Archive for March, 2008

31
Mar
08

My French Canadian Food Experience

Being Canadian, my first real experience with French food had nothing to do with France. I’ve never been to Paris, and unlike many other food writers, have no tales of eating Oysters straight from the sea, or standing in lines at posh bakeries.

My first sampling of what I consider really great French food came rather unexpectedly on my first night in Quebec City.

I was 18 years old, and had just taken my very first trip by train. It had been a 12hr ordeal involving a transfer in Toronto and Montreal. It was February, and I realized just how different French and English speaking Canada were when I switched trains in Montreal. The station was crammed full of fur coats and cigarettes. Both have been all but abolished in Ontario’s public spaces.

When I finally got to Quebec City, it was well after dark, and I was able to see very little of the city as I rolled into the station. I had a long wait at the “Gare du Palais” because my ride was expecting me to come by bus for some reason.

After a snow-silent trek into the city’s suburbs (Ancienne Lorette), I was ushered into an upstairs apartment and introduced to my host with a kiss-kiss to the cheeks. I’m convinced Quebecers do this to shock and embarrass Ontarians, whom they tend to consider stuck-up and puritanical.

Inside I was treated to what I still consider my benchmark of French comfort food. Hot bowls of onion soup sat at each place around the table. Warm French bread was sliced and spread on a platter, and different pates and spreads had been placed haphazardly around the table. The lights were dimmed, candles were lit, and conversations were carried out in a broken French/ English hybrid. This is the moment I fell in love with French food.

I’ve travelled many times since to Quebec City, Montreal, and once even managed to make it as far east as Rivierre-du-Loups. During each trip I’ve managed to improve my French, make friends, and have new experiences with food.

While still a starving student with very little money, I had my first escargots in the beautiful dining room at the Chateau Frontenac. We filled up on bread and left a pretty lousy tip, but felt like we were among the nouveau riche as we left.

That same trip I was introduced to “Fruits de mer”, a mixed seafood dish presented in a dinner plate sized sea shell.

The thing I love most about Quebec is that the best food turns up in the most unlikely places. I had the very best poutine I’ve ever tasted in a bus station, while sitting on my luggage waiting for a bus. For anyone who doesn’t know what poutine is, or has only had a cheap imitation, real poutine is made using fresh cut french-fries, cheese curds, and beef gravy. I think the key is that the cheese can’t be of the processed variety, and the fries and gravy have to be piping hot. Quebec has some of the best cheese producers in North America.

Montreal has it’s own food culture.

Based heavily on both French and Jewish traditions, Montreal is the best place in Canada to get smoked meat sandwiches and bagels. It is also a good place to explore the more cutting edge modern French Canadian cuisine.

Je me souviens

30
Mar
08

How gas prices affect World Hunger

Gas prices are on the rise. We see it everyday on our way to and from work, in the news, and on t.v. Most of us complain about how much it costs us at the pumps, but is that really where it ends?

Farmers and truck drivers use the same fuel to power the machines that get food on your table, and bio-fuels are made from the the same fields that formerly produced much of the world’s food supply.

From 2006 to 2007 grains went up 42 percent, oils 50 percent and dairy 80 percent. The effect?

“Rice farmers here (Thailand) are staying awake in shifts at night to guard their fields from thieves. In Peru, shortages of wheat flour are prompting the military to make bread with potato flour, a native crop. In Egypt, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso food riots have broken out in the past week.”Associated Press Published on Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Although I found the following link interesting, it’s a little dated: http://www.fixingtheplanet.com/one-weeks-worth-food-around-our-planet . I really have to wonder what the same study would show today.

 

 

With the world as connected as it is in modern times, I don’t think we can, or should, just sit back and ignore what’s going on in other places. We need to pay attention, and do whatever we can to fix things.

Here’s an easy place to start: http://www.freerice.com/index.php – play a word game to feed the hungry. Sponsored by the UN World Food Program.

Another good site about world hunger can be found here: http://www.worldhunger.org/ 

My passion for food stems from a passion for feeding people. The world hunger situation is something I can’t ignore. All people deserve nourishment.

24
Mar
08

The Kingdom of Morocco

In my last year or two of high school, I seriously considered moving to Morocco as a post-secondary option. I wanted to see the world, and I could think of no place more foreign to a farm kid from Canada, than the north-west coast of Africa. I got books out of the library, studied maps, day-dreamed away entire math classes (I didn’t do so well in math). Something about the country had me hooked.

The summer after high school, while working in tobacco, I befriended an Irishman named John. He had been to most of the countries in Europe, as well as Morocco. It was John who first warned me about the dangers of traveling in North Africa for a naive, blond haired North American. I would stand out like a sore thumb, and be an easy target for thieves. He painted a picture of a much more real and menacing but equally exotic location as the one I had been reading about. I decided to hold off on my Moroccan trek.

