Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kindred spirits

new garlic fig. a:  June garlic

Ah, sweet memories of a summer's night in Provence...

AEB's coverage of Michelle, Natasha, and Theo's Le Grand Aïoli/A Provençal Summer Feast at Alexandraplatz made it into Kinfolk Magazine's online journal.  The post comes complete with lots of lovely new photographs (new to me, at least), too, including a really nice one of Michelle.

It's hard to believe it's already been two months since that feast.  The photographs make it feel like it was just the other day.  They also make me wish there was another grand aïoli on the horizon.

aug garlic fig. b:  August garlic

Good thing the late-summer garlic harvest is already upon us.

Good thing Michelle and Seth's Provence menu is just around the corner (!).

Stay tuned...

In the meantime, you might want to read this 2010 Guardian article on paying a pilgrimage to Richard Olney's former home in Provence to get yourself in the mood.  And/or you can take a look at this post from the AEB archives about Olney, Lulu, and Domaine Tempier.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Omnivore 'r' us

dome fig. a:  welcome to the pleasuredome

It all looks so calm, so peaceful, so reassuring, but over the last few days there was a veritable hive of activity under the Société des arts technologiques' mysterious dome.

You'll remember that when we last interacted Omnivore was just on the verge of getting underway.  You'll also remember that while Omnivore's series of "maudits soupers" was intended to create a ripple effect of culinary collaboration and experimentation across the city of Montreal, the Société des arts technologiques, and its Foodlab in particular, was slated to be Omnivore Montreal's ground zero.

Three days of workshops took place there, a great deal of the prep work for both the workshops and the dinners was conducted there, and the Foodlab was the site of a closing night dinner, pairing the talents of Les Grès' Jérome Bigot and the Foodlab's Seth and Michelle, as well as an after-hours bash for all those who participated in putting together the Montreal leg of Omnivore's World Tour 2012.  That's a significant amount of hustle and bustle for a kitchen that features virtually no modern conveniences (convection oven? sous-vide machine? Pacojet?), uses home-use electric ranges exclusively (natural gas?), and consists of a staff of three.

It was quite a wild ride, but one that was by turns illuminating, sometimes even breathtaking, and frequently inspiring, and it succeeded in forging what will surely turn out to be important links between chefs and gastronomes in Montreal, Europe, and beyond, as well as exposing Montreal's food-obsessed to a new, more interactive kind of food festival, one that looks likely to be a recurring proposition.

There are certainly more extensive reports on Omnivore Montreal 2012 to be found elsewhere, but here are just a few personal impressions focused on Michelle's involvement with the festival:

On Sunday Michelle gave her workshop on the topic of memory, fantasy, strawberries, and the nature of dessert.

strawberries, pepper fig. b:  black pepper, strawberries

She created two strawberry desserts for the event, both of them "simple," both of them designed to end a meal on a suitably light and refreshing note.  The first was a sour cream panna cotta with candied celery, a mixed herb granité (parsley, mint, basil, verbena), and strawberries.

The second was her dreamy Bohemian Rhapsody, a dessert that she created when she was still at Laloux and that was featured in the Gazette's "Strawberry Smackdown" last summer, and whose conception I described in some detail in a post at around the same time.  In case you've forgotten, it went something like this:

If you haven't had the pleasure of hearing Michelle describe the dessert herself, it all started with stories her mother used to tell her about summertime in Czechoslovakia. It seems that instead of summer camp, Czech kids used to be carted off to these summer work camps where they'd spend a couple of weeks picking hops as part of the national beer-making effort. 

Summer work camps? Nationalized industries? Doesn't sound like a lot of fun, does it? Except that apparently it was.

The kids were out of the city and in the countryside, they were camping, and they were relatively unsupervised. There was music every night, there were songs and dancing, and there was no shortage of summer intrigue, and a fair bit of summer romance, too. There were also strawberries--lots and lots of wild strawberries--and flowers.

Michelle loved hearing these stories (she still does!), especially because her mother would get so animated when she told them (she still does!). They were/are clearly among her mother's fondest memories.

