Friday, December 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It’s easy to make your own sauerkraut!

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

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

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

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

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

Baked Sauerkraut with Sausage
Serves 4

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

METHOD

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

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Not too many things say Thanksgiving like cranberry sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cranberry/Orange Sauce
Serves 10-12

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

Method

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


Thursday, November 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Playing Hooky!

A few weeks ago my wife, Vicki, and I buggered off for a day (as our late and great friend David Younger would have said). It was going to be a gorgeous warm day, school was back in session and we hadn’t been to the Toronto Islands in a dog’s age.

I got up early to do a bit of prep for our meal (more on that later, of course!) and we made our plans for a really terrific day off.

The Toronto Islands are a string of low islands protecting our Inner Harbour. Most of it is a public park, although at one end is a small community (the existence of which is a hotly debated topic) and at the other end is the Toronto City Centre Airport (also a very hotly debated topic). The narrow channels between the small islets are often filled with paddle boats, canoes and kayaks, and to enjoy the walkways and paths of the main island, you can rent two- and four-wheel pedal operated vehicles (you can’t call a four-wheeled vehicle a bicycle now, can you?) by the hour. Learn more HERE.

We’ve always wanted to do that, do we did. Pedaling leisurely took us about 20 minutes to get to Ward Island where the houses are and it was really quite enjoyable. There wasn’t time to get to the opposite end (where the nude beach is, oh là là!), so we have that to look forward to in a future trip.

Getting there is a large part of the fun. Ferries leave frequently from the terminal at the foot of Bay Street, so you get a lake voyage as part of your day, always pleasant. There are also views of mighty Lake Ontario from the boardwalks and beaches on the western side of Centre Island. And did we mention the small amusement park and farm (closed because the season was over)? We used to take our boys there for a special day out when they were little

One reason for going during the week was to avoid crowds. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out quite as planned because the island was swarmed by university kids doing team building type things, so when it came time to find a place for our picnic (a big part of our excursion) we had to really hunt around to find something away from the madding crowd. But find one we did.

My beautiful companion for the day!
Now, for our special day, we needed something special to eat, right? A family favorite for picnics is cold fried chicken and buttered rye bread, but I’d been wanting to make lobster rolls all summer long and this was my opportunity. Vicki has never met a lobster that she hasn’t wanted to eat, so she was enthusiastic as well. A trip to the fish market was called for!

So today, I’m going to share our favorite recipe for this summertime treat. I suppose it should be called “Lobster Salad Roll” since the true “Lobster Roll” (originating in Connecticut) is traditionally served warm with the chunks of lobster having been heating in drawn butter. Still, our recipe is very nice flavored as it is with fresh tarragon (always a great choice with crustaceans) and makes a lovely picnic main course. I believe we found the basis for this on epicurious.com.

That day on the Toronto Islands, it tasted better than ever — but that’s probably because we were enjoying the perfect late summer weather while playing hooky!

Lobster Salad Roll
serves 4

INGREDIENTS
2 one-and-a-half-pound lobsters boiled and chilled thoroughly
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
scant 1/4 tsp of freshly grated black pepper
3-4 Tbs mayonnaise
2 Tbs chopped fresh tarragon
a touch of Tobasco sauce
some Boston lettuce leaves
4 soft-crust rolls (hot dog rolls if you must!)

METHOD
  1. Extract the all the meat from each lobster: claws, joints and the tails. If they were boiled, you may need to squeeze the meat gently, either in a colander with the back of a spoon or even just in your hand to get rid of excess liquid. If you don’t know how to clean a lobster, here’s an excellent video on how to do it and get the pieces out in large chunks which suits this recipe:
  2. Combine the shallots, lemon juice and salt and let it stand at room temperature for 1/2 hour.
  3. Next, chop up the meat (discard tomalley and any roe) and cut meat into 1/2-inch pieces.
  4. Whisk together remaining ingredients into the shallot mixture, then add the lobster meat and toss it gently until coated.
  5. Toast and butter the buns generously. Line the inside with boston lettuce and load in the lobster!
This is especially good with a chilled sauvignon blanc or pouilly fuisse.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A little trip to the world’s most unique city: Venice

A Venetian backwater. Gorgeous, no?
In June 2011, my wife and I had the very good fortune to be able to visit Italy. The trip wasn’t all for giggles, though. I had a crime novel underway (barely) and part of it was going to be set in Italia. The finished product of this trip, Roses for a Diva, will be available for you to buy in less than a month if you so desire.

But that’s not really what this post is about. While in Italy, we ate and cooked a lot of great food. Seriously. We stayed only in places where we could cook. If I had to pick my favourite of the locations visited — a really tough assignment — it would have to be that legendary city on the water, Venezia.

In honor of our first visit, the weather cooperated — an important point in late June when days and nights can be hot and humid — and we had only one short daytime shower to “suffer” through. We were out and about every day from early morning to dusk, visiting locations that I might want to use in my book (read Roses to see what famous places made the cut), and to just get a feel for this most unique city. Our camera was busy throughout, as well, and we have well over a hundred reference photos which I relied on quite heavily while writing the Venetian portion of the book.

As for cooking and eating, we had a one-bedroom apartment in the eastern part of the city just off Via Garibaldi. Our “kitchen” consisted of an alcove that could only fit one person, a two-burner electric hot plate with a tiny fridge underneath it, and a sink that didn’t work all that well. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts on our trip, you’ll know that we had a “traveling larder” consisting of fresh and canned tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, pasta, fruit and oil and vinegar along with some herbs and spices. We also always had or eye out for a good bakery, fruttivendolo or other place where we could pick up something interesting.

Just down Via Garibaldi there was a small market during the early part of the day, and we bought a fish that I cooked within hours. I have no idea what it was, but it was fresh and very good. We also picked up some of the best cherries I’ve ever eaten right off a small boat tied to the side of the canal at the end of the street.

It was all very atmospheric, and during our 4-day visit, we got a good feel for what it’s like to live in this city. As a sidebar, I just loved wandering around, having no idea where we were going. Even if you get hopelessly lost, just keep going. Eventually you’ll get to the shore on the other side of the city, and then it’s just a matter of walking to the next vaporetto stop where you can get a ride on one of the city’s “water buses” that circle the island as well as plying their way up and down the Grand Canal, and to the outlying islands. If you’re ever in Venice, I guarantee if you try this, you will see a lot of unexpected and interesting things. The city is just full of “unexpected”.

But all of this is still not why I’m writing this post.

Served at an intimate dinner on our patio.
My wife, Vicki, bought a cookbook recently, and browsing through it, I found a Venetian pasta dish that looked too good not to try: Bigoli con salsa d’acciughe. For those of you who don’t speak Italian — as my darling wife does — this means “bigoli pasta with anchovy sauce”. It’s considered one of the signature dishes of Venice. We love anchovies around here — and to prove that, we normally have a large tin of salted ones in the back of our fridge — so this recipe really caught my eye. A real specialty of Venice and it has anchovies as a main ingredient? What more could we want?

