March 2011

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March 30, 2011

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

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I'm not gonna lie.  I'm not sure I've ever been more nervous before an interview than I was before talking to Nathan Myhrvold.

Four graduate degrees? An Ivy League PhD at twenty-two and postdoctoral work with Stephen Hawking? I had to fan the flop sweat from my body as I sat by the phone waiting for the chance, I assumed, to embarrass myself in front of a legitimate intellectual giant.

Mere minutes into my conversation, I realized I'd worried for nothing.  Nathan Myhrvold may be brilliant, accomplished, and wealthy, but he's also just a nice guy who's really passionate about a number of things, not the least of which is food and cooking.

Yes, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, the encyclopedia Myhrvold co-authored, has finally seen the light of day.

I was lucky enough to receive my copy a few weeks ago.  Now that my Q&A with Myhrvold has finally hit newstands, I'm eager to record a few of the impressions here that, due to pesky space limitations in the paper and ink world, did not make it into the Globe.

The first and most obvious question is: Is the book any good?  There's been a lot written, both positive and negative (and I'll address that shortly), but my personal opinion is that Modernist Cuisine lives up to the hype.  I'm probably guilty of bandying about words like "masterpiece" and "bible" too often, but I'm not sure any other superlatives do Myhrvold's masterpiece justice.

Modernist Cuisine may well be the greatest cookbook ever.

I know that it is, at the very least, the best cookbook in my collection.  Yes, many if not most of the recipes are inaccessible to me, even though I have a thermal immersion circulator and a lot of modernist ingredients, but Myhrvold, and his co-authors, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, have created a jaw-dropping work that simultaneously catalogues in exhausting detail the techniques and ingredients of modern gastronomy while reinventing the entire cookbook format.

I told Dr. Myhrvold during our interview that I appreciated his cookbook because it took me back to one of my geeky childhood thrills: visiting the library, grabbing a volume of the encyclopedia, and simply opening it to some random entry in order to gaze at all that information, both textual and photographic.  Modernist Cuisine fills me with that same sense of wonder.

Frankly, most of the time I don't give a damn about the recipes, even the ones that I can cook, because I'm engrossed in a detailed discussion of chicken skin or some other obscure, yet fascinating, detail.

Still, those recipes that I have tried are good, like the Colonel's Secret Recipe chicken, which was amongst the best fried chickens I've ever tasted, even if it didn't quite capture the flavour of KFC.

The best recipes in the book aren't for specific dishes, however, they're the "Parametric Recipes" that provide foundations for preparing any number of kitchen essentials (both modernist and conventional). The parametric recipe for stocks is my new go-to for that staple, as are the parametric recipes for sous videing tender and tough meats, poultry, and offal.

The recipe format itself deserves praise.  I loathe volume measurements, and this book doesn't contain any.  Quantities for every recipe are listed in metric and as a baker's percentage, which makes scaling dishes simple. This is a good thing, too, given that one of my few quibbles with the book is the small portion sizes in many recipes.

I'd like to offer one more nugget of praise before addressing some of the criticism leveled at modernist cuisine.  My sense is that the Modernist Cuisine team have finally solved the messy problem of what to call this particular approach to food.  Goodbye and good riddance to 'molecular gastronomy,' I say.  The people who cook in that style have always hated the term, and those who dislike it have always said the 'molecular' portion of the term with a sneer indicative of their contempt for what they view as an inferior style of cooking.

So, from now on can we please adopt the term 'modernist cuisine' (note the lower case 'm' and 'c' to distinguish it from the book)?

In addition to my Q&A with Dr. Myhrvold, The Globe & Mail also published companion articles by Mark Schatzker criticizing modernist cuisine, and by me praising it.

I'd like to take the time to address Schatzker's main argument (and I'm simplifying here): modernist cuisine emphasizes technique over ingredients.

Nonsense.

Anyone who's read The Sorcerer's Apprentice's: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria's elBulli, Lisa Abend's brilliant (but, frankly, harrowing) look into the lives of stagiaires at the world's most esteemed restaurant, learns how obsessive he and his chefs are about the quality of their primary materials.

Likewise, anyone who attended Rene Redzepi's Q&A with Alison Fryer of The Cookbook Store here in Toronto, now knows of the centrality of ingredients to noma's food.

Thomas Keller's reverence for his materials is legendary.  To those of you who argue that Keller isn't a modernist, I refer you to his cookbook, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide.

The lesson's clear: great chefs use great ingredients. Period. Whether they're traditionalists or modernists doesn't matter.

The other flaw in Schatzker's argument is that his criticism is only valid if traditional cookbooks don't behave in exactly the same way as Modernist Cuisine.  In his critique of Modernist Cuisine's hamburger recipe, Schatzker writes:

Alas, there is a problem. Humans may be able to measure quantities of Activa RM down to the nearest microgram and prepare blends of ground beef using exact ratios of short rib and aged rib eye. But nature doesn’t work that way.

For example, is that aged rib eye from a 14-month-old barley-fed Charolais steer or a 24-month-old ryegrass-finished Galloway heifer? Because both will feature different profiles of fatty acids and volatile aromatic compounds. And if you use the latter, don’t bother with the cylinderizing, liquid nitrogen and deep-frying: Just form a patty with your hands, hit it with sea salt and high heat, and you will discover burger bliss. (And just how many Microsoft stock options do you have to cash in before grinding an exalted cut like rib eye seems like a good idea?)

The problem is that traditional cookbooks don't differentiate between that barley-fed Charolais or his Galloway cousin either.  I see a lot of cookbooks these days, and the ingredients, especially for common dishes like a burger, almost always include generic ingredient lists.  When it comes to burger recipes, I'm usually happy when a cookbook recommends specific cuts of meat for the patty, which is exactly what Modernist Cuisine does.

And that's because cookbook recipes tend to follow a specific format: a set of ingredients, usually suitably generic (ie. 500 grams of lean ground beef), followed by a set of instructions, almost always specific (ie. cook on a grill heated to at least 400F).

Let's take a moment to envision Schatzker's idealized cookbook, which would apparently be exactly the opposite, an elaborate shopping list with vague instructions:

Ingredients:
500 grams of ground 24-month-old ryegrass-finished Galloway heifer aged rib eye from your local farmers' market.
Sea salt 

Instructions:
Combine ingredients with your hands. Char the outside and heat the inside over high heat. Serve.

Absurd, right? So please don't tell me that technique only plays a supporting role.

Sure, you can buy that "24-month-old ryegrass-finished Galloway heifer" and "discover burger bliss," using a little salt and some high heat, or you can sous vide it, zap it with liquid nitrogen, and deep-fry it to discover burger perfection.

I know what I'd choose.

* I conducted two phone interviews with Dr. Myrhvold.  I offer them here, complete and unedited. The total, combined length is approximately two hours.

 

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http://www.amazon.com/Under-Pressure-Cooking-Sous-Vide/dp/1579653510

March 24, 2011

Makin' whoopie: Red velvet whoopie pies with Italian brown butter and bacon buttercream

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Not part of the plan.

The whole point of making red velvet whoopie pies with Italian brown butter and bacon buttercream was to highlight how peeved I've become with the prominence of bacon-themed desserts.  Cured pork belly's in everything, and it's got to stop.

Bacon brioche bread pudding?  No thanks.

Simplified bacon chocolate crunch bar with gianduja, peanut butter, and feuilletine?  Actually, that sounds pretty awesome.

Bacon-glazed donuts? Alright, my love for donuts compels me to try this, but I swear I'll resent myself just a little for it.

As Eric Vellend pointed out in the Toronto Star, bacon is a "food trend with the half-life of uranium."

I thought I could mock the fad by making the trendiest dessert I could think of, and let's be honest, like bacon, red velvet, whoopie pies, and brown butter have oversaturated the dessert scene of late.  My only regret is that I didn't batter and fry each pie (or at least add balls of deep fried butter to them).

Like many of my plans, this one backfired.  The first problem is that my red velvet whoopie pies look, well, brown and lumpen (the word 'turd' comes to mind).  The second, and larger problem, at least for someone trying to mock a trend, is that Italian brown butter and bacon buttercream tastes pretty awesome.

The smokiness of bacon melds beautifully with the complex flavours of brown butter, while its crispness adds a snappy contrast to the silky texture of buttercream.  It's not quite chocolate and peanut butter, but everyone that's tasted it agrees it's pretty damn good.

So these pies have me reevaluating: Why do I loathe all that bacon in my sweets?

Don't get me wrong, bacon is great.  My favourite bacon in Toronto comes from The Healthy Butcher, though I made this dish with delectable oink from Cumbrae's.  I use bacon frequently in savoury dishes, and I always have a ramekin of bacon fat sitting in my fridge to sauté pretty much anything.

But donuts and chocolate don't need bacon (though nothing can rescue a Bounty or Big Turk), especially while baconless brussels sprouts still stalk our planet.

And that's my problem: adding bacon to everything is too damn easy.

Bacon has become a shortcut.  No, that's not far enough.

Bacon is a cult, and we need to be deprogrammed.

November 30, 2009

Chai ho! The pleasures and perils of dining in India, part II

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Yes, after slightly more than two months in India, I finally took the plunge and ate full on street food.  I'm talking stall on the street, a stainless steel urn of water and a communal cup, a pot with watery chutney, and dodgy looking customers (including one angry looking guy with a large scar beneath one eye that gives him permanent stank eye).  The kitchen for this streetside cuisine was in an alley behind the stall where, just around a corner and out of sight, a couple of men fry snacks morning, noon, and night.

But what snacks.
 
I'm in love with Mumbai's classic streetfood: vada pav.  Add some chillies and spice to boiled and mashed potatoes (already a pretty good start, eh?), form it into patties, then dust the patties in spiced chick pea flour before frying them until golden, brown, and delicious.  Take said delectable fritter and sandwich it in a small, soft bun slathered in a loose, garlicky, green or red chutney.  Wrap in newspaper and serve to students, street urchins and foolish tourists.

Swoon!

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Vada pav (usually pronounced "wada pow" here) is Mumbai's answer to the street dog with a vegetarian twist.  The street version costs a hefty Rs. 6, or just 13 US cents, so I splurged on two.  There are versions that are a lot less "street," of course.  For Rs. 9, you can get the fast food version at Jumbo King, Mumbai's answer to McDonald's (well, aside from all the damn McDonald's), and for a whopping Rs. 60, there's one of Mumbai's best vegetarian restaurants, Swati Snacks, which serves a safe, top notch sandwich slathered in red chutney and served with a side of fiery masala.

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The New York Times even published an article full of largely misguided information about vada pav and Mumbai street food:
 
Having tried the Times recommended Jumbo King, I heartily endorse the sentiments of the driver who tried to dissuade me from eating there: "Jumbo King is not vada pav, it's vada 'bun.'"  All of which is to say that Jumbo King serves their vada pav on a hamburger bun and otherwise sullies the great, greasy name of the vada pav in much the same way that McDonald's insults the good name of the burger.

Anyways, after standing around for about ten minutes waiting for one of the kitchen hands to replenish his supply of vadas, the vadawallah began to mechanically slice buns and slather generous spoonful of garlic chutney -- a fantastically flavourful thin green soup of water, cilantro, and garlic -- onto each one before adding piping hot fritters.  It was soooo worth the wait.  The bun is, for lack of a better term, soft and squooshy, and the vada is a little crisp on the outside but creamy and spicy inside.  The chutney adds volumes of flavour and, let's be honest here, some necessary moisture to the dish.  If I weren't trying to maintain my Bowflex body, I'd happily eat vada pav for pretty much every meal. 

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Within minutes, the vendor was cleaned out of vadas, leaving a small crowd to wait for the next batch of piping hot fritters.  In the meantime, I escaped in my getaway vehicle with three newspaper-wrapped vada pavs for me and my wheelman.

You've probably already figured out that the pav (ie. bun) and vada (ie. fritter) aren't likely vectors for foodborne illness, which leads to me believe that vadawallahs include garlic chutney as a way to make sure that this meal, like all others in Mumbai, is an intestinal roll of the dice.  Unlike North American bottled chutneys, Indian chutneys are served fresh, so they're made with far less, if any, sugar and far more water, and water is always a risky proposition.
 
