Thursday, May 31, 2012

I’m still here!

Last weekend I was in eastern Ontario doing a bit of stargazing with friends. This weekend I’m the Master of Ceremonies at the Bloody Words Mystery Conference here in Toronto. In between I have my graphic design work, so really, I’m swamped.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking about food and this blog. There are a couple of exciting developments that I want to tell you about.

First, we will soon have a resident wine expert. I mean what goes better with food than good wine? I can’t tell you more about it at the moment because I want to build up the suspense (I am a crime writer after all), but I will say that this person is an exceptionally experienced wine journalist, and I’m really excited about what he’s going to bring to the table, so to speak.

Second, we will soon have a video component to AMFAS. Some footage has already shot at the St. Lawrence Farmers’ Market, and there are plans to bring you all into the fabled Blechta Test Kitchens here in Toronto. More on this very soon – since the videographer is currently on his honeymoon!

A third thing: Several weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about my disgust with a Tropicana product I’d bought. I’m sure I had nothing to do with it, but there are now several lawsuits being brought against Tropicana in the US about just what I was bringing to light. You can read about it HERE.

Lastly, I don’t want to leave you without even a tiny recipe. It’s one of our favorite things to enjoy in late spring, and early and late summer when radishes are at their best. We saw a reference to it originally in a Time Life cookbook on Provincial French cuisine many years ago. When we were in Paris in fall 2008 for some book research, we browsed a street market, spotted a beautiful, fresh bunch of French Breakfast radishes (those long ones with the white tips). Since there was also a boulangerie right around the corner and another vendor was selling homemade sweet butter, we grabbed what we needed and went back to the apartment we were renting. It turned out to be a simple, yet sublime culinary moment (we’d also bought a chilled bottle of Chablis for the princely sum of 3.5 euros). Trust me on this.

Open-face Radish Sandwiches
Serves as many as you want

1 bunch of French Breakfast radishes (only these will do – honestly)
Sweet butter (the cultured European version if you can get it)
The best and freshest baguette you can find

1. Slice the baguette. The slices should be at least 3/4 inch thick.
2. Generously butter the baguette slices. The butter should be cool but still reasonably spreadable.
3. Slice the radishes – which should be room temperature – lengthwise in half and put them on the buttered baguette slices.

Serve this with a dry white wine. You will be in heaven.

Food doesn’t get simpler or better than this. The combination of the crunchy, moderately spicy flavor of the radishes with the cool butter and a perfect baguette is unforgettable. I know it sounds weird to most folks, but it really does work – almost as well as doughnuts and bacon. (I’ll blog about this culinary marvel sometime in the future).

That’s why you’ll now always see French Breakfast radishes in our garden. Every spring, as soon as it gets barely warm enough, I’ll be out there planting these little beauties.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

An Autumn Dessert in Spring?

We have one grower at the St. Lawrence North Market from whom we buy all our apples and pears. Last year, Clement Orchards seems to have had a bumper crop of fantastic Cortland apples, most of which they kept in cold storage. We’ve been eating about a quart a week for the past few months because you can seldom get really good apples at this time of year. These have been perfect: still crisp, flavorful and tangy. Most evenings, we cut up a couple for our dessert.

Last evening, we had some good friends in town, Paul Musselman and Violette Malan (you should read her novels!), who came to town to pick up some San Marzano tomatoes I started for them. They both understand what eating real food is all about, so we made our paella outside the traditional way (Violette is of Spanish extraction and they have a wonderful Paella Party every November). I will share this amazing, but rather tricky to cook recipe someday soon.

The thing that stumped us was what to make for dessert. Evenings still can be cold here in Toronto (it wasn’t last night, though, as it turned out), and those good apples stuck in my mind. We have a fantastic recipe for a French-based rustic apple tart that is superb, but a good deal of its preparation is last-minute and with the paella to concentrate on (it takes a lot of tending when cooked outside), I knew the tart just wouldn’t be the dessert to make (next time, Violette and Paul!). Then I thought of our apple crisp.

It was a huge favorite in the early years of our family. Even though our kids have long since flown the coop, we still make this a fair bit in the fall and winter when the local apples are at their best, but I don’t think we’ve ever made it in spring. Anyway, it was perfect for the situation: you can prepare the whole thing hours in advance and just throw it into the oven as soon as you sit down for dinner. We had great apples, so I thought, Why not?

Here’s the recipe. It’s pretty easy, with only the peeling and slicing of the apples being a bit tedious. The results are wonderful, especially served with ice cream or whipped cream. If you can’t find really good apples now, just put this recipe aside until the fall when stores should be flooded with great fruit.

