Canola Oil

Some crusty bread with cold-pressed canola oil for dipping.Take a midsummer drive away from Edmonton in any direction and soon you will find fields of yellow flowers in radiant bloom.  This is canola, and the oil pressed from its seeds is as common in Albertan pantries as the plants are to Albertan landscapes.

Canola is a Canadian invention.  In fact, its name is an amalgam of the words “Canada oil low acid”.  Canola is a type of rapeseed that has been bred to have a low erucic acid content.

What’s rapeseed, you ask?  It’s a plant with an unfortunate name, ultimately derived from the Latin word for turnip, rapum, to which it is a close relative.

Allow me to expedite this explanation by quoting from the Canadian Encyclopedia:

Rapeseed has been an important source of edible vegetable oil in Asia for almost 4000 years.  It was first grown in Canada during WWII as a source of high-quality lubricant for marine engines.  After the war, Canadian plant-breeding programs, combined with changes in processing techniques, led to a reduction of erucic acid (very high consumption of which has been associated with heart lesions in laboratory animals) and glucosinolates (which cause enlarged thyroids and poor feed conversion in livestock).  As a consequence, canola has become established as a major Canadian and European source of cooking oil[1]

So, frankly, canola is not exactly an ancient tradition here in Canada.  That being said I think it’s important to note that it was developed by applying traditional plant-breeding methods to rape (Brassica napus) and turnip rapeseed (B. campestris).  Canola is not by definition a GMO, although there is now a huge amount of GMO canola being grown all over North America.

Since its recent invention canola has become the most common household cooking oil in our part of the world.  Unfortunately I don’t have a source to confirm that statement, but working in kitchens I’m pretty confident it’s true.  Most of us have a jug of canola oil sitting by the stove at home that we use as a cheap cooking oil.  This style of canola oil is made by heating and pressing canola seeds.  Heating increases the extraction rate, but destroys all of the volatile aromatic compounds, making a very neutral, I daresay flavourless, oil with a high smoke point.  This style of canola oil is good for pan- and deep-frying.

There is, however, also cold-pressed canola oil, which is an entirely different product with low yields but big flavour.  If you haven’t tasted this you’re missing out. Depending on the producer, it can be anywhere from brilliant bronze to hazy green in colour.  Whatever the appearance, it has an aroma uncannily reminiscent of fresh cut lawn.  Seriously: it tastes like grass and raw grain.

Because of its distinctive flavour, cold-pressed canola is very much a finishing oil.  It makes a great garnish on vegetables (sautéed asparagus, for instance), soups, and salads.  I also use it to make vinaigrette, but I usually blend it with a more neutral (and cheaper) canola oil.

Over the past ten years or so there have been a handful of cold-pressed canola oil producers in the province.  Sadly some have folded (I think).  I can’t seem to find Mighty Trio or Vibrant at any shops any more.  Highwood Crossing, a grain farm near High River Alberta, is still making oil, but it seems to have a much smaller distribution than it did a few years ago.  I used to buy it in retail bottles at Planet Organic, but I haven’t seen it there in a while.  At Elm we buy 20 L pails direct from Highwood Crossing, and also bring in their retail bottles to sell at Little Brick.  If anyone out there knows of other Albertan producers and where their oil is available, I’d be grateful to know.

Despite its rather industrial origin, gastronomically cold-pressed canola is Canada’s answer to extra virgin olive oil.  It’s a really, really remarkable product and I’m thrilled to have it in my kitchen.

 

References

  1.  Marsh, James H. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Vol I. ©1988 Hurtig Publishers Ltd. Edmonton, Alberta. Page 365.
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A Chardonnay Tasting

A few weeks ago I led a Chardonnay tasting for a private event at Little Brick Café and General Store.  I thought I would post some notes from that session.  If this type of info interests you at all, I’m going to be hosting a tasting of Belgian beers on Thursday, April 21, as part of Little Brick’s Home School series.

 

chardonnayFor this event we did a style of tasting that we do a lot with our wine group at work.  We call it a semi-blind varietal tasting.  This isn’t a technical term, or even a commonly used term… it’s just a name we made up.  Three or four wines of the same grape varietal are selected, but they each hail from different, far-flung corners of the globe.  They are often of hilariously different price points.  Ideally they each represent a different style or tradition.  The varietal is announced to the tasters at the beginning of the session, but nothing else is revealed about the wines.  Hence “semi-blind”.

After 10 minutes of silence during which everyone evaluates the wines’ appearance, nose, and palate, we compare notes, then everyone has to pick a favourite.

Finally the wines are revealed, and folks have to come to grips with the fact that they preferred, for instance, a $12 blue bottle of Riesling over a $50 bottle from a prestigious, steep, south-facing slope.

This is a really fun style of tasting.  Purists insist that tastings should be blind in order not to influence perception and judgement.  I think it’s really useful to be able to think about the varietal as you taste.

