I hope I never lose my sense of wonder. If that makes me naive, then so be it.

Friday, 14 December 2012

daring cooks, december

This month's challenge got me out of a rut I'd gotten into with a fall/winter family favourite. I tried two new variations, and liked them both.

Our Daring Cooks’ December 2012 Hostess is Andy of Today’s the Day and Today’s the Day I Cook! Andy is sharing with us a traditional French Canadian classic the Paté Chinois, also known as Shepherd’s pie for many of us, and if one dish says comfort food.. this one is it!

Shepherd's pie (typically leading pun-happy family members to ask, "is it made with real shepherds?"), or cottage pie (apparently the more correct name if it doesn't have lamb as the meat) is one of those easy-to-make, cozy foods that we love. I usually make mine with ground beef, cooked with onion and garlic, and doused with a sauce I call "What Is In My Fridge". It's usually tomato-based, and I often put in some BBQ sauce for some zip. I mix in corn, cover it with mashed potatoes, bake it, and we're set to go. We do like this, but I always make it this way. Time for a change!

I tried two versions this month; one, a provided recipe using lamb and dark ale, and the other, a fancy one with duck.

Take 1: Slow-Cooker Irish Shepherd's Pie
The beginning.
Andy provided this recipe, so I went shopping for lamb (never buy it) and dark ale (never buy that either; I'm not a beer drinker, and this stout did not convert me). I was curious to check out a slow-cooked recipe and was not disappointed. Potatoes were cut in half lengthwise and put in the bottom of the pot, then the mix of lamb, carrot. parsnip. mushroom and onion - and really, with such earthy veggies, it was already feeling pretty comfy - was tossed with flour and herbs and put on top. This went on top of the potatoes, and then the stout was poured over it all.
Lamb and veggies and herbs. Oh my!

Then, oh joy of making supper in the morning!, I turned on the cooker and mostly ignored it for the next eight hours or so. I saw 'mostly' because it smelled amazing and so I kept going to peek at it.

Finally, I fished in the cooker to find all the potatoes, mashed them with butter and milk, and put this back on top of the rest of the mixture before adding frozen peas (nice pop of colour, since they hadn't stewed all day and were still bright green) and  baking it all.
Keg party for my food!

Yum! Hearty and good, and the tastes nicely merged together. The gravy was delicious, though the overall recipe wasn't D's favourite as he's not really a fan of lamb. I would like to try it again, with beef, since really the rest of it was so good and I liked the cooking method. I found it very interesting that the stout I did NOT like to drink tasted wonderful as the liquid in the stew. Good to know!
Slow-Cooked Irish Shepherd's Pie. Made without shepherds.

Take 2: Fancy-Schmancy Shepherd's Pie
Confit - poached in duck fat. Not greasy at all, but delish!
This version, I made up. The start: duck confit. I learned how to make this with a DK challenge almost two years ago (cassoulet), and I had some duck legs in the freezer from the ducks we raised ourselves this summer. That was made a couple days in advance, then the meat chopped up and put into individual ramekins.

Cremini mushrooms were sauteed in butter, then port wine added and reduced before adding a bit of cream. Over the duck this went. Finally, potatoes, made with cream and whipped until awfully smooth. I baked them until the tips of the potatoes got golden brown.

The smaller serving size of the ramekin was good, given how rich it was, but this was a success too. Great tastes, but still comfy with the potato. This version would be fun to have for a dinner party.

Thanks for a great challenge, Andy! It was fun to find some new ways to make an old favourite.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

miscellany: brownies, two ways

My dear home group of friends is wonderful. We talk, share, learn together, pray together, support each other. And they are willing guinea pigs for my food.

Last week I hosted, and tried out brownies, dressed up in two very different ways (the brownies, not me). The base of both was a simple brownie recipe. I made an 8x8 pan with the Williams-Sonoma recipe (divine) and mini-muffins with the Betty Crocker recipe (faster and yummy, but not-quite-so-divine). I have no photos. Bad me! We ate all the evidence.

Brownies are one of those first recipes so many people make, simple but delicious. I like a brownie with a slight crisp on the top before getting into the dense, chewy interior. I also like them in little bites so you can savour the richness without overdoing it. Granted, you could go back for many more little bites and overdo it anyway but THAT'S NOT THE POINT. 

