Friday, December 4, 2009

The End, Thanks and a Final Recipe!

Stage has come to an end. Gail has come to Italy to spend a few days with me, and we have enjoyed Venezia together (and have the designer ‘high water boots’, at €20 a pair) to prove it. We have toured the Doge’s Palace, various churches, celebrated her birthday with fantastic food, and generally enjoyed getting to know each other again.

It has been a long and very satisfying ride, all this time.

My last shift in the delightful kitchens of Relaisfranciacorta wound up with the preparation of frog's legs ... about 250 of them ... for a dinner on the evening of Nov. 27 for one of our larger groups of guests. I worked on the legs, thinking "This is my last effort for Chef and this wonderful brigade ... enjoy it!" And I did.

That evening the Director of the Relais told Gail and me that I was not to work in the kitchen, and enjoy the gift of a truly delicious evening in the gastronomical dining room of the Relais. What a change of positions! Previously I had been in the back of the house, working with all my pals in the brigade to make outstanding food for our clients. Tonight I dined on that food, with my dear wife, and it was lovingly made for us by friends just through the wall. (After each of the six courses was served to us, a friendly face, with a huge grin, would peek around the corner and catch my eye and wink. This was the cook who had prepared that dish ... six cooks in the kitchen, six courses. The result was absolutely delicious, and at the end of the secondo (main course) Chef Fabrizio Albini came out himself to say thanks, in public, and chat for a moment. I have been very honoured to be able to work with, and for, him.)

Then, the next day, it was time to leave the Relais for the last time, and take the bus to Brescia and the train to Venice for a few days of enjoyable 'together time' for Gail and me.

Enclosed photos show us in Venice … you can see the water level is climbing up the restaurant chair-legs in Piazza San Marco! What you can’t see is on the other side of the square … another restaurant (the Café Quadra) has their chairs set up in front of the restaurant out in the Piazza, as they always do, and there are customers sitting in them, wearing their fashionable hip-waders or tourist waders, and they’re sipping coffee and eating colazione and chatting! The waiters (wearing fancy designer boots) pass amongst them, taking orders and sloshing off to the kitchens! If you are passing too quickly through this maze of chairs the water tends to start to move around, and the sitting folk will suddenly find their boots filling up!

There’s the final photo … Pearson airport yesterday … pushing the luggage cart.

It is good to be home, but I ache and miss the madness of Italy, the wonderful smiles on so many faces, the smells and the passion for food. I wish every one of my friends there well, and every personal and professional happiness and success. A special thanks to Chef Albini for all his generous support, his welcome, his teaching and big grins!

My final little recipe for everyone … so simple, so fresh, so Italian...

Caprese Salad.

Go to your favourite grocer and buy three or four of their best tomatoes. Not the huge ones … get tomatoes with dangerous levels of flavor, intense colour, firm (but not tough) flesh. Tomatoes you will love! If you can, tomatoes that have never been refrigerated, fresh from the vine.

Then get some fresh basil leaves. Bright green, not yellow at all, or turning splotchy. Not too large (because they will be a little thick), and not too tiny. I look for leaves about 5 to 7 cm long (without the stem). You will need about 6 to 8 of these.

Now … the challenge … the best mozzarella you can find. If you can buy bufala (made from water buffalo milk, not cow milk), get it! The best! If you have a choice of cow milk products, try for the most fresh ‘Fior de Latte’, not the stuff in a plastic tub, which will be tougher. About 400 gm.

Now, take the plates you will serve this classic on and place them on the counter near your work station.

Wash the tomatoes quickly under running cold water and dry them. Use a small melon baller to remove the tough area of the tomato where the fruit attached to the vine. Turn the tomatoes sideways and cut them into significant slices … about ¾ of a cm thick each … don’t use the absolute ends. Reserve.

Use a VERY sharp knife to cut the cheese into similar slices. Reserve, without the accompanying brine.

On the plates arrange your pieces as you choose … they may be sandwiched, artfully scattered, built into a shape of some sort; do what pleases your eye. (If you go to Google Images and type in ‘Caprese Salad’ you will find a startling number of ideas. Play around with the presentation!)

Leave a generous rim free of anything.

Gently sprinkle with a good salt.

When this is done, tear the basil leaves into rather small bits (say 5 pieces per leaf) and scatter them on the salad.

Drizzle with your absolutely very best olive oil, and put the bottle on the table for those guests who like more.

Serve with crusty bread and seasonal wine of your choice. A few delicious olives may be added to the plate(s) if you choose.

The colours and the flavours ARE Italy.

Eat, friends, in good health.

Thanks for all the encouragement and ideas! Take time for each other at the table. Be brave in the kitchen, be safe, plan and enjoy quality ingredients. Support your local producers if they are good. Shop locally if you can.

Special mention of thanks for this whole experience must go to Chef Dario Tomaselli of George Brown Chef School in Toronto, and Candida d’Elia of ALMA in Colorno, Italy. Grazie mille! And, of course, to all the Chefs and cooks I have worked for and with, who have been unstintingly generous with their time, their teaching, their equipment and their Italian lessons! It has been a delight, all of it ... one of the highlights of my life.

David, thanks for the delightful surprise in Bologna.

And to Gail, my generous, supportive and loving wife, all my thanks, mio caro. You are a true champion. Dinner, any time, any day, is on me. I could not have done this without your enormous kindness, patience, willingness to be a gustatory tester and your unwavering support and constant encouragement.

This is the end of the blog. Feedback is encouraged … please use the comments section below.

My best regards to you all, my dear Fellow Travellers.

Martin, home from Italy.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hard Work, Seasonal Food, DOP

There’s an image of Italy that is popular in the north American mind ... la dolce vita ... not too much work, lots of fabulous food, wines, sunshine, the good life, everyone happy.

In all my time here I have seen another Italy, where people work awfully hard, sometimes for not much income, because of dedication to a craft or art, such as a food type or making something. This sort of life is greatly valued and honoured here in a way I don’t think it would be in north America.

Let me share three examples; asparagus, ham and cheese.

Asparagus here holds a special place in people’s hearts, particularly in the area of Bassano del Grappa. There is an asparagus festival, and the actually vegetable has been grown there since about the year 1220. The stuff has a “DOP” protection (Denomination of Protected Origin), guaranteeing that you are getting what you are paying for, and that the quality is high. It is not cheap, but it is very popular. It is carefully raised, and then, at the peak of quality, cut, carefully bunched and tied with ribbon (not string), proudly labelled and carefully shipped to market.

Prosciutto IS ham, and Massimo Spigaroli is the king of it all. He and his brother run one of Italy`s best restaurants where their prosciutto is featured (of course). It is, I will tell you from personal experience, absolutely marvellous! Massimo works at least 6 days a week, and many evenings, in a piggery. His pigs are the largest I have ever seen. He does all his own curing (slaughtering is done for him to HIS standard, higher than what is required), preparation, hanging, ageing and drying. He has a few assistants, but much of the work is done by him personally. Again, a DOP product.

Cheeses are one of Italy`s greatest delights ... hard, medium, soft, runny, new, aged, with a rind, rind-less, rolled in ash, bathed in brine ... there are hundreds of ways to make and age cheese. A favourite of mine here is a cheese aged for 9 months in a vertical cave originally dug by monks in the dark ages. The cheese is put into the cave by being carried down an ancient, rickety ladder and put onto wood racks, layer by layer, and between each layer the space is filled with sand that has been used to do this since time immemorial. Only one batch a year can be made. Or Parmegiano Reggiano, the best-known of Italy`s cheeses, I think, made in huge 60 kg. wheels and, after forming by the master cheesemaker, is bathed in brine for some days before making it to the racks where it will be gently air-cured for about 24 months. What we get in our stores in Canada, if it is true Parmegiano Reggiano, is DOP, of course. It is made from two slightly different kinds of milk ... half morning milking milk, and half evening milking milk, always from the same batch of cows which are never fed silage or hormonally-loaded stuff. The evening milk is partly skimmed, the morning milk not. If this sounds a little over-the-top, consider that this is what it takes to always, every time, have one of the best cheese products in the world. There are no days off for these folks ... the cows need to be milked every single day of the year ... and they are not bred for huge milk batches, like north American animals.

What all this adds up to is an entire country which truly pays attention to details, celebrates excellence and is willing to pay for quality. In Canada and the USA we have an attitude that cheap is good, cheaper is better, and that we have some sort of expectation that everything will be available all the time, with little or no season variation or restriction. AND we have a dreadful rate of obesity, heart disease and general lack of health! Many people under the age of 30 have almost no cooking skills other than the microwave or the telephone.

