Sunday, September 18, 2016

Organizing your kitchen will make cooking FAR more enjoyable!

The two times I worked in restaurant kitchens, it was made pretty clear right from the beginning that things must always be put back in very specific places. If they weren’t, the offending party heard about it immediately. And if it was Chef doing the talking (yelling), it was guaranteed to be an unpleasant experience!

Over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to organize our kitchen for efficiency. That only requires some thought on what should go where (and why), but then comes the real trick: making sure everyone understands this and puts things back where they belong. No excuses accepted and no quarter given!

Now that’s not to say I’m a martinet about kitchen organization, but I’m also not afraid to tell my wife or anyone else that if they use something, “Please put it back exactly where you found it.” And I do mean exactly! Since I do most of the cooking around here, it’s recognized that I call the shots.

The obvious reason for this level of organization is so that the person who’s cooking doesn’t have to waste any time finding the utensils, cooking vessels, or appliances that they need. I’m sure you feel the same way I do about this: there is nothing that frustrates a cook more than to not be able to find what they need and having to waste time looking for it.

Another benefit of organizing a kitchen to a high level is that you can fit more into it. That can be by necessity if your kitchen is a small one, but it can also make a huge difference in a large kitchen. One step into a restaurant or other kind of commercial kitchen will show you why. The goal is to not only turn out delicious food, but to turn it out as quickly as possible. If you have to cross the room for commonly used things, then you’re wasting precious time, even if it only takes five or ten seconds. During the course of an evening rush, those seconds quickly turn into minutes.

Okay. So now you know my reasons for organizing my workspace. What is it that I did, exactly?

The first thing I did broke the cardinal rule I gave two paragraphs above (at least a little bit): keeping things you use a lot close to you. But in this case, it wound up saving more time.

We have a counter top gas cooktop against the west wall of our kitchen. The oven is close by on the south wall (basically you turn left and take one step to get there). To the left of the oven is our refrigerator. Our sink is directly across from the oven against the north wall, and about the same distance away. On both side of the cooktop are counters, extending from one thing to another. That’s my “general working area” (and the classic “triangle” set-up of a well laid-out kitchen). To the right of the sink is another counter extending over to our back door. The dish washer is under this. The remaining side of the kitchen has two sets of stairs: one down to the basement and the other up to our bedroom. Along the down stairs (and acting as a railing is a low well to which is mounted our last counter, an 8-foot length we use for plating when we make a large meal or for serving buffet-style meals. I’ll get into the cupboard arrangement later.

Underneath the stove are two deep drawers. We used to store as many of our pots and pans as would fit in there, along with their lids. This caused two problems. First, we have invested in good cookware and good cookware is heavy. You can guess at the problems we had with the bottoms of these drawers. second, with the number of pots, frypans, skillets, etc. that we own, you’d have to sift through stacks of things to find what you might need right now.

So my first organizing move (and the one that broke the rule) was something you see in commercial kitchens: hanging pots and pans from a bar mounted to the ceiling. Our kitchen’s ceiling is just eight feet, so hanging these things above my general working area would not have worked. The ideal place to hang the bar was directly above our “staging counter”, which is farther away from the stove. We got one of those heavy duty bars that hangs by means of chains from two large hooks screwed into a conveniently-placed ceiling joist. So someone cooking needs to walk about three steps to the far side of the room to retrieve a pot. Takes a tad longer, right? Well, it does, but it takes far more time to go through the drawers where these things used to reside. Now that’s a good trade to my mind.

Once we moved the pots and pans, we dedicated the top drawer under the stove to lids, two cast iron skillets that wouldn’t fit on the bar and our pressure cooker that couldn’t hang from the bar. The lower drawer (among other things) fits some small appliances (juicer, coffee mill, etc, some of our large kitchen tools that won’t fit in drawers and our wok.

This post has gone on long enough for a beginning, but I hope it gives you some starting places for improving your own kitchen’s layout. Trust me when I write that organizing your kitchen into an efficient “factory” for producing food will cut way down on the aggravation factor that many have endure when faced with cooking a meal in an inefficient space. Since I really became a nut about organizing where I spend a lot of time, my enjoyment of cooking something, even a complicated dish, has gone way up.

Next post, I’ll talk about organizing our cupboards and drawers for our staple items and (many, many) utensils.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Okay, so I lied about getting this blog back onto a normal schedule -or- life has a way of throwing curveballs at you

Way back in the dim beginnings of this year, I wrote about getting things back on track here at AMFAS. It’s not difficult to ascertain if you look at the date of the most recent post before this, that I either lied or fell off the face of the earth. Well, it was neither of those things. Sometimes life just has a way to rear up and bite one in the butt and not let go. That was the case with me.

