Making Soap with Lard

Homemade soap in a mold.If you had told me five years ago that one day I would make soap I would have scoffed with self-righteous indignation.  Being a very serious chef and a bit of a dink I eschewed the “arts and crafts” that took precious space away from food at the farmers’ market.  I don’t feel that way anymore: I appreciate the pottery and the quilts and the pysanka, and even the beeswax candles.

For the past few years I have been rendering lard from sides of pork.  Now, I think I eat more lard than most: I use it in pie dough, I make spreads like Grammelschmalz and Schmalzfleisch, and use it as an everyday cooking fat.  Even so, I can’t eat it as fast as the anatomy of my pigs demands that I produce it. When I cut this year’s pig there was still about ten pounds in my freezer.  I decided to use it up by making an inedible pork product: soap.

Traditional soap is a mixture of fat, water, and lye.  Lye is sodium hydroxide, a very strong base, once commonly used in homes as a cleaner, valued for its ability to break grease into water-soluble debris that can be rinsed away.  It is also used in the traditional production of bagels and pretzels, which are briefly boiled in a lye solution before being baked in an oven.  (Milder baking soda often subs in these days.)  I have no idea where to purchase lye; there just happened to be some in the kitchen at Elm Catering, remnants of a pretzel-bite experiment.

Anyways, when water, lye, and fat are mixed properly a process called saponification begins.  I tried to read the Wikipedia article on saponification, but understand almost none of it.  All we need to know is that saponification converts these three seemingly incompatible ingredients into bars of hard soap.  For specific recipes and procedural details I used this website, recommended by Michael Ruhlman.

The process in a nutshell:

Dissolve the lye powder in cold water.  A chemical reaction occurs and the water actually becomes quite hot.  My cold tap water was at almost 80°C by the time all the lye was dissolved.  Best not lean over the bowl as you dissolve the lye: sniffing the fumes is a bit like inhaling bleach. The lye solution must cool to below 37°C before it can be mixed with the lard.

Melt the lard.  While the lye solution cools you can slowly heat the lard.  Optimal temperature is 85°C-115°C.

Mixing.  Pour the lard into the lye solution while stirring.  The mixture must then be stirred vigorously until it thickens, like a custard.  This is called “trace” stage.  I used a stick blender and had a pudding consistency in about three minutes.

Pour into molds.  I used a steel baking tray lined with plastic wrap.

Shape.  After 1-3 days you can cut the soap, still in its mold, into bars.  After 3-7 days you can remove these bars from the mold.

Cure.  At this point the soap is still too basic to be used on your hands.  It must cure for another two weeks or so, during which time the saponification process continues, the pH drops significantly, and the soap hardens and becomes more opaque.

So, what’s the soap like?  It’s fine.  It’s soap.  The first thing most people ask is if it smells like pork because it’s made from lard.  The answer is no: if you render the lard properly it should be very neutral.

The soap lathers, through maybe not as much as a bar of Irish Spring.

For me the real value of making soap is that it uses up the last bits of fat from the animal that I have been unable to consume at the table.  The process is dead simple, and quick.  I don’t know if I’ll be making soap every year, but it’s a useful trick to have when the freezer runneth over with lard.

A stack of homemade bars of soap

Be Sociable, Share!

Preßwurst

Presswurst at an Austrian Heuriger.Preßwurst, transliterated “presswurst” and pronounced “PRESS-voorst,” is Austrian headcheese.

Headcheese is a polarizing preparation with a terrible name, but I think borrowing a trick from Preßwurst can make headcheese much more palatable to North Americans.

Both dishes are made from pork head and trotter.  The meat is brine-cured so it is rosy pink, then simmered until tender. The meat is strained, shredded, and packed into a mold with some of the gelatin-rich cooking liquid, which firms into aspic when chilled.  Full details on the procedure can be found in this post.

