Saturday, February 28, 2009

Special Edition Mac & Cheese Pancakes, rev. ed.

Remember when we made Kenny Shopsin's lemon-ricotta pancakes a few months back? At the time I noted that we had found the recipe in the New York Times Magazine alongside Shopsin's infinitely more delirious Mac & Cheese Pancakes, but when it came time to choose, "it really wasn't much of a decision" because we had farm-fresh ricotta on-hand. What I didn't mention was that at the time, we couldn't for the life of us imagine what the taste and textural qualities of Mac & Cheese Pancakes might be like. We certainly were intrigued, though. So intrigued, in fact, that when we got back home, we made picking up a copy of Shopsin's Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin a top priority. Not because we needed the Mac & Cheese Pancakes recipe--it was right there in black & white in the New York Times Magazine--but because we wanted to further acquaint ourselves with the philosophy behind the Mac & Cheese Pancakes and the rest of Kenny Shopsin's ridiculously huge and hilariously inventive repertoire. And if we happened to learn the origin of the Mac & Cheese Pancake, all the better.*

eat me 1 fig. a: before

eat me 2 fig. b: after (accidents will happen)

Not only is Eat Me one of the best-looking cookbooks we've seen in quite some time (maybe ever), but it's been one of our absolute favorite reads of the last few months, and, perhaps not surprisingly, Shopsin's Mac & Cheese Pancakes were among the very first recipes that we tried out. All I can say is that--I admit it--I was a little skeptical about the Mac & Cheese Pancakes, but now, when I think of pancakes, I think of these first. I'm not even kidding. And I don't care if it's Lent and to even dream about these pancakes amounts to impure thoughts. Just mention the word "pancake" and these are all I see.

The funny thing is, the first time we made them, we read the recipe in Eat Me carefully, but somehow, unconsciously, we ended up making them not as the recipe actually instructed, but as we imagined they'd be made. [Later, I was reminded of a story: In describing Kenny's Egyptian Burrito, Calvin Trillin once wrote: "An Egyptian Burrito is a burrito, and inside is sort of what Kenny thinks Egyptians might eat."] You see, Kenny's original recipe calls for cooked elbow macaroni tossed with olive oil, with the cheddar cheese added separately. We, on the other hand, began with a pretty deluxe batch of leftover mac & cheese. Anyway, this was totally accidental, but our Mac & Cheese Pancakes ended up being at least twice as cheesy as Shopsin's, and quite a bit more savory. Problem? I don't think so. Having now read Eat Me, we know all too well what Kenny thinks of bacon in pancakes. We have a feeling he'd give his blessing to our Special Edition Mac & Cheese Pancakes.

What you need:

leftover mac & cheese fig. c: leftover mac & cheese

1. leftover macaroni & cheese, preferably leftovers from a batch of E & D Special Mac & Cheese.

pancake batter fig. d: pancake batter

2. pancake batter, such as this one:

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.

cheddar cheese fig. e: cheddar cheese

3. a block of medium-sharp cheddar cheese

What you need to know:

Special Edition Mac & Cheese Pancakes**

butter for the skillet and for serving
3 cups pancake batter
1 heaping cup macaroni & cheese, preferably E & D Special Mac & Cheese, at room temperature
1 heaping cup grated cheddar cheese
medium Grade A (or B--Kenny prefers B) maple syrup

Heat your skillet over medium heat. When it's hot, add the butter and run it across the skillet surface, then use a small ladle to pour the batter on the skillet. When small bubbles cover 40-50% of the surface of your pancakes (after about 2 minutes), drop about 1 tablespoon of the mac & cheese on each pancake, and then, as if that wasn't enough, sprinkle a layer of cheddar on top, before using a thin spatula to quickly and artfully flip the pancakes. Turn the heat down a little, use the spatula to press down on the pancakes a bit, and when the undersides are golden, about 2 minutes later, use the spatula to transfer the pancakes to a plate, mac & cheese & cheese side up.

Serve with butter and maple syrup. Makes roughly 12 4-inch pancakes.

[inspired by Kenny Shopsin's Mac n Cheese Pancakes, Eat Me]

If all goes well they should look something like this:

mac & cheese pancakes fig. f: the finished product

And they should taste outrageously good. You see, our E & D Special Mac & Cheese has a copious amount of thick-cut bacon in it, so what you end up with is a Mac & Cheese Pancake with bacon built right into it. Then, with a knob of butter and a little maple syrup... As Kenny might say: "It's really very sexy."


