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February 22, 2008

Garbage in, garbage out: the joys of junk food

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The following paean to junk food is sure to wreck some of my haute cuisine credibility.  So be it.  Lots of food bloggers, this one included, spill a lot of digital ink waxing poetic about their various culinary exploits.  On occasion, we explore the upside of a "low" food like doughnuts or fish and chips, but we never come clean and admit a fondness for unmitigated crap.  And for good reason.

Over the past forty-odd years, there's been a revolution in the importance North Americans place on food.  We dine at the finest restaurants, demand ethical, local and seasonal ingredients, and spread the message of The Omnivore's Dilemma with almost evangelical zeal.  Mea culpa.  But here's the rub: it's just not cool anymore to confess a love for processed snack foods.

It may come as a shock, but back in my high school I was extremely overweight.  So heavy, in fact, that I failed my first medical examination as a seventeen year old trying to enlist in the naval reserve.  "Lose five pounds in ten days," they said, "and we'll let you join."  And I did.  Actually, I lost ten pounds in ten days, enlisted, then kept the weight off by enduring two basic training courses -- one for junior ranks and one for officers -- in three years.  All those push ups helped me drop a lot of excess pounds, and a serious adjustment in my outlook towards junk food has helped me keep them off for more than fifteen years.

But old passions die hard.  Underneath my devilishly handsome exterior lies the soul of the fat kid I used to be.   And that fat kid loves high fat, overly processed junk food, especially while indulging in other  guilty pleasures like watching reality television or reading John Grisham novels.  Take President's Choice Chocolate Fudge Crackle vanilla ice cream, for example. This was a love at first bite relationship for me, and lo these many years I still eat every bowl the same way: I try to eat my least favourite, but still delicious part first, the actual sweet vanilla cream.  This delicate evolution involves maneuvering my spoon around the shards of fudge crackle, my favourite element, which I try and save till the end.  When successful, my final few spoonfuls are little more than bundles of fudge crackle with melting dollops of ice cream throughout.  I love the exterior crunch and rich interior texture of the frozen fudge.

It comes at a price, however.  A quick glance at the ingredient list reveals that the main ingredient in the fudge -- which is probably more accurately described as "fudge" -- is modified palm oil, a saturated fat that adds taste and contributes to that glorious texture, but not without sacrifice.  Put plainly, this treat is horribly unhealthy, though a little research reveals it to be a paragon of virtue when compared to frozen delights from Haagen-Dazs and the Birkenstocked assassins, Ben and Jerry.

If only my vices stopped there.  A good cookie is a delight almost beyond measure, and few please me as much as chocolate mint Girl Guide cookies.  Frozen of course.  There's nothing like popping three or four of them into your mouth in quick succession, feeling the ice cold disk chill your tongue, then biting down and letting a brisk wave of mint hurtle over the palate.  We tried creating some homemade ones as Christmas gifts last year, but the originals proved to be inimitable.  Much like the "fudge" in my favourite ice cream, these cookies contain an ingredient that only modern food science could love: "chocolatey coating."

The one aspect of my dieting days that I've never been able to shake is a penchant for diet pop, especially Diet Dr. Pepper.  Of my many regrettable food passions, this may be the one that troubles Rachel most.  She shuns diet colas for their chemical taste and drinks very little pop in general.  But I've now become so accustomed to their taste that I find regular, sugar-laden pop cloying in comparison.  Besides, there's nothing like an ice cold cola accompanied by a salty snack like buffalo wing and blue cheese-flavoured potato chips, a recent addition to my trashy food hall of fame. 

I'm not trying to denigrate anyone's eating habits, nor do I disagree with the broader message of writers like Michael Pollan, who insist that we put a little thought into the food we put in our mouths.  I just think that a love el Bulli shouldn't have to preclude trying and loving different kinds of foods.  Foods like my latest accidental discovery at Sanko, my local Japanese food store, and it's sure to be my next junk food addiction: Japanese vanilla bean Kit Kat bars.

January 14, 2008

Long may you Rome: four days in the Eternal City, the inspiration for homemade guanciale

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With days of feasting on rare regional delicacies behind us and the prospect of a transcontinental flight and the accompanying return to "the usual" ahead, it's no wonder Rachel and I approach the final meal of our trips to Rome with a hint of dread.  But after four visits to the Eternal City, including one this past fall, we've learned to deal with the pain of the "last supper" by curing our depression with a bowl of carbonara at Pommidoro (Piazza dei Sanniti, 44).  Rome's greatest contribution to comfort food is simplicity itself: strands of al dente spaghetti dressed in a luscious sauce of egg yolks, grated pecorino cheese, lots of ground black pepper, and cubes of succulently salty and crispy guanciale.

Ah, guanciale.  For some, prosciutto or jamon represent the pinnacle of porcine pleasure, for others, that means bacon.  For me, pig nirvana is the remarkable guanciale at Pommidoro.  Guanciale is pig's jowl, a rich, fatty, full-flavoured cut of meat, cured in salt and spices.  Romans use it in much the same way we use bacon or some other Italians use pancetta.  The key difference between bacon and guanciale is that the former is usually salt-cured and smoked, while the latter is just salt-cured with herbs and spices.  I adore the spaghetti alla carbonara at Pommidoro because their guanciale has a crispy exterior, meaty interior, and a taste that reminds me strongly of the Colonel's secret blend of herbs and spices.  Say what you will, I love that flavour.

