Monday, January 10, 2011

Quebecois split pea soup

I first had this in the Binerie Mont-Royal, a great traditional diner in Montréal where it's one of the signature dishes. It doesn't look like much. In fact let's be honest: it looks like sick. You could probably fix that by adding something to make it more yellow, such as saffron or turmeric, but on the other hand that would give it a flavour that you don't want and generally tart up this humble working-class soup into something that it ain't, eh? The this-side-of-the-Atlantic version is of course pea and ham soup, which is a decorative green colour with flecks of red from the ham, but this one is for hardcore cold weather people who like their peas split, yellow and dried. It's extremely warming on a cold day.

You will need:
1 packet (500g) of dried yellow split peas
1 smoked ham hock - butchers often have these, they're dirt cheap
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
handful of thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1 spoonful of vegetable stock powder (or use actual vegetable stock, if you have some)

1. Pick out and discard any dodgy-looking peas, rinse the rest thoroughly and soak them overnight. You could also soak the ham hock in water to remove some of the salt, but you don't have to.

2. Place the peas, ham hock, onion, celery and herbs in a big pot and add about two litres of water (or veg stock), which should cover it all. Bring to the boil and simmer, skimming off the scum which will certainly rise to the top. If you're using vegetable stock powder, add it after you've skimmed off the scum.

3. Simmer for about 3 hours, or until the peas are soft. After about two hours, take out the ham hock, which should be a lot softer than it was, and remove the skin; take the meat off it (you don't have to cut up the meat, it'll get chopped up later) and return it to the pot with the bone. Simmer for another hour. Remove the bay leaf, which has done its work

4. At this point it won't look great. The liquid will be a muddy brown colour and the peas will have sunk to the bottom. There will also be big, tough, salty chunks of ham in it. You know what this needs? A blender.

5. How liquid you want this soup to be is partly a matter of taste, but it should be pretty thick. I suggest you strain the soup into a bowl, saving the liquor, and blend the peas/ham chunks/other bits in batches in a blender until they are a thick puree. Then you can mix the puree with the liquor until it's the way you like it. Reheat it in the pan, check for seasoning (although the one thing it shouldn't need is salt, which the ham will have provided all by itself) and serve. You won't need to serve chunky bread with this. It mops itself up.

6. This will make enough for about six people. It freezes well, and if you make too much, it's even better the next day. If you chill it, you'll notice on taking it out of the fridge that it's turned to a stiff sludge. (I'm really selling you on this recipe, aren't I?) This is not because it's full of congealed fat, at least not if you were skimming it properly, but because the ham hock has oozed gelatin into the soup and the gelatin has solidified. This recipe isn't actually the one they use in the Binerie, as far as I know, but it's authentic. I got it from Traditional Quebec Cooking by Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny, with one difference, that Mme Mongrain-Dontigny uses dried savoury and I used fresh thyme, not having any dried savory. Good book, btw.

Other things I consumed in the Binerie Mont-Royal were tourtière, which in this incarnation is a big pie filled with spiced cooked mince, and also bière d'épinette, which the owner made us drink because it was a local ingredient (although maybe he'd just bought a case and was desperate to shift it). Bière d'épinette isn't actually a beer but a soft drink flavoured with spruce. It has a unique flavour. Basically, it tastes like its primary ingredient is Flash Bathroom. Yes, it's piney-fresh and actually, kind of, moreish. Kind of. Tourtière, by the way, also exists in a posh version, Tourtière du Saguenay, which in Mme Mongrain-Dontigny's recipe consists of cubed pork, veal and beef/game, baked with potatoes and onions in a huge pie case for six hours. Mmm.

One other thing about the Binerie Mont-Royal: I only realised when we were leaving that we'd shown up ten minutes before they were due to close for their afternoon break. Despite this, the owner not only made us welcome but cheerfully served us a three-course meal. A great place. If you're going to have lunch there, make sure you did something strenuous that morning and that you're not doing anything too strenuous that afternoon. If you're just looking for a quick bite and are not vegetarian, you should check out Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen on 3895 St-Laurent, and experience the melting deliciousness of their smoked meat and the celebrated rudeness of their waiters.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Lamb pilaf

I learned the basic idea from my mum, who is a great cook - her roast chicken is my death row meal - but who doesn't go so far as to write down her own recipes. There is no better way of using up leftover roast lamb. It will work with other leftover roast meats, but for some reason (probably to do with the spicing), lamb is by far the best.

Ingredients (for two people)

1 bowlful of cooked lamb meat, preferably hacked off the bone of a leg or shoulder, but any leftover cooked lamb will do
1 onion, halved: 1 half chopped finely and the other half chopped coarsely
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp hot smoked paprika
three chopped cloves of garlic
a handful of green beans, topped, tailed and cut in half
1 cup of pinenuts
the leaves from about six stalks of thyme
the zest of 1/2 a lemon (keep the lemon itself)
olive oil
200ml vegetable stock
200g brown rice

Sweat the rice first in some olive oil, so that it starts to smell nutty. Then add about twice its own volume of water, bring to a simmer and cover lightly so that it cooks while you're doing everything else.

