Am I becoming addicted to new gadgets? It’s possible…
I love the flavour of smoke on almost anything: meat, fish, seafood, chips, condiments, cheese, fruit…uh, spices. I would have to work hard to come up with something smoked that I don’t immediately enjoy. Smoke can elevate virtually any ingredient or dish to something sublime—maybe it’s the genetic memory of how our cave ancestors learned to cook over open wood-fire.
So, when my son recently pointed out this smoker box* to me, I had one ordered the next day. He had seen a show with Heston wherein the great chef had extolled the virtues of a simple smoker box. Were I a handy man, I probably would have cobbled together something myself using a hotel tray, wire rack and some tinfoil. But I am not handy and the internet makes it so damn easy to acquire these things.
Also, the Cameron’s smoker box that arrived is magnificent. I’m not often a proponent of single purpose cookware, but this thing works so well, I would recommend it to anyone. It’s a stainless steel box, with a drip tray that allows the smoke to vent along its edges, a wire rack, a sliding cover and fold-up handles. Seems simple, no? But everything fits so well together that the process of smoking becomes highly efficient and effective—and a good value at less than $60.
Ignoring caution and common-sense I elected to use relatively expensive ingredients for my first experiment, arctic char fillets and spiny lobster tails. Using the brine recipe I created previously for trout jerky (maple-juniper), I soaked the fillets for one and a half hours.
For the lobster tails, I opted to peel off the small legs, crack them open and brush with a simple lemon-pepper butter—a couple tablespoons of melted sweet butter, cracked pepper, fleur de sel and lemon zest.
This smoker box only requires roughly one to two tablespoons of wood chips for most projects. I used alder chips, which seemed like an appropriately light flavour for fish and seafood. It’s important for the items to not be touching each other to allow for proper circulation of smoke.
I set the loaded box on a low to medium flame on the side of my outdoor gas grill. It began to smoke in minutes, and in ten the fish started to take on that oily sheen you want to see on top. When closed, there was very little smoke lost and many people note online that they’ve used similar smoker boxes indoors with success. I’m skeptical that my fire alarm would let me get through this task without a headache, but it’s certainly possible.
One word of caution here: my side burner on my gas grill is recessed a little, so I had a problem with flames moving along the bottom of the box and melting the plastic edges of the burner. Next time I would put the whole box into the grill on top of one lit side, as recommended by the manufacturer. Your side burner may have better clearance, just be aware that it might be an issue.
After twenty minutes both the fish and lobster were beautifully smoked. The flavour of the finished product was fantastic: lightly but evenly smoky throughout, with the sweet-salty-piny notes of the fish brine and a low hit of citrus on the lobster.
I can’t wait to smoke everything else in the fridge…assuming I can get melted plastic off the bottom of my brand new smoker box.
Note: all the photos from this post shot by Harry Edmundson-Cornell.
*Once again: not paid to endorse these things, just happens to be the first one we found.
Is there any human endeavour not touched by some conspiracy theory? Apparently not…
Bon Appetit online recently posted an article in a proposed series on the influence of Freemasonry on the world of French cuisine. I have little to no opinion about Freemasonry other than I remember being a little mystified as a child about its importance in one of my favourite movies, The Man Who Would be King. And I guess I’m still surprised that so many American presidents were Freemasons. Google “Freemasonry” yourself and prepare to be inundated with a broad range of complex conspiracy theories about their impact on world events. I should even mention Dan Brown’s best selling oeuvre in this context, but I prefer not to.
I guess I’m a little disappointed. It seems inevitable in hindsight, but I like to think of cooking and eating as relatively benign activities, even though I know that’s willfully naive—just ask Mark Bittman or Michael Pollan or go back and dig out that battered paperback of The Jungle.
But, as I’ve ranted before, it’s just cooking! Psychologists have long studied the human appetite for conspiracy theories and written thousands of words on paranoia and cognitive biases and shortcuts—I get it—but do we have to drip our craziness onto everything?
Any time I’m faced with this kind of truthiness, I think of Umberto Eco’s magnificent and underrated Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco’s novel of self-fulfilling and Ouroboros-style self-devouring conspiracy theories is the rationalist (and literate) version of Dan Brown’s nonsense:
“The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.”
—Chapter 10, Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
I`m not even going to apologize for how long it’s taken me to post this, ’cause LIFE, you know?
For Christmas this year (or, I guess, last year…2012) the lovely Michelle bought me a sous vide* set up. How cool is that? Long have I pondered the usefulness of the technique widely in use in France back in the seventies**, and popularized in recent years by food artists/amateur scientists like Mr. Blumenthal. Is it worth the fussy equipment? What are the results really like?
