Saturday, March 31, 2007

Return to Mezza-Luna

making pasta fig. a: making pasta at home

It's true. We haven't been the same since we took our Pasta I class with Elena at Mezza-Luna. We still buy pasta from time to time at the store, but mostly we've been making our pasta from scratch ever since. Our prep time has been coming down steadily and the results are just plain dreamy. The recipe we're most comfortable with is Elena's Basic Pasta Dough recipe--especially the all'uovo variation--but we've also branched out and started making other recipes too, like this one:

French Laundry Pasta Dough

8 oz flour
6 egg yolks
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp olive oil
1 tbsp milk

And while we've mainly been making pasta for Italian dishes, we've also started making pasta for dishes like chicken-noodle soup and the like. I mean, why not? That's what my grandmother always did.

Anyway, after a while we decided we were ready to graduate to another class at Mezza-Luna, so we paid a visit Quincaillerie Dante and looked into what other pasta classes they had coming up. We ended up choosing Stuffed Pasta B, featuring lasagne, tortelloni, and cappeletti.

Once again, Elena patiently and expertly walked us through all the steps from start to finish, and roughly three hours later we were sitting at the table enjoying a glass of red wine while Elena served up heaping portions of the three piatti del giorno: lasagne con legumi al forno, cappeletti alle erbe et formaggi, and tortelloni di radicchio.

Elena digs in fig. b: Elena digs in

Can I just say how much we love these classes? I can? Tons. They're really a lot of fun, Elena's repartee is priceless, you learn quickly, and they literally drive you wild because from about the 15-minute mark on the smell in that kitchen is absolutely to die for. Enough said.

The lasagne was a revelation. It had seven layers to it, but because the pasta was homemade and rolled thin it tasted like a cloud--a tasty, saucy, Italian one. The cappeletti alle erbe et formaggi was our favorite of the night. We loved its delicate filling of ricotta, gorgonzola, Parmesan, chèvre, parsley (Italian flat-leaf, of course), and freshly grated nutmeg, its simple sauce of butter, mixed herbs, and Parmesan, and the lovely shape of the cappeletti, "little hats." But the one that really stuck with us for some reason was the tortelloni dish--with its radicchio filling and its saffron-colored sauce it was certainly the most dramatic dish of the night.

A week later, when we decided we wanted to put some of our newly learned know-how to work, that radicchio recipe was the one that came to mind. Instead of going back to Elena's recipe directly, though, we followed a hunch and pulled out Molto Italiano to see what Mr. Batali had to say on the subject of radicchio pasta. We intended no disrespect, it's just that we thought we might be able to expand our pasta-making vocabulary by bringing in another hotshot, and, besides, one of Elena's stories the week before had been about how she and Stefano had had the pleasure of meeting Mario at a food show in Chicago earlier this year (the thought of which prompted me to quip: "Did he get your autograph?"). What we found was Batali's truly astounding Tortelloni di Treviso con Fonduta di Parmigiano. Just one quick read-through had us staggering. So we decided to do a version with cappelettti made with semolina flour, the way Elena prefers it.

Tortelloni/Cappeletti di Radicchio con Fonduta di Parmigiano

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion
4 heads radicchio, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces, rinsed, and dried
1 cup ricotta
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 pounds Basic Pasta Dough
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 large egg yolks
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
8 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces of equal size

Heat the oil in a 10- to 12-inch sauté pan until smoking. Add the onion and cook until softened and lightly browned, 6-7 minutes. Add all but 1/4 cup of the radicchio and cook, tossing occasionally, until very soft, 6-7 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool.

Add the ricotta, 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, the parsley, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste to the radicchio mixture and mix well.

Roll your pasta out to the thinnest setting. On our machine that means "6."

To make tortelloni, cut the pasta into 4-inch squares and place 1 tablespoon of the filling in the center of each pasta square. Fold the dough over to form a triangle, and press the edges together to seal. (If the pasta is fresh and moist, it should seal easily. If you're having a hard time creating a seal, moisten two adjacent edges of the dough with a bit of water then try again.) Then fold the two bottom points together, overlapping them slightly, and pinch to seal. Transfer the tortelloni to a baking sheet lined with a kitchen towel. To make cappeletti, after you've made a triangle, pull the two edges under the filled portion and towards you. The shape resembles one of those The Flying Nun-style nun's hats.

