Cured Fatback – Lardo

Cured fatback on toast.This post is about cured fatback, most commonly known by its Italian name lardo.

Fatback is the subcutaneous fat that covers the pork loin.  Resist the urge to say “back fat”: it’s called fatback.  Industrially-raised pigs are intentionally grown very lean, so the fatback is typically only an inch thick.  Craft animals can have three inches of fatback or more, and of course these animals taste better and are better for you.  These are the animals you need in order to make lardo.

Two autumns ago I got a side of Tamworth pork from Nature’s Green Acres.  The fatback was two and a half inches thick in some places.  It was the first pig that I ever cut that trully deserved to have its fatback cured and enjoyed on its own, instead of, say, simply being ground into sausage mix.

The procedure for curing fatback is exceedingly simple.  Cut the fat from the lean meat.  Rub with salt, sugar, herbs, and spices.  Rosemary is common.  I used thyme, juniper, bay, and black pepper.  Next store the fat in a cool, dark place for six months or longer.  A cool, dark place could be a centuries-old Carrara marble box in a dank Tuscan cellar, or it could be a drawer in the bottom of your fridge.  In the latter case, put the salted fat in a Ziploc bag and cover tightly with aluminum foil to keep out light.  Light promotes oxidation and develop off-flavours in fat.

Six months later your slab of fat is ready to taste.  My first taste of lardo was in a salumeria in San Daniele.  Raw pork fat sounds so outrageous to my Anglo-Saxon ears that I expected an audacious flavour and grotesque texture.  Truth be told lardo is an extremely subtle preparation.  It is mild, sweet, subtly cultured, faintly lactic, and above all creamy.

My homemade version turned out similarly, though I think I was a bit heavy-handed with the sugar.  And the exterior was extremely salty: the first few slices were frankly inedible.

I’ll use this word again: subtle.  Lardo is so subtle it promotes contemplation. How could something so crude in preparation be so nuanced in flavour and texture?  Even when sliced very thin, there is a quiet, delicate crunch of connective tissue with each bite, which yields to the creamy fat, which cools your tongue as it melts.

A civilized preparation, this cured fatback.

A slab of cured fatback, or lardo.

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Vermicomposting

This is a guest post by the Button Soup Sr. Backyard Correspondent Lisa A. Zieminek.

 

My name is Lisa.  You might remember me from such posts as “Candied Lilac” and “What to do when your boyfriend hides food experiments all over the basement” (link not available).  Today I’m here to talk to you about worms – not the kind that you get from eating street food in Thailand; the kind you use for composting. That’s right, we’re going to talk about vermicomposting.

Vermicomposting is a fancy name for putting worms in a bin and letting them eat your food scraps.  It’s a great option for people who live in apartments or don’t have space for an outdoor compost.  In our case, vermicomposting allows us to compost throughout the winter.  Otherwise we would just be adding stuff to our frozen outdoor compost pile, but it wouldn’t really do anything until the spring.  Also, who wants to trudge through the snow in -30°C to add stuff to a compost bin.  Once the gardening season rolls along we have a bin full of super fertile soil-amending goodness.

I set up our first worm bin this past January.  Setting up the system was really easy.  Probably the hardest part of the whole set-up was naming all of the worms.

worm names

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All you need to set up your very own worm bin is an opaque plastic bin, a drill, some newspaper or cardboard,  a shredder, and some worms.  Drill holes in the sides of the bin.  This will allow some airflow so the worms don’t get too moist:

photo (7)

You can also drill holes in the bottom.  This will allow any excess moisture to drain out of the bottom of the bin.  Actually you want to prevent your vermicompost from getting so wet that there would be water draining out, but the holes are there just in case.

photo (9)

Next, find some newspaper or cardboard.  This will act as bedding for the worms.  This should be plain newspaper (not glossy inserts) and regular cardboard.  Run it through a paper shredder.  Soak it in water, then ring it out so it has the wetness of a damp sponge.  Fluff it back up and put it in your bin.

