Wednesday, March 31, 2010

From Montreal With Love: Duck Confit, Part 3

Duck Confit on Salad with Thyme-Roasted Celeriac

8 duck legs
1 kg fat
1/3 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 bay leaves, crushed
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Sprigs of fresh thyme

It's true, it took me weeks of planning to find a large quantity of affordable duck fat in Montreal, to forget to bring the fat to Toronto, to have my roommate save the day, to render extra chicken fat to supplement the duck fat, to source duck legs at White House Meats in St. Lawrence Market, but,

it was completely worth it.

I didn't even really mess it up. Rob Feenie did. Sorry, Rob, but the two cups of fat that your Gold Medal Plates-winning recipe calls for wouldn't even cover the little toes of my ducks. Fortunately, I cheated on Rob with a French recipe that came with helpful pictures. Always cheat with a French man. Sophisticated, experienced, well-dressed (the duck).

The day before the big family dinner, I did what both recipes agreed was proper and rubbed the duck legs with kosher salt. Rob's recipe called for way too much salt and didn't say anything about rinsing the legs the next day after they'd sat in the fridge overnight to macerate. He did think that other flavourings besides salt (pepper, bay leaves, garlic and thyme) would be nice to the macerating duck legs. Since I didn't want to wash off those seasonings along with the salt, I decided to trust him and not rinse the legs. Besides, the sodium outrage in Canada is over-hyped.

At the beginning of the afternoon I preheated the oven to 475 Fahrenheit. There was no way I was going to get this started too late and be eating dinner at midnight. It needed hours of cooking and then I needed decide whether to broil the skin or pan-sear it. To start, I melted the combined rendered and delivered fats over medium heat in a saucepan and poured it directly over the duck legs (I'd had to put the legs in two separate casserole dishes since I didn't have one large enough for all the legs. This was my mistake, not Rob's. To be fair, I could have stuck with the French recipe which said to use a huge pot, heat the fat to precisely 70 degrees Celcius and plunge the legs into the hot oil for hours. This sounded risky, since thermometres are notoriously finicky, but brand new ovens are pretty trustworthy).

So the casserole dishes got covered with aluminum foil tightly and popped in the oven for 3 hours.

See, the problem was that the oil didn't completely cover the duck I thought that the top might dry out at such high heat. To try to avert disaster, about half-way through the cooking time I turned the legs over so the bottom would have a chance to be completely submerged. Now the problem was that the top parts of the exposed duck legs had crisped up like fried chicken. That's delicious and all, and kind of what I wanted as the end result, but not what I wanted with an hour and a half more cooking time to go. What choice did I have, though?

I re-covered the legs with foil, and prayed.

I was getting a little nervous now. Both recipes state that at the end of the cooking time the meat should be fall-off-the-bones tender, but since my skin had crisped up, there wasn't really a way to check if the inside was tender without massacring a leg. Fortunately I'd made extra, so I massacred away. The inside seemed right, but now I didn't know quite what to do. Rob's recipe said to let the legs cool in the fat and said nothing about frying of broiling the skin afterward to remove excess grease and make the outside crisp (though the ducks had decided to multi-task and combine these steps into one all by themselves). Rob said to skin the duck, but that seemed horribly unfair when it looked so beautiful and fat-soaked. The whole point of the dish was to enjoy cooking with fat. Removing it so late in the game seemed counter-productive, if not cruel.

The French recipe said to remove the ducks from the fat when ready to serve, put them in a skillet and cook them over medium heat, covered, for an indeterminate amount of time. Halfway through this imaginary stretch of time the skillet was to be shaken to remove the excess fat from the ducks. Then the ducks should be flipped over and when golden, served. Well mine were already golden, so I decided chestnut brown would be a more appropriate colour...thank goodness the artichokes were a pleasant distraction for my guests, as was the ample Henry of Pelham wine.

Even though the legs turned a little darker than they were supposed to, they preened beautifully atop a mound of organic green salad along with a sprinkling of roasted celeriac.

But how did it taste?? The first bite of skin gently released itself from the rest of the leg and the salty oil glazed the greens in the most luscious vinaigrette. Inside the seared skin the duck meat was incredibly tender. I always thought it odd that confit leg is often served on greens. A salad entrée is fine dining since when? I get it now...both for the lightness of the salad with the weight of the duck and for contrast in texture of the crisp skin, the tender meat and the crunchy greens. The roasted celeriac added a nice savoury touch and a chewy texture.

Seems like everything worked out just fine, right?

Well, yes, miraculously, but here's what I realized I did wrong:
1. The reason Rob said not to wash off the salt after you leave it in the fridge overnight was because his recipe called for the skin to be removed before eating the duck. Since I left the skin on and ate it, the dish became was much saltier than it should have been. It would have been plenty salty if I'd washed the legs post-maceration (that's one word I never thought I'd write...First olives, now duck legs. I'm on a roll! though I would have preferred to call the olive-pitting evisceration, because when else am I possibly going to use that one?). I should have just washed all the seasonings off the leg and settled for whatever salt, pepper, thyme, garlic and bay flavours felt like sticking around.

2. Since so much of the skin cooked too quickly, the outer layers of meat got cooked too, leaving less of the ridiculously-tender leg meat inside the slightly charred coating. Nobody minded, but it would have been nice to have more tender, and less crisp.

3. I should have added a splash of lemon to the celery root after it had cooked, since it was a bit bland compared to the duck. I had left it simply seasoned with salt, pepper and fresh thyme. I also would have roasted it in duck fat instead of olive oil if I'd had any extra, and I think it would have made a much more attractive presentation if I'd chopped them differently. Small cubes were not so appealing. Maybe a fine mandolin-slice. Or even a julienne.

So I really shouldn't feel like Rob let me down. He's a swell guy, I'm sure, even though he's not French. Not his fault (the French bit), I suppose. Probably he used a different kind of casserole where the fat covered all the meat. In the future I would also try this recipe with a pot on the stove like in the French recipe, and just make sure I have a good thermometre.

Still, with a beautiful bottle of Henry of Pelham Baco Noir, the duck's flavour took centre stage. The saltiness of the skin was cut by the dryness of the red wine and even the fresh salad had a moment to shine.

Oh! I almost forgot that I made a quick balsamic fig vinaigrette with a beautiful dijon from my mustard place, Kolznik's. It was one of my four dijon purchases from St. Lawrence Market. I added no olive oil or salt, since the legs would extrude more than enough. The sweetness was a nice touch, and didn't even overwhelm the dryness of the wine.

So Quebec and Ontario mixed harmoniously for one evening. Canadian recipes for French cuisine, Niagara wine, Toronto baguette, St. Lawrence Market produce and meat. Traditional flavours of orange, fennel, and vermouth, and I haven't even gotten to more post and I'll have polished off every last bite of a beautiful meal.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Duck Confit, Part 2: Artichokes a la Provencale

The table was set, the black olive tapenade was made, and the next step was to prepare the Artichokes a la Provencale. Apparently people from Provence drink a lot of dry vermouth. I'd actually never made fresh artichokes before, and I wasn't quite prepared for how prickly they can be. The purple insides were beautiful, though, and the recipe seemed very simple.

8 artichokes
1 lemon
2 small onions, quartered
5 cloves of garlic, cut in half
a bay leaf
Fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups Nouilly Prat (dry vermouth...the most French part of the dish. Josée di Stasio gives white wine or white wine vinegar as suitable substitutes)

The only labour-intensive part of this dish is trimming and preparing the artichokes. After that, they can be placed in the cooking pot with all the other ingredients and simply simmered for 25 minutes before serving.