Version 1: make the sweet sweeter. 
To 1/2c butter, melted in a skillet, add 1c brown sugar. Heat this over medium heat until it boils and caramelizes and your kids walk into the kitchen in a sort of trance saying, "mmmm, what IS that?". Then smile and shoo them out because it is VERY VERY HOT. It's a balance, letting the sugar boil just enough to get the caramel taste, but not burning it. So, watch it carefully! Remove this from the heat and whisk in milk or cream (1/4 cup) and sifted confectioner's sugar (ummm, about 1 1/2 cups. This is me we're talking about here, I added it until it tasted right). This further sweetens it, and thickens it a bit too. Let the whole thing cool and it will thicken some more, until you can drizzle (cool a little) or spread it (cool it more) over the brownies. Ta-dah!

Version 2: a bit of contrast.
These take more time or less time, depending on how you look at it. A few days before this, I had made up some crème fraîche. The making takes a number of days, but those days take no effort, relying only on the magic of microorganisms. To 1 cup of whipping cream, add 1 tablespoon of buttermilk. Put a loose lid on and let it sit at room temperature until it gently sours and thickens. Then pop it in the fridge where it will keep for a week. It takes the barest of technique (measure, pour, stir, and don't leave it too long) but a bit of bravery (see the blog from when I first made it). Once it's made, though, it means you can top the brownies in no time. Apparently crème fraîche can also be bought, but I have yet to see it in stores. Perhaps I don't move in high enough circles, grocery-wise. But it really is a snap to make.

The crème fraîche was whipped up with a whisk until it thickened a bit more, then I added sugar to taste (about 1/4c to the whole batch I'd made). This was spread over the pan of brownies, then popped into the fridge. It never quite sets hard, so the topping remains a slightly sweet, tangy, soft and creamy layer, but it also didn't run off the sides when I cut the brownies.

Both versions got good reviews, and it was nice to have something to top basic brownies and offer a bit of contrast. I did feel like I had to warn people about the crème fraîche ones, though, since one expects sweet for a dessert and the tangy flavour would be a bit of a taste shock. I still want to do one version yet, one that somehow mimics the Starbucks whipped-cream-salted-caramel topping they have at this time of year. Yummmm.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

since brevity is the soul of wit, i will be brief

I love Grade 9 homeschooling. We get to cover cool topics, and A has just finished her unit on Shakespeare's Hamlet. As her final work on it, I had her choose a speech and rewrite it in modern language. This was to be done in two stages. The first, a line-by-line translation, came out as follows:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t, ah, fie, ‘tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this,
But two months dead, nay, not so much, not two,
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother
That he might now beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her faced too roughly. Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet within a month –
Let me on think on’t ; frailty, thy name is woman –

A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body
Like Niobe, all tears, why she, even she –

O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer – married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galléd eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good.
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.

Oh, if only my body could melt away,
And just disappear.
Or that God had not set
His laws against suicide – Oh, God
How useless, worn out and boring
The world seems to me.
Dammit! It’s like an unweeded garden
That’s left there, and choking, ugly things

Grow in it. That it’s come down to this:

My father has barely been dead two months.

He was a great king! Compared to my uncle,
Like a sun god to a grungy animal.
He cared for her
So much, he wouldn’t even let the wind
Be too rough on her face. Oh my God,

Must I remember? She would follow him

As if her love for him swelled
From his presence, not his absence, but within one month –
I can’t stop thinking about it; my mother is such a hypocrite –
The clothes she wore aren’t even old,
From when she attended my father’s funeral,

Constantly crying, she was constantly crying and yet -
Oh God, a creature without any sense of reason
Would have mourned longer – married to my uncle,
Who, although my father’s brother, is no more like my father
Than I am like a demigod. Only one month,
Before the sting of false tears,
Had left her eyes,
She married. The speed was wicked, to go
So quickly into incestuous marriage.
This has not and will not do us any good.
But alas, nothing I say can change it now.

We'd had to do some research on the references (like Niobe), but I was pleased with her understanding. The second stage had me laughing, when I said to boil it all down and give me a very modern version of it. It was as follows:



Shakespeare, meet the Twitter version...

Sunday, 2 September 2012


I know I can't capture it. Yet i will try.

We walked home tonight, from a party at the winery for friends and family. Music, wine, and food. Chatting with neighbors who we finally met, 'neighbors' in the country meaning your chances of bumping into them on the road are much more slim. Laughing together, enjoying the evening. Then we decided to head home.

It was magical. 

The moon was full, the mist rising on the fields.

We five walked, and talked, and laughed. We heard the distant sound of the band starting up their final set. The fading laughter. The sound of the crickets took precedence and the crunch of gravel under our feet was a steady beat to accompany us.