shredding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Basically your bin is ready for worms now.  I bought my worms at Earth’s General Store. They are a little pricey, but you should only need to buy them once: eventually you’ll have enough worms to make multiple bins for your own house, plus make bins for all your friends.  The type of worm normally used for vermicomposting is Red Wriggler, or Eisenia fetida.  You can add the worms to the bin, along with a couple cups of soil.  That’s it!  Your bin is ready to go.  You can start slowly adding food scraps to the bin.  Most information I read said the worms can eat about half their weight in food each day (so if you bought a pound of worms, they can handle about a half a pound of food each day).  They might take a little while to get used to their new home though, so start with small amounts of food.  They like fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and tea leaves, and ground up egg shells.  It’s best if the food is cut into smaller pieces.  Don’t feed them citrus, dairy, meat, oil, or salty foods.  Try to avoid putting seeds in the bin as the worms can’t break them down and they might sprout when you go to put the worm castings in your garden.

Speaking of worm castings (aka worm poop), once you’ve had your bin for a few months you’re going to want to harvest the nutrient-rich castings for your garden.  There’s several methods to do this.  The only one I’ve used so far involves placing some food on one side of the bin. Then, stop feeding the worms any other food for the next few weeks.  The worms will all migrate to the side with the food, and the other side will be mostly worm-free castings that you can take out for your garden.

diagram

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The worm castings are a great addition to your garden.  They contain micronutrients and trace minerals.  They also provide beneficial bacteria and microbes to the garden.

castings

Once you’ve harvested the castings, you can also take the worm filled side of the bin and split it in half between two bins.  The worms have been reproducing while they’ve been making all those castings, so you should have a lot more worms than you started with.  And then from here on out the growth is exponential.  Worms bins for everyone.

Some of my more squeamish friends are not so keen on the worm bins.  The first question seems to always be “BUT WHAT IF ALL THE WORMS GET OUT OF THE BIN AND GO INTO YOUR BEDROOM AND GET INTO YOUR BED???”.  The worms don’t want to get out of the bin.  They like it where it’s moist and dark and cool.  If they somehow did get out, they would promptly try to get back in.  And if they couldn’t, they would probably dry up and die.  I think it is VERY unlikely that Allan and I will ever wake up and see a worm staring at us from the bedside table.  Crickets on the other hand – crickets will get out of the box and live for several months hiding throughout your house.  But that’s a story for another day.

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Rhubarb Iced Tea

The Tyranny of the Lemon

I like lemons.  Tarte au citron and lemon meringue pie are two of my favourite desserts.  A quick squeeze of lemon adds friendly punch to everything from salads to roasted chickens and pots of tea.

However.

To me lemons are the epitome of our thoughtless dependence not just on imported ingredients, but imported cuisine.  Every week of the year the happy yellow fruits are shipped by the ton into our city to spread the insidious influence of Mediterranean and Californian food.

What is frustrating about our lemon dependence is that our region and its local plants do “sour” very well.  We are awash with tart, flavourful ingredients like apples, highbush cranberries, sour cherries, rhubarb, and all the cordials, wines, and vinegars that can be made therefrom.  There is a time and place for lemons.  In Edmonton, those times are few and far between.

A glass of rhubarb iced teaA Simple Start to Overthrowing the Lemon

Lemons hold a particularly firm grasp on our drinking habits.  I’m thinking especially of classic cocktails, lemonade, and iced tea.  A tart syrup made from any of the above-mentioned local ingredients would be most welcome in iced tea in lieu of lemon.  Rhubarb, though, is my favourite.  It is tart, flavourful, and adds a pleasant rosy blush to the drink.

