Friday, October 31, 2008

A Kentucky Colonel in Upstate New York and other tales

valley acres 1 fig. a: Valley Acres

Things began in Montreal, of course, but it wasn't until we reached Saratoga Springs and Valley Acres that we felt like our weekend escape was truly underway.

valley acres 4 fig. b: ornamental corn

That was where we found the first farm stand of our trip, as well as the first crisp, local apples, the first dried corn (in this case, ornamental), and the first apple cider donuts.

valley acres 3 fig. c: Michelle makes her getaway

Michelle grabbed a few beauties, posed for a picture, and we got back on the road.

ny bbq fig. d: All Fired Up BBQ

We thought those apples would tide us over until we reached our destination in the Catskills, but when we smelled the sweet aromas coming from that roadside smoker by the side of the 9W, we knew we had to stop. Our oversized pulled pork sandwich wasn't exactly NC-style, but then the Catskills aren't exactly the Blue Ridge either. That fruitwood-smoked pork was tender and smoky, though, and that $2 side of smoked baked beans (a.k.a., "man beans," although I'm not sure why) was the best $2 I've spent in a long time.

hi-way drive-in fig. e: Hi-Way Drive-In

We made just one more teeny-tiny stop en route (to the lovely Hi-Way Drive-In)

s & t's fig. f: strong home

and half an hour later, we'd reached our destination.

the observatory fig. g: "the observatory"

In the observatory,

cornwallville bird's eye fig. h: "birds eye view"

we had a wonderful bird's eye view of the landscape.

kentucky ham 3 fig. i: Col. Bill in the house

And in the kitchen, we had a surprise waiting for us: a Col. Bill Newsom's ham, a carefully selected, dry-cured, slow-smoked, aged, 15-lb beauty.

kentucky ham 2 fig. j: ole no. 301

Well, it wasn't a complete surprise, because we'd gone ahead and ordered it from our friends in Princeton, KY when we knew we were going to be in the States for a weekend. We'd been fantasizing about getting our hands on our very own country ham for years, but we were never sure what to do about it because you can't mail-order a ham across the Canadian border and, sadly, neither of us has been anywhere near Kentucky in years. Somehow we'd even gotten it into our heads that there was some kind of Canadian ban on country hams. No U.S. country ham purveyor was willing to try shipping one across the border (we know, because we called a bunch of 'em), and we just figured the Canadian government was hostile towards the traditional curing methods of the Appalachian region. A couple of years ago we just gave up. Every once in a while, though, that urge would well up again, and we'd make some more inquiries. Then, finally, about a month ago, Michelle made an important discovery. She found out that technically there was no restriction against bringing a cured pork product across the border as long as two conditions were met: 1) it was under 20 kg in weight (per person!), and 2) it was for personal consumption only. The reason the country ham purveyors refused to ship hams to Canada had to do with spot checks that had occasionally held deliveries up at the border for weeks, even months, at a time. In other words, if we wanted a country ham there was absolutely no problem, we just had to go down to the States and haul it back ourselves (after spending the minimum amount of time required to avoid duties, of course). Hell, with the average weight of a country ham being about 15-20 lbs, we could conceivably get four or five country hams and bring 'em back, as long as we swore they were for personal consumption. (Yes, your Honor, I solemnly swear that these two hams are for my own personal consumption.)

kentucky ham 1 fig. k: the first cut

Anyway, we promptly opened up the box and got to work on "ole No. 301," and minutes later we were savoring the very best ham of our lives. We'd had Col. Newsom's before, but never like this.

A couple of years ago we watched Anthony Bourdain's Decoding Ferran Adria. Adrià takes Bourdain on a brief and somewhat surprising tour of Spain to help him get inside the philosophy of El Bulli. One of their stops is Madrid's Museo del Jamón, and there Adrià and Bourdain spend some time dwelling on the fat of a particularly fine specimen of jamón. I remember saying to myself, "I think I understand what they're talking about...," but having never experienced jamón of that quality, I could only imagine. Well, now I think I have a better sense, because just the fat alone off that Col. Newsom's ham is a sight to behold.