People here work VERY hard for the quality in their lives. Harder than in north America. But they have something that we lack, and have great trouble putting our finger on ... I think it is an awareness of what quality means, and the willingness, everywhere, in everything, to work towards it, maintain it and celebrate it. Cheaper is NOT better, friends ... we all know it in our bones ... quality is what we crave. We need to start our own cheese Olympics, so to speak ... if Ontario can have VQA wines, why not get going on the same quality celebration, and good-natured competition, that will start to make our food the absolutely best in the world, with local varieties and products known, sought and delighted in by all Canadians.

This is my little rant, folks, for a gentle but pervasive change for us all ... to start paying attention to what we eat, when we eat it, how we eat it and with whom. How do we celebrate, or at least recognize, the changing of the seasons in our lives as we go around the sun on our rock, together.

The photo today shows olives. Not a lot of olives. I was handed a bucket of olives and asked to remove the meat from the pits. This means that the olives we use in the restaurant are all pitted by me, carefully, by hand. What you are looking at, the little heap in the centre plastic bowl, is the result of over an hour of careful work.

Here is a little recipe for today ... very simple. It uses olives. Try this at home and delight yourself! It is our take on the open ravioli idea of Gualtiero Marchesi.

Start by making basic pasta, and roll it out into sheets. Cut into squares about 8 cm each. Reserve it on a tray under a towel, dusted with rice flour (so it does not stick).

Get some mushrooms (any kind will do) and after cleaning them, slice into fairly thin slices (about 2 mm thick), the whole mushroom if you can (with stem still attached to cap). Put these into a prep bowl and reserve. In another prep bowl have some roughly-chopped pitted olives available. If you really want the fresh adventure, pit them yourself.

Get water boiling for the pasta, well-salted (to sea-water salinity).

In a large sauté pan, get butter melted and gently browning. After the butter starts to brown, add the mushrooms and olives and sauté gently, adding a little salt and freshly-chopped rosemary or marjoram.

While you are doing this, throw the pasta squares into the water and cook them. Start this step AFTER the vegetables are in the pan, sautéing. This will take less than a minute.

Use a slotted spoon or spider to remove the pasta squares all at once and, WITHOUT rinsing, toss them into the sauté pan with the mushrooms and olives. Toss all together and remove from heat, letting the pan sit for half a minute.

Serve in the centre of large, flat plates, not piled too high, with a very little freshly-grated pepper on top.

Mmm, mmm ... good!

If you want to have a little meat, gently-sauted lamb works well, cut very fine (almost minced). Prepare this ahead of time, with the olives and the mushrooms. Add a few sage leaves, julienne, if you use lamb.

I have only a few days to go here. I will miss this experience SO much, but have loads of ideas to bring home and share. Stay tuned!

La luta continua ...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Funny Word Stories, and Risotto

Grains of all sorts have a special place in Italian food culture, particularly wheat, corn and rice. Italy is a major rice-growing country, with several notable varietals (of which more below). Wheat mostly comes from Canada to make pasta or flour perfectly ground for specific uses. Corn is used for polenta, a staple in the northern Italian diet.

But there are strange names attached to some of these products, just as in north America. At home in Canada every October we celebrate the festival of Thanksgiving and eat a ... turkey. This strange bird was named by the Brits for the strangest place they knew ... the bird looked so exotic! (The French did exactly the same thing, but knew of a slightly different world. They named the bird for India ... hence ‘dinde’.)

Here, to advertise a popular flour, the name is ‘Manitoba’, and it is advertised as ‘American Flour’ (i.e., from the Americas). I guess we’re pretty exotic! (And Canada, which is an American country) produces the best wheat anywhere for making pasta.

Another product I’ve found using a geographical quirk for advertising purposes is a type of polenta flour (corn flour), “La Bresciana’, which suggests at the top of the bag that it is “Farina Di Grano Turco”. My fellow cooks here have explained that this means the corn kernels are so plump, firm and healthy they are shaped like big turbans!

My favourite Italian grain is rice. Two kinds I have become familiar with here are Arborio and Carnaroli. The national rice dish is risotto ... using rice, old wine, hot water, a bit of butter and some grated cheese. You can toss on some mushrooms (porcini, preferably!), or dress it up to the absolute height of modern Italian cuisine and serve it on the finest china available and decorate it with real gold foil.

Why not try an Italian rice dish? It is different from most rice dishes we are familiar with in north America, but absolutely worth the effort to learn to make. Please don’t try to ‘cheat’ the dish by making it with Basmati rice just because you have it around, or long grain rice, or pearl rice. Get the right rice ... it really is worth it! You can find all sorts of good Italian rice in Toronto at Fiesta Farms on Christie just south of Dupont or at Loblaws (if you can’t find it, just ask. Remember to ask, specifically, for Arborio or Carnaroli rice.

To start, look at the enclosed photos. If you want to serve your risotto on a plate decorated with a green salsa painted on, you need to make the salsa first, at least 4 hours before the meal so it has time to rest. (See the end of this blog entry for a simple and fabulous green salsa recipe that you only need a blender for.) If you want to have mushrooms sautéed in butter to pop on the top, prepare them while you are making the risotto.

For the risotto, I will lead you through making a classic risotto al funghi (risotto with mushrooms). If you want to leave the mushroom step out, you can ... they are added just at the end. At least one of the photos shows a plate decorated with green salsa prior to serving the risotto.

To make a wonderful risotto, you will need the following at hand on the counter or in an oven warming before you start ... the number of plates you will serve onto (you will serve this onto individual plates, not to a family platter), about 100 gm of butter softening, about 60 gm of rice per person (for an appetiser course) or 100 gm per person (for a main course), yesterday’s old bottle of white wine (or a bottle of inexpensive, but not terrible, white wine), salt, white pepper (not black) in a grinder or pre-ground, and a pot of hot water on your stove, at a gentle bubble (not a heavy boil). You will need to have a wooden spoon handy, and a soup ladle. You will make the risotto in a medium-to-large skillet or sauté pan. And you will need to have grated cheese handy and at ambient room temperature ... here we use either Parmegiano Reggiano or a delicious cheese called ‘Bagoss’ (which I have not had a chance to look for in Toronto, but I will be doing so!) ... about 200 gm.

Start by weighing out your rice and put it into a prep bowl. The get the skillet hot, and while it is completely dry, toss in the rice and let it toast for a while (maybe three or four minutes, gently stirring a few times). Don’t burn the rice, but don’t go easy on it either ... it should change colour a bit!

When the rice is toasted pour on old wine to start the rice cooking process. Gently cover the rice with the wine. I have to admit that I am pretty generous with the fruit of the vine when making risotto ... but let it boil and hiss until it is ALMOST all gone. The rice should not be sticking to the bottom of the pot, but it should not be floating around either. Just stirable ... so start adding the hot water with the ladle. Cover the rice with water and just a tiny bit more. Start sauteeing your muchrooms, if you are going to add them. Stir gently all the time with the spoon, making sure to get into the corners of the pot where the side meets the bottom. As the water is both absorbed and evaporated, just add more hot water with the ladle to keep the rice covered. Do this for about 14-16 minutes OR until the rice is almost done ‘al dente’ (meaning that when you bite a grain it is cooked but not mushy, and you can still feel the centre of the grain, called the ‘anima’). Jerry Meneses, one of my great teachers at George Brown Chef School used to tell us that the rice was ready to be removed from the heat as soon as, when you bit into it with your molars, nothing stuck. It is a very accurate test! As soon as you get to this point, remove the rice from the heat (don’t just turn off the heat, move the pot off the hot part of the stove). Immediately add 3 – 5 dollops of soft butter and stir in. As soon as the butter is mostly disappeared, stir in the cheese you have ready on the counter, warmed to room temperature. Stir a lot to make a smooth and sploopy liquid. Let the risotto sit for a minute or so to relax and finish cooking in its own heat.

Remove the warmed plates and put on counter. Decorate with green salsa if you desire ... use a kitchen brush ... then gently use the ladle to put risotto exactly in the middle of each plate. After the plating is done, pick up each plate and give it a good bump or two on the bottom to ensure that the risotto is spread evenly and is settled with no air bubbles. Serve with mushrooms on top if you choose.


Green Salsa recipe (from Marina, our antipasto chef).

Blend together the following:

100 gm parsley leaves (no stems)
50 gm EVO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
15 gm cucumber (not the centre)
10 gm bread crumbs
10 gm pine nuts
7 gm white vinegar
5 gm capers
5 gm celery leaves
2 tsp soya sauce
1 anchovy fillet
½ tsp Dijon mustard
1/6 of a clove of garlic, with the bitter centre removed
Salt and pepper
A couple of ice cubes

Chill thoroughly and re-stir

Use as a plate decoration or as a side taste sensation for a beef dish or for a strong fish presentation.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mass Feeding and Cannelloni

Our entire kitchen has spent the past three days involved in a mass feeding effort.