Rhubarb Iced Tea
a big barbecue batch

Ingredients

  • 5 L water
  • 34 g black tea bags (about 10 bags)
  • 1 kg fresh rhubarb, chopped (rhubarb varies widely in acidity, so this quantity will have to be adjusted according to your plant and palate)
  • 400 g white sugar (this quantity will also have to be adjusted so that the sweetness properly balances the acidity of the rhubarb)

Procedure

  1. Bring water to a boil.  Add tea bags, reduce heat to maintain gentle simmer.  Maintain simmer for 4 minutes.  Remove tea bags.
  2. Add rhubarb and sugar.  Stir to dissolve sugar, then cover the pot and let stand until cooled to room temperature, a couple hours.
  3. Strain out the rhubarb.  Chill the iced tea overnight in the fridge before serving.
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Quick Pickles

Quick-pickled cucumbers, carrots, and beets.Quick-pickling is simply cooking vegetables in vinegar, in contrast to traditional pickling methods that require fermentation or canning.  Quick pickling is generally done to small pieces of vegetable, such as sliced onion or carrot, as opposed to large pieces like whole cucumbers.  The cut vegetables, raw or par-cooked, are exposed to a hot brine of vinegar, sugar, and salt, then left to infuse for a greater or lesser amount of time depending on the vegetable and how it has been cut.  Since the vegetables have not been fermented or extensively heat-treated, the pickles are not shelf-stable and need to be stored in the fridge. The specific process changes from vegetable to vegetable, but I always use the following recipe for the pickling liquid:

Quick Pickle

Ingredients

  • 500 g water
  • 500 g sugar
  • 625 g vinegar
  • 30 g kosher salt

There were four quick pickles on the Eat Alberta tasting board: carrots, beets, and cucumbers, as well as the red onion garnishing the whitefish salad.

Quick Pickled Carrots. For vegetables that are tender and mild enough to eat raw the goal of quick-pickling is to sufficiently acidify the vegetables without cooking out their satisfying crunch.  Examples of such vegetables include carrots, bell peppers, cauliflower, and radish.  The process is simple:

  • Combine the water, sugar, vinegar, and salt in a medium pot.  Heat and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved.
  • Add the sliced vegetables.  Bring the mixture to a simmer, then immediately remove from the heat and let stand at room temperature to infuse.
  • The exact infusion time will depend on how the vegetables were cut.  Very slender strips of vegetable should be sufficiently acidified by the time the pickling liquid reaches a simmer that they can be strained immediately.  Thick-cut vegetables can sit in the hot pickling liquid for several hours, or overnight.

Quick Pickled Beets. Some vegetables, like beets, need to be cooked before being quick-pickled.

  • Cover the beets with foil and roast in a 425°F oven until tender when pierced with a fork.  Peel the beets and discard the skins.
  • Combine the water, sugar, vinegar, and salt in a medium pot.  Heat and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved.
  • Add the beets.  Bring the mixture to a simmer, then remove from the heat and let stand several hours.

Quick Pickled Cucumbers. The pigment in green vegetables is especially volatile, and becomes drab when heated.  For this reason I often “cold pickle” green vegetables like cucumbers, green beans, and asparagus.

  • Combine the water, sugar, vinegar, and salt in a medium pot.  Heat and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved.  Chill the mixture thoroughly.
  • Pour the chilled pickling liquid over the sliced cucumbers and refrigerate for 48 hours.

Pickled Red Onion. Pickled onion is a great garnish for canapés and charcuterie boards.  Pickled red onions are often made with red wine or red wine vinegar to reinforce the natural purple of the vegetable.  I only use cider vinegar in my kitchen, so for vibrant pickled red onions I re-use the pickling liquid leftover from beets.  This is what makes my pickled red onions a deep, electric fuchsia.

  • Reserve the pickling liquid from the quick-pickled beets.
  • Add sliced red onion to the pickling liquid.  Heat in a medium pot.  Once the mixture reaches a simmer, kill the heat and strain off the onions.
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My Quinoa is from Saskatchewan

Quinoa grown in Saskatchewan, Canada

I’m strongly considering printing and laminating the above photo so I can carry it in my wallet and periodically offer it as evidence.