I don’t want to go into all the whys and wherefores because that’s not what this little blog dedicated to food is all about. It just happened and there was little I could do about it. However, that didn’t keep me from feeling horribly guilty about it.

Anyway, I’m back once again and hopefully it will stick this time because (drum roll and trumpet fanfare, please!), I have “retired”. That’s in quotes because I’ve only stepping down from one job (graphic design) but that will allow me to concentrate on the other things I enjoy doing: writing and music, and of course, cooking and talking about food.

Over the past many months, though, we haven’t stopped eating and cooking some great food. So, I’ll have lots of new recipes to share and some thoughts on becoming a better cook and how to enjoy the cooking experience more — especially if you don’t enjoy cooking all that much.

I’ve also been doing a lot of reading and research into the food we eat and how it gets to our grocery stores and what might have been done to it along the way. I can promise some of that will be very sobering reading.

So stay tuned!

Before the week is out, I will be sharing some thoughts on making your kitchen more convenient and easy to work in. That’s a very important thing for anyone, whether they’re interested and enjoy cooking, but especially if you don’t particularly enjoy it and wish to get it done in the shortest amount of time.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Hi there, everyone! It's me.

I am determined to get this blog out of the slough of despair in which it currently resides!

To that end, here is a photo of tonight's dinner in the Blechta household. It's actually our Valentine's Day dinner, which we're having tonight because tomorrow (which is actually Valentine's Day), we'll be on babysitting duty with our grandson while Mommy and Daddy celebrate with a fine restaurant meal.

Vicki and I both love oysters, and our source for fine oysters at St. Lawrence Market had some primo examples of the bivalves this weekend, so I bought 2 dozen Raspberry Point oysters from PEI.

In the photo you'll see our shucked oysters (done by moi), a lovely leaf lettuce/arugula/endive salad with white balsamic dressing and a lovely multi-grain baguette we get from our local Sobey's, no less! Accompanying it all is a lovely blanc de blanc bubbly we bought last weekend from Kew Vineyards in Beamsville, and it's truly a lovely thing.

Lucky us! And Happy Valentine's Day to you all.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Cretons: a delicacy of old Quebec

Cretons and Vicki’s fantastic toast. Mmmm…
My wife and I lived in Montreal for a few years while we were attending McGill University. We started out with an apartment in what is known as “the student ghetto”, the area just to the east of the main campus, bounded by Sherbrooke to the south, Aylmer on the west, Pines to the north and over to Parc on the east. Some might tell you it goes over as far as St. Laurent. Our first apartment together was a lovely place on the ground floor of a building at the corner of Hutchison and Prince Arthur, Long, with a big living room and a decent-sized bedroom, its foyer was large enough to hold a single bed, and university friends (one in particular) would crash there often when they couldn’t get back to their homes in the suburbs after a late-night gig. The kitchen was old, but useable and since we didn’t have much time to cook, anyway, it served our purposes.

Vicki began teaching a few students after school, most of them gotten through our neighbour in the next apartment, Yusuf Emed, who taught music at Beaconsfield High School out on the “West Island”. But she started getting some closer to home, too, as the word spread.

One of these students was a nice young lady, Claire Guimond, and it turned out her mother was a very fine cook. I don’t know how this particular dish came up in a flute lesson, but we still have the original recipe, courtesy of Claire’s mother on a yellowed sheet of paper. Claire has gone on to become a well-known Baroque flutist. The Guimonds used to serve fried up pieces with pancakes and real maple syrup (if Vicki’s memory serves). It is quite wonderful that way.

One was for cretons which goes way back in Quebec culinary history. What makes it really interesting is that this sort of country cousin to to the French terrine is that cretins are mostly eaten at breakfast. I think of it as a sort of grab-and-go meal. Spread over some toast, you can get a quick hit of protein, fat and carb all in an easy-to-carry meal. Grad an apple or whatever fruit you have on hand, and at least you’re going to have something worthwhile in your stomach when you don’t have time for a proper meal.

You don’t see it all that often on menus in Quebec, certainly not in the better restaurants (probably because they’re usually not open for breakfast). But you will find it on the menu of lots of places, especially once you’re outside Montreal.

Now that Vicki is occasionally making bread (gotta watch that waistline), we make this a little more often. Sure it can be eaten cold on toast, but you can also cut slices and brown them up for a great addition to an egg breakfast. You can even cook everything together in one pan for an easy cleanup.

