Monday, April 28, 2008

Sweet! Cabane à Sucre

Ah, Spring, when Quebecers thoughts turn to cabane à sucre.

With Canada producing about 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup, and the majority of that coming from us here in Quebec, it’s no wonder that Quebecers, young and old alike, keep up the tradition of flocking to countryside Sugar Shacks to get their fix of maple syrup during the sugaring off season.

While most of these establishments are massive tourist traps, where people pour in by the bus loads, it is still possible to have a more authentic experience. We met up with some friends last weekend at Cabane a Sucre Bouvrette to feast on traditional Québecois comfort food and get our fill of sugar.

It felt a bit like I was a kid back at summer camp again when I stepped into the bustling sugar shack. Once my eyes adjusted to the dim lamps, I saw rows and rows of long tables packed full of people, low wooden ceilings, and bright yellow curtains that gave the place a farmhouse kitchen feel. The place was toasty warm thanks to a roaring fire in a stone fireplace and smelled heavenly: like bacon, warm maple syrup and coffee.

This was no camp food, though, you could taste the love in the cooking.
Our menu:

Split Pea Soup (pictured above in a cheery red terrine)
Sausages cooked in syrup (hmm, let just call them hot dogs, OK?)
Roasted Potatoes

Baked Beans (in syrup, of course)
Maple smoked Ham
Pork Rinds (oreille de krisse)
Homemade Bread
Assorted Pickles Maison
Omelette (oven baked, laced with cinnamon, very nice)
Sugar Pie
Coffee, etc.

Of course, everything is covered in maple syrup before it is consumed. Maple syrup in coffee? Mmm, delicious.

I could have lingered long at the table for another cup of coffee and a round of pancakes, but Noah was itching to get outside and visit the 'attractions': a well-rounded petting zoo/small farm and a little train that wound it's way through the maple forest and tootled it's horn. So we left our sticky table and exited, blinking, into the bright sunshine.

However, the best was still to come as, after the requisite train ride and farm tour, we stopped off at a cute little red-roofed shack to sample some fresh maple taffy or Tire d'érable.
This delicacy is made by boiling maple syrup until it reduces slightly ( to a temperature of 234 degrees F, to be exact), and then pouring it over packed, clean snow. It rapidly hardens and a Popsicle stick is then used to lift it off the snow and to the mouth!
Watch the video to see the real deal. Yum!

Brandon, one of our friends we were with, declared that this insanely sweet confection was the real, if not only, reason he goes annually to a sugar shack. He certainly made the most of it too, consuming an impressive seven sticks of tire. That's probably the equivalent of at least 300ml of maple syrup, if not more.

I maxed out at three. Noah was allowed one, and he still had a decent sugar rush.

So there you have a Québec Cabane à Sucre experience in a nutshell!

If you are looking for a recipe with maple syrup, check out my all-time favorite: Pouding Chômeur.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mama's Meatballs and One Night with Rocco

Most people know Rocco DiSpirito as the cute but slightly self-centered chef from the 2005 reality show “The Restaurant”, or maybe you read about him in a cooking magazine or saw his pretty face on a talk show (he’s also recently popped up as a guest judge on Top Chef).
Part chef, part business man, he certainly has made a name for himself, but his character has earned quite a reputation as well; unfortunately, it' s not as pretty as his face.

I experienced this first hand back in 2002 when I had had the ‘pleasure’ of working with Rocco. This was long before his reality show aired, when he was executive chef at New York City’s Union Pacific. I was working as a line cook at one of Montreal’s top restaurants and we hosted Rocco as a guest celebrity chef for two nights. The place was packed out as Montreal gourmets came to sample a 7-course tasting menu featuring Rocco’s Union Pacific food and to meet the young star.

I’m sure he was smooth as butter in the dining room, but my kitchen experience was rather different.
Rocco’s presence in the kitchen was wildly irregular. Half of the time he chatted and laughed into his cell phone, barely glancing at plates as they went out, and the rest of the time he played the roll of a typical tyrannical Head Chef, snapping at people and letting us know he was far, far superior.
I kept my head down and worked my butt off, but it was hard not to smile to myself at his silly get-up: carefully tousled hair, snug designer jeans, pinstriped button down shirt and a chef’s jacket that looked more like an after thought. I guess it was fitting, as the only work he did all night was shave a few black truffles onto his osso bucco.

I was plating two of his starters that night: Maine scallops in tomato water and some sort of nasty lobster in a Reisling jelly. He had a few choice words for my plating style, sneering at me with such mockery it took my breath away. His sarcasm was sharp and his arrogance unmistakable. Classy.

