Monday, December 16, 2013

A quick and easy meal for when it’s cold and blustery

Here in Toronto this past weekend we got our first big dump of snow. Of course, due to the poor winter driving skills of the residents of our fair burg, traffic came to a near standstill. My son Karel and I went for our usual Saturday food shopping excursion to the St. Lawrence Market with a stop or two along the way (Patachou for Sunday croissants and Gasparro’s for a brace of ducks I’d ordered). Usually, this would take us about two and a half hours. Saturday it took over four.

By the time I arrived home, the hours were short for cooking a rather involved meal for an early family Christmas dinner, even though we’ll all be in New York this year to present the newest addition in the Blechta family to our relatives. Actually, there are two being presented: Jackson, our first grandson, and his mum Rena, who very few in the family have met.

Dinner consisted of the two quackers roasted, Czech bread dumplings with gravy and buttered breadcrumbs, braised red cabbage and creme brulée for dessert. It was a race to the finish line because of those two lost hours. I had every intention of taking photos for AMFAS and some later recipe-sharing, but that got lost in the rush. Sorry ’bout that!

While I was speeding around dinner prep, what also struck me was that, even though I enjoy cooking complicated meals, it’s also nice – especially on a cold and snowy winter day – to just do up something quick, warm, and flavorful, sit down with a good book (or spend time writing a good book), and enjoy the wonderful aromas drifting out of the kitchen while dinner cooks. A few times during Saturday’s cooking sprint to the finish line, I did consider how nice it would have been to be preparing something simpler.

I’m sure you’re thinking I’m talking about stews or hearty soups. As comfort food, no doubt they are worth considering, and we often make them. But also on Saturday while we were down at The Market, I stopped in at the Sausage King and purchased four of their wonderful lamb sausages. My plan was to freeze them for use later on when I’m short something to make for dinner or pressed for time. Probably two of them will go for bangers and mash, and that is a worthy inclusion to the list of comfort foods – at least in our house. With a few of Bob Taylor’s fantastic heritage potatoes (I also scored some Irish Cobblers on Saturday – the greatest mashing potato of all times), sautéed onions, and a pint of ale, we will have a worthy meal some cold night sometime in early January. Someday I will do a post on that fantastic British-style combination.

No, what I was thinking about on Saturday whilst slaving over a hot stove was a Blechta family favorite, also from the British Isles: Toad in the Hole. I knew the name long before the dish since its name is so quintessentially English. I can easily imagine a small hamlet in Staffordshire called Toad-in-the-Hole. I mean, that county already has a place called Hamstall Ridware, for pity’s sake. Why not Toad-in-the-Hole?

Anyway, in case you don’t know, this dish is a fantastic combination of sausage and Yorkshire Pudding. It’s quick to make, utterly delicious and will warm you down to your toes when the weather outside is howlingly cold. Give it a go and you’ll see what I mean.

[Sidebar: Our Yorkie recipe comes courtesy of The Galloping Gourmet. It was back in my university days that I used to occasionally watch his quite-funny cooking show (long before he went on the wagon and got all preachy). Around that time, he put out his excellent eponymous cookbook The Graham Kerr Cookbook which has excellent recipes as well as a number of very handy tips on how to do things in the kitchen. You can get used copies for a song, and it’s well worth having on your kitchen shelf. As for his Yorkshire Pudding recipe, it’s hands-down the best one we’ve tried.]

Toad in the Hole
Serves 4

Ingredients
4 sausages (makes no difference what they are as long as they’re of good quality and well-made)
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
4 eggs
2 1/2 cups whole milk
2 Tbs butter or meat drippings
3 Tbs water (our addition but well worth adding)

Method

  1. Sift flour with salt. Beat the eggs into the milk.
  2. Whisk everything together until blended. Cover with a towel and allow to stand at room temperature for 2 hours in a warmish place to let the starch cells develop.
  3. Broil sausages until about half cooked: maybe three minutes on one side, then flip over and broil for 3 minutes more. Basically, you want to render out some of the fat, but also not cook the sausages so much that, cooking in the batter, becoming they dry out and become mealy. Drain on paper towels. Separate out some of the melted fat from the sausages if you can.
  4. Heat your oven to 400°. Slip a pan with tall sides in the the oven to melt the butter or heat the drippings (rendered bacon fat is also a good substitute). You want the pan and fat to be nice and hot.
  5. Whisk the water into the pudding batter until just blended in (helps it rise).
  6. Take the pan out of the oven, place the sausages onto the bottom like the spokes of a wheel, then pour the batter gently over them. It should sizzle on contacting the hot fat. If the sausages move a bit, place them back into position.
  7. Bake the pudding for 40-45 minutes on a rack at the top of the oven, but leave enough space in case the pudding rises past the pan edges – a good thing you should hope happens. Don’t open the oven to peek for at least the first 30 minutes!
  8. The pudding is done when the top turns a nice golden brown and is firm.
  9. Cut the Yorkie into quarters and serve on a heated plate. We like mustard on the side for the sausages, and a salad or a hot veg with this. We also enjoy a little butter to spread on each pudding mouthful.
Note: We like to cook this in a 12" cast iron skillet. The thick iron really spreads the heat uniformly and gives the pudding a delightfully crispy crust. If you do the same, check your pudding after 35 minutes. It might well be done.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Our latest home curing exploits

As mentioned in my last post, now that it’s cold, we can get back to curing and air drying some of our favorite things. This past summer we had to completely clear out our basement because of flooding and the subsequent fear of mold. As we slowly put things back together, I was mindful of the fact that five months later would be prime time for hanging some cured favorites for drying, and made space for it.

We’ve been making our own guanciale for several years now, and it has proven enormously popular with family and friends. I made 5 jowls-worth last year and we ran out over a month ago. So this year, I’m going to make two batches of 6 jowls each, just to be sure.

As always, we can’t leave recipes well enough alone, and decided to tweak it yet again to see what the results are. The original one calls for “a bunch of thyme”, then tells you to strip off the leaves and finely chop them. It gave good results. (But one thing bugs me with these kinds of measurements: just how much is “a bunch”?) Anyway, one thing most folks don’t know is that the stems of many herb plants also have a lot of flavor. I decided this time out to just coarsely chop my bunch of thyme and use everything since it’s all discarded in the end anyway when you wash off the cure from the meat prior to hanging it. True, I’d have to be a little more careful not to leave behind any bits of stem, but that wasn’t much of a problem in the end.

The other thing we tweaked was in the way we use white wine (not in the original recipe I got it from the Wrightfood website). To make my life simpler, I’d previously just thrown 2 oz of it into the cure, basically because it seemed simpler and a good idea to let the vino have contact with the meat for a longer time. I’d read about this from various online sources (no recipe attached, just a mention). This past summer I talked to a neighbour who remembered from his youth back in Italy that, after rinsing off the cure from the jowls, his family would “wash” them in white wine (Colli Albani since they lived in the Lazio region). I figured it was worth a try to do it this way.

So my jowls have been hanging for nearly three weeks, and I have to tell you, they smell fabulous, much more fragrant than in the past. I used Orvieto for the wash (because I prefer it to Colli Albani) and it has really added to the piggy bouquet. I plan to take them down next week to vacuum pack before chucking them in the freezer.

I’ve been wanting to try pancetta for a couple of years, and decided there was no time like the present. I’d also bought 13+ pounds of pork belly from my buddy Nick Gasparro, and really didn’t think we needed to make all of that as our regular double-smoked bacon.

So I loped off about a quarter of it, pulled out my copy of Charcuterie for the recipe, and got to work. It’s a very reliable book, and I figured I’d let Michael Ruhlman’s expertise guide me for my maiden run at this Italian delicacy.

What is pancetta? The easiest explanation is that it’s bacon. After curing, it’s hung to air dry, rather than being smoked. Well and good. The reason pancetta is so special comes from the flavorings added during the curing process. Hanging it to dry after curing merely intensifies these flavors.

What flavors (herbs and spices) are used? Since my lovely wife, Vicki, speaks Italian, we even researched this on Italian sites. A partial list of possibilities includes garlic, black pepper, juniper berries, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, fresh nutmeg, cloves, allspice, cayenne pepper, lemon zest, orange zest, thyme, rosemary, bay, star anise… I think you’re probably getting the idea that you can do whatever you want in this department

I feel very strongly after viewing several clips on YouTube made by people who think it’s a terrific idea to show people how to make something, never having made it before themselves, and also having rather suspect skill levels at curing as well as butchery and general cooking. My feeling is you need to make something at least a half dozen times before you start offering assistance to the general public. Needless to say, I haven’t seen much on YouTube about making pancetta that fills me with a lot of confidence. One site, though, stella culinary, impressed me as being professional and Jacob Burton certainly had cred in the cooking department.

All that being said, I am encouraged by the results so far from the pancetta I’m making. Since I didn’t want to be bothered with it over the Christmas holiday, I decided to take Ruhlman’s advice to not roll the cured belly as is traditionally done, but to leave it flat, wrap it in cheesecloth, and then hang it to dry for only a week.

