Easy Being Green: Salsa verde

This is our interpretation of a vibrant condiment that’s fantastic with chicken, seafood and white-fleshed fish. And boiled potatoes, for that matter.

Googling its name – salsa verde – is likely to lead you to one of two countries: Mexico, or Italy (although many, many places have similar salsas). Here, we’re dealing with the Italian version, with a little nod in the general direction of Mexico.

Despite the bright, strong ingredients that are common to all recipes for salsa verde, we’ve found many versions lack complexity and roundness. We think we’ve come up with one that beats any that we’ve tasted.

Here’s the mise en place:

1 supermarket-size bunch of parsley, leaves and tops of the stems

A bunch of chives – refer to the picture for the amount… sort of hard to quantify!

A bunch (5 or 6) scallions, white and green parts, chopped in thirds

6 or 8 oil-cured olives (we found some astoundingly good low-salt ones)

1 clove garlic

2 or 3 tbsp capers, brined or – if they’re salted – rinsed and soaked for a few minutes

Here’s the twist: one jalapeño pepper, seeded and white veins removed

A few tbsp red wine vinegar

Good-quality, robust extra-virgin olive oil. How much? Enough to make things move smoothly in your blender and to produce a stiff but smooth consistency. Half a cup or more.

So… whizz it up in your blender, then taste for salt and vinegar and add more to correct any huge imbalances in flavour. Let it mellow for half an hour or so, then fine-tune the flavour.

A couple of tablespoons of this stuff next to a poached or grilled chicken breast, or broiled cod… mmm. And: you can freeze the leftovers in an ice cube tray and have some on hand whenever it’s needed.

Holy Crêpes

Ohhhh, man. You are going to want to make this, and soon. I can say without a doubt that this is the best under-$5/person meal I’ve ever had. Galettes Bretonnes au Sarrasin – Buckwheat Crêpes from Brittany, via Anne Willan’s impressive and beautiful cookbook, “The Country Cooking of France.”

Buckwheat has a flavour that’s hard to describe: it’s nutty, but it also has a deeper undercurrent of minerality – MC Warmspice says graphite (but he spent a lot of time licking pencil tips as a child, so it might have been lead.) It tastes wholesome, only better: like something that comes from a magical health food store where things aren’t heavy and clunky and hopelessly earnest.

The recipe uses equal parts buckwheat flour and unbleached white flour – we had run out of all-purpose, so we used King Arthur bread flour. That has a high gluten content, so our crêpes may have been chewier than intended, but we highly recommend it all the same. The flours are mixed with salt and milk.

After a couple of minutes of beating, the batter rests at room temp for 30 or 40 minutes, and then gets beaten again with water (same amount as the milk added earlier), and some clarified butter.

To cook the crêpes, we used a very hot, well-seasoned cast-iron pan, swabbed with clarified butter before each addition of crêpe batter.

The crêpes had some thickness in the middle – they weren’t paper thin. Judging by the photos in the book, ours were a little on the thick side, but not far off.

As they begin to brown around the edges and it becomes possible to slip a thin spatula underneath them, it’s time to flip ’em.

Parchment paper keeps each crêpe separate as the next ones cook.

Meanwhile, we had some eggs slow-soft-simmering (?) in the sous-vide oven. We set it at 148’F and cooked the eggs for an hour and a bit. You can, of course, use a traditional poached or soft-boiled egg. Having the sous-vide oven just makes it easier to get the exact-right doneness, and to hold the eggs there for at least a few minutes. If you’re going the traditional way, and you want to be able to serve several people, a neat trick is to poach eggs until they’re almost done, shock them in ice water, then reheat them as needed. It takes practice to get it right, but it’s worth the effort if big brunches are something you do on a semi-regular basis.

Once the crêpes were done, we filled them with salty goodies. Willan says that either egg, cheese, or ham is traditional. Being North American, we used all three. We didn’t cook the eggs on the crêpes themselves, though, comme il faut.

Gruyère, finely grated on the Microplane to make a little of it cover a large surface area. Neat trick, MC Warmspice!

And thinly sliced ham. You don’t want a smoked ham here; the flavour would overwhelm the buckwheat. Look for unsmoked, wet-cured jambon de Paris, or, if an Italian grocer is closer to you than a French shop, prosciutto cotto – cooked, wet-cured ham, not to be confused with the intense, dry-cured normal prosciutto.

Fold the stuffed crêpes into quarter-circles, crisp/warm them up in the pan…

…and enjoy!

Cheese Plate

For the cheese course on New Year’s Eve, we went with the auld-school / new school concept again. (Auld? Like Auld Lang…? oh, forget it.)

For the avant-garde contribution, we turned once again to Alinea for “Transparency of Manchego Cheese”.

Chef C did a great job at prepping several of the non-cheesy elements of the dish, namely: diced white (i.e., pickled, not oil- or salt-preserved) anchovies, diced roasted red and yellow pepper, roasted garlic cloves, precision-crafted mini-croutons, and… what everyone who has this dish raves about… Olive Oil Pudding!

