Irish Stew

The defining element of Irish stew is the use of lamb neck, or scrag.

Traditionally it is made more like a casserole than a stew.  Actually it bares an uncanny resemblance to boulangère potatoes.  Lamb, potato rounds, and other vegetables are layered in a casserole, then covered with stock or water and baked in an oven.

Lamb neck is a very tough cut of meat.  I sear and braise the necks to tenderize, then use the shredded meat and cooking liquid to make the stew.

Once the necks are very tender to the tip of a paring knife, I remove them from the liquid and let cool briefly.  While the necks are still warm I fold back the meat and remove the neck bones in one piece.  There is also a large band of yellowish elastin that should be removed.  You can see it running down the centre of the neck meat below:

Removing the bones and elastin from the braised lamb neck.

 

Irish Stew

Ingredients

  • 2 lamb necks
  • 75 g bacon fat
  • 240 g yellow onion, 3/4″ dice (roughly 1 large onion)
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 200 g carrot, 3/4″ dice (about 3 medium carrots)
  • 200 g celery, 3/4″ dice (about 2 large ribs celery)
  • 1/2 tbsp dried herbs (I use a mix of thyme, rosemary, and savoury)
  • 75 g all-purpose flour
  • 1 x 341 mL bottle ale
  • 375 g turnip, 1″ dice (rutabaga for all you moderns…. about 1 medium rutabaga)
  • 425 g yellow potato, 1″ dice (about 2 smallish potatoes)
  • spinach or kale

Procedure

Part One: Cooking the Necks to obtain super tender meat and flavourful broth

  1. Season the lamb necks with salt and pepper.  Sear, either in a pan or a very hot oven, until amber in colour.
  2. Transfer the seared scrags to a pot.  Cover with cold water and put over medium-high heat.  Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to maintain a very gentle simmer.  Regularly skim the surface of the water with a ladle to remove foam and fat.
  3. Gently simmer the scrags until very tender when poked with a knife.  This will take at least a few hours.
  4. Remove the necks from the liquid.  Let cool, then remove the meat from the necks.  Vertebrae and a very hard bit of yellowish connective tissue.  Reserve 450 g shredded meat for the stew.  The rest of the meat can be used for other preparations.
  5. Reserve 1 L of the cooking liquid for the stew.  The remainder of the liquid can be reserved for another purpose.

Part Two: Making the Stew

  1. Melt bacon fat in a separate pot.  Add the onion, garlic, carrot, celery, and dried herbs.  Sweat the vegetables until the onions are starting to turn translucent.
  2. Add the flour and cook briefly.
  3. Slowly add the ale while stirring.  A thick sauce should form.
  4. Slowly add the 1 L of lamb stock.  Return mix to a gentle simmer.
  5. Add turnips and potatoes.  Return mix to a gentle simmer.  Simmer until turnips and potatoes are tender.

A bowl of Irish stew with buttered bread.

Porridge, or Oatmeal

Originally published March 17, 2014.

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
  • 2 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

Irish Coffee

Originally published March 18, 2012.

Cream, rich as an Irish brogue;
Coffee, strong as a friendly hand;
Sugar, sweet as the tongue of a rogue;
Whiskey, smooth as the wit of the land.

-a traditional toast accompanying Irish coffee

 

Irish Coffee with Floated Cream

The Irish coffee typically served in restaurants here either has cream stirred into the drink, or whipped cream floating on top.  The traditional way to enjoy the drink is to gently pour heavy cream onto the surface of the coffee so that it floats, then sip the coffee through the cream.

Let’s discuss ingredients.

The Coffee – Use good coffee.  Brew it strong.

The Sugar – Irish coffee is made with brown sugar which has a distinct, cooked, molasses-like taste.  I use demerara, which is a very dark brown sugar.

The Whiskey – You can make a fine Irish coffee with Jameson or Bushmills, but for a superlative cocktail I suggest Redbreast.  It’s aged in oak barrels and therefore has more of the toasty vanilla and caramel notes that pair well with brown sugar.  I know many will cringe at the idea of pouring such a fine whiskey into coffee and sugar.  In fact there’s an old joke that Irish coffee simultaneously ruins three great drinks: coffee, whiskey, and cream.  The way I see it: how often do you make Irish coffee at home?  Maybe twice a year.  Use the good whiskey.

