You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Getting to the heart of food dislikes

Whenever someone asks me if there are foods I don't like, I draw a blank, as there are very few foods that I will out-and-out avoid. (Sometimes I even seek out foods that I don't like so that I can train my palate to appreciate them. Blue cheese is such a food. Edited to add: Apparently I'm not the only one who does this.) There are, however, some foods that I don't prefer. Until tonight, artichokes were at the top of that list.

Every time I had been exposed to artichokes, they were in canned and/or marinated form. And every time, I found them metallic, sour, and generally unpleasant. I always ate them when faced with them, but I never sought them out by, for example, ordering them on pizza.

They'd been on my mind lately, though, because I think of them as a very Italian vegetable, and I'd been hoping to have the chance to try them in various preparations while in Italy. Unfortunately, no such opportunity presented itself - the one time I encountered them on a menu, the restaurant had run out before I got there.

Then, this past Sunday, I noticed a large stack of quite nice-looking artichokes at Pete's Frootique in Halifax. And I thought to myself, "Why not just buy a couple and see what they're like at the source?" So we did.

I prepared them tonight (after doing some research) by simply slicing off the stems, slicing off the top couple of inches of the leaves, and steaming them in a couple of inches of water acidulated with half a lemon. Then we peeled off the leaves, dipping each one in butter and scraping them between our teeth, until we had worked our way down to the hearts. (Though I am given to understand that this is not how the Italians eat them!) They were great: quite sweet, with that very distinctive artichoke flavour. They struck us as a perfect alternative to offer vegetarian friends at a lobster boil, since they take about as much work to eat as a lobster does.

Score one for overcoming food dislikes!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Killing your own food

Xtreme lobster closeup

One of my fundamental principles as a meat-eater is respect for the living beings that die to sustain us. This principle has a number of implications on the way I eat. One is not being afraid of offal, and I've worked hard over the past few years to appreciate "the nasty bits." (Successfully, I might add: I'm now never without some boudin noir in my freezer, and I eagerly agreed with the waiter in Siena who suggested I try the tripe.) Another is minimizing cruelty by using as little factory-farmed meat as possible. This is a much harder one for me, especially because of supply chains where I live, but it's one I'm working on.

A third implication is the importance of recognizing where food comes from. As part of that, I believe that I should be willing to kill my own food. Not all the time, but at least once, and without being squeamish or sentimental about it. Until last Sunday, I had never taken a live animal and personally turned it into meat. (Unless you count oysters. I don't.)

Now, granted, lobster is a pretty mild case, because even otherwise-squeamish people are willing to kill their own lobster, or at least watch it be done. After all, in its live state, lobster is not exactly cute and cuddly the way that lambs or piglets are. (And I have a firm belief that people's objection to killing animals is directly proportional to the perceived cuteness of the animal in question, though they're also willing to make specific exceptions for "luxury foods" like lobster and foie gras.) Also, it's not like you're intimately connected with the death of the lobster; you just throw it in the pot, toss on a lid, and you're done.

But it was an important psychological moment for me. We bought the lobster the day before cooking it, and I was very meditative about the whole thing. How did I feel about having six living creatures in my fridge overnight? Was I going to grow attached to them? When the moment came, how would I feel about placing a live, wriggling creature into boiling water and watching it die? There was a moment when I considered the possibility of converting to vegetarianism. So even if many others are willing to make lobster a specific exception to their general preference for shrink-wrapped meat on a styrofoam tray, I felt very deeply about the whole experience, and it was an important moment when I put that first crustacean in the water.

In the end, I was quite comfortable with the process. I felt no morbid fascination with their deaths (though the tone of this entry might lead you to believe otherwise!), but I felt no remorse either.

And the lobster was very tasty.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, part III: Bologna and Venice

Bologna had the honour of hosting both a "best of" and "worst of" experience. The "best of" was the gelato: on the recommendation of our Lonely Planet guidebook, we went to La Sorbetteria Castiglione at Via Castiglione 44. It was a little bit out of the way, but every bit worth the walk. They have an "open-kitchen" concept, so you can actually watch them make the gelato you're about to enjoy. The end product itself is incredibly creamy and rich, and many of the flavours have chunks of goodness (chocolate, house-made pralines, candied fruit). This may well have been the best ice cream I've ever had in my life.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the rabbit my husband had had for dinner the night before. We happened across an ad for Trattoria del Rosso (Via Augusto Righi 30) in Bologna's gay-oriented magazine, and thought it would be nice to support a business that supports the community. That turned out to be a mistake. My meal of lamb was fine, but my husband's roast rabbit with potatoes was awful: the potatoes were improperly cooked french fries, and the rabbit was overcooked, to the point of shoe-leather consistency. I don't think I've ever seen my husband simply put down his fork and refuse to eat a meal before - it was that bad. So I complained to the waiter in a mix of English and broken Italian. He promptly consulted with one of his colleagues, and then they both left. When a third waiter came to clear our plates, he noticed that most of the rabbit and fries was left, and politely inquired "Non e' buono?" To which I replied, with verve, "No! Non e' buono! E' troppo cotto! Molto, molto troppo cotto!"