After the service was over, my ever-hospitable and gracious boss brought a few bottles of Dom Perignon into the kitchen and Rocco stole the show by dramatically slicing the tops off the bottles with a cleaver and flamboyantly filling the glasses as if he was hosting his own party. He was all smiles now, running his fingers through his hair and flirting with the girls. A few of the staff were having him sign that evenings’ menu as a keepsake, but a few of us hung back, not wishing to stroke his massive ego further and really not caring if we got his autograph or not.

Eventually he approached us. He lifted himself up onto my work station, and to my chagrin, stretched out full length on the stainless steel. He propped his head up on his hand, crossed his legs and said sweetly,

“Don’t you want my autograph, too?”

Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

Google “Rocco’s meatballs” and you will get a whopping 32, 700 hits . He’s taken his mama’s recipe and turned it into an empire. People raved over them on his reality show and now Dull Normals like us can order them online for only $39, or make them ourselves as the 'top secret' recipe is out! I am not really a spaghetti and meatballs kind of girl, but my little Noah was sick with a cold this week and I wanted to make him some home style comfort food. They didn't end up under the high chair, he tucked right into a bowl, so I guess if it's good enough for New York's elite, it's good enough for him!

We enjoyed them too; I'll be making them again.

Thanks Mama Dispirito!

Mama's Meatballs

1/3 cup chicken stock
1/4 yellow onion
1 clove garlic
¼ cup fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
1/2 lb ground veal
1/3 cup plain breadcrumbs
2 eggs
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt
3-6 cups of your favorite marinara sauce
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1. Place the chicken stock, onion, garlic and parsley in a blender of food processor and puree.

2. In a large bowl, combine the pureed stock mix, meat, bread crumbs, eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, parsley and salt. Combine with both hands until mixture is uniform. Do not over mix.

3. Put a little olive oil on your hands and form mixture into balls a little larger than golf balls. They should be about ¼ cup each, though if you prefer bigger or smaller, it will only affect the browning time.

4. Pour about 1/2-inch of extra virgin olive oil into a straight-sided, 10-inch-wide sauté pan and heat over medium-high flame. Add the meatballs to the pan (working in batches if necessary) and brown meatballs, turning once. This will take about 10-15 minutes.

5. While the meatballs are browning, heat the marinara sauce in a stockpot over medium heat. Lift the meatballs out of the sauté pan with a slotted spoon and put them in the marinara sauce. Stir gently. Simmer for one hour.

6. Serve with a little extra Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled on top. Serve alone or over spaghetti (in which case, you will need 6 cups of marinara). Serves 6.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Foodie Facebook: Miranda

Name: Miranda

Place: Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Occupation: Student and Animal Care Worker

What is your earliest childhood food memory?

Being forced to eat liver, which I couldn’t stand. I would cut it up into the tiniest pieces and hide it in my mashed potatoes, so I could swallow it without tasting it. Liver still makes me shudder.

What did you eat today?

Toast with jam for breakfast, Asian fried rice for lunch, and for supper fettuccine with sautéed shrimp in an artichoke and roasted garlic cream sauce, with a side of green salad.

What will your kids never be allowed to eat?

Anything that’s too over processed, such as cheese whiz, or something that’s hard to identify as a food product such as bologna. Sugary foods like pop will be limited but allowed on special occasions. I mean you have to have marshmallows when you’re camping!

What do you always have on hand in your fridge?

Fresh herbs, lemon, garlic, good olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and plenty of fresh veggies.

What is your beverage of choice?

For non- alcoholic drinks I like San Pellegrino, Limonata, and iced tea

For alcoholic I like Lychee Martinis and Daiquiris

If you could have dinner with anyone in the history of man, who would it be?

It would be interesting to have dinner with Jean Donaldson and Karen Pryor. I would love to pick their brain about dog training and hear their theories.

Right now though, I would love to just have dinner with my whole family. We’re so far apart and it would be amazing to be together even for a night.

Ok, it’s your last meal ever, what do you have?

It would have to be a lot of food! I would start with a fresh oyster with some kosher salt and lemon. The appetizer would have to be a nice fresh green salad with avocado. The main course would be filet mignon, cooked to medium rare and served with grilled baby potatoes, carrots and beets. Desert would be a sampler of a small molten chocolate cake, a lemon tartlet, and a raspberry sorbet.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mayan Chocolate Sparklers: a new personal favorite

With the arrival of a new baby comes the arrival of many visitors and over the past few weeks we've welcomed plenty of friends and family as they've dropped in to meet the new addition.
This steady stream of company has been most welcome as I haven't had the energy to get out much with the boys and it's nice to have an adult around for some real conversation.

