Saturday, June 28, 2008


Mmm...Canada - Tourtière

I have been to Canada twice: 1997 and 1999. The first time was largely spent visiting family friends on Vancouver Island in the town of Nanaimo. What I mostly remember of that one month in Spring are eating lots of bagels (the first time was a memorable experience, and I could not get enough of cream cheese with dill) and drinking lots of table wine (what else was a late-teen to do?). I also recall that a friend and I established a reputation as "bar stars" because we'd out-dance the hired dancers on the podiums and "vogue" our young hearts out at the Savoy. Oh, how much I loved Madonna's dance remix of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" back then. And I also remember seeing a school of orcas from a ferry as it traversed the North Pacific Ocean between Vancouver Island and the mainland. My second visit was only for a few days with my angelheart Eric. We had the use of a friend's apartment in downtown Vancouver, a central hub from which to meet old friends and check out what the student film scene had to offer. I remember drinking vodka out of plastic cups and the rude Canadian officials at the Canada-US border (the only seriously rude Canadians I have ever met). Fast-forward almost ten years, and I know so much more about Canada, politically and culturally, not just as a pretty holiday destination. This brings me to Jasmine - you should know her as the author of one of my favourite blogs, Confessions of a Cardamom Addict. Jasmine is co-hosting a food blog event that captures the essence of Canadian food: Mmm...Canada. Jasmine is showcasing the savoury entries, and Jennifer of The Domestic Goddess the sweet ones. While not Canadian myself, I am not oblivious to the vast nation's great people, famous produce (particularly its maple syrup, which I know is a cliché to mention but its B grade, deep amber syrups are amazing) and culinary traditions.

In an effort to submit a dish to Mmm...Canada, I sought assistance from good friends: the fiercely intelligent and generous Anita and the pensive, jack-of-all-trades Craig. One lived in Canada for a few years and the other was born and raised in Ontario, so I figured they were a source of knowledge from which I could benefit. They informed me of a Québécois dish that is rich in flavour, deep in tradition and perfect on bitterly cold days.

Tourtière is a Québécois pork pie. According to a Jim Cummings' article at Quilter Muse, the origin of Tortière lies in France, where pigeons and other game birds were cooked in a deep baking dish that was originally named for tourtes (big game birds), until they became extinct. Early in Canada's colonial years, Tourtière was recognised as a fowl pâté, and now it is a pie that principally substitutes pork for game birds. As is typical of meat pies of Western Europe provenance, variations on Tourtière include many a spice to lift and complement the meat, such as allspice, cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg, in addition to onion or garlic.

Tourtière is a favourite dish at Christmas Eve, which is fitting given that it is almost time to celebrate mid-Winter Christmas in New Zealand. While there are recipes for vegetarian versions of this famous pork pie (which, to my mind, means that they are not Tourtière at all but vegetable pies - nothing wrong with that, of course, but there is no relation to Tourtière, except for the fact that vegetable pies can be cooked in in tourtières), I am from a pork-loving nation and am not interested in uninvesting myself from this traditional Canadian dish. Having said that, there are old English recipes for similar pies, but they are usually jellied, a love for which has not passed down my father's side of the family to me. I'll have pork pie the Canadian way, thank you.

As for the pastry, it almost seems that any pie pastry will do, so I have decided on one that uses shortening - for its depth and flakiness (if nothing else, the pastry must harken back to its French background, and most French pastries are buttery and flaky).

The following recipe is perfect for a 25cm/10" springform pan.

(Adapted from Jill Norman's Winter Food)

For the pastry:

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
160g/3/4cup vegetable shortening
20g/3/4oz unsalted butter
6 tablespoons iced water

1) Sift flour and salt together into a large bowl.
2) Cut in the shortening and butter with either two knives or a pastry cutter until a texture of coarse cornmeal is achieved. With two knives, this requires a bit of patience. I did not reduce all the shortening to mere flakes, which results in cavities in the pie top, as seen in the photos. If you're the type to lose sleep for fear of not measuring up to perfection, then I suggest that you get a pastry cutter.
3) Add water, one tablespoon at a time. When moist enough to gather into a ball, stop adding water.
4) Wrap in clingfilm and roll out slightly with a rolling pin to form a disc.
5) Chill for one hour.
6) Leave on counter for approximately 20 mintues to allow pastry to come to a temperature at which it is pliable.