The ingredient list is short and very simple, and making cretins is a piece of cake, even if you’re not an experienced cook.

So here’s a dish as Canadian as peameal bacon, Nanaimo bars or poutine, just not as well known – which is something that’s always puzzled me.

Cretons
makes about a pound

INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup     onion, grated finely
1 lb           ground pork
1 cup        milk
1 cup        shredded bread – no crusts
1/2 tsp      cloves
1/2 tsp      allspice
3/4 tsp      salt
freshly ground pepper
freshly ground nutmeg

METHOD
1.    Mix everything together in a bowl.
2.    Cook in frying pan, turning occasionally until cooked.
3.    Press into loaf pan, chill overnight so it sets well.
4.    Cut into slices and serve chilled.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Mastering the art (and science) of cooking

This is how you prep a dish before cooking it.
The past little while, we’ve done a lot of cooking and preparing of food around here.

There was that beautiful pork roast with crackling family dinner we had a couple of weeks ago. I also turned two more hog jowls into guanciale which are now hanging in the basement as they lose moisture and turn more flavorful and succulent. The last of the first batch of lonzino has been sliced, packaged and frozen for enjoyment over the coming months – especially over the summer as a “nibbly” before dinner. I’d run out of smoked roasted almonds, and seeing as “the nut meister”, Karel, was otherwise engaged, I made up a few pounds myself. A small handful is wonderful in the morning with my usual yogurt, bran buds and muesli. Oh! And last week we brined and smoked 3 pork hocks (a gift from Andy at Our Gate to Your Plate), and smoked a kilo of old cheddar.

My lovely wife has been making and freezing small patties of various kinds for our grandson who comes over for the day twice a week. There are salmon patties made with mashed potatoes or rice, shallots and peas. Fry one up and he’s got a complete meal he can eat with his fork (after the patties have been cut into small pieces). Imagine a one-year-old getting food with sauteed shallots in it! She also froze the remainder of a meatloaf for Jackson.

Then there’s her fantastic bread which she occasionally makes. (Can’t eat too much bread these days!) It makes the world’s finest toast in my opinion and many mornings start with coffee and buttered toast. Lovely!

The point of this post, though, is not the great food we’re enjoying but that we enjoy making great food. No, it’s not as quick as ordering out, or opening a can or taking some sort of frozen meal out of the freezer, and a lot less expensive than going out to eat. When people join us for a meal or find out what we’re producing in our small kitchen, the first question we’re generally asked is, “How do you find the time to do all this?”

The trick is to make the time. The charcuterie, the preserving, the making of bulk food, all is done in order to minimize cooking (and shopping) times later on and allow us to know exactly what’s in what we’re eating, and making it does take a chunk out of your day. Certainly, as I’ve consistently stated, curing, drying and smoking meat is not a huge undertaking in terms of hours, but preparing it and dealing with it at appropriate times is something that has to be considered. Preserving (canning, etc), unless it’s done in small amounts, takes a larger chunk out of your day. The secret here is to do it with other people to minimize the time. You can turn it into a part – and you all get to share the wealth at the end.

I wrote a post several months back where I talked about the way people often cook that can make it distinctly “un-fun”. That revolves around the prep stage. If you’re doing prep work at the same time you have things on the stove, you’re opening yourself up to a world of hurt (especially if your recipe calls for expensive ingredients, but you’re also boxing yourself into a corner and making preparation of good meal far more stressful than it needs to be.

I don’t always follow my main rule (but I try to): do all the prep first, then just sit back and enjoy the process of cooking it. You cannot enjoy cooking if you’re trying to chop vegetables while your meat is searing, and the potatoes are being boiled. There are just too many things going on at the same time. The last thing you want is one of those “Oh my God!” moments when you realize that you just overcooked that very expensive cut of meat because you were so focused on chopping the onions that go in next. And forget doing anything else when it’s time to cook fish or seafood where the correct doneness can come down to a matter of seconds. The only respite you can build in if you still need to prep when something’s already cooking is when something you’re cooking has a longer cooking time (like stews, roasts and the like). While something like that is cooking you can, of course, work on a first course or a dessert.

(Sidebar: Which brings me to a rule I never break: when baking always have everything measured out and ready to go before you do anything else. Baking, first and foremost, is chemistry and it requires precision and an understanding of what recipe ingredients do to the finished product. But even if the esoteric part of baking doesn’t interest you, remember this: a baking recipe is not a general guideline. It is a master plan. Always follow it (unless you know a lot about kitchen chemistry) and measure all ingredients carefully before you start.)