The Pope has come to Brescia (a city nearby) and held a large mass this morning, and we (our Relais Franciacorta kitchen staff) were asked to cater the lunch for he and his followers afterwards. We have ordered, received, prepared, peeled, trimmed, refrigerated, chilled, baked, roasted, boiled, broiled, blanched, singed, counted, laid out, packaged, protected, sent and recovered from preparation for a brunch for 800 people. Maybe more. (We always need to overfeed, or at least be prepared for a considerable ‘overage’ when dealing with this sort of event).

I have hand-made 1,274 sandwiches, 3,687 ravioli, well over 1,000 fresh-baked brioche and other sundry treats. Thank goodness I have not been asked to make all this alone ... it is a group effort. At the same time we are still a full-service gourmet ‘gastronomic’ restaurant. This special order is over and above what we normally are set up for!

And how did we make all those sandwiches, I hear you cry? Well, we used ‘tramezzini’ bread! It is a denser version of wonderbread, and comes all trimmed and cut very thin the long way on the loaf then packaged into sets of 5 slices (who uses 2 ½ sandwiches?). We used quite a few cases of this stuff! Preparation is an assembly-line effort ... lay as much of the bread out as you possibly can on the counter, then two people start spreading mayo all over them, two spatulas flashing in the strong light of the kitchen, working their way down the acres of bread! The rest of the filling is done the same way ... two, sometimes four, people working with precision and great speed to get this all done before the bread starts to curl up. Fillings, cheeses, meats all go in or on. Then I, me personally, get to pile, cut, package and sort every sandwich.

We all got to work a bit early this morning and spent a while loading the whole works up for a road trip, then away it went. I hope the Pope’s mass feeding went well!

This morning Daniele summoned me over to his station. It was just past 11 AM. The kitchen eats at 11:30. “Martin, we are going to make cannelloni. I will teach you. I have 3 minutes. Then you make them”

We had made FAR too much meat stuffing for the ravioli effort a few days before. Those heaps, piles, drumlins of delicious ravioli are now secreted far away in the bone-chilling reaches of our deep freezers, ready for the day they’re needed. But what to do with the extra 15 kilos of stuffing? (We work in large amounts here. 15 kilos is the leftovers!) Cannelloni is easy, fast, cheap and anyone can make it at home. (You can all see what’s coming, can’t you!) It can be made with leftovers or the vegetables you can buy at the store that are marked down for quick sale, and a little meat that is left from a roast, or that you get by buying chicken backs in a large bag and, after using the backs to make stock, you have all this lovely meat to pick off the bones and run through the mincer!

So, for true fun and a meal to get every member of the group engaged (even the young ‘uns!), here goes. I hope the photos help. Some day-before preparation is required for really good pasta, so mark your calendars!

Start by making basic pasta the evening before, or the morning of, your event ... to feed a group of four, make pasta with 1 kilo of type “00” flour, if you can get it, very fine bread flour if you can’t. Don’t go to anything as fine as pastry flour ... put the flour, perhaps in two batches, into the bowl of a KitchenAid mixer, and add 400 grams of egg YOLKS, then 2 or 3 whole eggs, another if needed) to the flour as it goes around in the bowl. Do not add salt to pasta! A very little bit of EVO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) may be added, but only a tiny amount! When it gets too stiff to go around any more, take the pasta out of the bowl, put it on the counter and roll it firmly with the heel of your hand until it is baby-bottom smooth. Then cover the ball of pasta tightly with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator, for no more than 24 hours, before use. The glutens need time to develop to the extreme. In this business, it is called 'building your glutenous maximus'.

Also, the evening before or the day of the event, make your filling. It is best if you have a meat grinder or some sort of pretty strong blender. Turn the meat into a medium-fine grind. Or, you can just use commercially-made burger of any sort (beef, veal, chicken, turkey). Add a bit of breadcrumb and some fine-grated cheese to this meat, and whatever vegetables you have cooked up quite soft and minced. Add enough liquid to make it a thick pulp, neither runny nor utterly cement. Toss in any old gravy you have kicking around. Add seasoning and salt and pepper near the end of the cooking and preparation time, not at the beginning. Simmer extra liquid off, and savour the generous bouquet from your own stove! I like to add a bit of thyme and marjoram part way through, a different twist on the usual ‘Italian’ herbs in north america of only basil and oregano. Consider some fresh-ground nutmeg! Refrigerate if it is made far in advance. Remember, this will be run through a piping bag, so you don’t want anything that is too thick. If it is too hard to pipe, without a nozzle on the bag, just put the bag into a microwave for about 25 seconds to re-warm and make it easy to pipe.

Here at the relais we keep all sorts of ends of meats and bits of pates in a case in one of the refrigerators. When we have enough, we make filling and turn it all into our special ravioli and cannelloni. But here, because of volume, it happens pretty quickly. At home, if you have the space, you can keep meat bits in the freezer for a while until enough adds up to make the filling for cannelloni. We don’t worry about mixing meats ... beef, ham, pork, chicken, pates, un-used ends of salamis ... everything but seafood goes in. The result is absolutely delicious!

(Seafood hint ... if you want to get really experimental, make seafood cannelloni, and, instead of using pasta, fill the tubes from home-cleaned squid!)

Now, here’s what you’ve all been waiting for ... Daniele’s DIY Cannelloni Recipe (That's Daniele in the photographs.)

Dust the counter you will be working on with rice flour.

Take out your prepared pasta and roll it out with a pasta rolling machine until it is thin enough to almost see your hand through, but not paper-thin. Lay the long sheets on the counter in the kitchen. Your sheets should be between 12 – 14 cm wide, and at least 40 cm long. Trim off shaggy ends with a knife. (photo 1)

Paint HALF the length of each rectangle of pasta with melted butter. (photo 2)

Put the stuffing into a piping bag and with a very large opening (we don’t even use a nozzle, just the open end of the bag), pipe a roll of filling onto the part of the pasta that does NOT have the butter on it. (photo 3)

Then roll the pasta closed into a long tube, so the buttered bit is rolled onto the bit that is right around the filling. (photo 4) Roll it fairly tightly ... this is a filled pasta, and should not be sloppy or loose ... and reserve on the counter or on a tray for 10 – 15 minutes while you do the rest of the pasta dough and filling and buttering and rolling!

There! You’ve just made your own cannelloni! Don’t you feel accomplished?

In order to ensure the pasta does not stick to the counter, dust the counter frequently and fairly generously with rice flour. That is the white dust you see in our pictures. The rice flour we use is re-used again and again as a counter (and temper!) saver.

A quick cooking and pasta hygiene note ... do NOT try to work with pasta if you have fake or long fingernails! You will need every part of your fingers to work successfully with pastas.

Make a favourite sauce for pasta, and think outside the tomato can for this. Why not try a white sauce with a bit of nutmeg to pop the flavour, or a green sauce made of celery, a little fennel and white onions? Just sauté these three together after par-boiling and then add a little stock of any sort, or just water, to the pot and then put it all into a blender and make a purée which then goes back into the pan to do a final heating and then use for serving. Or, if you want to get all restaurant and fancy, use this green sauce with a paintbrush, and brush it generously onto the plates BEFORE you put on the cannelloni, then garnish with a different sauce, and top with a few little fronds from the top frilly bits on the fennel. Consider making this sauce with a little roasted (not raw) garlic!

To prepare for the plate and table, the cannelloni rolls need to be cut into lengths of about 10 cm each. (photo 5) Use a very sharp knife for this, and dust the countertop or cutting board with rice flour to avoid sticking. Trim the ends of the pasta tubes away that might not be properly stuffed.

To cook, bake in a 180 degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until it is done. Remember to lightly oil your baking pan. We bake in a Béchamel sauce (recipes available everywhere). Don’t turn the Béchamel into Mornay (by adding cheese) to bake ... add cheese afterwards, if you must. But you might find, with a good sauce base and interesting flavours, that extra cheese is not needed. (There should be cheese in the meat mix.) Remember to salt your meat mix before cooking ends (but don’t add salt at the beginning ... always spice, herb and salt at the mid-cooking time, with only a few exceptions).

Have your plates warm. Garnish plates before plating the cannelloni, if you wish, with a sauce and a kitchen brush. Then ease a few delicious home-made cannelloni onto each plate, and top with a little sauce (don’t drown them)! And do something artistic with the plate; perhaps a little dab of apple sauce, if you have a meaty sauce, or just a tiny bit of a rocket salad with radicchio if your plate is a little sweeter. Perhaps a few carrot strips poached in milk.

