10 Foods that You Should Never Buy Again

I love the title of this post because it sounds like those fear-mongering, unsolicited internet advertisements, like, “3 Foods that are Making You have Cancer right now… You’ll never guess what number 2 is!!!”

Despite my pedantic writing style, I really hate pretension, and I don’t want to make people feel bad about enjoying their favourite foods.


Following is a list of ingredients, prepared foods, and drinks that I think no one should ever buy.  Like ever.  Not because they’re bad for you, but because paying money for these items makes you a sucker, both financially and spiritually.  You can make the following foodstuffs from scratch for a fraction of the cost in no time at all, and your homemade version is guaranteed to be at least as good as the store-bought.  Probably better.


Breadcrumbs.  Purchasing breadcrumbs is the single most insane act someone can perform with regards to home cooking.  Breadcrumbs used to be one of the cheapest, most humble, ubiquitous ingredients in western kitchens.  It is now sold in bags at the supermarket.  For the record Shake and Bake is seasoned breadcrumbs.

Shake 'n' Bake: a brilliant way to sell people breadcrumbsYou’ve eaten every crumb of every loaf of bread you’ve every bought?  I doubt it.

Almost any loaf of bread will make good crumbs.  Some of the really dense, artisan loaves may be too hard to process.  Leave the bread uncovered on a sheet pan.  Don’t stack the pieces of bread or they might mould.  Leave until the bread is completely hard throughout, maybe a week, depending on the type of bread and the size of the pieces.  Crumble the bread into a food processor and blitz till smooth.  I feel slightly ridiculous typing these instructions out, but they sell breadcrumbs in the grocery store, so some people must not know how to make them.

The main reason people don’t make their own isn’t because they don’t know how, it’s because they don’t have daily uses for them.  They wait until they are taking on a recipe that calls for breadcrumbs (like this meatball recipe…), then realize they don’t have any, then rush out to pay $5 for 200 g of crumb.

The truth is that breadcrumb is an extremely versatile ingredient.  Its supreme purpose is as a coating for fried items like schnitzel and fish sticks (yes, fish sticks).  You can treat it like pure starch.  It does contain gluten, but you can add it to mixtures without making the texture gluey.  They are especially useful when making fillings for perogies and stuffed pasta like ravioli, tortellini and the like.  If your filling is just a touch too loose the breadcrumb will stiffen it perfectly.

They are also an important part of traditional Austrian strudel.

And they need not hide deep within the filling of a perogy.  Pan-fried in butter they can make a shockingly delicious and beautiful garnish, especially for textural contrast on steamed dumplings.  Or ice cream.

Croutons.  Basically the same argument as for bread crumbs: you probably already have the ingredients to make croutons, and it takes about 10 minutes start to finish.  You take stale bread, cut it into cubes, then toss them with oil, salt, pepper, chopped herbs, and garlic.  You spread them out on a sheet pan and bake them until they are golden brown, stirring occasionally.  You can bake them hard throughout like the ones in the store, or if your bread is fresh enough you can get a good crust on the outside and leave some chew within.  No matter how bad a cook you are, there is no conceivable way that your homemade croutons will be as disappointing as the ones from the grocery store.

Garlic Bread.  Garlic bread is like a big crouton that you don’t bake hard all the way through.  Instead of buying those soggy, foil-wrapped loaves, invest in a loaf of bread and a head of fresh garlic.

Granola.  Okay we’re getting a little more complicated here, but still anyone can make granola, and it only takes 20 minutes.  “But I don’t have a recipe!”  Now you do.

Waffle/Pancake Mix.  You can buy a mix that lets you make waffles and pancakes, or you can buy a handful of ingredients (flour, sugar, butter, baking powder, yeast) that let you make any baked good ever invented.

Any kind of Pre-Cut Vegetable.  This includes but is not limited to those plastic bags of tri-coloured slaw made of green cabbage, red cabbage, and carrot.  I think the single biggest obstacle to cooking at home is that most people don’t have sharp knives in their kitchen.  Using dull knives makes simple prep work daunting.  Maintain a sharp knife, use a large cutting board properly anchored to your kitchen counter with wet cloth, and become a kitchen ninja with mad knife skills.

