Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Gallumphing Through The Big Easy - Part I: The Descent

You may have noticed that I haven't posted anything for a while. I was on vacation, you see. For this I apologize. Ummm... for the not posting part, not for the being on vacation part. My friend Joe and I hopped in his car and headed wildly off in all directions, or at least in the general direction of New Orleans, Louisiana to visit a buddy of ours. We had been feeling kind of bad, as this buddy had been living in the party captial of the world for the last few years, and we hadn't managed to get our act together sufficiently to go visit. I am happy to report that this grievous oversight has now been remedied.

First of all, I have to say that I LOVE NEW ORLEANS. Whew, that feels better. What a great town. We arrived on the 16th of May after Cannonballing right down the middle of the States - 26 hours in the car including coffee breaks and naps. This was a part of the USA I personally had never visited before. The route went something like this: West from Toronto on the 401 to Detroit, then south through Toledo, (in the pouring rain, no less) dinner at Denny's somewhere in Ohio, on through Cincinnati, Louisville (still raining), Nashville (sun at last), a two hour nap at a service station in northern Alabama (or was it southern Tennessee?), on to Birmingham, then west through the great state of Mississippi including lunch at a Waffle House in Picayune, then finally, New Orleans.

Normally, when on a road trip with friends, we play the LCBO Game to pass the time. For those of you not familiar with this game, I will explain. In Ontario, the only place you can buy liquor is the LCBO store (Liquor Control Board of Ontario). Consequently, there is an LCBO outlet in every single little town in the province. The game is to be the first person to spot the LCBO sign as you pass through each little town, shouting out "LCBO!" and pointing at the sign. Of course, when road tripping through the States, this doesn't really work so well, but after driving through Ohio for a while, we noticed that there seemed to be a place called the Waffle House in pretty much every single little town along the interstate. So, we played the Waffle House Game. I am the king of the Waffle House Game. To be fair, Joe did all the driving, so he couldn't exactly spend all his time searching for the signs, buy hey, a win's a win.

Anyway, after spending all of that time playing the game, by the time we got to Mississippi and we were looking for a place to eat, we thought, "Why not the Waffle House?" Why not, indeed. So, we found one in the lovely little town of Picayune, Mississippi. It's too bad I didn't take a picture of my lunch that day, 'cause it was truly a sight to behold. I had a double order of hashbrowns with pretty much whatever they could throw at it on top. There was chili, tomatoes, mushrooms and ham. I think that was it. The ensuing week has since blurred my memory of exact details from the trip down. Long story short it was everything a growing boy needs. It was REALLY good.

We got into Nawlenz at around 5pm, but it took us a bit of time to find our friend's place, because about 25% of the street signs had been Katrina casualties. Combined with the rush hour traffic (such as it was), and the uneven roads (Katrina again), it took us the better part of an hour to find the house.

We stepped out of the car into what we considered to be beautiful weather. It was about 80 degrees, with a nice breeze and clear skies. Ahhhh yeahhh. Paul was still at work, so we reclined in our camping chairs outside his place under some enormous oak trees. When he finally got home, after saying hello and all that, Paul apologized for the weather. Huhnh? Apparently, New Orleans had been experiencing somewhat of a 'cold snap' for that time of year, and the extremely nice 80 degrees was a record low for May. Must be nice. We had just come from Toronto, where at that point, the weather was still in the high fifties. Of course, now in Toronto it's at least 90 and damn humid, but that's a story for another day.

Paul wasn't exactly expecting us until the next day, because we had originally planned to go camping somewhere on the way down, but we had been making such good time, we really wanted to just get there. Because of this, Paul hadn't booked the next day off either as we were expected the next evening. So Joe and I amused ourselves for the day at the Audubon Zoo, which is right across the street from Paul's place. Nice. I took a pile of pictures while at the zoo, but of course, forgot to get more than one or two with me actually in them.

