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

 

More on Fried Food:

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Porridge, or Oatmeal

Comparing steel-cut oats and rolled oatsThe single most important decision in making porridge is the style of oats you choose to cook.  For my breakfast, the only acceptable style is steel-cut, sometimes called Scottish or Irish oats.

Why Quick Oats and Minutes Oats are The Worst.  Quick oats and minute oats produce porridge with a nauseating texture.  The grains are rolled and cut fine so that they cook quickly, but the oatmeal has a gluey mouthfeel.  My theory is that the extensive processing produces a very fine oat-dust, and as soon as this oat-dust is hydrated, it becomes a thick paste.  Whatever the cause, porridge made from quick oats subtly sticks to the back of the mouth, triggering a mild gag with every swallow.  Perhaps I have a unique physiology…

Steel-cut oats are not rolled, just cut so that they still have the round cross section of the whole grain.  The photo above shows steel-cut oats in the foreground, rolled oats in the back.  Yes, they take longer to cook, but there is little oat-dust, so the final porridge has a creamy mouthfeel, punctuated by larger pieces of grain.  It really is like risotto if cooked properly.

In conclusion: the only thing quick oats and minute oats are good for is making meatloaf.

A simple, simple recipe for porridge is typed below.  Be sure to read the note on fried porridge at the bottom of this post.  It may change your breakfast routine forever.

 

Basic Porridge

Master Ratio – 1:3 steel-cut oats to milk, by volume

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup steel-cut oats
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk, or I guess water in a pinch
  • speaking of pinches: 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • optional: buttermilk to drizzle over cooked porridge (try it…)
  • toasted nuts, seeds, and dried fruit as required

Procedure

  1. Melt the butter in a heavy pot.  Add the oats and turn the heat to medium.  Toast the oats until you can smell that the butter is starting to brown.
  2. Add the whole milk and salt.  Bring liquid to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer.  Cook until the oats are tender and the liquid has thickened, about 30 minutes.  Stir periodically.
  3. Stir in the brown sugar.  Taste and adjust seasoning as required.

A bowl of porridge with walnuts, dried currants, and buttermilk

 

Fried Porridge
or, why it behooves you to make more porridge than you can eat in one sitting

My great aunt Dorie used to pour leftover porridge into a tray to congeal.  The next morning it was cut into blocks and fried in bacon fat.  Think: rural Canada’s answer to fried polenta.

Fried porridge with berries and maple syrup

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Corned Beef and Colcannon

Originally posted on March 18, 2012

Corned beef and its delicious, delicious juicesCorned beef, also known as salt beef and spiced beef, is a national dish of Ireland.  Recipes vary, but the cure is usually made of kosher salt, curing salt, a heap of brown sugar, and spices like clove, allspice, black pepper, and mustard seed.  The cured meat is gently simmered (usually in water, sometimes in beer) until tender, and can be eaten hot or cold.

To clarify, corned beef has nothing to do with maize.  “Corn” was once a broad English term for a small bit, whether a grain of wheat, or a crystal of salt.  “Corned beef” is beef that has been covered in corns of salt.[1]

Like most charcuterie, corned beef was first developed as a way to preserve the meat.  Because of its good keeping quality, the British navy adopted Irish corned beef as a ration for its sailors.  Wherever the British navy went, there was money to be made in provisioning its sailors, and many, many inferior corned beef producers sprang up around the world, notably on the Hawaiian islands and in South America, where the cured beef was later canned.  Sailors detested the canned meat, and apparently called it ”salt junk.”[2]

Inferior corned beef was also used extensively as cheap, long-keeping food for British and French slaves, especially in the Caribbean.[3]

Despite its bastardization at the hands of imperialists and industrialists, corned beef remains one of the great festive dishes of Irish cuisine, along with colcannon, discussed below.  It is commonly eaten on Christmas, Easter, and St. Patrick’s Day.

Corned beef is made of brisket, a cut of beef from the breast of the cow. It is actually comprised of two muscles: a long muscle on the bottom called the flat, and a smaller muscle on top, off to one side, called the point.

The bulk of the flavour of corned beef comes from the pickling spice used in the brine.  Don’t buy pickling spice; make your own. Here’s a simple procedure. I divide my pickling spices into two families: the “sweet spices” like cinnamon, clove, and allspice, and the “deli spices” like mustard seed, black pepper, coriander, and chili flakes.  Combine one measure of each of the sweet spices with two measures of each of the deli spices by weight.  Add the spices to the brine as you are heating the liquid to dissolve the salt and sugar.