Frozen Hamburgers.  A really good hamburger is just ground beef with salt and pepper.  In other words instead of buying fresh ground beef and shaping it into a patty you are buying frozen beef that has been shaped for you.  You are spending more money to save yourself 10 minutes and end up eating a worse product.  Everything you need to know about hamburgers.

Salad Dressing.  I’ve already made the case for homemade dressings here.  A brief synopsis of that post: you almost certainly already have all the ingredients you need to make a delicious vinaigrette, you can make enough for a month in less than 90 seconds, and your homemade dressing won’t have sodium EDTA in it.

Mayonnaise.  The reason we don’t make mayo at home anymore is because 1) people are paranoid that raw eggs will give them salmonella, and 2) people think mayonnaise is difficult to make.  As to the first point, it’s true that youngsters, expectant mothers, and the elderly probably shouldn’t eat raw eggs on the off chance that they contract salmonella, but most healthy people are fine to eat raw eggs.  I have made mayonnaise dozens of times at home with raw eggs without incident.  As to the second point, mayo is definitely the trickiest thing to make on this list, but once you get the hang of it, you can make great mayo in mere minutes.

Iced Tea.  It’s crazy that a homeowner with black tea and white sugar in his pantry would go out and buy powdered iced tea, or cans of iced tea.  Making iced tea is a simple as brewing a pot of tea then forgetting to drink it.

For me, iced tea needs to be sweet, so I add sugar while the tea is hot.  And it benefits from a bit of acidity to balance it out.  Lemon is traditional, but I like using rhubarb.

This recipe for rhubarb iced tea takes less than 15 minutes to make, but then of course it must cool, so it requires some foresight.  If you’re hosting a barbecue tomorrow, or you look at the weather forecast and see that it’s going to be 30°C every day next week, brew a big batch of this.


So that’s my rant.  Anything you would add to this list?


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Squash and Barley ‘Risotto’

Squash and barley risotto with roasted autumn vegetables.Risotto is a traditional northern Italian dish of short-grain rice cooked in broth and finished with butter and grated hard cheese, usually parmigianno.  The “ris” in the name refers to the rice, so “barley risotto” is sort of an oxymoron.  There happens to be an Italian word for barley cooked in the same style as risotto: orzotto.[1]

Anyways, this morning I prepared a squash and barley risotto on Global Edmonton and promised to post the recipe here.  This is a dish we do at Elm Catering throughout the autumn, a re-imagining of the traditional risotto using some local fall ingredients.  It would be a great addition to a Thanksgiving dinner, perhaps in lieu of mash potatoes.

You can use either pot or pearl barley.  Both of these have had most of the bran removed from the grain, so they have smooth, creamy textures.  The barley is cooked just like a traditional risotto, only using a light squash purée instead of plain chicken broth.  Any type of winter squash can be used, from butternut to hubbard to pumpkin.  We use kubocha squash for its deep orange colour.

Though it isn’t on the marquis, the real star of this dish is the cheese.  We use the hard, aged Grizzly gouda made by Sylvan Star.  If you’d like more info about Sylvan Star I have a post about them here.

The full recipe follows.


Squash and Barley ‘Risotto’


  • 4 L light chicken stock
  • 1300 g peeled, seeded, cubed winter squash
  • 150 g unsalted butter, cubed (first quantity)
  • 500 g pearl barley
  • 150 g finely minced yellow onion
  • 20 g finely minced garlic
  • 300 mL dry hard cider or dry white wine
  • 100 g finely grated Grizzly gouda, plus more for garnish
  • 150 g unsalted butter, cubed (second quantity)


