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Archive for February, 2012

I’ve just returned from a frantic visit to New Orleans.  I’ve returned to Toronto less than 72 hours after I left.

Short trips like these barely count as visiting a place.  On top of the limited duration, a busy work schedule often mandates activities from early in the morning through late in the evening.  I did have the chance to explore the French Quarter and try some of the food but it was hardly enough to make me any type of authority on what the food is like or recommend where to eat.  I do know that I’d like to head back and the people of New Orleans were fabulous.

I also learned what some may see as a very obvious lesson: I’ve never had gumbo, jambalaya or any other food from Louisiana before.  I’ve had items on menus that claim to be those things but they have fallen dreadfully short.  This observation isn’t uncommon when traveling but the level of disparity between what I ate in Louisiana and what I had there was as drastic as only two other foods I recall: baguettes in France and Pizza in Italy.

The biggest difference in my limited opportunity (which unfortunately did not allow for a visit of any of the local/ slow food restaurants which do offer alternatives from typical expectations) was the sheer abundance of flavor that was packed into every bite.  It’s far from subtle.  It’s my belief that most places trying to simulate such flavors here wouldn’t dare to go so intense with the fear that they would alienate people from liking it.  The food is intense, often spiced and absolutely wonderful.

I really fell in love with Etouffee.  Think of it as shellfish gravy (apologies for butchering my description to any locals; I am certainly no expert on this awesome dish).  It may not sound that appealing on the surface but it’s absolutely awesome.  The base generally starts with a roux (flour and butter) or butter only and is heavily spiced with cayenne, paprika, dried garlic, onion flakes, pepper and salt.  Some start with the holy trinity of celery, onions and green peppers and many add other herbs – dried or fresh.  Like so many things in the world of food, each place has it’s own way and the claim that they are doing it the right way or the best way.  I found it delicious any way I could have it.

And this leads me to my problem with search engines and food.  A search for ‘Etouffee’ (there are several alternate spellings though the pronunciation is ‘A two FAY’) will bring up the most popular recipes for the sauce.  That popularity is often on the back of 1000’s of recipes from a mega archive of 1000’s of recipes.  Those mega sites (and sites like ours) benefit from the volume of articles they have to steer us to their pages – but specialty food like this can be tough to find done well.  We’ve been able to bridge this gap by using social tools like Facebook and Twitter to find people in areas such as New Orleans that can share their recommendations (I was spoiled with a list of suggestions from our FaceBook Group) to cut through the clutter of the mega-sites but am still looking for other ways to push my knowledge of their authentic cooking techniques.  With cuisine this great, I am willing to do some extra homework.

The trip has really inspired me to examine herb and spice combinations that I haven’t tried before and try to dig deeper than the first page or two of a search engine.  I think of them as compound spices – flavors made my specific combinations of herbs and spices.  I want to pursue these with new vigor – starting with etoufee but exploring other cultures as well (I’ve been meaning to make curry powder for a long time and I think that it’s about time I get on that!).

Ideally I’d like to dry the ingredients myself and share the recipes with you as we go.  We’d also love to hear about your favorites and successes.

In the meantime, I’m beginning my research with an inferior cheat:

These are the first pre-mixed spices (other than curry) that I’ve bought in years.  They’ll give us a jump start to see what we like about each and what we want to alter.  While these seasonings probably taste decent, the ingredient list reads more like a science experiment than our typical meal.  But you have to start somewhere so we’ll see if these get the ball rolling.

In the meantime, we’ll be actively looking for authentic sources of recipe inspiration and spice combinations – both from New Orleans and elsewhere.  We’ll share those sources (they will be the real experts) and welcome your suggestions as well.

In the summer we’re going to have to do some extra dehydration – including some items that we haven’t tried before (like bell peppers, celery and smoked peppers) as well as some of our favorites (garlic, onions, celeriac, hot peppers, mushrooms and more).

What compound spices/ recipes do you adore?  What resources do you use to find recipes for authentic flavor combinations?  What do you want to learn to make?

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Being passionate about something generally mandates continuous learning.  It’s pretty difficult to be passionate about something and NOT learn about it.  Despite being somewhat dyslexic, my career (outside of food) has revolved around education and training for most of my life.  It would be very fair to say that I am passionate about learning, food and learning about food.

In 20 years as a trainer of one form or another, I’ve learned that questions are the accelerator of learning.  Finding the right question can quickly expand your world and bring new information and delights that you couldn’t have imagined otherwise.  I’ve also learned that asking the wrong  question can have the opposite effect – it can shut down the person you’re asking and prevent the acquisition of such information.  Pursuing the right question (and how to approach it) can rapidly expand your experiences with food.

It was in such spirit that, a few months back, I shared the most important question to ask a real butcher.  I was particularly thrilled to learn that some people have started to ask the same thing and that their world of food is expanding.