Anyway, earlier this year, before strawberry season even began, Michelle came up with the idea of creating a dessert that would capture elements of these remembrances of Czech summers past. There would definitely be hops, of course--the most floral she could find. There would also be strawberries and flowers--an homage to the wild strawberries and the wildflowers that grew alongside the hops in the Czech countryside. There would be malt--another nod to the art of making beer. And there would by rye--Michelle imagined rye crumbs mingling with the hops and the strawberries and the wildflowers after the Czech youngsters had had their lunches in the fields.
celery, hops fig. c:  celery, hops

This was exactly the story that Michelle described to the audience at her workshop, but she used it to talk about her creative process, and to reflect upon dessert's nature, on the dichotomy between desserts that are based in fantasy and those that are based in memory (whether personal or collective), and how on occasion desserts can find their inspiration in both.

mm in the dome fig. c:  Michelle 360º

She also decided that additional visuals were in order, so we drew up a leaflet to provide audience members with some important primary texts.  The four texts in question looked like this:
 strawberry picking! fig. 1:  strawberry picking in Czechoslovakia
It was late in the evening when Philip arrived at Ferne. It was Mrs. Athelny’s native village, and she had been accustomed from her childhood to pick in the hopfield to which with her husband and her children she still went every year. Like many Kentish folk her family had gone out regularly, glad to earn a little money, but especially regarding the annual outing, looked forward to for months, as the best of holidays. The work was not hard, it was done in common, in the open air, and for the children it was a long, delightful picnic; here the young men met the maidens; in the long evenings when work was over they wandered about the lanes, making love; and the hopping season was generally followed by weddings.  --Of Human Bondage, CXVIII (pg. 543), W. Somerset Maugham
fig. 2:  a fortuitous quote
Michelle's journal  fig. 3:  a page from Michelle's journal
Michelle & co. fig. 4:  Michelle & co.
I was hardly the most objective of observers, but her presentation--her reminiscences and commentary, her demo, her leaflet--appeared to have really struck a chord with the audience, and the fact that she served individual portions of her Bohemian Rhapsody to each and every attendee didn't hurt either.  In fact, it helped to create a mob scene after her talk.

mm in the dome2 fig. e:  after the demo

Later that night, on our way to a "maudit souper" at Sardine, we had a chance run-in with a long-lost friend who was visiting from Toronto.  We did the standard 5-minute check-up, catching up on the highlights of the last few years, including Michelle's move to the Foodlab, and, completely unprompted, our long-lost friend brought up our post about the Bohemian Rhapsody and how its tale of childhood romance in the hop fields of Communist Czechoslovakia had nearly brought him to tears (!).  "Wow, funny you should mention that," I said, "because Michelle just finished giving a public talk on just that very topic."  Afterwards, I made a joke that I'd only had to pay him $50 for him to stage this unexpected encounter, but, really, his timing was impeccable, and Michelle marched onwards towards Sardine with a new spring in her step.

A day later, Ève Dumas singled out Michelle's talk as one of the highlights of the festival in the pages of La Presse (!!).  Commenting on the strength of the Montreal contingent's demos over the weekend, Dumas wrote:
La palme revient à Mme Marek, qui a donné un sens nouveau a l'expression galvaudée qu'est "cuisine d'émotion."  "Un travail sur la mémoire et le fantasme, avec des fraises," était la description que las chef du Foodlab avait faite de sa présentation la semaine dernière.  Et hier, c'était exactement ça.
Partant d'un souvenir d'enfance sublimé, Michelle Marek a préparé en direct un dessert aux fraises, avec granité de houblon, crème fouettée et crumble de pain de seigle qui évoquait l'enfance de sa mère en Tchéchoslovaquie communiste.  À la fin de la démonstration, une cinquantaine de spectateurs émus voulaient connaître le goût des fantasmes de Michelle Marek qui, par chance, avait prévu une petite portion pour tout le monde.
Michelle had even more spring in her step after she discovered that write-up.  It gave her the boost she needed to face up to a huge day.