For my first use I decided to fall back on a staple of mine flank steak. I know, I know, you’re sick of flank steak. But as a trial run, it’s ideal: fairly tough and low fat and I know exactly how it should turn out using conventional methods like slow cooking or BBQ.
I cut the flank in half across to make it more manageable in the sous vide tub and liberally seasoned it with ground roasted coriander, kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper.
Next I sealed the flank pieces into vacu-bags…
…and loaded them into the tub of water, which I had previously brought up to the temperature recommended by the instructions, 56.5 degrees celsius. I set the timer for 24 hours. The instructions suggest anywhere from 4 to 30 hours for tougher cuts of beef, but I’ve seen the pros on television sous vide anywhere up to 72 hours—which seems like showing off to me, but whatever.
After 24 hours in the sous vide cooker the flank steaks resemble something you might set aside to weigh during an autopsy—pinkish grey and unappetizing.
The next step, to my mind, is critical: I seared the flank steaks in a very hot cast iron pan. You could probably use the un-seared steaks in certain preparations—sliced thin and covered a sauce say—but to me, it’s not steak without the treasured Maillard reaction.
I’m happy to report that the finished steaks were delicious. One thing about flank steak is that due to its uneven thickness, it’s a little challenging to ensure even cooking using conventional methods. The sous vide technique created a wonderfully even pinkness throughout. The meat was also buttery and tender, although not dramatically more tender than a long dry rub marinade and thin slicing provides—but still, noticeably more tender.
All-in-all I’m thrilled with Michelle’s gift and looking forward to many more sous vide experiments. If anyone has any suggestions, feel free to post them in the comments below. I seem to remember reading about a sous vide of fennel in duck fat somewhere…
*Once again, it’s important to note that no one pays me to promote their products, this is just the one I received as a gift.
**According to Wikipedia, the theory was developed in 1799.
A friend and former co-worker in the corporate salt mines, Colleen Shea, writes a charming blog about reading and food called Jam and Idleness. She recently revived an interview feature from a previous blog under the new name of Brain/Food and yours truly was interviewed for the inaugural edition.
The bright and witty Colleen sent me a very engaging set of questions via email, to which I responded at some length. Too much length really. But the questions were so good, I had trouble containing my enthusiasm. I often find myself daydreaming about how I’d answer the ten Pivot questions* on Inside the Actor’s Studio, so Colleen’s interview played right into that same intellectual vanity and tendency to soapbox.
I enjoy the Jam and Idleness blend of book and food topics—such naturally related pleasures. It always makes me think of the slow Sunday mornings when I manage to leisurely read over coffee and maybe a croissant at my dining-room table. Although to be fair, Colleen’s blog is more lively than that prosaic image might imply.
*For the record: the sound I love is the chunky guitar noise you hear on tracks like Led Zepplin’s In the Evening—it happens around minutes 3:44 and 4:02 of Jimmy’s solo. Although, if I were ever on the show, I would go on to explain that I’m not really a classic rock person per se and that The Clash is my all-time favourite band.
Here’s the short version of this post: Take a pencil and glue some paper around it. Done.
Here’s the long version of this post:
I have a strangely extensive collection of stationery including paper, pens, markers, stickers, and a curious bank of office supplies. I am not into making scrapbooks but I do enjoy origami and other paper-based crafts and I am known for still sending hand-written letters.
I have fond memories of getting ready for fall by browsing through flyers of back-to-school sales, finding the best deals on my favourite stationery items (yay to new Laurentian pencil crayons in a fold-over 24-pack!) and planning the shopping trip with my sister of what we would buy at each store to get the most items for our money.
Last month when I was going through a stack of flyers, I was drawn in by the ads for school supplies and the resulting rush of childhood memories. I was a bit nostalgic for the days when I was in school and September meant new school supplies. If no one in your household is in school, then the fall no longer feels like the start of a new year but that didn’t stop me from giving into the fun and undertaking a stationery craft.
While I will spend money on unique or interesting stationery items, I do have a tendency to put my own touches on the plainer stationery I buy. For example, rather than limiting myself to my basic work-issued desk set, I gathered up a few containers from a thrift store and covered them with a range of Japanese papers. It makes for a fun touch in my otherwise monochromatic office.
I use work-issued stationery for essentials or for loaner pens (yes, I have loaner pens) but for my own use and particularly for my use at home, I like to jazz things up a bit. This craft is an inexpensive way to personalize your stationery. It is also easy enough to do with kids and it can add a little more fun to going back to school.
