Sunday, January 22, 2017

What we’ve learned about home-curing guanciale

This year’s batch and it tastes amazing.
Back in 2012 when I initiated this blog, the second recipe I shared was one for curing your own guanciale or cured and air dried hog jowl. If that doesn’t sound at all appetizing, please read on!

Most people outside of Italy had never heard of this delicacy and it was tough to find, even in Toronto with it’s very large Italian population. I did manage to snag some which was made in the Niagara region, and it was very good.

However, I was already well down the path to making our own. I found a recipe online and cured two jowls. It was easy, quick (other than the hanging time while it dried) and tasted really good. Over time and talking with People Who Know About These Things, the recipe was refined a little, and like doing anything over and over, it got even quicker and easier. In fact, we even came up with some very useful shortcuts in the method.

Last year, we did up four medium-sized jowls in November. What with lads who like it as much as we do, sharing a bit here and there with friends, and of course, cooking our own meals, we nearly ran out. For the first time in six years, I was faced with the prospect of having to buy some!

Since 2012 when I wrote the post mentioned above, hog jowls have gone mainstream. Two blocks from my house at Zito’s Marketplace (a fantastic Italian grocery store), they carry imported Italian guanciale. Many deli counters in big stores carry locally made stuff. You see recipes in women’s magazines that call for guanciale without the blink of an eye. How times have changed!

As summer turns to fall and the temperature plummets, I’m already keeping an eagle eye on the temperature in our basement, waiting for it to drop to around 60°F so that I can get busy making a new batch of guanciale and other salumeri we produce.

So in the last week of October, I went to purchase four gorgeously lean, 2+-pound jowls from my go-to source (Gasparro’s on Bloor St.). Nick, one of the owners, having brought in a half dozen from the farm, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I walked out the door with all six of ’em.

Back home, we set up an assembly line and in short order, chugged through removing the skin, prepping the spices, sugar and salt of our cure mixture, coating each jowl and then bagging them (more on this later). Five days later, they were lightly cured (as I am fond of calling it), rinsed in a bit of white wine (Orvieto this year), generously peppered, and hanging in our basement.

I deemed them ready on December 20th, so we vacuum sealed them and put them in our freezer.

One curing job done! And hopefully enough to last us until next year. Next up: pancetta. Oh my goodness, we’re nearly out!!*

Here’s the recipe again with notes following on things we began making our own guanciale.


GUANCIALE RECIPE
Makes slightly less than 1 1/2 pounds after drying a 2-pound jowl for 4 weeks

1 pork jowl, around 2 pounds
2 1/2 oz kosher salt (or 7% of meat weight)
2 1/2 oz sugar (or 7% of meat weight)
15 black peppercorns
1 bunch of fresh thyme
2 bay laurel leaves (look for genuine bay laurel)
8-16 juniper berries (depending on how well you like this flavor)
2-4 oz dry white wine

1. Grind up the juniper, peppercorns and bay in a spice grinder until reasonably fine, or grind it the old fashioned way using a mortar and pestle accompanied by some good old elbow grease. Combine he herbs with the salt and sugar. Remove the leaves from the thyme, discarding the stalks. You should have about 1 tablespoon’s worth. (And do not use dried thyme. It just doesn’t taste as good as fresh.) Add these to the curing mixture, and stir everything to combine thoroughly.

2. Using a sharp boning knife or paring knife, remove any glands from the underside of the meat. These will look like small off-white bumps that are reasonably hard. Some might be hiding under the surface of the fat and meat, so poke around thoroughly. Believe me, you don’t want them in your finished project.

3. In a large zip lock bag, combine the cure ingredients and the jowl.Thoroughlyrub the cure into the meat on all sides. Seal the bag and pop it in the fridge for four to seven days. Every other day, redistribute the cure over the meat by rubbing the meat almost in a kneading motion, and when it goes back into the fridge, make sure it’s lying on the opposite side from what it was when you took it out. It will be throwing off some liquid, so make sure those bags remain tightly sealed.