  1. Combine light chicken stock and squash in a pot.  Cook over medium high heat until squash is very tender.  Puré with an immersion blender.
  2. In a separate, heavy, medium pot, melt the first quantity of butter.  Add barley and cook over medium heat until aromatic and starting to turn golden brown.
  3. Add the minced onions and garlic and cook until the onions are soft and translucent.
  4. Add hard cider or wine.  Cook briefly.
  5. Add the squash purée to the barley a ladle at a time, stirring periodically.  Maintain a simmer until the barley is tender, about 20-30 minutes.  You may not use all of the squash purée produced by this recipe, but it’s better to have a bit too much than too little.
  6. Once the barley is tender, remove from heat and let stand for 5-10 minutes.  Stir in Grizzly gouda and the second quantity of butter.  Stir until the butter is melted and both the butter and cheese are incorporated thoroughly.  The risotto should have the consistency of a loose porridge.
  7. Garnish with black pepper and more finely grated Grizzly gouda.

Yield: about 4 L squash and barley risotto, enough for at least 12 people!


True risotto often accompanies braised meats like ossobuco, garnished with a mixture of garlic, parsley, and lemon zest called gremolata.  At Elm we sometimes do a play on this and make a “gremolata” out of dried cranberry, walnut, and celery leaves.



  1. “Orzo” is the Italian word for barley.  The pasta orzo is so-called because it resembles grains of barley.  Isn’t that fascinating?
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Plain Jane Garlic Sausage

It recently dawned on me that I don’t have any sausage recipes on this site.  Which is crazy.  So I’m going to post a bunch.  For details on procedure and technique, I have two posts linked below.  Also… I happen to be teaching a sausage-making class for Metro Continuing Education on October 19, 2016.


A plate of sausage, toast, apple sauce, and braised red cabbage.This simple sausage goes by many names in my house, among them “everyday sausage”, “plain Jane”, and occasionally “garlic brat”, though it is not a bratwurst in the strictest sense.[1]

I wanted a relatively neutral sausage that would go well with most of the food I cook at home, which I would describe as North American farmstead with a serious central/eastern European slant.  So instead of making ten different types of sausage each year, I could make one or two and have all my bases covered.  This sausage is most often eaten on a bun, or with Austrian potato salad, or other simple plates like the one at left.

The predominant flavours in this recipe are pork, garlic, and black pepper, with some secondary, supporting flavours in the background.  Since I so often eat my sausages with something from the mustard family (prepared mustard and cabbage, especially) there is a touch of mustard powder in the recipe.  There is also a hint of cayenne pepper, enough to warm the palate and reinforce the black pepper, but not enough to make this a “spicy” sausage.

My ideal texture for this sausage is achieved by what I call the “lazy brat” method.  All the meat is ground through a 3/16″ plate, then a portion of the meat, anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2, is set aside, and the remaining meat is ground a second time.  Then all the meat is re-combined for the mixing process.

Here’s the detailed recipe.


Plain Jane Garlic Sausage
your everyday sausage


  • 2 kgs pork butt, boneless and skinless, but with entire fat cap (about 1.5″ thick)
  • 33 g kosher salt
  • 40 g fresh garlic, minced fine
  • 6 g black pepper, coarsely ground
  • 10 g mustard powder
  • 2.8 g cayenne
  • 200 mL ice-cold water
  • about 10′ hog casing


  1. Chill the pork butt thoroughly by spreading it out on a sheet tray lined with parchment and storing in the freezer.  The meat should be slightly crunchy on the exterior, but not frozen solid, and still with some give.
  2. Grind the meat through a 3/16″ plate.  Set aside about 1/3 of the ground meat.
  3. Re-chill the remaining 2/3 ground meat as described in step 1.
  4. Grind the chilled 2/3 meat through a 3/16″ plate a second time.
  5. Re-combine all the ground meat.  Add the remaining ingredients (except the casings…) to the bowl of a stand mixer.  Mix with the paddle attachment for 90 seconds on a medium speed, then 30 seconds on a medium-high speed.
  6. Fry a small piece of the mixture in a pan.  Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  7. Stuff into hog casings.
  8. Twist into 6″ links.
  9. Poach until the meat is just cooked, reaching an internal temperature of 150°F.  Transfer the links to an ice bath to arrest cooking.
  10. Let links dry thoroughly.

