Friday, September 16, 2011

Annato Seed and Guajilo Braised Pork Tacos

I love mexican cuisine. Real latin flavours. It's extremely balanced - the freshness of a salsa, a warm toasted corn tortilla, spicy and unapologetically so. It's food that's really simple and incredibly delicious. You want more - alot more. I often crave a great taco and it's complex flavours. So I make it at home, cuz I haven't found an awesome place for this kinda stuff in Toronto. At the Black Hoof, there was the pork carnitas on the menu, pork shoulder in an annato seed broth seasoned with some bitter orange, I liked it. So I made it at home, and did it my way. I got some pork shoulder from Sanagan's Meat Locker, my butcher in Kensington Market. I cut it up into nice portions and gave it a nice sear to get some carmelization and build the flavour of the braise. Some guajilo and pasilla chiles were toasted and shredded to give the broth some kick.

I deglazed the pan with water and dissolved the achiote paste into the water. I poured the broth over the pork and let it cook over a low heat for 3 hours. The broth should reduce a lot to get a strong flavour, concentrating the smoky achiote, and earthy chile, not to mention the delicious pork flavour in the broth. I made a nice guacamole with avocado, lime, olive oil, salt and onion brunoise to accompany the braise. I charred some onion, tomatillos, fresh from my garden and some garlic for a salsa. The onion and tomatillo were diced and the garlic finely chopped. A chipolte pepper in adobo was minced for a touch of heat. Lime, olive oil and salt finished it up. I shredded the meat added the sauce and loaded the braised pork mixture into a nice warm corn tortilla.

These were some really excellent tacos. Punchy, strong flavours - what latin cuisine is about. The strong smokiness came through from the achiote and chiles, but was cut by the acid in the charred tomatillo-onion salsa. Guacamole added some smooth richness and refreshed the palette. My parents loved these. My dad. who is semi-vegetarian was happilly indulging in animal flesh, which is very unusual. It one of the simplest things I have made, yet one of the most delicious.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Apprenticing at the Black Hoof

There's a reason (or a few) why my blogging has practically ceased over the past little while. It's because it's summer and I've been busy staging at the Black Hoof with chef Grant van Gameren. Throughout the summer, I've really understood alot more about what there is to know about restaurants and what it takes to cook, work and own a restaurant. It is tough business - a really tough one. At times, I've questioned why I want to be a chef. I came to the conclusion that in the restaurant business it's all about being passionate about your work - cooking, making people happy with food. Those who don't have that burning passion will quickly burn out.

At the Black Hoof, my understanding of cooking and creating dishes has changed in ways. You really need to criticize yourself and everything. Why things work, why they don't, how they work together and how it can be improved. A dish can take many trials to perfect, but in the end it's how the chef critisizes themself that will define the destiny of the dish. You can instantly put something good on the menu. Or you can try again to make it great, then excellent, then perfect. That drive is what really defines a chef.

At the Hoof, I've learned about charcuterie - preserving meat through salt - and expanded my knowledge on cooking. I've learned a bit about making prosciutto, different salamis, sausages and dry-cured foods. I learned about fermentation and pickling and sous vide.

One of the things I enjoyed most was cooking a 3-course meal for Grant van Gameren. It was a great experience to have him critique some dishes that I cooked for him - things he liked and things him didn't.

It looked much nicer in reality...

First Course - Grilled Niagara Peach, Compressed Radish, Pickled Shallots, Thai basil puree and Nasturtium.
This was his favourite dish and he said it would go on the menu! He liked the bright flavours and balance of all the ingredients the sweet-charred complexity of tree-ripen peaches with the acidity of pickled shallots and pepperiness of radish and nasturtium. The thai basil puree didn't go that great...I barely had any so I had to add too much water when pureeing then thicken with xanthan gum because it was too thin.

Second Course: Licorice marinated Beef heart, Blackberries, Arugula Confit and fried Olives.
His second favourite. The heart was "cooked nicely" though slightly over for his palette. The plating was "beautiful" on the first two courses, however the dish didn't really come together. The licorice I should have incorporated in a different way, through maybe fennel or a fennel pollen crust. The blackberries made into a glaze and the olives I should have fried more...

Last Course: Carbonated Raspberries, Rosehip Ice Cream, Whipped Yogourt, Honey Braised Pistachios and Lavender Gel
This was his least favourite. The florality with the rosehip and lavender he found unappetizing. The ice cream, to strong, as well as the lavender gel. The berries got seeds stuck in his teeth and the pistachios had a chewy texture, in his opinion. I was confident with this dish, however I think I forgot that flavours should balance and these went towards flowery, whereas something tart or bitter could have changed the balance. The lavender too pungent, to the point of bitterness and the fluidity of the whipped yogourt in combination with the rosehips made this dish not very enjoyable.