Gather with friends, serve this after making it together and include a refreshing beverage of choice ... Ta da! Instant popularity for you, the super-chef, and a great event is launched.

Thanks, Daniele, for the lesson and photos.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Anguila al Forno (yeah, this is the Eel blog!)

One of the delicacies of Lago d’Iseo (near my stage position in north-central Italy, east of Milano) is eel.

One of the many questions faced by cooks, posed by near and dear friends, the incredulous and the frightened, is “How do I cook the eel I just bought (or was given)?” (This is, I will admit, one large step up from “What the hell IS that thing?”)

Goodness, we think, was eel left off the curriculum somewhere? What to do ... what to do ...

Quit squirming. All of you.

Yes, friends, it has come time on this blog to deal with the eel question. And have I got a few hot tips for you today! No more eel confusion is necessary.

Let us assume, just for the moment, that you are eel-less. Don’t let that stop you! Just giddy-up to the nearest eel store (I like Diana Seafood in Toronto, or the St. Lawrence Market) and do what comes naturally. Buy an eel. For cooking. And eating. Also get a lovely bottle of good white wine, and start it chilling as soon as you can. The eel will be hot and smoky, and you want to offset those notes with a good foil.

If you wish, get the shop to remove the head and tail and guts and any fins and scales. Otherwise you will do this step at home. Don’t be squeamish! This can be a real adventure.

Take the eel home. Don’t try to entertain it ... you’re going to eat it ... it is not a pet.

Prepare your workspace as follows ... you will need to be near the sink, and will need a couple of medium-sized trays or platters, and a rubbish bowl (usually called a ‘prep bowl’ in a well-filled kitchen), a filleting knife and your reading glasses, if you use them, as some of the work will be pretty close. A good cutting board which will go into the sink or dishwasher later is needed, and you might want to have a roll of paper towel handy.

Your filleting knife will need to be VERY sharp.

Scrape away scales with the back of a knife, if you did not have the shop do this for you. Rinse under cold water.

Put the eel on the cutting board and remove the head and tail, and put these in the prep bowl.

Slit the belly and gut it ... throw the guts into the prep bowl with the head and tail. These will all eventually be tossed (unless you want to later make a fumet). Use sharp kitchen scissors to remove any spines, fins, etc. that are still on the eel, and add these to the prep bowl.

Now, with the filleting knife, carefully remove the bones. If you find it works better for you, carefully cut the eel open along the top of the back, and fillet it from the top down. Keep the meat in as few pieces as possible. Keep the skin on the meat.

As you get the eel meat ready and off the bones, lay it in the largest possible pieces on the tray(s). Try to keep pieces about 15 cm long.


Next, you may want to smoke your eel meat. This is certainly do-able. Many people will revolt at this point, saying “My eel smoker is broken!” Not to worry ... you can do your smoking on the stovetop. (I mean, you can smoke the eel on the stovetop.) Or you can (and this is the better option) smoke it outdoors in a proper smoker.

Either way you choose to do it, be careful at all times! You, as a cook, are responsible for your safety first.

If you want to smoke the meat but need to get things ready for this operation, the eel can be put into the refrigerator and stored for no more than 1 day.

To do stovetop smoking, you will need two pans of the same size. The pans are going to be a dreadful mess at the end, and you might want to just slip out to GoodWill or a similar socially-responsible recycling operation and get two old pots. You will also need a small wire rack, and some wood-chips.

Take the wood chips and put about 1.5 – 2 cm of the chips evenly in one of the old puts. Put the wire rack on top of the pot, and lay the eel meat on the rack. Then invert the other pot on top of the first, to make a leaky, smoke-filled cavity. TURN ON YOUR KITCHEN FAN TO HIGH and deal appropriately with your smoke detection system.

Turn on a stove burner that is the same size as the bottom pot to its second-highest setting and put the home-made smoker on the hot ring for about 10 – 15 minutes. If it seems to be starting on fire, throw a cold, wet towel onto the whole thing and remove it from the heat, but leave it closed and it will smoke pretty well anyway. Turn off the heat at about the 5 minute point ... the smouldering chips will do the trick.

At the end, take the whole rack off the lower pot and put it on the counter to let the meat rest. Let the chips cool or pour some water onto them to end any smouldering.

An alternative you might try is to paint on some liquid smoke. I have never tried this, and can’t recommend it one way or the other. But it is available. If you do try this, please write back to this blog and let us all know how it works.


To cook the eel, carefully cut the pieces (fresh or smoked) into bits about 2-3 cm long. Put these into an ovenproof metal pan which has been prepared with a good slather of EVO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) and some torn fresh basil, and bake the eel for about 10 minutes (convection oven, longer in a still oven) at about 200°C. Try to have the pieces of eel standing up (i.e., the skin will be on a side, not lying down or on top) in the EVO and basil. If you have good pans which are Teflon lined, do not try to omit the EVO and basil! Each is necessary for the success of the dish.

You will know it is done when the meat starts to flake slightly and open into layers.

When it is done remove from the oven to the counter and let it rest for 3 or 4 minutes. Open the wine at this point (if you have resisted so far!) Pour a generous glass for all present.

Plate onto a bed of mild risotto made without cheese, or roasted shallots stewed in wine (my preference – make this the day before). Garnish with a little more fresh torn basil and a drizzle of very high quality EVO. Serve with genuine pride (and a sense of relief and accomplishment!).

Cheers! I am sure you’ll go ‘ead over eels for this dish.

There! Now, don’t you feel confident and adventurous?


A short comment on prep bowls ... I encourage every person who loves to cook to get a collection of small and medium-sized prep bowls. Usually these are inexpensive stainless steel. I get most of my equipment at Nella (various locations in Toronto). We have 12 small prep bowls at home (about 20 cm across) and 5 that are about 35 cm across. They store easily and are useful for huge numbers of operations. Once you start using prep bowls, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do things this way before. You can store things in them that are not too acidic, they can go into the frig, stand on the counter, are useful at any B-B-Q, cool quickly, warm quickly, hold no flavour and have good ‘cling’ qualities if you need to use plastic wrap (but you can usually just invert a plate onto a prep bowl and that works as well). They make great gifts to any cook or kitchen, and don’t cost much.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Translation, and a recipe

Travel has its privileges, as a credit card company suggests. One of them is the opportunity to learn a new language.

This evening I was working with Samuel, our brilliant pastry chef. We were making apple tarts ... rather large apple tarts (don’t worry, the recipe will follow) and, at the end of the assembly process, before firing them into the oven, he dusted them with a light go of icing sugar. I joked with him that this might be overkill. Samuel didn’t get it.

The word just does not translate into Italian, or the local (Brescia) dialect. I presented the idea in Italian, but it just seemed to make no sense to him.

We wound up with a group of young cooks around the table where we were, trying to develop the concept so we could understand it and have it make sense in the other language. Everyone chipped in a little bit, and we all had fun. Chef finally ended the discussion with an end-of-the-month celebration bottle of very fine Berlucchi sparkling wine. Cheers all around (see photograph).

(Chef is an excellent leader in the kitchen, by the way. He is skilled in every area, invents dishes, and teaches everyone new concepts and techniques. Then he steps aside to let everyone do their best. That, to me, is outstanding leadership. In my professional life I have been privileged to work with a few outstanding school administrators ... Bob Garneau, Norm Majeski, Ron Mann, June Gooding, Rob Mackinnon ... each encouraged everyone to give their best.)

Samuel had made the ‘pasta’ (meaning pastry base) for the tarts, and I had prepared some of the apples. I’d got the baking pans ready, and set the commercial ElectroLux convection / steam oven. We were, I thought, ready to go.

Alas! No! We were NOT ready to go. First, each tart had to be treated with a heavy shot of rock sugar, to add surface texture. I thought to myself “That’s a good idea.” I loaded the dishes onto a cart to wheel them over to the oven. At the last minute Samuel came around to my station again, brandishing a strainer full of confectioner’s icing sugar. Everything was given a thorough dusting ... and that is what inspired the ‘overkill’ comment, the discussion and the chance for us all to get to know each other a little bit in a new way.

So, by now most of you are just rarin’ to get into the kitchen and DO something. Well, Samuel has shared his outstanding recipe for apple tarts with us all. Here goes. (Amounts are given by weight, always, in Italy ... it is much more efficient than the antique customary systems used in Canada and the US and Australia. I encourage everyone to go out and buy an inexpensive kitchen scale and learn to use it in metric units. You will not be sorry!)

