Mussels: camouflaging flavour with all that ugly.

Posted in Cooking with tags , , on March 26, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

A couple nights back I attempted to cook something I had never even thought of  attempting before; mussels. I’ve had them in restaurants on a couple occasions, and at other people’s houses, but had never thought of them as something I’d pursue to gorge myself on (regular readers will recall them being casually mentioned as a food I initially disliked, and grew to tolerate/enjoy to a degree).  Apparently, my stomach thought otherwise, and began sending signals to my brain, demanding mussels for sustenance.

Now, I generally try and accommodate myself when it comes to food cravings (usually just involving peanut butter or something salty, so this was somewhat more esoteric than usual), so I started going through various and sundry cookbooks to look for recipes for steamed mussels. While I came across a ton of variations (especially within Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything-a fantastic cookbook that stresses variety and simple experimentation within cooking), I was somewhat taken aback at how simple the cooking process appeared to be; I may have been branching out in terms of what kind of food I was attempting to make, but any functionally limited mule can steam some bivalves in some flavouring until their shells open.

So, with ingredients firmly in mind, the grocery store was clearly the destination to visit (well, the Saint Lawrence Market would’ve been a better choice, but I’m not likely to travel downtown and back for ingredients at the best of times, and this was long after the market would be closed. I’m sure the Danforth also possesses some killer places for fresh seafood, but I don’t know of those vendors). Getting there, I realized I hadn’t really thought of a side-dish, and began puttering around the store in some sort of blind stumble (blind panic, blind rage? Dunno, I was anything but thrilled, as I hate dumping all my effort into a single portion of a meal. I’m known to over-extend myself a lot of the time, trying to accommodate more dishes than my skills and experience allow for),  desperately wracking my brain for something vegetable oriented (starch was already covered-there would be baguette to sop up the liquid with, so pasta or rice were both no-gos).

Still grumbling about my lack of fore-sight for side-dish planning , I continued my putter over to the seafood section, and found the only mussels available came vacuum packed in 2lb bags. Not really considering why, I decided I needed two bags to feed the two of us. When back home, I realized the tremendous error of this-that’s a hell of a lot of mussels.

While I began cutting up vegetables for the salad (I acquiesced to Jess and settled for making this on the side), I had Jess cull the cracked and open mussels (a surprisingly large number. More shocking was the amount of good ones left over; Finding a bowl large enough to rinse them was initially daunting, but at least our stock pot was more than large enough to accomplish the herculean feat of containing them), and then I shooed her out of the kitchen so I could cook (I go all Marco Pierre White, and generally prefer that if I’m in charge of doing that meal, once all the sous-chefery is done, I like to work alone. I may listen to some music, generally metal, but otherwise, I just prefer quiet to help me focus).

For the mussels, I decided to do something simple for my first time, and decided to do a white wine cream sauce with shallots. It turned out to be quite effective and simple-for once, I felt the flavouring was successful in enhancing the natural characteristics of the food, rather than burying it. The mussels were cooked perfectly. My only real gripe was that even though I had balanced the flavours well, there was just enough extra white wine to thin the cream sauce a bit too much, but that’s easily remedied if I make this again.

mmmm, steamy

The salad had me attempt to make a vinaigrette for it (yes, the salad was clearly sentient, just go with it), so along with some balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, I added in some white wine, basil, and parsley, hoping they’d pair nicely with the mussels. With some shallots and a few hours to absorb some of the flavours, it may have turned out pretty nicely, but as it stands, it was light on flavour and fairly unfulfilling.

Served with the same white wine used in the cooking and salading process, it was a nice, simple meal. I must admit, the tremendous mountain of mussels soon proved off putting though; after a pound or so of them, they were beginning to cool, and if you actually look at the damn things, they’re ridiculously revolting. Texturally, they’re pleasant, and taste nothing like you’d expect, but they’re not about to win any beauty pageants. I eventually decided I’d had my fill, before my stomach decided the same. I then had salad, and lots of baguette to sop up the wonderful mussel soup.

I’ll probably attempt another [smaller] batch of mussels at some point, but I feel my craving has been satiated for a good while.

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There can NEVER be too much peanut butter.

Posted in Baking with tags , , , , on March 21, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Yeah, those cookies I mentioned? Made ’em Monday night. It’s now Saturday (well, late Friday night…). Let’s just chalk up the lack of posting to me coming down with a case of God of War III (protip: It’s damn entertaining).