To the trattoria's credit, they struck it from our bill, but the whole experience left us with a mixed opinion of the Bolognese food scene. We may just have a conference there for my husband (who's a university professor) so we can investigate further.

Venice was probably our favourite city of the whole trip. I suspect this was partly because our expectations were low (we had been warned off it by a couple of friends), partly because the weather was much cooler there than anywhere else we'd been, and partly because of the incredible graciousness of our host, Antonio, at his bed and breakfast (called Alle Guglie B&B, not to be confused with the hotel of the same name). Because the B&B is essentially a private apartment (Antonio rents out the spare bedroom), we were even able to prepare dinner for ourselves one night. So we had an insalata caprese (tomatoes, basil and organic bufala mozzarella), some prosciutto crudo, and some walnut and radicchio ravioli dressed with olive oil. All of that, washed down with a bottle of Amarone, made for a nearly perfect evening.

In addition to providing us with impeccable recommendations for sights, Antonio also suggested a couple of restaurants. My favourite in this latter category was Bentigodi. We went here on our last night in Venice, so ordered the full deal. We started with spritz cocktails (prosecco and Aperol) and the most perfect octopus salad ever, with warm octopus on a bed of cold greens, with orange segments to round it out. For mains, my husband had a very fresh, perfectly cooked sea bass and I had baccala' with polenta. For dessert, we shared the house "chocolate salami" and I had a glass of grappa. It was a wonderful meal to end the trip.

I would add to the general observations I made in my last post that we found the flavours of some of the vegetables too really stand out. Maybe we just fell victim to the same syndrome of confusing our state of mind with the state of the food, but the tomatoes really do taste different - and much better - in Italy. Another vegetable that surprised me was arugula. I don't think of myself as being a big fan of arugula in particular, though I do like my bitter greens in general. But on our first night in Rome, I ordered a pizza with bresaola (dry-cured beef), arugula and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. It was an eye-opening experience: the arugula tasted very peppery, with only a slightly bitter flavour. Definitely a vegetable to explore.

I want to close with a word on Italy's coffee culture. The coffee was generally excellent, with a shot of espresso ranging from 85 cents to €2.50 (the latter being a price we paid less than happily to sit at a table in Florence). We liked the Bolognese tendency to serve a shot glass of sparkling water alongside the morning coffee, presumably in case there are any grinds that have made their way into the cup. My husband, who was a strictly drip-coffee-and-occasional-cappucino man before the trip, has now started drinking moka (stovetop "espresso") with me in the mornings. Indeed, the moka pot has surpassed our regular coffee maker in usage since we returned. There's even been talk of buying a home espresso maker. So the coffee culture in Italy gets two enthusiastic thumbs up!

Now back to your regular, unscheduled, made-from-scratch food blogging. Don't be surprised if you notice a higher concentration of Italian cuisine in the next little while.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, part II: Rome and Florence

The ponte vecchio in Florence

It's extremely difficult to summarize our time in Italy, if only because we spent two weeks there, with a multitude of extremely different food experiences in a wide variety of cities. So I've broken this leg of the trip into two posts, in which I offer one or two highlights from each of the four cities we stayed in, with some general observations thrown in for good measure.

First, Rome. It’s hard to single out one meal as the best based solely on the quality of the food, so I’m going to talk about the meal that was the best experience. As so often happens, it earned that status because it was shared among friends. Our friend André, who lives in Rome, took us out one night with a small group of his friends to a trattoria whose owner, Paolo, they know. The only name I ever saw on the building was something to the effect of "Trattoria Antica," which seemed unusually generic. The food, however, was anything but.

We were all served prosecco shortly after our arrival. Menus were placed on the table, left there without being consulted, and then removed. As if by tacit agreement, we were served mixed fried fish, followed by a variety of perfect vegetable dishes. (At least, the ones that made it to my end of the table were perfect. I can only imagine that the others were even better!)