As much as I enjoy diners and independent restaurants, I often find myself falling victim to plate envy.  I used to order what I thought sounded good and, while it’s often great, it never seems to fail that a regular patron walks in and orders something that has my enthusiasm crushed in an instant.  This is even more problematic when travelling as there’s rarely a chance for a do-over.

I graduated to asking people what they recommended and, while it sometimes helped, there were often problems in smaller restaurants:

  • I would get a generic “everything’s great”
  • I would be walked through the things most people eat if they were good or not.
  • I would be guided to the highest profit margin or special of the day.

But the biggest problem was far more sensitive: people felt pressured by the question and they would recoil into an awkward response either concerned that you wouldn’t like it or that they didn’t feel right reccomending for you.  This happened more often than I would beleive.

I’ve found that a slight modification to the original question has dramatically increased my results:

  • “What’s your favorite thing here?”

The question is far softer and less intimidating.  After all, I’m not asking them if I’ll like it or even for them to recommend it.  I generally receive a passionate, excited answer and suffer far less plate envy.

That’s how I ended up with a crawfish etouffe omelette at Mothers in New Orleans today.  I didn’t want an omelette, didn’t know what etouffe was and expected to be saddled with pulling shells apart to eat it.  My breakfast arrived and I was a little unsettled – it wasn’t exactly a work of art.

 

I knew, after a single bite, that I was in bliss.  It was simply awesome; a special thanks to the young lady who lit up when she told me about how much she loved this dish.  I share her appreciation for it!

How do you avoid plate envy?

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I find myself increasingly facing a dilemma when sharing our recipes as so many of them are reliant on preserves we made and, while substitutions can be made, the same results just won’t happen without them.  Do I post recipes that everyone can cook or post recipes that rely on previous recipes we’ve shared and are passionate about?  The decision was pretty easy for us – share them as we’ve made them knowing that people can make their own substitutions (including some of their own awesome preserves) or perhaps they’ll come back to make some of those ingredients when they are in season.

I’m also a person who rarely follows a recipe as it is written so I am biased that others are ok to mix and match (or enjoy doing so) as well!

Todays recipe features our Wild Bluberry Maple Crack.  It’s a pectin-free preserve that runs halfway between jam and syrup and it’s a signature of our kitchen.  This is, without question, the preserve that Dana most covets (I’m not far behind).  It’s fabulous with pancakes, chevre or eaten out of the jar.  We used it last night as the basis for a fluffy lemon curd (that has a few twists of its own) and it was phenomenal.

This recipe makes enough for 2-4 people

Ingredients

  • 1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 Large eggs at room temperature, lightly beaten until a single consistency
  • 1/3 cup of fresh lemon juice
  • Up to 1/4 cup of sugar (this is fairly sweet; as you will see in the comments some have used as little as a few teaspoons of sugar successfully)
  • 4 tablespoons of butter at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon (or more) of lemon zest (organic preferred)
  • 1/4 cup (or more) blueberry maple crack (or fresh seasonal berries lightly crushed and macerated in maple syrup) or other preserve with berries

Directions

  1. Using a whisk, whip the cream until stiff peaks result.
  2. Add vanilla and salt (don’t skip the salt even though it may sound odd) to the whip cream, fold in.
  3. Place whipped cream, covered, in the fridge.
  4. Create a double-boiler by placing a stainless steel pan on top of a pot filled partially with water.  Bring just to a simmer.  This will ensure that the eggs don’t cook through and that the heat resonates evenly across the bowl.
  5. Pour the eggs, sugar and lemon into the stainless bowl.
  6. Stir constantly until the mixture becomes thick like sour cream.  This will take 10-15 minutes.  Periodically check that the water has stayed at a simmer, using caution as the steam is hot.
  7. Pour the mixture through a fine strainer to remove any solid chunks.
  8. Mix the curd with the zest.
  9. Add the butter, stir until melted and incorporated.
  10. Allow the curd to cool for 15 minutes.
  11. Fold the whipped cream into the curd.
  12. Pour the blueberry crack into the bottom of a bowl.
  13. Cover the berries with curd.
  14. Wrap and place in fridge until cool (it will continue to get thicker).

Serve in bowls:

I dare you to try to NOT lick the bowl at the end. 🙂

How do you feel about reading recipes that you might not have all the ingredients for (like this one)?

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One of the counter-intuitive things about a project like Well Preserved is that our pattern of posting 7 days a week means that we miss sharing major themes of the lessons we`re learning about food.  By posting about the macro lessons of our kitchen it`s like we post about the trees while sometimes forgetting to share an update about the forest.  This is particularly problematic as we`re more passionate about the metaphorical forest than the individual greenery within it so it`s good to remember to take a step back from time to time.

