Sunday, August 1, 2010

Homemade Limoncello, Day 1

Limoncello is an invention of the Amalfi coast and the islands of Capri and Ischia, where Sorrento lemons grow large and lush. The peel of the Sorrento lemon is thick and fragrant, rich in the aromatic oils that give real limoncello its vibrant colour and bright citrus flavour. Italians treat limoncello as a digestivo -- a digestif -- served ice cold in chilled ceramic cups and savoured, in long slow sips, after a meal. In North America, limoncello has quickly become a bar standard, used to impart the vividness of lemon to a mixed drink without any of the acidity and bitterness of lemon juice.

I had received a bottle of good limoncello as a birthday gift two years ago. It was amazing, its flavours full, bright, and bold. It was the perfect gift for an epicure. Since then, I have been on the lookout for a good limoncello but everything I have found so far has been pricey and disappointing. Some of the limoncello you will find on store shelves are made using artificial lemon extract. The end product looks too neon yellow and tastes too much like sweet, syrupy furniture polish.

There is no reason to settle for drinking Lemon Pledge though, not when real limoncello is so easy to make. The recipe is simple: the best, freshest lemons you can find, the best highest proof clear grain alcohol available, sugar, water, and patience.


15-16 Large fresh lemons (Sorrento or Meyer if possible)

2 750 ml bottles of Gdanski Spirytus or other high proof clear grain alcohol

2-3 cups of filtered water

2-3 cups of sugar

Day 1)

1) Wash and dry the lemons thoroughly to remove any dirt and pesticides. If possible, use organic lemons but be sure to only use ones without blemished peels or pare off any spots and the stems, ends.

2) Using a vegetable peeler or sharp paring knife remove just the yellow part of the lemon’s skin. Leave too much of the white pith on and your limoncello will have an off and bitter flavour to it.

3) Place the lemon zests into a large clean glass jar, then pour over with both bottles of alcohol ensuring that the lemon peels are completely covered.

4) Set aside away from direct sunlight in a cool dark place (a closet or cupboard will do in a pinch) for at least a month. Swirl the mixture of lemon zest and alcohol once every couple of days being careful to make sure the peels remain submerged.

After only a day you can already see the Spirytus begin to take on the colour of the lemons. In a month's time a simple sugar syrup made from equal parts sugar and water will be added to the mix of alcohol and lemon. That will then be left to sit for another month's time before being bottled.

Patience is a virtue, one that is well rewarded. Allowing the lemon and liquor to infuse over such a long period of time means that every bit of vibrant lemon flavour will be extracted from the zests and imparted into your limoncello.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Rosemary Roasted Chickpeas and Cashews

One of the most difficult parts of eating better is avoiding temptation. Unhealthy snacking options abound and their convenience and taste can make them very tempting. It’s all too easy to reach for a handful of wine gums, a few chips, some jujubes or soft eating liquorice, or even “just a triangle” from a Toblerone. I don’t expect anyone to do away with these treats completely, I’m no firm ascetic. It is worth cutting back on them, however. I don’t expect anyone to trade delicious for healthy either. There’s just no reason for it, a healthier diet never need be bland, boring, or flavourless.

The lengths a hungry bear will go to for a snack.

t’s no secret that bears love to snack. These rosemary roasted chickpeas and cashews are the perfect healthy snack: easy to make, convenient, nutritious, and delicious. Cashews are low in cholesterol and rich in dietary fibre, antioxidants, and healthy monounsaturated fat. They are also an excellent source of iron -- necessary to maintain a healthy red blood cell count -- and minerals like magnesium, copper, and zinc which promote bone and joint health. Chickpeas in turn, offer much-needed protein, cholesterol-busting fibre, and sulphite-fighting Molybdenum in one convenient low-fat, low-calorie package. They are also rich in tryptophan: an amino acid which the body uses to make serotonin. Serotonin helps the brain to maintain a proper chemical balance leading to more even moods and better, more restful sleep. This is a snack that is good and good for you: high energy, hunger-squashing, and nutrient rich.