 

Chardonnay.  For this tasting all the wines were Chardonnay.  This grape is originally from Burgundy, France.  Nearly all the white Burgundies available to us in North American are made exclusively of Chardonnay.[1]

From Burgundy Chardonnay went on to conquer the world and become one of the most widely planted wine grapes.  Why is this?  Well, Chardonnay adapts to several disperate climates as far-flung as British Columbia, California, France, and Australia.  It is not susceptible to many vineyard pests or diseases.  It is realatively neutral in flavour, and naturally high in acid and sugar, which means it produces wines with plenty of alcohol.  With acidity and alcohol Chardonnay can form the backbone on which several different techniques can be applied.  It is maleable.  So, for instance, it could be given a long, cool fermatation and early bottling to produce an aromatic, light style…. or it could get long, warm, barrel fermentation… or it could be made into sparkling wine.  Chardonnay is the principle grape in most Champagne.

Chablis.  Wines from France, generally, and Burgundy especially tend to be named for the village in which they are made, not the grape from which they derive.  In fact, a hundred years ago, the names of the grapes would have been considered a rather arcane fact, only important to vine growers, not wine drinkers.  The practice of naming wines by varietal didn’t become common until the end of the twentieth century, and then mostly in the new world.[2]

Famous white Burgundies like Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, and Meursault, are all made from Chardonnay.  The idea is that the place where the grapes grow has at least as much to do with the character of the wine as the grape varietal.  In the case of white Burgundies, the most important aspect of place is the limestone soil, which gives the wines their famous minerality.

The first Chardonnay we tasted was a Chablis, one of the most classic examples of Chardonnay.  Chablis is in the far north of Burgundy.  The hallmarks of this style: bone dry, high acid, and a lot of mineral character on the nose, often described as “gunflint,” though I never use that word because it always begs the question: have I ever smelled gunflint?  I haven’t.  Chablis’ reputation is for an austere, un-oaked style.  In reality the matter of oaking is very much the preference of the vintner, and lots of Chablis sees some oak.

This bottle cost around $30 from Devine Wines.  It clearly has the distinctive “mineral” quality for which Chablis is famous.  Sometimes that mineral smell reminds me of vinyl.  Medium plus acid, green apple character, punchy, flavourful, a relatively watery mouthfeel.

Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay.  The next wine was Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay, from south eastern Australian.  I bought it for about $14 at Jasper Liquor Merchant.  I don’t have much to say about this one.  It’s here as an example of a cheap, mass-produced, warm-climate Chardonnay.  For the price I think it is eminently drinkable.

Mer Soleil California Chardonnay.  The last wine was a California Chardonnay.  Ostensibly “California Chardonnay” just means a Chardonnay made in California, but it has become something of a classic style in its own right.  The classic California chardonnay has been aged in oak and has undergone a secondary bacterial fermentation called malolactic fermentation (MLF).  This used to occur spontaneously in oak barrels; nowadays vintners will inoculate their wine with the bacterial culture.  MLF affects the wine in many important ways.

  • aroma – Aromas of vanilla and butterscotch
  • MLF is so called because the bacteria convert malic acid to lactic acid.  Malic acid is the principle acid in green apples.  Imagine the sharp sensation of biting into a tart Granny Smith.  That’s malic acid.  Lactic acid is the principle acid in cultured dairy such as yogurt and sour cream.  It has a much gentler, rounder character.
  • Mouthfeel.  One distinctive effect of MLF is that the wine develops a very full mouthfeel; it almost feels viscous on the tongue.  The Mer Soleil is a great example of this… In fact one taster found the impression of viscosity so strong, he was reminded of ice wine, and even started to wonder if this wine is sweet.  (It isn’t.)

This style was done to death in the 1990s[3], and there has been a reaction against it in the wine world.  The style has become so synonymous with New World Chardonnays generally and California Chardonnays specifically, that producers now label their un-oaked specimens very clearly.  Some common examples: Joel Gott Un-Oaked Chardonnay, Kim Crawford Un-Oaked Chardonnay.

I find this one of the more difficult things about wine.  With beer, if you buy an IPA, you basically know what you’re getting.  Of course some are more or less bitter, and the aroma may be more towards the citrus end of the spectrum, or more towards the evergreen end… but at the end of the day, beer is usually made to a certain style that is stated pretty explicitly on the packaging.  This is not true for wine, so if you buy a California Chardonnay, while most have been put through MLF, your bottle could just as easily be an austere, steely incarnation.  Tasting notes on labels are basically useless, and ultimately you need to have tasted the wine before to know what you’re getting.

Anyways, the Mer Soleil Reserve, with its fat, full, buttery mouthfeel is a shining example of luxurious oak treatment.

Mer Soleil is from Monterey County, which is on the central coast of California, well south of San Fransisco and Napa.  But it is from a part of Monterey that has been branded the Santa Lucia Highlands.  It is marketed as one of California’s premier “cool climate” sub-regions.  The Mer Soleil still has plenty of the tropical aromas (mango!) common in warm-climate Chardonnay.

Conclusion.  So my favourite was Mer Soleil, simply because I love that buttery style of Chardonnay.  At $45, I have to admit I would almost never buy it.