Bring 6 quarts of water to boil in a large pot and add 2 tablespoons of salt. Drop the pasta into the boiling water, lower the heat to a brisk high simmer, and cook until tender, about 3-4 minutes. (You'll notice that the cooking time is quite a bit longer than the "20 seconds" that it took our fresh non-stuffed pasta. The fact that stuffed pasta involve layers of pasta plus a filling means they need to cook longer.)

Meanwhile, make the fonduta. Bring the cream to a boil in a 1-quart saucepan. Remove from the heat, add the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan, the egg yolks, and the nutmeg and stir until thoroughly blended.

Drain the pasta, transfer to the same 10- to 12-inch saucepan you used to sauté your radicchio way back when. Add the butter and the reserved 1/4 cup radicchio. Simmer gently over low heat, tossing gently to coat the pasta. Place a few pasta on each plate, spoon about 2 tablespoons of the fonduta over the pasta and serve.

The radicchio filling here is phenomenal. The semolina flour cappeletti were great with the filling, but the next time we'll definitely try making this with an AP flour pasta because we're pretty sure its neutrality and delicacy would highlight the filling even better. The real star here, though, may very well be that deceptively basic fonduta, though. Fantastic things occurred when we mixed the ingredients together. In spite of what you'd think it had a lightness and a lemonyness that we found difficult to account for. We really didn't spend too much time puzzling over it, though. Those cappeletti di radicchio con fonduta di Parmigiano were way too good to start getting all Harold McGee on 'em.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Kentucky Fried Birthday, or Food is the New Golf Punk and Other Stories

iced tea à la AEB AEB Sweet Tea

We seem to have forgotten Michelle's birthday altogether last year. Can't exactly recall what the mix-up was, but her birthday clearly wasn't significant enough to warrant mention in the pages of this very blog.

We got back on track in 2007, though. Months ago Michelle told me that the "only thing" she wanted for her birthday was a batch of MO-style ribs. I was all too happy to comply, and as the blessed event came into view we decided to turn the occasion into a little party, a little party with a Southern theme to it, a Kentucky Fried birthday.

This is the menu we devised:

1 punchbowl of AEB sweet tea (pictured above), hooch optional
1 large bowl poor man's caviar
1 large bowl tidewater cole slaw
1 casserole macaroni & cheese
24 pieces of AEB fried chicken
4 racks of MO-style ribs

We sent out invitations, and, sure enough, a dozen eager guests turned up on the appointed night.

Under the influence of our fortified sweet tea our conversation roamed far and wide, from the impending provincial election here in Quebec, to whether food is the new golf punk. I kid you not. I can't even remember how, but at some point the phrase/cultural phenomenon "golf punk" came up. Most at the table weren't familiar with the phrase, so I went ahead and tried to describe that moment sometime in the mid to late '90s when golf punk was some kind of "thing." Maybe it was just an ugly nightmare, but I think there was even a golf punk magazine at some point there. Anyway, as it turns out, our friend A. had recently met with the editorial board of an L.A.-based culture rag to talk about a food piece he was working on. Apparently during the meeting some guy from the magazine turned to A. and, in a rhetorical flourish worthy of Sex and the City, asked, "What is it with food these days? Is food the new golf punk?" We all laughed, decided, "No, thank god!," and dug deeper into our Southern spread.

When we'd eaten and eaten well we moved on to the after-dinner entertainment, a rousing round of our very favorite game, a game that we'd tentatively titled One Linerz some months ago, but which we since have had the good sense to rename The Favourite Game because, frankly, it is, but also as a kind of loving tribute to "Laughing Lenny" Cohen, whose oeuvre came into play on that particular night. "How do you play?," you ask. Good question. Since we're not providing you with any other recipes this time around, might as well provide you with the recipe to a game that has a lot of similarities to Balderdash, but which we find endlessly more entertaining.

The Favourite Game

First, you need a goodly amount of witty people. You also need a fully stocked set of bookshelves. By drawing straws, playing rock-paper-scissors, arm wrestling, or some other means, you pick someone to go first. This person goes to the bookshelves and selects a title. He or she returns to the group and presents the selected title. The book is displayed to the crowd and they're told whether it's a fiction or non-fiction title. Then the presenter reads some material off the back of the book or from the dust jacket: a brief description, a blurb, some biographical information about the author. Not much, just enough to give the contestants a feel for the book, its author, its style.