After baking in the sun all day, we regrouped at Paul's place, hooked up with his friend Frank, then headed into the CBD (Central Business District) for Wednesday At The Square, which turned out to be a big crowd of people having a great time eating and drinking accompanied by some live jazz courtesy of a band called The Iguanas. I had some crawfish etoufee and some beans and rice, and a really good local beer called Abita Amber. I was in heaven. After that, we went to a little Cuban place Paul knew where I had the best catfish po'boy sandwich I had ever eaten. OK, it was the ONLY catfish po'boy sandwich I had ever eaten, but do I ever like catfish. I'd been in the city two days, and already I had decided that I could happily live there.

Stay tuned, the Gallumphing continues...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

WCC #5: Cinco de Mayo, eh?

When I read that the theme for this month's Weekend Cookbook Challenge was "Cinco de Mayo", I was a little concerned. While I have certainly consumed a fair amount of Mexican cuisine (mostly from Taco Bell), I have never really cooked any. Oh sure, I've fried up some stuff, put it in a flour tortilla and called it a 'soft taco', but nothing that could be identified as definitively Mexican.
Luckily, I recently acquired a cookbook entitled "The Mexican Mama's Kitchen" by Sofia Larrinua-Craxton, which I have really enjoyed reading, as it outlines how to make some basic Mexican staples, such as Pico de Gallo, Refried Beans, and of course, tortillas, along with some very tasty-looking full meals.

For this Weekend Cookbook Challenge, I decided to make Swiss Enchiladas (Enchiladas Suizas). In case you were wondering (and I know you were), in Mexican cooking, ‘Swiss’ refers to any dish that features cream as one of its prominent ingredients. Here, sour cream provides a lower-fat alternative to double cream. In addition to the enchiladas, the cookbook suggests that refried beans make a good accompaniment for this dish, so I made some of that as well.

Now, before I get into the recipes, my ingredient-gathering expidition was just as entertaining as the cooking part. The weekend before, I happened to be walking through Kensington Market, which is possibly the most multi-cultural section of Toronto with people from at least 30 different cultural backgrounds, including Portuguese, Ethiopian, East Indian, Carribean and Mexican. And all packed into about eight square blocks just west of downtown. Needless to say, grocery shopping, and shopping in general in the Market is a real eye-opening experience.

I found a little grocery shop called Perola's on Augusta Ave., which features products and produce from Brazil and Mexico. They have such an unbelievable selection of fresh peppers and dried chilis, that I just had to stock up.
Here are some pictures of some of the stuff I picked up. The enchiladas recipe calls for serrano chilis and tomatillos, neither of which I was familiar with, but Perola's had some. I also got some lovely smoky chipotle peppers (why not?), some dried ancho chilis, some poblanos, some guajillo peppers and some blue corn tortillas. This is also where I got the pinto beans for the Refried Beans recipe.

I made the beans a day ahead of time, because it takes a while for the beans to soak before you can cook them. The recipe is below. Actually, there are two recipes, because you have to cook the beans first, then mash them up and fry them again. These are so tasty and they go with everything. I only ended up using a little bit of the beans with the enchiladas, so I had to find creative ways to use about four cups of refried beans. Ahhh....if only all decisions in life were as easy....

Back Burner Beans (Frijoles de la Olla)

400g (about 1 lb.) pinto, borlotti or black beans (I used pinto beans)
2 litres (1 gallon) water
1 large onion, quartered
3 whole cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 small bunch of fresh herbs

Put the beans into a large saucepan and cover with the water. Let soak overnight.
The next day, put the pot on the stove and bring to a boil. Skim off any film that comes to the surface. Add the onions, garlic, bay leaves and herbs. Partially cover and simmer gently for about 1 hour or until the beans are fully cooked and soft. Once cooked, season with salt.

Refried Beans (Frijoles Refritos)

2 C Frijoles de la Olla, with a little cooking water
(or the same quantity of canned pinto, borlotti or black beans, rinsed and drained)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp corn or vegetable oil
salt or vegetable bouillon powder

Lightly mash the beans with a potato masher until they form a soft and lumpy paste.
Saute the onion and oil in a medium-sized frying pan until translucent, add the beans and cook for a further 2 minutes. Add water or bean stock if the mixture is too dry.
Season with salt or vegetable bouillon powder to taste.

