Monday, January 31, 2011

Enjoy in wool socks ...

Disclosure: I have somehow managed to sprain my neck (am convinced it has something to do with inhuman cold) and am writing slightly … medicated. Off we go!

Inhuman cold ... deceptively pretty ... and cold ... mostly cold ...inhuman ...

For the last two weeks dear readers, I have been existing in an icebox (in two provinces!). No, no … an icebox would be balmy ... I have been existing in a piercing, biting, nose sticking together, eyes barely blinking cold that the glaciers would be jealous of. I mean, temperatures have reached minus forty. Minus forty. Plus … windchill. I shudder …

I ask you, how is any rational person supposed to participate in anything other than burying themselves under a huge duvet, steaming mug of spiked tea in hand, peeking out of said duvet and staring at the frostbitten windows, suspicious of a cold relentless draft you know is coming from somewhere and cursing the frost god’s.

No? Just me? Maybe …

All this to say dear readers, for the last two weeks, my culinary adventures have consisted of hibernating in our home in Montreal with a short hiatus of hibernating at Germain in Toronto sprinkled with a brief stint discussing a Philippine delicacy of field rats (big ones, which have to be hunted, skinned and deep fried and served piping hot with a spicy sauce …) with Ariel, who works at Germain and sent me home with two of his mothers recipes (not for field rats) which I will make once I thaw.

This brings us (somehow) to what I love to make the most, on the coldest of days. To what I equate to a big, warm and comforting hug.

Broths, dear readers. Many, many broths …

Chicken broths. Veal broths. Chicken and veal broths. 

Not quite chicken but was the only fowl flouncing the heat...back when there was some...

Veal ... thank you dear ...

What I wanted to share with you today is venison broth but plans were foiled when I called my butcher and he did not have any. “Call me on Monday” he rasps with heavily accented voice over the din in his shop. Given said circumstance, I share with you today a beautiful chicken and veal broth recipe. A simple, soothing afternoon kitchen adventure, in thick wool socks. Temperature outside: minus 30.

Because of the nature of broth and the few ingredients involved you must purchase the best ingredients possible to experience the broth bliss that has rendered mankind warm and cosy in many kitchens. The most well fed and cared for chicken and veal. The ripest tomatoes, the most sweet and fragrant carrots and aromatic celery stalks (yes that’s right, fragrant and aromatic). Carrots and celery are commonly peddled for their crunch but dear readers, next time you buy a bunch of fresh beautiful carrots and leafy dirty celery, I invite you to stick your nose right in there and inhale … trust me …(and don’t worry about any strange glances you may get … speaking from experience here …). The rest is simple …

Time to dish.

Chicken and veal broth

Here is what you need ...

  • Chicken necks, backs, a foot or two …
  • Veal bones (some with marrow)
  • Ripe tomato
  • Fragrant and aromatic (and dirty) carrots and celery
  • Sprig of parsley
  • Sea salt
  • Whole peppercorns

Here is what to do ...

In a big, heavy pot add all the above mentioned ingredients and bring to a slight boil. Slight because the ingredients are delicate and you do not want a rolling boil to start breaking them apart and clouding your broth. Which brings us to the next point. Do not stir. Not even once. Resist the temptation and you will be rewarded with beauty. Once slight boil has been achieved, reduce the heat so your both comes to a simmer and then watch it lovingly and gingerly skim off any foam that accumulates. Once that is done dear readers, leave it alone for a few hours and then enjoy the bounty of your "labor".

Serve yourself a warm bowl of broth with a little meat from the chicken and some fresh parsley and dig out that veal marrow to serve on a small piece of crusty bread.

Enjoy in wool socks.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bearing of souls and other things ...

This week dear readers, I am bearing a bit of my soul. My food soul, that is. Putting it right out there for you to see. Right out there. Be gentle … 

I want to tell you a little story of my grandmother. Of what she taught me. Of what I believe about food today and what it means to me. A kind of “culinary about me” if you will … At heart, as you all know by now, I am a glutton. Completely, wholeheartedly and with gusto. Give me wonderful food, heady wine and fabulous company and I am in heaven. There is however, another side.

Bearing of souls …

In my heart, food is an expression.

An expression of love.
Of connection.
Of gratitude.
Of humanity.
Of suffering.
Of identity.
Of life.

I would like you to take little a trip back with me in order to give you a glimpse to what has shaped my ideas and who I am today.  

This glimpse takes us to my family’s farm.

I have vivid memories of my childhood summers spent on my grandmother’s farm. Memories of playing in the river while my cousins fished. Memories of leaving at dawn and coming back at dusk, muddy from head to toe from all my adventures, to the great dismay of my grandmother who had to bathe me. Memories of the backbreaking work and long hours it took to care for the land and the animals. Memories of gathering, preserving, smoking, salting, pickling …

The most profound memory I have is of the animals.
The nurturing and killing of them, to be more precise.