* We did: it was a dish specially invented for a regular customer who only ever ordered one of two dishes at Shopsin's, the mac & cheese or the pancakes, and who one day asked Kenny to decide which he should have.

** Now with extra cheese!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Notes From the Underground, rev. ed.

In a province like ours, where cretons, ragoût de pattes de cochon, fèves au lard, and oreilles de crisse are a way of life, one wouldn't exactly think you'd need a Pork Underground. After all, Quebec's not exactly Saudi Arabia. Occasionally, some Quebeckers have been known to haul in specialty pork products unavailable in la belle province from across the border, but not because there's some kind of taboo on pork or because pork is scarce in these here parts.

On the other hand, maybe it's precisely in a region as pork-obsessed (and therefore strangely undiscriminating about the quality of the pork being ingested a lot of the time) as Quebec that one would expect to find a cell of ultra-loyalists, a pocket of devotees committed to the idea of taking the love of pork (porcophilia?) to its logical extreme. Hence places like Au Pied de Cochon

p & p fig. a: this little piggy...

with its signature stuffed pied de cochon. Hence the Pork Underground.

Goodness knows why, but for some reason Michelle and I were invited to take part in a Pork Underground event a couple of weeks back. This being more than just an innocent pig-pickin', the invitation came with a set of conditions:

1. we were required to wear at least one pink garment, preferably one adorning one's torso
2. we were required to bring one pork icon, and it was indicated to us that we could be rather liberal in our interpretation of the term "pork icon"
3. we were required to bring one bottle of wine per person--to go along with the food, of course, but also, perhaps, to help induce the "French paradox"

Now, I'm a little short on pink garments. Not because I'm too gars-gars for pink, or something. I had a pink polo shirt that I either shrunk or outgrew (I prefer to think it was the first option) about a year ago, and a couple of years back I sold my limited-edition pink 1994 Palace Brothers t-shirt in a garage sale to some lucky customer. So I broke rule #1. Flagrantly. I wore a gray button-down shirt and claimed that I was "well-done." Michelle wore her trademark pink hoodie (naturally), so she was fine. Somehow we both got let in.

Michelle gave the pork icon a little thought and came up with the obvious answer: a pork-themed crossword puzzle. (?)

pork-themed crossword puzzle fig. b: Michelle's (largely) pork-themed crossword puzzle

[Be kind. This was her very first crossword puzzle. Why she chose to make one for this particular occasion, neither of us will ever know. One would have thought that, given her skill set, she might have concocted some kind of pork-related dessert or pastry (like a good old-fashioned pie with a good old-fashioned lard-based crust), but, no, it turns out she's a frustrated puzzle maker. Who knew?]

I, on the other hand, brought a line drawing of Tenderflake brand 100% pure lard that I'd turned into postcards. (??)

pure lard fig. c: 100% pure lard

We also brought along a hunk of Col. Newsom's country ham for good measure (and just in case my grey shirt and/or my grey postcards didn't fly with the management).

old no. 301 fig. d: old no. 301

We we had no problems whatsoever fulfilling the wine requirement.

So what does one do at a Pork Underground meeting? Well, pretty much exactly what you do at any other dinner party, with the addition of a round-table session where each and every member of the underground presents her/his "pork icon" to the assembly (these ranged from pork poems [2 of 'em!] to porcine salt & pepper shakers), as well as a much higher-than-average amount of spontaneous, fully improvised pork talk.

And, yes, as you might have guessed, the menu featured a great deal of pork, including such delicacies as:

a rustic pork terrine
a luscious cabbage soup with pork belly
a supremely succulent pork roast served with mashed potatoes

Having a hard time believing any of this? Check out the full coverage in last Friday's National Post here. Seriously.

Who knows how the National Post managed to infiltrate our cell,

the best in the business fig. e: the best in the biz

but there you have it.

Wish you had a Pork Underground in your hometown? Start your own. It's as easy as 1*-2**-3***.