The girls darted ahead. Watching them flitting back and forth across the laneway, half-hidden in shadow and then a flash in the moonlight, one might well believe the faeries had come out, their laughter trilling across the fields. 

I slowed my pace, drinking it in. Willing the moment to freeze, to be something I could replay in my mind. To remember that sometimes, in this technical, cynical, cold world, there is still a bit of magic. 

Monday, 27 August 2012

miscellany: return to soufflés

I overcame my fear of soufflés with a Daring Kitchen challenge, but had wanted to try some other varieties. Okay, 'fear' is a bit extreme, but I certainly never felt equal to it until I tried. So there's a lesson to take away - so many of these intimidating foods can be made. Just read up and try it. Yes, really.

This week, I've found myself cooking some recipes I short-listed from France: a Journey for Food Lovers that I recently picked up at, of all places, Costco. I picked it up partly on the basis of every recipe being photographed, and also in the fact that it covered several duck dishes, venison, seemed accurate in French recipes that I knew, and had a 'basics' section a the back with various pastries and mother sauces. And so far, it has not disappointed (three recipes on Saturday alone. Yes, that was a bit of overkill. But the petits farcis and tarte au citron will be made again. So good!). Tonight was no different as I made the crab soufflés.

Butter. Shallot. Not a bad start, really.
Soufflé is, I've learned, basically two parts: egg whites, whipped (no oil! at all! no no no!) and the other part with the oil and fat - the yolks, the sauce made with butter and flour, the seasoning and flavour. Milk was heated with onion, peppercorns, cloves, and thyme (standing in for bay leaves. How on earth did I run out of those? I always seem to have a veritable tree-full) and left to steep, infusing the milk with taste before it was strained to be added to a roux of butter, flour, and shallot. Egg yolks were beaten in, crab meat added, and all was yummy.

I'm smiling because my muscles are screaming at me.
The whites of the eggs were, in turn, whipped to soft peaks. Normally I'd haul out the trusty KitchenAid mixer, but decided from sheer bravado (read:stupidity) to whip them by hand. Good bicep workout, I can safely say. I did also justify it on the basis of less effort in the dishwashing department, but I think my arms regretted that logic.

Then it's simple. Part A meets part B and is folded in so as not to wreck all that nice air that the egg whites are holding.
Filling ramekins

Into the buttered ramekins it goes, and baked. And - poof! Soufflés! These with a salad courtesy of the girls (romaine, tomato, and blue cheese) made for a delightful supper.

They're not as intimidating as you'd think.

Done - light and delicious!

Saturday, 25 August 2012

miscellany: pâté

I've been meaning to make 'real' pâté since I first did a veggie one for a Daring Kitchen challenge. Today was the day. I like the pâté from the grocery's deli, but wanted to try my hand at it. Here's how it went down, with sous chef A ably helping out.

Chicken livers. Not an auspicious start, really. Granted, this whole package cost about the same as the single slice of pâté, so this is already looking more cost-effective.

Cut up by A. Who I think enjoyed it far too much and was not at all grossed out. 

They then soaked in brandy for two hours. I figure we're avoiding the middleman and letting the alcohol damage the liver directly with this one.

Brandy drained off, and livers cooked with onions and garlic before the brandy returned to simmer away.

Then into the food processor. Yes that is a strip of duct tape on my food processor. DON'T JUDGE ME. And yes it looks rather unappealing. Believe me, it looks worse after it's puréed. I had to block out several images, several involving diapers, with that one. Butter and cream were added and blended in, then seasoned with salt and pepper before heading to the loaf pan to chill until it set.

I had thought of making a lovely port wine gelatin to make a decorative top, but then realized that should have gone in the pan first and besides, I'm still trying to figure out flavour. 

And here it is on a baguette at supper! It was good, though a bit more liver-y than I'd prefer. However, my teens liked it! Both A and M gobbled it up and came looking for more so I guess it was a success. The next take (yes there will be one; I'm determined to figure out one I like) will not be as smoothly puréed. I think I'd prefer a rustic, more textured version.

Verdict: back to the drawing board, but with some good ideas.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

miscellany: crème fraîche

I've seen this referenced in quite a few recipes, so wanted some when I made the last tarte tatin. Because that's my one of my stringent criteria for trying new food (right up there with, 'hey, this sounds weird...'). Problem was, my little local grocery store didn't have it, and from the sounds of things it was pretty pricey anyway.

What is it? Crème fraîche is a cultured cream: cream and bacterial culture. It's tangy, but not so much as sour cream. That's really about it. Texture may vary, and the labeling is regulated in Europe and several types acknowledged in France.