Dirt poor, in communist Romania (she was one of the lucky ones whose land was not taken away) my grandmother was up at 4am.
Every day. Until the day she died.

She was alone on the farm (my grandfather had died a while ago and I am not sure he was much help when alive). Tiny and skinny as a twig, quiet, hunched over from years of hard work gardening and taking care of the animals, long sallow face with the deep wrinkles of wisdom, sorrow and quiet resignation, handkerchief on her head she marched out in all seasons.

Social visits were rare and a luxury when they happened. Idle time was non existent. She rarely smiled.

Except, dear readers, when she was with her plants and animals.

It was in those moments.

Moments when she was weeding the gardens, walking in our sunflower field to pick the seeds for roasting, collecting eggs from the hens and telling them how proud of them she was when they produced many eggs (and “chastising” – aka whacking - them when they got lazy and didn’t) feeding the pigs (sometimes better than herself, really) and petting them because pigs crave contact, milking the cow all the while talking to her and giving her extra special grasses to eat so she would be happy and her milk would taste heavenly, feeding the geese walnuts and seeds and grasses and other special treats so they would be fat and happily waddling around the land foraging for extras, feeding the sheep and shaving them for wool, and at the end of a long, exhausting day sitting me down and feeding me the most simple of things. Sometimes it was a hot egg fried in pig fat and some homemade bread. Other times it was chicken soup from chicken killed that morning. Beautiful, honest peasant food.

In all these moments, she smiled.

As I followed her around the chores of the day (this was a luxury as usually she would not let me because I was more in the way with my incessant questions and running around startling the animals) she would talk to me.

She would talk to me about the animals, their different needs and personalities (pointing out the trouble makers and the ones that had an extra special place in her heart) why it was important to be kind to them and treat them well, why (when I asked her why the pigs were eating better than her) it was important that they eat well.

If you will allow me dear readers, I would like to tell you what she said.

She said that like people, all animals are unique. No two pigs or chickens or any other animal for that matter were alike. We had to pay attention to each one so that we would know what the best way to interact with them was. It was very important to spot a disgruntled pig and find out why or you could be in trouble…It was also important to spot content animals so you know your work was worth something.

She said that animals were our responsibility. That we were responsible for making sure they were healthy, happy and well fed. That we were also responsible for killing them.

She said that everything was connected. That what the animals ate, how “happy” they were and finally how they were killed were all indicators. Indicators not only of how we respected the animals but of how we respect ourselves and every other living thing that we are a part of.

When she took such care of the land and the animals, she was taking care of herself. Of me.

I remember thinking years later, after she died trying to lift a dresser to move it over (the fact that she was ancient and riddled with osteoporosis did not concern her and she went out working – the way she would have wanted to) that this was her expression. This was her connection to the world and all the living creatures in it. (I have more but fear will find myself in the “spawning of novel” predicament again and you will wind up with a six page blog post so I will peel more layers in the future …)

All said, dear readers, she was, looking back, the seed, the cultivator, the water and sunshine that nourished my respect for all life and the food, in all its forms, that sustains it.

And other things …

The existential:

Food allows us an intimate and profoundly human form of expression. It connects who we are, dream to be and what sustains us. It is the poetry of existence, of dependence, of collaboration, of beginnings and ends and of continuance. It is the undiscriminating bond between all people. It is a feast for all senses. It art. It is beauty. It is love.

The manifesto:

The philosophy is simple.
If you eat meat, as I very obviously do, eat less of it.
Have a respect for the animal, understand that a living thing died so you can eat their meat and do not waste.
Buy from local farms – they deliver and the food tastes so much better.
Buy small time organic whenever possible.
Buy everything else you could possibly desire in moderation.
Understand that with every food purchase you make, you have a direct effect on the future of our world.
At least once in your life, if you can, try to witness (either live or via media) an animal being killed for your food.
Plants also have to die so we can eat them.
Abundance is not a natural state.
Change takes time, failure and the willingness to try again.
Don’t preach (except for preachy moments above but only this once I swear!). 
Lead by example.

Above all:

And eat with people you love.

To remember the lessons …

Simple Fried Egg on Toast

Here is what you need ...
  • Egg
  • Pig fat (butter was a luxury and not often available)
  • Crusty bread
  • Wild Thyme
  • Sea salt
  • Cracked black pepper
    Here is what to do ...

    Could not be more simple dear readers. In a hot pan fry an egg in lard (runny yolk please) and sprinkle with sea salt. In the meantime, cut a thick piece of country bread (smear it with lard, of course) and toast in the oven until nicely browned. Top with fried egg, sprinkle with thyme, cracked black pepper and enjoy the crunchy, creamy, oozy, herby bites.