Samuel’s Apple Tarts, as made only for the Relais Franciacorta (near Rovato, Italy)


Planetaria (KitchenAid or similar)
Pastry spatula
Apple peeler
A couple of 9” springform pans (metal bottom, not glass)
Latex gloves (optional ... this gets VERY messy)


Flour 300 gm
Sugar (regular) 300 gm
Salt pinch
Lemon half, zest
Orange half, zest
Eggs 2 whole PLUS two yolks
Baking powder 14 grams
Milk 55 grams
Rock sugar
Butter at room temperature 100 gm
Confectioner’s sugar
Grand Marnier (or liqueur of your choice) about 20 gm (don’t go overboard!)
Vanilla extract (good stuff) (optional) a small amount (no weight given)
5 or 6 apples (more is usually better)


Get all the equipment on the counter and fire up the oven to 165 degrees C. Set for low convection, if you can. (A still oven is OK.) Get out a cutting board and several prep bowls and a couple of towels.

Heavily oil and flour your baking pans.

Peel and core the apples. Take all but 1 of them and slice quite thin (about 3-4 mm each slice) horizontally (lines of latitude), then the whole set of slices for each apple should be cut into 6 pieces vertically (lines of longitude). Reserve, and gently preserve with a light mist of lemon juice or orange juice. The last apple should be cut horizontally but only twice vertically (so you have a set of half-moon shapes). Reserve and preserve.

In the planetaria bowl put the sugar and the eggs and yolks and cream together. Add the flour, baking powder and salt that have been sifted together, slowly. At the half way point, add the milk slowly, then the rest of the dry ingredients. Toss in the zest. Then add the Grand Marnier (or your choice) and the vanilla, last. You should end up with a pretty gooey paste.

Take the planetaria bowl off the stand, and put on the counter. Dump the small slices of apple into the paste and gently stir together, or just use your hands (this is what Samuel does). Do NOT try to break up the apple slices!

Let this stand for 2 minutes.

Pour the lumpy mixture into the baking dishes and whack them onto the counter a few times to get the top surfaces as flat as possible.

Garnish the tops with a decorative design of apples using the reserved halves (we use a pinwheel design).

Drop several dots of butter onto the tops of the tarts.

Garnish with more rock sugar than you think is healthy. Then add a little more. Remember, you are making a dessert, not a sandwich to eat on the streetcar. Finally, overkill (I dare you not to!) by dusting lightly with confectioner’s sugar in a sifter or fine sieve.

Sniff the Grand Marnier. You’ve worked hard for it ... the place is a mess ... enjoy! You can clean up later.

And before any pang of guilt sinks in, pop these babies into the oven for about an hour ... when they are golden brown, remove them to the counter on a rack to cool.

Bar the door.

You’re going to try these out on yourself first.

Maybe get out some vanilla frozen yoghurt? (I mean, full-fat ice cream WOULD be overkill at this point. You might enjoy some Grand Marnier to wash down this main course, so why not have two food groups well represented? Fruit and Dairy?


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Delightful Franciacorta Welcome, and more tortellini

After a few days in Venezia (Venice), I have been offered a new stage position, at the ‘Relais Franciacorta’, between Brescia and Milano, near Lago Iseo (Lake Iseo). The setting reminds me greatly of living and working in the Kelowna area of British Columbia. It is delightful! I have been working here for 5 days now, and this is the first chance I have had to put up a blog note. The work-day extends from just after 8 in the morning to about 10:30 at night.

The new stage is a great change from the last. This kitchen is enormous, directed and created by a Chef who previously worked with Gualtiero Marchesi, the acknowledged Dean of modern Italian cuisine (see my previous blogs about Maestro Marchesi). Chef Fabrizio Albini is calm, quiet, deliberate, very supportive of his entire brigade in the kitchen. The brigade consists of about a dozen cooks and assistants. There are 6 positions in the entire place ... hot kitchen (3 positions; fish, flesh and pasta), an antipasto kitchen, a bakery and a pastaceria. Huge walk-in refrigerators and freezers, large store-rooms; everything most people imagine in a large four-star hotel. It is a wonderful opportunity I have to work here.

Chef Albini welcomed me with a quick introduction, a warm handshake, big grin, and a delicious lunch with the entire group at work that day. Everyone here works together, he pointed out, like a family. Most of the staff live in the hotel, and we see each other all the time. There is no room here for a bad temper. So, we all work to get along well, and are supportive. My observation, and from comments of the staff, tell me he walks that talk, every day. People here sing a bit while they work, there is lots of friendly kibitzing and support, and everyone follows the Chef’s personal manner of working very hard but being focused and calm while doing it. Quite a feat!

As you can see from the photos, the main kitchen is enormous. So far I have seen meals for up to 175 at a time go out the door, with no flap or fluster on anyone’s part. The capacity of the kitchen in greater than that, though. The wait staff just come in the door, cycle past the slide and get their plates on their trays then away they go. The menu is of the absolute highest gastronomical standard.

In any kitchen this size there is always a huge amount of prep work to be done. It is not only peeling potatoes and carrots, though. Yesterday I worked with Daniele delCarmine, one of the kitchen brigade and, in the morning we worked to prepare items for a large banquet luncheon. After lunch was done, at about 2 in the afternoon, we started making tortellini. We quit at just a bit before 10 last night, having hand-made a bit over 2,200 tortellini. They are all neatly packaged away, ready to be used. (Just so you know, the counter we work on for this operation is over 20 feet long. Most homes in Canada don’t have this sort of counter-space in one long run.) (If you want to make your own tortellini, just less, see my blog entry about making them, below.)

One of the interesting challenges for cooks in the trade is the satisfaction of dong wonderful preparation, then having it all march out the door into the roomful of happy clients, leaving you with an empty frig. But there can be a bit of a push-pull. “Hey! I worked hard to make all this, and the frig looks great, and it is all neat and clean! Don’t mess anything up, or use it, because I’ll have to make more!” I was joking with Daniele last night about this. We agreed that we should make all the tortellini, but that they should never be used. That way we would not have to make them all again! However, we know that this mammoth push will only last about 2 weeks, maybe three. We already have made a date for another ‘tortellini holiday’, as he dubbed it, for later in November. We’ll knock off another 2000 or so.

What a wonderful start to a new and exciting stage in Italy!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Today as I was walking one of the innumerable alleys of old Venice, where I am spending a few days, I was handed a flyer. Usually I turn away from all street handouts, but it came with two words I appreciate ... “free” and “concert”, along with the words “tonight” and “please join us”.

Well, I had no particular plans, so off I went. The concert was to start at 20h30 in one of Venezia’s dozens of old churches, that dedicated to Saints Giovanni e Paulo.

I am not a native of Venice. After a couple of days here I can find a few of the major tourist spots without too much trouble, and have learnt how to read the signs attached to the walls all over this old city. “Per S. Marco” , “Per Rialto” and “Per Ferrovaria” are the ones you see the most. They mean “towards San Marco”, “towards (the) Rialto (bridge)” and “towards the railway station”. If Venezia shopkeepers had a euro for every time they’ve been asked directions to one of these three, they’d all be rich like the Venetian patricians at the height of the Serrenissima. I had to ask several tired, cold shopkeepers how to get there. Explanations were always given with a wave of the hand in a general direction towards the bridges crossing the miasmatic canals. In the evenings, when the chill comes in from the sea, it is better not to breathe too much near the bridges. And to be very well-dressed. It is cold and damp out.

I am writing this near the end of October. All over the centre of this ancient city are hotels and public spaces, including churches, that share the benefits of a municipal heating system. Not every building has to install a furnace, or boiler, and all the what-have-you that a furnace requires. No; all that buildings have had to do is, basically, sign up to the municipality and install the radiators. Then, presto! Heat!

Well, the city this year has declared that November 1 will be The Day The Heat Comes On. Until then there is no ascertained need for heat. It is not in the regulations, or something. Heat = not now. It does not matter what the vagaries of actual temperature might be ... present nights plunging towards 4 degrees outside, and increasingly inside too ... the heat will come on starting November 1. If the municipal boiler works. I surmise there is some doubt. Sometimes, as one blue-lipped soul muttered to me seditiously, the steam from the city boiler seems to rise to exactly the same temperature as the out-of-doors night-time air.

Venezia’s old buildings are, well, old. Some are between 800 and 1000 years old. Not to belabour the point, but most of the Venezia that the tourists come to enjoy, that UNESCO has declared to be part of humanity’s unique heritage, was built a long time ago, when it was common for large public rooms to have a fireplace, or something to help heat the place. Or for everyone to be really good and ready for the chill damp evening and bundle up as best they could, or better yet not leave home and hearth for the dubious benefit of a public gathering.