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And guanciale is just one of many specialties that distinguish Roman cuisine.  Our first task after an early morning arrival was to set out for a breakfast featuring one of the world's great breads.  Pizza bianca isn't that much different from any other leavened yeast bread -- it's nothing more than flour, a little sugar, water, yeast, olive oil and salt -- but good pizza bianca is an experience not soon forgotten.  This flatbread features a light, pillowy crumb under a crispy, olive oil and sea salt gilded crust.  There's an article in Jeffrey Steingarten's book, It Must've Been Something I Ate, in which he froths over the pizza bianca at Antico Forno in the Campo de' Fiori, an enthusiasm he apparently shares with another notable food writer, Amanda Hesser.  Rachel and I enjoy its pizza bianca.  It's exceptionally light and has a wonderfully delicate texture, but we prefer the pizza bianca from the bakery just steps from our hotel.  Panificio Fagiani Ubaldo (Via Varese, 36) makes a far denser bread, but it features more olive oil and flakes of wonderfully crunchy salt, and it has a noticeably mineralized taste that we love.  Both dazzle, but a bread that combines the texture of the pizza of the Antico Forno with the flavour of the Panificio Fagiani Ubaldo would be transcendent.

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Rome in the fall also means puntarelle, a crunchy, slightly bitter variety of chicory that is a regional, seasonal delicacy.  Romans typically serve them as a salad dressed with anchovy, garlic, olive oil, and vinegar.  Rachel and I tried our first and best bowl at Dal Cavalier Gino (Vicolo Rosini, 4).  The mixture of anchovy, garlic, oil and the crunchy texture of this bitter green call to mind a classic Caesar salad.  I would kill to get my hands on some, but I've never seen them in Toronto.  Not only are they hard to find, they're a pain in the ass to prepare.  We watched teams of greengrocers in the Campo de' Fiori labour over a time-consuming process that involves cleaning, cutting, shredding, and soaking a plant that resembles an asparagus-producing weed. 

The most pleasant surprise of our trip was a dazzling lunch at Palatium, a stylish enoteca run by the regional government to showcase Latium's remarkable food and wine.  We started with a selection of local salumi, such as finnochiona, a peppery sausage with a noticeable dose of fennel seed.  But the star of the meal was a stupendous cacio e pepe pasta featuring fresh, golden tonnarelli (square-cut spaghetti) made with locally sourced organic flour and caciocavallo cheese, a southern-Italian specialty, that, when aged, adds a salty, parmesan-like bite to dishes.  Rachel took one bite of my perfect pasta, then asked me to trade it straight up for her less than perfect, but still excellent, amatriciana.  I did it, but the words "cacio e pepe" have now become a convenient shorthand for "you owe me" around our house.  Dessert was an orange and ricotta tart with a little drizzle of melted dark chocolate and some diced peaches.  Surprise, surprise, this was no ordinary ricotta.  This was ricotta romana, a sheep's milk cheese so precious it's been given a protected DOP status.  It also makes one hell of a tart -- light and creamy, with a subtle but noticeable orange taste.  The only problem with Palatium is the service, which is maddeningly slow even by Italian standards.

Pizza bianca, puntarelle, Palatium.  We miss them all, so we don't want to add our favourite Roman delight, guanciale, to that list.  But despite the growing popularity of traditional Roman dishes that require it, like carbonara and amatriciana, guanciale remains scarce in North America.  Quality bacon or pancetta make a decent substitute, but after finding Mario Batali's recipe for homemade guanciale in The Babbo Cookbook and motivated by our recent visit, I decided it was time to make some myself.

The biggest obstacle was sourcing the pig cheeks.  After several weeks, I finally managed to get my hands on some from Cumbrae's (the same butcher who helped us find lamb brains), one of Toronto's finest butchers.  Floppy and fatty, and still covered with a layer of whisker-dappled skin, uncured cheeks bear little resemblance to the marvelous epicurean delight they eventually become.  After a week covered in kosher salt, thyme, and black pepper, followed by three weeks dangling from pieces of string in the fridge, our two cheeks metamorphosed into a marvelous treat.  The skin had hardened into a leathery carapace, but the flesh beneath had darkened and firmed until it resembled the fattiest of bacons.

We used it first in a delicious risotto, sautéing lardons of guanciale until they were crisp outside but still supple inside, then using the drippings in the pan to wilt dandelion greens.  This guanciale astonishes.  Without the often overbearing smokiness of some bacon, Batali's cured pig cheeks taste overwhelmingly porky, but with a marvelous saltiness and mild peppery and herbal notes.  Texturally, guanciale dominates bacon, which, especially when sliced, is only ever crispy or soft; guanciale offers both at once, popping under your teeth.

Though delightful in risotto, the pinnacle of guanciale achievement remains spaghetti alla carbonara.  Despite the simplicity of the ingredients, carbonara is actually a remarkably difficult dish to execute well.  The trick, as I see it, lies in the sauce.  North American recipes often call for the addition of cream.  This is a form of culinary heresy I detest.  The sauce requires nothing more than raw egg yolks, which add plenty of richness on their own, and the magic of pasta water.  Of course, adding hot water to raw eggs demands some skill, unless the desired outcome is scrambled eggs carbonara.  I posted our first carbonara recipe two years ago, but I've updated it here.  The only real change is that I now use a bit more pasta water, both in the egg yolks and in the pan with the fat leftover from cooking the guanciale. 

And though it's not that last meal at Pommidoro on a chilly fall day after strolling through the Eternal City, our spaghetti alla carbonara with homemade guanciale is a delicious way to rekindle fond memories -- the Bernini sculptures at the Galleria Borghese, the awe-inspiring dome of the Pantheon, and the Baroque splendour of the Trevi Fountain -- from a kitchen many thousands of kilometres away.

Spaghetti alla carbonara

There are a couple of keys to producing a creamy sauce, not scrambled eggs:
1. Use room temperature eggs
2. Temper the beaten eggs with a bit of the pasta water
3. Try to add the egg mixture to a warm, not hot, pan.

500 grams spaghetti or bucatini
4 room temperature egg yolks plus one whole egg, beaten
200 grams guanciale, pancetta, or best bacon cut into 1.5 cm (approx 3/4 inch) lardons
30 grams (approx. 3/4 cup), finely grated pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano
pepper to taste
1 tbsp olive oil
pasta water

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  When water boils, add a generous amount of salt.

