Thursday, January 28, 2010

Carrot and cheddar soup

I love puréed soups. The texture is so satisfying, and they're foolproof -- you don't have to worry about how any of the components look after they're cooked, because they're just going to get ground to a pulp!

Basically, any puréed soup is made the same way. I always like to start with some onions (doesn't matter how you cut them, since they're going to get pulverized, so I just slice the onion into about 1-inch slices and then quarter the slices), which I brown in a stock pot with a little bit of olive oil (not too much, you don't want greasy soup). Once they're brown, I take any pre-made stock (usually chicken but anything works; I think I used beef stock on this one) and add 6 cups or so (depends how much soup you want). For this beautiful treasure, put in a whole bunch of chopped carrots (maybe 2 pounds), a couple of cut up potatoes, and set the whole thing to simmer until the carrots and potatoes are very tender.

The next step is easiest if you have an immersion blender, but you can also use a regular blender or food processor, you just have to purée the soup in batches rather than all at once. So yeah. Just blend the whole thing until it's smooth. Once the blending is done, add a couple of handfuls of grated sharp cheddar cheese, stir until it's well integrated, and taste your creation. Depending on what kind of stock you used, it may or may not be salty enough. These kinds of soups need a lot of salt to taste good, so don't be afraid to be generous. But be careful. You can always add more salt at the table -- you can't take it away.

Once the soup is blended and cheesed to taste, I like to finish it with a little bit of heavy cream (maybe 1 cup, but it depends on how much you have).

How easy was that?

Local, naturally grown carrots and potatoes are easy to find in Quebec year-round, as is stock (you can usually find it premade at any of the butchers at the public markets, or you can chicken carcasses for about $2 and make your own). Quebec makes excellent Cheddar, too, so this is a perfect dish to showcase what amazing things can be made from some of our simplest local ingredients.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lentils with onions, carrots, and bacon

This recipe was taken straight from Mark Bittman's "How To Cook Everything," so I won't reproduce it exactly -- as usual, just paraphrasing. I wouldn't want to infringe on anyone's copyright!

Pork is a beautiful thing. It's full of flavour, unbelievably versatile, and, comparatively speaking, cheap. In Quebec, high quality pork is easy to find year round. I've already mentioned Porcmeilleur, a farm-direct pork vendor at the Jean-Talon market. Their pork is fabulous, and they have just about every imaginable cut, both fresh and frozen. While their bacon is more expensive than Claude & Henri at Atwater (about $12/kilo as opposed to $11 at C&H), it is really perfect, so I won't complain too noisily. One of these days I'll do a taste test to compare the two.

To make this fabulously tasty, cheap, and healthy side dish, you start by chopping about six strips of bacon into 1 cm squares. Fry them in a medium saucepan (not a frying pan) until they're brown and crispy, and then take them out of the pan, leaving all the grease behind. In the grease, cook a medium onion and a couple of carrots (that you have diced beforehand, of course) until the onion is translucent. Then, drop in two cups of lentils, some thyme, a bay leaf, salt and pepper, and 3-4 cups of stock (beef, chicken, vegetable, whatever). Bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer until the lentils are tender, adding more stock as you go if necessary. You don't want it to be too soupy, so at the end if you need to cook off extra liquid you can turn the heat up and let it boil rapidly until it reaches the consistency you like. Then, put the bacon back in, and serve with a sprig of parsley. This could also be made in a crock pot -- just throw the ingredients (minus the bacon, you have to fry that yourself) in the pot in the morning, and your dinner will be waiting for you when you get home from work.

Protein-rich lentils, I learned, are a Canadian specialty. While the biggest producer in the world is India, by far, Canada is second and exports more lentils than any other country, since India's lentils are mostly consumed domestically. So, while we in Quebec have to live with the fact that our lentils have probably travelled by train across the country from Saskatchewan, we know we're still supporting the national economy, and they're not travelling around the world on a boat. As it happens, lentils were one of the first crops domesticated in the Near East, and have more protein (by weight) than any other plant except soybeans and hemp, making them a staple for vegetarians. Thanks, Wikipedia!