The selection of secondi was a serious affair: Paolo asked whether we wanted meat or fish, and then made a suggestion based, apparently, on his mood or our appearance or how our appearance affected his mood. Or maybe it was the alignment of the stars. In any event, I had beef straccetti with arugula and my husband had an enormous piece of tuna with tomato sauce. All of this was washed down with excellent house red wine, and finished off with limoncello.

Besides the food being excellent, you couldn't beat the atmosphere: we were sitting out on the uneven street, with the occasional car driving by inches behind us. We had arrived quite late, so the weather was beautiful. The conversation was in a mix of Italian (which we don't speak), French (which we do speak) and English. Also, the evening spun off into one of our better dining experiences in Florence.

Rome being Rome, we had more than one great dining experience. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another excellent meal, at a small restaurant called "Eduardo II". We were taken here by André as well, though it was just the three of us for this meal. It was another case of André knowing staff at the restaurant, so menus were, again superfluous. Our waiter, Mario, said he would "take care of us." And he did: this may have been the only meal on the whole trip where we had antipasto, pasta, secondo, dessert, wine, coffee and limoncello. And each dish was very well executed. My only regret is that I don’t know the address of the restaurant to recommend it to anyone, though it was near the Piazza Margana.

Next on our itinerary was Florence. On the whole, we found this city rather disappointing as a destination. The place was overrun by tourists, with food prices and quality to match. (I suppose I can't complain too much, since I was a part of the tourist crush.) Among the best things I ate were the lampredotto sandwiches (as discussed in this eGullet thread). I had them from two different stands, one right next to the Mercato Nuovo and the other right next to our hotel on Via Dante Alighieri. I preferred the latter.

In terms of sit-down meals, though, the best had to be at a restaurant called Maso. We ended up here at the suggestion of one of our friends at our big dinner in Rome: Maso is owned by a friend of his, Paola, whom he called from our dinner table that night in Rome to get the restaurant's address. So when we went to Florence, we made a point of dropping in. I also made a point of seeking out Paola and acknowledging her, feeling it would be rude not to. We managed to meet her, and we managed to convey in broken Italian that we were friends of Luc and André, but with no common language between us, conversation was pretty limited. However, we still got the VIP treatment. Based on our experiences in Rome and Florence, it would seem that VIP treatment at a neighbourhood trattoria in Italy consists of the owner sending you a glass of prosecco to start the meal, then allowing you to order what you want, only to whisk away the bill at the end and charge you whatever they feel like - usually an amount that seems barely sufficient to cover their costs.

The food at Maso was excellent all around. The Tuscan crostini (topped with mashed chicken livers) had a wonderful depth of flavour, and the house-made pasta with porcini mushrooms showed both main ingredients to great advantage.

Our time in Italy suggested a few things about food culture there. The first law of Italian dining seems to be Wine Is Cheap, And House Wine Is Good. Nowhere did we pay more than 5 euro for wine for the two of us at dinner, and since the house wines tended to be locally produced, they also tended to be the best accompaniment to the local foods. It’s too bad Canada has the wrong environment for wine to be so casually consumed!

Another thing we noticed was the almost complete lack of chicken dishes on restaurant menus. Given the my husband can't eat red meat, this could have been quite a difficulty, if not for the fact that there were ample fish and vegetarian options at most places. But with respect to the Tuscan crostini mentioned above, one has to wonder where all those livers came from, if the chicken itself is nowhere to be seen on the menu! (And surely any sauce that can be poured over pounded-flat veal could be poured over pounded-flat chicken breast...)

Stay tuned for some thoughts on Bologna and Venice. Hopefully I won’t break the 1,000-word mark on that one, too!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, part I: Ireland

I've been meaning to write up a trip recap ever since we got back, but I've been having trouble deciding just how much detail to put in, and how to divide up the entries (after my attempt to compress it into one entry failed). I think I finally have something I'm comfortable sharing with the world. Unfortunately, these will be food porn-less entries, since I didn't take my (obsolete) digital camera with me. So enjoy some nice scenery pics!

Usually, when we travel, my husband and I just eat at whatever restaurants we happen across, unless we have a local's point of view, in which case we tend to eat wherever they recommend. (As it turned out, this came in very handy in Italy.) So I didn't have any particular food plans for this trip, other than to try as many different things and regional specialties as I could find. Our restaurant instincts aren't always great, and sometimes it's more important to find somewhere, anywhere to eat rather than tear each other's throat out.