Heat a sauté pan over medium heat.  Add olive oil and guanciale, and sauté until outside is crispy but inside remains slightly chewy, approximately 5-7 minutes.  Drain desired amount of fat from pan (guanciale fat tastes good, so I try to leave it all in the pan).

Place spaghetti in boiling water.  Prepare as per package instructions.

When there are five minutes remaining in the pasta cooking time, add 125 mL (approx. 1/2 cup) of the starchy pasta cooking water to the guanciale fat in the sauté pan.  Return pan to medium-high heat.  Reduce the mixture by at least half, stirring occasionally until the mixture has emulsified.

Add pepper to taste to beaten eggs.  Slowly add 70 mL (a generous 1/4 cup) of the pasta water to the egg mixture.  Do not add quickly or the eggs will scramble.

When spaghetti is al dente, lower the heat under the sauté pan to low.  Drain the spaghetti and add it to the sauté pan.  Slowly add the beaten eggs to the noodles, tossing constantly (I find a good set of tongs work best) and
adding more pasta water, if necessary, to loosen the sauce.  Add pecorino and more pepper, if desired.

Serve promptly with additional pecorino and pepper.

December 01, 2007

For the halibut: the search for Toronto's best fish and chips

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It's a sad day for fried food when the advertising cards on the tables of one of Toronto's most reputable fish and chips joints extol the health benefits of the frying oil.  I must know more, so I dig a little deeper and find a website.  "Fry-On," it brags, "is a uniquely processed, nutritional, 100% vegetable corn and canola oil blend."  Digesting the list of Fry-On's virtues, which apparently include anti-oxidants, no cholesterol, and zero trans fats "per serving," makes me wonder: what demented imbecile chooses their fish and chips based on the nutritional qualities of the bubbling cauldron of fat in which they're made?

Not this one.  After searching high and low, we've come to one very important conclusion: frying in vegetable oil is, without doubt, the wrong way to make fish and chips.  The best way is the old-fashioned way: with beef drippings.  The problem is that chippies that use drippings are a dying breed.  In fact, as far as I can tell, there remain but two who hew to tradition in Toronto: Penrose and Caz's.  Everyone else has turned to the dark side, favouring vegetable shortening or composite oils, like Fry-On, that offer convenience to the restaurant and somewhat less guilt to the diner –- at the expense of flavour.

In order to identify Toronto's best fish and chips, Rachel and I visited nine of Toronto's best loved chippies.  Our friends Jill and Rob, who also joined us on our donut quest and our excursion to Montreal, accompanied us to seven of them on one glorious day.  The strategy was to divide one serving among four people -- we're not completely insane.

We were unanimous in our first choice: Penrose Fish & Chips.  Their halibut and chips may not be flawless -- frankly, I think the fish tends towards a touch of greasiness sometimes -- but the batter is light and crispy, the fries have a crunchy exterior and tender interior, and the flavour of both is exceptional, rich and deep without being obtrusive.  On our most recent visit to Penrose, I asked Dave Johnston, who now tends the fryers while his mother, Marion, deals with customers, how they produce Barbra Streisand's favourite fish and chips.  It's no surprise to learn that they refuse to take shortcuts.  That means not only using beef fat, it also means hand-cutting and par-frying their chips before crisping them up in a final bath of scorching hot fat.  I only wish some of Toronto's finer restaurants approached their dishes with the same diligence with which the Johnstons approach a plate of fast food.

For me, at least, Caz's placed a close second.  Like Penrose, they fry in beef fat.  They also serve the biggest plate of fish and chips in the city.  For those eager to eat responsibly, Caz's serves only wild caught fish.  There are but three drawbacks: first, the fish was a little greasy; second, the calm of our meal was consistently breached by the loud argument the fry lady was having with a supplier; and, third, the decor screams fast food.  In short: good food, bad environment.

If you do happen to be one of those people who insist on vegetable oil, there is hope for you yet.  You can find a very good plate of fish and chips in Toronto (just know there are better).  The two best places to enjoy vegetable oil-fried fish and chips are Reliable and Harbord, in that order.  Both turn out crispy, delicious meals, but Reliable gets the nod for its exceptionally light batter.  Reliable had better get it right, because it occupies a crowded chunk of fish and chips real estate, what with two other chippies plying their trade along the same strip of Queen Street East.  It's enjoyed a renaissance of late thanks to the publicity showered upon it by an appearance on Restaurant Makeover.  Not that you'll find any of the dishes Lynn Crawford developed on the menu -- the owner, George Hung, freely admits the move was a smartly conceived publicity stunt.  The decor is stylish, however, though I have to admit to having a soft spot for Penrose, which looks like a fifties relic with its tiny booths, sea blue walls, and a pièce de résistance swordfish mounted on the north wall.

I hate to speak negatively of any restaurant, but there are some chippies that just don't cut the tartar sauce.  Chippy's is a perennial favourite among some Toronto aficionados, and at its best it can be excellent.  But that's rarely the case.  For what it's worth, the problem isn't necessarily the food; the wretched oversized Chinese takeout containers contribute too.  The food is piled high in a narrow box, and in order to seal it, the fish and chips must be crammed in so tight that they turn into a moist, greasy mess.  In Chippy's defense, they are the only joint in town that makes legitimate mushy peas, and they offer a superb tartar sauce.

Steven Davey, the restaurant critic at Now Magazine, recently named Deep Blue the best chippy in town.  Steven Davey is wrong.  Deep Blue makes a solid halibut and chips, but their adventures in flavoured batter fail miserably.  On a recent visit, Rachel and I vied for her halibut after we discovered how leaden and obscenely thick the Jamaican jerk batter is.  The mushy peas, coyly described as 'hummus,' taste too powerfully of garlic, and the french fries were tough and chewy.