So, I’ve always been well-aware that the actual process of baking is far more about perfecting your craft than being artistic about it-recipe tweaks are fine, but once you’re comitted to baking something, follow your instructions closely, and your product will turn out well (barring crappy ovens, unforseen circumstances etc). Conceptually, really easy to grasp, in practice (for me), not so much.

A while back, Jess made cookies from the same recipe she handed me, and while they were good, they weren’t PEANUT BUTTER cookies (though apparently this recipe was meant to emulate good ol’ fashioned peanut butter cookies, but have a more subtle flavour, and emulate traditional drop cookies or somesuch-would’ve been helpful to know this before embarking on the journey). Sure, there was an element of the flavour that was peanut buttery, but it was kind of timid and probably would’ve flinched if you noticed it.

Peanut Butter is one of my favourite sweets in this world, be it in cookies, pared with chocolate, or eaten a la carte (gross, I know). That in mind, I decided I needed some cookies that really showcased this. With recipe in hand (dutifully scaled down by jess-baking school recipes seem to expect that I’m providing for a bakery or something, pfft), I began carefully electronically scaling ingredients with utter precision, down to the gram. I was utterly convinced this would be my shining hour as an amateur baker, producing top notch cookies I could happily charge for.

I began the mixing process (made easier by a KitchenAid stand mixer-it’s seriously helpful, albeit noisy. If they come knocking, I’ll happily shill for them), and preheated the oven. Things were going well. Batter mixed, I decided it was time for a taste test…and remembered my previous complaints about the lack of peanut butter in the cookies. Cursing under my breath, I did the only logical thing-add more peanut butter. A lot more peanut butter. Peanut butter to such a degree, that I probably tripled the initial amount, completely throwing the recipe out of wack. That said, it now tasted very peanut buttery, so I was content.

I then began the process of creating little balls of peanut butter, and depositing them on a baking sheet. I noticed how pliable and squishy they were, and was concerned, but was more focused on potential Future Cookies than anything as immediate as the consistency of my product. I also forgot to flatten them with a fork.

In minutes, I was aghast to discover that my cookies were beginning to resemble the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and with alarming alacrity, grabbed a discloth, got the things out of the oven and flattened them down somewhat (though they seemed to deflate-highly disconcerting). They also were starting to get really big. And taking a long time to bake, much longer than recipes usually call for. I noticed them browning, and gave up and took them out.

Not the most glorious batch of cookies ever, but they fulfilled the whole PEANUT BUTTER aspect pretty well. The bottoms were slightly crisp, and would’ve been burnt within another minute or so. Once cooled, the consistency was decent, albeit slightly overdone; I was concerned due to their spread, so I let them overbake.

This was mainly meant to be a test batch, though, as I’m intending to make some tweaks to it (and it shall also partially feature into a challenge I’m gearing towards-doing a blind taste test of various baked goods baked with regular all-purpose flour, and King Arthur flour that my aunt got me as a gift/souvenir from the states-Practically every book related to cooking that I have invariably mentions it as the defacto flour). If I meet with some success the next time I hit the baking battlefield, I’ll probably do a follow up to this-I’d like to leave you with more than a single photo of some large, malformed cookies.

This sends me in hunt of a more appropriate recipe though, as I clearly am wanting something as peanut buttery as possible, with a nice crumb, and an affinity for 2% milk-not too soft and crumbly, not too crisp. Now, I clearly have to Jeffrey Steingarten this project, and test out dozens of recipes, and try and come up with my own recipe that is a culmination of other good ones. Or something.

MEAT. POTATOES. EAT.

Posted in Cooking with tags , , , , on March 14, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Haven’t posted in a while, sorry. I wasn’t feeling up to snuff that last week or so, and have only just begun eating meals again; it would’ve been fraudulent to have expounded about food while consuming none. BUT NOW, I return, and I bring with me more tales of high adventure in the culinary world. Today, I actually cooked! Now, that seems like a dismally low bar to aim for, but hey, it’s been a while.

WHAT DID I COOK ?

Well, except when a recipe on TV catches my eye (or I’m baking), nothing is pre-ordained. No, I don’t have the ability to instantly waltz into a grocery store or market, and bang out a whole meal on the spot, but I do like to see what’s available before committing to any sort of dish. This can be a detriment, as I may forget an ingredient or two vital to a recipe (especially when it’s a single dish with various spices and herbs, I’ll definitely forget something), but it’s never been crippling.  Sure, it may not be as originally intended, or as fully developed a flavour, but it’s pretty damn hard to make something inedible (I have a couple stories of those failures, but I’m in no rush to share them) if you’re applying basic cooking principles.  Hell, even tonight’s food wasn’t spectacular, but it certainly felt good to get back in the kitchen to do something beyond visit the fridge.