4. After 4-5 days the meat should feel firmer. It could well be done. Just remember: the longer you keep it in the cure, the more salty your guanciale will become. You certainly want the meat to be thoroughly cured, but you don’t want it to be overly salty, either. The thicker the jowl, the longer it will take to cure. Your first time out, it’s better to err on the side of too salty, rather than under-cured. (Eventually, you’ll be able to tell more clearly when your meat is completely cured.) So if you feel it’s ready, take the jowl out of the fridge, and rinse it thoroughly in cold water to remove the cure. Some of the herbs might stick to the meat and fat, that is fine – just give a good rub over to get the cure off. Dry with paper towel.

5. Next, wash your jowls in a few ounces of white wine. The reason you do this, is that it helps neutralize the salt used in curing (at least that’s what I’ve been told by Those Who Know). Do the job really thoroughly, rubbing the wine into the meat and fat. By the way, doing this also adds a lovely aroma and flavor to the finished product!

6. The final step is to heavily coat one or both sides of your guanciale with pepper (see note at bottom). Most used is black pepper, but we’ve also seen (and enjoyed) guanciale that had cayenne pepper applied. If you don’t like pepper, leave this step out.

7. Make a hole in the narrow end, not too close to the edge of the meat (since it will shrink). Run some butchers string through the hole, tie, and hang at 55°F/75% humidity for at least a month, possibly two if you want a more intense flavor. Your basement in winter should be just cold enough, but you might have to put out some water and a fan to keep the humidity up. We bought a combination thermometer/humidistat for keeping track of it. Don’t let the temperature go above 60° for any lengthy period of time or mold can more easily form.

8. You will know when your guanciale is ready when it’s lost about 25-35% of its initial weight before hanging. The fat will feel softer than the meat. That is fine.

9. Once drying is complete, it will keep in the fridge easily for many weeks, or vacuum-sealed and frozen, for far longer.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––
Notes: We strongly recommend removing the skin before curing begins. You could do it after, but why not let the salt penetrate into the meat and fat more easily and speed things up? You will see commercial guanciale with the skin left on. The problem with this is you’ll probably not want to eat cooked pieces with skin on them. It gets very hard as the guanciale dries and isn’t pleasant. Removing the skin after drying is also more difficult. Do yourself a favor and do it ahead of time. If you aren’t equipped to do it yourself, ask your butcher to do it for you.

What wine to use for the final wash? You don’t need to buy an expensive bottle, but you don’t want plonk, either. A decent Italian pinot grigio won’t set you back much, or a Colli Albani. We prefer Orvieto for its flavor and aroma. Experiment all you want and if you find something you think really works well, please let all of us know!

We now use our vacuum sealer as part of the curing process. Each piece of guanciale is put into a bag and most of the air is removed, then the bag is sealed. The benefit is two-fold: the bags can’t leak (as long as your seal is sturdy), and the liquid (actually brine) that forms during the curing process is kept close to the meat which speeds up curing and helps keep it even throughout the jowl. Actually, we do this with all the meat we cure, except those things which require soaking in brine (peameal bacon, ham, etc). That’s just easier to do in a plastic bucket.

Keep an eye on your guanciale while it hangs. I generally check it out every day (takes only seconds). What you want to watch for is any green or black mold forming on it. White mold is okay. It actually adds to the flavor. If you find any green or black mold, if you catch it really early (hence my recommendation to check your guanciale frequently), it can safely be removed by rubbing it with a rag that’s been soaked in white vinegar. If the growth of the mold is well-advanced, then it’s safest to just chuck the meat and take it as a hard-won lesson. We know pepper our guanciale on both sides (What can I say? We like pepper!) and I’m thinking it probably would help keep the bad mold from gaining a foothold. I have no scientific proof this is what happens, but we’ve had no mold on any over the last 8 years since we began making it. That’s at least three dozen cured hog jowls.