Anyway, we could have spent the whole afternoon admiring "ole No. 301," but we had some things we needed to pick up for dinner, and, besides, it was absolutely beautiful out. So that's what we did: we went out.

farmer todd's 1 fig. l: Farmer Todd's 1

We took a short drive so that I could get my bearings, but mainly we just hung out at Farmer Todd's, a.k.a. Black Walnut Farm. It was late afternoon when we got there, and things being quiet at the time, Farmer Todd was all too happy to show us around, and we were all too happy to admire his fields.

farmer todd's 2 fig. m: Farmer Todd's 2

We picked up some apples, tomatoes, eggs, and a few other odds and ends, but the coup of the day was the U-pick lettuce patch out back. Michelle was handed a pair of scissors and a bag and she went to town, and later that night we had the very best mixed greens of the entire year. Farmer Todd also gave us a seriously hot tip. The next morning he was going to be receiving two shipments: 1) some fresh apple cider donuts and 2) some locally produced sheep's milk ricotta.

apple cider donuts fig. n: apple cider donuts at Farmer Todd's

So the next day we went back again. For some fantastic apple cider donuts (even better than Valley Farms').

fresh ricotta fig. o: fresh ricotta from Farmer Todd's

For some truly heavenly ricotta.

popping corn fig. p: popping corn from Farmer Todd's

And for some fresh popping corn.

fall leaves fig. q: fall colors

Anyway, the weekend wasn't all about food. It was about seeing old friends, fresh air, chopping wood and reading by the wood stove, walks in the woods, and fall colors.

the sky fig. r: upstate NY

It was about playing with the dog, and lazing in the grass.

heather ridge farm fig. s: Heather Ridge Farm

It was also about checking out some of the local sites. There were more food-related places like Heather Ridge Farm, with its grass-fed lamb and beef, its pastured chickens, its award-winning honey, and its lovely assortment of squashes.

antiques 1 fig. t: I.U. Tripp & Co. 1

But there was also I.U. Tripp & Co. in Oak Hill, NY. Pretty much the antiques shop of our dreams.

antiques 2 fig. u: I.U. Tripp & Co. 2

I mean, just look at this place. And all of it housed within the most incredible antique of all: an 1888 general store. We spent hours, but we could have spent days. Especially because Mary Lou and Nick (and their many cats) were so much fun to hang out with.

antique fig. v: I.U. Tripp & Co. 3

Everywhere we looked, we saw things that seemed to be communicating with us. In the end, we really didn't get all that much--we kinda got totally overwhelmed. But we'll be back.

icicle house 1 fig. w: icicle house 1

Almost as impressive (we didn't get to go inside this place) was the nearby Icicle House.

icicle house 2 fig. x: icicle house 2

It made me think of Walker Evans and his American Gothic series from 1931, most of which were taken in Upstate New York. It's also for sale. We tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a house as singular as the Icicle House. And while I took some photographs of my own, Michelle and S. decided to take a closer look.

The Recipes

Needless to say, between us and our hosts, we did a ton of cooking at Strong House that weekend. What follows is just a small selection of recipes--two which were actually part of the weekend festivities, and one that was inspired by our weekend getaway to the Catskills.

Country ham? Check.

country fresh eggs fig. y: country fresh eggs

Farm-fresh eggs? Check.

country ham, eggs, red eye gravy fig. z: country ham & eggs

Fried Kentucky Country Ham with Eggs and Red-Eye Gravy

country ham
brown sugar (optional)
freshly ground black pepper

Slice your ham about 1/4" thick. Trim off the rind, but do not trim the fat. The fat provides loads (and I mean loads) of flavor and no other fat will be needed.

Fry the ham slices gently in a large heavy skillet, turning the lean away from the hottest point of the skillet. Be careful to fry slowly and to not over fry. This will make the ham tough. It will also make the fat smoke. Ham is usually done when the fat has turned translucent and the ham begins to brown slightly. Place on your plates.

[For a milder, less salty taste, soak the ham slices in lukewarm water or sweet milk for up to 30 minutes before frying. Make sure to pat them completely dry before frying, though.]

