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.

Comme il faut

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Irresistible.   At the library, I try to limit myself to 3 or 4 cookbooks at a time because I have to carry them all home, up steep hills, and some of those cookbooks weigh a ton;  I’m building up the muscle needed to lug home the big yellow Gourmet Cookbook.  In the meantime, I brought home The Bistros, Brasseries and Wine Bars of Paris:  Everyday Recipes form the Real Paris.  Balancing an armload of books in the narrow aisle I flipped the book open to Pan-Seared Cod with Potato and Smoked Sausage Purée from La Muse Vin.  Didn’t even need to look further before I plunked on the top of my pile and lurched over to the check out.


It’s the first book I sat down with when I got home.  I thought about bustin’ out the PostIt™ notes to bookmark the ones I wanted to try but, that would’ve meant book marking almost every page.   Irresistible, French cooking!   The first thing I read was on the front cover, the definitions of the establishments listed in the title:

  • Bistro, an informal place serving a few hearty dishes noon and night.
  • Brasserie, a café-restaurant with continuous service and timeless foods.
  • Wine bar, a small establishment featuring wines by the glass and some simple food.

Seems a lot of overlap in the definitions, perhaps the only true point of differentiation is the time of day at which meals are served at each.  So I can’t have wine for breakfast?
After much lip chewing and salivating, I convinced Marc that we should make choucroute garnie, unglamourously translated as Sauerkraut with Pork and Sausages.  This took some earnest convincing on my part as Marc abhors the sauerkraut.  But I quoted the book that fresh sauerkraut is worlds away from what he would know as canned, pickled cabbage.  We can get fresh made sauerkraut in bulk at the Rainbow grocery (right next to the bulk, house-made kimchi and the enormous tub of organic miso paste) so the authenticity of the recipe would not be tarnished.   If I’m to be perfectly honest, it was likely the promise of Canadian bacon in the recipe that made his decision, not my championing of sauerkraut.

Ah, so satisfying, this glorious, humble dish.  Salty, meaty, tart with vinegar and crunchy with cabbage, spicy mustard on the side to slather on hunks of bratwurst.  No question, this will be making repeat performances as long as the weather hovers around “chilly”.


Kitchen of Perfection

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

“It would be impossible to describe in detail the lavish variety, the orderly complexity, the gleaming cleanliness of that great room, but the effect it wrought upon his sense was instant and overwhelming.  It was one of the most beautiful, spacious, thrilling and magnificently serviceable rooms that he had ever seen: everything in it was designed for use and edged with instant readiness; there was not a single thing in the room that was not needed, and yet its total effect was to give one a feeling of power, space, comfort, rightness and abundant joy.”  Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River (1935).     This exactly describes what the Microsoft Kitchen of the Future is NOT.

I’m reading American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes; it was from this anthology that I pulled the above quote.    Like a Rorschach test, the manifestation of this perfect kitchen could be imagined so differently by different readers- what, exactly, would be thrilling about one’s own ‘perfect kitchen’?    a Wolf range?  two sinks?  a moving sidewalk?  Without a dishwasher, our present kitchen, while serviceable, will never attain perfection.  But today, while out shopping, we obtained four items that soon will be cleaned and “edged with instant readiness”:   a  wide wire spoon for fishing fried things from molten oil, a 9-inch tamis (which was made in Japan and, from the label, appears to be something used to strain beaten eggs ??), and two long-lusted-after large, aluminum sheet pans.    What I won’t be able to do with those sheet pans!  There is a space in the kitchen that has been waiting for them, a place that I can reach them, half a step from the sink,  so they may assist in all the prepping, dry-rubbing, drying, marinating, resting, proofing, cooling and draining for which I have [long had!] need.

From the library, I also picked up The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook; complete with recipes, musings and terrible, terrible illustrations.   Originally published in 1954, I am amused by the recipes in which the tools, techniques and/or ingredients are out of date:

Suprême of Pike A La Dijonaise

Cut the fillets from a pike, see that no bones adhere and then skin them.  Interlard them as one does fillet of beef.  Put them in a deep dish with 1/4 cup brandy, 1/2 cup sherry, and 1 cup good, dry red wine, salt and pepper and 4 shallots chopped fine and 4 bouquets each containing 1 stalk of celery, 1 small twig of thyme and 1/4 laurel leaf, each bouquet tied in a muslin bag.  Baste with liquid and put aside.  In winter keep for 48 hours, in summer for 24 hours, basting twice a day.   When the fillets are ready to be cooked place in a deep earthenware dish which has been heavily coated with soft butter, the fillets, the four little bags and the strained marinade.  Put into preheated oven 400º for about 20 minutes, basting frequently.  When the fillets are well browned, remove from oven, add 2 tablespoons cream and 3 tablespoons soft butter. Baste and serve at once.