Weigh your guanciale once a week and take it down when it’s lost about a third of its weight. If the humidity in your basement or drying locker is low, the outer surface will dry out too quickly. The goal is to dry your cured jowl s-l-o-w-l-y, so the process is even, inside and out.

We keep our guanciale in the freezer (vacuum-sealed) until we need it. Then I just slice off how much I need (easy to do even when it’s frozen because the fat is soft) and seal it in a freezer bag and chuck it back in until next time.

To our minds, guanciale is essential for three favorite pasta dishes: carbonara, Amatriciana, and alla grigia. We also crisp some up and use it with shredded Brussels sprouts and pine nuts (a recipe I’ll share in the future). It is very fatty, but the rendered fat has a lovely flavor and especially in the three pasta dishes above takes them out of the realm of ordinary eating. If you’ve had any of them made with pancetta or (horrors!) bacon, you’re in for a surprise. That’s exactly what started us off on this culinary side trail.

*I began working on this post a few weeks ago. We’ve since cured the pancetta and it’s now hanging in the basement drying. However based on the amount of pancetta we went through in the past year, we’re going to need to make more before this drying season is over. Incidentally, we’re now completely out of pancetta and are faced with buying some. Horrors!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Think you know what Bolognese sauce is? I thought I did.

If you’re in North America, you no doubt ate plenty of “spaghetti with meat sauce” over the course of your life. I certainly did, and up until a few years ago, I made it a lot since it was a great meal with a growing family and not much time to cook.

Vicki and I went to the UK first in 1990, and there we discovered the Brits call it “Spaghetti Bolognese”. Same dish, different name. Eventually with the rise of “foodie-ism”, the British name crossed the Atlantic and began appearing on menus here, even in Italian restaurants. But the dish was not close to being an accurate representation.

Don’t get me wrong. Spaghetti with meat sauce is decent food, but as I discovered when I started doing in-depth research into this famous dish, what the inhabitants of that northern Italian city consider their most famous dish and what the rest of us thought it is are two completely different things. The Bolognese chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina even went so far as to designate an Official recipe for Ragù alla Bolognese in 1982 and filed it at City Hall.

Going back to this source (http://www.itchefs-gvci.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=587&Itemid=976) and following the recipe, I can see why they felt forced to do it. Most of the world knows nothing about how this sauce is made — and that’s a shame. Spaghetti Bolognese is a worthy meal. Real Ragù alla Bolognese is an exceptional meal.

First thing you notice: not much tomato. What’s there is mostly for color. Second of all, there’s not even a hint of garlic or herbs. Then there are some other eye-popping ingredient choices: carrots, celery, and milk! I (and many others) was used to this dish being marinara with some fried ground beef thrown in it. Real Bolognese is a different creature altogether.

The second important thing to point out is that, outside of Italy, it’s never served over spaghetti. (What?) The pasta used is almost always tagliatelle or its slightly wider cousin, fettucine. And there’s a very good reason for not using spaghetti. The sauce tends to fall off the thin strands. It sticks to the wider pasta much better. That makes a big difference in how you experience the dish.

I trust the Italians with knowing about good cooking and my first attempt at authentic Bolognese was an eye-opening experience. It is an intensely meaty sauce with assertive flavours and wonderful aroma, especially while it’s cooking. Long, slow cooking is crucial if you want your sauce to develop its full flavour and silky texture.

So, if you’ve read the official recipe via the link above, you know what the basic ingredients are and how simple it actually is to prepare this famous dish. But one thing I’ve discovered is that everyone in Bologna (if not in all of Italy) thinks their nonna made the best Bolognese — and all of those recipes are slightly different. Now that I’ve made it several times, I find I’ve added a few flourishes of my own (slight though they are). I like it better, but that’s just me. One version I ran across recently suggests adding a handful of dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted, chopped finely and added to the sauce (along with the reconstituting water) after the beef and vegetables are cooked. That’s something that I think I’ll try next.