I’ll start at the beginning.  In some ways I hate quinoa.  Not quinoa the food, but quinoa the fad.  Like açaí berries, quinoa is a “super food” promoted by nutritionists as if everything that your body needs to be healthy could not possibly be grown in the province in which you live, but needs to come from the canopy of the Amazon rainforest, or an Andean plateau.

On the other hand, from a strictly gastronomical point of view I really like quinoa.  It’s tasty: it has a nutty flavour, sometimes verging on peanut butter, often with a piquant bitterness.  It’s extremely simple to cook.  So yes: I purchase and consume quinoa.

And every so often when I admit this someone informs me that my consumption of quinoa is disenfranchising farmers in South America.  That my gluttonous consumption of the pseudo-cereal is driving up the price so that Bolivians can’t afford it and are increasingly relying on cheaper junk food.  That the money I spend on quinoa has pressured farmers in Peru to convert what were once diverse agricultural lands to fields of just quinoa.

Then I say that I can’t have disenfranchised South American farmers, because Lisa’s mom bought us fifty pounds of quinoa from a company in Saskatchewan called NorQuin.

Then they reply that quinoa can’t grow in Canada, and that a Canadian grain farmer told them so.

Then we stare at each other incredulously and uncomfortably.

The picture at the top of this post shows the quinoa in my cupboard.  As the labelling suggests and the website testifies, it was grown in Canada.  If anyone is interested, I’m going to get some t-shirts printed that have that image on the front.  On the back it will say, “Save Peru, buy Canadian Quinoa.”

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Fresh Goat Cheese – Chèvre

Originally posted July 4, 2013.  Reposted for Eat Alberta.

Fresh homemade goat cheeseWhen I was little there were only two types of cheese: cheddar and marble cheddar.  This was in Ontario, in the 1990s.  Most meals were accompanied by a small plate of pickles and orange cheddar.

Anemic, industrial versions of two classic French cheeses were my first glimpses into the wider world of cheese.  One was “Brie”, and the other “Goat cheese.”  Both were vapid compared to the samples I would eat later in life, but I remember them because they were so different from the blockish, pressed, firm-textured cheddar of my youth.  They were both bland and comforting, yet they both had very interesting textures in their own rights: the Brie was like velvety butter, the goat cheese every so slightly crumbly, maybe even a bit chalky as I moved it around with my tongue.  Plus, oddly, they weren’t orange.

There are many types of cheese made from goat milk, and they come in countless shapes and colours and textures (Valençay, Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Crottin de Chavignol…) but “goat cheese” in North America usually means a cylinder of snow-white, soft, slightly pasty, tangy cheese.

Making fresh goat cheese at home is extremely simple.  It takes about 20 minutes of work, and a lot of waiting.

Fresh Goat Cheese at Home

Master Ratio – 16:1, goat milk to buttermilk, by volume

Ingredients

  • 4 L whole goat milk (eg. Fairwinds Farms, Vital Greens, both available at Planet Organic)
  • 1/4 cup full fat buttermilk (eg. Fairwind Farms, Avalon, Vital Greens)
  • 1/8 tsp liquid calf rennet (eg. Coagulant 300 IMCU, available at Halford’s Hide, just off the Yellowhead)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt, approximately

The procedure is as follows.

Inoculate the goat milk with an acidifying culture.  This could be regular old buttermilk, as in the recipe above, or a culture sold expressly for making chèvre.

Warm the milk to the incubation temperature of the the culture.  Recipes vary widely, with temperatures ranging from 68°F-86°F.  The lower end of the spectrum is more common, with slower acid production and a more even curd.  I shoot for 70°F, which is about 21°C, which is conveniently the ambient temperature of my kitchen.  Even so, I gently heat the milk on the stove, in a heavy pot.