I’ve had some issues with brine-penetration when curing brisket in the past.  It seems that the tough, fatty muscles of the brisket resist curing more than, say, a pork loin.  Some tips on achieving uniform cure:

  • Consider separating the point and flat from each other before curing.  This creates two, tabular muscles that will brine more evenly than a whole brisket.
  • Don’t overcrowd the meat in the brine.  It’s tempting to try and cram as much meat as you can into the tub so that it is all just, just submerged.  If you do this there will not be enough salt to cure the entire mass of meat, and there will be grey, un-cured pockets in the centre of the brisket.  Maintain the ratio in the recipe below: 4 L of curing brine for every 2.25 kg of meat.
  • Inject the meat with some of the brine.  A good rule of thumb is 10% of the weight of the meat.  This is especially important if you have decided to keep the briskets intact.
  • Curing time: 5 days should be sufficient if you follow the guidelines above.

As a side note, once you have cured the brisket, if you were to coat your corned beef in crushed black pepper and coriander, then hot-smoke the meat, you’d be making pastrami.  If your hot-smoker were in Montreal, you’d be making Montreal smoked meat.  Anyways.

Brisket is a tough cut that requires extensive cooking.  I put my corned beef in a casserole, add cider until the meat is half submerged, cover the dish with parchment and aluminum foil, then kept it in a 250°F oven until a fork slides easily into and out of the meat, about eight hours.

The water left in the casserole is extremely flavourful, though very salty and greasy.  Cool the liquid, remove the solidified fat from the top, then dilute with water or more apple cider until the salt content is tolerable.  Serve as a brothy sauce for the beef.

Corned beef is a fantastic dish to serve to large groups.  Once the beef is tender, you need only gently reheat it.  You can throw it in a low oven an hour or so before you plan on eating, then bring it to the table and slice across the grain of the meat.  I probably don’t need to write this, but the leftovers can be sliced and used to make superlative sandwiches.

Corned Beef

Ingredients

  • 4 L water
  • 450 g kosher salt
  • 450 g dark brown sugar
  • 25 g curing salt (6.25% sodium nitrite)
  • 25 g fresh garlic
  • 25 g pickling spice
  • 2.25 kg beef brisket

Procedure

  1. Combine half the water with the salts, sugar, garlic, and spices.  Heat on the stove, stirring periodically, til the salts and sugar have dissolved.  Remove from the stove and add the remaining cold water.  Chill brine thoroughly.
  2. Inject the brisket with 10% of its weight in brine.  Focus injections on the thickest parts of the brisket.
  3. Completely submerge the brisket in the remaining brine, weighing down with ceramic plates as necessary.  Keep refrigerated for 5 days.
  4. Remove the brisket from the brine, rinse with cold water, then let rest in the fridge a few hours, preferably overnight.
  5. Put the cured brisket in a large pan with a bit more garlic, bay, and cinnamon.  Add about an inch of apple cider to the pan.  Cover loosely and cook in a 250°F oven for several hours (maybe 8-10?).  The corned beef should be fork tender and wobbly when fully tenderized.

 

Addendum: Colcannon

At heart colcannon is mashed potatoes mixed with kale or cabbage.  It’s most often served on Hallowe’en, when fortune-telling charms are sometimes tucked into the mash.  Whoever finds a ring will be married in the coming year; a small horseshoe promises good luck; a thimble or button spinsterhood.  Colcannon is also eaten on festive occasions like St. Patrick’s Day.

Colcannon is most often served hot and creamy with a lump of butter.  Sometimes it is fried crisp like bubble and squeak.

A plate for St. Patrick’s Day:

Corned beef with colcannon

 

References

1.  Kurlansky, Mark.  Salt: A World History. ©2002 Mark Kurlansky.  Vintage Canada 2002 Edition.  Page 125.
2.  Ibid.
3.  Ibid!  Is it bad to have three citations from the same page of the same book?

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Sprouts for the Spring Gap

clover_sprouts.JPGMaking your own sprouts is simple business.