The next night, I started in on the enchiladas. The first step, I thought, was to make the tomatillo puree that is required as part of the enchilada sauce. You may notice that in the recipe below, it says to "remove the outer leaves from the tomatillos". Well, this is my own correction and clarification, as the original instructions in the book say to "peel the tomatillos". I took this to mean that the outer skin should be removed, so there I was with a vegetable peeler, trying to peel the tomatillos. Yeesh. This semed a little odd to me, so I checked some other recipes for tomatillo puree online (the next day, of course), and found out that removing the leaves was what was meant by "peeling". Oh well. Live and learn. To make a long story short, I ended up with less tomatillo puree than I expected, but just added some more water to the sauce to compensate.

Tomatillo Puree

½ lb fresh tomatillos
1 tsp baking soda

Boil the water with the baking soda. Remove outer leaves from the tomatillos, chop in half and add to water. Cook for 2-3 minutes until they turn yellowish and soft, then puree.

Allrighty then. With all of my ducks now in a row, I started cooking the chicken and making the sauce. The recipe for the sauce calls for the serrano chilis, but I was a little hesitant, as I was unsure of their relative spiciness. I have heard that the rule of thumb for chilis is "the smaller the chili, the hotter the chili". The serranos are pretty darn small, so after chopping one up, and carefully removing the seeds from one little piece, and with a large glass of milk at the ready, I popped it in my mouth. Whew, it wasn't really that hot. I mean, it was a spicy little pepper, but I was expecting to break out into a sweat, and have my sinuses all drain simultaneously. Nope. I would say that the serrano is slightly less spicy than a jalapeno. Excellent. OK, moving on.

After the chicken was finished cooking, I had shredded it and put it aside. The recipe calls for one boneless skinless chicken breast. I didn't think that that sounded like enough, so I used two. Next time I'll use three.

After all of the constituent parts were cooked, the assembly went smoothly. I fried the tortillas in some oil, dipped them in the enchilada sauce, spooned some chicken into each one, folded it in half and placed them into a baking dish. I then covered the tortillas with the sour cream and grated cheese, and, emboldened by my experiment with the serrano, sliced up two more chilis and sprinkled them over the top.Yummy, yummy.

After that, it went into the oven for about 15 minutes, and came out looking like this:
Swiss Enchiladas (Enchiladas Suizas)

The Chicken
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
750 ml (1½ C) water
2 tbsp onion, chopped
1 tsp salt
1 bay leaf

Enchilada Sauce
3 tbsp corn or vegetable oil
½ medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
250ml (1 C) tomatillo puree (see below)
1 tbsp fresh coriander (or ½ tbsp dried coriander)
1 serrano chilli, finely chopped
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
½ tsp baking soda
salt and pepper

250 ml (1 C) vegetable oil
6 soft blue corn tortillas

300g (1¼ C) sour cream
100g (½ C) grated cheddar cheese
2 serrano chillis, sliced thin

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF/180ºC/Gas Mark 4.
2. Put the chicken breasts in a saucepan and cover with the water. Add the 2 tbsp chopped onion, salt and bay leaf. Bring to the boil and skim anything that comes to the surface. Boil gently for 20 minutes, until the chicken is cooked. Leave to cool and shred lightly with your fingers. Reserve.
3. While the chicken is cooking, make the sauce for the enchiladas. In a medium saucepan, heat the oil and add the onion. Sauté for 5 minutes, until soft. Add the garlic and sauté for a little longer, making sure that the garlic does not burn. Add ¾ of the tomatillo puree, most of the coriander, the chilli, salt, sugar and baking soda. Cook for 10 minutes, until the sauce no longer tastes too acidic. Add some of the chicken stock to obtain a fairly liquid sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Heat the 1 C of vegetable oil in a frying pan and put the tortillas in one at a time. Try each tortilla for 15 seconds and place on a plate lined with kitchen paper. The tortillas should remain soft.
5. Dip each tortilla in the sauce and place on a medium-sized baking dish. Put a little of the shredded chicken on each tortilla and fold in half. Repeat the process with each tortilla. Top with the rest of the tomatillo sauce, the sour cream, the cheese and the sliced chillis. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, until the cheese turns golden brown.
6. Garnish with the remaining coriander and serve warm. They taste delicious when served with refried beans (see recipe above).

