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.
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.
The first day of summer arrived in the Ottawa Valley yesterday as part of a week of brutal heat and humidity. Neither Michelle nor I could picture ourselves cooking dinner, so off we went to one of a very few reliable restaurants in our local vicinity.
Since moving to the suburbs, we have probably most missed easy access to a wide variety of good eats. Our last place was right in the heart of a restaurant/bar district downtown and we had a myriad of solid choices for both sit-down and take-out offerings.
The suburbs require more effort to find those reliable standbys: not too fancy, not too cheap and crappy. We’ve already identified a solid Indian restaurant and a great little Lebanese meat-pie/shawarma counter. Last night we finalized the, admittedly limited, competition for neighbourhood Italian joint.
Our third meal at La Cucina sealed the deal for me. The first two times we had been, I had ordered very conservatively—a fettuccine in a rosé sauce and a bolognese respectively. (Michelle has ordered the same thing every time—veal marsala with fettuccine alfredo—two of her favourite things on the same plate make it hard to resist.) Both dishes had been straightforward, but completely satisfying. Last night, I decided to venture out on a short limb and ordered the lobster ravioli.*
La Cucina‘s decor is pretty much what you expect from a strip-mall Italian place in the burbs—like a nice mid-priced hotel lobby with some Italian touches. The ambiance is completed with a musical selection that meets every anticipated cliché: Dean Martin, Pavarotti and selections from The Godfather soundtrack.** But as soon as you are greeted and seated La Cucina begins to distinguish itself. We’ve had a different server on all three occasions, and all of them were excellent; attentive but not overbearing; friendly but not obsequious; efficient but not robotic.
Last night, our drink order was taken and delivered—a half-litre of Giovello Pinot Grigio that was simple but tartly refreshing—along with warm bread, before I’d managed to read the last item on the menu.
The lobster ravioli passed my final acid-test for making La Cucina a go-to local joint. The presentation was bare-bones as you can see from the photo above, but sometimes I prefer that. A meal as basic and comfort-food associated as ravioli shouldn’t be fussed over too much in my opinion. The pasta was tender but firm and irregularly shaped enough to suggest they at least wrapped it fresh in the kitchen or possibly made it themselves. The filling was lightly seasoned and more lobster than anything else, which is as it should be. And, most remarkable to me, the cream sauce, flecked with lobster and parsley, was very light and in no way overpowered the ravioli filling—a minor miracle for your standard strip-mall Italian eatery. A dish that, even when good or at least eatable, can be a pile of mushy starch and sloppy dairy, was carefully prepared, light and flavourful.
A neighbourhood Italian restaurant is an important part of any food-lover’s life and we have found our local go-to. I’d recommend it to you, but, you know, we don’t want to see it get crowded.
*I know, that still seems like a conservative choice, but this is the suburbs we’re talking about.
**All of which I love unreservedly.