Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rhubard pie

Rhubarb is one of the easiest things to grow in a garden and, once established, it provides you with delicious tart stems. I have seen recipes using rhubarb in savory dishes as a vegetable or souring agent but most of the time people use rhubarb for dessert applications. My all time favorite use of these red and green stems is the humble rhubarb pie, sometimes with the help of that other spring fruit delicacy: the strawberry.

My recipe is simple: line a large baking dish with your favorite pie dough, cover with chunks of rhubarb, dust with lots of sugar, cut strips of dough and weave them to make a pretty top crust, brush with egg wash, dust with a bit more sugar and bake for about 45 minutes in a medium oven (e.g. 375º). It is so easy that I do not feel I have to measure my ingredients or worry too much about cooking time. The worst thing that can happen is that your pie turns out to be too sour, in which case a dusting of icing sugar or a melting scoop of ice cream can make wonders, or that it is too sweet, in which case the addition of cream will help while adding decadence to an already wonderful dish.

For those wishing follow recipes a bit more closely or to learn more about rhubarb, from its place in history to tips on growing your own, have a look at the Rhubarb Compendium. It is a fabulous website, every fruit and vegetable should have a similarly informative page on the web.

Food 2.0 by Charlie Ayers - A review

Once in a while I receive review copies of books soon to be published. Although I am not always excited these books, it remains a great way to discover authors and books that I would not have sought otherwise. I recently received Food 2.0 from famed Google chef Charlie Ayers and what a treat it was!

Now, I really loved the book but perhaps not in the way Charlie Ayers and its publishers would have anticipated. In fact, I would even argue that the recipes, although some are truly mouth watering, are not particularly novel nor exceptionally well researched and presented. What makes this book so interesting is the fact that it perfectly encapsulate an era in food in the United States in particular and the western world in general.

I certainly do not want to ridicule the book or its content; in fact it is an excellent opinionated read with useful ideas and recipes for busy people wanting to eat well in a world of over processed and unhealthy food. As a matter of fact, it is probably one of very few books on fast healthy cooking that is worth reading; so much of what is available these days in that category is of very poor quality. One could certainly question the need to be told, once again, what to eat or the need for so much smoothie and salad recipes but let’s admit it: this is exactly what many of us have been eating on a daily basis over the last years.

The design of the book is also typical of a certain style of graphic design that for good or bad reasons I associate with the dot-com era and trendy kids wearing large black plastic frame glasses and harboring irregular and colorful hairdos.

If anything, food is deeply engrained in culture. If this is something well accepted on a geographical scale, it can also provide good evidences for generational cultural divides. One just need to think of post-war food in North America with its multilayered Jell’Os, Pillsbury cookies and TV dinners to understand how the economic and cultural factors of an era shape the food we eat. If the massive incorporation of women in the workforce and the new economic growth of the post-war era impacted the food choices made by families through a crush in the time available to prepare meals and the increased availability of convenience food in the 1950’s, today the fast pace and lengthy work days of project driven dot-com workers along with rising concerns for health and the environment certainly impact contemporary food choices and contribute to this generation’s food culture.

Given the cultural significance of Google in terms of business model, hotbed for innovations and magnet for young forward-looking professionals, it is no surprise that a talented chef like Charlie Ayers was able to grasp the era so well even if unknowingly. After all, food is an exciting cultural marker in ways that are very similar to pop music and fashion.

As for the recipes themselves, they are a bit too much on the fast-eat side to my taste. I like smoothies, salads and sandwiches but do not really need recipes to prepare them, what guides me is the content of my fridge or the availability of fresh ingredients in the grocery store. The text and illustrations in the book are a great source of inspiration however, and that hot sauce recipe is on top of my list of things to cook.

All in all, Food 2.0 is an excellent read, at least for its anthropological value. In 30 years, we will look at this book for the window it provides on the Silicon Valley era in food and lifestyle, probably with a bit of nostalgia.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Morel season

After a very long winter at least here in the very north of the northern hemisphere, spring has finally arrived!

This can only mean one thing: restaurant all over will feature morels, fiddlehead ferns and ramps. These spring delights all come from the wild giving them an elusive aura that is not necessarily warranted, at least if you enjoy walking in the woods. It is my contention that such wild seasonal ingredients give more pleasure to the forager than to the diner even though they are truly delicious in themselves (with the possible exception of fiddleheads, but Fufu argues otherwise).

Take the morel as an example. As you walk leisurely in the woods, you slowly build up an appetite. Then when you find a few morels you develop some pride in your finding. And finally, as your basket fills up, you anticipate and salivate at the thought of the dinner ahead. When you finally arrive at home, you know, from the smell of the wet soil stuck under your sole and from the excitement of family members and friends looking at the brain like mushrooms that no matter how bad you a cook you might be, your morel experience will be remembered as a great success.