It did not disappoint, even though I made a very critical boo-boo when measuring things the first time I made it. We were only make a half-recipe and I got everything right except for halving the amount of anchovies we needed. The dish was certainly not inedible by any means, but it was awfully salty. Eager to rectify that and be able to make a proper assessment of the recipe, I tried again a week later. This time it proved to be really delicious, especially the combination of anchovies (salty and pungent) and onions (sweet), the sauce’s two main ingredients. With a really good cold-pressed virgin olive oil, you get a very attractive fruitiness, and the crunch of the breadcrumbs is lovely.

A note on bigoli: This is not a well-known pasta shape outside of Italy and it originated in Venice or the Veneto. The best description is “a larger version of bucatini”. In other words, it’s a long thick tube about as thick as a wooden knitting needle. Originally, it was made with buckwheat, but it’s now more often than not made with whole wheat (integrale). Thus far, we’ve been unable to find bigoli in Toronto, so we used spaghetti, although bucatini would probably have been a better traditional choice.

Bigoli con salsa d’acciughe / Bigoli with anchovy sauce
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS
1 1/3 cups fresh breadcrumbs
2/3 cup cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbs minced Italian parsley (don’t use dried parsley!)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 1/2 cups thinly sliced red onion (I’m not kidding. It will cook way down)
3 oz anchovy fillets, chopped
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 pound bigoli, bucatini or spaghetti pasta

METHOD
  1. If you don’t know how to make fresh breadcrumbs, it’s easy. Take a loaf of white or whole wheat bread, cut off the crusts and use a food processor or blender (our choice) to turn them into crumbs. Freeze any extra in a plastic bag from which you’ve sucked the air (to keep ice from forming).
  2. Over a medium flame, heat “to the point of fragrance” (love that term!) 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a wide skillet, then add the bread crumbs. Stirring constantly, toast them until they’re golden brown and crisp. Remove them from the skillet and stir in the minced parsley, a touch of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Set aside.
  3. Cut the onions in half longitudinally (top to bottom), then slice each half very thinly.
  4. Rinse thoroughly and then fillet the anchovies if you’re using the salt-packed ones (and they’re far superior for the usual anchovy filets in oil you find in grocery stores). It’s not complicated. Using a very sharp, thin bladed knife (like a paring knife), start at the tail and cut along the backbone towards the front of the fish. (It’s not hard to cut the filet in one large piece once you get the knack.) Flip the fish over and cut the meat of the other side. Some larger bones may be around the front of the fish, some guts also, so just pull these off with your fingers. I don’t bother removing any fins. They dissolve during cooking, same thing for the fish’s tiny bones. If any meat remains along the backbone, pull it off with your fingers. If you’re using the oil packed fillets, just drain them on some paper towels.
  5. Any anchovies are heavily salted during processing and that can make this dish too salty for some tastes since you’re using a lot of them. If that’s the case for you, soak them for 10 minutes in milk. This will leach out some of the salt. Dry carefully on paper towels if you do this. An alternative — and what I do — is to use little salt in the pasta water. End the anchovy prep by chopping the anchovies relatively finely.
  6. Heat the remaining olive oil in the skillet (now clean again) until the point of fragrance and cook the sliced onion slowly (don’t let it brown) until it’s very soft (about 20 minutes). A couple of pinches of salt will aid the process.
  7. Start heating the water for the pasta.
  8. Add the anchovies to the sauce, mashing them into the onions. You want them dissolve into the sauce.
  9. Once the water is at a rolling boil, add salt to the water but not heavily (see above). Cook the pasta until done. Reserve about a cup of the pasta water.
  10. Turn up the heat under the sauce and stir in a half cup of the pasta water and add the red pepper flakes. Break up the onion/anchovy mixture as best you can. Add the cooked pasta and two thirds of  the breadcrumbs and toss throughly, further separating the clumps of onions and anchovies. Add more pasta water if it’s too dry. We generally serve pasta courses in large soup bowls. Whatever you use, make sure they’re heated! Plate each portion and divide up the remaining breadcrumbs, sprinkling them over each.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

So many tomatoes, so little time

Since we love food around here, especially fruit and vegetables in season, we eagerly look forward to three sings as summer rolls into August: corn, peaches and tomatoes.

For the corn, we want it fresh out of the field with tender kernels and a sweet taste. We don’t care what variety it is, just that its fresh and sweet, and of course, tender.

For the peaches, we want them either off our own tree in the back corner of our yard (none this year sadly, because of a late frost) or picked a day or two before down in the orchards of Niagara and at their peak of perfection. I like to slice them up to eat them. We also have a quick, easy and mega-great peach kuchen recipe which is a treasured memory of my mother. Over the years we’ve made hundreds of these things. You can find the recipe by clicking HERE.

Ready for the oven.
But for me, I wait for the tomatoes. We grow beefsteaks (Big Beef), cherry tomatoes (Sweet 100) and San Marzanos. Even with only nine plants, on a good year, we get snowed under. Thing is, tomatoes are only worth eating when they’ve been vine-ripened. They’re best when they haven’t been refrigerated (ever!) and for me, I like them still warm from the afternoon sun. This year, even considering how cool our evenings have been (the essential thing to get your tomatoes to really ripen perfectly), our crop is really outstanding, huge perfectly ripe and flavorful fruits. This is what tomatoes are all about!

Off-season, tomatoes are not worth buying (at least in North America). Even the “vine-ripened” ones are a joke: thin tasting, not sweet, mealy or still hard. The tomato industry is only interested in tomatoes that last for a long time, look good and transport well. Taste? That’s way down on their list.

Ready for the table. Yum!
I’ve ranted about this before, so let’s not beat a dead horse. The best tomato is one right out of the field, or preferably your own garden. Period. We will forgo tomatoes the rest of the year and live for those 6-8 weeks where we have them at their peak. And for us, that’s right now.

One of our favorite ways to make them is grilled. There’s little that’s better than slicing a big one in half, sprinkling it with some herbs, spices and raining down a bit of bread crumbs before popping it under the broiler and cooking it until it browned and a tiny bit shriveled. If you started with tomatoes at room temperature, they’ll be nicely warmed through. With some grilled meat, you’ve got a match made in heaven.

So without further ado, here’s our grilled tomato recipe: quick, easy, and absolutely delicious!

