Monday, January 19, 2015

Mastering the art (and science) of cooking

This is how you prep a dish before cooking it.
The past little while, we’ve done a lot of cooking and preparing of food around here.

There was that beautiful pork roast with crackling family dinner we had a couple of weeks ago. I also turned two more hog jowls into guanciale which are now hanging in the basement as they lose moisture and turn more flavorful and succulent. The last of the first batch of lonzino has been sliced, packaged and frozen for enjoyment over the coming months – especially over the summer as a “nibbly” before dinner. I’d run out of smoked roasted almonds, and seeing as “the nut meister”, Karel, was otherwise engaged, I made up a few pounds myself. A small handful is wonderful in the morning with my usual yogurt, bran buds and muesli. Oh! And last week we brined and smoked 3 pork hocks (a gift from Andy at Our Gate to Your Plate), and smoked a kilo of old cheddar.

My lovely wife has been making and freezing small patties of various kinds for our grandson who comes over for the day twice a week. There are salmon patties made with mashed potatoes or rice, shallots and peas. Fry one up and he’s got a complete meal he can eat with his fork (after the patties have been cut into small pieces). Imagine a one-year-old getting food with sauteed shallots in it! She also froze the remainder of a meatloaf for Jackson.

Then there’s her fantastic bread which she occasionally makes. (Can’t eat too much bread these days!) It makes the world’s finest toast in my opinion and many mornings start with coffee and buttered toast. Lovely!

The point of this post, though, is not the great food we’re enjoying but that we enjoy making great food. No, it’s not as quick as ordering out, or opening a can or taking some sort of frozen meal out of the freezer, and a lot less expensive than going out to eat. When people join us for a meal or find out what we’re producing in our small kitchen, the first question we’re generally asked is, “How do you find the time to do all this?”

The trick is to make the time. The charcuterie, the preserving, the making of bulk food, all is done in order to minimize cooking (and shopping) times later on and allow us to know exactly what’s in what we’re eating, and making it does take a chunk out of your day. Certainly, as I’ve consistently stated, curing, drying and smoking meat is not a huge undertaking in terms of hours, but preparing it and dealing with it at appropriate times is something that has to be considered. Preserving (canning, etc), unless it’s done in small amounts, takes a larger chunk out of your day. The secret here is to do it with other people to minimize the time. You can turn it into a part – and you all get to share the wealth at the end.

I wrote a post several months back where I talked about the way people often cook that can make it distinctly “un-fun”. That revolves around the prep stage. If you’re doing prep work at the same time you have things on the stove, you’re opening yourself up to a world of hurt (especially if your recipe calls for expensive ingredients, but you’re also boxing yourself into a corner and making preparation of good meal far more stressful than it needs to be.

I don’t always follow my main rule (but I try to): do all the prep first, then just sit back and enjoy the process of cooking it. You cannot enjoy cooking if you’re trying to chop vegetables while your meat is searing, and the potatoes are being boiled. There are just too many things going on at the same time. The last thing you want is one of those “Oh my God!” moments when you realize that you just overcooked that very expensive cut of meat because you were so focused on chopping the onions that go in next. And forget doing anything else when it’s time to cook fish or seafood where the correct doneness can come down to a matter of seconds. The only respite you can build in if you still need to prep when something’s already cooking is when something you’re cooking has a longer cooking time (like stews, roasts and the like). While something like that is cooking you can, of course, work on a first course or a dessert.

(Sidebar: Which brings me to a rule I never break: when baking always have everything measured out and ready to go before you do anything else. Baking, first and foremost, is chemistry and it requires precision and an understanding of what recipe ingredients do to the finished product. But even if the esoteric part of baking doesn’t interest you, remember this: a baking recipe is not a general guideline. It is a master plan. Always follow it (unless you know a lot about kitchen chemistry) and measure all ingredients carefully before you start.)

Unless you’ve worked in a restaurant kitchen, you don’t realize how many ingredients have been prepped first. If a recipe calls for a mirepoix (chopped onions, carrots and celery), that has been already handled by the entremetier (vegetable cutter) earlier in the day. All you need to do is just measure out what you need. Easy, right? How often do you do that when you’re cooking?

In a home kitchen, one person generally wears all the hats: chef, line cook, entremetier, garde manger, even bottle washer (unless you’re lucky enough to have help). And there’s the rub. Construct a large, involved menu and you need to be super-organized. The prep you do before turning on the stove or oven will be critically important to how everything turns out – unless you get a charge out of extreme stress.

Take a look at any recipe you’re going to undertake and make sure you understand all the steps. Prep and measure all the ingredients. Read the cooking method again. Start to cook, carefully and with thought. Watch what happens. Your food is changing in structure due to the heat. It’s very zen-like and calming to watch this process.

If you’ve planned your moves well and in advance, I guarantee you’ll enjoy what you’ve done, especially when you taste it!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Sourcing your food sensibly: From Our Gate to Your Plate

For the past several months I’ve been giving pretty short shrift to one of the important facets of this little blog of mine: knowing how and where the food you’re putting in your body is grown – and who is doing it. If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you know how I feel about this, but suffice it to say that I am more than willing to make the effort to do this.