Yield: about 20 x 6″ links




  1. It’s a common misconception that bratwurst are so-called because they are fresh sausages that are pan-fried.  “Brat” does happen to mean roast, or fry, as in Schweinsbraten (roast pork), but that is a coincidence.  A true bratwurst is made with a fine-textured emulsified mass called a “brat”, which is studded with small chunks of chopped or coarsely ground meat.
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Breakfast Sausage

It recently dawned on me that I don’t have any sausage recipes on this site.  Which is crazy.  So I’m going to post a bunch.  For details on procedure and technique, I have two posts linked below.  Also… I happen to be teaching a sausage-making class for Metro Continuing Education on October 19, 2016.


Breakfast sausages frying on a griddle.I wanted to create an artisan version of the little sausages you get at dive-y breakfast institutions like the Commodore.  The kind of diners that that pour you bad coffee all morning.

North American breakfast sausage is usually made entirely of pork.  It is ground quite fine and mixed to emulsify so that it has a very delicate texture.  It is often flavoured with sage and other versatile herbs.  And, most characteristically, the links are narrow and short compared to, say a smoky or even a hot dog.

For my fancy breakfast sausage I use pork butt with all of the 1.5″ fat cap.  It is flavoured with both fresh and dried sage.  I find you have to add a prohibitively expensive amount of fresh herbs to get the flavour to come through in a sausage.  And to amp the fancy-factor up a notch I use orange zest and ginger.

I double-grind the meat for delicate texture.  That’s two passes through a 3/16″ plate.

And finally to get the narrow diameter characteristic of breakfast sausage I use lamb casings.  Being lamb, these are a bit expensive, but they’re essential here.  I twist the links into 4″ lengths.

A detailed recipe follows.


Breakfast Sausage
with sage, ginger, and orange


  • 2 kgs pork butt, boneless and skinless, but with entire fat cap (about 1.5″ thick)
  • 40 g kosher salt
  • 44 g fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1.6 g dried sage
  • 18 g fresh sage, chopped
  • 47 g fresh garlic, minced fine
  • 5.4 g black pepper, coarsely ground
  • 22 g orange zest (I use a packaged orange zest made by The Perfect Purée)
  • 222 mL ice-cold water
  • about 2 m lamb casing


  1. Chill the pork butt thoroughly by spreading it out on a sheet tray lined with parchment and storing in the freezer.  The meat should be slightly crunchy on the exterior, but not frozen solid, and still with some give.
  2. Grind the meat through a 3/16″ plate.
  3. Re-chill the ground meat as described in step 1.
  4. Grind the meat through a 3/16″ plate a second time.
  5. Add the remaining ingredients (except the casings…) to the bowl of a stand mixer.  Mix with the paddle attachment for 90 seconds on a medium speed, then 30 seconds on a medium-high speed.
  6. Fry a small piece of the mixture in a pan.  Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  7. Stuff into lamb casings.
  8. Twist into 4″ links.
  9. Poach until the meat is just cooked, reaching an internal temperature of 150°F.  Transfer the links to an ice bath to arrest cooking.
  10. Let links dry thoroughly.

Yield: about 35 x 4″ links

A plate with breakfast sausage, fried eggs, and toast.

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Candy Apples

Candy apples, rank and fileI really want to like candy apples.  They are so closely associated with fall and carnivals and country fairs, they seem like a fantastic way to celebrate our local apples.

In practice they are usually disappointing.  They are often died a garish red.  The candy coating is either adamantine, or it sticks to your teeth and threatens to pull out your molars.  And usually the fruit is so large that it cannot be eaten comfortably from the end of a stick.  You have to unhinge your jaw, which compromises your ability to break the adamantine candy coating.

In theory all these problems can be solved.

Let’s talk apples.  Any good eating-apple is a good candy-apple.  Firm, crisp, juicy.  Apples that may be a touch sour to eat out of hand can still make good candy apples.  As I hinted above, small apples are key.  I say 2.5″ in diameter at the most.  Edmonton is awash in many varieties of smaller apple that you can comfortably fit between your teeth.