Grilled Tomatoes
(serves 2-4, depending on how much other food you’re serving)

Ingredients
2 ripe and juicy beefsteak-type tomatoes
granulated garlic (about the only time we use it)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Worcestershire sauce
fresh breadcrumbs
olive oil
shredded fresh basil leaves for garnish

Method

  1. Cut the tomatoes in half longitudinally. Cut the stem portion away on the top piece, and the flower stub away on the bottom piece (if it’s there). Place them cut side up in a baking pan, an oven-proof frying pan or just make a tray out of aluminum foil.
  2. Sprinkle the top of each tomato with granulated garlic, a bit of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. I usually sprinkle about a half teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce on each one. Put a good bit of breadcrumbs on top of the tomatoes next and then drizzle on some good quality olive oil to finish up.
  3. I find it best to put the tomatoes in a 350° oven for 10-15 minutes. Quite often I’m using the oven for some meat, so I remove the tomatoes, cook the meat (steak or pork tenderloin anyone?), then while it rests, you can pop the tomatoes under the broiler until the bread crumbs toast up nicely.
  4. Just before serving, thinly slice some basil leaves and sprinkle them over the top of the breadcrumbs. Serve these piping hot!


And that’s it. With perfectly ripe tomatoes, this is a dish you’ll dream about for the next ten months until the tomatoes are ripe once again.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Another far-too-long hiatus

I know, I know. I promised my faithful readers of this blog that I was going to be better about posting regularly and yet there’s yet again been an interval the length of a bible between this post and the last. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that there’s been a gap of a season. Last time I wrote here summer had yet to begin, now it’s about to fade into autumn. All I can do is apologize. Excuses are not warranted and just won’t cut it. I was just too busy.

However, that’s not to say I haven’t been thinking about food and doing lots of cooking. With summer’s bounty in its procession from early radishes, baby lettuce, asparagus, to mid-summer’s beans, peas, cherries and berries, to what’s currently available: corn, tomatoes, peaches and potatoes, we have been enjoying being outdoors eating food that is at its freshest. Our garden this summer has provided amazing lettuce, tomatoes (beefsteak, cherry and San Marzanos), and carrots. We’re about to dig up some potatoes (our big experiment this summer) and dig into our row of swiss chard. The only bummer was the fact our tomato plants produced so abundantly that the weight of the fruit slid the vines right down the poles. Clearly, this will have to be dealt with next year since the plants suffered and could not be pulled up again without completely severing the vines.

And speaking of tomatoes, we’re about to begin processing. We’ve already processed about 4 liters-worth of chopped tomatoes. Sauce will come in two weekends when our loyal crew assembles for another enjoyable day on the patio, talking, slicing, boiling and grinding until the fruits of our labour are finally resting in hot jars, after which we’ll sit down to a communal feast. It’s always one of the best days of summer.

But getting back to chopped tomatoes…

We use a lot of them over the course of the year, not only for pasta dishes like amatriciana, but also in soups and stews. Last year we used two bushels of San Marzanos – the best choice because of flavor and few seeds – and for Vicki and me (the only crew that day) it was a long slog. Why? Because once the skins were removed , they had to be chopped by hand. I did most of this because I’m faster with a knife, but trust me, it gets pretty tedious and hand-cramping.

I was surfing through webstaurantstore.com (where I’ve bough professional cooking gear like our sliced and vacuum sealer) and low and behold, I ran across choppers. This is a professional piece of kitchen gear, very sturdy with a body made of cast aluminum and stainless steel. You can dice mountains of vegetables in no time (with they’d had one at the National Club when I worked there), and while it’s not something we’ll use every day, it looked like it would be a godsend when we’re doing our yearly chopped tomatoes and chutney. So I plunked down money for one with a 1/4” razor grid (you can get different sized inserts).

Yesterday, we used it for the first time on some San Marzanos we’d picked earlier in the week and which didn’t look as if they’d make it to the weekend when we plan to do the bulk of our processing. Let me tell you, the chopper works like a dream. I chopped 4 liters-worth of tomatoes in about 1 minute (and I wasn’t going top speed). By hand, it would have taken 15 minutes or more.

Those professional cooks really know what they’re doing when they suggest a design for something, which is what happened here, I’m sure.

So, if you’re interested, below is a photo and a link, so you can check it out. I have to say it’s a great kitchen tool, a bit pricey perhaps for some tastes, but built to give you years of service and replacement blades and parts are readily available. It cleans very easily and quickly. What’s not to like?

http://www.webstaurantstore.com/nemco-n56500-3-1-2-easy-chopper-ii-vegetable-dicer/591N565003.html

A late review of the chopper’s first use to chop 3 bushels of tomatoes yesterday: It worked really well. Because we were processing so many tomatoes, we had to stop and clean the pusher a few times. They got clogged with some of the strands where some tomatoes weren’t completely ripe at the top. A butter knife and some running water fixed that up quickly and easily.

Also, because tomato juices get sticky, you have to keep the two slider poles clean. I eventually got tired of wiping them off, so I used some oil. One of the suggested oils to use is mineral oil which I couldn’t find, although I know we have some. I used some olive oil and that seemed to work fine, although I still had to wipe off the poles now and then.

Cleaning the whole unit was not difficult. You’ve got to respect those razor blades, though, and move slowly and deliberately! The unit is heavy, being cast aluminum, and you don’t want it to slip while you’re holding it in soapy water. Ours did, and even though it just nicked the tip of one finger, I got a pretty good cut. It’s best to let it air dry.

All in all, we’re very happy with this purchase. It will last for many years, so for us the cost is worthwhile. We also used it to dice some eggplants and a Spanish onion as part of our dinner prep, and it was a breeze.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The GREAT outdoors

This post (after an unexpected hiatus of regularly updating AMFAS: work again) will be sort of a scattergun update since a lot has been going on in our kitchen and backyard.

Going down to the St. Lawrence Market as my son Karel and I do every week, we’re sort of in touch with the change of seasons on farms in our area, even if we don’t set foot out of Toronto. Bob Taylor, our go-to person for all things potato was telling us a few weeks ago that he hadn’t been able to get into his fields to plant yet because the ground was still too wet. His asparagus beds, though, were showing signs of life. The very next week he had the first of the new season. We quickly snapped up two bunches and it was the star of our dinner that night. Here in Ontario, it’s now the height of the season, so we’re taking advantage of it in a big way.

Enjoying any vegetable at its peak is a unique experience. We all think of sweet corn at the top of this list, but it extends to most other vegetables. Sadly, only a few improve with storage or being left in the ground (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, and kale spring to mind). Several years ago, we grew broccoli in our (sadly, very small) vegetable garden (most of our backyard is given over to my wife’s wonderful flower beds), and it was astonishing how good this vegetable tastes when it’s just been picked, still warm from the afternoon sun. Twenty-four hours later, it’s still quite
nice, but just not the same. Ditto for tomatoes. I like nothing better than to pick a tomato, wash and slice it, and then enjoy it immediately with a touch of salt and pepper. It’s a summer gift which sadly can’t be recreated in the dead of winter with the crummy tomatoes you find in supermarkets. Even in Italy where vine ripened tomatoes are always available, you can’t find anything that approaches the flavor of a tomato right out of your garden.