When the mood has been set, the contestants are asked to take a pen and a piece of paper and secretly compose what they believe could be the book's very first sentence (from Chapter 1, that is). While the contestants are busy scribbling away, the presenter writes out the actual first sentence from said book. When each of the contestants has composed their contribution (5-10 minutes is quick enough to keep the game moving at a fair clip) the presenter collects the compositions, reads through them to his or her self to become familiarized with them, shuffles them, and then reads each of the first sentences in a credible and impartial tone of voice, including the actual one. When the presenter has read all of the possibilities, he or she will probably have to read through them one more time so that the contestants can really wrap their heads around them, especially if the contributions are good.

Each contestant must then try to guess which one of the possible first lines is the real one from the actual book. Each contestant who successfully identifies the first line of the chosen book gets one point. But contestants whose sentences are mistakenly chosen by other members of the group get a point for each time their sentence was chosen. The presenter is ineligible from scoring and takes pleasure solely from having chosen the book in question, from presenting it to the crowd, from collecting the contributions, and from reading each contribution out loud to the contestants.* In other words, it's good if you can identify the voice of an author to the point that you can successfully determine which sentence is actually taken from the book in question, but it's much, much better to be able to pen a sentence that fools one or more of your fellow contestants into selecting it. The real skill here is in forgery (and actually, now that I think of it, F is for Fake would be yet another appropriate name for this game).

Note: strictly speaking, this isn't a "drinking game," but we've found that alcohol, although technically a depressant, can stimulate the creative juices necessary to serially compose the kinds of apocryphal texts needed for a lively soirée.

Books selected on this particular occasion included Death in Venice, Beautiful Losers, Libra, The Anaïs Nin Reader, Labyrinths, Classic Crews, and Philosophy in the Bedroom. Imagine the possibilities.

An earlier session, some months ago, ran the gamut from American Country Cheese to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.

By the time we finished playing it was already 1:00 a.m. (on a school night!). We moved back into the kitchen, awarded each of our guests a chicken-'n'-rib prize pack, bid them some fond adieus, and called it a night.


R.I.D. to A. and L. for introducing us to The Favourite Game.

* As long as you play The Favourite Game in full rounds everyone at the table will be on equal ground in this regard.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

AEB Afterschool Special

may west fig. a: who's laughing now?

May West taunted and teased me. Wagon Wheels just a-rolled on by. Jos. Louis wouldn't go toe-to-toe with me. Twinkie never returned my calls. Ding Dong had the nerve to call me names. HoHo just laughed. In the schoolyard of my youth, snack cakes reigned supreme: a form of torture for those of us whose parents never bought the damn things. But in all those years, with all those kids and all those lunchbox treats, I bet not a one of them was homemade. A quarter of a century later, here's my revenge:

I want s'more! fig. b: AEB Wagon Wheel

AEB Wagon Wheels (in three parts)

1. Caramel Marshmallows

1 1/2 cups sugar
200 ml water, warm
8 gelatin sheets, soaked

Caramelize the sugar in a clean pot by adding a bit at a time until each additional amount melts. Make the caramel fairly dark as it will take on a lot of volume and therefore lose a lot of its intensity. Deglaze with the water. It will sputter quite a bit so keep your distance. Add the gelatin and pour into the bowl of a mixer. Mix on medium until it becomes opaque, then on high until it is the consistency of a meringue. Pour onto an oiled piece of parchment, spread out to the thickness you want, then top with another piece of oiled parchment. Let it sit at room temperature for as little as a few hours or as much as overnight.

2. Graham cookies (adapted from Nancy Silverton's Pastries From the La Brea Bakery)

2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
7 Tbsp. butter, cold
1/3 cup honey
5 Tbsp. milk
2 Tbsp. vanilla

Combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of a mixer, add butter and mix until it is a coarse meal. Stir the honey into the milk, add the vanilla, and pour into the dry ingredients. Mix until it comes together. Wrap dough in plastic and chill for a few hours. Roll out the dough to an eighth of an inch thick and cut into circles with a cookie cutter. Bake about 10 min. at 350°F, until they are golden. Let cool completely.