Sidenote: In Scotland and Canada they make “whisky.”  In Ireland and America they make “whiskey.”  I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.

The Cream – What we call heavy cream is usually around 33% milk fat.  I find it very difficult to float this cream on the coffee and maintain a clean separation between the two liquids.  I prefer to use a higher fat cream, closer to 50% milk fat, something the British would call double cream.

Vital Green Farms is an independent dairy producer in Picture Butte, AB.  You can buy their milk at Planet Organic.  The Vital Green whole milk is some of the best milk I’ve ever tasted.  They also sell an organic heavy cream that is 52% milk fat.  Heavy cream is one of the few exceptions to the kitchen adage “fat is flavour.”  If you sampled a range of dairy products, from skim milk, through 1%, 2%, whole milk, coffee cream, and heavy cream, you’ll find that while whole milk is much more flavourful than skim, heavy cream has very little flavour.  I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.  Perhaps the fat in the cream somehow obscures the flavour of the lactose.  Despite its muted flavour, Vital Green heavy cream has the fat content we need to properly float our dairy.

Sidenote: people often refer to whole milk (3-4% milk fat) as “homo milk.”  In dairyspeak “homo” is short for “homogenized,” which means the milk has been processed to prevent the separation of fatty bits from watery bits.  All commercially-produced milk is homogenized, not just whole milk.  The next time someone asks you to pick up some homo milk, you should clarify this with them.

These sidenotes are ruining what should be a nice, succinct post.  Sorry.

Notes on Floating Cream – Fill the glass with the coffee, sugar, and whiskey mixture to within 1/2″ of the top of the glass.  Filling the glass very full will allow you to keep a spoon close to level as you add the cream.

Touch the tip of a large spoon filled with cream to the inside of the glass, just above the coffee.  Gently (gently!) tip the spoon so that the cream slides down the side of the glass and onto the surface of the coffee.  If the cream mixes with the coffee, you have ruined St. Patrick’s Day.

Since you’re going through the effort of floating cream, Irish coffee should be served in a glass, not a ceramic mug.  If you’re a sucker for tableside theatrics, as I am, bring the glasses to the table filled with the black coffee, sugar, and whiskey, then spoon the heavy cream on top in front of your guests.

A complete recipe, if you’re interested:

 

Irish Coffee (for four)

Ingredients

  • 14 fl oz. strong, quality coffee
  • 3 1/2 tbsp demerara sugar, packed
  • 4 fl. oz. Redbreast Irish Whiskey
  • 3 fl. oz. heavy cream (52% milk fat)

Procedure

  1. Add the sugar and whiskey to the hot coffee.  Stir briefly to dissolve the sugar.
  2. Divide the coffee mixture into four glasses, ensuring the liquid comes to within 1/2″ of the top of each glass.
  3. Float a portion of heavy cream in each glass (see Notes of Floating Cream, above).
  4. Consume immediately, sipping the coffee through the cream.

 

Sampling a glass of Irish coffee

A friend experimented with dunking oatmeal poundcake into his Irish coffee.  Initial impressions were favourable, but more rigorous study is required.

Dunking oatmeal poundcake into Irish coffee

Corned Beef

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.

 

 

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?

Sprouts for the Spring Gap

Originally published on March 16, 2014.

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

 

Soda Bread

Originally published March 16, 2014.

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.

One way that my soda bread differs from true old-school Irish soda bread is the inclusion of such luxuries as butter, eggs, and honey.  This is emphatically not traditional, but it makes for a moist, delicious bread.  Picture a fine 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

Butcher’s Cake

A slice of butcher's cake with a dollop of crème fraîche and a salad.I’ll mention right off the hop that this concept is from the brain of Emmanuel (Manu) Thériault.  He might have made this when he was at Woodwork, but I’m not sure.  He calls it “Butcher’s Cake”.  He told me about it and I think it’s one of the most brilliant food ideas I’ve heard in a very long time.

