Flogging a dead horse: Au Pied de Cochon's foie gras poutine with horse fat fries
Italy boasts one of the richest gastronomic inheritances of any country. It seems unfair that any place, let alone one tiny corner of that country, Emilia-Romagna, should be home to so much culinary gold: parmigiano, prosciutto di Parma, balsamic vinegar, mortadella, and pasta fresca. As mouthwatering as that list is, keep in mind that it excludes an even longer list of gastronomic treasures from other parts of the belpaese: Piedmont's white truffles, the risotto of Piedmont, Lombardy, and the Veneto, and Tuscany's olive oils. And that's just a selection of northern Italian specialties, there's still the south. And the wine.
Yet I can't help but feeling that Italians cheat themselves. Don't get me wrong, this italophile wishes he could wake up many mornings in Bologna or Rome, start the day with a cappuccino, and then gorge on local specialties. But have you ever eaten marvelous foreign food in Italy? Yes, there exists the occasional Chinese or Indian restaurant, but they are largely an afterthought in a country where gastronomic xenophobia is the norm. What chance does food from the other side of the world have in a country where food from the other side of the mountain is viewed with disdain?
Canada -- English Canada, really -- is a different story altogether. With perhaps the exception of Newfoundland, we have no native cuisine. The Great White North is a gastronomic Great White Canvas. Over the past century, we've begun filling that canvas with the smells, tastes, and textures of the countless ethnic groups that weave the fabric of this country. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident that in our major urban centres. Walk the streets of Toronto, for example, and you'll be confronted by a series of delights from around the world.
I often stroll from my house, in the heart of Little Italy, to Chinatown. It takes just twenty minutes, but it's all the proof I need that I live in the midst of something unique. The first half of the walk is a parade of (admittedly sub-par) Italian restaurants, but the second half is special: the Kensington Market, which lies just beyond Little Italy, is now home to a bevy of Latin-American restaurants and groceries, where I have my choice of tacos, empanadas, and pupusas, all washed down by cool, refreshing horchata. One block beyond the Kensington, lies Chinatown itself, and crowds of people choking the sidewalks for bánh mì, and other Vietnamese delicacies, or gazing at the lacquered skin of whole barbecue ducks and juicy sides of pork in Chinese restaurant windows.
If Canada does have any kind of recognizable native cuisine, then it most surely comes from Quebec. While English Canadians have wasted decades ridiculing Quebec's dining habits -- most notably by lampooning Quebec's preference for Pepsi over Coke -- Quebeckers have been busy refining their native cuisine to a point where it now merits attention outside la belle province.
Such recognition is due in no small part to the efforts of people like Martin Picard, the chef-owner of Au Pied de Cochon, a Montreal restaurant specializing in upscale, refined quebecois dishes crafted from regional ingredients, like duck, pork, and foie gras. The restaurant now enjoys a cult-like status among foodies thanks to apostles like Anthony Bourdain, who preaches about Au Pied de Cochon as a restaurant where "magical things happen," and through it's cookbook, Au Pied de Cochon - The Album.
I lack adequate superlatives to describe this book. It's more than a cookbook. It's a meditation on food and pleasure and identity. Beyond that, the writing and the accompanying DVD entertain, and the dishes are stunning and accessible to home cooks. I stumbled upon it at The Cookbook Store, where, after only a brief glance, I recognized it for what I'm even more firmly convinced it is now: a masterpiece. I simply could not bring myself to leave the store without buying it. If you love foie gras, you owe it to yourself to buy this book -- for the love of God, Picard uses it so liberally in his dishes you'd think it's salt. Sadly, the book is not widely available; it's self-published, and The Cookbook Store is, as far as I know, the only vendor outside of Montreal. It can, however, be ordered directly from Au Pied de Cochon's website.
What better way to celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day, otherwise known as fête nationale in Quebec, than to prepare one of Au Pied de Cochon's signature dishes, a sybaritic re-imagining of poutine? For the uninitiated, poutine is a magical combination of french fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy. Poutine has quickly spread from the rural diners of its roots, becoming so ubiquitous that Burger King now offers it across Canada and restaurants in New York list it on their menus. My introduction to poutine came as a drunken undergrad at Queen's, finishing Saturday nights at Lino's, the local greasy spoon, with a fortifying plate of cheesy fries and gravy to steady me for the walk home.
Both poutine and I have matured immensely since then. Au Pied de Cochon's recipe includes an extravagantly rich gravy made by combining foie gras, a half dozen egg yolks, and some cream in a food processor, then mixing that with hot poutine sauce. I phoned Au Pied de Cochon to see if they ship their homemade poutine sauce to Toronto, but, alas, they do not. My solution was to use veal demi-glace instead. That was a good decision. As was turning to Monforte Dairy, local producers of top notch artisanal sheep's milk cheese, for fresh cheese curds. For the french fries, well, I hope I don't have to explain that I looked no further than the star of my previous post: horse fat fries. The finished dish, gilded with a thick slice of seared foie, is breathtakingly decadent, a plate so rich it almost -- almost -- goes overboard. The demi-glace adds a profound meaty taste, the foie gras a richness and a faint note of liver, while gooey, melting cheese complements the lush texture of the gravy and contrasts the crispiness of the fries. If fault can be found, then it must surely lie in the fact that gravy, no matter how delicious, is a death knell for the crisp texture of a carefully prepared french fry.
Having tackled poutine, I can't wait to explore other traditional recipes in the book, from tourtière, rustic meat pie, to artery-clogging oreilles de crisse, slices of pork fat deep fried in lard. Luckily, one of my favourite butchers, The Healthy Butcher, is near the Kensington. Maybe I'll grab an empanada on the walk over.