3. Assembly required

dark chocolate, as needed

Cut the marshmallow into circles the size of the cookies and sandwich them. Melt a bowl of chocolate in a double boiler. If you are a superstar, you will temper the chocolate properly. If not, just throw all caution to the wind. They're still gonna taste great. Dip the cookies in carefully, making sure that the sides get covered. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and chill a few hours, until the chocolate sets.

AEB Wagon Wheel fig. c: perfect with milk

Eat many. Share them with friends. Have one in the late afternoon with a cold glass of milk. Better yet, send Junior to school with one.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Top Ten #17

Peter Hvidt table

1. Peter Hvidt tables

2. Zodiac, dir. Fincher + "Hurdy Gurdy Man," Donovan

3. E & D mac & cheese

4. Danish fondue sets

5. La Mer

6. The Wire, season 2

7. Abu Elias, Ville St-Laurent


8. Maria Schneider

9. Paul Patates & Bertrand spruce beer

10. A High Wind in Jamaica @ Pop!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Pop Shoppe


Cocktail enthusiasts, report!

Michelle's been at it again. She's been mixing up her duties as a pastry assistant with a little mixology, designing the cocktails at Pop!, the gorgeously appointed wine bar that adjoins Laloux on Pine Avenue E. There, amidst the Danish Modern opulence, you'll find old classics like her Murray Bay, alongside newly created concoctions like her l'Avenue des Pins, a G & T riff which features Bertrand brand bière d'épinettes and is surely destined to become the Great Québécois Cocktail, and my personal favorite, her ode to the pleasures of Jamaican rum and homemade ginger beer, A High Wind in Jamaica, which you see pictured here (the one with the lime and mint, not the flaming one):

A High Wind in Jamaica at Pop!

You have to be strategic, though. Pop! is only open Thursdays through Saturdays.

Pop!, 250 Avenue des Pins E., 287-9127

Monday, March 12, 2007

E & D Special, rev. ed.

I once had a radio show in Vancouver that was purportedly simulcast from a rough-and-tumble bar "at the corner of Main & Main" called The Hi-Hat. The idea was that every other Saturday night the radio station sent its mobile unit to the Hi-Hat in order to capture the DJ set and the atmosphere live and then spread the joy via the miracle of radio communications. The, uh, illusion was maintained through the use of ambient sound effects (crowd chatter, glasses clinking, a band tuning up, etc.) and my running banter with the bartender, Nick, and some of the other imaginary regulars. But, hey, enough about me, 'cause we've got big news to report.

What follows is the latest breakthrough from our AEB-affiliate test kitchen in Brooklyn, down at the intersection of Ellwood & Dumont. Our mac lab there has been working furiously for some time to develop a master version of that American classic, macaroni & cheese. In order to do so, they had to face up to the fact that like virtually every other aspect of American cuisine and American culture more generally, good old-fashioned mac & cheese, that staple of home kitchens and diners from sea to shining sea, really isn't all that American. It's become so, yes, but its history dates back hundreds of years before Jamestown, Plymouth Rock, Schoolhouse Rock, or any of the rest of that jazz.

First off, as many have pointed out before and many of you out there already know, that myth about Marco Polo discovering pasta in China then bringing it back to Venice and introducing it to the Italian palate is just that: a myth. He might very well have brought some noodles back from Cathay with him (who could blame him?), but pasta had been known on the Italian peninsula in a variety of forms for quite a while (some say well over 1,000 years) by the time the Polos returned and published their famous account of their travels, and macaroni was one of the most basic types. So basic that it became known as a generic term in Italian (and later in English) for virtually all pasta that was not flat, like lasagne, or stuffed, like ravioli. So basic that its name doesn't appear to have been derived from a word having to do with its now characteristic shape, as one might have expected, but instead seems to have come from the old Italian word maccare, "to pound" (durum wheat, presumably), the same word that forms the root of macaroon and macaron (a dessert made of pounded almonds) and the modern Italian word macarie, or "rubble."

In any case, by the 14th and 15th centuries, not only was macaroni well known throughout Italy, it had already made its way to England, and recipes for macaroni and cheese were already in circulation in both places. Thus, The Forme of Cury, ca. 1390, a collection of recipes compiled by the "Master-Cooks of King Richard II." despite its evident difficulties with Italian names, contains the following Ur-mac & cheese:

Macrows: take and make a thynne foyle of dowh, and kerve it on peces, and cast hem on boillyng water & seeth it well. Take chese and grate it and butter cast bynethen and above as losyns and serue forth.