(Tip: Never put a tomato in your fridge. They’ll won’t come back out the same. The texture will change for the worse and the flavor won’t be as good.)

Warm weather also means cooking and eating outdoors. With this year’s very slow spring we didn’t even think of eating outdoors until several days into May. Fortunately, Mother’s Day was glorious so we could enjoy that special day (with new mother Rena) out on our patio. The hops we grow on wires above the fence that surrounds it were well over two weeks behind. (If anyone is interested, our hop blossoms – outstanding quality I’ve been told, and additionally, they’re organic – are free for the taking in September when they’re ripe since we don’t brew our own beer…yet.) Since we like to always be widening our horizons, I’ve been thinking about what we might try this summer.

Vicki bought me an early Father’s Day present of a slotted pan with handles on which to cook delicate things like vegetables and fish. We tried it out last night and cooked shrimp and something new: fresh sardines. I bought two of these beauties at Domenick’s, our favorite fish monger at the market.

I prepped them with a brushing of the wonderful organic Greek olive oil we get at the Dufferin Grove Market, a tiny bit of salt and pepper and put them on the hot grill pan. They cooked quickly and turned easily. The shrimp were marinated in a bit of Asian hot sauce, garlic, olive oil, teriyaki sauce and black pepper. At the table, both were both were given a squeeze of fresh lemon. I’ve grilled shrimp this way before, but the sardines were a revelation. We both sopped up a bit of the shrimp marinade on our plates which added to the enjoyment. We’re definitely going to be doing this again! It should come as no surprise that the accompanying vegetable was asparagus from our friend Bob.

Too often these days time is pressing, we’re tired from work and it’s just easier to heat up some prepared food or another, or to head out to a restaurant (if you have the cash). Of course there’s always the siren song of fast food places (especially if you have young ones).

To make our fantastic meal last night took almost no time at all. I prepped the sardines and asparagus, started the charcoal and got the rice pilaf cooking in the time it took Vicki to peel 16 shrimp. While the fire heated and the pilaf cooked, we enjoyed a glass of wine on our garden swing. Cooking the shrimp and fish was quick and Vicki sauteed the asparagus during that time. All told, it took about a 45 minutes out of our lives (minus the time spent waiting for the charcoal to be ready). If we went to the local McDonalds, we would have spent as much time driving and waiting in line – for what? Junk food at its worst.

Instead we enjoyed a marvelous meal for which we would have paid at least $50 in a restaurant. And we had our wonderful backyard to enjoy at the same time.

Life is good.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

More about rabbit and our go-to butcher

Here’s an addendum to the rabbit post just below. Today, on the Toronto Star website, I found this clip:


The “story behind the story” is this: Gasparro’s is the butcher shop where we buy almost all of our meat, including the rabbit used in the recipe I shared with you. Nick is the “managing brother” and a delightful person – as is everyone who works there. And they know Italian food! They even make their own guanciale.

Too bad the interviewer is a bit of a ditz. She didn’t even bother to check how the family name is pronounced.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

I know it’s still pretty close to Easter, but…

It’s no secret that we like food that’s a little out of the ordinary around here, and we’re also not scared to cook just about anything, but somehow when we talk about certain things certain times, friends and relatives sometimes look askance at us. Today’s recipe is one of those occasions.

Rabbit Stew with pappardelle and Brussels sprouts. Yum!
It’s part of my nature, I guess, to sometimes take the mickey with people, so I’m fond of suggesting that we have venison at Christmas or rabbit at Easter. I am slightly serious because we have some excellent recipes for cooking both. As a matter of fact, when our boys were younger we used to buy a half carcass of farmed red deer, and everyone enjoyed it mightily. There was many a Sunday dinner consisting of pan fried venison steaks (cut thin and cooked fast), mashed potatoes, hot veg, a jus made from the pan drippings and a bit of venison stock, as well as fried onions with paprika. We’d still purchase more, but our friends sold off their herd. I never did manage to talk anyone into venison at Christmas (turkey has been the main course every year for the past 44), but I don’t plan on giving up.

Then there’s the Easter bunny. I really like rabbit and will order it in a heartbeat if it’s on a restaurant menu. What’s odd here is that my family had a pet rabbit when I was younger, a huge white one named Mr. Hoppity. I don’t remember how he came to live with us, but he wasn’t a baby. I have this vague memory that he just hopped into the yard and stayed. Regardless, we had a big cage for him that would be moved around the lawn for our most efficient clipper. Along with some rabbit pellets, he also got damaged lettuce leaves from the garden, carrots and he loved apples (of which we had a lot because of two full-size apple trees on our side lawn). Problem was, he caused my mother to have rather severe asthma attacks. On the coldest days of winter he lived in the basement in a pen my dad built down there. One winter my mother had a severe attack – and that was it for Mr. Hoppity. He disappeared immediately, and I have no clear idea where he went off to. We lived in a very Italian neighborhood, so I have always harbored certain suspicions…

Marinating the rabbit
Anyway, people who don’t understand how we can eat cute little creatures like bunnies have obviously never had them around destroying their vegetable gardens. It’s amazing the amount of damage one or two rabbits can do in just a few days. Deer, too, for that matter. Vicki put in some beautiful hosta plants for her mother a few years back, nice big specimens, too. Next morning? Little green nubbins. Everything was gone. I couldn’t have done a better job with a sharp knife.

So there’s the background. I’m unrepentant about enjoying consuming Santa’s sled pullers, and those fuzzy creatures that deliver our children’s Easter eggs.

Since it’s just past Easter, I think it only appropriate to talk about a fantastic recipe we ran across for rabbit stew. If you like hoppers, then I guarantee you’ll love this recipe. If you can source wild rabbit or hare, all the better, but even farm-raised bunnies will fill the bill. If you give this a try, I know you won’t be disappointed. The source of the recipe is an old cookbook on stews written by James McNair, James McNair’s Stews & Casseroles. If you’re interested in purchasing this lovely small cookbook, click HERE.

So here’s our go-to recipe for rabbit stew. If you like rabbit or would like to try something a bit out-of-the-ordinary, I think this will fill the bill.