Unless you’ve worked in a restaurant kitchen, you don’t realize how many ingredients have been prepped first. If a recipe calls for a mirepoix (chopped onions, carrots and celery), that has been already handled by the entremetier (vegetable cutter) earlier in the day. All you need to do is just measure out what you need. Easy, right? How often do you do that when you’re cooking?

In a home kitchen, one person generally wears all the hats: chef, line cook, entremetier, garde manger, even bottle washer (unless you’re lucky enough to have help). And there’s the rub. Construct a large, involved menu and you need to be super-organized. The prep you do before turning on the stove or oven will be critically important to how everything turns out – unless you get a charge out of extreme stress.

Take a look at any recipe you’re going to undertake and make sure you understand all the steps. Prep and measure all the ingredients. Read the cooking method again. Start to cook, carefully and with thought. Watch what happens. Your food is changing in structure due to the heat. It’s very zen-like and calming to watch this process.

If you’ve planned your moves well and in advance, I guarantee you’ll enjoy what you’ve done, especially when you taste it!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Sourcing your food sensibly: From Our Gate to Your Plate

This?
For the past several months I’ve been giving pretty short shrift to one of the important facets of this little blog of mine: knowing how and where the food you’re putting in your body is grown – and who is doing it. If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you know how I feel about this, but suffice it to say that I am more than willing to make the effort to do this.

The way we now shop was driven home very viscerally over the holiday while staying with my mother-in-law and doing a lot of cooking. (We even brought our vacuum sealer!) Basically, since my MIL is getting up in years and has never really liked to cook, whenever we visit, I have been making her complete frozen meals and then vacuum sealing them so they keep extra long.

Or this?
Of course I had to do a lot of shopping in order to make what turned out to be 53 meals. There are no farmers markets in the area at that time of year, so off I went to the local Shop Rite. Since we hardly use supermarkets anymore for things other than toilet paper and the like, I was not prepared for what awaited me. Most of the fruit and vegetables were not all that terrific but I picked as judiciously as I could. It’s difficult since a lot of the offerings were prepackaged. I understand the economics of that, but buying a package and then having to pick through things carefully to make sure it’s all good is irritating to say the least.

The meat I bought was an even worse experience. I bought two pork tenderloins and a pork loin. All three were packaged by the meat packer, Hormel, one of the biggest in the US. All three pieces were covered in some kind of very thick slime which I think was applied to keep the meat smelling fresher after some days. At least that’s what I hope was the reason. Either way it was difficult to wash off and felt disgustingly greasy. At the bottom of a styrofoam try holding chicken parts, there was an absorbent pad. Now, what I bought (boneless, skinless chicken thighs) do not leak a lot, but the pad was saturated and weighed 3 ounces. Great, I paid for 3 ounces of wetness. The worst part was the chicken and pork had very little taste. Sure, I paid a cheap price, but that shouldn’t be the biggest concern when you’re nourishing yourself and your family.

Two days after returning, I had a completely different experience. We spent New Year’s with some dear friends, but before getting there we visited a very special farm: Our Plate to Your Gate (click on the name to visit their website). The enthusiastic farmer, Andy Sproston, raises heritage breeds in the most natural way possible. No feed lot herds, no concrete-floored pig barns or crowded sheep pens. His beef from Galloway cattle are completely grass-fed the way beef is supposed to be raised. His hogs (Tamworth, Large Black, and Hampshire), during the good weather, live in the woodlot at the back of his property. Chickens, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, pheasants, and turkeys roam the farmyard. The Romney sheep spend their days out in a pasture.

We’ve visited — and purchased — here before and each thing we’ve brought home has been fantastic. Generally, what he has on offer is frozen, and I will say that someone coming directly from a place like Shop Rite might make gasp at the prices, but the quality and flavor of Andy’s meats will quickly make you realize that he actually isn’t charging all that much for the quality that you’re getting. You’d easily pay as much at a good butcher shop.

On our previous visit, I’d bought 4 hog jowls for guanciale and they’re just ready now. They smell fantastic and I can’t wait to make some carbonara or amatriciana using it. We’ve also previously purchased stewing beef and the resulting stews were the best I’ve ever made, richly flavorful and very tender. We’ve also had his Octoberfest sausages (the best I’ve tasted) and his eggs are superior to any I’ve found around Toronto with the exception of some a farmer friend will occasionally sell to us.

