Thursday, September 24, 2015

Montreal Bagels: Two Grand Old Names

 Something I would't know where to find even in New York . . . a 24 hour bagel shop. Could I be dreaming?
Arriving into Montreal late on a rainy night I headed right for Fairmount Bagels as the sesame seed rings were coming out of the wood burning oven. These are not the giant doughy delicious New York variety I grew up with but something altogether different. First off Montreal bagels are small, or a reasonable serving size compared to their Southern cousins. As my friend Marc described, there is a greater crust to dough ratio making them almost more like a soft pretzel or a bialy. And they are sweet. Fairmount's have a faint taste of honey which made the sesame seeds literally sing in every bite.
 Fairmount is the oldest bagel shop in Montreal and there was a line at their flagship shop close to midnight when I came by.
 St Viateur is the youngster by comparison, baking and boiling in Montreal since the 1950s. In addition to their 24 hour a day bakery (about a block from Fairmount) St Viateur has four cafes across the city. So I was able to try their sesame bagel (Montreal's favorite) with lox and a mountain of cream cheese. St Viateur's bagels are just a tiny bit dryer and slightly less sweet than Fairmont's. Delicious toasted.
Across Montreal the best bagel is debated in endless blogs and articles and breakfast tables. Though there are other bakers the serious food city seems to split between Fairmount and St Viateur.
Fairmount's garlic bagel was not for me and their pumpernickel lacked the dark flavor I come to expect in New York but their sesame hot from the oven barely made it to the car.
The bagel debate may rage on in Montreal, but I've picked a side.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Another Nice Fair Surprise

This year was not a great year for my jellies, or so I thought. Each batch, though flavorful, seemed to fail on texture. I almost didn't enter and in fact held back this apple rose variety from two of the season's fairs. Flavored with old fashioned rose petals from our neighbor's garden my pink hued entry went on to win best of division in Sonoma County. Another rosette for the collection.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Pretty Good Day At The Fair

Though I just got home yesterday and was admittedly pretty exhausted, I couldn't resist a new contest at the Sonoma County Fair. The fair is trying to bring back old fashioned baking contests where contestants bring their goods right to the judging and wait to hear the results. Today was all about apple pies and I arrived just in time to place my still warm from the oven apple pie on the table of entries.
Contest rules called for Sonoma county apples and this time of year that means Gravensteins, a green or sometimes green streaked with red apple that is just tart enough to make a pie interesting and sweet enough to feel like dessert. This part of California was once famous for Gravensteins. But with soft skin that bruises easily Sonoma's favorite apple never became popular too far outside of the immediate area. Too bad. Their flavor is sublime and with a few Pink Pearl apples -- a little known sweet-tart apple developed in Northern California some 70 years ago -- sliced into the pie I had a winning combination of flavors.
But I can never leave well enough alone.
I started my pie with a bourbon caramel sauce. I boiled 1 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water without stirring until it was a nice amber color. Off the heat I quickly stirred in 1/2 cup heavy cream and stirred cooling the caramel for 1 minute. Then I added in 1/4 cup of bourbon, returned the sauce to the heat and boiled for 1 more minute -- stirring constantly.
With by bottom lard and butter crust rolled out in the pie plate I poured in half of my cooled caramel sauce and topped it with 9 peeled and sliced apples mixed with a pinch of salt, 1/2 cup toasted walnuts (chopped) 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, 1/2 cup brown sugar, and 2 TB of flour. I piled the apple mixture on top of the crust, and dotted the fruit with 1 1/2 TB of butter cut in small pieces. Instead of another crust I opted for a streusel topping of 6 TB butter cut in pieces, 2/3 cup chopped toasted walnuts, 1/4 cup of sugar and 3/4 cup of flour all mixed together with a fork to create big pieces of tasty dough. I piled the streusel on top of the apples and popped the pie in the oven for 50 minutes at 375º. As soon as the pie came out of the oven I poured the remainder for the warmed caramel sauce over the streusel and ran off to the fair.
A nail biting hour or so later I was handed a rosette and tally sheets from two judges scoring my slap dash run out of the house pie a 98. I couldn't be prouder.
I'm never too tired for a blue ribbon.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Underbelly Houston