#ButtonSoupCellar is a series of posts about wines and spirits

 

  1. Some are made from Aligoté.  But all the famous, high-quality white Burgundies are Chardonnay.
  2. There are loads of notable exceptions to this generalization: northern Italy and Alsace come to mind.
  3. I was not drinking wine in the 1990s….
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Sauerkraut

This post was originally published on September 17, 2013.  I’m re-posting it today in anticipation of a cooking class, Cooking with Cabbage, that I’m hosting for Metro Continuing Education.

 

Shredding cabbage to make sauerkrautKraut is German for cabbage.  It was also a derogatory term for Germans during the Second World War.  Sauerkraut means sour cabbage, or possibly a German curmudgeon.  Ukrainian, Russian and several other eastern European languages use the word kapusta to refer to fresh cabbage, cured cabbage, and various dishes made with one or both of those.

Sauerkraut is a miracle preparation.  Cabbage and salt.  That’s it.  Somehow liquid appears from thin air and submerges the cabbage.  Over a few weeks, though neither cabbage nor salt are acidic, the mixture develops a piquant tanginess.

I had never eaten sauerkraut before moving to Alberta when I was a teenager, unless maybe once I accidentally got it on a hot dog at a baseball park.  In Edmonton there seems to be a house every couple of blocks that has a big crock of sauerkraut in the basement.  I first learned the process from Yolande at Tipi Creek.

While I’ve made sauerkraut a few times over the past couple years, this was the first year that I went all in and filled a 10 gallon crock.  The ever-resourceful Judy had found us an old Medalta[1] crock, as well as a wooden cabbage shredder, pictured above.  The latter is basically a mandolin with three sets of serrated blades that make quick work of a trimmed, quartered cabbage.  The last piece of the puzzle fell into place on a balmy Saturday morning when I saw that August Organics was selling 50 lb bags of cabbage for $25.

The freshly sliced cabbage, about to be mixed with salt35 lbs of shredded cabbage had the crock brimming, though the volume falls by more than half once the salt is worked in.

The specifics of the preparation are discussed below.

Sauerkraut

Ingredients

  • 100% cabbage, thinly sliced, roughly 1/16″ wide and  2″ long
  • 1.89% kosher salt
  • optional: spice, usually either caraway or juniper, to taste

The percentages above are equivalent to 18.5 g of salt per kilo of cabbage, or roughly 3 tbsp of kosher salt for every 5 lbs of cabbage.

Procedure

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large bucket or crock.  Let stand for one hour, then mix vigorously until liquid is pooling on the bottom of the container.  (Letting the mixture stand for an hour makes the mixing and liquid extraction easier; you can proceed directly to the mixing, but you’ll have to work harder to get the liquid from the cabbage.)
  2. Once there is enough liquid, use a plate that is slightly smaller in diameter than the bucket to cover the cabbage.  Weigh the plate down (a smaller bucket filled with water works well) until the cabbage is submerged in liquid.  Cover the entire operation in a kitchen towel and secure with an elastic band.  Store at a cool room temperature, maybe 18-20°C.  Most basements are this temperature.
  3. A white scum will slowly form on the surface of the liquid.  For the first week or two, skim the surface every day.  Afterwards, skim whenever you remember that you have a crock of sauerkraut curing in your basement.
  4. After three weeks, starting tasting periodically.  The sauerkraut is done when it has a sharp-but-manageable acidity.

A jar of sauerkraut

 

1. Medalta, short for Medicine Hat Alberta, was once a large ceramics factory in that town.  They produced plain but distinctive pottery that can still be seen in kitchens and flea markets across the province.  One advantage of setting up such a factory in Medicine Hat was the large oil and gas reserves that could cheaply fire the kilns.  In fact it has been said that Medicine Hat has all hell for a basement.[2]  The site of the old factory is now a historic district housing modern ceramics studios and a museum.

2. Most know this phrase from the Big Sugar song All Hell for a Basement.  When that song was first played on the radio, my cousins in Ontario started asking if we had basements out in Alberta or what the deal was.  The song is actually the ballad of an itinerant worker moving to Alberta to find work.  Big Sugar is quoting Rudyard Kipling, who when touring southern Alberta, wrote, “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.”

The Big Sugar line is: I have lost my way / But I hear tell / Of a heaven in Alberta / Where they’ve got all hell for a basement.

Great lyrics…

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Grüner Veltliner and Other Austrian Wines

Some shameless self-promotion:  if the type of information contained in this post interests you at all, I’m going to be hosting a tasting of sparkling wines on Thursday, February 11, as part of Little Brick’s Home School series.

 

Three examples of Grüner Veltliner available from wine shops here in Edmonton.I’ve been meaning to write about Austrian wine for some time.  Years, actually: ever since I wrote this post on Heurigen, which are rural taverns that serve young wine and cider.

Last week the Elm wine group did a tasting of Grüner Veltliner, the national grape of Austria, so I thought I would finally put down some info on Austrian wine.

