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.

Spring Thing 1: Spot Prawn Tacos

Yes, it’s been a while. As you’ll see, we’ve been busy cooking, but life hasn’t permitted us time to blog about it. With vacation upon us (well, one of us, at least), it’s time to catch up. Here’s the first in a series of posts on what we’ve done with some springtime delicacies.

Spot prawns: a sort of Faustian bargain. Once you’ve tasted them, you will always and forever be disappointed by almost any other shrimp, particularly the bagged, black tiger specimens that find their way to our freezers from some murky water-farm in the far East. Spot prawns are special. Sweetly, saltily rich. They’re very tender and delicate – somewhere between shrimp and sole – so their quality depends on their freshness, much more so than many other proteins. Try to buy them alive and literally kicking, taken fresh from the water at your command. (You can get good frozen ones, but it’s a gamble, since poor handling – namely, leaving the heads in contact with the bodies for more than a few minutes after they croak – leaves them mushy).

When you do find good ones, you’d do well to make Hapa Umi Spot Prawn Tacos. But beware – there’s a serious error in that recipe, so read on for the authoritative version.

First, swallow your aversion to killing long enough to throw the angry little beasties into a sauté pan with a little canola or peanut oil.

When they turn red, throw a little sake in the pan, give it a shake, scrape up any browned bits, and empty the pan into a bowl. Let the prawns cool enough that you can handle them, then tear off their heads and shells and reserve them along with the juice. Set the prawns aside.

Take the reserved heads and shells, and sauté them with the chilis, garlic, and shallots. Add 1C of canola oil, and simmer gently for half an hour.

Strain, and there’s your shrimp oil. Here’s where the recipe runs into trouble. “Whisk egg whites with vinegar and oil slowly to egg mixture and continue whisking to form mayonnaise.” Leaving aside the grammar and spelling, there are no egg whites in the ingredient list, and using them won’t give you mayo. So:

Blend egg yolks with vinegar. With your blender running, add the shrimp oil very slowly, drop-by-drop at first, then in a thin stream. Once it’s all incorporated, you’ll have shrimp mayo. Add a little salt (1/4 tsp or so) and some medium-hot chili (ancho or piment d’Espelette).

Get yourself some corn tortillas (no wheat wraps, please, ick), some home-made salsa, maybe a little mashed avocado, and build your tacos. Baja on a plate!


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.

Variations on a theme by Noma

I was so excited to make this Noma dish: Pickled Vegetables and Smoked Bone Marrow. A garden full of different vegetables, each shaved thinly and quickly pickled in its own designated brine. And smoked bone marrow – something that sounds almost too decadently awesome to exist.

I made two versions of this: one, with bone marrow, on New Year’s Eve; the other, with seared scallops, a week later. I present both of these below.

For the marrow version: Four days ahead of time, procure your marrow bones. I had six, two-inch sections, and that was about right for 6 people. Soak them in cold water for two days, changing the water every 12 hours or so. Then switch the soaking liquid to a 7% salt brine – i.e., 70 grams of salt per litre of water.

Getting marrow out of the bone is a tricky business. Set the bone down on a cutting board, with the wider cut-side down. Protecting your hand protected (somewhat) with a tea towel or a chain mail glove, grip the base and, using a flexible steak knife or boning knife, carefully stab downward around the perimeter of the marrow until you’ve done a 360. Turn the bone section over, and try to repeat the procedure. This will be easy on the upper and middle segments of bone. Depending on your butcher’s skill and how little he likes you, you’ll likely end up with some segments that are partly or mostly bony at the wider end. If this is the case, carve out an opening wide enough to admit your index finger, trying your best to minimize the amount of fragmented bone that you introduce into the marrow. The next step is to poke the marrow out of the bone – this is best done when the whole thing is ice cold.

The next step is to smoke the marrow, using a combination of hay and wood chips. I found timothy hay at – you guessed it – the pet store, where it’s sold for bunnies and other, more rodent-esque creatures that apparently have invitations to the homes of my neighbours for reasons that are obscure to me.

The smoking happened on my ghetto smoker. Hay smoke is pretty intense – I was skeptical that it would end up tasting like anything other than a barn fire. In the Noma book, Redzepi prescribes a smoking time of 20 minutes. It was hard for me to see how this would impart flavour, but I followed instructions anyway.

