Insalata Formula 1

We had a lovely dinner a few nights ago at Ascari Enoteca 26, an Italian wine bar in our neighbourhood. The restaurant takes its name from 1950s Italian Formula 1 racing great Alberto Ascari, whose appetite for food and wine was legendary. The highlight of the meal was a simple salad of shaved celery, bocconcini di bufala, and white anchovies. It was a brilliant blend of contrasting flavours and textures: crunchy celery, barely dressed with a bit of lemon juice, cheese with a delicately rubbery rind yielding to a creamy interior, and brightly acidic, salty anchovies on top. Unexpected, and delicious.

This recipe depends on very specific ingredients; buying regular supermarket bocconcini and oil- or salt-packed anchovies will not get you even halfway there. The cheese must be fresh mozzarella made from buffalo milk: this has a delicacy, textural interest, and rich flavour that is miles away from standard bocconcini. In Toronto, products from fattorie garofalo are relatively easy to find, and very, very good.

The anchovies are a bit tricky to find. They are sometimes called “white anchovies”, or boquerones in Spanish. We found them yesterday hiding behind the prosaic title “fish salad” at Scheffler’s in St. Lawrence Market. Basically, these are filleted anchovies that have been marinated in vinegar and spices.

We decided to riff on the Ascari salad, adding super-thin shavings of fresh artichoke along with the celery. We dressed these with a generous lashing of lemon juice, some fleur de sel, and a scant drizzle of lemon olive oil.

With some of MC Warm Spice’s fresh pain a l’ancienne alongside…

… this was a great way to start dinner on a spring weekend evening.

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.