Merridale Cider

A couple years ago I visited Merridale Estate Cidery in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.  With so many folks around Edmonton making cider, and many of them looking for the fastest, most efficient way to produce a year’s supply, I thought I’d post some details from a commercial operation.

The apples at Merridale are all old-world cider varieties, basically inedible out of hand, and absolutely nothing like North American grocery store apples.  They have names like Dabinett, Chisel Jersey, and Hauxapfel.  The varietals are categorized as either sharp, bitter, bitter sharp, or bittersweet.  Here “sharp” refers to acidity and “bitter” refers to tannin and astringency like you find in red wine, tea, and walnut skin, not true bitter flavour like you find in dandelion, radicchio, and hops.

A good cider is a balance of alcohol, acidity, tannin, and possibly sugar.  The exact balance changes with regional styles.  Traditional English ciders are usually bone dry and get their structure from acidity and alcohol.  Sea Cider’s Wild English is a great example (though it’s Canadian). French ciders can go this way, but there is a certain French breed that is sweet, with very little acidity, getting its structure more from tannin.  Cidre Kinkiz is one example of this style that is available here in Edmonton.  I really hate that cider.  Anyways.  All Merridale ciders are a blend of multiple apple varietals.

I was surprised to see the trees in the orchard.  I assumed that a commercial orchard would take pruning very seriously, as it gets more sunlight to the leaves and increases fruit quality and ease of picking.  The trees at Merridale have nice lateral growth but are not as manicured as I had imagined.  Not sure if it’s just too much work to prune such a large orchard, or these tree shapes give the most yield, or what.

A view of the apple orchard and a small beekeeping set-up.

In the fall the apples are harvested and washed before crushing.

This is the”1960s Bucher Mill” crusher.  The apples are loaded into the basin shown at right, under the red frame.  An auger or conveyor carries them up the ramp to the left, where they are dropped into the crusher.

The crusher at Merridale Cider.

Here’s a view of the crushing mechanism.

The actual crushing mechanism at Merridale Cider.

This is the press.  It’s an accordion-type structure supporting plastic sheets.  At each end is a hydraulic pump that pushes the accordion closed and brings the plastic sheets close together.  The apple mash is put into porous bags, and each bag is inserted between the plastic plates.  The juice falls into a trough beneath the accordion.The cider press at Merridale Estate Cidery

 

A close-up shot of the pressing plates on the cider press at Merridale Estate Cidery.

The juice from the first press is used for cider.  Juice from subsequent pressing is high in tannin and acid and reserved for distilling.  At Merridale 7 kgs of fresh apples can yield 4 L of juice.

Some of the cider at Merridale is chaptalized, notably for their Scrumpy, which is 11% ABV.  The natural sugar in their apples would only yield about 7% ABV.

Here are some of their fermentation tanks.

A large fermentation tank at Merridale Cider.

The finished cider is filtered at 1 micron using this contraption.  Merridale says that this filtration clears the cider of sediment without stripping the beverage of its fresh apple character.

The filter at Merridale Estate Cidery

Merridale cider is not pasteurized and is still very much alive when bottled.[1]  They use plastic bottles instead of glass (less explosion risk), and the bottles absolutely need to be kept refrigerated throughout distribution to prevent any undesired fermentation.  Bottling is done with a “1960 German champagne filler”.  I wish I had asked more about that machine.  CO2 is added at bottling.

Incredibly, I took no photos of their packaged product to show you, but you can check our their website.

It’s hard to find a truly dry cider (most are sweet, because, you know, only girls drink cider, and girls have to drink sweet things).  The Merridale Traditional and Scrumpy ciders are great, and quite dry.  They also make sweet varieties and even some pink ones containing berries.

Kevin made a video about Merridale, which is how we even knew to visit them in the first place.  We actually stayed at the estate for two nights in one of their yurts.  It was great to get a look inside an operation that produces craft cider and spirits.

 

Footnote

  1. I see on the Merridale website now that some of their ciders are indeed pasteurized, or available in both pasteurized and unpasteurized formats, so either they have changed their process, or maybe I misunderstood my tour guide.
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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.
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Chives

Originally published March 30, 2015.  Updated today with information on harvesting chive seeds.

 

Chives emerging in early spring.Chives are prized for their pure allium flavour, blessedly devoid of the harsh burn of raw onion.