Thanks to this video and several articles, I figured tackling it on my own would be no problem. It is as simple as promised. And there's something about making this that feels ancient, homestead-ish, and basically awesome, cooking-wise.

Before: It looks like ...well, cream.
One cup of heavy (whipping) cream and one tablespoon of buttermilk, stirred in a cup. While different sources altered the proportions slightly, there's not much more to it. The trick, though, is in the magic that happens over the time it sits on the counter.

That's right, this all-dairy product sat on my counter. For about two days in the summer. This was my biggest barrier: overcoming years of the "put it in the fridge or it WILL SPOIL and you will GET BOTULISM and NOT THE NICE BOTOX KIND" mentality to give the bacteria in the buttermilk a chance to warm up, hang out, and do their thing. Hooray for fermentation! 

The first day, no noticeable change and it still looked like heavy cream. Over the course of the second day, though, it had thickened into a consistency like a sour cream or Greek yogurt. Instead of spoiling or curdling, it had melded together into something new and delicious.

After: Thickened and ready to use.
To say it tastes like sour cream isn't right. Its texture reminded me of Devonshire cream, smooth and thick, but it had a gentle tang to it (hence the common substitution of sour cream that's often suggested) combined with the sweetness that comes from real, honest-to-goodness cream. I quickly stashed it in the fridge before the first spoonful turned into a second, and a third, and so on. According to my sources, it keeps in the fridge for about 10 days.

As for making subsequent batches, one site suggested using the last bit of the crème fraîche as a starter and adding new cream, to let the flavour mature much like a sourdough starter. Oh, how much I have to learn. Apparrently the taste is even better with raw milk which, until I start raising cows and milking my own, is very hard to come by around here. Thanks, Big Brother! (sarcastic? who, me?)

Now to use this stuff. So far I've seen:
- used to enrich eggs Florentine, from Gordon Ramsay's Fast Food cookbook, will be trying that one soon!
- stirred into hot pasta with herbs for a creamy sauce
- on potatoes instead of the usual sour cream
- sweetened slightly, topping fruit or a tarte tatin
- a dollop stirred into a cream soup
- used to thicken sauces, since it doesn't curdle over heat
- ... and I will have to find more. I'm thinking it will be nice on tea biscuits to nicely contrast the sweetness of jam.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

miscellany: tarte tatin

Tarte tatin is one of those dishes with a legendary history. Several legendary histories, in fact, since the exact one is unknown. The popular story is that two sisters, the Desmoiselles Tatin, had a small restaurant in France in the 1880s, about 100 miles south of Paris. One day, either through forgetfulness or simply being out of time (depending on which version of the story you're hearing) one of the sisters made an apple tart for their guests. She caramelized the apples, then covered the top with pastry, baked the whole thing, and inverted it on the plate to serve it so that the top crust became the base. 

I like it because it's delicious, is pretty easy to make, and the story sounds like something I might have done - rushed for time or realizing something had been forgotten, so improvising on the fly to try to salvage it into something yummy.

It starts simply enough: butter and brown sugar in a skillet. I used equal parts, about 1/2 cup each. Mostly because I only had 1/2 cup of butter left (see what I mean about improvising?). This is heated in an ovenproof skillet until the mixture melts and bubbles.

Then, the apples! Peeled, cored and quartered. all jammed in to be nice and cozy. We used Gala apples. Grannysmiths are nice too. You want an apple that won't melt into oblivion during the cooking process, but hold its shape.

These bubble on low/med heat for 30-45 minutes, until the apples are soft.

Yummy bubbly caramelly goodness.
Pastry! A basic tart pastry, rolled out...
I love this French rolling pin. Took some getting used to but is now my favorite .

... and put over top of the apples, right in the frying pan, the extra edges folded over and tucked in. This is where the "ovenproof" part is vital. Because:

into the oven it goes. To bake for another 30 minutes or so, until the crust is golden.

While this baked, I whipped up cream (excellent arm workout, by the way) to soft peaks and added some vanilla and sugar.

And there it is, baked. Now the tricky part, and the one that always makes me a little tense: flipping it over. Not because I fear a culinary flop. The ingredients are so basic and simple, you can't go wrong there. No, I fear dropping the whole thing into a hot splatter of caramel and apples.

Inverted! And I survived!

And ready to serve. Soft, sweet (not too much so), and warm. Delicious. And that's tarte tatin.

my puppy is crazy

Our creek is the driest I've ever seen it. I walked the length of it today, and one poor desiccated crayfish was the only sign of life (or not) in the bone-dry bed between our ford and the property line. Even in the driest summers, there has always remained a trickle. Not so in this year of drought.

