Coups de Coeur this summer so far..
Some expressions are just better in French. How do you translate ‘coups de coeur’?
Highlights-Favourites-Flings of the moment-Things I have a soft spot for right now?
That’s one upside to living in Quebec; we get to dip into the other language for effect, and everyone understands. So anyway, these are some of the things that tickled my fancy and got me excited this summer - the stand-outs. Some are new, some revisited, and not only in the ‘wild and edible’ realm.
Summer is a time of many loves, and my infatuations evolve much more rapidly than the seasons (see previous post: http://soupnancy.squarespace.com/blog-journalessays/2008/2/6/falling-in-and-out-of-love.html), I could never name them all. Of course, there are annual repeats and constants; I fall in love with sea parsley, cattail and elderberry every year at the same time, and I never stop loving sea spinach, sweetgrass and olive oil year round. In season, Quebec strawberries and Nordic shrimp are givens, as are chanterelles and black trumpets, and just about every other mushroom when their time comes. In parallel to the wild stuff being foraged at the season’s peak, there is the market’s bounty - the fresh radishes, peas and fava, all the baby vegetables, followed by the first ground cherries and ears of corn, the tomatoes and squash - all guaranteed highs.
Amidst the regular flurry of beautiful summer ingredients, there are still always surprises - some item that got overlooked last time around or something arrestingly new.. Thanks to the wealth of Quebec’s artisans and the dynamic food world around us today, new products and sources of inspiration are endlessly sprouting up too.
My new and improved nose has only been a help, I have to say; with every bite or sniff, there seems to be an exclamation mark more than last year. When it comes to the wild greens being so marvellous, maybe that’s the rain and not my senses. In any case, here is my list..
On the wild front:
Milkweed, the broccoli and the flower: I never paid this wild edible much attention, never got excited about it; now smitten, I wonder why. I’m learning that with the wild stuff, like with getting to know any foreign ingredient, sometimes it’s a matter of time. It so happens that the first milkweed shoots are inarguably tasty and very much like asparagus. I always liked the broccoli for flavour, but found them mushy after the necessary cooking - until this year when I uncovered the way they were meant to be served, in tempura (once blanched). The next stage in the plant’s life is even more enticing, the flowers -so aromatic, intensely floral but with green notes, versatile in either savoury or sweet. I made a kick-ass syrup, a granite, and a vinegar. The delicate buds don’t last long, so we had to act fast; but for a time, they also made a spectacular garnish.
- Day lily buds fresh as opposed to pickled. This year I didn’t pickle any in the caper like fashion (although that’s good too), preferring to serve them in salads and as a vegetable, just blanched and dressed, allowing the crunch and subtle floral/ vegetal/truffle flavour to shine through, along with the fresh petals and oniony dried pistils of course..
- Wild celery: the stalk makes a sipping straw that imparts a potent celery taste, and the dried flowers once pulverized make a natural celery salt (with no added salt) – both perfect for bloody caesers. Add a dash of crinkleroot paste, and you have one wildly delicious, sexy version of the classic cocktail!
- Mugwort, my ‘pizza plant’. I coined the phrase when I first met this plant years ago, because at its best, it smells like pizza, or actually more like fougasse (a mix of olive oil, herbes de provence). I was very curious initially about using it as an herb, but then lost interest because every time I tasted it afterward, it was either bitter or bland. This is the first year that it is as truly flavourful and interesting as that taste memory. The funny thing is that it tastes different in each spot it grows on our property, highlighting how important the ‘where, when and how’ of how a plant is harvested affects its properties (the amount of sunlight and water, the soil, the weather ; François says even the time of day picked). Sabline is another example, in that it is actually edible this year – so gorged with water, the clean cucumber taste is there, without excessive astringency. Yes, I was happy to rediscover the humble mugwort, but this is not an important green in our arsenal; in fact it is considered more of a medicinal plant, and being a cousin of absinthe, it’s probably best kept that way.