Here are some other awesome things about chives.

They are hearty perennials, which means they re-appear every spring and require very little attention.  In fact, they grow as weeds in many parts of Edmonton, including downtown parking lots.  I don’t mean that you should harvest chives from downtown parking lots; I just offer that as evidence of their gumption.

They are one of the first edibles to appear in spring.  This year the spring thaw came early, and my chives were a few inches tall by the end of March.  It was seeing this enterprising green growth that inspired me to write this post.

Chive blossomsTheir flowers are both beautiful and delicious. Most flowers with that light purple colour, like lilacs and violas, have very little flavour and are nowhere near as versatile as chive blossoms.

My chives usually bloom in June.  The tiny, bell-shaped flowers are easy to harvest because they grow on round umbels.  Just pick the entire flower head from the stalk, pinch the hub where all the stems meet, and you can remove all the blossoms in one motion. They are much more robust than most culinary flowers and can be kept in the fridge for days.  The green stalks that hold the flower heads are woody and should be reserved for stock.

They can be super-fly elegant.  When cut properly chives are like happy green confetti.

How to cut chives for fine dining applications: a photo essay.

Harvest the chives by cutting the stalks close to the ground with sharp scissors.  Gently bundle the stalks together and lay them on a cutting board.

Whole chive stalksCut the bundle in half.

Chive stalks cut in half

Flip one half onto the other so that the cut ends are all on the same side.  Use the side of your knife to line up all of the cut ends.

Chive stalks with cut ends flush

Cut the chives so that their length exactly equals their diameter.

Chopped chives: happy green confetti

That’s just a fancy technique to keep in your back pocket.  Chives don’t need to be precious.

Chives are usually added to dishes fresh, shortly before consumption, as lengthy cooking destroys their delicate flavour.  They are extremely versatile.  I like them best on eggs, potatoes, and marinated vegetables.

A bowl of potato salad, with lots of chives

 

Chives are borderline invasive because after the flowers mature and dry they each release dozens of little black seeds.  These are edible, delicious, and easily harvested.  Simply pick the dried flowers and shake out the seeds into a jar or paper bag.  They have the same onion flavour as the stems, and a bit of a chewy texture.

Dried chive flower heads with seeds

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Boning Out Rabbit

In my experience rabbit is usually hatcheted into quarters and saddle, as described (and lamented) in this post.

One year Lisa and I were in Piedmont in northwestern Italy in September, and it seemed that every restaurant was serving rabbit, and all of them had boned-out the entire animal, then rolled it into a cylinder and braised it, usually in Nebbiolo wine.  It’s a beautiful, thoughtful way to prepare the animal.  At first it didn’t make sense to me: I was hung up on theoretics, asking ridiculous questions like, “Won’t the tiny, slender loin get over-cooked before he belly tenderizes?”  This might be true of pork, but I can tell you from empirical study that it is not an issue with rabbit.

So: To Bone a Rabbit.

Make an incision along the breast bone.  Remove the flesh from the breast by following the rib cage from the breastbone to the underside of the foreleg.  Bend the foreleg up as you go.

Boning rabbit: removing meat from the breast

Continue to remove the meat from the rib cage, moving down the rabbit, folding the meat up and away from you.  Once you have removed the meat form the last rib you will then be at the belly flap.  Fold this up and away from you as well.

Bend the hind leg up and away from you.  Snap and cut through the joint where the thigh and hip meet.

boning_rabbit_3.JPG

Carefully remove the loin from the backbone.  At this point you have removed half of all the meat from the main body.

Flip the rabbit and repeat all these steps to the other side.  The meat should only be connected to the skeleton in one place, a line along the top of the rabbit’s backbone.

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Remove the last connections at the top of the spine.  At this point you have a relatively uniform sheet of meat, but the fore- and hind-legs still contain bones.

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There’s no trick to removing these bones: make small cuts following the bones as closely as possible.

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You now have an entire rabbit sans bones.  Season assertively with salt, pepper, and herbs.  You can roll the entire thing into one large spiral, or your can roll each side in towards the centre to achieve a double-scroll, with the two loins protected in by the centre of each roll.

Braise this little bundle in red wine.  The meat will be tender in only a couple hours.

braised_rabbit.JPG

Braised rabbit with polenta, eggplant, and bell pepper.