So what the hell was I doing eating that watery chutney after my previous experiences with chutney?  Trusting my driver, of course.  He's a local who took me to his favourite vadawallah, and he assured me that the food is "hygienic."  "Hygienic" is the word Indians use to describe safe, sanitary restaurants.  "Loose motions" is the term they use to describe the output of eating at unsanitary restaurants.

Luckily, my driver knew what he was talking about.

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October 31, 2009

Chai ho! The pleasures and perils of dining in India

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It's fair to say that one of my primary motivations for accepting a four month work assignment in Mumbai was the prospect of three square a day in a country with an impeccable culinary heritage.

I dreamed of creamy gravies, tender and juicy tandoor-roasted flesh, and vegetarian delicacies.  I fantasized about dishes I didn't even know, dreamed up delicacies that I was sure to discover with a little digging and a taste for adventure.  I fancied returning to Canada with the same sort of fluency with regional Indian food that repeated trips to the boot have given me with the food of Italy.  My main fears were of returning to Toronto bloated by butter chicken and chick peas, or of missing out on an unforgettable Indian treat.

I was aware of the likelihood of foodborne illness -- everyone knows the risks of eating in a developing country -- but I figured that with a little common sense and caution I could avoid a serious bout of food poisoning and instead enjoy a gluttonous sojourn on the sub-continent.  Besides, I figured my constitution had been steeled by a lifetime of epicurean indulgence, both at home and abroad.

Ten days into my trip, heaving into the toilet and praying for the sweet release of death, I came to see things a little differently.

I'd been warned, of course.  The advice seems best suited to someone buying a mogwai, not a glutton on the prowl: "Never drink the water" is the most common refrain along with "Never eat the street food," but I was also fed a few other nuggets like, "And don't ever, under any circumstances, eat the chutney."

So I ate the chutney.

And, just like that poor mogwai fed after midnight, horrible things happened to me.

I was roused from my slumber at 5 in the morning by burps.  Delicious, chicken bharta flavoured burps, to be honest, but burps nonetheless.  During my phone call with my wife Rachel a couple of hours later, I began to feel slight discomfort.  By the time I was showering fifteen minutes later, I was doubled over in pain.

I told my colleague, the disgustingly healthy Charles, to go to the office without me.  The evening before, after I spooned a few drops of green chutney onto my papadum, Charles reiterated his strict personal no chutney policy then arched his eyebrows in the universal gesture for, "hey, it's your funeral."  My current state justified his caution.

And so I spent one of the most miserable days of my life holed up in my hotel room, curtains drawn to shield my eyes from the stabbing pain of bright light.  A doctor paid me a house call and diagnosed the obvious, food poisoning, then prescribed me a small dispensary's worth of antibiotics, anti-nauseants, and rehydration salts.

My new work colleagues in Mumbai started making prescriptions of their own, however.  Every culture touts the restorative quality of certain foods, and India's no different.  While Canadians sip flat ginger ale and chicken soup, and Italians mangiare in bianco (literally, "to eat in white"), Indians champion coconut water and curd rice.

Within hours of falling ill, a hotel employee was in my room with three coconuts sent to me by a concerned co-worker.  He cut a hole in one of them and poured its water into a glass.  I took a few tentative sips.  Coconut water looks murky and tastes like slightly sweet, stale water, but, as champions of the coconut are eager to point out, coconut water is nature's Gatorade; it's loaded with electrolytes and is less acidic and contains less sugar than common sports drinks.  Coconut water has reportedly even been used as an intravenous hydration fluid.  If only Mother Nature had the common sense to market her creation in Glacier Freeze and Tropical Intenso flavours, she could make a fortune.

I didn't develop much of a taste for coconut water, but two days of chicken broth later I was ready for solid food.  The spice and heat of many Indian dishes don't lend themselves to the kind of baby steps my digestive system and I were ready to take, so I started slow, with the dish my co-workers recommended.

Curd rice is a south-Indian specialty, a sort of sub-continental risotto.  At its most basic, it's just the room temperature leftover rice on a dinner plate or, more authentically, on a banana leaf, mixed with a few spoonfuls of unsweetened yogurt.  Millions of Indians finish their meal with a heap of curd rice to calm stomachs and mouths inflamed by spice.

When you're fragile like I was, curd rice isn't the end of a great meal, it's the appetizer, entree, and dessert.  After sampling more than my fair share of examples, I can say that not all curd rices are created equal.

Copper Chimney, a Mumbai dining institution, serves my favourite curd rice.  They mix toasted black mustard seeds, fresh raw cucumber and peppers, and chopped cilantro into creamy, cool curd rice, elevating a bland staple into a refreshing conclusion to a meal.  They even garnish it with a dried chili.  Oh, the irony!

I've now fully recovered from that bout of food poisoning, and I'm hoping that my subsequent encounters with curd rice are of a more traditional nature, as the conclusion to a spice-laden south-Indian meal.  In the meantime, I'm sampling every last Indian specialty I can find -- and hoping to blog about it a little more consistently.  I'm even trying to be a little more cautious about my food choices.

But I'm still eating the chutney.

April 30, 2009

Moona Lisa: cooking with La Vache qui rit

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Once, as a grad student and culinary dullard living on the tips I earned waiting tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant, I met a girl I really wanted to impress.  We'd already been on a few dates, and had reached the point in our relationship where it was time to take the next, anxiety-inducing step: homecooking.  I hoped to knock her socks off (although I have to admit her socks weren't really what I had in mind) by preparing a romantic dinner, something a little different from my usual post-work Whoppers smothered in mayo while watching Law & Order re-runs.  So I created a "homemade" pasta sauce of melted cream cheese with bacon.  The result was a bit of a stodgy mess, to put it kindly, but the girl appreciated the thought enough to at least remove those socks.   

Now that I've learned a little more about cooking and food, I've discovered that some of the great cuisines frequently gild their sauces with dairy, so cream cheese wasn't such a crazy idea.  Italians finish two of their most famous preparations, risotto and polenta, with dollops of butter and grated parmesan.  A little of both goes a long way, after all.  Parmesan adds salty and umami flavours, while butter provides richness and sheen.

This maneuver is such a staple of Italian technique that there's even a native word for it, "mantecare," a verb that means to blend or cream.

Great gastronomic minds think alike, apparently, because the French also exploit the finishing powers of a little dairy.  Many French sauces are incomplete without the addition of a little -- okay, a lot -- of butter.

The culinary world has even come to adopt the French term for this technique, "monter au beurre."

For years, Rachel and I finished countless -- not all, but most -- risottos, polentas, and sauces the same way.

That all changed last year.  One lazy afternoon, I whiled away my time watching French Food at Home on Food Network Canada.  The show stars Laura Calder, a graceful, well-spoken host with a deep love and knowledge of French cooking.  In the episode I watched, she made a zucchini and La Vache Qui Rit soup she describes as a favourite comfort food of French children.

I don't doubt it.  La Vache qui rit -- it's known as The Laughing Cow in most of the English-speaking world -- is a creamy, buttery-tasting blend of cheeses, though apparently it's mainly Comté, that's easy to enjoy primarily because it is so unchallenging.  There are no funky tastes or textures, just a straightforward richness that any child (and most adults) can appreciate.

What makes this cheese so compelling is not simply its taste, however, it's also the dynamite packaging.  Not everyone recognizes the circular box with the big smiling cow on its front, but the individually foil-wrapped wedges within are iconic.  As a child, I remember going to family gatherings and gorging on this cheese.  I especially loved grabbing a wedge, finding the little red pull tab, then pulling back the foil to reveal the delicious triangle of cheese within.

It's no wonder, then, that Rachel and I made Calder's soup shortly thereafter.  It is delicious, but after cooking a batch (and enjoying a few snacks here and there) we still had many wedges leftover.

My eureka moment came while reaching into our cheese drawer to get some parmesan for a risotto.  While looking for the undisputed king of cheeses I glanced at that beguiling bovine smile and grabbed three wedges (as well as the parmesan) to add to the pot before serving.

Now, I'm sure there are many Italians out there cringing at this little experiment, and I can't say I blame them.  I actually feel annoyed when I get served risotto in restaurants that's been finished with a little whole cream; it just feels like cheating to me.

But after tasting the risotto with the laughing cow, we were very pleasantly surprised at both the texture and flavour of the finished product.  The effect is subtle, but the cheese adds richness and creaminess.  Frankly, I think most people would notice a difference in the dish but would be unable to identify what, precisely, had changed.

Our favourite risotto to pair with La Vache qui rit is a simple trio of leeks, peas, and lardons of crispy bacon.  The recipe is at the end of this post.

Having ventured into fertile territory with rice, I decided to expand my repertoire to yet another staple of the boot.  Polenta doesn't deserve its stodgy, bland reputation.  Prepared with time and care, cornmeal can be every bit as satisfying as risotto or pasta.  Of course, we soon discovered that time and care are a whole lot better with two wedges of La Vache Qui Rit.  Just stir them in along with any other seasonings, including parmesan, to finish the dish.

Polenta or risotto with La Vache qui rit seems miles away from that first pasta sauce of melted Philly.  As for the girl, she liked my cooking enough to stay close.  Rachel married me five years ago.

Leek, pea and bacon risotto

1 large leek (may substitute 1 large cooking onion)
225 g bacon (approximately 2, 1 cm thick slices)
200 g (approximately 1.5 C) fresh or frozen peas
350 g (approximately 1.75 C) arborio or other suitable risotto rice
1 L chicken stock (may substitute vegetable stock or water)
200 ml white wine, if desired
3 wedges of La vache qui rit cheese
salt
pepper
parmesan

Slice bacon into 1 cm wide lardons.  In a large saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat, cook lardons until darkened and crispy on the outside.

Preheat chicken stock to a bare simmer.

Remove lardons and all but two tablespoons of bacon fat from the saucepan or dutch oven and, over medium heat, add leeks and cook until just softened, approximately two minutes.  Add the rice, and cook until white dots appear in the centre of each grain, stirring frequently.

If using wine, add it at this point, stirring.  When it is reduced, add just enough hot chicken stock to cover the rice, stir frequently.  The liquid should barely simmer throughout this process.  Repeat this step until the rice is al dente, approximately eighteen to twenty minutes.  If the stock runs out before the rice is cooked, substitute water.

When the rice is almost cooked, add the peas and La Vache qui rit cheese, and stir until the cheese is completely incorporated into the risotto.

Finish with salt, pepper, and parmesan to taste.

Serve in bowls sprinkled with lardons and with additional salt, pepper, or parmesan if desired.

Makes four portions.

February 28, 2009

Lokum-motive: Turkish Delight, halva, dondurma and wondrous Istanbul

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Of all the many ways to introduce newcomers to Istanbul, the drive into the city from Ataturk airport may well be the worst.

Short on beauty, at least the cab ride from the airport is a baptism by fire into one essential element of life in the metropolis on the Bosporus: traffic.

It's a half hour of cars swerving in and out of lanes, and aggressive drivers riding the horn and careening to their destinations with an urgency usually seen only in emergency workers.  We saw two accidents on that first taxi ride: one was a car flipped on its side on the median with the driver standing beside his wreck with his shirt dirtied and his pants ripped; minutes later, we watched two drivers arguing over their fender bender.

Then we got to experience the problem personally.  Just blocks from our hotel, our cab was lightly rear-ended by another cab.  No matter, our cabbie checked the damage using the passenger side mirror, muttered a few imprecations at the other driver under his breath, then zoomed on.

What compounds the terror is that not only does everyone drive like a maniac, but none of the backseats in the cabs have functioning seat belts.  The shoulder straps are there, but the buckles are buried under the backseats or are non-existent.

I survived the trip using a combination of white knuckles, closed eyes, and prayers to Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Ganesha, and L. Ron Hubbard.

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Once safe and sound at our hotel, we gathered our wits, consulted our map, and hit the town -- on foot -- to sample a few of the local specialties.

Istiklal Caddesi is a glorious pedestrian boulevard in the heart of Istanbul's cosmopolitan Beyoglu neighbourhood.  On our first night, on the cusp of sundown in the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, we entered Istiklal Caddesi off a tiny sidestreet and were immediately immersed into a hive of humanity that easily qualifies as the pedestrian equivalent of the automobile traffic we'd just escaped.

But whereas all those cars terrify, this street invigorates.  Between the buzz of the faithful lining up in front of restaurants to break their daily fast and the many restaurants and cafes, some Western, some Turk, eager to help them do it, it was hard for us to decide where to stop first.

