Saturday, May 4, 2013

Cooking for Gracie - Spaghetti with Anchovies, Walnuts, Mint and Breadcrumbs

Today’s book: Keith Dixon’s Cooking for Gracie. A surprising choice for me. Why? Allow me to tell you before getting to the book itself.

Since even before Raphaël’s birth, people have been giving us a lot of stuff. A lot. Most of the gifts were predictable, but very welcome: clothes, toys, gift certificates, more clothes. Others were pleasant surprises: a baby food maker, a soothing noise-maker (which doesn’t really put the baby to sleep, but is still really cool). I’m grateful for it all. But there is one type of gift which I specifically asked people not to give me (and fortunately, most of them complied): parenting books.

My dislike of parenting books (and most self-help books, really, but let’s stick to this particular genre today) stems from way before I ever became a parent myself: it started during my teen years. I was a fairly typical teenager, undergoing all the angst, drama, and emotional rollercoaster those years often entail. But around that time, my mother started developing the annoying habit of attributing anything I did that rubbed her the wrong way to my age. “I know teenagers are unkempt / rude to their parents / selfish, but I will not have you wear your hair like that / speak to me that way / behave in this manner.” It was as if I had been labelled practically overnight, and anything I did would inevitably be traced back to that label. Granted, not all her criticisms were undeserved: my hair was indeed a mess most of the time, and I wasn’t always the most thoughtful daughter. But I could have been the best-groomed, most polite, most altruistic teen, and my mother probably would have found something else to blame on teenagehood. Because I was no longer a child, and that, apparently, was the greatest sin of all.

And one day, while browsing through one of our many bookshelves, I found The Book.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pomegranate Soup

Still catching up on writing about the food books I read ages ago. Today, Marsha Mehran’s Pomegranate Soup.

But first, a flashback. In 2011, my friend Evelyne of Cheap Ethnic Eatz hosted a Food Film Marathon, an entire day of movies revolving around food. On the playbill was the 2000 Lasse Hallström film Chocolat, with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp (as well as Dame Judi Dench and Alfred Molina). If you’ll recall, it takes place in a small, conservative French village, where Juliettte Binoche’s character, a free, gypsy-like single mother, waltzes in, opens a chocolaterie, and offends everybody’s Catholic sensibilities – until they all succumb to the power of the almighty cocoa bean. Oh, and Johnny Depp plays an actual gypsy, who strums a different guitar in every scene (someone pointed this out during the movie, and it became a running joke. Seriously, where does he keep all those instruments?).

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Save the Deli

So, the good news is: I’m officially back in the kitchen. Raphaël apparently enjoys sitting in his bouncy chair on the floor and watching me whisk things and spill stuff (obviously, I don’t put him directly under the counter), so I’ve been able to cook relatively freely. The less good news is: nothing I’ve made so far is especially blog worthy. Baby steps, people, baby steps (pun intended).

So, in the meantime, let’s talk books. I’ve never been happier to be an avid reader than these past few months: it’s one of the few hobbies I could still indulge in when I was spending most of the day nursing the baby. I can only watch so much TV, especially daytime TV. Knitting or crochet was out of the question, as were writing and drawing. Anything that required two relatively mobile arms was off-limits, basically. I could still surf the Web on my iPhone, but typing anything longer than an email just wasn’t worth the trouble (and no, I don’t own a tablet). Eventually, I did figure out how to play video games while nursing, and life got a whole lot better (Oh, don’t look at me like that. Yes, breastfeeding is a beautiful experience and a precious time between mother and baby – but sometimes, you just have to play Assassin’s Creed.).

But for the most part, I read. Nothing too complicated, as the hormones and the lack of sleep were clouding my brain. Still, I have a few food-related books piled up. The first is David Sax’s Save the Deli (which I think I actually read even before I was pregnant, so it’s high time I posted about it).

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Introducing Raphaël! (Also, a rant about breastfeeding)

Hi! Anybody still here? I’m not sure how to begin this post. “It’s been a long time” seems like the understatement of the year so far. But I’m sure you can guess what’s been keeping me away:

Meet Raphaël, born on October 2nd, 2012. Laurent and I feel blessed everyday to have this little guy in our lives. I’m sure every parent says this, but he really is the sweetest little baby in the world! At four months, he’s been sleeping through the night for quite some time now (despite a three-week holiday trip to Europe and the ensuing jet-lag). He never went through his “inconsolable crying phase.” In fact, he hardly ever cries unless there’s an easily identifiable reason – usually that he’s hungry, gassy, or tired. And he just smiles and chatters all the time! We love him to pieces.