Part of the reason I am so enamored with butcher’s cake is because I work in a sandwich shop. When you work in a sandwich shop, you have at least three significant sources of possible waste.  The first is bread.  Bread is a problem ingredient because it has such short shelf life.  It can be difficult to maintain fresh inventory, and some bread invariably gets stale before it can be used.

The other potential sources of waste are meat and cheese ends.  When using a commercial meat slicer, the last inch of a roast or block of cheese is difficult to get through the slicer without putting your fingers at risk.  For some items you might not even want to slice and serve the outermost part.  For a roast or a ham, the very end is often harder, smokier, and generally less succulent that the rest of the meat.

Ham endsThis butcher’s cake is an ingenious and delicious preparation that uses all these waste products.  It is basically a savoury bread pudding studded with little chunks of cured meat and cheese.  I use trim pieces from ham, salami, mortadella, roast beef, even prosciutto and speck.  Of course, if you don’t work in a sandwich shop you can use plain old ham and cheese; there’s no reason it needs to be the trim or waste.

When Emmanuel told me his idea I knew immediately how I could go about making it: by adding chopped meat and cheese to Serviettenknödel, the Austrian bread dumplings discussed here.  I’ve found that a bit of black pepper and chopped herbs like parsley and rosemary are a nice addition.

Butcher’s cake makes a fantastic lunch, especially when served with with a refreshing salad.  I have a sneaking suspicion it would also be good for breakfast (bread, egg, milk, ham, cheese…. sounds like a breakfast pastry to me.)

Thanks, Manu!

 

 

Butcher’s Cake
Concept by Emmanuel Thériault
Recipe by Allan Suddaby

Ingredients

  • 8 whole eggs
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 8 oz unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 lbs stale bread
  • 1 lb cured meat ends, coarsely chopped
  • 10 oz cheese ends, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped rosemary
  • 1 tsp coarse ground black pepper

Procedure

  1. Combine the whole eggs, yolks, melted butter, milk, and salt in a large measuring cup.  Whisk thoroughly until eggs are completely incorporated.
  2. Put the bread, meat, cheese, herbs, and pepper in a large mixing bowl.  Pour the milk mixture over the bread.  Mix gently but thoroughly with your hands until all the milk has been absorbed by the bread.
  3. Move the mixture to the fridge for one hour.  This will give the liquid ingredients time to fully soak into the bread.
  4. Butter a large casserole dish.  Lightly press the soaked bread mixture to the casserole.  If you like you can top the bread with more grated cheese and herbs at this time.
  5. Bake in a 350°F oven until the interior is cooked and the exterior is golden brown and crispy, maybe 50-60 minutes.
  6. Let cool slightly before cutting and serving.

Yield: Butcher’s Cake for about 12 people

A casserole of butcher's cake, fresh out of the oven.

 

The Ten Sandwich Commandments

I’ve been in this game for years, it made me an animal
There’s rules to this shit, I wrote me a manual
A step-by-step booklet for you to get
Your game on track, not your wig pushed back.

-The Notorious B.I.G.[1]

A chicken and waffle sandwich, with roast apple and goat's cheese

 

The Ten Sandwich Commandments

  1. Thou shalt provide interest.
  2. Thou shalt provide textural contrast.
  3. Thou shalt consider the colours of your ingredients.
  4. Thou shalt balance rich sandwiches with fresh, light components.
  5. Thou shalt balance salty meat and cheese with acidity.
  6. Thou shalt cut bread precisely.
  7. Thou shalt spread to the edge.
  8. Thou shalt aggressively season meat, slaws, and salsas to compensate for the muting effect of bread.
  9. Thou shalt apply salt to raw vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers.
  10. Thou shalt toast bread that is more than 24 hours old.

 

The Ten Sandwich Commandments, Explained

The first five commandments help us plan delicious, well-balanced sandwiches.