As an aside, to make candy apples you have to use whole, intact apples; you can’t use segments or slices.  The skin of the apple acts as a moisture barrier between the flesh of the fruit and the hard candy.  If the hard candy comes into contact with moisture it starts to melt.  Candied slices of apple will deteriorate within 10 minutes of the sugar setting.

Candy coating.  Here we use white sugar, corn syrup to prevent crystallization, and a bit of water to slow down the caramelization.  The name of the game is hard crack.  The syrup needs to reach 310°F.  Any lower and the the candy will not be brittle, and will stick to the teeth.

Most candy apples are dyed an intense, impossible red.  Personally I think they look better without food colouring, as you can see the natural colour of the apple.  Edmonton-grown apples come in a shocking array of colours, from gecko green to straw yellow to lipstick red.

I know it’s a bit crafty, Pinterest-y, even Martha Stewart-y, but I love using twigs from an apple tree as the sticks for candy apples.


Candy Apples


  • 480 g granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup corn syrup
  • 180 g water
  • 8-12 apples, firm, crispy specimens not more than 2.5″ across


  1. Skewer each of the apples with a thick twig from an apple tree.  Line them up on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper.
  2. Combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water in a heavy-bottomed stainless steel pot.  Stir briefly to moisten all the sugar.  Turn the heat to medium high.  Monitor the temperature of the syrup with a candy thermometer.
  3. As soon as the syrup temperature reaches 310°F, remove the pot from the stove.  Working quickly, dip each of the apples in the syrup, rolling the apple to ensure the entire surface is coated with the candy.
  4. Allow the syrup to cool and harden before serving.  Obviously.
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Apple Must

Apple must reductionWhen you have hundreds of pounds of something you start thinking deeply on how you can preserve and consume the bounty.  This time of year apples are the subject of those deep thoughts.  Of course cider is the supreme way to preserve and consume apples, but I’ve been experimenting with some other techniques that involve cooking and reducing the fresh apple juice.

I got the idea from the cuisine of Modena.  Obviously they have an abundance of grapes, and obviously the majority of those grapes end up as wine or liquor, but they also have a few preparations made by cooking and reducing fresh grape juice.  The most famous is traditional balsamic vinegar, but there is also a little-known preparation called saba.  It is a simple grape must reduction, once commonly used as a sweetener.

Above, at left, is an apple must reduction.  It started as 16 L of fresh apple juice, pressed from Edmonton apples.  Before fermentation could start I brought the juice to a simmer using my turkey-fryer.  I maintained the gentle boil for about 12 hours, after which I had less than 4 L of liquid remaining.

The must is a beautiful, dark red-brown colour, like dried dates.  It is tart, and somewhat sweet, maybe a touch sweeter than grape juice.  It is slightly syrupy on the tongue, and it has a remarkably concentrated aroma that reminds me of dried fruit like prunes.

So what do you do with this stuff?  If you whisk it with a touch of vinegar or mustard and shallot it makes a great dressing.  Diluted with a bit of cold water it also makes a delicious drink.  But I think its supreme use is in making reduction sauces for meat and vegetables.  To make the dish pictured below I pan-roasted pork tenderloin, then deglazed the pan with apple must, reducing it to make a sweet-and-sour sauce that also played will with the roasted root vegetables.

Roast pork, root vegetables, and an apple must pan sauce.


As a side note, I’ve also used this apple must to make a superlative vinegar.  You may have even tasted some of this vinegar if you’ve eaten at RGE RD; they’ve purchased a few bottles from me over the past year or so.

I don’t see myself making gallons and gallons of apple must reduction every year, as it is extremely energy intensive, but it’s one more interesting way that apples could feature in our regional cuisine.


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Sour Cherry Pâte de Fruits

Originally published December 14, 2013.


Evans cherry gelsPâte de fruits, literally “fruit paste,” is a simple confection made of fruit, sugar, and pectin, though some recipes call for gelatin instead.