Heat a big sauté pan over a medium heat and toast the pinenuts until you can smell them and they're very lightly browned. Set them aside.

Add olive oil to the pan and fry the onion in it. Add the spices and garlic and let the onion soften and the spices fry.

Add the lamb, turn up the heat a bit and let it sizzle for a couple of minutes in the oil. Add the thyme leaves.

Add the green beans and let them sweat in the pan for a few minutes - take care that the garlic doesn't burn. By now, everything should be getting a dark and spicy crust. If so, add the vegetable stock and bring to a boil.

You want to boil off the stock - this isn't supposed to be oozy and running like a risotto. It's a pilaf. So scrape up as much stuff off the bottom of the pan as you can, and let it boil away.

When the liquid has almost all boiled away, add the lemon zest and squeeze some lemon into it.

When the liquid has all gone and it's starting to fry again, the rice should be done. If so, drain the rice (if necessary) and add it to the pan, stirring it well in and letting it soak up all the flavours from the meat/spice/onion/green bean mixture. Add the pinenuts at this point.

When it's all incorporated together and the rice has got to know the flavours of everything in the pan, serve in bowls and squeeze more lemon over the top. Season to taste.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chocolate Sandwich Cake with Chestnut & Whisky Cream Filling

So I was making a birthday cake. I knew I wanted it to be a chocolate cake, but the person who normally bakes the cakes in this house was the person whose birthday it was and I was nervous in the run-up to the event, never having baked a cake before. I had my eye on a recipe in Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques for a fridge cake involving a lot of chocolate, some butter, some rum and that tin of Clement Faugier Sweetened Chestnut Purée that had been sitting at the back of the food cupboard for about a year without my having any idea what to do with it. Actually, what I really wanted to cook was Anthony Bourdain's Charlotte de marrons, but I couldn't find sponge fingers anywhere.

In the end, I decided that the fridge cake would be excessively alcoholic, so I decided to cook a cake I had at least seen being baked before, and then modify it somewhat. So, this is a modified version of Nigella Lawson's chocolate Birthday Cake from How To Eat; the filling is my own, inspired my Messrs Pepin and Bourdain, and is based on my wish to use both chestnuts and alcohol to make the cake a bit more a.) seasonal and b.) interesting.

For the cake:

225g self-raising flour
30g best cocoa
200g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter
200g condensed milk
100g best quality dark chocolate
2 eggs, beaten

For the chocolate ganache:

100g best quality dark chocolate
100g best quality milk chocolate
200ml double cream

For the filling:

1 tin of sweetened chestnut purée (i.e. the stuff I mentioned above, or something similar - don't use use tinned chestnut purée that they sell for Christmas stuffing. The stuff you want has been heavily sweetened and flavoured with vanilla and other things and is a thick, glossy, sticky sludge when you open the tin.)
200ml double cream
1 double measure of whisky/rum/brandy

[The following method is mostly Nigella, with my annotations.]

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas mark 4. Put the kettle on. Butter two shallow sandwich tins. [Nigella says line the base with baking parchment. I didn't, but I did use a carving knife to help get the cakes out of the tins when I'd finished.]

Sieve the flour, cocoa and a pinch of salt together into a large bowl and set aside.

Put the sugar, butter, condensed milk, 100ml just-boiled water and the chocolate, broken into small pieces, into a saucepan and heat until melted and smooth. Then stir this into the flour-cocoa mixture with a wooden spoon, and when all is 'glossily amalgamated', beat in the eggs.

Pour into the sandwich tins and bake for 20 minutes, no longer.

Leave to cool in the tins and then turn out onto a rack.

To make the ganache, break up the chocolate into small pieces (you could blitz it in a blender if you like) and put it in a medium-sized bowl. Heat the cream to boiling, but don't let it boil [that doesn't really make any sense, Nigella] and then pour it over the chocolate. Leave for five minutes and then, preferably with an electric mixer, beat until combined, coolish, thickish and glossy.

To make the filling...well, I sort of winged it, but here's how. The purée will come in a 500g tin and you need about 300g. Scoop it out into a medium-sized bowl. Add the liquor of choice and mix it in with a fork so that it's absorbed. Whip the cream with your electric mixer (you've washed the mixer bits since making the ganache, obviously) and then gently amalgamate the whipped cream into the chestnut/liquor goo until you get a thick but spreadable, pale brown cream. Yes, you could leave out the alcohol but don't do so on the grounds that it's more healthy: there is absolutely nothing healthy about this cake, and anyway the chestnut filling will seem tooth-hurtingly sweet without it.