Life has a funny way of happening to you when you aren’t paying attention. In my last year of college I was approached by a company who wanted to send me to Morocco for two years. I had a diploma in outdoor adventure and could speak french and English, and they were looking for someone to lead convoys over the Atlas Mountains, to the Berbers in the Sahara. I was thrilled at the prospect, but the deal eventually fell through. To make a long story short, their expectations and my own weren’t exactly compatible.

To this day the Kingdom of Morocco haunts me. The Phoenicians, Romans, Christians and Muslims have each had a turn at ruling, and in spite of a very close proximity to Europe, and ties to the Middle East, the country is still very much African. French, Spanish, and Arabic can be heard on the streets, and this blending of histories and cultures is strongly reflected in the cuisine.

Moroccan cooking relies heavily on saffron, mint, olives, oranges and lemons. Green tea with mint and sugar is a common drink. Chicken, beef and lamb are the most popular meats, and couscous and tajine are the dishes most commonly associated with Morocco.

Berber Spice Paste

This is great to have on hand to make almost anything, from chicken and beef, to fish and vegetables, more flavourful and aromatic. A little goes a long way.

2tsp cracked black pepper,

1tsp coriander seeds,

1tsp cardamom seeds,

1 (1 inch) cinnamon stick,

4 allspice berries,

3 whole cloves,

1 small onion, cut into pieces,

2 cloves chopped garlic,

1 (1 inch) piece of fresh ginger, sliced,

1/3 cup paprika,

1tbsp sea salt,

1-2 tsp red pepper flakes,

1/2 cup olive oil,

3tbsp fresh lemon juice.

Add all the spices to a dry skillet over medium heat, and stir occasionally until toasted (approx. 3 min). Allow spices to cool, then grind into a powder.

place onion, garlic and ginger in a food processor. Finely chop. Add spices and remaining ingredients and blend to a fine paste. Use immediately, or keep covered and refrigerated for up to several weeks.

24
Mar
08

The Ten Commandments of a Chef

1. Thou shall not work with dull knives.

Every kitchen I’ve worked in has had a large knife rack. The only kitchen I’ve ever worked in that didn’t make keeping those knives sharp a priority, I didn’t stay at for very long. In my opinion, if you use a tool all day, every day, you should keep it in top working condition. Hone that edge.

2. Though shall not work sloppy.

Keep your work area clean and well organized. If your space is sloppy, so is your mind. This goes for counter space, as well as the fridge and floor around you. If you don’t work clean, you also don’t work safe, and may injure yourself or others in the kitchen.

3. Honour thy master

Make sure you work only for the best people. If you work for the best, then do what you are told. Learn from their years of experience. Listen to what they have to tell you. Stand on the shoulders of giants. There is usually only room enough for one ego in the kitchen, therefore if you are there to learn, respect your superiors. Although I have moved on and worked at several other kitchens, I still have great respect for my first master, who helped me build a strong foundation from which I was able to build my career.

4. Thou shall not waste.

Use everything. Use all parts of the animal. Have a recipe that calls for only egg whites? Use the yolks for something else, like creme brulee. Leftover cake or bread? Dry it out and grind it up. Use the resulting filler in place of a little flour in a recipe that needs just a little dryness. All of the world’s great cuisines have many examples of economical uses for the whole product. Use everything.

5. Honour thy classics.

No matter what your culinary background, honour the classics of that cuisine. The classics are the building blocks you should use to perfect your technique. Once your technique has been perfected, then you can start to modify and create.

6. Write it down.

Each kitchen I’ve worked at has had a seperate set of recipes they work from. When you learn a recipe write it down so you don’t forget how you did it years down the road. Also, When you try something new, and it works for you, write it down so you’ll remember what made that recipe work.

7. Thou shall not ignore the world of food.

It can be tempting to put on blinders when learning a specific cuisine, but don’t block out other areas of food just because it doesn’t fit what you are learning right now. A pastry chef who learns charcutterie (meat) will be able to produce superior savoury pastry. A French Chef who studies the flavours of Asia will be able to use them to tweek the classics of his cuisine and create something new and unique.

8. Honour thy tastebuds.

I don’t trust a cook who doesn’t taste his own cooking. Only by tasting can you guarantee the best results everytime. Learn to season things properly. If it doesn’t taste right, don’t send it out to the customer.

9. Honour the fire

I have already written a post about the use of fire in cooking. Master the use of fire, and respect the properties of heat. This is what transforms quality ingredients into amazing meals.

10. Thou shall not ignore criticism.

Criticism, as long as it’s constructive, can be a great creative force. A lot of ego and emotion goes into cooking, so it’s easy to get angry at a critique, but if you are able to learn from it and use that knowledge the next time around, you be sure to get good results. Back in commandment one I mentioned the kitchen with dull knives. The head chef there was very insecure, and wouldn’t accept input from customers or co-workers. He would just get angry. This attitude doesn’t solve anything. It creates an environment of hostility and indifference in the kitchen. If you ever find yourself working in such a place, get out. It makes it impossible to follow commandment #3 if you don’t.