“I’ll be working from home today;  I must be here to interlard and then baste my pike.”

Smoked, Slippery and Slimy

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Let’s talk about oysters. All of a sudden and for no fathomable reason, I seem to see them everywhere. They were exulted in my recent library find, Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet where I learned which ones were eaten by the upper crust and which species people were forced to contend with during WWII. Lately, I can’t resist cracking open a tin each week of slippery, oily, little smoked oysters, pried away from each other with a toothpick and eaten with Raincoast Crisp crackers (arguably the best crackers on the planet earth and inexcusably unavailable in the US) before supper. With a bottle of chilled prosecco, that could be supper.

I can never visit the Saturday market at the Ferry Building without making a stop for second breakfast at the oyster table in front of the fish market. There’s a kid there shucking them fresh for a dollar which we slurp up bare naked [the oysters] as we stand dodging the market crowds; they a protein blast of energy. When combined with a few heavy shots of Blue Bottle espresso, there’s no sleep ’till Brooklyn.

And now I’m craving the tiny, juicy ones they serve fresh during happy hour at Eos, the wine bar down the street. We order them by the half dozen and they arrive at our table creamy and wobbling in their liquor, perched atop a pot-full of crushed ice. These are irresistable with the sauce they provide on the side: a shallot-flecked vinaigrette that is the only thing I will deign to dress them with. These must be consumed with a martini, mainly because the martinis are also a part of happy hour but also because of the delicious contrast of slurping from a shell in one hand and from a martini glass in the other.

And now, flipping back through some food photos from FEBRUARY, I found this one of Pickled Oysters with English Cucumber “Capellini” and Dill, a gem from the French Laundry Cookbook. The capellini in this case, are thin strands of cucumber, which, I gather, would normally be pasta.


This was so long ago, I can’t quite recall the flavour. They look salty with caviar, perhaps a bit sweet from the pickling. I remember shucking them though, my first ever attempt at doing so. Ahhh, now I remember, that was what twisted the tip of the paring knife into a snarly tangle. I thought I remembered prying open something…. The first one was terrifying, convinced as I was that the knife would slip and slice violently through the kitchen towel wadded around my left hand and lop of a finger. The second was aggravating. The rest, as I recall, seemed to get easier. I read a Canadian saying once, a simile for a difficult task which seems, now, funnier and very concise: “…like trying to open an oyster with a bus ticket.”

My Eyes Have Been Opened

Monday, January 7th, 2008

My eyes have been opened to a new realm of culinary arts. For months I had admired the glossy, imposing coffee table book that is always displayed prominently in the cooking section of bookstores. This tome of French cooking which is heavy enough to be used as a tool in some of the recipes it describes – weighing down the cookie sheet that is squeezing the moisture from the slices of eggplant or smashing apart pepper corns with its solid spine – has become my teacher. It is The French Laundry Cookbook. It is alpha and omega. It is over fifty Canadian dollars.

I’m sure I can expect some resistance to my declaration of its importance, especially from those who learned to cook from books by Julia Child or James Beard or Auguste Escoffier, though I would argue that perhaps everyone who loves to cook has a book which they hold in higher esteem than the rest. Why is it this book for me? How is it that Thomas Keller, who isn’t even on the Food Network, came to represent the finest of culinary artists to me? Apart from magazine articles, I didn’t even have any exposure to him or his cooking, having never been to Yountville to visit The Source, or even having seen or heard an interview with the guy. Somewhere along the way, I just decided that he was the one whom I wished to emulate, if only occasionally and with the greatest preparation anxiety.

So we bought the book. As a matter of fact, we bought the very last signed copy available at Stacey’s Bookstore on Market street. I had always planned to buy it, perhaps on a special occasion, but the fact that it was signed was what clinched it, and I, who always suffer from buyer’s remorse, felt not a twinge; I happily, hungrily brought it home and devoured it.