The most important way in which Austrian Preßwurst differs from North American headcheese is that after being packed into the mold, a heavy weight is rested on the shredded meat and aspic.  This compacts the meat and forces excess aspic from the mold, making for a dense, cohesive texture.  Most North American’s objection (or revulsion) to headcheese is the jelly component.  When the terrine is pressed this way, there is no discernible jelly; the gelatin is simply an adhesive that binds the various elements together.

Besides changing the appearance and mouthfeel of the dish, the properly weighted Preßwurst is cohesive enough that it can be sliced very thin, like ham.

To replicate the Austrian version I use a commercial kitchen container called a 1/3 plastic insert as my mold.  Once the meat and aspic are packed inside I make a 3 kg weight by adding 3 L of cold water to a second plastic insert that rests on top of the first.  The terrine should be refrigerated for at least 24 hours, preferably 48 hours.

I realize now, looking at the photo below, that my mixture has a lot more fat than the true Austrian version above.

homemade_presswurst

 

Be Sociable, Share!

Schmalzfleisch

Mixing cured meat and lard to make SchmalzfleischSchmalzfleisch is one of the staple Aufstriche (spreads) at an Austrian Heuriger.  If that sentence made absolutely no sense to you, read this post before proceeding.

Schmalzfleisch literally means “fat-meat”.  It is one of several dishes Austrians have developed to use up irregular scraps of cured meat, like the very end of a ham that can’t quite be passed through the meat slicer.

The process for making Schmalzfleisch is simple: pieces of cured meat are ground, then mixed with rendered lard to form a cohesive paste that can be spread on bread.  Traditionally cured meat and fat are the only two ingredients.  I like to add a touch of mustard for balancing acidity.

If you grew up in eastern Canada and spent any time in a church basement, you’re probably familiar with minced ham.  Schmalzfleisch is similar to minced ham, only it is bound with lard instead of mayonnaise.

 

Schmalzfleisch

Master Ratio – 3:1 ground cured meat, lard

Ingredients

  • 240 g leftover charcuterie (see Note below)
  • 80 g warm lard
  • 8 g mustard

Procedure

  1. Cube the charcuterie and grind once through a 1/4″ plate.  Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer.
  2. Add the warm lard and mustard to the bowl and mix briefly with the paddle attachment, until the ingredients are combined and the ground charcuterie has formed a spread.
  3. Transfer to serving dish, garnish with chives.  Consume on light rye bread.

Note:  “Ham-type” charcuterie, ie. pork that has been brine-cured and cooked, works best.  A small amount of air-dried meat like salami can be used, but not more than 1/4 of the total weight.  Fresh (un-cured) cooked meat like pork chops and roast beef give the mixture a mushy texture and should be used sparingly.

Yield: 320 g schmalzfleisch

A ramekin of Schmalzfleisch

Be Sociable, Share!

Schweinsbraten – The Ultimate Ham

Schweinsbraten literally means “roasted pork”.  If you order it in an Austrian restaurant, you will get a slice of greyish meat, usually but not always from the shoulder of the animal.  If you order it in an Austrian Heuriger, you will get something a bit different.

Thinly sliced SchweinsbratenAll the food at a Heuriger is served cold, and meat is typically cured.  Schweinsbraten at a Heuriger is cured, like ham.  What makes this particular ham so special is the cut of meat it is made from: the Schopf.

The Schopf extends forward from the loin of the pig, into the shoulder primal.  It has the same round cross-section as the loin, only it also has a very healthy amount of fat marbled throughout.  For more specifics on where exactly this cut of meat is on the animal, and how to remove it, see this post.

To make Schweinsbraten, the Schopf is brined like any other ham.  Once cured, it can be slow-roasted.  If the meat will be sliced thin and served cold, it only needs to be roasted to 65°C.  If you would like to slice the meat thicker and serve it like baked ham, it will need to be roasted or braised up to 80°C to tenderize.