Macrows: take and make a thin foil of dough, and carve it into pieces, and cast them into boiling water, and seeth it well. Take cheese and grate it and butter cast beneath and above... and serve forth.

While 30 years later, the man credited with having compiled early Modern Italy's culinary repertoire, "the first modern cookery book," Maestro Martino da Como, included this somewhat more detailed recipe for Maccaroni siciliani in his Libro de arte coquinaria, or The Book of Culinary Art:

Make a dough of the best flour, mixed with the white of one egg and rosewater, blended with water. If you want to make only two plates of it add only one or two yolks, making this a very tough dough, and roll small round sticks a handswidth in length and the thickness of straw. Take an iron rod a handswidth long and a cord thick and use to roll the sticks of dough on the table with both hands. Then pull the metal rod out and a macaroni with a hollowed center remains. Dry these macaronis in the sun. Once dry, they can be kept for two to three years. Cook in water or a good meat stock and sprinkle with grated cheese when you serve them with melted butter and mild spices.

By the late-19th century, not only was macaroni and cheese very well known in England--due in no small part to the craze for all things Italian, including pasta, that swept through the English aristocracy the century before--it had actually been so firmly established as part of the English culinary repertoire that it was actually beginning to lose its sense of Italianess. Key to this shift was the work of Eliza Acton, whose 1845 cookbook promoted the use of English cheese in the making of macaroni and cheese, not out of jingoism necessarily, but because she claimed to prefer the results over more traditional Continental methods. Mrs. Beeton's version, on the other hand, listed under the subject heading "Farinaceous preparations," was more clearly derivative of French variations, where the end result is more of a "macaroni and cheese sauce" than a "macaroni and cheese."

American macaroni and cheese appears to be largely derivative of the English tradition. There were certainly other influences, and Thomas Jefferson himself is credited with having spread the craze on American soil, having returned from his ambassadorship to France a convert, but American versions of macaroni and cheese appear to have followed the English lead, probably because the early American cheesemaking tradition was so English in its orientation. That said, I also wouldn't want to underestimate the influence of the song "Yankee Doodle" in popularizing the dish, even if the most common version of the song is derisively anti-American and the "macaroni" in question is a reference to Americans as fashion victims that has virtually nothing to do with cuisine*. At the very least, the song made the term widely known in America, across classes. Surely, that couldn't have hurt the dish's popularization. I haven't checked to see if De Tocqueville has anything to say on the subject, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's got some pithy remark somewhere in Democracy in America that touches on this phenomenon. [Actually, given the timelines and America's reputation for ingenuity, who knows, maybe it was America's use of English-style cheddars and its democratization of the dish that convinced Acton et al. to transform macaroni and cheese into something more popularly English. Maybe the standard English macaroni and cheese is in some ways derivative of the American tradition! Better yet, maybe there's some Canadian angle that trumps them both!]

Anyway, all of this is to say that what our team at the mac lab settled on was a recipe with big-city sophistication and back-country charm, one that was decidedly Anglo-American, but nonetheless managed to include French and Italian touches dating all the way back to Maestro Martino (no rosewater, but lots of spice). As is befitting a true macaroni and cheese, you'll find no tricks, no gimmicks of any kind in this recipe, just quality ingredients like artisanal cheddar,

cheddar mix

smoked bacon,

Dakin Farm bacon

and nutmeg,


lots of nutmeg, all prepared with care.

In the "Personal Passions" section of his Simple Cooking, John Thorne describes the making of macaroni and cheese as a signal example of something he calls "resonance." As he puts it,

One important dimension of kitchen experience is what I have previously called--for lack of a better term--resonance, a palpable depth to the things out of which we make our meals. In their way, these things speak, and it is our ability to hear, to enter into a kind of conversation with them that marks our crossing over from kitchen worker, however skilled, to true cook.

In the modern kitchen, this resonance is often only barely perceptible; someone else in the kitchen might not be aware of it at all. But the cook, even if not consciously attentive to it, is aware, because to the extent we coax it into being, we increase the reality, the meaningfulness of the cooking experience. And this resonance is strongest in those ordinary, familiar dishes with no aura of specialness to distract us from the actual experience of making.