Rabbit Stew
Serves 4-6

INGREDIENTS
½ cup dry red wine
2 Tbs olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbs juniper berries, crushed
3 dried bay leaves, crumbled
1½ tsp fresh rosemary leaves
1½ tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
3½-4 lb rabbit
3 Tbs flour
4 oz double smoked bacon, diced
¼ cup shallots, chopped
½ cup celery, diced
½ cup carrots, diced
1½ cup chicken stock
1 Tbs fresh thyme
2 tsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
3 bay leaves, fresh or dried
½ cup port
3 Tbs red currant jelly

METHOD
  1. Have your butcher cut up the rabbit for stew, usually 6 pieces unless it’s a really large rabbit (lucky you!), in which case, it should be cut into 8 pieces.
  2. Combine the wine, olive oil, sliced onion, juniper berries, bay leaves, rosemary, ½ tsp salt and a few grindings of pepper in a large bowl. Wash the rabbit with cold water, pat dry and place it in the bowl. Coat the pieces well with the marinade, cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature for at least 6 hours or 12 hours in the refrigerator. Turn the pieces occasionally.
  3. Preheat the oven to 325°. Drain the rabbit, reserving the marinade, but discarding the onions and herbs. Pat the pieces dry and coat them with flour. I shake the pieces in a plastic bag, and often find that I need a bit more flour.
  4. In a heavy pot, cook the bacon – slowly to render out the fat – until crisp and brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add the rabbit to the remaining fat and brown it evenly. Add more olive oil if necessary, but be careful! You don’t want a greasy sauce. Remove the browned rabbit to a plate or bowl.
  5. Pour off all but 2 Tbs of fat. Add the shallots, celery and carrots, and cook for 5 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Pour in the reserved marinade and stock, and bring a boil over high heat, scraping any brown bits on the pan’s bottom into the liquid. Add the thyme, parsley, bay leaves, 1 tsp salt and a few grindings of pepper. Return the rabbit and bacon to the pot.
  6. Cover tightly and bake for 40 minutes. Stir in the port and currant jelly, and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Correct the seasoning.
Ready for the oven
Notes: When our kids were little, we used to tell them that this dish was made with chicken. (I know, I know. We were terrible parents.) I have my doubts whether they believed us, but they ate it anyway.

We generally serve it with radiatore (“radiators”) or orecchiette (“little ears”) so that the sauce can cling to the pasta, and usually have a salad course before, rather than a hot vegetable. The easiest way to crush juniper berries is by using the bottom of a frying pan. We use a mortar and pestle, but not everybody has one of those.

Our favorite wine to serve with this is from Ontario’s Flat Rock Cellars, a truly lovely winery in Beamsville up on what’s known as the Beamville Bench) Their “Gravity” Pinot Noir is just the perfect match for the flavors in this dish.. Sadly, unless you’re in Ontario or visit the Niagara Wine Region, you won’t be able to get it, so use a medium-body Pinot Noir – but get a good one.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

How to clean an Avantco SL309 9" Manual Gravity Feed Slicer

In 2013, I reviewed the Avantco SL309 9" slicer I’d received as a Christmas gift (actually, I picked this unit out for the person who then gave it to my wife and me). This particular post has generated many views and also more comments than any other post on this blog. I was – and still am – very happy with this slicer.

One late commenter, though, spoke about how hard the unit is to clean compared to the higher level slicers made by companies such as Hobart and Berkel. He made a very good point: I hadn’t mentioned cleaning in my review. The reason why is that I’d only cleaned my slicer twice. Yes, it did take a long time, but I figured that was more due to my inexperience than any design difficulties.

Sharpener and meat carriage removed.
I’ve now cleaned my sliced at least two dozen times and I can see what Seymour (the commenter referred to above) is getting at. It is more difficult than it could have been with a bit more design thought.

Slicers are one of the first places health inspectors check when they come into a commercial kitchen. Why? Because poorly cleaned slicers can be a huge source of pathogens, and it’s a place where sloppy kitchen cleaning practices can have serious consequences.

If you have a home unit, the consequences of poor slicer cleaning can be just as serious. So even if you have a bottom of the line unit, you have to be thorough and use the same diligence as a commercial kitchen.

Okay, to address Seymour’s main issue with cleaning the Avantco slicer, I need to state this off the top: you get what you pay for. If I had my druthers (and the cash), I would love to own a Hobart slicer with a 12-inch blade. It’s a lot easier to justify spending under $300 for a slicer you might use a couple of dozen times a year, compared to spending a few thousand dollars. Will everything be the same as one of the big name/expensive machines? No. But you do get a number of things you need to have.

Pros (and I’m reiterating some from my earlier review here):
  • the base is cast aluminum so there are no crevices where bacteria and hide and multiply
  • the blade is very heavy
  • it comes with a sharpener so you don’t have to send the blade out for sharpening.
  • the motor has more than enough torque
  • it comes with a replacement belt for the motor (and a spare sharpening wheel)
  • robust construction means it’s built to last.
Cons:
  • it’s not the easiest slicer to clean in some ways
  • the blade guard could have been designed better for more easy removal
  • you have to remove the blade to get it really clean and it doesn’t come with a blade guard (although I suppose someone clever could make their own)
  • the directions for cleaning are woefully lacking – probably because this is the one area where the Avantco design falls short.

So, here are my suggestions (and helpful photos) on how to clean any of the Avantco entry-level slicers based on my experience with owning the Avantco SL309.

First and foremost: slicers are dangerous machines. No. Make that very dangerous. You can easily slice off part of a finger with no effort whatsoever. You must always respect that. Don’t be stupid; don’t cut corners; take your time. And above all, any time you are around them, pay attention!

A few unbreakable ground rules:
  • like any power tool, always unplug your slicer before you start cleaning
  • have on a stable workspace in good light
  • make sure the gate (the flat piece lining up with the blade) is closed (thickness setting knob at zero)
  • did I make it clear that the slicer should be unplugged?

Completely disassembled. Notice all the remaining grease!
First, remove the sharpener from the top of the slicer. There’s a knob behind it that you just back off and it will slide up and out. Check to see if there are any bits of food that have collected inside it. This doesn’t happen too much to me, but I check every time anyway. At the very least, I wipe off the outside of the housing.

Looking at the slicer from the front (face on with the blade to the right), you’ll see a black knob underneath the meat carriage. Take that off and slide off the carriage. This part can be run through your dishwasher, but I like to get the job done more quickely, so I wash it in the sink with a lot of soapy water. It can get pretty greasy if you’re slicing things like bacon (which we do a lot). Set it aside to dry.

I usually take off the movable cutting gate, especially if it’s really greasy. The downside is that it exposes the edge of the cutting blade. Be careful if you remove this! Thoroughly wash it front and back and set it aside to dry.

Now we come to the potentially scary part: removing the blade. The reason it’s necessary is that it’s pretty nigh impossible to clean the blade guard that’s fastened to the body of the unit if you don’t (the one major shortcoming of this slicer’s design). It is also easier to make sure the entire blade is clean if you remove it. This is true even with big-name, expensive slicers. But they supply a blade guard that protects you from the blade when you’re removing it.

To get at the three Phillips head screws that fasten the blade to the machine, you have remove the center disk to the blade. There’s a knob on the back of the unit. Back it off a bit, then push forward on it. This pushes the guard out from the center of the blade, making it easy to grab. Finish backing off the knob and remove the guard. Clean this front and back.