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Shortbread

Originally published December 1, 2013.

The triumph of Scottish baking on the old national lines.

-TF Henderson

 

Little shortbread cookiesShortbread is the primordial cookie.  It has only three ingredients: sugar, butter, and flour.  And I guess salt is a welcome addition.  Sometimes there’s caraway.  And there are a few variations like Ayrshire shortbread that include eggs and cream.  But usually it’s just sugar, butter, and flour, combined in a very simple ratio: 1:2:3.

In other words, butter makes up fully one third of the weight of the dough, so this is indeed a very short dough, “short” referring to fat’s ability to inhibit gluten development, creating a tender, brittle pastry.  Some classic recipes will even replace a portion of the wheat flour with rice flour or arrowroot starch, which is even lower in gluten.

The other important characteristic of classic shortbread is that the only moisture in the dough comes from the scant water-content of the butter.  In fact there is so little water that not all the starch in the flour will be able to absorb moisture and gelate, which explains shortbread’s crumbly texture.

Being a dry dough that doesn’t spread during baking, shortbread is particularly well-suited to being shaped before baking.  Dough made with fine sugar like caster or berry sugar spreads less during baking than that made with coarse sugar.

Traditional Shapes.  Shortbread dough has to be warmer than fridge temperature to be workable.  I typically leave it on the counter for an hour before rolling.  There are several traditional forms.

  • Shortbread is often pressed into molds.  Traditional images include all manner of Scots paraphernalia: thistles, heather, clover (“trefoil”)…
  • Long rectangles called fingers are common.
  • The most common shapes are round discs, usually notches along the perimeter with thumb and forefinger, or with the tines of a fork.  This is said to mimmic the sun’s rays, especially on Hogmanay, the Scots New Year.  The shortbread rounds can be sized for individual consumption, or made larger, and cut into wedges much like a pie, in which case the cookie is called petticoat tails.[1] See the picture below.
  • Shortbread doughs of all shapes are often “docked,” that is, perforated with the tines of a fork.

Baking

After shaping the cookies it’s best to hold them at fridge temperatures for at least fifteen minutes.  The colder the cookies are when they go into the oven, the better they will hold their shape during baking.

Different folks have different tastes, but generally baking is done so as not to brown the cookies too much.  For thinner, individual cookies I use a relatively high temperature, maybe 375°F.  For thicker version like petticoat tails I bake at 325°F to give the dough a chance to cook through before the exterior turns golden brown.

Other Traditions

Like haggis, shortbread is very much a festive dish, associated particularly with Christmas and Hogmanay.  In Shetland shortbread is part of a traditional wedding, where it’s called the bride’s bonn and is used in a “throwing of the girdle” type game.[2]

Petticoat Tails

 

Shortbread

Ingredients

  • 8 oz caster sugar (granulated works okay in a pinch…)
  • 16 oz butter, room temperature
  • 22 oz all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Using the paddle attachment, cream together the sugar, butter, and salt at high speed in the bowl of a stand mixer.  The mixture will lighten in colour and take on a light, fluffy aspect.  This should take about 6 minutes.  Be sure to periodically scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  2. Reduce the speed of the mixer to low and add the sifted flour.
  3. Transfer the crumbly dough to the counter and press it together with your hands.  At this point the dough can be wrapped and refrigerated or frozen.  It will last for a couple weeks in the fridge.
  4. Remove the dough from the fridge about an hour before you intend to roll it out.  It can be a little tricky getting the dough to the perfect temperature, at which it is just workable.  If the dough gets too warm it is hard to work with and doesn’t shape well.
  5. Roll out the dough and shape as desired.  Transfer cookies to a heavy bake sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  6. For thin, individual cookies, bake at 375°F until just turning golden brown, maybe 12 minutes, rotating the tray half way through baking.  For thicker styles like petticoat tails, bake at 325°F until just turning golden brown, maybe 16 minutes.

 

Dark Shortbread

Many would not consider the following cookie a shortbread, as shortbread is usually virginal white, but before refined white flour and sugar were common, shortbread often contained oats, whole wheat flour, and other “less refined” ingredients.  This is an original recipe I adapted from the shortbread recipe in the Culinary Institute of America’s Baking and Pastry, Second Edition.

