Split-Pea Soup – Soupe au Pois

Yellow split-peasLast year I wrote that ham hocks are only consumed in one of two ways in my house: either slowly roasted so that they have glassy crackling, or simmered so that their intense, smoky, porky essence can be collected in a broth.

This ham-hock broth is the distilled essence of eastern Canada, and the foundation of split-pea soup.

Once you have simmered the ham hock and collected the broth, here are some thoughts on making split-pea soup.

After extensive cooking the ham hock itself has very little flavour and seasoning, but it still makes for a good garnish.

I use yellow split-peas, because the green ones look like baby poo once they’re cooked.
Split-peas have very intense thickening power.  In culinary school a classmate made split-pea soup for a project.  Everyone had made a soup, and they were all lined up in front of the instructor for him to taste and evaluate.  The teacher took a look at the split-pea soup, lifted it from the table and in one quick motion turned the bowl upside down and held it over his head.  Nothing, not one drop, fell from the bowl, because the student had used way, way too many split-peas (and the soup had started to cool, which thickens it even further.)  Just remember you’re making soup, not hummus.  I use one cup of split-peas for every four cups of broth, and I still have to thin the soup with milk or cream just before serving.

Once the peas are well-cooked, purée the soup in an upright blender for at least a few minutes for a smooth texture.  I think that a slightly silty mouthfeel is part of the character of split-pea soup, so I don’t usually strain or chinois after blending.

Split-peas have a great roasted nut flavour, especially when cooked in ham hock broth, to the extent that sometimes split-pea soup reminds me of peanut butter.  In a good way.  Crème fraîche does a good job of cutting through the nutty, tongue-smacking intensity of the peas.

Split-pea soup with ham hock and crème fraîche

Herbes Salées – Salted Herbs

Sprinkling kosher salt onto the chopped herbsThis is a very old-school Québécois way to preserve herbs, onions, carrots… really any manner of aromatic vegetable.  They are chopped finely, mixed with salt, left in the fridge for a week, then transferred to a jar.  That’s it.


Ingredients
.  It would be silly to offer a “recipe” as such for herbes salées.  You shouldn’t go to a grocery store and buy a set of ingredients; you should use whatever you have in abundance in your herb garden in the late season.  There are, however, some useful ratios to keep in mind.

1 part salt for every 3 parts aromatics, by weight.  In other words 33 g of salt for every 100 g of herb mix.

In terms of balancing the flavours of the onions, carrots, and herbs, I offer this as a general guideline:

4 parts allium : 2 parts parsley : 1 part carrot : 2 parts other aromatic herbs

For allium, I use tender varieties like green onions, leeks, and chives, chopped finely.

We got an overwhelming crop of curly-leaf parsley this year.  Since it doesn’t dry particularly well, we used lots in our salted herbs.

I grate the carrots finely with a box-grater.

As far as aromatic herbs go, you can use everything under the sun.  Fines herbes are the most common (chervil, parsley, tarragon…).  I took my salted herbs in more of a “poultry mix” direction, using sage, parsley, thyme, and rosemary.

Procedure.  Lay alternating layers of the chopped herbs and salt in a casserole.  Refrigerate.  Depending on what types of allium and herbs you use, a brine might form.

After one week, pour the mix into jars and store in the fridge for use throughout the winter.

Applications.  The first way we used the salted herbs was in the mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.  Other traditional applications include soup and pâté, just remember that when you add salted herbs, you are adding salt (ahem) as well as herbs.  Adjust salt content accordingly.

On Cured Beef, Montreal, and the Gout

I have a certain old friend.  Technically we went to high school together, but I first got to know him in Lister Hall, then at the Kappa Alpha house on university row.  He studied philosophy, and after graduation he followed a girl to Montreal.  There he fell victim to many of the city’s seductions: strong beer, girls, and cocaine, yes, but above all these, smoked meat.

For a while he lived only a few blocks from Schwartz’s, that Mecca of Montreal smoked meat.  For a while he ate there every day: a sandwich, a pickle, and a cherry coke.

Montreal smoked meat is that city’s version of New York’s pastrami: beef brisket, cured with a concoction of spices reminiscent of corned beef, then rubbed with black pepper and coriander, hot-smoked, steamed, and finally cut to order.  At Schwartz’s and most other Jewish delicatessens the meat is stacked a few inches high on thin slices of rye bread slathered with prepared mustard.