Everything from Our Gate to Your Plate is pastured or (honestly) free-range, the lamb and beef is grass-fed only, and the hogs are allowed to forage in the woods as much as possible. All animals are growth hormone- and drug-free. The goal is to raise everything as close to the animals’ natural habits as possible. Their meat is seriously good.

If you live in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), it’s a lovely drive to Grimsby where the farm is located on the Niagara Escarpment above the town. Take a cooler, make your purchase then enjoy a day visiting wineries and sightseeing.

If you’re interested, Andy has a few frozen birds left!
I did notice one thing on this visit: even though there are animals all over the place, it doesn’t really have that “barnyard smell” (something I actually don’t mind at all, though some do). Andy is good with his animals, very concerned for their welfare and attentive to their needs. Our Gate to Your Plate obviously gets my enthusiastic approval.

The fact that our most recent visit to Andy’s farm came hard on the heels of my distressing experience with a big American supermarket (although the Canadian ones aren’t any better) drives the point home soundly that you can find meat (and vegetables and fruit) that really are worth buying, cooking and eating. Yes, you will have to pay a bit more, but it is completely worth it. If the money is so great a concern, simply buy less.

Farms like Andy’s need our support. If you have a local farmers market, patronize it. Get to know the folks who are growing your food. The returns are far greater than the effort put in to acomplish this. Plus, the money you’re paying is going directly into the farmers’ hands, not into the pockets of middlemen and people to whom selling food is just a job. If there aren’t farmers markets where you live, search out the small greengrocers and butchers. Generally they know a fair bit about the food they are selling.

And if you’re lucky enough to have someone like Andy around, make the effort to get to know them. Your return will be one hundredfold.

[Sidebar: We bought from Andy a beautiful bone-in pork shoulder roast with skin-on for crackling. That’s going to be slow-cooked for tomorrow night’s dinner with our family. I will be taking photos and it’s going to be a feast with mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade apple sauce with horseradish (a favorite with roast pork) and the best green vegetable we can find. We haven’t decided on dessert yet. Maybe some cheese and fruit.]

Friday, December 26, 2014

Tis the season — for curing meat! (The 2014 Lonzino Report)

I’ve got a break from Christmas dinner prep and wanted to get this out to everyone.

With the cold months now firmly entrenched, we’ve been busy with some home curing of meat. So far it’s only involved pork, but we’re also looking forward to making a bit of bresaola (cured dried beef) and possibly some duck prosciutto. Those latter two will have to wait until the new year.

Beginning the drying stage
Our lonzino has been a huge hit with everyone who’s tasted it. I thought we’d run out by August before discovering two vacuum-sealed packages that had somehow migrated to the wrong shelf in our freezer, so rather than having to disappoint some friends who’d asked if we were serving it before a meal in September, I could at least bring out a small sample.

(Sidebar: We’ve had our sealer for a year now (it was my big Christmas gift in 2013) and it has certainly earned its keep. If those two packages of lonzino hadn’t been vacuum packed, they would have been inedible due to ice crystals and freezer burn. I’ll be doing an update on the sealer soon, but I will say now that if you’re seriously into home curing, you’ve got to have one of these. It makes a huge difference – unless you’re going to consume everything fresh.)

If you’re not familiar with exactly what lonzino is, I’ve already written about it: Making your own lonzino. I tend to think of it as “poor man’s proscuitto” but that’s not quite fair. It is a wonderful (and easy!) thing to make, and if you don’t want to have a pig’s hind leg hanging in your basement for a few months, a very good alternative to making your own proscuitto at home.

Dried and ready for slicing
As for our recipe (it’s included in the post linked above), we’ve gotten it to the point where we’re not fooling around with it anymore. We may try something completely different. I was recently talking to another avid home-curer and his recipe doesn’t include any fennel seed but does feature a lot of lemon zest and sounds quite intriguing. We may try it in a second batch scheduled for sometime in early February.

Now that our lonzino is finished, all that remains is to slice it thinly and then vacuum seal it in manageable portions. For the moment it’s “resting” in the fridge. You’ll notice in the photo to the left that one piece picked up a bit of white mold while drying – a good thing since this actually adds to the flavor of dried meat. You do not want green or black mold on drying meat. If you find it, wipe it off immediately with a cloth soaked in vinegar. If it persists, throw your meat or sausage away. Sadly, it’s beyond salvaging.