Rosemary Roasted Chickpeas and Cashews

Rosemary roasted chickpeas and cashews are simple to make. You’ll need the following:

  • 1 can or about 2 cups of chickpeas
  • 1 ½ cups raw cashews
  • ½ - 1 cup olive oil
  • 2-3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • ¾ teaspoon of cumin
  • 1-1 ½ teaspoons sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper

To begin, thoroughly drain and then rinse your chickpeas. Next, lay them out on a baking tray lined clean dish cloth or paper towel and pat them dry. If you find the chickpeas are still damp, set them out flat on a baking sheet for about an hour or so to finish drying. If the chickpeas go into the oven too damp it will take them longer to roast and the end result is less likely to be the kind of satisfyingly crisp and crunchy pea you want.

Your next step is to infuse your olive oil with rosemary. The original recipe calls for the mix of chickpeas and cashews to be roasted along with two sprigs of rosemary but I find that using an infused oil imparts a fresher, more vibrant and direct herb flavour. Although you’ll only need a few tablespoons of infused oil for this recipe, this is the perfect excuse to make a quick batch of rosemary infused olive oil. The savoury-sweetness and mild minty-pine flavour of rosemary lends it a culinary versatility. If nothing else, you’ll have infused oil ready for when you next make this recipe.

Preparing an infused oil in simplicity itself. Wash, dry, and then bruise two rosemary sprigs by tapping them gently with the dull edge of a kitchen knife. Heat oil and rosemary slowly in a small pot or sauce pan over medium low heat. You’ll want to be stirring the oil and rosemary constantly, it will help to draw out the aromatic compounds from the rosemary and fuse them with the oil. After about ten minutes the oil should bubble a bit and the rosemary will have a bit of sizzle and the smell of rosemary will fill your kitchen. Remove the pan from heat and transfer the oil and rosemary into a bowl to cool.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper and spread the chickpeas out over it. Drizzle over with 1 ½ tablespoons of the infused olive oil and toss to coat. Roast chickpeas at 400F for about fifteen to twenty minutes, shaking every four or five minutes to make certain they brown evenly. Precisely how long it will take for the chickpeas to roast will depend on the chickpeas and your oven so be sure to shake often and watch closely. You want them to reach a medium golden brown colour. Once the chickpeas are ready, turn the oven down to 350F. Add the cashews, another tablespoon and a half of the infused oil, the cumin, sea salt, and a couple of twists of fresh cracked pepper and toss to coat. Roast for another ten to fifteen minutes, until the cashews have turned a golden brown and the chickpeas are crisp. Finally, add the last sprig of rosemary to the mix and roast for another five minutes. Remove from the oven, toss quickly, and then set aside to cool for at least an hour. Remove the rosemary sprig before serving.

Store in an airtight container, two to three days at room temperature, two weeks or so in the fridge and a few months in the freezer. Likely though, they’ll have disappeared long before then.

Notes: This recipe really lends itself to variation. The most obvious option would be swapping out the cashews for some other nut, with almonds being the best replacement. Another option might be to experiment with the infused oil, adding garlic or other aromatics along with the rosemary. Your last option is to toss out the rosemary recipe and come up with one of your own. This is a great chance to have fun and be creative, to experiment with all the different flavours you’ve got in your pantry. Using the same basic method of infusion and roasting, you can season your cashew and chickpea mix with any flavour combination you can imagine.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sausage and Peppers

Every year, in the middle of August, the Ciociaro Club of Windsor comes alive for the Festival of the Madonna di Canneto. While the religious observance marks the occasion, it is the fun and food draws out the crowds. People come to talk and to laugh, to sing and dance, to play games, and to eat. The feast is an important part of any Italian festival and the Ciociaria spare no expense. As one of the cooks, it was my job to try to keep up. The menu included Trippa alla Romana, capicola and provolone on a panini, penne and sugo, pizza, pasta e fagioli, and my specialty, sausage and peppers.