Add rennet and let the dairy coagulate.  A very small amount of rennet is used to form a very delicate curd.  I use about 1/8 tsp of a liquid calf rennet poetically named Coagulant 300 IMCU, available at Halford’s here in Edmonton.  This is less than the amount recommended on the bottle, as the rennet is typically used for firmer styles of cheese.

Now the dairy is left at room temperature for 12 hours, during which time it will acidify and coagulate.  Afterwards there will be a clear separation between soft curd and liquid whey, and you will get a clean break when you prod the curd with a knife or curious finger.

Release the whey.  For many cheeses “cutting the curd” is a crucial step requiring great care.  For chèvre it’s more like “mashing the curd”: I transfer the curd with a big spoon into a colander lined with cheesecloth, then lightly press the curd to moosh it into smallish pieces.  A very precise procedure I assure you.

Hang.  Gather the ends of the cheesecloth around the curd and secure them with butcher’s twine.  Suspend the bundle over a bowl and let drain.

The temperature at which you hang the goat cheese has a surprisingly dramatic effect on the final cheese.  Hanging at fridge temperatures produces a very moist cheese, while room temperatures aid in whey drainage and produce a drier, crumbly cheese.  I hang at room temperature, at or around 70°F.

You can actually feel the cheese getting firmer as it hangs.  I find it takes about 7 hours for the curd to properly drain.

I’ve also found that sometimes, especially when hanging the cheese in a warm, dry kitchen, a skin will form around the curd and prevent drainage of whey in the interior.  You can feel this if you palpate the curd.  Simply open up the bundle of cheesecloth, break the skin, redistribute the curd, and hang a bit longer.

Salt and Shape.

Transfer the cheese to a bowl and add the salt.  The exact amount of salt will vary from batch to batch.  Roughly 1 teaspoon for a batch starting with 4 L of goat milk is a good approximation.  I just mash the salt into the cheese with a big spoon.

At this point the cheese can be shaped as desired.  The classic form for fresh goat cheese is a cylinder.  Cut a rectangular piece of plastic wrap and spoon cheese along one of its long edges.  Pull the plastic over the cheese and roll to form a cylinder. Pinch the plastic at either end and roll the log of cheese to tighten up the wrapping.  Secure both ends with a knot of string, then hang the log in the fridge for at least a day, preferably two, before unwrapping and cutting.

Goat cheese with chive stems and blossoms

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Buffalo Jerky

This post was originally published on December 3, 2010.  Re-posted today for Eat Alberta.  I chose buffalo jerky for this year’s Eat Alberta tasting board because of the significant role that similar preparations played in the history of this province.  Please read The Story of the Buffalo for more information.

Strips of bison jerkyJerky is my nominee for best representation of southern Alberta by a single food preparation.  This is partly because of its historical connection to the buffalo hunt and ranching, but also because it takes advantage of the arid landscape.  In dry regions jerky can safely be made on hot days, when the temperature is around 30°C, simply by leaving the sliced meat to hang outside.[1]

What Meat to Use.  Buffalo can be purchased at most farmers’ markets in Edmonton.  My preferred producers are First Nature Farms and Thundering Ground at the Strathcona Market, and Medicine Man at the City Centre Market.  

You should use a very lean cut of meat from the hip (butcher-speak for the hind leg).  The cuts from the hip are the inside round, eye of round, outside round, and sirloin tip.  I find that sirloin tip is the most commonly available.

Clean and Slice the Meat.  Silverskin, the lustrous sheet of connective tissue that surrounds individual muscles, is the enemy of tender jerky, so remove as much as you can.  Slice the lean meat across the grain into strips about 1/8″ thick.  It goes without saying that this task is best performed with a commercial meat slicer.  Whether you’re using a knife or a fancy slicer, you’ll get more even, consistent slices if the meat is partially frozen.

Lightly Cure the Meat.   It’s worth noting that the dried-meat made by Plains Indians before European contact was not salted.  Modern jerky is always salted before drying as it helps protect the surface of the meat from pathogens during the drying process.