But there was one puddle. And Titus found it. And then...

Silly puppy. What was going through his mind? This, I think:

Image from Know Your Meme

Monday, 30 July 2012

miscellany: rice paper wraps

I make not even the remotest, tiniest claim that I know much about cooking Asian-inspired food. I love to eat it, but I have not researched or practiced it enough. But, I love making rice paper wraps. Easy, delicious and welcomely cool on a hot day, and they even look nice (yes, welcomely is not a word. But it makes sense, doesn't it?). 

They also make it look like I know what I'm doing, which is another plus.

So, everything was assembled: thinly sliced pork (left over from the weekend), badly julienned celery and carrots (because they were the veggies in the crisper drawer) and spinach (because I always try to have some of that on hand), and rice noodles that I cooked, then ran under cold water and tossed with a little oil. 

You also need these: rice paper wraps. They look a little like doilies. And feel like plastic. But they are made from rice and entirely edible - after soaking in water for a couple of minutes, they get soft and ready to use. I blot the wraps as otherwise they don't stick to themselves as they roll, and fall apart.

Everything gets layered. One nice thing is, the wraps are translucent so some of the colour comes through. Pretty!

Then it all rolls up, which can be tricky, but if they're soaked and blotted right they seem to stick to themselves and make a nice tidy roll. I basically put all the filling at the edge of the circle nearest to me, roll forward (away from me) until the filling is just enclosed. Then I fold each side end over the centre to close up the ends. Continue rolling forward to finish it off.

Next step is to try not to eat them all, but dutifully put them in the fridge under plastic wrap til supper time. 

Okay, I ate one. Quality control and all that.

Sliced in half to serve, you can see all the yummyness inside. We like them with a peanut sauce that follows a careful recipe called "what's in the fridge?". This is where having an eccentric pantry comes in handy. This sauce was peanut butter, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, Vietnamese hot pepper sauce. And, I think that's all. Oh, and sesame oil. The proportions of each ingredient were what I remembered worked and how I adjusted it after tasting. In other words, THIS SAUCE WILL NEVER EXIST QUITE THIS WAY AGAIN. Too bad, because it was delicious.

I'm reading As Always, Julia right now - Julia Child's letters to Avis deVoto in the years as she wrote her first cookbook. Now there's a woman who was devoted to precision, testing and retesting, and getting the recipe just right. While I love to follow those recipes, I am not someone who I think could make them. 

Thursday, 14 June 2012

daring kitchen, june

Summer has arrived! When warm weather hits I go a little overboard from the withdrawl of winter and grill just about everything. I was, seriously, wondering if an egg dish could be grilled the other morning. 
The challenge this month brought a break from the grill: making cannelloni. You know, the big pasta tubes stuffed and baked, yeah, those. But homemade. Yay!

Manu from Manu’s Menu was our Daring Cooks lovely June hostess and has challenged us to make traditional Italian cannelloni from scratch! We were taught how to make the pasta, filling, and sauces shared with us from her own and her family’s treasured recipes! 

I decided to make all the pasta at once, so tried two fillings in one meal. It made for a lot of pots on the go, but thanks to sous chef M (our 12-year-old daughter) things went smoothly. One batch had a filling of blanched spinach, ricotta and parmigiano reggiano cheeses. The other was con carne - a meat filling. The fillings were made using the recipes Manu provided, the sauces were made (béchamel for the veggie, tomato for the meat), and the pasta prepared.
Egg volcano!
Family milestone moment: M made the béchamel sauce by herself, stirring the roux and adding the milk and seeing it all thicken. Not quite the same milestone as first steps, but kitchen-wise it was pretty cool :) 

I once saw a person on TV make pasta on the counter. No bowl. I've always liked doing that with the kids around, because they think it's funny, and hey! one less dish to clean. The flour and salt are made into a little mound on the counter, a hollow made in the middle, and the eggs broken into it so that it looks like a sort of volcano. With eggs ... okay, the image does sort of break down there.

Flour working in

Anyway, the eggs are gently fork-whisked, and pull in the flour as they do so. By the time you've pulled in the walls of your bowl, the dough has formed enough that it's not running all over the place. 

The pasta rested before being rolled out by my hand-crank Olympia pasta maker. The sheets were cut to size, boiled quickly (I love, love, love how fast fresh pasta cooks!), then rolled around the fillings, covered with the correct sauce, and baked. 