1. Break off the stems of the artichokes. Di Stasio says "If you want", but I insist because otherwise your artichokes will never sit up straight in the pot, and certainly won't be able to drown in the vermouth, which is what is desired.
2. Remove the base leaves of the artichokes (there are layers of leaves and the bottom ones can all be pulled off)
3. Cut off the top inch of the artichokes. Just slice it right off. There's nothing edible there. Then cut off the pointy ends of the leaves around the sides. Rub the top and cut parts of the artichokes with lemon juice as you go. Don't cut yourself or it will sting. Imagine what the artichoke is going through...It's a plant, not an animal, Amie. It does not sting.
4. Get a small spoon down into the centre of the artichoke and scoop out the fuzz. This step will hurt a little if your artichokes aren't perfectly ripe, at least that's what I think happened. My spoon technique was sub-par and I had to try to get the fuzzy parts out with my hands. Not such a great idea, as it turned out. The ones that I think were purple and ripe had soft fuzzy bits that came out very easily, but the ones that were not purple inside didn't really want to let go of their fuzzy bits, and felt that a good way to show their disdain for me trying to scalp them would be to poke my fingers. They didn't bleed and nothing got stuck into them, but my hands stung for a while afterward, as if little pieces of invisible, needle-like fuzz were lodged inside.
5. Rub the fuzz-less inside with lemon juice (this is where it'll hurt if you didn't get all the fuzz out). Di Stasio says you can cut the artichoke in half to do this whole fuzz-scooping step, which makes everything ten times easier, but it will wreck the final presentation. This dinner was all about presentation. No half artichokes on plates. That's like giving half a rose. Although now I think I would be forgiving of someone who gave me half a rose, if they'd had to cut it in half to get a thorn out.
6. Hard part's done. Find a saucepan to fit the artichokes standing up. Remove the artichokes. Cover the bottom of the saucepan with oil, and now place the artichokes back in the pan. I don't like di Stasio's wording on this one (I used my own wording above). With hers it would be too easy to pour a bunch of olive oil and then try to fit the artichokes, only to discover they don't quite fit. I got lucky, but that RARELY happens. Test the pan before you pour any oil.
7. Add everything else. The liquid should come two-thirds of the way up the side of the pan, so add enough water (or broth) until that's the case. Since I was using water, I added a bit more Nouilly Prat as well, for flavour. The broth is supposed to be salty at this point, and it definitely wasn't since I used water, so I added a bit more salt too. The problem here is that it's hard to mix it into the broth very well, so you can only really make one adjustment. Guess right the first time, or suffer with under- or over-salted artichokes. It's not the end of the world since you're not going to drink the broth anyway. At least, that's not how I was going to plate it.
8. Now leave the pot alone until 35 minutes before you want to serve the artichokes. I waited until guests arrived and then turned the heat up to medium-high, to bring the broth to a simmer.
9. Simmer 20-30 minutes and check that they're done by pulling off one of the leaves of the base and tasting to see if it's tender. You can also prick the bottom of the artichoke with a fork, but this seems malicious. I don't know what you expect it to do in response besides getting angry.

To serve, I placed the artichokes on individual plates and dressed it with a little broth. The olive oil created a beautiful effect as it separated from the vermouth on the plate (like when balsamic vinegar separates from olive oil in a dish, but more subtle in colour). The inside of the artichokes were beautiful, and the elegance of the appetizer was just what I hoped.

So far so good. On to the main course.

Duck Confit, Part 1: Black Olive Tapenade

Here we go...

The hors d'oeuvre for the great duck confit dinner was to be a black olive tapenade. Josée di Stasio's cookbook "A la di Stasio" offered only a handful of hors d'oeuvres options, and my first choice, Chicken Liver Mousse with Figs would have been too heavy since the main course involved a ridiculous amount of duck fat. Also, duck fat AND chicken livers would have been a little too much adventure for my first all-French dinner party, but the other options were generally un-cooked things you can throw together for a happy hour, like olive platters and charcuterie, which seemed like a cop-out for such an elaborate meal. So as much as I was skeptical about using two of my least favourite flavours in the dish (orange and fennel), the recipe was very French - simple and delicate - and that was the point, really.

I initially wanted to serve this with Ace Bakery Baguette, which is one of, if not the best, bakeries in Toronto. Unfortunately the dinner was being made on a Sunday and I hate buying baguette a day in advance. So the only option, since the bakery would be closed, would be grocery store baguette. I shuddered at the thought.

Then a saving grace! In front of my very eyes was Premiere Moisson baguette! The very bakery I had fallen in love with upon moving to Montreal. Now it's available at major supermarkets in Toronto! I'm not so naive as to think that it came in fresh that day, so I really could have gotten Ace Bakery baguette the day in advance and had the same results, but it seemed fitting to have Quebec baguette. Another upside was that I didn't have to bring it myself, and therefore didn't have a chance to leave it behind in Montreal, like my duck fat.

Black olives
Orange zest, finely grated
Orange juice
Fennel seeds
Olive oil
Black pepper

Just 6 ingredients! Simple and fresh. I went to St. Lawrence Market and bought a 250mL container of black olives from Scheffler's Deli & Cheese. The problem was that there were a few different kinds of 'black olives' - different sizes, different countries, different amounts of salt, and different flavours. Italian or Portuguese? ITALIAN OR PORTUGUESE!? Quick, make a decision! Well, the Portuguese were smaller, so you could fit more of them into the I went with those.

1. di Stasio says that to get the excess salt out of the olives, put them in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let them sit a few minutes and then drain them. Great tip!

2. To get the pits out of the olives (buy pitted if you can, but the ones with pits will probably taste fresher), I put the olives in a plastic bag (upon di Stasio's recommendation) and tried crushing them with a small saucepan. Yeah, that didn't work. I think di Stasio owns an olive pitter...the rest of us will have to settle for massaging the pits out of the olives. It was a lot less messy to do this with my hands outside the plastic bag and the olives inside, though. Half marks for di Stasio.

3. You can either do all the chopping and mixing in a food processor (very easy - make sure you set the food processor to coarsely chop, not to purée) or do it with a knife (my only option). Chop the olives very finely and combine them with the zest of half a medium-sized orange, 1 tablespoon of orange juice (fresh from the orange you just scraped, of course), and a teaspoon of crushed fennel seeds. The fennel seeds I just chopped finely with a knife as well, but if you use a food processor you still need to crush them before throwing them in, since "coarsely chopped" on a food processor is bigger than crushed funnel). You can use a mortar and pestle, a coffee or spice grinder, or put them in a plastic bag and crush them with a saucepan (this works much better for spices than for olives, as it turns out).

4. Then add a few tablespoons of olive oil and a few grinds of fresh black pepper and process (or stir) to combine.

That's it. Four steps that get a little more difficult if you don't have a food processor or pitted olives. Juicing the orange is actually not bad since it's such a small quantity that it turns out to be more of a squeeze of orange juice, not an arduous process. Just chop the orange in half and squeeze one half (preferably the half from which you grated the zest, since it won't keep as long) with both hands over the bowl of diced olives, or the food processor. There will even be lots of orange left over to eat. It's important to judge the quality of your orange, I'm convinced...even if it is after you've added it to the recipe.

Then put the tapenade in the fridge to let the flavours combine for a few hours. When you're ready to serve (6pm on the nose, in my case), slice the baguette on an angle, and you're done. If it sits in the fridge for a day the olive oil will solidify at the bottom, and that's fine, just let it warm up to room temperature and give it a stir. Oh, the other bread in the photo is a rice bread that I bought for a gluten-intolerant dinner guest. Coming to a dinner party and not being able to eat something shows very bad form on the part of the host, and I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't do as much for my guests as they would do for me.

In the end, I actually liked this tapenade, despite my least favourite flavours of fennel and orange. At first I did hate it, but my tastes matured a little with every bite, until the point where I found it refreshing. Fennel is growing on me in Indian dishes and here it wasn't so bad. The orange was still...well, it was okay. Not too sweet, not too acidic, but more than I would have liked if I made the tapenade solely for myself (which I wouldn't do anyway since it was drowning in olive oil and it's easy to eat way too much of it if it's served as anything but an hors d'oeuvre).

All in all, a great start the meal. The leftovers also work well in a green salad in place of a vinaigrette, and the tapenade will keep in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Something was gonna get a-rendered...

Turns out I didn't have enough duck fat after all. Who knew 800mL wouldn't be enough? Certainly not Chef Rob Feenie, whose Gold Medal Plates cooking competition 1st prize-winning recipe I half-used for the duck confit. It only called for 2 cups of the stuff...thank goodness I saved the 2 cups of chicken skin from the legs and breasts I used to make Almond Chicken Curry a few nights before the big duck confit dinner. I decided to render it as back-up...and to feel like I wasn't such a wimp.

To render duck fat, normally you would remove all the skin from a whole duck and purchase extra duck wings, as they are cheap and have the highest fat:meat ratio. The method below for rendering chicken fat is the same for rendering duck fat, which I would have done if someone would sell me whole ducks or wings in Toronto...