I have to admit to bitter disappointment upon discovering that the chippy of my youth, Woodgreen, makes horrifically bad food.  To add insult to injury, I even had to endure the torture of knowing our meal wasn't going to meet expectations while it was being cooked.  Rather than fizzing and springing to life at the addition of the haddock and potatoes, as hot oil should, Woodgreen's frying oil acknowledged the raw ingredients with the faintest sequence of listless bubbles.  Sure enough, the fish was pallid and limp and everything swam in a puddle of grease.  So much for sentimentality.

The only other truly awful experience was at British Style Fish & Chips, which offers a product so vile we couldn't finish a plate of it between the four of us.  Puddles of grease aside, the french fries were perhaps the worst we've ever had.  Please explain to me how fried potatoes can be so tough and chewy that jaws ache after eating them, because I can't figure it out.

Somethin's Fishy may be Toronto's newest fish and chip shop.  Tucked into cozy quarters in the heart of the Kensington, this joint distinguishes itself with its fries -- thin shoestrings laced with spice -- and tasty condiments.  Unfortunately both the fries and the fish suffer from cooking in oil that's too cold.  Our meal here was greasy and went unfinished.  My hunch, however, is that turning up the heat would make a world of difference, and raise this chippy to the level of Harbord or Reliable.

Torontonians are passionate about their fish and chips.  I drew inspiration for this quest from Chowhound, which hosts no fewer than two boards with a combined total of almost two hundred comments from hogtowners eager to share their picks and pans.  I know there are places I have yet to try, and I am certain I will.  Just as long they don't try to sell me on the quality of their vegetable oil.

November 06, 2007

The 'Lona Rangers: four wondrous days in Barcelona

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It's seven in the evening, too early even for locals with babies to consider supper.  They will show up, but not for an hour or so.  For now it's just me, Rachel, and another couple drinking at the bar.  I'm wearing my usual natty attire: khakis, a t-shirt, and a backpack that confirms, if confirmation were needed, that I am a tourist.

So be it.  It's the price we pay for visiting Barcelona and ensuring our meal at Bar Inopia, Albert Adria's tapas bar, lives up to expectations.  Sure, we could visit two or three hours later, dressed to the nines (okay, maybe I can't do that), for the more authentic experience: fighting with the Saturday night crowd for someone, anyone's attention.  But to hell with that.  We want the chance to interact with the bartender, to get a feel for what we're eating.

In that sense, our gambit pays off.  Our barkeep's brown hair and beard convince me we're being looked after by Kenny Loggins' Catalan doppelganger.  But I'm not complaining.  For the next ninety minutes this man tolerates my many questions with the patience of Job, and even greets my queries with a few wonderful recommendations.

Eating in Barcelona ranks as one of life's greatest pleasures -- actually, given the wonders of the city, so does starving in Barcelona -- and Bar Inopia's no exception.  We whet our appetites with a few simple plates:  "Air" bread with tomato and baccala, impossibly light toast with a rich tomato confit and cod so juicy it's hard to believe it was ever dried; ventresca de atun, tuna belly with a wonderfully meaty taste, more tomato confit, and a generous, but perfectly balanced dusting of sea salt; and a handful of anchovy dishes, including a boqueron topped with more anchovy, a preparation that is really just fishy fish garnished with a little more fishy fish.  Of course, if I could buy preserved fish as succulent as the salt-packed varieties regularly served in tapas bars across the Iberian peninsula, I'd do the same thing, too.  The only dish we don't enjoy is the mixed olive plate, as none of the olives strike our fancy, and one of which amazes me for its distinctly root beer-like taste.

Why stop when you're on a roll, right?  The second wave of dishes includes an ensaladilla rusa, a tuna, mayo, and potato salad with a little red pepper.  More anchovies arrive, but this time perched atop preserved artichokes.  Then, the dish for which I will beg on my deathbed: tiny deep fried fish.  Pelaya, to be exact, which, if my research is correct, is Atlantic spotted flounder.  These little fish remind me of potato chips, only better. Given their oval shape, very generous dose of sea salt, and not-quite-paper-thinness, the comparison is apt.  They have a wonderfully light crunch.  After devouring a plate of them while polishing off a beer, I immediately order another.

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"Are you sure you don't want to try a different fish?" asks the bartender.  "Salmoneta, is a little thicker and has slightly fishier taste."  What else could I do but accept?  I don't want to suggest I now regret that decision, but let's just say when I think of the one that got away, it will be a dozen pelaya.  Which is not to say that salmoneta isn't good -- though given it's orangey-pink colouring and shape, these finger-sized red mullet strongly resemble a goldfish -- it just fails to meet the standard of its predecessor.

Our meal at Bar Inopia was a wonderful experience, but it's just the tip of the iceberg in a city emerging as one of the world's great culinary destinations.  The quality of the tapas justifies the line of customers patiently sipping cañas, tiny glasses of beer, while waiting an hour for a seat at Cal Pep's diner-style counter.  Our meal begins with a pile of salty, deep fried pebrots de padron, slightly sweet, mini-green peppers; the most perfect clams cooked with morsels of ham; and a dish that must be inspired by a typical North American breakfast: foie gras sausage and white beans drizzled with a maple syrup reduction.  Cal Pep's fried pelaya fail to meet the standard set by Bar Inopia -- too greasy, not enough salt -- but all is forgiven after one bite of their mesmerizing tortilla, truita trempera (click here for the recipe in Catalan), a thick, golden pillow filled with chorizo, potato, onion, and still runny egg.  What sets this omelette apart is the slather of allioli, garlic mayonnaise, that crowns it, and transforms an already superb omelette into something ethereal.  We finish our meal with the dense, silky custard of crema catalana, the region's nutmeg-inflected answer to crème brûlée.  For photos of the sausage, clam, and tortilla dishes, click here.