As Thorne emphasizes--and this is true of so many of the dishes we champion here in the pages of " endless banquet"--

there is... nothing in the making of macaroni and cheese... to offer true challenge to the good cook. If kudos are wanted, they must be earned making something else. But mastery of the difficult is only one of the rewards of cooking, and it is worth remembering now and again that there is a humbler gift a dish can give the cook: the pleasure of its company.

Here's to good company!

E & D Special Mac and Cheese

7 tbsp butter
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 lb thick-cut smoked bacon (we used Dakin Farm, but our mac lab recommends good-quality Polish bacon)
4 cups milk
1 cup sharp white cheddar, grated (we used a combination of Isle aux Grues 2-year and Shelburne Farm smoked)
1 cup Gruyère, grated
1/4 cup Parmesan, grated
1 lb macaroni, cooked to the point just prior to al dente
freshly ground nutmeg to taste
1/4 – 1/2 tsp mixed smoked and sweet paprika
freshly ground pepper to taste
salt to taste

Cook your pasta until just before it becomes al dente. As Thorne puts it, you want your pasta to still have, "a tiny bit of 'spine' or crunch, so it can finish its cooking absorbing the taste and savor of the sauce."

Preheat your oven to 400º F. Fry the bacon. Set it aside to cool, saving the bacon drippings, and when it has cooled, chop it into small pieces.

Melt 4 tbsp of the butter in the bacon drippings. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat for 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until the onion is golden. Add the flour and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Whisk the milk in, a few tablespoons at a time, and continue cooking over medium heat until you’ve poured in all the milk and the mixture is beginning to take on the characteristics of a thick shake. Add the spices and adjust the seasonings. Use enough nutmeg to give the béchamel-like sauce a nice nutmeggy flavor, but not enough to make you hallucinate wildly (the mac and cheese will accomplish this on its own).

Add the cheese in portions and stir until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth again. Stir in the cooked pasta, then the bacon.

Butter the inside of a large lidded casserole with another tbsp of the butter. Pour the mac and cheese mixture in the buttered casserole, top with the breadcrumbs, then the Parmesan. Take the final 2 tbsp of butter, cut into several nubbins, and add these to the top of the gratin.

Bake in the oven for 20 minutes with the lid on. Remove the lid and bake for another 10 minutes. Serve hot with a nice salad. We recommend a salad with apple or pear in it.

Have your own mac & cheese master recipe that you'd like to share with the AEB mac lab? Do tell. Send us an email or post a comment.


The Forme of Cury
John Thorne, "Macaroni and Cheese," Simple Cooking
Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food
Mark Kurlansky, "Martino's Sicilian Macaroni," Choice Cuts: A Miscellany of Food Writing
Mrs. Beeton's Every-day Cookery
Bill Buford, Heat

*The term "macaroni" was used to describe a type of 18th English fop with a propensity for garish wigs (whose curls were said to resemble tubular pasta on a grand scale) and affected speech.

p.s. very special thanks to S.C.E.

Erratum: Apparently the AEB mac lab moved recently unbeknownst even to us. It's no longer at the intersection of Ellwood & Dumont as reported; it's on Ellwood a few blocks away from Dumont. We'll leave the names of the post and the recipe as is, though, for posterity's sake.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Out of the cooler and into the frying pan

under the bridge

Head down towards the Saint Lawrence, almost underneath the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, and you'll find La Mer, Montreal's premier seafood store. No, not in the funny little dilapidated building in the picture above, but close. La Mer's the place where many of the city's high-end restaurants get their seafood. It's not the wondrous wholesale market some of us might have been hoping for--the prices are decidedly retail--but the selection is really without parallel, bringing in more hard-to-find items than any other seafood market we've visited. Ever wonder where restaurants get their Pickle Point and Raspberry Point oysters? Two words: La Mer. And if they're not getting 'em here, they're probably importing their seafood themselves--like they do at Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon. Anyway, even though the experience at La Mer isn't exactly like the Fulton Fish Market--no open crates of fresh fish, no crusty old salts, no haggling--the prices actually are reasonable by Montreal standards, and, with its massive walk-in fish cooler/showroom, it's definitely something of an experience. In the summertime they give you a massive coat to keep you warm inside their cooler as you make your selections. In the wintertime make sure you're properly dressed for that bone-chilling Montreal weather--parka, toque, boots, the works--because it's nearly as bone-chilling inside La Mer as it is outside.