I started with a large pot and large skillet so I could put the chicken skin in a single layer and render it evenly. Then I set it over low heat and went about my business for the day. Every hour I checked in to see how it was doing. Slowly, ever so slowly, more and more fat was releasing from the skin. After about 3 hours I got impatient and figured I'd have enough fat by now. So I strained the remaining skin and let the fat cool.

I really don't know if I rendered it long enough, because there was a fair bit of skin left over. I think I did it on low enough heat. All in all, not a bad rendering experience. I didn't have to skin a whole duck, but I'm a little proud of myself anyway. Hot duck fat didn't get everywhere. Nothin burned. Nothing spilled. Nothing got set on fire. A relatively painless experience. Next time, I dare you to sell me a whole duck, scary butcher from White House Meats...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Jhinga Aur Ghia (Shrimp with Zucchini): Madhur Jaffrey's "Indian Cooking"

This was the last dish I prepared as part of the huge Indian meal I made for friends last week.

This whole meal looked like this:

(plus the yogurt and tomato relish), and here's everything put together into one rainbow of a plate:

Chicken curry, yogurt, tomato relish, split pea dal, basmati rice, aloo saag, yam saag, and shrimp with zucchini. A feast.

The shrimp were huge! We used US Gulf White Shrimp. All the other options were black tiger shrimp and other smaller shrimp from Thailand, and my sustainable seafood online reference says that's doesn't say US Gulf are necessarily fact, I didn't have enough information from my fish place in St. Lawrence, Domenico's Fish Market, to make that call. They were the most expensive, though, which often means they could be better (or just over-priced), since it often costs more to fish sustainably. Good quality anything usually costs more. In this case, 'good quality' is a bit ambiguous because I don't know which of the shrimp were wild or farmed, what was added to or left out of the water, and with what they were fed. Basically, making a eco-conscious choice with seafood is often next to impossible.

So at least the shrimp were big and juicy and looked fresh.

5 zucchini, cut into matchsticks
1 tbsp salt (I skimped on the salt, thinking that the salt on the shrimp and in the canned tomatoes would make up for it. Wrong. Use the whole tablespoon. A sixth of the salt is used to suck the excess moisture out of the zucchini, so it's not a flavour issue in this case. It's a consistency issue. Your zucchini will stay firmer and not dissolve into the sauce. The rest of the salt is essential if you use low-sodium tomatoes like I did. Otherwise you might get away with skimping)
1 1/2 lbs shrimp (fresh or frozen. If frozen, defrost them and dry them with paper towels)
3 tbsp oil
12(!) cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 cups(!) cilantro leaves (In this recipe cilantro is used as a vegetable and as a main part of the dish, not a garnish. Removing the stems is a nuisance, but is very necessary. Sorry)
2 hot green chili peppers, finely chopped (More Hari Mirch "Indian" chilis)
1 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp cumin (I roasted cumin seed and then crushed it...poorly...again)
1/2 tsp cayenne
6 small canned tomatoes, finely chopped, plus 1 cup of tomato liquid from the can
2 tsp finely grated ginger (I just diced it. No grater in my brother's house either)
2 tbsp lemon juice

I used San Marzano tomatoes because I'm obsessed with them. They're Italian. Meant for pasta sauces, not Indian cooking...they're very low in sodium and sweeter than most canned tomatoes. I figured it would work well in this recipe...I'm not sure if I am so stubbornly convinced that's true any more. The tomato liquid will give the majority of the flavour to the dish, so if the sauce is no good, then the tomatoes you used are no good. Well, they're just no good for THIS recipe. I still think San Marzanos are the gods of tomatoes, but just not in Indian dishes that need an acidic kick. I may have also just used too much tomato juice from the can...I didn't measure precisely since this was the last dish and I was rushing. Never, never, never rush Indian cooking. Have you ever seen an Indian woman rush? Much like a French women. Nothing like me.

Slow food. It's a movement. A slow, slow movement toward the stove, most likely. Like a conversation with a takes a long, long time.

So I rushed the tomato-pouring. All my fault.

Here's how to do this recipe properly:
1. Put the zucchini in a bowl and toss them with a 1/2 tsp salt. Toss it together and set the bowl aside while you chop everything else.
2. When everything else is prepped (chopped, measured, put in bowls, etc) add the oil (all of it. It'll seem like a lot of oil...) to a large frying pan over medium-high heat. When it's hot, add the garlic and stir until the garlic turns a medium brown. You're basically deep-frying the garlic.
3. Drain the zucchini and pat them dry with paper towels while the garlic browns (take a 30 second break from stirring near the beginning of the garlic cooking to do this)
4. Return to stirring the garlic and when it's the right brown colour (at your discretion...) add the zucchini and all the other ingredients except the lemon juice. Remember to add the rest of the salt.
5. Bring the mix to a simmer and add 2/3rds of the lemon juice and all the shrimp (You don't want to add all the lemon juice just in case your tomatoes are very acidic. Madhur Jaffrey and I disagree on this point, apparently. You can always add more lemon, which is really pungent when added at the end, but you can never take any out)
6. Cover the frying pan, turn the heat to low and simmer for 3 minutes, until the shrimp turn pretty in pink.
7. Remove the cover and boil away the excess liquid. You should have a thick sauce. If it's too soupy you'll be disappointed with the flavour. Boiling away the liquid concentrates the flavour.
8. Now you're allowed to add the rest of the lemon juice if you need to. Add it until you're happy with the flavour. Also add more salt if you need to. Again, tomato-dependent.

My version my opinion, bland. The shrimp were beautiful and tender, but they were overpowered by the tomato sauce. I often think with shrimp stir-fries that sauce-less is the best way to cook them. The zucchini in this recipe need a sauce, though. I just don't think tomato and zucchini go together very well. Same deal with asparagus (which you could substitute in this recipe if you either prefer asparagus or just don't believe me). Maybe I should have reduced my sauce a little more? Maybe I should have moved tai chi-slow? Next time I'm so lucky to have amazing shrimp, they will be treated with more respect (aka no tomato sauces).

Then the most important part, setting out all the food, making sure it's at the right temperature (this is done in advance, of course), making sure there are cutlery and plates (again, advance) and getting the serving started. Oh I'm so happy with this meal. Even if I found it generally underwhelming in terms of individual dishes, together the total sum of dishes (colours, flavours, textures, ingredients) was still a lot for the senses to process, making for an impressive meal.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Joy of Yam Saag

Yam Saag

Potato Saag

Okay, so I've done at least two other saag posts. Maybe's getting excessive, I know.

...but I really, really love saag. I've made simple spinach saag, aloo saag with regular potatoes, a version with jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes (by mistake), and now a kind with yams (yes, yams, not sweet potatoes. There is a difference. I wanted sweet potatoes but there were none at the store. There's never yam when you're looking for it, but the second I wasn't looking it appeared, and I had no choice but to substitute).

I love them all, these saags. Every time I have aloo saag with russet potatoes I remember how wonderful the bland potato is. The texture is perfect. As long as it's not over-cooked, it adds a richness to the dish. The jerusalem artichoke version was fun because it was a new, mild flavour. Kind of like a nice surprise every time I took a bite of the root vegetable...if you have a 5-second memory, or chew very, very slowly.

Then the spinach is already mildly sweet, but the yam was like a diabetic hit of sugar. Every bite tasted like dessert. Yes, spinach for dessert. Think of it more like sweet potato pie with a bit of green.

I followed the same recipe as I did for the sunchokes, substituting yellow mustard seeds for the black ones, and skipping the asafetida, since I left that in Montreal by accident. Everything else went smoothly. I made one batch with the yams and a second batch with russet potatoes (in case people were scared off by the orange colour of the yams). I could eat a whole pot of either of these, preferably the yam...but I wouldn't...mostly because then I couldn't have more the next day, or the day after that. This may be a big factor in why I am not overweight...practicality.

The colour of this dish is the only unappealing thing, but Indian food is not supposed to be beautiful. It should be messy and thick, and stew-y. Kind of like it's saving itself for the less superficial eater/the Beauty and the Beast Disney movie of food. The miracle of Indian food is that it should be an array of colours, flavours, and textures ("It's what's on the inside that counts" and all those sayings). Just try the saag. It's so, so good.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chana Dal (Yellow Split Peas): Madhur Jaffrey's "Indian Cooking"

Chana dal is not the same as yellow split peas, despite my misleading title.

