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.

Tourtière – Pork Pie

A traditional tourtière made for a NewYear's Eve réveillonTourtière is made differently in every home, and can incite intense feelings of loyalty to ones mother.  I will proceed cautiously with a definition, but I warn you: there are lots of qualifiers in this post.

Tourtière is meat pie.  It is often based on pork, though veal and game are also common.  If anyone tells you that it was traditionally made with pigeon, you can politely dismiss their story as folklore.  A false etymology has developed because of the similarity between the words for the pie tourtière and the Quebecois word for the now-extinct passenger pigeon, tourte.  Certainly many a pigeon has been baked into pie, but the similarity between the two words is entirely coincidental.  Tourte also happens to be an old French word for pie, both sweet and savoury, and the dish that a tourte is cooked in is called a tourtière.[1] In Quebec the name of the baking dish became the name of the pie itself.

So I can safely add another component to our definition of tourtière: it is baked in a dish.

The meat can be either ground or cubed.  I nervously propose that it is usually ground, though in one famous regional variation, the tourtière du Lac-Saint-Jean, the meat is always cubed.

The meat, whether pork or veal or game, and whether ground or cubed, is usually flavoured with spices like cinnamon and clove.  This trait is rarely disputed.

To my mind, what makes tourtière really special, and what really distinguishes it from English pork pie, is that the meat is usually cooked before it is put in the pie, then bound together with potatoes or some manner of sauce.

The English pork pies I’ve eaten are made like this: mix raw, ground pork with onions and spices; shape the raw meat mixture into a disc; wrap pie dough around that disc; bake until the meat is cooked and the crust is golden brown.  The good things about this method are that the interior is very cohesive and the pie is easy to slice.  The bad things about this method are that the meat never gets browned, and frankly the cohesive, springy interior can be a bit boring, texturally.

With tourtière, the meat can be thoroughly browned in a heavy pan before being stuffed into pastry.  The interior is therefore caramelized, with lots of textural contrast (imagine little nuggets of pork).  The trade-off is that it is not very cohesive, and can be difficult to slice and present cleanly.  The simple solution is that the interior must be bound together somehow.

The final important characteristic of tourtière is that it is a festive dish meant to be shared by many people.  It is an essential component to a Quebecois réveillon.  The baking- and serving-vessel is usually quite wide and deep so that at least eight, possibly as many as sixteen, people can be served from it.

Okay.  Now that we’ve delicately explored the nebulous world of traditional tourtière, let me share my own not-so-traditional version.

I use pork.  This is a no brainer.  It’s flavoured lightly with cinnamon and clove, and it’s browned heavily in a pan, because that makes pork delicious, and makes for an interesting texture.  I forgo the stodgy potato binder and make a thick sauce with cider, pork reduction, and roux.

The real departure from tradition is that I like making “individual tourtières,” baked without the support of a pie-plate.  I know that by simple definition a tourtière must be baked in a dish.  I know this.  But doesn’t tourtière look cute as a little, star-shaped, personal, free-form pie, served with smooth-as-sin pumpkin purée and Savoy cabbage slaw?

An individual tourtière, with pumpkin purée and Savoy cabbage

Reference

1.  Various Authors.  Larousse.  © 2001 Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York, NY.  Page 1229.

Other Sources

An amusing discussion on what makes an “authentic tourtière” in this old CBC Radio show.

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

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

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