And, finally, last night, Omnivore Montreal 2012 came to its inevitable conclusion with two more seriously hot tickets:  les Frères Folmer of Couvert Couvert (Heverlee, BE) with Marc-André Jetté and Patrice Demers at Les 400 Coups and Bigot/Gabrielse/Marek (organ, drums, guitars) + Oenopole's Theo Diamantis (wines and vocals) at the Foodlab.  Unfortunately, we missed out on the festivities on rue Notre-Dame, for obvious reasons, but the collaboration between Team Les Grès, Team Foodlab, and Team Oenopole resulted in a lovely menu with real moments of magic, the highlight of which was probably the main course:  a marinated and grilled pork échine with onions served four ways (scallion purée, charred scallion oil, grilled scallions, and an onion cream) and a pork jus.

pork plates fig. f:  pork plates

It was as striking as it was tasty, and it was one of those dishes that you wanted to just keep reappearing each time you cleaned your plate.  I could have easily had one for dessert, too.

pork plate fig. g:  pork & onions

All things must come to an end, though, right?*

A few hours later, the guests had departed, the chefs had returned, and there was nothing left to do but drink, dance, play ping pong, and reminisce about the weekend.


* with the exception of AEB.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Omnivore! Live at Montreal!!

Omnivore-Montreal fig. a:  Hello, Montreal!

Remember when we told you about Omnivore way back in July, and how Omnivore's World Tour 2012 was going to be blowing through town in mid-August, bringing their "join the young cuisine" movement and their appetite for creation-destruction with them?  Well, guess what?  It's mid-August, people, and that time is nearly upon us.  The Omnivore crew, and their entire cast of European chefs and other gastro-provocateurs, is just about to descend upon Montreal.

Still haven't acted?  Need some additional convincing?  Well, not surprisingly, there's been a rash of local press about this imminent invasion.  So if you don't trust AEB (?!), may I direct you toward the following two authorities:

--Ève Dumas, "Festival Omnivore:  Montréal à croquer," in this past weekend's La Presse [en français]

--Natasha Pickowicz, "Omnivore food festival goes global with stop in Montreal this weekend," in today's Montreal Gazette [en anglais]

Ms. Dumas' article is particularly extensive and includes all kinds of helpful tips, but my favorite quote shows up at the end of Ms. Pickowicz's article, and it comes courtesy of Michelle:
Unlike the Festival en Lumière, which takes place in the dead of winter, the Omnivore Food Festival makes its debut in Montreal right at the peak of the lush harvest season. “Festival en Lumière is such a well-respected and well-funded festival, but when the visiting chefs come and you have to show them your local products, you’re like, ‘I’m sorry,’” Marek laughs. ”This time, we can really show them what this region is all about.”
Indeed.  Any initiative that encourages visitors to come and visit our fair and frosty city during the winter, as well as Montrealers to stay put, is a good one in our books.  But it's one thing for local chefs to embrace our Nordic culture, it's a whole other thing to force visiting chefs to deal with it.

See you this weekend!


Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Don't let it slip you by, pt. 2

lake girl 1 fig. a:  lake girl 1

If you do have the means to get out of town:  get thee to a lake.  If you can spend a night or two there, all the better.  Just make sure to bring plenty of food and drink.  And lots of reading material.

lake girl 2 fig. b:  lake girl 2

lake girl 3 fig. c:  lake girl 3

Keep the wine flowing.

rosé 1 fig. d:  rosé 1

rosé 3 fig. e:  rosé 2

Eat with regularity.

In both cases, focus on quality over quantity, although the idea is to celebrate summer, so there's no point in being stingy.

As much as possible, keep things simple.  You'll find that the dishes that are the most elemental will also often be the most memorable ones.

It doesn't get any more elemental than Padrón peppers, which have been a sensation from Spain to California for years, and which are finally making their presence known in Quebec, thanks in no small measure to the Birri Brothers at Jean-Talon market.

padróns 1 fig. f:  padróns 1

padróns 2 fig. g:  padróns 2

Pan-fried Padróns 
Padrón peppers
bacon fat or olive oil
kosher salt
Heat the bacon fat or olive oil over medium to medium-high heat in a large pan or skillet.  When the fat begins to smoke, add as many peppers as will fit comfortably.  Sear them until they are just nicely charred.  Toss liberally with kosher salt.  Place on a serving platter and add a squeeze of lime juice.  Serve immediately.  Devour while hot.   
Padrón peppers generally aren't hot, they're pretty mild, but they do have some heat to them, and occasionally you might encounter one that might make your lips tingle.  Maybe even one that makes you sweat.   We call this game Spanish Roulette.  
Serve as a side or as a snack.
Bring a charcoal barbecue, too, if you can.  There's nothing more elemental than fuel (wood, all-natural charcoal, all-natural briquets) and fire.  And if you can find choice oysters in sufficient quantities before you head out to the country, you're really in luck.