If you haven’t had Austrian wine before, you’re not a freak or a philistine: there isn’t a whole lot available in North America.  Austria produces almost as much wine as New Zealand[1], but in most generic liquor stores the Kiwis have an entire section, while you would be hard-pressed to find a bottle from Austria.  Boutique wine shops like Devine usually carry a handful.  It seems that the majority of Austria’s wine is consumed by Austrians.

Despite its relatively small amount of exports, the Austrian wine industry has garnered a lot of attention in recent years because of its commitment to both its regional identity and quality production.  The latter sounds like it should be a given, but within most wine-producing countries there are regions that make enormous quantities of mediocre or bad wine, creating surplus, driving down prices, and ultimately threatening the entire wine industry.[2]  The southern-most regions of France and Italy are infamous examples.  By contrast, almost all of the area under vine in Austria is devoted to quality wine production.  Austria also has some of the most stringent regulations for processing and labelling, though admittedly these were put into effect after a 1985 scandal that saw some producers adding diethylene glycol to improve the body of their wines.

It’s always tempting to lump Austria in with Germany, and while the two countries do share some grape varietals and labeling practices, Austrian wines have a lot more in common with those of Alsace than Germany.  They produce mainly dry whites, common varietals being Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Riesling (almost always dry, unlike German examples), and Gewürztraminer (also dry, unlike Alsatian examples).  The most common red variety is Zweigelt, an Austrian native.  As in Germany, wines are sold under varietal name.

Austrian wine production occurs almost entirely in the east end of the country, in the lower regions away from the Alps of the west.  Most of the Austrian wines available to us in North American come from the province of Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), specifically parts of the Danube and its tributaries just upstream of Vienna: Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, and Traisental.  (The suffix “tal” indicates a valley.  The Kremstal is the valley around the town of Krems.  The Kamptal is the valley formed by the river Kamp.)  The most important of these is the Wachau.

Wachau.  The Wachau is a stretch of the Danube west of Vienna.  Much like the German Mosel, the best wines here are labelled by varietal as well as the vineyard or hill that produced the grapes.  Important hills include Loibenberg, Terrassen, and Kellerberg.  These may appear on labels either by themselves, or in conjunction with the name of the adjacent village (eg. Dürnsteiner Kellerberg refers to the hill Kellerberg by the town of Dürnstein).

The Wachau also has its own version of the German “predicate” labelling system, which classifies wines by pre-fermentation must weight, that is, sugar content.  The more concentrated the original must, the higher potential alcohol, and in theory the higher the quality of the wine.  So in Germany Rieslings are classified as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenasulese, and Trockenbeerenauslese, in order of increasing must weight (and by extension increasing prestige and price-point…)

The Wachau sytem is much simpler, and uses final alcohol content instead of original must weight.  The lightest grade is Steinfeder (named for a type of frizzy grass) which is below 11.5% ABV.  Next is Federspiel (named for a bird) between 11.5 and 12.5%.  The highest quality wines are labelled Smaragd (a kind of small lizard native to the region) and are above 12.5% ABV.

A view of the Donau (Danube) from the ruined castle at Durnstein

 

Grüner Veltliner, the most commonly planted grape in Austria, has become a darling of the wine cogniscenti in recent years.  Here’s what rockstar sommelier Rajat Parr has to say about the varietal…

A robust white, it features some of the greenish flavors of Sauvignon Blanc and a hint of legumes, making it the perfect match for green vegetables like peas, asparagus, artichokes, and lettuces. (Secrets of the Sommeliers[3], page 208)

[Grüner Veltliner] has a beany, green, peppery character that nicely offsets asparagus… (ibid, page 115)

It’s ridiculous for me to try and contradict Rajat Parr, but I’ve never, ever picked up “green” aromas from Grüner (despite its name… which I think means “green grape from Valtellina”, but that refers to the colour of the fruit itself, not it’s aromas).  I’ve always struggled to pick up that smell, even in Sauvignon Blanc, so I should just keep my mouth closed.

Getting back to the original point of this post, for our Grüner Veltliner tasting we tried three examples.  Some quick notes follow.

F.X. Pichler 2007 Loibner Berg Smaragd Grüner Veltliner.  Pichler is one of the big family names in the Wachau.  The wine smelled exactly like an old pineapple, and had a viscous mouthfeel.  If the tasting had been blind I would have sworn it was a New World oaked Chardonnay.  It was almost unanimously the favourite of the three wines we tasted, until it was revealed that it was $49.99 at Wine and Beyond.  With that price tag it is not likely be purchased by anyone in the group.

The next day I happened to read this: “Because Wachau’s producers have the ability to push the ripeness envelope, they are tempted to overdo it, as is happening in Germany’s Rheingau.  A few well-known producers have fallen into this trap – F.X. Pichler and Hirtzberger to name two – and for the privilege of drinking their unbalanced wines, you pay a costly premium.  Stick to the better, more proportional wines of Prager, Altzinger, and Knoll.” (ibid, page 115)

Rabl 2014 Grüner Veltliner Langenlois.  This is an interesting one.  Basically no fruit on the nose.  Strong, frankly peculiar aromas that I described as rice cake, toast, and mock orange blossom.  (The tasting notes posted at the place of purchase said, “citrus notes with a dusting of stony mineral”. Go figure.)  It has a sharp, bright acidity, and the flavour of lemon pith.  Quite distinctive.  The Rabl was $21.99 at Devine.