It’s been up for three days now and smells absolutely marvelous, so I’m going to go against my accepted practice of waiting until I’ve made something enough times to at least confidently share the recipe and necessary techniques with you. As the project finishes, I will share the results and my thoughts on how things worked. I should tell you that, like most home curing, it is basically very easy to make your own pancetta. If you enjoy this Italian delicacy, you should consider doing up your own. You’ll save money and you can make it with exactly the herbs and spices you want. Plus you won’t have a lot of extraneous chemicals in the finished product. If you can source antibiotic-free, growth hormone-free, humanely-raised pork, you will have something quite exceptional to serve to your family and guests.

So let’s take this path together. I make no promises, but my nose tells me this new home curing project is going to be rather special. Hang on for my next post, and if all goes well, I’ll have a review of my efforts and will share the recipe with you.

Stay tuned!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Zombie Apocalypse survival tips: opening a can using no tools

I’ve tried it. Guess what? It works!

Now I’ve just got to come up with something to make with the three cans of tuna I opened…

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Okay, we’re back in business, now what?

So much water has gone over the dam since July, I hardly know where to begin. Do I talk about the harvest season in August and the 148 liters of tomato sauce we made with our usual crew? Or how about the fact that we actually got a decent harvest from our apple tree this year – without using chemical sprays. There was some smoking, too, that went on as well, although none of it was cold. We made some marvelous al fresco meals, too. There was baking being done and some fantastic desserts, and now that winter has finally gotten us in its grasp, our basement is finally the perfect temperature and humidity for us to start curing and dry aging some of our favorite salumeri.

Maybe I should talk about it all over the next few posts. Good idea, Blechta. Make a note of that.

Let’s start by updating something a bit more topical: our Christmas Fruit Cake. I shared this recipe in a post last year. It’s a worthy cake, but something we have tweaked over the years in an attempt to make it perfect (at least to our tastes). By now, we probably tweaking the tweaks. This year’s version was no exception.

Normally, we use a loaf pan such as the original recipe on the back of a Bushmills postcard called for. Problem was, as we added more fruit, it was difficult to get the cake to cook evenly because it was so dense. Vicki had a solution which we tried this year. It involved adding a half teaspoon of baking powder for a bit of lift, but also cooking the cake in a 9-inch round springform pan. The results were much improved. The cake cooked more thoroughly in the center (because it wasn’t as thick in the round pan) and the powder helped it rise just a bit, making it less dense.

But already we’ve spotted next year’s tweak: insulating strips for the outside of the pan to keep its sides cooler so the outside edge of the cake (nearer this heat) doesn’t cook markedly quicker than the center where it’s farthest away from a heat source. Bake-Even Strips (made by Wilton) are insulated pieces of fabric that wrap around baking pans to keep the sides. I bought them at a kitchen supply store a number of years ago and the results from using them have been uniformly excellent. Simply soak them in water for about a half hour, then wrap them around your baking pan(s) and pin them tight. By the time the cake is done in the center, the outer edge are nearly as high and the cake is much more evenly cooked. If you bake cakes, I highly recommend them. We bought two sets (for 4 strips), so we’re ready for any eventuality depending on pan sizes.

Why I didn’t think of using them with our Fruit Cake this year is a question for another day.

So our 2013 Fruit Cake is lovely except for the outer edge being slightly dry. This has been mitigated nicely as the Jack Daniels we poured over it after baking has soaked into all corners of the cake, but I know using the strips next year will solve this year’s problem. And help the cake rise a bit more.

Next post: our winter curing season begins. Right now we’ve got a half dozen hog jowls hanging in our basement. In three weeks, our guanciale will be ready! And guess what? We’ve tweaked that recipe, too.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hey Blechta! Where have you been?

Pheasant, mushroom & leek pie for a very special dinner.
That’s a question I’ve been forced to face in several email inquiries over the past four months. The last time I did an entry here, it was the middle of summer. The weather was hot and fine and my wife and I were celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary. (Has it really been that long?) Now we’ve had our first snow (a dusting) and it’s darned cold outside. Time has a habit of marching on if you don’t pay attention.

Unfortunately, postings to this blog have to be done when I have time – and a willing spirit – and the former has been in very short supply since I last wrote here. I fully intended to start posting regularly again, but well, my three other jobs kept getting in the way. During that time, I completed two novels and began sketching on another, completed a fair bit of design work, and started a band. There was also about fourteen days-worth of vacation in there as well.

I have been doing a lot of cooking during the interim and collecting press clippings (can one call them that when all the clippings are electronic?) on various topics upon which I’d like to prognosticate and invite comments.

We cured and smoked a twenty-pound ham for (Canadian) Thanksgiving. We hot-smoked bacon once or twice. I cold-smoked some cheese when it was a bit to hot to do that. (The odd shapes this produced garnered some “interesting” remarks when we served it to guests.) We smoked ribs a few times, as well. (I am still not satisfied with the results we’re getting which will be a topic for a future post.) And of course the smoker was often busy, filled with almonds for my son Karel’s gourmet nut business.

In the kitchen, we’ve been developing a few recipes that I will enlarge on over the coming months. Since most are totally appropriate for the colder weather we’re now enjoying, I hopeful they’ll be welcome.

Speaking of which, with our basement finally cool enough to hang some meat for dry aging, I’ve started in on my usual curing endeavors. Right now we have eleven pounds of hog jowls curing in the bottom of our fridge. I decided that this year I’m going to do our guanciale all at once rather than in groups of two or three. I’m hoping to get a commercial grade, light-duty vacuum sealer as my big Christmas present next month and that will be right on time to seal up our guanciale for freezing and use later in the year. We’re also going to make some pancetta for the first time and of course there will be lonzino, a particular family favorite.

Karel and Jan have been clamoring for some more bacon, so once the guanciale is done curing, I’ll cure a few pork bellies and we’ll double smoke a whack of our birch beer-flavored bacon for everyone.

With Christmas on the way, we’ve also made our usual fruit cake, and while it’s a bit late to share this – since this sort of thing should have been started by November first at the latest – we made two small changes to our tried and true recipe and based on a first tasting the other night, they are definitely for the better. This year’s cake is our best ever.

So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I should have fewer problems standing in the way of posting more regularly moving forward, so watch out for updates. There is some good food and stimulating food topics coming down the pike for everyone.

One last major thing: there will be talk of homemade baby food on the horizon since we’re going to be dusting off our recipes, now over thirty years old, since our other son Jan and his lady Rena produced our first grandchild six days ago. Welcome Jackson Reno Blechta. Expect some good food in your future!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Curing your own ham – and then smoking it: a match made in heaven

My red-haired bride: beautiful Vicki
Today is a very special day in my life – as well as in my wife’s (that’s Vicki I’m speaking of). Forty years ago today, we got married.

It was not your typical marriage ceremony.

We were living in Montreal, attending university. We’d also been living together for two years (that’s living together as in “living in sin”, which was not cool in those days. In 1973, we’d been in love for three years and talk of marriage had certainly come up a few times before. Problem was, I was getting a bit of support money from the US government because my dad was deceased, and we really needed it to get by because we weren’t allowed to work in Canada. If we’d gotten married, it seemed the government thought I wouldn’t need the support anymore, so it was an easy (though unpopular) decision to not get married.

In June of 1973, though, I graduated from McGill and that was when Vicki and I seriously discussed “making an honest woman of her”, as we joked. Marriage in Quebec at that time did not appeal to us, so we decided to cross the border into New York State. One trip was to Plattsburg to get blood tests for our marriage license (why could you possibly need a license to get hitched?), and to make our trip second shorter, we found a justice of the peace in Champlain, NY, just over the border from Lacolle, QC. So one day, my best friend since 6th grade, Ray MacDonald (sorely missed), and his wife Mary Ann came up from Vermont, and together with our next door neighbour Yusuf Emed (official photographer) and his then girlfriend Marcia Segal, we piled into our panel van and headed south.

Turns out our JP of choice, Romeo Filion was more Quebecois than American, way more nervous than us since he was as much a newbie to this marriage gig as we were. His English was also not great, but Vicki (in French) assured him we’d all do fine.

Partially smoked. Looks great, doesn’t it?
His office was part of the storeroom of his small store (complete with old-fashioned soda fountain), and we got married surrounded by jars of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. Romeo was so nervous he read the entire ceremony, and I mean the entire ceremony – including our responses. Neither Vicki nor I said anything about promising to do this or that. (Perhaps this explains why she’s never been good at obeying me.) At the end, though, we each signed the marriage license and we were officially hitched.

There was lots more to our adventures that day. At our “wedding picnic”, we had a shotgun pulled on us as we sat under some trees overlooking Lake Champlain. Seems we were trespassing and the farmer’s wife took exception to that. Yusuf, being Turkish and knowing what would make it all better, went over to her. A quiet conversation ensued, some money changed hands, and we were then welcome to use our picnic spot for the rest of the afternoon. So you can say Vicki and I had a shotgun wedding, can’t you?

So now you have the background. Today, we’re having a garden party in our backyard to celebrate our 40 years. The weather is going to be lovely and Vicki has the gardens looking magnificent. Everyone invited is bringing something for the meal. We’re supplying the meat: 2 smoked chickens and a home-cured and smoked ham. And that’s what I’m writing about today: how easy and delicious a home-cured ham is.

Since I didn’t ask Nick Gasparro, our butcher, early enough, we had to buy part of a pork shoulder for this enterprise instead of part of a leg. It’s 9 pounds, has a bit of fat on one side and is a primo piece of pork.