Braised Schweinsbrated with Serviettenknödel and sauerkraut

I suggest this cut as a superior alternative to pork leg for making ham.  When I first started cutting pork I used most of the shoulder for sausages and other ground applications, reserving the leg for hams and roasts.  But the shoulder makes such amazing hams, braises, and roasts, that increasingly I am using lean leg meat in conjunction with fatback for sausage and ground.

Be Sociable, Share!

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

A bottle of Unico Balsamic Vinegar of ModenaThis is balsamic vinegar of Modena.[1]  We’ve all had it before: it’s brown, and sweet, and acidic.  This bottle was produced by Unico.  I think I bought it at Safeway.

Let’s look at the ingredients list.  First is wine vinegar.  Then concentrated grape must.  “Must” is the winemaker’s term for unfermented grape juice.  So concentrated grape must is just cooked grape juice.  Next we see caramel, or cooked sugar, which gives the vinegar is characteristic colour, sweetness, and body.  Finally we have sulfites, which inhibit micro-organisms and prevent unwanted fermentation.  In other words, this condiment is sweetened vinegar.

Bottles labelled “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” have a faux seal on them that says “Indicazione Geografica Protettata,” or IGP.  This is an EU certification that guarantees a very basic level of quality, a broad style of production, and certifies that at least one part of that production occured in the indicated region, Modena in this case.  None of the ingredients actually need to come from there: the grapes that created the vinegar and concentrated must could have been from other parts of Italy, or France, or Australia.  The part of the process that takes place in Modena is the brief aging period: all the ingredients are combined and stored in a barrel for one year, then bottled.

Balsamic vinegar of Modena is a commercial product made on an industrial scale.  I like it: I always have a bottle at home and I use it semi-regularly for salad dressing.  Or sometimes I cook it down to a syrupy consistency and drizzle it on toast with honey.  It’s tasty, but it is a pale shadow of the original, traditional vinegar on which it is based.

A bottle of San Donnino Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of ModenaThe photo at right shows a bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.  Instead of an IGP stamp, it has a DOP label: “denominazione di origine protettata”.  DOP regulations are much more stringent than IGP.  Let’s look at the ingredients list of this product.

Wait: there is no ingredients list.

There is actually only one ingredient that can be used to produce traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena – grape must – obviating the need for an ingredients list.

So let’s talk about this grape must.  First, the grapes must all come from around Modena, and they must be of only two varieties: Trebbiano and Lambrusco.  The grapes are harvested, crushed, and pressed to make juice.  This juice is then cooked very gently for about twenty four hours, preventing conventional fermentation and concentrating the natural sugars in the fruit.

Once the must is cool it is aged for several years in a series of wooden barrels called a batteria.  There are usually five barrels in a batteria.  They can be made out of any of six kinds of wood: mulberry, ash, cherrywood, chestnut, oak, or juniper.  Each barrel has an opening at the top, covered only with cloth, so that the grape must is exposed to the air.  As you can see in the photo below, the barrels are of different sizes, lined up on a rack so that they descend in volume.

Batterie at San Donnino in Modena

It is in these barrels, without the addition of any yeast, that the grape must slowly (slowly!) ferments, first to an alcoholic mixture, then an acidic one.  Moisture also evaporates through the opening in the barrels, so the must levels gradually drop month by month.

The batterie are always set up in an attic, where ambient temperatures fluctuate with the seasons.  The micro-organisms working on the vinegar are active in the warm summer months, and stagnant in winter.

The final important aspect of a batteria is that it is a fractional blending system.  Each year the producer is allowed to draw only one litre of vinegar from the smallest barrel.  Then must is moved from the next largest barrel into the smallest.  All the barrels are topped up with must from their larger neighbour.  The largest barrel at the end is topped up with the season’s new must.