So here’s what we’ll do. Try the official recipe and I’ll put my slightly-changed one below (because that’s what this blog is about: my views on cooking and food). If you want to try mine, please do. And then let me know what you think. I’ll also include some notes about why you cook it the way you do and the purpose of some of the ingredients.

Rick’s “Mostly Authentic” Ragù alla Bolognese
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS
  • 300 gr (10.5 oz) of ground beef (you want a flavourful cut like skirt of chuck, but it should be lean
  • 150 gr (5 oz) unsmoked pancetta (chop it finely rather than grinding it)
  • 50 gr (2 oz) finely chopped onion
  • 50 gr (2 oz) finely chopped carrot
  • 50 gr (2 oz) finely chopped celery
  • 118 ml (.5 cup) red wine — a hearty one
  • 30 gr (1 oz or 4 Tbs) tomato paste
  • 120 ml (.5 cup) tomato sauce
  • 240 (1 cup) unsalted beef stock
  • 120 ml (.5 cup) whole milk
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 400 gr (scant pound) of fresh tagliatelle or fettucine
Notes:
If you search the internet for the “official” Bolognese recipe, you will find it in many places with slight variations, and in a few surprising cases, obvious errors. But the basic ideas of the recipe are obvious: not much tomato and a sauce that has little liquid — but tons of flavour!

The three vegetables make up what is called a soffritto in Italy. (The French call this mirepoix and it’s part of the “foundation” of many great sauces.) So it’s not surprising it should be found in this recipe. Many people (I’m talking to you, Hannah!) will be surprised by having carrots and celery in their pasta sauce, but there you go. It works. The key here is to make the dice quite small (about 1/8") so that the veggies amalgamate with the meat as it cooks.

Really good pancetta is critical. We use our own (and if you’re into home curing or feel it’s time to dabble, it’s easy to make). You don’t want the piece you use to be too fatty. Both meats should ideally be hand-minced (rather than ground). I’ll admit, since I have a grinder, that I’ll often grind both meats, but I feel if you’re up for mincing something, at least do the pancetta that way. The texture of the sauce will be the better for it. And don’t use smoked pancetta! It just doesn’t work as well.

The official recipe says that red wine or white wine may be used, but whichever you use should be dry. We prefer red. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but you don’t want a wimpy one. Bold flavour is the key here. An inexpensive Chianti or Nero d’Avola works really well.

We add some tomato sauce (our own homemade) so the finished ragù a bit more “texture”.

Milk is used to also add texture and “smooth out” the flavours, especially the tomato.

Another point where I can’t find a definitive answer is the use of stock or water. Your sauce will definitely need liquid, and to my mind, why not add additional flavour, as well? So I use stock.

One last word, I’m getting more and more dogmatic about weighing and measuring ingredients accurately — certainly on the first few runs at a new recipe. It helps. I’ve written about using a scale in your kitchen and it’s worth considering if you enjoy cooking — and getting predictable results. If you don’t have a scale, though, don’t despair! For the veggies, a smallish yellow onion, a modest carrot and a good-sized celery stalk will do the trick. The rest of the things can be weighed at the grocery store or using a measuring cup.

Now, let’s get cooking!

METHOD
  1. Over medium heat pour some good-quality olive oil in a heavy pot or small casserole. You want the bottom just covered. When it’s fragrant, add the pancetta and sauté for 3 minutes. Now add the beef and sauté for 3 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Now add the vegetables (and I include a small sprinkle of salt to help sweat the veggies). Doesn’t it smell good? Make sure you thoroughly break up the meat and don’t let this mixture burn!
  2. When the mixture begins to sizzle (indicating all the water from the ingredients has evaporated), add the wine and turn the heat up. Stir the mixture to evaporate it quickly.
  3. When the mixture begins to sizzle again, turn the heat down and add the tomato paste (and tomato sauce if you’re using it), plus the beef stock. Mix well. You want the meat/veg mixture to be covered by about 1 cm of liquid. Use more stock or water if you need it.
  4. Simmer for 2 hours. During that time, stir in a bit of the milk occasionally until it’s all added.
  5. The sauce is done when most of the liquid is gone. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  6. Cook the tagliatelle or fettucine, drain and divide the sauce among four portions. (Best served in heated bowls.)
  7. Serve with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano only. (Don’t skimp here, please!)
A green salad preceding the pasta is a good choice. Italians always serve salads as a separate course, and there’s a good reason for that. The dressing conflicts with the star of the show (and the wine) if it’s all served together.

