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

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)


  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…