1. Thou shalt provide interest.  Why are we making this particular sandwich?  Or in the case of the Elm kitchen, why would someone want to purchase this particular sandwich?  Some classic sandwiches have interest built right into them: a Monte Cristo, for instance, with its battered exterior.  Other classics need a bit of help.  Smoked ham, aged cheddar, and Dijon will make a good sandwich, though not a particularly interesting one.  One way to fix this: add onion marmalade and baked rosemary apples to the mix.  This changes the classic ham and cheese from a plain salty/savoury offering to a sweet and savoury one.  I find that interesting.

You can push the concept of interest much further, into the genuinely creative.  My favourite example is an idea by Chael MacDonald that I helped execute a few years ago, the Half and Half Pizza Sub.  When ordering pizza for groups you are often forced to request one pie with split toppings: maybe one half pepperoni, and the other Hawaiian.  Chael translated this to a pizza sub.  The entire sandwich has marinara, aïoli, mozzarella, and basil, but one half has pepperoni and mushroom, the other ham and pineapple.  This is just one of the funniest things I’ve ever come across in cooking.  We still do this sandwich occasionally at Elm.

Interest is often about more that just the physical make-up of a sandwich.  How you describe and present the sandwich to customers is important.  Egg salad, for instance, is the least sexy sandwich in the western world, invoking images of a wet, pallid, garbure of hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise.  However, if you add bacon and call it a “Bacon and Egg Salad Sandwich” you will instead conjure hearty plates of bacon and eggs in the customer’s mind.  Much more appetizing.

One day last year we made a sandwich out of whitefish, caper aïoli, and pickles.  It was delicious, but hardly sold at all.  Our clever friend Chris Tomkee suggested adding potato chips and calling it a “Fish and Chips” sandwich.  Same sandwich (only with potato chips), different name.  The next day we sold out.

In the end, the First Sandwich Commandment is about being thoughtful, creative, and intentional in the sandwiches we choose to make.

2.  Thou shalt provide textural contrast.  Some examples:

Roast Eggplant.  Picture a sandwich on fresh bread with goat’s cheese, herbs, lemon aïoli, and roasted eggplant and bell peppers.  These flavours work extremely well together, but the components are all soft, and you end up with what we call a “squish sandwich”.  We need textural support.  Fresh cucumber is a great, cool, crunchy textural contrast to roasted eggplant.

BLT.  Bacon strips have a much firmer, crispier texture than cold cuts like ham and turkey.  The salty/smoky flavour of bacon punches above its weight, so you don’t typically use as much on a sandwich as you would with a milder meat like roast beef.  This means that a bacon sandwich has the potential to seem paltry.  We need a contrasting vegetable that will add some moisture and bulk, one that will soften the overal texture.  In fact, you need a bit of the “squish” we were trying to balance out in the roast eggplant sandwich above.  Enter the tomato.

Grilled Cheese.  The interplay of textures is not limited to the inside of a sandwich: the bread itself is an important element.  The textural contrast in a grilled cheese, for instance, is between the crispy bread and the creamy melted cheese.

3.  Thou shalt consider the colours of your ingredients.  We strive for interest, contrast, and balance in all aspects of our cooking, and this applies to the visual as well as the gastronomical.  We put arugula, spinach, lettuce, sprouts, or “green” in one form or another on basically every sandwich.  We showcase the vibrancy of vegetables like red bell peppers and purple cabbage and roasted pineapple by putting them next to the muted tones of nappa cabbage and shaved fennel.

Example: We once made a sandwich with roast sweet potato, chili mayo, sour cream, jack cheese, tomato, and crispy tortilla strips.  After some reflection we realized that all these components are in the yellow/orange/red/pink end of the colour spectrum, so we added black beans, driving home the “southwest” theme and adding an eye-catching colour contrast.

4.  Thou shalt balance rich sandwiches with fresh, light components.

Reuben-esque.  Our spin on the Reuben contains the classic corned beef, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing, but since these components are all salted, cured, or otherwise “rich”, we add fresh cucumber and alfalfa sprouts.  These components actually help us comply with Commandments 1 through 4.