Gritsch 2013 Steinterrassen Federspiel Grüner Veltliner.  The lightest of the bunch.  A nose of wet stone and red apple.  Medium, round, happy acidity.  Short finish.  $22.99 at Devine.

 

#ButtonSoupCellar is a series of posts about wines and spirits

 

Footnotes

  1. New Zealand and Austria are 17th and 16th, respectively on this list.
  2. The Oxford Companion to Wine says that surplus production is “the single greatest problem facing the world’s wine industry”.
  3. Secrets of the Sommeliers by Rajat Parr and Jordan MacKay.  Published by Ten Speed Press.
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A Really Good Griddle

griddleTonight is Pancake Tuesday, which is how Catholic Canadians celebrate Mardi Gras or Shrovetide.  If you’re unfamiliar with the tradition, I wrote a bit about it here.

So yes, I’m eating pancakes for dinner tonight, which means I get to use one of my very favourite appliances, my West Bend counter-top griddle.

My parents received this griddle as a wedding present in 1981.  It takes 120 V electrical and runs at 1500 W.  It is a simple, flat, metal cooking surface, roughly 10″ by 16″, with a shallow trough along three sides, and a deeper, broader trough on the fourth to collect rendered fat. It is supported by hard plastic brackets that hold it above the counter on which is sits.

I can hear you: “Great description, Allan: it’s a griddle.  Big deal.  How is it different from the one I bought at London Drugs?”

Because the cooking surface is a six pound slab of cast iron, which gives it a heat capacity far exceeding any modern griddle.  And I could do without the sarcasm, thank you very much.

The sheer mass of iron means that the surface heats evenly; there aren’t any hot spots where the heating coil runs beneath, which means pancakes brown evenly.  Also you can load it with sausages and pancake batter without a serious sag in surface temperature.  Plus it’s durable: this griddle has been making Shrovetide pancakes and hash browns for more than thirty years.  It’s the only electric appliance I own that is actually older than me.  (I feel obligated to mention that one of the electrical components was replaced by my father-in-law a couple years ago.)

Another way to know that this griddle hails from a by-gone era: on the underside it is stamped, “Made in Canada”.  I’m personally not old enough to remember a time that Canada had a manufacturing industry.[1]

A heavy cast iron griddle is all well and good, but the skeptical among you may suggest that it doesn’t do anything that a good cast iron pan couldn’t.  To me the griddle’s value is in the quantity and variety of food it is able to cook all at once.  Granted, if you are a family of five you would still need to do multiple batches, but since this is the largest cooking surface in my house, it is most often used on special occasions.  At brunch, for instance, or to fry up a mess of colcannon on St. Patrick’s day.  All this to say I have very fond associations with this implement.

My pancake recipe can be found here.

 

#ButtonSoupTools is a series about my favourite kitchen tools, the ones that appeal to me for reasons practical or sentimental.

 

 

1.  Too soon?

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Simmering Eggs in their Shell

 

Hard-cooked eggsCooking an egg in its shell is proverbially simple.  You drop the egg in hot water, set a timer, then remove the egg.  That’s it.  Commercial eggs are so uniform in size and shape that we can rely on the cooking times dictated by cookbooks.  This is a very unique situation, as usually cooking times in cook books are completely useless.  For instance, the time required to cook a piece of meat will vary wildly depending on the specific oven, stove, or grill being used.

The ideal characteristics of a hard-cooked egg:

  • Firm-but-tender white.
  • A set yolk.  The exact texture can be anywhere between soft and gel-like, and firm and granular, depending on the application.
  • Some say that a centred yolk is important.  I disagree.
  • Smooth exterior after peeling.  This is more important for some applications than others.  Who cares what the exterior looks like if the eggs are destined to be chopped and put in a sandwich?  Mostly we are concerned with the ease of peeling, which we’ll discuss below.

Cold-Start vs. Hot-Start.  There are two methods for cooking eggs in their shells: cold-start and hot-start.  For cold-start you put the eggs in a pot, cover with cold water, and fire up the stove.  As soon as the water reaches a simmer, you reduce the heat to maintain that simmer, then set the timer.  For hot-start you add the eggs directly to gently simmering water and set the timer.  The alleged benefit of the cold-start method is that it is gentler on the eggs and reduces incidents of cracking.  A quick online search shows that cold-start is the more popular method.  I always use hot-start.  It seems more precise to me.  (When does a simmer really start?  With the first bubble?  With sustained bubbling?  These are the philosophical questions raised by the cold-start method.)