A word on apples: You want to make this using a good crisp apple with lots of flavor. As mentioned, Cortlands are terrific. Northern Spies are also a favorite around here (you may need to add a bit more sugar of honey, though) as are Winesaps. My favorite is Russets which are good for only a few weeks in late September/October. They’re hard to find, but worth it with a very surprising sort of non-applelike flavor. Make sure you get real russets and not golden russets – which are a clone of golden delicious and russets. They’re just not as good.

Apple Crisp
Serves 8-10

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup rolled oats
¾ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup walnut pieces
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
½ cup sweet butter
8 cups apples
¼ cup sugar (or 3 Tbs honey)
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp cloves
a generous grating of fresh nutmeg
1 tsp lemon juice

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Butter a 9"x12" baking dish.

2. Peel, core and slice the apples. As you work, place them in a bowl of water with a good squeeze of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to keep them from discoloring.

3. Toast walnut pieces on a baking sheet placed in the oven until nicely browned and fragrant. It usually takes 10-12 minutes.

4. In a large bowl, put in the flour, oats, sugar, salt and baking soda. First using a pastry blender and then your fingers, work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is uniform and well-blended.

5. In another bowl, mix together apples, sugar or honey, spices and lemon juice.

6. Place apple mixture in bottom of baking dish, sprinkle over the walnuts, then cover with the oats mixture.

7. Bake for 50 minutes or until top is nicely browned and the apples soft and bubbling. Serve it while still warm. A scoop of good vanilla ice cream is just perfect on top.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It’s time for fiddleheads

One of our favorite spring delicacies comes in late April or early May up here north of the forty-ninth. Yes, they appear in your market (if you shop at the right ones) and you could grow them on your property (they’re perennial, too), but there’s something special about going out into the forest to a spot that only you know and fill up a plastic bag or two. They do keep for awhile, but they’re at their best when freshest, so don’t take more than you will eat in a week or so.

I’m of course speaking of fiddleheads, the not-yet-unrolled fronds of ferns, and it’s a vegetable that is not as well known as its more traditional relative, asparagus, which is too bad. I think they’re far more tasty. I’ll let all of you who don’t know guess why these treats are called fiddleheads.

We hadn’t heard of them before we moved to Canada. A bushel basket appeared at the food co-op we belonged to in Montreal, and I had no idea what they were. A few questions later, I left with a paper bags holding enough for four servings. At least I thought they were enough. Once we’d cooked them up and served them, I realized we should have bought twice as many.

I will say right off the bat that they can have a rather strong taste as far as some feel, but my guess is that the ones eaten that tasted strong were older. Eaten the day they’ve been picked, they taste and smell of the forest, sort of reminiscent of asparagus, but better. With a touch of butter, salt and pepper, they can be quite a magical addition to a meal.

So, off into the forest: what do you look for? Well, we scoped out our secret patch later in a summer when the fronds were fully grown. What you’re looking for are ostrich ferns. They have a rounded top to the fronds – as opposed to bracken, which has a pointy top. I have heard that you can eat bracken fiddleheads, but I’ve also heard that they might have something in them that won’t agree with people – especially if you consume a lot or they’re undercooked. Other species of fern that are edible as fiddleheads are Cinnamon (or buckhorn) fern, and royal fern. There are other strains that are picked as fiddleheads but these are the most common in eastern North America. If you do see them fresh at a market, be prepared to pay somewhat dearly for them.

You’ve tramped through the forest to your special spot a few weeks after all the snow has disappeared (it will probably be moist, so wear some rubber boots). All you need is a sharp, short bladed knife. One with a curved blade works best. The fiddleheads will be in clumps sometimes with seven to a plant. Cut them off close to the ground. But don’t take too many! If you just lop off everything, the plant won’t recover, and that would be a shame. I was told by someone in the know that it’s okay to take up to three.

Special warning! Take only those fronds that have not yet unrolled very much, the tighter the better. As the fronds unroll, they produce a toxin that can make you pretty ill. You should also not eat them raw. Don’t think they’re all that dangerous, though. If you were to eat leaves or stems of tomato plants, they could kill you.

Back at home, you will need to remove the brittle brown covering. This is most easily done in the sink. Just dump them in, fill it with cold water and rub the fronds a bit and it will come off. If the spot where the stem was cut turns a bit brown, just cut it off with a knife.

How do cook them? We like to just steam them, although they can be boiled (less flavor to my mind) or roasted (the French like them this way, apparently). We steam them for ten to twelve minutes. I’ve seen recipes that call for twenty minutes of steaming. I suppose if you’re cooking a quart of them, you might want to increase the time a bit, but a pint cooked for twenty minutes would be a sin. Discard the water they’re cooking in or over. You can find other recipes that call for baking, sautéing and frying, but it’s a good idea to give them a quick steam (7-10 minutes before continuing cooking.