I recently had a conversation with a young woman who was saying that she didn’t feel emotionally ready to have kids yet. My answer was that, even though having a baby was a hundred-percent planned in my case, I never felt ready either! I knew I wanted to have children, and I knew I wanted to have them sooner rather than later. But does that mean I was prepared for everything being a mother entailed? Absolutely not. I still have trouble thinking of myself as a mother! But the thing is, I never expected to be completely ready: becoming a parent has always seemed like such a huge, life-altering event, that I figured I would never be entirely ready for it, no matter how much I prepared for it. I read up on the basic health-related topics, but for the most part, I knew I was probably going to have to ad-lib my way through it.

And that’s the way it’s been. There’s a moment I think every new parent goes through: it’s when you get home from the hospital, with your baby in your arms, and you look at each other and think “Ok, what do we do now?”. Obviously, nothing will ever be the same. But how exactly do you navigate that? So you put the baby down and you watch him sleep for a while, and then you start wondering if you’re allowed to go do something as mundane as have a cup of tea, or read the paper. Of course, this state of uncertainty doesn’t last long: the baby soon wakes up crying, and you’re off trying to figure out what’s the matter and what to do about it. And just like that, you’re a parent. You eventually figure out that you can still have a cup of tea while perusing the paper (in fact, moments like that eventually become essential to your sanity), but now a huge part of your life is dedicated to caring for this tiny, completely dependent being. The challenge is balancing everything.

I didn’t do a great job at balancing things in the beginning. I’m very lucky that Laurent was able and willing to take over pretty much everything in the early days: shopping, cooking, cleaning, he did it all, while I devoted myself to Raphaël. So, even if I’d had time to blog, I wouldn’t have had much to blog about: I didn’t touch a skillet or mixing bowl for months.

All newborns are very demanding in the beginning, but in our case there was one aspect that complicated our first weeks together, and took up nearly all of my time: breastfeeding. I know this is technically a cooking blog, but mother’s milk is, after all, our first source of nourishment, in most cases. And the breastfeeding experience has taken both me and Raphaël for quite the ride. I thought I would share it today, to stall for time while I get my butt back in the kitchen. Those of you who don’t feel like reading about it can just scroll through the chronological photos of the baby. :-)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Not your average grilled cheese - Proscuitto Croque-Monsieur with Fig Jam

My pregnancy is coming along, normal as can be. At six months, my belly is starting to expand, although, sadly, not enough for people to take notice and give me their seat on the bus. Also, it was recently confirmed that we’re having a baby boy! We would have been happy either way, but at least now I know what kind of clothes to knit (although I have to confess a twinge of disappointment that I won’t get to make any of the adorable little dresses I’ve seen – oh well, maybe next time!)

This is supposed to become a kaftan, eventually...

Paprika loves to play with my needles and yarn!

I keep being asked whether I’ve been having any cravings, but I have to say no, not really. Nothing weird, at any rate – none of those strange combinations you keep hearing about. Just the usual hankering for a spoonful of peanut butter mid-afternoon, or a chocolate rush late evening, but that’s normal for me. A few of the food restrictions surrounding pregnancy have been driving me crazy, though. Some days, I would kill for a sunny-side-up egg with a lovely runny yolk. But even partially raw eggs are apparently off-limits. So for another three months, it’s well-cooked scrambled eggs for brunch. Yet another thing that’s dumb about the Twilight saga, in which a pregnant Bella scarfs down sunny-side-ups like they were popcorn. (And yes, I read the Twilight books, because I wanted to see for myself if they were as bad as they were rumoured to be. They were, on a lot of levels. Although I did kind of enjoy bits of the final book, where there was at least an attempt at world-building.)

The most annoying restriction, however, has got to be the one banishing deli meats and charcuterie, for fear of listeria, salmonella, and other lovely bacteria that I’m more than willing to brave on a regular day, but which my baby is not quite equipped to handle just yet. I’ve been a sandwich girl since forever. Lunch, for me, equals a sandwich. Pregnancy has already taken delicious smoked salmon away from me (oh, how I long for a poached egg with a side of lox!), but what am I supposed to do without my proscuitto, saucisson, country ham, mortadella, and pâté? Switch to tuna, you say? Sorry, that’s on the “not recommended” list (because of mercury levels).