A good bottle of red wine should accompany your ragù. Now’s the time to pull out that bottle of Chianti Classico or Brunello you’ve been saving.

See? No garlic. No herbs. Not much tomato. Real Ragù alla Bolognese. And it tastes amazing.

Who knew?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A favourite Italian recipe: seafood linguine

Dinner “al fresco” on our anniversary!
Special occasions call for special meals. Our anniversary is one of those very special occasions. Actually, the anniversary Vicki and I celebrate is the date on which we fell in love: June 20, 1970.

We were at Playland in Rye, New York, sitting on the boardwalk and looking out over the Long Island Sound. The June evening was perfect. She turned to me and said, “I love you.” I’d already been in love with her for a week or more but had been hesitant to proclaim it. You know how I answered back since we’re still together 46 years later.

Now this post is months later than it should be but back in June we had other concerns and even though we did celebrate this important day, I didn’t have time to write about it. Today is that day!

We don’t go out to restaurants for important meals because we can generally dine better at home for a lot less money. We’d rather spend out money on great ingredients and fine wines, than having someone else cook for us. Since we have a lovely backyard and June 20th was a very fine day here in Toronto this year, I simply asked Vicki what she would like me to make. “Seafood linguine!” was her immediate two-word response.

I’ve made this recipe many times over the years, and can vouch for the fact that it’s easy to make — if you follow the directions. And absolutely delicious — if you like seafood.

And you don’t need to wait for a “big evening” to make this!

Seafood Linguine
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS
2 Tbs    olive oil
3           shallots, chopped
3           garlic cloves, chopped finely
1 tsp     lemon rind, grated
½ tsp    red chili pepper flakes
2 Tbs    fresh parsley, chopped finely
12         large shrimp
6           dry scallops, cut into quarters or thirds (if they’re really large)
             salt and pepper to taste
½ cup   dry white wine
2 lbs     mussels
1          28-oz can crushed tomatoes
¼ cup   fresh basil, shredded
1 lb      linguine

METHOD
  1. In a large skillet, heat olive oil on medium high heat. Add shallots and garlic and sauté for 1 minute or until softened slightly, then add lemon rind, parsley, shrimps and scallops.
  2. Sauté together until shrimps just turn pink and scallops are translucent – about 1-2 minutes. Remove from skillet with slotted spoon. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
  3. Add wine to skillet, bring to a boil and add the mussels. Cover and steam until they open (about 3 minutes). Remove mussels from skillet and reserve with shrimps and scallops. Discard any mussels that have not opened. Remove mussel meats from half the mussels, leaving the rest in their shells.
  4. Put tomatoes and chili flakes into skillet and bring to a boil. Stir in 2 Tbs of basil and simmer for 10 minutes to combine flavors. Season with salt and pepper. (Your sauce can be made ahead to this point.)
  5. When ready to serve: cook pasta until al dente (about 10-12 minutes) in lots of boiling salted water. Drain well.
  6. As pasta is nearing doneness, return the seafood to the sauce, sprinkle in remaining basil and reheat. Toss with pasta and serve.
Don’t serve this dish with grated cheese! In Italy cheese is seldom served with Parmigiano or any other cheese.