In other words:

  • all the barrels contain a blend of musts from different years
  • the largest barrel contains the youngest average age
  • the smallest barrel contains the oldest average age
  • the average age of all the must increases with each year

batteria must be at least 12 years old before its vinegar can be sold as Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.  Vinegar that is 25 years or older can earn a further classification called extravecchio (“extra old…”).

Before it can be bottled and sold, the one litre that is drawn from the smallest barrel of each batteria is evaluated by a consortium.  It is tasted and scored, and if it is not deemed worthy it is returned to the batteria for another year, or longer.  Once the consortium has approved a batch of vinegar, they give the producer a certain number of bottles and DOP labels.

Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is always sold in a particular bottle designed by Giugiaro.  The high speed train that I rode from Rome to Bologna was also designed by Guigiaro.  Every Giugiaro balsamic vinegar bottle holds only 100 mL.  Prices for one of these bottles vary greatly.  I paid 40 Euros for the bottle of San Donnino shown above.

So, that’s how traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is made.  What do you do with it?

Firstly, you never cook it.

Secondly, you don’t make salad dressings with it, or mix it with oil or any other food: you put it directly onto food in small quantities.

The most classical use is as a condiment for cheese and cured meat, especially Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is made just down the road from Modena.  It is also commonly added to mortadella, fish, and pasta.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is rarely served at restaurants because of it’s high cost.  In fact I’ve only seen it in a restaurant twice.  The first was at The French Laundry, where our server shook a few drops of 100 year old balsamic vinegar onto ricotta agnolotti.  The second was at Osteria Franscescana in Modena.  I ate a “croccantino,” which was a piece of foie gras coated in crushed almonds and hazenlnuts, filled with a generous glob of traditional balsamic.  The foie was mounted on the end of a stubby wooden stick, like a popsicle.

It suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t told you what traditional balsamic vinegar tastes like.  The reason this product deserves respect isn’t because of how long it takes to make or how expensive it is: it’s the taste.  I learned what I know about traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena from Davide at San Donnino.  He gave us a tour of his acetaia,[2] and climbing into his attic and smelling those first wafts of balsamic was the most memorable moment of my entire stay in Italy.  Yes, it smelled of vinegar, but with a pronounced aroma of dark, cooked sugar, like molasses.  Later, when we tasted the vinegar, we found that it is not sharply acidic and simply sweet like the industrial version, but balanced, rounded, and again with that incredible, deep, blackstrap flavour.

We brought back a bottle of regular traditional, and a bottle of extravecchio.  To taste this vinegar now is an incredible, visceral reminder of Modena.  It has the transportive power usually associated with wine.

Thank you, Davide.

 

1.  Pronounced “MOH-den-a”, not “mo-DEE-na”
2. Pronounced “a-che-TEYE-a”

Be Sociable, Share!

Introduction to Soup

Split-pea soup with ham hock and crème fraîcheThere is something medieval about soup.  It is often made from bones.  It takes time to prepare, and to eat.  Soup is slow and simple and primordial and the opposite of modern.

I consider the promulgation of soup a personal mission.  Most of the formal meals that I prepare for friends or at work include a soup course.  Burns supper, for instance, begins with Scotch broth, Thanksgiving with squash soup, Viennese dinners with pancake soup.

Types of Soup

This is the kind of rant I usually relegate to the footnotes of a post, but I want to talk about soup classification.  In culinary school our standard text was called Professional Cooking for Canadian Chefs (PCCC).  I learned a lot from this book, but some parts of it are seriously whack.  One of the most annoying things in PCCC is its classification of soups. There are, it says, four types of soup: clear, thick, international, and specialty.  Isn’t that ridiculous? Gumbo (a thick soup) was classified as an “international” soup, because it had a specific regional origin (Louisiana).  Gazpacho (a thick soup with a specific regional origin) was classified as a specialty soup, because it is served cold.  Ridiculous.  It’s like saying there are four types of cars: red, blue, fast, and Italian.

So, let me correct the matter and say that there are two types of soup: clear and thick.  Many of those soups have specific regional origins.  A few of them are served cold.  But they are all either clear or thick.

