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.

Tomatoes past and future

The tomatoes we planted  about a month ago were transplanted from tiny cells into larger pots today, and taken outside for some natural light.

Of 33 seeds sown, a number (mostly from older seed) failed to germinate. The 12 strongest that I chose for transplanting were: 2 beefsteak, 2 clear pink, 2 sungold, 2 black prince, 1 black cherry, 1 black krim, 1 Japanese black trifele, and one mystery one that I could’ve sworn was sungold, but looks a lot more like the Japanese black trifele and the clear pink.

Since those tomatoes aren’t quite ready for the kitchen yet, here’s our adaptation of a favourite tomato-centric recipe from Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook“: Santa Barbara Fish Stew.

The book itself is an interesting specimen: it’s an invaluable reference in many ways, with an odd blend of enduring classics, creaky old antiques (Celery Victor, anyone?) and late-80’s anomalies (Chinese Manicotti?!) One of the best things about the book is its method of providing a master recipe, followed by several variations. It’s a great way for beginning cooks to learn the fundamentals, and to get a sense of what elements of a recipe can and should be varied.

The recipe in question starts with Julia’s All-Purpose Mediterranean Soup Base, from which she derives a fish stew, a pureed Provençale fish soup, and a molded creation of fish in aspic.

Her Santa Barbara Fish Stew is a hybrid of the San Francisco / Italian-American cioppino, and a casual bouillabaisse. Here’s our adaptation. We make this year-round, probably about 10 times a year.

  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 smallish Spanish onion, sliced
  • 1 small bulb fennel, sliced, with fronds reserved for garnish
  • 1 carrot, sliced into 1/4 inch coins
  • 5 cloves of domestically grown garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or vermouth
  • 1 cup bottled clam juice
  • 2 cups chicken stock or 1.5 cups water
  • 1 bay leaf (fresh if you can find it)
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 strips of orange zest, completely stripped of white pith, about 1/2 inch x 1.5 inches
  • 1/2 tsp piment d’Espelette (you can substitute good, full-flavoured mild paprika and a touch of cayenne – smoked paprika is nice, too)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 1/2 tsp fennel pollen
  •  3/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cans (28oz / 796 ml) San Marzano tomatoes, with their juice. (If you have good, fresh tomatoes, use half fresh and half canned)

In a thick, 6-quart or larger pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sweat the onions until they lose their raw aspect. Add the fennel and carrots, and cook until for a few minutes longer; don’t let the onions brown. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute. Again, don’t let it brown.

Add the white wine, and boil for a minute. Add the clam juice, stock/water and all the seasonings, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 5 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and their juice. You can crush them through your “impeccably clean fingers”, as Julia used to say, or smush them up with a spoon once they’re in the pot. Bring to a simmer as you prep your seafood.

Here’s where you can get creative. Julia suggests “2 to 2 and 1/2 lbs skinless and boneless lean fish cut into 2-inch chunks, such as cod, hake, halibut, sea bass, monkfish, catfish, snapper… a variety is preferable.”

We usually go for a slightly more high-end, shellfish-intensive version. This time, since it was an “occasion”, we went all-out:

  • 4 cooked stone crab claws
  • 6 super-jumbo white shrimp (stay away from farmed black tiger shrimp, please – look for U.S., wild-caught shrimp)
  • 8 diver scallops
  • 16 mussels

Usually, though, we use a mix of shrimp, mussels, clams, and halibut or monkfish. We actually missed the fish in the luxe version, so we encourage you to include it.

Back to the cooking: bring your soup base to a boil, remove it from the heat, add your fish and the uncooked seafood, ensure that it’s covered by the soup, then cover the pan and let it sit for 3 minutes.

Uncover, add any cooked seafood such as shredded crab meat,  ladle it into wide soup bowls, and scatter some fennel fronds and/or chopped parsley atop. Serve with olive-oil toasted baguette. If you have some tasty rouille to spread atop the bread and mix into the soup, so much the better.

Friday Night Lights

Yesterday’s dinner for two nomnivores was better than it had any right to be, so it gets blogged.

The first course was something that we’ve actually never cooked before: sardines. Living deep inland, we tend to avoid those fish that depend most on freshness: the small, oily ones. Unfortunately, these are the same ones that have a magical confluence of culinary virtues – they’re super tasty, cheap, healthy, sustainable, and quick and easy to cook.

What led us to take a chance on these lovely little guys?

1. We’ve learned that Toronto gets most of its fresh fish delivered on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so Friday is a good bet.
2. The weather was good enough to cook outside – a key concern, if you don’t want your house to smell for days, and if you do want your fish to have that grill-kissed flavour.
3. There was a big pile of sardines at the fishmonger (in this case, Domenic’s at the St. Lawrence Market), and they looked impeccably shiny and fresh.

The staff at Domenic’s took pains to gut and scale the six little fish – a fiddly job that took the better part of 10 minutes.

The dish came together thusly:

The coals were lit.

Some good, dense, day-old Italian bread was repurposed into croutes: brushed on both sides with olive oil, broiled in the toaster oven, and sprinkled with sea salt.

We improvised a salad of diced ripe tomatoes and roasted red peppers, chopped scallions, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

We beheaded the sardines, and used a cool trick to debone them: laying them spine-up on the cutting board, with their belly flaps splayed out, run an index finger down the length of the spine with medium pressure. You’ll feel a subtle, zipper-like effect. Turning the fish over, grab the spine at the “neck” end, and press down against the flesh with your other hand as you pull up on the spine. Once you reach the tail, lop it off with a flick of your knife. Flip the fish over, gently pull out the dorsal fin, and you’re done. Dress the fish with a little olive oil and some sea salt.

The fish were grilled for about 90 seconds a side, and plated with the salad, croutes, and some chopped parsley and basil. We haven’t tasted fish like this since our long-ago trip to Istanbul – electrically fresh, somehow both rich and light, and elevated by the scent of olive oil and charcoal.

Contented sighs and a couple of glasses of wine later – Segura Viudas cava with a drop of Orange Bitters – it was on to the main course: grilled skirt steak with a fricassee of fava beans and chanterelle mushrooms.

I can’t pretend this is an easy, weeknight-dinner option, but if you have time to marinate the steak and deal with the multi-step business of shelling fava beans, the payoff is huge.

The steak – you DO know about skirt steak being cheap, crazy-flavourful and tender, right? – was cut into rectangular serving sizes and marinated in dijon mustard, worcestershire sauce, minced onion and black pepper.

Meanwhile, the favas: take a few pounds of them (this will yield a cup and a half or so), string them by snapping off the stem-end and pulling, and pop out the beans. Blanch them for one minute in a big pot of boiling salted water (lots of water means the temperature won’t drop when you throw the beans into it), and shock them in an ice bath. Finally(!) remove their leathery skins by nicking the edge of the skin with your thumbnail and, pinching between your thumb and index finger, pop the beany goodness into a bowl.

When your grill is ready, take the steak out of the fridge (skirt steak is so thin that it’s best not to let it come up to room temp before grilling) and fire it for about 2 minutes a side over a very hot grill.

While the steak is resting, assemble the fricassee (a fancy word for a saute with a lot of fluid). Saute your sliced chanterelles, add the favas, gloss the pan with a half-cup of rich veal stock (or some demi-glace), and taste for seasoning.

The finished product