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.

Summer Dreams

August 7, 2011 – homegrown “Sungold” and “Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter” tomatoes, basil, and burrata.

Between four and five months from now, if all goes well, we’ll be eating the tomatoes I planted this weekend. Most years, I wait until the very end of March before bringing tomato seeds to life in the safe, warm confines of my basement. With this mild winter, though, I decided to risk it.

Our little backyard has room for about 10 full-size tomato plants, plus a few other random veggies. Back in January, when the garden catalogues arrived, I carefully selected 5 varieties, and told myself that one of each would be it this year. But now… faced with an array of seed envelopes from the last 2 years, my resolve weakened. I planted three seeds for each of eleven varieties. Hopefully, that will leave me with one of each to plant, and at least one of each to give away.

Sungold – The only tomato we grow each and every year. Reliably, regardless of the weather, each plant produces literally hundreds of cherry-sized, golden orbs that pack huge, sweet flavour. The vine ends up taking over significant acreage in our tiny patio, but we never have the heart to prune it down to manageable size. Maybe this year…

Clear Pink – An early producer of large, light-pink fruit. We’ve grown this a couple of times. It’s a fun tomato because its unassuming looks – washed-out red, almost like the awful cellophane-packed winter tomatoes of my youth – conceal big, rich flavour.

Japanese Black Trifele – We tried this a couple of years ago, and I don’t recall it working out. But the descriptions of succulent, pear-shaped fruit with black-red bodies and green shoulders enticed me to try it again. We’ll see if these little guys germinate.

Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter – The big ones in the above picture. (The largest one there weighed in at almost 2 lbs.) This has been the ur-tomato for us: huge, heavy, juicy, salty-sweet and everything you want just by itself on a plate with a little pepper. It’s a bit finicky weather-wise, but when it works, there’s nothing better.

Black Krim – One of those dusky, smoky-tasting, rich tomatoes. Can be a bit thick-skinned, but the flavour and the colour are worth it. They’re the larger of the dark-shouldered tomatoes in the above picture. This is turning into a must-grow variety.

Black Prince – The smaller dark-shouldered ones pictured above. It’s been a couple of years since we grew these – I remember them being sweeter and drier than Black Krim, and not quite as interesting. But these things can change from year to year.

Yellow Tiger Stripe – These ones are hit-and-miss. In a bad year, they have leathery (if pretty) skins enveloping a cottony, mealy interior. In a good year, they brim with translucent neon-green gel that’s brightly flavoured. And they look great in a salad alongside their more traditionally clad cousins. If anyone out there has a suggestion for a more reliable green/yellow striped variety, let me know.

New this year:

Beefsteak and Brandywine – Two classic varieties, both large, meaty, slicing tomatoes. After having less-than-stellar luck with Radiator Charlie last summer, I wanted some guaranteed wins in this category. It’s also nice to have more than one such variety, each maturing at a slightly different time.

Black Cherry – all the delicious smokiness of the black varieties above, but with the promise of early maturation and a continuous supply.

Halved Sungold and Gardener’s Delight tomatoes, salt and olive oil, ready for a quick run under the broiler.

The seeds are nestled in a black plastic matrix, sitting atop a heating mat that will gently warm the soil to something that approximates a day in late May. In a few days, when they germinate, they’ll be placed under a standard, 2-bulb fluorescent shop-light – almost touching it. The cool light won’t scorch them, and they need to be as close as possible to it in order to grow bushy rather than spindly and leggy. A basement window provides some natural light, but the fluorescent light stays on from 7am to 11pm.

When the seedlings show signs of outgrowing their cells, I’ll transplant them to 4-inch plastic pots, burying them up to their lower leaves: the buried portion of the stems will sprout roots, giving the plants a stronger root system and preventing them from getting too top-heavy before they go in the ground. (The same process of burying the lower stems is repeated as the young plants are transferred to their outdoor homes.

Weather permitting, in late April, the plants will begin spending longer periods outside each day, preparing them for the shock of living outside full-time. This is usually the point at which I somehow manage to mix up the plants and forget which is which… until the tomatoes appear.

So tell us: what are you growing this year?

Salads in suspension

I used to want to like Marcus Samuelsson. His life story is compelling, his first cookbook, Aquavit, is gorgeous, and I like nouveau Nordic cuisine. Then, two things happened. First, I made his Tomato-Crab Risotto, a spectacular, epic trainwreck of a dish… sour, pointlessly rich, and constitutionally dissonant to the point of farce. It sounded so preposterous that I (naive youth) figured it had to be chefly-good: cream, tomato juice, sundried tomatoes, coconut milk, garlic, shallots, soy sauce, egg yolks, cream, butter, parmigiano, arborio rice… and $35 of crab. What could go wrong? Hahahahahahaha. It was bad, like a Hindenburg full of Ebola victims crashing into a pre-school on the Titanic. And Celine Dion singing about it.