23
Mar
08

Elements of Cooking: Fire

The chemistry behind cooking and baking happens while following a recipe. Most of the chemical reactions that take place between ingredients happens during the initial mixing and blending together of those ingredients. The biggest difference I found between a pastry kitchen, and a restaurant kitchen is how fire is incorporated and utilised in the process of producing the finished result.

Fire in a pastry kitchen is utilised in two ways. The first, and likely the most obvious, is through baking.

Ingredients are mixed together, allowed to react to each other, shaped, and nearly finished before they are put in the oven to bake. The use of fire in this instance may or may not be direct, depending on the type of heat source being used. People traditionally think of baking as happening in an oven, however there are some instances where dough or batter is baked over direct heat. Many flat-breads are baked on a metal dome over an open fire, and pancakes, crepes, and waffles are poured into a pan or griddle over a heat source.

One of my favorite bread related memories happened on a three week canoe trip on the Buffalo River in Arkansas. We made bannock, a traditional Native American bread. We stuck the raw dough on the end of sticks, and baked it over the open flames of the bonfire. The finished result, when spread with homemade strawberry jam, was phenomenal. A raccoon even tried to get in on the action and scared the daylights out of my friend Jere.

The other type of heat generally employed in the pastry kitchen is direct heat in the form of boiling. Whether this takes the form of boiling sugar for confectionery work, boiling fruit for a puree, or boiling water for a bain marie, doesn’t really matter, since it’s the same general idea. Often boiling and baking can occur together in the same recipe, as in the case of a pie, where the filling is prepared by boiling ingredients together, and the crust is baked. 

Fire in the restaurant kitchen, on the other hand, is the nearly alchemical process by which a cook takes a single ingredient and transforms it into something different.

Roasting, braising, sauteing, poaching, grilling, broiling, sous vide, frying, steaming, all have their own unique purpose in the cook’s repertoire. Where a pastry chef follows an exact recipe to bring about a desired reaction, chefs use an exact cooking technique.

Through the application of fire, a cook is able to extract and reabsorb juices. They are able to reduce a liquid and caramelize an ingredient. Using these techniques allows them to concentrate flavours and reintegrate them back into the food.

How well you are able to heat, concentrate, and reintegrate through the use of fire will determing how good you are at cooking.

22
Mar
08

The Food Revolution in Eastern Europe

Prague, Czech Republic

 Tourism and consumerism are revolutionising eastern europe’s culinary outlook. Gone are the days of centralized, government controlled industrial bakeries. Many of the old traditional ways to prepare food are being brought back, re-examined, and transformed into gourmet culinary delights.

As with most great cuisines, eastern europe has a long history of rustic, rural food that is based on using whatever seasonal ingredients are available locally. Recent years have seen an explosion of high end restaurants, cooking schools, culinary competitions, and food festivals.

 In Prague, a solid and independent Czech restaurant guide and an annual Czech food festival have brought about an increasing awareness of the quality of food available in the city. In the past, good food was only to be found in the home. Now there is an increasing intrest in good food by the locals.

There is now a magazine devoted to food and drink in Croatia, where people are becoming increasingly inclined to spend money on good food. Slovenian vintners are winning medals at international wine competitions, and Hungarian and Bulgarian winemakers are also begining to be taken seriously.

Across the former Soviet Union,  Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan have long served up outstanding Turkish-style food. Moscow has been importing Chefs from France and Switzerland to work in the city’s numerous restaurants.

Hungarian National Anthem

In Budapest there is a cable TV station, TV Paprika, celebrating the food culture of central Europe, and a website, chew.hu, about Hungarian cuisine.

It’s only a matter of time before the culinary traditions and modern trends of the east spread to other parts of the world, where much of the culture has been kept alive and passed down through the families of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

21
Mar
08

The Chocolate Cake Sutra

I said to my soul be still,

and wait without hope

wait without thought…

so the darkness shall be the light,

and the stillness the dancing. 

-T.S. Eliot

I’ve been reading through a book called “The Chocolate Cake Sutra” by Geri Larkin. I’m enjoying it so far, and although it’s not really a food book, it does have a recipe for chocolate cake on the last page, along with the following tips:

You’ll have to wait for the cake to cool to frost it. Good luck. I’ve never been able to wait that long.

This cake is best eaten immediately with three friends…

Any cake eaten in pure awareness – without the distractions of a cell phone, computer, television, or conversation – is a perfect chocolate cake. This includes cakes that have been in your freezer since last February. I know this.

After reading a bit of the book, as well as those tips, I got thinking about how much we miss out on in our modern world, when we don’t take the time to slow down, share life with those around us, and enjoy what we have. 

Most of my favorite food related memories have less to do with the actual food, and more to do with who was with me and where we were. I remember the first meal I cooked for my wife. At the time she didn’t like fish, so she doused her fish in lemon juice until it was inedible. We still get a good laugh about it to this day. Was the fish good? Doesn’t really matter. The memories are great.