I’m actually exaggerating. In reality, deli meats are okay as long as they’re cooked and served still steaming, as this kills the bacteria. So a pepperoni pizza is fine (thank God, because pizza was my go-to food in the beginning). So is a panini, provided it’s heated through. But since cold cuts don’t keep very long in the fridge (again, on a normal day, I wouldn’t think twice about eating week-old ham, but I’m playing it safe these days), and I don’t feel like going to the deli everyday to ask for two slices of proscuitto, I’ve pretty much gotten into the habit of having grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch.

I don’t fuss much for these sandwiches: I just toss some cheese shavings (good cheese, though – I can treat myself to that much, at least) between two slices of whole wheat bread, heat up the panini grill, and that’s that. Quick, simple, fairly healthy – and safe.

But the other day, when I brunched with friends at the Passé Composé café, where I had never been before, I was reminded of just how delicious and decadent a grilled cheese can be. Because, for the first time in a long time, I was served an honest-to-goodness, proper, true blue croque-monsieur.

In France and Belgium, a traditional croque-monsieur is made with square sandwich bread, ham, and gruyère or emmental cheese. The bread is generously buttered on the outside, then pan-fried until it’s golden brown, and the cheese inside is melted. The most basic version stops there. I’ve often seen the sandwich then topped with more cheese and cooked au gratin. You can also top it with a fried egg (why do eggs keep popping into my writing today?) and call it a croque-madame. And, well, endless variations abound from there on, but that’s the gist of it. From what I understand, grilled cheese can also be made in this manner (minus the ham), but grilled cheese can also come out of a panini machine, or the oven; not so for a croque-monsieur, at least not in my book.

I’ve stopped ordering croque-monsieur in Montreal cafés, because I’m never sure what I’m going to get. I’ve gotten paninis. I’ve been served giant stuffed baguette melts. I’ve been presented with sad, open-faced English muffins topped with dry ham and barely melted cheese. The general consensus seems to be that, if it has ham and cheese in it, you can call it a croque-monsieur and thereby hope to appeal to French tourists looking for familiar comfort food. I’m not French, nor am I a tourist. So I stopped. If I want a baguette melt, I’ll ask for it, damn it.

But at Passé Composé, the sandwiches were the real deal. They were called grilled cheese, and they had non-traditional ingredients, like portobello mushrooms and goat cheese, but they were undeniably prepared as croque-monsieurs. And boy, were they good. So good that I dragged Laurent in to try them the week after, and then tried to recreate one of them at home. For dinner, because this is definitely worthy of dinner.

I feel rather silly giving a recipe for a sandwich. Just goes to show how much I love this one. For the cheese, I used Chèvre Noir, a two-year-old goat cheddar cheese that has impressive flavour for such a relatively young cheese, and a current favourite of mine. And I confess, I used bottled balsamic glaze. Balsamic reduction is like jam and preserves for me: I know how to do them, I just don’t have the patience.

Proscuitto Croque-Monsieur with Fig Jam

Serves one

2 slices good quality bread, preferably a day old (walnut bread works great here)
2 tbsp fig jam
2 slices proscuitto
Sharp cheddar cheese, sliced or shaved (amount depends on the surface of your bread)
1 tsp balsamic glaze
1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted

Spread the fig jam on both slices of bread. Garnish one slices of bread with half the cheese and the proscuitto, drizzle on the balsamic glaze, garnish with the remaining cheese, and top with the second slice of bread.

Heat a skillet over just-above-medium heat. Generously brush both sides of your sandwich with butter. Fry in skillet, turning over once, until cheese is melted and both sides are golden-to-dark brown (about 4 minutes per side). Serve immediately with an arugula salad on the side.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Don't look, taste! - Fesenjoon

Why is it that so often, the dishes I love are the least photogenic? Maybe it’s because I never have been very good at presentation, so I instinctively have more affinity with stew than with molecular cuisine, with crumbles than with triple-layer cakes. Still, don’t be fooled by today’s dish’s dowdy appearance. It may look brown and wintery, but it’s actually lighter than it looks, and popping with vibrant flavours.

Fesenjoon, or fesenjan, is a traditional Persian khoresht. As explained in New Persian Cooking, “the nearest equivalent [of a khoresht] would be a casserole, a rich dish with plenty of sauce.” Until recently, I knew next to nothing about Persian food. But then I started taking an art class which happened to be taught and mostly attended by Persians. We talked about doing a potluck, and unfortunately never did, but hearing them talk about their native cuisine piqued my interest. From what I gathered, there seemed to be a lot of spices and deep flavours.