Frankly most sprouts aren’t too flavourful, but I think they’re good for the spring shoulder season, when we’re starting to crave fresh vegetables, but nothing has popped up in the garden yet.  When we pull out the seed box to sow the veggies that will be transplanted, we also make some clover or alfalfa sprouts.  Clover seems especially appropriate around St. Patrick’s Day.  Both are great accompaniments to the Easter ham.

How to Make Sprouts at Home, from Seeds.  You can buy or make proper “sprouting bags”.  We use one quart mason jars and cheesecloth.

  • Soak the seeds at room temperature overnight. Two tablespoons of small seeds like clover or alfalfa will be plenty for a one quart jar.
  • Transfer the seeds to a mason jar.  Cover the mouth of the jar with cheesecloth, pantyhose, or a similarly porous material, held tightly by a rubber band, or the metal ring from the lid of the jar.
  • Rinse the sprouts twice daily by pouring cool water through the pantyhose, then drain by turning the jar upside down.  Store the jar upside down and tilted to ensure the seeds are not sitting in water.
  • Continue rinsing twice daily until the the sprouts reach the desired length.  Small white sprouts will show up in a day or two.  Continue for a week for very long sprouts.

Sprouts stand up surprisingly well in the fridge.  Store them as you would greens, and they last up to two weeks.

These little spindles are good on sandwiches (again, not too flavourful, so mostly for texture and I guess also nutrients).  Last Easter we made a salad with them using pickled carrot, raw onion, and a light honey mustard dressing.

Easter ham, scallop potatoes, and a clover sprout salad

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Soda Bread

Soda bread cooling on the deck.Soda bread is plain quick bread, bread made with a chemical leavener like baking soda instead of yeast.

You’ve no doubt heard of Irish soda bread.  The two defining characteristics of the national bread of Erin are 1) the inclusion of lesser parts of the wheat berry, such as the germ and husk, and 2) the use of buttermilk.

Though I am writing this post on the approach to St. Patrick’s Day, the truth is that the soda bread described by the recipe below is not truly Irish, the use of wheat germ and buttermilk notwithstanding.  My version is very North American, moist and crumbly.  Picture cornbread, only instead of corn meal there are coarse bits of wheat germ.  The wheat germ gives the bread a slightly yellow hue.

Just what the internet needs
Another Soda Bread Recipe

Ingredients

  • 165 g all-purpose flour
  • 105 g whole wheat flour
  • 30 g wheat germ
  • 12 g baking powder
  • 2 g baking soda
  • 8 g kosher salt
  • 50 g unsalted butter, melted
  • 140 g whole milk
  • 125 g buttermilk
  • 30 g egg
  • 15 g honey
  • 30 g sour cream

Procedure

  1. Combine the dry ingredients, the flours, wheat germ, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, in a medium mixing bowl.  Make a well in the centre.
  2. Combine the wet ingredients, the melted butter, whole milk, buttermilk, egg, honey, and sour cream, in a separate bowl.  Whisk thoroughly.
  3. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, then mix with a spatula until just combined.  Do not over-mix!
  4. Transfer batter to a buttered baking vessel and bake at 375°F until the centre of the bread is set, roughly 30 minutes, though exact times will depend on the dish you have selected.

A slice of soda bread, with butter

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Cornbread Stuffing and Cornbread Pudding

A casserole of cornbread stuffingIn the extremely unlikely case that you have leftover cornbread that is a couple days old and a bit too dry to be enjoyed, you have two choices.

Look deep into the tepid pond of your soul and ask, sweet or savoury?

If the response comes back sweet, you make cornbread pudding.  If the answer is savoury, you make cornbread stuffing.

Leftover cornbread and the dishes made therefrom are quite different than stale bread and its children.  As cornbread is a quick bread, the baker went out of his or her way to avoid gluten development, and no doubt added sugar and fat in the form of butter or buttermilk or sour cream.  This kept the fresh cornbread tender, but it now makes the dried cornbread extremely crumbly.

In my post about traditional stuffing I discuss a textural continuum.  On one end is the loosely-bound style in which the individual bread pieces tumble over each other, and on the other is the highly-bound style in which the bread is moistened and mixed into a cohesive paste.  Cornbread stuffing is always highly bound, because as soon as you drop the bread into the pot, it disintegrates into a very fine meal.  In fact to make cornbread stuffing is almost like reverting the cornbread back to its elemental cornmeal, and then remaking it.  Think of it as a phoenician rebirth.[1]

Moisture in the from of milk or stock, in conjunction with eggs, helps reform the crumbs into a cohesive, sliceable dressing.