* 1. quality pork products
** 2. quality pork recipes
*** 3. hard-core pork lovers (preferably ones with a bit of a sense of humor)

ps I--TY to BK for founding and hosting.
ps II--if you'd like the key to Michelle's crossword or if you'd like us to send you a "100% pure lard" postcard, drop us a line.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Top Ten #28

witchies fig. a: Witchies: now I know how Joan of Arc felt

1. Witchies, s/t E.P.

2. In a Lonely Place, dir. Ray

3. moules à la bonne humeur

made in canada fig. b: Tapestry: made in Canada

4. Tapestry, Down By Maple River

5. The Wrestler, dir. Aronofsky

6. M.F.K. Fisher, As They Were

7. soto ayam

into the vietnamese kitchen fig. c: self-explanatory

8. Andrea Nguyen, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors

Setsuko Hara fig. d: Setsuko Hara/Noriko

9. Tokyo Story, dir. Ozu + Tokyo-Ga, dir. Wenders

10. Cuisine Mas

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Black Gold

brussels 1 fig. a: Brussels in December

Late last year, I found myself back in Brussels. This time around I was sans Michelle, I was working long-ish days, and, it being December, the city had a very different feel to it. Gone were the long, largely improvised strolls back and forth across the city in search of little treasures of all sorts--cultural, gastronomic, and otherwise. Gone were the long hours of daylight and the mild temperatures. In July we'd only been in Brussels for two or three days, but it had seemed like a week of adventures. Probably had something to do with the fact that we ate about a week's worth of food.

Anyway, I still made some discoveries on this latest trip to Belgium,

brussels 2 fig. b: discovery 1

art 2 fig. c: discovery 2

brussels 3 fig. d: discovery 3

but the only true culinary coup came on night #2--and it was a good one. In fact, it was one of my best meals of the year.*

From the outside, with a slow shutter speed, it looked something like this.

la bonne humeur fig. e: La Bonne Humeur

The window ("specialité de moules") and that gunnysack behind it said it all: this was a serious mussels establishment. So serious, in fact, that they only serve mussels in season--which is why Michelle and I ate not a single, solitary mussel during our summer vacation.

The place was called La Bonne Humeur, and it was located east of the city center along Chaussée de Louvain. It was a bit of a haul from my hotel in Schaarbeek, and the night I chose to go it was absolutely raw out--cold, drizzling rain, windy--but the combination of the walk and the weather sure worked up an appetite. In spite of the weather, La Bonne Humeur looked cheery and inviting from the outside, and inside it was warm and friendly. Just the name alone ("the good humor") was enough to begin restoring my spirits--the combination of the atmosphere and the heady aromas quite nearly completed the task.

By the time I sat down, there was just about nothing I wanted more than a steaming cauldron of moules and the good people at La Bonne Humeur were happy to oblige. By the kilo. That's right, the standard portion of mussels at La Bonne Humeur is a healthy 2.2 pounds of the plumpest, juiciest Dutch mussels (from Zeeland, naturally) you could possibly imagine. I loved the way they served them too: heaped in a heavy, enameled cast-iron cauldron (in other words, as they should be), with plenty of celery and fennel, and plenty of broth. Their frites were good, too. Not quite Frites Flagey-good, but fresh, crisp, and piping hot, and served with a tangy homemade mayonnaise. With a cold beer and The New Yorker's Food Issue at my side, this was pretty much my ideal businessman's dinner.

So I came back to Montreal raving. But the thing is, I could sense reluctance on Michelle's part. I kept saying how much I wanted to try and replicate my feast at La Bonne Humeur, and she kept saying, "uh, huh." So I pressed her on the matter and it turned out she liked mussels, but she'd never had a plate of mussels that she'd ever loved. "Never?," I asked. "Never."

Well, those days are gone. When I finally got Michelle to agree to let me make my La Bonne Humeur special for her with the plumpest, juiciest P.E.I. mussels I could find, she changed her tune. Now I have carte blanche to make them whenever I want. And the thing about mussels is: they're so affordable. When was the last time you bought over 4 pounds of Grade A seafood and the cost came in under $10? Thought so.