Ingredients

  • 8 oz cake flour
  • 8 oz whole wheat flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 11 oz butter
  • 5 oz white sugar
  • 8 oz brown sugar

Procedure

  1. As for classic shortbread, above.

 

Notes and References

  1. Being a young man in the twenty-first century, I had to look up what a “petticoat” is.  Though apparently an archaic garment associated with European court fashion, a Google image search turned up some very racy pictures which did a good job of explaining the term to me.  A petticoat is an undergarment, usually in the form of a ruffled, voluminous skirt, worn under a gown or dress, meant to keep the woman warm and give body and shape to the gown or dress worn over top.  The bottom of the petticoat is usually exposed.  Along with corsets, it is also part of a classic cabaret get-up.
  2. McNeill, F. Marian.  The Scots Kitchen.  ©2010 The Estate of F. Marian McNeill.  Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, Scotland.  Page 242.  This is also where I learned about the different recipes and shapes, like Ayrshire shortbread and petticoat tails.  I love this book.  Thank you, Lizzie!

 

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Sticky Toffee Pudding

Originally posted December 19, 2013.

 

A bowl of deglet noor datesI’ll start by saying that this isn’t a pudding in the North American sense: it’s not a spoonable custard like, say, butterscotch pudding.  Sticky toffee pudding is a cake with dates in the batter, covered in butterscotch sauce.  In Britain the word “pudding” refers to dessert, generally, or to specific preparations that usually take the form of a moist cake.  Figgy pudding and bread pudding are two examples.  This is a good article for more info on British puddings.

Anglophiles will excuse me if I refer to sticky toffee pudding as a cake for the remainder of this post.

Sticky toffee pudding is actually a great cake that is nearly fail-proof.  Between the dates and the high ratio of liquid in the batter, it’s impossible for the cake to be anything but moist.

Though the toffee is on the marquee, the dates give the cake a lot of its character.  Happily, Lisa and I receive a large shipment of dried fruit and nuts from a BC distributor around this time of year, just in time for Christmas, when we go a little crazy with baking and confectionary.  The hazelnuts go into fruitcake, the prunes, cranberries, and walnuts into sugar plums and crackers, and the dates into sticky toffee pudding.

The two most common types of dates are medjool and deglet noor.  In my experience medjool are larger, softer, and taste more like brown sugar, while deglet are smaller, firmer, and taste more like honey.  I prefer the darker flavour and jammy texture of medjool dates for sticky toffee pudding.

Originally sticky toffee pudding was steamed, but the batter is so slack you can bake it in a dry oven like any other cake and still produce an exceptionally moist dessert.

The toffee sauce is made from butter, brown sugar, and heavy cream, making it almost identical to butterscotch sauce.  In most recipes all the sauce ingredients are simply combined and simmered.  I think it’s best to make a true butterscotch sauce by withholding the cream at first and aggressively cooking the butter and sugar to develop complexity of flavour.

It’s a good idea to coat the cake with a bit of the sauce for the last few minutes of baking.  It creates an amazing, tacky coating.  Even better, fully bake the cake, remove it from the oven and cool to room temperature, then portion it into squares in the baking tray and pour warm toffee sauce over the tops and into the crevices.  Then return to the oven for 5 minutes.  Then pour more sauce over each piece just before serving.  Maximum stickiness.

Originally served with cold cream.  I like ice cream.

Sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream

 

Sticky Toffee Pudding
adapted from a recipe from Jack’s Grill (RIP)

The Cakey Bit

  • 180 g pitted Medjool dates
  • 300 g cold water
  • 4 g baking soda
  • 60 g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 180 g dark brown sugar
  • 100 g egg (2 large eggs)
  • 4 g vanilla extract
  • 180 g all-purpose flour
  • 6 g baking powder
  • 1 pinch kosher salt

The Saucey Bit

  1. Cover the dates with the cold water in a saucepan.  Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat and stir in the baking soda.  The mixture will foam up briefly as the alkaline soda interacts with the acidic dates.  Let stand until cooled to room temperature.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl every 2 minutes.
  3. Slowly add the date mixture to the creamed butter while mixing.  Mix until thoroughly combined.
  4. Add the eggs one at a time while mixing.  Add the vanilla, too.
  5. Sift together the flour and baking powder.  Add to the mixing bowl and mix until just combined.
  6. Bake the cake in a casserole in a 350ºF oven until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the cake emerges clean, roughly 30 minutes.
  7. Remove the cake from the oven.  Let cool then cut cut the cake into squares.