In the photo above you will see pencils covered in a range of items, including hand-made Japanese papers, a Brazilian marbled paper (which I adore!), some quilling paper, and even some package cord. The idea here is to just grab some materials and glue them to a pencil. That said, there are a few tips I can share with you to make it a lot easier and to make it turn out nicely.
In my case, I have a wide selection of paper suitable for this project but you could do it with any decent paper. What you will want to avoid are papers that are too porous or fibrous to withstand use after the pencil is covered. For example, construction paper would not be a good choice for this craft as it will wear off with use and with the wrong glue, will just turn to a wet mess. To save you some other trial and error, I will tell you that the best glue I used for this was Martha Stewart’s fine-tipped glue pen. Not only did it allow me to place the glue exactly where I wanted it but it avoided the often-seen rippling that comes with thick, wet, white glue. However, if you are gluing things like package cord or rhinestones (which I started and sorely lost patience for well before it was complete), a white craft glue is perfect.
You can use a glue stick but if you do, you’ll want to be sure you use a decent one, get good coverage, and let it dry completely before using the pencil. If you don’t, your paper will peel off or will shift.
This craft can also help dress up plain pens. In fact, some of the more elaborate materials are better suited to covering pens, merely because pens don’t need to fit into a sharpener.
I measured out enough paper to easily wrap around the pencil and glue onto itself with plenty of overlap. In most cases, the paper I used measured 15 cm (6″) by 3.8 cm (1 5/8″) , depending on the circumference of the pencil, the thickness of the paper I used, and whether or not I wanted to cover the pencil to the eraser or not. In one case, I stuck a little gemstone on the end for a pretty accent and it worked out well. I bet a tiny button or a circle of coordinating paper could also work well, depending on the look you were after.
If great comedians like Patton Oswalt had their way, people would stop spending so much money on birthdays. He puts forward a list of acceptable birthdays to celebrate (found on his Werewolves and Lollipops CD) and non-milestone birthdays for adults did not make the cut. Well, I completely reject this list* and shamelessly celebrate my birthday every year with a generous party.
Not only do I celebrate my non-milestone adult birthdays with a party but I always add in the controversial element of a theme. People tend to groan at the idea of a theme party and I can understand why. We’re adults and we do not need too much direction to have fun. However, as a hostess I find a theme gives structure to my planning and as the celebrant, I simply enjoy the silliness.
Fortunately, my friends indulge my nonsense and give me the room to be the ham I often like to be. I think their accommodation is due in large part to the fact that while I like a theme, I tend to limit my plans to those that guests will notice but that will not require them to do anything special themselves. That means that my theme elements are included in invitations, the menu, and the décor but nothing close to compelling them to dress up or play games.**
This year, the theme for my birthday was, “Christmas in July!” I thought of it a while back when I was trying to find an excuse to get Andrew to make more food that included summer savory. It is one of my favourite herbs but he finds it utterly underwhelmning. It hardly ever gets used outside of holiday time and I am not patient enough to wait until December to enjoy it so I made my plug. When Andrew came up with the idea of putting it into turkey burgers with a cranberry something-or-other on top, the xmas theme emerged.
The invitations for this party were ridiculous, as most of my birthday invitations are. I drafted a series of letters to Santa and I answered them on his behalf, working in the details of the party. Last year I sent out a detailed script of two people having a conversation (about “Fajita Fiesta!”) and the previous year was a list of formal Frequently Asked Questions (about “Grilled Feast!”). The invitation is always sent as a 1-2 page email, so it is short enough that people will read through but long enough for me to amuse myself. I don’t use mailed invitations for this casual summer BBQ party. I also don’t use online invitation sites because the number of recipients is usually under 20 so the volume of messages is easy enough to manage myself.
We chose to hold the party on a Sunday this year. We did it last year due to a tight summer schedule and happened to find it worked well. People who had other typical summer plans like Saturday afternoon weddings or visits to cottages tended to be in town late in the day on a Sunday so we had a decent turnout. It also gave us a day to do the cooking and other party prep without having to take a day off work or be up too late the night before. This year’s party had a lower turnout but that’s just the way it goes with summer parties; people are often out of town.
I have started to get in the habit of putting out some sort of marker on our door when we host a party. Not only is it festive, but it helps people find our townhouse easily in a row of identicals. Last year I made myself a feather wreath that was suitable to leave up through winter. The white feather wreath was surprisingly suitable for a summer party, much more so than a heavy pine wreath would have been.
The décor for the party was fairly simple but it definitely said, “Xmas in July.” I did a great little craft I found on The Daily Digi for the centrepiece (see photo below).
