Snackshots: Stuff we’ve cooked recently

In an ideal world, we’d have time to blog in detail about all our adventures in cooking. In reality, we cook, photograph and eat a lot more than we have time to write about. Here are a few recent dishes and some quick notes on sources, methods, and our impressions of the end product.

Insalata Caprese

Simple perfection: a variety of tomatoes from the back yard, fresh basil, olive oil, salt, pepper, and mozzarella di bufala. Sometimes, we add a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar to amp up the sweet and sour quotient.

Oops – here’s one with the mozzarella:

Celeriac Remoulade and Sous Vide Cod Fillet

We’ve been tearing through the excellent Heston Blumenthal at Home, a book that adds some modernist techniques and refinements to home cooking in a way that yields big return for little effort. Celeriac remoulade is finely shredded celery root in a sauce of homemade mayonnaise, studded with capers, pickles, lemon, tarragon and parsley. It acts as a sort of high-end tartar sauce/salad when served alongside unadorned white fish.

In this case, we used some sparklingly fresh cod, brined for 10 minutes in a 3% salt solution (30 grams of salt to 1 liter of water), cooked sous vide for 15 minutes at 60’C, and pan-seared on one side to give it crunch and colour. The brining and sous vide cooking gave the fish a supple, moist but not mushy texture that’s almost impossible to produce any other way. The homemade mayo was an ordeal (I tried using the Vitamix, but it still split, and the two of us resorted to the old-fashioned “whisk and elbow grease” method.) But it was so, so good.

Chamomile Panna Cotta

Another hit from the Heston Blumenthal book. Milk, infused with chamomile flowers, gently warmed with whipping cream, sugar and sheet gelatin.

A dusting of fructose (fine crystals of fruit sugar) and powdered chamomile emphasized the flavours of the panna cotta, and fresh peaches provided a fresh, zingy note. Unbelievably silky and quietly, soothingly delicious.

Peach Tart

This one’s from the excellent Salt to Taste: The Key to Confident, Delicious Cooking by Marco Canora.

It’s a really simple tart composed of pastry, a layer of apricot preserves, and sliced peaches. The crust recipe is interesting: it’s vanilla-scented, and has a slightly cake-y texture owing to the presence of baking powder. We liked it a lot, but agreed that Thomas Keller’s pine nut crust would’ve been even better.

A sprinkling of icing sugar atop the hot peaches created a tasty glaze. Mmm. And didn’t MC Warmspice do a nice job of arranging the peach slices?

Spinach Crepes with Sauce Mornay

This was a totally fun weekend-evening activity/meal. We used Julia Child’s crepe batter recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and filled the crepes with super-fresh local spinach, blanched, drained and sauteed in butter with a little onion and a splash of vermouth.

These went into a 350’F oven, nestled in a buttered baking dish and napped with a white sauce enriched with nutmeg, grated Jarlsberg cheese, and a sprinkling of parmesan. A quick trip under the broiler (and the blowtorch to brown the gaps the broiler left behind, lol) and we had a lovely meal.

Seafood Tower

I’ve sort of been fantasizing about making my own seafood tower since I saw a picture of one in Au Pied de Cochon: The Album – from the temple of foie gras and pork fat in Montreal. (Unfortunately, when we visited, it was in the depth of winter.) Well, lobster is cheap this summer, so an indulgence like this doesn’t produce quite the same fiscal hangover that it otherwise might.

The thing about lobster is: it’s usually badly prepared. The shock of boiling water, a blazing grill, or superheated steam almost always make it tough and stringy. And too often, it’s boiled in water that’s sorely lacking in seasoning. That leaches flavour out of the lobster (basically making a wan lobster stock) rather than maintaining and enhancing its flavour. So, as usual (do I sound like a broken record? don’t answer that) we turn to Thomas Keller.

