Greek Salad – Horiatiki

horiatiki_greek_salad.JPGThe actual Greek name of the ubiquitous Greek salad is Horiatiki, which means, roughly, “village salad.”  As I mentioned in my general post on Greek food, one Greek restaurateur told me that the primordial Greek salad was just feta, onions, and olive oil, and that traditionally the cucumbers and tomatoes are flourishes added only in the summer months.

There are really only two things you need to know to make superlative Greek salad.  The first: for this dish more than maybe any other you need to use amazing ingredients.  Greek salad with pale tomatoes and thick-skinned cucumbers and canned olives is really one of the saddest things you can eat.

I use the following:

  • Gull Valley vine or cherry tomatoes (or in late summer tomatoes from the garden…)
  • Hothouse cucumbers from Doef’s greenhouse.  I prefer the smaller varieties as they have tender skin.
  • Vlahos feta – This is a cow’s milk feta made in Camrose by Tiras Dairies.  It is available at Greek grocery stores like Omonia Foods, as well as the Italian Centre Shop.
  • Marinated kalamata olives from Olive Me.

My second bit of advice: even though this is a very “elemental” salad, and we want the ingredients to speak for themselves, this doesn’t mean we should shy away from seasoning and dressing the salad.  I season the cucumbers and tomatoes a good while before mixing the salad.  The traditional dressing is just olive oil, but I always add wine vinegar, too.  Fresh herbs like parsley and oregano are also nice.

My only other suggestion is to be judicious with the onions.  A good spike of raw onion is a beautiful contrast to the juicy fresh veggies, but a little goes a long way.

Because we are dressing this salad it is best served with bread, to soak up the tomato juice and vinegar and oil left at the bottom of the bowl.

Horiatiki – Village Salad

Ingredients

  • 300 g fresh cucumber
  • 350 g fresh tomato
  • 20 g red onion, finely minced
  • a big pinch of salt
  • sugar (maybe)
  • olive oil
  • red wine vinegar
  • feta

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.

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?

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

The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin

The title page of Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of TasteOften cited as the most influential food book ever published in the western world, The Physiology of Taste was written by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.  Born in 1755 in Belley, France, “B-S”[1] grew up to become first a lawyer and then a judge in provincial France during, well, a fairly tumultuous time in European history.  The details of his life are fascinating.  My copy of TPT includes a brief biography containing lines like “crossed swords with Robespierre” and “incurred the displeasure of Napoleon”.  While he did live in exile in America for a short while, B-S managed to keep his head and most of his property throughout the Revolution and the Napoleonic years.  It was in the last years of his life that he wrote his most lasting work, The Physiology of Taste.

Even if you’ve never heard of B-S or this book, you’ve almost certainly heard some of the lines contained within.  Some have become proverbs.  He wrote, for instance, “You are what you eat.” (Okay, he wasn’t quite that succinct.  His aphorism is usually translated, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”  He also recognized that, “The destiny of nations depends on how they feed themselves.”  This line is often quoted by modern real-food crusaders like Michael Pollan.

One particularly hilarious quote that I’ve heard quoted multiple times: “A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”

Several of his one-liners are peppered throughout the work of nerdy food educators like Alton Brown (and me):

“We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast.”

“Turkey is truly the finest gift that the New World gave to the Old.”

These quotes hopefully illustrate that despite its intimidating, scientific-treatise-sounding title, The Physiology of Taste contains all manner of quips, jokes, anecdotes, and practical advice.  It is a glimpse into classical French cuisine in all its decadence, including truffled turkey and Sauternes and foie gras, as well as a compendium of sound information on classic techniques like deep-frying.  It is a rich and deeply gratifying read, but I think what is most important, and what makes it so timeless, is Brillat-Savarin’s Doctrine of Gastronomy, which is very simple, but profound.

Allow me to paraphrase.

God wants us to eat.  To facilitate this process, He first stimulates us with Appetite, and then rewards us with Pleasure.  In eating and sating your hunger you are doing what you have been designed to do.  The point here is the connection between food and pleasure, and the idea that you needn’t feel shame in that pleasure, because the pleasure is an intrinsic part of the equation.

Immediately after hearing this many folks react with disgust and incredulity: “If all we did was sate our appetites we’d eat fat and sugar and alcohol all day and we’d all die early deaths!”

The second tenant of gastronomy is that all things must be taken in Moderation. Though promoting the pleasures of the table, Brillat-Savarin abhorred gluttony and drunkenness.  His ability to frankly enjoy and even revel in gastronomic pleasure while exercising restraint is the very essence of elegance and civility.