Still, after putting Aquavit away for several months, I made a few more dishes, and they were fine. Then, Samuelsson appeared on Top Chef Masters. And He. Was. A. Dick. Laddish, hyper-competitive, and stupid-sounding. Or at least, that’s how he was edited.

Nonetheless, here I am, making a dish that I’ve wanted to make for a couple of years, simply because it’s pretty and sounds tasty. It’s taken me this long to get around to it because a) I hate Marcus Samuelsson, and b) It involves food suspended in gelatin, and MC Warm Spice (having lived in both the Midwestern U.S. and the former Eastern Bloc) has a morbid aversion to such dishes.

Tlacenka, a rustic Czech meat-bearing aspic

The Midwestern variant

The dish in question is “Arugula With Tomato-Goat Cheese Terrine”, it’s full of late-summer tomatoes, and it’s served cold – perfect lunch food for this week’s coming heat wave. Here’s how it’s supposed to look:

It reminds me of this nougat candy I ate as a child:

Only savoury, and not apt to pull out dental work.

Having roasted a head of garlic for the dressing, I proceeded to blanch 3 kinds of tomatoes – Yellow Tiger Stripe and Black Prince (both from our little garden) and some generic red field tomatoes from the local market.

Skins loosened after blanching and icing

Skinned and luminous!

Then came the labourious process of “filleting” the tomatoes: quartering them, removing seeds and pulp, and trimming them into neat slabs of outer-tomato-flesh. Since I didn’t have yellow tomatoes, I roasted a few yellow peppers and gave them the same treatment. Later, I passed the remains of the veggies through the food mill, turning them into a base for gazpacho (the second “Salad in Suspension” alluded to in the title above).

Next, I beat the chevre (13.5 oz)with 1/4 C of milk into which I had dissolved gelatin. The recipe called for powdered gelatin, and it turns out that the conversion from powder to leaf is a matter of much confusion and controversy on the internet, not least because gelatin leaves vary in size from place to place, and sizes have changed over time… but few people have accounted for this. In any event, I subbed 4 sheets for one 1/4 oz envelope… perhaps not coincidentally, these weighed 1/4oz on our very accurate little kitchen scale.

The assembled terrine, ready for the fridge

Assembling the terrine was a total pain. The recipe states that the loaf pan must be lined with plastic, and smearing the rather tight chevre mixture onto the plastic was an ordeal: I found it impossible to get a nice, thin layer. Matters only got worse when the tomatoes, peppers, basil and arugula were added – the chevre mix had to be gently daubed on and then squashed down under the next layer of veggies. The tomatoes also leached a hella lot of juice. In any case… the lot went into the fridge for a night’s rest. In the morning, the result looked like this:

The completed terrine

It tasted pretty much as you’d expect it to taste: goat cheese with basil, tomatoes, and a pleasant faint undertone of roasted garlic. I found the chevre to be a bit too prominent – it overwhelmed the tomato.

But the big problems with the dish were textural. The tomato juice problem made assembly difficult and harmed the integrity and appearance of the finished product. The chevre mix was too stiff to spread easily, and it ended up feeling like very slightly lightened chevre, rather than a subtly tart, panna cotta-esque substance, which is what I expected and wanted. Had the texture been right, I think the assembly, the flavour balance, and the appearance of the final product would have fallen more or less into place.

Next time, I would certainly double or triple the milk in the chevre mixture. I also think the tomato fillets would benefit from a slow roasting in the oven, taking them down to about half of their initial moisture content. This would intensify their flavour, as well as alleviate the leaching problem. If you readers have any other suggestions for dealing with excess tomato leaching, I’m all ears.

All in all, this recipe didn’t do anything to endear me to Marcus Samuelsson. Rather than relying strictly on amounts, the instructions should have provided the home cook with qualitative cues – e.g., “if the chevre mixture is too stiff to spread in a thin layer, add more milk, one tablespoon at a time, until you end up with a texture like thick pancake batter.” There were also clearly a number of technical refinements that resulted in the dish pictured in the book, and these should have been passed on to the reader. For example, there is no way that the terrine in the picture came out of a plastic-lined mold: it lacks the telltale wrinkles. Other cookbooks tell the home cook about methods of loosening a terrine that is assembled directly into a mold. Aquavit, like many other “coffee table” cookbooks, fails to give home cooks the techniques that they need to produce the results that they expect. Sloppy work, Marcus.