Pâtes de fruits have a very distinct texture.  They are firmer than a spreadable breakfast jelly, but without the persistent chew of a gummy bear or gummy worm or any other fauna from the gummy kingdom.  One of my chefs compared the texture to a medium ganache.

Another distinction between true pâte de fruits and inferior industrial candies is flavour.  They are very bright, pure expressions of the fruit from which they are made.  They tend to be tart, though well-balanced.

The chemistry behind pâtes de fruits is the same as that behind jellies (see this post).  We require three things to form good pectin bonds:

  • heat, to evaporate moisture and concentrate the pectin
  • acid (hydrogen ions), to neutralize the negative charge that repels pectin molecules
  • sugar, to draw in moisture and make room for the pectin molecules to get intimate

The only difference between a spreadable jelly and this jelly candy is the concentration of the above-listed ingredients.  The real trick is finding the right pectin content: too little and the paste will not cut into clean squares, too much and they will be very firm and have a slightly mealy texture on the tongue.

Estimating the required pectin quantity is especially hard if you are using fresh fruit.  Bakery supply shops carry fruit concentrates designed to be used in this type of confectionery, and each is carefully blended to have uniform characteristics across batches.  Fresh fruit, however, is not and cannot be controlled in this manner.  Pectin content varies from plant to plant and within the same plant as the fruit ripens.

I’ve been trying to make a great Evans cherry pâte de fruits for some time now.  For the Eat Alberta 2013 tasting board I set out to make a pâte de fruits with some of the Evans cherries left in my freezer from last season. I wanted to give folks a really clear idea of what our sour cherries taste like.  Since we were still three or four months away from having fresh cherries, I thought that jelly candy was the best way to do this.  To be completely honest they had too much pectin in them, so the texture was a bit too firm and mealy.  Interestingly, I let some of the candies leftover from Eat Alberta sit, covered, at room temperature for a few weeks, and the texture smoothed out and they were exactly the right consistency.  My working theory is that pectin bonds degrade over time.

Anyways, for my latest batch of Evans cherry jelly candies I used the recipe below and they turned out great.  As mentioned above, due to natural variations in pectin content, you might need to tweak the quantities for your cherries.

I have omitted extra acid such as citric acid solution from the recipe because I think that Evans cherries are plenty sour on their own.

I’ll share two more details before leaving you with the recipe.  First: boil the jelly very aggressively.  This preserves a lot of the flavour of the fresh fruit.  Second: when selecting a dish to pour the jelly into to set, pick one that is a size that will make your jelly candies about 1/2″ high.  Making the candies too flat makes them hard to pick up.


Evans Cherry Pâte de Fruits 


  •  600 g Evans cherry purée (pitted cherries run through the blender)
  • 170 g liquid pectin
  • 300 g white corn syrup
  • 600 g granulated sugar


  1. Combine the cherry purée, the liquid pectin, and the corn syrup in a large pot.  Heat and stir to dissolve the pectin.
  2. Add the sugar and stir gently to dissolve.
  3. Crank the heat and boil aggressively until a candy thermometer reads 218°F.
  4. Immediately and quickly pour into a casserole.
  5. Allow to cool and stand at room temperature for 24 hours.
  6. Cut into squares or diamonds and roll in sugar.


Can you imagine if Edmonton restaurants started serving these when they brought you the cheque, instead of a mint?

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Dandelion Crowns

We’ve tried a lot of things with dandelions.  The leaves are great.  Hopefully everybody knows that by now.  I’ve made syrups with the flowers, but truthfully they don’t have much flavour and are only good for their sunny colour.  The roots are delicious roasted and useful in bitter infusions, but they are such a bitch to harvest I rarely bother.  The flower buds can be pickled, but while they look a good deal like capers they don’t actually have much flavour of their own, and certainly don’t have the distinct mustard-like pop of their Mediterranean look-alikes.

Dandelion crowns might be the tastiest part of the plant.

The crown is where the root transitions to the stalks.  It is only slightly easier to harvest than the root, and probably more difficult to clean, but it delivers a serious flavour payoff.