So tonight’s concert was free. It was lovely! It was also chilly and damp. Between numbers the musicians would put down their instruments and stick their blue-numbed hands into their armpits and huddle together and dance a little, or blow on their fingers to revive blood circulation. All this in an ancient church generously attached to the municipal heating system.

A collection box for free-will offerings was made prominently available near the end of the concert. As one of the delightful (but obviously chilly) performers told the audience, musicians do not live on love and air alone. The love is nice, the air is important, but they also need to eat. Rustling paper money would be gratefully received, we were told. Better than cold, hard cash.

With the seats offered for the performance, designed to reinforce the concept of original sin, and penance required for same, the performers did not want to reinforce any cold hard anything.

Paper money, at least, makes heat.

I hope they made a fortune, and managed to warm up.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Play With Your Food!

When most of us were kids, we all, at one time or another, probably heard this message; “Don’t Play With Your Food!”

Food is fun, food is sensual, food is sexy, food is one of our most vital links to each other, involving trust, communication and history, among other things. We can enjoy a world tour at our own dining table, and invite friends along! We can try to make foods our parents or grandparents made, in our own kitchens, and revive old memories. We can try out a new idea, a recipe from a magazine or cookbook. Each of us can be Julia Child, if we have courage.

Think of all the cuisines available ... Canada enjoys every part of the world! Cuisines of Italy, France, Viet-Nam, India, Brasil, China, Japan, the entire continent of Africa; everyone but the penguins has cuisine. Each region or country develops its own tastes, textures, flavours, colours, presentation preferences ... and then there is the ‘us’ factor.

Just like a good folk-singer, who knows the words and the music, but shares it slightly differently each time, we do the same with food we make. We play with the spicing, with the proportions, with the sizes, with the pairings. How do we eat it, and who with? What tools, who gets served first, who or what signals the formal beginning and end of a meal? Are there particular plates or equipment we use that evoke memory? Some of us are more formal, at times, than others. Some of us will say a Grace or follow a religious tradition such as the Jewish Shabbat dinner, or we have a family ritual of some sort, to begin, or sometimes to end. Weddings have particular customs in every culture. Even doing the dishes at the end has significance.

Good food is hand-raised and hand-made. This is as true at home as in a restaurant ... you get what you pay for. Industrial food does have its place, but we all know that if we want subtlety, a sense of participation, the sense that we make time to linger together at a shared table of trust, communication and history, we make it ourselves. Think about the traditional Thanksgiving feast every October. Some people go to where they know it will be made as well, or better, than they can do themselves, or to a place in the community that makes the local, typical food very well. In Italy, this means the trattoria.

In this trattoria a lot of tortellini goes out the door. Everything here is hand-made, and I am the present hand-maker of tortellini, among my other sins. It is not hard, and is a great dinner to make at home, with friends either actively participating or kibitzing in the kitchen. It is cheap, and uses up leftovers.

I will refer to the photos posted with this blog as I lead you through this easy, fun activity.

Start by assembling tools and ingredients ... this is vital, because once you start, there are only a few times to stop.

You will need a good flour ... Italian type “00” works very well, but regular hard flour is fine. You will need eggs ... quite a few eggs ... so have a dozen or more on hand. You will need an egg separator, or be able to separate eggs with your fingers. You will need a rolling ‘pizza’ knife, a large, cool flat surface (at least a metre wide and 45 cm deep), a pasta machine of some sort (I show two ... a little hand-cranker and a large electric machine). You need to have already made and cooked your filling before you begin, and have it cool or chilled. You need a little spray-bottle for water, or maybe use the sprayer on the front of a fancy iron, just not plugged in! A spoon for placement of the filling, and a rack of some sort to put the tortellinis on once they’re made.

Take the time to assemble all this stuff, which may take a couple of days. Not every finer home or castle has a pasta machine, for example, but many friends have one that might be shared for a while! Invest in a rolling pizza knife ... it will save a lot of trouble. And the tool in the photo that looks like an expanding gate with wheels on the bottom is a tortellini knife ... it cuts precise squares (as you can see in the photos) which makes the process easy. But the more rustic approach works just fine ... but be careful with the sizes ... you will want consistency! Be a square, just for once in your life. If you do not want to make the pasta dough by hand, you will need a strong stand-mixer. At home I use my KitchenAid; here I use a huge floor mixer. You can use a countertop just as well ... be prepared for a work-out! And you will probably choose a hand-blender to make filling. Finally, you will need a kitchen scale. This is a tool of any good kitchen, and worth the investment. Get an inexpensive one that runs on batteries, unless you have acres of countertop! Work in grams, not ounces.

After the tortellini are made, they can be used almost immediately (wait 15 minutes for them to set up, though), or chilled for the next day, or frozen for future use.

Start with the filling. What I am using is a vegetarian mixture of potatoes, peas and a tiny amount of salt. Boil the potato in little cube shapes (will cook quicker), and part way through the cooking heave in the peas, and the salt. When it is done, partially drain the water off until the water barely covers the vegetation in the pot. Then use a hand-blender to turn it all into a puree. If it winds up a little thin, just reduce it on the stovetop until you’re happy. You can make fillings involving almost anything ... meats of every description (cut up VERY VERY fine), veg in either puree or extra-fine cube (literally a millimetre or two in each dimension ... no more). The filling needs to be soft but not runny. It needs to be completely cooked.

When the filling is ready, reserve it in the chiller. It can hold for a few hours, or a day. Cover well.

Next, make the actual pasta dough. This is messy and fun! I can offer two methods ... use a KitchenAid or your countertop.

Countertop hand method ... weigh out 225 grams of opened eggs, in the following proportions ... for every three yolks, put in one whole egg. Stop making the egg mix when you hit about 225 grams, but over a little is OK. Weigh out 500 grams of flour. Ensure the countertop is clean and very dry. Pour the flour onto the countertop in a single heap. Use your fingers to make the heap into more of a wall, with a hollow in the middle right to the counter. Make sure the flour ‘wall’ is the same thickness and height all around (about 3 cm high) . Pour the eggs into the well you have made. Use a fork (or your fingers) to start breaking the yolks, and stir the eggs around in the middle. Slowly work in the flour from the walls ... main word is slow ... and do it evenly, so the eggs don’t suddenly launch themselves to countertop freedom! Work as much flour into the eggs as you can, and start to turn the developing dough with your hands (abandon the fork at this point, if you’ve been using it), using the palm. Don’t worry if you can’t get every gram of flour into the mixture ... the take-up of the eggs will vary depending on the type of flour and the present temperature and humidity. Notice you are not adding any salt. As you work the dough it will start by being rather tough, maybe a little crumbly. As you persevere, the glutens will start to develop and it will become nice and springy. Knead the dough on the counter for about 4-5 minutes until it is perfectly smooth and holds together tightly in a ball. At each knead, turn the dough ¼ turn to the right, and knead hard with the heel of the palm. Use all your body-weight, and roll the dough under the palm across the counter away from you for a few centimetres. When the dough has been kneaded tight and springy, wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator for a little while, just to let it rest and for the glutens to work. (My dear wife says that if your muscles hurt after making pasta, it is just your glutenus maximus!)

KitchenAid method ... put the eggs and 90% of the flour into your mixer bowl after breaking the egg yolks. Turn on low, using a bread hook. As the pasta is made the machine will be working very hard. Stop from time to time to check. When the pasta has reached the ‘clean-up’ stage (when no dough sticks to the sides of the bowl), stop the machine and test the dough. Add a little more flour as needed or as you are able. If it seems a little soft, give it another 30 seconds or so. Be gentle with the pasta. As with the countertop method, take the dough out of the machine, hand-knead it a few times (to get a good shape, and just to be able to say you actually DID hand-knead the stuff!), and roll it in plastic and put it in the frig.

For the trattoria I use much larger amounts of each ingredient, but the method is just the same. I also have a huge floor mixer, so I make pasta 2 or 3 kilograms at a time. We go through a lot! I make this amount of pasta every week, to become tortellini, tagliatelli, spaghetti, linguini.

This is the second time you can stop, if you choose. The filling is made, the pasta dough is made.

Now, start looking at the photos I have supplied. Once you start this next section, you can’t stop, so get everything ready. Read through so there are no surprises. Have a drink!

When ready, take the dough out of the refrigerator, unwrap it and put it on to a lightly flour-dusted counter. You don’t want anything to stick, but you don’t want to change the proportions, either. Divide your dough into 2 or 3 portions, and hand-flatten it.