Local carrots and onions are always easy to find, making them great winter staples. They can both be used in so many dishes -- be on the lookout for an entry on carrot and cheddar soup tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Interesting link

Thanks to Ashley Endemann, some thoughts on cheese: What's the environmental impact of cheese? - By Nina Shen Rastogi - Slate Magazine.

I'm in Chicago for a while, so there will probably be a few weeks' hiatus here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Kale, yellow beet and pistachio salad; baby bok choy risotto; seared sea scallops and cauliflower in raisin-caper sauce

Three more members of the Cabbage family round out this week. Kale, bok choy, and cauliflower. All delicious and reasonably easy to find, although I couldn't get locally grown versions. I settled for organic, but imported either from Ontario or the United States. Hardly ideal, but better than nothing. For good measure, I grabbed some local yellow beets that added colour and flavour to the meal.

Kale is something I don't know much about, other than that is a very strongly flavoured and rather tough leafy vegetable. I wanted to use kohlrabi as well, but again couldn't find local varieties (I didn't have time to try the Jean-Talon Market, which has a somewhat larger selection of local vegetables than Atwater). I pulled up this recipe for sautéd kale with kohlrabi, and simply substituted boiled, peeled, and sliced yellow beets for the kohlrabi. This recipe was easy, delicious and very popular with my audience (Andrew and our roommate). The pistachios add some nice texture, but honestly they're not really necessary, and they're pretty expensive. Leave them out or substitute another nut. I have another bunch of kale, so I'll have to try another way of preparing it, but sautéing just wilts the leaves enough so they lose some of their toughness. They retain all of their flavour, most of their shape, and plenty of texture. The simple lemon and olive oil dressing is delicious, easy and can be used on any salad. Both of those ingredients are things that, despite being from far away, I would never give up using in cooking. Just too good. And we use them sparingly, anyway. One thing I did differently from the recipe was that I (inadvertently) didn't remove the stems and center ribs from the kale leaves. They are totally edible, but tough and not very appetizing. I'm of two minds on this, though: I hate to cut pieces of the vegetable off and throw them away if they're edible (broccoli stems, for example, or beet greens), because it seems wasteful; so, I say, follow your conscience, and whether or not you feel like bothering with the extra step. Another thing to note about Kale is that it is super healthy, with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities. It has tons of beta carotene, vitamin C and vitamin K.

Risotto is one of my favourite things to cook. It requires a lot of attention, so you don't get bored or distracted, and it is just so delicious and easy. You start with 4-6 cups of stock (any kind will do). Then, you take a cup or so of finely chopped onion (yellow or red, the latter having more colour but tending to dull in the cooking), and heat it in olive oil (or butter, or whatever fat you have on hand -- this time I used guineafowl fat that had been skimmed off the stock I made) until it is translucent, but not browned. Then, throw in a cup or two of Arborio rice, and quickly stir until the rice is coated in fat. Then, a generous splash of dry white wine, and the cooking has begun. As the liquid cooks down, you must keep stirring so that nothing burns or gets too dry. Once the liquid is beginning to disappear, you just start adding ladlefuls of broth (one or two at a time) to the pan and stirring away until the rice is cooked to your liking (traditionally a bit "al dente" but cooked enough that the dish is very creamy). Then you can do whatever you want. Add vegetables, (cooked) meat, cheese, or whatever else you happen to have around. I chose to put in a few ounces of grated Pecorino Romano cheese (normally I would go with a local imitation, but this is what we had in the fridge) and a bowl of sliced up baby bok choy. Salt and pepper to taste, and you have a perfect meal, side dish or snack. And the leftovers are delicious. You can even mix them with an egg and fry up risotto fritters the next morning.