So, wandering the local Sobey’s, we picked up the various essentials one can expect (various veg, bread, cheese et al), but turned an eye towards thrift- all sorts of pork and beef products were on special, and what the hell, we wound up getting some decent steaks, among other things (eh, some pork ribs and sausages, if I recall). In our cart, we already had potatoes, so why not…wait for it…STEAK AND MASHED POTATOES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yeah, fantastically original, I know. Give a guy a break-it was late at night, I was in a pissy mood, and I wasn’t exactly giddy with inspiration. But, don’t fear! I now had a plan, and the means to execute it (also, surprised Jess didn’t say anything, but I’m sure she was probably hoping I would’ve dropped in some sort of veg side, since the starch and protein is kind of off the charts).

Steaks first-

Well, nothing especially exciting. I tenderized them first (couldn’t find a meat tenderizer, used an old ice cream scoop-sorry jess), then did a basic pepper and salt rub. (sorry for photo quality-taken quickly with my iPhone, which lacks a zoom or flash. And yes, that is my thumb in one of the photos >_<)

After that, into the pan with some grapeseed oil on medium-high for a minute and a half or so on each side

and then into the oven (400f, I believe, may have been 425f), for 10 minutes. The sheet is from our toaster oven, but I’m not really sure what the thing I put on it is-some sort of rack that happened to have holes in it.

The potatoes were really easy, but I still managed to over-boil them due to not watching the clock/getting distracted.Skin on, as I like mashed potatoes with them, and Jess thought the red skins would be an added visual bonus.

There is smoke coming from under the heating element. Something had previously fallen underneath, and now it was getting its own viking funeral.

Added in some basil, salt, pepper and butter, and they were done.

The final product.

Yep.Kind of frightening that the meat and potatoes are nearly identical in size and shape, but plating has never really been one of my strong suits. I also would like more interesting plates.
How did it taste?  The steak was cooked well (slightly closer to medium than medium-rare, but I wouldn’t have sent it back), but was way over-peppered and under-salted. This hampered the natural flavours of the steak, which weren’t anemic, but certainly could’ve used something a little subtler to enhance, rather than mask them. It certainly wasn’t as good as a similar-quality steak I had at a pub a few nights previously, but with a bit of work, I believe I can produce something of a much-higher quality (up to a certain point. the quality of ingredients is probably the biggest limiter, with frugal spending taking priority).

The mashed potatoes were actually pretty good, but texturally a little sticky (less boiling, next time). The basil probably needed to be in higher proportion, and more pepper might’ve added more bite and edge to compete with the rounder, sweeter flavours of the butter and milk. Garlic also would’ve been nice, but it hadn’t roasted in time (but it did roast in time to serve with the meal).

So all in all, a decent warm-up for some real fun. I’m a little rusty, but I’m starting to feel some inspiration flowing back. I still have more rants on the way, but there will definitely be some be some accounts of blood,fire and steel. Butter may come tomorrow, as I’m probably going to bake peanut butter cookies.

G’night.

Mmmmm…fattening

Posted in Thoughts with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Thanks to my wonderful mother, I recently had some homemade french fries done in the traditional (read:”right” style, going by the Larousse) wherein the fries are cooked briefly in oil, removed and rested temporarily, and then immersed again until light golden. The results were delectable, to say the least. Where one can normally assume that most fries have a crisp exterior, soft interior, and decent mouth-feel and flavour, these excelled on all counts. They had a light, almost fluffy quality to them, with a surprisingly distinct surface texture-crisp, but not dry to the point of detriment.

They made a strong impression on me, to say the least. I’ll be honest, on my money, it’s generally going to be a nice pub or sushi joint when it’s time to eat out, rather than anything overly fancy (the visits to those sorts will be accompanied by distinctly more photos than has been the average, this far, and probably fairly emphatic musing as to how I wished I could eat there exclusively. My first visit to Canoe, a couple years back, haunted my taste buds for months. For a while, I could recall every flavour and moment of the meal in exacting detail). Due to this, I’m fairly hyper-critical of the perceived value of lower-end food, and love discovering cheap restos that do staple grease really well. Some, like the Auld Spot, on the Danforth strip in Toronto, excel at the fry du jour, the sweet potato fry. Others are clearly just deep frying the frozen oven fries, which produces middling results. Most fail to deliver something to the table that is both warm, fried properly, and flavourful.