We’ve learned a couple of things about making superb lonzino along the way in the past year which I’d like to share with you all:
  • Toasting is definitely the way to go to bring out the full flavor of not only the fennel seeds but also the juniper berries. We’ve gotten a small grinder which we use only for herbs (it’s original function was to grind coffee beans) and it does a much more uniform – and quicker – job than a traditional mortar and pestle.
  • If you’ve got a vacuum sealer, you can make perfect use of it in curing meat. I use it to make sealed (but not vacuum sealed!) bags to hold the meat while the salt and spices do their thing. Simply plunk the meat in a vacuum bag along with the cure, suck out a big of the air and then seal it. You won’t have to worry about unintentional leaks while the meat is curing in your fridge and overhauling (rubbing the cure in additionally every other day while the meat is curing) is simplicity itself. I’ve just bought a couple of rolls of vacuum sealer bags so that I will now be able to custom-cut bags of a perfect size to hold the meat.
  • I’ve tried using cheesecloth to wrap lonzino to slow down the drying of the outside layer and not had great results. To my mind, beef bungs (as a natural product) or synthetic salami casings (punctured to admit a bit more air) gives the best results for even drying. You don’t want the outside of the lonzino to get too dry and hard before the inside dries out enough. Even drying throughout is the goal and I feel beef bungs (click HERE for an explanation: the info is partway down the page) give the best result.
  • I’m probably a bit too anal about the way I tie the supporting string (using four strings instead of two), but it looks really pro, doesn’t it? Once you’ve strung up a half dozen or so, you can do a good job pretty quickly. Your finished product (especially if you’re generous to give away a whole one) will look very impressive. One project for the new year is to shoot a video explaining how to do it. Stay tuned for that.
  • If you’re going to go to the trouble of making something like lonzino, you really need a deli slicer. Trying to slice thinly enough is just too difficult manually even with a razor sharp knife. If you don’t own a slicer, maybe your butcher or a deli where you’re a good customer would slice if for you.
  • While lonzino is cured, it will still eventually spoil if it sits around long enough. That means you’re probably going to need to freeze at least some of it. If you can’t vacuum seal it first, don’t bother sealing. Your packages will form ice crystals in a short time, and when you get around to thawing the frozen lonzino for serving, you’ll be very disappointed in the results. Again, try asking your butcher to do a bit of vacuum sealing for you if you don’t have your own unit.
I know there’s a lot of information above, but I do not want you to think that making your own fantastic lonzino is difficult and requires all kinds of specialized gear and expensive gadgets. It doesn’t. Even beef bungs are easy to source and can be ordered online or going to visit a butcher supply outfit. You may have to buy a half-dozen at a time, but the ones I just used have been sitting at the back of the fridge for over a year. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer to custom make a bag for holding the meat while it cures, simply make use of a large freezer bag or even a ceramic baking dish covered with plastic wrap. Hanging the meat only requires a cool place (60°F or lower) and reasonable humidity (around 75%) for effective drying. Our basement is that cool if I close all the furnace ducts. If you have a cantina in your house, you’ve got a perfect spot. Don’t have either? Ask friends. I’m going to be playing host to some salamis in the new year since a butcher friend lives in an apartment and wants to make some. (I may charge a “fee” of a bit of his finished product in return…)

Next up on the curing front: this year’s first batch of guanciale, and boy, have we sourced some fantastic hog jowls this time out!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It’s easy to make your own sauerkraut!

Emptying the crock of the finished kapusta before
it’s frozen for later use.
For the past three years, we have been part of a group led by the indomitable Henry Gluch and put together for the sole purpose of making sauerkraut (or kapusta – since he’s Polish). Henry and his wife Madeleine are part of our group that gets together at the end of every summer to make tomato sauce. This year they also joined Vicki and me to preserve a number of liters of chopped tomatoes. Henry’s also a hell of a sax and clarinet player.

My wife and I are both half German, so sauerkraut was part of our lives from an early age. I must admit that I didn’t really enjoy it that much. I know now that it was because my mother bought the kraut at the supermarket. It was salty, sort of mushy and didn’t have a particularly pleasant taste or aroma – at least as far as this young eater was concerned. Whenever it was served, I tried surreptitiously feeding it to our dog (who was always interested in “people food”), but he wasn’t having any, either. My wife, on the other hand, enjoyed it very much. (That didn’t come out quite the way I mentioned it. I have never tried to feed my wife anything under the table, surreptitiously or otherwise!)

The first time I tasted sauerkraut that piqued my interest was at the Naschmarkt in Vienna which we visited while researching my novel, Cemetery of the Nameless. The samples we were given by someone who made it fresh right in the market was world’s away from what I was used to. Flavorful, crunchy and piquant all at the same time, it really opened my eyes.

