You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Monday, March 27, 2006

The week in review

Last week was pretty slow for me professionally; consequently, it was pretty busy for me in the kitchen. That doesn't mean it was necessarily a good week in the kitchen.

It started last Saturday, when I decided to make chicken stock. Generally, we use tetra-pack chicken broth from Campbell's, which is a reliable substitute. But I suddenly found myself in possession of six leek tops, and chicken stock is the only thing I know how to make from leek tops. (I'm open to other suggestions). Unfortunately, I fell asleep on the couch in the middle of the process, which is the best way to bring your stock to a boil. Fortunately, I'm not that picky when it comes to stock.

On Sunday, I made salmon burgers with hoisin and ginger. I don't have anything to say about them, except that I used trout in place of the salmon and they were tasty. Maybe I'll do a taste-test comparison between them and PC Atlantic Salmon Burgers this summer.

On Tuesday, I finally succumbed to my desire to bake some bread. I had twigged to a recipe for brioche provided by the good people at endless banquet, so I took it out for a test drive. I spent the whole two-day process convinced it was going to fail, and in fact it didn't seem to rise as much as it could have, but it baked up nice and brown, and it sure tasted good! Apparently brioche can't smell your fear the same way hollandaise sauce can. You can see the results pictured above.

What's more, I think my bread baking skills are about to take a quantum leap forward: on Friday, my copy of Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice arrived. I proceeded to spend every spare moment over the weekend with my nose buried in it.

On Friday, we had a group of people over for a deep fry party, using our T-Fal EZ Clean Deep Fryer, which was our Christmas gift to ourselves. I made spring rolls using rice paper wrappers and filled them with glass noodles, cloud ear mushrooms, carrots, ginger, garlic, cilantro, green onions and sesame oil. They were pretty tasty, but I think they still need some work. I'm not convinced that rice paper makes the best spring roll wrappers.

On Saturday, we picked up some cultivated mussels in Moncton, and made moules frites for dinner, using Anthony Bourdain's recipe for moules marinières. Score another one for the Les Halles cookbook!

Finally, yesterday, I attacked our wok in yet another attempt to season it properly. This has been an ongoing saga in my relationship with my husband, since he failed to follow the instructions for properly seasoning it when he bought it (12 years ago), and all subsequent attempts have failed miserably. Here's hoping this one worked!

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Puff pastry from scratch

I love puff pastry. I'll take advantage of any recipe I can find that uses it: pot pies, cheese straws, various types of tarts. If I have some puff pastry in the freezer begging to be used up, and I can't think of anything else to do with it, I'll make apple turnovers.

Puff pastry is also the ultimate convenience food for me. I can't bring myself to buy pre-made pie shells, even though my homemade pastry isn't that great, but the mille feuilles ("thousand layers") of puff pastry always made it seem far too complex to make at home, so I felt no guilt buying the "little yellow box" version. I was even more excited when I learned that President's Choice had released a butter puff pastry, thereby cutting down on the amount of shortening I would consume (although margarine is listed among the ingredients). Not to mention that it was conveniently prerolled into thin sheets.

Then I came across a couple of blog posts talking about how easy it is to make your own, and how much better the end result. Then I was browsing through Jacque Pépin's Complete Techniques, and saw his instructions for making it...

...and I thought, I could do that. I might need to set aside a whole day, but I could do it.

So I did. I cleared last Sunday's schedule and planned to make chocolatines out of homemade puff pastry.

The basic instructions are really quite easy: take equal weights of flour and butter, make a flat block out of the butter, make a dough out of the flour, and encase the butter in the dough. Then roll out, fold over, rotate, roll out, fold over... rinse and repeat. You can see something of the process here, though it's in French. The details are a little trickier than that, and there are a few things to watch out for, but the core process is simplicity itself.

It seemed to go quite well. I did get tripped up by a couple of the problems I was warned about, notably that I ripped the dough in places, causing butter to leak out. (Note to self: flour the board heavily.) The dough also became quite elastic, presumably either because I overrolled it or because I was using all-purpose flour rather than pastry flour. After I was done making it, I chilled it in the fridge for half an hour, then rolled it out to make my chocolatines.