Pour your drippings in a small bowl.

Add a little coffee to the hot skillet after removing the ham and simmer for a couple of minutes, scraping up the ham bits. Make sure there's enough coffee so that it doesn't entirely evaporate. Pour in the bowl of drippings. Stir well and continue to simmer for another minute or two. Add a bit of brown sugar to taste, if you like--this will add color and additional flavor. Add freshly ground black pepper. Do not add salt. Between the drippings and the ham, you won't need it. Pour the gravy over your ham slices.

Accompany with a couple of fried eggs and a biscuit (see recipe below).

[recipe courtesy of Col. Bill Newsom's Hams]

Fresh ricotta cheese? Check.

We'd made crostini with some of our ricotta, but we still had some leftover. Luckily we had a copy of The New York Times Magazine's food issue (October 12), and therefore we had Christina Muhlke's "The Way We Eat" column on Kenny Shopsin and his new book, Eat Me, and therefore we had Shopsin's recipe for Lemon Ricotta Pancakes. We also had his recipe for Mac 'n' Cheese Pancakes, but we had farm-fresh ricotta on-hand, so it really wasn't much of a decision.

ricotta pancakes fig. aa: ricotta pancakes

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

3 cups pancake batter (recipe follows)
zest of two lemons
2/3 cup whole-milk ricotta
peanut oil
maple syrup

Stir the batter and the zest together. Gently fold in the ricotta.

Clean a griddle or heavy-bottomed skillet by running an oily cloth over it. If the cloth snags, scrape to remove, then wipe down the griddle with peanut oil. Set the griddle over moderate heat. (It’s hot enough when a drop of water bounces off the surface.) Pour a thin layer of peanut oil over the griddle. Just before you drop the batter, run cold butter across the area where you are going to cook. When it bubbles, drop the batter in 4-inch circles and immediately raise the heat to medium-high. Cook, adjusting the heat so as not to burn the ricotta, until bubbles appear, 1 to 3 minutes. Using a thin metal spatula, quickly flip and gently tap to make them uniform in thickness. Cook until the second side is golden. Serve with real maple syrup.

Makes about 12.

Pancake Batter

7 tablespoons butter
1 1/3 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon plus 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt.

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the butter and milk until the butter melts. Set aside until lukewarm. Beat the eggs in a medium bowl. Slowly pour 1/2 cup of the warm milk mixture into the eggs while stirring. Stir in the remaining milk mixture.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture, a little at a time, stirring slowly, just until the dry ingredients are moistened. The batter should be lumpy and will start to bubble.

Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

[Courtesy of The New York Times. Adapted from “The Breakfast Book,” by Marion Cunningham.]

popping corn fig. bb: Michelle liberates the popping corn

Organic popping corn? Check.

felknor's fig. cc: Felknor's

Felknor's stovetop popcorn popper? Check.*

chunk-e-nut 1 fig. dd: Chunk-E-Nut

Vintage Chunk-E-Nut caramel corn box from I.U. Tripp & Co.? Check. The box was actually the inspiration behind this next one. Michelle just bought the box because she loved the way it looked. When we got back home she realized she absolutely had to make some of her own Chunk-E-Nut to fill it with.

caramel corn fig. ee: caramel corn

Michelle's Chunk-E-Nut Caramel Corn

popping corn from one cob, about 1/3 cup
3/4 stick unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup Lyle's golden syrup (you can also use corn syrup, if you prefer, but to get that true "Michelle's Caramel Corn" flavor we recommend Lyle's)
2 Tbsp. water
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 Tbsp. vanilla
1/2 cup salted peanuts

Preheat the oven to 200°F. Pop the corn in a stovetop popper, a hot-air popper or in a covered pot with a bit of oil. Set aside in a large bowl.

popcorn fig. ff: freshly popped corn

In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Add the sugar, syrup, water, and salt, and bring to a boil, stirring carefully to melt all the sugar. Heat to 260°F, stir in the baking soda, vanilla and peanut and pour over the popcorn. Stir quickly using two wooden spoons in a salad-tossing motion. Pour out onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for one hour, stirring every 10 min. Let cool and store in an airtight container, or place in vintage Chuck-E-Nut caramel corn box and eat it all up.