Okay, maybe it wasn't that hard.

Ever since I read Harold McGee's article praising Turkish ice cream, I'd been craving a taste.  Dondurma, as it's known in Turkey, has a uniquely chewy texture, a quality it owes to two factors: first, it's made using powdered orchid bulbs, known as salep in Turkish (which translates to "fox testicle" in English); second, it's not so much churned as it is kneaded and stretched vigorously.

The two processes work hand-in-hand.  Salep contains glucomannan, a carbohydrate that, as McGee explains, "bind[s] up and block[s] the movement of water molecules."  Kneading the ice cream turns this "network into a dense elastic mass" so thick it can be pulled like taffy and sliced with a knife.

Several cafes along Istiklal Caddesi sell salep ice cream.  Some emphasize the more theatrical aspects of this dessert: they pull cylinders of dondurma out of their freezers using extended metal rods, then they stretch and pull it, showing off its amazing pliability.  The only thing I can compare it to is glass blowing, and the oozing fluidity of molten hot glass as it's being pulled from ferociously hot ovens and shaped by the glassmaker.

We stopped at a few places.  I'd read about Mado during some pre-trip research and then had it recommended again by Cenk, a native of Istanbul and the author of Cafe Fernando, a droolworthy food blog.  Some argue it is Istanbul's best ice cream maker, and they do serve a delightful dondurma with a mild taste and a slight chew.

At the cheaper stands on Istiklal Caddesi, teenage boys spin their ice creams this way and that, teasing the buyer by almost juggling them, before handing over cups of dondurma that are far chewier and less flavourful than the more refined product at Mado.  This version encapsulates Rachel's objection to dondurma: done poorly, it reminds her of the gummy gelatinous texture that is a hallmark of cheap industrial North American ice cream.

A little further down the street we stopped at Haci Bekir, Istanbul's most renowned candy shop, which is famous for its Turkish Delight and halva.  Unfortunately, I've never been a fan of Turkish Delight.  In Canada, the only exposure most of us get to "Turkish Delight," known as "lokum" in Turkey, is the vile Big Turk chocolate bar -- a sickly sweet ribbon of hyper-sweet, fruit flavoured jelly enrobed in cheap milk chocolate.  The real stuff, however, I now love.  The version at Haci Bekir is delicately sweet, and its most noticeable flavours are nuts and rose water or mastic. 

Halva, a slightly sweet, grainy, tahini-based dessert, was already one of my favourite childhood treats.  My father would purchase it occasionally, and I remember gorging on it without ever having any idea what it was.  We went for a brick of pistachio because it works so well in most sweets, and halva is no exception.  This halva distinguishes itself for its texture, which seemed both a little moister and much finer than the tinned product sold in most Toronto groceries.

Already stuffed to the gills on Turkish sweets on first night in the city, we were nonetheless lured into a little hole in the wall pastry shop by the constant stream of people lining up for a mystery food being scooped into bowls from a big baking dish and slathered with chocolate sauce.  Whatever it was, business was brisk.

Turns out that Inci does a brisk business in profiteroles.  Unfortunately, we have to give these treats a thumbs down.  The choux pastry was good but the filling was heavy and a little coarse and likely thickened with cornstarch.

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I returned to Mado every day of our trip, some days more than once, for a cup of dondurma.  To this day, the only Turkish I've really mastered is "Merhaba!  Salepi dondurma, lutfen."  I'm not sure that "Hello, salep ice cream, please," made me a great tourist in the eyes of Mado's staff, but it did make me a very happy eater.

Of course, it's easy to bring home a little lokum and halva, but ice cream travels poorly.  I was determined, however, to try making dondurma at home, so I purchased small amounts of salep and mastic for a small ransom at Istanbul's Spice Bazaar and decided to try my luck in my own kitchen.

Let's just say I'm still trying.  I have now created reasonable versions of dondurma at home.  Unfortunately, I lack the equipment to properly work the ice cream and it shows in the final product.  My version of dondurma has a far more pronounced mastic flavour than the versions we ate in Istanbul, but it is also far less chewy, the quality I love most.

Mastic is also a challenging ingredient to use.  It comes in jagged crystals and is actually the resin of a tree native to the Greek island of Chios.  Not only does it apparently contribute to the chewy texture of dondurma -- we saw mastic chewing gum for sale in Turkey --  it adds a sharply resinous, almost piney flavour to dishes, even when used in minute quantities.  I used less than one gram in my first batch of dondurma, and decided to scale it back ever so slightly for my second.

I've played with the amount of salep I use too, but I don't think I can approximate the texture of the real deal until I make dondurma in my stand mixer with liquid nitrogen, something I don't intend to do until summer.  I'm betting that the paddle attachment on my KitchenAid will provide the kneading muscle it takes to make this ice cream behave, and the liquid nitrogen will give me the temperatures I need to keep it chilled while doing so.

That said, if you happen to get your hands on some salep, a product unavailable outside of Turkey as far as I know, and a little mastic, which is available in most Turkish or Greek groceries, including Greek House Food Market in Toronto (where one of the owners told me many Greeks chew nuggets of mastic like gum), do try the recipe at the end of this post.

And if you can't get your hands on the ingredients, visit Istanbul.  For all my complaining about the terror of the ride into the city, all I remember about the cab back to the airport was sadness at saying goodbye to a beautiful city and its incredible food.

Dondurma -- Turkish ice cream

This recipe is still a work in progress.  Texturally, it's not quite there yet, though the flavours are excellent.  In order to improve its texture, I suggest making this ice cream with liquid nitrogen in a stand mixer so it can be kneaded thoroughly.

500ml 35% whipping cream
500ml 3.25% whole milk
0.8g mastic (a piece about the size of a fingernail)

12g salep (approximately 3 tsp)
200g granulated sugar (approximately 1C)

1. Freeze the mastic.  When frozen, grind to a fine powder in a coffee grinder with 10 grams (approximately 2 tsp) of the granulated sugar.
2. Heat the remaining sugar, all of the cream, and 250ml of the whole milk over medium-low heat.  Sprinkle the sugar and mastic mixture and salep over the milk mixture, whisking vigorously.  Heat the mixture to 80C, whisking constantly.  Remove the mixture from the heat, and add the remaining milk.
3. Chill the mixture completely, preferably overnight.
4. Churn chilled mixture in ice cream maker as per maker's instructions.

January 31, 2009

Wingin' it: tofu, Buffalo-style

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On a recent episode of 30 Rock, Gavin Volure, a reclusive business tycoon played by Steve Martin, describes Toronto as "just like New York, but without all the stuff."

Ouch!  Our fragile Toronto egos insist we live in a world class metropolis -- the New York of the north, you know -- but our heads say, "No way!"  That's why it's a shot to our collective inferiority complex to hear hogtown sarcastically cut down to size.

So how do we soothe our bruised egos?  Simple, we look down on our noses at our perceived inferiors, and no city makes us feel more smug than Buffalo.  The mistake on the lake.

Ask a born and bred Torontonian what comes to mind when they ponder the Queen City, and the answer is likely to be one of three things: urban poverty and crime; those ridiculous, nasal accents with their whiny vowels; and fire, fire, everywhere fire (I'm looking at you Tonawanda, Lackawanna and Cheektowaga).  Seriously, Buffalo, do your local newscasts feature stories about something other than homicide and house fires?

Buffalo is not without its charms, however, none greater than its glorious contribution to gastronomy: the buffalo wing.  And though there is some dispute as to which Buffalo landmark can properly lay claim to having invented it -- most accounts cite the Anchor Bar -- no one doubts the city of origin.

As a teen, my family used to make frequent shopping trips to Lewiston, New York, a small border town just down the road from Buffalo.   Every trip concluded with a hundred wings at the same watering hole.  I miss those wings, partially because I enjoyed those trips, but also because there are few foods I enjoy more.

Despite its bar roots, the humble chicken wing has a lot going for it.  Texturally, it offers a disproportionate level of deep fried crispiness relative to its size.  Most importantly, traditional Buffalo-style wing sauce is quite acidic, which cuts the heavy qualities of fried food with a perfect spicy zip.

As a wing traditionalist, I feel compelled to add that under no circumstances can I endorse wings smothered in barbecue sauce.  They are an affront to gastronomy.  A thick, sweet sauce is perfect for many grilled and smoked meats, but it has no place on a tender morsel of deep fried chicken.  Likewise, batter on chicken wings must be condemned as needless frippery.

Sadly, there are other emerging threats in the world of the chicken wing.  Supplies of perhaps the world's greatest bar munchie are woefully low after the bankruptcy of North America's largest wing producer, Pilgrim's Pride, while demand is way up because of Super Bowl weekend.  The situation is so dire, Stephen Colbert has been reduced to warning of the coming "Wing-ageddon" (sorry fellow Canucks, click here and fast forward to 2:48 to see the video):

That got me thinking about chicken wing alternatives.  During my wayward youth, I frittered away two long years as the world's worst vegetarian.  My virtuous experiment ended during my second year of university when a three month stint of eating nothing but Mr. Noodles no doubt contributed to a ten day hospital stay that included surgery, urethral swabs, catheters, and six-a-day Demerol injections (okay, the Demerol was actually kinda fun).  Some vegetarian.

The lingering impact of the "Time of the Great Meatlessness" is a profound love of tofu, especially when deep fried.  Done properly, deep fried tofu, much like chicken wings, has a crispy exterior and a meaty interior.  That got me thinking: Wouldn't deep fried tofu make an awesome chicken wing substitute?

So I tried it, and it does.

Now, you can deep fry and smother pretty much anything in a sauce of butter, garlic, hot sauce (I use Frank's) and salt and it'll taste pretty good, but I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this dish.  Good tofu has a firmness that conveys a certain meatiness, but the crowning touch is crumbled blue cheese.  Though I prefer ranch dressing with my chicken wings, a sprinkling of gorgonzola adds a little funk and a necessary hint of umami to the finished product when made with tofu.

So no mercy, Buffalo!  As if it weren't bad enough that we're trying to steal your football team (albeit poorly), now we're stealing your wing sauce for our own nefarious ends.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh.  There must surely be reasons to live in the Queen City beyond chicken wings.  A recent scientific study suggests that improvements in air quality over the past few decades have led to increases in life expectancy in many North American cities, with Buffalonians (Buffaloes?) enjoying a greater benefit than almost anyone else -- up to ten extra months according to researchers.

I felt a little jealous upon hearing that news, but not for long.  After all, who wants to spend ten extra months in Buffalo?

Buffalo Tofu

In a pinch, steps 3-5 can probably be skipped (though I've not tried).  I boil my tofu before cooking it after reading a note in Sichuan Cookery, by Fuchsia Dunlop, that this step removes any lingering flavour of the coagulant used to make it.  The time in a low oven is done merely to dry out the tofu before frying. It can probably be replaced by slicing the tofu and leaving it to rest for a few hours or even overnight, uncovered, in the fridge, or by pressing the tofu to remove as much moisture as possible.

300g firm tofu
1L vegetable oil
30g blue cheese (Gorgonzola)

Half recipe, Alton Brown's buffalo wing sauce

1. Preheat oven to 80C (175F).
2. Thoroughly rinse the tofu and slice into rectangles 1cm (0.4") thick and approximately 3.5cm long x 3.5cm thick (1.5" x 1.5").
3. In a large wok, bring 1 litre of water to a boil, add the tofu slices, and simmer for 5 minutes.
4. Remove tofu from the water and drain on paper towel.
5. Place the tofu slices on a rack atop a cookie sheet and let dry out in the oven for 30 minutes, flipping the tofu after 15 minutes.
6. Remove from the oven and store, refrigerated, in an airtight container until ready to cook.
7. In a large wok, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat until it reaches 190C (375F).  Add the tofu and increase the heat to high.  Maintain the temperature of the oil as close to
190C (375F) as possible, adjusting the heat as necessary.  Fry the tofu, flipping occasionally, until golden brown and slightly puffy, approximately six minutes.
8. While heating the vegetable oil, prepare the buffalo wing sauce and set aside in a large bowl.
9. Drain the tofu briefly on a double layer of paper towel, add to the bowl of wing sauce, stir to combine.  Crumble the blue cheese on top of the sauced tofu.  Serve immediately.

December 18, 2008

Menu for Hope 5: An autographed copy of Ferran Adria's A Day at elBulli

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It's holiday season, and in the food blogging world that means only one thing: Menu for Hope.