In the end, I think I could have done much better with different dishes had I had more time to develop them especially the dessert. However, he was impressed with my execution and plating. It's awesome that the peach dish made it to the menu! Now that my stage at the Black Hoof is over I am grateful for the experience and opportunity that the apprenticeship provided me with!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sockeye Salmon, Seabean Confit, Grilled Mushrooms and Dill Emulsion

I love summer, yet I hate it simultaneously. With all the local and delicious produce growing in the summer my inspiration for new dishes skyrockets. However, the hot and at times unbearable weather makes long cooking projects illogical. There are a few dishes from the Alinea cookbook I wish I could replicate with fresh raspberries, tomatoes, etc. but these extremely complex dishes would render my house into a heatbox. So to putup with the weather most cooking is done outside on the chiminea. By chance, we found some nice wild salmon that was surprisingly fresh at Costco. Naturally, I did it up on the grill. Randomly, I made some gravalax (salt cured salmon) with salt, sugar, lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit zest plus dill that came out incredibly, so I rubbed some of the gravalax cure on the salmon destined for the grill. Meanwhile, some seabeans lightly poached in butter and dill was pureed then emulsified with lemon juice, olive oil and salt as a "sauce" for the salmon. My dad got the fire going on the chiminea and we were ready to rock and roll. First some portbello mushrooms were grilled up before the salmon hit the open flame.
There's something special about open flame cooking. The actual wood aroma gets subtly infused into the food. Potatoes wrapped in foil and thrown in the embers come out smokey and perfectly roasted/steamed. The best thing to do with these potatoes is actually to refrigerate them overnight then cook them for breakfast. Doing this makes the potato flesh aromatized. Home fries are smokey and delicious. The salmon once placed on the grill cooked in legit 2 mins. The skin got really crispy (my favourite) and charred, the meat was still blushing, which is how I like salmon. I find that if it gets cooked through it tends to have a fatty taste and a unpleasant mouthfeel. The salmon came off the grill without tearing and was quickly plated up. Altogether a nice dish. The seabeans were briny and still retained some crispness. The grilled portobellos were tender and meaty with the dill emulsion complimenting the salmon, a little "salad" of raw seabean and radish added some acid.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lobster, Morels, Radish, Fennel, Ramps

Undoubtedly, my favourite ingredient is mushrooms. Their earthy complexity, meatiness and diversity of flavour is unrivalled. A lot of people I know dislike the delicious fungi which I find puzzling because they are awesomely delicious. No ingredient is as versatile as the humble mushroom. It comes in hundreds of edible varieties, each with a different shape, texture and flavour. None that I've eaten have come close to the perfection that is a morel mushroom. These curious fungi grow in the late spring here in Toronto, until early summer. The season is short, so it's best to eat them up before they disappear until next year. I picked some up for 39 dollars a pound at St. Lawerence Market, along with some lobster.

The specimens I bought at the Market!
My favourite way to appreciate the special flavour of a morel is by sauteing it in butter - ALOT of butter. It's ridiculously easy. Heat a generous amount of butter until very hot, then add the morels and let them bubble in the warm butter for several minutes until they have been cooked throughout. Don't eat them raw or undercooked - they will mildly poison you (vomiting and stomach pains), but through cooking they are 100% edible. You will know when they are done, the butter will have glazed them, they will be tender and have wilted almost. The next step is to take a high quality salt like Maldon or Fleur de Sel and generously sprinkle them with it. Serve morels with practically anything, meat, fish, vegetables. I served them with fennel puree, made by cooking fennel in milk with salt, then pureeing and straining the results. The lobster was taken out from the shell and reheated in it's juice and butter (I didn't want to bring home a live lobster myself, then kill it). It was a good dish, the lobster was tender and juicy, the morels earthy and rich like a meat. The fennel puree was smooth and subtle. Pickled ramps provided acidity to balance out the morels and lobster. Radishes added some pungency.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

Summer weather finally has arrived in Toronto after a moderately cold winter. All those heavy winter clothes get shoved back in the closet till next year. Likewise, all those hearty winter foods get replaced by fresh and vibrant seasonal foods. For me, Vietnamese spring rolls are really representative of summer food. They are light and crisp and perfect for hot weather. You can eat them anywhere because they are portable. What really makes them is a salty, sweet, tart and complex dipping sauce. Something that's irresistible and delicious.