Ready to be sliced and served. Boy, that was easy!
Curing it was simplicity itself. I made the brine, cooled it down and in went the pork for about 80 hours in the fridge. What came out was a beautiful, firm ham. At this point, it only needed to be heated to around 150° and it would be ready to eat. Of course, that wouldn’t do, so yesterday Karel and I hot-smoked it yesterday. I had used star anise, whole allspice, lemon, and red peppercorns to flavor the brine and they added their distinctive and lovely fragrances to the finished ham. Around the middle of the smoking, I glazed it all over with a mixture of dark brown sugar and Dijon mustard.

Tired of store bought salty and flabby ham (since they inject the brine solution into the hams to speed up curing, but equally importantly to increase the weight)? Go to your butcher, get a prime piece of pork from the leg or shoulder and make your own. No chemicals you don’t want, not overly salty and far more lovely-tasting. You will be shocked how easy it is.

Home-cured Smoked, Glazed Ham
for a 10 to 20-pound ham

(This recipe is from Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn)

Brine Ingredients
1 gallon of water
1 1/2 cups (350 grams) of kosher salt
2 packed cups (360 grams) dark brown sugar
1-1/2 oz (42 grams) of curing salt (8 teaspoons)
our additions were four star anise, 12 whole allspice, 3 tablespoons red peppercorns, and one lemon
1 10- to 20-pound piece of pork, skin and aitch-bone removed (if it’s a leg)

Method
1. Quarter the lemon then mix the water, salts and brown sugar in a large, non-reactive pot (stainless steel) or crock, stirring until everything is dissolved. Squeeze each lemon quarter into the brine and throw in the rinds. (I heated the brine up a bit so the spices and lemon rinds would release their flavors a bit better. If you do this, you have to cool down, then chill the brine before you put the pork into it.)

2. Add the pork to the brine, weight it down so it’s completely submerged and soak it for 12 hours to the pound (my clarification). We like our pork a bit on the unsalty side so we brined it for 10 hours to the pound. Also, it was very hot this week, so to be on the safe side, I refrigerated everything.

3. When the brining is done, remove the pork and rinse it in cool water, then pat it dry. Place it on a rack for circulation all-round and chill it in your fridge for at least 12 hours (preferably 24).

4. Hot-smoke the ham using apple or hickory (cherry is nice, as well) for two hours.

5. Now glaze the ham all over with a mixture of 1 1/2 cups of dark brown sugar and 3/4 cup of Dijon mustard. Charcuterie recommends adding 1 tablespoon of minced garlic, but we left that out.

6. Continue smoking until the meat registers 155° at its thickest point.

7. Remove the ham from the smoker and brush on any remaining glaze. Let it cool. Now refrigerate it if you’re not serving it immediately. If you are serving it immediately, make sure to let your ham rest for at least 30 minutes to draw the juices back to the center.

8. If serving later, take the ham from the fridge and place it in a 275° oven until the center is warm (test it with a skewer). Slice and serve.

9. Be amazed at the number of compliments for something so easy!

Oh, and Happy Anniversary to my dear wife, Vicki Ann Woolsey, who has been the best companion imaginable for more years than I feel comfortable acknowledging. She is amazingly beautiful, vibrant, and I still love her dearly.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Our Sunday Tradition

Vicki and I fell in love with croissants as students while we were attending McGill University in Montreal. Living in the student ghetto just to the east of campus, we had ready access to La Pâtisserie Belge, which at that time was on Sherbrooke Street, just west of Park Avenue (this was in the days before the PQ came to power so some street names were still in English). Many Sundays, I’d crawl out of bed early and take a run down there to pick up a bag of hot-out-of-the-oven croissants. They were unlike anything I’d ever tasted. The owner made them himself and they were crisp on the outside, tender and buttery on the inside. With a cup of fresh-brewed coffee, we felt like sophisticated Parisiennes as we read the Sunday paper and listened to classical music.

After we moved to Toronto, I kept my eye out for croissants as good as I was used to, and was always disappointed. Memory is seldom accurate. Bad things seem to get worse in our minds as time moves on, and good things get better. I began to suspect this was the case with my croissant memories from university. Then I went to Montreal for a TV appearance, went looking for Belgian Pastry and came upon a furniture store where they’d once been located. I asked a friend, and he told me they had moved up Avenue Parc (as it was now called) and were still open, although the old baker was long gone. His family now ran the place. I went there, bought a croissant and bit into it. It was all right, but when I asked, I found it had been made the day before. With no oven handy, I couldn’t get it heated up, so I couldn’t be certain, but it was sort of close to my university memory of croissants.

In 2008, we went to Paris for nine days to research a novel I was writing (The Fallen One) and I was looking forward to finding really great croissants again. Ultimately, though, I was disappointed. We did have some very good ones, but none could meet the bar which had been set in my memory very high indeed.

You see, a truly perfect croissant has to be very flaky and somewhat crisp on the outside. The “horns” should be more crisp at the ends with a satisfying crunch when you bite into them. The center should be yeasty, flaky and light, with a real buttery taste. Spread with a bit of apricot jam, I am in heaven when I have one.

I left Paris somewhat frustrated. If I couldn’t get one here, where could I possibly expect to find The Perfect Croissant?

A bit of a detour here. Let me start with this statement which I’m certain most Frenchmen would argue vociferously with me on: Croissants are not French. They were invented by the other master bakers of Europe, the Viennese (who are also responsible for Danishes, believe it or not). The story goes that when Austria broke the siege of Vienna in 1683, and the Ottoman Turks were routed, Vienna’s bakers stayed up all night making crescent-shaped pastries to celebrate the victory (it was a reference to the crescent on the Turkish flag). These early croissants were called Kipferi. Obviously superb, the recipe quickly spread all over Europe. Whether the story is true or not, it’s lovely and the first baked goods of this type are certainly traceable back to Vienna, regardless.

We were in Vienna twice for novel research (Cemetery of the Nameless), and sadly, I didn’t find what I was looking for there, either.

So for many years, we didn’t eat croissants. Why be disappointed? Almost every supermarket and doughnut shop sells them now, and those a generally truly bad, even when “refreshed” in the oven before serving them.

The first thing is: you can’t make a croissant worth the name by using machinery. All the authorities agree on this. They must be made by hand, layering the dough with sweet creamery butter, rolling it out several times to distribute the butter, then cutting and shaping them by hand. They are best served fresh out of the oven, so our experience of buying a bag on Sunday mornings just after they’d been removed from the oven, was fortuitous and goes a long way to explaining my lust for the best. If you buy ones made by machine, the texture won’t be properly flaky, you probably won’t have real butter in them, and ultimately you’ll find yourself saying, “Why bother?” if you know what a true croissant tastes like

Success in an unexpected place

Toronto has an excellent small bakery, Frangipane, on Dupont Street. The owner makes lovely cakes and pastries, is a superb chocolatier, and also has croissants. We bought some on a whim, put them into a 350° oven for about 8 minutes to crisp them up while the coffee brewed, and wonder of wonders, they were, in a word, perfection. Every time we were in the area for a chiropractic appointment, I’d make sure to stop by to pick some up. Then the owner changed the hours and they were never open when we had an appointment. Horrors!

In talking to her once and saying that we missed having our regular croissant fix, she revealed that she didn’t make them. “Too much work!” She bought them from another Toronto bakery/restaurant, Patachou. They’re located on Yonge Street and were once part of what is affectionately known as “The Five Thieves” (an explanation of that will come some time in the future) just below the Canadian Pacific rail line that bisects Yonge Street south of St. Clair. They’re now a bit further down the road at the corner of Yonge and Macpherson.

Of course, I immediately went over there and bought some fresh from the source. I was in heaven again!

Now, every Saturday, on our way to St. Lawrence Market for our weekly shopping, my son Karel and I stop at Patachou for croissants. I like the plain, he prefers the cheese ones, and they also make ones with almond paste or chocolate (pain aux chocolate which is a square of croissant dough with semi-sweet chocolate on the inside).

On Sunday morning when Vicki finally stirs, I start the coffee maker, turn on the oven to 350° and pop the croissants (stored overnight in a seal plastic bag to keep them fresh) into the oven to reheat and crisp up. Eight minutes later they’re ready when I remove them from the oven sizzling slightly. My favourite apricot jam is made by St. Dalfour in France: Tartinade De Luxe Abricot Extra. I like it because it’s not too sweet, and still tastes wonderfully apricot-y. Most jams have too much sugar, so that’s the first thing you taste. I want to taste fruit! This jam is sweetened with concentrated grape juice, and is perfect in my opinion. It’s also not too hard to find, but probably not in your local supermarket (although it is in our small one across the street, luckily).

If you’re in Toronto and desire the perfect croissant, head on over to Patachou. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Heat them up, though! This is critical if you want to experience croissant perfection.

If you’re not in Toronto, I wish you luck in finding what you seek. Let me know if you have your own source for the perfect croissant where you live.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Best Brownies

Again, I’ve been sidetracked by writing and design work. I’m hoping that over the next few months I’ll have everything wrestled to the ground enough that I can get back to regular posts here.

By way of making amends, I have a tasty little post today for a basic, simple and very good dessert that most people adore – especially if they love chocolate.