 

Clear Soups

Chicken noodle soup!Clear soups are made with transparent stock or broth, through which is distributed various garnishes such as vegetables, meat, and starches.  Chicken noodle soup is a clear soup.

The principle aesthetic consideration when preparing clear soups is the colour and clarity of the stock.  Adherence to these basic stock-making principles will result in a clear, flavourful stock with an appetizing colour.

Converting good stock into a soup can be as simple as adding some chopped vegetables and leftover meat.  I typically lightly sauté my vegetables in butter before adding the stock.  This is strictly for flavour.  Be sure to use a scant amount of fat to sauté your vegetables.  It’s nice to have a few spots of fat floating on top of a clear soup (the French call these spots “eyes”), but you don’t want so much that it forms a mat of grease.

If the clear soup will contain a starch such as pasta or rice, cook the starch in a separate pot of water.  These garnishes leach starch into the liquid as they cook, so they would cloud your soup.  Think about what water looks like after you’ve boiled pasta in it.

 

Thick Soups

When the liquid body of the soup is opaque and viscous enough to coat the diner’s spoon we describe the soup as thick.  Thick soups can get their viscosity in a number of ways.

Purée Soups.  Purée soups experienced a minor renaissance about ten years ago when a marketing genius started selling ready-made butternut squash soup.

The most important thing to know about purée soups is that they must contain some sort of starch.  Broccoli, for instance, contains little starch, and will not make a cohesive, voluptuous purée without the help of a starchy companion like potato.

I would like to discourage three common practices when it comes to purée soups.

The first is the idea that you need stock to make soup.  This is a lie invented by classical French cuisine.  Stock is helpful (but not essential) in clear soups, but more or less useless for purée soups.  For starters, the full body of a rich stock is completely lost in the starchy mass of the purée.  Also I think the goal of a purée soup should be to taste perfectly like the ingredient it is made from.  If I make a potato soup, I don’t really want it to taste like chicken and mirepoix.  You can make very, very flavourful purée soups using only water.

The second is born from the idea that a soup or sauce has to simmer for several hours to develop flavour.  This isn’t true.  In fact, vegetables have the most flavour when they are just, just cooked.  After this the flavour wanes.  Vegetables should only be cooked to the point of complete tenderness before being puréed.

Finally is the idea that you must finish a purée soup with cream.  There is a time and a place for cream in soups, but it has a tendency to mute other flavours.  In some cases it also kills the colour.  I like to use cream with potato soups and mushroom soups.  I would never add cream to a squash soup, as it would turn the vibrant orange to a muted yellow, and muddle the natural, sweet flavour of the vegetable.

The way to really distinguish a purée soup is to make it as smooth and velvety as possible.  Nothing will get vegetable mash as smooth as an upright blender like a Vitamix.  Food processors, even powerful commercial varieties like the Robot Coup, and immersion blenders just don’t circulate like an upright blender.  Start blending the soup and forget about it for maybe five minutes, then run the soup through a chinois.

Purée soups should not be stodgy; a spoon dragged along the surface shouldn’t leave a trace.

 

Purée Soup Case Study: Squash and Apple Soup

Pumpkin soup with cream and Styrian pumpkinseed oil

This is a magic soup of subtle architecture that perfectly bridges savoury, sweet, and tart.

Sautée sliced onions and garlic in butter until the onions are becoming translucent.  Add cubed squash and apple and sauté briefly.  Cover with cold water.  Bring to a simmer.  As soon as the squash is tender, transfer the soup to a blender.

Season.  Don’t feel shy about adding a bit of sugar to reinforce the natural sweetness of the squash.

Finish with pumpkinseed oil.  Not to knock North American producers, but nothing compares to the Styrian variety.  I’ve written about it before, but it has a deep forest green colour and a knockout aroma of roasted nuts.  The best that I have had in North America was imported by a company from Montreal called Green Gold.  Not sure if it will be available in stores in Edmonton.