Menu for Hope is an annual charity raffle hosted by Chez Pim for which food bloggers around the globe donate incredible food and drink-themed prizes.  Proceeds from this year's auction will once again benefit the UN World Food Programme's school lunch programme in Lesotho.

You can help by choosing your favourite prizes, making a large donation here, then entering your raffle tickets in the draws for those prizes.  For a complete list of prizes, including items from Canadian bloggers, visit the following sites:

Canada: Meena Agarwal of Hooked on Heat
US: West (Closer to SF than to NY.): Matt Armendariz of Matt Bites
U.S. East (Closer to NY than to SF.): Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen
Europe: Sara of Ms.Adventures in Italy
Asia Pacific, Australia, New Zealand: Ed Charles of Tomato
Special Wine Blog Host: Alder of Vinography

For complete information on how to make a donation, check out the instructions at the end of this post.

Rachel and I are proud to contribute an autographed copy of A Day at elBulli, the latest volume from Ferran Adria, the world's most famous chef.  A Day at elBulli is a photo-essay of a service at elBulli interspersed with recipes, menus, and musings.  Chef Adria autographed this copy during his visit to Toronto in October.

If you're looking for the perfect gift for the cookbook collector or molecular gastronomy geek in your life, look no further.  Let it ride on prize CA02, the prize code for this autographed copy of a remarkable book that we will ship anywhere in Canada or the United States.

And please help a great cause in the process.

M4hDonation Instructions:
1. Choose a prize or prizes of your choice from our Menu for Hope at
http://www.chezpim.com/
2. Go to the donation site at http://www.firstgiving.com/menuforhope5 and make a donation.
3. Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize of your choice. Please specify which prize you'd like in the 'Personal Message' section in the donation form when confirming your donation. You must write-in how many tickets per prize, and please use the prize code.
For example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for EU01 and 3 tickets for EU02. Please write 2xEU01, 3xEU02
4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so we could claim the corporate match.
5. Please allow us to see your email address so that we could contact you in case you win.  Your email address will not be shared with anyone.

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November 09, 2008

Green scream: brussels sprouts three ways

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It takes a while for couples to settle on the ground rules in any new relationship, especially after moving in together.  We all have our little quirks.

Rachel learned about one of my more oddball needs within months of sharing an apartment with me: No brussels sprouts in my home.

Ever.

Yes, some people draw the line at guns, drugs, or porn in the house.  Not me.

I still remember returning home one evening shortly after moving in with Rachel only to be overwhelmed by an evil stench.  "Oh God, you made brussels sprouts," I said, in a tone that was half accusation, half anguish.

"Yeah, I love them so I had some for lunch," she replied.

Unfortunately, the mere scent of these vile green orbs -- even six hours after cooking them -- makes me want to retch.  So I laid down the law, which is to say I pleaded with Rachel to never make them in (or near) our home again.

To my wife's credit, a brussels sprout has never darkened our door in the decade since that horrifying day.  I owe her a debt of gratitude for this continuing act of kindness I have never repaid.  Until now.

Brussels sprouts.  Just typing the words makes me cringe.  I've overcome pretty much every food prejudice I've ever had.  I now eat and enjoy every other green vegetable I loathed in my youth, like spinach, broccoli, peas, and asparagus.  I even delve into the most obscure corners of gastronomy to experiment with rabbit ears, horse fat french fries, and lamb brains.  But there are still brussels sprouts, those little globes of grossness I still cannot stomach.

I've tried, too.  On two memorable occasions I didn't mind them.  The first time I ever felt even one iota of pleasure from a brussels sprout was at Bymark, Mark McEwan's gastro-cocoon for Bay Street bigwigs.  A few summers ago, he served a weekly slow roasted pork special with roasted brussels sprouts.  I requested a substitution, but Rachel, who had been denied so long, was thrilled.  So I tried one of hers, and I must admit I enjoyed it enough to try and steal a few more before she threatened to stab my hand with her fork if I made one more move towards her precious stash.

The world's only other decent sprout can be found at Lupa, Mario Batali's Roman-style trattoria in New York City.  His raw brussels sprout and pecorino antipasto actually had me eager for more.  After years of hating brussels sprouts, I was shocked to find myself enjoying them raw with only some cheese, olive oil, and lemon juice.  Batali's ability to extract pleasure from a brussels sprout is a sign of his genius, in my opinion, so I was thrilled to find a similar dish on the menu at Toronto's Tomi-Kro last year.  When I asked chef Laura Prentice about it, she said she too was inspired by Batali's dish.

Unfortunately, neither McEwan nor Batali have published their recipes yet, which means digging deep into my cookbook collection to participate in Thursday Night Smackdown's brilliant ingredient you think you don't like First Thursday event.  The event rules explicitly forbid improvisation and mandate learning a little something from the cookbooks I already own, so I scoured my collection and found not one but three dishes worthy of the occasion.

Of course, it's foolish for a hater to cook three possibly gag-inducing dishes without having a back-up plan.  Mine is my wife and our friends Jill and Rob.  All three are lovely people, who, despite their many admirable qualities, somehow go gaga for brussels sprouts.  But, hey, it beats throwing them out, right?  (The brussels sprouts, that is.)

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Given that Mario Batali produces one of the world's only two decent brussels sprout dishes, The Babbo Cookbook seemed like a good place to start.  And you know what?  It was.  I took one bite of his brussels sprouts with pancetta, and then I took another, and yet another after that.  These sprouts are firm with pleasant caramelized and smokey notes that mask the worst qualities of the primary ingredient.  I confess: this dish is alright.

Like raw sprouts with pecorino, this is yet another simple yet elegant Batali effort.  The brussels sprouts are par-boiled for a mere two minutes, sliced in half vertically, then finished in a saute pan over high heat with some pancetta drippings before being served with lardons of pancetta and a little thyme and parsley.

Of course, bacon and bacon-like products have a way of transforming trash into treasure. That's why I'm convinced Batali owns a dog, because if I learned anything from my mutt, it's that serving something with bacon pretty much guarantees it will be eaten.

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If only serving brussels sprouts with a quick and easy pea and whipping cream puree were as successful.  Unfortunately Michel Richard's Jolly Green Brussels Sprouts from Happy in the Kitchen was my least favourite dish.  I took one bite of these green monsters and all those old feelings came flooding back.  It was all I could do to choke one sprout down without gagging.

I had come to suspect that my real problem is with boiled brussels sprouts.  If you include the sprouts with pancetta, the only three brussels sprouts dishes I've ever enjoyed feature raw, roasted, or sauteed sprouts.  Richard, on the other hand, boils his frozen brussels sprouts for eight minutes before sauteeing them for three then stirring in a sauce made with whipping cream and defrosted frozen peas.  The result is very soft and much too bitter for me.

But that doesn't explain why I tolerated, but didn't really enjoy, the third and final dish, Thomas Keller's duck confit with brussels sprouts and mustard sauce from Bouchon.  Keller par-boils his brussels sprouts for five minutes then simmers them in the mustard sauce before service.  These sprouts taste fairly mild, and the mustard sauce and duck are excellent, but I certainly wasn't dazzled by them.

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The explanation for why I tolerate or detest a given sprout may lie not in the cooking but in the slicing.  A quick consultation with Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking yielded meaningful results.  According to McGee, brussels sprouts contain two bitter compounds concentrated in the centre of the sprout, one that diminishes only with rapid cooking, the other only with slow cooking.  In other words, you're screwed no matter what you do.   Unless, advises McGee, you slice the sprouts in half and boil them, a step that "will leach out both precursors and products" of bitter flavours.

As I look back at the many brussels sprouts I detested and the few I tolerated, I've come to realize that those I've enjoyed have all been sliced.  Batali's raw sprout and pecorino antipasto is basically a slaw.  Likewise, the brussels sprouts in the pancetta dish are sliced before sauteeing (though McGee at least implies this shouldn't diminish bitterness) and Keller's tolerable sprouts are sliced then simmered.

After sampling all three dishes I found only one, Batali's brussels sprouts with pancetta, I'd eat again.  Oddly enough, my three fanatical companions all selected Richard's dish as their favourite precisely because it had the most pronounced sprout flavour.  I guess I still have a problem: my favourite dishes are the ones that most mask the flavour of the sprouts.

But Rachel's sprout problem might be solved.  She's hatched a pact with Jill and Rob to head over to their place the next time they recreate one of these brussels sprout recipes.  She's suffered through a decade of sprout deprivation.  It won't be pretty.

October 31, 2008

Boysterous: Starfish's oyster po' boy and the quest for sustainability

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There's a spot in Toronto's St. Lawrence Market, at the junction of two aisles, from which I sometimes survey all three of the market's fishmongers.  And what I see these days pains me.

Two of the three proudly display Chilean sea bass, and all three usually have some Atlantic cod and grouper, often just a few slots down from the trays of farmed salmon and monkfish.  In other words, these guys sell a lot of unsustainable fish.

I spoke to the manager of one of these shops a few months ago and asked him why so much unsustainable catch makes it into display cases.  His answer was one part cop out, one part foreboding pragmatism.  The obvious reason for selling unsustainably fished species is that customers don't just buy them, they demand them.  But that excuse only stretches so far.  The other reason they do it, according to my piscine Deep Throat, is that there's no longer enough sustainable catch available to fill twenty feet of refrigerated display cases.

More worrisome yet, this trio isn't alone.  I've visited many of Toronto's most reputable fishmongers and they all sell unsustainable seafood.  It's an epidemic.

Now, I'm hardly a saint when it comes to sustainability.  My ignorance of the issue led me down some inexcusable paths.  But I saw the light about a year ago and have since devoted myself to the cause of sustainability with fervour.

I've struggled to educate myself about the issues by reading fantastically helpful books like Bottomfeeder, by Taras Grescoe, and The End of the Line, by Charles Clover.  I carry a wallet-sized copy of SeaChoice's Canada's Seafood Guide with me wherever I go.  I even question servers and fishmongers about the provenance of the seafood they offer.  Most importantly, I've stopped eating unsustainable fish.

But I want to do more.

I got the chance this month thanks to Toronto Life.  I'm in the process of writing a sidebar for the January issue that identifies a handful of sustainable restaurant dishes in Toronto.  It hasn't been easy.  I now understand how difficult it must be to fill a display case with sustainable seafood.  Finding five dishes took hours of digging and led me down a lot of false paths.

Until now, for example, I'd always assumed that McDonald's Filet-O-Fish, made largely of Alaskan pollock, represents one of the best seafood choices available.  The fishery earned Maritime Stewardship Council (MSC) certification and was routinely cited as an exemplar of industry best practices.  This year, according to Greenpeace, catches have plummeted almost fifty percent and a collapse of the fishery, along with the ecosystem it supports, is possible.  Goodbye fish sticks and California rolls.

I can move on, I thought, there are plenty of fish in the sea.  Having digested the lessons of Bottomfeeder, I immediately sought out something small and oily, like anchovies, only to discover that the MSC listed the Atlantic anchovy as a fish to avoid now that the Bay of Biscay fishery has collapsed and stocks in the remaining Portuguese fishery have sunk to critical levels.

Researching this piece was a struggle, but it had its rewards.

First, there are a handful of restaurants in the Greater Toronto Area that care enough to at least make some effort to serve sustainable seafood.  Jamie Kennedy has long been the poster boy for sustainability in this town, but the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise programme identifies five local restaurants that serve sustainable dishes:

1. Amuse-Bouche
2. C5
3. EPIC
4. Pangaea Restaurant
5. Trios Bistro

I also learned that SeaChoice has worked with a handful of restaurants that "are at least engaged to some degree:"

1. Jamie Kennedy Kitchens
2. Reds Bistro & Wine Bar
3. Scaramouche
4. Cowbell
5. Oliver Bonacini
6. Oyster Boy
7. Niagara Street Café
8. The Drake Hotel
9. Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill

Second, my research connected me with Taina Uitto, the national manager of SeaChoice, Canada's pre-eminent advocacy group for sustainable seafood, and the publisher of Canada's Seafood Guide, a handy wallet-sized card that takes much of the confusion out of buying seafood. 

