From Xmas to Halloween

Monday, February 1st, 2010

As has become tradition, we have cordoned off Christmas Eve for ourselves for the purposes of cooking and enjoying a multi-course, no-meat-is-too-expensive, dinner for two by the fire. It has long been the case that the food is what I anticipate the most during the Xmas season.  Now that we have cultivated this new tradition of decadence, it has become the ultimate focus of my anticipation– there will be no better meal during the year than the one on December 24th.



This year, though the rules of decadence applied, we were a little less astringent in the following of the recipes‘ rules, which resulted in some near misses and, admittedly, one bonafide disaster.

Le Menu

Clementine Negroni

Whole-wheat Blini with Caviar and Crème Fraîche

Sparkling white

Cauliflower Soup with Pecorino Romano and Black Truffle Oil

Spice-rubbed Roasted Squab

Homemade Potato Gnocchi in Browned-butter Sauce

Sautéed Kale

2006 Bouchaine Pinot Noir, Carneros, Napa Valley

Taleggio Raw-milk Cheese

Apple-Pomegranate Tarte Tatin with Honeyed Mascarpone



Generally speaking, it would be pretty hard not to pry a delightful evening from a menu such as this. Critically speaking, there were quite a few small mistakes we made along the way, or things that just didn’t taste “quite right” that I would do differently next time.  The whole wheat in the blini overpowered the taste of caviar (which was on the cheaper side, to be sure, but we still paid good American money for that American caviar and we should have been able to taste it!); the cauliflower soup was a little bland – the cauliflower should have been roasted before being made into soup; the roasted squab (a.k.a. pigeon) was too roasted, alas, and became a little dried out; the kale, it turns out, is not something that one can sauté with garlic, like swiss chard, to produce a lovely aromatic green on the plate.

The apple-pomegranate tarte tatin was a catastrophe.  We’ve made the classic tarte tatin a dozen times with great success (and fabulous leftovers) but the addition of pomegranate poisoned the formula.   What started as this:


…ended up as this:


Black.  Undeniably, solidly, even-viewed-in-direct-sunlight, midnight black. It seems that pomegranate adds zero to the flavour of such a tart and effectively turns the sugars and apples into pure evil if left to simmer together for a long period of time.  On the plus side, it was still entirely edible, and now we have a secret formula for making a wicked Hallowe’en dessert.

Gavin and his Tomalley

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

lobster2We bought a 4-lb. lobster and we named him Gavin.  He cost $31.96 + tax.   He was too big to fit in any of our pots, but we filled the largest one with water anyway and when it was boiling, we pushed Gavin in and held the pot lid closed.  He struggled.  That was the worst part about making lobster chowder.

The best part was how good Gavin and his tomalley tasted.  Lately, I’ve taken to visiting the big library downtown near city hall.  It is gloriously enormous and has aisle upon aisle of cookbooks in the cooking section.  I barely made it halfway through one half of one aisle before I had as many books as I could carry.  In Food & Wine Best of the Best Volume 4 was a recipe – one of the best of 2001 – for Lobster Chowder, originally from Jasper White’s  50 Chowders.  Not really a repast befitting summer but it sounded too good to miss.  When we bought Gavin, he went into a paper bag and then into a plastic bag and I was hoping that we would take the bus so that I could set the bag on the floor at my feet and watch other people’s reactions as the bag kicked and  squirmed.  Because who transports a lobster on the bus?  As it turns out, we walked home with him and thus developed an appropriate appetite for chowder.

Superb, this one.   Includes two cups of heavy cream added at the end and was better for the fresh buttered baguette dipped in to sop up the juices.

Tastes Green

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

pea_soup_1Made with frozen peas, this soup would be right up Nigella Lawson’s alley.  We added some tarragon to this light, fresh version, and some crisp pea shoots which sat suspended on the surface above the white dollop of creme fraîche.   Perfect with shards of warm, crunchy garlic bread.


Janet & Marc: Cooking at Home

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

cimg6908.jpgJanet’s first experiments in filleting a fish left us with excellent ingredients for fish stock, so we threw the cap and rake (read head and spine) into some water with a bay leaf and leek greens for about an hour. I’m told fish stock only needs a half hour, but I prefer to really work the fish smell into the house. When I’ve gone to all that trouble, I want people to walk into the house three days later and say, “Were you cooking fish?”

About ten years ago I was a big fan of “Julia & Jacques: Cooking at Home,” hosted by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. She tended to do Americanized recipes and he classed things up with some fine French cuisine. Although they were always very nice to each other, Jacques definitely had strong opinions on the right way to do a recipe and Julia was casual and confident. He would stir his pot and give her a glance out of the corner of his eye that said, “Whatever, you’re the legend.” Here’s an example of their styles that Amazon uses:

“Not everything I do with my roast chicken is necessarily scientific,” Julia says. “For instance, I always give my bird a generous butter massage before I put it in the oven. Why? Because I think the chicken likes it–and, more important, I like to give it.” Julia sets her chicken on a V-rack in a roasting pan in a 425-degree oven that she then turns down to 350 after 15 minutes. Jacques roasts his bird at 425, on its side, right in the pan. “To me,” he says, “it’s very important to place the chicken on its side for all but 10 minutes of roasting.” After 25 minutes he turns his chicken over, careful not to tear the skin, and lowers the heat to 400. The bird finishes breast-side up for the last 15 to 20 minutes.