When Henry mentioned making sauerkraut, we were immediately onboard. It is a very simple thing to make: shredded cabbage and pickling or kosher salt are all you actually need. Put a few inches of cabbage into a crock, sprinkle on a couple tablespoons of salt, any herbs you want to use (we like juniper berries, bay leaf and black peppercorns), and pound it hard with something until some water is released. We used a rubber mallet until Madeleine came up with a carved wooden pounder of ancient vintage. Pile in another layer of cabbage, more salt and herbs and do it again. Eventually you want to fill the crock to about two inches from the rim. Then you put a plate on it to weigh it down, cover it with a cloth and put it into a cold place to form more brine – hence the plate – and the sauerkraut will pickle itself in just a few weeks (depending on how cold your space is). The only drawback is that it’s a bit stinky while it’s fermenting. Henry has a cantina below his porch that’s perfect — and it has a door so the smell is contained. He skims off the gray scum that forms on the top of the sauerkraut as it’s pickling. That’s basically all there is to it.

Our recipe for cooking it (if you want) is based on a recipe Henry’s mother uses – more or less. It’s easy, fairly quick and very tasty. On a cold night, you can’t beat it. It also is a great dish for a slow cooker. Throw it together and leave it to cook for 4-6 hours and it will be ready when you get home from work in the evening. I’d suggest keeping the sausage to kielbasa in this case. And I would cook the bacon first, too.

Baked Sauerkraut with Sausage
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS
3 rashers of bacon, sliced across into quarter-inch strips
2 Tbs bacon fat, butter or oil (bacon fat is the best here!)
1 1/2 cup onion, sliced finely
1 cup grated carrot
2 cups thinly sliced fresh cabbage
4 cups raw sauerkraut
12 juniper berries, crushed with the side of a knife or using a mortar and pestle
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 1/2 tsp caraway seeds
1 bay leaf
1-2 Tbs dark brown sugar
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup semi-dry wine (Reisling or Gruner Veltliner are lovely)
2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
1 cup chicken stock (more may be needed)
4 fresh pork sausages or some big chunks of kielbasa

METHOD

  1. Preheat oven to 325°. Fry the bacon slowly in an oven-proof casserole so the fat renders out. When done, remove the cooked bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve. Use the rendered bacon fat to sauté the vegetables.
  2. Gently sauté the onion and carrot in the fat until softened but not browned. Add the fresh cabbage and cook a few minutes longer until the cabbage has wilted.
  3. If your sauerkraut is too salty, put it in a colander, run it under some water, and squeeze it dry. Then add it to the casserole.
  4. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the sausage (don’t forget to put the bacon back in!), and mix it all together gently while continuing to heat to a boil.
  5. Cover the casserole and place it in the oven. Bake for 30-45 minutes (depending on how crunchy you like the sauerkraut. If you enjoy your sauerkraut soft, bake longer, up to two hours if you want it very tender. Regardless, watch the liquid level. Add water or a little more stock if necessary. You don’t want it swimming in liquid, but it must be moist.
  6. If you’re using fresh sausage, bake it in the oven alongside the sauerkraut for about 20 minutes so some of the fat renders out. (You don’t need to cook kielbasa first.) Add the sausage to the sauerkraut, nestling it in as much as possible.
  7. Continue baking for another twenty minutes. Serve with mashed potatoes, latkes, or perogies (with sour cream!). Finish off that bottle of wine with it, too!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Not too many things say Thanksgiving like cranberry sauce

For me, one of the quickest, easiest, and tastiest things on the Thanksgiving table has to be homemade cranberry sauce. We’ve already had Thanksgiving up here in Canada, but the big day has yet to arrive south of the 49th parallel. If you’ve ever bought a can of what they euphemistically label “Cranberry Sauce” at the supermarket, opened it and then put that on your table, shame on you! Turkey with stuffing and gravy is a difficult part of the meal, dessert usually means something like pie, and those aren’t easy to make well, but cranberry sauce? Well, it doesn’t get much easier to cook from scratch than cranberry sauce.