For the filling:

1 large potato, peeled and boiled
8 tablespoons cream
2 tablespoons vegetable or sunflower oil
1kg/2lb ground pork
1 onion, chopped
1/2 tablespoon grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon thyme
1 bay leaf

1) Mash the potato and soak it in the cream.
2) Heat oil in frying pan and add pork and onion, break pork with a wooden spoon.
3) Season with nutmeg, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper.
4) Cook until pork juices have evaporated, approximately 20 minutes.
5) Off the heat, remove the bay leaf and stir in the mashed potato, mixing it well with the pork.

To complete the Tourtière:

egg wash, made by breaking an egg into a vessel, lightly beaten with one tablespoon of cream, milk or water.

1) Preheat oven to 200 C/400 F.
2) Prepare your springform pan (butter and flour it).
3) Lightly dust surface to roll out pastry. Dust your hands and the rolling pin with flour, too.
4) Remove one-quarter of the pastry and leave aside.
5) Roll out the pastry and fit into pan (a large enough circle such that there is an overhang).
6) Fill with cooked pork.
7) Roll out remaing pastry to fit pie top. Fold the overhang over and crimp. You should see before folding the overhang over if there is excess pastry - remove it.
8) Brush egg wash over surface.
9) Cut a hole in the centre of the pie top.
10) Bake until pastry is deeply golden.

The nose knows when this is ready. It is amazing that such simple ingredients can almagamate to a richly satisfying dish. The flaky pastry is a dream - even though it takes a good chunk of time to cut shortening into flour, the texture and flavour make the time spent very worthwhile. Its richness complement the pork, and the few herbs and spices used give added depth of complementary flavours. Served with a dollop of Greek yoghurt and spicy relish on the side, Tourtière is festive and rich without being over the stop.

Those Canadians sure know a good thing when they taste one. Mmm...Canada!

Post-script: Please visit Jasmine's round-up of the savoury edition of Mmm...Canada, and please go here for the sweet edition.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008


That Cookbook Thing II - Sauce au Cari

In January of this year, a group of food bloggers reviewed Norwegian chef Andreas Viestad's Where Flavor Was Born, and they all had different results. Sometimes the Round Table Review bloggers concurred that instructions were vague, some failed where others succeeded, and all of them found at least one new favourite recipe. While it is clear that subjectivity reigns when deciding on whether to integrate recipes into one's repertoire, I am wholly amenable to building on this dialogue where bloggers are working from a common space in order to understand the many ways we orient ourselves in the world by way of various texts on cooking. To work with Where Flavor Was Born, the bloggers' selection of recipes to test was decided by a complicated rubric - season, availability, cost, individual preferences. What the selection of recipes to test essentially offers is an education into what an author offers as the truth of its chosen subject. The varying results act as a cross-section of reviews for those who are thinking about purchasing the cookery book.

So, exhilerated by this experience, one of the members of the Round Table review group, Mike of Mel's Diner, decided to test some recipes as a way of illustrating some truths of French bourgeois cookery by way of the classic text Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. Personally, I jumped at the chance to join the bunch because I didn't have this landmark American book - like any interested foodie, I have come across the title many times, whether it be a reference in a bibliography or an adaptation of a recipe, but I never got around to buying it. I suppose the apprehension is because I did not grow up in a household that had had the text "since forever" and valorised it for its appropriation of American cuts of meat to French techniques, but my curiosity never waned when the book was referred to. The other members of That Cookbook Thing II are: Sara of i like to cook, Ruth of Once Upon A Feast, Mary of The Sour Dough, Kittie of Kittens in the Kitchen , Elle of Elle's New England Kitchen, Deborah of What's In My Kitchen?, and Mary of Cooking For Five.

One of Mastering the Art of French Cooking's great assets is its recipe layout. The recipes are divided into two columns - on the left-hand side are the ingredients, matched in the right-hand column with the concomitant method for the ingredients. This prevents confusion, especially when ingredient lists are long, and it forces a thorough reading of the recipe before cooking, which is what one should do, but do we all do as we should in our private lives?

Based purely on a cursory exploration, I have to say that recipe layout aside, this is an odd book. There are useful tips on food preparation peppered throughout the book (and strange ones, like illustrated hints on preparing a gigot - leg of lamb - which I know is because this cut is a fave in traditional French cookery, but what about the rest?), but there is no real historical context. And this is what poses a problem for the first recipe I am testing from the book: Sauce au Cari.

Curry in French cooking?! (Double-take.)

Why it was so necessary for the authors to choose this sauce from others in the haute bourgeousie's reportoire, I do not know. Yes, I am aware that most people don't care - a sauce is a sauce - but I'd like to know why this recipe is featured and what particular curry blend Ms. Child and gang had in mind when they prepared Sauce au Cari. I know Escoffier made it, with similar lack of detail regarding his blend du jour (and this is probably how it entered Child's lexicon), but what I want to know is what she had been exposed to that made it so good - my searches online have not been able to elucidate my inquiry.

