Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Toqué! Learning From The Best

Fig.1. A great looking book, both outside and within the covers.

Norman Laprise is the father of Quebec cuisine.  There, it’s been declared—no illusions or allusions to anything otherwise.  Can I back up this declaration? I can’t but Norman Laprise can:  His career as a chef began in the kitchens of Quebec City, where he chopped and sautéed his way toward Montreal and landed in Citrus in 1989, where Laprise was head chef. It didn’t take long for him to get noticed, four years later he opened Toqué! With Christine Lamarche; the rest is history. (Google it if you don’t believe me)
It is my opinion that Norman Laprise is this province’s premier food pioneer: It was Laprise who obsessed over freshness long before it was trendy to do so; as a result, he looked for food in nearby rivers, lakes and cattle fields, as freshness and proximity go hand in hand.  He has a connection with food and the earth, a connection that can only come from being raised as a farm boy, a connection that compels him to use his vegetables stem to seeds and his animals nose to tail.  He fuses local ingredients together, such as scallops and pine needles, opening up new flavor possibilities while simultaneously reshaping the local, food landscape. He’s committed to using the whole ingredient, a tomato in Laprise’s hands is squeezed, prodded, analyzed and respected until it gives up every ounce of flavor, scent, and taste it contains. The best part of all this is that Laprise does it for the food, as well as for himself: no fanfare and no vanity, just a respect for food and the desire to educate who he feeds; he also happens to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Fig.2. Toqué!'s take on a bacon lettuce and tomato. This BTL is a perfect example of Laprise's  approach: simple and elegant with an emphasis on freshness.

Motivated by food and sharing, Laprise began to work on a cookbook nearly three years ago, along with his business partner, Christine Lamarche, and Toqué!’s chef de cuisine, Charles-Antoine Crete.  This cookbook is a veritable gold mine of knowledge that will show you how to turn food into gold.  But if you read this book properly, it’s not just your food that will turn to gold, but your attitude toward food as well.
Buy yourself this cookbook for Christmas, you will not be disappointed: the stories are entertaining and illuminating, and the photographs are beautiful. And while the recipes might appear complicated at first glance, this complexity stems only from the visual beauty off of each recipe.  Read through the recipe and you’ll discover that Laprise’s approach to food is not one of complexity, but of honesty: take a few, simple ingredients, make sure they’re the best and freshest ingredients you can buy, grow or somehow procure, and love them until they’re cooked with style.
The Toqué! cookbook is available both in English and in French and can be found in most major book stores, as well as on Amazon.

Fig.3. Prosciutto and strawberries.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Zuppa Di Lenticchie e Manzo

Fig.1. Just before adding water. 

If you’ve been a faithful follower of THI for more than one winter, you’ll no doubt be aware that nesting is a part of my pre-winter routine. While cold air might involuntarily compel some people to stack their pantry shelves with Campbell’s canned soup, the cold air triggers the need in me to nest by way of homemade soup. (By the way, did you know that Campbell’s discovered several years back that they could increase soup sales by linking their radio advertising spots with cold weather. They developed an algorithmic computer program that tells different radio stations across the Continent when to run their soup ads; if you’re hearing a Campbell’s soup ad on the radio, there’s a good chance you’ll need an umbrella and a parka.)
Cold, frigid air demands a hot and hearty soup and nothing does hearty like lentils and beef. Protein is the key word here; one bowl is usually enough to keep you satisfied for hours. I’m getting tired of saying this, but this soup does taste better the next day.

Fig.2. Zen And The Art of Mis-en-Place

Zuppa di Lenticchie e Manzo  
Beef and Lentil Soup
Serves: a small army

When I make soup like this, I make enough to freeze. Knowing that I have several containers of soup nestled in the freezer nurtures my inner nester.  If meat isn’t your thing, just omit the beef, at your own peril.

4 to 5 tbsp olive oil
about 700g Stewing beef, cut into large pieces (I like to use the blade, but feel free to use pre-cut cubes of stewing beef. Some stewing beef sold in supermarkets isn't the greatest so go to a butcher instead and tell them you want a beef cut that will shred easily when braised or boiled.)
1 large onion, chopped
4 large parsnips, chopped
4 to 5 large carrots, chopped
4 stalks of celery, chopped
4 to 5 medium potatoes, diced
4 cups chicken stock
1 can (28oz) whole plum tomatoes
4 bay leaves
1 ½ cups lentil (I use Easton Green, they take very well to being boiled and won't go mushy)
Salt and Pepper

Fig.3. Browning the meat and getting a proper fond on the bottom of your pot is crucial to any soup or stew.  The trick is patience and low to medium heat.  Never set burners too high.

