December 16, 2018

Burning Question: panko or breadcrumbs?

I admit that I didn’t even know that this was a subject of much debate until dinner on Saturday night. Invited over to the home of good friends, one of the components of the meal was a sampling of crab cakes. I say sampling because chef Jennie made one version with panko, and one with breadcrumbs. People generally describe panko as Japanese breadcrumbs (for deep fried pork tonkatsu and the like), but it’s really much lighter and airier than the traditional crumb.

And that’s exactly what happened: The panko version, the top of the two crab cakes in the photo below, was more of a loose assemblage of crab and other goodness, and the breadcrumb version was much more dense. Both delicious, but we all agreed that the texture of the panko crab cake left more space for the flavor to come through.

Other great uses for panko? I like the suggestion in one of the comments in the link above: as a coating for Scotch eggs. Or check out these ideas from eHow and Chowhound. Who knew??

Travels abroad: Montreal Part II

On our roam around Montreal, one of the goals was to buy a selection of local gift food that we could bring as a Christmas present to the BF’s parents in New Hampshire. We planned to add to the basket already started with two of the classics of Pike Place Market, smoked salmon and chocolate covered Chukar Cherries. We scanned all of the shops as we made our way to poutine at La Banquise, and through Parc La Fontaine that you see here at left, picturesque with the all the snow and skaters on the frozen pond. We thought that we might have to resort to something acquired at an Esso station on our drive south –which actually wouldn’t be so bad if the selection was anything like the local jerky that you can get in gas station mini marts in towns like Ellensburg and Moses Lake – but we lucked out by stumbling on Marché St-Jacques on our way back to the hotel. It’s all indoors and less rustic than Pike Place or my new favorite, London’s Borough Market, but it was absolutely the perfect solution to our gift food needs. Fresh fruit and vegetables, meets, cheeses, pasta, sweets, coffee, and tea – and plenty of it locally made.

You’ll see in the Google map mentioned in the previous post that we had done a bit of research on where to go for dinner the second night, as we’d decided that Au Pied de Cochon was the must-do and the other dinner slot was up for discussion. There seemed to be a fair number of good options, but the list narrowed significantly once we started calling around for reservations on Christmas Eve. As these things go, it turned out that the restaurant originally lower on our list because the photos on the website seemed to show food too perfectly plated, too precious, was the one open on Christmas Eve and with room for us. It also turned out that the food gods knew better than we did, because this was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I should probably say “meal experiences,” though, because of course the time of year, outstanding company, warm interior, and the superb service all had something to do with that assessment.

Chez L’Épicier is in Old Montreal, around the corner from this twinkly square and just off the waterfront. From the street we walked up the short flight of stairs into white tablecloths, dark wood chairs and floors, cylindrical mesh-covered light fixtures, and a tremendous amount of exposed brick and rough stone and masonry. The two bright blue walls, one in each of the two large rooms, added a terrific punch of color to the cozy space.

While Au Pied de Cochon was all bustle and noise and big, saucy plates, Chez L’Épicier was much more restrained in interior and food. What we originally thought might be food that was too fussy, turned out to be beautifully constructed and intricately flavored dishes, one course after another. I’m including a photo of the menu – prix fixe in honor of the holiday – because it’s too fabulous not to share. The only item not listed is the amuse bouche of beet-flavored macaroon with goat cheese, absolutely tiny and perfect.

One of the best parts about travel is happening upon the unexpected, and it was just that when we stumbled across the Sphères Polaires on our walk from dinner to a late Christmas Eve service at Christ Church Cathedral. They were enormous – you get a sense of the scale from the people standing next to them – and emitted all sorts of sounds and flashing lights. No doubt, the perfect otherworldly follow-up to our magical meal.

Travels abroad: Montreal Part I

Apparently this is what happens when two food-oriented people travel together: Much research into new and interesting places to eat, and from there the creation of a Google map to chart a narrowed-down list of possibilities. Voilà!

We started by asking different friends for recommendations of what to check out in Montreal, then did a bit more reconnaissance online to see what might fit into our two nights in the city. I have to give credit to the BF, because once we really sat down together in front of the laptop with our research overlayed on to a (virtual) map of the city, it was his brilliant idea to push-pin all of the locations on the Google map. Thus, we could see where everything was and track all of the restaurant options. The really crazy thing, though, was that we left the map public – viewable by anyone out there in the big world – and when we came back to the map a couple of days later there had already been some 75 views. The version you see now has been updated post-trip with a couple of comments and who knows, maybe others will find this useful in their own pre-trip research.

The top of our list, and a bit of a scramble with a reservation coming up very shortly after landing in Montreal, was dinner at Au Pied de Cochon. APDC showed up in every list of restaurants recommended by friends, on Urbanspoon, and on Chowhound. Clearly somewhere not to be missed! Not a huge place, it’s busy and bustle-y, warmed by an interior of wood wood everywhere: tables, floors, walls, bar. Seated across from the open kitchen, what we noticed most was that the tiny space was packed, and much more vocal and physical than what we had experienced in other restaurants. Shouting, laughing, a bit of good-natured shoving.