To say that the French don't like hot spices might be stretching it, but what we know from the representations of French cuisine that cram bookshelves is that there are not a lot of piquant flavours in French cuisine - at least not without a salty kick. So, my guess is that the types of curries that were appropriated by the French during Julia Child's time in France are those that came from France's many colonies. Following this line of thought, I turned to West Africa for a curry mix, which is exciting because the fact that I find myself doing this undoes preconceptions I had of the book - whether or not that is the intention, I do not know for sure, but cooking is an intimate process, so it almost does not matter what Les Trois Gourmandes had in mind.

Ghanian curry powders typically feature 12 or more spices, herbs and seeds. I was without some ingredients - Grains of Paradise, groundnuts, tamarind, fenugreek and mace; however, I substituted peanuts for groundnuts and black pepper for Grains of Paradise. While I had no idea of the ratio of each ingredient per cup of curry blend, I used the various ingredients according to my own taste in order to produce a curry blend that made up a nuanced blend without too much heat, which I decided is what Escoffier would have liked. The following recipe makes exactly enough for the Sauce au Cari - just over three tablespooms.

Ghanian Curry Blend

1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon shelled peanuts
1/2 cinnamon quill
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
5 cloves
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, whole
1 teaspoon nutmeg, ground
3/4 tablespoon turmeric
1/8 teaspoon lemon zest

1) In a dry saute pan over medium heat, heat the cumin seeds, fennel seeds, peanuts, cinnamon, cardamom seeds, cloves and black pepper until fragrant, tilting the pan occassionally in order to allow oils and heat from the ingredients to intermingle. Do not allow any ingredients to burn.
2) Take off the heat and allow to cool.
3) Discard the cinnamon, and tip the rest of fragrant spices and seeds into a spice blender with the nutmeg, turmeric and lemon zest.
4) Blend until a powder is formed.

Depending on which way you want to swing, Sauce au Cari can be a riff on béchamel (milk based) or velouté (stock based), and it can be as thick or thin as you like. I think a few members of That Cookbook Thing II had an issue with the thickness of the sauce. Having made béchamel a million times with my angelheart Eric (many Sunday nights making lasagne with parmesan and asiago), I paid great attention to the writers' suggestion of cooking the sauce for 10-15 minutes after adding the liquid. Stopping in between the suggested duration, my sauce was just right, and I did not need to enrich and thin the sauce with more than 5 tablespoons of cream. Of course, the timing is dependent on the size of your saucepan (Mesdames Child, Bertholle and Beck suggest an 8-cup enameled saucepan), and I think that the volume capacity has a lot to do with the desired consistency within the suggested times to thicken and cook the sauce.

The following recipe makes 2 1/2 cups of sauce.

Sauce au Cari
(from Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

1/2 minced white or yellow onion
70.5 - 84.75g/5-6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use
2-3 tablespoons curry powder, such as the Ghanian Curry Blend above
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups boiling milk (for a variation of a béchamel sauce)
4-6 tablespoons whipping/heavy cream
lemon juice

1) Cook onions and 56.5g/4 tablespoons of butter over low heat for approximately ten minutes. This allows to the onions to soften without colouring.
2) Stir in the curry powder and continue to cook over low heat for two minutes.
3) Add the flour in one go, stir, and cook over low heat for three minutes.
4) Take curried mixture off the heat and blend in the boiling milk.
5) Return to the heat - increasing slightly to obtain a simmer, which is to be maintained for 10-15 minutes, depending on desired thickness. Stir occasionally.
6) Remove sauce from the heat, add enough of the cream to your preference, and add salt, pepper and lemon juice for preferred seasoning.
7) Enrich the sauce by stirring in 14-28.25/1-2 tablespoons, bit by bit. Feel free to add minced parsley for colour.

Whilst fragrant and delectable with sautéed skinless chicken thighs (not my usual choice, for skinless and boneless preparations reek of hypermarket disrespect for provenance, but it seems that many things are without explanation today), I still do not understand why Sauce au Cari is included in this book, unless it is the only master class curry sauce that the French acknowledge - nowadays that would be hard to believe, but perhaps not impossible to comprehend in the 1940s-60s, the time in which Julia Child lived in France, culminating in this book co-written with her Les Trois Gourmandes partners in crime.