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Of course, one need not set foot in Barcelona's bars and restaurants to capture glimpses of the city's vibrant food culture.  The city is home to one of the world's great food markets, La Boqueria.  Rachel and I spent the better part of a morning wandering past rows of vendors hawking the most beautiful fruits, meats, and fish, though only after enjoying second helpings of the most addictive chick pea dish ever at Bar Pinotxo -- a delightful muddle, cigrons butifarra, that includes crumbled black sausage, raisins, onions, pine nuts, and parsley -- one of the tapas stands scattered throughout the premises.  Beyond breakfast, my memories of our market visit are crowded with visions of countless types of dirt-caked mushrooms, containers overflowing with yards of tripe, and fishmongers chatting casually while gutting and cleaning the day's catch with impossibly large blades.

Then there's the chocolate.  On our first trip to Barcelona, we stumbled upon Cacao Sampaka, another Albert Adria venture, but one more closely related to his roots as el Bulli's pioneering pastry chef.  This small chain of artisanal chocolate shops showcases many of the chocolate creations Adria developed at the restaurant, including some of the flavours we featured in our el Bulli chocolate sampler post.  Adria's bonbons are good, but they fail to match the intense flavours and luscious textures achieved by Oriol Balaguer, a man quickly emerging as one of the world's great pastry chefs.  This is actually a case of the student overtaking the master, because Balaguer spent seven years at el Bulli before venturing out on his own.  His tiny shop, with its sleek automatic doors and ultra-modern displays, seems better suited to haute couture than ganache, but Balaguer (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Bond henchman, Emile Locque) has a magical ability to distill flavours and textures into his chocolates-- be it passion fruit, yuzu, or even corn nuts -- that Adria cannot match.

Barcelona's attractiveness extends well beyond food.  I was first drawn to the city by a love for the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, whose most brilliant creations -- for me, at least, the Casa Batlló and the Sagrada Familia -- twist natural forms into awe inspiring spaces bathed in light.  There's more, of course: the charm of La Rambla, the bustling, tree-lined mall, choked with pedestrians, vendors, and street performers; strolling the boardwalk in Barceloneta; and Montjuïc, the enormous park that looks out over the city while simultaneously offering a green refuge from its excesses.  Well, at least to some.  I know we haven't enjoyed any part of Barcelona -- not the architecture, nor the chocolate,  and certainly not the tiny deep fried fish -- to excess yet. 

October 11, 2007

Foaming at the mouth: Wylie Dufresne, Guy Rubino, and the future of molecular gastronomy

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Had enough yet?  Can't wait to see the last of foams, spheres, airs, and the countless other "gimmicks" at the heart of molecular gastronomy?

If you answered 'Yes' to those questions, you're not alone.

Chris Nuttall-Smith, outgoing food editor of Toronto Life, knows his food and has eaten more than his fair share of great and ghastly meals, and he's fed up.  During a conversation earlier this summer, he professed to being "tired of molecular gastronomy."  When I asked him recently if I could use his quote for this post, he not only agreed, he elaborated:

If you really got me on a roll, I'd say:

'I find it so tedious, and wankerish and precious. I used to roll my eyes when food writers said this kind of thing. C'mon, I'd think. Give the newbies a chance. But then two years passed and every hack chef on the continent discovered foams. Enough, fuck. And how is it "cutting edge" when chefs use transglutaminase to glue pieces of meat together? Weren't they doing that at Tyson Foods in 1986?  Really. Can I just get something that tastes good and was made with a bit of integrity instead?'

Yes. I'd love it if you'd use that.

Me too.  Agree or disagree, the man writes good copy.

I'm glad he didn't mince words, because his comment provides some context for two other experiences I enjoyed this summer.  The first, dinner at wd-50, Wylie Dufresne's landmark molecular gastronomy restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, offers a taste of what many naysayers loathe most about this new approach to food: unconventional flavour pairings, oodles of obscure chemicals, and a penchant for deconstructing traditional dishes.

Rachel and I visited with another couple, our friends Ryan and Sue, and, for the most part, the meal was a hit.  The best dish of the night was Dufresne's take on french onion soup: two spheres of gruyere-flavoured liquid floating in a pool of beef broth -- it's comfort food with flair and imagination.  What impresses most about this dish aren't the spheres, however, it's that delectable broth, a staple of classic Western cuisine crafted with obvious skill.  Dufresne may no longer work in Jean-Georges' kitchen, but he brings those same standards to his own.

The delicious riffs on comfort food don't stop there.  Pizza pebbles with pepperoni and shiitake dazzle while eliciting laughs of joy and amazement.  Pop one of these balls into your mouth, and it immediately crumbles into a sandy powder with a texture and taste eerily similar to that of Combos, the pretzel snack that "cheeses your hunger away."  This is no accident. Some may find it absurd, even offensive, to pay good money for the taste of Combos on a tasting menu, but I think it's a stroke of genius -- laughter's a reaction I wish chefs would encourage more often, especially in fine dining restaurants that intimidate some diners as much as they delight others.

Not every dish on the twelve-course tasting menu tickled us as much as these two -- one in particular, a combination of surf clam, watermelon, and fermented black bean leaves me a little cold, mainly because I dislike the vaguely raunchy flavour of fermented beans paired with fresh clam -- but most of the rest combine form and flavour exceptionally well, two others especially: I'm not sure if lamb belly, black chick pea, and cherried cucumber is a great take on lamb or bacon, but the unexpected taste of cured meat mixed with the mild gaminess of lamb makes for an unforgettable dish.  Dufresne plays with Jewish deli food (or a BLT, apparently) in a dish of thinly sliced pickled beef tongue with fried mayonnaise and tomato molasses.  wd-50 refines tongue to such an extent that the dish conjures images of pastrami, not offal (click here for the recipe).  And, yes, fried mayo is as delicious as it sounds, though I must confess to expecting a slightly thinner texture from the mayo.

Pastry chef Alex Stupak's desserts were every bit as good as the savoury courses they followed, with fried butterscotch pudding, mango, taro ice cream, and smoked macadamia the best of the lot.  This dish deftly balances hot and cold, and sweet, salty, and smoky.   Like mayo, pudding just gets better after a brief sojourn in hot fat.