Now, I don't have La Bonne Humeur's actual recipe, but with the help of a few friends, like Richard Olney and Julia Child, I was able to get close.

black gold fig. f: mussels soaking in brine

Moules à La Bonne Humeur

4-4 1/2 lbs fresh mussels, scrubbed, then soaked in salt water for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking
1/2 cup minced shallots, green onions, or finely minced onions
4 stalks celery, 2 cut into 3-4" lengths, 2 finely chopped
1/2 bulb fennel, thinly sliced
1 leek, cleaned, and finely chopped
6 tbsp butter
2 cups dry white wine
generous handful of parsley, chopped or whole
1 bay leaf
1/4-1/2 tsp fresh thyme
freshly ground black pepper

As noted (and pictured) above, make sure to soak the mussels in briny salt water for 15-20 minutes prior to cooking.

Meanwhile, in a large pot or, preferably, a large enameled cast-iron cauldron, heat one tablespoon of the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots (or onions) and sauté until softened and sweet, 5-10 minutes. Add the finely chopped celery, the fennel, and the leek and sauté for 5 minutes more. Add the wine, the remainder of the butter, the celery lengths, the parsley, the bay leaf, the thyme, and the black pepper, bring the wine to a boil, and reduce for 2-3 minutes.

Add the mussels. Cover tightly and boil over high heat, shaking and tossing the contents (while holding the lid firmly in place) from time to time over a period of 3-5 minutes (and up to 10 minutes). The vast majority of the mussels shells should have opened.

Give the mussels another healthy grind of black pepper and serve heaped in bowls with plenty of the broth ladled over.

We didn't have an enameled chaudron large enough to cook 2 kg of mussels, so we made ours in a large pot. Our largest enameled chaudron was just large enough to serve our big, beautiful batch of mussels, however, so that's exactly what we did.

Serves two.

moules marinière fig. g: moules à La Bonne Humeur

Note: common wisdom says to discard any and all mussels that haven't opened after the required cooking time. However, both Richard Olney and John Bil (formerly of Montreal's Joe Beef, and currently with New York's Flex Mussels) recommend using good old-fashioned common sense. Open the culprit with a knife, take a good look. If it looks fine and smells fine, it probably is fine. In fact, Olney insists that the ones that need to be forced open with a knife (after adequate cooking time, of course) "are often the best."

"What about the frites," you say? Well, we didn't make actual Belgian-style frites, but we used our current #1 roasted potato recipe and came up with a substitute that was perfectly acceptable and downright delicious. The recipe goes something like this...

Zuni Café Roasted Potatoes

1 1/2 pounds yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled or not, cut into irregular 1- to 1 1/2-inch chunks
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400º F.

Place the potatoes in a 4-quart saucepan and add cold water to cover by a few inches. Salt the water liberally, stir to dissolve, and taste--it should be well seasoned. (Judy Rodgers recommends "a scant 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt per quart water.") Bring to a simmer over high heat and stir again, then reduce the heat so that it just holds the simmer. Cook until the potatoes are soft on the edges and tender inside, about 6-12 minutes, depending on the potato and the size of your chunks (generally, 10 minutes is ideal for us). Drain well. Taste. The potatoes should be perfectly seasoned and tasty already. Place in a bowl while still warm.

Add the olive oil and toss to coat. Don't worry if some of the slightly overcooked potatoes crumble a bit. Those bits will end up becoming heavily coveted crunchy bits when the roasting is done.

Transfer the potatoes and their oil (and any potato bits) to a roasting pan that is both wide and shallow. Roast until golden, rotating the pan and stirring the potatoes as needed so that they color evenly. Judy Rodgers recommends 20-25 minutes, but we've found that to get the potatoes to the state of perfection, it takes a good 45-60 minutes.

Once the potatoes are perfectly golden-brown and crispy, they'll hold well (according to Judy Rodgers, they may even improve) at 275º F, making this recipe ideal as a roasted potato recipe for dinner parties and large groups.

We found that they were also pretty choice with our moules, especially with mayonnaise (preferably homemade) mixed with a dollop of strong mustard.

Serves 4 as a side.

[based very closely on Judy Rodgers' Rosemary-Roasted Potatoes (her original throws "bruised" rosemary leaves into the mix) from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook]

Serve the two recipes above with a nice green salad and a fine beer or crisp white wine. Even non-believers will see the light. Even the ill-humored will suddenly discover good humor.

Or, when in Brussels:
La Bonne Humeur, 244 Chaussée de Louvain, 1000 Brussels


ps--many thanks to Clotilde for the tip.

* Sorry, Michelle.