The stuffing is very close to the original bread, only a bit more moist, and a bit eggier, but with the same characteristic granular texture.

Cornbread Stuffing

Ingredients

  • 2 oz unsalted butter
  • 7 oz sliced onions
  • 5 oz sliced red bell peppers
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp dried summer savoury
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 20 oz stale cornbread (preferably this cornbread)
  • 4 oz smoked pork stock (or any type of stock, really…)
  • 3 large eggs

Procedure

  1. Melt the butter in a medium, heavy-bottomed stainless steel pot.  Add the onion, peppers, salt, herbs and spices.  Sweat over medium heat until the onions and peppers have become limp.
  2. Crumble the stale cornbread into the pot.  Add the stock and mix until the cornbread starts to come together.
  3. Remove the mixture from the heat and let cool briefly.  Beat in the eggs.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a buttered casserole and bake at 375°F until the interior has set.  If the top is not quite crusty enough, give the casserole a pass under the broiler.

 

For cornbread pudding, forgo the onions, peppers, herbs, and spices; replace the stock with cream or milk; add a handful of sugar.

Cornbread Pudding

Ingredients

  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 oz granulated sugar
  • 20 oz stale cornbread
  • 4 oz heavy cream or whole milk
  • 3 large eggs

Procedure

  1. Heat a pot of water on the stove.
  2. Whisk the eggs together.
  3. Crumble the stale cornbread into a large bowl.  Add the cream and whisked eggs and mix until the cornbread starts to form a cohesive paste.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a buttered casserole or terrine.  Set the dish into a large roasting tray.  Pour the hot water from the stove into the roaster to make a hot bath for the casserole.  Bake in a 350°F oven until the interior of the pudding has just set.
  5. Once cool, the pudding is best served by slicing and pan-frying.  Consume with poached apples, whisky caramel sauce, vanilla ice cream.  And maybe reserve the peels from your apples and gently fry them until they’re crisp and crumble them on top.  As below.

Cornbread pudding with poached apples, vanilla ice cream, and whisky caramel sauce

 

1. I started to write “phoenix-like,” but then “phoenician” came to mind.  Perhaps “phoenician,” with no capitalization, can be used to mean “of or pertaining to a phoenix,” as in the mythical creature?  Or can it only mean “of or pertaining to the ancient nation of Phoenicia”?

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Sour Cabbage Heads

A homemade sour cabbage headThis happy fellow at left is a sour cabbage head, sauerkraut in whole-cabbage form.

You can make sour cabbage heads simply by burying little cabbages throughout your sauerkraut crock after you have liberally salted and mixed your shredded cabbage.  The mass ferments together, and at the appointed time you can prod through the conventional sauerkraut til you find the whole heads of cured cabbage.  It’s rather like an Easter egg hunt only with more lactobacillus.

It didn’t cross my mind to make sour cabbage heads this season until about a month after I had started my large crock of kraut.  Lisa had bought some pretty little savoy cabbages.  I stole one.  Then I dug a deep well into the centre of the dense, wet, tangled mass of kraut.  I planted my cabbage head in the bottom, then back-filled the hole.

Today, a month or two later, I fished the cabbage from the crock.

The most common use of cabbages cured in this manner is to snap off the whole leaves and make them into sour cabbage rolls.

When making cabbage rolls with sour cabbage leaves I forgo the tomato sauce and instead use mushroom cream sauce.  Not sure what the traditions are, but the sour cabbage leaves don’t need any supporting acidity.

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On Recipes and Cookbooks

There are always mysteries in old cookbooks, because even the most unpoetical depend on the existence of a living tradition for the cook to know when the result is correct.

-Charles Perry, from In Taste: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery

 

A stack o' cookbooksI think this post is particularly appropriate to the Christmas season, as in the next couple days thousands of cookbooks will be purchased and given as gifts, and even more recipes will be searched out online and acted out in home kitchens.

I myself already have an Alexandrian hoard of cookbooks.  Some of them are completely useless.  Others have changed the trajectory of my career and home-life.  I also record recipes very meticulously, and oftentimes those recipes get published on this site. If you can’t be in the kitchen with someone then a recipe is as good a way as we have to teach them how to cook a certain dish.