Don't get me wrong, Noah is a great conversationalist for a two-year-old, but there is only so much one can say about rockets, big machines, volcanoes and hockey!

I like to have something on hand to serve with afternoon tea or coffee during these friendly visits and these cookies are something Noah and I mixed up recently--I think they are my new favorite cookie!
This recipe surfaced during my famous Christmas cookie exchange and was executed beautifully by my friend Kirsten. What makes these far superior to a regular double chocolate cookie is the integration of cinnamon, black pepper and cayenne, giving them some heat! Also a generous cup and a quarter of cocoa powder makes these cookies dark, delicious and totally satisfying for a chocoholic as myself.

The dough is pretty amazing, too. You may not want to bake all of it...

If you're crazy about the combination of chocolate and pepper, check out my recipe for Milk Chocolate Pudding with Long Pepper.

Mayan Chocolate Sparklers:

Preparation time: 60 minutes

Baking time: 10 minutes

Makes: 5 dozen



½ cup granulated sugar 125 mL

1 tsp ground cinnamon 5 mL


¾ cup vegetable shortening 175 mL

½ cup unsalted butter, softened 125 mL

¾ cup granulated sugar 175 mL

¾ cup brown sugar, packed 175 mL

2 large eggs 2

1 tsp pure vanilla extract 5 mL

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour 425 mL

1 ¼ cups cocoa powder 300 mL

1 tbsp ground cinnamon 15 mL

2 tsp baking soda 10 mL

¼ tsp salt 1 mL

¼ tsp ground black pepper 1 mL

1 pinch ground cayenne pepper 1

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips 250 mL

Preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Combine sugar and cinnamon for topping.

Beat shortening, butter, sugars
and vanilla until creamy. Beat in eggs, one at a time.
Sift together flour, cocoa, cinnamon and baking soda. Stir in black pepper, salt, and cayenne pepper.
Gradually add dry ingredients to butter mixture, beating after each addition. Stir in chocolate chips.

Roll in 1” (2.5 cm) balls, don’t flatten. Roll into cinnamon and sugar topping. Place on prepared cookie sheets, about 2” (5 cm) apart.
Bake 7-10 minutes. Cookies should still be soft in center. Let cool on baking sheet for 3-5 minutes. Remove, cool on wire rack.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

WFD? Asparagus Gruyère Tart for Spring

I keep a small pad of paper on the nightstand next to my bed for those occasional nights where my body is exhausted, but my mind can't seem to shut down.
Often some of my best menu ideas come as I am tossing and turning and so I jot them down for future reference in my notebook.

"What are you writing?" My husband will ask, knowing full well the answer.

"Oh, just a little menu planning" I'll say,
"How does this sound?"

and I'll rattle off to him a well-rounded cocktail menu for that upcoming wedding shower I am helping out with or list a trio of desserts I want to make for that weekends' pot-luck with friends.

I realize this makes me sound really food-crazy, so I will reiterate that I occasionally menu-plan in bed and only when something genius comes to me and I don't want to forget it in the morning.

This asparagus and gruyère tart was jotted down in the notebook, underlined a few times, with the note next to it:

"A must-try for spring. Ideal for an elegant outdoor meal."

After making it this week, I would have to say it is ideal for several reasons.
First of all, it is ridiculously easy to make: if you can roll pastry and grate cheese, you can make this tart.
Secondly, it's mighty tasty: what's not to love about flaky pastry, a good strong cheese and toothsome spring asparagus?
Thirdly, look how pretty it is!

You'll find the original recipe here with a how-to video that I fell asleep while watching.

Asparagus Gruyère Tart

Flour, for work surface
1 sheet frozen puff pastry

5 1/2 ounces (2 cups) Gruyère cheese, shredded

1 1/2 pounds medium or thick asparagus

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a floured surface, roll the puff pastry into a 16-by-10-inch rectangle. Trim uneven edges. Place pastry on a baking sheet. With a sharp knife, lightly score pastry dough 1 inch in from the edges to mark a rectangle. Using a fork, pierce dough inside the markings at 1/2-inch intervals. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes.

Remove pastry shell from oven, and sprinkle with Gruyère. Trim the bottoms of the asparagus spears to fit crosswise inside the tart shell; arrange in a single layer over Gruyère, alternating ends and tips. Brush with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake until spears are tender, 20 to 25 minutes


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