- Juniper! Although I have always had a ready stash of the berries(frozen), that are so much better than the bought dried variety, I still manage to forget about them all the time. But, these days, I’m having a hard time making a sauce or marinade without them. Especially alongside the wild berries coming in now, with wine or game meats in a sauce, juniper really blends in well, lending a definite ‘je ne sais quoi’. An experienced palate might detect it, but most people just say ‘yum’, even if they don’t like gin. In a gelée with blackberry atop a mousse de foies de volaille and foie gras, customers accused me of injecting drugs in the recipe, they couldn’t get enough.
- Sarsaparilla.. I always loved root beer, and I once loved Porto (now too sweet for me), and this native berry tastes like a fruity combination of the two; when used in a sauce or coulis, or as a flavouring, it adds those delectable notes and depth. I bet that would be good with foie too.
- Wine caps (Strophaire à anneaux rugeux) - A noble mushroom variety new on the menu. Introduced to us by fellow mushroom fanatics, I was intrigued, and found them to be so dainty, nutty and delicate. Apparently they grows in wood chips, madly springing up the year after the ice storm, and are cultivated too - no worries, not dangerous. I have to find out more, and am not sure whether we could have enough to put on our mushroom menu anyway, but I’m pretty stoked about this newbie.
- I met the Canada lily for the first time (François says it’s rare in these parts) – what a remarkably beautiful flower – not edible though!
Some Quebec cheeses worth getting excited about..
- Tomme d’Elles de Charlevoix, Maurice Dufour
- le 1608, the now so popular Charlevoix washed rind cheese made from the heritage Canadienne breed of cow http://www.fromagescharlevoix.com/fromages/1608.htm
- l’Etoile Bleu de St-Rémi, my new favourite blue cheese, sheep’s milk
- Terre Promise, which I’ve talked about before, but it’s only gotten better (from the makers of Victor & Berthold, La Racam, Le Fétard) http://www.lanaudiere-guidetouristique.com/La-plaine-agricole/Fromagerie-Du-Champ-a-la-meule/
- Tomme de Grosse Ile http://www.fromagesdici.com/www/tomme_grosse.asp
- Highwood Crossing Canola oil : I fell in love with this oil at l’Eau à la Bouche years ago, but was reminded of it recently thanks to a newspaper article in the Globe.. Referred to as Canada’s EVO because it is cold-pressed, fresh and incredibly flavourful, this is a distant relative to the bland, processed canola oil that is so common. A finishing oil, to be used like the best extra-virgin olive oils, it has a fresh, buttery, nutty flavour, with sunflower seed and subtle sesame notes. I just ordered a 20L tub in the mail. Even with shipping charges, this is a good deal for the quality. http://www.highwoodcrossing.com/index.html
- Pettinicchi olive oils and vinegars: I have long been a fan of these products too, and it is forever exciting when our order arrives for the year, albeit with an ouch (but it’s worth it).. His chilli oil adorns just about every dish I make at home, and is one major reason I could never go completely local. http://www.pettinicchi.com
- Terre Sativa herb salt, and I’m only thinking about because I’m running out.. I don’t use this at the restaurant where I have every fresh herb on hand, but at home, it’s a staple. http://cld.portneuf.com/upload/cld.portneuf/editor/asset/Terra%20Sativa%20fiche%2006.pdf
My ‘coup de coeur’ starter dish of the summer uses all three of the above.. This is a salad that I ate every night at home this summer – little cucumbers and radish slices with Terre Sativa herb salt, black pepper, and chilli oil. Some times I added fresh cheese, or chopped egg or olives, and now I’m slowly moving tomatoes and corn into the mix, while the radishes fade out. Sometimes I change up the oil and vinegar (I have too many favourite oils and vinegars..). You have to love summer for how simple good food can be.
- La Ferme Quebec-Oies: Specialized in everything goose: foie gras, confits, terrines and etc.. I tasted their galantine d’oie (at the Marché du Vieux in Quebec City) and was won over. Clean goose flavour, sooo delicious! (lafermequebec-oies°videotron.ca, 418-826-0942)
In the kitchen
- I found a renewed interest and respect for agar.. (I love that it’s Ok to drop the second ‘agar’ now) Years ago, when agar was so very cool, mostly because it was a novel, vegetable source of gelatine that could withstand some heat, I went crazy with it. Only to ditch it eventually, concluding that it was a sub-par gelatine for my uses, and always grainy. It took a couple of years and a class in NYC to find new uses and rekindle some respect. I’ll always be more traditional and tend towards sheet gelatine or eggs for my preparations or any mousse, but I’m a little less biased today. Agar can make a nice liquid gel when you want a scoopable/shapeable sauce, or a vinaigrette with texture. And to set a braised mixture or terrine that you want to serve warm, it is pretty nifty.
- Bamboo steamer. This is a tool I don't call on much, but it came to the rescue when my homemade ravioli were bursting in a boiling water bath and I was in the juice. Sometimes, when you want intense but gentle heat, steaming is the way to go.
- My new favourite tool –a mini slotted spoon. Not holy like a Mac knife or microplane, but still, very useful in the kitchen, especially for plating. I also have a wide, flat topped spoon that is great too for controlled, neat portioning and saucing. Knives are mentioned all the time; the most neglected of important tools in the professional kitchen are spoons (for tasting and serving, slotted or wood, of all shapes, big and small)!
Dishes, some hits:
- Cream of Lettuce soup with cucumber, fava bean and bee balm salsa – who would have thought? Usually any soup with mushrooms or wild greens, potato and bacon is a hit.. But with no meat and based on lettuce?? Quelle surprise.
- Scallops. Every scallop dish, whether seared, in ceviche or sashim, it appears you can't go wrong. Paired with wild ginger and sea greens, they especially make for swooning. . No wonder every other restaurant is serving them too, and fish mongers can’t keep up. Bad sign.
- A lobster bisque (Thai style) with sea spinach and cattail (I don’t think it was the wild things here that were winner, more like that heady mix of lime, coriander and coconut milk, and good bisque base of course).
- Strawberry and sweet-grass! Although sweetgrass is like vanilla or almond, good in just about every dessert, this particular pairing soars. I made a shortcake, a pavlova, sorbet and granite, used the mix in coulis, compote and jelly – all lip-smacks and smiles.
- Venison, braised or roasted: I take venison for granted because we have the farm on the property, and so I cook it all the time.. While I don’t want to put it in the starring role every week because I need to change things up, I see that people love it. I think the uninitiated expect venison to be gamey, and so are charmed by the subtle, savoury, better-than-beef quality of the meat. It doesn’t matter if I serve it with a crinkleroot mustard sauce, a wild grape balsamic, a wild mushroom sauce, it’s always a hit. And no matter how creative I like to get, I know I could make a fancy Shepard’s pie every week and customers would be happy. If said rustic dish wasn’t getting as tired as crème brulée in the food world, I might make it more.
- Consommé, wild ginger or mushroom. I realize this is more of a winter dish and maybe I’m ‘in’ because I hadn’t made it in months. But it always excites me more than the customers anyway, who seem just as happy with a typical soupnancy purée type soup, which is so much less work. Why do I bother? Because I like a good broth. Because consommé is cheffy (something you don’t do at home). Because it’s pretty. What I especially like about consommé is the layers of flavour - the idea of boosting my duck broth with extra umph through what I put into the clarification raft like mushrooms or ginger, flavours that you can’t see, but come through strong and clean and clear, pure elegance.
Crinkleroot French toast (this was a true personal fave); I used it to sop up escabeche but I see it with fresh tomatoes or tomato confit; now, I’m just waiting for the tomatoes…
- Ham and cornbread salad. I love ham and put a lot of love into making it. Customers appreciate it in any given dish, but rarely understand how much work is involved, what special ham it is. Like with the cornbread salad, which is something I have been making since I was a catering young one, I could be using couscous and few would notice. People say yum, but I know the cornbread was for me, more than for them. I tell myself it probably would be less 'yum' if the ham and couscous were store bought.