Uitto's passion for the subject is obvious, and her expertise invaluable.  She also eloquently articulates the sort of perspective we all need to adopt if wild seafood is to survive: "So... things are not that simple.  But, what I always say to people is that is asking the questions really that big of a deal?  If you had a peanut allergy, would you be afraid to ask whether there are nuts in a dish?  I feel the same about seafood.  I have a certain allergy to unsustainability, and don’t want to put that in my body.  Even if you don’t get the answers, and it seems like a bother, and you might even end up making a choice that you are not 100% sure about, even asking the question helps.  We get feedback from the industry that change is really brought on by the consumers asking for answers (and sustainable options), which makes the company go looking.  We may not be there yet, but we need help getting there from consumers."

I owe my third and final discovery to Patrick McMurray, owner of Starfish and elite oyster shucker.  I happened to contact him the day before his restaurant hosted an event for A Good Catch, a new cookbook by Jill Lambert that features recipes for sustainable fish from Canada's best chefs as well as a species by species guide to choosing fish and a list of readily available alternatives to popular but unsustainable species.  It is essential reading for anyone who loves to cook seafood and cares about the fate of the oceans.

So, the minute I cracked the cover, I knew I had to choose one of the recipes from A Good Catch for the leather district gourmet's Teach a Man to Fish 2008 sustainable seafood event.  I didn't have to search that long, either.  Given that Patrick McMurray led me to Jill and the a book, it seemed only fitting that I use his recipe.  Of course, it didn't hurt that his dish is a fantastic oyster po' boy sandwich.

A po' boy is a hot sandwich traditionally made with fried oysters or shrimp on a crusty French-style loaf, often dressed with a little lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise.  It's about as New Orleans as you can get, on a par with jazz and Hurricane cocktails.  Patrick McMurray's version hews pretty closely to New Orleans tradition.  The only difference is in the breading -- he uses Japanese panko bread crumbs

Choosing a suitable bread can be tricky, but Rachel and I never really had a doubt.  We live around the corner from The Fish Store & Sandwiches, the very definition of a hole-in-the-wall foodie destination, and they serve their delicious (but, unfortunately, not always sustainable) sandwiches on a wonderfully light, slightly yeasty Portuguese loaf, with a chewy crumb and delicate crust.  That loaf comes from the Golden Wheat bakery across the street, so we asked around and learned that the rolls in question are called Pão de Mafra, and picked up a couple for our po' boys.

They are "POW!" awesome with this sandwich, especially slathered with a little homemade tartar sauce and gilded with a half dozen oysters straight out of the frying pan.  I loved mine so much that I ate it with a suspicious glare and hunched shoulders, as if I were wary of some interloper dashing into my home and stealing my po' boy out from under my nose.

Oh yeah, aside from tasting incredible, few seafood options are more sustainable than a farmed oyster, the world's greatest bivalve.  Farmed properly, that little Malpeque actually cleans the water it inhabits.  Raw or cooked, we should be eating more of them. 

I've already described this city's need for a sustainable fishmonger, and I'm convinced that the first person to do it will make a lot of money.  Toronto foodies have already shown a willingness to pay exorbitant prices for their organic, responsibly farmed meat at Cumbrae's and The Healthy Butcher.  It's a winning business model.  I know, because every few weeks Rachel and I visit one or both places and wait our turn to pay an exorbitant amount of money for a free range chicken, a slab of smokey bacon, or a tender short rib.  Above all else, however, we do it for the chance to vote with our dollars for a food choice that mitigates suffering and ecological damage.

I just want the same option when buying seafood.

September 30, 2008

Seducktion: an afternoon at The Fat Duck

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"Nooooo!"

We were in the middle of the fifth course of our tasting menu at The Fat Duck when I earned the dreaded "Napkin of Shame."

My face contorted in a spasm of dread, but it was too late.  Moments before, half a quenelle of foie clung to the bottom of my spoon, fighting a losing battle against gravity before plummeting to the table, its langoustine cream and quail jelly oozing brownly onto what was once an immaculate white tablecloth.

There I was, in one of the world's greatest restaurants, having just marked myself as a yokel while trying to savour every last bite of chef Heston Blumenthal's landmark cuisine.  And to make matters worse, I'd lost half of my foie. 

I blamed my spoon.  I blamed the hollowed-out sphere-on-a-pedestal serving bowl.  The damn thing resembles a ball chair, for crying out loud, and aren't they designed to deliberately obscure what's in them?  In short, I blamed everything but me.

Ah, the Napkin of Shame, that bane of every fine diner's existence and perhaps the most peculiar creation of the rarefied world of Michelin-starred dining.  In that realm, perfection is the goal.  That means more than just flawless food; it includes polished silver, service that anticipates needs, and, of course, lily-white tablecloths.

To that end, high-end restaurants keep any number of arrows in their quiver.  The most obvious tool is a table crumber, or, as we yokels like to call them, "table swiffers."  But it's just a curved piece of metal that scoops up stray crumbs and bits.  That's kids' stuff.

For really big messes only the Napkin of Shame will do.

Our first run in with the Napkin of Shame occurred last year at New York's Jean-Georges during a dinner with Sue and Ryan, coincidentally the same friends who joined us on our visit to The Fat Duck.  Sue was eager to share a delicious ravioli dressed in a vibrant green herb pesto. Unfortunately, while exchanging forkfuls with me, a piece of ravioli fell, and, given the size of the resulting stain, apparently somersaulted across the table.

We were mortified.  "J'accuse!" was its powerful, silent message. "These people don't know how to use a fork and knife!"  At moments like this, I feel like I can hear the unvoiced judgments of fellow diners: "Taco Bell is around the corner, buddy.  Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out."

And yet there I was, in the middle of a dazzling meal at The Fat Duck, staring down at yet another stain.

Ah, but what a meal:

Setting foot inside The Fat Duck is a thrill.  The minuscule dining room sits on the ground floor of a classic English cottage, so the ceilings are low and exposed wood beams frame the space.  Sunday lunch means a naturally lit dining room and, for our visit, the chance to wile away a typically overcast, and at times rainy, British day.  The room looks remarkably normal (well, "three star normal") for the scene of a decidedly not normal meal, one that plays with preparations, flavours, and presentations.

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The meal began with drama: a small cart arrived at our table, a dense contrail of vapour marking its path.  Before turning his attention to the liquid nitrogen, our server spritzed the air with lemon essence, prompting each of us to spontaneously close our eyes, tilt our heads skyward, and grin in that way comforting smells compel us to do.  The connection between smell and emotion is obvious, but only recently have daring chefs like Blumenthal begun exploiting that link.  Our server then 'poached' dollops of light and refreshing green tea and lime mousse, turning them over and over in the liquid nitrogen, before presenting each of us with a 'meringue' sprinkled with a dash of finely powdered green tea.

Palates cleansed, we moved on to that rarest of courses: deception on a plate.  For our second dish we were each given two unadorned squares of jelly, one red and one orange.  Our server told us that if we chose the red, we would learn the answer to the question, What is The Matrix?, if we chose the orange, our lives would carry on as before but with no memory of our dining experience.  Of course, I could be misremembering the whole thing.  It could be that our server, grinning like a Cheshire cat, told us to "start with the orange then switch to the beetroot."  Thanks to a lifetime of conditioning, we all reached for the orange-coloured square first and were shocked to taste something slightly sweet and a bit vegetal.  I, for one, was unsure what I'd just tasted.  Then we tried the red jelly, which tasted powerfully acidic, like... a blood orange.  Aha!  So the first square was actually golden beet.  This was the dining equivalent of taking that discombobulating first step on an escalator that's not moving (who knew the Japanese have a name for it?).

Two other dishes stand out for the way they tinker with expectations, though neither relies on outright deceit.  Pommery grain mustard ice cream with red cabbage gazpacho straddles the line between savoury and sweet.  I liked it, though I don't think it was a winner at our table.  The gazpacho had a lovely acidity and hearty texture that contrasted the creamy, grainy ice cream and the crunchy brunoise of cucumber.  Likewise, hot and cold iced tea made us laugh out loud with delight.  The tea itself tasted much like the lemony sweet tea I remember from our barbeque trip to Memphis, but this was way more fun.  The drink starts off very warm but then as you near the end of the glass it suddenly gets very cold.  It goes from soothing to refreshing in the blink of an eye, and it tastes great the whole time.

Blumenthal's greatest talent, in my opinion, is his ability to turn his diners' nostalgia into the centrepiece of his meals.  Almost every dish on the tasting menu features childhood faves groomed to the level of haute cuisine, though sometimes the efforts go a little too far.  No one expects an ice cream cone in such a setting, but there was Mrs. Marshall's Margaret cornet: apple ice cream with ginger granita in a dainty little cone.  It's my nominee for most disappointing course, but only soulless automatons don't smile when handed an ice cream cone.  Two other trips down memory lane fell short: the pine sherbet fountain, a novel palate cleanser that substitutes a vanilla pod for the traditional licorice stick, just doesn''t impress; and a plate of petit fours featuring a promising mandarin aerated chocolate that sounded like a sybaritic cross between a Jaffa Cake and an Aero that left me hankering for, well, a Jaffa Cake or an Aero instead.

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I did write, however, that Blumenthal's ability to tweak our nostalgia is his greatest talent because there were far more masterpieces than flops.  Take parsnip cereal.  It's presented in one of those single serving-sized cereal boxes that calls to mind childhood trips to the grocery store.  I remember pestering my father for six-packs of them as we wandered the aisles of our neighbourhood Loblaws, devouring the good cereals (you know, Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, and Corn Pops) within days, then waiting for the healthy, "bad" cereals to die a slow death in our cupboard.  Parsnip cereal merits inclusion in the pantheon of good cereals.  It reminds me of Frosted Flakes both in shape and texture, and though the sweetness is tame by comparison, the mild parsnip flavour and crunchiness are lovely.  This is a marvelous trip down memory lane.

Just like The Fat Duck's signature snail porridge.  Now we know why people discuss it in reverential tones.  The porridge has the look and texture of a risotto, but with a wonderfully grainy, oaty flavour that works perfectly with the herb pesto, snails, and thin shavings of fennel that accompany it.  The texture is dreamy as well -- the creamy, risotto-like mouthfeel of the oats offers a little chew that complements the delicacy of the snails and the almost imperceptible crunch of the fennel.  It's the porridge I wish I could wake up to every morning.

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If manipulating two breakfast dishes works so well, why not try a third, right?  Nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream with pain perdu, stands out for me as one of my two favourite courses.  This dish is finished tableside, with the server wheeling a copper bowl to the table, cracking some eggs stored in a Fat Duck egg carton into it, then pouring in liquid nitrogen and stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon.  The eggs are actually filled with an ice cream base, and the egg ice cream is served a little over-frozen, so the finished ice cream clumps into little clusters that resemble overcooked scrambled eggs.  As good as the ice cream and micro-thin strip of crispy bacon were, the best part of this dish is the unforgettable pain perdu.  This French toast is actually given a thin, burnt sugar top, like a crème brûlée.  It is awesome, and the flavours mingle wonderfully together.

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If the faux egg "packaging" and mini-cereal box represent Exhibits A and B in the case for The Fat Duck's exceptional use of presentation, Exhibit C is a no-brainer: I may have railed against the foie's ball-on-a-pedestal serving dish, but the first part of this course made our jaws drop: oak-flavoured breath strips (they even arrive in those flip-lid containers used for Listerine pocket packs) served on a wooden box-cum-platform packed with lush moss.  After depositing the wooden rectangle in front of us, our server poured hot water on the moss, unleashing a wave of vapour that cascaded onto the table.  I can't think of a more impressive presentation. 

If only the entire course were as unequivocally dazzling.  The oak moss strip has a very faint, very pleasant woodsy taste, and we devoured the toast points topped with black truffle and tiny little half moons of radish.  Both were awesome.  Pairing truffle and oak is a stroke of genius; it's another one of those circumstances where two organisms that share a close relationship in nature just happen to complement each other on the plate as well.  Where this course struggled -- and not just because it made me sully my space -- was the jelly of quail, which sits beneath the langoustine cream and a quenelle of foie parfait.  We were instructed to try and get a little bit of each element in every bite, and I did, but the Marmite notes of the jelly overwhelm everything else.