That being said, recipes are not everything that we think.  They are not the secret essence of the dish, and rote following of a recipe is no more effectual than reciting the words of a prayer.  A recipe on its own, no matter how detailed, is woefully insufficient if the cook is not familiar with the dish and the traditions from which it comes.

Let me explain.

 

Part One: Technique-Driven Cooking

Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish, feed him for life.

-Chinese proverb?  As a child this saying was always attributed to “ancient Chinese wisdom,” but for all I know it’s from Reader’s Digest.

 

Once I had gained a bit of confidence in the kitchen, I eschewed recipes.  This was partly because I had a basic idea of the proportions needed make mayonnaise, or beef stew, or mashed potatoes; it was partly because I thought I could adjust salt, vinegar, and spices by following my own palate; but mostly it was because I realized that technique affected the final dish far more than the amount of any one ingredient used.

By way of example, let’s discuss How to Cook Green Vegetables.  Here is a description of how to blanch asparagus, taken from a recipe in Joel Robuchon’s The Complete Robuchon:

Wash and trim the asparagus.  Prepare a dish lined with 4 layers of paper towels.  Bring 2 quarts (2 l.) water seasoned with 1 tablespoon coarse salt to a boil in a large pot.  Plunge the asparagus into the simmering water and cook for 2 minutes, turning them with a skimmer.  Remove with a skimmer or slotted spoon to the paper towel-lined dish to dry, patting it with paper towels as necessary.

These are very specific instructions that will no doubt yield bright green, firm but tender asparagus (though 2 minutes seems like a long time for anything but the oldest stalks…)  Now compare that passage to the following excerpt from The French Laundry Cookbook:

Raw green vegetables appear dull because a layer of gas develops between the skin and pigment.  Heat releases this gas, and the pigment floods to the surface.  But this happens fast, and pretty soon, as the vegetable cooks, the acids and enzymes in the vegetable are released, dulling the green color.  At the same time, pigment begins to leach out into the water.  So the challenge is to fully cook a vegetable before you lose the color, which means cooking it as fast as possible.  There are three key factors to achieve this.  First, blanch in a large quantity of water relative to the amount of vegetables you’re cooking, so you won’t significantly lower the boiling temperature when you add the cold vegetables.  If you lose the boil, not only do the vegetables cook more slowly, but the water becomes a perfect environment for the pigment-dulling enzymes to go to work (these enzymes are destroyed only at the boiling point).  Furthermore, using a lot of water means the pigment-dulling acids released by the vegetables will be more diluted.

Keller goes on the explain the importance of heavily salting the water, and of shocking the vegetables in ice water once they are cooked through.  Keller’s description of big-pot blanching is more useful than one hundred recipes on blanching the several green vegetables available to modern cooks.  More essential, transferable information is conveyed than any number of ingredient-lists and procedures.  In other words, the Robuchon recipe gives you bright green asparagus every time you prepare that specific recipe, while Keller gives you bright, green vegetables for the rest of your cooking days!

For the sake of completeness, below is a picture comparing the colour of dull, raw peas (above) to vibrant, blanched peas (below).

A side-by-side view of dull, raw peas, and vibrant, blanched peas.

Another case study: How to Brown Meat.

Here’a description of how to brown beef from The Complete Robuchon.

Heat the … olive oil in a large pot over high heat.  When the oil is hot, add the stew meat and brown all over, about 5 minutes.  Remove the meat to a dish with the skimmer.

This, I think you will agree, is another very precise but more or less useless instruction.  What is hot oil, for instance?  What shade of brown should the meat be?

The colour of properly browned meat and the methods to produce it are difficult to convey in a cook book.  And there is no formula for telling how long it will take to cook a certain piece of meat to perfect doneness.[1]  In fact, Brillat-Savarin went so far as to say, “We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast.”

I didn’t learn how to brown meat until I worked at Jack’s Grill.  Most of the proteins were seared in aluminum frying pans.  We would put a bit of grapeseed oil in the pan, then put it over medium high heat.  Only once the oil was starting to smoke did we add the meat.  This is the heat that is required to properly brown a small piece of meat without over-cooking the interior.

I would describe the colour of well-seared meat as deep amber.  Bits of fat should be a lustrous bronze.