Test taste: delicious! We liked them both. D said the meat ones were like lasagna rolls, and we all loved the spinach ones, too. A fun thing about these is the chance for variations on the theme. I'm thinking mushrooms with pancetta might be interesting, with a chasseur type sauce. Hmmm... 
After baking - we liked them both!

While many steps were involved, this is really an easy dish to make. The fillings and sauces came together quickly, and the pasta takes time but is straightforward (and so delicious!). M and I chatted and laughed as we rolled the pasta around the filling, and were rewarded with delicious smells as it baked. 

Tonight, though, it's back to the grill with venison and some polenta I made this morning.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

expanding the operation

This year on the farm, we decided to go a bit bigger. No new buildings (well, except a planned pool house for the new pump and filter), no grand land acquisitions. Just, more birds.

The meat chicks have been a great success. We find the meat far better tasting and textured than factory meat, and love knowing exactly where and how the chicken was raised. And it's hard to get more local than our own yard, really. Unless I raised them in the kitchen.

Which isn't happening.

Last year's trial of ducks was another great experiment. As with the chicken, we enjoyed raising them (frankly, they're more fun to raise), and again the meat was wonderful. So this year, we're getting more of the same.

The first group of chicks, 26 versus our usual 16, is now a month old and growing well. I had to expand their outdoor run so that they have plenty of space, but that was just a matter of some plastic fencing and posts that we pounded into the ground. A second batch has been ordered for the end of the month, along with ten ducks, up from last year's five. I'm hoping to squeeze in one more round of chicks before fall as well. 

For two weeks starting at the end of June, there will be over 75 domestic birds on the farm. Here's hoping they don't go all Hitchcock on us.

While ordering the ducks I asked about getting them processed. I take the chickens to a place that takes care of everything (including meat inspection) for $4. Hand them over flapping, get them back as grocery store-style roasters. For $4 each, they are welcome to the mess. We learned last year, though, after having our ducks,that they don't do waterfowl. Oils and pinfeathers mean that they can't pluck them.

So last year, we did them ourselves. Now, that was a learning experience. Turns out, however, that processing ducks runs a person about $15. Per bird. 'Sharpen your knife,' I told D, 'we're doing it again.'

Then we got to laughing when I jokingly suggested that people get friends to help them move; why not have friends to help with the ducks? Have a plucking party, everyone takes home a free duck! D laughed and said, 'now that sounds like a sure way to not have any friends.' Well, he does have a point there.

Also on the animal front, Titus the puppy has arrived at the farm and is rapidly growing and exploring everywhere. I'd forgotten the joy/insanity a puppy can bring. It's like having a very active toddler, that chews shoes. 

Sunday, 27 May 2012

in which we learn the importance of hearing both sides of a conversation

This post, really, has no important bearing on my life. No nifty cooking experiences or recipe ideas. But it is something that happened, years ago, that makes me giggle when I recall it.

It was several years ago. We'd had laying hens for over a year by then, and our good friends were on their first summer with some. JA called me on my cell one evening, concerned. One of their hens had been sluggish for a few days, then turned up dead. JA was concerned that it might have been a sickness that could spread to the others and asked me, did I know how to tell?

In a strange-but-true bit of farm karma, I had a week before received my Hobby Farm magazine with an article on chicken autopsies. I am not making this up; it really did. And, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I had earned my Bachelor of Science in Biology (magna cum laude, thank you very much) and had done dissections. So, the idea wasn't too far-fetched.

So after she asked me, I replied that I could help. "When did she die? Okay, can you put her in a fridge somewhere, in a bag? Then you can bring her over and I can have a look."

At this point I realized that the woman to my left at the kids' soccer game was hearing my side of the conversation and had been looking more and more askance at me as the phone call went on. Oops.

(side note: the autopsy showed that the chicken had eaten a nail and that had gotten infected. And I felt pretty good for having solved that, really.)

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

daring kitchen, may

This month we were back to French food with something I've wanted to make since seeing Julie & Julia, boeuf bourguignon. Slow cooking at its finest? I was about to find out if that beatific expression the editor has on her face once tasting it was legitimate.
Our May 2012 Daring Cooks’ hostess was Fabi of fabsfood. Fabi challenged us to make Boeuf Bourguignon, a classic French stew originating from the Burgundy region of France.
This recipe is, to my mind, so tied up with Julia Child (mostly thanks to the movie) that I spent a half-hour one morning watching the series premiere episode of Child's "The French Chef" in which she makes the dish. It was a half-hour well spent. She'd never make it as a cooking show host today - which is a shame, really. She was so basic, and kind of quirky but in a good way. Little tips that she tossed in about drying the beef, how to tell when the butter was hot enough so the mushrooms would cook properly, how to make the beurre manié (equal parts butter and flour mashed together then stirred in to thicken and nicely finish the sauce), were all helpful. I enjoyed it enough to watch two more episodes after (potatoes, in which she flips them and half ends up on the stove, and another in which she can't find the flour part way through). Gotta love 1963 television.