Just before serving, we toss them in a bit of butter with a good squeeze of fresh lemon. Basically, you can cook and serve them any way you would asparagus.

But you have to move quickly! While they are available frozen or canned, fresh is certainly the best. If you want to go to the trouble of picking your own, you will have a very memorable treat – for free.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My second favorite soup

I don’t know, but there’s something about spring that makes me want soup. So lately, there’s been soup on the menu a lot around here. It may go back to summer visits to my aunt’s cottage in Three Lakes, Wisconsin, where my grandfather felt that dinner (meaning the midday meal) wasn’t dinner without a first course of soup. Being Czech, those soups often had dumplings, something my aunt was a dab hand at. Regardless, the soups were always delicious.

Soup is a lovely thing and most recipes reheat very well and that makes them good for quick and simple meals. We always have great stock on hand, so preparing them is generally a snap. Just fetch what we need from the basement freezer, throw in a few ingredients and put it on the stove to simmer. Make enough, and you can have several meals with little effort.

On to my second favorite soup: New England Clam Chowder. It’s something that’s not hard to find on many restaurant menus, but really good NECC, unfortunately, is hard to find. Two things stand out in the poor versions: too few clams and too much flour. I can see why restaurants scrimp on the clams. They’re expensive while potatoes, onions, celery, milk, etc. are not, but heavy in flour by the scoop? Why would anyone do that? After an hour or so kept at serving temperature, it’s better suited to being used as lumpy wallpaper paste.

Up till recently, the best chowder I’d had was at Legal Seafood in Boston. It was a bit light on clams, but it had great flavor and a nice texture: not too thick and not too thin.

A few years back, I decided I really needed to add this delicious soup to my culinary arsenal, so I hit the books, so to speak, and also the Internet. Over the course of half a year, we had a fair bit of experimentation as I tried various ingredients and refinements. Eventually, I came up with one that really is exceptional. The basic recipe is courtesy of the CIA. No, not the spies of the US government, but The Culinary Institute of America near Hyde Park, NY. Every single person I’ve served it to has said it’s the best they’ve ever had.

I don’t remember the original now, but there’s not much changed here because the recipe was so good right out of the gate. The addition of Worchestershire sauce and sherry are what makes this version an absolute stand-out. You’ll notice that the ingredient amounts are pretty specific. Don’t be tempted to use a half-cup of flour, for instance, rather than the seven tablespoons called for. The recipe is rigid because it works perfectly with these amounts. The only thing you might be inclined to fudge on is the heavy cream. We’ve gotten by using table cream if we’re being virtuous, but the best version is to keep all ingredients as given. Since we only make this once or twice a year, the extra butterfat isn’t all that dangerous.

A sidebar: Vicki really prefers Manhattan clam chowder, partially because she prefers thinner soup to thicker, but also because she feels tomatoes and clams are such a good combination. She went off on her own culinary journey of chowder enlightenment, and someday I’ll prevail upon her to tell you all about the results. I do have to say that her recipe for Manhattan, more idiosyncratic and original, is a fine one. I still prefer the New England version, but I’ll eat hers anytime.

One bit of history: Manhattan clam chowder was apparently given its name by New Englanders as a subtle put-down for what they felt was an inferior version by the folks in the big city.

New England Clam Chowder
Makes 8 servings

Note: Buy chopped ocean clams from your fish monger for this, not those baby clams you find in the supermarket. We use Capt. Fred brand in a large, 51-ounce can packaged for restaurants. If your fish monger doesn’t carry something like this, it can certainly be ordered in. This size can has a lot more clams and clam juice than you need to make this recipe. I have a companion Stuffed Clam Oreganata recipe that I’ll share with you all at a later date.

1¼ lbs 
canned clams, minced, juices reserved (3¼ cups of meat if you don’t have a kitchen scale)
3 cups clam juice
3 slices double-smoked bacon
1½ cups onion, ¼" dice
7 Tbs all-purpose flour
1 bay leaf
¾ tsp fresh thyme, minced
1¾ cups redskin potatoes, ¼" dice
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
¼ tsp salt
freshly-ground pepper
6 Tbs medium dry sherry
½ tsp Tabasco sauce
1 tsp Worchestershire sauce

1. Chop the bacon relatively finely. Drain the clam juice from the clams and add enough bottled clam juice to make up 3 cups – if needed. If the potato skins are clean, we don’t bother peeling them.

2. Cook the bacon slowly in a soup pot over low heat so the fat renders thoroughly and the bacon becomes slightly crisp, about 6 minutes. Stir occasionally.