This was supposed to be a large pile, but, well…they're
that good. This is the “less-chocolate” version.
I first had brownies from this recipe forty-three years ago (gulp!) when I first began going out with the soon-to-be love of my life. Vicki’s mom went way up in my estimation when, right after the first meal I’d ever had with the family, she brought out a plate stacked high with her homemade brownies. It was love at first bite, and we’ve gone on to devour many more such plates as the years have passed.

The recipe shortly found its way into our small box filled with index cards of treasured family recipes. After my own mother died, taking away with her a number of my favorite dishes that she had never written down and I’d never bothered to ask about, I decided that I didn’t want this to happen to our kids, so I digitized everything we had. This turned out to be the basis of Blechta’s in the Kitchen, our legendary family cookbook, of which we’ve produced in two editions for special Christmas gifts to give family and friends.

Today, I’m presenting to all of you out there Florence Woolsey’s recipe for what we fondly call The Best Brownies. Generally, when we serve these to guests, they want the recipe. Being the lazy sod I am, I can now send them here for it. They’re generally more cakey than some brownie recipes, but I’ll pass on a few secrets to make these come out any way you’d like.

And that brings me to a very curious thing. The original recipe calls for Bakers Brand chocolate squares and gives a number (2) but also a weight (4 oz). I decided to make these a year or so back using some Ghirardelli chocolate I had on hand. Out comes the scale and I weighed out 4 oz of chocolate. Wait a minute! This looks like a lot more chocolate than I’d get out of two squares of Bakers. After a quick research trip to the grocery store, I discovered that Bakers squares have dropped in weight over the years or something, because they now weigh only 1 ounce!

I made the brownies going by the weight of the chocolate to see how much of a difference it made. (The chemistry would obviously still work so I knew I wasn’t risking some rather expensive ingredients.) The difference was quite amazing. Wanting to be fully researched on this, I then made a batch going by the number of squares called for (which is what my mother-in-law does) and the results were identical to hers, and obviously less chocolatey – but still quite good.

So here’s the deal: if you want a more cakey, slightly less chocolately sort of brownie, use 2 squares (2 oz) of semi-sweet chocolate. If you want a super chocolatey brownie, double that amount (4 squares or 4 oz), but be prepared for your brownies to have a more fudgey sort of texture. Cooking these ones a bit more will dry them out to the point where they’re nearly cakey, but not as much as the version with the smaller amount of chocolate.

Clear? If it’s not, drop me a line, and I’ll connect you to our Brownie Expert. Which do I prefer, you might ask? I can’t quite decided, but I’ll have a scoop of vanilla ice cream with mine, please!

The Best Brownies
Makes an 8"x 8" pan (but nearly everyone doubles the recipe)

INGREDIENTS
2 squares Bakers semi-sweet chocolate (2 oz) for the Flo Woolsey version
or
4 squares (4oz) for the super chocolately one
½ cup butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
¾ cup sifted flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup walnuts, chopped

METHOD
1. Preheat oven to 350°.
2. Melt chocolate and butter together in a double boiler. Cool and transfer to a mixing bowl.
3. Add sugar, then add eggs and beat until fluffy. Stir in vanilla.
4. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt, then add to wet mixture and mix gently until blended.
5. Fold in nuts.
6. Cut out a square of parchment paper to line the bottom of your baking pan and pour in the mixture, evening it out with a spatula.
7. Bake on a high shelf in the oven for about 30 minutes or until a cake tester or knife comes out clean. Be careful! It can overcook easily. Turn them out onto a cooling rack once they’ve been out of the oven for 10 minutes or so.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cucumber Salad: an easy and delicious accompaniment for summer meals

First off, allow me to apologize for being silent for so long. I have a very good excuse: a deadline for one of my crime novels (The Boom Room) has been staring me in the face, and it was time to chain myself to the computer or disappear upstairs with my journal in order to get the damn thing written. It’s now nearly there, so I’m sparing a few moments to share a recipe with you, something I’m sure you’ll enjoy when the summer heat starts bearing down on you.

Who wants to spend days in a hot kitchen when the outside weather is hot and fine? I sure don’t, especially since ours isn’t air conditioned. Around May and June every year, we spend a lot of time thinking about no fuss, quick and tasty dishes to make when the weather makes indoor cooking seem rather unattractive. Today I’m going to share one of our best in this category with readers of AMFAS.

Cucumbers are a cooling vegetable to eat, but they’ve got two drawbacks to my mind. First, they contain a lot of water which they tend to shed copiously when there’s salt anywhere nearby. Second, unless you have very fresh cukes, they don’t have a heck of a lot of flavor on their own. You need some other tasty ingredients to help out.

On the plus side, cukes are very low in calories. If you’re the gardening type, they also have another benefit, since they’re dirt simple to grow – assuming they’re not attacked by cucumber beetles.

So, to my mind, if you can combine great taste with low calories, you have the best of two worlds. And since cucumbers really aren’t the sort of things you cook, they can be really lovely to prepare during the summer when they’re especially fresh and inexpensive.

We looked high and low for a good recipe. Certainly there’s no lack of cucumber salad recipes in our cookbooks and out there on the internet. A lot of them can be struck off because they just pile on the fat with lots of sour cream or mayonnaise, two traditional dressing ingredients. Including fresh dill was a must for us, and something more than the usual white vinegar was definitely wanted.

Here’s what Vicki and I came up with. If you have a mandolin (the cooking kind, not the playing kind), this recipe is a snap to make. The actual work can be accomplished in under ten minutes, and the time involved for our recipe is to let the ingredients sit and do their thing.

Try it and be sure to let me know how you like it!

By the way, if you like schnitzel (in all its forms) as much as we do, cucumber salad is a traditional accompaniment for it and this recipe is perfect.

Summer Cucumber Salad
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS
4 cups English cucumber (the really long ones), peeled and very thinly sliced
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups red onion, very thinly sliced
2 Tbs white balsamic vinegar (highly recommended), white wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice
4 Tbs low-fat sour cream
1/4 tsp sugar (a bit more if you don’t use white balsamic vinegar
1/4 tsp Tabasco sauce
1-2 Tbs dill, freshly chopped
salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste

METHOD
1. Place sliced cucumbers in a colander and sprinkle with the salt. Toss a bit and let drain for 1/2 hour. (The cukes will throw off water and make the salad less runny.) Use a tea towel to pat the slices thoroughly dry.

2. Place the cucumbers in a bowl with the red onion.

3. In a small bowl whisk together the vinegar or lemon juice, sour cream, sugar, Tabasco, and dill, then toss the dressing with the salad.

4. Chill the salad (covered) in the fridge for at least an hour before serving. Check for salt and season with lots of pepper.

This salad is best served the day it’s made.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The most useful tool for your kitchen*

Several years ago now, I decided that many recipes from even impeccable sources are very inaccurate. You know the ones I mean. “Finely dice one carrot,” or “Slice one medium onion”. When I first started cooking, I would really agonize over exactly what that meant. Exactly how big is a “medium onion”? I’d fake it, using my judgement and sometimes get wildly differing results from one time to the next.

Then I had a conversation with my friend Chef Paul Lasky, an experienced and very talented man in the kitchen (who, sadly, has given up professional cooking). Paul told me the problems was due in large part by inexact recipes. All good cooking operations – whether restaurants or caterers – have a “bible” for their standard dishes. This way, if the chef is unavailable, whoever takes his/her place can jump in and do the cooking. This is especially important for house specialties. You don’t want to disappoint patrons when certain standards on the menu are not available because chef isn’t.

That’s where the bible comes in. It has a list of ingredients, using accurate measurements that allows anyone with the necessary technique and knowledge to recreate the dish accurately. What separates the great cook from the merely good ones is the ability to turn out exactly the same dish every time. The possibility of achieving this begins with having accurate ingredient measurements.

Since being told this, I’ve been weeding out favorite recipes that have “fuzzy” ingredient lists. If it says something like “1 medium onion, chopped”, I either chuck the recipe or if I want to retain it, I figure out exactly what that means for best results. So “1 medium onion chopped” turned into “3/4 cup onions, diced”. However, lately I’ve been getting even more fanatical about measurements. Here’s why: depending on what the size of the dice is, you might get more or less onion than you counted on. Larger dice = less onion because of the space left in between.

So I got more precise and wanted to specify the size of the dice, ie “3/4 cup onion, 1/4" dice”.

Then about three years ago I started messing around with home curing. Researching that, it became clear that the only way to accurately measure the ingredients was by weight. In measuring salt, especially curing salt, it’s really critical.

I’ve had a kitchen scale for years, but it wasn’t all that accurate and it couldn’t deal with even medium amounts of things. It was only good up to about half a pound. Forget weighing a large piece of meat. Yes, for a large roast, I could use the bathroom scale, but I knew it was never really accurate.

So I cruised the internet for a solution. My parameters were (in descending order of importance):
  1. accuracy
  2. ability to weigh adequate amounts (up to 20 pounds, if possible)
  3. ability to weigh either in imperial (ounces) or metric (grams)
  4. electronic rather than spring-loaded (for accuracy over a longer period because springs wear out)
  5. easy to use and clean
  6. not too expensive
  7. compact for storage
The first thing I found is that there are a lot of scales out there, at wildly differing prices. Most for sale in kitchen stores (for home use) didn’t have a very large capacity. Others looked like they’d be a pain in the butt to clean.

