You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Trips and holidays

Just to let you know, I'm going to be on the road in central Canada for two weeks as of tomorrow (May 19). There is a chance I will do some cooking while I'm there - and a much slimmer chance that I'll blog about it - but for all intents and purposes, I'm on hiatus during that time.

After that, I'm back for a week before we leave for three weeks in Europe. I know, it's a tough life!

But I'll be back for good as of July 4, so check in then!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Panna Cotta with Basil Syrup and Passionfruit

Panna cotta with basil syrup and passionfruit

Originally, I had intended to write this post to participate in the Spice is Right II foodblogging event. Then last night, mere hours before the deadline, I read the rules and found out that my recipe was ineligible for inclusion, because I used a herb instead of a spice. But that doesn't mean I can't post about the results anyway!

The theme of the event was "Sweet or Savory," and was based on the idea that, in certain cultures, some spices are used primarily in sweet dishes (e.g., cinnamon in most of Western European culture) and some in savory foods. The challenge was to take one of these assumptions and turn it on its head, by using a "sweet" spice in a savory dish or vice versa. (This isn't a tremendous challenge for me any more, since I have been dabbling in Moroccan cuisine for a few years now, which liberally uses cinnamon - not to mention sugar - in its savory dishes.)

For the event, my mind immediately went to one place: the vanilla panna cotta with basil syrup and passionfruit that is the signature dessert at Montreal's Brunoise. I was really impressed with it at the time, because the idea of using basil in a dessert seemed pretty unusual. But one bite and I was convinced. It was astonishing how well the basil paired with the passionfruit; it was almost as though they were one seamlessly integrated flavour. So I decided I would try to recreate the dessert at home.

You know how, some days, you just don't have kitchen karma? Yesterday was one of those days for me. First, the pizza I was making for dinner was giving me all sorts of trouble. Then, as I was struggling to roll out the dough, my husband walked into the kitchen and said, "What's this green thing?"

"It's basil syrup, for dessert," I replied.

"But it's solid."

Sure enough, it was. My basil syrup, a wonderful little super-structure solution of water, sugar and basil essential oils, had crystallized.

Everything else was ready, though, so I diluted some of the still-liquid part of the syrup and served the dessert anyway. The fact that it was only my husband and I eating it helped in that respect.

Despite the problems with the syrup, I liked the way it turned out. Naturally, the balance of flavours wasn't as good as it was at the restaurant, but it was a good starting point. The appearance was a little off-putting: my husband said it look "like a pond" (with the passionfruit seeds as tadpoles) and the basil syrup was slightly crunchy and insufficiently green. But the flavour was pretty good, despite my having used inferior vanilla and basil.

I left the remainder of the syrup overnight, and this morning it had completely crystallized, leaving me with basil candy instead of basil syrup. So this evening, I melted it in the microwave, diluted it with water, and cooled it off, and this time, it worked.

And there are worse fates than having panna cotta with basil syrup and passionfruit two nights in a row.

Panna cotta with basil syrup and passionfruit
Note that I provide these recipes for reference only. I'm including this disclaimer because the basil syrup didn't really work.

For the panna cotta
1 3/8 tsp. gelatin
1 Tbsp. cold water
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup half-and-half
2 Tbsp. + 2 tsp. sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped

For the basil syrup
3 or 4 sprigs basil
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

1 passionfruit

1. Make the panna cotta: In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the water to soften. In a pot, mix the heavy cream, half-and-half, sugar and vanilla bean and bring just to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Transfer some of the cream mixture (say, 1/4 cup) to the bowl with the gelatin, and stir to dissolve. Transfer the cream-gelatin mixture back to the pot, and stir. Remove the vanilla bean. Divide the contents among four ramekins, leaving space for the syrup and passionfruit. Cover with plastic wrap and cool to room temperature (about 30 minutes). Transfer to the fridge and chill until set, about 4 hours.

2. Make the basil syrup: combine all ingredients in a small pot, bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil for 10 minutes to infuse. By following these directions, you might end up with basil candy too, so it might be a good idea to cover the pot while infusing and/or increase the water content to, say, 3/4 cup. Cool the syrup.

3. To serve, pour some of the cooled basil syrup over the panna cotta (still in the ramekins). Halve the passionfruit, and scrape out the pulp, dividing between the ramekins. Enjoy!

Serves 4

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Thoughts on seasonal cooking

Lately, I haven't been posting very consistently, but there's a very good reason for that: I don't really like cooking in the spring.

Or, more to the point, I don't know how to cook in the spring. I have very clear - not to say fixed - ideas for every other season, but spring just doesn't inspire me in the same way.

