“Tea is meant to be bitter…”

George-Orwell drinking tea

I know very little about tea, but I admire those who do. I enjoy a cup now and then and have a few favourites—English Breakfast, Genmaicha, Russian Caravan, Earl Grey, Moroccan Mint—but I’m sure I would fail any number of blind tastings.

Twenty years ago, I used to work at a non-profit that participated in projects in Sri Lanka, one of which involved supporting tea-picking women with educational and nutritional programs. So when I think about tea now, there’s sometimes this distant background noise in my brain about the colonial oppression associated with the tea plantations of the British Empire.

But the story of tea is certainly much more than the relatively recent influence of the British. Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. It’s been cultivated in one form or another since the prehistory of an area that now includes northeastern India, southwestern China, northern Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

That kind of storied past and current influence inevitably leads to devotion in some.

Not long ago Boing Boing posted a link to an essay by George Orwell entitled A Nice Cup of Tea. Orwell proscribes a list of “eleven outstanding points” for properly enjoying “one of the main stays of civilization.”

According to Wikipedia, “Tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid whose consumption is strongly associated with a calm but alert and focused, relatively productive (alpha wave dominant), mental state in humans. This mental state is also common to meditative practice.” Oddly enough, this clinical description echoes Orwell’s thoughts about Tea’s ability to make one “…feel wiser, braver or more optimistic…”—by which he definitely does not mean green tea: “Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”

Despite Orwell’s reluctance to embrace it, I’ve long enjoyed green tea, which I would more closely associate with meditative states. When I went to school in Montreal in the late 80s and early 90s, I used to frequent a cheap restaurant in the basement of an ancient brownstone in Chinatown. The round pink laminate tables had clear plastic covers that the waiters would use patron’s leftover green tea to wash. This charmingly bare bones restaurant was both my first exposure to a lifelong passion for Singapore fried noodles and my first time drinking green tea.

I enjoy it now, as I did then, but sadly not enough to obsess over.

Sadly, because I think obsessive behaviour, in small controlled doses, can help us to—if not master a subject—at least become pleasurably immersed. Malcolm Gladwell’s (admittedly highly controversial) 10,000 hour rule is really only possible, to me, if you have some level of obsession with the topic you apply the time to.

In the world of food and beverages, you can find all types of people who obsess over a particular consumable—and to some degree I share a few of the more common: whiskey, bacon…I don’t know, I have so many…smoked things? And generations of obsessives have helped refine many of these consumables to the level of art.

Last January, Michelle and I went on a short shopping trip to Toronto. It was a bitterly cold  thirty-below* day and we were wandering through Chinatown. We’re both reasonably hardy in cold weather, but we reached a breaking point in the face of a nasty gust of wind and decided to duck into a tea shop. I remember thinking: I’m low on gunpowder, so look around for a bit and then drop a few bucks on a tin, well worth it.

A foot inside the door we were accosted by a tiny yet ferocious Cantonese woman who proceeded to hard sell me on a small box of Jasmine Phoenix Dragon Pearl tea that set me back a—to my rudimentary experience with Chinese tea—staggering $30. At the time it seemed a ridiculous price to pay to warm up for ten minutes, but after trying the tea, I had to concede that it’s pretty damn good. I still have no idea if the price was fair.

dragonpearl

I, somewhat reluctantly, admire the obsessiveness that led some ancient tea master to hand roll green tea leaves with blooming jasmine into little fragrant buds that unfurl into an aromatic swirl of foliage in hot water.

An obsessiveness shared in some part by Orwell in his strict dictum on the preparation of a nice cup and, by association, you and me for spending so much time thinking and writing and reading about “simple” foodstuffs.

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*Celsius…although at some point I think the different scales merge into absurdity.

“…you feel antsy and weird when you don’t have some…”

Despite being a member of, in Anthony Bourdain’s words, the “Hezbollah-like splinter faction” that is the vegan community, Colleen Shea is also the author of the charming Jam and Idleness blog, a friend and fellow book lover.

In the spirit of inclusiveness—and to perhaps balance out my many essays on flank steak—let me please share Colleen’s wonderful personal essay I Was a Salad-Hating Vegan, which is up over at Food Riot.

She manages to compare salad eating to smoking and now I want a cigar…

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Update: Colleen has become an official Food Rioter and has posted a hilarious new piece on taking a knife skills class—check back for more of her work in the future.

“…contestants range from the mildly deluded to the clinically insane…”

Complaining that there are no longer educational cooking shows on the Food Network is akin to whining about there being no music videos on MTV these days—a ship that sailed so long ago it’s come back over the horizon at me as an indicator of how old and out of touch I’ve become.

Nevertheless, let me repeat: I’m bone-tired of cooking competition shows. There was a middle-brow, low-def elegance to the PBS how-to shows of the past that I miss. The 21st Century disease that is reality television has so thoroughly infected the Food Network that little actual content can survive on the channel now. Once in a long while a new “personality” emerges that I find amusing or entertaining, but I never actually learn anything from watching the network anymore.

I realize that I can seem naive just for expressing the desire to learn something from watching television food shows, but it can still be a real possibility with some imagination—just apparently not on the Food Network.

In the spirit of that creative exhaustion, let me share with you Andy Greenwald‘s articulate and entertaining dissection of the egregious Food Network Star show at Grantland.