I’ll bet most people who buy fresh cranberries at Thanksgiving simply read the recipe on the back of the bag and go with that. I did for about 10 years (I can only plead laziness, I guess). It turned out okay, but each year the amount of sugar bothered me more and more. When sugar is the first thing you taste, that’s not a good thing. Cranberries are pretty tart and need sugar, but the flavor is also pretty darn tasty, too. I want that hit of cranberry on my tongue first. Besides, a little tartness is a good thing. With that in mind, I began by adjusting the sugar down to a level where the berry flavor could shine through. Then running across a recipe that included zested orange and lemon peel as additions, I added those. Before I bought a zester, which makes beautiful long pieces of zest very quickly, I used to do it by hand, cutting off piece of peel and then trimming off the bitter white pith on the underside of the peel, not difficult, but somewhat time-consuming. Using a zester makes it a snap. Best of all, they’re dirt cheap. You can find them at any good kitchen supply store.

Finally, I had a brainstorm: I'd seen cranberry sauce recipes included orange juice, so why not drop the lemon peel, stick to orange (I now zest the entire peel), then juice it after and use that for the liquid? With a good-sized navel orange you get almost a cup of juice and that’s all you need for a bag (two cups) of berries.

Spices go excellently with cranberries, so I use just enough allspice, cloves, and nutmeg to compliment but not mask the fruit and that completes the recipe.

Make it a day in advance so the sauce’s ingredients can meld and improve. If you’ve put it in the fridge (recommended) to do this, bring it up to room temperature before serving so the aroma and flavors are at their peak. If you make it on the day, then just leave it on the counter.

After that, all you have to do is put it in a pretty serving dish, stick a spoon in, and you’ve got a lovely accompaniment to your turkey dinner!

Cranberry/Orange Sauce
Serves 10-12

Ingredients
1 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice (1 large navel orange)
orange zest from the orange (zest it before squeezing the juice out)
1 pkg fresh cranberries (3 cups)
½ cup light brown sugar
1 tsp allspice
½ tsp ground cloves
a bit of freshly-grated nutmeg

Method

  1. Zest the orange then juice it. You should be able to get enough juice if the orange is big. If not, just make up the difference with water.
  2. Put the 1 cup of orange juice into a saucepan along with the sugar. Over medium heat, begin stirring to dissolve it.
  3. While that’s going on, rinse the cranberries in a colander. Throw away any that have brown spots. Now add the cranberries, orange zest and the three spices to the juice/water/sugar solution.
  4. Stirring occasionally, continue cooking over medium high heat until most of the cranberries have split open and the sauce is getting thick.
  5. If you’re not serving the sauce that day, refrigerate it, but bring it up to room temperature before serving for full flavor.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

What we’ve been up to the past month and a bit

Once fall rolls around, we seem to completely change our daily menu. Soups are more prevalent, as are soups and stews. We still had a bit of canning/preserving to get finished up. This year we left it too long and didn’t have access to our lovely local peaches (from Niagara), so we had to use others to make my wife’s terrific mango and peach chutney. That’s now completed and ready to enjoy. This year’s batch we made slightly hotter than in previous years. It’s lovely. We also experimented with pickled beets, which, while good, are probably going to need to be tweaked in the recipe department.

Once the basement cools off (below 60°F), we can begin our yearly meat curing. Up to now that’s included guanciale (hog jowl), pancetta (pork belly) and lonzino (boneless pork loin). We’re getting close which is a good thing. We have only one chunk (a half jowl’s worth) of guanciale left, 3 small packages of lonzino, and we’re pretty good for pancetta at the moment. This year, we’re also going to make some bresaola (cured dried beef) and maybe some duck proscuitto. (Update: the basement is now below 50° and things are looking positive so the first things we’re going to make is lonzino because we ate all that we made last year!)

Soups are also on the menu (we love soup around here) and the nice thing about soup is you can easily make enough in one go to enjoy it for several meals. It’s also an easy thing to take to work. Look for the soup maven around here (Vicki) to share some more of her terrific recipes: Pasta e Fagioli, Pumpkin, Manhattan Clam Chowder, French Canadian Pea Soup, and more. If you enjoy homemade soup, over the next few months, you’ll get your fill!

We also have a number of great stew recipes, and what’s better on a very cold night than a warming stew. We’ve shared a few of them, but there are many more to come. Look forward to Chicken Cacciatore, Ysgyryd Fawr Sausage Stew, Greek Stew, Chicken Stew, Brasso Steak, Pork Paprikash, Beef Short Ribs and even Cassoulet.

Finally, A Man for All Seasonings is not just about sharing food recipes. It’s also about the current state of farming, the food industry, and our food supply. I have a number of posts underway about all of these topics and they will be shared as soon as I’ve completed my research.

So while I’ve been very busy with my newly-released novel over the past month, I haven’t forgotten my food blog. Stay tuned for more!