Hmm, that reminds me of someone.

I somehow managed to remember enough of their Mediterranean Fish Stew to make it myself and cook it every year or two without ever having written anything down, not that I’ve remembered to add the salt every time. If you can procure fish heads or fish stock, it’s really an easy meal to make and looks impressive when served to guests. Julia favored clams for this recipe, but I prefer mussels due to my east coast Canada heritage. I always shell the mussels before storing the leftovers, not for any specific reasons, but it seemed weird to have those shells frozen into my soup. Shells must not falsely state freshness. Other than that, there really isn’t much to the recipe at all. It’s mostly wine, fish and vegetables with hot sauce and thyme to finish it off.

After googling the recipe for the first time ever, I discover I’ve forgotten the rouille, a spicy sauce made with breadcrumbs and olive oil. It went on top of the soup, or perhaps on bread which were stuck into the soup. However, Janet’s garlic bread adds a very similar element with much less effort—especially when I get her to make it.

Keep reading for the recipe.


You know, “TWO”

Sunday, June 4th, 2006

Kaifeng 1.JPGKaifeng may not have been quite as rustic as I had hoped, but the markets were an unexpected spectacle of delights. The people were also very nice. In Shanghai people were pushy and always trying to sell us things. In Kaifeng people were friendly, extremely patient and knew a fair bit of English. After some confusion about price, one woman in her late fifties, who didn’t speak a word of  English to us, wrote “TWO” on a piece of paper.

On the first afternoon we passed through an empty square to access an alley filled with food vendors, produce stands and live poultry—such a contrast to metropolitan Shanghai. Another market consisted of  a few alleys filled entirely with consumer goods, like a Walmart broken into dozens of shops.

Kaifeng 2.JPGIn two hours the empty-ish intersection of streets near our hotel coverts into dozens of outdoor restaurants with kitchen carts, tables and chairs. Vendors loudly announce their products and proprietors try to usher passers-by to tables.  Nibbling and drinking beer in the square made an effective substitution for a patio bar.

Although there are many vendors to choose from, there are only a few main types. The kebab vendors have charcoal grills and a wide selection of skewered foods, including chicken, octopus and unidentified brown insects. Dumpling stands may also have steamed buns and wonton soup. Other vendors sell thick pita-like bread stuffed with your choice of filling. It seems that a few stands will share a seating area and cooperate to offer a wider selection of food.

kaifeng 3.JPGOur first choice was a kebab stand. The kebabs were fine, but we became concerned over the cleanliness of the beer glasses. Another man approached us with a menu which we were completely unable to read. He kept pointing at the 3 beside the first item which designated the price, as if that would make us buy some. We saw other people with soup and managed to order some from the man. The soup was warm, sweetened green tea with pears. It was almost like dessert. The next stand we tried had steamed dumplings and the beer was bottled and cold. It was noisy, crowded, hot, busy, dangerous (with fire flaring occasionally from underneath woks and inside kebab-BBQs), friendly and perfect.

Taipei Supper 101

Friday, May 5th, 2006

We quickly learned how to get necessities in Taipei. Someone told us Taipei is a good city for us to transition to Asian travel. Most people speak at least a little English. Most signs are posted in English and most places have very good signs. The metro is very easy to use. They even provide a very good map of the city for free.

Taipei day 1.jpgFood can be a little challenging. The key factor is selecting a food stand where we can communicate what we want. Some restaurants and stands have pictures, others have English menus. Some just have food on display at which to point. It’s also possible to point at meals that have been served to other people. Most food vendors seem used to selling food in this fashion.

On our first night we selected a small restaurant with pictures of noodle soup. We pointed at what we thought was chicken, but were served barbeque pork, which was better anyway. The pork and broth were very tasty. The soup also included baby bok choy, an egg and a slice of white something with a pink flower that had no flavour at first, then tasted like fish or fake crab. I suspect it was some sort of fish log. The smiling proprietor brought us some ice tea at no extra charge.

Taipei day 1B.jpgDessert was a bit of surprise. I picked out something pink from a display case with the assumption it was soft, fluffy and creamy. I’m glad we didn’t wait until we got back to the hostel to eat it because it turned out to be frozen. The outside was covered in sticky gelatinous rice. The inside was like strawberry ice cream, but with a slightly waxy texture. We’re sure to have more pleasant surprises.

There are so many places to go in Taipei and so much food to try. We could spend a three weeks here instead of a few days.