Water Temperature.  In recent years culinary-types have stopped referring to this method of egg cookery as “hard-boiling”, because the water is not really supposed to be boiling, but rather simmering gently.  This is part of a broader linguistic movement that favours precise, literal words at the expense of traditional, colourful descriptors.  Full-on boiling would jostle the eggs and increase the chances of cracking the shells.  The higher heat might also over-cook the outermost white, making it rubbery and sulfurous.  So yes, a gentle simmer is key.

If you screw up hard-cooking an egg, it will be because your water temperature wasn’t correct.  As a fail safe you can use a thermometer to measure the water temperature before adding your eggs.  It should be about 85°C.

Simmering Times for Hot-Start Method.

  • soft-cooked: 6 minutes
  • medium-cooked: 8 minutes
  • hard-cooked, with gel-like yolk: 10 minutes
  • hard-cooked, with pale, granular yolk: 15 minutes.

Most recipes suggest you remove the eggs to an ice bath to arrest cooking.  Simple cold water works fine.

A fresh hard-cooked egg with pock marks, next to an old hard-cooked egg with a perfectly smooth surface.Peeling.  Folks like to complain about how frustrating it is to peel hard-boiled eggs.  If you use eggs are are a week or more old, the shells will slip off easily, leaving a perfectly smooth, glistening white.

Don’t hard-boil fresh eggs.  Or if you do, don’t whine about how hard they are to peel.  It’s like grilling a beef shank and then complaining that it’s tough: if you had a beef shank, you should have stewed it.

What to do with hard eggs:

  • Mostly you should just eat them.
  • Chop or slice them and put them in salads.  Potato salads, for instance.
  • Chop them and make egg salad.  I’m hard-pressed to think of a preparation that is further from vogue than egg salad.  One day at Elm Café I made a dozen delicious egg salad sandwiches, spiked with raw red onion and celery and peppery mayonnaise, and we literally did not sell a single one.
  • Make devilled eggs, which have experienced a very modest renaissance in recent years.  Post forthcoming.
  • Make pickled eggs.  Post forthcoming.
  • Make sauce gribiche.  Post forthcoming.

Potato salad with hard-cooked egg.

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Intro to Eggs

A carton of eggsEggs are the single most versatile ingredient in the kitchen.

Think about the many diverse preparations that are based on eggs.  Of course there are scrambled, fried, poached, coddled, shirred, hard-cooked, devilled, and pickled eggs, and yes there are omelettes and flans and frittatas, but there are also custards like crème brûlée and crème caramel, ice cream, sauces like mayonnaise and hollandaise, and sweets like meringue and angel food cake.  Eggs are endlessly mutable because they contain two of the most fundamental building blocks of food – protein and fat – in relatively concentrated, isolated forms, in the whites and yolk respectively.

This post covers some fundamental egg info.  Subsequent posts will discuss specific preparations and techniques.

 

How a Chicken Makes an Egg

These are my own words, but I learned every detail in this section from the egg chapter of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, which is some of the most inspired food writing I’ve ever read.

A chicken at Tipi Creek near Villeneuve, AlbertaThe eggs in our kitchen begin as single, living, germ cells in a hen’s ovary.  Believe it or not, you can usually see this single cell when you crack an egg: it is a tiny white disc floating on top of the yolk.

As the hen matures, each germ cell gets coated with a white, primordial yolk.  Once the hens reach laying age, around 4-6 months, these germ cells will start to emerge one by one from the ovary surrounded by full-fledged yolks.

Red Spots on Egg Yolks.  As a bit of a tangent, the red spot that sometimes appears on yolks does not indicate that the egg has been fertilized.  It is simply the result of a small blood vessel in the ovary bursting.

The process of converting the yolk to an egg takes about 25 hours.  From the ovary, the yolk travels along the 2-3 foot long oviduct, which secretes egg white onto the yolk in four layers, alternating thick-thin-thick-thin.  The first layer of thick white is twisted by rifled grooves in the oviduct to become those little bundgy cords that keep the yolk centred in the finished egg.  These cords are called chalazae (singular chalaza).

Once the whites have been secreted onto the yolk, two anti-microbial protein membranes are formed around the whites.

After two or three hours in the oviduct, the egg passes into the uterus.  For the next five hours, the hen’s body pumps water and salts into the egg.  Then calcium carbonate and protein are secreted onto the egg to form a porous shell.  Finally a cuticle is applied, which temporarily blocks up the pores in the shell to prevent bacterial incursion.  The cuticle also gives the egg its colour, which is determined entirely by the genetics of the hen, not environmental conditions or feed.

The egg is laid blunt end first (I don’t know why I find that so interesting), and is initially the same temperature as the hen’s body.  As it cools the contents shrink, and those two anti-microbial membranes are pulled apart to form an air pocket at the blunt end of the egg.  Another adorable detail: this little pocket provides the first mouthful of air to the nascent chick hatching from the egg.