It couldn’t have been easier. Bunch up strips of tissue paper and attach them to a foam cone with colourful pins. No measuring is required (although if you are looking for a reason to measure, you could make the strips of tissue uniform. I used my finger width as a general guide.).
To finish them off, I cut and hot glued green felt to the bottom but that is optional. I made two small trees and two taller trees and they looked great. I have tucked them away to have nice holiday table accents when we host family in December.
My stepson also helped by making us some paper snowflakes. We put them up on the walls, hoping to help us forget the 30C (85F) temperatures outside.
For these parties, we always opt for buffet service. For a pop-in event, it doesn’t make sense to plan a sit-down dinner or to limit things based on the time people arrive. It also helps people be a little fussy or timid about our different concoctions.
As for the menu, Andrew prepared a great summer version of a Christmas dinner. Here was the offering:
- turkey sliders with choice of topping: cranberry-orange relish, bacon apple butter, or spiced ketchup (regular ketchup with a splash of hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce)
- fried potato cakes
- ‘stuffing bites’ Admittedly, these were brilliant. Andrew mixed up some dressing and we let it sit overnight in a plastic bag in the fridge to get cold and damp. I then pressed it in mini-muffin tins and baked it off at 325 until toasted brown. We served these at room temperature with a meaty dip (see next item).
- We wanted to make a gravy-style ‘dip’ for the stuffing bites but didn’t want to make gravy as we hadn’t roasted a bird and it is somewhat unappetizing when it isn’t hot so Andrew made a brilliant (and tasty!!) dipping sauce that was basically a reduction of turkey stock we had in our freezer. It worked out perfectly and was an ideal complement to the stuffing.
- a tray of vegetables. We had originally toyed with blanching brussels sprout leaves and making a salad with them but while they are one of my favourite vegetables, they aren’t for everyone so instead, we went with a simple cold vegetable tray but picked items in theme-friendly colours (red and green peppers, cherry tomatoes and white button mushrooms). It was a summer party after all so we decided to save the heartier vegetables for colder days.
- for drinks, we had a cooler of assorted beers but we made up a cooler jug of cold, spiced apple cider and let people serve themselves. Next to the cooler was a bottle of rum so guests could spike their own as they saw fit.
- pre-mixed mulling spices are not always available in the summer but my stepson (who is always a great help!) made up a great little pouch of spices (anise, cloves, cardamom, allspice and a few cinnamon sticks) and tossed it into the plain, cold apple cider overnight and the resulting drink was refreshing and delicious! Note that we reserved a couple of cups of cider and froze it in a plastic storage container to add in as an ice cube to keep the drink cold.
- pumpkin pie squares – A few years ago, my friend, Jackie, made up a cookbook of collected recipes from family and friends and gave us all a copy. In that book was a great recipe for pumpkin squares. I have made these a few times, including versions with substitutes for the cream and for the flour and so far, it is a forgiving and consistent recipe. It also lets people have a “little bite of pie” rather than a whole slice and it lets pepole eat with their fingers, which is convenient for a BBQ.
- xmas sweets – As I always like candy on my buffet table, I put out a few glasses of peppermint sticks and other seasonal treats like cheap chocolate macaroons and licorice.
It was a fun theme to carry out and it was a good time.
* Although I do find it pretty funny and encourage you to check out his comedy.
** Truth be told, I would do those if the group were up for it.
I have been an admirer of Chris Onstad since the day I read The Great Outdoor Fight—his seminal multi-part story in the groundbreaking web comic Achewood—all in one sitting while I should have been working. Achewood’s deceptively simple art is a vehicle for a restlessly imaginative world of talking cats, a meth-addicted squirrel, a sleazy robot, a worldly-wise senior teddy-bear and other assorted characters of mixed reputation.
Achewood’s magical-realism and absurdist plotting are only part of the work’s appeal. For me, the core charm of Achewood lies in Mr. Onstad’s language: a fresh blend of idiosyncratic slang and unusual character-based rhythms. Mr. Onstad is so conversant in each of his characters voices that he has even done a number of separate blogs from their…unique…points of view.
I’m pleased to find that something of this playful approach to language has carried over into Mr. Onstad’s latest ventures into the world of food writing. In addition to becoming the staff restaurant reviewer for The Portland Mercury’s Food & Drink section, Mr. Onstad recently had a wonderful article published in Saveur on dining in the Benelux.
Mr. Onstad’s approach to food writing includes much of the wry humour he brought to Achewood, tempered by the demands of different media. His Saveur article retains some of the ironic detachment of Achewood, while his restaurant reviews hew more closely to a traditional form.