The recipe source is a very old issue of Food & Drink, the magazine of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Organizing your kitchen, part 2: the nitty-gritty

Something as simple as this can make a big difference in your kitchen.
Last post was all about the big picture in your kitchen, primarily placement of stove, sink, refrigeration and a few other things. Get those right — or have a layout that you can make work for you (I’m thinking galley-type kitchens here, for instance) and you’re well on the way. I get it that not everyone can renovate their kitchen at the drop of a hat. Unless your kitchen is huge and incredibly ill-thought out, you shouldn’t have too many problems, regardless of where the big — and immovable things — have been placed.

[One last thought before I move on to this post’s details: make sure your kitchen has adequate lighting. The areas where you slice and chop need to be well-lit. This is not a difficult retrofit if your kitchen has poor or dim lighting. A good electrician can help make it happen without too much expense.]

I’ve found that what really makes the most difference in terms of cooking enjoyment through organization is where you put all those little things, the small tools, specialized utensils and often-used minor appliances.

Directly to the right of our stovetop is a smallish drawer. This is where we keep things that are used often: tongs (we have 3 we use constantly), extra spatulas, ladles (3), peelers (2), can and bottle openers, wine opener and a few other similar items.

Next to that is another wider drawer. This holds items that we don’t use quite as often or are small and fit at the front of the drawer a bit better. Here you’ll find our rolling pin, some small spatulas and scrappers, lifters (3), oyster knife, micro graters (2), a mini strainer (for skimming), a couple of small whisks, ice cream scoops, and such things that are very useful but generally used only now and then.

Also to the right of the stove is a large can-like thing into which we put cooking spoons, some more spatulas and scrapers, and our large whisk. We use these things every time we cook and they’re placed here because they can be grabbed really quickly.

The key to making this system work is that anyone cooking or cleaning knows exactly what goes where and puts it there every single time. Cooking can get very hectic at times and we’ve all ruined dishes because we’ve been on a utensil hunt at a totally wrong time. Here’s another (hard-won) hint: try to lay out all the utensils you’ll need during the prepping stage. It’s not all about prepping just the food, is it?

As for the rest of the “hard good” things we use to cook, they’re either in a big catch-all cabinet under the above-mentioned drawers, in an upper cabinet where we also keep our plates and bowls, or across the room on two shelves we put up (for less-used items except for colanders and strainers). Baking pans are either in a wide drawer underneath our built-in oven or in another small cabinet nearby.

The only mid-range appliances that we keep out on the counters are a microwave (next to the oven), a blender, toaster, Cuisinart, coffee grinder and coffee maker, and our Kitchen Aid mixer. Any other things like these are kept in that lower catch-all cabinet.

I’ll say it one last time: this will only work if anyone using the kitchen regularly understands that everything must be put away correctly. It may sound difficult but it really isn’t.

During our very busy days when our two boys were young and we both worked long hours, we didn’t think like this. Stuff got stuffed into drawers and cabinets willy-nilly and just to get it put away somewhere. It was often hell to find them again. This was also when a lot of food got burned or otherwise overcooked. Honestly, it just never dawned on us that we could save massive amounts of time and aggravation through simple organization and diligence. I could slap myself upside the head for being such a dolt to not recognize this. It’s not as if I hadn’t seen it at work in the kitchens when I was doing those cooking gigs.

To boil down this discussion to its essence (like reducing a fine stock to a single tablespoon of intense flavour), cooking is most enjoyable when you have time to enjoy the process and to pay full attention as heat works its magic on what you’re going to plate and then enjoy at the table. Even the most hair-raising meal of the year (take your pick between Thanksgiving or Christmas in our household) becomes manageable and can sometimes be almost enjoyable.

All it takes is some reflection on what you generally do in the kitchen, making a plan and then sticking to it.

My guess is that if you do this, you will also find yourself less tempted to give up and order take-out, pull out the store-bought frozen food or simply head out to a restaurant. Because cooking when everything is organized is relaxing and enjoyable, you may even find yourself looking forward to cooking that evening meal at the end of a long day!

And wouldn’t that be nice?

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 of cretons 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.]