To read someone else's take on our wd-50's tasting menu, and to see pictures of the dishes discussed above, click here.

Chris and Wylie approach food from two very different places: Wylie pushes boundaries and buttons; Chris yearns for quality ingredients cooked simply.  On the surface, it appears the stage has been set for a messy divorce between molecular gastronomy and traditional (dare I call it Slow?) food.  But are they really incompatible?

My experience writing The Dish for the October 2007 Toronto Life makes me think not.  Guy Rubino has carved a reputation as an elite chef by creating gorgeous, complex dishes that mingle Asian and Western techniques and ingredients at his Toronto restaurant, rain.  He's best known for his TV show, Made to Order, which focuses on the sumptuous dining experiences he and his brother, Michael, tailor to the desires of special clients.

What I find most fascinating about Rubino's style is that he frequently dips into the molecular toolbox to tweak his food.  I arrived curious to see how and why Rubino integrates this emerging culinary outlook into his dishes.  What I found left me convinced that Guy Rubino is a role model for the future of this cooking revolution.

I profiled a trio of preparations featuring bluefin tuna, wagyu beef, and tangerine.  Nuttall-Smith assigned me the piece specifically because Rubino uses transglutaminase in one element of the dish.  Transglutaminase -- also known as "meat glue" or "trans glam" amongst chefs -- is a naturally occurring enzyme that literally glues proteins together.  Take a chunk of beef, for example, spread a tiny bit of trans glam powder on it, and set another piece of meat, let's say chicken, on top.  Wrap the pieces in cling film, and let them rest briefly in the fridge.  When you pull them out, cow and clucker will be fused together in a permanent embrace.  If a tiny voice in your head is saying "Cool" right now, you're like me.

Rubino's trio is deceptively simple.  It includes a wagyu and bluefin tartare with tangerine gelée and tangerine foam; a strip of tangerine fruit leather encased in a coil of bluefin sashimi and dressed with tamari veal reduction, dehydrated ginger and wasabi; and a thick disc of seared, wagyu fat-encased bluefin loin finished with a tangerine teriyaki miso froth and a thin line of cilantro oil.  What struck me most is that transglutaminase is just the tip of the iceberg with this dish.  By my count, there are no fewer than six molecular gastronomy techniques in the three preparations: agar jellies the tangerine gelee; methylcellulose thickens the tangerine mousse; sodium alginate binds the fruit leather; soy lecithin emulsifies the teriyaki froth; xanthan gum stabilizes the cilantro oil; and, lest we forget the reason for my visit in the first place, transglutaminase binds the wagyu fat to the loin to add a little moisture and flavour.

The kicker, of course, is that Guy Rubino is not a molecular gastronomer.  He's simply a chef who recognizes that the methods refined by the likes of Homaro Cantu, Grant Achatz, and Wylie Dufresne can be put to use in any kitchen to improve the taste and texture of many dishes.  We've come to expect a restaurant to be "molecular gastronomy" in much the same way we used to insist restaurants be French, Japanese, or Italian, until a new generation of chefs blew that conceit to smithereens.  Molecular gastronomy is undergoing a similar transformation, shedding its niche status and emerging as a broadly used set of tools that help cooks enhance and reinterpret the foods they prepare regardless of their background.

As I see it, Nuttall-Smith, Dufresne, and Rubino -- or, put in more political terms, the conservative, the revolutionary, and the moderate -- are proxies for a broader debate in the culinary world over the role of molecular gastronomy in modern cuisine.  Each position has value, too.  I am constantly fascinated and amazed by culinary innovation, but I'm not blind to its excesses.  To the contrary, I've been forced to eat a few of them.  Some passionate, knowledgeable foodies, like Chris Nuttall-Smith, offer necessary resistance.  By challenging the relentless quest for innovation for innovation's sake, skeptics force chefs to ask the most important question of the dishes they produce, not merely "Is it good?" but "Is it better?"  The answer, sometimes, is "No."  Wylie Dufresne, on the other hand, pushes boundaries and buttons, forges new techniques, and discovers the ingredients of tomorrow.  He, and chefs like him, provide the necessary imagination that propels any creative venture such as cooking forward. 

Innovators must remember to ask one simple question:  "Can I make it better?"  And they often do.  Guy Rubino is the product of this dialectic, synthesizing the techniques he learns from chefs like Dufresne with incredible raw materials and his own culinary vision to produce a richer, juicier tuna loin or a more intense tangerine foam.  His food is by no means simple, but by probing the area between the extremes he promotes compromise and a promising future.

September 14, 2007

Vive le Québec livre! Au Pied de Cochon's pouding chomeur and our Montreal road trip

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Choosing travel destinations based on cookbooks can seem foolish -- until you find the right cookbook, that is.  For me, one of those cookbooks is Au Pied de Cochon -- The Album.  After ogling it for a month and preparing the wonderful foie gras poutine recipe, Rachel and I decided to make the pilgrimage to la belle province for a meal at the source.  We just needed to find the opportunity.  So when it found us, in the form of our friends Jill and Rob, we packed our bags and thanked The Fates for giving us friends who are perpetually willing to venture near and far for good food.

For a restaurant praised by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Gourmet, Au Pied de Cochon's dishes are surprisingly unrefined, and gratifyingly so.  Most reflect the traditions of pure laine quebecois and their descendants:  rustic and bold, devoid of pretension, yet elevated by the quality of the ingredients and the care taken in their preparation.  As an Album junkie, I arrived with a list as long as my arm of things I wanted to try.