Clean the front of the blade carefully. I also dry it off so that when I handle it, there’s less chance of it slipping.

I always use a thick towel when handling the blade. You could also get a knife-proof glove to further protect your hand. Loosen all three Phillips head screws, then unscrew each one the rest of the way. If they’re really snug, it might be a good idea to have the gate on. That way, if the screwdriver slips, you won’t cut yourself.

Once the three screws are out, wrap the towel around your left hand, grab the blade carefully, and lift it off the machine. To clean the back of the blade, I put it on a counter wide enough to hold it without exposing any edges, then carefully wash it. (You’ll wash the front when you put it on the slicer again.)

Next, throughly clean the blade guard housing that’s still on the machine. A lot of food particles and grease collects on this, so be through. I use an old toothbrush to get at it thoroughly. Clean up the motor housing at this time, too, as well as the little guard that keeps food from going behind the blade.

You’ll want to wipe down all parts with a cloth on which you’ve poured some bleach (or you can purchase a sanitizer expressly made for this purpose). This may seem like overkill, but it really is the wisest course. After doing this, I use a damp towel (water) to wipe off any bleach residue.

To reassemble the unit, put the blade back on. Make sure the three screws are tightened snugly, but not cranked down so hard you’ll have trouble getting them out next time. If the gate isn’t on the unit, you’ll need to carefully put it back on (with the thickness knob at zero). It is held on by two screws and nuts. You’ll need to make sure the blade is clearing it. That can be tricky the first few times. I always remount it, and turn the blade by hand (remember: you have it unplugged. You do, don’t you?) to make sure the blade isn’t scraping the guard.

All clean and ready to go.
The rest of the reassembly should go easily. Here’s a good tip, gleaned from losing parts countless times when disassembling anything: put small parts (screws, nuts, knobs, etc) in a dish. Trust me. It works.

I always give the blade a final turn by hand to make sure all is as it should be.

I know this sounds like a lot of work, but after a few times, it can be done pretty quickly. After at least a dozen cleanings, I can do it in around 20 minutes. But never rush. Go the speed you can go that day remembering to always respect the blade! It needs to be razor sharp so it cuts easily and well. It’s made of heavy stainless steel for this purpose. So far, I haven’t even nicked myself, but that’s because I take it slowly and easily. Oddly, I’ve found I enjoy doing it.

Okay, you can plug in the slicer now.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A house speciality: applewood smoked salmon with vodka

It’s my son Karel’s birthday tomorrow. I won’t tell you his age because it’s a bit scary – for all of us, but Happy Birthday, Karel!!

Naturally, we asked what he’d like for his birthday dinner. His answer was not unexpected: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with Caesar salad on the side. He also wants my mom’s lemon pie, but not with meringue. Karel is a whipped cream kind of guy.

He sort of shrugged when we asked about an appetizer, though. When we have a family meal, we like to sit around and chat first, so we generally do without a first course, opting to relax in the living room enjoying some sort of “nibbly” and a glass of wine before adjourning to the dining room for the main course.

For Karel, I’m making some of his garlic bread (a recipe we’ll share in the future because it’s a bit out of the ordinary and extra tasty). To be honest, Vicki and I, along with our other son, Jan, and his lady, Rena, although we might join Karel in a small piece bread, would prefer something a little different. Vicki and I settled on poached asparagus spears wrapped in a bit of smoked salmon with a dab of the special cream cheese (more like mascarpone) we buy from Chris’ Cheese Mongers at the St. Lawrence Market.

To be honest, though, part of our reason for this choice was merely an excuse to smoke some salmon. Now that we have a vacuum sealer and can freeze it without the worry of ice crystals forming in the meat, it’s something that is now going to be a staple item in the house, rather than an occasional treat.

Our fickle weather even cooperated. I’ve been trying to smoke salmon for several weeks now, but couldn’t seem to find a day where the weather was going to be warm enough to cold smoke. That sounds sort of silly, but last winter I smoked a chunk of salmon and it froze solid. Our A-Maze-N Pellet Smoker really gives off that little heat. It’s a good thing when the temperature is pushing 60° in the spring or fall, but not a good thing if it’s −10° – and it was down there quite a lot the past month!
With an eye on the long-range forecast, I decided to pick up some organic Irish salmon from Domenic’s, our preferred fish monger at the St. Lawrence Market, and get to work.

Ready for the top layer of cure, lemon and dill.
People always seem stunned when we tell them we smoke our own salmon, but let me assure you, as long as you have some sort of way to cold smoke (and we heartily recommend the A-Maze-N Smoker line – whether pellet or sawdust), producing great smoked salmon is simplicity itself. I know I say that a lot when talking about charcuterie, but it really is true. Subtract the time needed for curing, drying and smoking (where you do zero work), and all told you’re looking at no more than a half hour of actual work time.

Want to try our recipe? Read on. But ours is not the only way to go. There are lots of alternatives for flavorings out there on the internet. However, I do recommend our approach to curing the salmon for smoking because it works very well and will give superior results every time.

Applewood Smoked Salmon with Vodka
Will serve a crowd

Ingredients
2-3 pounds of really fresh salmon filet
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2-3 tsp freshly ground or cracked white pepper
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1 large bunch of dill
4 oz vodka

Method
  1. It’s critical to find the freshest and best salmon you can find. If it smells fishy, take a pass. Check to make sure all the pin bones have been removed. You’ll feel them immediately if you wipe your palm down the meat side of the filet from front to back. We keep a needlenose pliers in the kitchen drawer to pull these out whenever we filet a fish or buy a fish filet and discover some. You don’t want to run across one of these by accident when you’re eating!
  2. Rinse off the salmon on both sides and pat dry.
  3. Mix the salt, sugar and pepper together to make your dry cure. Place half of it in the bottom of a non-reactive dish (glass is best) that will just hold the filet. (You want to keep the salmon bathed in the liquid it will produce.)
  4. Place the filet skin side down on top of the dry cure, then put the remaining cure on the meat side of the filet, getting more on the thicker top portion and less on the bottom. Rub it in gently.
  5. Top with a layer of lemon slices, followed by the bunch of dill just torn up by hand.
  6. Cover with plastic wrap. Now place some folded foil over it, or if you’re lucky like us, a second glass dish that will nest on top of the salmon. Weight it with some food cans or maybe even a couple of bricks (what we use). You need around 6-8 pounds of weight to squeeze out the liquid that the salmon will throw off.
  7. Refrigerate for 24-30 hours. You’ll see longer in other recipes, but we find the shorter time gives you more succulent and buttery salmon. And it won’t be too salty!
  8. When the salmon is done curing, rinse it thoroughly and pat it dry. Throw away the liquid in your curing dish, wash and dry it. Now place the salmon back in and pour half the vodka over it. Cover it again with plastic wrap and return it to the fridge for an addition 6-12 hours.
  9. Next, remove the salmon from the dish, put it on a rack and let it dry uncovered in the fridge for 24 hours (or at least overnight) so the surface of the filet develops the “pellicule” (stickiness) that will help the smoke adhere to the meat’s surface.
  10. Fire up your smoker and when it’s going well, smoke the cured salmon for 4-8 hours. We generally prefer it smoked around 6 hours, but I’ll give you the latitude depending on how smoky you like your food. We’ve found that going past 8 hours is too much and throws off the balance of flavors.
  11. When the salmon comes out of the smoker, place it back in the glass dish, dribble the remaining vodka over the surface and let it sit for a few hours before slicing it thinly, on an angle, for serving.
  12. If you’re going to freeze it, I’d suggest slicing it into hunks and vacuum sealing it (really, the only way to keep it at its peak of flavor and texture). If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, ask your fish monger to do it for you. When you want to serve some, just thaw it completely before you slice it.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lunchtime comfort for this seemingly endless winter – the Joys of Soup!

