Posts Tagged ‘bread

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

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.

26
Feb
08

Leaveners, a baker’s secret weapon

One of the most important and misunderstood concepts of baking is the ability to take a dough (which can be as simple as flour and water), and make it rise. This is done by a process known as leavening. The main purpose of leavening is to build the structure of the baked good. In other words, without a leavener of some sort, your baking will be very limited.

There are three basic categories of leaveners – organic, chemical, and physical.

Organic:

I include all varieties of yeast in this category. Yeast is a tiny living organism that must be alive to do it’s job (hence the reason I use the term organic). It is very important to keep this in mind as you work with yeast. When learning how to work with yeast doughs, my mentor told me “treat it like you would treat a girlfriend, handle it gently, don’t slap it around. Keep it warm and well fed.” Although I’m not sure this is the key to a good relationship, it certainly works for yeast.

Yeast requires moisture, takes in sugars, reproduces, and gives off carbon dioxide. It is this process, when the conditions are just right, that makes breads rise. The ideal temperature for raising yeast is between 60 and 90F. Keeping the yeast cool is a process known as retardation. It won’t harm the yeast, but it will give you time to make your baking schedule a little more flexible. Using this process to your advantage, it’s possible to store dough overnight in a fridge without worring about it growing too rapidly. Yeast is destroyed when baked over at temperatures over 200F.

Chemical:

This category includes baking soda and baking powder. They rapidly rise a baked good when combined with moisture and heat. Baking soda also needs an acid. The chemical reactions that take place in the baked good produce gasses, which in turn make bubbles. Think back to grade school science fairs. There was always at least one baking soda and vinegar “volcano”. That’s exactly what goes on in your baking.

Physical:

This category includes steam and air. Steam is released when moisture in a batter, supplied by butter, eggs, or another liquid gets heated. The steam forms air pockets and allows the baking to rise. Good examples of this are evident in choux pastry (for eclairs and cream puffs), and puff pastry. Air is also used as a leavener through creaming butter or whipping egg whites and carefully folding them into a batter. The air bubles get trapped and dried out as the product bakes in the oven. A good example of this would be a souffle.

http://straightfromthefarm.wordpress.com/2008/02/21/yeast-primer/ has some informative information on yeast.