For this entry, I thought I'd concentrate on Ireland. Sadly, we didn't have very many memorable food experiences there, though the food wasn't as bad as people like to joke. Indeed, I think we went entire meals without even seeing a potato! And I never did find a restaurant willing to sell me colcannon...

Galway was a beautiful location with a very tourist-oriented food scene. It was here that I had my first taste of the "full Irish breakfast," which consisted of eggs, bacon, breakfast sausages, black pudding, white pudding, toast, tomato and coffee. With a breakfast like that, who needs lunch or dinner?

Galway also exposed me to the wonders of Irish soda bread. I'm sure I've eaten it before, but the two slabs of it that accompanied my otherwise pedestrian seafood chowder that night convinced me that I've never tasted it before. Does anyone have a good recipe for this stuff?

In Dublin, there were two particular food experiences that stand out. The first was at the Elephant & Castle pub in Temple Bar: we had been to the Manhattan branch of this establishment back in April, so thought it fitting to visit the Dublin outlet as well. The place was hopping with a mix of tourists and locals, but there seemed to be one constant: almost every table had a basket of chicken wings. We decided to go with the flow and order some. They were among the best chicken wings I've ever had in my life: plump and juicy, with a crispy, spicy exterior. And the finger bowls were a great touch! It's too bad we were seated so close to a group of American tourists whose politics were, shall we say, diametrically opposed to my own.

The other good Dublin experience was at Gruel, on Dame St. This unpretentious little eatery is exactly the kind of place I would want to own if I ever entered the restaurant business: open kitchen, tightly packed tables, chalkboard menus. My meal of "seared" tuna on salad wasn't fantastic (the tuna was barely pink on the inside with not enough of a crust on the outside), but my husband's Thai-style fish cakes with chili-lime sauce were quite good. And the restaurant's particular vibe made up for the uneven food. When we entered, one staff member had to inquire with another staff member as to whether they were still seating diners, so I assume they were not necessarily at the top of their game.

Generally speaking, Ireland is a very expensive place to eat out and, while there may be a nascent "foodie" culture there, it's not very obvious to the casual observer. The Ireland leg of the trip was always intended to be quick (not to say cursory); we were there because my husband was presenting at a conference. If I ever go back, I'll be sure to set aside at least one evening for a top-end meal there, just to see what the Irish can do when money is no object.

Next up: Italy, which was a much more interesting food destination.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Karei raisu

Ever since we got back from Italy, my husband has had a strong urge for Asian food. I think it's because he feels a need to balance out all the Italian food we ate while we were away.

So tonight he requested that I make curry rice, a Japanese stew of meat and vegetables with a curry powder-based sauce. Normally, I make curry rice from the bars you can buy in just about any Asian market (the names Glico and Golden Curry may sound familiar). We don't seem to have one of those bars kicking around right now, and the nearest Asian market is a half-hour drive away (and overpriced), so I dusted off one of my Japanese cookbooks and decided to make curry rice from scratch! (OK, so I cheated a little bit by using Campbell's tetra-pack chicken broth, but the rest of the dish is from scratch.)

I've made this recipe once or twice before and generally like it, although the texture isn't quite as thick (some might say "gloopy") as it is with the bar. I suspect this may be related to the relative water content of chicken (which we use) and pork (which the recipe calls for), so I might try reducing the amount of stock next time. Because we use chicken, I've reduced the cooking time in the recipe below. I imagine you could also use tofu, but I don't know how long you'd have to cook it for. (In fact, I imagine it would be quite tasty with some leftover deep-fried tofu... maybe next time.)

It's traditional to serve curry rice with Japanese pickles, especially rakkyo (pickled onions) and fukujinzuke, which is a mix of vegetables pickled in a soy sauce-based mixture. We can't get those locally, but I brought some canned fukujinzuke back from Toronto in the summer, which rounded out the meal quite nicely.

Curry rice
Adapted from Japanese Cooking for the American Table by Susan Fuller Slack

1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast, diced
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, cut into pieces
1 small green pepper, diced
1 potato, peeled and diced
4 cups (or less) chicken stock

1 Tbsp. butter
1.5 to 2 Tbsp. Japanese curry powder (We use S&B brand "Oriental curry powder." I'm not convinced that regular curry powder wouldn't work just as well.)