The fact is that a simple walk in the woods can become a wonderful treasure hunt where luck, knowledge, experience and good eyesight all contribute to success in various ways. On bright spring days, the worse that can happen is a short detour to the supermarket to buy button mushrooms or, with a bit of luck, some fresh or dried morels that can compensate for an unfruitful hunt.

To avoid such unfortunate last minute detours, here’s a few hints to help you in your morel hunt this year:

1.) The season

The two type of morels that fructify under Canadian climates are the yellow and black morels or morchella esculenta and morchella elata respectively. When considering the two species, the morel season last at least 4 weeks with the black morels fructifying about a week earlier than the yellow morel. In general, the Victoria day weekend mark the peak of the season but the season truly begin and end with the month of May in southern Ontario and Québec, sometimes extending to early June. Some cynical people suggest that morels pop out of the ground when the mosquitoes season begins others, more romantic, say that the peak of the trillium season is a better indicator.

2.) Where to find them

Around Ottawa, I found a lot of yellow morels under poplar trees and black morels under spruce and fir trees. In other areas, helm trees are said to be a great host. Most morels grow on disturbed terrain where the sun shines once in a while. As such, it is a good idea to stick to trails… it is just more enjoyable to avoid branches and difficult terrain anyway. Take a closer look at places where trees have been cut down and when you find one, look around. Once you spot a morel, chances are that more will be found not too far. And do not forget to take note for the next season since morels tend to grow back in the same area year after year. As a matter of fact, knowing where morels have been growing in the past is the best clue as to where they will grow in the near future.

3.) Take your time

Morels are notorious for how well they camouflage on almost any type of forest groundcover from dead leaves to branches and needles. Once you have spotted a few morels, your ability to find them will develop and you should be able to cover larger areas in less time.

Beware of the false morels

There are a number of other beautiful spring mushrooms resembling the morel which can cause stomach upsets and even death when consumed in large doses. These mushrooms are either verpas or gyromitras and are often abundant during the morel season. Get yourself a good identification guide and you should have no problems safely identifying these mushrooms. One of the best thing to keep in mind is that the morel’s stem is hollow while the gyromitra’s stem tends to be full. Learning to differentiate between gyromitra and morel is easy and fear should not detract you from the pleasures of morel hunting. Here’s a great page which can help you differentiate gyromitras from morels. Verpas are harder to distinguish from morels but constitute less of a problem in terms of toxicity. Unlike the morel, verpas’ caps are not attached to the stem and are ‘wrinkled’ as opposed to the ‘pitted’ ones of the morels.

Cooking with morels

(foie gras with ramps and morels)

What many people do not know is that raw morel is slightly toxic as well. Cooking fortunately destroys the toxin and generally improves the gustative quality of the mushroom. However, unlike other mushrooms such as button mushrooms or chanterelles, morels are quite fragile and will not necessarily benefit from very high heat or prolonged cooking. Cook them like you would garlic: a slight sauté followed by a short stewing if needed, do not burn them.

Morels are mostly appreciated for their aromatic qualities which, in my opinion, resemble truffle. A good cook will therefore insure that such wonderful aroma is preserved by avoiding extended cooking or strong conflicting smells (chocolate coated morel someone?).

More than any other mushrooms, morels like cream and butter and perform splendidly in sauces. Cream sauce and butter sauce are easy successes (see my morel beurre blanc recipe here). Experienced cooks should also be able to produce very fine reduction sauces as long as they do not go too heavy on strong red wine or other flavoring ingredients.

Morels can also be used for their tremendous beauty on a plate in a spring vegetable ragout or simply as a garnish. Some people even exploit the hollow interior of the morels by stuffing the mushrooms. In fact morels can be quite versatile as long as you keep in mind its essential qualities: the aroma and its delicate nature.

I once made pizza with morels but the results were a disappointment. The delicate flavor of the mushroom did not hold up to the stronger flavor of the otherwise delicious slightly burnt crust and only found a poor support in the crust and cheese. Some people deep fry morels coated in different types of batter, I have to say that I am afraid of such recipes even though they seem extremely popular.

Even deep fried morels and weird morel pizza can be a success however when you pick your own mushrooms since half of the pleasure consist in the hunt itself and that after half a day in the woods, anyone is hungry enough to enjoy even a bland pizza or a deep fried lump of dough and has plenty of story to tell to make the dinner a memorable one.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Kitchen Gardening

Last summer, Fufu and I bought a house with a fairly large backyard. There, you could find a few large wooden boxes where semi-abandoned vegetables were still growing among the weeds: asparagus, peppers, tomatoes and squashes. Even though the garden was in poor shape, we nonetheless enjoyed what could be salvaged from it. Our then less than 6 months old son even tasted his first vegetables directly in the garden with surprising delight. A berry patch, further away, also provided us with a few late raspberries and two apple trees, on the front yard, offered us a bounty of delicious fruits latter in the fall.