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The quail jelly was the first and last time I didn't enjoy the taste of a dish, though there were a couple of instances where I was underwhelmed by texture.  An oyster on the half shell is always a good start to a dish, except when a passion fruit jelly traps that oyster in much the same way carbonite imprisoned Han Solo.  The acidity of the passion fruit complements the oysters nicely, as do two small shards of caramel and a bud or two of lavender, but overall the jelly detracts from the dish.  There's no textural contrast between the two main elements, just the same squooshy texture.  As for the roast foie gras "benzaldehyde,"  it was topped with a sprinkling of parmesan and accompanied by a smear of creamy almond gel and thick, luscious cherry gel, a small cherry, and three tiny cubes of amaretto jelly.  I enjoyed it, but I thought the texture of the foie was a little too wobbly like jello when it should have been buttery, though the amaretto jelly was superb and all the elements worked nicely with the main component.

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One last complaint before I heap fawning praise on the whole experience: I know many consider the salmon poached in liquorice gel with artichoke, vanilla mayonaisse and 'Manni' olive oil a signature dish, but it doesn't quite work for me.  I love the mix of flavours -- I've had vanilla and salmon before, and I think vanilla pairs beautifully with most seafood -- but there's just too much fat in this dish.  The salmon, for one, feels like it's been poached in low temperature oil, which adds a certain fatty mouthfeel.  Beyond that, the vanilla mayo, though marvelous, adds yet another layer of fat to the dish, as does the generous swirl of olive oil.  The only real acidity on the plate are little flecks of grapefruit (these are the individual components of the fruit, and I think they're extracted by freezing segments in liquid nitrogen, then breaking them down using a rolling pin), but that's just nowhere near enough to create the balance inherent in any great dish.

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Enough nitpicking, however, too much went too well for that.  Like an astonishing ballotine of Anjou pigeon with black pudding 'Made to Order,' pickling brine and spiced juices.  The pigeon was cooked blue and required only the barest flick of the knife to slice.  What makes this dish a masterpiece, however, is the black pudding, which resembles a perfect hollandaise in texture, but adds a concentrated, gamey note that complements the flavour profile of the pigeon perfectly.

Good as the pigeon may be, 'Sound of the Sea' defies superlatives. A mini-seascape of edible foam and sand strewn with shellfish and seaweed resting on a glass platform set atop a sandbox, this dish is presented alongside a conch shell with an iPod nestled inside it.  Diners listen to a soundtrack of ocean waves lapping against the shore and seagulls squawking while devouring the habitat set before them (if only eating this dish weren't a metaphor for what we're actually doing to the oceans!).  I can take or leave the soundtrack (seagulls sound rather harsh to me), but the dish itself ranks among the best I've ever eaten.  I love the tapioca maltodextrin sand and the soy lecithin sea foam, but a couple of elements really stood out: the 'sand' includes wonderfully crunchy bits of deep fried baby eels, and there are wonderfully salty tendrils of seaweed in the dish that add umami and a wonderfully subtle hint of the sea.  This dish really is unforgettable and the hype is justified.  We scraped our plates clean on that course.

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Actually, we scraped our plates clean on every course.  And drained our glasses, too.  After four hours at the table we stumbled out of The Fat Duck and wandered just a few doors down to size up the experience over a pint at Heston Blumenthal's pub, the Hinds Head (try the Devils on Horseback).  Two months earlier, I'd forced myself out of bed at five in the morning on a statutory holiday and, exhausted, juggled two cell phones and a landline in an effort to be one of the lucky few to spend an exorbitant amount of money on one meal.  It worked, and, yes, it was worth it.

As for the Napkin of Shame, it never emerged.  But there will be other opportunities, I'm sure.  Why just last week I requested a reservation at el Bulli for the 2009 season, thus raising the possibility that I may yet earn my second Napkin of Shame at the best restaurant in the world.

Now that would be embarrassing.

Our Fat Duck tasting menu:

Fat Duck menu

August 31, 2008

Cryo-gem: liquid nitrogen ice cream and marshmallows Alaska

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My most memorable experience with liquid nitrogen is not the first time I watched someone cook with it at Moto, nor is it the first time I used it to turn orange juice into sorbet; it's not even the first time I tasted my first batch of liquid nitrogen ice cream.

No, those are memorable, but not that memorable.  That honour goes undoubtedly to the ride home after my second fill up when, after driving less than a block with a freshly filled ten litre dewar, we hit a bump.  The force of the impact briefly lifted the lid off the dewar, sending a few tiny streams of liquid nitrogen skyward.  None of this is too particularly troubling unless, of course, the dewar just happens to be nestled between your legs while streams of unbelievably cold liquid nitrogen arc towards your crotch.

Unfortunately, that was precisely my situation.

In its liquid form, nitrogen reaches mind- (and body-) numbingly cold temperatures around -196C.  That's frigid enough to do horrific damage.  A minuscule amount in the eye can blind, and sufficient amounts elsewhere cause frostbite and 'burns' equivalent to hot frying fat.  This is nasty stuff.

So during that brief flicker of time between the liquid nitrogen escaping the dewar and it landing on the fabric covering my boys (I have a strict policy about never transporting liquid nitrogen while naked), two thoughts went through my mind: How much is this gonna hurt? and Will Rachel still love me if I were a eunuch?

Thank God we didn't have to find out.

The corollary to nitrogen being a liquid below -196C is that it turns into a gas -- that is it literally boils -- above it, so you can imagine what happened on this particular hot summer day.  Drops of liquid nitrogen splashed on my crotch and the seat beneath it, and those that hadn't evaporated during the flight to my nether regions promptly did so with a sizzle on my crotch (sadly, I can take no credit for my sizzling manhood.  This time.).

The whole episode took no more than a few seconds, if that, but it highlights just how volatile and dangerous liquid nitrogen can be.

Liquid nitrogen's incredibly low temperature make it dangerous, but it also makes it the ultimate medium for preparing ice cream.  That's because the texture of ice cream -- its creaminess and smoothness -- are directly related to how quickly it's frozen.  Longer freezing times encourage ice crystal growth, crystals that feel gritty on the tongue, which, at least in my opinion, doesn't make for enjoyable ice cream.

I didn't want to have to resort to using liquid nitrogen -- well, okay, the geek in me absolutely did -- but I was driven to it by conventional ice cream makers like my Cuisinart standby.  It hurts to bash it, because my in-laws gave it to me and because it's helped me make a lot of really great ice cream, but it's just not in the same league.

To prove it, I invited some friends over for a semi-blind taste test.  The best test was a Philadelphia-style vanilla ice cream showdown for which I made a double batch of base frozen three ways: in my Cuisinart, in my friend's KitchenAid ice cream maker attachment, and with the paddle attachment of my KitchenAid stand mixer using liquid nitrogen.  I also added vanilla bean Haagen-Dazs and a cup of vanilla gelato from my local gelateria for good measure.

My friend's knew the five kinds of ice cream I'd be serving them, but they didn't know which was which.  They all agreed that the gelato was the worst of the five, not simply based on its overly sweet and largely non-existent vanilla taste, but also because of its weak, overly light texture.  I have no doubt this is because it had far more air beaten into it than any other ice cream in the tasting.

The Haagen-Dazs fared better but didn't stack up to the homemade versions.  Even the Cuisinart version, which ranked dead last among homemade ice creams, garnered more votes.  All three homemade ice creams shared a wonderful taste -- when it comes to ice creams, homemade equals unparalleled flavour regardless of how it's frozen -- but the Cuisinart ice cream had a noticeably icy texture.

The KitchenAid ice cream, on the hand, was excellent with almost no crystallization.  In fact, my only real complaint about it is that it left a thin film of greasy fat, likely butter, in the bowl of the attachment after churning.  That said, it produced ice cream so good that a couple of people made it their first choice, even over the ice cream prepared in liquid nitrogen.

The majority of the tasters still chose liquid nitrogen ice cream, and it finished no worse than second on anyone's ballot.  The fine line between those who preferred the KitchenAid over the liquid nitrogen seems to be that some of the tasters found the liquid nitrogen ice cream almost too dense and heavy.

That's precisely what I love about it.  Liquid nitrogen ice cream has a dense, custard-like mouthfeel; it's sort of what I imagine pudding would taste like were it frozen, and the effect is amplified when preparing egg-based (aka French-style) ice creams.

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I say this from a position of experience.  The past two months have been a liquid nitrogen-induced fog of frozen goodness.  In addition to dairy-based vanilla, I've also made similar strawberry, chocolate, and chocolate and Guinness ice creams.  The list of egg-based ice creams I've made is even longer: panforte with strands of candied citrus peel that takes me back to our honeymoon in Siena; coffee, which makes for one helluva breakfast; toasted almond and cherry that sends Rachel over the moon with delight; and malted, my personal favourite, especially when I bite into a large spoonful with a crunchy Malteser, the best malted balls in creation.

Fellow ice cream aficionados may recognize that a number of the ice creams I mentioned come directly from David Lebovitz's book, The Perfect Scoop.  I've come to love that book over the past few months, and it's now my ice cream bible.  The fact that a book written by a former member of the Chez Panisse pastry kitchen is now my starting point when looking for recipes to freeze with liquid nitrogen is an irony that amuses me considerably.

Liquid nitrogen need not be used solely to make conventional ice cream.  As I wrote earlier, my first experiment with liquid nitrogen included plain orange juice, which becomes a refreshing, if slightly watery, sorbet.  To really take advantage of liquid nitrogen's freezing power, however, turn to the liquor cabinet.

Pure ethanol -- the happy juice in alcoholic drinks -- freezes at -114C.  Only those with a death wish drink pure ethanol, however, so we only have to worry about temperatures closer to 0C since the booze we consume is, literally, watered down to prevent an ugly death.  That said, 100 proof alcohol still requires temperatures of -32C to freeze, and no home ice cream maker can approach that.

It's child's play for liquid nitrogen, however.  Watermelon-infused vodka, for example, freezes into a refreshing sorbet that packs a huge wallop.  Bailey's turns into something magical.  Frozen, its texture is identical to incredibly smooth ice cream and it tastes delicious.  This is something of a problem given that eating a small scoop of Bailey's ice cream is the equivalent of drinking three or fours shots of liquor in just a couple of minutes.  Let's just say the Bailey's ice cream is the last frozen treat one makes during a session of liquid nitrogen experimentation.

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There are uses beyond ice cream for liquid nitrogen.  I've not yet had a chance to experiment with some of the recipes from el Bulli, though I will soon, but even our less haute experiments produced intriguing results.  We 'cooked' Cheezies in liquid nitrogen and discovered that biting into one produces a rush of air that feels something like blowing into a balloon then releasing the air in it directly into the mouth.  The force was sometimes powerful enough to actually force our mouths open.

My favourite alternative preparation came from Rachel while we were experimenting with some friends.  Upon trying a frozen marshmallow, she suggested freezing one then scorching one end of it using our brulee torch.  It's the avant-garde version of baked Alaska and it's awesome because it produces a simple sugary treat with several distinct textures and flavours. The frozen end has a crispy exterior and a soft, chewy interior, while the bruleed side has that slightly oozy melted sugar texture along with a complex burnt sugar taste.  For a dish so simple in its conception and execution, I love how complex 'marshmallows Alaska' tastes and feels.  It's an experience I won't soon forget.

The key word is 'soon,' of course.  'Never' is a word I now reserve for an entirely different order of liquid nitrogen experiences.

July 31, 2008

Rise up! Donut soufflés, donut ice cream, and coffee and donut macarons

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Over the course of the past several years I've spent countless late nights prepping obscure dishes, some wondrous, some wretched.  Just the other night, Rachel walked in on me, took one look at my goo-covered hands and gave me that "Oh, you're doing something crazy again" look she gets when I go off half-cocked well past my bedtime.  She then performed a quick about-face and marched off to slumberland.  She's the sensible one.

Me, I prefer to plumb the depths of my rich inner life over prep work, pondering questions that few people ever entertain.  The other night it was sperm

The story begins with the humble glazed donut, an endlessly ridiculed fried delicacy that most epicures dismiss with nary a thought, but I adore.  I'm not alone, however, as artisans like Mark Israel of New York's Doughnut Plant elevate everyday rings of dough to gourmet status, while chefs like Thomas Keller and Homaro Cantu take things one step further, plying donuts into service in the name of fine dining.  One of Keller's most famous dishes is his playful rendition of coffee and doughnuts in which he serves a fresh cinnamon sugar donut with a cup of cappuccino semifreddo.  Cantu's contribution is even more extraordinary: donut soup, a velvety concoction that distills the essence of donut into a demitasse cup of creamy goodness.