Meat processing in ancient Egypt

Italians have been serving and savouring a variety of sausage meats since before they were even Italians. There is evidence of various kinds of sausages being a part of the diet of those ancient civilizations centered in Mesopotamia and Egypt. It is likely though that the knowledge of sausage-making and meat preservation -- charcuterie -- is older than ancient, stretching back, past even the archaeological record, and into unknowable pre-history. Sausage was a product of antiquity’s shrewd frugality: a way to make the most out of every bit of livestock and a way to make it keep in a world without easy abundance or refrigeration. However, what began as necessity turned into culinary craft and art.

Banquet scene from an Etruscan tomb unearthed in Targuina

Charcuterie has a similarly ancient tradition on the Italian peninsula. The preparation and preservation of pork was an important part of Etruscan culture. Etruscan civilization, centered on a loose collection of city-states spread out across what is now Tuscany, Latium, Emilia-Romagna, and Umbria, rose to prominence during the first part of the ninth century B.C.E. This complex culture was heavily influenced by routine exchange with both the Greek, mainly through Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily, and the Oriental worlds. Though they never built as formal an empire as the Romans later would, Etruscan influence spread throughout the Italian peninsula, into the Po River valley, Latium, and Campania. By 650 B.C.E., the Etruscans were the dominant culture in Italy and key to maintaining this dominance were strong and well-traveled routes of trade. Archaeological evidence from the fifth century B.C.E. Etruscan settlement at Forcello of Bagnolo San Vito in the Po River valley tells us that charcuterie products -- things we would recognize as prosciutto, pancetta, salami, and sausage -- were among the more heavily traded items. There we find not only some of the earliest examples of large scale, non-nomadic agriculture on the Italian peninsula, but also of wholesale production of a variety of prepared and preserved meat products for trade.

Rome, under the rule of Etruscan kings until 509 B.C.E., inherited much from Etruscan culture, including the long tradition of charcuterie. Roman cuisine tended towards the simple and the spicy and pepper was their most popular spice. The pepper used to by Roman chefs was likely not black pepper or Piper nigrum, but rather long pepper or Piper longum that has a more resinous taste and a bigger and longer-lasting heat. Roman charcutiers developed a wide variety of fresh and dry cured spicy sausages including pendulus, which was a large slicing sausage, and hilla, which was a very thin sausage that was an ancestor of the dried sausages still enjoyed in the Italian mountain country. In one of the oldest known Roman cookbooks, De re coquina, first-century C. E. foodie Marcus Gavius Apicius offers a recipe for the smoked Lucanica sausage from southern Italy: "Pound pepper, cumin, savoury, rue, parsley, mixed herbs, laurel berries, and liquamen, and mix with this well-beaten meat, pounding it again with the ground spice mixture. Work in liquanum, peppercorns, plenty of pate and pine-kernels, insert into an intestine, drawn out very thickly, and hang in the smoke." Romans also made quick and simple sausages from tripe and other by-products. These were cheap and consumed by the poor of the city. Romans also began the tradition of sausages as festival food. Circelli, tomacinae, and butuli were among the sausages eaten during the many and various orgiastic festivals and sacrifices that dotted the Roman calendar. Because of this pagan association, the early Christian Church prohibited the eating of sausages in Rome for many years. The Romans even gave us the origins of the word sausage: it comes from the Latin salsus, meaning, “salted.”

Roman feast scene

With the distended cataclysm that was the fall of Rome and the slide of the Mediterranean world into the Medieval period, the art of charcuterie, somewhat expectedly, went into a sort of decline. It lived on in the villages of the countryside, where the pig remained a vital resource and prepared pork products became a kind of currency. Many farm families continued to make and sell their own sausages in town. The pig was so central to Medieval Italian life that land was often measured out not in area, but in the number of pigs it could adequately support.