Ah. Here was a problem. It had become too elastic for me to roll it out properly: I couldn't get it to the 1/8" thickness I've seen recommended for absolutely everything that uses puff pastry. I rolled it as thin as I could manage, and cut into wide strips for my chocolatines. As you can see in the photo, I didn't do a very good job at cutting it into even strips, but it worked nonetheless. I then threw some chopped Callebaut semisweet chocolate into the centre of each one, rolled them up, flipped them over, brushed with an egg wash, and popped them into a 425-degree oven for about 20-25 minutes.

They puffed up quite nicely, which pleased me tremendously. They also leaked large volumes of melted butter all over the sheet pans. But they smelled wonderful. I found the pastry to be just a bit brittle right after the came out of the oven, which could again be a result of the type of flour or me overworking it, but they softened somewhat as they cooled, and I found the slightly chewy texture they developed after a night spent in airtight plastic containers to be quite pleasant. Some of them weren't as well cooked in the centre as they might have been, which I'm sure was a result of the too-thick pastry.

And the taste? Well, to be honest, I didn't notice much of a difference on the "tester" I ate right away. But then, I haven't eaten "little yellow box" puff pastry in a long time, and I'd never made chocolatines out of frozen pastry before, so I wasn't really doing a true comparison. The next morning at breakfast, however, I was surprised at how sweet they tasted, despite the fact that there was no refined sugar at all in the pastry.

All in all, I will probably continue to buy frozen puff pastry for the convenience factor. It's easy to make your own, and the flavour is probably superior, but it is time consuming. Next time, I will definitely make a full batch (I only didn't one pound of butter this time, which is half the batch size in Pépin's book), and freeze part of it for future use. But this experience has done nothing but strengthen my love affair with puff pastry.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Polenta photos

Further to my last post, here are a couple of photos of my polenta with caraway seeds.

I should note that I'm still very new to food photography, and my digital camera is an older model (with only 2 megapixels), so the photos aren't going to win any awards, but they give you an idea of what the polenta looked liked. Another thing to work on, I guess!

First up: the polenta served with milk-braised pork chops and braised cabbage garnished with bacon. You can just see the polenta peeking out from underneath the bed of cabbage, and the pork chops are the whitish thing in the upper left-hand corner... they didn't photograph too well.

Caraway polenta with milk-braised pork chops

Next, the polenta appetizer I made the following night, fried polenta with roasted red pepper, feta cheese and balsamic reduction. I found the feta cheese didn't go overly well with the rest of the elements, and next time I might try doing a parmesan tuile on top instead, which could also make for a more dramatic presentation!

Caraway polenta appetizer

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Polenta with caraway seeds

The backstory
For my first post, let me tell you a little story about polenta. Back in December, I paid a long-overdue visit with two good friends to Montreal's Brunoise restaurant. For the Christmas season, Brunoise was offering a prix fixe lunch special, the special being that they usually aren't open for lunch.

After much debate among the three of us over the menu - we didn't all want to order the same thing, because where's the fun in that? - I finally settled on the braised beef cheeks with porcini, asparagus and polenta.

Now, there were many superb aspects to that meal (especially the dessert, which probably deserves a whole post of its own), but it was the polenta that caught my attention for the main course. I haven't really eaten a lot of polenta in my life, but this particular version was stunning. It was the "cooked, set and fried" variety, beautifully creamy but firm on the inside, and with a crisp skin on the outside. It was also the most flavourful polenta I've ever eaten. On impulse, I asked the waiter if he knew what it had been fried in.

"I'm not sure," he replied. "Probably butter, but it may have been duck fat."

My friends gave me a look, as if to say Duck fat! As a frying medium? Who ever heard of such a thing?

I said to the waiter, "Would you mind finding out for me?"

Once he left, I turned to my friends: "I sort of suspected it was something like that. It would explain the incredible richness."

So imagine my surprise when the waiter returned to inform me it had been fried in simple vegetable oil. (Of course, I am open to the possibility that I was being misled of a belief that I was asking for health reasons, rather than flavour reasons.) I still don't know what made that polenta taste so good.

Meanwhile, back at home...
Cut to this week. With my husband out of town, I've had the run of the kitchen. This invariably means lots of red meat, because my husband has a sensitivity to it, and so we tend to avoid it. One thing I decided to try, after seeing a post Accidental Hedonist, and the follow-up post on Meathenge, was milk-braised pork (chops in my case, since I can't eat a whole roast by myself). As sides, I thought I'd do braised cabbage and fried polenta. Originally I toyed with the idea of tossing caraway seeds into the cabbage, because I like them, and because when I polished off the half-loaf of caraway rye I picked up at Pete's Frootique, I was sad.