First for the evening was the salad special for the night, greens topped with egg, a substantial bit of goat cheese, veal, and the thinnest potato crisps. Next we had the Tarragon Bison Tongue, rare and fall-apart tender, with a delicious swipe of mustard tarragon sauce and the tiniest pickle rounds for accent.

It’s good that we chose two small plates to start, because our final selection of the evening erased any possibility for additional sampling. Our server didn’t say a peep when we asked if these three dishes were the right amount for two of us, because when the last platter arrived we saw that there was actually enough to serve several of our fellow diners. The Pied de Cochon stuffed with foie gras was over the top decadent, with that enormous leg of pig on the fatty side, stuffed with an even more rich foie gras and served with bitter greens, mashed potatoes, and mushrooms. It’s hard to tell the scale of this dish from the photo, but consider that the platter nearly spans two large dinner plates, and the spoon and fork you see here are of considerable serving size. If this last selection hadn’t been so massive we might have tried one of the other signature menu items which seems to come highly recommended – the Canard en Conserve (basically, duck in a can) – but as it was we had quite the experience at one of the best known restaurants in Montreal.

Speaking of best known… We couldn’t leave Montreal without sampling poutine, so after our stomachs had recovered from dinner the night before and we’d had a long walk through snowy streets and park, we beelined for La Banquise. With its mismatched painted tabletops and 24-hour schedule, La Banquise is the sort of casual diner-y spot you can easily drop in and out of, or hang out for a while. We sampled two different versions of the fresh cheese curd and brown gravy-topped plate of french fries, the Poutine Matty with bacon, yellow peppers, and green peppers and the Poutine Classique with just the basics, all washed down with a Cheval Blanc Blanche (a witbier). I’m told that the best poutine has cheese curds that are audibly squeaky and those at La Banquise definitely filled the bill.

Click here here for an Eater review of Au Pied de Cochon and La Banquise, as well as a bonus review of another Eater must-try, Damas.

The Elderflower Face-Off

It’s holiday time and everywhere you look there are parties. (More this year than last — I’ll take this as a good sign!) Often what sets apart the stellar bash from the ho hum function, the thing that people talk about long after the fact, is fantastic food and drink. If you’re the host of one of these parties and searching for the hip cocktail of the hour, look no further than the recent popularity of St-Germain, a liqueur made from the elderflower. Whether it’s the Dover Calais at Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Parlor, the Parisian Sake at Joule, or the Empress at Spur, I’ve been seeing this particular liqueur in fantastic cocktails all around town.

There’s a bit of drama going on at the moment, though, which may only increase its popularity: My bottle at home was running low so I tried first one liquor store and then another and then another, and was eventually told of an apparent scarcity in the marketplace, not even a dusty bottle way in the back of a liquor store shelf to be found. Even the warehouse was completely out. Mon Dieu! I started asking around and it seemed to be true. One theory was that a strike in France had delayed shipment, and another was that the producer hadn’t properly anticipated demand. At one point I heard through the grapevine (or the elderberry shrub?) that the folks at Ocho even tried making their own version. Maybe we’ll see that on the menu soon!

My inability to purchase St-Germain led me to consider other options, and on a recent foray to yet another liquor store I was finally presented with one that looked quite viable, Thatcher’s Elderflower, from a distillery in Temperance, Michigan. Though the Thatcher’s bottle couldn’t hold a candle to the over-the-top ornateness of the St-Germain bottle, the former looked to be a good contender for my new favorite elderflower liqueur. So, what’s a person to do except conduct a (very non-scientific) taste test?

The cocktail of choice for the big face-off was the Gypsy, courtesy of the St-Germain website:

1 1/2 parts gin

3/4 part St-Germain

1/2 part Green Chartreuse

1/2 part freshly squeezed lime juice

The long and the short of it is that this is our new favorite cocktail — and currently the drink of the house — but despite this being a St-Germain-provided cocktail their elderflower liqueur wasn’t our pick. The four taste testers all agreed: The Thatcher’s version was much more subtle, and let the flavor of the gin (Plymouth, in this case) shine through. I’m pleased to report that the bottle of Thatcher’s, along with my stamp of approval, has gone to the friend who was kind enough to lend us his bottle of St-Germain for the experiment. Thank you to Andrew and his well-stocked bar!

The good news for all of you party-throwers out there is that you should have no problem meeting your elderflower liqueur needs, even if you want to stick with the ever-popular St-Germain. Sunday night the bartender at The Blue Glass assured us that the shortage is over, and once again liquor store shelves will be groaning under the weight of that beautiful bottle. Happy cocktailing, and cheers to one and all!

Putting Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Kitchen to the test

There is something about a cookbook, particularly when it’s brand spanking new. It’s all glossy and beckoning, full of the promise of beautiful meals served to friends and family, happily eating and drinking long into the night. As I flip through the pages for the first time it’s less that I’m envisioning the flavor and taste of each dish, but rather imagining the scenario in which I would serve each. Because for me, and most of us I would suppose, food cooked in a vacuum isn’t nearly as satisfying as when cooked for an appreciative crowd. Maybe some of that comes by way of my mother, who would tell us how she used to (and maybe still does?) take cookbooks to bed and read them like novels, devouring page after page. I like to think that’s because each recipe told a story, and that she too was envisioning how each one could be carefully shopped for, assembled, and presented to that aforementioned appreciative crowd.