It took a least a month before the book actually made it into the kitchen. I once read an article by a woman who collected cookbooks and who found that she would usually hesitate to bring a new, gorgeous, art-gallery-worthy cookbook into the kitchen, the same way she would buy a new silk blouse but let it hang in the closet for a few months before actually getting up the nerve to wear it. I can empathize. I break or spill nearly everything I touch- I wouldn’t say I’m clumsy, exactly, I just seem to touch the glass or plate to a hard surface at precisely the weakest point which causes it to shatter and/or spill. It’s sort of a super power. But anyway, the same could be true for the book; I could just imagine opening it for my first attempt at cooking a recipe within and spilling a healthy tablespoon-full of balsamic all over the wide, white pages, possibly even ruining a few pictures as well. Ergo, I hesitated. Until finally, one day, I decided to try one of the least threatening recipes: Blini with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Eggplant Caviar.

It’s worth mentioning, I think, that this is one of the few recipes that required few pieces equipment that were not already in our possession. It did involve some work the day before eating, but that is small potatoes, no pun intended. Before beginning, I was tempted to read about a blogger’s experience cooking this particular recipe on, a woman who, like Julie of the Julie/Julia project, has purchased The French Laundry cookbook and has made it her mission to cook every recipe in it, while documenting the process online. But I stopped short of searching for the recipe’s post on her blog because it would be like using training wheels and I already have a fairly decent idea of how to ride a bike. I may not have ridden one on a wire stretched over a gorge, but training wheels would not help the situation, the same way Carol’s tips are unlikely to help me know when the blini were done- I just gotta do it.

The book made me nervous. I had put it well beyond harm’s reach, on the furthest corner of the furthest counter-top from where I was working. Nonetheless, it made me nervous, the same impatient, anxious kind of nervous I feel when trying out a new instrument or playing a new sport- if I’m not good within 10 minutes, I’m giving up. Luckily, all that I had to do in the first 10 minutes of this exercise was slice up the eggplant, lay the slices out on a cookie sheet and let them rest so all the moisture is leeched from their pale, spiritless slabs. Encouraging. And so I proceeded, using clever tool replacements when I didn’t have precisely the appropriate instrument, and substituting but a few ingredients (like prepared, organic vegetable stock instead of of homemade) and two busy evenings later, produced my first, humble FL masterpiece.


The second attempt at cooking-to-eat-like-royalty is entitled Salad of Haricots Verts, Tomato Tartare and Chive Oil and went equally as smoothly, much to my surprise. Probably there will be no screw-ups until I’m working with an extremely expensive ingredient, like foie gras. But for now, I am happy to stick to the vegetable kingdom and turn out these first course delights.


Xmas Eve

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

Let’s see— so, November 26th was the last time I posted to this blog. That seems sterotypical of blogdom: start off strong, interest gradually wans, topics fade and the next thing you know, it’s 2008. Well, if December went by in a blur, it’s because we had so much food to prepare and eat that I was too busy to write about it. Or, I was too lazy. Either or. Therefore, I’m re-starting the posting with a bang, the climax of our December, indeed, the climax of our epicurean year: Christmas Eve dinner.

Long has it been tradition in my family to have a heavily “sauced” happy hour, followed by an elaborate dinner on Christmas eve before attending atheist mass (a.k.a. a James Bond movie). This is when the good dishes make their annual appearance, when no cut of meat is too expensive, when four-course meals are warranted. I relish this dinner and look forward to it with more anticipation than any other Christmas treat. Presents? meh. Eggnog lattes, sure, I’ll have a few. Three days worth of menu planning, grocery shopping and food preparation? Be still my beating heart.

This year, since Marc and I decided to have a California Christmas on our own, we opted to continue those traditions, minus the mass, which we substituted with Christmas music by a crackling wood fire. The menu planning actually started about a month and a half earlier when we finally made the big-ticket purchase of The French Laundry cookbook, signed by Thomas Keller. Oh, The Book. How I am enamoured of The Book. It calls to me in the mornings, when the sun in shining through the window onto the love seat by the fireplace, where I can sit with my cappucinno perched on the armrest and reverently read it, relishing every page. I take such pleasure in perusing the fastidious recipes, all the labour-intensive details that go into making one dish, trying to imagine how a person can be so singularly focused on food as to come up with such fantastic ideas for preparation. With much anxiety and trepidation did I construct my first French Laundry dish (which I shall describe in a subsequent post), but the first try gave me the confidence to attempt and FL recipe for this hallowed feast. I could only imagine having the stamina for one such dish, though— for the rest, we turned to simpler fare. Thus, our menu:

Dungeness Crab Salad with Cucumber Jelly, Grainy Mustard Vinaigrette, and Micro Arugula

Duck Confit with Fried Arkansas Black Apples

Lentils with herbs and garlic

Brava Ginger Cakes

Guess which one is Thomas Keller’s. I mean, who makes cucumber jelly? Who even thinks up such a thing? We had to make cucumber juice and cut wee cucumber diamonds to delicately float in the gêlée. We drove across the Bay in order to go to our favourite butcher for the duck legs and found the whole, cooked Dungeness in the fish market next door. It took several hours to de-meat the crab and put together the whole layered affair. It was ridiculously laborious and wonderfully decadent which, I suppose, is really à propos of Christmas.


