Monthly Archives: May 2021

Chocolate & Cooking for One

Grainews

May 2021.

After Dad died last year, Mom started giving things away. It was as if his absence triggered her awareness of her own mortality and her dwindling need for stuff. She gave pots and pans to my eldest son, vases to my cousin, Dad’s unopened bottles of Scotch to her cousin, tools to my brothers, wine glasses to me, the case of unopened cans of tomato soup that only Dad had liked to the food bank.

Dad had always bought multiples of everything, and he’d liked shopping, had been the grocery-goer for years. In various kitchen drawers and cupboards, we found extra freezer bags, light bulbs, batteries, serving utensils, bottles of condiments. Maybe the extras were a result of years of farm living; run out of light bulbs forty kilometers from town, and the house stays dark for awhile. Run out of chocolate chips or butter, and the absence of cookies could trigger a palace revolt.

Mom’s diet started to change as well. Dad had never cared for rice, but had sworn by meat and potatoes on a daily basis. Now she enjoys “rabbit food” salad every night for supper, basmati or sticky rice, and good bacon from our local smokehouse for breakfast as often as she pleases. When we go to town, we routinely stop for rice noodles at a small Thai place. She eats shrimp every chance she gets, and pork and beans whenever I cook some – Dad’s gut had rebelled at legumes, so she’d gone without lentils and beans for decades. Mom waited until her eighties to eat exactly whatever and whenever she likes, with no one to please but herself, a novel experience for a woman of her generation, married sixty-five years to a strong-willed husband.

Mom has always been a feminist beacon to me, despite her traditional role in their marriage. She always worked outside the home, always assumed that my sister and I would do whatever we wanted to do with our lives, just as our brothers would. When one of us became a scientist and the other a chef, she was not surprised. She’s proud of the fact that all of her kids are good at what they do as adults.  Competence matters to her. As she ages, her increasing difficulty with hand tools as her arthritis worsens is a source of frustration. But she copes. She does less chopping of vegetables, eats pre-made chicken skewers instead of cutting up a bird, uses garlic and onion powder instead of smashing fresh cloves and mincing onions.

I am grateful to be living close by, so I can visit regularly for movies, tea and our ongoing cribbage skirmishes, and to drop off food from my kitchen. I cook every day, and cooking for three requires no more effort than cooking for two – it’s cooking for one that is difficult. My dietary drop-offs have taught me that Mom doesn’t like eggplant or curry, but like me, she loves chocolate, Boursin, pastries, crusty sourdough, fruity desserts. “Good eats,” she comments happily after a meal she particularly enjoys. I enjoy hearing her say, “I had one of your excellent muffins for breakfast today” during our daily phone conversations. She taught me how to cook. I’m happy to feed her. So first we eat this dessert that requires very little chopping, and then we can compare notes on our favourite uncomplicated desserts.

Mocha Chocolate Pudding

Pudding only seems childish until you start eating it. Then it seems the height of grown-up, especially if each spoonful is part pud and part whip. To go nondairy, make it with soy or almond milk and a spoonful of coconut oil, and garnish with nondairy sorbet. This keeps well in the fridge for several days. Serves 8

6 oz. best-quality dark chocolate, chopped or broken

2/3 cup dark brown sugar

3 Tbsp. cocoa

3 Tbsp. cornstarch

¼ tsp. kosher or sea salt

1 cup coffee cream

3 large egg yolks

2 cups whole milk

2 Tbsp. butter, softened

1 tsp. vanilla extract

¼ cup strong hot coffee, espresso or coffee liqueur

whipped cream, crème fraiche or ice cream for garnish

8 chocolate-coated espresso beans for garnish

Melt the chocolate over simmering water or at moderate power in a microwave, stirring. Cool slightly.

Put the sugar, cocoa, cornstarch and salt in milk a heavy-bottomed pot. Whisk in the cream, then add the yolks and milk. Whisk well. Add the melted chocolate. Whisk well, then heat to a boil. Pass through a strainer. Stir in the butter, vanilla and coffee. Transfer to ramekins. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for several hours. 

Garnish each portion with a dollop of whipped cream, crème fraiche or ice cream. Top with a chocolate-covered espresso bean and serve.