There are many ailments with apocryphal causes.  Mononucleosis, “the kissing disease,” is commonly attributed to promiscuity.  When I heard that gout was often caused by excessive consumption of cured meat and red wine, I assumed that this, likewise, was a Victorian misconception.

My friend ate at Schwartz’s almost every day for the better part of three months.  One morning he woke with a violent start.  The weight of his bedsheet on his left big toe made him shriek in pain.  He was dumbfounded.  What was happening?  The only logical explanation he could conjure was that, in the wasted stupor of the previous evening, he had somehow broken his toe.  On this hypothesis he hobbled to the doctor.  Within thirty minutes he was diagnosed with gout.

His recovery was slow and cruel.  For one sober month he lived mostly on raspberry yogurt.  He had to go without Unibroue’s many Belgian-inspired ales.  No more crepuscular visits to La Banquise for poutine italienne.  No quail from Toqué or blanquette de veau from Hotel Nelson.

No Montreal smoked meat.

He never confided this in me, but I imagine that he went through the same convulsing withdrawl symptoms of a heroine addict.

What I admire most about this friend is that he is able to turn the most painful, squalid memories into great stories.  He now jokes about swapping gout stories with his octogenarian grandma.

 

Anyways.  That happened years ago, but it has been on my mind this week because we made Montreal-style smoked meat at work.  (“Montreal smoked meat” isn’t a protected designation, yet, but because I’m a gentile living maybe three thousands kilometers from la belle province, I add the word “style.”)

As mentioned above, Montreal smoked meat and pastrami are both usually made with beef brisket.  We were curious to try using other cuts.  We ended up curing an entire forequarter of beef, except for the neck, shank, and standing rib.  We cured, smoked, shaved, and served it all.

Foodies, generally, and I, specifically, often wax eloquent about the importance of fat in a piece of meat.  That being said, I much preferred the bottom blade, with its judicious fatty marbling, to the brisket, with its thick slab of external fat.  The blade was also a darker, richer burgundy colour than most of the other cuts.

The leaner, more tender cuts, like the cross-rib, benefited hugely from the curing and smoking.  Aficionados would no doubt argue that the deli meat made from this cut can not properly be called Montreal smoked meat or pastrami, but regardless, it really was good.

A slab of Montreal-style smoked meat

A late night snack

Peameal Bacon

Slices of homemade peameal baconIt’s always confused me that Americans call back bacon “Canadian bacon,” when it’s much more associated with Britain than Canada.  To my knowledge the only uniquely Canadian form of bacon is peameal bacon: cured pork loin rolled in ground split peas, which keeps the surface of the meat dry and inhibits microbial growth.  Sometime over the past century cornmeal has taken the place of peameal, but the name hasn’t changed.

This week I made two forms of peameal bacon: the contemporary favourite – lean, centre-cut pork loin, fat trimmed down, brined and rolled in cornmeal – and a rustic recontruction, inspired by the fantastic book The Art of Living According to Joe Beef.   I left an inch or two of fatty side meat on the loin, and after curing, rolled the meat in coarsely crushed yellow split peas.

In the end, the crushed split-peas were too coarse, making for a tooth-snapping bite.  The cornmeal had a better texture, but once the bacon had hung out in the fridge for a few days, the cornmeal absorbed moisture and lost its crispiness.

Use as you would back bacon.  Makes great sandwiches and bennies.  Below is a toasted English muffin, aged cheddar, peameal bacon, maple mustard, and poached egg:

Eggs St. Lawrence: English muffin, cheddar, peameal bacon, poached eggs, brown beans.

Scrunchions

Scrunchions and sea salt

These are scrunchions.  They’re a bit like pork rinds.

“Pork rind” simply means pork skin.  It can refer to the fresh, raw skin cut from a side of pork, but more commonly it means pig skin that has been rendered and fried crisp.  It is actually the same as crackling, though commercially-produced pork rinds are much more delicate than the crackling that develops on oven-roasted pork.

Scrunchions are made by a similar process, but they consist of pork fat, not skin.  I know it sounds funny that deep-frying fat results in a crispy treat, but raw animal fat also contains a good deal of connective tissue that holds the fat cells in place.  When you fry strips of raw, intact pork fat, the connective tissue browns and eventually becomes crispy.