The way we now shop was driven home very viscerally over the holiday while staying with my mother-in-law and doing a lot of cooking. (We even brought our vacuum sealer!) Basically, since my MIL is getting up in years and has never really liked to cook, whenever we visit, I have been making her complete frozen meals and then vacuum sealing them so they keep extra long.

Or this?
Of course I had to do a lot of shopping in order to make what turned out to be 53 meals. There are no farmers markets in the area at that time of year, so off I went to the local Shop Rite. Since we hardly use supermarkets anymore for things other than toilet paper and the like, I was not prepared for what awaited me. Most of the fruit and vegetables were not all that terrific but I picked as judiciously as I could. It’s difficult since a lot of the offerings were prepackaged. I understand the economics of that, but buying a package and then having to pick through things carefully to make sure it’s all good is irritating to say the least.

The meat I bought was an even worse experience. I bought two pork tenderloins and a pork loin. All three were packaged by the meat packer, Hormel, one of the biggest in the US. All three pieces were covered in some kind of very thick slime which I think was applied to keep the meat smelling fresher after some days. At least that’s what I hope was the reason. Either way it was difficult to wash off and felt disgustingly greasy. At the bottom of a styrofoam try holding chicken parts, there was an absorbent pad. Now, what I bought (boneless, skinless chicken thighs) do not leak a lot, but the pad was saturated and weighed 3 ounces. Great, I paid for 3 ounces of wetness. The worst part was the chicken and pork had very little taste. Sure, I paid a cheap price, but that shouldn’t be the biggest concern when you’re nourishing yourself and your family.

Two days after returning, I had a completely different experience. We spent New Year’s with some dear friends, but before getting there we visited a very special farm: Our Plate to Your Gate (click on the name to visit their website). The enthusiastic farmer, Andy Sproston, raises heritage breeds in the most natural way possible. No feed lot herds, no concrete-floored pig barns or crowded sheep pens. His beef from Galloway cattle are completely grass-fed the way beef is supposed to be raised. His hogs (Tamworth, Large Black, and Hampshire), during the good weather, live in the woodlot at the back of his property. Chickens, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, pheasants, and turkeys roam the farmyard. The Romney sheep spend their days out in a pasture.

We’ve visited — and purchased — here before and each thing we’ve brought home has been fantastic. Generally, what he has on offer is frozen, and I will say that someone coming directly from a place like Shop Rite might make gasp at the prices, but the quality and flavor of Andy’s meats will quickly make you realize that he actually isn’t charging all that much for the quality that you’re getting. You’d easily pay as much at a good butcher shop.

On our previous visit, I’d bought 4 hog jowls for guanciale and they’re just ready now. They smell fantastic and I can’t wait to make some carbonara or amatriciana using it. We’ve also previously purchased stewing beef and the resulting stews were the best I’ve ever made, richly flavorful and very tender. We’ve also had his Octoberfest sausages (the best I’ve tasted) and his eggs are superior to any I’ve found around Toronto with the exception of some a farmer friend will occasionally sell to us.

Everything from Our Gate to Your Plate is pastured or (honestly) free-range, the lamb and beef is grass-fed only, and the hogs are allowed to forage in the woods as much as possible. All animals are growth hormone- and drug-free. The goal is to raise everything as close to the animals’ natural habits as possible. Their meat is seriously good.

If you live in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), it’s a lovely drive to Grimsby where the farm is located on the Niagara Escarpment above the town. Take a cooler, make your purchase then enjoy a day visiting wineries and sightseeing.

If you’re interested, Andy has a few frozen birds left!
I did notice one thing on this visit: even though there are animals all over the place, it doesn’t really have that “barnyard smell” (something I actually don’t mind at all, though some do). Andy is good with his animals, very concerned for their welfare and attentive to their needs. Our Gate to Your Plate obviously gets my enthusiastic approval.

The fact that our most recent visit to Andy’s farm came hard on the heels of my distressing experience with a big American supermarket (although the Canadian ones aren’t any better) drives the point home soundly that you can find meat (and vegetables and fruit) that really are worth buying, cooking and eating. Yes, you will have to pay a bit more, but it is completely worth it. If the money is so great a concern, simply buy less.

Farms like Andy’s need our support. If you have a local farmers market, patronize it. Get to know the folks who are growing your food. The returns are far greater than the effort put in to acomplish this. Plus, the money you’re paying is going directly into the farmers’ hands, not into the pockets of middlemen and people to whom selling food is just a job. If there aren’t farmers markets where you live, search out the small greengrocers and butchers. Generally they know a fair bit about the food they are selling.

And if you’re lucky enough to have someone like Andy around, make the effort to get to know them. Your return will be one hundredfold.

[Sidebar: We bought from Andy a beautiful bone-in pork shoulder roast with skin-on for crackling. That’s going to be slow-cooked for tomorrow night’s dinner with our family. I will be taking photos and it’s going to be a feast with mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade apple sauce with horseradish (a favorite with roast pork) and the best green vegetable we can find. We haven’t decided on dessert yet. Maybe some cheese and fruit.]