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.

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!

Mama Cass-oulet

Cassoulet may just be the ultimate winter comfort food. From the way the word rolls off the tongue, to the supple mouthfeel, the subtle, warm flavours, and the nourished, soporific feeling you have after consuming it… it’s the culinary equivalent of a down duvet cloaked in silk.

Even at its most stripped-down, cassoulet is a labour of love. The one we made for New Year’s Eve was perhaps more labourious and more loved than most. Hell, we did everything but grow the beans and raise the pigs ourselves.

The work commenced about 10 days ahead of time, when the pork belly began to transform itself into bacon, along the general lines of the recipe I blogged last fall. This time, I went with a less assertive treatment, omitting the maple and the smoking. I wanted the flavour of the beans in the cassoulet to be more prominent than that of the meaty garnishes.

The duck confit came next. Around the same time, because I didn’t have enough to do, I began the 2-day process of making Thomas Keller’s veal stock from The French Laundry Cookbook. I don’t intend to make a habit of this, I just felt the need to do the “uber-stock” for the first time in my life. In short, here’s how this insanity unfolds.

  • Start with 10 lbs of veal bones and a stock pot that can hold about 16 quarts. I had to use 2 pots.
  • Slowly, slowly, bring the bones up to a bare simmer in your stock cauldron, skimming all the time.
  • Remove them from the pot, and immediately rinse them in clean, warm water to remove impurities.
  • Wash the stock pot, return the bones to it, fill it with cold water, and return it to the stove.
  • Again, with agonizing slowness, return the water to a simmer, doing what? Yeah: skimming, skimming, skimming. Always.
  • After a few hours, add your aromatics: onion, leek, fresh tomato, a surprising amount of tomato paste, thyme, bay leaves, parsley, garlic, and carrot. Skim, skim, skim.
  • Ladle / gently pour the liquid – which is now triumphantly dubbed “Veal #1” – into a new vessel, keeping the solids in the pot. Quickly bring the liquid to fridge-ready temperature in a sink-full of ice-water (50% ice). If you’re not continuing to make the stock the same day (you probably won’t), do likewise with the solids.
  • Next: fill the stock pot – which still contains the solids – with water once more, and again, bring it to a simmer. Did I mention that you need to skim?
  • Simmer for approximately ever, then (once again assuming you aren’t continuing the process the same day) bring this liquid – now christened “Veal #2” – down to fridge temp. You can now safely discard the solids.
  • Finally, combine Veal #1 and Veal #2 in a clean pot. Simmer ’till the cows come home (maybe they’re looking for the veal?) skimming…skimming… for many hours.
  • According to Keller, you should reduce this to 2 quarts. I lost my nerve and my patience around 3.5 quarts. “Good enough!” I shouted.

That is Veal #1 being chilled. The final product was essentially fat-free.

Was it worth it? Hard to say. It is a helluva stock. Maybe a bit tomato-y for me. It’s intense in a Barry White kind of way: it’s dark, smooth, and all about the bass notes.

Where were we? Oh yeah – that was a sub-recipe for inclusion in the cassoulet! Onward… to make sausage. Chef C and I chose a mildly flavoured Toulouse-style French garlic sausage. We followed the procedure I’ve blogged about before, and we used this recipe from Len Poli – I can’t say enough good things about that recipe – it was just perfect.

We made a mess by overstuffing the sausages (maybe the casings had become a bit brittle over time?) but they remained coherent enough to survive being browned in a pan and sliced into the cassoulet.

So much for the sub-recipes! On to the main event. We went more or less with Anthony Bourdain’s recipe from his Les Halles Cookbook. Our adaptations: We used the unsmoked, roasted bacon in place of fresh pork belly, and some excellent quality Italian cannellini beans in place of the impossible-to-find-except-by-mail-order Tarbais beans. We used duck fat instead of pureed pork rind. We didn’t carefully layer the ingredients just-so. And we compressed Bourdain’s “day 2” and “day 3” together into one day.

At last, Chef C combined the beans, veal stock, bacon, sausage, and duck confit in an enamelled cast iron pot and put it in the oven, uncovered, to burble away happily for a couple of hours. We had to bump the temperature up to 375’F to get the burbling happening. Finally, the cassoulet developed its characteristic crust, and was ready to serve. It was received enthusiastically, and finished with blissful sighs.

Spice Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Three Ducks in a Tub

This year, Santa brought a Sous Vide Supreme – a “water oven” that allows one to cook vacuum-packed food at a constant, precise (usually low) temperature.

Heirloom baby carrots, butter, sugar and salt ready for vacuum-packing: cooked sous vide and then briefly sautéed to finish the glaze, they are intensely carrot-y.