Start by making a court bouillon: a quick stock full of onions, leeks, carrots, fennel stalks, lemons, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Add water, white wine, and white wine vinegar. Bring that to a boil, and simmer it for 10 minutes. Bring it back to a boil. Now you’re ready for the lobster. Take your 1.5 to 2lb lobster, plunge him or her head-first into the boiling broth, and quickly put the lid on the stockpot. When the pot returns to the boil, uncover it, boil for 1 minute, then remove it from the heat, put the lid back on, and wait for 12 minutes. Carefully remove the lobster from the bouillon and let it cool down for 15 minutes before proceeding.

That will give you tender, flavourful, just barely cooked lobster meat, which you can then shell and chill (or, as Keller does at the French Laundry, warm up in a decadent butter emulsion).

Our seafood tower also featured mussels and B.C. spot prawns. For the prawns: bring the court bouillon back to the boil, dump the wriggling creatures into the broth, replace the lid, and as soon as the liquid returns to a simmer, remove it from the heat and let it sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Then remove the prawns and chill them.

For the mussels: Ladle an inch of the court bouillon into the bottom of a pot. Place the mussels on top of a steamer or rack. Steam them just until they open. When they’re cool enough to handle, remove half of each shell, free the mussel, remove its beard if present, and put the moules on the half-shell on a tray to chill. Cover it with plastic wrap to prevent the flesh from drying out.

From there, it’s easy: some quartered lemons, cocktail sauce, and a mignonette sauce of finely chopped shallots and black pepper with equal parts white wine vinegar and white wine.

Heat Wave Survival Pack

Oh yeah, it’s hot. Going out the door is like walking smack into the middle of a feather mattress with a molten marshmallow centre. If you’re in the same boat, here are a few ideas for keeping cool, nourished, and happy.

Survival Pack Component 1: Iced Coffee

Take 6 oz of coarsely ground coffee, put it in a pitcher or bowl, and slowly add 1 litre of cool water, stirring to moisten the grinds. Set it aside, covered with a lint-free cloth, for 18 hours. Meanwhile, if you like your coffee sweetened, prep some simple syrup ahead of time. In a small pan, combine 1/4 cup white sugar with 1/4 cup of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Set it aside to cool, then cover and refrigerate.

To finish the coffee concentrate, strain it twice into clean vessels: first through a fine sieve, and then through cheesecloth. Now, get yourself a frosty cup, add 2 oz or so of the coffee concentrate, a couple of ice cubes, the milk or milk substitute of your choice, and a teaspoon of the simple syrup. Happy, happy, happy. This recipe makes about 3 cups of concentrate, and it lasts in the fridge for a good few days.

Survival Kit Component 2: Peachsicles

Peaches are in season around these parts, and they are spectacular this year. Buy more than you plan on eating fresh, and make some freezy treats. Start by blanching as many very ripe peaches as you’ll need (around one per peachsicle) for 30 seconds. (Yes, I know, boiling water, heat… trust me.) Plunge them into ice water, and slide their skins off. With your impeccably clean hands (as Julia used to say), hold a peach over a bowl, and smush it between your fingers. Discard the pits, unless you have really strong teeth and a taste for cyanide.

In a blender, combine the peach flesh with (for every 6 peaches) the juice of a lemon, and 1/3 cup of simple syrup. If you want to make the pops more grown-up, reduce the amount of syrup and add a little vodka, schnapps or eau de vie. (Adding the booze without reducing the sugar risks giving you slush instead of ice). Blend until smooth, and freeze in popsicle molds like these little sailboat ones:

Shortly after this photo was taken, this sailboat met Jaws. My jaws. Snork.

Survival Kit Component 3: Godzpacho

I literally can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to posting about this recipe. I live for it. Heck, half the time in the summer, I live on it. If it’s not so hot, I deliberately go outside and run around just so I can cool off eating it. It’s Thomas Keller’s Sun Gold Tomato Gazpacho. AKA, Godzpacho. This is my adaptation (not so much an adaptation as a license to use different varieties of tomato…)

A few notes, first. This recipe is scaled for a 64-oz (2 litre) blender jug. Using a smaller jug will add a non-trivial amount of work to your day. Secondly… I am sheepish about owning a Vitamix, but in this case, it makes an enormous difference to the work involved, and to the yield you get from your ingredients. The Vitamix more or less obliterates 90% of the tomato skin and seeds that you would otherwise need to strain out of the soup to make it silky smooth. Finally: I can’t pretend this is the easiest gazpacho in the world, but I think it’s worth the work, particularly since it provides 2 people with the foundation of at least a couple of lunches and a light dinner. It keeps very well for a few days.