I’ve included a very basic recipe below.  I think the evergreen flavours of juniper, rosemary, and Labrador tea go especially well with buffalo. Cover the mixture and keep it in the fridge for 24-48 hours.

Basic Jerky Cure

  • 100% lean buffalo meat, cut into 1/8″ slices
  • 2% kosher salt
  • 1% minced garlic
  • 0.5% crushed juniper
  • 0.5% chopped rosemary
  • 0.2% fresh cracked black pepper

Drying Techniques.  To make jerky properly, it’s important that you don’t cook the meat.  I’ve tried the completely passive jerky technique here in Edmonton, but my meat molded before it dried (it was an overcast day, and only about 20°C: I should have known better…) For consistent results, I’ve since used a heat source like a low oven, a food dehydrator, or a barbecue.  The barbecue is good because you can introduce a bit of smoke using this simple technique.  The Plains Indians and Métis often use smoke to flavour their dried meat. Traditionally a hole was dug and a low fire kindled within. Scaffolding was erected over the hole, and strips of meat were hung until dry (crude drawing at right…)[2] At first I was skeptical about whether I would be able to smoke the meat on my barbecue and maintain a low enough temperature, but with the hood propped open about a foot I was able to keep the temperature just under 40°C while letting the smoke linger around the meat.

Strictly speaking, the jerky isn’t done until the meat is completely dry and very hard and brittle. At this point there is no moisture for microbes, and the meat can be kept safely at room temperature.  That being said, if you can pull the meat just, just before it is entirely brittle, you’ll find that the flesh is luxurious and smooth and chewy.

Buffalo jerky

 

References

1. Ruhlman, Michael. Charcuterie. ©2005 WW Norton and Company Inc, New York, NY. Page 65. He elaborates on jerky’s connection to ranching, and its usefulness as a preservation technique, on his blog, in this post.
2. This set-up, and other interesting information on frontier life on the prairies, is from: Thomas, Dorine. Rubaboo. ©1981 Pemmican Publications, Winnipeg, MB.

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Eat Alberta 2014

Tasting boards from Eat Alberta 2014

Eat Alberta 2014 Tasting Board. Photo courtesy of Jens Gerbitz.

This past weekend we held the fourth annual Eat Alberta conference at NAIT here in Edmonton.  Eat Alberta is a one-day conference designed to teach Albertans how to find and prepare local food.  We do this with hands-on kitchen sessions, classroom presentations, and critical tasting sessions, all of which are led by local farmers, chefs, and other food experts.

At the end of the day guests are given a tasting board that features some notable regional products.  I’ve prepared these boards for the last three years, and this year I promised to reveal the details of how each component was made.  Over the next week I’ll be posting recipes and procedures for each of the following:

  • Bison Jerky – Medicine Man bison round, lightly cured with salt and herbs, then dried.
  • Fresh Goat’s Milk Cheese – Homemade with Fairwinds Farm goat milk, garnished with nasturtium leaves.
  • Pickled Vegetables – Strathcona Market vegetables pickled in homemade cider vinegar: cucumbers from S4 Greehouses, carrots from Helen’s, and beets from Peas on Earth.
  • Smoked Whitefish – Slave Lake whitefish with pickled red onion and dill.
  • Crackers – Three types of cracker – rye, spelt, and red fife – made with Gold Forest grains.
  • Yogurt Tart – Bles-wold yogurt, McKernan rhubarb, and Mill Creek Saskatoons in a pastry cup.

Stay tuned!

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Why Cider Matters to Edmonton

This week I am giving a presentation at Eat Alberta about how to make cider.  I’m not an expert by any leap of the imagination: I’ve only been making cider for three seasons, and truthfully everything (everything!) that I know I learned from Kevin and Chad and a handful of websites.

The preamble to my presentation is called “Why Cider Matters”, and I thought I’d share the gist of it with you.