Add olive oil to a large Dutch oven or heavy bottom pot and set over medium heat.  When your oil begins to shimmer and slightly smoke, add some meat to the pot (do not over-crowd). Brown meat on both sides and set aside.  Add some more olive oil to the pot if necessary and add the onion, parsnips, carrots, celery and potatoes. Cook and stir well for about 8 minutes. Place the meat back into the pot and add just enough water to barely cover the meat.  With a wooden spoon, scrape the bottom of your pot making sure you dislodge all the fond stuck to the bottom (this is all flavor baby!)  Add the chicken stock, the can of tomatoes and the bay leaves and bring to a gentle boil.  Add the lentils and simmer until lentils are done, carrots are tender, and beef breaks apart. Season with salt and pepper.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Squashes Squishy And Frozen

Eating in season this time of the year means winter squash and cabbage, and you'll be hard pressed to find a vegetable that is heartier than winter squash.
Historically, winter squashes were preserved and consumed primarily by cultures in dire straits. I'm saddened when I see winter squashes left to rot in fields and angered by pumpkins wasted during Halloween (I love Halloween but advocate using at least some of the seeds and pumpkin flesh before they become Jack-O-Lanterns)
Cooking and preserving winter squash is not complicated, in fact, the cooking part can be done while you watch television or deal with your laundry: Squash goes into oven and oven cooks squash.
When it comes to seasoning your squash, like talking after sex, I truly believe less is more.  Like all vegetables in season, all the flavours you need are bursting through. Maybe a little salt and pepper, yes some butter will add flavour, but I implore you to not mask the natural flavour of the squash.
Cooking directions are given under each photo below.

Fig.1. Squashes from Birri

Fig.2. Butternut, acorn, spaghetti, and others I do not know the name of. All edible and delicious.

Fig.3. Seeds are not garbage! My trusty sidekick, Marcella DeVincenzo from Cucina Chronicles, saw to it that no seeds were harmed in the making of this post. Wash the seeds thoroughly under cold water (don't worry if some seeds still have squash-flesh still attached, the flesh will be cooked off.) Lay the seeds to dry on a newspaper or a kitchen towel.

Fig.4. While the seeds are still a bit wet, sprinkle them with any seasoning you desire. Hungry Ella opted for Berber seasoning. Roasting these small seeds makes them completely edible. I eat the whole seed, shells and all. Makes for great roughage.

Fig.5. Cut the squash in half and roast in a 400 degree oven. (close the oven door)

Fig.6. The squash is ready when you can insert a knife into the flesh without resistance.   I like a little caramelising on the surface of my squash, that's where the sweet flavour resides.

Fig.7. Once the squash has cooled down considerably, scoop out the flesh into a big bowl with a spoon.

Fig.8. Fill some freezer bags with the squash and place in the freezer. Winter is coming.  Isn't nesting fun?
Make a soup, make a casserole, a Shepherd's pie, add it to risotto, or just serve some mashed squash along side some meat. And talk about getting your money's worth, twenty bucks for about 40 kilos provides for lots of good eating.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Lumachelle All'Urbinate: A Noble Minestrone

Fig.1. A minestrone from Umbria with liver and Swiss Chard.

Umbria is the only landlocked region in Italy and best known for the town of Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis. Its geography is similar to that of neighboring Tuscany, with rolling hills and sparse farmlands, except where the mighty Apennines pass.  These imposing and high mountains are responsible for colder than usual micro-climates in many of the high altitude Umbrian towns; as a result, soups are popular in Umbria.
The soup featured in this post was inspired by The Duchess of Urbino, Beatrice Sforza (nee D’este).  During the late 1400s, Sforza was a patroness of the Renaissance art scene, helping architects such as Donato Bramante and artists such as Leonardo Davinci. But Sforza was also a gourmand and might have seen cuisine as an art form in itself; not in-so-much as having hands-on creativity in the kitchen, (Sforza was Royalty, as such, she did not do her own cooking; although, she is reputed to have been a good cook herself) but by involuntarily inspiring her cooks to create dishes that the Duchess might find visually pleasing. So her cooks turned to colors and shapes, relying on visually appealing fruits and vegetables to please the Duchess.  The Duchess was known in noble circles for having good taste, and along with her husband Ludovico Sforza, loved to entertain and were known for their lavish and elaborate parties.
This soup was known as Piatto alla Beatrice Sforza, Duchessa d’Urbino, it is currently known in Umbria simply as, Lumachelle All’Urbinate.