For both versions: Redzepi calls for flash-pickling each veggie in a chamber vacuum for 10 minutes. Not having a chamber vac, I used the marinating accessory jar that came along with my Foodsaver. I really can’t say whether it worked better than just marinating in a bowl for half an hour or so – some day, I’ll do a controlled, double-blind trial of Foodsaver vs. bowl. But I can say that it worked just fine.

Many of the brine recipes call for apple balsamic vinegar. This is a hideously expensive ingredient; I paid about $30 for a 250ml bottle. (Yes, mother, I heard your sharp intake of breath from 120km away…) Of course, it’s also amazing: like balsamic with the slight, tangy, autumnal scent of apples gone to cider. Soooo good.

The bone marrow version of this dish had beet (in a very apple balsamic-intense brine), carrot and parsnip (in another apple balsamic brine), kohlrabi (in a brine of white vinegar and seaweed – I used a mix of wakame and laver, but I think nori or kombu would be fine – dulse might be too smoky), and cauliflower (in a straight-ahead vinegar-and-sugar brine). I forgot to make the cucumber and turnip. The scallop version had cucumber (in a watery brine with fresh dill and a tiny bit of vinegar), beets, carrot, and cauliflower.

To pickle the veggies, proceed thusly. Get your mandoline out, and shave yourself some veggies  – you’re going for slices just a touch thicker than a standard carrot peeling, and about 1cm wide. Except for the cauliflower, which needs a mandoline (or a knife wielded by steadier hands than mine) you can get by with a peeler. Carrots, parsnips and kohlrabi like being thrown into ice water after being sliced – it makes them curl up.

Here’s the Foodsaver flash-pickling apparatus, looking very Mr. Wizard:

… and here it is with carrots and brine:

… and here are the carrots after their dip in the brine:

Here’s the cauliflower, cheerily mimicking a cross-sectioned brain in formaldehyde:

And finally, just because it’s so pretty, here’s the pickled cucumber (which did make it into the second version of the dish):

For the marrow version: Slice the cold marrow into coins. Take the pork rib stock you’ve prepped, and boil some of it down into a near syrup.

For the scallop version: If you have pork stock left, so much the better (think bacon-wrapped scallops…mmm.) If not, warm up some demi-glace. Sear your scallops (sea scallops / diver scallops, not bay) in some clarified butter or neutral oil.

Here’s the marrow version – this was plated at about 11:59:10pm on New Year’s Eve, so there are no micro-herbs or flower petals… we did end up garnishing it with some tiny dill sprigs (after the photo session), but that’s about it.

Picture doing 7 plates with at least 2 or 3 rolls of each of 4 vegetables, cauliflower shavings, and marrow coins carefully doused in hot pork jus, between 11:52 and 11:59, and you’ll understand the lack of garnishes.

And here’s the scallop version, replete with edible (duh) flower petals and dill spriglets… (now be honest, does this make me look gay?)

Some thoughts:

  • 20 minutes of smoking was more than enough for the marrow. It was decidedly smoky, and the smoke permeated the pork jus on the plate. Far from unpleasant – downright heady – but I think it would have been better with a more subtle smokiness.
  • Not surprisingly, the quality of the root vegetables, in particular, matters a lot. Older, woody beets, parsnips, and carrots don’t absorb brine well, and their texture is less succulent than that of more tender veggies. Obvious, yes, but worth paying attention to.
  • Once you’ve rolled your veggies up, trim the sides so you end up with even geometry.
  • Do as much prep ahead of time as possible – most importantly, roll up your pickled veggies. But don’t plate and refrigerate, or the fat in the protein/stock components will congeal.
  • Kohlrabi + seaweed… delicious. Who knew?
  • The marrow version was superior, flavour-wise. Very, very rich, but super-tasty. But the scallop version was great too, and more suited to being a course – rather than a taste – for a short menu.
  • Redzepi doesn’t call for flower petals, but they actually added a lot to the scallop version of the dish: it becomes even  more a riot of colour, and their light perfume was oddly parallel to the briny-sweet scallop scent.
  • Crucially, given the cost of the apple balsamic: you can strain, refrigerate and reuse the more acidic/sugary brines a couple of times at least.