The best technique-driven books I’ve come across are Ruhlman’s Twenty, and On Food and Cooking (perhaps a bit dry and scientific for the beginner, but it has several important details about technique).  There are several brilliant books from famous chefs and restaurants that are structured as cookbooks (ie. a set of recipes), but are much, much more valuable for their spirited insights into techniques.  Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast comes to mind, as the recipes themselves are too cursory to be truly useful, but the broader ideas on how to prepare off-cuts are brilliant.  Curing, breading, and deep-frying a pig’s tail, for instance.  I feel similarly about Magnus Nilson’s Faviken and The Art of Living According to Joe Beef.  Fantastic books, but not because of the recipes themselves.

 

Part Two: Ratio-Driven Cooking

The first person to really open my eyes to the power of ratios in cooking was Michael Smith.  In the cheesey introduction to his Food Network show Chef at Home, he says, “My secret recipe?  Cooking without a recipe!”  Corniness notwithstanding, I think Michael Smith did a great job of teaching essentials about ingredients, flavours, technique, and ratios.  I remember him making a barbecue sauce using equal parts ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, and vinegar.  This is far from the perfect barbecue sauce, but it’s a fantastic starting point that frees you from recipes.  It’s easy to remember.  Mix the ingredients, then have a taste.  More acid?  More sweetness?  Add onions or garlic or paprika or cayenne?  This is the kind of starting point someone needs to develop their own repertoire.

A few years after this introduction I read a book called Ratio by Michael Ruhlman.  Ruhlman is one of the most influential food writers in the States (he had a hand in The French Laundry Cookbook, and helped fuel the charcuterie renaissance with his book Charcuterie).  Of the five books that most changed how I cook and think about food, three of them are at least partly written by Ruhlman, and Ratio might be in first place.

Case Study: Crêpes

Ruhlman explains that the basic ratio to make crêpes is 2 : 2 : 1, liquid : egg : flour.  This is dead-simple to remember.  The most common form would use milk and all-purpose flour.  Change a third of the flour content to ground wild rice, and fold some cooked wild rice into the final batter and you’ve made wild rice crêpes without a recipe.

The book contains ratios for everything from baked goods to sausages to custards.

 

Conclusion: The “Food” Section at Chapters

The mother of excess is not joy but joylessness.

-Nietzsche

 

Based on observations during periodic visits, I think “Food and Cooking” is the fastest growing section in the bookstore, besides possibly “Graphic Novels.”  It is a seductive set of shelves, with heavy folios and gorgeous photography.

But.

Have you ever walked through a dollar store and felt a little bit sick in thinking about all the cheap plastic junk in the world that doesn’t need to exist?  Lately I’ve felt that way about cookbooks.  There are many fantastic books on those shelves  - a few of them have quite literally changed my life – but most of them are unnecessary, redundant cash grabs.

I see the proliferation of cookbooks as a symptom of the meager culinary traditions in our society.  Frankly the proliferation of foodblogs is the same.  While there are some very, very useful books out there, what folks interested in cooking need to do is find a friend, relative, or business that can show them how to cook.  There are countless ways to do this in Edmonton.  Small cooking schools and conferences are popping up all over (eg. Get Cooking, Taste Tripping, Seasoned Solutions, Allium Foodworks, Eat Alberta.)  Shovel and Fork is a lot broader than “cooking,” and offers classes on several food crafts like gardening, cider-making, and pickling.

Last year I helped Kevin Kossowan host a hands-on pig-cutting day at Sangudo.  After some preliminary explanations and words of advice, it was time for the students to pick up their knives and cut up the pigs.  ”How should we hold the knife?  Like we’re cutting a steak?  Where should we cut?  Where exactly?”  After a few such questions I had to stop answering, and only reply, “Just start doing it,” again and again, until they did.  With that single stroke of the knife, each nascent meat-cutter immediately learned something that no book could ever teach them.  Then they were off to the races and the learning and the conversation could really begin.

 

 

1.  The folks at Rational probably disagree with this statement.

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Citron Melon

A citron melonThis is a citron.  Its name is confusing: most hear it and assume it is part of the citrus family.  ”Citron,” after all, is the French word for lemon, and there is a citrus fruit grown in the Mediterranean called a citron, or kitron, that resembles a large lime.

The subject of this post is emphatically not a citrus fruit.  It is a type of melon, so it often goes by the name citron melon to avoid confusion.