So yes: a hugely influential book.  There is in fact an entire group of writers and eaters that I consider direct intellectual descendants of Brillat-Savarin.  I’d like to discuss them each in turn, but the two main ones are MFK Fisher (who actually translated my edition of TPT from French to English…) and Jeffrey Steingarten, probably my favourite living food writer.

I have never met another human being in the flesh who has read B-S or MFK Fisher.  I know they exist but I’ve never met them or at least never talked to them about it.  By which I mean this is an über-nerdy and esoteric topic that I don’t expect many to take an interest in.  Stay tuned for more!

 

#ButtonSoupLibrary might or might not become a series of posts about my favourite books on food, including but not limited to conventional cookbooks.

 

  1. Unfortunate initials, I know.

Cretons

Originally posted December 15, 2009 (if you can believe that).  Re-posted today with some major corrections.  I first read about cretons in an article in The Ottawa Citizen by then-food-columnist Ron Eade.  He presented cretons as a Quebecois variation on rillette.  A while back Emmanuel (Manu) of Pied Cochon, Joe Beef, and Woodwork fame gave me the skinny on cretons, and they really are not like rillettes at all.  I am not able to find that original Ron Eade article to expose it.  Presumably someone from the lower St. Lawrence forced him to remove it as libel or lies.  Anyways.  

A ramekin of cretons.Cretons is a pork spread made by simmering ground pork and aromatics like onion, bay, and clove in milk or cream.  As with any Quebecois dish there are as many variations as there are Francophones.

Pork.  You can use regular ground pork.  Actually the pork can be quite fatty as any lard that renders into the pan will be bound up with the dairy and (in my recipe…) breadcrumbs.

In addition to ground meat, Manu also adds gryons. This is the Quebecois word for greaves (see this post on rendering lard for more info).

Usually I’m a fanatic about searing meat, even the ground meat used in chili and meat sauce.  Searing generally improves the colour and flavour of a dish, but there are a few notable exceptions.  In my book those exceptions are veal blanquette and cretons.  We want a soft texture and a light colour.

Onion.  To me onion is essential as a sweet-‘n-savoury bridge between the pork and the spices.

Speaking of Spices.  Clove seems to be the most commonly used spice in cretons.  I use a standard quatre-épices blend of black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.  These baking spices can easily become cloying, so use a light hand.

Dairy.  Some use milk, some use cream.  I use cream because it gives the final dish a rich texture but a happy, bright white colour.

Breadcrumbs.  Again, not all recipes include breadcrumbs, but I like using them to bind up any pork fat that has gone adrift and floated to the surface of the mixture.  Starch such as breadcrumb makes for a smoother, more cohesive spread.

Basically all these components are combined and simmered until the dairy has reduced and become a stodgy porridge.  At this point the mixture is potted and chilled.  It is most commonly eaten for breakfast, on toast.

Lazy Man’s Cretons.  Oftentimes when I make pie I misjudge the ratio of dough to filling, and am left with a surfeit of one or the other.  Excess pie dough is easy to get rid of (pie sticks!)  Excess filling can be a bit trickier.  If I have leftover tourtière filling, I put it in a heavy pot and cover it with heavy cream.  If you simmer this mixture for about an hour it’s hard for an Anglo such as myself to differentiate it from true cretons.  I have no idea what Quebecers would think of that, but it’s already happened so we should all move on.

Like many rustic preparations, cretons is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it’s almost impossible to not be tasty; on the other it is truly impossible to make it look appetizing in the modern sense.  It is cold meat porridge, after all.  But it’s delicious, and a great way to use up leftover ground meat.

 

Cretons

Ingredients

  • 600 g ground pork
  • 150 g onion
  • 10 g garlic
  • 1 tsp quatre-épices
  • 470 g heavy cream
  • 30 g bread crumbs
  • 1.5 tbsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Gently cook the pork in a heavy pot.  Do not colour the meat.
  2. Add the onions, garlic, and quatre-épices.  Cook gently until the onions are starting to become translucent.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients.  Simmer until the cream has reduced.  The mixture should have the consistency of porridge.  Roughly 45 to 60 minutes.
  4. Transfer immediately to ramekins or ceramic dishes.  Chill thoroughly.
  5. Spread on toast.

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’

Ingredients

  • 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)

Procedure

  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?

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.

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….