On with the show. Take 2lb of the ripest, sweetest tomatoes you can find. Sungolds are the best, but you can definitely get away with a mix of other cherry and larger tomatoes. Today, I used a mix of Sungold, Clear Pink and Beefsteak, topped up with a few nice, vine-ripened red cherry tomatoes from the store.

To round out the veggies, you’ll need 12oz (300 gr) of small, pickling style cucumbers (about 3), 1/4 cup red onion, one large clove of garlic (try to find local or California garlic – this has less bite and a fresher taste than most imported types), and a red, yellow or orange bell pepper.

Depending on your blender, you may need to chop things up into smaller chunks than this:

Other elements of the mise en place: 3/4 cup of good, extra-virgin olive oil, 1 Tbsp sherry vinegar or other full-bodied wine vinegar, and 1/2 tsp of the magical piment d’Espelette, a hideously expensive but oh-so-fruity and resinous mildly spicy chili powder from the Basque country. If you don’t have it, try a little tiny pinch of cayenne.

Throw the veggies and 1 C cold water into the blender. Hold off on the other ingredients.

Just fits!

Starting the blender on low and ramping it up to high, blend for about 2 minutes (in a Vitamix) or up to 4 minutes in a standard blender (don’t blame me if your machine blows up!)

Once it’s nice and smoothish, get yourself a large bowl and a fine sieve, e.g. the tamis pictured below.

Dump the puree into the tamis and, using a flat-bottomed spoon-type-device…

…push the mixture back and forth, scraping along the surface of the tamis, until you a) tire of this activity, or b) end up with just a few tablespoons of recalcitrant seeds and skins.

Rinse your blender jug, pour the puree carefully back into it, and add the vinegar, piment d’Espelette, and maybe 1/2 tsp of kosher salt. With the blender running on medium-high, slowly dribble the olive oil into the mix, as though you’re making mayonnaise. Once it’s incorporated, you should have a very velvety soup with the density and spoon-coating characteristics of heavy cream.

Refrigerate this for a couple of hours to allow the flavours to blend, and the soup to chill. Just before serving, if you’re feeling ambitious, make some tiny dice of cucumber and chunk up a few cherry tomatoes. When you’re ready to serve, taste the soup for salt and brightness, adding salt and/or more vinegar as necessary.

One last note: Godzpacho will separate slightly over the hours, so give it a good shake or whiz it in the blender for a second before serving.

Survival Pack Component 4: Beer

If all or any of the above are too taxing – or as a reward for undertaking them – there’s always beer.

There’s an app for this

Your Bluebarry has been making googly-eyes at the iPad more than usual these days, having downloaded the drool-worthy app, Great British Chefs. Many of the recipes are of the New Year’s Eve, over-the-top variety, but there are some that aren’t that daunting. The first to send me to the kitchen was Martin Wishart’s Champagne and Citrus Terrine.

Obviously not my photo – click to view it in its original context.

Nice, huh? The squiggles and dots are passion fruit, btw. Not sure what the green material is – judging by the recipe, it might be super-thin strands of mint.

Keen readers will remember my checkered past with gelatinized terrines. Let’s see how this one turned out.

The first oddity in the recipe: it calls for 10 sheets of gelatine. Why, why, why do chefs not provide weights in recipes using gelatine? With some online research, I determined that 10 sheets of new-size British gelatine equals about 17 grams. That translated to 8 sheets of the gelatine I had on hand.

I soaked the gelatine in ice water for 5 minutes as I brought a cheap-but-drinkable bottle of prosecco to a boil with 450g of caster sugar (why it must be caster sugar when it’s going to be liquified, I don’t really know) and added the juice of 1 orange and one lemon. Off the heat, I stirred in the hydrated gelatine leaves and left the mixture to cool to room temperature.