To go with the risotto I took some Atlantic sea scallops from Nova Scotia (SO expensive--almost $60/kilo at the Poisonnerie Atwater--so I only bought enough for us each to have 3, but they are considered to be sustainable seafood) and seared them (just until they were well browned on the outside, but not cooked through). I did the same to some chopped up cauliflower (less fragile than the scallop; I just threw the lot into the pan with a little oil and sautéd them until they were nicely coloured), and I made a raisin and caper sauce to drizzle on it all. This, I must admit, was an idea I stole from Jean-Georges, a Michelin 3-star restaurant in New York, but of course I wouldn't dare try to recreate their dish exactly--that would just be embarassing to me. I melted a stick of butter in a small saucepan, threw in a handful of capers and a handful of golden raisins, let it all cook for a minute, and ground it up in the food processor. It was unbelievable. Incredibly rich (hello, butter), with a perfect balance of sweetness, saltiness, and acitity, and a magical flavour that could only be described as, well, capers and raisins. Andrew was eating it with a spoon after the meal. You can't put too much of it on, because it becomes overwhelming, but damn was it tasty.

OK, so I took that photo after I started eating, and the white balance didn't really come out right, so it doesn't look that pretty, but you get the idea.

I'm going to Chicago for the weekend, but next week I'll be back with some more awesome local winter food. Maybe my ingredient of the week will be an animal product? Vegans, look away.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cabbage and leek soup, brussels sprouts sautéd with garlic, and southern fried guineafowl

I had so much raw cabbage, leeks and brussels sprouts left over from my first two recipes that I decided to abstain for a day from buying new ingredients and just use what I already had.

The easy solution was to take the leeks and cabbage and just make soup! I started by throwing a dollop of duck fat (any fat would work) into a big pot and browning thinly sliced leeks and cabbage for a few minutes over medium-high heat. This step is not obligatory, but it gives a deeper flavour and prettier colour than if you were to just throw the vegetables raw into boiling water. I had tons of cabbage, so it was a bit of a chore to stir it around so it all got a bit browned; I gave up after a little while and just threw in the stock. I had some homemade chicken stock concentrate in the freezer (about 10 cups worth, condensed down to one cup--much better than storing all that water!) so I thawed it, dumped the concentrate and 10 cups of water into the pot, covered it up, and waited for it to come to a boil. From there it was just a question of letting it cook until the cabbage was tender.

To serve it, I took a page from traditional French cooking. In oven-safe bowls, I put some soup, a slice of homemade bread, and a generous heap of leftover 1608 and Québec gruyère-style cheese (from the Fromagerie Hamel at the Atwater Market; not the best cheese shop, but there was a super cute boy working there...), and stuck it under the broiler for about five minutes, until the cheese was browned and bubbly. Served with a selection of McAuslan beers, it was a huge hit. Hearty winter soup with homemade bread and local cheese. How could you go wrong?

Next, however, came the pièce de résistance, and my husband did all the work so he gets all the credit. And it didn't even involve cabbage.

We bought two small guineafowls (called pintade in French, a much prettier name--and aren't they funny looking birds?) at Claude & Henri. For about $13/kg, they're far more expensive than chicken, but along the same lines as most game birds. I've been playing with game birds lately, but anything you can do with a game bird you can do with a chicken. Andrew, being a professional cook, took great pride in butchering the whole birds into their constituent pieces, ending up with a plateful of beautiful thighs, drumsticks, and breasts and a big pile of necks, backbones, wingtips, and internal organs from which I will make some stock this afternoon. He then allowed them to fully dry on the outside, coated them with buttermilk and a southern-style breading, and dropped them into our brand new deep fryer (a wedding gift from Lauren Canepari--Thanks!). I'll have to let him expand on the breading process (please comment, Andy). He also prepared a dipping sauce made from butter, honey, lemon juice, and I don't remember what else (more comments, please) which was delectable. Only problem was that I couldn't be bothered to dip the bird, it was so painfully delicious on its own. Deep frying may have a reputation for being unhealthy (humbug!) but it has persisted as a popular cooking method because it so perfectly preserves the juiciness and flavour of whatever you put into it. Mmmmmm.