Yes, split peas are very similar and they're a fine substitution, but no, they're not the same. Rube's, in St. Lawrence Market, did not have Chana Dal. I could have asked where else to find it, I could have hunted it down, but it really didn't seem worth it since Rube is such a nice guy, his prices are amazing, and nobody who was going to eat the dal would either notice the difference or care.

Dal is also one of the easiest meals to throw together, and makes a great dinner with just a bit of rice and some yogurt or milk. Apparently you need a grain (rice or bread) and dairy (yogurt) to turn the lentils into a complete protein. So traditionally in India it would be eaten with naan or rice, and a glass of buttermilk. Also, traditionally, it would be cooked with a spice that aids digestion - turmeric, ginger or asafetida - to avoid the similar effects of chili on Superbowl Sunday. Dals are denser than soup, with a thick puréed texture, but without the excess work of puréeing. It has a nutty flavour and a chewy texture that depends on the lentil used. The word 'dal' refers to different kinds of split lentils, and the dal recipes in Madhur Jaffrey's cookbook Indian Cooking are included in the section called 'pulses'. Whole peas or beans (chickpeas, kidney beans) are also pulses, but only split peas and split lentils (the kinds of legumes you don't need to pre-soak overnight) are considered to be dals.

Enough history. The point is that this is delicious because Rube gave me great yellow split peas.

I took 3 cups of yellow split peas, rinsed them in a colander, and picked out any that didn't look good. Rube saved me a lot of trouble here, since they were pre-picked-over. Then I brought the split peas to a boil with 10 cups of water. A layer of scum rises to the surface, and it's important to skim it off before adding a teaspoon of turmeric and 4 slices of unpeeled ginger. The size of the slices don't matter too much, as the spices certainly won't overwhelm the dal. Then I reduced the heat to low and simmered the split peas for an hour. The recipe says an hour and a half but they were turning into mush, and I'm a firm believer that there should be no mush. It's like over-cooked pasta - al dente would have been better. Oh, and I had to remember to stir during the last half hour to prevent any sticking of the dal to the bottom of the pot. As much as I don't like mush dal, I also don't like burnt dal. Then I took it off the heat and added 1 1/2 tsp of salt (there's not a whole lot of sharp flavour in the dish, so salt is essential. You could go as high as 2 tsp...) and 1/2 tsp garam masala (again, err on the side of excess). Then I took out of the ginger slices. No point having them sitting around in there waiting to not get eaten.

The nice thing about this dish is it's basically done. The last step can wait until just before you're ready to serve. It's also a very cool presentation for guests. To finish the dal, heat 2 tbsp of oil (or ghee or butter. Some people disagree on the use of butter here, but I'm not 100% convinced it's not fine. Ghee is just clarified butter. I'll save you the rant on clarified butter and its traditional reason for well as why I think it's a little ridiculous that it's still used. Leave a comment/question below if you're curious) on medium in a frying pan. When it's hot put in a tsp of whole cumin seeds, and 4 cloves of chopped garlic a few seconds later. The only reason I can see to do these two additions separately is to ensure that the cumin seed gets coated in oil, but there's more than enough oil, so it seems ridiculous. Sorry, Ms. Jaffrey. In fact, the recipe says to use 6 tbsp of oil, and since there's no fat in the rest of the dish, this wouldn't be absolutely awful, but I was serving it with a high-fat chicken dish, and I wanted to keep the rest of the fat content down.

Once the garlic browned I added a teaspoon of chili flakes. I always think I could add more heat in these dishes, but it's up to you. I garnished the dish with fresh hot green chilis, so if I wanted more heat myself, I could just munch on those. The second the red chili flakes touched the pan I removed the skillet from the heat and poured the whole contents into the dal pot (If the flakes start cooking they'll take over the air of the kitchen and you won't be able to breathe. Coughing on chili flakes is not so fun...). Then you just stir. So the whole spice mixture in the frying pan is a quick seasoning for the simply-boiled dal. The oil and spices get distributed throughout the whole pot, giving flavour where there was little. Other recipes in the 'pulse' section of the cookbook follow similar formulas, with results that taste a whole lot like traditional Canadian lentil soup or stew, with a few extra spices or some heat, but this recipe is my favourite because of the flavour of the split peas. They were nutty, a little sweet, a little spicy, and went really well with the rice and yogurt. Funny, that...

Again, brilliant, practical and delicious Indian food traditions.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cachumber! Gesundheit!

No, that didn't really one sneezed in the tomato, onion, and cilantro relish.

I made this dish to complement the rest of the big Indian meal I cooked last week mostly because of the colour, but also because I figured that if anything was bland, this would add enough flavour to make you forget about it. I was right on both counts.

Actually, it was perfect on its own. I didn't have any naan, but even a spoonful of the soothing raita and a spoonful of this relish (basically salsa) went perfectly together. I would also just serve it as salsa with tortilla chips or even tacos, but it would go well with more traditional pappadum, chapati, or naan. What doesn't go well with naan?

4 tomatoes, diced (I bought four organic roma tomatoes for flavour. It's not tomato season, after all, so if you buy field tomatoes they will taste like water and starch and nothing else. The romas didn't fare much better, but just don't use canned. The acidity will mess up the whole dish). Oh! This was the first time I used my brother's new set of knives and chopping tomatoes has actually never been easier. Usually I swear because of under-sharpened knives, but these were so great that chopping was actually fun. I know I have a twisted version of 'fun', but if you like making tomato flowers like I do...

1 large onion, diced

1/2 cup chopped cilantro (this is what makes it salsa-y, and it's also what will save the dish if you use sub-par tomatoes. When you buy the cilantro, make sure it has an aroma. If it doesn't smell like anything, it won't taste like anything)

1 1/4 tsp salt

1/4 cup lemon juice (this is what will make the dish tart and acidic. It's also what will overwhelm other mildly-spiced dishes, so if you want a less acid to go with something plain, skimp on the lemon)

1 tsp cayenne (or more to taste)

1 tsp cumin seeds

Besides the chopping of the tomatoes, onions and cilantro, this is a pretty painless recipe. That is, unless you don't have a juicer, a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder. I had a whole lot of fun roasting and chopping the cumin the end it didn't matter though, because it's not a cooked dish. As long as they're roasted and crushed slightly it'll be fine. Here's what happened:

To roast the cumin seeds (and you need to roast them. If you use unroasted cumin seeds you're shooting yourself in the foot flavour-wise), simply toss them into a skillet that's set on medium heat, and let them cook, stirring occasionally, until they're slightly darker in colour, and they release a smell - about 5 minutes. Then transfer them to a coffee grinder of mortar and pestle and grind them. I didn't have either of these things, so mine got transferred to a cutting board and my brother's new knives got whipped out again. Cumin kind of went everywhere...I could have also transfered them to a plastic/paper bag, or tightly-sealed aluminum foil, and pounded them with something heavy and flat, which would have worked better, but then they don't all come out of the bag, and aluminum never seems to work out for me. So I figured the cutting board was simplest, and I'd just dice them up. Nope. Not so much.

I think it was still fine, though. Enough stayed on the cutting board that I could add almost the right amount to the chopped up tomatoes and onion in a large bowl. Then everything else got added (cilantro, salt, cayenne) and I went to work on juicing some lemons. Again, no juicer, and I didn't feel like getting my dry, already-acidic hands into the lemon itself to encourage those juices out. So I used again my brother's knives. Yet again, a bad decision. I ended up poking myself with the incredibly sharp knives a whole lot. It cut right through the lemon and straight into my hand. Just scratches, mind you, not the Niagara Falls of knife accidents, but it was completely counter-productive since I had to use my hands in the end to get the rest of the juice out and now I had cuts in my hands. Acid + cuts = a lot of pain. Simple kitchen math. Up there with basic fire safety, like not spilling hot oil into open elements....but that was to come later with my duck confit...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Akhrote ka raita (Yogurt with Walnuts and Cilantro)

My brother and I bought a chip and dip dish. This is a much better use for it...