There are a few reasons to get into sous vide cooking:

  • Precision temperature control means no over- or under-cooking. You can cook a perfect soft-cooked egg every time.
  • It allows you to cook and hold items at a specific temperature for a relatively long period of time.
  • Flavour is captured in the cooking pouch – items can braise in a tiny amount of flavouring, along with their own juices. You don’t  lose any of the food’s inherent flavour to the cooking environment, and you can either supplement that flavour with other tastes, or just leave the main ingredient to taste intensely of itself.
  • Being able to cook at extremely low temperatures for extended periods of time allows you to produce effects that can’t be achieved through other means of cooking. For example, you can cook tough cuts of meat like brisket or short ribs long enough for them to become super-tender, while maintaining them at a medium-rare temperature.
  • It enables you to cook things to the same temperature all the way through, without drying them out. Consider the normal way of cooking a steak: hitting it with high heat and hoping that the centre will reach medium-rare before the outside is charred. You need to work hard to avoid an over-done outside, under-done inside, and toughening or drying out. Even if you do everything right, you end up with varying degrees of doneness. This gets to be more of a problem as you cook thicker cuts, like “baseball” tenderloin steaks and 2-inch thick T-bones for bistecca alla Fiorentina. In a water oven, you can gently bring the steak to a single, uniform temperature and doneness all the way through. If you want medium-rare steak, you set the oven at 135’F, and the steak can never get more done than that. Then just before serving, you blast the outside with some high heat to get that tasty, tasty crust.

Wild Pacific halibut vacuum-packed with Meyer lemon, and frozen olive oil and dill cubes. Freezing liquid ingredients allows the home sous vide-r to get by with a cheap Foodsaver (which is easily damaged by liquid intake), rather than a costly chamber vacuum.

This isn’t to say that everything done sous-vide is perfect, or that it’s appropriate all the time: sometimes you want the melding of flavours that a traditional oven braise provides, and sometimes it’s nice to have a leg of lamb that has some rare and some well done meat. Sous vide is just another cooking tool, and I’m enjoying learning to use it.

This year’s New Year’s Eve feast will include cassoulet. And that, my friends, means duck confit: lightly salt-cured duck legs cooked slowly in duck fat until they become succulent beyond belief.

There are a few things about duck confit that lend it to sous vide cooking:

  • It needs a constant, low temperature over several hours in order to become tender without seizing up or drying out.
  • Cooking it traditionally – in a pot in the oven – requires a heckuva lot of duck fat. Sous vide, you can just vac-pack the legs with a couple of tablespoons of fat, and depend on water to transfer the heat.

For the curing and flavouring, I turned to Michael Ruhlman – the recipe is on his website, but can also be found in his excellent resource, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.

Duck legs in a melange of salt, garlic, pepper, clove, bay leaves and thyme.

After 48 hours in the fridge, I rinsed the duck legs, patted them dry, and got ready to vacuum pack them with duck fat.

Foodsaver, bags, duck fat, and cured duck legs.

For a good vacuum seal, you need to ensure that the edge of the bag is kept clean and dry. Folding the edge over itself is the easiest way to do this. Plus, you end up with a bunch of bags that look like they’re saying “NOM NOM FEED ME DUCK AND FAT NOW.”

Or are they singing Christmas carols?

Giving each leg its own pouch avoids the trouble of having to separate the delicate confited legs from each other.

Sous vide cognoscenti have differing opinions regarding the optimal time and temperature settings for confit. They typically range from 165’F to 180’F, and from 8 to 12 hours. As usual, I take Thomas Keller’s advice – in his pioneering book, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide, he recommends 180’F for 8 hours.

What's 0.3'F between friends?

Rub a dub dub, 6 legs = 3 ducks in a tub.

Got botulism? No thanks. Unless you're serving sous vide food immediately, you need to plunge it into a 50% ice / water bath and keep it there as long as the guidelines specify – this is a function of temperature and food thickness.

After coming out of the ice bath, one leg went into a hot-but-not-smoking cast iron skillet for 30 seconds each side. I wish I could tell you it came out looking like this:

… but it took a minute with the brûlée torch to get its sides and corners nicely browned. Next time, I’ll do the browning under the broiler.

How did it taste?

Pretty amazing. Definitely on the salty side of fantastic, but for its intended uses – in a salad, and as a cassoulet garnish – it’s great. The texture was unbelievable – still holding together, but falling away into silky strands on the fork. The garlic (which I was skeptical about) ended up being a really special flavour. Robust, but not at all aggressive.

Next time, as someone who likes to eat duck confit as a main course rather than a garnish, I’d probably cut the curing time down to 12 hours or even 6: in Under Pressure, Keller uses a 6-hour cure; Ruhlman, in Charcuterie, advises between 24 and 48 hours. Presumably, the sous vide method intensifies the saltiness.