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.

Easy Being Green: Salsa verde

This is our interpretation of a vibrant condiment that’s fantastic with chicken, seafood and white-fleshed fish. And boiled potatoes, for that matter.

Googling its name – salsa verde – is likely to lead you to one of two countries: Mexico, or Italy (although many, many places have similar salsas). Here, we’re dealing with the Italian version, with a little nod in the general direction of Mexico.

Despite the bright, strong ingredients that are common to all recipes for salsa verde, we’ve found many versions lack complexity and roundness. We think we’ve come up with one that beats any that we’ve tasted.

Here’s the mise en place:

1 supermarket-size bunch of parsley, leaves and tops of the stems

A bunch of chives – refer to the picture for the amount… sort of hard to quantify!

A bunch (5 or 6) scallions, white and green parts, chopped in thirds

6 or 8 oil-cured olives (we found some astoundingly good low-salt ones)

1 clove garlic

2 or 3 tbsp capers, brined or – if they’re salted – rinsed and soaked for a few minutes

Here’s the twist: one jalapeño pepper, seeded and white veins removed

A few tbsp red wine vinegar

Good-quality, robust extra-virgin olive oil. How much? Enough to make things move smoothly in your blender and to produce a stiff but smooth consistency. Half a cup or more.

So… whizz it up in your blender, then taste for salt and vinegar and add more to correct any huge imbalances in flavour. Let it mellow for half an hour or so, then fine-tune the flavour.

A couple of tablespoons of this stuff next to a poached or grilled chicken breast, or broiled cod… mmm. And: you can freeze the leftovers in an ice cube tray and have some on hand whenever it’s needed.

Terra Cotta = Cooked Dirt

I’m glad that Noma’s “Radishes in a Pot” was one of the more successful dishes on New Year’s Eve, because it took a lot of pre-planning, a lot of improvisation, and – given its gimmicky nature – it had the potential to be an embarrassing flop.

The basic elements of the dish are: a small terra cotta pot, a thick sheep’s yogurt and herb dip, fresh radishes with their greens, and a faux soil.

The radishes, as I’ve mentioned earlier, grew surprisingly well from seed in containers just under a bank of two fluorescent lights in our basement. They took exactly 3 weeks from planting to maturity – just in time for the dinner, and exactly the time-to-maturity advertised on the seed packet. This is remarkable to us Nomnivores, because for whatever reason, we can’t seem to grow decent radishes outdoors. These ones were Cherry Belle.

Petite radishes, and yes, they actually were that luminous shade of red.

The soil was quite an ordeal. You can find the recipe here– what follows will make more sense if you’ve read it. Redzepi calls, ambiguously, for “malt flour.” I knew that there are a number of variants of malt flour, and that I’d need a dark one. I ended up getting “dark malt extract powder” from a brewing supply store. That was a mistake.

I began the “Day 1” soil component by mixing together the dry ingredients, processing them with some Guinness, ruining my first batch (see my post a few days ago), and making another batch. Dehydrated, the soil was obviously way too light – it was also way too clumpy. I decided to run it through a food mill and to roast the smaller bits.

First version of malt soil, baked and milled. Yep - it does look a lot like cat litter.

I roasted the soil at 400’F for about 35 minutes, anxiously watching, rotating, mixing, and tasting to avoid ending up with cinders. Here’s what the end result looked like, alongside the pre-grinding-and-roasting dehydrated nuggets for comparison:

It tasted great: an earthy (lol) flavour with echoes of roasted coffee, darkest bitter chocolate, and an intriguing, almost menthol note. Still, it wasn’t as dark as I was going for. More Martian soil than fertile loam. But I wasn’t willing to risk taking the roasting any further. And I sure as hell wasn’t about to spend another couple of hours making the “Day 2” soil mixture.

So, I hit on the idea of using bread that already had the depth of colour I was looking for: pumpernickel.

I left a few slices of pumpernickel cocktail bread and that moist, dense pumpernickel “brick” substance out overnight, ground them up in the food processor, sifted them through a colander, and ended up with something just slightly chewy, and very tasty. Mixed together, the two soils had a complex blend of flavours and textures that may have ended up being more interesting than the recipe as written.

Meanwhile, across town, Chef C was concocting the dip that goes beneath the soil – a mix of sheep’s yogurt, chervil, tarragon, capers and shallots. This recipe, too, suffered from the Noma book’s infuriatingly ambiguous instructions: it called for several grams of “instant food thickener.” As other people have noted, the glossary in Noma gives a uselessly circular definition of this ingredient, rather than just saying: “IT’S MODIFIED TAPIOCA STARCH (aka Ultratex), PEOPLE.”

I got lucky with that guess: adding the specified weight of Ultratex 3 to the herbed yogurt mixture and subjecting it to a few seconds with the immersion blender produced a stiff but creamy texture that was just about right for holding up the radishes, but still thin enough to count as a dip. It was also damned tasty, and a gorgeous shade of green – unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a picture of it.

Here, after all that trouble, is the assembled dish:

Eat Dirt.

And people lovedit. They ate the radishes. They ate the dip. They ate the dirt. They ate the radish stems and leaves. They spooned the dip into the leaves and rolled them up. They collected dirt particles from their placemats and scarfed them down. It was so much fun to eat, and to watch everyone else having fun with the dish. A definite keeper.

I will be on the lookout, though, for roasted barley malt flour, which – judging by the pumpernickel ingredient list – is what the recipe should have called for. I’d like to be able to compare the book version to the one I developed.