My Year in Food…

As an arts reporter, it is my job each December to sum up the year’s best and worst – a task that I am understandably discomfited by, possessing neither the ego nor the compulsion to make such qualitative pronouncements. Since it is my duty, however, to do just that, my approach is to step back from making any kind of grand statement and focus instead on those shows/artists/artworks that either pleased or displeased me. For what more can I do than express my own subjective response to things that may have garnered entirely different reactions from different viewers at different times?

In discussing the year in food, a grand statement if ever there was one, I must also step back from any kind of assumptive declarations. This is not about the best and worst in food, nor does it aim to make any kind of statement about trends in eating, either globally or locally. Instead, it is a simple recounting of three gastronomically-related things that made me feel excited, healthy, happy and sated in the year that was 2010.

CAVALO NERO

Though my friends at An Endless Banquet were writing about this most delectable of leafy greens as far back as October 2007, it was only a few weeks ago that I discovered its perfection. In Montreal, it is generally known as Lacinato or Tuscan kale, though I have also heard it sold under the moniker Dinosaur kale, a name that is presumably drawn from the lizard-like texture of the vegetable when raw. When cooked, however, it is an entirely different story. In fact, what distinguishes this princely kale from its more proletarian cousins is its texture, which one might compare to a young collard green: toothy yet tender. There is also the taste, though in my efforts to describe it, I find myself groping for adjectives, hoping that earthy and green will suffice.

If this is not enough to send you stampeding to the vegetable stand, kale is also insanely good for you, and incredibly easy to prepare. A few nights ago, for example, we simply sauteed it in a little butter, popped the lid on to create a little steam, and then tossed it with some lemon juice, lemon zest, crushed chilies and a few walnuts. Sitting aside a bowl of lamb-fennel Bolognese, it provided a fresh and crunchy counterpart to the pasta’s silky richness. For breakfast, the leftovers made great company for an otherwise guilt-inducing fried egg sandwich.

HAY, HAY OIL and Do-It-Yourself MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY

In order to talk about hay, the least likely of culinary ingredients, I have to first talk about Noma, the Danish restaurant that this year unseated El Bulli as the World’s Best. Last summer, I was perusing the interweb when I came across a video of Mark Bittman talking about his trip to the restaurant. In an effort to demystify the complex science that is molecular gastronomy, he was taking the audience through a recipe for one of Noma’s signature dishes: potato chips with chocolate and fennel seeds. I was, to say the least, intrigued, and made haste to the Noma website where I put in an order for chef René Redzepi’s cookbook.

Jump ahead a few months as, with weighty tome in hand, I sat down to look for something to make for dinner and came across a recipe requiring among many other things, the production of hay oil. Several hours later, having successfully procured a bundle of organic hay from a farmer at the Jean Talon market – an easier task than anticipated, and one that put in me in great favour with the young man who had been packing and unpacking the hay all summer with nary a sale – and having toasted that hay in the oven for over two hours and then macerated it in a layer of sunflower oil, I was one step closer to the completion of my dish: Jerusalem Artichokes and Toasted Hay Oil, Yoghurt and Truffles.

Unsurprisingly, preparing gastronomically molecular dishes at home is no easy feat, even when you have chosen to make the least complicated recipe in the book. First, instead of a team of skilled labourers, you have only you – and if you’re lucky, your husband. When you are one (or two) and there are a handful of tasks that need to be completed at the same time, something must fall by the wayside. Here, it was the cutting of the Jerusalem artichoke slices – the peeling and slicing of which in itself took over an hour – into perfect 2cm diameter rounds. Instead, I switched to a more-easily realized hexagonal thematic which cut my prep time to roughly one-third.

Second, unless you are inclined to purchase appliances you will rarely use, you have to make do with more pedestrian items like your regular old oven and blender instead of the intended Pacojet and 180 degree water bath. These appliances work perfectly fine when braising a pot roast or whipping up a smoothie, but fail miserably when the task requires simultaneous blending and freezing (horseradish snow) or 90-degree roasting (pork fat brittle).

Third, you have to venture into heretofore unknown areas of culinary endeavor such as jellies, foams and airs. My proudest moment in this regard was when my 3mm thick organic apple jello discs, made from apple juice that my husband had pressed and strained earlier in the day, actually came out of the pan. Sadly, the satisfaction of that moment was crushed seconds later, when the discs were laid over mounds of steaming braised oxtail and were instantaneously reduced to the juice whence they came. That I did not weep is testament only to my desire to save face in front of my guests.

And finally, when preparing molecular cuisine, you have to come to terms with the fact that after working in the kitchen for 8-10 hours, washing countless dishes, and leaving a huge carbon footprint from having had the oven on for the duration, what you have produced amounts to about four tablespoons of food.

You also have to figure out what to do with the rest of the hay, for hay – as most farmers will tell you – comes only by the bushel. And so, a few months later, my husband prepared what has come to be known in our house as Hay Ham, aka the best ham that anyone who has eaten it has eaten.

Though the recipe can be found online, it is basically a ham that after a day or so of soaking is simmered for three hours in a pot full of water and hay. On a winter day, with the windows sealed tight, the barnyard smell during the first hour of cooking can be a little hard on the nose, but by hour two, the aroma is decidedly more appetizing. And more importantly, the ham itself, when served with a shallot, mustard and tarragon cream sauce and a few raspberries, is truly beyond delicious.

SAME INGREDIENT – DIFFERENT PREPARATIONS

Though this has long been a staple of snazzy restaurants, and is probably, to frequenters of high-end joints, a little bit passé, 2010 was the first year that I embraced the pleasures of cooking and eating a single food prepared multiple ways at the same time. This technique, in addition to making you feel quite snazzy yourself, is also a good way to make a little food go a longer way, which can really come in handy when trying to make a pleasing dinner for 8-10 people without going broke in the process.

For example, though you may feel a little miserly attempting to feed a dozen people with two pork tenderloins, serving small plates with three delicious little bundles – four is too many, two, not enough – is so delightful that it completely overshadows the fact that there is very little food on the plate. That said, since most of us eat significantly more than our bodies actually need, walking away from a dinner party feeling sated instead of sluggish can actually be quite a treat.

This year, for Christmas eve, I prepared a first course of beets three ways. The key to making dishes like this is creating an array of contrasts: red and yellow, raw and cooked, hard and soft, sour and sweet. If I had my druthers, I would have started with different coloured beets, but as I could only lay my hands on some red ones, I had to make do. There were nine of us for dinner and about six large beets, which was just about perfect.

First, I peeled them all, and then chopped four of them into largish chunks. Half of the chunks I boiled, and the other half, I roasted in olive oil. Again, if it were not for the fact that the oven was already on, this would have been extremely wasteful in terms of energy – something to keep in mind. So while one-third of the beets were boiling and one-third were roasting, I took the remaining raw beets and grated them. Because they were not as sweet as the ones we enjoy during the summer months, I added a drizzle of maple syrup and a splash of balsamic vinegar. I also added a pinch of sea salt and a few minced chives for colour. Then I put them aside.

When the boiled beets were tender, I submerged them in a cup of apple cider and dropped in a star anise – an idea, I must confess, that I got from Redzepi. When the beets were done roasting and it was time to sit down for dinner. I removed the star anise, pureed the beets and apple cider, and strained them to remove the extra liquid. On each plate, I put a sprig of dill for colour, a spoonful of beet puree, a spoonful of grated beet, a teeny morsel of blue cheese, and three roasted beet chunks. Delightful.

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