Friday, May 05, 2006

Let's Try That Again, Shall We?

After making the batch of muffins last week (see post here), I was a little disappointed that they didn't turn out as well as I had hoped. They tasted and looked OK, but they didn't rise very much, because I had added an extra ¼ cup of milk to the batter in an effort to make it less 'gloopy'. So I decided that since I like the recipe, and they tasted pretty darn good, that it was worth another attempt.

The first time, I thought that it was the proportions that were the problem, as the batter came out really thick and sticky. Well, I think that's pretty much how it's supposed to be.

This time, I went exactly by the recipe plus added a handful of raisins, but this time greased up those muffin cups really good, and only baked the muffins for 19 minutes (yes, 19 - it seemed like a good number) instead of the 25 minutes I cooked them last time. Success! Not only were they not black and charred, but they rose nicely in the pan and popped right out with only a little coercing.

And the aroma! I baked these this morning, so when I come home from work this evening, the first thing I'll smell when I walk through the front door will be the lingering smell of fresh cinnamon-raisin muffins.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Another Very Civilized Evening

Last night I spent some quality time at my local pub, The Feathers, tasting some very nice single malt whiskies. This was the final of their Whisky Challenge series until the fall.

At the last Whisky Challenge, which was back in February (see post here), I didn't fare so well, so I was determined to put forth a better showing this time.

The theme for last night's event was "Mostly Peatless", which meant that very few of the selections would be from the Island (or Islay) region, which is largely responsible for the production of 'smoky' or 'peaty' whiskies. I didn't particularly mind this, for while I certainly enjoy a nice smoky malt from time to time, I really prefer a nice full-bodied Highland malt.

Ian (the Publican, not me) certainly uncorked the good stuff last night, as six of the eight malts served were Cask Strength, and all of the malts were at least 18 years old.

Here are explainations for some of the abbreviations used in this post.

C.S. (Cask Strength) - Meaning bottled straight from the maturing cask without chill filtering or the addition of water. Generally a fuller tasting, stronger dram.
D.B. (Distillery Bottling) - Single malt whisky bottled by the distillery is known as a distillery bottling or an official bottling and is usually bottled with an age statement (The Macallan 12 Years Old) or a vintage year (Glen Rothes 1989).
R.M. (Rare Malt Series) - Pretty much self-explanatory.
Sig. (Signatory Vintage) - Check out the link here

Here are the malts that we tasted in the order they were served. The first comment for each malt is the description provided by the distillery. The second comment is my own impressions.

1) Auchentoshan 25yr. C.S. (D.B.) - A triple distilled single-cask bottling from the Bowmore Group. Light mahogany in colour with soft lemon and vanilla undertones. A palate of toffee and butter, some fruit and a delicate, sweet finish.

I liked this one a lot. Full-flavoured, with a hint of banana. Seriously. 7

2) Macallan 1985 18yr. (D.B.) – This Speysider is just a lovely dram and should dispensed with a heavy hand. Deep chestnut in colour with a glorious honey and sherry nose, a big bouquet with nuts and floral notes and a superb dry, warming finish.

I just love Macallan of any vintage, but this one was truly excellent. I actually guessed this one correctly. 8.5

3) Benrinnes 1974 21yr. C.S. (R.M.) – This big beauty has only been bottled as a single malt by the distillery since 1991. Bright gold in colour with almond – vanilla flavours, some nuts and oil, quite creamy and a spicy, sweet lingering finish.