Slicing all the vegetables is usually the longest part of the process. Thankfully, my Nonna's meat slicer did the job nicely and created uniformly textured and sized strips of cabbage, carrot and onion. Thai basil and bean sprouts were also added.
The dipping sauce was a spicy tomato jam, made by cooking down tomatoes with onion in sesame oil, then adding fish sauce, thai basil stems (from flavour), rice vinegar, salt and sugar. The sauce simmered until it was thick and enormously flavoured.
From there I rolled out the spring rolls, adding a handful of the sliced vegetables into each rice paper roll. The rolls are really enjoyable and fun to make, albeit slightly repetitive. About 30 rolls later, I was done. In the end, these came out great. The filling was fresh, multicoloured and slightly bitter from the cabbage. The tomato jam was excellent - acidic, sweet, salty and refreshing on a hot day.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Black Hoof Review

I've been dying to go to the Black Hoof. Finally, my Mom took me there. What a great meal. There are no reservations, so that can mean having to wait in hour long line-ups for a taste of nose-to-tail eating. Luckily, Thursday nights are relaxed. We arrived at 6:00 (when it opens). Our server was Ian. He was very friendly and answered all our questions about the food. We were seated behind the open kitchen, so I could watch the cooks cooking our food. We started with the charcuterie platter. Shortly, the various charcuterie delights arrived along with bread, whole-grain mustard and lavender whipped lardo; ranging from mild to robust. First was a cappicollo. It was mild, rich and salty, however did not taste much different from the store bought stuff. Gorgeous blankets of cured duck breast were the highlight; their fat dissolving as it grazed your lip. They were incredible. Dry-cured fennel salami was sublime and porktastic. Horse bologni was good, yet not that great texturally. The bologni was more like a pate than a cured meat. It fell apart and was too soft. The lardo was interesting, it tasted like porky butter with a frothiness to it. The bread was really good. Our second order was the foie gras torcheon with honey gastrique and brioche. It was my first real foie gras experience. My first bite was mind-blowing. I just loved the texture. Silky, soft and melted as it warmed in your mouth. Truly a luxury product. It's flavour was indescribable. Not livery, not butter-like, but slightly sweet and unami-packed. My mom found the foie too rich and only had two bites. By the time I finished, I was really full. The foie was uber-delicious but need acidity desperately. The honey only help richen the dish not relieve richness. A beautiful compote of cherry, or some other fruit would have really worked wonders. Glazed pig belly was next. It arrived atop apple puree, ramp kimchee and generously glazed with a soy/hoisin glaze. Wow. The belly was sensational. The best dish of the night. Meltingly tender, salty and rich best describe it. The ramp kimchee was a perfect acidic addition and the apple puree was sublime. Next came N'duja sausage, a calabrese specialty with plentiful amounts of parsley, deep fried brussel sprouts and parmigiano cheese stacked over toast and arugula pesto. The sausage really was one of the best I've had. Taken out of the case, still moist then seared. I really enjoyed the bold seasoning in the dish, with parsley, garlic and arugula pesto. It was punchy and bold. All the flavours well incredibly well, the salty cured sausage, crisp toast, crunchy brussles sprouts, vibrant parsley, and smooth pesto. Next were salty nuggets of sweetbreads fried in butter came scattered along with slightly chewy ramps, tender fiddleheads and creamy potatoes. The sweetbreads really benefited from the smoking which added a layer of complexity to this relatively simple dish. A really delicious dish. All together, the Black Hoof is a definite come back. It's affordable, casual, and awesome. It's pretty surprising how this place still uses a four-burner electric stove to pump out food. I also loved the open kitchen, so I could see what the cooks were up to, searing the sweetbreads, glazing the pig belly, slicing the charcuterie. I would highly recommend.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sous-vide egg, radicchio, carrot, thyme.

 There's something truly special about eggs on a Sunday morning. It evokes nostalgia. The perfume of bacon frying invites your hunger in stomach. But sadly, there was no bacon today. So instead, I compensated with a sous-vide egg. Sous-vide, french for under vacuum, is a term generally applied to cooking under vacuum at a constant temperature.  Accuracy is a huge benefit. Like your steak perfectly medium-rare? Cook it sous-vide and you will never be disappointed. Professional equipment is expensive and bulky but a pot of water and a thermometer works if monitored carefully.

Eggs were submerged in a 65 degree Celsius water bath for 1 hour. The temperature stayed unusually constant. The sous-vide magic is still on my wish list though.

Accompanying the eggs were some carrots cooked in butter briefly. Radicchio was wilted in butter then sugar and cassis vinegar deglazed the pan.

Toast was fried in olive oil and thyme was picked from the garden.
The eggs were cracked, revealing the fluid white, and the custard-like egg. The pan-fried toast was the base for the radicchio and egg. The sous-vide eggs really were something different. They were cooked but not cooked. the yolk melted, yet did not ooze or burst like a poached egg. It's texture was luxuriously velvety. The carrots retained their freshness but were coated in butter producing a delicate sweetness. The radicchio was delicious. Really awesome. Crunchy, warm, bitter, yet sweet from caramelization and the addition of a pinch of sugar. The radicchio was absolutely perfect with the egg. All I wanted was some cured meat! Speck would have fit beautifully into the dish. The radicchio is 100% worth doing again.