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Kindness & Corned Beef

Grainews

May 2021.

My neighbor Sharon gave me half a beef brisket last week. She and her husband had taken a steer to the small local abbatoir for slaughter, and were generous in sharing after the animal had been butchered. I decided that whatever I made, they’d receive some back for their kindness.

Brisket, as you know, is the chest, the meat lying around the breastbone. It is heavily threaded with muscles and connective tissue, positioned as it is between the chuck, or shoulder, and the shank. It can be divided into two parts, the flat – a flattish, lean part from close to the ribs, with a nice fat cap – and the point, or deckle, a thicker piece with good marbling. Like the chuck and shank, brisket requires long, slow cooking to become sublimely tender pot roast or corned beef or barbecue. Should I braise it? Or brine it? Or smoke it to make pastrami? Yum.

I settled on making corned beef, which is a week-long process, with the bulk of time spent brining. You might recall from my recent column on salt that brining is a common practice for cooks. Brine – salt mixed with water – magnifies the ability of salt to penetrate meat for the purpose of imparting seasoning while killing bacteria and enhancing juiciness by plumping up the meat at a cellular level.

Brine used in this context needs sugar. Not only does it kick up the flavour but it also dials back the harsher side of salt. I use white sugar for corning beef, but any form of sweetener will work – honey, brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup – each contributing its own flavour to the dish. Then there are the aromatics – the herbs and spices that boost the flavor profile. I add a bit of “pink salt” as well. Based on vegetable-sourced nitrite, pink (or curing) salt keeps the meat pink and adds a characteristic flavour while preventing botulism, particularly vital in making air-cured sausages. You can find it at sausage-makers and some butcher shops.

Bring the brine to a boil to dissolve the salt and sugar, but also to let the herbs and spices infuse the liquid. Cool and chill it before you add the brisket. This keeps the meat safe from spoilage. Refrigerate the brisket for five to seven days to allow the brine to penetrate to the centre.

Next time I am gifted with a brisket, I will brine and slow-smoke it with a dry rub to make pastrami, then I’ll give some back to my friends. While you’re at it, remember to share with your neighbor who doesn’t cook so much anymore. First we eat, then we can talk about other undervalued cuts of beef.

Corned Beef

A 5-6 pound slab of corned beef serves a crowd. Leftovers make stellar sandwiches, especially layered with Emmenthal or Gruyere and sauerkraut to make Reubens, sautéed in butter.

Brine:

1 gallon water

2 cups kosher salt

½ cup white sugar

5 tsp. pink salt

1 head garlic, peeled

2 Tbsp. pickling spice

1 whole star anise

½ tsp. fennel seed or anise seed

5-6 lb. beef brisket (half a whole brisket)

Braising liquid:

oil for the pan

1 onion, coarsely sliced

1 head garlic, peeled and sliced

2 large carrots, coarsely chopped

2 tbsp. pickling spice

1 bottle ginger beer, ale or white wine

6 cups water or stock (chicken, turkey or vegetable)

Vegetable garnish:

green cabbage, in wedges or slices

carrots, sliced

potatoes, cut in even pieces

yellow turnip, peeled and cut in even pieces

To make the brine, combine half the water with all remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and stir until the salt and sugar dissolve. Cool, then chill. Transfer to a container that will hold the meat and fit in the fridge. Add the remaining (cold) water and the meat. Put a plate on top of the meat to submerge it, and cover snugly. Refrigerate for 5-7 days, turning the meat daily.

Remove meat from the brine, rinse and pat dry. Let stand at room temperature while you prepare the braising liquid.

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed braising pot. Add the vegetables and sauté until golden. Add the spices, liquid and brisket. Add additional liquid to just cover the meat. Bring to a boil. Cover snugly with parchment paper right on the surface of the meat and liquid, then with the lid of the pot. Cook on slow heat for 3 hours, or until tender. Replenish the liquid if its level drops. Add the vegetable garnish and cook for 30-45 minutes, or cook the vegetables separately as preferred.


Remove the meat from the liquid and let it stand 10 minutes, loosely covered, before carving. Serve with vegetables and spoonfuls of braising liquid.