Other appropriate garnishes: heavy cream, roasted pumpkin seeds.

Roux-Thickened Soups.  Roux is the traditional way to thicken several classic soups, including chowder and gumbo, but it has fallen from favour in recent decades.  In fact, some of the chefs I have worked for have explicitly banned roux from their kitchens.  There are a few reasons for this.  First is the ever increasing phenomenon of gluten sensitivity.  More generally, roux is seen as stodgy.

I love roux.  I always have butter and flour in my kitchen.  It tastes good.  I use it in mac and cheese and corn chowder and even tourtière.

If for some reason you can’t use a roux in a chowder, you can make the soup as if it were a clear soup, then separate a portion, puré it, and mix it back with the rest of the soup.

A Quick Note on Cold Soups before we go

I think the two most common cold soups are tomato (“gazpacho”) and cucumber.  Many have tried these and decided they’re gross and then sworn off cold soup for the rest of their lives.  A better gateway into cold soups is the starchy varieties like potato and leek (“Vichysoisse”) and those containing fruit (the squash and apple soup described above).

My favourite cold soup is parsnip and pear:Bowl of parsnip and pear soup, garnished with toasted hazelnuts and chervil

 

In conclusion, I’ll reiterate that soup is the very essence of frugality and comfort.  Let it be a part of your life.

Be Sociable, Share!

Roast Pumpkin Seeds

A lil' bowl of roasted pumpkin seedsRoast pumpkinseeds are a very rustic North American snack.  While pumpkin seeds are relished in several far flung parts of the world, including central America (pepitas) and Austria (kurbiskern), I think ours is the only civilization that eats pumpkinseeds in their shell.  Pumpkinseed shells are woody.  Frankly they are just barely edible, and certainly not digestible.

But I do like them.  Lengthy chewing promotes contemplation.  Rumination, even.

And though you can eat pumpkins throughout the fall and winter and into early spring, growing up I only ever ate roast pumpkin seeds at Hallowe’en.

A nifty trick for separating the seeds from the stringy pumpkin guts: throw the whole mess in a large pot of water.  If you rub the mass between your hands, you loose the pumpkin flesh from the seeds, which float to the top and can be easily skimmed off.  Dry them on a bake sheet lined with paper towel overnight.

Toss with oil.  Over the years I’ve flipped and flopped between oven-baking and pan-frying.  Certainly the oven is more gentle: it takes longer, but browns the seeds more evenly.  Pan-frying is more aggressive, and quick.  Right now I’m leaning towards pan-frying.

Traditionally salt and sugar and nothing else.  Paprika might be good, too.

Happy Hallowe’en.

Be Sociable, Share!

Blunz’n – Austrian Blood Sausage

A healthy portion of Blunz'n at an Austrian heurigerWhen I first had Blunz’n at a tavern in Austria I had a very narrow idea of what blood sausage was.  Most of the blood sausage I had eaten before this moment I had made myself, following recipes in Ruhlman’s Charcuterie and the Au Pied de Cochon cookbook.  These versions are simply pork blood studded with cubes of pork fat and onion.  The Austrian Blunz’n before me was radically different: it was soft and moist, but closer in texture to a dumpling then boudin noir, and it was burgundy, not black.

Before I left Austria I got a Blunz’n recipe from one of my chaperones.  I read through the recipe and thought there must have been some kind of miscommunication, as the ingredients list include “cracklings” and “pig head”.

Since then I have done a bit of reading, and Blunz’n is actually one incarnation of a broad style of blood sausages, variously called pressack, boudin, and so on.  What is distinctive about this style is the inclusion of cooked meat and skin, usually from the head and trotters of the pig, that are ground or pulled and mixed into the sausage filling.  The meat adds flavour and texture, and the skin a healthy dose of gelatin that helps to bind the interior.  This is the “crackling” that was in my recipe that I found so confusing: not the crispy pig skin that North Americans are familiar with, but soft, poached pig skin.