 

Buying Eggs

The conditions in intensive, industrial egg operations are appalling, so I go out of my way to purchase eggs from local farmers who give their chickens room to live and allow them to (as Joel Salatin says) express their chickenness.  At Elm we purchase about 60 dozen eggs every week from Four Whistle Farm.  Other local suppliers include Sunworks (available at the Strathcona market) and Purnima (available at Planet Organic).

Despite conventional wisdom, yolk colour alone is not sufficient to know how a laying hen has been treated.  In the height of summer, happy, healthy hens certainly produce yolks with a deep yellow-orange colour, but this can also be achieved by feeding unhappy chickens things like marigold petals.  Eggs from industrial operations often have a rich yolk colour, but I still prefer to buy from Four Whistle because I know how the chickens are kept.

 

Storing Eggs

AHS will beg to differ, but it’s not dangerous to store eggs at room temperature.  In fact throughout much of the world eggs are routinely stored at room temperature, whether in home kitchens or restaurant kitchens, or even grocery stores.  Eggs do, however, age much, much faster at room temperature than they do in the fridge.  As an egg ages water evaporates through the porous shell, making the white shrink and the air pocket grow.  The protein structures in the white also become increasingly slack.  This is most noticeable when we make fried or poached eggs.  Fresh eggs will keep a relatively compact form when cracked, while older eggs will slough and run across the griddle or poaching liquid.

The photo below shows two egg of different origins and ages: the egg on the left is from Four Whistle, and was less than a week old when the picture was taken, while the egg on the right is from Superstore, and is more than two weeks old.  First you can see the dramatic difference in yolk colour.  The thick white on the left egg is much more compact, while on the right the white has loosened and is spreading across the plate.

Two eggs of different origins and ages: on the left is a fresh egg from a local producer, on the right a two week old egg from a grocery store.

 

These I think are the most basic facts about fresh eggs.  Stay tuned for best practices on cooking and consuming…

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Citrus Juicer

Juicing limes to make a cocktail called The Last WordThis is my citrus juicer.

It belonged to my grandma Suddaby.

It’s made of something called Depression glass, a tinted, translucent glass that was manufactured from (roughly) the 1920s to 1940s, hence the name.  It came in several colours, but most commonly funky neon green, or pastel pinkish orange.  Those are terrible colour descriptions, but that’s why I cook for a living instead of naming new shades of paint.  I imagine these colours were hyper-modern in the 1930s, though I have no source to confirm or deny this.  Depression glass was mass-produced and most often distributed as a free gift for people buying groceries or attending a show.  In other words it was Depression-era swag.  I asked my parents if they somehow remembered where this particular juicer came from, and they were pretty sure that the gas station in North Augusta (Ontario) gave them out.

I apologize: this is starting to sound like an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

This is definitely a tool with a narrow scope of work: it removes the juice from citrus fruits, which in my case means only oranges, limes, lemons, and, once in a blue moon, grapefruits.  Almost all of my fresh citrus consumption occurs in one of two situations: homemade brunch with fresh orange juice (not very common) and cocktail hour (rather common).

Old-school juicers and reamers are nowhere near as quick or efficacious as modern lever-style juicers: you need to lean over the counter and crank the halved fruit several times to crush the citrus-pockets and release the juice.  Personally I enjoy the pageantry, but what I really love about this little juicer is the quaint, thoughtful details of its design.  Of course there is the central cone, rounded to mimic the contours of the fruit, and ridged to maximize ease of extraction, but at the base of the cone is a little dam that holds back seeds and large bits of pulp.  There is also a small handle and spout for pouring out the coarsely filtered juice.

For most of my adult life I have quaffed Tropicana unabashedly.  This juicer reminds me that all of the orange juice my grandma drank (for the first forty years of her life) was manually juiced moments before consumption, and that citrus is actually a modern novelty to our part of the world.

Speaking of Tropicana, this juicer also reminds me that packaged “not from concentrate”  juices aren’t even remotely fresh.  Comparing the fresh-squeezed orange juice collected by this tool to a product like Tropicana, it is clear that they are not the same product.  This is because most of our packaged orange juice is processed to a near unimaginable degree. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please watch this CBC interview of the author of the book Squeezed.[1]

I have harped on citrus consumption before (see The Tyranny of the Lemon), but I have to admit mine experienced a marked surge after reading the book Imbibe by David Wondrich, which sparked a bit of a classic cocktail kick (about five years after the rest of hipsterdom) and had me buying citrus on the weekly.

Tonight I am juicing limes to make a cocktail called The Last Word.  This concoction is experiencing a revival due largely to the aforementioned Imbibe.  It is made of equal parts gin, maraschino (the liqueur, not the jarred fruit), Chartreuse, and lime juice, a strange group of ingredients, but as good an example as any of the alchemic magic of which a well-mixed cocktail is capable.  Certainly a far cry from the orange juice my tee-totaling grandma would have made with this simple but cherished implement.

 

#ButtonSoupTools is a series about my favourite kitchen tools, the ones that appeal to me for reasons practical or sentimental.