Italy's countryside: The village of Assisi as seen from Mt. Subasio

Between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries Italy sees a resurgence. These are the Renaissance years, when ancient learning is rediscovered and new knowledge is gained. The art of charcuterie was no exception. This is when many of the Italian sausage products began to take the forms that we would recognize today. These professionals started organising themselves into guilds or confraternities and started taking on important roles within the society. Bologna saw the establishment of the Corporazione dei Salaroli or the Guild of Salters, Florence, during the reign of the Medici, saw the rise of the Confraternita dei facchini di San Giovanni or the Confraternity of Saint John’s Servants. They began as an association of pork butchers before turning their influence towards patronage and art. In 1615, Pope Paul V, recognised the Confraternity of Pork Butchers dedicated to the Saints Benedetto and Scolastica and, later, his successor Gregorius XV elevated it to Archconfraternity, which, in 1677, was joined also by the University of Norcia and Cascia Pork Butchers and Empirical Pork Physicians. Graduated, blessed and patented, norcinos increased their fame also outside the Papal State. This was when the famous norcino -- the pork butcher of Norcia -- emerges. The fame of the norcino figure continued on unchanged until the aftermath of the Second World War.

The norcino and his craftwork from the Renaissance to today

The genealogy of sausages and peppers becomes a curious one then. It seems likely it is a New World invention as I‘ve yet to find a close match in the long Italian culinary tradition. Its closest ancestor in the ‘Old Country’ is probably salsicce arroste: literally, roasted sausages. This Calabrese recipe calls for a long and thin sweet-and-salty pork sausage called salsiccia lucana to be rolled into a tight coil, wrapped in foil or damp wax paper, and roasted in the ashes or a hearth or fire for about twenty minutes. The roasted sausages are then uncoiled and served with warm toasted bread. It is a wonderful method for cooking sausages as it allows them to cook in their own juices and retain much of that moisture and deep flavour. Immigrants brought it over from Italy, adapted it for charcoal barbecues and propane grills, and still use it today.

Regardless of its origins, sausages and peppers seems to me one of those quintessentially Italian foods. Its vibrant colours, rustic simplicity, and rich, lusty flavours all speak to something primal in the Italian character. The appeal of the dish lay in the simple combination of the spice and saltiness of good Italian sausages with the caramel sweetness of cooked peppers and onions and the tang of tomatoes. Of all the different and delicious things I can cook, this dish is easily the most popular with my family. For my Nonno's eightieth birthday this past weekend, all he asked of me was to make sausages and peppers for his party. I was more than happy to oblige.

Sausage and Peppers:

Sausage and peppers is a relatively easy thing to make. The first step is to find good quality Italian sausages. Use the pasty and plastic stuff you’re likely to find in the supermarket freezer and you’ll end up with something that tastes phoney and dull. Your best bet to find good Italian is to seek out an Italian delicatessen or quality local butcher. In London I’ve found the best sausages are available either from Chris’s Country Cuts or Field Gate Organics. Both can be found in the downtown city market. Concerns about growth hormones and chemical pesticides aside, Field Gate offers a really interesting product. Leaner and less salty than most Italian sausages, they still offer a rich and subtle flavour. Probably the best Italian sausages I’ve found come from Romano’s Italian Deli in Amherstburg. It will take a bit of trial and error and exploration to find the best ingredients in your area but that extra bit of effort to acquire the best of ingredients is almost always worth it. It elevates a meal beyond a function of necessity, turning it into a bit of adventure and artistry. We always need to eat, we don’t always need to settle for good enough.

Once you’ve found a good Italian sausage, you’ll want about one-and-half to two pieces per person. The choice between sweet and spicy sausage is entirely a matter of preference. I usually opt for a ratio of two sweet sausages to one spicy one, it gives a dish that has a bit of heat but really tends towards sweetness. After the sausage, you will want to find one full pepper and about half an onion for every three pieces of sausage. I prefer red, orange, and yellow peppers for their sweetness and generally avoid green peppers for this dish if possible. Finally, you will also need a can of good tomatoes, olive oil, sea salt and cracked black pepper, a bit of fresh basil, some garlic, and a good semi-sweet Italian red wine.