Fesenjoon is traditionally made with duck, but I’ve only ever had it with chicken. The meat is simmered with a mixture of ground walnuts and pomegranate paste/juice/syrup. It’s unclear from the main recipe I used how the chicken should be cut. Another recipe I came across called for cubed chicken. At the Persian restaurant Yas, where we celebrated fellow blogger Evelyne’s birthday a few weeks back, I ordered this same dish, and the meat was indeed cubed. But because I like to cook things on the bone when possible, I opted to cut the whole chicken into ten pieces, and reserved the wings for future use.

Fesenjoon’s appeal clearly lies in the unique combination of walnuts and pomegranate. One recipe called for pomegranate syrup, another for pomegranate paste. Unsure where to find either, I used POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, and compensated for the amounts of sugar and liquid. The first time I made fesenjoon, I thought the flavours were a bit muted, but having never eaten this dish, it was hard to judge. Trying it in a restaurant helped a lot, and my second attempt was much more successful, in my opinion. Adding lemon juice seemed like it would be overkill, given that pomegranate is quite tart in itself, but it actually brought the dish together. Served with chelo, plain Persian rice, it’s a meal that is rich, but not too heavy. 

Adapted from Jila Dana-Haeri and Sharzad Ghorashian’s New Persian Cooking

Serves 6

3 tbsp canola oil
One whole chicken, skin removed, cut into 10 pieces
2 medium onions, diced
One 473 ml (16 oz) bottle  POM wonderful 100% pomegranate juice
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
Juice of one lemon

250g (9 oz) shelled walnuts
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a food processor, grind the walnuts finely. Reserve.

Heat oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Sear the chicken pieces on all sides, then remove from pan. Add onions to the pan, and cook until golden brown, stirring occasionally.

Deglaze with pomegranate juice. Stir in sugar, salt, lemon juice, and ground walnuts. Return chicken to pan, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Cover pan and simmer for 40-50 minutes, until chicken is tender and beginning to fall off the bone.

Remove chicken from pan and raise heat back to medium-high. Reduce sauce, stirring occasionally, until it thickens and turns chocolate brown. Return chicken to pan, coat in sauce, and heat through. Pepper to taste, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve with chelo (Persian buttery white rice).

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Kitchen Confidential - Vichyssoise

Well, now… Just when I thought I was feeling better, pregnancy nausea returned to strike with a vengeance the other day. I was perfectly fine, I’d had breakfast and everything, when BAM – my stomach lurched, and I had to lie down for 30 minutes before it felt safe to move again. During those really bad bouts, the only thing that really helps me is Petit Écolier cookies, those buttery French cookies with a slab of dark chocolate superposed on top. I’ve tried substituting them with fruit, cereal bars, sweet yogurt – nothing else does the trick. Pity they don’t travel well, or I’d take them with me everywhere. As things stand, they have a permanent spot on my countertop. I’m beginning to think there’s more to my love of chocolate than simple gustative pleasure: it’s like I’m wired to turn to it in times of distress, both physical and psychological. Wait, that sounds unhealthy… Oh well, frankly, I don’t care, especially not these days!

Anyways, let’s get back to books, shall we? I read today’s book quite a long time ago. Actually, I devoured it in under two days, if I recall. It’s a classic of its kind, a book I remember my mother reading when it came out (although I can’t be certain she actually liked it – in fact, with all the swear words, I’m pretty sure she didn’t). Its author is one of the most outspoken personalities in the food world, and apparently a fan of our fair city of Montreal (the episode of The Layover he filmed in Montreal last summer coincidentally airs tonight on the Travel+Escape channel  or you can do what everyone else in town did months ago and see it online. I’m talking, of course, about Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.

The book chronicles Bourdain’s discovery of the pleasures of food, his entry into the professional culinary world, and the inner workings and dirty little secrets of the restaurant industry. Through anecdotes, revelations, and advice (both for the home cook and the wannabe pro), he paints a picture which I would sum up in one expression: larger-than-life. From a chef who has sex with a customer (a new bride, no less!) behind his restaurant to “Adam the psychotic bread baker” whose magic dough makes chefs overlook his frightening behaviour, Kitchen Confidential is full of outrageous characters and situations, giving an almost circus-like atmosphere to the whole restaurant universe. Add to that Bourdain’s own, shall we say, strong personality, and you’ve got one hell of a ride. Say what you will, it’s an entertaining read on just about every level.