We have a special guest blogger with us this week: my darling (and talented) wife, Vicki, who is also an excellent cook in her own right. We often combine efforts while making meals, but I generally get completely out of her way when soup is on the menu. She has a special talent when it comes to making delicious, warming soups and many of her recipes are original. This is one of them, and I can guarantee you’ll enjoy this minestrone if you essay forth. So take it away, Vicki! (The photo to the right was taken on our first night in Rome during a writing research trip in June 2011.)

I usually don’t complain about the weather, mostly because it’s pointless – there’s nothing you can do about it! But this winter (evidently the coldest in over 20 years) has turned me into a miserable grumbler, even when it’s sunny. As a result, I’ve been baking bread every week, and making lots of soup. I find both of these activities very calming, the same way I feel about gardening. My total focus is on the task at hand, and random thoughts almost never flit into my mind.

Minestrone with our homemade pesto.
Today I would like to share with you my newest labour of love: minestrone. My previous experience with minestrone consisted of opening a can, heating it up, and thinking how dreadfully mediocre it was. Therefore I seldom ate it, and shied away from it in restaurants as well.

As you may know from Rick’s previous postings, I am studying Italian. I have a fantastic teacher, Sabrina, and I really love the language, culture, and cuisine (la cucina), as well as the beautiful countryside and, of course, the Italian people.

At a recent lesson, I brought in a translation I had done of a recipe from Sale e Pepe, an Italian cooking magazine. Since the recipe required stock or broth (brodo), I asked what was the difference between brodo, minestra and zuppa, especially the last two. Well, that is not easily answered! La zuppa often contains pieces of meat (or fish) cooked in the broth, and la minestra usually contains cut up pieces of vegetable cooked in the broth, and often some sort of starch, either pasta, rice or grain depending on the region. Plus there is minestra chiara (clear) and minestra legata (thickened). There are so many recipes that it seems pretty well impossible to give a definitive answer. The reason I decided to try to make minestrone was because I had a ‘light bulb’ moment after that lesson. In Italian, when you see ‘one’ on the end of the word it often means large. So minestrone is a large minestra!

In the pot simmering.
Here is my version which, although it has potatoes, does not contain a starch like rice or pasta. You could, of course, add this. I’m going to try it the next time. It’s not a quick recipe unless you’re really fast at cutting up vegetables, but it does cook quickly once everything is ready. It is so packed with veggies that it almost looks like a stew!

I like to have all my ingredients ready before I start cooking so that I can relax and not worry about the dish getting overdone because I’m still chopping vegetables while things are cooking. You can also make this a completely vegetarian recipe by leaving out the pancetta and using only vegetable stock. You could use zucchini and or summer (yellow) squash instead of winter squash. I had some left over sugar snap peas which I put in this time and they tasted really good. And of course I also used some of Rick’s delicious home-cured pancetta. Enjoy!

Vittoria’s Minestrone
Serves 6

Ingredients
4 oz (113 gms) pancetta, 1/2-inch (1 cm) dice
2 Tbs olive oil
3 Tbs garlic, minced
1 cup leeks, white only, cut in half lengthwise, then in 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) slices
1 cup onions, chopped
1 cup celery, 1/2 in (1cm) dice
1 cup carrot, 1/2 in (1cm) dice
3 cups vegetable stock
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup tomatoes, skinned and chopped (canned if you like)
2 fresh bay leaves
1 cup red-skin potato, 1/2 in (1cm) dice
1 cup French or regular green beans, cut in 1 in (2.5 cm) pieces
1 cup winter squash, like buttercup or butternut, but not acorn 1/2 in (1cm) dice
1 can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups Savoy cabbage, shredded
1 Tbs fresh thyme (if you are not using pesto for a garnish)
3 Tbs fresh parsley, chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
pesto and/or grated parmigiano cheese, crostini for garnish

Method

  • Warm the olive oil in a large pot. Add the pancetta and cook at a low heat for about 8-10 minutes until the fat is rendered. Remove the pancetta from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  • Add the minced garlic to the fat, sauté for 30-40 seconds, then add the leeks, onions, celery and carrots. Increase the heat to medium, sprinkle with a bit of salt and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently so that the vegetables cook evenly.
  • Pour in the stock, add the tomatoes, potatoes and bay leaves. Bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add the green beans, squash and kidney beans. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the cabbage, parsley, thyme and cooked pancetta. Simmer for about 3-5 minutes until the cabbage is cooked.
  • Correct the seasoning, but remember to go easy on the salt if you are adding pesto and/or cheese until you have stirred them into the soup and tasted it. Serve the soup in a heated bowl.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

“What we've been up to” or “To what we've been up”

I never know how to write that grammatically. Obviously, the first attempt makes a lot more sense, but the second follows the rules of grammar.

Wait a minute! This blog is supposed to be about food, making it, consuming it, and talking about it. What’s with the English lesson, Blechta?

Sorry, I’ve spent the past week going over the edit to my novel, Roses for a Diva, that’s coming this November, so it’s excusable to be stressed out about grammar, syntax (as opposed to sin tax), punctuation and the like.

Vicki (& R2D2) fed up with winter!
It’s also the main reason I don’t have a post ready for today. I have a number of them sketched out, and my darling wife is busy in her studio right at this moment, working on a post about the minestrone recipe she’s been working on the past month. It’s been so cold and snowy here in Toronto, most days see us digging in on a bowl of homemade soup. I occasionally make soup, but it’s one of her kitchen specialties, so most of the broths and potages gracing our table have been her doing.