rosé 2  fig. h:  rosé 3 w/ grilled oysters

Grilled Oysters 
fresh choice oysters
garlic chives
hickory-smoked bacon
sharp cheddar cheese 
Shuck the oysters, severing the muscle and making sure to spill as little liquor as possible.   
Fry up the bacon until crisp.  Keep about one rounded tablespoon full of the bacon fat in your skillet, pouring the rest in a jar for a later use.  Mince the fried bacon into bits.  [3 strips of bacon made enough bits for 36 oysters.] 
Chop the scallions and the herbs and sauté them in the bacon fat until wilted.  Toss with the bacon bits. [4 scallions, 1/3 bunch of parsley, 1/2 bunch of chives and garlic chives made plenty enough for 36 oysters.] 
Spoon a little of the herb mixture into each oyster. 
Top with grated cheddar cheese. 
Grill over a hot charcoal fire until the cheese has melted. 
Serve immediately.  Savour.

I usually make my Mexican-style corn pretty tricked out:  lime mayonnaise with premium chili powder (freshly toasted and ground); fresh cheese; aged cheese; cilantro; and grated radishes.  But even this stripped-down version is sensational if you start with great corn and you grill your cobs just so.

IMG_0150 fig. i:  grilling corn
Grilled Corn 
fresh sweet corn, preferably Grade A Quebec
Tabasco sauce
Shuck the corn completely.   
Mix your lime mayonnaise.  Add enough lime juice to make it just a bit looser than a regular mayonnaise.  Add salt and Tabasco sauce to taste. 
Place the corn cobs directly over a medium-hot charcoal fire.  No need to keep the husk on.  No need to soak the corn in anything.  No need to brush it with any substances.  Being careful not to scorch your corn, roast the cobs over the fire.  Rotate them from time to time.  Don't worry about cooking them completely evenly.  It's okay if some portions are slightly more charred than others.  This will only add to the taste sensation. 
When the cobs have been cooked on all sides, remove from the grill and slather with the lime mayonnaise.   
Allow to cool for about a minute, then serve while still hot. 
Repeat as needed.
[If you don't believe this method works, check out this video.  I used to fuss around with my corn cobs before I grilled them, and they often turned out great, but Mark "The Minimalist" Bittman made a convert out of me.]

As Michelle put things recently, "18 wines, 4 people, 2 days, 1 lake = perfect weekend."

80 Padrón peppers, 36 oysters, 20 eggs, 18 ears of corn, 2 briskets, 2 racks of ribs, and 1 pound of bacon didn't hurt either.

With this much fun built into your weekend, you won't even care if there's a little rain.

rain storm fig. j:  did someone say "rain"?

Go swimming anyway.  You might stay in long enough to see a truly celestial display of light.

We did.


Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Don't let it slip you by, pt. 1

Yes, it is the summer of 2012.  And, yes, it's important to not let this summer (or any other) slip you by, especially when you live in a nordic country.*

red, white, black, & rosé fig. a:  preparations were made

If you don't have the means to get out of town:  eat al fresco as much as possible, and if you can do so in the proximity of an outdoor ping pong table, all the better.  You'll have to bring your own paddles (BYOP), as well as your own table tennis balls, and you may have to wait your turn (God knows outdoor ping pong has its dedicated followers), but if you pack yourself a nice picnic and you lubricate the proceedings with a sufficient amount of chilled whites and rosés, you'll find the results most agreeable.  You may want to bring your pétanque set to amuse yourself during intermissions, but this step is purely optional.  You may also want to bring your swimsuit--there may very well be a pool nearby to help you beat the heat.**

Recommended meal:  salade niçoise with a crusty loaf of bread + tomato and ricotta tartinades.