As I mentioned briefly in a previous book post, Bourdain’s bravado sometimes comes dangerously close to being a turn-off. His credo, he makes clear from the start, is to call it the way he sees it, others’ opinions be damned. Most of the time, it pays off, especially when he balances it out with self-deprecation. But sometimes, it almost comes off as posing, or worse, as self-importance and accompanying disdain for others, for the very people whom he believes look down on him:

My naked contempt for vegetarians, sauce-on-the-siders, the ‘lactose intolerant’ and the cooking of the Ewok-like Emeril Lagasse is not going to get me my own show on the Food Network. I don’t think I’ll be going on ski weekends with André Soltner anytime soon or getting a back rub from that hunky Bobby Flay. Eric Ripert won’t be calling me for ideas on tomorrow’s fish special. But I’m simply not going to deceive anybody about the life as I’ve seen it.

As I’ve said before, there are ways of telling it like it is without drawing attention to the fact that you’re telling it like it is, and this isn’t one of them. It’s rather evocative that Bourdain began his love affair with food through sheer spite and provocation: when, on a family trip to France, his parents, tired of hearing him whine about the weird food and order steak haché with ketchup in the land of haute cuisine, left him in the car while they enjoy a luxury meal, he decided to become an even more daring foodie than they are, just to “show them.” Then again, he’s not the only one to have made a life-altering decision out of temporary spite. It’s no worse than having it happen by accident, or through emulation. Any catalyst for what turns out to be true passion is okay by me.

Overall, though, Bourdain still comes off as genuine most of the time, and some of his grouchy rants had me laughing out loud, even when he was being overly harsh – especially when he was being overly harsh, in fact. He is at his best when his political incorrectness is delivered in stride, with neither apologies nor exaggerated “look at me” stylistic acrobatics.

No, scratch that. Bourdain is at his true best when he lets his love of food shine through – and there is absolutely no doubt that this love is real and strong. For all his irascibility and apparent self-destructive tendencies (I caught him on The Colbert Report a while after having read the book and was surprised by how healthy he looked, given his description of his lifestyle – perhaps he’s made some changes in the past decade), the man also clearly loves life, and he devours it every chance he gets – sometimes to great excess, as he unreservedly admits. And his exhilaration is contagious. Ultimately, isn’t that one of the things we look for in a chef memoir or any chef’s book: a renewal of our appetite not just for food, but for life?

There’s description of a lot of different kinds of food in Kitchen Confidential, and not all of it is good – the food, not the description. The infamous, oft-quoted chapter where Bourdain explains how food is managed and recycled in restaurants might make you a little queasy, not to mention afraid (as if my pregnant self didn’t have enough to worry about regarding food safety). Overall, though, most of the food passages are about the experience of enjoying food, rather than the food itself: see for example Bourdain’s epic supper in a Tokyo sushi bar. There is decadence in every line, but the focus is more on the ecstasy of the experience, rather than the texture and flavour or the fish.

The same focus is evident in the opening description of the soup that started it all: a vichyssoise. “I remember everything about the experience: the way our waiter ladled it from a silver tureen into my bowl, the crunch of tiny chopped chives he spooned on as garnish, the rich, creamy taste of leek and potato, the pleasurable shock, the surprise that it was cold.

For a long time, the only cold soup I was even aware of was the gazpacho – and if I recall, I had my first taste in Barcelona, and it was indeed a mini-revelation. Then I discovered cold squash soup. Vichyssoise came later. I personally find it a bit heavy for regular fare, but it’s worth making it with real cream, as the richness is part of the experience. And yes, the crunchy chive garnish is an absolute must.

This is a very bare-bones recipe. I’ve seen versions with celery and parsley, but I like to keep the flavours clean in this soup – of course, it helps that I love leeks.

Adapted from Rosario Buonassisi’s Les soupes du monde entier
Serves 4-6

2 tbsp butter
1 onion, sliced
4 leeks, white part only, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
500 ml (2 cups) chicken stock
250 to 375 ml (1 to 1 1/2 cup) heavy cream, cold
Chopped fresh chives, for garnish
Salt and pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and the leeks, season with salt, and sweat until soft, stirring often and making sure not to brown the vegetables. Add the potatoes and stock, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, until everything is tender. Adjust seasoning and let cool to room temperature.

Purée with a mixer or in a blender until perfectly smooth, and transfer to a tureen or large bowl. Stir in the cold cream, adding the amount necessary to obtain the texture you seek. Adjust seasoning again. Chill in the refrigerator until very cold, at least two hours. Ladle into bowls, sprinkle with chives, and serve immediately.