Fresh dandelion crowns.


Pan-roasted, dandelion crowns remind me of rutabaga: soft, savoury, and faintly bitter.

The dish below was entirely conceived and executed by my partner Lisa.  She sautéed the crowns, then added a bit of water to the pan and covered.  Once the crowns were tender she added dandelion greens and cooked until they were wilted but still vibrant green.  She finished the dish with balsamic vinegar.

A dandelion dish: sautéed crowns with wilted greens.


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Arm of Lamb

Roast lamb foreleg, or "arm of lamb"One of the great things about purchasing your meat as a whole animal and cutting it yourself (besides getting high-quality ethically produced meat for a fraction of its farmers’ market price) is that you have total control over how the meat is divided.

I’ve written about this before (Alternative Pork Primals) but I have another great example of an unorthodox meat-cutting practice: arm of lamb.  While lambs have four legs, the traditional roast leg of lamb is always a hind leg.  The shank meat is trimmed away, leaving relatively tender, lean meat that is best roasted medium rare.

The foreleg is a very different piece of meat.  It could simply be billed as “foreleg of lamb” but I think we need a better way to properly distinguish it from the hind part.  So I propose “arm of lamb”. [1]

The foreleg of lamb is typically broken up in the meat shop: the butcher uses a bandsaw to cut across the bones so that the uppermost part is left on the shoulder, the lowermost part is removed as a bone-in shank, and everything in between is trim for sausages.

You can, however, remove the entire foreleg in one piece.  It looks rather similar to the hind leg, with the characteristic club shape, but the meat is completely different: tough and fatty, with several small, irregular muscle groups.  So instead of being roasted at high heat to medium rare, the foreleg is best braised, or slow-roasted until it is falling-apart-tender, like a lamb shoulder.

I probably get a bigger kick out of this than most, but I like that it looks like a leg of lamb, but it is a braise instead of a roast.

Arm of lamb is harder to carve tableside, as it contains the shoulder blade, but the meat is tender enough that careful carving isn’t really necessary: if you cook the meat till it is thoroughly tender you can push a fork into the joint and pull and shred as much meat as you please.


  1. I’ll concede that “arm” doesn’t quite have the same appetizing ring to it as leg, and that it somehow even sounds cannibalistic.  I suppose the reason is that legs are for locomotion, arms are for manipulation of objects; animals do not manipulate objects the same way humans do; their four limbs are used chiefly for locomotion; ergo they do not have arms; only humans have arms.  That’s why is sounds weird to eat an arm.  That being said, the lamb’s humerus is often referred to as the arm bone, and the sub-primal cut that contains the humerus can be called the lamb should arm, but these are technical meat-cutting terms that would never appear on consumer packaging.
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Greek Food

Any country that pickles its national cheese in brine and adulterates its national wine with pine pitch should order dinner at the local Chinese place and save its energies for other things.

-Jeffrey Steingarten, on Greek food

Dawn at the harbour at Iraklio, Crete

As the above quote from Vogue’s food critic demonstrates, Greek food is not often taken seriously in North America.[1]  In fact, a trip to a Greek restaurant is not even about the food, as the food is more or less the same at all Greek restaurants.  In our part of the world, dining at a Greek restaurant is about the experience, an experience that usually involves tables for twelve, bazuki music, belly dancing, liquor, repetition of the phrase “Opa!”, smashing plates, and of course setting cheese on fire.  All of this commotion invariably occurs between whitewashed walls supporting plastic grape vines.

It’s cyclical and self-perpetuating: the public has come to expect a zany, raucous, experience, so Greek restaurants deliver to make a buck, which reinforces our ridiculous idea about Greek cuisine and culture.