This is also such a simple recipe. No cooking involved! Yogurt is often served with an Indian meal to beat the heat of spicy meat and vegetable dishes. It balances out and tempers a plate of mixed sauces really nicely. Beat 3 cups of plain yogurt with a fork and then add a few other ingredients. In this case I needed to add a few tablespoons of freshly chopped cilantro, half of a hot green chili pepper, diced, a few pinches of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and a thinly sliced, partially diced, scallion.

I used a long "Indian" chili. In the book, the picture of the chili is of a long, thin variety called Hari Mirch. This was not the name in the store in the basement of St. Lawrence Market, obviously, but I figured the generic and offensive "Indian" classification would do.

When these things were combined I spread it all in the new glass platter (sounds much better than 'chip and dip'...what awful marketing...actually, my brother bought it because he thought he would get some use out of it for its intended purpose after I left. In this case, excellent marketing, because my brother is not one to buy nice glass serving dishes. This all leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth, rather than the spicy sweet yogurt). Then I sprinkled a cup of broken-up (not the painful kind) walnut pieces of top. Simple, beautiful.

The only tough part of this recipe is choosing the right yogurt. A fat-free plain yogurt will be disgusting. It will be runny and bitter, and as much as you beat it with a fork, it will be soup. Then there are Mediterranean or Greek-style (thick) yogurts. These are overly fatty and creamy and I don't like them either. It feels like eating something way too dense. Mostly I don't like the flavour. I've eaten just about every brand of plain organic probiotic yogurt (real yogurt should be probiotic even if it doesn't expressly opposed to overly processed, sweetened, commercial yogurts, like a lot of the Danone's and Yoplaits. Check the ingredients for bacterial culture. They generally all have it, but no quantities are given, and billions are better than thousands). After years of research, I find that the important points of a good yogurt are:

1. A tangy flavour without being bitter or acidic
2. A mild sweetness
3. A balance between thickness and thinness
3. A milk fat content between 2% and 3.8%

My favourite brand is Pinehedge Farms. It comes in returnable glass bottles that you pay a deposit for when you purchase them. It's made in St. Eugene, Ontario by the Heinzle Family. When you pop the top on the bottle there's a solidified layer of milk fat on the top that tastes incredible if you sneak a bit before you mix it back into the rest of the liquid (If you don't mix it back in, the rest won't be as creamy as it should don't eat it all and leave the liquid or you'll be disappointed with the rest of the yogurt. A good challenge in will control). If you use this yogurt you'll get a beautiful raita that's a bit sweet, a bit tangy, a bit savoury, and a very cooling. Brilliant traditional Indian wisdom.

Basmati Chaaval (Perfect Basmati Rice): Madhur Jaffrey's "Indian Cooking"

"The Ill-est Meal I've had since Christmas" - Ed Squires, dinner guest

This post is actually all about rice. You see a lot of other dishes in the above photo, but rice is definitely the central point of any Indian meal. When you eat rice every day like in South-East Asia, it becomes an art form in itself. I make sushi. The rice is the most important, most complicated, and longest step. I also lived with an Indian girl for half a year, and even though she didn't cook very often, when she did she always made rice. Perfect rice. The kind that's tender and fluffy (never over-cooked), and the grains don't stick together. No rice cooker. Just experience to the point where it became second nature. To make it poorly would have been difficult. We got along very well, but this was not something we had in common. I covet her rice skills.

Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking has four basic rice recipes. Four! That doesn't even count the spiced rices, rice with peas, pullaos, and an authentically elaborate recipe for biryani. Kind of like every good French chef can make broth, every good Indian chef (and most mothers) can make perfect rice. I am not an Indian chef.

I bought the best rice. Indian Aged Basmati from Rube in St. Lawrence Market. It already smelled like cooked rice before I even turned on any heat. The aromatic was incredible. Delicious popcorn. I put my 3 cups of rice in a pot, covered it with water and gently moved the rice kernels around with my hand until the water turned cloudy. Then I poured off the water into a strainer (to catch the escaping rice), returned the draft dodgers to the pot, added more water, swirled, strained. I did this 5 times, since the recipe said 4-5 times. I decided to err on the side of caution.

Then I added 7 1/2 cups of water to the drained rice in the pot, and let it soak for 30 minutes. This keeps the rice separate when it cooks (in theory). I then drained the rice again.

Back into the large pot went the adequately drained rice, and 4 cups of water. I brought it to a boil, covered with a lid, turned the heat to VERY low (like I was supposed to) and cooked it for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes I lifted the lid to fluff the rice with a fork, only to discover the rice was starting to stick to the bottom of the pot! I got scared. It was still supposed to cook for 5-10 more minutes!

What do I do...what do I do?

3 options:
1. Add more water and let the rice cook longer. Water should not be added at this stage, though. You risk creating mushy rice. This option seemed like a good idea, though, because probably the rice needed more time to actually cook thoroughly. Probably the heat had been too high and the water that the rice was supposed to absorb had just evaporated. I didn't want under-cooked rice.
2. Turn off the heat now, set the rice aside, and eat it as it was, maybe a little under-cooked.
3. Do exactly what the recipe said and put it back on low heat for another 5-10 minutes, fully expecting the rice on the bottom of the pan to burn.

I took the first option. This way I'd definitely get cooked rice, but maybe over-cooked rice. That's just what happened, sadly. The rice became mushy and stuck together in big chunks, like jello towers of rice. It kind of wobbled, even. I broke it up with a spatula (I could have cut it into geometric shapes, it was so gelatinous...) and put it in a serving dish. The upside of this story is that the rice was going to serve as a bed for all the other sauce-y dishes, so it wasn't the end of the world. If I was serving grilled fish or meat on top, I would have been in trouble. The nice thing about Indian cooking is the stew-like consistency of most of the dishes. Nobody minded the mush rice. All my guests were overly Canadian and were all too polite to be offended by or insult my poor rice cooking skills. Hurray.

The next not cooked. Thank goodness. There was hope that I would not mess this one up.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dakshini Murgh (Chicken with Roasted Coriander in an Almond Curry Sauce)

Dakshini Murgh
Chicken with Roasted Coriander in an Almond Curry Sauce

I decided to make a huge Indian dinner for friends. 10 people, 7 dishes, and 1 day of amazing smells, colours, textures and flavours.

The menu:
Dakshini Murgh (Southern Indian Chicken with Roasted Coriander in an Almond Curry Sauce)
Jhinga Aur Ghia (Shrimp with Zucchini)
Chana Dal (Yellow Split Peas)
Saag Aloo (1 version with spinach with russet potatoes and one with yams)
Akhrote ka raita (Yogurt with Walnuts and Cilantro)
Cachumber (Tomato, Onion, and Cilantro Relish)
Basmati Chaaval (Plain Basmati Rice)

The menu concept was to combine a meat dish and a fish dish (because fish is generally made so heavy in restaurants with too much oil, and it can be such a delicate creation when you're careful with the spices. Madhur Jaffrey of "Indian Cooking" is the queen of spices, thus I can have the share the royal wisdom), then add a vegetable dish (the saag. I had yams left over and decided the sweetness might complement the spinach), a yogurt dish to cool the palate, plain basmati rice (more of an undertaking than you might think) and a relish for bite (in case one of the dishes ended up being a bit underwhelmind and needed some assistance). Then I found out there would be more vegetarians than I had expected and added a dal for protein. I also thought the nutty flavour of the split peas would go well with the almonds in the chicken and walnuts in the yogurt, for all the non-vegetarians and vegans. I bought the ingredients in advance, and spent 7 hours cooking leisurely. Nice way to spend the day.

The first recipe:

Chicken with Roasted Coriander in an Almond Curry Sauce
Coriander Seeds
Funegreek Seeds
Black Peppercorns
Black Mustard Seeds
Cinnamon Stick
3 1/2 lbs chicken pieces, legs and breast, skin removed, bone-in, cut into pieces
Onions, thinly sliced
garlic, cut into slivers
ginger, grated (I diced, finely)
A tomato
lemon juice
almond milk (the recipe actually calls for coconut milk, but almond should work fine)
hot green chilis, sliced in half lengthwise

This is a southern dish because of the fenugreek and the coconut milk (replaced here by the almond milk). It's not as spicy as northern curries, but you can add more heat by adding more cayenne or more green chilis. It should be very rich from the milk, so remove all the fat from the chicken pieces before browning them or the curry will be swimming in fat. To get a good flavour use a combination of breast and leg meat. Wings will give you mostly fat and not enough meat to make it worth it, unless you're using an entire chicken, then hack the whole thing up and throw everything in except the easily-removable skin. Half and half leg and breast works well, or try more leg than breast. The leg meat will be more tender.