Schnit-wich.  We were keen to make a schnitzel sandwich featuring a breaded, fried pork cutlet.  “Starch-on-starch” preparations always run the risk of being stodgy.  (Starch-on-starch is putting a starchy component like potatoes or breaded fried schnitzel on bread.)  It is absolutely essential to balance the starches with fresh components.  We’ve done the schnit-wich a few different ways, but our favourite is with a fresh, bright tomato salad with red onion and herbs piled on top of the schnitzel.

5.  Thou shalt balance salty meat and cheese with acidity.  This is one of the most basic concepts of flavour dynamics.  Salty meat and cheese can be cloying, but acidity balances the flavours and refreshes the palate.  Almost all of our sandwiches contain vinegar, citrus, or perhaps a sour fermented condiment like ‘kraut or kimchi.  There are countless classic examples of this balancing act, from the mustard and dill pickle accompanying a Montreal smoked meat sandwich, to the tangy bbq sauce and sharp slaw on a Carolina pulled pork sandwich.  One of my favourite examples is the Elm take on a Monte Cristo.  To the classic components (ham, turkey, swiss, and egg batter) we add rhubarb compote, sour cream, and chive.

Fresh herbs and raw allium like red onion and chive also have the ability to cut richness to a certain extent.

The last five commandments deal with how we execute our well-designed sandwich.

6.  Thou shalt cut bread precisely.  This means cutting straight and level.  It means cutting just below the mid-line so that the top half of the bread is a bit taller than the bottom half.  It means intentionally leaving a hinge, or intentionally not leaving a hinge.  It means cutting hinged sandwiches so they lay flat on the workbench.

Commandments Seven, Eight, and Nine, have to do with “carrying the flavour.” 

7.  Thou shalt spread to the edge.  Right, right, right to the edge on every single piece of bread, without exception.  You should not be able to see the bread underneath.  We want to maximize the flavour delivered in each and every bite.

As a sub-commandment concerning spreads (let’s call it Commandment 7a): ricotta, cream cheese, chèvre, and other spreadable cheeses should be applied thicker than mayonnaise.

8.  Thou shalt aggressively season meat, salsas, and slaws to compensate for the muting effect of bread.  Though containing salt itself, bread tends to mute the flavours of the components within the sandwich.  To compensate, our ingredients need to be punchy; more punchy than if they were being served on a plate without bread.  We therefore apply salt, acidity, and sweetness aggressively.

It’s surprising how often it happens: we have a combination of ingredients that sounds absolutely delicious; we make the sandwich, we taste the sandwich, and it falls flat.  We go back and essentially over-season the components.  Re-taste, and we have a winner.

Example: Prosciutto & Melon.  The idea was to make a sandwich with speck (smoked prosciutto), canteloupe, shaved fennel, and lemon aïoli.  We had to add a good hit of honey and white wine vinegar to get the canteloupe to shine through.  I call this fortifying the natural flavours of the ingredients.

9.  Thou shalt apply salt to raw vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers.  This is a good practice in all branches of cooking.  You should, for instance, not just season your steak, but also the green salad that accompanies it.  The salting of raw vegetables is especially important in sandwich-making.  As explained in the Eighth Commandment, we needs to make sure we use lots of salt to carry the flavours through the bread.

10.  Thou shalt toast bread that is more than 24 hours old.  A cold sandwich on fresh bread is a beautiful thing, but if the bread was baked yesterday, it absolutely needs to be toasted, even if the sandwich components will all be added and served cold.  Toasting refreshes the bread.  Do not over-toast.  The exterior should be lightly crisp, but the interior should still have plenty of give.

In the immortal words of hockey legend Don Cherry: toasted tastes better.

11. Never get high on your own supply.

 

Footnotes

  1. Notorious B.I.G. was murdered twenty years ago today.  The idea for The Ten Sandwich Commandments came from listening to Biggie’s song The Ten Crack Commandments while telling a new hire to “Spread to the edge.”