 A couple months back, with no idea I'd be arriving in Houston, I read a chatty little article about chef Chris Shepherd. Though the story of chef Shepherd's culinary evolution and his love for the many immigrant communities in Houston and their collection of unique ingredients was interesting enough, what I remember most was Shepherd's description of his "pants free" days off -- eating pho noodles on his balcony in his underwear. That's how he met his neighbors he claims.
 Arriving in Houston I suddenly thought of that article and though I couldn't remember his name or his restaurant's but I remembered the big man who loves Vietnamese noodles.
Underbelly is loud and friendly celebration of Gulf Coast bounty. It's menu a collection of small plates (not that small) meant for sharing featuring the diverse ethnic ingredients chef Shepherd came to love while first working in Houston. I started with grouper, marinated in yogurt, dill, turmeric, and (at least according to one server but not another) cardamom. Cabbage and fresh greens dressed in a fish sauce spiked vinaigrette with cold rice noodles below seemed like a spring roll opened up and paired with a vaguely tandoori fish.
Underbelly is about the party. The fish, though tasty, was not portioned evenly so the ends were just overcooked while the middle was just under. The highest priced on the menu but into the open kitchen I can see bowl after bowl coming out. Nearly every table has one.
A big man and a big presence, when chef Shepherd walks through the open kitchen to the dining room he high fives line cooks, hugs a server, and meanders past diners in awe to have the chef himself in their midsts. The 2014 James Beard award winner says a few hellos, poses for a photo and settles down at a table of some (I assume) chef friends.
Chef Shepherd and I share a love for the Korean gochujang. And the restaurant's signature combination, the only dish my server tells me is always on the menu, braised goat and dumplings comes heavily sauced in the pepper paste. The meat is cooked to a near mashed potato softness and the rice dumplings -- though usually soft in Korean dishes -- are quickly crisped to add welcome texture to the dish.
Underbelly is not about finesse. It's about bold flavors and assertive combinations. It's about reaching across the table to taste your friend's dish. It's about a frat party of flavor.
Shepherd's dishes are interesting. The flavors are fun. But these are not dishes to eat alone. The first bite is exciting, even tantalizing. The next not quite as good. The third is more than enough. The dishes here oddly become less interesting as you eat them. They are shock value.
Go with friends so everyone gets that first great bite.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Golden Carrots

About two months ago in a rush before leaving town I tossed out some seeds. Carelessly. Recklessly. Added a little top soil, watered and walked away.
Now, several trips later I am seeing the rewards of slap dash gardening. Beautiful long golden carrots much nicer than I ever grew carefully.
Tonight I'll roast them with harissa and olive oil and top them -- just as they are in the garden -- with carrot top pesto.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Marin County Fair 2015

  A holiday weekend. Perfect for the county fair. I rushed past the stormtroopers (it is Marin after all, home to Skywalker ranch) to the exhibit hall to find a blue ribbon on my rose geranium angel food cake, a recipe I invented and made for the first time for this year's fair.

 Another blue ribbon for white chocolate peppermint fudge. I used to make this for our Christmas party every year and though it's not exactly seasonal I gave it a go for this year's fair. Winner. James loves it so much I have been instructed to hide the candy left at home.
 Though this very same recipe took a first place at last week's Sonoma Marin Fair (we live at the epicenter of 3 quality fairs) it only placed second here in Marin.
 I'm sure this is not quite what the fair committee had in mind when they set the gingerbread category as part of the quick breads and muffins division. But the Guiness flavored cake has been a favorite for years and I thought it might do well. The ginger chocolate glaze and crystallized ginger were new for the fair but I might add it to next year's Christmas cake.
 Not my best showing, but another ribbon to add to the tally.
 One fair to go and so far this year I have 5 first place blue ribbons, 4 second place, 4 third place, 1 fourth place, 1 fifth and 1 dreaded honorable mention. The tally grows.

Friday, July 3, 2015

A Peck Of Peppers

James went over to bring a jar of jam to our neighbors and came back with a huge bag of peppers. Our neighbor is an amazing and prolific gardener, and a very generous one.
Looking into that bag I heard one thing -- piperade.
Piperade is a Basque dish of sautéed peppers flavored with ham and spiked with Piment d'Espelette the beloved spicy pepper (used dried) cultivated in the Basque region of Southern France. Piperade is traditionally flavored with Bayonne ham, a dried pork product (like prosciutto) often flavored with the same spicy paprika. Not quite traditional, for ours instead of substituting prosciutto I went for rich flavorful Spanish chorizo which I sautéed in olive oil to start the dish. Then I added in 2 sliced onions, 4 minced cloves of garlic, 1 bay leaf, about 6 sprigs of thyme and a healthy sprinkle of Piment d'Espelette over medium heat. When the onions were very soft I added in  thinly sliced green peppers and red peppers, 3 each. I covered the pan, turned down the heat and let the peppers soften. After about 10 minutes I added 2 large handfuls of cherry tomatoes sliced in half. Now when Julia Child made her piperade she peeled and seeded fresh tomatoes to add to the flavorful sauce. The last thing I feel like doing on a bright summer day is boiling water and peeling tomatoes so I tossed in the cherries, covered the pan and let them soften for another couple minutes. Though Julia served her piperade over lovely roasted or poached chicken to make ours a meal I added a couple eggs into the broth and covered the pan for just a couple minutes until they were set.
Poached eggs with piperade a summery dish to celebrate our local peppers.