3 Tbsp. cornstarch or potato starch
1/2 cup half-and-half cream

1. Heat butter and oil in saucepan or skillet over high heat. Brown chicken. Add vegetables and cook for a couple of minutes, until softened slightly. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

2. In a small pan, melt additional tablespoon butter, then add curry powder and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add to stew. Rinse the pan with a couple of tablespoons of water, then add that to the stew as well.

3. Mix cream with starch. Bring stew to a boil, then mix in the cream-starch mixture. Cook for one minute (or until thickened), stirring often. Season to taste.

4. Serve over rice, with pickles on the side. You could also serve over udon noodles.

(To make with pork, the original recipe says to omit the potatoes in the first step, simmer the mixture for 35 minutes, then add the potatoes after the curry powder and cook for another 10 minutes before adding the cornstarch.)

Serves 4-5

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Experiments in brining

Brined pork tenderloin with quinoa
I don't often eat red meat at home, because my husband is intolerant to it. This isn't to say that he's a radical vegetarian, but his digestive system tends to... reject all things beef, pork and lamb. I'm an inveterate carnivore, though, so I occasionally buy some meat on a whim, and throw it in the freezer until the spirit moves me to cook it (and cook something else for him).

This particular story is about some pork tenderloins I had bought a few weeks ago. When we returned from vacation, we found ourselves smack in the middle of barbecue season, but I get easily bored with our usual selection of sausages and President's Choice burgers. So this isn't so much a "made from scratch" thing as a "what I had for dinner" thing. But we never make the burgers or sausages from scratch, so maybe this is a "made from scratch" thing!

This was also my first attempt at brining meat. I used the instructions given in Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie. Because it was my first time using this technique, I wanted to keep things to their most basic, so I avoided using any aromatics and stuck to the basic brine, though I did use brown sugar instead of white. I figured I could always use a dry rub after the fact.

Then I realized that dry rubs almost invariably call for salt and sugar, which were already provided in the brine. So I ended up just rubbing the tenderloins with olive oil and coating them with some Spanish smoked paprika and black pepper.

The results were delectable! The pork was salty, but not unpleasantly so. (I'm a salt fiend. In fact, my husband keeps threatening to have a salt lick installed to keep me happy!) The paprika lent a wonderful smokey note that I wouldn't otherwise have been able to achieve on my tiny little propane grill. And the meat was incredibly moist.

And what did I cook for my husband? I took some boneless chicken breasts, brined them (separately from the pork, but using the same batch of brine) and grilled them with a glaze made from lime juice, Thai fish sauce and hot red pepper jelly. He tells me it was good, but didn't seem especially enthusiastic about it. I thought there was too much fish sauce in the glaze, but the brine seemed to keep the chicken moist as well.

All in all, I think brining is a technique I'll be using again soon. It's too hot to try it right now, but I'm eager to see what effect it will have on a roast chicken.

Brined pork tenderloin
2 litres water
125 grams kosher salt
75 grams brown sugar

2 pork tenderloins (total about 800g)

vegetable oil (I used olive)
freshly ground black pepper

1. Mix the brine ingredients in a pot, and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Once dissolved, take the pot off the heat, let it cool completely, then put it in the fridge until chilled.

2. Once the brine is chilled, place the tenderloins in the pot, ensuring they are submerged. (I didn't actually need the full quantity of brine for my two tenderloins.) Return the pot and tenderloins to the fridge for two hours.

3. After two hours, remove the pork from the brine, rinse in cold water and pat dry. Place the pork on a clean plate and return to the fridge, uncovered, for at least one hour. Discard the brine.

4. Rub the pork with oil, sprinkle the paprika and black pepper on, and rub in.

5. Grill the pork over medium heat for approximately 15 minutes (or until it reaches an internal temperature of 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit), turning once halfway through cooking.

6. Allow to rest for 5 minutes, then slice and serve. (As you can see in the photo, I served mine with quinoa mixed with parsley and green onions.) Enjoy!

I'm planning a post about our trip to Ireland and Italy, but tales grow in the telling, and I'm having a hard time deciding how much detail to provide. Keep checking back!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Viva Italia!

Pizza for the winning team!

As a rule, I don't follow football/soccer. In fact, I don't even really know all the rules. (I had to get my husband to explain "offside" to me. What can I say? I'm bookish.) But having been in Italy for two weeks during the World Cup this year, and with Italy in the final game, I figured I should watch it.

After the first half, I turned to my husband and said, "For dinner tonight, why don't we have the national cuisine of whichever team wins?"

We had pizza.

Congratulations, Italy!