Scrunchions are one of the great achievements of Newfie cuisine, along with chow-chow, screech, and saltfish.  They also make scrunchions in Quebec, but they’re called oreilles de crisse, literally “Christ’s ears.”  Quebecois profanity is hilarious…

The scrunchions pictured above were actually baked on a wire rack, not deep-fried.  Once crisp they were removed to a paper towel and sprinkled with sea salt and chopped thyme.

How to Make a Paper Cone for Scrunchions

This is also how pastry cooks make impromptu piping bags from parchment paper.

Cut a 8″ x 8″ square of parchment paper.  Cut the square into two right angled triangles.  Orient one of the triangles so that the hypotenuse is towards you, like so:

Roll the bottom left corner so that its tip meets the tip on the top centre:

Now roll the bottom right corner around the cone, so that its tip meets the other two.

You should be able to pinch all three corners:

Fold the three corners down.  Fold them once more to secure the cone.

The cone should now hold its own shape, without the use of tape.

Tarte au Sucre – Sugar Pie

Tarte au sucre, or sugar pieIf you are unfamiliar with this dish, let me introduce you by way of an aimless personal anecdote. If you are familiar with the dish, you can skip the next paragraph.

My father’s family lives near Ottawa, my mother’s near Sudbury. When I was little my family would sometimes drive between these two sets of relatives, following the Ottawa River valley, where there are lots of French communities, even on the Ontarian side of the border. Along the way we would always stop at a diner called Valois in the French town of Mattawa. For dessert they offered “sugar pie,” a tidy translation of tarte au sucre. While some versions of sugar pie are made with corn syrup or molasses (
imagine a pecan pie without the pecans), I think the word “sugar” actually implies maple syrup, just as easterners might call a grove of maple trees a sugar bush, and the building where syrup is made a cabane à sucre, or sugar shack. Basically the dish is maple syrup thickened with flour and eggs, set in a pie shell.

This particular incarnation was a light, slightly sticky maple pudding in a short crust. In fact, the custard was so loose that if a slice was left to stand, the filling slowly ran onto the plate.

Sugar Pie

For the shell, bake off your favourite rich, short dough in a 10″ French tart pan. Here is my recipe. Be sure to dock and weight the dough while baking. Cool the shell thoroughly.

Ingredients

  • 500 mL maple syrup
  • 100 mL all-purpose flour
  • 250 mL heavy cream
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 50 mL butter

Procedure

  1. Whisk the flour into the cream, then stir this mixture into the maple syrup. Whisk in the egg yolks.
  2. Cook mixture over low heat until thick. Stir in the butter.
  3. Pour into expectant pie shell. Chill thoroughly.
  4. Eat with whipped cream.

 

Bûche de Noël – Yule Log Cake

My mom has prepared a yule log cake every Christmas I can remember. I have no idea how this tradition came to my family, as it is extremely French (“bûche de noël”), and we are not.

The cake is a simple sponge. Whole eggs are beaten thoroughly, sugar is added, then a bit of water, and finally flour and cocoa are folded in. The batter is runny, and forms a shallow, uniform, fine-textured cake after baking.

The interior icing is a buttercream made by whipping room-temperature butter into Swiss meringue. Swiss meringue is a mixture of whipped egg whites and simple syrup cooked to soft ball stage.

The exterior frosting is icing sugar beaten into lard, which makes the colour bright white, in contrast to the beige buttercream inside the log.

I dragged a fork across the exposed sides of the cake for a bit of texture.

A yule log cake

Yule log cake

Maple Taffy – Tire d’Erable

Winter Food

Throughout late summer I found myself craving winter food. When I was filling my rumpot with fruit and canning my sauerkraut it was twenty degrees outside, but I was thinking of the dead of winter, and the rich, warming, comforting food I would enjoy.

Preservation of food has become central to my idea of local cuisine. I’ve always included meat in my concept of preserving for the impending winter, but I recently realized that this doesn’t make much sense.

Before refrigeration, fresh meat could only be kept in the winter. Of course you could kill a chicken in the summer and eat it for dinner, but what if you were to kill a cow and not have a freezer? My great grandparents associated summertime with pickled meat. Butchering was largely done in the colder months, so they were much more likely to enjoy fresh meat in the winter than the summer.