 

To Serve

  1. Heat the butterscotch, then pour it over the cut cake.  Return cake to the oven and bake briefly to let the sauce set, about 5 minutes.
  2. To serve, remove individual squares and coat with even more sauce.  Consume with vanilla ice cream.
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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.
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Cured Fatback – Lardo

Originally posted on July 5, 2014.

 

Cured fatback on toast.This post is about cured fatback, most commonly known by its Italian name lardo.

Fatback is the subcutaneous fat that covers the pork loin.  Resist the urge to say “back fat”: it’s called fatback.  Industrially-raised pigs are intentionally grown very lean, so the fatback is typically only an inch thick.  Heritage pigs can have three inches or more of fatback.  These are the animals you need in order to make lardo.

Two autumns ago I got a side of Tamworth pork from Nature’s Green Acres.  The fatback was two and a half inches thick in some places.  It was the first pig that I ever cut that truly deserved to have its fatback cured and enjoyed on its own, instead of, say, simply being ground into sausage mix or rendered into lard.

The procedure for curing fatback is simple.  Cut the fat from the lean meat.  Rub with salt, sugar, herbs, and spices.  Rosemary is common.  I used thyme, juniper, bay, and black pepper.  Store the fat in a cool, dark place for six months or longer.  A cool, dark place could be a centuries-old Carrara marble box in a dank Tuscan cellar, or it could be a drawer in the bottom of your fridge.  In the latter case, put the salted fat in a Ziploc bag and cover tightly with aluminum foil to keep out light.  Light promotes oxidation and develops off-flavours in fat.

Six months later your slab of fat is ready to taste.  My first taste of lardo was in a salumeria in San Daniele.  Raw pork fat sounds so outrageous to my Anglo-Saxon ears that I expected an audacious flavour and grotesque texture.  Truth be told lardo is an extremely subtle preparation.  It is mild, sweet, faintly lactic, and above all creamy.

My homemade lardo is similar to the stuff I ate in Italy, though I think I was a bit heavy-handed with the sugar.  And the exterior was extremely salty: the first few slices were frankly inedible.

I’ll use this word again: subtle.  Lardo is so subtle it promotes contemplation. How could something so crude be so nuanced in flavour and texture?

A civilized preparation, this cured fatback.

A slab of cured fatback, or lardo.

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10 Foods that You Should Never Buy Again

I love the title of this post because it sounds like those fear-mongering, unsolicited internet advertisements, like, “3 Foods that are Making You have Cancer right now… You’ll never guess what number 2 is!!!”

Despite my pedantic writing style, I really hate pretension, and I don’t want to make people feel bad about enjoying their favourite foods.

But…

Following is a list of ingredients, prepared foods, and drinks that I think no one should ever buy.  Like ever.  Not because they’re bad for you, but because paying money for these items makes you a sucker, both financially and spiritually.  You can make the following foodstuffs from scratch for a fraction of the cost in no time at all, and your homemade version is guaranteed to be at least as good as the store-bought.  Probably better.

 

Breadcrumbs.  Purchasing breadcrumbs is the single most insane act someone can perform with regards to home cooking.  Breadcrumbs used to be one of the cheapest, most humble, ubiquitous ingredients in western kitchens.  It is now sold in bags at the supermarket.  For the record Shake and Bake is seasoned breadcrumbs.

Shake 'n' Bake: a brilliant way to sell people breadcrumbsYou’ve eaten every crumb of every loaf of bread you’ve every bought?  I doubt it.

Almost any loaf of bread will make good crumbs.  Some of the really dense, artisan loaves may be too hard to process.  Leave the bread uncovered on a sheet pan.  Don’t stack the pieces of bread or they might mould.  Leave until the bread is completely hard throughout, maybe a week, depending on the type of bread and the size of the pieces.  Crumble the bread into a food processor and blitz till smooth.  I feel slightly ridiculous typing these instructions out, but they sell breadcrumbs in the grocery store, so some people must not know how to make them.