While the meat and skin from the head are traditional, truthfully any fatty, slow-cooked meat can be used.  One of the best blood sausages I ever had was made from leftover corned beef and beef blood.

Some manner of starch is added to the meat and skin, the exact ingredients varying widely from region to region and from house to house.  Whole grains like barley and buckwheat are common.  I was told that in Hungary they use rice.  Where I was staying, in the grenzland between Lower Austria and Styria, they use stale bread.

Everything is combined and run through a grinder.  The nexus of protein and starch, a strange but comforting unity of meat and dumpling.

 

Blunz’n – Austrian Blood Sausage – The Skeleton of a Recipe

  • 1 part minced, sauteed onion
  • 1 part bread
  • 1 part pork stock or milk
  • 3 parts cooked, chilled meat and skin
  • 1 part pork blood
  • salt and spices to taste

General Procedure

  1. Soak the bread in the stock or milk.
  2. Combine the soaked bread, onion, meat and skin and grind through a 1/4″ plate.
  3. Stir in blood to achieve a mashed potato consistency.
  4. Stuff the mixture into a broad casing (2-3″ in diameter) and poach gently to an internal temperature about 72°C.
  5. Let chill overnight before cutting.

Homemade blunz'n, Austrian blood sausage

 

 

Be Sociable, Share!

Fritters: A Short Endorsement

Pan-frying corn frittersA simple definition.  Fritters are made from a simple batter that is garnished with meat or vegetables or fruit and then fried, either in a pan or deep-fryer.  They can be sweet or savoury.

Why you should care about fritters.  Fritters are an important preparation to master for the following reasons: you almost always have the ingredients needed to make them; they fry up quickly; and they are a fantastic way to use leftovers, whether it’s meat like ground beef or ham, or sautéed vegetables, or cheese.

The fritter continuum.  The degree to which the batter or the interior garnishes dominate varies widely.  Let’s explore the two ends of the Fritter Continuum using corn fritters.

You can make a corn fritter by taking the kernels from one ear of corn and stirring in an egg, a tablespoon each of flour and cornmeal, and a pinch of salt.  This will make a fritter that is mostly comprised of fresh corn, barely held together by egg and starch.  This fritter is relatively dense, and gives the eater the satisfaction of popping several kernels of corn in one bite.  This style of fritter is typically pan-fried or griddled.  It is pictured above.

Corn fritters and saladOn the other hand, you could make a batter by stirring together a cup of flour, two tablespoons of baking powder, a cup of milk, a couple eggs, then fold some corn kernels into the batter.  This would make a light, doughy fritter studded with yellow kernels of corn.  This style of fritter is usually deep-fried.  At right.

The next time you are craving bar food, if you have eggs in your fridge and flour in your pantry, consider fritters.

Be Sociable, Share!

On the Flavour of Rhubarb

One day I was bored so I made this drawing:

Rhubarb flavour webIt contains some thoughts on the flavour of rhubarb, with the intent of deepening our appreciation of the plant, and broadening its culinary application.

Rhubarb is almost always cooked with a sweetener to balance the sharp acidity of the plant.  Brown sugar deserves special mention.  Honey also works well, which has me wondering if Sauternes would pair well with a rhubarb dish.

Most forms of dairy, whether sweet or cultured, pair well with rhubarb.  Rich dairy tempers the acidity of rhubarb.  Ice cream is especially good at this.  Salty dairy like aged cheddar can be a good counterpoint to rhubarb’s bright acidity.

Eggs work surprisingly well with rhubarb.  Picture a poached egg served on a bed of dandelion greens dressed with rhubarb vinaigrette.  Once again we have a rich, fatty substance (the egg yolk) tempering the acidity.  The subtle sulfur taste of eggs matches rhubarb somehow, too.

Where eggs and dairy meet there is custard.  Custard is a near perfect partner for rhubarb, especially when made with lots of butter and flavoured with vanilla.

We’ve all had rhubarb crumble, which suggests that rhubarb goes well with grains like wheat and oats.  I often add cold-pressed canola to my crumbles to reinforce the natural grassy taste of the oats.  The next time you have a chance to eat raw rhubarb, see if you can pick up its distinctive vegetal flavour.  This “green” component completely dissipates with cooking, but I imagine there are ways to bring it back.  Picture steaming a ham with generous fistfuls of clover and alfalfa, then eating the meat with rhubarb jam.

Nuts, another common ingredient in crumbles, go well with rhubarb.  Spices, too.  A piece of cinnamon is most welcome in stewed rhubarb.  My grandma’s rhubarb relish was infused with cinnamon, clove, allspice, and black pepper.  Ginger is a classical partner for rhubarb in the United Kingdom, usually in the form of rhubarb ginger jelly.  And we’ve already mentioned vanilla, especially in custards and creams.

I don’t often cook rhubarb with herbs, but I bet there are some interesting combinations.  The anise-type herbs like tarragon and chervil come to mind (think: rhubarb tarragon sorbet).  Also I’d bet that the evergreen flavours of juniper, rosemary, spruce tips, and labrador tea could also work, especially in cocktails (NB Three Boars, Woodwork, et al).

Citrus is a friend to rhubarb, but rhubarb is so sour that it doesn’t need the juice of lemons or limes: zest is best. I always smell candied lemon or lemon balm in muscat wines like Moscato d’Asti.  I bet there’s a good pairing with rhubarb to be had.

Of course rhubarb is often used in conjunction with other fruit.  The secondary fruit tempers the acidity of the rhubarb, and the rhubarb adds punch and volume.  I don’t typically use rhubarb with fruit that is already tart, like raspberry.  I prefer low-acid fruit with mellow flavours.  Ambrosia apples with their honey aroma come to mind.  I’ve written about the felicitous connection between saskatoons and rhubarb here.

I often think of allium as a bridge between sweet and savoury.  Cooked onions and garlic are already a pleasing balance of the two, so they can easily be used to link the flavours of, say, fruit and meat.

Pork and rhubarb was a common pairing when my father was little.  Cured meat like bacon and ham work the same magic as the aged cheddar mentioned above.  Ducks and game birds like pheasant and grouse are a good fit, too.

Raw allium can be nice in moderation.  Something like chive blossom works better than, say, red onion. The very bottom left corner of the flavour web may seem weird.  I’ve written this before, but to me wild rice smells almost identical to rooibos tea.  I know rhubarb goes well with tea (see rhubarb iced tea), and so I’m pretty sure rhubarb would go well with wild rice.

Some of the liquor pairings are no-brainers.  I’ve already posited that rhubarb goes well with evergreen flavours, so gin should work.  Rhubarb and brown sugar and vanilla are all friends, so oak-aged spirits like fine rum and brandy and bourbon also fit.  If rhubarb goes well with the smoky flavour of ham and bacon,  I wonder if there is a good smoky scotch pairing out there (NB Three Boars, Woodwork, et al).

In Italy rhubarb is used to make bitter aperitifs like Zucca and Aperol.

Speaking of drinks, Weissbier popped into my head as a good match for rhubarb because of its clove and citrus aromas.  Maybe that’s what to drink with the dandelion, poached egg, rhubarb dish I mentioned above.

I’m pretty confident in the strength of the rhubarb-floral connection.  In Austria I ate an elderberry flower fritter dusted with sugar and dipped in rhubarb compote.  I bet some fancy desserts could be concocted with rhubarb and rose water, or rhubarb and candied lilac.  To me this suggests that rhubarb might pair well with floral wines like Gewurztraminer.

Thoughts?  Corrections?  Additions?

Be Sociable, Share!