A survey of the property confirmed the presence of many perennial herbs including an overabundance of mint as well as a few other surprises: rhubarb, strawberries, cherries and grapes. We knew that with a little bit of work we could turn the place into our own little garden of Eden. After painstakingly removing the weeds in the existing boxes, we built a few more beds, expanded the area devoted to growing raspberries and blackberries, planted about 10 blueberry bushes, 2 gooseberry bushes, 2 black currant bushes, 2 pear trees and 2 plum trees and started to make plans for the next season.

This winter has been exceptionally long and record amounts of snow buried everything. Now, that spring is finally setting in, we just can’t hide our excitement. We already started our seedling for the next season: 6 kinds of tomatoes, 10 of chili and peppers, 4 types of onions, 2 of eggplants, etc. We even decided to try plants that normally require a much warmer climate and longer growing season such as artichoke. We will see what work and what does not but we have high hopes for harvest season.

Since I see my gardening efforts as being an extension of my culinary education, I hope to post a few updates on my gardening adventures on this blog over the course of the growing season and I welcome any comments regarding the cultivation of fruits and vegetables.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Eating bones

Everyone knows that bones are what give a stock its body and richness which in the hands of a skillful cook can turn into lip smacking sauces. The delicious gelatin extracted from bones through a long simmer is what most people are longing for when cooking bones; the marrow probably comes as a close second, particularly in dishes like osso bucco or a bordelaise sauce.

Bone marrow is deliciously fat in a way that can be reminiscent of foie gras or butter.
This, of course, means that we should not eat too much of it if we want to stay minimally fit which is not too difficult since it is getting harder and harder to find.

In my opinion, bone marrow is better when very fresh, unlike most red meat which generally tend to get better when aged properly. The most available and best source of marrow will come from leg bones. Veal and beef are the usual source of bone marrow but lamb, goat, and any largish animal should not be dismissed.

To extract bone marrow, for a bordelaise sauce for instance, you either need to ask your butcher to split the bones lengthwise or poach sections of the bones for a few minutes until you can poke the marrow out with your fingers.

Another easy and extremely popular way of eating bone marrow, thanks to Fergus Henderson, consists of roasting marrow bones upright for a few minutes (15-20 minutes at 375 degrees). The nose-to-tail eating chef would serve the bones with toasts and parsley salad but you can certainly try mashed potatoes and pickles if this is what you have at hand. My only attempt so far followed Henderson’s indications religiously and was delicious.

This very recipe even found its way to the front page of Jennifer McLagan’s excellent book: Bones: Recipes, History, and Lore.

You can find Fergus Henderson’s recipe here.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Poulet au romarin - Rosemary chicken

This post is written in both French (blue) and English (pink).

Ce message est écrit en français (bleu) ainsi qu'en anglais (rose).

Un poulet complet, ce n'est pas si facile à cuire. La viande blanche de la poitrine cuit plus rapidement que la viande brune des cuisses, la peau doit être croustillante sans être brûlée et l'assaisonnement doit être assez costaud pour atteindre le centre sans pour autant masquer la saveur délicate de la chair. Déjà que les poulets que l'on retrouve presque partout ont peu de goût... si en plus ils sont difficile à cuisiner, ça va mal! J'ai déjà discutté du peu de goût des poulets industriels ici et Kate (the Accidental Hedonist) et ses lecteurs ont su partager leurs connaissances sur le sujet ... donc je m'en tiendrai à la cuisine aujourd'hui.

Une façon facile et bien connue de ne jamais rater son poulet rôti c'est de n'utiliser que les hauts de cuisses, de les badigeonner d'un peu d'huile pour aider la peau à dorer et devenir croustillante, d'y ajouter sel et assaisonement et de les faire cuire dans un four très chaud. Une de mes recettes préférées, consiste simplement à assaisoner les hauts de cuisses avec du romarin, du sel et de l'huile d'olive... rien d'autre, même pas de poivre. J'ai quasiment honte de discutter d'une recette aussi simple ici mais c'est un peu cette simplicité qui donne tout son charme à cette recette.

It is particularly difficult to roast a whole chicken. The white meat from the breast cooks faster than the darker meat from the legs, the skin has to be crispy without burning and seasoning has to be strong enough to reach the interior of the bird without overpowering the delicate flavour of the flesh. Chickens that we find in most grocery stores are already tasteless... if cooking them is complicated, things are doing looking very well! I already discussed the lack of flavour of industrial chicken here and Kate (the Accidental Hedonist) and her readers shared their knowledge on the subject over there... I will therefore stick to cooking today.

An easy and well known method to roast chicken which never fails consist in using only the thighs, rubbing a bit of oil to help crisp the skin to a beautiful golden brown color, adding salt and spices and roast in a very hot oven. One of my favorite simple recipe consist in seasoning chicken thighs with salt, rosemary and olive oil, nothing else, not even pepper. I am almost ashamed to discuss this overly simple recipe here but it is through such simplicity that this recipe develops all its charms.