To accompany the guineafowl, I used the remaining brussels sprouts from the other night, and did a minor variation on my usual sauté with garlic. I used about half sliced sprouts (basically just a pile of little leafy rings) and half halved sprouts (I only removed the brown base of the sprout, and then chopped it in half), steamed them for about two minutes, and then tossed them in a pan with olive oil and a few cloves of crushed garlic until they were golden brown. Delicious and easy. But easily ignored next to the outrageously delicious southern fried fowl.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cheap organic eggs!

Just a little note, that in my last visit to the Jean-Talon market (yesterday) I bought 30 large white organic chicken eggs for $5.75. That's a steal, for someone used to spending nearly that much for 12 organic eggs at the supermarket. I believe the vendor I bought from was Les Canardises, but there are a few egg merchants and I'm sure they all have products of similar quality for similar prices. They specialize in duck eggs (and other duck products), which I've never tried. I will have to do that soon.

Savoy cabbage

Savoy cabbage is a lot like regular green cabbage, but it has a few advantages: its taste and smell are less pungent, and it has pretty frilly leaves. I had never worked with this lovely vegetable before, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

A few things I've learned about cabbage: it's harvested in Quebec all year except midsummer (June-July); you should always cut it with a stainless steel knife, as a carbon steel knife will turn it black; Savoy cabbage is thought to have been developed by the Italians; and finally, it doesn't have to be pickled into sauerkraut or chopped into cole slaw, there are many more options!

A quick Google search for "Savoy cabbage" yielded this delicious-looking recipe from Canadian Living: Savoy Cabbage Gratin. While the cabbage I got at the market was wsy bigger than what the recipe called for (having not weighed it beforehand, I had to make up for it by adding more milk and cream in the end, and I have a big bowl of raw cabbage in my refrigerator now...), this simple dish is really, really delicious and made an excellent vegetarian main course. Also, virtually all the ingredients are local.

A few things to note:
(1) Rather than Gruyère cheese, which is imported from Switzerland, I used Le 1608, a cheese from the Charlevoix region of Quebec which is quite special. It comes from a very rare race of cows, called "Canadienne". If I'm not mistaken, only about 500 of these cows exist in the world. Click the link to read more (in French) and go out and try the cheese! It has a stinky rind like Oka, but a mild, medium-soft (softer than Gruyère) inside with a distinctive flavour.
(2) I substituted duck stock for vegetable, and duck fat for butter, since we had duck last night. To hell with vegetarianism! I find that a great way to economize and use leftovers is (a) to render and freeze all leftover fat from chicken, bacon, duck, etc. and use it instead of other fat (butter, oil) in appropriate recipes; (b) ALWAYS make stock from leftover carcasses and bones. It is so easy to do, and it keeps forever in the freezer; and (c) look in the fridge before I plan dinner, so I can use leftovers creatively. Nobody in my house seems interested in eating leftovers, but they never complain when I transform them into something new. Risotto is great for that. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

To accompany the gratin, I bought some delicious, tender, and very juicy pork sausages from Porcmeilleur, an nice farm-direct pork shop at the Jean-Talon market. For less than five dollars, I had four sausages that I first boiled in St-Ambroise beer (I like to boil sausages before I fry them, because it eliminates some of the fat and makes them easier to cut), then I sliced them into little rounds and pan-fried the pieces to brown them a bit. I removed the pork from the pan and deglazed with calvados, pouring the thick calvados along with all the brown pan scrapings over the sausage pieces. Just a few pieces of sausage along with a generous helping of gratin makes for a very hearty and healthy meal.

Oh and I also made whole wheat bread to go with all this, but I'm still quite the novice at bread making so I won't go into details here. Maybe another time.