In Defense of Deep-Frying

On March 1, 2017 I’m teaching a class for Metro Continuing Education called Deep-Frying Without a Deep-Fryer. Course details are available here.  I thought I’d re-post this old article, a vehement defense of this most venerable technique.  Originally published March 23, 2014.

 

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.  Approximately 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 Sunday 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 is best 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 no 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 made with care, deep-fried snacks are some of the most profoundly satisfying foods we have.

Apple fritters with whipped cream

 

More on Fried Food:

Burns Supper

Originally published January 25, 2011.

 

If you’re not already acquainted, let me introduce you to the proud institution that is the Burns Supper.

A portrait of Robert BurnsRobert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, in Ayr, Scotland. He grew up on farmland leased by his parents, and wrote several poems and songs about that rustic life, hence his famous epithet, “the ploughman poet.” His first book of poetry, published in 1786, was an explosive success, and he was quickly accepted into Edinburgh society, becoming a Freemason and working as a tax collector.

His poetry was written in an old Scottish dialect, one that modern English readers find more difficult to understand than Shakespeare. Even so, you probably know some of his verses. He wrote lyrics to several Scottish folk melodies, including “Auld Lang Syne” and “My Luve’s like a Red, Red Rose.” The title of John Steinbeck’s short novel “Of Mice and Men” is from a Burns’ poem called “To a Mouse”:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane (you’re not alone),
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley (often go awry).

Newer editions of his poetry are thoroughly footnoted to guide the modern reader. Burns was a forerunner of the romantic movement, and his poetry is a very enjoyable read, especially if you read it aloud in a hack Scottish accent, as I do.

Burns died in 1796. In 1801, his friends held the first Burns Supper, in Greenock. I don’t know much about that first celebration, but the modern Burns Supper is an elaborate ritual. Dinners start with grace, usually the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat an’ canna eat,
An’ some wad eat that want it.
But we hae meat, an’ we can eat,
Sae let the Lord bethankit.

After the preliminary courses, a plattered haggis is piped into the dining room and set at the head of the table. (You can read about how we make the haggis here.)  A Burns poem called “Address to a Haggis” is read. Part of the poem describes a man wiping a knife, and plunging it into a haggis, and the reader usually does these actions in tandem with the poem. After the address the guests drink a toast of scotch whisky to the haggis. The haggis is usually eaten with mashed turnips and potatoes (“neeps and tatties”), which together are called clapshot.

After the main courses, a speaker delivers the Immortal Memory, a reflection on the life and work of Robert Burns. Later, there is another speech called The Toast to the Lassies. This was originally designed to thank the women who had prepared the meal, but today usually features the speaker’s view of women, generally. It is followed by the Reply to the Toast to the Lassies, these days usually a woman giving her views on men.

Burns Suppers were once very common in Canada, especially down east. In the late 1700s Canada received thousands of Scottish settlers, many of whom became notable fur traders and merchants. Notable Canadians of Scottish birth include Sir John MacDonald, Alexander Graham Bell, and Donald Smith, better known in these parts as Lord Strathcona. Scottish immigrants established St. Andrew’s Societies as a way of preserving their traditions, and the annual Burns Supper was often the largest and most raucous event of the year.

Button Soup Burns Suppers

While my sister was studying in Edinburgh, I took a renewed interest in my Scottish heritage. (“Suddabys,” by the way, are originally from Yorkshire, but our other ancestral family names include “MacMillan” and “Airth.”)  My sister brought me a fantastic book called The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian McNeill, which has given me a respect for Scots cuisine. When I first read about Burns Suppers, I resolved to start hosting them myself.  The first supper was held in 2011.

Here is some footage from the 2012 supper, graciously filmed by Kevin Kossowan.

The program from that night:

Burns Supper 2012

Bill of Fare

Welcome

Grace

Barley-Broth: lamb and barley soup
A Scots Rabbit: hot cheese on toast

Address to a Haggis
Haggis: a gallimaufray of offal
Clapshot: neeps and tatties

Tunes for a Burns Night

Rich Eating Posset: curdled sweet cream
Shortbread

Closing