Open your pasta rolling machine up to as wide as you can go, and run the dough through the machine twice ... each time reverse the dough (i.e., the leading part of the dough on the first pass becomes the end of the dough on the second pass). If needed, fold your dough, press the fold hard and re-roll at the same pressure. Work the thickness down so you are at the second-last option ... when you hold up the sheet of pasta, you should be able to see your hand through it. That’s the test. When the pasta is in the rolling machine, do not stop the roll! Always go to the end. It can be re-rolled if you make a mess. I’ve made lots of mess, in the beginning, but now have had lots of practice. Persevere!

Lay the pasta sheet onto a very lightly-dusted counter. Cut into squares using a sharp rolling knife, not a regular knife (because the shape will drag).

Get the filling handy, with a spoon.

Lightly spray the squares with a mister. If you can see water on the surface, you have misted too much. (In this case, quickly and lightly touch the squares with a kitchen towel. Do not use paper towel!) Only do 8 squares at a time, and cover the rest with a kitchen towel to maintain surface aspect.

Touch a little of the filling into each square, as demonstrated. Don't overfill. Less is better than more.

As you fill each set of 8 squares, fold them on the diagonal and gently touch the side-lips together. The water will make them stick. Touch them along the edge to ensure a good seal. Fold the tails together so they stick. Immediately put the completed tortellino on a rack to dry.

Do all your pasta in this manner. Roll out, cut, mist, fill, fold, dry. It will be a mess the first couple of times, then you will get the hang of it and, pretty soon, presto! You’ve made yourself delicious home-made tortellini.

This is all quite exhausting work, so may I recommend a delightful glass of something from Henry of Pelham (in Ontario), or another fine refresher. Italy makes wine too ... I make my pasta fuelled by Prosecco!

Have fun, make a mess, explore. Remember, this is a cross-cultural experience, so try all sorts of filling. This is similar to making samosas, after all, or egg rolls, it is all the same sort of thing.

It is always best to have friends over to share the experience. Teach yourself how to do the process, then get everyone you know involved.

To cook, use cold water brought to a strong boil. Salt the water to sea-salinity (most north americans use far too little salt in their pasta water). Have your table set and plates warming, because when it is ready, it is ready NOW, and is unforgiving.

Put the tortellini into the water all at once, for only about 2 or 3 minutes ... as soon as it floats, it is done. Drain or take out of the water with a spider (skimmer), do not rinse, and plate immediately. Grate fresh parmesan cheese on, if you wish, or pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese). If you want a sauce, put sauce on the plate first, and put your delicious, fresh, appealing tortellini on top! Also, you can top with freshly-torn basil.

Go play with your food.

Dine well, in health.


Monday, October 5, 2009

To Everything There Is A Season (ing)

Potatoes trouble me.

In this trattoria we use a lot of potatoes, and Chef has been trying to get me to turn them. A turned potato looks lovely, is delicious and can be used in a variety of ways. The trimmings from turning make excellent soup or a presentation base for something else.

But I am a turning dunce. See that knife in the nice photograph? It is called a 'Turning Knife'. It turns me purple with annoyance when MY potatoes don't look like Chef's potatoes. Also turns me a bit green, with envy. The turned potato in the photo was done by me, and took about 20 seconds. Chef does it in less than 6 seconds (and I've timed him).

Turn! Turn! Turn! I practice, just like the song says ... MY turned potatoes all resemble something that needs a visit to an auto repair shop. Chef's turned potatoes are even, proportional, presentable. He calls them his little Bottecellis. Mine ... well, judge for yourselves, and stiffle the laughter so I can't hear it, please. Be kind.

Grrrr ...

So today, since the trattoria is closed for dinner on Wednesdays, I am going to sit down with a bag of spuds and just practice. I'll turn until my wrists ache or my patience is entirely shot.

After they're turned, what we do here is give them a par-boil, then finish them in the blast-oven with a little EVO and fresh thyme on top. Goes with almost everything except breakfast cereal.

Chef's questions for today .. how high do we set our level of personal excellence? Why? Do we expect the same of others as we do of ourselves?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Walk 3 Metres In Chef's Shoes

Well, the Chef hardly walked last night, and THAT’S a good thing. Martha would probably have approved.

Let me explain ...

Saturday night in the restaurant business almost anywhere is one of the two heavy nights of the week (the other being Friday). We were sitting eating a bit of dinner, the three of us looking at each other, slowly enjoying a simple meal. A little chat. One of Chef’s brothers dropped in for a visit with one of his kids, and it was a nice, quiet family gathering. No rush ... it was after 6 in the evening, and we had no reservations to anticipate. This was regrettable, but not the end of the world. We’re pretty remote. I had done a little cooking for Chef and his mother for dinner, but (with no reservations) had decided to wait until later to eat myself. I had been fiddling around in the kitchen since about 5, gently doing anticipatory prep for next week. Sylvia came in, having spent the day on her feet at a Sommeliers’ convention and competition (she did well).

The phone rang. Chef answered, nodded a few times, said ‘ciao’ and hung up. We finished dinner ... Chef said to me “Martin, go prepare bread for 12 people”. He was not kidding. From zero to twelve in a minute. We only have twenty chairs.

Now, I had spent all morning and a good deal of the afternoon cleaning the refrigerators and freezers in advance of a visit from the Public Health inspectors on Monday morning. The place was spotless! The walls scrubbed, the floors too. Everything cleaned, sorted; old, tired little items lurking in the back of a tray had been judged and either tossed, properly rotated or at least spiffed up. The placed looked good. We were ready for the inspection! Cleaned up like artwork for a public viewing.

After last night, I have no legs left to do it again. Up the stairs, down the stairs. The big walk-in refrigerator is up nine stairs and through a narrow door into another part of this 300 year old building. The patisserie is down five stairs and in a old brick-vaulted room. This is past another set of fridges, a blast freezer, the meat slicers and the slide (the counter where the plates, prepared in the kitchen, are given to the waiter or hostess to pick up and present to the customers in the dining room).

This means that the kitchen is separated from the prep areas by the slide ... it is a formal dividing line in most kitchens ... the cooks on one side, the ‘help’ on the other. They don’t mix much. The kitchen here is not large (about 4 metres long, about 3 wide, built like a bowling alley, with the slide at one end and a window to the street at the other. If we open the window we have immediate access to the window-boxes of fresh herbs we grow, and can, in the middle of service, reach out to the waste bin and toss out bags).

On the two sides of the kitchen are kitchen pot, pan and wares storage, a blast oven, a large hot-top, a 4-burner industrial gas range, two sinks, a dishwasher and an immediate-use refrigerator. The walls have knife-magnets on them. There is a pair of racks above the slide. There is a small dry-erase board for us to write notes to ourselves (we write names of foods or processes that have to be done before our next service, such as listing mozzarella and beef to buy, or cook peas and put through a chinoise). There is no decoration of any kind save one large picture of the Virgin Mary, high on the wall, gazing very fondly at the stove.

In the middle of all this stands the Chef. Chef does not want to have to move very far. His job is all done within this small space. My job is to make sure he does not have to leave for any reason. Some days I am more successful than others. Last night I was completely stumped when he asked for some of the prepared pigeon, and I had no clue as to what it looked like or where it was, so he had to leave his post and go get it and show me. This slows down the entire kitchen, so the trattoria suffers.

Chef does not really want to move very far at all. He wants to have food, in the form he wants or needs, handed to him instantly so he can do what inspires him to make it delicious and present it with flair and imagination. Then he pushes it across the slide and hopes for the best. Inept service can scuttle any Chef’s best work, or add greatly to it with fine, discrete service and imaginative, knowledgeable wine suggestions. Sylvia (the entire wait-staff and hostess responsibility falls on her shoulders) is a master at this. Out she goes through the flipper-doors, a discrete smile on her face, making people feel cared-for, the very centre of her attention.

Last night (except for the unfortunate pigeon incident) was utter ballet. Balanchine would have been thrilled! We do it with knives, very hot equipment, crockery and not much talk. It is fast and surprisingly quiet ... our 'pas de trois'.
One of my Chefs at ALMA said, “No talk! Work!” Chef tells me what he needs, and I get it. He tells me what to do and it is done very fast. And in between the two of us is his Mum, who runs the dishwasher and puts things away. Sylvia comes and goes. When she brings in a written order Chef and I both look at it: he wants to know what he will be doing, and I need to know what he will need to do it. Much of my work is anticipatory ... all Chef has to do is ask, and what he needs is put into his hands. Reminds me of movies of an operating room. We wear uniforms, we just use slightly different tools and processes. “Knife! Sponge! Blender! Rabbit!”

The secret to running a trattoria, or a large restaurant, is preparation. Then the dance is really fun.