I haven’t done any solid research on the issue, but I’m pretty sure the initial misconception comes from a movie that is a half-century old: Zorba the Greek.  Based on a Kazantzakis novel, the movie is about a stuffy half Greek half English writer who moves to Crete to run a lignite mine. In Piraeus he is approached by a Macedonian named Zorba who offers his services as a mining crew chief.  Zorba: the name itself is wild.  He is obsessed with women and wine and dancing and in short drinks deeply and lustily from the cup of life.  This has become a stereotype throughout television and film, in everything from My Big Fat Greek Wedding to Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

In the movie, Zorba is the Greek spirit teaching the prudish Englishman how to enjoy life.  Interestingly in the book, both of the main characters are Greek.  Zorba is perhaps the ancient Greek spirit, standing in stark contrast to his contemporary compatriots, who are all fettered by the Orthodox Church, superstition, and poverty.

But I digress.

The day after I wrote my last university exam I departed for a five week trip to southern Greece with my girlfriend Lisa.  My degree was in electrical engineering.  At the time I had a part time job in a kitchen.  Our time in Greece did a lot to make me forget about engineering and work as a cook when we returned to Canada.

Before the trip I considered the word “cuisine” a fancy way of saying “food”, and to me the two terms could be used interchangeably.  The trip (by which I mean the reading I did beforehand, the five weeks of travel, and the hundred or so meals Lisa and I ate in Greece, almost entirely at markets and tavernas) taught me that cuisine was a cohesive set of traditions that informed how a society interacted with the natural world.

I learned that there was a seasonal rhythm to the traditional food of Greece.  One restaurant owner explained that true Greek salad is actually just raw onion, feta, and olive oil, ingredients that are available year round.  Only in the height of summer were flourishes like tomatoes and cucumbers added.  This seems so obvious to me now having spent the last eight years immersed in food, but at the time it was a revelation.[2]

I was fascinated to see how these traditions were interpreted differently by each taverna. Saganaki, for instance, which is essentially just fried cheese, was different in every place we ate.  Sometimes it was made with kefalotiri and flamed with brandy so that the cheese melted into a gooey mat.  At a beachside taverna on the island of Syros it was made with a firm local cheese called San Michiali and gently warmed in the oven, simply to heighten the aroma and flavour.

If I had to characterize Greek food I would say it is above all else simple and elemental.  Your salad is tomatoes, capers, potatoes, and corn.  Your dinner is fish, or octopus, and lemon, and herbs.  Your dessert is melon and raki.  Of course there are exceptions (one does not easily whip up a batch of baklava) but generally food is prepared with minimal intervention using simple techniques that don’t significantly alter or mask the ingredients.

Likewise meals are served without any ostentation.  The entire trip I didn’t see a single belly dancer (maybe one in Plaka…)  No plates were smashed.  The meals were always outside, on a sidewalk or in a garden (Tamam was literally the only exception, the only time we ate indoors in an entire month).  Rarely was there music playing.  Our meals were quiet, humble, and (again) elemental.

One of the most memorable parts of our trip to Greece was the August full moon.  We were staying on the island of Paros, in a small town called Dryos.  For several days leading up to the lunar event the owner of our hotel told us that the August full moon was one of the greatest, most festive nights of the summer.  We had absolutely no idea what to expect, and we let our imaginations run wild with visions of a beachside bacchanalia.  The reality was much more restrained (we ate dinner and went out for drinks with some other tourists) but we remember it fondly.

Every full moon in August Lisa and I eat Greek food and take some time to reflect on that trip.  Some years it’s just a glass of ouzo and water with some small mezze, maybe tzatziki and pita. Other times it’s a full meal, with roast lamb with wine.

Today happens to be this year’s August full moon, which is why I have Greece on the brain.

A Greek dinner for the August full moon: roast lamb shoulder, potatoes, olives, tzatziki, and horiatiki.


  1.  This quote is from The Man Who Ate Everything, an article in which Steingarten tries to learn to appreciate his least favourite foods, which include (among many others) kimchi and Greek food.  Here he is referring to feta, which is aged and stored in brine (not actually that weird…) and retsina, a wine from Attica that is flavoured with pine resin.
  2. Of course, this seasonality is a thing of the past, and whether you are in Athens Greece or Athens Ontario (look it up), and whether it is July or January, a Greek salad always has cucumber and tomato.
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