My eventual choice was the Salter 3013 Stainless Steel Aquatronic Scale. It features:
  • a 22-lb capacity
  • a stainless steel bed for easy cleaning
  • it measures dry or wet ingredients
  • it automatically compensates for the weight of a bowl, plate or dish in which you might place what you are weighing or measuring
  • handles imperial or metric values at the push of a button
  • it’s very compact and lightweight
  • it’s accurate as all get out

I got mine for $49.95 (Canadian) from a site that’s sadly now out of business.

The only drawback I’ve found is that when you’re weighing in grams, it goes up only by twos. So if you want, say, 5 grams of something, you have to fake between 4 and 6. These are generally minute amounts (unless what you’re weighing is very light by volume, ie something like saffron). But all in all, I can live with that. If it could measure milligrams, this scale would be perfect for my needs.

Regardless of what you decide to buy, I highly recommend purchasing a kitchen scale. Mine is now in use nearly daily, and I cannot imagine doing any curing without it. The real problem is transferring all my recipes to weight measurements of ingredients wherever that’s possible (and that often means making a particular recipe a few times to get it accurate).

The results? All of my more finicky recipes that have been converted to measurement by weight now come out absolutely identically every time – (especially baking). For portioning, it is absolutely essential. For some ingredients (like spaghetti), it is absolutely indispensable. And obviously, if an ingredient list for a recipe does list something by weight, you’re all set if you’ve got a scale. (How many times in the past did I run to the supermarket across the street to surreptitiously weigh an ingredient?)

I cannot recommend strongly enough the inclusion of this very powerful cooking tool in your kitchen arsenal. If you want to home cure, you simply must have one.

Trust me…
________________

*Well, at least I think it is!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Bacon Report

And believe me, this tastes as good as it looks!
I am constantly surprised by people’s response when I tell them that we make our own bacon. It’s as if they think it is some arcane art, or subject best left to professionals who have dedicated their whole lives  to the study of bacon production.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Here are links to some previous posts on the subject of bacon here on AMFAS (Home curing: “The Smoked Bacon ReportMakin’ bacon: Adventures-in-home-curing & Smoking bacon). If you haven’t read them, please take the time to do so. I’ll go cook up some bacon while you’re reading…

There. Now does anything about making bacon seem particularly difficult or onerous? Yet probably not one in 10,000 people here in North America has ever tasted homemade bacon, let alone done some up themselves.

I wonder why that is? Yes, it does take several days for it to cure, but the actual production time can be measured in minutes. Karel and I made up a beautiful six-pound piece last week, and I’ll bet in actual “work time” we spent all of ten minutes on the job – not counting the smoking, and that was only a bit time-consuming because we like to do it over a charcoal fire. If we used an electric burner assembly that’s readily available for our little smoker, we probably would have spent a total of twenty minutes to finish the job.

If you don’t want to, or can’t smoke foods (if you live an apartment, that will be the case), you can still cure bacon that will taste fantastic. All you need is a pork belly, some salt, sugar and that’s it. The rest is all fancy stuff to jazz it up. Rub the dry cure (salt and sugar) into the meat, seal it in a plastic bag, throw it in the fridge, and in a matter of days, you will have bacon that will knock your socks off. When you cook it, it won’t spatter because you haven’t injected it with water (under the industry’s guise of “getting the flavor right into the heart of the bacon”). For the same reason, it also won’t shrink very much when you cook it. Hell, if you can’t smoke your bacon but demand that smoke flavor, throw some liquid smoke in with the cure, and voila! Your bacon will have a reasonable approximation of having spent several hours in a smoker. That’s what’s been done to that “Genuine Old-Fashioned Hickory Flavor Bacon” you bought at the MegaMarket last weekend.

The biggest problem you’re going to face in making your bacon is sourcing a really good pork belly. In these days of factory farming, nothing is more factory-farmed than pork. The conditions in which the pigs you generally eat have to live in is really quite horrendous. Go online and do a little research, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. We don’t purchase that pork anymore – ever. I’d rather go hungry than support that industry. Sure, we have to pay more for meat from pastured pigs, but so what? The pigs led a good life that hopefully ended humanely. The meat is of far better quality and flavor. We simply eat less of it.

Once you’ve found a good source of pork, all the other ingredients are readily available.

The rewards of making your own bacon are more than well worth the effort. You’ll have bacon with superior flavor and texture, no chemicals, and it will be cheaper than most supermarket bacon. Ours, all-in, cost about $7 a pound.

If you’re thinking, How could anyone eat six pounds of bacon before it goes bad? the answer is simple: bacon freezes very well and keeps for a very long time. What we now do is wrap a meal’s worth of bacon in plastic wrap, bundle all the portions into a freezer bag, suck out the air and throw it in the freezer. Even if you take it out at the last moment, ten minutes in hot water will thaw it more than well enough to allow you to separate the rashers and cook them. We also freeze chunks of bacon so that they can be cut up as lardons or for other uses. Try doing that with thinly sliced, supermarket bacon! Lastly, you have the rind. We cut it into four-inch squares and freeze those. Whenever we’re making a stew, we throw one or two of those square in for added flavor. In a crock of homemade baked beans or in cassoulet the results are amazing.


So what’s stopping you?
_____________

Our bacon made this weekend was the best yet. Karel and I have been experimenting with double smoking. In the case of bacon, this means cold smoking it for a number of hours (we like the results of eight hours of this), then hot smoking the bacon for probably an additional four hours (the temp internal temperature of the bacon needs to get to around 155°). We cook low and slow so that the bacon gets the maximum time in the smoke, but then we like things really smoky.

This piece of bacon was cured using kosher salt, maple sugar, birch syrup and a bit of ground black pepper (Karel’s brainstorm). Since the belly we purchased from Ben Gundy at the Sausage King was on the thin side and very lean, the curing took only four days, followed by a day of drying in the fridge. For the cold smoke, we used applewood pellets in our A-Maze-N Pellet Smoker and doubled up in the smoker with some medium cheddar for four of the hours, followed by two pounds of almonds for the remaining four hours. Next day, Karel hot smoked the bacon for three-and-a-half hours over a combination of apple and maple chips.

The results are absolutely spectacular: not too salty, wonderful round smoky aroma and flavor and just the perfect amount of sweetness (the maple sugar coupled with the birch syrup is a knockout combination). I honestly don’t see how we could improve on it. Sadly, both of us forgot all about taking photos. Sorry ’bout that!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

At last! A recipe I’ve long coveted: smoked trout spread

Two summers ago, we were in Vermont, but Vicki was in Montpelier helping the widow of one of her flute teachers, while I got to spend a few days in Shelburne visiting a high school friend, Ellen Gurwitz. I occupied my days doing some design projects while she was at work and we spent the evenings catching up. I also had the pleasure of watching Ellen do her weekly internet radio show, Stone Soup, on WBKM. (It will be back on the air in just a few weeks. You should check it out!)

When we hit Saturday, the weather was beautiful and really warm, so a picnic was called for. Ellen had a perfect spot not too far south, right on the shore of Lake Champlain.

Since it was a spur of the moment decision, we decided to buy the food for our picnic. There’s a small store, the Shelburne Supermarket, very close by, so off we went. At the store we grabbed a nice bottle of wine, some bread, cheese, veggies, and fruit. I caught Ellen looking rather fondly at a small container in one of the coolers.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a smoked trout spread they make here that I really like, but it’s pretty pricy, so I don’t buy it very often.”

Well, of course, I had to grab some of that. Once we got settled in our picnic spot with a spectacular view right across the lake to the far-distant Adirondacks in New York State, I was very glad I insisted on purchasing the trout spread. In a word, it tasted absolutely fantastic, the best I’ve had. When Vicki arrived the next day to pick me up, I rattled on and on about it and have been ever since. It was that good.

A few weeks ago, I had been talking to Ellen about the trout spread (again), and she said she’d drop by Shelburne Supermarket to see if by some chance they would share the recipe. Lo and behold, they did! I was over the moon when she emailed it to me.

I trotted down to Dominick’s at the St. Lawrence Market bought to two fresh trout filets. (You didn’t actually expect me to buy smoked trout, did you?) After a four-hour cure in salt and brown sugar with some added lemon zest and freshly ground pepper, followed by overnight drying in the fridge, Karel and I cold smoked them (applewood pellets) the next day for 4 hours, and I was ready to make my special treat.

The recipe, from Doug in the meat department at Shelburne Supermarket who developed the recipe, makes about eight pounds of the stuff, so it obviously required some cutting down for home use, but that proved pretty simple to reduce to one-tenth (about 2 cups-worth).

Even better is to be able to share it here with all of you, so I’d like to conclude with a special shout-out to Doug. If you’re ever in the Burlington area of Vermont, just drive a little south of the city on Highway 7 and stop in at this great, small, local supermarket to try some of the original trout spread. I know I certainly will next time we visit Ellen. The store has an excellent selection of fruits, vegetables and meat, plus any number of gourmet delicacies, many made in-house or locally.

An extra-special thank you to Ellen for doing the leg-work to get me the recipe!

As for the recipe, it’s simplicity itself to put together and quick, with a fantastic flavor. And it keeps for several days. What more could you ask for? It’s a perfect “make-ahead” choice for a before-dinner appetizer. Both times I’ve made it now, we’ve served it with our homemade crostini. The satisfying crunch of that provides the perfect foil for the smooth texture of the spread. For simple directions to make crostini, click HERE.