We went down to La Mer recently as part of our ongoing survey of Montreal's seafood emporia and, once again, we were impressed by what we saw.

La Mer

The difference here is not only the selection--it's also the fact that they get more regular shipments than most other seafood stores in town. Other places might only get their delivery once a week--come in three or four days after their last shipment and the displays don't look so hot. This definitely isn't the case at La Mer. Everything always looks incredibly fresh.

We took a couple of tours of the shop, but really we had our hearts set on two things: smoked fish and clams. Smoked fish because we're still in search of Montreal's great, lost smoked fish counter. Clams because we had another hankering for linguine with clam sauce--this time with white clam sauce.

La Mer has a good selection of smoked fish, but it isn't by any stretch of the imagination Montreal's "great, lost smoked fish counter." Apparently they stock smoked sable from time to time--as opposed to most seafood shops in Montreal, we were actually able to find one guy who knew what smoked sable is--but it didn't seem like they stock it all that often. They did have nice smoked salmon and smoked herring, though, so we picked some up. Both, as it turns out, were excellent, but the smoked salmon--from Fumoir Monsieur Émile in Gaspé--is our new favorite, the best we've come across yet in Montreal. It's got a pronounced smokiness to it, but still manages to remain exceedingly delicate.

The selection of clams, on the other hand, was off the hook, as they say. With a number to choose from, we settled on the "pasta clams" from Florida, and Michelle went ahead and tested the little buggers to make sure they were good to go.

fishing for clams at La Mer

When she'd found 20 good ones, we took them and our smoked fish out of the cold room and into the heated room where La Mer's cashiers reside.

Later that night we broke out Bill Buford's Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-quoting Bucher in Tuscany and opened it to the "Line Cook" section, to the part where Buford develops his fascination with the mysteries pasta and polenta, a fascination that eventually takes him to Italy in search of real answers. There, in a passage that comes not long after he's discovered the role of "pasta water" as a secret ingredient in many/all of Mario Batali's pasta dishes (it adds flavor and starchiness, helping to bind the ingredients together), Buford divulges the method for making for making Babbo's linguine with clams as it's actually done in their kitchen:

My advice: ignore the Babbo cookbook and begin by roasting small pinches of garlic and chili flakes and medium pinches of the onion and pancetta in a hot pan with olive oil. Hot oil accelerates the cooking process, and the moment everything gets soft you pour it away (holding back the contents with your tongs) and add a slap of butter and a splash of white wine, which stops the cooking. This is Stage One--and you are left with the familiar messy buttery mush--but already you've added two things you'd never see in Italy: butter (seafood with butter--or any other dairy ingredient--verges on culinary blasphemy) and pancetta, because, according to Mario, pork and shellfish are an eternal combination found in many other places: in Portugal, in amêijoas na cataplana (clams and ham); or in Spain, in a paella (chorizo and scallops); or in the United States, in the Italian-American clams casino, even though none of those places happens to be in Italy. ("Italians," Mario says, "won't fuck with their fish. There are restaurants that won't use lemon because they think it's excessive.")

In Stage Two, you drop the pasta in boiling water and take your messy buttery pan and fill it with a big handful of clams and put it on the highest possible flame. The objective is to cook them fast--they'll start opening after three or four minutes, when you give the pan a swirl, mixing the shellfish juice with the buttery porky white wine emulsion. At six minutes and thirty seconds, you use your tongs to pull your noodles out and drop them into your pan--all that starchy pasta water slopping in with them is still a good thing; give the pan another swirl; flip it; swirl it again to ensure that the pasta is covered by the sauce. If it looks dry, add another splash of pasta water; if too wet, pour some out. You then let the thing cook away for another half minute or so, swirling, swirling, until the sauce streaks across the bottom of the pan, splash it with olive oil and sprinkle it with parsley: dinner.

Our version: vermouth instead of a dry white wine, smoked bacon instead of pancetta, and a little extra cooking time (we have an electric range), but otherwise we followed the instructions above to a tee.

The results: exactly what we were looking for.

La Mer, 1840 René-Lévesque E., 522-3003