Recommended bottle:  Thymiopoulos Vineyards' 2011 rosé de xinomavro

Basic Salade Niçoise*** 
height-of-season salad greens
height-of-season tomatoes
high-quality olive-oil-packed tuna
high-quality olives of your choosing, like picholines
hard-boiled eggs
gently poached green beans, preferably those French-style skinny ones
boiled new potatoes
extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper 
Make sure your green beans have been poached to perfection.  They should crisp-tender.  Make sure your potatoes are boiled just-so.  You don't want them mushy.  You can use the same pot of boiling water for both, but, for heaven's sake, don't cook them at the same time.
Assemble the salads on your plates out of the first seven ingredients listed above.  Dress each salad individually by eye and/or according to taste.  Salt and pepper each salad as you wish. 
Tomato and Ricotta Tartinades 
fresh ricotta
height-of-season tomatoes
extra-virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper 
Tear off pieces of a crusty baguette.  Split them in two.  Slather them with ricotta.  Top them with slices of tomato or halved cherry tomatoes.  Dress with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and pepper.
You've eaten and drunk well.  You've worked up a mild sweat playing ping pong.  Haven't you done enough?  Take yourself out for ice cream, perhaps after a dip in the pool.


* Formerly nordic?  

** You can find all three of these features (the outdoor ping pong tables, the pétanque courts, and the swimming pool) at Parc Laurier in the Laurier Village neighborhood of Montreal.  On weekday evenings, admission to the pool is FREE.

*** The true salade niçoise is a hotly debated topic in some parts of the world.  This version puts an emphasis on ease and immediacy over authenticity, while insisting on the best of ingredients.  Now is the time!

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Coq-la-la!, rev. ed.

What is up, Montreal?  Baby's on fire.

The momentum's been building for a few years now, but, rather suddenly, after years and years of outright persecution, street food is cropping up all over the place.  You could find it along Ste-Catherine, in the heart of the Quartier des Spectacles, during the Festival Juste Pour Rire, where it was getting star billing.  You can find it in Place de la Paix, where it's been accompanying a series of films and DJs (and will be until the end of August).  You've been able to find it at Parc Olympique where the Association de Restaurateurs de Rue du Québec have been holding street food shindigs on the first Friday of every month all summer long (check out the August edition, the last one of the summer, tomorrow).  You can find it in our food courts and at our outdoor markets.  And now you can get one of the classics of the global street food phenomenon, Vietnamese bánh mì, delivered right to your doorstep.

In all of these cases, we're not talking about third-rate carny dreck (as much as I like a good batch of funnel cake)--we're talking about street food staples, both North American and international, that have been carefully sourced and prepared.  And the same holds true for this latest venture, the cheekily named Coq Asian, which pools the talents of a couple of local line cooks and one of our favourite local coffee gurus, to bring you the bánh mì you've been dreaming of all these years (you know, the one with the quality bread, the top-notch ingredients, and the ultra-fresh preparation) plus some pretty amazing iced Vietnamese coffee (made with locally roasted beans!).

coq asian delivery fig. a:  nice package!

We were pretty psyched by just the look of our duo of grilled beef, green peppercorn, and chilli bánh mìs with "white" cold-brewed Vietnamese coffees (which came in mason jars!).

coq asian banh mi fig. b:  bánh me!

We were way more psyched when we actually bit into that bánh mì--the beef was plentiful, rosy, perfectly grilled, and spicy-tangy, the condiments were fresh.  And we were even more psyched when the jolt of that Vietnamese coffee kicked in.

Coq Asian is only in operation Fridays through Sundays.  You can get in touch by following them on Facebook and/or Twitter.  Place your orders early.  They sold out on weekend #1.  And keep in mind that their range is limited--we were able to get our order delivered downtown, but, for the moment, their focus is on the Plateau/Mile End.

Like the proverbial crooning rooster, we're proud to sing the praises of Coq Asian.

And keep the street food coming!  Who knows, maybe we'll soon have Tamale Ladies strolling through our late-night establishments and wood-burning pizza trucks popping up on our rues, avenues, and boulevards.  Maybe we'll start hosting full-on street food festivals!


p.s.  Update:  you'll be happy to know that Coq Asian's quality control is excellent--we've only missed one week since they started up, and we haven't been disappointed yet.  Not even close.  And the next time they do their Vietnamese meatball sandwich, like they did this past weekend (Aug. 17-9), do not miss it!  That was by far and away the best meatball bánh mì I've had in a very long time.