But back to the bourguignon.

To start with: beef. Not just any cut, but the cheap ones (yay!). This saving would, however, be countered somewhat by using almost an entire bottle of a nice pinot noir. At its root, though, this is slow cooking and so the connnective tissue that would make the cheap cut comparable to munching on a shoe if I grilled it ends up melting away into tender, flavorful meat. 

The dish actually starts with blanching bacon, which seemed a bit of sacrilege, but I dutifully simmered it in water. The beef, dried with paper towels so it would sear properly, was browned in oil, then removed to wait with the bacon until the carrot and onion had a chance to cook. The meat went back into the pot, had salt, pepper and flour added, then tossed before going into the oven to let things get a bit of a crust on it (a step well worth its time), and then the wine, beef stock, garlic, bay leaf, cloves,and tomato paste were all added. Then - the sweet part of this, besides the eating: into the oven for 4 hours. I love being done the bulk of supper prep around noon.

Meanwhile, closer to time for that lovely-smelling concoction to be done, pearl onions were braised and mushrooms sautéed in butter. Side note: this is not fair. I really, really, truly cannot resist mushrooms sautéed in butter. I wanted to eat them all.

The meat being spoon-cuttably soft, the liquid was strained and reduced before going back into the pot, this time with the mushrooms and onions. And, there it was: my first boeuf bourguignon. 

So, so good. Hearty, complex, but with a kind of simple feeling. Really, it's such basic, ancestral-type food. Beef. Bacon. Onion. Wine. All coming together. This will be made again.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

daring kitchen, april

This month's challenge was one reminiscent of the Food Network show 'Chopped', in which contestants open a basket full of mandatory ingredients and then must wow the judges with their dish. So instead of a cuisine type or a new technique, this month we had to do just that - make something from what was provided. At least there was no voice saying "twenty minutes on the clock!" 
Our April 2012 Daring Cooks hosts were David & Karen from Twenty-Fingered Cooking. They presented us with a very daring and unique challenge of forming our own recipes by using a set list of ingredients!
The recipe had to be created using one item from each of three lists:
  • parsnips, eggplant (aubergine), cauliflower (the "vegetable" list)
  • balsamic vinegar, goat cheese, chipoltle peppers (the "strong flavour" list)
  • maple syrup, coffee, bananas (the "weird" list)
I lobbied with my family for a few days suggesting eggplant, but to no avail. Even my brave taste testers were not keen on that, much as I plied them with descriptions of ratatouille and said that I was sure we could find out something good. In the end, I caved and went for the cauliflower. The goat cheese's tang got me thinking it'd be great with the sweet maple syrup, so those were my other choices.

The cauliflower was steamed in some beef stock left over from my Saucy project (see the other blog entries here), then a Mornay sauce added over top before baking for a bit of a gratin. I do like cauliflower, and the cheesy sauce was a nice addition to it.

The maple syrup came from a friend's brother's operation in Québec, a lovely medium syrup. I figured this would match well with venison, so out of the freezer came some boneless venison loin chops from D's hunt in the fall. This meat is beautiful, lean and dark - and given that D hunts it on our land, it's about as local as it comes. The venison was seared, then finished to medium-rare in the oven while I made sauce.

The sauce was simple, but the ingredients definitely made it: I started with some duck demi-glace I had made before (yay for crazy things like that in my freezer!), then added the maple syrup. The flavours blended well, but it needed to be brightened so I used the acid of balsamic vinegar for that. A little reduction, and it was ready to go. The chops were topped with a slice of goat cheese, and then the sauce. 

All the testers agreed it was good, but they still didn't trust me with eggplant. Maybe next time. Thanks for another great challenge!

Monday, 9 April 2012

saucy: a culinary project, take 2

This week the sauces were for beef. Three more down in one meal. The recipes for these came from the Sauces book, which is fast becoming a little treasure on my shelf. I love that the index has the standard listing, as well as a second index with sauces arranged under what to serve them with. Having duck? Here are the ones to have with it. Love it.

1. Sauce Albert (Velouté)
This is actually of British origin, and named after Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert. Royalty, even! It's quite simple to make and tasty with beef. Technically it's an English bread sauce, or sauce bâtarde, as the thickening comes not from a roux but from simmering bread crumbs in the mixture.