 

 

  1.  I waffled about whether to include this link or not.  The kernel of information at its core is so fascinating, but the interview was produced by the CBC’s 24-hour news stream, so it has those feeble, fear-mongering sub-titles that are apparently generated by someone who is listening to the interview in real-time.  And then there’s the ridiculous footage of some dude in Dudesville pouring himself a glass of OJ, as if this were somehow helpful to the audience (“Ohhh… orange juice.  I get it.”)  I’m left to wonder if that sequence was filmed expressly for this interview, or if they somehow had stock footage of “Man Pouring Orange Juice.”  Was that guy paid to do that?  Is he an actor?  Simply mind-boggling.  24-hour news is really just the worst.
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Because Flavour Dynamics

Background:  I work for Elm Café.  We make sandwiches (herein referred to as “sammiches”).  Today we made one that I was particularly excited about, so on my personal Twitter account @allansuddaby I tweeted: “Just sampled an @elmcafe sammich: beef shortrib, Brie, port-soaked plums, rutabaga, red wine reduction. Will cure what ails you.”  National Post columnist and local wit Colby Cosh responded: “Sounds like the Incredibly Random Sandwich Generator came up with a winner!” at which I literally lol’d.  Then it dawned on me that the ingredients in this sandwich are emphatically not random.  I thought it would be interesting to explain why they make a great sandwich.

 

Because Flavour Dynamics: The Sammich Apologist

The sandwich in question is composed of braised shortrib dressed in a red wine reduction; Brie cheese; dried plums (prunes…) that have been soaked in Port; and raw rutabaga cut into a fine julienne.  Following is a glimpse into the mind of a chef (albeit not a famous chef…) that will demonstrate how he struck upon this seemingly random assortment of ingredients using the sound principles of flavour dynamics.

To begin, our objective is to make a delicious sandwich based on beef shortrib.

Beef shortrib.  The familiar, delicious, savoury flavour of beef, though in one of its more fatty, unctuous incarnations.  Definitely needs acid to balance.  Red wine has such acidity, so a reduction of red wine and beef stock will fit perfectly.  [Editor’s note: This is so classic it didn’t really require explanation… but there it is…]

I would like to put cheese on this sandwich.  Let’s take a look at the cheese shelf of the walk-in cooler…

Brie!  Subtle but complex savoury flavour, often reminiscent of mushrooms, ergo a natural pairing for beef and red wine.  A very faint bitterness on the finish.  Also commonly consumed with fruit, especially cooked or dried fruit.  Let’s play on that association and incorporate fruit in this sandwich.  It should be a relatively mild fruit so as not to overwhelm the Brie.  Dried plums fit the bill.  They also echo the fruit character of the wine in the reduction sauce.  Let’s reinforce that connection and soak the plums in a delicious, sweet, fortified wine, namely Port.

At this point we have employed several ingredients with soft textures; we are clearly in need of some crunch.  Though almost always served cooked, quality rutabaga is delicious raw and would serve several purposes in this sandwich: it has a robust crunch, a faint sweetness (complimenting the fruit) and a faint bitterness (complimenting the Brie).

In conclusion, I love this sandwich because flavour dynamics.

 

This sandwich will be available at Elm Café (10140 – 117 Street) on Saturday, January 23, 2016.  Possibly the next day as well.

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Liptauer

A pot of liptauer with chives.This is a tasty spread I often serve at Austrian cooking classes.

Liptauer is originally from Liptov, in Slovakia, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  The dish became quite popular in Austria-proper, and is now considered a classic part of that country’s cuisine.

In Austria Liptauer is made with a soft, fresh cheese called Topfen.  Topf is the German word for pot, so Topfen can be translated as “pot cheese”.  It goes by the name Quark (pronounced “KVARK”) in many other parts of Europe.  Austrians will scoff, but the recipe below approximates Topfen by using a mixture of cream cheese and sour cream.

Besides cheese, the other essential ingredient in Liptauer is paprika, which is ubiquitous in several Eastern European cuisines.  The paprika that has been on your shelf for two years has no flavour and a russet colour.  Fresh paprika from quality-conscious merchants will have a much better flavour and a bright red colour, giving the Liptauer a friendly, salmon colour.

In Austria Liptauer is served with rye bread, as a snack, an appetizer, or Brettljause at a Heuriger (see this post on Heurigen).  This is not even remotely traditional, but I also use it as a spread on sandwiches.

 

Liptauer (an approximation…)

Ingredients

  • 510 g cream cheese
  • 120 g full fat sour cream
  • 50 mL sweet paprika
  • 1 tbsp caper, minced
  • 1/2 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 anchovy fillets, the tinned variety preserved in oil, minced
  • 1/2 a small shallot, minced
  • 1/2 tbsp smooth Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp parsley, minced
  • 1/2 tbsp cider vinegar
  • black pepper to taste
  • chive to garnish

Procedure

  1. Combine the cream cheese and sour cream in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Beat with the paddle attachment until very smooth, about 2 minutes on high speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl part way through.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients and beat until thoroughly combined.
  3. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  4. Serve with rye bread.  Liptauer is also good with radishes when they are in season.
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