A few weeks back, Dana ran into something (it may have been a passage from Mark Bittman or Joel Salatin) that explained that eating locally meant making a shift from eating what was available instead of what you wanted.  Although the sentiment was pure common sense, it was also a pretty big moment for us; it`s amazing how the words of others can help cement feelings into fact.

And those facts help informing your kitchen.

I`ve found myself reflecting on that statement a lot in recent weeks.  I wish one could plan the timing of such moments but when inspiration hits, you`ve got two options: answer to the bell or try to ignore her.  I`ve tried to embrace the challenge and can feel how our kitchen is changing just by purposefully searching for the items that I have on hand rather than defaulting to recipes, tricks or ingredients I may know.

This particular influence is easier to pursue because of our pantry full of preserves.  Consider today`s brunch:

  • It started with a baguette.  We get a baguette every 2-3 weeks as part of our community shared agriculture program (though this one was bought en route to picking up our CSA today).
  • Laid on top of the bread (not visible) is a sweet-potato humus that came from our CSA basket last week.
  • On top of that are onions (again, from the CSA) which were caramelized with cider vinegar, maple syrup (from a friend`s tree), hot peppers (that we dehydrated), salted herbs (we preserved) and tossed with cheese that we also received as part of our CSA.

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  • The sandwich was then topped with two fried eggs from a local small farm (again part of our CSA)
  • and then topped with pickled hot peppers from our pantry.

I would have never mixed all of these things together before – but the focus on using what we have vs. what we want is creating new and delicious combinations in our kitchen that we would have missed before.  And it`s got me that much more excited about exploring what happens when the first thought isn`t `what else do I need?`

What great things do you assemble with the things you have?

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The sky is dull grey and dank; it kind of feels like a dubious looming candle that melts from the apex of the moon and into the asphalt on the ground.  You get the picture: it’s dull.  Drab.  Droopy.  Not delightful.

But I’m excited to be heading into the murky streets of Toronto this morning.  We’ll be crossing the city in a vibrant red streetcar (or my neon black truck) to meet friends for brunch.  Friends Dana’s had for most of her adult life and friends I’ve now shared for many years.  A group of ‘ladies’ that we used to meet monthly for the same meal (as in brunch not as in the same ingredients) in what was once an all-girl brunch club (I ruined the gender ratio).  They will be our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I’m generally not a big breakfast person.  I have a special place in my heart for pancakes and French Toast but find the truly homemade version is generally far superior to what one gets in many restaurants.  But I can easily pass on most of the meals other offerings; I’d far rather trade a hamburger for a fried egg or a plate of spaghetti for a pile of hash.  I know that many people love the concept of breakfast for dinner – I’m just wired the other way.

This morning is a return to chicken and waffles.  Yes, I am that excited.

But brunch has become about more than the meal.  It’s a small tradition that connects this small group of friends out of the context of our ‘normal’ friend ship with each other.  Brunch is a pattern interrupt and seeing them for this meal always feels different from our other encounters. Brunch is the cozy couch that’s wrapped in a warm blanket of our friendship.

I don’t know when it crossed the line from going for a meal to becoming a tradition, but it did.  Memories from across the city of shared breakfast and bleary eyes as we slowly become fully conscious of the world around us (aided a great deal by never-ending cups of coffee).  And food that is seasoned with tradition always tastes better than the alternative to me.

What are the small food traditions you value the most in your life?

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I had the chance to attend a ‘screening’ of SEEDS this week.  I knew that it was a play and that it featured the ‘Dad from Corner Gas.’  I also knew it was based on a real court case which centered around Canadian farming and Monsanto and their genetically modified Seeds.  I also knew it had some innovative use of video.

What I didn’t know was how much I was going to love it and how important a piece of work this is.  If you live in Toronto and are passionate about food you owe it to yourself to go to this production.

Seeds is a play as well as it is a documentary.  I hadn’t heard of the genre or really given it much thought before going to the production.  Much of the text is taken from court transcripts and interviews that they playwright conducted with stakeholders in the case across North America over 4 or 5 years.  Writing this play must have been a mad obsession that haunted Annabel Soutar as she wrote it – there’s no other explanation on how someone could undergo the sheer amount of work to produce such a masterful story.

Before dismissing my review as a guy who is biased due to his love of Theatre I must interject; although I’d love to see myself as a theatre loving Renascence Man, the truth is that I haven’t been to a theatre production in many years – and I’ve seen less than 5 or 10 live shows in the last 15 years.  And, perhaps, that was part of the magic.  As much as I expected large bulky sets I had nothing to prepare me for the amazing use of camera work and projection screens that it was very easy to forget that I was watching a live performance at all.  Seeds blends the use of technology with masterful liver performances and makes it truly easy for the audience to leave the theatre and easily end up in a farmer’s field in Saskatchewan or the highest courts of this country.