Mr. Greenwald has used a review of the 45 minutes of torture-by-overexposure-to-hyper-neurotic-posers that is Food Network Star to mount a highly cogent take-down of the whole damn network. And let me just slow clap in the back row as it all burns to the ground.

In the wake of Paula Deen’s very public—and seemingly well deserved—pillorying, Andy Greenwald’s excellent and sharply pointed article reminds many of us who spend any time thinking about food, that the Food Network no longer gives a shit about the varied and magnificent world of real gastronomy—if it ever did.

Hot Smoked Arctic Char & Lobster

hot smoked char

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.

arctic char fillet and brine

arctic char fillets and brine

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.

lemon pepper butter

cracking open a lobster tail

brushing lemon pepper butter on the lobster tails

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.

wood chips in the bottom of the smoker box

loading the smoker box

the loaded smoker box

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.

mid-way through smoking char & lobster

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.

smoked arctic char & lobster tail

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.

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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.

Hot Smoked Arctic Char & Lobster on Punk  Domestics

Freemasonry & French Cuisine

square and compass carved in stone

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

Flank Steak Sous Vide

Aman Iman!

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?

Sous Vide Supreme

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.

flank steak

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.

vacu-sealed flank steak

Next I sealed the flank pieces into vacu-bags…

loading flank steak into the sous vide

…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.

flank steak after 24 hours in the sous vide

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.

searing the hell out of the flank steak

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.

flank steak sous vide

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…

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*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.

Jam, Idleness & Tangerines

...living reflection from a dream...

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.

So, go and take a look at my interview, and then please spend some time perusing the marvelous Jam and Idleness.

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*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.

Chris Onstad & Restaurant Reviews

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.

Five-Spice Dried Beef

A couple of previous attempts at beef jerky were tasty, but didn’t quite achieve the goals I had set for quality: chewy but tender, sweet & savoury, spicy/salty but not overpowering. The most successful red-meat jerky I’ve made so far was the ras el hanout lamb, which was done with a dry cure and spice rub.

Applying that same technique to Chinese five-spice flavoured beef has finally yielded great results. This attempt also confirmed a theory I had been mulling over about the cut of beef. I had read, both online and in a couple books on butchery, that my beloved flank steak was not a good choice for dried beef—too tough, too much connective tissue.

I’m here today to testify to you good people that flank steak is the ideal cut for beef jerky, if you treat it right.

2 lbs flank steak
1/2 to 1 tbls Szechuan peppercorns*
1 stick cinnamon (cassia if available)
6 star anise
1/2 tsp fennel seed
1/2 tsp  cloves
demerara sugar
kosher salt

Step one: Put the flank steak flat on a tray in the freezer for 15 minutes. Remove from freezer and slice thinly across the grain at a very slight bias.

This is the real trick to this recipe. Flank steak is very flavourful but has little fat and a lot of connective tissue. Sliced thinly against the grain its fibres are short enough to be tender, but that connective tissue helps keep the dried beef from crumbling like other cuts might when sliced the same way. I think flank is ideal for jerky: not much fat, which tends to go rancid in jerky, but easy to chew and full of beef flavour.

Step two: Toast all the spices in a dry cast iron or other skillet just until fragrant and the fennel begins to colour.** Put the spices in a clean coffee grinder (or mortar and pestle) and grind to a rustic powder.

Step three: Lay the beef strips out flat (I used wax paper on my counter) and season each side generously with kosher salt, demerara sugar and the five-spice powder.

Step four: Put all the strips into a plastic bag and leave in the fridge for a couple days.*** The ideal way to do this is using a vacuum-sealer machine, but you can also suck most of the air out of a ziplock with a straw. Removing the air helps to inhibit bacteria and makes the cure work faster.

Step five: Remove the beef and pat off any excess moisture—there shouldn’t be much, the beef is essentially cured at this point. Lay the beef out onto racks in a dehydrator, making sure they don’t touch, and set the temperature for 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

Note: Special shout-out to my son Harry who was super-helpful with this step—that’s him in the “towel” t-shirt, which those in the know will recognize—and who also provided some photo-editing and special effects services for today’s post.

It took me approximately 6 hours to dry the beef, but times can vary due to ambient moisture—somewhere between 5 and 8 hours should do it…12 at the most. Tear a piece in half, there shouldn’t really be any visible moisture inside if shelf-life is a concern. Taste a piece and see if you like it.

If your beef jerky is properly dried, it should last a month or two, but I prefer to make small batches and eat them within a couple weeks. I store the beef in vacuum-sealed bags, but a mason jar will work well. Frozen in the vacuum bags this jerky should keep almost indefinitely.

I’m not really doing this for storage as much as flavour, and the flavour is excellent—salty, sweet with that liquorice and earthy spiciness of Chinese five-spice. What’s surprising too, is how well the beef flavour stands up.

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*I used a full tablespoon, but the resulting jerky has that “…strange tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation…” Harold McGee refers to as a distinct sort of aftertaste. I like it, but if you want to make something a little more crowd pleasing, just ease up on this ingredient.

**Feel free to use a store-bought five-spice powder.

***Most jerky is marinated from between 4 and 24 hours, but I prefer to go slightly longer, almost a cure.

 

Five-Spice Dried Beef on Punk  Domestics
11 Jul 2012, 12:05pm
Recipes:
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  • Handmade Chestnut Pasta with Brown Butter & Sage

    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.