Unfortunately, after making Cantu's donut soup at home, I've become a little obsessed.  And it wasn't just over how to conceive new donut creations, it was also about how to improve on the one thing about homemade donut soup that still troubled me: texture.  As delicious as donut soup is -- and it is fantastic -- most straining devices fail to filter out the little grains of donut sediment that make it a flavour superstar and textural disappointment.  That's how I found myself milking away on a Superbag of donut purée long past midnight, trying to distract myself by ruminating about all creatures small and really small.

Superbags are marvels of kitchen technology that render sieves, chinoises, and cheesecloth obsolete.  These bags are made of flexible, non-reactive, heat-resistant, dishwasher-safe material.  Those characteristics make it home cook friendly, but what makes it extraordinary is how incredibly fine a filter it is.  I own two of them.  One is a 400 µm (that's a micrometre, or micron if you're old school) bag that puts any sieve to shame.  The other is only 100 µm.  How small is 100 µm?  Good question, because it's exactly what I was pondering late the other night.  The answer: it's only slightly greater than the width of a human hair and less than twice the length of guess what?  That's right, one human sperm.

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I finally put Superbags to the test this week in an attempt to exorcise the donut demons that have dogged me.  Many months ago I attempted a macaron for the ages: a coffee-flavoured meringue biscuit filled with donut-flavoured pastry cream.  My experiment failed because both my cookies and my pastry cream bombed.  Macarons are notoriously finicky cookies, so I don't intend to dwell on that, but the donut pastry cream is another story entirely.  I hoped to use donut soup as a base to create a pastry cream.  A good idea, I thought, until I tried the pastry cream, which had an unappetizing texture on a scale somewhere between custard and mashed potatoes.  In the end, I had to abandon the coffee and donut macaron dream.

But visions of donuts still kept dancing through my head.

So I decided to try something new.  Precisely what, I wasn't sure.  After cooking and steeping eight small glazed donuts from my local grocery store in a mixture of milk and cream and then processing them into a purée with a hand blender, I filtered the resulting delectable gunk through the 400 µm Superbag.  Unlike my previous donut soup, this version didn't have any grittiness on the tongue whatsoever, but it did have a heaviness to it that I thought I could improve by using the 100 µm bag.  The difference stunned both me and Rachel.  The resulting purée still had body and impeccable glazed donut flavour, but this time it felt like an elegant cream soup on the tongue; the only drawback, of course, is that it took twenty minutes of constantly milking each Superbag in the middle of the night to extract the purée in the first place.

My first experiment with the new and improved purée was ice cream.  I'd done something similar with sticky toffee pudding and enjoyed the result.  The only drawback to that preparation was also texture.  The finished ice cream had some fine particles of cake in it that distracted from the flavour.  Donut ice cream is still a work in progress, unfortunately.  When frozen, the custard takes on too firm a texture; it's ice, for sure, but the cream part is a little iffy.  My hunch is that the starch in the donuts muddies the texture of my preparations, especially this and the pastry cream.  I just needed to find a way to overcome it or, better yet, make it work to my advantage.

So, back to the drawing board.  After making so much ice cream I have a freezer full of egg whites begging to be used, so I thought I would try soufflés.  My original plan was to drizzle them with a coffee glaze, but one taste of a preliminary powdered sugar and brewed coffee concoction turned me off of that idea quickly.  I opted for a sprinkle of ground espresso beans instead, a moderately flavoured accompaniment that complements the main attraction.  Much to my surprise, the donut flavour shines through nicely.  The recipe, which I've included below, still needs some work, however, so use it at your own risk.  The flavour may be good, but I'm having a hard time finding the right temperature at which to bake.  At 400F, the soufflé rises and gets a nice golden brown top, but the downside is that eggy flavours tend to develop.  At 350F, eggy flavours aren't a problem, but I can't get a delicious golden crust.  No matter what the temperature, these soufflés fall almost immediately after coming out of the oven.

I suppose I should look upon my experiments a little more positively now.  Thanks to the Superbag, I've almost figured out how to make a delightful donut soufflé, and I suppose I can give donut pastry cream one more chance.  What's more, I've jammed my head full of even more useless but entertaining knowledge for that next inevitable venture into late night cooking.  Did you know, for example, that one micrometre is but a mere one one-thousandth of a millimetre and that 100 µm (also known as a myriometre) is equivalent to the thickness of a layer of paint or the length of a dust particle?  Welcome to my world.

Donut Soufflés

This recipe is still very much a work in progress, so use it at your own risk and experiment with it, please, then let me know how to improve it.  Maybe the issue is temperature, maybe it's the lack of egg yolks.  I don't know right now.

I used a variation of this donut soup recipe, opting for cream instead of water, and then loosening it with more cream as necessary.  Straining it through both a 400 µm then a 100 µm Superbag makes for a huge improvement in texture, but I'm not sure it's necessary when making this dish.

135 g (4 large) egg whites
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
120 g (5 Tbsp) granulated sugar, plus more to prepare ramekins
200 g (200mL) donut soup
Espresso beans, ground
butter

Preheat oven to 400F.

Rub inside of ramekins (or small coffee cups) with just enough butter to coat.  Add approximately one teaspoon of granulated sugar and swirl to coat ramekin.  Tap out any excess sugar and set aside.

Combine egg whites and cream of tartar in stand mixer and whisk with whisk attachment until soft peaks form.  Add sugar and continue whisking until stiff peaks form.

Place donut soup in another large mixing bowl.  Add one third of the egg whites and stir into donut soup.  Add another third of the egg whites and fold in gently.  Repeat folding process with the remaining third of the egg whites.

Add mixture to ramekins, but do not fill to the top.  Leave 1 cm of clearance between the mixture and the rim of the baking dish.

Depending on the size of the baking dish, bake for 8-10 minutes, until the soufflés have risen and a light, brown crust has developed on top.

Serve immediately sprinkled with a little ground espresso bean.

June 30, 2008

Nosh In My Backyard, Part II: el Bulli's rose petals in tempura, sardines wrapped in grape leaves, and a bowl of cherries

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Every fall, I can close my eyes, inhale the air around me, and imagine, if only briefly, that I live in a vineyard rather than the heart of downtown Toronto.  When the wind is right, the sweet smell of countless clusters of ripe grapes perfumes the streets of Little Italy.  Hundreds of wooden grape crates pile up in front of houses, evidence that the scent is not entirely homegrown, but few backyards in this part of town, including our own, are complete without at least one sprawling grapevine. 

That Toronto's original Portuguese and Italian quarter hosts so much viniculture should come as no surprise, but I didn't realize until we left the heart of the highrise concrete jungle, a place literally without backyards, how rich the urban breadbasket truly is.  My favourite sign of spring is the profusion of tiny white blossoms on our neighbour's cherry tree.  Any flowering fruit tree will do, however, from the pear and crabapple trees across the street, to the apple trees that shade the patio of a nearby College Street café.

Such visions of a quaint urban idyll feed into the current rage for all things localLocavorism, as it's come to be known, may well be the hottest trend in food and dining.  Fed by concerns over product quality and environmental sustainability, locavorism has grown from a niche market to a cornerstone of modern gastronomy.  At restaurants, provenance used to be the exclusive domain of wine lists, now it's hard to find a menu that doesn't gush about the origins of its Mennonite chickens or Cookstown Greens.  "Local," it seems, has become the current shorthand for "quality."

If only that were true.

Yes, locally grown food often tastes superior to food that has endured a trans-continental flight, but that's not always so.  Rachel and I participated in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiative last summer and found the produce disappointing.  Our large weekly box often contained wilted vegetables in quantities too small even for a meal for two.  Come fall, we were only too happy to abandon our failed experiment.

Restaurants that foresake foreign products do so at the risk of serving lower quality dishes while fostering a false sense of virtue.  As an environmental statement, eating at a restaurant pales in comparison to the greenest option of all: staying at home and cooking.  This has not stopped some of the highest profile names in the restaurant world from flaunting their green credentials by making token gestures like eliminating imported bottled water from their menus.  Alice Waters made headlines last year by doing just this, though her push for sustainability apparently doesn't include eliminating all those bottles of imported vino from Chez Panisse's wine list despite the restaurant's proximity to one of the world's great wine regions.

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We can neither forgo frequent trips to the market and grocery store nor our occasional reliance on Chile for some winter veggies, but this year I was determined to take advantage of the bounty that grows around us.  El Bulli's rose petals in tempura are actually the perfect marriage of purpose and convenience.  I'd been hoping to make this dish for a couple of years, but finding edible roses proved to be an obstacle I could never overcome.  Even organic florists tend to hem and haw when asked if their product is safe for human consumption.  "I wouldn't do that if I were you," was the typical response.

Thank God for our front yard, which has exploded with red and white roses this summer despite our (apparently benign) neglect.  Our three bushes produced enough roses for a small army of blushing brides and beauty queens, let alone a recipe that calls for a mere twenty petals.  The tempura batter in which they fry defies convention; it's actually leavened with yeast and left in the fridge for four hours to develop its flavours.  Once removed from the fat, the petals are drizzled with a little honey and rose water then sprinkled with a grain of sea salt.  The result tastes wonderful.  Sweet, salty, uncannily succulent, and, yes, floral.  Surprisingly, however, those floral notes come not from the rose, that, on it's own, tastes rather plain, but from the rose water garnish.

I almost missed the perfect opportunity to take advantage of our grapevines.  Despite being grape lovers, we've never been overly fond of the grapes that grow in our backyard.  Our neighbours, decades-long veterans of the grape growing game, insist they're unsuitable for wine, but the thick and leathery skin that surrounds their sugary flesh renders them equally inappropriate for the table.  For the past two autumns all they've done is fill our nostrils for a couple of weeks with a scent powerfully reminiscent of Welch's grape juice and beckon a bevy of winged diners.

A few weeks ago, after spending part of an afternoon trimming our vine and rather shortsightedly disposing of a small bagful of leaves, I realized I'd just binned the best way to take advantage of our plant.  No worries, of course, because I simply hopped back on our stepladder, and trimmed a few more leaves from our vine.  My original plan was to make dolma, grape leaves stuffed with rice, herbs, and other fillings, like ground meat, but, much to Rachel's chagrin, I've never been a fan.

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I searched high and low for an alternative before stumbling upon sardines.  Rachel and I both adore oily fish, and this dish is fantastic (see recipe below).   I stuffed the gutted bellies of our sardines with a mixture of diced preserved lemon, parsley, and ground black pepper.  After boiling the grape leaves for one minute, a process that muddies their normally vibrant green colour, I wrapped them tightly around the sardines, leaving only the head of the fish and part of its tail exposed.  After ten minutes on a hot charcoal grill, all that's left to do is split these little swimmers open, sprinkle them with sea salt and drizzle with some freshly squeezed lemon juice.  We savoured their juicy flesh against the contrasting crunch of the grilled leaves on a lazy Saturday evening spent in our backyard with a crisp white wine.  It was heaven.

Of course, growing your own food isn't all wine and roses.  I must confess to lusting after our neighbour's cherry tree.  Not only are cherry blossoms gorgeous, but cherries rank among my favourite fruits.  Besides, the branches of their tree stretch into our yard, forcing me to duck just to walk the path to my front door.  I take that as a clear sign that their tree pines as much for me as I pine for it.  How, then, to get my hands on some of those cherries?  Guile's not my forté, so I asked.  After careful consideration, we were given permission to take some delicious cherries.

There is but one problem.  These cherries aren't so delicious.  After reading so many descriptions of people picking and eating ripe fruit directly from the tree and being overwhelmed by the experience perhaps I expected too much.  The typical palaver involves "tasting sunshine," or "feeling Mother Nature's juices drip down your chin" and other such nonsense.  These "sweet" cherries tasted like nothing of the sort; instead, they made me yearn for a taste of the California cherries I've actually enjoyed so far this season.

Two out of three ain't bad, I guess.

Besides, the summer has just begun, and I hope Little Italy's patchwork of backyard farms produces a bumper crop.  Yesterday I passed a humble backyard garden down the street.  It's tended to by an elderly Portuguese man who takes obvious pride in his work.  His tomato vines are slowly spiraling their way skyward, and, tucked in a corner, the vibrant orange and yellow of the season's first zucchini flowers signal yet another opportunity to feast on an uncommon delicacy.  I'm sure this gardener cares not one wit for culinary trends, and he's probably never even heard the term "locavore," he just yearns for the simple pleasure of rediscovering each year the flavours that have comforted him his entire life.