Makes a lot.

And last, but certainly not least...

biscuits fig. gg: biscuits

ham & biscuit fig. hh: ham & biscuit

Ham & Biscuits

3 cups flour
1 scant tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
4 tsp. baking powder
2/3 cup butter or lard
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. buttermilk
country ham, shaved

Preheat oven to 450°F. Sift the flour, salt, baking soda and powder together in a large bowl. Cut in butter or lard with your fingers until it forms a coarse meal. Pour buttermilk over the mixture and stir quickly with a wooden spoon. Pour out onto a lightly floured surface and fold once or twice. Roll out to 1/2" thick and pierce the surface with a fork. Cut into rounds and place on a baking sheet. Do not re-roll the scraps, no matter how much you want to. Bake for 13 min., until golden brown.

Serve with country ham, either plain or with a suitable condiment (like jerusalem artichoke relish, chow chow, or pickled corn).

[Based on a recipe from Edna Lewis' The Taste of Country Cooking.]

For more information about Col. Bill Newsom's hams (everything you ever wanted or needed to know, actually), follow this link.



* If you haven't tried a Felknor's or a Whirley-Pop popcorn popper, we highly recommend them.

Erratum: This post previously described Farmer Todd's ricotta as being made with "goat's milk." Unlikely, I know, but that's what he told us. We later confirmed that the cheese in question was made with sheep's milk.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

One-Two Punch

sichuan chiles fig. a: one

sichuan pepper 2 fig. b: two

This has got to be one of the world's great combination punches: Sichuan chiles + Sichuan pepper. The first blow packing considerable amounts of heat, the second providing an odd numbing effect that allows one to somehow consume all that firepower. It's certainly one of our favorites, and last week when the two of us found ourselves feeling a bit under the weather, we knew that that lethal Sichuan kick was just what we needed. We also knew we wanted something brothy, something like Water-Boiled Beef, so we turned to our good friend Fuchsia Dunlop to see what she had to say.

If you're still unfamiliar with Dunlop's 2001 instant-classic Land of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes Personally Gathered in the Chinese Province of Sichuan (as we were until just a few months ago), and you love the searing heat and sophistication of real Sichuanese cuisine, you're in for a treat. Land of Plenty is a remarkably comprehensive cookbook that's honest, and forthright, and full of heart. Its opening section begins with a passionate and insightful introduction (our favorite part: the section on "Diffferent Food Traditions" that discusses homestyle cooking, street food, and banquet cooking [!]), continues with detailed and fascinating overviews on "basic cutting skills," "cooking methods," "equipment," and stocking "the Sichuanese pantry," and, really, the book never lets up. Seriously, just when you think Dunlop can't possibly have anything more to add, she drops in appendices on "the 23 flavors of Sichuan" (e.g. #4: hot and numbing flavor) and "the 56 cooking methods of Sichuan" (e.g. #6: bao: "explode frying").

With Dunlop as our guide, we'd been traveling through Land of Plenty for a number of months, but we'd yet to make her Water-boiled Beef, which she actually gives another name. If you've never experienced the full power of this benign-sounding dish, Dunlop's introduction sets the scene:

Sichuanese people joke that outsiders, wary of the fiery local flavors, order this dish in restaurants in the hope of eating something mild and soothing... In fact, it's sensationally hot... It's not for the faint-hearted, but if you have a taste for spicy food, it's fabulous, and perfect for a cold winter's day when you need firing up with energy and warmth. As they say in Sichuan, it'll make you pour with sweat, even on the coldest days of the year.

As a result, though Dunlop notes that the dish's name (shui zhu niu rou) simply means "beef boiled in water," she calls her version Boiled Beef Slices in a Fiery Sauce.*

Sound like fun? It is. You see, as if that Sichuan chile-Sichuan pepper one-two punch weren't enough, Water-boiled Beef's combo actually contains one last furnace blast: what Dunlop calls "lashings" of chili bean paste, a pungent, powerful chile and fava bean concoction.

would you say 'no' to this man? fig. c: three

Don't settle for imitations. Look for the real thing. This brand's the best we've found here in Montreal.

sichuan pepper 1 fig. d: Imperial Sichuan pepper

Also, if you haven't tried Philippe de Vienne's "Imperial" Sichuan pepper, we highly recommend that too. No other Sichuan pepper we've encountered is as potent or as floral.