An apple blossomBackyard cider-making is the single most exciting movement within our local food scene.  A bold statement, I know.  Of all the burgeoning activities related to food production – gardening, fishing, visiting farms, joining CSAs, foraging mushrooms, hunting – cider-making may be the most accessible, and the most capable of transforming the cuisine of central Alberta.

There are apple trees everywhere in this city, especially in older neighbourhoods.  Standing in my backyard in McKernan last summer I could see three.  Walking through back alleys you are never more than a block away from one.  Everybody knows where there is at least one apple tree, and most of those trees produce at least 100 lbs of fruit.  The great irony is that the owners of these trees often consider them a nuisance.  Most families have trouble consuming all the fruit produced by a single tree, so the apples languish on the branches and fall to the ground, where they are raked into garbage bags so that they don’t destroy the lawn.  In other words, not only is there a glut of delicious fruit within our city, there are also people desperate to get rid of it.  So much so that they will invite you into their yard to pick ripe fruit, free of charge.

So.  We have a lot of apples.  What should we do with them?  Certainly we should be making apple sauce, apple pies, candy apples, apple jelly, and apple butter.  And of course we should be eating a good deal of them out of hand.  But there are many compelling reasons that we should convert most of them to hard cider.

Reason 1: Pressing apples into cider is the fastest, lowest-energy method to preserve and consume our apple hoard.  You cannot turn all of the apples in Edmonton into pies.  You can’t.  You can very casually pick hundreds of pounds of apples over an autumn weekend.  Each pie uses maybe two pounds.  Imagine the time required to peel, cored, and slice the apples, and the energy and space required to freeze and later bake each pie.  I love pie more than most, but pie is not the answer.

The first and most beautiful fact about cider is that it converts our numerous apples into a delicious, shelf-stable drink with no added water and very little energy.  If you ferment the cider to hard cider, you do not need to heat the liquid when bottling and preserving.  In fact the only non-human energy I use in producing cider is transporting and crushing the apples.

Reason 2: Apples that are impractical to eat out of hand or use in baking because of their size, flavour, or condition, can still make fantastic cider.  Tiny, mealy, sour crabapples: what could you possibly do with these in the kitchen?  Would you peel and core each of the 5000 thumb-sized specimens that fall from a tree?  I think not.  The juice from such apples, however, is often remarkable, and can lend buoyant acidity and colour to a cider blend.

Reason 3: Delicious, versatile cider could be a foundational ingredient and flavour in central Albertan cuisine.  As I’ve said before, culinary invention has two mothers: scarcity and excess.  We certainly have an excess of apples.  Cider can be a session drink, consumed glass after glass with friends, or a table drink, sipped alongside food. You can cook with it: imagine cider-braising pork and cabbage.  Cider has two notable value-added products that could be a boon to local food.  One is vinegar: cider vinegar could be the base of every bottle of vinaigrette and every jar of pickles in Edmonton.  The other value-added product is apple brandy, which of course is illegal to distill without a license, but someday should be sipped at the end of every meal, and used to flavour pâtés, and preserve fruit, and elevate cream sauces, and on and on.

That is why I’m interested in cider.  By far the hardest part of starting a winery is establishing grape vines.  That part has already been done by our parents and grandparents.  All we have to do is reach out and collect the fruit.  Then crush, press, ferment, bottle, and consume it.  It is your birthright as an Edmontonian.  Dramatic, I know, but true.

Autumn's gift to summer: sparkling hard cider.

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In Defense of Deep-Frying

Deep-fryer haters gonna hate.Yesterday I was walking on Whyte Avenue and I saw a sign that upset me.  It was outside The Pourhouse, a tavern with a clever name and a broad selection of beer and food.  The poster read “No Deep Fryer on Premises.”