Shelburne Supermarket Smoked Trout Spread
Makes about 2 cups

INGREDIENTS
1/2 lb smoked trout
1 Tbs minced shallot
4 tsp freshly-squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp Worchestershire sauce
2 tsp Frank’s RedHot sauce
5 oz whipped cream cheese
2 Tbs chopped fresh parsley

METHOD
1. Skin trout filet (if needed) and break it into as fine pieces as you can by hand.

2. Add the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Notes: The spread benefits from “resting” a bit to let the flavors develop, so I suggest, if you’re not serving it for a few hours, covering the spread with plastic wrap, and chilling it in the fridge until close to serving time. Take it out and let it warm up for a half-hour or so. If you’re making it reasonably close to serving it, just let the spread sit at room temperature for a half hour.

I also came up with an even faster method for making it without changing the requisite texture very much. After removing the skin from the trout, break it into smallish pieces by hand, throw everything into your mixer (not a food processor or blender!) and mix the spread on the lowest setting until everything is just blended and homogenized.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

When you’re too sick to want to cook, but too hungry not to eat…

The past few days, I’ve been feeling pretty punk. I might get one cold a year, but I’m currently laid low by my second, and I can’t remember the last time that’s happened.

What’s the saying? Starve a cold and feed a fever? Or is it the other way around? I can never remember, but all I can tell you is I really don’t feel like doing any cooking at the moment. Speaking of which, since I’m the one who’s in the kitchen more often than not, I’d better come up with a plan, or come dinnertime, there’s going to be a very cranky female in the house – and I’m not talking about our cat, Abbynormal who is always cranky.

But that’s another story.

Right now it’s lunchtime and I only have to fend for myself. What is needed is a good big dose of comfort food, but something that doesn’t take a lot of work and time to prepare.

My Aunt Esther Hoeldtke (actually, my mom’s cousin) lived in Buffalo. She was a grade school principal and a really wonderful lady. She lived most of her life alone due to the fact that her betrothed was killed in Europe during the Second World War. She always struck me as somewhat sad long before I was old enough to know what the cause was. Regardless, it was always fun when we went to Buffalo – where my mother was born and grew up – because we’d inevitably see Aunt Esther. I liked her a lot and have very fond memories of those visits.

Years went by, I wound up in Montreal to finish my university studies at McGill, and eventually Vicki and I moved on to Toronto. That was awfully near Buffalo. As it turned out, when our first son was very young, we decided to fly home for Christmas out of Buffalo to save some money. To make the trip easy, it was best for us to get to Buffalo the night before and catch a plane out first thing in the morning. I called Aunt Esther to see if she could put up three traveling Canadians. She came through in spades. We’d get dinner, a place to leave our car for free – and she’d drive us to the airport! To say the least, we were delighted by this news.

Okay, this was supposed to be a post about feeling ill and comfort food. Where the heck is Blechta going with this? Bear with me. The answer is just around the corner.

It being December and the location being Buffalo (not to mention the Niagara Peninsula to pass through), of course a huge snow squall nailed us when we’d nearly gotten to the border. Going was glacial as we crawled through near white-out conditions to get to Aunt Esther’s in Williamsville (a western suburb of Buffalo).

By the time we pulled up in front of her house, we were inexcusably late, famished and completely ready to be taken care of. Once we’d gotten our luggage up into the bedroom, and Karel fed and changed, we went downstairs wondering what smelled so darned good. Aunt Esther’s brother, my Uncle Ernest and his wife Katherine had arrived – and that was a pleasant surprise.

Our savior came out of the kitchen with a tray bearing steaming mugs. Auntie had whipped this up when she saw how whipped we were, and I will always associate the smell of this very simple recipe as the beginning of feeling a whole lot better. That night, by the time we finished our mugs, we were ready to take on the world – or at least the beef pot roast and vegetables.

The components are completely mass-produced, and probably not all that wonderful nutritionally, but they’re warming, taste and smell great, so I’m going to whip some up and in a few minutes I’ll be sitting in my favorite chair in the living room, reading the novel I currently have going, and probably feeling a whole lot better – if only psychologically. The origin is probably one of those newspaper filler-things or the label of a soup can, but who cares? You’re sick!

Next time you’re feeling under the weather and don’t feel a whit like cooking, try this simple remedy for misery. Maybe you’ll start to feel better, too. At the very least, you’ll be nice and warmed, and that’s sometimes nearly as good.

By the way, we finished up the evening with me thumping out Christmas carols on Aunt Esther’s piano, accompanying everyone’s best attempts at singing.

Aunt Esther’s Remedy
Serves 3-4

Ingredients:
1 10-oz can Campbell’s lo-sodium beef broth
20 oz of Mott’s Tomato Cocktail (Don’t use V8 or tomato juice. It just won’t cut it.)
a small squeeze of lemon juice. No more than 1/2 tsp.
freshly ground black pepper

Method:
1. In a saucepan, mix the broth with an extra can of water, according to the directions on the can.

2. Add the tomato cocktail. Heat to boiling. Just before serving, add the lemon juice and a grinding of pepper. And that’s it!

3. Take a sip and begin to feel a whole lot better.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy Birthday to us!

Okay, I’m really late with this, but it suddenly dawned on me this morning that A Man For All Seasonings has been around for one year. However, I missed the anniversary by nearly a month! (typical for me) If you sift back through to the beginning of (AMFAS) time, you’ll notice our first post was February 22nd of last year. That’s me, I guess: often a day late and a dollar short.

To all of you who have been loyally following my thoughts about “all things edible”, interspersed with my occasional rant about what’s being done to our food supply, my thanks. To all who have left cogent comments, even greater thanks. I really appreciate you taking the time.

We now also have a resident wine (and other beverages) expert, Frank Baldock. Frank really is a true expert on the subject and is everything an expert should be. He has vast experience, is an superlative and engaging writer, someone who’s probably forgotten more on the subject than I’ll ever know. (He’s also a marvelous dinner guest.) If you haven’t already signed up for his excellent wine newsletter, Wine Express, do yourself a favor and take out a subscription. It’s definitely worth the small cost. Just click HERE and you’ll be at his website’s contact page. As a matter of fact, as long as you’re there, take a look around website. I’ve seen plenty of wine suggestion newsletters and websites over the years, and Frank’s is the real deal. Wine Express is our go-to source when we want a special bottle for a special meal and he’s never let us down with his suggestions. His feature articles are also incredibly informative – and entertaining. Frank is one of those oenophiles who doesn’t take his subject too seriously. We’re very fortunate to have him here as our resident wine expert.

Have you thought of becoming a “friend” of this blog? We have eight so far, but it would be great to have more. The place to sign up is at the top of the right-hand column, and you’re literally a click or two away from being “an insider”. Please consider it.

We love feedback! If you have any thoughts on what is presented here, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment. If you have anything you’d like us to feature or discussion topic, please send me an email by clicking HERE. I’d love for this blog to become more of a community. For that matter, if you’d like to step on the AMFAS soapbox, just drop me a line, and I’ll set it all up for you to post.

There are plans to bring you a lot more features over the coming year, including some of our own in-house produced videos. In fact, some of them are already in the works. Please stay tuned!

Now, you’ll have to excuse me. My son Karel and I are smoking a rack of ribs today, and I have to go out to the Blechta Test Kitchens to prep them…

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Frank Baldock’s lonzino wine pairings

Lonzino – rhymes with vino – and there’s a world of vino waiting to speed-date with this air-cured treat.

You can even make a homemade vintage by adding fennel leaves.

You can’t miss with crisp, sassy whites like grassy, herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or smoky, melon-scented Pouilly-Fume from the Loire. Oaky-toasty Chardonnay has a winning way with cured meats, as does racy, food-friendly dry Riesling or razor-sharp Austrian Gruner Veltliner.

In red mode, select middleweight wines with silky tannins like delicately spicy Oregon or Ontario Pinot Noir (red Burgundy from France is killer, of course, but tends to be pricier). Take a whirl with savoury Merlot and suave Tempranillo-based Rioja from Spain with coconut-vanilla-berry from American oak aging (in Spain, they love lonzino and call it lomo).

Italy, naturally, offers perfect matches, starting with dry light whites like Pinot Grigio or Soave.

Eligible reds include Barbera d’Asti or any Sangiovese-based wine, like Brunello and Chianti, but to my mind Dolcetto, with hint of fruity bitterness and anise is outstanding as a pork partner.

From France, bring on Grenache-heavy southern Rhones with their suggestion of raspberry-licorice, or an earthy sun-burned Minervois from the Languedoc. Similarly midweight sippers like a simple Bordeaux make a happy couple with complexity and style.

Off the regular match-making radar but on the compatibility money, I’d also serve berry-rich Zinfandel or a rich, leathery red from Portugal’s up and coming Douro region, such as Quinta do Cachao. Wow!
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Frank Baldock, AMFAS’s resident “beverage” expert’s newsletter about all things vino and otherwise can be found online at winexpress.ca. You can also take out a subscription to the print version of his newsletter by clicking HERE.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The A-Maze-N-Pellet-Smoker and our hickory-smoked almond recipe

I’ve had some questions about the device I use to cold smoke and maybe it’s time to do a product review here on A Man for All Seasonings.