Normally I'd do the whole chicken, but I wanted to make this relatively quick and easy. I went to Toronto's St. Lawrence Market, to De Liso's Fine Meats, and bought their Mennonite-raised chicken, which is as close to organic you can come without the official labeling and the astronomical prices. I walk into the market:

To my brother: "I'm looking for chicken."
Brother: "There's a meat place..."
Me: "Yeah. There are a whole lot of meat places here. We're not just going to any meat place. This is an impotant decision." We went to De Liso's.
Post chicken purchase:
The very attractive meat guy at De Liso's: "People come to us for our chicken. Best chicken in the market."

Awareness dawns on my brother, thus justifying my obsession for high-quality poultry. I am attracted to the best, it seems.

Roasted coriander? The first step of this recipe is to roast the whole coriander seeds, fenugreek and black peppercorns in a dry skillet over medium-high heat. doesn't seem like roasting to me, since it's not in the oven, but there's no oil, so I suppose to an Indian cook it could seem more like roasting (more likely this spice mixture is roasted in a more traditional way, and this is the closest we can come in a North American kitchen. Kind of like a tandoor oven, or especially like making naan under the boiler instead of throwing them against the side of the oven to cook). I was not going to mess this up, so I heat the skillet for the called-for 2-3 minutes, added the spices for a minute and a half, and then took them off the heat to cool. I didn't have a coffee grinder so I diced the spices finely with my brother's new chef knife and silently thanked Alex for his wonderful selection of kitchenware.

Then I added a ton of oil to the biggest pot I could find and set it over medium-high heat. When it was hot I put in the first batch of chicken pieces, only to remember that I was supposed to add the mustard seeds and cinnamon stick first! So those got added a second later, and I don't think it made much difference since they fell between the pieces and started popping immediately, just like they were supposed to. After the chicken was brown I removed it to a huge bowl and added the next batch. 20 minutes later all the chicken was brown.

Now the recipe messed up. Not me, I swear. The chicken was supposed to be removed to a bowl, but the rest of the recipe never says to add the chicken back to the pot, so I added it all back right away. The problem is that now you're supposed to add the onions and garlic, but there's so much chicken that there's no way the onions are going to get a chance to touch the bottom of the pot. Steamed onion does not exist in India. If oil is not involved, it's not a cooked dish. So I took most of the chicken back out and hoped the onion and garlic would sauté and not get stuck to the chicken pieces that I removed from the pot.

When that (miraculously) happened, I added the ginger and tomato. A few minutes later I turned down the heat and added the "roasted" and crushed spices, turmeric, cayenne, salt and lemon juice.

Now was the tricky part. You're supposed to use coconut milk, so when you open the can you skim off the thick coconut cream that sits at the top. Then you top up the can with water and dump the whole thing into the pot (which presumably holds the chicken now). At the very end, after simmering for 25 minutes, you add the coconut cream you skimmed off, like you would a whipping cream. With almond milk, no cream collects at the top of the container. I didn't even shake it! No good. I added a little less than the equivalent of a can of coconut milk, and then added about a fifth of a can of water as a rough estimation. I didn't want to add too much water, but better too much than too little, since it can be boiled off later if you added too much. If it burns because you didn't add enough in the first place, well, you're out of luck.

Anyway, I brought the pot to a boil post-milk/water addition, covered the pot, turned down the heat again, and let it simmer for the 25 minutes. Then I turned off the heat, let the pot cool down and went to another dish. My point here was to let the fat settle on the top of the chicken, to skim off. Often Indian foods taste better the day after, when they've been reheated and the spices have had more of a chance to meld together. I was kind of trying to fast-track this process. Not so successful, but hopefully not a completely wasted effort.

Verdict? Everyone loved it. Except me. I should have boiled off more of the liquid. The almond milk was more watery than coconut milk, and it should have been reduced to concentrate the flavour. I should have known that since there's no chicken broth added to the dish the flavour is only going to come from the chicken itself (meat, fat and bones) and from the milk. Southern Indian food is a lot less...well, overwhelmingly flavourful than Northern Indian food, but there's something very homey and comforting in the mild sweetness of the flavours. Not a disappointment, per se, but not as great as the recipe sounded. At the end I garnished with the green chilis, and the dish looked beautiful. A respectful attempt.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

To market, to market...

I wimped out. I wish I had a backbone.

I went to St. Lawrence Market in Toronto and did a ton of shopping today. 4 kinds of dijon. Should definitely last more than a month this time. 8 Jerusalem artichokes, 8 duck legs, thyme, organic grapes, a cup of large black Italian olives mixed with smaller black Portuguese olives (the recipe just says "black olives", and the Portuguese ones fit into the 250mL container better. Cross my fingers it's the right amount for the tapenade).

I had great plans to buy a bunch pf duck legs and then one whole duck. Then I'd skin it and render the fat and all would be well. Didn't work out that way. The man at the White House Meats counter was intimidating. I asked what duck pieces they had, and if they had whole ducks, and the answer came short and sweet, "Just duck legs." Okay...


I bought 8 duck legs. My roommate brought my forgotten duck fat when he came to town today, saving my confit. Thank you thank you thank you. But by now I was almost excited to render. It didn't seem so bad. All my motivational self-talk was working so well that I was almost reluctant to accept the duck fat I had initially bought instead of rendering my own.

Turns out they even had duck fat for sale at White House! Available in 250mL containers. they must supply the whole city (aka the 4 French restaurants...)! No point buying it since my Montreal duck fat arrived.

Then, as I walked away with my 8 legs (duck), I saw whole Muscovy ducks in the last display...lies from the butcher? Couldn't be.

This is not Montreal. My English is not so bad that this man hadn't understood my initial duck question. So they had ducks, but he sold me just legs. I thought for a minute about returning one of the pairs of legs and getting the whole duck, but then I gave up and kept walking toward olives. It was done. Purchased. Ca suffisait - It was enough. I will render no fat.

I am a miserably wimpy market-goer. I chickened/ducked out. I am a sorry excuse for a cook, but a stereotypical Canadian. Quick, efficient, overly polite. Some day I will stand up to butchers and clearly ask for whole ducks. I may even return purchased duck legs. Some day...

In the meantime, God bless roommates.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Rendering Duck Fat

I knew it would happen. I forgot the duck fat. It’s sitting in my freezer in Montreal and I am sitting on a train. Looks like I’ll be rendering some duck fat in Toronto. Fortunately there’s a meat place in St. Lawrence Market that specializes in wild game, and they seem to be the only place that sells duck. Hopefully that means they sell a lot of it and it’s very good, and hopefully this doesn’t just mean that the market for duck is very small. In Montreal’s Atwater market I walked into 5, yes 5, consecutive meat shops and found rendered duck fat in every single one. In most you could also buy pre-packaged duck confit, ready to be slipped in the oven for 15 minutes. The ultimate in luxury and convenience. In Toronto I’d be worried. They may not understand my need for 4 cups of duck fat. “Pork? Would I like some pork?” they’ll say. “It’s just as bad for you, if not worse, and that’s obviously what you’re after.” I am making neither rillettes nor paté. Give me no bacon, sausage or cured piglet, sir or madam.

I will cross my fingers and hope this butcher has duck wings. I will bargain with him. Certainly I’ll need to call in advance. What else is he possibly going to do with all his duck wings but give them to me? There aren’t enough French restaurants in the city with duck confit on the menu for him to trick me into spending buckets of money. In fact, I know that 500mL of duck fat costs exactly $5.00 in just about every store in Quebec, and I know that this is over-priced. Take out the labour cost and I’m looking at a lot of cheap duck wings.

These wings will be cooked for an excruciatingly long period of time over low heat. Then the fat will be sieved (I am currently traveling with my sieve…this I did remember. Go figure). Then this (hopefully) perfectly-rendered fat will be poured over the duck legs, which will have been sitting in the fridge covered in salt and other spices, waiting patiently all day to drown.