3. Add the onion and cook until it’s translucent, about another 6-7 minutes. Now, add the flour and cook over very low heat for another 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. You don’t want it to brown!

4. Whisk the clam juice into the onion/bacon mixture, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the thyme, bay leaf and potatoes and simmer until tender, between 10 and 12 minutes. Stir the pot frequently to keep the mixture from scorching.

5. At the same time, heat the clams, cream and milk in a saucepan until it reaches a simmer. You DO NOT want this to boil.

6. When the potatoes are just done, add the clams and cream to the soup base, stir and simmer another two minutes. Stir in the salt, pepper, sherry, Tabasco and Worchestershire sauce and your soup is ready. It will be even better if you let it “age” for a couple of hours and then reheat it carefully before serving it in heated bowls.

You really must offer oyster crackers with this. In fact, we’ve heard that it’s illegal in parts of New England not to do it! The best ones I’ve found are made by Westminster Crackers of Rutland, Vermont. They may be hard to find but you can order them. Visit their website.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The key to enjoying cooking

I’m sure we all know our fair share of people who say that they don’t enjoy cooking. Some of them may even be able to turn out a pretty respectable meal, but they don’t enjoy it. Others just eschew anything to do with the kitchen. If they don’t have someone else who will prepare their food (meaning a lot of the guys out there), then restaurants, take-out joints and the frozen food section of their supermarkets become the main beneficiaries.

Some people claim that they can’t cook. I find that completely unbelievable and feel it’s simply an excuse to keep that person out of the kitchen. Unless a recipe calls for a particular skill that takes a long time to develop (fluting mushrooms comes to mind), then anyone who can follow a well-written recipe should be able to turn out food of which they can be proud.

Cooking at a reasonable level isn’t hard. It simply requires attention to detail and organization.

When I dig a little deeper with reluctant cooks, I find almost universally that they’re afraid of failure and get easily rattled as a number of things require attention simultaneously. Both of these things can come crashing together if you’re not organized. And I think that’s the basic problem with them: organization.

French cooks have a saying every cook should engrave in their minds as they begin preparing a meal: mis en place. Loosely translated it means “everything in place”. In other words, have everything measured, prepped and organized before you begin to actually apply the heat. Every time I get to the end of cooking a meal and realize that I didn’t enjoy it much, I will find that I hadn’t prepped everything I should have. Even a good cook is prone to mistakes and forgetfulness when they’re trying to prep part of their meal while they’re cooking another. Heaven knows I’ve wrecked more than my share of food, and I’ll bet that nearly every time it’s been because my attention was divided because of inadequate organization.

The past few months I’ve made it my mantra to have everything ready to go before I turn on the stove. This means all the ingredients and most of the cooking utensils are ready and waiting. I’ve also read through the recipe (if it’s something I haven’t made often recently), or if it’s a dish I’ve made a lot, I at least go through all the steps in my head. I’ve even gone as far as buying a set of small mis en place bowls to hold items like herbs, spices and other small-amount ingredients. It might be overkill, but it keeps me relaxed.

Having worked in restaurant kitchens, where things can get really busy at times of maximum service, I know that the key to the job is being completely organized. If you’re not, you’re toast – or what you’re cooking is. It really is the same thing at home. You don’t want to be crawling around the innards of your fridge or rushing out to the store when your attention needs to be on what’s being heated. Never forget: when you’re cooking, you’re playing with fire and things can get out of hand quickly. Pay attention.

So if you have never cooked, find a basic recipe for a dish you’d like to make, read through it – twice, making sure that you understand everything. If you find you don’t, maybe you should find another recipe. Now measure and prep all the ingredients for your dish, and away you go. Once you’re cooking, follow the recipe’s cooking instructions exactly. This is not the time to improvise!

Don’t let yourself become distracted. Emptying the dishwasher while you’re browning a piece of meat or frying up some onions may seem like a good use of time, but things can burn amazingly fast. (Trust me on this one. I have vast experience at burning things!) Enjoy the process and learn by watching what happens. At its heart, cooking is merely chemistry. You’re applying heat to a number of ingredients and changing them chemically into something different – and hopefully wonderful.

I also find cooking this way to be very relaxing: the careful assembly of my ingredients, watching them change as they cook, the fragrances rising from the pots or the oven. Yes, things can get wild as a complicated meal with several dishes all become ready (hopefully) at the same time, but if the cook has stayed organized and thought things through, even this pressure can be enjoyable.

So forget your cooking fears! Get out into the kitchen and start learning. You may find you actually enjoy the process. And there’s nothing like the satisfaction of sitting down to a great meal that you’ve prepared.

Like I said: trust me.