This sauce started with chicken stock and horseradish, which reduced before cream was added. After more reduction, it was put in a blender and processed for a minute before straining through a sieve. It returned to the pan and bread cubes (baguette) were added. After simmering for ten minutes, an egg yolk and mustard powder were whisked in until it had, and I quote from the recipe, "the consistency of oatmeal". May not sound appetizing, but it was delicious.

It was a nice change from a straight dollop of horseradish on beef. While I like the taste of that, it's very strong. Sauce Albert has a more mellow, complex taste. It was wonderful on the beef tenderloin, and would make a great topping for a gourmet burger. 

2. Béarnaise (mayonnaise derivative)
Okay, emulsion sauces. This was a new category. I've made one of these before when I made hollandaise, so the technique was not entirely new. Béarnaise dates to the 1830s, made and named in honour of King Henri VI. Good with beef, or, according to the Sauce Bible, always served with châteaubriand. Which I have no idea how to make.

Starting with wine vinegar, shallot, and tarragon (which smells an awful lot like black licorice. Interesting!) which simmered and reduced before being cooled, egg yolks and water were added before whisking continuously while the mixture heated slowly in the pan. It's fun to see the sauce emulsify and thicken while you cook, just like the recipe says (okay, 'fun' might be strong. But I liked it). This took about 10 minutes.

To finish the sauce, clarified butter was added. I'd prepared this earlier, basically melting butter before carefully pouring off the olive-oil-coloured clear liquid and leaving all the other stuff (what is that, exactly?) behind. The butter was gradually whisked into the sauce to make a mayonnaise-textured, pale yellow sauce. A little lemon juice to finish it off, and there it was. 

Delicious, and maybe even worth learning how to make châteaubriand to have it again with that.

3. Bordelaise (demi-glace derivative)
Bordelaise literally means "Bordeaux style", reflecting the use of the Bordeaux wines in it. While there are plenty of red wine based sauces, the defining ingredient in a Bordelaise is beef marrow. That squishy stuff inside the soup bones is full of deep, rich flavour.

It started with shallot, peppercorns, and a Bordeaux red wine. This was reduced, beef stock (made the other day!) was added along with a bouquet garni, and simmered some more before being strained. Those sieves have never seen so much action.

I'd bought big soup bones and had managed to chip the marrow out out of them with a paring knife before learning a nifty trick that purports to let you easily pop it out of the bones. Oops, lesson learned for next time. The marrow had soaked for hours, then was blanched and then added to the sauce in progress. Some butter was added in, and the sauce was done.

While the idea of eating the marrow had me intrigued and maybe a little squeamish, the sauce had an amazing flavour. These sauces take time to make, but the end result shows the time. Savoury and delicious.

We had all three at a family dinner. While the girls and I liked each sauce, D was mostly 'meh' on them (for him, really, the best accompaniment to meat is: more meat). He prefers the straight taste of good beef cooked well, and I definitely can't fault him on that. 

And now I'm curious to try more recipes with marrow. Eating marrow was always something I associated with the primeval, as evidence in prehistoric digs that the people had had tools to split bones and extract it. Might be worth checking out. It seems that doing these sauces has me adding as many things to my Oh-This-Would-Be-Cool-To-Try list as I am finishing on it.

saucy: a culinary project, take 1.5

This was a single-sauce meal (imagine that!), one I've made before in different versions. With Parmesan and garlic on pasta, with mozzarella on lasagna, with cheddar for good old-fashioned mac & cheese.

Mornay Sauce (Béchamel)
A traditional Mornay uses Gruyère and Parmesan and dates back to the 1800s in restaurant use. It may possibly go back to even the early 1600s - named after the duc de Mornay, though then it would have been based on a velouté rather than a béchamel as béchamel had not yet been invented. Hmm, the things you learn. 

Of course given the different tastes of cheeses, this sauce has a huge range of uses. For this use, I made croque-monsieur sandwiches, which I'd never had. And I found that I had been missing out.

Beginning with a roux (mine cooked into the blond stage), milk was added and the sauce thickened. Shredded swiss cheese and a bit of salt and pepper finished it off. Done!

Sandwiches: also simple. Bread plus sliced black forest ham, buttered and grilled. Then the Mornay sauce was added to the top, a little more cheese for good measure, and under the broiler. They were quick to make but made for a perfect lunch with a salad. Delicious! 

These, I decided, are what grilled cheese sandwiches dream of growing up to become.