sausages and/or jambon toupie cooked in maple syrup, oreilles de Christ (the infamous fried pork rinds side dish), crêpes (which are generally made the old-fashioned way, which resembles a cross between a crêpe and a beignet), and finally tarte au sucre. There are all kinds of variations of this menu, but these are the essentials. The cabanes à sucres that I like the best not only serve a high-quality spread, they also have a low-key approach to serving, giving you plenty of time to relax and enjoy your meal and not putting any ridiculous pressure to overeat on you (beyond the lure of the various temptations served).

The folks at Constantin Grégoire scored high marks in all of the above categories, my favorites dishes being the baked beans, the ketchup maison, and the ham, and Fred, our server, was a true country gentleman.

Having eaten our fill, it was time to move outside, duck under the roof to shield ourselves from the highly unpicturesque early spring downpour we were getting, and have ourselves our first tire d'érable of the season. They had long flats outside filled with snow ready and waiting for customers to stumble out and get one last powerful maple sugar jolt (keep in mind we'd had maple syrup in one form or another with nearly ever dish we'd eaten inside, according to the custom) before wandering the grounds or hitting the road. The tire master showed up with a fresh batch of the hot maple syrup concoction soon after we stepped outside and he promptly began pouring the liquid onto the snow.

pouring the tire d'érable syrup

We then took our popsicle sticks, waited for a few seconds for the syrup to start to freeze a little, then used the stick to roll up our maple syrup taffy.

enjoying tire d'érable

Makes you feel like a kid again every time.

All in all, we really enjoyed ourselves, but it was hard not to fixate on how uncharacteristic the weather we were having was, how out of step the heavy rain, the muddy cabane à sucre terrain, and the utter lack of snow was with traditional representations of sugaring off season. I mean, just look at the imagery that's used to package Quebec maple syrup:

cabane à sucre nostalgia

And just look at the reality ca. 2006:

post-cabane à sucre chill-out

Made me think of that massive body of paintings, prints and other images that we're all still so familiar with that represent winter in Holland with vignettes of skating on Dutch canals, sleigh rides, etc. and how these days, every once in a while, when Holland gets a winter that actually freezes its canals for any length of time it's news.

Even the horses at Cabane à Sucre Constantin Grégoire looked a little depressed:

seasonal depression

All they wanted to do was get out in the snow and pull that big old sleigh around, but no.

Good thing we had that maple sugar buzz going. Took us hours to come down, and by the time we got back to Montreal it was sunny and beautiful and we'd forgotten all about what early spring in Quebec is supposed to look like.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Maple Sugaring, an Even Earlier Spring in the Northern Woods, or Sugaring Off 2006 pt. 1

It hasn't been a year yet since the last time we wrote about sugaring off here in " endless banquet," but then, for the most part, spring has come even earlier this year than it did in 2005. Last April I wrote about how March and April are the traditional months for the collection of maple sap and the production of maple syrup around these parts, but when you follow up on an unseasonably warm spring with the warmest recorded winter in Canadian history it makes you wonder how much longer that'll be the case.

That said, our sugaring off season got off to an early start this year quite by accident. Maybe subconsciously we could already sense the arrival of an early spring all the way back in January. We'd borrowed a car so we could venture out to the industrial and post-industrial wastelands of Anjou. What possessed us? A fascination with the joli-laid attributes of landscape in the outer banlieues? Nope. The lure of illicit roadside motels? Nope. Rumors of another amazing curry joint? Nope. Jars. Just jars. We needed jars for some canning we were doing and somehow we'd gotten directed to an outfit called Dominion & Grimm. Little did we know that Dominion & Grimm was not only a major supplier to the region's local érabliers and érablières but a major name in maple syrup production and packaging across Eastern Canada and a good portion of the United States. Little did we know that they'd been in the business since 1895 when the Grimm brothers (not to be confused with the Brothers Grimm) got their start right in the heart of downtown Montreal, on McGill Street. Little did we know we'd find their showroom filled with massive maple syrup processing machines

maple syrup processing contraption

and maple syrup containers of all kinds (including those retro cans and canisters that are ubiquitous in these parts and that we love so much), and that their walls would adorned with these beautiful paintings of sugaring off in simpler times

more cabane à sucre nostalgia

and that they'd be busy with local maple farmers doing trade. Little did we know we'd be mistaken for a young maple farming couple just getting started in the biz.

Anyway, our trip to Dominion & Grimm got us all excited about sugaring off, but it took a couple of months before the trees gave up this year's harvest and we rounded up our posse to head to a cabane à sucre. But head to a cabane à sucre we did.

To be continued...


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Macaroon Macarons

coconut macarons

Okay, this recipe needs a bit of a preface. 1. I’m reasonably sure that most every line of work has its own sense of humor, the difference between these spheres of humor having to do with tone and levels of creativity (morbid vs. lite, clever vs. crass, etc.). I’m not sure where pastry kitchen humor sits on this scale, but I do know that our kitchen at work knows how to share a laugh and that I definitely find this kind of atmosphere easier to work in than its overly professional, relatively humorless other. 2. Some people have been trying to tell me otherwise, but one of the major differences between the pastry scene in Montreal and the pastry scene in Paris, say, has to do with the relative absence of the macaron here. You may be able to find macarons in a few local pastry shops, but they’re far from central to our local tradition and they haven’t yet reached the heights they have elsewhere, and consequently a lot people here remain in the dark as to what a macaron even is (a delicate sandwich cookie made from almond powder and whipped egg whites). True to the Anglo-American tradition of sweets that remains dominant across most of Canada (and is an important factor even in Quebec), people here are much more familiar with the macaroon (a confection made with coconut and egg whites baked in mounds, no pun intended) here than the macaron, and frankly the two are often confused.

With these things in mind, I set about testing macarons made with coconut in place of the traditional almond powder a few days ago. Not only did it seem like a great idea for a new-fangled, unorthodox macaron , but it struck me as being vaguely hilarious. I tried out a few different recipes with varying degrees of success before finally hitting upon the right combination yesterday, thanks to Nigella Lawson. When I’d gotten my recipe just so—light and super chewy, with a consistency that created perfectly uniform macaron domes—and filled it with a medium caramel in order to tease out the connections between what I’d fashioned and alfajores (a Chilean layered cookie made with dulce de leche and coconut), I took them to a social gathering and sprang them on some of my taste testers/friends. Then I sat back and just waited for the belly-laughs and the knee-slapping to ensue as the sheer wit of my latest creation dawned upon them.

[crickets chirping, then getting shushed]

I’m still waiting. “Know your audience,” right?

My coconut macarons might not have bowled them over, but the good news is that in terms of texture and flavor they were a hit. One taste tester who “can’t stand desserts” found himself eating an entire one quite contentedly; another who shuns sugar ate two.

Coconut Macarons

(makes about 20 filled cookies)

75 g very fine unsweetened coconut
125 g icing sugar
2 egg whites
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
Mix the coconut and icing sugar together in a bowl. Beat the egg whites until foamy and add granulated sugar slowly while whisking to stiff peaks. Add the coconut mixture and fold gently but firmly. This will turn quite stiff and paste-like. Don’t panic. Fill a piping bag with the batter and pipe circles about 1 1/2 “wide, or drop by spoonfuls onto parchment paper. Let rest 15 min. Bake about 10 min. Let cool. Fill with dulce de leche, chocolate ganache, or jam and sandwich together. Some people prefer these the day they are made, but I think they benefit from a night or two in the fridge in an airtight container.