Since we love smoked salmon around here, I’ve been keen on making our own for quite some time. Last summer, when Karel and I bought our entry level Brinkmann smoker, I decided that cold smoking would be on the docket as soon as I could figure out how to do it without breaking the bank, because in initially looking at it, I was led to believe I’d either have to cobble together something on my own using a bar fridge and some sort of container for generating the smoke (which in itself wouldn’t have been cheap), or go whole hog, get a Bradley smoker and use their cold smoke adaptor with additional ice to cool things off enough.

Because, you see, the idea behind cold smoking is to get the smoke to what you’re smoking without raising the temperature. The things you cold smoke (salmon, nuts, cheese, etc.) need to get that smoke flavor without being cooked. In reality, in order to get smoke, you need burning (or at least smoldering) and that means heat. My research led me to the benchmark of 90 degrees F. Go north of that, and you’re also cooking your food rather than just smoking it.

Faced with spending a chunk of change, I put the idea on the back burner. Around Christmas, I decided to look further for a solution to my quandary.

Lo and behold, I found not one, but two solutions, both variations on the same idea: keeping heat to a minimum. One was the Cold Smoke Generator. It burns sawdust and got good reviews. We also found the A-Maze-N smoker which comes in two versions: one that burns sawdust and is very similar to the Cold Smoke Generator, and the other, following a similar design, burns compressed sawdust pellets. In the end, I decided on the A-Maze-N line simply because it seemed to be more ruggedly constructed. The pellets seemed more convenient to use, too.

All set to order one, I found a store, Ontario Gas Barbecue, just north of Toronto that carries the A-Maze-N Pellet Smoker, along with the pellets. Not being the patient sort, I decided to immediately take a run up there. Seeing one of these in the flesh, as it were, I was immediately impressed with the workmanship. It’s made of fairly thick steel with small holes punched in, and has two supports underneath to aid in airflow and also to stiffen the whole affair. Everything is spot welded and construction is neat and tidy.

A-Maze-N also makes excellent pellets containing 100% of whatever wood you’re purchasing, no cheaper “fillers”. We bought a few pouches: apple, cherry and pecan.

Back home, I got busy on a one-pound salmon filet we’d bought at Dominic’s at the St. Lawrence Market, curing it in the fridge with salt, sugar, peppercorns and dill for around 36 hours. I wanted a really smoky flavor, so I completely filled our A-Maze-N smoker with cherry pellets and prepared to smoke overnight. It being rather cold (-5C), I probably should have been worried about the meat freezing if everything worked the way it was supposed to.

It’s recommended to light the pellets using a blow torch. I concur. The pellets are very hard and won’t start readily any other way. The cherry pellets are especially prone to going out if they’re not lit well enough. Since that was what I was using, I decided to follow a recommendation I saw online and mixed in a bit of pecan pellets which burn more readily, and that worked fine.

Next morning, I was surprised to find the unit still smoking away after 11 hours. The temperature inside the smoker was about 1 degree C above the ambient temperature. The salmon filet had turned darker with the skin side having a nice, golden sheen.

The results? Well, it turned out to be maybe a bit too smoky for our taste, but it was undeniably not cooked and the overall flavor and texture were lovely. Needless to say it didn’t last too long!

On our second cold smoking attempt, we smoked almonds for Christmas gifts my son Karel was making. After 6 hours in hickory smoke, the almonds were very tasty. We roasted them in the oven afterwards to crisp them up, and after salting (through the use of soy sauce) the results were quite satisfactory. We’ve since cold smoked other nuts, cheese, pork chops and bacon, all with excellent results.

My opinion is that for cold smoking at home, the A-Maze-N pellet smoker is the way to go. It’s easy to use and works very well. If you want double the smoke output, you can light it at both ends through the provided holes. The construction quality means that it should last for many years. You can use it in any barbecue with a lid. Heck, you could smoke in a cardboard box if you protect the bottom of it from the slight bit of heat the unit generates. All you need is an enclosed area and a way to get a bit of a draft through it so the smoldering isn’t stopped because of lack of oxygen. To read another review from BBQ Island with some excellent photos of the smoker in action, click HERE.

You can purchase these units from retail outlets (there’s a list on the left-hand side of the page) or directly from the company. Amazon also sells it.

So if you’d like to try your hand at cold smoking, the A-Maze-N pellet smoker is the best way to go, to my mind.

Here’s our smoked almond recipe to whet your appetite. It’s adapted from a recipe given to me by Michele Jacot (thanks, Michele!), who doesn’t smoke the almonds first…yet.

Roasted & Salted Hickory-Smoked Almonds
Makes 2 pounds

INGREDIENTS
2 lbs Raw, unsalted almonds (go for quality!)
Hickory pellets
Soy or tamari sauce (with some sort of spray bottle so you can mist the nuts)

METHOD
1. First you need to cold-smoke the almonds. Sounds complicated and expensive, doesn’t it? It isn’t. You only need an A-Maze-N pellet smoker and a bag of their hickory pellets, some sort of mesh tray or a sheet of aluminum foil with a lot of holes punched in, your BBQ, a butane barbecue lighter (we use a blow torch). Read the directions for the smoker carefully and trust them. They know about what they talk!

2. Fill the A-Maze-N smoker with about a 6-inch length of pellets (one inch of pellets works out to about an hour of smoke) and light as per the instructions. Once it is smoking well, place the almonds into the BBQ and cover it. We try to keep them as spread out much as possible to improve the exposure to the smoke.

3. We like to go out and shake up the almonds every 30 minutes so they get exposed to the smoke evenly. When the smoke stops, you’re done with this step.

4. Heat your oven to 375°. Put the almonds on a couple of baking sheets and roast them in the oven for 10-15 minutes. It’s good to keep checking them after 10 minutes. You want them to be slightly browned, but they can burn quickly so don’t leave them unattended.

5. As soon as you take them out of the oven – and leaving them on the baking sheet – mist the almonds with soy sauce. It’s critical to spray them while they’re still really hot. They will let off some steam (totally normal). Spray once, stir them around and spray again so they’re more evenly coated. Taste one. If they’re not salty enough, spray them more. This is a feel sort of thing. If you mist them more than twice, slip them back into the oven for another minute to aid in keeping them crisp.

6. Let them cool, thoroughly. They will snap, crackle and pop, again totally normal. If you try them before they’re completely cooled, you’ll be disappointed because they will seem soggy and “stale”. Just be patient. When they’re down to room temperature, they’ll be satisfyingly crispy.

7. Store the almonds in a tightly-sealed container or plastic bag to maintain freshness – but they probably won’t last long!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lonzino, part 2: Air-drying



Our two pieces of pork loin, cured and rinsed.
My previous post was all about curing a boneless pork loin with salt and herbs (mostly fennel seed) to make the Italian salumi delicacy known as lonzino. Now it’s time to air-dry the cured loin which intensifies the flavors and gives your creation a lovely texture somewhere between prosciutto and bresaola.

If you haven’t followed our homemade guanciale project, I’ll need to tell you about the conditions for air-drying meat successfully. It’s not all that difficult. What you need is a location with a fairly steady temperature of around 55 degrees and stable humidity around 75%. Some airflow around the meat also helps in the drying process.

Where do you find an appropriate place to dry around the house?

It can be tough, but doable with some ingenuity. First thing that went through your mind, I’ll bet is “winter because it’s much cooler”, and you’d be right about that. Many basements have conditions similar to that – if you’ll let them. Our basement is basically unfinished and we don’t use it for much other than storage and laundry, so it was a simple matter to close off all the heating ducts down there to cause the temperature to drop a bit more. Over two winters of curing, the temperature has not dropped below 50 and stayed below 60 until early April. So we have that requirement covered.

The first thing you need to be able to do is reliably measure temperature and humidity on a daily basis. If you’re in Canada, Canadian Tire sells an indoor digital thermometer/hygrometer (temperature/humidity reader ) for only $19.99 (product #42-9931-0). We have a copper analog one from Lee Valley Tools (leevalley.com, product #KD245) that mounts on a wall or a stand. So you don’t have to break the bank on this.

The secret with drying meat is to have it proceed slowly and evenly. If the humidity is too low, it dries too quickly and unevenly, simply becoming too hard. With guanciale, that isn’t as much of a issue, because most of a hog jowl is fat. Lonzino is nearly all meat, so low humidity is a problem. This is also the reason for using some sort of casing on the outside (more on this later). You don’t want the outside to dry before the inside has a chance.

For us (and probably for you), a consistent humidity of 75% will probably prove trickier than temperature. Last year, for some reason, the humidity in our basement was pretty good in that regard, never falling under 70% and generally staying between 73% and 77%, in other words, perfect for air-drying. I was certainly lulled into a false sense of security by 2011-12.

This year it’s been all over the place, probably because Toronto has been much colder and snowier. Humidity has been as low as 62% and never higher than 74%. What to do?

There are lots of examples of people using drying boxes. Since temperature isn’t a problem, that might be the way to go when our humidity isn’t optimal. Recently though, I used a small humidifier and fan to bump things up a bit since we hang things from the ceiling rafters. A box that would concentrate the effects of humidification will be the next thing I’ll try. If for some reason your humidity readings get too high, you need to use a de-humidifier to get it down, otherwise you face an increased risk for the growth of mold.