It really is pretty great – sweet but not too sweet, and you get to enjoy the flavour of olive oil without, you know, ingesting an oil slick. Since I don’t have any prep pics, and Carol of Alinea At Home does, I’ll just hit the highlights: you heat up some milk, mix egg yolks with cornstarch and sugar, and gradually whisk the hot milk into the yolk mixture. Finally, whisk in the olive oil. I’d definitely recommend making this. It’s tasty, surprising, and totally easy for home cooks. I can picture it with a spicy tomato / black bean soup, or little open-faced serrano ham sandwiches, for example.

Bluebarry only prepped a couple of plate elements: the dehydrated black olives, and some very thin slices of manchego cheese. (For some reason, others who’ve made the dish seem to have been stymied by this task, which is sort of an essential if you’re going to end up with a transparency of the cheese as opposed to a shingle of cheese crushing some invisible stuff underneath it. Pro-tip: get a wedge of cheese, and a cheese plane – the wider the better.)

So, here’s the plate with all of the garnishes:

And with the thinly sliced manchego:

Apologies for the lack of an action shot with the kitchen torch (this is the one your Nomnivores own). Suffice it to say it was a pretty uneventful cheese-melting experience, even with 7 plates to torch, and 11 courses – and a considerable amount of wine – behind us.

It may have been the late hour and the sheer amount of food and wine, but the diners seemed “meh” about this one. It was… okay. The olive oil pudding was great. The dehydrated olives were not – the texture was dry, crunchy and “New!”, but instead of being more intensely olive-y, they were actually a little bland. A slice of dry-cured olive would’ve been better. The other elements made sense at an intellectual level (jarring but contextually appropriate contrasts of flavour and texture, smoothly complementary flavours and textures, pretty colours shining through the transparent cheese, yadda yadda). But they seem to have come at a cost. I’d rather have had some slices of olive-oil toasted bread, with anchovy, tapenade, and rouille alongside. And a chunk of manchego.

Speaking of which, here’s the old-school half of the cheese course: Stilton, quince jam, and Carr’s water crackers.

Meat Tartares: Old skool, New school

What’s better than raw meat? Two raw meats, that’s what.

Chef C had the brilliant idea to do a traditional beef tartare, alongside a new-fangled Noma tartare. The Noma cookbook has a recipe for beef tartare (the restaurant sometimes serves musk-ox). Wanting to contrast the traditional beef with something a little more gamey, and thinking we wouldn’t find musk-ox, we thought venison would be a good compromise.

So, of course, I found musk-ox. But since it was frozen, and the butcher said (admiringly) that it was very gamey, we decided to go with venison.

The first order of business was to source the garnishes for the Noma tartare. Unfortunately, early winter in Toronto isn’t the best time to find wood sorrel, aka shamrocks, either in the back yard or at the local florist. While I obsessed over what micro-herb to use atop the tartare, Chef C very sensibly decided on… sorrel! Chiffonade of sorrel, to be precise.

She then made a tarragon emulsion: a whole whack of tarragon leaves (plucked labouriously from their stems) blenderized with grapeseed oil, shallot, garlic, apple balsamic vinegar, Ultratex 3, and a few tablespoons of a monster, hours-long sub-recipe: chicken glace… a chicken stock boiled down to a thick syrup-gel. Other garnishes for the venison tartare: butter-toasted rye breadcrumbs, microplaned horseradish “floss”, shallot rings, salt, juniper berry powder, and mustard oil.

Chef C subjected the venison to the full Noma treatment: instead of finely mincing it, she scraped it into strands by dragging a chef’s knife along the length of the tenderloin. And here is the finished product:

Meanwhile, your Bluebarry got to work on the beef tenderloin, mincing it into dice that were probably between 1/8 and 1/4 inch. Chef C decided on Anthony Bourdain’s steak tartare recipe, which includes too many garnishes to list. I was charged with mixing the garnishes into the minced meat, and around the 66% point, I thought better of adding any more.

One ring mold later, Chef C had the tartare on the plate:

Now, with added toast-points!

The diners’ verdict? A unanimous decision in favour of the beef tartare! The austere, new-school garnishes served with the venison were no match for the salty-sweet-umami explosion that was old-school steak tartare. Even accounting for the added flavour, though, everyone agreed that the farmed venison was somewhat watery and bland. (This included your Bluebarry, who refrained from tasting the beef version until giving the venison a good chance to shine.) The flavour of the pastured beef was prominent even through all of the garnishes, while the venison didn’t show up well despite its delicate treatment. Everyone seemed to agree that the beef version was perfectly seasoned, so if you’re tempted to use the Bourdain recipe, be wary of adding the full complement of seasonings. Similarly, the venison may have received too heavy a dose of mustard oil. The all-too-obvious moral of the story: Season lightly, and taste as you go… especially when it’s your first time making a dish.

Next time: we’ll try the musk-ox.