But then fate conspired against me: apparently, you can't get the pre-made logs of polenta around these parts. (OK, so I only checked two grocery stores.) I had to make it myself. And if I was going to do that anyway... caraway polenta was born!

The recipe
To make the polenta, I poked around for a few recipes to see how it was done. The essential ratio here seems to be four parts liquid to one part cornmeal. Most of the recipes seem to call for salted water as the liquid, but I thought I'd see if I could approximate the richness of the Brunoise polenta by cooking it in chicken broth instead. So I tossed
  • 2 cups chicken broth (I use the Campbell's tetra-pack variety)
into a pot, brought it to a boil, and whisked in
  • 1/2 cup coarse cornmeal
  • 1 tsp. caraway seeds
continued whisking for 2 minutes, then reduced heat to low, covered and let simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring for 1 minute once every 10 minutes. (This is apparently an unorthodox method of cooking polenta, suggested by the Gourmet cookbook, which in turn credits it to Paula Wolfert. I liked it because it let me continue working.)

Once it was cooked, I spread it into a parchment-lined 8x8 pan (which was actually too big for the amount of polenta I had) and placed it in the fridge to chill. A couple of hours later, I pulled it out, cut it up, and fried it in some butter on medium-high until crispy on the outside and warmed through.

The results
I was quite pleased with it. Cold, the texture was rather rubbery, but once it was fried up, it became much softer on the inside, and provided that nice crispy skin. Next time I might use a little more liquid. The taste wasn't quite as good as at Brunoise - not that I really expected it to be - but I think it definitely benefitted from the chicken broth. The caraway ended being a beautiful touch, providing both a textural contrast within the polenta, and a flavour element to play off the rest of the meal. Definitely a make-again.

I ate some of it that night with the milk-braised pork chops and braised cabbage, and used some of it the next night (i.e., last night) as an appetizer with roasted red pepper, feta cheese and a balsamic reduction. Photos will follow in the next entry, once I get around to cropping them and posting them on flickr. That may not happen today, because I'm taking my first stab at making my own puff pastry. Stay tuned!

(...and don't worry: not all of my posts will be this long.)

Friday, March 10, 2006


Hello, and welcome to my blog!

Having enjoyed many other people's food blogs over the past year, I recently decided it was time to give something back, even if that only meant adding my voice to this burgeoning Internet phenomenon with a blog whose readership consists solely of my family. (Hi Mom and Dad!)

What is this blog about?
Drawing on a recent post by Makikoh Itoh at i was just really very hungry, I thought it was a good idea to have a specific goal for my own blog. So my focus is going to be on the fact that we all rely to some extent on food that has been processed or prepared, whether it's as commonplace as tea or bread, or as complex as frozen pizza or a President's Choice entrée. In other words, as the name of my blog says, you can't make everything from scratch!

In exploring this theme, I intend to both look at prepared foods and try to recreate some of them at home. This will probably involve both product reviews (for which I am not compensated) and comparisons of prepared products to the from-scratch version: the fact that we do rely so heavily on processed foods doesn't mean we can't try making them from scratch, even if it is only once in our life. And, of course, I'll also just write about some of the things I'm cooking and eating.

Who am I?
Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I'm a 27-year-old professional translator with a strong interest in food. I don't know where this interest comes from, but it has been developing in leaps and bounds over the past few years, to the point that I now feel comfortable calling myself a "foodie." This can be a bit of problem these days, because I'm living in small-town New Brunswick (for the moment, at least), where good food (in both its raw and restaurant-prepared forms) can be really quite hard to come by.

I have no professional culinary training beyond Techniques culinaires I (that's "Cooking 101," for those of you who don't speak French) at Montreal's Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec. I tend mostly to cook from recipes, although I'm starting to spread my wings by adding my own touches to those recipes and even inventing whole meals, based on the skills and techniques I've acquired over the years.

For the time being, I can't promise that I will update a particular number of times a week, so check back often. If I haven't written anything since your last visit, check out the links on the side to some of my favourite food blogs to read.