And just how does one go about making Water-boiled beef? We're glad you asked.

Water-boiled Beef

1 head of celery (about 1 lb), fibrous outer edges removed, chopped into 2" x 1/2" sticks
4 scallions, gently crushed and chopped into matching 2" x 1/2" sticks
a small handful of Sichuan chiles (roughly 8-10), snipped in half, seeds removed
1 lb lean beef (flank steak, for instance), sliced against the grain into 1" x 2" strips
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine or medium-dry sherry
1/3 cup peanut oil
2 tsp Sichuan pepper
3 tbsp chili bean paste
3 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 tsp dark soy sauce
6 tbsp cornstarch mixed with 6 tbsp cold water

Add 1/4 teaspoon of salt and the Shaoxing rice wine to the beef strips, mix well, and allow to marinate while you prepare the other ingredients.

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a wok until hot but not yet smoking. Add the chiles and the Sichuan pepper and stir-fry until fragrant and the chiles are just beginning to brown (taking care not to burn them, however). Immediately slide the spices into a bowl, leaving the oil in the wok. When they have cooled down a bit, transfer the spices to a cutting board and, using a cleaver, chop them finely, then set them aside.

Return the oily wok to the stove and heat over a high flame. When it begins to smoke, add the vegetables and stir-fry for a minute or two, adding 1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt to taste, until they are hot and just-cooked but still crunchy. Transfer the vegetables to the serving bowl.

Heat another 3 tablespoons of oil in the wok over a high flame, until just beginning to smoke. Turn the heat down to medium, add in the chili bean paste, and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, until the oil is red and fragrant. Add the stock and the dark soy sauce, season to taste with salt, and return to a boil over a high flame. Add the cornstarch mixture to the beef and stir well in one direction to coat all the pieces. When the sauce is boiling vigorously, carefully drop in the beef slices. Wait for the sauce to return to a boil and then use a pair of chopsticks to gently separate the slices. Simmer for a minute or so, until the beef is just cooked, and then spoon it onto the waiting vegetables. Pour the sauce over top.

Swiftly rinse out the wok and dry it well. Heat another 3-4 tablespoons of oil in the wok until smoking. Sprinkle the chopped chiles and the Sichuan pepper over the beef dish and then pour over the smoking oil, which should sizzle dramatically. If you move quickly, the dish should still be hissing and sizzling when you bring it to the table.

Serves two as a main dish, four with rice and two or three side dishes.

Did it work? You bet. That Water-boiled Beef was a knockout.


* See? What did I tell you? Honest and forthright.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Pop Stop

pop swap

Special Pop Montreal 2-for-1 deal:
1. Ever wondered what the inside of the mysterious Sport Montréal Benfica (SMB) looks like?
2. In the mood for a tasty pulled-pork sandwich?

Well, you're in luck, friends. There's more to Pop Montreal's Record Sale & Gear Swap than just records and gear. Our friends L. & S. are working the concession and they're offering overstuffed pulled-pork sandwiches ("traditional" or "maple-chipotle") with cole slaw (of course) for $6 a pop. And if pulled pork just ain't your trip, they've also got vegetarian wraps ($5) and vegan salad rolls with spicy peanut sauce ($3) on offer. Oh, yeah, and there's lots of groovy records, instrument repairs, cigar-box geetars, books and zines, etc.

Saturday and Sunday only, 11am - 7pm.

Pop Montreal Record Sale & Gear Swap, 100 Bernard W. (Mile End)

Be there.


Thursday, October 02, 2008

She's back!

the new chloé

Chocolate lovers, happy days are here again.

The new Chloé opens today in some swish new digs.

Les Chocolats de Chloé, 546 Duluth E., 849-5550