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Food & “Family”

Grainews

April 2021.

Like most of us, Dave and I have been binge-watching movies. High among my all-time favourites is The Godfather I, II and III. I particularly admire the attention that director Francis Ford Coppola pays to food, making it integral to many pivotal “family” scenes.

We enter the tragedy at Connie Corleone’s wedding, rich with lasagna, big platters of antipasti, a wedding cake as big as a church, and tumblers full of red wine, although Mafia foot soldier “Fat” Clemenza guzzles wine from a jug. In a later scene after an outburst of violence among the city’s gangster clans, Clemenza teaches Michael Corleone, Connie’s youngest brother, played by Al Pacino, how to cook a good sausage and meatball ragù because you never know when “you might have to cook for twenty guys.” Later, Clemenza reminds an associate about life’s priorities after executing a traitorous colleague: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Oranges serve as a metaphor for death. Patriarch Vito Corleone, played by a puffy-cheeked and mumbling Marlon Brando who steals every scene he’s in, clutches a fruit vendor’s bag of oranges when he is gunned down. Soon after, Vito’s short-tempered eldest son, Santino, played by James Caan, says to his brutal brother-in-law, Carlo, at a family meal, “We don’t discuss business at the table.” Then in an Italian restaurant where Michael is planning to shoot a crooked cop and the gangster kingpin who ordered the hit on his father, the cop is eating veal and the gangster is drinking wine, but Michael is visibly reluctant to break bread with men he hates and plans to kill. Oranges reappear when Vito is playing in the garden with his grandson. Vito quarters an orange, puts the peel in his mouth and pulls a face at the little boy, who screams in fear. Vito suffers a fatal heart attack moments later.

In The Godfather II, young Vito Corleone, played at a whisper by a gorgeous Robert de Niro, loses his job to nepotism when the local don brings his do-nothing nephew to the grocery story where Vito works. Vito turns down his boss’s guilt-laden offer of a box of groceries, and brings his wife one perfect pear that he centres on his family’s modest dinner table.

In The Godfather III, Michael’s nephew, Vincent, makes gnocchi with his cousin, Mary, Michael’s daughter, breaking incest taboos even as he does a credible job of shaping the gnocchi. And Michael’s most memorable line –  “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” – is delivered at a kitchen counter crowded with food and wine, his sister Connie and nephew Vincent listening as thunder and lightning emphasize the point. Cannoli makes a return too, when Connie murders her scheming godfather, Don Altobello, with a gift of poisoned cannoli, which he eats during the opera in which Michael’s son Anthony makes his debut.

Food, food, food. Popcorn won’t cut it – I can’t resist eating pasta whenever I immerse myself in The Godfather, and carbonara is one of my favourites. So put the movie on pause. Like Coppola, first we eat – with the family.

Linguini Carbonara

With so few ingredients, quality makes all the difference. Use really fine bacon or pancetta, and buy a wedge of Parmesan reggiano – or grana padano, less costly and just as delicious. Some cooks add softly scrambled egg – suit yourself.

Serves 3-4

1 lb. dried linguini (or 2 lb. fresh)

8 slices good bacon, cubed

olive oil for the pan

6-8 large cloves garlic, minced

½ onion

½ tsp. dried thyme or basil

½ cup white wine

2 cups peas

1 cup whipping cream

lemon juice to taste

salt and pepper to taste

olive oil for the pasta

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, with extra for garnish

minced parsley or chives for garnish

If using dried pasta, start the pot of water boiling and get the pasta cooking. If using fresh, get the water boiling, salt it and keep it hot.

Sauté the bacon in a sauté pan, then add oil if needed and fry the garlic until golden Add the onions and cook until tender, slowing the heat and covering with a lid to keep the onions from browning. Add the thyme or basil and wine, reduce by half and add the peas and whipping cream. Add a bit of lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Cook the fresh pasta now if that’s what you are using.

Drain the cooked pasta. Toss with a bit of olive oil and a couple spoonfuls of parmesan. Add the rest of the cheese to the sauce and stir in, then serve the pasta and sauce. Garnish with parsley or chives and extra Parmesan.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary