Feeding the carpenter - the perfect continuum for a chef at rest
We just completed a couple of weeks of renos. The kitchen was completely emptied, cleaned and repainted. The dining room floor was sanded down to remove years of wear and tear and high heel dents, re-varnished, the walls painted, the table tops also sanded down and refinished. The terrasse panels were redone, doors fixed, hinges oiled.. Numerous odds and ends on our accumulated ‘to do’ list got ticked off. Before the season, it was imperative that our dehydrator be repaired, now or never. In a month or so, when spring really hits, it and us will be in the juice again until Christmas, embarked on our annual marathon race with nature - picking, putting up, cooking and going to market.
Aware of what lies ahead, I seized the moment and took it easy. Ok, I did my share of cleaning, organizing, paperwork and planning, while tending to my miscellaneous other projects, but still. It only seemed fair that I feed the working men when I was around. Typically, after a few hours on my computer, and a couple more in the woods, I would hit my home kitchen in the evening to cook up a storm for the boys.
It turns out our friend the carpenter is a good eater, an exceptional one. In fact, I have never seen anyone who doesn’t weigh 300lb eat this much at one sitting, regularly. He’s not a glutton; the Frenchman definitely knows and appreciates good food, so more of a gourmand with no bottom. He’s a 6 egg breakfast man (with 6 slices of toast and etc). On the first days, we saw that a litre of hearty soup and a baguette was not going to be enough for lunch; we had to throw in a plate of left-overs or heat up a turkey pot pie or package of sous-vide venison stew to keep him going.
At the end of the day, they would saunter home from the table champêtre exhausted, covered with sawdust, crack open a beer and wait for dinner. I first set out snacks while I prepared our ‘every night salad’, a mix of tomatoes, cukes, radishes, fresh cheese and olives, a dish that François and I eat daily with a green salad to start. I replaced the normal sized oval plate we customarily use for a giant round one and doubled the quantities. Since we had company, I would add an entrée, maybe some snails or mussels or charcuterie. Then the main course - bavette, ribs, ossobucco, fish, rabbit or some game bird, systematically served with several sides, rice or mashed potatoes, and at least two vegetables, sometimes more. Once and a while, there would be dessert (we’re not big dessert people), more likely a digestif.
I am generally accused of making too much food, but with this carpenter around, there were never any leftovers. Caught off guard, I started playing defence, cooking more copiously in fear of coming up short, not fully satisfying.. To François’ chagrin, there were still no left-overs. Meanwhile, of course, I loved this. All chefs love good eaters. It is a pleasure to feed someone with such a voracious appetite who is appreciative. It justifies all we want to throw into our cooking, and it feels good.
Nonetheless, as I went all out and dirtied every pot in the kitchen night after night, there was no doubt that this was becoming almost-like-work and definitely time consuming, with more frequent trips to the market (and SAQ) than usual, so also expensive.. I was having a hard time keeping up without compromising my other commitments.. I’m the one who jumped in; they could have been ordering pizza; what the hell was I doing?
I was somewhat relieved when it was all over, to be able to rediscover my less labour intensive boyfriend in a tête à tête. Yet I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a missing-it-pang. I guess I was meant to cook, and for more than one person a night. Perhaps feeding an army of a carpenter gave me what I am used to getting at the restaurant – a reason to cook a little more extravagantly than usual, an outlet and reason for my creativity and need to cook, not to mention constant enthusiasm on the receiving end. No matter how good and loving your boyfriend or family are, they eventually take your cooking for granted.
Throughout, I had lots of happy, no pressure time in the kitchen (which is always why I love cooking at home), and then delicious, fun time around the table in good company. Here I was doing simple home cooking with top ingredients, abundant and varied, served platter style with lots of wine. Exactly what hard working boys and girls deserve at the end of the day. It provided the perfect break for a chef like me. I was able to play around in the kitchen without all the constraints, pump out food and know it would be eaten. Plus, I actually got to sit down and partake.
On any night, busy or not, I am a chef who cooks at home, if not for François, at 1am for myself. François and I eat well on any given night; it is religiously a careful and joyous feast. But there is only so much my guy and I can eat. I don’t like waste, so I’m constantly giving food away to neighbours or holding back. I apparently need a family of mouths to feed, but don’t want kids and all the rest of it. With the carpenter, I had the perfect scenario. He did good work, I was soo happy to nourish him.
In the high season however, the restaurant is enough. At that point, I am lucky to get one or two dinners with my François des Bois a week, for an ‘everynight salad’ and some crab, no time for hungry carpenters.
The carpenter’s favourite dishes:
Mussels with white wine, mustard, tarragon, tomato and crinkleroot cream
Sweat chopped onion and celery (leek and carrot if you have it) in butter or olive oil; then garlic, pinch of tarragon, dill and chilli; deglaze with white wine, add a bit of stock or water and cream, reduce down; add chopped tomatoes, a hit of crinkleroot mustard and crinkleroot (or Dijon and horseradish); simmer a few min., add salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon. Add cleaned mussels (debearded and checked; closed with a tap if open), cover the pot, crank the heat and let cook, mixing or shaking the pot every now and then for 3-5 min. Until open and juicy looking. You need a 6L pot to cook 2lb of mussels. Serve with crusty bread.
Quail with maple and thyme
Butcher the quail, separating out the legs and the supremes. I use whole quail and make a jus with the back bones, tips and neck, but you can buy semi-boneless quail and skip this, just cutting the legs from the breasts. Every time I cook quail and people tell me it is the best quail they have eaten, I tell them I bet it is because the two were cooked separately as apposed to a whole roasted or bbq quail, which by the way can be very tasty too, stuffed with foie gras or smokey from the grill, but never with perfect cuisson.
Season and pan-sear the breasts skin side down in a hot pan with a little oil a minute or two, turn over for 30 seconds and remove. Add the seasoned legs, brown all over (a couple of minutes), then add some minced shallots and garlic, a pat of butter, a hit of chilli, deglaze with a couple of ounces of white wine, sherry or honey wine, some stock or water, a dollop of maple syrup, a squirt of soy sauce and a squeeze of lime. Throw in a bunch of fresh thyme. Take off the heat, cover and put into a 350F oven for 20 min. Add the breasts to the sauce and return to the oven for 5 minutes. Serve with rice and veg.
I often spice up the quail with panch foran or curry or wild ginger or even steak spice and modify my sauce in consequence. Whether it’s cloudberry or pimbina or maple syrup and lime or cider vinegar, there is always something slightly sweet and tart, mixed with something salty and meaty (soy, stock, butter) and something herbal (coriander or thyme, rosemary, bee balm, sweetgrass..)
Our every night salad
Slice tomatoes (at this time of year, the cocktail tomatoes from Savoura are a good choice), cucumbers and radishes into bite size pieces and mix on a communal platter. Slice up some fresh cheese (Buffalo Mozzarella or Bocconcini or Baladi or Botenaro (a Quebec made Mexican style cheese) and scatter over top. Add chopped green onions, salt and pepper, a splash of Pettinicchi chilli oil and a generous sopping of olive oil, a drizzle of 10 yr balsamic and a generous handful of Crespo anchovy stuffed green olives (We are addicted to these). We occasionally add pickled mushrooms or hearts of palm, and in summer, we might add a seasonal veg like beans or corn, but most of the time it is like this. We always mix a green salad on the side with Romaine and endive or some bitter wild green. When we finish eating the tomato salad, we pour the juices over the green salad and eat that. Then it’s time for dinner. Anyone who is a regular guest at our house knows that this is inevitably part of the meal unless it is a special event with a fancied up menu.
Bavette with gremolata vegetables and mashed potatoes
If not venison or moose, it is Piedmontais beef from Prince noir at JTM; I marinate it with a bit of soy, a squirt or two or Worcestershire, some rosemary olive oil, thyme and steak spice (or the equivalent type of home blend).. I pan-sear it say 3-5 min a side depending on the thickness and let it rest another five. Sometimes I deglaze the pan with red wine, stock, finishing with butter to make a proper sauce. If lazy, I skip the step and serve it with a good mustard. But that’s only if I have a soft purée or something saucy and tasty like bacony fiddleheads as an accompaniment.
I always let François make the mashed potatoes, it’s his thing. He boils them, dries them, adds milk and butter, s&p and sarriette. I like his spuds. I do all the cooking, but when it’s steak or sausage time, he makes the mashed potatoes. He’s the ideal task-specific kitchen helper; he also shucks oysters and grates cheese.
We eat a lot of vegetables, wild and cultivated, from sea spinach, milkweed broccoli to beans, rapini, cauliflower and button mushrooms (?!).. I have a potted gremolata kind of mix with wild garlic (don’t tell), garlic mustard leaf, sea parsley, lemon, sumac and a whole bunch of other spices, pepper and herbs, for our personal use… I like to throw that into my veg; I keep it subtle, but I know it would only take another teaspoon to turn a veg-hater or teenage kid into a veg lover.. I sometimes slather it on steak, in which case, I would leave the veg au naturel..