The confit is something I’ve never tried. Years ago, when Mom & Dad were first living in France, Mom received a gift from someone that, no doubt, seemed normal to a Norman but confused the hell out of a Canadian: a large jar of duck fat. Mom offered to give it to me when we visited as she had no real use for it and I turned it down as couldn’t think of what I would ever do with several pounds of duck fat. Now, I get it. Confit is duck cooked in its own fat for, like, ever. For such a simple dish, this is one of the classics by which I have been somewhat intimidated in the past. It’s so French and, therefore, carries an air of complication about it. I had never even attempted to find a recipe for duck confit as I figured it was something beyond reach of the home cook- don’t you need special tools or applicances or something? Some secret underground technique for masterfully crafting this ancient dish? A Julia Child? And then I saw the recipe in a Bon Appétit magazine, where they proclaimed it the “Technique of the Year” and promised “rich results” for a “surprisingly simple” preparation. That was enough for me— first, because I simply coudn’t finish 2007 without having partaken in the technique of the year, and second, if ever there was an occasion to make such a meal, it was here and now: San Francsico at Christmas.

We weren’t too worried about finding duck fat hereabouts and indeed had no trouble in getting some from our butcher, purchased by the pound from an enormous bucket of fat at the base of the refrigerated case. duck-confit.JPGAfter marinating the duck pieces in salt and garlic overnight, Marc melted down the fat (I suppose I should refer to it as “rendered”), threw the duck legs in and chucked the whole thing in the oven: that is basically all that it needed, which makes me wonder how it is that I could have been so intimidated and misinformed about it in the past. Many deliciously aromatic hours later, we had the most unctuous, flavourful, outrageously extravagent duck that I’ve ever had. With the lentils and the sweet-tart apples, it absolutely melted in the mouth. Clearly, duck fat is the way to go. And as an added bonus, we got to keep the leftover duck sealed in its own congealed fat in the back of the fridge, ready for a quick meal any time this month. Amazing!


ginger-cake.JPGThe ginger cakes, modeled off of our old favourites at Brava bistro in Calgary, have never disappointed. Slowly steamed on the stove top, they emerge from their ramekins as moist puddings to hover in our homemade caramel sauce. This is my desert island dessert, certainly befitting of a Christmas Eve repast. They are so good, in fact, that they may make an appearance on New Year’s Eve. Ginger totally goes with champagne.

And over glasses of port, all snug by the fire, we languished in our gluttony as we contemplated our Christmas Day feast.

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

cimg6899.jpgI was eyeing a bread baking book at Chapters before leaving on our around the world trip. Now that we’ve returned and I’ve been making bread again, I picked up The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart, to further develop my baking skills and fulfill my craving for artisan bread. My ciabatta recipe from Epicurious wasn’t doing it for me–dense and crumbly, completely lacking ciabatta’s distinctive big, shiny holes.

Before trying the new ciabatta I had to try the sticky bun recipe as I have fond memories of a place at the mall in Fort McMurray selling excellent sticky bun knots. Just the sight of the glaze–1/2 pound of butter, 1 cup of sugar, 1/2 cup of corn syrup– nearly cimg6887.jpggave Janet a heart attack and that was in addition to the 1/2 cup of sugar that was rolled into the buns. Baking the buns was a bit of a challenge because the dough need to cook through to the bottom and the glaze needs to carmelize without turning into rock candy. In the end, most of the glaze was a little too stiff, but still tasty. If I had rotated the pan half way through and took them out five minutes earlier, they would have been perfect bakery-quality buns. Surprisingly, the glaze softened over the next 48 hours.

The ciabatta was a disaster. The book told me exactly what the dough texture was suppose to be and I didn’t have it. The dough was clearly too stiff and not the soft, silky mass they described. It was baked into three edible loaves of dense crumbly bread. Perhaps mixing baking and wine at 11:00 at night is not to be repeated.