That doesn’t mean I’ve been idle. Right at this moment just outside our back door, there are two slabs of cured pork belly being cold smoked over applewood, midway into becoming six pounds of maple-cured, double-smoked bacon (mostly for my son Karel). I would have fired up the cold smoker (should one really say they’re firing up a cold smoker?) two days ago, but the temperature has been so low, the meat would have frozen while the smoke was doing its thing. Today, it’s just a tad below freezing (-4C°) so the bit of heat given off by our A-Maze-N pellet smoker seems to be keeping things fluid. If I’m feeling really industrious this evening, I’ll also do the hot smoke, again over applewood. If not, it will have to get done tomorrow.

Meanwhile, in the oven there are two duck legs being turned into confit. If I hadn’t got behind in other things, that would have been this week’s topic. Our recipe is a bit in flux since I’m trying to cut down the salt in our diet. The beauty of making confit (besides the eating of it) is the flexibility of what you can do with it. Like many charcuterie recipes, the herbs and spices you choose is wide open. In the past, we’ve stuck to flavors more on the herbal side, but this time I’m trying out a bit of spice. So out with the thyme and in with the cloves. Just a touch, mind you, but it already smells glorious – and that was before it went into the duck fat for its long, slow transformation in a 280F° oven. Its ultimate goal will be as the star of my yearly foray into cassoulet-making, something that will hopefully make its appearance on our table in very early April.

And then there’s tonight’s dinner: meat loaf with mushroom gravy. Our hot veg will be roasted root vegetables (carrots, onions and parsnips) since the oven will have to be on anyway. I’m on the fence about whether to bake potatoes or mash them.

So you see, we’ve been very busy in the kitchen – even if we haven’t been writing about it!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Brining meat brings incredibly succulent results – and surprisingly little saltiness

Roasted to perfection – if I do say so myself!
Last year, I shared my recipe for roast chicken. Since then, however, I’ve discovered the joys of brining. I’d known about this technique for years, but like many, I thought the results would mean a slightly salty finished product. My wife Vicki, in particular, doesn’t like things salty, so that was another reason to discount it.

Shortly after writing that post, I decided that, since my salt-cured meats weren’t coming out all that salty, I should give brining a closer look. I did a lot of reading up both in cookbooks I respect and also online.

What I found is, if done correctly (ie: the amount of time per pound you leave the meat in the brine), you can get not only a more succulent end result, but you can get it salted precisely the way you like it. Brining works especially well poultry, although we now brine pork roasts and pork chops, too. So far, I’ve not brought myself to brining beef (except for making corned beef). I suppose it would work there, too. I’ll keep you posted on that…

Brining is simplicity itself, but it does take a bit of planning ahead. You cannot put meat in hot brine because that’s unsafe, so your brine must be made ahead and chilled. No big deal, really, but you need to know ahead of time when you’re planning on preparing a dish containing brined meat.

The basic thing you need is salt and some sugar (to mitigate the harshness of the salt). Past that, you can add whatever herbs, spices or flavorings you think would add to the taste of the particular meat you’re using, or simply use whatever you have on hand. It’s that flexible.

For the past two Christmases, we’ve brined our holiday turkey. We bought a fresh, pastured, organic bird that didn’t come with bionic-looking breast meat (you know the kind I mean). We have this big brining bag which I don’t completely trust, so I make double the brine and use a very large, corn-cooking pot we bought my mother-in-law to hold it. The turkey stays in the brine for one-half hour per pound. Two critical things: the brine must be chilled when the bird goes into it with everything kept chilled throughout, and the bird must be completely submerged at all times (as should any meat being brined).

After brining, we put it into the fridge, uncovered, for about 12 hours so the skin dries out a bit – meaning it will crisp up better by the time the bird is done. If you’re cooking chicken, do the same thing, although I have lately been timing chicken at one hour per pound. I guess smaller takes longer.

For cooking, I do my usual method, that is cooking it covered, so it steams as well as roasts. The results have been amazing every time. Plus, your bird cooks a bit faster (so watch that internal temperature).

Seasoned and ready for the oven.
One other trick I use is to put some bourbon, brandy or scotch in the bottom of the roasting pan. For a chicken, I use about a half-cup, for a turkey, a cup or more. You have to be a bit careful that your oven doesn’t explode from those alcohol fumes. (Don’t laugh. It happened to a friend of mine. There was no major damage other than two singed eyebrows and one frightened cook.) To avoid this, don’t open the oven for at least an hour and a half for a turkey or until you suspect your meat is cooked for a chicken. If you’re cooking your bird enclosed (the only way the alcohol seems to have its effect), you won’t be basting anyway. My theory is the alcohol fumes drive the flavor into the meat. Regardless, you’ll have amazing gravy. Just don’t tell my mother-in-law I’m using her Jack Daniels when I make the Christmas turkey. Promise?

As for the final temperature, government tells us to cook until 180°. Okay. But be aware if you let your bird rest for 15-30 minutes (and you really should), the temperature going to rise at least an additional 5° and possibly more. That means your 180° turkey might be closer to 190° by the time you carve it – and boy, will it be dry then.

So here’s my go-to brine for chicken or turkey. Feel free to mess around with the flavoring ingredients. There’s no right or wrong here!

Poultry brine for roasting a chicken or turkey
Makes 1 gallon (that’s plenty for a chicken. You may want to double it for a turkey.)

INGREDIENTS
1 gallon water (or try half water, half chicken stock (homemade with no added salt or low-sodium if you must buy)
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1 head of garlic, sliced in half horizontally
2 lemons
12 stalks of parsley
16 sage leaves
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tsp ground black pepper

METHOD

  1. Throw everything into a big pot, except for the lemon. Cut it in half and squeeze the two halves into the brine, then throw the peel in, too. Heat everything until it’s not quite boiling and the salt and sugar are completely dissolved. (The heating allows the release of more flavor from your seasonings.)
  2. Cool the brine, then refrigerate it until it’s chilled. Never put meat in warm brine. If you have some cold winter weather going for you, use that big natural fridge outside.
  3. Truss your chicken or turkey (always truss meat that’s going to be roasted) and completely submerge it in the brine, making sure the brine goes into the cavity. If you’re using a plastic bag, this is easy. If you’re using a pot, you’ll probably need to weight the bird with something (I use a dinner plate or two or even three.) If your turkey is enormous, you’re on your own. I guess you could use a cooler or something.
  4. For a chicken, brine for one hour per pound. For a turkey, brine for one-half hour per pound.
  5. When it’s done brining, take it out, pat it thoroughly dry inside and out. You can cook it now, or let it dry for several hours in the fridge.
  6. Roast as you normally would, but be prepared for your bird to cook faster than usual. For a chicken, this will probably be about 15 minutes less. For a turkey probably about a half-hour, possibly more. Always check a bird’s doneness by using a thermometer. It’s really the only reliable method. I usually check the thigh and the thickest part of the breast. Make sure the probe isn’t near bone or the reading won’t be accurate.