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August 27, 2007

SHF #34, Nosh In My Backyard: Regan Daley's wild blueberry pie and el Bulli's rhubarb with sugar and pepper

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The summer heat shimmers around me and I can hear the oscillating buzz of grasshoppers as I sit on my front steps.  Time is stretching out and slowing down the way it does only for children. I don’t even realize I’m hungry until my mother appears with a pile of vermilion stalks on a plate, with a little bowl next to it.  I dip a rhubarb piece into the sugar in the bowl and bite down, savouring the shock of the sharp juicy sour crunch.

Rhubarb grew in a shady corner of our backyard, looking like horizontal ruffled elephant ears.  We’d pick the stems before they got too thick and woody, and cook them in jams and pies, while the children would often eat them raw with sugar as a treat.  Even though I hated celery and complained about its strings, I’d tear into rhubarb stalks with relish and valued the stringy fibres that straggled behind for their ability to hold extra sugar when I swept the stem through the sugar dish.

Ferran Adria offers a more sophisticated version of this childhood treat in el Bulli: 2003-2004.  He takes tender young raw rhubarb, carefully trimmed to minimize the tough fibres, and rolls them in demerara sugar and black pepper.  It’s a sharp dish -- the crystals of the sugar and the pepper’s heat seem to emphasize the sour taste -- but the added flavours round it out as well.  It’s surprisingly elegant for such a simple preparation.

It's also a perfect dish for the latest edition of Sugar High Friday, hosted by the passionate cook, which is all about going local.  Not only does rhubarb grow like a weed in our home province, Ontario, but the rhubarb we used to make our version of this dish was given to us by our friend Jill, who harvested the stalks from her mother's garden.

My parents no longer live at that house, but their current home does have another crop in the backyard.  Wild blueberry bushes dot the rocky brush behind their house in Sudbury, and it was an easy task to step out for fifteen minutes and return with a small pail of sapphire-hued treasures.  I say "was."  Construction crews are building a new housing development right over the backyard berry patch.  Sudbury’s economic boom is bad news for my blueberry pancake habit, which my mom has indulged during every summertime visit.  At least the construction reduces the chance of hungry bears coming into the yard, lured by the berries.

And there is simply no comparison between wild and farmed blueberries -- one of the reasons I gorge myself on blueberries at my parents’ house.  Sure, the domestic ones are just as pretty and twice the size, but they’re completely flat in flavour.  The wild ones pack a whallop of acidity and sweetness into each tiny globe, worth every sunburn and mosquito bite and sore back from picking that I’ve endured in their pursuit.

Regan Daley agrees.  "There is one thing you must remember in order to make this pie:  YOU NEED WILD BERRIES!  Never use the cultivated ones.  They make lousy pies, and lousy everything else for that matter," she states in her book In The Sweet Kitchen.  Blueberry pie has never been a real favourite
of mine, but I’d picked and brought back several pints of berries from my last visit, Rob was eager to try it, and Regan had not yet steered us wrong.

Her track record is still perfect.  The crust, made with lard and butter, is phenomenal:  light and crisp and flaky, we chased the last bits around the plate with our forks, unwilling to let any crumb go uneaten.  And the filling!  Rather than the stodgy, almost solid gel of store-bought blueberry pie, this is a juicy confederation of berries in all their summer glory.

We ate an astounding amount of the pie when it was fresh from the oven, and an even more surprising amount the next morning.  The recipe specifically mentions that, being comprised of flour, egg, and fruit, blueberry pie is an "honourable" breakfast food.  And though it may not be my mom's pancakes, it extends the tradition of fashioning simple, delicious treats from the bounty in the backyard.

August 14, 2007

Brain food: Mario Batali's lamb's brains ravioli

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My first exposure to the glories of lamb offal was entirely accidental.  "Abbacchio con funghi," read the chef's recommendations at one of Rome's oldest restaurants, La Campana, and a succulent lamb chop or tender braised shank did seem like a perfect fall supper in the Eternal City.  Moreover, because of my almost non-existent knowledge of Italian at the time, I was tickled about having understood the Roman dialect word for lamb.

"Pride goes before a fall," they say, and I was about to learn my lesson.

The full name of the dish is actually "animelle di abbacchio con funghi."  I naively ignored that first word, dismissing it as nothing more than a minor detail.  This is Rome, however, a city that prides itself on its culinary artistry with the "quinto quarto," or "fifth quarter" of the animal, the collection of snouts, guts, brains, and tails that have been staples of the city's working class cuisine for millenia.

When my meal finally arrived, I couldn't help but notice the extensive network of ridges and crenelations running through my piece of lamb.  "Rachel," I muttered, "I think I've ordered brain."  Not quite, it turns out, but nestled within my pool of rich brown gravy and mushrooms lay a tender, plump lamb sweetbread.  I had a decision to make: suck it up, try it, and then reach an informed opinion, or take a mulligan and order something new.  My decision: eat first, ask questions later.  So I screwed up my courage and took a bite.  Not bad, really.  The texture was smooth and rich, pillowy like a dumpling, and the meat gravy superb.

Having finally eaten a sizable portion of my meal, I tried to ask our waiter what I was eating by tapping my temple while asking, "Dove?" -- the Italian word for "where" -- hoping he would understand the implication, which he did.  "Si," he confirmed.

I continued to eat more, though I didn't attack supper with my usual gusto.  Yes, even I -- gobbler of rabbit ears and glutton for horse fat --  get culinary cold feet.  I'd like to rationalize my anxiety by claiming fear of mad cow disease, but no lamb has ever been diagnosed with BSE and no case of Creutzfeld-Jacob disease, the human equivalent, has ever been linked back to sheep.  No, my fears about eating lamb brains aren't about what's in the lamb's head.  It's about what's in mine.

Brain presents a big culinary problem for most of us.  It's squishy; when cooked, it's grey.  Both factors are a huge turn off.  But the bigger issue with brain, I think, stems from the unmistakable resemblance of an animal's brain to our own, and from the immense symbolic weight we place on that organ as the locus of thought and as the seat of the soul.  We rather easily disassociate ourselves from animal flesh, but we've all taken enough high school science classes or watched enough sci-fi and monster movies to recognize that a lamb's brain looks almost exactly like a miniaturized version of our own.  We recognize a little too much of ourselves in a brain.