Lumachelle All’Urbinate
Lumachelle are snail-shaped pasta. I did not have any in my pasta armory so I used orrecheitte.  The dish varies depending on what neighborhood of Umbria you are in, you can substitute different vegetables depending on what’s fresh; however, the liver is constant. 

Fig.2. Winter is coming, a soup like this will keep away those pesky White Walkers.
4 tbsp butter
2 large carrots, chopped
Meat from 4 medium sausages removed from their casings
2 veal livers, chopped
4 large tomatoes, diced
4 cups chicken or beef stock
Swiss Chard, 1 Bunch, chopped (you can also use cabbage, substitute 2 cups)
2 cups or lumachelle pasta (any small pasta will work)

Set a large, heavy bottom pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the butter, carrots, sausage meat, liver and tomatoes to the pot and cook, stirring often, until meat cooks through and the bottom of your pot is caramelized, about 12 to 15 minutes.  Add the stock and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon.  Add the Swiss Chard and simmer until carrots are tender.  Add the cooked pasta to the soup and season with salt and pepper.  Serve hot and with some freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Like all soups and stews, this one is better the next day.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Pasta With Leftovers

Fig.1. Pasta and leftovers can be friends.

Sometimes it's not a question of using leftovers, it's about using all those edible odds and ends lingering in the recesses of your fridge and pantry. I hate wasting food and find it utterly sinful to throw away anything edible.
I've said it before: you can make pasta with anything.  The basic premise of a starch mixed with other ingredients holds true in many different forms, just because it's pasta doesn't mean it has to fit within a framework in our minds forged by years of people telling us what should be.  You might not think of combining pasta with avocado, but avocado with rice or tortillas (two starches of a different kind) are an acceptable match in many parts of the world. I've added pasta to just about everything at one time or another: shepard's pie, (not bad, had to add chicken stock if I recall) beef stew, (really good) chili, (awesome!) hamburger steak, (flippin' awesome!) you get the picture.

Here's something I whipped up last night with edibles just screaming to be made into pasta.

 Pasta With Chimichurri, Marinated Vegetables And Other Odds And Ends
 Serves 3 to 4

What you see in the photo below was hanging around my fridge and pantry. From the top: Italian parsley, orrecchiette pasta, half a jar of chimichurri, (which I made, it's basically garlic, olive oil, red wine vinegar, oregano, lemon juice, and parsley.) green onions, some saucisson (a Mondo Salami brand which I thourally enjoyed) a sweet red pepper, and some leftover marinated artichokes, mushrooms and olives purchased at Milano and tasted like plastic.

Ingredients: (See above)
Use whatever you have in your fridge. In this case, the jar of chimichurri added the wetness I needed. If you only have dry ingredients in your fridge, just add some extra olive oil to your pasta, some of the pasta water, or a combination of both.  And another thing, it's perfectly acceptable to have a greater ratio of other ingredients besides pasta in your dish.

Set a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Add some good olive oil to a large pan set over medium heat. Start by adding your raw ingredients, in this case, add the chopped green onions and chopped red pepper, saute until tender, 8 to 10 minutes.  Add the rest of your ingredients including the pasta, stir well. If your pasta is dry, simply add some more olive oil or pasta water, or a combination of both. Use what's in your fridge and don't be scared. You don't need always need a recipe!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Camera Eye

My son took what I think are some pretty amazing pictures on our trip to Italy this past August.  Lured by all things food such as I am, I feel I should tell you that I've literally been dragging this kid to countless farmer's markets, restaurants, and food shops to the point where I'm pretty sure food will be part of his future in one form or another. (I just hope it's in a positive way)
Italy was no different. If there was a market somewhere in some small nearby town, I was there. And so was my son, armed with his very own camera. These are some of the images he captured, which I think, are pretty good.

Fig.1. Holy mackerel

Fig.2. Zucchini envy

Fig.3. Vine tomatoes from Sicily

Fig.4. Lupini: Warning, beware of knuckle hair!

Fig.5. Prosciutto, notice how they're all different sizes.

Fig.6. For as log as I've been going to Italy, this lady and her vegetables have always been there.