Summer is easy, with its plethora of fresh fruit and veggies, especially the highly perishable kind. Summer is the season for going to the farmer's market (or, around here, the farm) and making the most of what's ripe and available while it's still ripe and available. It's a very spur-of-the-moment kind of time. It's the season of salads and cold soups, food that doesn't require cooking or that can be cooked on a grill outside, without heating up the apartment.

Autumn is possibly easier. Indeed, autumn has long been my favourite cooking season. There's something about the crispness of the air and the impending winter that makes food taste that much better, and you have access to all the foods that have a long growing season. It's a time to feast on summer's bounty, or preserve it for the cold, dark winter ahead. Autumn food provides an opportunity for reflection and recognizes the ephemeral nature of, well, nature. Autumn is when soups and stews start to look mighty tempting, and the baked dishes come out as it becomes more possible to use the oven.

In recent years, I've started to become very fond of winter cooking. Winter is the season of long, slow, simmered dishes: soups, stews, braises. For me, winter is all about meat. This can be difficult with a husband who eats only poultry and fish, but I managed to get in my share of beef, pork and lamb this past year. I'm sure that winter was once a season of very boring and repetitve meals, based largely on hardy root vegetables that overwinter well, but with most of our food now coming from other places anyway, it's easy to have a variety throughout the season. And yet, I still feel that my cooking is rooted in the season, even when I'm using produce flown in from Chile or Mexico.

But spring? Spring is a tough case for me. It's too warm and sunny for those hearty winter meals, but there's not enough great produce to inspire the way that summer does. Spring is a transitional time, a time of restlessness - "Winter is over, let's go outside!" - but culinarily, I haven't learned how to express that. I recognize some of the ingredients people associate with spring (rhubarb, asparagus, fiddleheads and artichokes for example), but in Canada, many of these ingredients don't come into their own until later in the season. Besides, these are just ingredients, and I need spring techniques: grilled asparagus? To me, that says summer. Asparagus gratin? That's an autumn or winter approach. How do you cook a spring ingredient using a technique that reflects the season?

Friday, May 12, 2006

French bread, attempt No. 2. Now with a thermometer!

My second try in my ongoing quest to make good French bread took place last Sunday. This time, I changed a few things around. The first was the shape: because of what I wanted to use this bread for (more on that later), I went with a basic boule shape. The second, and arguably more important, change was my use of an instant-read thermometer.

The recipes in The Bread Baker's Apprentice all make copious references to specific temperatures: the water, the dough, and the final loaf are all given specific ranges they should be in. Last time I made bread, I just went by feel, because I didn't yet own an instant-read thermometer. Now I do.

How much difference did the thermometer really make? Honestly, I don't think it was that significant. I could sit here and rattle off all the temperatures indicated during the process (the water was bang-on 98 degrees, the pâte fermentée and dough both registered slightly warmer than the book recommends, around 88, and the baked bread came out warmer as well, around 214). But does that really tell you anything? The proof of the baking is in the eating, says I. In this case, the final product was much like my first try: it seemed a little too moist, a little too heavy. The holes in the crumb were generally pretty small, with a couple of exceptions. The taste was still very good, but I haven't quite arrived with the texture yet. My husband preferred the first batch, and attributed that to the shape.

On the whole, the process went much more smoothly this time. I wasn't as worried about degassing the dough, because the results last time were sufficiently encouraging. I remembered to oil the bowl well, to prevent the dough from sticking, and continued to guess when it had reached twice its original size. I very generously dusted my makeshift peel with cornmeal in order for things to slide off it nicely; I've been practicing with pizza, which I make about once a week, and have more or less determined how much I need. The boule shape is also rather more forgiving than my bâtards: I managed to transfer them from parchment to peel with a minimum of deformation. On the other hand, they ended up kind of flat, and I haven't quite figured out why. Surface tension? Overproofing? Underproofing?

The only real mistake I made, as far as I can tell, was forgetting to slash the first boule before I put it on the baking stone. But I did a couple of quick slashes on it as soon as I realized, and it seemed to turn out OK.

As for the reason underlying the choice of shape, I had decided to slice it thinly, toast it, and serve it with the smoked mackerel rillettes I last Saturday, using the recipe in Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's Charcuterie. I finally caved and bought this book, but negotiations are still ongoing with my husband over the acquisition of a meat grinder to get into the serious sausage making. In the meantime, smoked fish rillettes seemed like a good thing to make, since smoked mackerel is so easy to come by out here, and so tasty!

It's funny how I think nothing of making smoked mackerel rillettes, but get a real sense of pride out of spreading them on my own freshly baked bread. It made it feel like a real from-scratch kind of snack! And it was exceptionally delicious, to boot.

Oh, and no picture this time. The batteries for my digital camera died on me when I went to take a picture, and the bread and rillettes were both too good for me to wait for the batteries to recharge.