I’m oversimplifying, but you could say that they ate fresh vegetables and pickled meat in the summer, and pickled vegetables and fresh meat in the winter.

This realization turned my idea of winter food on its head, and I started thinking of ways to use the cold weather in cooking. Now and again I’ll cool large pots of stock in a snowbank, but there are some preparations that have a more significant dependence on the cold. For instance…


Maple Taffy

Pouring maple syrup onto fresh snowUsing snow to make candy has been done for centuries in Canada. Toffee, for instance, was invented in Quebec. According to Larousse, a sixteenth century nun set molasses in the snow to attract young natives to her school.

Rapidly cooling sugar syrups helps prevent the growth of crystals, and results in a clear, glassy appearance.

The process is simple enough. Start with maple syrup in a pot over medium heat. The higher the concentration of sugar in a syrup, the higher the temperature at which it boils. The maple syrup will start to boil just above water’s boiling point of 212°F. As moisture evaporates and the sugar becomes more concentrated, the temperature of the syrup will rise. The relationship between sugar content and boiling point is direct and predictable: a syrup of 85% sugar will boil at 235°F, a syrup of 90% sugar will boil at 270°F. Candy thermometers are your friends.

Resist the temptation to stir the pot, especially in the later stages of boiling, as you might induce crystallization.

Heating the syrup to 235°F will yield a sticky, slightly runny though still manageable taffy. I like this stage because it is a little messy. Higher temperatures yield firmer taffies.

As soon as you reach your desired temperature, pour the syrup over clean snow. Wait maybe ten seconds for the syrup to cool, then pick up the taffy by winding it around a popsicle stick or wooden spoon.

Sugar shacks do this in early spring, during the sap run, so that visitors can taste the first syrup of the season. With few hard maples being tapped around Edmonton, this is as much a celebration of the snow as it is the maple. Maybe a good tradition for the first snow fall, rather than the spring.

Maple taffy wrapped around a stick

The War

When I was little, to me there were two essential facts about my grandparents: they lived on a farm, and they fought in “the war,” that is, WWII. Even though they never spoke to me about the war, it was central to my understanding of who they were. Possibly it was more important to my understanding of them then it was to their own. I’m sure that Grandpa thought of himself as a husband, father, grandfather, deacon, and train-enthusiast before a soldier. Yet, there was a collection of old service photographs on top of the piano, unmoved, for decades. The shrine-like placement of the pictures told me that those years affected my grandparents profoundly, and that there was some sadness sleeping deep within them.

An old pamphlet called Wartime Home Canning of Fruits and VegetablesGrowing up, I found that these two parts of my grandparents’ lives, the farm and the war, intertwined in the government programs aimed at reducing stress on resources through rationing, Victory gardens, and teaching people how to preserve food. I doubt that my grandparents bought into the imagery and language of the home front propaganda (“Your apron is your uniform!”) They had grown up on small farms during the depression, and were already well-seasoned in canning food and growing vegetables by the time the war came about. However, with brothers and friends fighting overseas, I suspect these activities took on a new significance.

WWII periodicals on rationing, canning, gardening, and other forms of self-sufficiency resonate with contemporary talk of sustainable food supplies. Take the following excerpt from a 1942 BBC radio broadcast by George Orwell. They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and Orwell is clearly talking about “food miles,” though he doesn’t use that exact buzz-phrase.

If you have two hours to spare, and if you spend it in walking, swimming, skating, or playing football, according to the time of year, you have not used up any material or made any call on the nation’s labour power. On the other hand, if you use those two hours in sitting in front of the fire and eating chocolates, you are using up coal which has to be dug out of the ground and carried to you by road, and sugar and cocoa beans which have to be transported half across the world.

In other words, sensible, modest living and eating were important. Unfortunately, they require a kind of simple rationality that is almost extinct. Why, for instance, do we buy cranberries made of fruit harvested from Carolinian bogs, processed, canned, and shipped to our supermarkets, when cranberries grow along the North Saskatchewan?

The only kind of kitchen thriftiness that gets attention these days is eating obscure cuts of meat. My own ancestors weren’t particularly adventurous in that regard. They had their own reservations, and I’m sure that my grandma would find it strange that I now eat lamb’s quarters and buffalo. Their thriftiness was based more around things like saving pan oils, especially from bacon.