Eating oysters throughout summer.
I think this is the first summer that I eat oysters on a regular basis, no matter how oyster-loving we are. Like for most people our age, oysters have traditionally been a fall and winter thing. Even though there has been a good supply for years now in the R-less monthes, and it is better than ever now with the rise in popularity of oyster bars and such. I’m thrilled because they go awfully well with hot weather and sparkling wine, especially our east coast Virginicas. Regardless of how often I try the ‘others’ like the Pacifics or various exotic varieties, I can’t get into that flabby taste; I need the salt, and cold water tang of Malpeques like Coleville Bay, Raspberry Point, Glacier Bay and co..
BTW, An informative and entertaining book on oysters for amateurs and fans, or anyone curious about oysters: Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen. www.rowanjacobsen.com
- I hardly dined out much this summer, but there was Bistro-Bar Chez Roger, one of François’ favourite spots (by the same chef team as Kitchen Galerie) that I recently got to know: Solid haute bistro market-fare (oysters, terrines, tartares, short-ribs, fish and chips and much more) with good wines, and a great vibe. http://www.barroger.com/
- Tartare table-side! Like in the good old days. And this one was GREAT! At L’Auberge Le Baluchon in St-Paulin, LaMauricie: where the true country setting is beautiful, spa and such comforts included, and there is a refreshing social conscience attached (as far as promoting local producers and Quebec in general, recycling, respecting nature, fair-trade - even healthy and allergenic diets are considered here, poor cooks). The service is earnest and abundant (more than fine tuned); there is a lot to like about this place. Although the food was mostly mediocre for the price, I had that super (REALLY!), nostalgic tartare at night, and in the morning, the best ham sandwich I’ve had in ages at their Eco-café on Berbere bread. Even with just a few things right, because they were SO RIGHT, this Quebec tourist attraction left me with a major sweet spot.
A piece of writing that I thought was fabulous, The Case for Working With Your Hands, by Matthew B. Crawford, A New York Times Article.
- Apples to Oysters, A Food Lover’s Tour of Canadian Farms, by Margaret Webb There isn’t much true Canadian food writing out there, outside the cookbook, travel and special interest genre.. Here is a uniquely personal account of a cross-country eating tour that celebrates the best of Canada with a focus on a few great artisans more Canadians should know about, who are producing real, good food. http://www.margaretwebb.com/
- Eating at Church, A book of Recipes from Aylmer & Eardley United – Ok, this is hardly a coffee table cookbook and probably of interest to few in the new jet-set world of foodies. But I liked this modest little book mainly for the historical/sociological aspect, because it is typical of thousands across the country in decades past, when the church was so all important in most Canadian lives. I include it here mainly as a reminder of another kind of cookbook, one that isn’t big and glossy or promoting a chef, restaurant or new diet.. For me, it also offered up a slice of nostalgia because I feel like I gobbled up my fair share of this food as a child, not only at buffets in the church hall, but at my parents’ friends homes – hot cross buns, deviled eggs and bean casseroles, recipes that use soup mix and cream cheese, ham spread and jello, cranberry punch and trifle of all kinds - all infused with loads of personality and a sense of community.
- François Chartier’s Papilles et Molecules I find this stuff fascinating, even if I don’t think it’s so important. Breaking down the flavours in food and wine to chemical components and matching them doesn’t seem to turn up so much more than what we already know from experience or instinct. Granted, there are a few surprises that surface from the mix. In any case, it is gleefully refreshing, even comforting to have science confirm things you already know. And it is inspiring to be led down a different path, say when it comes to rosemary and Alsatian wines.. New ideas open up, only because of his different approach. This is hardly a complete work, but it is ambitious all the same; he has surely done a lot to kick off a whole other branch of wine and food pairing… Even if I know this is not a book I will pick up again and again, I value it now for the novelty, for the odd brainwave it inspired, for all his research. www.francoischartier.com
No - No Julie and Julia! Haven't seen it yet.