The second recipe anomaly is the fact that it calls for 11 oranges and 10 pink grapefruits to 1 bottle of bubbly. Obviously, that wouldn’t produce the results pictured above. Instead, I brought home from the market: 2 blood oranges, 2 minneolas, and 1 pink grapefruit. I proceeded to suprême the citrus by cutting off the blossom and stem ends, standing each fruit upright, carefully cutting down along the contour to cut away the peel without losing too much flesh, and finally (!) cutting and gently peeling each segment away from the membrane.

Ooohhhh…. jewel-like.

The “chef’s treat” from this prep was a divine cocktail of citrus juice, funnelled from the flexible cutting mat into a glass. Yum. The minneolas were a surprise – they had a wonderful, peppery note atop their dominant tangerine flavour.

Assembly was straightforward from then on out. I poured 1 cm of the prosecco mixture into a terrine mold lined with plastic wrap (pro-tip: moistening the sides of the terrine pan helps the plastic move into all the corners) and put it in the fridge for half an hour to set. This was followed by a layer of citrus segments, topped with more liquid gel. I repeated this x3.

Here’s what the terrine looked like before being sliced. A lot like Aunt Bea’s canned-mandarin-orange-and Jell-O salad, amirite?

And… drumroll… here it is on the plate.

Nowhere near as pretty as the Chef’s, but not bad. The gel was set just enough to allow most (lolz) of the slabs to be plated without falling completely apart. Another half-sheet of gelatine would have helped them hold their shape. I definitely should have left more gel-space between the layers of citrus: the close layering produced fault lines. And for reasons I’m not yet clear on, my terrine had none of the effervescence that’s evident in the pro version. Next time, I’ll try using only 1/3 of the prosecco to dissolve the sugar, and adding the rest of it in just before the assembly stage.

The recipe as presented in the app had enough inaccuracies and omissions (is there a passion fruit syrup along with the seeds? how do I prepare the little green strands?) that I will be very cautious with future recipes. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s just this chef’s recipes that suffer from these shortcomings, or whether this is an app-wide phenomenon.

Quibbles aside, though, this was a fantastic dish. Bright and crystalline, both in flavour and visually. The real genius is found in the contrast provided by the passion fruit: its super-crunchy seeds and searing tartness alongside the sweet gel and citrus… gustatory fireworks.


Ice cream for grown-ups

Loving the savoury things in life as we do, your nomnivores were only too happy to welcome the salted caramel craze as a way to introduce some saline to the final frontier: dessert. But this is a trend that hadn’t made its way into our kitchen, until we hit on the idea of salted caramel ice cream.

Of course, we didn’t invent it; we didn’t even make up the recipe: credit for that goes to David Lebovitz.

You need to craft two batches of caramel for this concoction.

Making the caramel

The first batch is swiftly turned out onto a silicone mat, and allowed to spread out into a thin layer, cooling into a crystalline sheet. This will later be crushed into smithereens, to be incorporated into the ice cream as it freezes.

A Jackson Pollock in burnt sugar

Your bluebarry, seen through a cresting wave of salty caramel

The second batch of caramel receives a liberal dose of butter prior to its liaison with milk, cream, and egg yolks. The resulting custard is chilled thoroughly, then frozen in an ice-cream machine.

Frozen salty-sweet-burnt goodness

The verdict? Delicious, but a decidedly adult treat. This is a full-on wallop to the taste-buds, with salty, sweet, and a healthy dollop of bitterness battling for supremacy. Add in the crunch of the caramel shards and the cold creaminess, and you have yourself an epic dessert, best enjoyed in small doses.

Some lessons learned:

The sugar and salt together pose a more formidable than usual challenge to the freezing process. Ideally, you’ll want to give yourself a couple of days to make this: one day to make and chill the custard (cover it with plastic touching its surface to prevent a skin from forming) and a second day to make the ice cream and to allow it to freeze thoroughly. Ours didn’t freeze optimally until day 3. Lebovitz wisely recommends using a shallow pan to speed up the process.

While freezing dulls the taste of sugar somewhat, it doesn’t have the same effect with salt. We recommend very slightly less salt than Lebovitz.