Canadian meat rations from WWII.The pinnacle of my grandparents’ generations’ genius for kitchen economy was their use of left-overs. Of particular note is Aunt Dorie’s fried porridge. When there was porridge left over after breakfast, she poured it onto a tray and let it congeal. The next morning she cut the sheet of porridge into rectangles and fried them in reserved bacon fat. This is the kind of craftiness that I thought could only come from Italians peasants (think: polenta).

That wartime mentality would be a boon to Albertan kitchens. Despite what we see on restaurant menus and grocery store shelves, we live in a harsh province. Our food should be more humble and austere than that from, say, California.

We don’t need to be survivalists. In fact, complete self-sufficiency is a myth that has run wild in North America, especially on the prairies, with our “frontiersmen” heritage. That being said, we rely far too much on others to grow and cook our food.

Our backyards are Victory Gardens. Our kitchens are War Rooms.

Before the war there was every incentive for the general public to be wasteful, at least so far as their means allowed. We have learned now, however, that money is valueless in itself, and only goods count. In learning it we have had to simplify our lives and fall back more and more on the resources of our own minds instead of on synthetic pleasures manufactured for us in Hollywood or by the makers of silk stockings, alcohol and chocolates. And under the pressure of that necessity we are rediscovering the simple pleasures – reading, walking, gardening, swimming, dancing, singing – which we had half forgotten in the wasteful years before the war.

– George Orwell, from a BBC broadcast entitled Money and Guns, aired in January 1942

Pouding Chômeur – Poor Man’s Pudding

Pouding chômeur, ready for the oven: cake batter floating in a sea of maple syrupMy dad grew up in eastern Ontario, in sugar shack country. The most common applications of maple syrup in his home were pouring over pumpkin pie and cornbread, or, if he was especially well-behaved, as a dip for white bread. These dishes win for most direct conveyance of syrup to mouth without drinking from the bottle, but I need something (slightly) more refined.

My Québécois dessert of choice is pouding chômeur. “Chômeur” means unemployed. Here it functions as a substantive, so this is “unemployed person’s pudding.” “Poor man’s pudding” is a more natural sounding translation. Whatever you call it, it’s a fantastic, unadulterated way to enjoy maple syrup.

A simple batter of creamed butter and sugar, eggs, flour, and milk is spooned into a baking dish filled with maple syrup and cream. The batter looks like islands on a lake. Once cooked, the islands expand through the baking dish and cover the syrup entirely. The syrup thickens, partly by reduction and partly from mixing with the batter.

Once the top has browned thoroughly, squares are cut from the cake, and the maple syrup is ladled over them. Even though the dish is extremely rich, it benefits hugely from the presence of ice cream.

 

Pouding Chômeur

Ingredients

  • 900 g maple syrup
  • 40 g golden corn syrup
  • 130 g heavy cream
  • 200 g all-purpose flour
  • 6 g baking powder
  • 2 g kosher salt (I like to taste little pings of salt in the syrup.  If you don’t, only add 1 g.)
  • 130 gunsalted butter, softened
  • 60 g sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 175 g whole milk

Procedure

  1. With the rack in the middle position, preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. In a saucepan, bring the maple and corn syrups to a boil. The corn syrup prevents crystallization of the syrup.  Simmer the mixture until a candy thermometer reads 108°C (226°F), about 15 minutes. This brings the mixture to a consistency just slightly thinner than the classic “syrup stage”.  It will reach the proper concentration during the baking process.  Remove the pan from the heat, add the cream, and stir to combine. Pour the mixture into an 8″ x 8″ baking dish and set aside.
  3. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. Set aside.
  4. Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 10 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl every 2 minutes.  Add the egg and beat until the batter is smooth.  With the mixer on low, add the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the milk.
  5. Using an ice cream scoop, drop about 9 balls of dough, about 45 mL (3 tablespoons) each, into the syrup mixture. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the centre of a ball comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

Notes and Variations: A more traditional approach is to place the dough in the baking dish and pour the partially cooled syrup mixture over it before baking. Note that the cake will be more thoroughly soaked if you use this method.

Pouding chômeur can also be made in individual ramekins, instead of a casserole.

Pouding chômeur