The wind up of all this? While I still aim to try out some of the higher-end restos that offer fries (former JK Wine Bar, Les Halles in New York), I am utterly convinced that with enough tweaking and testing of all variables involved, I can create the perfect French fries at home. I aim to test various potatoes, prep methods, oil temps, until I’m completely pleased with the results.

I’ll keep you posted

Cheese shouldn’t taste like lollipops, nor test my gag reflex.

Posted in Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Seriously, what the hell?

Jessica is doing a wine & cheese course as part of her GBC baking certification program (let’s just assume it’s an elective, as that seems a little outside the baking mandate). In said course, she has to do things like drink wine, and eat cheese. Shocking, I know.

For a project coming up, she has to pair wines and cheeses. Before even getting to the wine, she decided to get a bunch of interesting new cheeses to sample. As this involved food, I decided she needed my assistance in sampling and describing them (and as you’ll quickly learn, i have to come to grips with a certain lack of expertise or vocabulary to articulate how these cheeses smell and taste).

The Cheese:

Ermite Blue (blue cheese)-A Canadian cheese, this was perforated for veining (appetizing, I know), with the molding having a greenish/blue tint. It was fairly solid to the touch, with only a mild crumb to it. It had a very mild, pleasant aroma, and when eaten, was almost creamy on the tongue. Overall, a decent cheese.

Etorki Basque-similar to a gouda, this had a pale, yellow meat with a waxed orange rind (not sure why the rind description is important, but jess felt I should mention it-As I said, still gaining that expertise). Upon applying a light pressure, the body had a slight, rubbery give to it. The smell was fairly interesting, almost like a sweetened butter. Upon hitting the tongue, it became almost powdery, and then a paste, but not unpleasantly.

Provolone-had it on enough sandwiches, skipped it.

Vacherin Friebourgeois- Washed rind, pale yellow/orange meat blah blah blah. This one was very strange-it had an almost synthetic smell and flavour to it-Almost like a sharp, acidic version of that powered parm that comes in the cans. Hard and mildly crumbly, it tasted very salty and sharp. Unfortunately, almost too sharp for my palate.

Beaufort-Apparently comparable to a gruyere, but with a much, much harsher flavour base. Honestly, it basically smelled and tasted like sweet, wet gym socks. Appetizing, no? It was also very dry, with a strong crystalline structure to it. So, mouth feel was at least somewhat interesting.

Bleu de Gex-a very interesting blue-the meat is a yellow to gray, with the mold spread throughout to such a degree that there wasn’t really any discernible veining, just lotsa blue and gray. Wax rind. The aroma was very pungent, but not entirely unpleasant-it smelled very earthy and rich. Flavour wise, it wasn’t particularly sharp, sweet, salty-it had a strong, mouth-filling flavour of an almost mushroomy earthyness (dear god, they’re invading my cheese now). Actually quite interesting, but it’d need to be paired with something for it to be palatable in larger-than-sample-size amounts.

White Stilton w/Candied Lemon Peel- Apparently a special, in-house offering from our favourite local cheese shop, Alex Farm Cheese. Jess was super excited about the idea of a stilton with some sort of candied fruit in it. I was non-comittal, but am willing to try nearly any food placed in front of me (especially in the name of school work!). Goddamn, what a horrifying mistake.

My stomach heaved just from the smell of it-Like cheese soaked in lemonade, only with an extra few cups of sugar added in for good measure. I was content to have the relationship end there-platonic at best, with only the mildest animosity on my part. But noooo, Jess egged me on, so I ate the damn thing. And yeah, it tasted like the most cloying, saccharine lemon lolly I’ve ever had, and my sample size was probably under a centimeter cubed. A CENTIMETER, YET MY MOUTH WAS FULL OF OVERWHELMING FLAVOUR.

Now, there are tons of rich foods (including various blue cheeses) that I find slowly overwhelm my tastebuds over the course of a meal-at first, it’s powerful and seductive, and then it eventually begins to feel like my tastebuds are being held hostage. I’m fine with that-it means I’m constantly aware of how the food actually tastes, and avoid having eating become a mechanical reflex. This was something else, as it felt like awfulness had detonated all over my tongue.

For the record, lemon flavoured candy in all forms is generally fantastic, and stilton is definitely acceptable in either it’s blue or white forms. The combination could even work, given a more sensible amount of candied lemon peels-if i had the barest hint of it within the cheese, it probably would’ve been a very pleasant way to end the tasting.