I will be glad I forgot the duck fat in Montreal because it will be such an educational experience. Oh please, please, please don’t mess this up, self.

From Montreal With Love: A Gourmet Toronto Homecoming

Today I embark on a new adventure. I'm headed back to Toronto after an almost two-year absence. To mark the return I'm bring 4 cups of duck fat and a bottle of Été Indien port-like Quebec dessert wine. The plan is to make one glorious meal combining Quebec products and recipes with Ontario wine, meat and vegetables. I'm trying to bridge the culinary gap.

Here's the break-down of the meal. I also have 4 reviews planned, and you can check those out at my other blog. It will be one heck of a trip if I actually get all of this done...

Gourmet French-style Dinner Party for family in Toronto

(recipes selected from Quebecoise chef and culinary icon Josée di Stasio's "A la di Stasio")

St. Lawrence Market Black Olive Tapenade
with Ace Bakery baguette and raw fennel

Artichokes a la Provencale
with Nouilly Prat

Duck Confit
with Chateau des Charmes Pinot Noir

Macerated Grapes
soaked in Été Indien from Vignoble La Roche des Brises.

Wish me luck! I get on a train in 2 hours with my alcohol and duck fat. I feel more French than I've ever felt in my life...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Un-Flung Heroes...

Well, I tried. the whole concept of flung noodles is to stretch one long piece of dough into an arm's length noodle, then hold the two ends in one hand and the middle of the noodle length in the other and re-fling. When it gets to arm's length again, double the ends and stretch from the middle. Repeat. Repeat. Etc. After doing this a bunch of times one noodle length becomes one very, very long folded-over noodle (1 fold = 2 noodle strands, 2 folds = 4 noodle strands, 3 folds = 8 noodles, 7 folds = 128 noodles). At the end you toss this whole elongated noodle into hot broth and cook it. Serve with scissors. Here's what actually happened:

I stretched the dough out a little. So far so good. Then some tentative flings:

Intense concentration as it got longer:

The dough didn't want to stretch evenly and after folding it over I tried to figure out a way to not fling from the end.

There's a reason there are no more pictures...I started laughing when the noodle started breaking. It hit me in the face a few times...and broke a lot. Then I'd fling the broken pieces. I never really got past two folds with either piece of dough.

After about 15 minutes of flinging, dough flying everywhere but where I wanted it to be, stretching it, milking it like a cow without the pay-off, I decided it would be a better idea to roll the pieces out thin and slice them with a knife. They were beautiful. Not one long noodle, but it all worked out just fine.

Most importantly, I got to heat up the leftover deer broth, eat leftover jiaozi with chile sauce and soy sauce, then toss the fresh noodles into the thick, grease broth of the deer. After eating the noodles with the chile, soy and hoisin, my roommate and I slurped up the thick, opaque broth. Deer is a very fatty meat apparently, or at least ground deer is very fatty. When I explained the broth to my roommate the conversation went like this:

Me: "When I made the broth with deer, all the fat solidified on top when it cooled, and scraping it off was so easy! I couldn't believe it."

Roommate: "Wait, did you say deer or beer?"

Me: "Deer."

He then explained that normally he would have assumed I said beer. Didn't say anything about how ridiculous I am. Very polite.

The broth was absolutely amazing. So much flavour from the cardamom, the cloves and the deer. It almost tasted bitter from the meat, but it was the perfect contrast from the heat of the hot chile paste and sweet hoisin. Brilliant Chinese idea to cook everything in one pot - make the broth, steam or boil the dumplings, cook the noodles in the meat-infused broth, drink the broth that has soaked up all of these flavours to end the meal.

Noodles: the un-sung heroes of the kitchen - a simple combination of flour, egg, salt and water. No matter how bad a flinger I am, even I couldn't destroy a beautifully simple meal.

I feel like I should have mopped the kitchen floor...

Today I'm going to fling noodles. Odds are it's going to be a disaster. That's why I made two balls of dough. One has a bit more water-egg combination, and the other is a bit dryer. One I kneaded by hand, one I did in my pasta maker. They are currently sitting on my kitchen counter, waiting. Probably they see my kitchen floor out of the corner of their eyes (it is not gnocchi, it is not potato, they do not have eyes, I remind myself) and think that it's an awfully long way down.

There is actually no recipe for this. In "Beyond the Great Wall", the authors state that try as they might, they have never successfully re-created "Flung Noodles", like they've seen flung by Uighurs (pronounced "Way-gurs") in China. There is, however, a picture of someone successfully doing it, and a description of how, in theory, it should be done. I am using a Kazach stretched noodle recipe, like the book says may work. I'm using Première Moisson flour and I have hope that this may help, simply because it's a very good bread flour. Première Moisson dough makes incredible loaves of perfect bread. Lets ignore the yeast for a second. Suspend belief. Already my chances seem better, my hopes are lifted, and I feel okay about still not having mopped the floor. If those noodles go down, they're staying down. There will be no 5 second rule.

20 minutes left to wait...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mildly Successful Asian Fusion: Kashmiri Deer Kofta Wontons

No, not "Dear kofta, how are you?" Yes, deer meatball wontons. At least the countries I fused are neighbours this time...if you pretend for a minute that deer roam freely in India or China...What do they think they are? Lambs?

That's not the important part. The important part is this all happened because I got nervous. I felt like I was running out of time. I was less-than-cool under pressure.

I went to Qing Hua a few weeks ago for dumplings and marveled at the wonders of lamb coriander jiaozi. Jiaozi are not to be confused with wontons. They are not cooked in soup, they have thicker wrappers made of different ingredients, and Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Korean and Taiwanese people seem to get upset when you confuse the names of all these dumplings. I will spend my life apologizing. It is the Canadian thing to do, apologize.

Each dumpling is simply unique. So as much as I'd like to call my creations 'jiaozi' like I'd originally intended to make, I just can't. For one, I used wonton wrappers. Official wonton wrappers from Wings, the company that has its brand of soy sauce in all the Canadian-Chinese restaurants in Canada, it seems. They also distribute their wonton wrappers. Probably the wonton soup I ate at one of the three Chinese restaurants in Newfoundland when I was a kid used Wings wonton wrappers. They cost almost nothing, but I didn't know what was in them when I bought them. They look so lovely wrapped up in their gift-wrap-style paper. When will I learn to be less superficial? I should have made the dough from scratch...but all that kneading and rolling and cutting and then the wrapping? Laziness. Also very Canadian of me, unfortunately.

So I used commercial wonton wrappers. I'm such a scam.

My plan was to make ground deer and coriander wontons. Yes, deer. My bison place in Jean-Talon sells all sorts of wild game and gives very good prices on ground meat, and so I went with deer. Why not? It should be a decent replacement for the lamb in the wontons and since they weren't going to be as good as Qing Hua's dumplings anyway, I wasn't overly concerned.

Then I got a little rushed. You see, I also wanted to use the ground meat to make meatballs. I have these tomatoes...San Marzano. Perfect tomato sauce tomatoes. And I have this slow cooker that makes the most incredible meatballs. But I wanted dumplings, not pasta...and I wanted flavour. Most of all, I just wanted flavour. And the recipe for lamb coriander dumplings that I got from "Beyond the Great Wall" was basically just lamb and coriander. If I was going to go to all the trouble of making dumplings, then they were going to be tasty. I had no idea if deer would be tasty enough on its own. Certainly coriander would not be enough to guarantee flavourful success. See? Nervous.

So I went my Indian flavour bible. There is no such thing as a bland meat recipe in Indian cooking. It simply does not exist. So thoughts brewed in my mind until I got up the courage to do what I wanted to do...

...kashmiri meatballs. Not this is not a picture of kashmiri meatballs. The meatballs are inside. Use your imagination.

Such an easy recipe. Throw together freshly ground cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper with grated ginger, cayenne, salt and my ground meat. Mix it up with your hands. It will be hard to overpower the meat with spices, so don't be afraid to use a little more or a little less of any given spice. I skipped the yogurt that the recipe called for, but I really should have added an egg for moisture. I think when you steam them they are less dry, but I was planning to boil because it was easier. I now have a stock pot but no dumpling steamer basket. One more wonderful kitchen accessory [thank you!], but never the one I need at the time...).