So last night Chef didn’t have to walk much, although he never stopped moving all evening. We both keep a large bottle of water at hand, and by the end of the evening we’d each poured in at least a couple of litres. Our jackets, some evenings, are actually wringing wet.

Today is Sunday and we are closed. Our legs hurt, our hips hurt, our feet hurt. The trattoria needs re-stocking, and we’re taking a rest. Chef is going cycling with friends, Sylvia is gone to visit her parents in Marostica and your humble scribe is reporting in.

Have a delicious week-end!

My Chef-teachers at George Brown Chef School, Chef Tomaselli, Chef Meneses and Chef Gonzalez, used to demonstrate careful preparation technique in every class ... they would come in very early to do prep and lay-out, so when the class started before 8 in the morning, no matter what was going to be taught or demonstrated or developed, everything was just one or two steps away and the Chef could utterly focus on the process and the products. It was a superb demonstration of professionalism, in every class, every day. The food was jaw-droppingly good, but what has stuck with me just as much was the preparation for making the dish. Each Chef got ready to get ready (mental focus, clothing, tools, equipment), then actually did his mis-en-place (prepared the vegetables or pastry flour and butter for use or demonstration, arranged his ingredients in bowls, had a scale out to measure precisely what he wanted, to the gram). When the class started, it was a process of sharing a concept, a description of what and why it was done this way, what variations were available or suggested, and what to avoid. Then preparation and presentation of the dish by technique and tool. These classes were convincing models in every way.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Octopus, and Being a Tourist

I Am A Tourist.

Well, sort of ... I actually have a teeny small place here in society, as a cook, but in truth I am a tourist. I will leave in a couple of months, and that position I hold will evaporate. It is a temporary gift to me, by the willingness of the larger Italian community, and the Chef I am working for. My opportunity is to learn all I can and take it away.

Kipling said “I am part of all that I have met”, but methinks I will be forgotten pretty soon after I leave. What is much more germane is the inverse of that thought of Mr. Kipling; “All that I have met is part of me”.

One of my favourite poems is about this, precisely. It is “Ithaca”.

“When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

by Constantine P. Cavafy in 1911

On that note, let me encourage a culinary adventure.

I love good seafood. Most North Americans don’t eat octopus. The kind folks in Detroit toss octopi on the ice at NHL Games, and that’s about it. Our entire relationship with this gustatory treat is through hockey.

Well, be a culinary tourist for a day ... try this adventure on for size! Have fun. Do it with a friend, or more.

Go to a good fishmonger and get a fresh octopus. (In Toronto I go to Diana Seafood at Lawrence east and about Warden, or City Fish on Dufferin near Ranee, or Fiesta Farms on Christie south of Dupont. Or the St. Lawrence market.)

Take the octopus home and clean it under fresh cold water. Get a large pot of COLD water (one where there will be room for boiling gently, AND the octopus). Fill the pot with cold water and put in the octopus. Salt the water. Put on the stove and heat to a gently simmering boil on a large ring, where the heat will be evenly spread over the entire bottom of the pot ... do NOT cook it fast, as the meat will toughen ... and when done take it out of the pot and do NOT rinse it off and reserve on the counter or on a plate. It won’t look like what you started with ... the tentacles will have curled up, and the head shrunk.

While it is gently simmering, peel some potatoes and halve them. Put them on a platter and toss a bit of olive oil on, both below and onto the potatoes. Add a sprig or two of fresh rosemary to the platter. Fire it into a hot oven and gently broil until done ... about 15 minutes, I would guess. (Our commercial equipment operates differently from home equipment, so I am adapting for you.) While these are going, prepare some large, long fresh green or yellow snap-beans to be slightly steamed, and perhaps some fresh mini-tomatoes soaked in a light vinaigrette, with a basil emphasis. Do not cook the tomatoes.

As the potatoes are broiling and the octopus is cooling, put the octopus onto a cutting board. Cut off the tentacles from the area near the beak. Cut off the mouth-parts (the area near the beak) and discard. Slice the head into thin rings, keeping or discarding the innards as you choose. This should all be tepid to counter temperature. Peel the skin off, if you choose. Cut the tentacles into 2 cm lengths (about an inch, I think). The meat will be very tender.

When the potatoes have cooked, remove from the oven and let cool on the counter. Remove the rosemary and keep a few (maybe 20 or so) of the leaves ... discard the stem. Drain the beans when they are still crispy a little.

Into a large bowl put the octopus meat, and a little pepper. The potatoes that have been cooled a bit, the beans that have cooled, the rosemary and fresh kosher salt. In our kitchen we add a little more EVO (extra-virgin olive oil) and some balsamic vinegar to the bowl, then toss it all around to make a delicious octopus salad. Add tomatoes. Add a little fresh black pepper, coarsely-ground, and a bit more sea-salt. Toss gently (I just use my fingers so the meat is not damaged). Plate onto wide, shallow bowls and enjoy with a wine of choice and friendship in spades. Drizzle on a little more EVO to garnish the rims and the content. Serve with fresh, warm bread and a little balsamic vinegar on the side to dip.

If you’ve never tried something like this before, let this adventure be your first voyage to a culinary Ithaca!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

You Too Can Be A Trained Professional!

The customers are still enjoying a grand evening downstairs in the trattoria ... I can hear the cheerful roar up on the third floor, where my little garret room is tucked away. It is midnight,, Friday midnight, the week-end is starting and my feet hurt, every bone in my body aches and I have set myself on fire only once this week. Chef managed to set himself on fire twice, so he’s winning. What’s the prize?

We’ve actually had it pretty quiet this week ... until tonight. We had reservations for two parties of two for 8 o’clock. The first party arrived and were just getting their ordering under way when the second party arrived ... all five of them ... which morphed into seven when someone used their cell phone and called for friendly back-up on the main course and desserts. All you can do is laugh and enjoy the crazy ride when this happens.

Almost every item on our menu is made entirely from scratch. Bread (I’m the baker), tiramisu, fish, octopus dishes, rabbit, snails (we don’t actually grow these ... we just encourage them a bit ... ), scampi (likewise), filet of anything you can filet, gelato, patisserie cream, tarte di Nonna, the lot. Many of the wines featured are typical to the area, or close by. The delicious carnaroli rice comes from just south of Verona, and the potatoes are grown by the Chef’s parents on their plot. Fresh veg is supplied by a gentleman who comes around in a truck twice a week and tootles cheerfully on his horn to advertise his availability for business.

Yes, things can go a little haywire. Tonight we ran out of zucchini and had to improvise. My tortellini were a little damp (too much water spray before closing) so cooked oddly. (They taste great, just did not act normal in the pot, and Chef was concerned. And if Chef is concerned, I am MORE concerned.)

Chef gave me a great lesson today on making a deliciously-smooth carbonara. This is something you can do at home ... be encouraged to try it! I made it for the four of us for lunch.

Get out: pasta of your choice (home-made fresh is best, but let’s face reality folks), 6 thick slices of bacon (don’t give me that look; get out the damn bacon if you’re going to do this recipe), 4 egg yolks (this is important ... separate them well. Keep the whites for use at another time), some grated parmesan cheese OR good, sharp pecorino (I think the pecorino works best ... pecorino is sheep-milk cheese, and parmesan is cow-milk cheese), fleur de sel or kosher salt, a pepper grinder and some cream or whole-fat milk.

Start by sautéing the bacon in a large, flat-bottomed pan, until slightly crisp ... gently crush and reserve. Keep the drippings. (This is comfort food you’re making, not some rubbish for a diet loaded with grapefruit, chicken and an enthusiastically-named quarter-litre of banana-flavoured goo in a tin). Get your pasta cooking in generously-salted water. The water should be the same saltiness as sea-water. Don’t go cheap on the salt for pasta! Store-bought linguini, for instance, will take about 9 ½ minutes to be al dente. If you’re using fresh, adjust your start-time as needed. Do not over-cook your pasta (I say this because most folks do).

Add a good dollop of finely-freshly-grated cheese to the egg yolks and stir. Add pepper and perhaps a little salt (but since you very generously salted your pasta water this should not be a problem). If needed, add a little milk or cream ... you want a sauce that is, well, decadent. No pursed-lip self-righteousness about this dinner ... this is food that schmecks, and you should be proud to make it!

When the pasta is just before al dente take it out of the water with tongs. DO NOT DRAIN IT or rinse it off ... just throw it directly into the large bacon pan, with the drippings and the bacon, and stir it around quickly. Do not overheat this pan. Gently pour in the egg-yolk mixture and stir. The yolks should stay creamy, and not cook hard. Remove from the heat and serve immediately onto warmed plates and enjoy with friends.

Enjoy this with a good glass of Barbaresco!

You, too, can be a trained professional. Try This At Home!