The main reason people don’t make their own isn’t because they don’t know how, it’s because they don’t have daily uses for them.  They wait until they are taking on a recipe that calls for breadcrumbs (like this meatball recipe…), then realize they don’t have any, then rush out to pay $5 for 200 g of crumb.

The truth is that breadcrumb is an extremely versatile ingredient.  Its supreme purpose is as a coating for fried items like schnitzel and fish sticks (yes, fish sticks).  You can treat it like pure starch.  It does contain gluten, but you can add it to mixtures without making the texture gluey.  They are especially useful when making fillings for perogies and stuffed pasta like ravioli, tortellini and the like.  If your filling is just a touch too loose the breadcrumb will stiffen it perfectly.

They are also an important part of traditional Austrian strudel.

And they need not hide deep within the filling of a perogy.  Pan-fried in butter they can make a shockingly delicious and beautiful garnish, especially for textural contrast on steamed dumplings.  Or ice cream.

Croutons.  Basically the same argument as for bread crumbs: you probably already have the ingredients to make croutons, and it takes about 10 minutes start to finish.  You take stale bread, cut it into cubes, then toss them with oil, salt, pepper, chopped herbs, and garlic.  You spread them out on a sheet pan and bake them until they are golden brown, stirring occasionally.  You can bake them hard throughout like the ones in the store, or if your bread is fresh enough you can get a good crust on the outside and leave some chew within.  No matter how bad a cook you are, there is no conceivable way that your homemade croutons will be as disappointing as the ones from the grocery store.

Garlic Bread.  Garlic bread is like a big crouton that you don’t bake hard all the way through.  Instead of buying those soggy, foil-wrapped loaves, invest in a loaf of bread and a head of fresh garlic.

Granola.  Okay we’re getting a little more complicated here, but still anyone can make granola, and it only takes 20 minutes.  “But I don’t have a recipe!”  Now you do.

Waffle/Pancake Mix.  You can buy a mix that lets you make waffles and pancakes, or you can buy a handful of ingredients (flour, sugar, butter, baking powder, yeast) that let you make any baked good ever invented.

Any kind of Pre-Cut Vegetable.  This includes but is not limited to those plastic bags of tri-coloured slaw made of green cabbage, red cabbage, and carrot.  I think the single biggest obstacle to cooking at home is that most people don’t have sharp knives in their kitchen.  Using dull knives makes simple prep work daunting.  Maintain a sharp knife, use a large cutting board properly anchored to your kitchen counter with wet cloth, and become a kitchen ninja with mad knife skills.

Frozen Hamburgers.  A really good hamburger is just ground beef with salt and pepper.  In other words instead of buying fresh ground beef and shaping it into a patty you are buying frozen beef that has been shaped for you.  You are spending more money to save yourself 10 minutes and end up eating a worse product.  Everything you need to know about hamburgers.

Salad Dressing.  I’ve already made the case for homemade dressings here.  A brief synopsis of that post: you almost certainly already have all the ingredients you need to make a delicious vinaigrette, you can make enough for a month in less than 90 seconds, and your homemade dressing won’t have sodium EDTA in it.

Mayonnaise.  The reason we don’t make mayo at home anymore is because 1) people are paranoid that raw eggs will give them salmonella, and 2) people think mayonnaise is difficult to make.  As to the first point, it’s true that youngsters, expectant mothers, and the elderly probably shouldn’t eat raw eggs on the off chance that they contract salmonella, but most healthy people are fine to eat raw eggs.  I have made mayonnaise dozens of times at home with raw eggs without incident.  As to the second point, mayo is definitely the trickiest thing to make on this list, but once you get the hang of it, you can make great mayo in mere minutes.

Iced Tea.  It’s crazy that a homeowner with black tea and white sugar in his pantry would go out and buy powdered iced tea, or cans of iced tea.  Making iced tea is a simple as brewing a pot of tea then forgetting to drink it.

For me, iced tea needs to be sweet, so I add sugar while the tea is hot.  And it benefits from a bit of acidity to balance it out.  Lemon is traditional, but I like using rhubarb.

This recipe for rhubarb iced tea takes less than 15 minutes to make, but then of course it must cool, so it requires some foresight.  If you’re hosting a barbecue tomorrow, or you look at the weather forecast and see that it’s going to be 30°C every day next week, brew a big batch of this.

 

So that’s my rant.  Anything you would add to this list?

 

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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?
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