Restaurant reviews are tricky bits of writing. It can be difficult to balance the implied mission of consumer advocate with the inherent desire for a writer to stretch and explore. So far, Mr. Onstad’s reviews have struck that balance with aplomb. He is neither too hard on the restaurants in question, nor too flighty in his prose. His reviews hit what I think is the sweet-spot for this kind of writing: the feeling of actually being in the presence of an intelligent and humourous raconteur, discussing one of the simultaneously prosaic and yet potentially finest experiences available to us all, a good meal.
Chestnut flour is a favourite of mine and we’ve had great success adding it into baked goods and things like waffles. It’s nutty, sure, but also has an unexpectedly earthy sweetness. The Romans used chestnut flour extensively before wheat became king and it has been part of Northern Tuscan cuisine forever. [Here's a nice post on harvesting and milling chestnuts in Tuscany.]
The elements of this pasta recipe come together so well in the end that you’ll be shocked, trust me. A little browned butter with sage and parmigiano become the perfect condiment for the real star here, the pasta itself.
If you haven’t tried making handmade pasta before, try it, it’s surprisingly easy. Handmade pasta is a zen thing: easy to do, but hard to really master. Fortunately, even if you make uneven, too thick, sloppy pasta using this recipe, it’ll still taste great—brutti ma buoni.
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup chestnut flour*
2 large eggs + 1 egg yolk (room temperature)
1 tbls olive oil
pinch of salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter
4 fresh sage leaves
salt & pepper
Step one: Whisk the flours and salt together in a small bowl, then dump out on a large board or clean counter.** Make a well in the center of the flour and add the eggs and oil.
Step two: Using a circular motion, draw your fingers through the flour into the eggs to incorporate. Once it starts to mix, use both hands to mush everything together.
Step three: Gently knead into a ball, wrap in plastic, and let sit in the fridge for twenty minutes.
Step four: Unwrap the dough ball, add a little flour and knead vigourously for 5 to 10 minutes.
Step five: Form into a ball again, flour both it and a rolling pin, and begin rolling the ball out. Turn ninety degrees and flip over every few rolls. Add flour as required to any sticky spots. The goal here is to roll out a sheet of dough so thin that you’re afraid that on the next flip, it’ll tear.*** I basically filled my counter and then stopped.
Step six: Using a pizza cutter or long knife, slice the sheet in half, and then cut into 1/2 inch strips. You can use a cutter with a decorative edge if you like, but I very deliberately go for something rustic with this recipe. I don’t want it to be too even or tidy—it’s not meant to be fussy. When you have all the pieces cut, flour a plate or pan to put them on and cover with a lightly damp cloth until you’re ready to boil.
Step seven: Wash and dry the sage leaves, then roll them up into a tight cigar and slice into thin ribbons—a chiffonade.
Step eight: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Once the foam has subsided and the butter has just started to brown, add the sage and remove from the heat.
Step nine: Boil the pasta in heavily salted water until it floats and tastes tender—about 2 to 3 minutes. In a large bowl, toss the pasta with the sage butter, a generous handful of parmigiano and salt & pepper to taste. Serve immediately to four as an appetizer course or two as a main.
I just ate this for supper last night and, looking at this picture, I wish I could have some again right now—it’s that good.
*You can find this at health food stores, particularly places the specialize in gluten free products.
**Could you use a food processor and pasta machine for this recipe? I’m sure you could. But I just finished reading Heat by Bill Buford, so old school is the only school for me right now.
***If your finished pasta is a little too thick or uneven never mind, it will still taste delicious, it just might take a little longer to boil and might have the texture of something like spaetzle.
I don’t usually just direct you to another website’s recipe, but I loved this one so much I feel compelled to share.
Michelle has been coming home from our local farmer’s market with bundles of beautiful rhubarb since Spring sprung. We both love it in fools, crumbles and Michelle’s excellent strawberry-rhubarb jam. But when she brought home the latest bunch, I remembered reading a recipe for Rhubarb & Rosewater Syrup on Heidi Swanson’s marvelous 101 Cookbooks site.
I’ve written before about my inordinate love of carbonated beverages that are not sugary, chemical-laden pop—a love shared by my son Harry incidentally—and we’re always looking for things to combine with sparkling water. I’ve made a variety of syrups already,* so this recipe got my attention.
I can’t recommend it enough. The tartness of rhubarb, still present but tamed by sweet syrup and then lifted again by lime, and then taken sideways by rosewater.** It’s a startlingly complex final product from a simple recipe. Go, check it out immediately.
I’m thinking there has to be a cocktail in here somewhere, but I haven’t landed on a booze yet…
*Strawberry-vanilla being my favourite so far.
**This is not optional, just try it, trust me.