It's important to wait until the cakes are cool before you put them together, otherwise the filling might melt. Spread the top half of one of the cakes with the chestnut/whisky cream. Be generous. Pretend it's the biggest and richest peanut butter sandwich ever. Gently lower the other cake on top and press down very gently (i.e. don't crush the damn thing). Lastly, spread your ganache on top of the upper surface of the upper cake (and the sides too, if you can be bothered) and let it set. It's probably a good idea to store this cake in the fridge so that the cream doesn't go off, but on the other hand that's liable to make the cake go stale quicker, so you should really try to eat it as soon as possible. I hope that's not too much trouble.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Deconstructed Chasseur (Il y a hors-de-poulet)

So I had some chicken thighs (bone-in) and some mushrooms, and I was thinking about chicken chasseur, chicken cacciatore, all those unfashionable but warming, herby, rich chicken casseroles we love, from the more mountainy bits of France and Italy. Usually I think that you can't do anything more sensible with a chicken than clean it, dry it, truss it, sprinkle it with salt and roast it, but I was thinking seriously about doing something casserole-y with my chicken pieces.

The only problem is that one of the main reasons I eat chicken is the skin. I love chicken skin. (This is the point where I would normally like to provide useful nutritional information about how relatively healthy chicken fat is compared to other fats, but the trouble is that most websites out there that offer 'information' on such topics are written by hysterical wellness gurus who want to sell you things.) The trouble with chicken casseroles is that skinning the chicken leaves you with tender but rather bland pieces of meat that lack a lot of the fun of eating chicken in the first place, but if you don't skin them, the skin turns flabby and unappealing in the sauce. I quite like eating fat, but not big moist claggy lumps of the stuff.

Then I had a thought, which doesn't happen very often. Given that I had more chicken thighs than I strictly needed, why did I have to cook them all in the sauce? Couldn't I keep some aside and let them be treated the way chicken thighs should be treated, with dry heat and a frying pan, while a couple sat in the sauce and lent their flavour to it?

So I marinated my chicken thighs overnight in a mixture of white wine, olive oil, garlic and rosemary. I was on a bit of a rosemary kick; I knew that this dish was going to be seriously browned and earthy and rich, so it needed a sharp aromatic note to cut through all that.

The following evening, I sautéed chopped onion, carrot and celery in olive oil in a big pot, took it out, and browned a couple of chicken thighs in the oil, then returned the vegetables, added a good amount of vegetable stock (made with stock powder), a splash of white wine, some chopped fresh thyme and a bay leaf, and simmered the result for a couple of hours. In the meantime, I made the rest.

The garnishes were to be bacon lardons and mushrooms. I could have cooked these in the sauce, of course, but that would have made everything taste of everything else. I browned the lardons and set them aside, then browned small, whole white button mushrooms in olive oil and a little of the fat the lardons gave off.

An hour before cooking time, I put the remaining chicken thighs in a moderate hot oven to bake. Half an hour later they were cooked through and had given up a lot of their fat, but I still didn't have the seriously crispy and aromatic skin that I wanted. That called for a last spell in a frying pan.

I put the cooked chicken thighs skin-side down in a frying pan over a moderate heat, and threw in a sprig of rosemary. The whole sprig of rosemary is crucial here, if you want the result to have an almost trippily herbal aroma; if you don't like rosemary, well, don't do it. I learned this chicken-in-the-pan trick from Nick Nairn's book New Scottish Cookery. Baking chicken in the oven will give it puffed skin, but if you want the skin to get insanely crispy and almost crackling-like, there's nothing like putting it in direct contact with hot metal. It needs to sit there for about fifteen minutes and it will spit a lot. But apart from flavour and texture, the other good thing about this is a lot of the subcutaneous chicken fat will render into the pan as the skin cooks; you may even need to pour some of it off. (You can either throw the rendered fat away or use it to cook with. It's a popular condiment in European Jewish cuisine, but have a thought for your arteries and don't eat it all the time.)

(You could cook the chicken thighs like this without first baking them, but they'll spit all over your hob and the surrounding area and you'll be wiping up for a long time afterwards. Cooking boned chicken thighs doesn't take as long, but then they aren't half as tasty, not to mention being more expensive.)

35 minutes before showtime, a handful of puy lentils thrown into the sauce added body and texture, and the mushrooms and bacon went in with five minutes to go. I reserved the chicken thighs that had been cooked in the sauce (put them in a bowl, let them cool down before sticking them in the fridge and the flesh will be great in a sandwich the next day.) Serve the sauce in a bowl and place your crispy chicken thighs on top, after letting them drain for a couple of minutes on some kitchen paper; accompany with a green salad. This chicken is so hunterish it's practically walking the hills with a shotgun over its shoulder.

Chicken thighs are very cheap, and to my mind tastier and more succulent than chicken breast, which is the bit of the chicken you offer to people who don't like food. Thighs are also tougher and more fatty, but that's where long slow cooking comes in. This modified chasseur recipe combines the best bits of roast chicken with the depth of flavour you get from cooking a sauce with chicken bone in it. Cooking the bacon and the mushrooms separately keeps the different flavour elements isolated from each other until the last minute, so that they all sing together on the plate. Or, as in this case, in the bowl.

Given that this is a modification of an already pretty corny old recipe I've called it Deconstructed Chasseur, out of a fondness for unfashionable flavours of continental philosophy. The subtitle is a nod to the great Roland Barthes: as much flavour as possible, Roland, baby.