Stay tuned for further explorations of Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's tribute to La Belle France, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Pumpkin Pie

One of the truest signs of the onset of winter is the presence of pumpkins and squashes in the markets. It is perhaps no surprise that pumpkins were part of the welcoming gift basket from Native Americans to the newly arrived English at Plymouth Rock in the 1620s, for the appearance of their curvy figures and cheerful colours are both inviting and comforting. While pumpkins and squashes look gorgeous on the mantelpiece, dining table or at the foot of a door, their creamy textures make for divine treats, such as pumpkin pie.

I have had an odd fascination with pumpkin pies since childhood. Their ostensible glow seemed to me symbols of unity and warmth in many of the shows I grew up watching, such as Sesame Street, The Cosby Show, and Peanuts cartoons. I was, however, always baffled at the idea that a dessert could be made from pumpkin, for my exposure to Cinderella's vehicle-in-waiting were smiling, boiled wedges. (To boil slices of pumpkin should be a culinary crime since they already contain so much water, which essentially displaces its mild sweetness and earthy flavours.) When I moved to the US just before Thanksgiving in 2001, I finally had the opportunity to try this practically mythologised pie, but the moment of eating a slice overpowered the actual eating of it - so much so that after I scoffed my portion of pie, I was not certain that I liked it.

What I have since found singularly surprising is that many pumpkin pies are made with butternut squash. Given the difference in natural and detectable sweetness, this makes sense. But a pumpkin pie made with butternut squash should still nod to the great Thanksgiving pumpkin, and I do this by using pepitas in both the pie crust and pie filling a la Martha Stewart.

Pepitas are hulled pumpkin seeds - oval and the colour of deepest jade. When ground they are a glorious mint green, fairy dust similar to fine powdered green tea. When I think of baking pies, I often look to add ground nuts or seeds to any crust, for it makes them taste more like the ingredients they contain. If, however, you are making a pie whose principal ingredient does not have nuts or seeds, then use nuts or seeds that complement the principle ingredient (for example, almonds pair so well with cherries, though having said that, grinding a few cherry kernels is not impossible, if you can be botherd to smash them).

I have followed Martha Stewart's recipe for Pumpkin Pie with Candied Pepitas before, and while gorgeous, I have since adapted it to suit my proclivities. I am not huge on cloves - her recipe begs for but a pinch, but I find it too overpowering, preferring instead to use cloves sparingly in braised dishes or mulled wine. You can reduce the amount of spices by 1/4 if you prefer, but I find that without the overt presence of spices, pumpkin pie tastes odd - it just does not quite sell me as a dessert. Having said that, if you leave the pie for one day, the profound nature of the spices will permeate the filling, adding gorgeously subtle notes to every bite.

Pumpkin Pie with Candied Pepitas
(Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, November 2006)

For the graham crust:
2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup ground pepitas
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup (113g) unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed

1) Combine flours, pepitas, salt, and cinnamon (either with a whisk or in a food processor).
2) Add butter and sugar and proccess and rub fat in until mealy (you can also do this with a food processor).
3) When dough comes together, press it into a 23cm/9" or 25cm/10" springform pan or single-crust metal pie plate, then freeze for 15 minutes.

For the filling:

1 small butternut squash (approximately 3/4 kg/ 1 1/2lb)
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon corn starch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups evaporated milk

1) Slice butternut squash in half and roast at 220 C/425 F, cut-side down, for 50-60 minutes.
2) When cool enough to handle, discard the seeds from the cavity and puree the flesh. You need about 1 1/2 cups packed butternut squash puree for this recipe.
3) Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F).
4) Bake crust (after it has been in the freeze for 15 minutes) until dry and golden brown - about 20 minutes - and then let cool completely.
5) Reduce oven temperature to 170 C (325 F).
6) Whisk pumpkin and eggs in a bowl.
7) In a separate bowl, combine brown sugar, cornstarch, salt, and spices.
8) Whisk dry ingredients into the pumpkin mixture.
9) Whisk in evaporated milk.
10) Tap firmly on counter to release air bubbles *you can let it stand for 20 minutes to ensure this as well).
11) Pour filling into graham crust; tap to release air bubbles.
12) Bake until set, approximately 50 minutes. I like to leave it in the oven for an extra couple of minutes to encourage a caramelisation to occur on the surface of the pie, lending a burnished shade that contrasts with the rich and bright orange of the pie filling.

For the candied pepitas:

1 1/4 cups pepitas
5 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg white, beaten
pinch of coarse salt, plus more for seasoning
pinch of ground ginger
pinch of cayenne pepper

1) Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F).
2) Stir ingredients together in a bowl.
3) Spread mixture in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
4) Bake until pepitas are golden and slightly puffed, approximately 10 minutes. 5) Season with salt.
6) Stir gently, forming some into clumps.
7) Let cool completely in a bowl before storing in an air-tight container for up to three days. Sprinkle a small handful over pumpkin pie (the remainder of which makes for sweet snacking).