Then I put a pot of water and home-made vegetable stock on to boil with a 1" cinnamon stick, 6 cloves, 5 cardamom pods and 2 bay leaves. I was not going to under-infuse this time. That broth steeped and steeped and then I threw in the wontons. Some of them are wrapped like jaiozi because they're much prettier that way. Twisted at the top. I know it's wrong because that's not what the dough is supposed to be used for, and now some Chinese grandmother will hit me over the head with the dumpling steamer basket I covet, but the wontons look...well, bloated and sloppy. They also often come apart in the broth. The upside of the wontons is that you can stuff them more, thus diluting the amount of preservative-laden wonton wrapper that you are required to put in your mouth to get enough meat. When you wrap them, hold the square wrapper like a diamond in your hand and moisten the edges of the two sides that make up the top of the diamond.

Place a teaspoon or so of filling along a line in the middle. You want to have most of it sit in the middle of the wrapper but spread it almost all the way to the corners so there's no wasted space in the wonton when you close it up. To seal it, squeeze the edges together tightly.

For jaiozi, moisten all four edges, bring the edge closest to you up to meet the edge furthest away like you would for the wonton, but then pull the sides in to gather all the edges at the top like a basket. If you make circular wrappers (or buy circular wrappers...) you can do all sorts of other complicated crimping wraps. Me, I'm a novice. My dumplings will probobly fall apart either way so no use putting in the extra effort.

Into the boiling broth the wonton/jaiozi went and a few minutes later, out they came. The cinnamon stick had unfurled itself and the cardamom had practically exploded in the broth so maybe, just maybe, the broth was living up to its potential. Since I really wanted dumplings, not wontons I drained the excess broth back into the pot and served the dumplings with my fabulous hot hot hot chile paste and soy sauce. I had no black vinegar, or I would have made a vinegar/soy combination. If Indians had known about soy sauce, how their food would have changed! It over-powers everything! The soy and the hot sauce could have made simple lamb and coriander into a world of flavour explosions. I'm still glad I used the Indian spices, though, for two reasons. 1) The spices have medicinal properties, like cinnamon is good for digestion. A good thing when cooking deer...I bet your stomach's not quite used to that one...2) The smell of freshly ground coriander, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves is intoxicating. The way to a woman's heart is through her sense of smell. Seduce me with spices.

The only other 'wrong' (un-traditional) thing I did was serve the meal with leftover sunchoke saag and some naan bread. The saag fit with the kashmiri meatballs part of the meal, and the just went along for the ride. I really can't rationalize that one. More importantly, I couldn't rationalize eating a full meal of dumplings. A bit too much like a North American meat and potatoes meal. The spinach was a welcome addition. Sweet and light.

All in all, this was far from the disaster I pretty much expected it to be. I even have tons of broth left over and the juices from the deer wontons that exploded (thanks to my poor wrapping skills) have made it much richer. With the leftover broth I will do what I'm supposed to do with Chinese broth (ignore the fact that it's Indian, not Chinese) - make fresh noodles and throw them in. I will stick EXACTLY to the noodle recipe. Well maybe I'll use the pasta maker to's just that I'm such a bad knead-er...why don't I learn from my mistakes?

As much as I still think I was meant to be Asian, I do not think I was meant to wrap dumplings. Maybe I was meant to fling Kazakh noodles? We shall see...

Monday, March 8, 2010

More About Topinambours: Sunchoke Saag

I bought these because I didn't know what they were. I say "more about topinambours", though, because it turns out I did know. Jerusalem Artichokes. They make one of my favourite soups. The ones I bought just looked different...they were clean, and smooth. I honestly had no idea what they were. Turns out the 'topinambour' (what's the store clerk called them) is jerusalem artichoke in French, but the French also translate it as the 'Canadian truffle', the 'ground pear', or the 'deep-rooted or hardy sun" (the last in reference to the sunflower, the species of plant to which it belongs). Someone (or something) went to a whole lot of trouble to get these cleaned and into a plastic bag in an organic store near me. I'm also concerned about how they seemed unnaturally large and un-knobby. Like they were artichoke hybrids...bred for these genes. They were 'organic' but as that could mean that no fertilizers or chemicals were used, and not that nothing fishy happened with their not-so-natural selection process. Either way, they were VERY easy to work with. I could have made a whole soup of these in less than half the time it takes me with my local Ethiopian organic farmer's version of the jerusalem artichoke.

Anyway, instead of soup, I set about making a variation on aloo saag, without knowing what I was cooking. Normally made with potato (aloo) and spinach (spinach. Succinct, Indian cooks. Apparently not big fans of adjectives), I figured I could replace the aloo with my mystery root vegetable. Instead of "potato spinach" (potatoes aren't a kind of spinach...), I would make Mystery Vegetable spinach (neither are mystery vegetables. Perfect substitution). Probably whatever I had would be more flavourful than a potato anyway. It actually worked out well, it just took longer to cook the artichokes. They don't break down as easily as potatoes it turns out. I chose the second saag recipe from Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking and only made one other change...
Mystery Saag ("Sunchoke Saag" sounds better doesn't it?)

2 packages frozen spinach
Onion seeds
black mustard seeds
garlic, finely chopped
jerusalem artichokes, peeled and cut into 1/2" cubes...roughly

First you boil a cup and a bit of water and cook the spinach...I figured since the spinach was going to cook in the spice mixture later, I should just get it defrosted in the water and not drain as much of the boiling liquid as was recommended. No point taking all the good things in the spinach out of it. I generally hate boiling spinach in the first place, but it was my first time with the recipe. Better to do as your told, at first...

Which is exactly what I didn't do next. I had no onions. When do I ever have no onions in my fridge? Kind of hugely important in Indian cooking. All I had were onion seeds but I figured I'd just add them with the mustard seeds and that was the best I could do. So I put a tablespoon of olive oil (I know, not the kind of oil you want for high-heat Indian cooking, but all I had) in a pot, heated it over medium-high heat and grated a little bit of asafetida into the oil. I had never used this before, but had finally hunted fresh lumps of it down at Olives et Epices, and was very excited to use it. It's optional, smells like onions, and is used to help digest lentils and beans in Indian Cooking. Kind of like a French digestif...but instead of alcohol you get onions. Doesn't seem fair.

The mustard seeds and onion seeds went into the pot a second later. You're supposed to use more than a 1/4 cup of oil, but I just can't bring myself to do that, so I added small amounts of water to keep the seeds from burning. They need the oil to start popping and release their flavours, but they don't need 5 tablespoons of it.

Then I added 4 cloves of minced garlic. I figured I'd add more garlic than called for to compensate for the lack of onions. 2 minutes later I added my artichokes and cayenne. After tasting it, I should have added about a 1/2 tsp more cayenne. I like it a bit spicier than this book usually calls for, and I always forget. Actually, I should have added some of my Guizhou Chile Paste. Then I'd get more oil and time.

1 minute later (I'm really getting used to this precisely-timed Indian cooking business. I barely get angry when I read "30 seconds later", "2 seconds later", "10 minutes and 27 seconds later". I added the spinach, salt and 2 tbsp of water. The spinach had been waiting patiently in a bowl after being mostly drained of its cooking liquid. It should also be rinsed in cold water after draining to stop the cooking process. Here, the recipe and I agreed.

Then I put a lid on the pot, turned the heat down to low, and let it simmer very, very gently for 45 minutes. You could leave it up to 55 minutes or even 60 if your chunks of artichoke are big. Potato will cook in 40, max. The only thing to keep in mind is that there should always be liquid in the pot, and while the spinach will release some as it stews, the artichoke will absorb it, and you don't want to lift the lid after an hour and find your spinach sticking to the sides. So make sure you check the pot periodically to make sure there's water left.

The taste of the artichokes actually worked well with the dish. Potatoes don't really add much flavour, just mushy texture, so the jerusalem artichokes give your tongue and teeth some taste and texture to look forward to in between delicious sweet mounds of spinach. I admit I make this with frozen spinach like the recipe says just because cleaning fresh spinach is a nuisance, and I hate chopping it. Everything turns green and you always end up with grit in your food. This way is so easy. Just open the package and throw it in. Normally I'll put in the extra work, but sometimes it's nice to have a quick and easy dish. Is it weird that saag has become as comforting to me as pudding? My roommate would say yes, I'm sure.