The play follows a lawsuit between massive biotechnology firm Monsanto and farmer Percy Schmeiser.  Monstanto sued him in the 1990’s for violating patent law (effectively using their seeds without paying the proper license) and Schmeiser fought back claiming that Monsanto’s seeds were contaminating his fields.

The play has a small cast which manage to transform themselves into endless different characters across 4 continents.  The central story follows the playwright as she interviews people from all sides of the court case and shares the transcripts of those conversations they shared with her.  The story makes for compelling drama as it follows the progression of the trial through multiple stages.

The play tells the story in the words of the people who lived it.  It trys not to draw conclusions (if life were only so simple) and appears to pull no punches to either side of the story presented.

This play is more than good – it’s important.  If you are unfamiliar with the case history or the fallout and how it relates to what finds its way to your plate, I encourage you to check this out.  We are at a vital crossroads in our food history and it’s so important that we all are conscious of what’s happening and take the opportunity for our voices to be heard.

If you are interested in checking out the play, it runs through March 10th .  You can buy tickets for Seeds here (the most expensive ticket is $35).  Use the code “Food” for 25% off.  The play takes place at Young Centre for Performing Arts in the Distillery – not at their offices on Queen Street.

Note that the author was given a ticket (face value of $7.50) to watch the play – there was no promise of an article or any other promotion in exchange for the ticket.  They did provide the photos.

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I grew up on Sheppard’s Pie.  It is the grandddaddy of comfort foods for me.  It may only be rivalled by creamed peas on toast.

The Sheppard’s Pie of my youth was inspired by the comfort food that came out of my Grandmother and her mother’s kitchens.  If is food of a simpler time – and, more specifically, a simpler budget as the depression tightened her hold on many purse strings. 

To this day my Grandmother can stand on her front porch in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and point to houses where the 3 generations before her lived.  And this is important to this story: the Sheppard’s Pie of my youth rarely had lamb (it would have been brought in from far away) and used any ingredients from around the kitchen that one could muster.  Sheppard’s Pie was more of an idea than a recipe and it continues (in my kitchen) as such today.  So the proper name for today’s recipe (featuring ground deer from the fall) is “Hunters Pie” but to me it will forever be that of the Sheppard:

Ingredients (almost everything is optional)

  • 3-4 large Yukon gold potatoes; peeled and cut into large cubes
  • butter
  • cream
  • garlic
  • ginger
  • wasabi
  • 1 pound ground venison
  • vegetable oil for frying
  • salt
  • pepper
  • Paprika or cayenne (I like lots)
  • dry oregano
  • 3 carrots, grated fine (with a rasp)
  • 1-2 onions or leeks, chopped fine
  • Grated cheese (I used Old Cheddar and Gruyère)

Even more optional ingredients that were fabulous:

  • 0.5 cup of roasted red peppers (we freeze them as a puree)
  • 1 cup of chilli sauce (it was hanging out in the fridge and wanted to join the party)

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for your potatoes.
  2. As the water is coming to temperature, heat a large heavy pan (I prefer cast iron) on medium-high, coat with a light layer of oil and wait until it is almost smoking.
  3. Add ground meat to oil – it should sizzle right away.  Add it in small portions (each time you add meat you will lower the temperature of the pan so adding it gradually will allow the pan to retain its heat).
  4. Turn the oven to 350 degrees
  5. Season meat with salt, pepper, paprika or cayenne.
  6. Fry meat until it is well brown (your potatoes should be cooking or cooked by now).
  7. Add remaining vegetables (carrots and leeks/onions) to the meat and cook until tender.
  8. Add pepper puree and chilli sauce (these were the optional ingredients) and cook for a few minutes to reduce the liquid in them).
  9. The potatoes will be done when they fall apart when prodded with a knife (don’t under cook them)
  10. During the final moments of cooking your meat, add the garlic, ginger and oregano.  Stir to incorporate and then remove from heat.
  11. Drain potatoes (making sure to get rid of all water).  Allow them to sit in a strainer for a few minutes to complete the process.
  12. Season with salt and wasabi and incorporate cream and butter as you mash.  Don’t worry about mashing perfectly smooth – some light chunks may remain.
  13. Spoon meat-vegetable combination into the bottom of  heavy pot and top with potatoes.
  14. Use my Trick for the Best Sheppard’s Pie Topping (hint: it’s all about texture).
  15. Place in oven for 45 minutes.
  16. Top with grated cheese.
  17. Return pie to oven for 15 minutes; browning the cheese if needed/ desired at end with the broiler.
  18. Let the pie sit for 10-15 minutes before serving (don’t cheat).

This was just rocking.

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