On to getting your cured lonzino ready for drying.

Stuffed, tied and ready to be hung and dried.
As stated above, you don’t want drying to happen too quickly because of low humidity. The traditional casing for this is called a bung. It’s the front portion of a ruminant’s stomach. Pork and beef bungs are available from butcher suppliers. For this you’ll need a beef bung since pork bungs are too narrow for a pork loin. Chances are that you’ll have to buy a few of these, but they’re dried and salted so they can be kept in the fridge for quite some time. Bungs are long enough that you can encase two pieces of lonzino from one bung. Simply cut it in half.

Soak the amount of casing you’ll be using for at least 1 hour in some room temperature water with a splash of white vinegar added. I generally leave it in for 3 hours so the bung is nice and pliable.  Rinse the bung throughly several times with clean water. Squeeze out as much water as possible from the casing before stuffing the loin in. It you want to use artificial casing, the process will be pretty much the same.

Stuff the cured loin gently into the casing. Tie off the bottom end using a bubble knot (info on this kind of knot is HERE (from Matt Wright’s excellent blog). Carefully squeeze out any air pockets between the bung and the meat. Now tie a bubble knot around the top end.
Next, tie the meat up, using butcher’s loops and knots, much the same way you would tie a roast. Here’s a good Youtube video that shows how to do it:



When tying lonzino (or sausage) leave about a 6 inches more string at each end than is shown in the video. At the bottom of the lonzino, I tie the string around the bubble knot for little extra security – probably unnecessary if I’ve tied a proper bubble knot. At the top, you definitely want to tie both ends of the string around the bubble knot, rather than what’s done on the above video. then tie together the ends of the string so you can hang the lonzino while drying. The last thing is to prick the casing several times. This aids in more even drying.

Our lonzino has finished drying!
Hang the meat and check it daily to monitor how it’s doing. You might get white mold growing on it during drying (what you often see on a salami). This is no big deal. What you don’t want is green or especially black mold. If you catch these quickly, all is not lost. Carefully wipe down the lonzino with a cloth soaked in white vinegar. The cause is probably excess humidity, but it can also be caused by too much light. Our basement is pretty dark, but if your location is bright, it might be a good idea to black out a window or two. Many Italian homes in Toronto have cantinas built under the front porch. These are absolutely perfect for air-drying meat and sausages. If you have one, use it, and know that I’m very envious.

Now all you have to do is wait (a tough thing for us). I weigh my lonzinos every few days to monitor the drying. When it’s lost 35% of the weight, it’s ready.

Slice thinly to serve and use it any way you’d use prosciutto. We also put diced lonzino in our pasta e fagioli soup (recipe to come in a future post). As part of an antipasto plate, lonzino is fantastic.

Really, this is an easy thing to make and you will be knocked out by the flavor and aroma of this little-known Italian delicacy.

Friday, February 15, 2013

More home curing: making your own lonzino

The finished product, sliced thinly.
A few times since starting up A Man for All Seasonings nearly a year ago now (has it been that long?), I’ve mentioned a cured, air-dried pork specialty known as lonzino. You can certainly guess quite easily from the name that it’s of Italian origin, but you probably can’t guess how easy it is to make, and most importantly how good it is to eat!

I first discovered this on Matt Wright’s engaging food blog (Wrightfood), which, if you haven’t looked at it, is delightfully quirky and interesting, all about Matt’s experiments with different of food-related things (a lot of solid charcuterie information and recipes), with a side benefit being his excellent food photography. I’d suggest checking it out. He has a lot of skill and a good writing style.

Anyway, Matt’s lonzino recipe looked very intriguing, so I gave it a try late last winter. Since we only dry-age meat in the colder months because our basement is pretty ideal at that time, I was a bit worried that it would get too warm as spring came on fast (it was early) and the lonzino would spoil before it had finished drying. What I should have had my eye on was the humidity, which had dropped over the course of the month I had it hanging.

Front piece ready for the cure. Back piece with the cure.
The resulting lonzino was delicious, thanks to Matt’s recipe, but the low humidity had led to it getting a bit too dried out for our taste. For a first attempt, I was impressed, but I was also disappointed that I’d let it hang too long. The key is to weigh the lonzino once it’s cured, wrapped and ready to hang. Then throw it on your kitchen scale every few days until it’s lost 30-35% of its weight. I didn’t remember that, stupid me. By this time you’d think I’d have a concept as important as carefully following directions lasered into my cranium.

As soon as the temperature in the basement reached the ideal meat drying range this past November, I got busy with another pork loin to try my hand again – this time paying attention to everything. The results were gratifying. Everyone who tried our lonzino loved it. It disappeared in a flash.

We’re just reaching the end with our third batch, so I feel confident I’ve got enough experience to share my new-found skill with you.

Both pieces ready for 10 days in the fridge.
First of all, what is lonzino? Take a whole pork loin, trim it nicely, cure it in salt and spices, then wrap and hang it in a cool (55°), not too dry (70%) spot for a few weeks, and viola! (as we musicians say), you have what I’ve come to think of as “poor man’s prosciutto”, or more accurately, pork bresaola (bresaola is cured and air-dried beef). What caught my eye when I originally saw the recipe on Wrightfood was the inclusion of fennel in the cure. Vicki and I love fennel.

Through research, we found there are all kinds of additions that can be put in the cure: garlic, thyme, oregano, basically anything that strikes your fancy. The only constant is salt which is what drives the curing process. The yummy tasting and fragrant ingredients are along for the ride, but will shine when you pop the finished product in your mouth.

Since this post is getting rather long-winded, I’m going to divide things up. This first one will end with the recipe and instructions for curing your lonzino, and the second will deal with wrapping, drying, slicing and serving your creation. If you’re into home-curing or interested in trying your hand, I’d suggest lonzino as a good place to start. The only thing easier that I’ve found is guanciale, and if you’re a follower of AMFAS, I’ve made it pretty clear how I feel about that Italian delicacy!

Lonzino: cured and air-dried pork loin
How much it serves depends on the size of the loin, but the finished product 
will weigh about 40% less than what you start out with.

The cure ingredients are given as a percentage of the total meat weight, after trimming. Since every piece of meat is a different weight, it’s far more accurate to give them this way. In the case of the critical ingredients (kosher salt and curing salt), it’s absolutely necessary to deal in weight percentages if you don’t want a major kitchen disaster. Done in this manner, you are assured that this part of your endeavor will work out just fine. With this in mind, you will need an accurate kitchen scale, something every serious cook should not be without. For home-curing, they’re indispensible.

INGREDIENTS (all percentages are derived from the weight of the meat)
1 trimmed pork loin (a thin layer of fat on the outside is fine if you like a bit of fat)
3.3% (per meat weight) kosher salt
.25% curing salt*
1% black pepper
.15% juniper berries
.27% fennel seeds
2 dried bay leaves

Note: if your pork loin weighs, say, 1 kilo (1000 grams), you’ll be using for your cure 33gr of kosher salt, 2.5gr of curing salt, 10gr of black pepper, 1.5gr juniper berries, and 2.7gr fennel seeds. That should give you a rough idea of how the weight calculations should come out. Be careful to get the curing salt measurement correct! You will not be using very much. If your calculations show a lot of curing salt needed, do your calculations again. In this example, 2.5 grams is under a half teaspoon. Using weight to figure out curing recipes is far more accurate than using volume measurements.

METHOD
1. Trim away any nasty looking stuff from the meat – blood spots and so on as well as most of the fat (if there is any). Wash gently, dry thoroughly.

2. Finely grind all the cure ingredients in a spice grinder or food processor. I’d suggest first flattening the juniper berries with the side of a knife. I also like to then pulverize them along with the fennel seeds using a mortar and pestle, then adding them to the rest of the ingredients to make sure I get uniform sizes of everything. Put the trimmed loin in a large zip lock bag, dump in the cure and rub it thoroughly into the meat. Seal the bag, and put it in the fridge for 8 to 10 days, depending on the weight of the meat.

3. Every other day, rub the meat throughly in the bag, helping to redistribute the cure well. Flip it over. It will throw off some liquid which is a help as the curing goes on.

4. When the cure has done its work, take the lonzino out of the bag, thoroughly rinse off the cure and pat it dry. Now you’re ready to get it into a casing and the drying underway. We’ll deal with that in the next post.

The longer you cure the meat, the saltier it will get, so for us, it’s a matter of getting the meat safely cured, but not allowing it to go a moment longer. It’s a fine line, but if you’ve cured things before, you’ll be familiar with what a completely cured piece of meat feels like. If you’re new to this, it will feel firmer, more “compact” somehow. Does that help? If you’re in doubt, let it go longer – and keep notes so you can correct things when you try again.

*Curing salt, also known as Prague powder, Instacure, Cure #2, pink salt, etc. is a mixture of finely ground salt with nitrate and/or nitrite added (6% by weight). For more information: click HERE. It is not too hard to source curing salt. Any butcher supply store will have it or you can order online. We found some at a local Bass Pro outlet. Many stores that cater to hunters will have it. Remember: it can be dangerous if eaten in large amounts, so be careful! Store it safely, well-labeled, and always double check your calculations when using it to cure meat. The amount needed for any recipe will be less than 10% of the regular salt needed for that recipe.

See you next post for the rest of the lonzino story!