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I first tasted actual lamb's brains a few years ago at Babbo, Mario Batali's flagship New York restaurant.  Batali actively promotes cooking with offal, and his menus reflect his passion.  At Babbo, our server urged us to try the lamb brains francobolli -- postage stamps of fresh pasta stuffed with a mixture of poached brain, ricotta, sauteed onions, and a little seasoning, dressed with gently heated butter, some fresh sage, and a sprinkling of parmesan -- so I took the plunge.  I'm glad I did.  The brain's contribution is more texture -- a slightly creamy lusciousness -- then flavour, but the dish really does taste marvelous.

Of course, Batali does his best to make "the nasty bits" palatable to his patrons.  As others have already pointed out, he usually mixes offal into his dishes in small quantities, and it's probably no coincidence that the lamb's brains are hidden within a pasta envelope.  As they say: out of sight, out of mind.

It's an entirely different story when you're both diner and chef.  Any illusions are forgotten the instant you hold a chilled, slick brain in the palm of your hand.  No easy task given how difficult it is to find naturally raised lamb in Toronto.  The most pleasant surprise I received when preparing lamb brains is price -- they were free.  According to my butcher at Cumbrae's, no market exists for the product in Canada.  The next step, cleaning the brains, can hardly be described as pleasant.  For one, there were a few small chunks of skull wedged into the brains -- a by-product, no doubt, of extracting the brains from the skull using a saw -- and, for two, there's the pain-in-the-ass task of removing the outer membrane and blotches of congealed blood.

After soaking the brains overnight in a couple of changes of water to drain any remaining blood, the recipe, which I adapted from an identical recipe for calf's brains in The Babbo Cookbook, is entirely straightforward.  Rather than fuss over the pasta envelope, I prepared basic, square ravioli, not postage stamps with fancy edges.  The homemade dish, though less artfully presented, is every bit as good as the restaurant version.  The richness of the filling marries artfully with butter, flavours complemented by the sharp herbal note of sage and the zing of lemon zest.  We even found one friend eager to taste the dish, and he enjoyed it too.

Having come this far, we must now decide if we want to explore brains further.  Where Batali uses brains as just one note in a broader harmony, Fergus Henderson features them front and centre.  The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating includes a small section of lamb brains recipes, everything from deep fried brains to a terrine.  There's even a recipe for cold lamb's brains on toast, "for those who particularly enjoy the texture of brain."  Hmmm.  I'm not sure we're there yet, Fergus.

August 01, 2007

The undisputed king of noodles: el Bulli's two metre parmesan spaghetto

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Sometimes molecular gastronomy can be a real pain in the ass.  Even the simplest of recipes -- and a two metre parmesan spaghetto is, believe it or not, relatively straightforward -- can be sabotaged by seemingly benign requirements, requirements like "1-1 L ISI siphon with the emptying attachment spaghetti."  Emptying attachment spaghetti?

Mangled English aside, I have no idea what that might look like, nor have I found a retailer that sells it.  The likely reason is simple: the spaghetti attachment is actually a customized piece of equipment designed specifically for (and likely by) el Bulli itself.

Unfortunately, the attachment points to a larger problem with pursuing molecular gastronomy at home generally, and cooking from the el Bulli cookbooks specifically: both require a constant stream of specialized equipment -- equipment that is often difficult, if not impossible to get.  The el Bulli cookbooks compound the problem by offering no indication of where, or even if, the necessary equipment can be purchased.

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July 22, 2007

Acid flashback: memories of balsamic vinegar and Faith Heller Willinger's Adventures of an Italian Food Lover

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It seems fitting, in hindsight, that the first gift I gave Rachel after our wedding was a bottle of balsamic vinegar.  And not just any old bottle, either.  I'm talking about the genuine article, the mahogany ambrosia produced in and around Modena, Italy.

Like many couples, we honeymooned in Italy.  Unlike many couples, however, we spent our first week in Bologna.  It may seem an odd choice, but Bologna and the surrounding region of Emilia-Romagna are widely considered to be home to the best food in Italy.  The region straddles a unique culinary fault line.  To the south lies olive oil country, while to the north, butter is the fat of choice.  These traditions collide in Emilia-Romagna, where Bologna sits at the epicentre of this culinary earthquake.  Rather than choose one fat over another, the bolognesi do what all sensible gluttons would -- eat both -- thus earning themselves the apt moniker, "la grassa," or "Bologna the fat."

After a week of tortelli, squacquerone, and mortadella, we knew why.  One night we'd feast on a luscious ragu or bollito misto, the next would be an orgy of truffles.  Every meal included yards of pasta fresca, or fresh egg pasta.  One particularly memorable meal, at Trattoria da Gianni, included a marvelous cheese plate consisting of nothing more than two of the region's towering culinary achievements: chunks of parmigiano drizzled with balsamic vinegar so intense it tasted more like sharpened honey than vinegar.

That's what makes it special, of course.  The finest balsamic is aged for decades in an ever smaller series of wooden barrels, each imparting subtle hints of flavour while further concentrating flavours through evaporation.  The result is vinegar in name only, for the finest balsamics taste sweet, with a captivating, but not overwhelming, acidity.  This is vinegar that can be sipped like a liqueur, or even enjoyed with dessert. Before we were married, Rachel would sometimes finish a meal with a bowl of strawberries, peaches, or vanilla ice cream drizzled with good balsamic.

But never the best kind.  Not the liquid gold christened with the prized Denominazione di Origine Controllata -- the government designation that certifies the origins and quality of traditional Italian food products -- and sold in a bottle so distinctive it looks more appropriate to a sorcerer's workshop than a kitchen.  Then we entered a tiny little shop in Bologna on Rachel's birthday, fewer than ten days after our wedding.

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