    The staph of life ...

    Oozy bites ...

    Thanks Bunica ...

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    I heard angels sing …

    Year after beautiful year as winter peeks over the horizon and the first chill presents itself, I experience a shift. About late October as things transition from languid warmth and lush green to icy bone chilling cold and desolate bare drudgery (a little resentful here), I need comfort. And warmth. And wine. Especially (lots) wine. And …well …fat. All kinds of fat. Crispy fat, soft fat, gelatinous fat …Duck fat, pork fat, back fat, lamb fat

    Part of the changing of seasons is learning to recognize and of course, acknowledge what our bodies (and souls) crave: fat! fat! fat! (I am talking as if I were some sort of bear about to go into hibernation … I know …) Anyhow, in my world, this acknowledgment usually means I am about to get myself into some kind of mess and will drag all kinds of good, unsuspecting people with me.

    One very ordinary day, as I stood in my kitchen admiring the antique cabinet we purchased a few months ago (I love this thing it brings me back to my Aunt’s farm kitchen and every day I walk past it and give it a kiss … no no, just kidding … but I do tell it how nice it looks …) I knew I was in trouble. I really knew it when (as if there was some kind of gravitational force pulling me) my hand landed on Martin Picard's Au Pied de Cochon.

    Long parenthesis alert: (What was I so worried about you ask? I must be exaggerating you say? Here is "step one" in one of his recipes: “Using a saw, cut the top of the piglet skulls to remove the brains” … I dare you not to shiver ...)

    I remember standing there, opening the book, looking at the recipe I wanted to make long and hard, and thinking to myself (long and hard) do I really want to get involved in this? I mean we are talking about 1 Liter of pig’s blood here. Not to mention chestnut flour, very precise cooking techniques (there is a temperature measuring gadget involved) and a crazy move of hand funneling the pig’s blood mixture into the sausage casing. It took about a week of debating before I decided Au Pied de Chochon’s Boudin Maison was my charge. This itsy-bitsy decision dear readers, is how I found myself, on a perfectly lovely Wednesday evening, elbow deep in pigs blood.

    Pigs blood ...

    Here we go ... Once (lunatic project) decided, the first thing I had to do was secure some guests. As much as I am in love with this magnificent recipe, I did not fancy the prospect of eating Boudin on my own every day for two weeks.

    Another long parenthesis alert: (I must confess though, that I did give the thought of eating Boudin on my own every day for two weeks some serious consideration - I find myself a bit of a lone ranger within my close circle of cow and fowl loving folk especially when it comes to matters of … shall we say … a sanguine nature …).

    You may not believe this dear readers but not everybody loves Boudin. So, I had to be crafty. I had to be persuasive. I had to pray. I pitched it as a tasting and sent out an exploratory e-mail titled “Who’s with me …”

    I fessed up to the star of the tasting, gave them a three week window (the God’s saved me with this) to prepare themselves and gambled that the adventurous culinary spirit of the invitees and their curious palate would ensure at least a foot in the door. “A night of nibbles” I claimed. “Please eat first as this is not a supper” I pledged (could not have them thinking I wanted them to eat a whole supper of Boudin). And slowly, if a little hesitantly, the confirmations trickled in …

    Guests secured, I immediately wondered where I would pick up my pigs blood. My first thought was to call Jean-Pierre (Ferme le Crepuscule) and just ask him for it. My back up plan, in case they were not killing a pig that week, was to just pop by my local butcher and ask him. Frankly, I was more concerned about where I was going to find chestnut flour. Oh my ... how little I knew…

    My biggest concern ...

    To get this blood dear readers turned out to be a community effort of herculean proportions. Getting this blood, dear readers, wound up taking three weeks, two farm trips, countless searches online, visits to almost every butcher in Montreal, visits to fish mongers (I thought if the meat people could not come through perhaps the fish people ... I do not discriminate), seeking council through Chowhound and all to no avail.

    No blood.

    The city was dry.

    It was looking grim. It was looking like despite my best efforts, I would have to cancel my “tasting” and claim defeat. Then, it hit me. Poff! It was clear. There was no other choice. I had exhausted all my other options. I was going to have to go to the source. To the mecca of all things pig. To PDC. I dear readers was going to plead my case, throw myself at their mercy and beg for their suppliers.