Given all of that, you can imagine that I was pleased as punch to receive as a gift Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Cooking, the recently released cookbook from the chef and his co-author, Leslie Miller. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’m a fan of Stowell’s restaurants – Anchovies & Olives, How to Cook a Wolf, and Tavolata – though I must report that I’ve not yet sampled the latest, Staple & Fancy Mercantile. I’ve had fantastic food at each of those and loved my restaurant experiences (because I know that a good part of the magic for me is the beautiful interiors), so I was excited to see if some of the greatness of his food could be recreated at home.

Why not go all out the first time around? Rather than trying single recipes here and there, I set out to cook an entire meal straight from Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Cooking. I spent quite a bit of time with the cookbook, oohing and ahing over the Geoduck Crudo and Skillet Roasted Rabbit and Trofie with Nettle Pesto. It’s a fun book to read, with interesting chef-y tidbits and beautiful photographs, so it wasn’t really a chore picking the evening’s recipes. In the end I wanted to find several things that would pair well together, wouldn’t need too much hands-on time at the end (why is it that one ends up spending so much time in the kitchen and away from the fun people one has invited over for dinner??), and didn’t require too much time spent on sourcing the ingredients.

Per the excellent suggestion in the cookbook, we started with the Pickled Vegetables that you see below with a bit of charcuterie on the side, paired with the evening’s cocktail. Although drinks aren’t included in the book, I feel certain that Ethan and crew would have approved of our choice: The Loveless, courtesy of Poppy, made with Ransom Gin, Chartreuse, St. Germain, lime, and a dash of bitters (orange, if you have it). Yum! I loved that the vegetables were extremely easy to pickle and didn’t require much chilling time before serving. My only thought is that perhaps I’ll do the beets separately next time as everything turned a bit, ahem, pink.

The making of the ricotta for the second nibble of the evening, the Bruschetta with Fresh Ricotta and Pine Nut Salsa Verde, was one of the most fun parts of the experience. Who knew that you could do such a thing? And so easily! Whole milk, cheesecloth, sieve, and there you have it. Mixed with a healthy dash of olive oil and served atop a freshly crisped slice of bread, and I could easily eat that all by itself. I thought that the Pine Nut Salsa Verde wasn’t quite as “kicky” as described, but perhaps a bit more lemon would zing it up a bit. The whole presentation was lovely for its bright whites and greens, though, and silkily delicious.

One of my favorite chef-y tidbits in the book accompanies the recipe for the Seared Duck Breast with Sugared Figs and Arugula, the evening’s main course: “For those of you who crave the ubiquitous duck breast all dressed up for company, I offer you my version, the little ducky paired with sweet-and-sour roasted figs and given a little edge from the arugula. I won’t lie – it’s good. However, in exchange for my providing a traditional duck breast recipe, you must promise me that you will try either Party Tripe on Soft Polenta or maybe Geoduck Crudo with Fennel and Radish. Do what scares you.” Ethan totally nailed me with that one… I went for this recipe because it looked quite doable, and those others are for sure a little scary. And he was right on another count: The duck was a huge hit. Tender, flavorful, and incredibly delicious. I was a little nervous cooking the figs this way – roasted on a rack with just a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sugar – thinking that they would over-roast. I didn’t use the figs suggested in the recipe so I’ll assume that’s why they were a little tough in the end, but for sure the sweet of the fig and the slight bitter of the arugula were perfect contrasts for that fantastic duck.

I’m a sucker for dessert-making, so I was very much looking forward to this part of my cookbook adventure. The ice creams and sorbets looked all well and good, but it was the Chocolate Pumpkin Tart that called out to me. The crust was perhaps my favorite, with ground toasted pistachios and cocoa powder among the things that got pressed together into the bottom of the tart pan. Next came a thin chocolate layer, topped with a creamy mix of roasted sugar pumpkin (or the butternut squash that I used), rum, egg yolks, crème fraiche, and maple syrup, as well as the usual sort of pumpkin-y spices. I thought that it was a delicious dessert that wasn’t terribly sweet, so an excellent finish to the meal.

For me, the mark of a good cookbook is that rather than remaining in pristine condition, it gets so much use that it’s soon creased, and covered with the drips and splatters from many great evenings. Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Cooking certainly got a workout in a single night’s use and is well on its way to less than pristine condition, and I’m looking forward to more ES adventures in cooking. Rabbit, perhaps?

One final note: Good to know that there looks to be another (food) baby coming to the Ethan Stowell family. I read in a recent issue of Seattle Magazine that he is planning an entry into the recently crowded burger space. Something about an “’upscale Red Mill’ with burgers, beer and bourbon at a site to be determined.” You can bet I’ll be on the lookout for that!