This one completely bamboozled me. This is a nice, light-tasting dram with a bit of spice on the end of the tongue. Really quite pleasant. I guessed this as the Bladnoch, below. rrrr. 8

4) Bladnoch 1977 23yr. C.S. (R.M.) – The southern distillery is close enough to England to affect its quality. Gold in colour with a sweetly perfumed nose. Light and smooth with honey and citrus, somewhat gentle yet crisp – a good aperitif.

Another spicy one. I've never tasted a malt quite like this one. Very complex full palate with hints of lemon. Nice nice nice. 9

5) Glenmorangie Sauterne 1981 (D.B.) - From Tain in the Northern Highlands. Chestnut in colour with a rich toffee and ripe fruit nose and a body suggesting hazelnuts, honeycomb, even vanilla ice cream. The finish is exquisite, gentle and sweet.

An OK malt. Very subtle, with a taste of vanilla, and just slightly nutty. 7

6) Royal Brackla 1975 C.S. (Sig.) – Founded in 1812, the year as Napoleon invaded Russia. Fresh grains on the nose, then fruit and spiciness becoming hot and peppery. Quite robust with a restrained, malty finish.

That's a SPICY meatball. I am really starting to like the peppery malts. A lovely dram - too bad a bottle costs several hundred dollars. 8.5

7) Royal Lochnagar 1973 23yr C.S. (R.M.) – From the Eastern Highlands and a favourite of Queen Victoria. Quiet on the nose, soft-textured and appetizing, some dry nuttiness and just a hint of marzipan. An elegant, subdued finish.

A hint of peaty goodness, with a slight taste of toffee. A little smoky, yet still a Highland malt. Yummy. 8

8) Talisker 1982 20yr. C.S. (D.B.) – From Skye’s only distillery and rated highly by Robert Louis Stevenson. Gold in colour with a distinct coastal nose, peppery and slightly sour with a heat that slowly gains in intensity. A more refined finish than younger versions.

What can I say about Talisker? I love this malt. Heavy-duty smoke and peat, so good it was almost crunchy. Booya. 9

The list that was provided to each of the participants actually contained 10 malts, of which we were served eight. Here are the other two from the list that were not served.

Auchroisk 1974 28yr. (R.M.) – Gentle liquorice and toffee aromas introduce a smooth, soft-bodied dram with sweet malty shortbread and cinnamon flavours. A warming, long finish.

Bruichladdich 20yr. (D.B.) – An abandoned ruin of a distillery miraculously brought back to life. Complex nose of melon balls in honey, lemon meringue and kiwi and sweet oak and barley sugar. A finish both graceful and smooth.

Normally, there is at least one malt served that I just don't care for. It's not that it's a bad whisky necessarily, it's just not to my taste. This wasn't the case last night. Everything that was served was absolutely top-notch.

OK, the scoring system is simple. If you guess the malt exactly correct, you get 3 points. If guess the malt incorrectly, but get the region (Highland, Lowland, Island) correct, you get 1 point. If you're completely wrong, you get bupkus.

The rating system for scores, as provided by The Feathers, is as follows:
18-24 Points - Nae chance!
13-17 Points - Splendid!
9-12 Points - Very respectable.
5-8 Points - Not too bad.
1-4 Points - Tonight's Pudding!

Out of a possible 24 points, I scored a 12. I guessed malts 2, 5, 6 and 8 correctly, and got the rest completely wrong. It's not great, but it's an improvement on the 9 points I scored at the last one. I don't mind getting a bad score, but I always strive to avoid being the Pudding. So far, it hasn't happened. Yet.

The other two in my party fared slightly better than I did. Pat scored a 15, and Mike (our resident expert) scored a 16. The evening's winner scored 21 points - 7 out of 8 guessed correctly. For his efforts, he won a bottle of Dalmore 12yr. Nice.

Boy, with six of the malts being cask strength (meaning higher alcohol content - probably in the 50-60% ABV range), I was feeling very OK by the end of the night. In addition, we had someone guarding the chandeliers, because it was looking like our friend Pat might be doing some dancing on the tables. Woo-hoo!