Instead, I’m going to go hunt some Tums down. They’re berry flavoured, so there won’t be any conflict-of-interest at the moment.

Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert? Damn my lack of satellite radio access!

Posted in Thoughts with tags , , , , , , on February 17, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Does anyone know if there’re archives for Sirius XM shows? I don’t have a subscription, and now desperately want one for a 5 week duration. Now, if this was a physical dialogue between me and you, this would be the time to ask “Oh, why do you want a subscription to satellite radio?”, and I’d have to respond, “well, silly-you clearly aren’t paying too much attention to the news” Or the title of this post.

At this point, my conversational sparring partner would probably roll their eyes and ignore me, so, I’ll spare you- It’s been announced that Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert are going to be hosting a 5 part show on Martha Stewart’s (no need to hyperlink for her, right? I’ll assume everyone is on the same page as to who she is) Sirius Channel. At her behest!(apparently they appeared on her show last year, and were such a hit that it gave genesis to this) Weird, huh? It’s called Turn & Burn, and will discuss things such as the near-pornographic advertising and embellishing used in the food industry, and have a call-in portion.

I knew Bourdain had gone from having disdain for Ripert, to open admiration (if I recall, in Kitchen Confidential, he more or less admits to being jealous of his prodigious skill), but it’s amusing to learn that they’re actually good friends now. If anything, it’s one of the things I respect Tony for-unlike most of the celebrity chefs who still rail about how much they hate celebrity chefs, he’s come to grips with it, and is able to delineate between someone who has just been commercialized and branded, to chefs who have come under the spotlight based on their own merits. I’ll probably touch more on this in the future, as it’s something that deserves a focused look, and not something I’ll just casually toss together to fill out the end of this post.

Ah well, it’s not like I’m up to date on No Reservations, so I’ll console myself with episodes of that.

El Bulli-I didn’t know ye.

Posted in Obituaries with tags , , , , , , , on February 15, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Now, I won’t go into histrionics here, but most people will admit, there’s been some celebrity death or something that has touched them in a personal way. Whether some musician had a song or album that reminds them of a special child memory, or an actor had a role that always brings a smile to ones face, most (or many, I shant speak for the majority, just the majority of that majority) create ‘relationships’ that are almost entirely one way. A restaurant you visited regularly could even strike at something deeper-bonds formed with staff, favourite dishes and what have you. Now, what if you’ve only heard of the restaurant, and its only connection to you is tenuous at best?

As I said, I’m not hysterical over the bombshell that El Bulli, the  “greatest restaurant in the world” would be closing. Still, it does give one pause-a restaurant with a waiting list in the millions (hot damn!), has been operating at a loss for the last decade. Apparently, ten years of losing money finally overcomes whatever artistic statement Ferran Adrià has been making. Fair enough-I’m not enough of an idealist to believe art can exist entirely divided from commerce.

What do I know of molecular gastronomy (or avant-garde cooking, or experimental cuisine, or whatever genre you’d classify it as, as molecular gastronomy is considered something of a misnomer)? Well, sadly, not as much as I wish-yes, I’ve had some flavoured foams on desserts, and tried some food that looked like other food, and I’ve read extensively on the subject. What I do know, is that it seems damn entertaining, and that with El Bulli closing, I’ll have to check out The Fat Duck, Alinea, or one of the other restaraunts of repute that mess around with liquid nitrogen and thematic deconstructions of staple meals, or whatever individual wild stuff they get up to.

Why? Well, I know a lot of people who cluck their tongues at the thought of it, but if I’m paying several hundred dollars for a meal, I don’t care how scintillating the conversation is. I expect atmosphere, and entertainment-make me remember every element of that meal, so I can spend the following nights, and weeks going over it in exquisite detail in my head (trust me, a sushi train restaurant can provide me with hours of entertainment, so something like this would be a bit of a step up). Taking such a unique approach to food nearly guarantees that result.  And also, LIQUID GODDAMN NITROGEN. Seriously, all my boyhood endeavours failed due to a lack of it (I was a weird kid. Now I’m a weird adult. Go figure).  Now, I can play around with it…in the name of furthering my culinary horizons…>_>.

In all fairness, it may be some time before I actually attempt anything so esoteric, as I’m still working on many of the fundamentals (eg. my pan reduction sauces still generally lack something). As well, this isn’t something I’d bust out for a monday night dinner or somesuch-good home cooking is still preferable to something someone else cooked the majority of the time.

Oh well, imaginary experimental food is nearly as good, for the moment-I never said I gave up those boyhood endeavours.