Grilled Sardines Wrapped in Grape Leaves

This recipe can, of course, be made with jarred grape leaves preserved in brine.  If you have access to a grapevine, follow this guide to selecting leaves.  We prefer the wonderfully smoky, lightly charred taste imparted by charcoal grilling, but I'm sure this recipe works equally well cooked on a gas grill or roasted in the oven.

Making preserved lemons is a simple process, and the results enhance the flavour of any number of dishes.  We use Eric Ripert's recipe from A Return to Cooking.  The recipe from Chez Panisse Fruit via 101 Cookbooks is very similar.

12 large grape leaves, rinsed
8 sardines, gutted, cleaned, and scaled
1/2 preserved lemon, rinsed, flesh removed, and finely diced
16 sprigs Italian parsley
salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon, cut into wedges

Using scissors or a knife, remove the stems and any thick, attached vein, being careful not to cut the leaf in two.  Cook the grape leaves in a pot of boiling water for 1 minute.  Remove from the water, separate carefully, and lay flat on a tea towel to dry.

Preheat outdoor grill to 230C (450F).

Lay leaf vein-side up, using pieces of any spare leaves to patch holes.  Lay sardine diagonally across the leaf, so its head extends just beyond the tip of the leaf.  Stuff the chest cavity of each sardine with parsley and preserved lemon, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Fold one end of the leaf over the sardine and tuck it firmly under the fish, then roll the sardine until it is tightly packed in the leaf.  Repeat with remaining sardines.

When grill has come to temperature, place sardines over direct heat and close lid.  Flip after 5 minutes and continue grilling, covered, for 3-5 more minutes, until sardines are fully cooked but still moist.

Serve immediately with additional salt, pepper, and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to taste.

May 31, 2008

65 degrees of coagulation: Hervé This, Maxim, and the perfect hardboiled egg

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I'm worried.  When Canadians think of French food, visions of soufflés, duck confit, and Camembert dance through our heads and make our mouths water.  The French, not surprisingly, lack a similar frame of reference for us.  I know this because Hervé This, godfather of molecular gastronomy, can apparently think of no comestible more typically Canadian than BeaverTails.  BeaverTails is an Ottawa-based fast food chain whose namesake product is a beaver tail-shaped slab of freshly fried dough sprinkled with any number of sweet toppings.  I admit to having enjoyed a few in my time -- cinnamon, sugar and some freshly squeezed lemon, if you please -- yet when This, grasping for an example of Canadian history and culture, came up with BeaverTails, saying "It's something.  And there are probably some rules for making [them]," it threw me for a loop.

Not that I wasn't intimidated to be interviewing Dr. This in the first place.  It's not every day you get to share a crêpe and a conversation with the world's foremost food scientist, and it's even rarer to be doing it for your first article for the The Globe and Mail.  Everything went smoothly, thankfully. Dr. This's passion for food and science are obvious, and he combines intellectual rigour with a willingness to repeatedly explain complex scientific principles to a certain someone whose limited ability to digest even rudimentary concepts limited him to only two obligatory high school science credits.

Of course, when I'm not interviewing French intellectuals for Canada's newspaper of record, I prefer to let my hair down by photographing eye candy for Maxim Magazine.  Yes, that Maxim.  But, no, not that kind of eye candy.  I cackled when I first read the email from a photo editor at the magazine asking if they could use one of my photos from the post on deep fried Oreos, but there it is on page ninety of the June issue.  I'm proud to have supplied the visual interpretation of a dish comedian Dave Attell describes as looking "like something that comes out of a clown if you tickle him too hard" in the accompanying text; I like to think it takes real skill to make that look appetizing on film.

So what better way to celebrate landmark success than with hardboiled eggs, right?  Now, I'm not talking about just any hardboiled egg, I'm talking about Herve This's signature preparation, the 65-degree egg.  It may seem simple, but a hardboiled egg is actually a difficult preparation to execute well.  At their overcooked worst, hardboiled eggs can be a green, foul-smelling, rubbery atrocity.  65-degree eggs
are the exact opposite: the yolk glistens while the white remains slippery soft, even undercooked to some.  No wonder they're all the rage among chefs.

Dusted with pepper and gilded with a few flakes of sea salt, the gentle textures of the egg pair perfectly with crispy lardons of bacon -- a playful interpretation of the typical North American breakfast.  It's also the perfect preparation for disorganized cooks.  Can't time the toast properly?  No problem, the egg waits for you because it's cooked in either an oven or a pot of water held constant at its final cooking temperature.  Cook them for two hours or a two days, it doesn't matter.  The only trick is to maintain a stable temperature.  I opted for a large pasta pot and a very low gas flame.  It took a little while to get the temperature right, but it was far easier than I suspected.

It made for a delicious late-morning snack, too. Heck, this Canuck would even choose it over a BeaverTail, tradition be damned.

April 30, 2008

Foaming at the mouth, Part II: el Bulli's tortilla de patatas Marc Singla foam

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For the longest time, I was convinced that only the French know how to make a good omelette.  Rachel and I had eaten our share of Spanish tortillas and Italian frittatas, and found them wanting: thick rounds of leaden, overcooked eggs with a consistency more reminiscent of a custard forgotten in the oven than an old world culinary classic.  The French insist an omelette should be thin, light, and cooked just long enough to firm one side while leaving the other creamy.

The French are right.

Then we visited Cal Pep, one of Barcelona's most famous tapas joints, and discovered a tortilla that puts omelettes to shame.  There, cooks scoop a mixture of potato, chorizo, onion and golden, creamy eggs into sizzling hot, high-sided small pans. One flip and a minute or two later, they slide a thick, lightly caramelized disc about the size of a large hamburger patty onto a plate, slather the top with allioli, a garlicky mayonnaise better known by its French name, aïoli, and await the delighted squeals of ravenous customers.

What makes this tortilla so special is that, unlike its Iberian and Italian cousins, it offers that magical mix of cooked and creamy egg that makes a French omelette superior.  Cut open Cal Pep's tortilla, and, underneath the lightly caramelized crust, lies a core of warm, not-quite-set egg.  Allioli complements the unctuousness of the interior while nuggets of spicy chorizo and potato add body and flavour.  It's enough to make me forget France forever.

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The tortilla's iconic stature in Spanish gastronomy means that Ferran Adria can't resist riffing on it,  even if he's got to crib from another chef to do it.  El Bulli's evolution of the hot 'tortilla de patatas Marc Singla' foam from el Bulli: 1998-2002 deliciously deconstructs the standard dish.  Raw yolks and a barely cooked sabayon mean the egg portion of this tortilla is a golden syrup that flows on the palate, and Adria opts for a tangle of caramelized onions for their complex savoury-sweet bite.

Yet it's the potatoes that grab your attention.  Gone are the chunks of spud, replaced instead by an almost overwhelmingly rich foam made by boiling potatoes, enriching them with cream and olive oil, then blending and pouring the mixture into an iSi Gourmet Whip charged with nitrous oxide.  The Gourmet Whip is unique because it can be heated, so after spooning caramelized onion into the bottom of a martini glass and gilding it with some raw egg yolk and sabayon, the dish is crowned by a layer of piping hot potato.

Despite my misgivings -- blending potatoes is normally a recipe for glue, not haute cuisine -- the foam is spectacular.  It has a noticeably buttery taste even though it has no butter, and the texture is, not unexpectedly, light but still substantive enough to form the backbone of the dish.  My only complaint, and here, yes, I'm trying to have it both ways, is that I miss some of the complexity of flavour and texture that comes from the caramelized exterior of Cal Pep's tortilla.

I've tried to reproduce Cal Pep's tortilla at home, but I'm not quite there yet.  Problem number one is that my non-existent Catalan makes translating the recipe difficult (someone help me, please).  Problem number two is that I have yet to find a pan suitable for the job.  My results so far have been good but not stellar: a respectable crust, but a slightly overcooked centre.  No matter, I can always turn to el Bulli's version, or, failing that, Rachel assures me I prepare a mean French omelette.

March 31, 2008

Nutella, not just for the bedroom anymore, Part IV: Not just Nutella anymore

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I am a bad flyer.  Just ask my wife.  Or my grandparents.  Or that poor man on his honeymoon who had to sit beside me while I turned green on a flight from London to Malta.  I'm better now than I used to be, but it hasn't come easy.  My pre-flight routine consists of Gravol, lorazepam, bargaining with God ("Please, just let me survive this flight, and I promise to never, ever fly again!") and long, meandering walks around departure terminals exorcising nervous energy.

Sometimes those strolls lead to interesting discoveries.  Last fall, for instance, as I frittered away a few hours at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport awaiting the first leg of our journey back to Toronto, I wandered into a Giorgio Armani boutique.  My eyes were quickly drawn away from the clothes to a little glass cabinet sparsely populated with jars of food.  Intrigued, I edged closer and noticed that one of the jars contained a chocolate spread.  Chocolate spread does not, in and of itself, interest me, but, deep in Nutella's heartland, I hoped this one stylish vessel implied the presence of the holy grail: chocolate-hazelnut spread.

Sadly, it does not.  The Armani Dolci line includes chocolates, chocolate spread, and jams, but not Giorgio's interpretation of my beloved Nutella.  Recent experience, however, has me wondering what's come over the world of spreadable indulgences.  As a child, chocolate plus hazelnut equaled Nutella, and that was that.  But over the past few years there's been an explosion in both high- and low-end pretenders to the throne.  As an adult, it's both rewarding and perplexing to have so many choices, so I decided to put the four options in my pantry to the test. 

I first wrote about Slitti's Riccosa chocolate-hazelnut spread for the Toronto Life Eating + Drinking Guide after stumbling upon it at Soma, one of Toronto's finest chocolatiers.  At $22 for a 370 gram jar, it's not cheap, but, for my money at least, it's the best chocolate-hazelnut spread in existence.  The secret is really no secret at all, as a quick look at the ingredients list reveals that piedmontese hazelnuts are the primary ingredient and that, unlike every other available spread, there's no vegetable oil or modified palm oil to be found; it's cocoa butter instead.  This probably explains Riccosa's only fault: it's a little stiff at room temperature.  The jar states that it must be served between 18 and 20 Celsius for this reason, but I've found that even that range is a little low.  It's all moot anyway, because when slathered on hot toast the rich, roasted hazelnut flavour of this product shines.  Soma also carries Gianera, a dark chocolate version of this spread, as well as Nocciolata, a milk chocolate version with crunchy bits of hazelnut.

If Riccosa comes first, then Nutella isn't far behind.  I've outlined my devotion to Nutella many times before, so it goes without saying that I think it's a wonderful product.  The best part of testing it against so many other chocolate-hazelnut spreads is that I now have a much better idea of its strengths and weaknesses.  After sitting down with four friends, four jars, and countless spoons and tasting back and forth for the better part of a half hour, it's now obvious to me that Nutella's biggest weakness is that it tastes very little of hazelnuts.  It compensates for this by loading up on sweetness and by having the finest consistency -- superbly creamy and luscious -- of any of these spreads.

Beyond Riccosa and Nutella, there's a noticeable decline in quality.  I bought a jar of President's Choice Chocolate Hazelnut Spread with low expectations.  This spread exceeds them, but it still fails to live up to the Nutella standard.  Though creamy, the mouthfeel is a little thin, and the taste, though certainly bigger on hazelnuts, seems a little off -- more hazelnut skins than hazelnuts.

The only unquestionable disappointment out of all four spreads is the version by Cacao Sampaka, the Barcelona-based chocolatier founded by Albert Adria, pastry chef of el Bulli.  Cacao Sampaka's version has an inescapable off-taste reminiscent of plastic, and a nasty tendency to separate such that every time I open the already vegetable oil soaked jar, a puddle of oil sits atop the spread waiting to be stirred back in.  Hardly appetizing.

Not that I've lost hope that my quest for newer and better chocolate spreads won't yield more wonderful surprises like Riccosa.  We plan to return to Italy and Spain later this year where, hopefully, we'll happen upon another artisanal chocolatier who can't shake memories of a favourite childhood treat.  And maybe, just maybe, that chance discovery will occur on another fruitful, nervous walk around a departure terminal.

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