The colour and aromas of this pie are so enticing that they beg to be enjoyed in the company of good friends and family. The pumpkin pie's understated yet celebratory appearance make it a perfect feature for every holiday table, or at this time of year when one is tempted to break in the pumpkins and squashes of the season but is not quite ready for their savoury elements. The comforting glow as a slice on a plate is a culinary refuge when looking out at the gloomy skies on the other side of the window panes.

(And happy birthday to the stylish and effervescent Ailene!)

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Saturday, June 07, 2008


Beetroot and Kumara Fritters with Sumac Salt

Through the tangle of orange, red and purple withering leaves, piercing blue skies suggest an Indian summer. In New Zealand this is the last moment of autumnal brilliance, just before all the deciduous trees cast off their leaves shaped like aces, leaving behind spindly branches ashen and bare.

The sparkling quality of the image to the left does not fool you, I am sure - the sky looks pristine, clear, but the sun is turning its warm rays toward the northern hemisphere, and we Kiwis are in the cool space that is the transition from autumn to winter.

This is the optimal time in which to put to good use the dreams of winter that I escaped to during the height of summer when it was too hot and muggy to think - instead of swimming or napping, I day-dreamed of rainy days in the kitchen. In the heart of winter one is often tired of root vegetables, so playing around with them before one has no choice but to get used to them is a luxury, for one can still call on the last of the autumnal bounty to overcome failed ideas for interesting winter fare (let's face it, one does not always want for hearty and robust food even when it is blowing a gale and grey as slate).

To lift one from the doldrums of cold climes, I turn to sharp flavours, much as I turn to wooden, earthy herbs in summer - hopefully I am not the only one that, in this instance, appears a walking (blogging) contradiction. I am particularly drawn to sumac, a spice that is produced by crushing dried berries from sumac shrubs (also known as "vinegar trees" in Iran). Lending a gorgeous deep red-purple shade to any marinade, sumac has a sour taste and a citrus spike. Its inherent smokiness makes it a natural spice for grilling. In Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, sumac is sprinkled over meat and fish dishes as well as salads as an alternative to lemon (if the acidic jolt of citrus juice is not required, that is). Sumac is sometimes incorporated into spice rubs, such as za'atar, which also consists of thyme, salt and toasted sesame seeds. Today, though, the sharp property of sumac is paired with the salty yet delicate touch of fleur de sel, giving the palate a real workout against the sweet and earthy bites of beetroot and kumara.

Beetroot and Kumara Fritters
(Adapted from Issue 38 - Autumn of Donna Hay Magazine)

For the sumac salt:
1 part sumac
2 parts fleur de sel

For the fritters:
200g/7 oz beetroot, peeled
100g/3.5 oz orange kumara (sweet potato), peeled
1/4 cup flour
salt, pepper
1 egg white
rice bran or sunflower oil

1) In any vessel (I used a half-cup measuring cup!), mix together fleur de sel and sumac, then put aside.
2) Julienne the beetroot and kumara and put the strips into a medium-sized bowl. For a more refined look, drag a zester across the flesh of the vegetables in order to yield long, thin strips. You can see that I forwent refinedness.
3) Tip the flour onto the julienne strips of beetroot and kumara.
4) Grind in salt and pepper, half the pepper to salt - approximately 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
5) Break an egg white into the bowl (keep the yolk in a zipper-locked plastic bag in the fridge and use within a couple of days).
6) Mix together with a fork. After 30 seconds, it should bind quite well.
7) In a small saute pan over medium heat, add enough oil to come 1cm/0.4" up the sides. This is to create a shallow frying environment. The oil is "ready" when the oil bubbles semi-furiously - add a strip of either beetroot or kumara to test.
8) Add 1/4 cupfuls of the vegetable strip mixture, flatten so that all strips touch the oil.
9) Cook in batches 40 seconds to one minute per side or until golden, then flip them over.
10) Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with sumac salt whilst hot.

Because of the salty addition, these free-form fritters accompany cocktails perfectly - not exactly party food, though, for these are best piping hot; however, for a few friends gathered in the kitchen with Sidecars and Cosmopolitans, this is a great lead in to the pate and whatever else you have going. Speaking of cocktails, tomorrow I'm off to watch a movie with friends...and you know which film: it is the one that features a certain quartet of ladies - I'm "a Miranda," by the way, fitting given that it appears to be the last moment of autumn's russet splendour.

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