I perfectly understand the intentions of this advertisement.  I have been to bars where the food is clearly manufactured off-site, purchased frozen, plopped into a deep fryer, and garnished with green onions or bottled plum sauce or nothing.  If you don’t quite understand what I’m talking about, go to Rosie’s at 11 pm and order something.  Bathe in the neon lights and try to enjoy the plate of perogies or spring rolls or green onion cakes or whatever you ordered.  Then you will know the horrors of which I speak.  Anyways.  The implication of the Pourhouse ad is that they prepare thoughtful, fresh, delicious food.  I get it.

In fact, I have more reason than most to hate deep-frying.  Early in my cooking career I worked at Dadeo, the Whyte Avenue Cajun diner.  It was an oddly segregated kitchen: there was a prep team of kindly Chinese-Vietnamese ladies, and a line-team of white kids.  The first station for new line-cooks to learn was the deep fryer, and you would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant in Edmonton that puts more food through a deep fryer than Dadeo.  The fryer itself is roughly the size of a bath tub, partitioned into three compartments.  Roughly half the menu goes through this machine: of course there are the famous sweet potato fries, but also the several breaded seafood items for the po’ boys and jambalaya plates, as well as fritters, spring rolls (“Cajun cigars…”), fried chicken, calamari, breaded eggplant, and crabcakes.  Oh, and Sundays nights are wing nights.  Even though that deep fryer holds about 50 L of canola oil, it is usually the bottleneck that ever-so-slightly slows the break-neck service at Dadeo.  Anyways.  I spent a couple months working the fryer at Dadeo.  The inexpungeable stench of dirty oil in my clothes and the second degree burns on my hands notwithstanding, I still love fried food.

The Pourhouse sign is not the first time I’ve encountered the pretentious scorn of culinary types who look down their noses at deep-frying.  Hatred of fried food confuses me a great deal, as I’ve always considered it a delicacy.  Not many folks fry at home anymore, I think because of the misconception that you need a “deep-fryer” to deep fry food.  Really you need a stove, a pot, and a jug of oil.  A thermometer is also useful, but by no means necessary.

Fried food is outdoor food.  Finger food.  Carnival food.  Seriously: what is more magical than going to a fair and seeing those little rivers of hot oil carrying mini doughnuts to their sugary terminus?  In Europe many fried treats are associated with the revelry preceding Lent.  The Krapfen of Austrian and Bavaria, for instance, or the fritoles of Venice.  Street food.  Festive food.

Fried food is the singular joy of eating out with friends and family.  Every single time I ate French fries before the age of sixteen, I was at a restaurant with friends and family.  I never once ate them at home.

Fried food is comfort food.  What is more satisfying after a walk in the winter cold than a big, breaded, fried schnitzel?  (Every Austrian I’ve ever met has acknowledged that schnitzel is traditionally pan-fried, “swimming” in oil, but then, a few minutes later, they all concede that modern schnitzel must be deep-fried.)

If you still aren’t convinced that deep-frying deserves your respect, you should read the section of Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste called Theory of Frying.  No clearer, more succinct, playful description of a cooking technique has ever been written.  Especially charming is his description of the “surprise”: the moment the food is dunked in the oil, and the immediate, vigorous bubbling that takes place after.

So you can see that I have several pleasant associations with deep-frying.  So much so that before I got angry with the Pourhouse sign, I got a little sad.  No deep fryer?  Oh.  So you don’t have French fries?  At a bar?  So no fish and chips?  And not poutine?  Oh: you do have poutine, but it’s made with roasted potatoes?  (Poutine made with roasted potatoes is where I transitioned from sad to angry.)

Below are apple fritters that I made last fall.  Apples grown within the Edmonton city limits, peeled, cored, and sliced into rings.  I made a yeasted batter with eggs, flour, sugar, and a bit of cider from last season.  The apple rounds where dredged, fried, dusted with icing sugar, and served with heavy cream.  I consumed the fritters outdoors, during the intermission between rounds of pressing cider.

I hope that this example demonstrates that deep-fried food can be thoughtful.  When prepared with care deep-fried snacks are some of the most profoundly satisfying food we have.

Apple fritters with whipped cream

 

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