At first glance a citron melon looks like a small watermelon, except that it is perfectly round, with spackled streaks arching from pole to pole.  If you cut this globe into hemispheres you’ll find an interior that is pale green, crunchy, and almost completely without flavour.  What little taste there is at times reminds me of honeydew melon, at others cucumber, and still others pumpkin.

What interests me about the citron melon is not so much its flavour, but how it got to me, and why it exists.

I first heard of this fruit a few years ago when doing some research on my family history and prodding my relatives for details on what they ate growing up, and what my grandparents and great grandparents grew and prepared on their farms in Ontario.  Citron came up as a common fruit (or was it a vegetable?) that was preserved as marmalade and pickles.  When I pushed relatives for a description, comparisons as diverse as zucchini and watermelon were made.  It baffled me, a professional cook, that I had never heard of a food that was grown by my own family in Ontario.  I had never seen a citron melon in a grocery store, or a cook book.

This fall I visited family in northern Ontario[1] and finally came face to face with a citron.  Friends had recently harvested the the last of their vegetables, and on the front porch was a small stack of the enigmatic melons.  I learned that the fruit is not sold in markets or grocery stores in the area, and seeds are not for sale at nurseries or hardware stores.  In fact citrons only continue to exist in northern Ontario because home gardeners save the seeds from last year’s crop.[2]

Of course seed-saving is how most domesticated plants have been propagated for thousands of years, and of course gardeners continue to save seed from particularly hearty or tasty or pretty plants.  But this practice seemed particularly precious to me because I doubt there is any local seed bank or commercial nursery that has “back-up” seeds of citron melon – only hobby gardeners in rural Ontario doing what their parents and grandparents did before them.  A tenuous existence.

I came back to Edmonton with one medium-sized citron, a baggy of seeds, and a recipe for citron marmalade.  Citron melon often gets treated like tomatoes that haven’t quite ripened, or zucchini that have grown too long and tough: chopped, stewed with sugar, and made into marmalade or piccalilli.  Unfortunately this means that the consumption of citron relies on a cheap and abundant supply of sugar.

A jar of citron marmalade

 

 

1. Ontarians have a bizarre sense of geography.  Directions tend to be expressed in relation to Toronto: southwestern Ontario, for instance, is the long arm of land that stretches into the great lakes, southwest of Toronto, even though it is actually in the southeast of the province.  Northern Ontario comprises any part of the province above Lake Superior and Georgian Bay, even though this is all in the western part of the province and well below the geographical centre.
2. Some quick internet searches suggest that the citron melon is still a fairly common fruit in other parts of the world, notably parts of Africa and the American south.

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Braised Cabbage

Rendering lardonsBraised cabbage is wholly satisfying: warm and hearty and comforting in a way that vegetables usually only achieve in soup form.  I guess it doesn’t hurt that there’s lots of pork fat in it, but the flavour of the cabbage is the star.

With slaw and sauerkraut, braised cabbage forms what I call the trinity of cabbage preparations.  It is a cherished dish at Thanksgiving, and any wintry night.

Cook some type of fatty pork – bacon, loose sausage, and jowl all fit the bill – until it is golden brown and has rendered some golden fat into the pot.

Cook sliced onions and garlic in the pork fat until starting to turn translucent.  Add the cabbage and cook briefly, until it is just starting to wilt.  Add apple cider and vinegar.  Or wine.  The acidity is important for the flavour of the finished dish, and if you are using red cabbage, it is essential to preserve the vibrant purple of the dish.

Bring the liquid to a boil, lower to a simmer, then cover the pot.  Traditionally this dish is cooked until the cabbage is very soft.  I prefer braised cabbage with some bite.  Ten or fifteen minutes should do the trick.

Once the cabbage is approaching its desired tenderness, remove the lid from the pot and crank the heat to reduce the cooking liquid.  This will concentrate the flavours and make the dish less soupy and easier to serve and eat.

A pot of braising cabbage

 

Braised Cabbage

The last time I made braised cabbage I weighed out my ingredients to give you an idea of the proportions.

  • 500 g bacon cut into thick lardons, or an equal measure of some manner of fatty pork
  • 400 g white onion, sliced
  • 30 g garlic, minced
  • 1100 g cabbage, cored and sliced into thin strips 2-3″ long
  • 440 g dry cider
  • 60 g cider vinegar
  • salt
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