    Once on my way I was plagued with thoughts of would they laugh at mewould they ask who is this lunatic and why does she just not buy her Boudin like everybody elsewould they yell at me … would they throw me out ...Then, I arrived, stood outside for a moment, gathered my courage and … Ahem ...excuse me please, do you know where I can find some blood in this city? I want to make your Boudin Maison but have been looking for three weeks and nothing …

    There was discussion, debate, disgust (at not being able to freely access quality blood) and at once, all of a sudden I saw hands moving, heard when do you need it, gave the two wrists up I am at your mercy salute and I, was saved dear readers. Saved. A certain chef, made certain arrangements, and a week later, vast grin on face, there I was again collecting my thick, dark prize. I heard angels sing …

    As I headed home with my goodies, panic struck. Who did I think I was going home with blood and casings! I had gone too far this time! What had I done! How would I do it!
    A little voice whispered … just follow the recipe …

    Dear readers, if you will allow me to paint you a little picture:

    Me, guests in home, casings in water, blood mixture ready, wine in hand, ready to go. Then: “ummm … don’t you need some kind of machine for this? I think my grandmother uses a machine …” (again the machine predicament! I do not know how I keep doing this!). I had intended to use my big yellow plastic funnel … so … I confessed to no machine (again), begged for help and silently prayed…

    Now, the simple act of eating Boudin these days is seen as a “big deal” (hence preliminary exploratory e-mail). Asking friends to hold casings and ladle blood mixture into big yellow plastic funnel while you squeeze it through with big giant toothpick is a whole other ballgame. Steph (who had never eaten Boudin before) was a champion. She grabbed her courage by the collar, stood right beside me and feet planted firmly on the ground, ladled away until four feet of casings were plump and glistening with beautiful chestnut colored blood mixture.

    The result ...

    I then plopped the plump sausage into the water (all the while imagining it smashing to the ground and splattering everywhere) with the thermometer waiting to alert me to any temperature fluctuation (I checked it every 30 seconds for a half an hour).

    Obsessive checking ...

    Once done, I took the Creuset off the heat, looked at the beauty that was inside, placed a creamy morsel in my mouth and tasted heaven.

    Tasting ...

    Heaven ...

    Wine, candles and newspaper ...

    Debates ...

    Rosso Cornero ...

    Time to dish:

    **dear readers, please make this if you can, I promise you it will be worth every effort and is much easier than you think**

    Martin Picard's Boudin Maison 
    From celebrated cookbook Au Pied de Cochon

    Here is what you need ...

    • Pork casings
    • 1 liter of pig's blood (good luck oh adventurer!)
    • 3 medium onion, minced
    • 10 ounces of pork back fat cut into 1/4 inch dice
    • 300 ml 35 % cream
    • Fresh thyme, leaves from two sprigs
    • 1 teaspoon of 4 spice mix (grind your own! you've come this far! you can do it!) 
    • 1/4 cup of chestnut flour (warning, this stuff is incredible you will become addicted)
    • 2 cups of bread, crusts removed and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
    • 1 tablespoon of salt

    Here is what to do ...

    1. Soak the bread in the cream (what a first step n'est ce pas?).
    2. Blanch back fat in boiling water for about 25 minutes, chill and set aside.
    3. Sweat onions in a pan with thyme, 4 spice and salt until translucent but not brown. Add chestnut flour and stir for about 2 minutes. Set aside.
    4. Check to make sure the casings have no tears by running cold water through them, measure out 4 feet and then tie one end with butcher string.
    5. Using a large funnel (or machine! for heavens sake ...) pour in blood mixture until you have plump, gorgeous sausage. Then tie the other end.
    6. The sausage must be cooked right away as casings are permeable.
    7. In water that does not go above 80C or 175F (they may burst on you otherwise) cook the sausage for 25-30 minutes depending on the size. Make sure to poke tiny toothpick holes in them at the beginning of cooking (once in water) to avoid tearing.
    8. Once done, stop cooking by dunking glorious sausage in ice water.
    Remove. Enjoy.

    For those of you who care to know what else was on the Menu, it was:

    Hearts, livers & blood, oh my ...

    • Crostini of turkey hearts seared in butter, quartered and slathered with tarragon cream.
    • Crostini of turkey livers sauteed in butter and served with maple and balsamic glazed figs.
    • Crostini of beef livers sautéed in butter (of course) and doused with a lemon, tarragon and maple cream sauce.
    • Mini frisee cups with lemon and olive oil dressing.
    Lettuce cups ... hands only please ...

    An expression of gratitude … I have always loved how food unites people in a common adventure and this was no exception. From the many butchers, fishmongers, old ladies, chowhounders and farmers who guided me, gave me advice and tips and stories of how their ancestors made “Blood Sausage” to Stephanie helping me through the whole process with her voice of reason and bravery to Nicolas at the SAQ who so lovingly chose our wines after asking what was on the menu and salivating with glee to Marc and Emilie at PDC for their time and conversation to Mr. Picard and his kindness and sheer generosity without which this Boudin would not have seen the light of day there was a whole community of people behind this beautiful evening that we were lucky enough to share together.

    Thank you.