Fig.7. Puppies taste better eaten while still very young. In central Italy they're usually stewed in tomato sauce.

Fig.8. Smelts. Toss em in flour and fry em.

Fig.9. Scampi

Fig.10. Merluzzo (cod)

Fig.11. Sfogliatelle in Napoli

Fig.12. Una Margarita a Napoli

Fig.13. Strozzapretti con tonno e pommodorini, made by moi

Fig.14. Focacci lungi con pommodoro e zuchini

Fig.15. "oh, atsa matta you, you no lika da frutta?"

Fig.16. Prosciutto and sausage

Fig.17. You Baccala!

Fig.18. The best gelato in Italy eys closed, Meringo Gelateria in Ripi

Thursday, September 27, 2012

In Defense of Inferno’s Trippa: The Divine Chesterman Can't Stomach Stomach

Fig.1. A cow's stomach in its raw state.

Maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning but I’ve had just about enough of Lesley Chesterman’s restaurant reviews. My milk finally boiled over when I read her review in last Saturday’s Gazette on Restaurante Inferno, a review somewhat irresponsible and nonsensical.
As usual the first five paragraphs have little to do with the restaurant in question and reads more akin to a preamble of sorts, in Inferno’s case,  Chesterman’s introduction is filled with observations on Italian restaurants past and useless rhetoric steeped in stereotypes.
She doesn’t like the menu on the blackboard but I’ll bet you 50 liters of tomato sauce that her column once proclaimed blackboards as ‘in’ and menus a thing of the past. And in any case, what does the blackboard, or menu for that matter, have to do with the food? Indeed, a restaurant experience is more than just food, service and ambiance lend themselves to a greater experience, but negative nitpicking has no place in a review for it undermines the hard work cooks stoically preform in the kitchens.
As for the trippa, here’s part of what Chesterman had to say, “Trippa, aka, my most dreaded of dishes- tripe- is a specialty of the house.  Though I am sure I have tasted tripe before, I avoid it because to me, eating a bowl of tripe is like eating a bowl of braised caterpillars.”  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say tucking into a bowl of caterpillars might not taste good, so, it sounds to me like Chesterman has made up her mind regarding trippa before eating it. 
My issue here is not in defense of the restaurant (which I love by the way) but in defense of journalistic integrity and ethical food writing.  Slamming a restaurant with negative verse because you don’t like a particular dish even before you taste it is, in my opinion, irresponsible.  Slamming a restaurant after you tasted a dish you knew you were not going to like is grossly irresponsible and should have been edited out. I don’t like okra, can’t stand the stuff, as such, I’ll never order it in a restaurant because I know I won’t like it.  A pre-determined outcome has no place in a restaurant review!  And while I understand that restaurant reviews are nothing more than op-ed pieces seasoned with salt and pepper, the restaurant’s reputation, and consequently, its livelihood, is on the chopping block. 
The trippa at Inferno is not as hyper-palatable as say a poutine, but that’s to be expected from this staple of Italian ‘cucina povera’.  The fact that trippa has a “soft and springy texture”, as Chesterman suggests, is normal. You can boil trippa for a week and it won’t melt in your mouth.   It’s also normal for trippa to be warm and not piping hot, and trippa is not a bowl of intestines, as Chesterman points out, but of stomach. Trippa simply is what it is and the trippa at Inferno tastes a lot like the stuff I grew up with and God bless Inferno for making it. 
At one point in the article, Chesterman asks Inferno “where’s the love”? Well people, I can confidently tell you that the love is in the trippa. The love is in cleaning the stomach, which takes days. The love is in boiling the stomach for hours. The love comes from being in the kitchen with a pot of boiling trippa and fennel seeds that emits a smell that can honestly drive a person mad. Days of prep all to turn a piece of animal junk most people would throw away, into something so marvelous.  There’s love at Inferno. Keep making that trippa boys, it’s dishes like that that define us as a people.
Chesterman holds a lot of power amongst restaurants in this city.  She would do well to heed the advice Peter Parker has adhered to since that fateful day he was bitten by a radioactive spider: with great power comes great responsibility.  And if comic book superheroes don’t do it for you, let me end by quoting the greatest restaurant critic the world has ever known, Anton Ego. In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgment.  We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.  But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating itself.  The "average piece of junk" Ego is referring to here is trippa, and it certainly is more meaningful, at least in this case, than Chesterman's review.

Fig.2. My own trippa. Never eat trippa without bread.