First, pour a glass of wine to set the mood. Set your sausage in the pan on medium high heat to cook, rotating them so that they brown evenly on all sides, about one or two minutes on each side. Next, cut the sausage into small pieces, no longer than a half an inch each, and return to the pan. Next, slice onions and peppers into long thin strips and add to the pan. Saute the peppers and onion in the fat from the sausage until the onions become soft and translucent. Remove sausage, peppers, and onion from the pan and deglaze with some of the wine. Lower the heat to medium and add a splash of olive oil to the pan. Saute some garlic with sea salt and, if you like, the tiniest pinch of crushed chilli pepper. Once the smell of garlic and olive oil begins to fill your kitchen, add the tomatoes and bring them to a simmer for ten to fifteen minutes. Next add back in the sausage, peppers, and onions and continue to simmer until cooked, about another thirty or so minutes. At this point add the chopped basil and whatever salt and pepper you feel the dish needs. Because different kinds of sausages are salty and spicy in different kinds of ways, it can be difficult to know ahead of time how much salt and spice will need to be added to the dish.

The last, best thing about sausage and peppers is the panoply of ways you can enjoy it. Pile the sausage and peppers and sauce high on fresh Italian bread, serve it alongside grilled polenta (polenta that has been left to cool in a loaf pan or bowl, sliced, and then grilled, or atop a hearty pasta like Rigatoni or Pappardelle.

PS -- To all three of my readers, I apologize for the long delay between posts. I hope to get things back on to a regular schedule. Also, sorry for lecturing. I don't blame you if you skipped the history lesson and headed straight for the food.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bear Review: Goose Island's 312 Urban Wheat Ale

I came across Goose Island's 312 Urban Wheat Ale while visiting Iowa for an old friend's wedding. The bright yellow label caught my eye and the description "Urban Wheat Ale" piqued my curiosity.

What I discovered was a crisp and refreshing brew. There's a bit of sweetness and wheaty tang to the 312. A subtle hoppiness is present, but it's really the cereal flavour of wheat that dominates. There's also a slight hint of citrus fruit present, lending the beer only the slightest bit of bitterness. The 312 is light and its flavours are crisp and clean but gentle. Any after taste is minimal. This light body only lends to its drinkability.

Two points worth noting: At 4.2% abv, this isn't the beer for getting a quick buzz going. More important is the suggested serving temperature of 40 degrees. Serve the beer too cold and much of its flavour is lost. Serve it too warm and those flavours become messy and indistinct.

Overall the 312 is enjoyable if somewhat straightforward. Its lightness and milder flavours gives this ale a versatility. The 312 could be a real workhorse beer because it likely will pair well with a number of dishes including salads, fish, and milder cheeses like Buffalo Mozzarella. Stronger, more intense flavours on the other hand could risk overwhelming it. And of course, the 312 can be enjoyed on its own or served with a wedge of lemon or orange.

That all being said, I still have one nagging question: What the heck is urban wheat?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Salad Days: Arugula and Strawberry Salad

I knew arugula when. Back, before it was mainstream and cool, when it was called rugola and grew wild on my grandparents’ backyard lawn. I remember my Nonna would head to the backyard with her paring knife and plastic grocery bag to take in her harvest. Almost invariably it would wind up tossed with olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper.

But arugula’s current popularity comes only at the tail end of a very long career. Rugola has been part of the Mediterranean diet since antiquity. The Romans were eating its leaves as a vegetable, using its seeds to flavor oils, and making aphrodisiac and medicinal compounds from the plants. It still grows wild in the Italian countryside and is often regarded as a "poor man's" green.

The reason for this culinary longevity lay in arugula’s versatility. Arugula has a very intense and mustard and peppery flavour and wild rugola especially so. This richness of flavour means that arugula can hold its own alongside grilled meats or on sandwiches, as a pizza topping, lightly sauteed in olive oil, added to soups, pastas, and risottos for a bit of colour, flavour, and nutrients, or even combined with garlic, walnuts, olive oil, lemon juice, and Parmesan cheese into a pesto. Rugola is also low in calories and rich in vitamins A and C, folate, calcium, and magnesium. Put simply: It’s really good for you too.

The most common place to find arugula is served raw as part of a salad. Arugula salads can range from the simple -- the leaves tossed in a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper -- to the more substantive. This salad falls well into that latter category. With strawberries starting to show up supermarkets at a reasonable price again, this is a chance to combine the rich pepperiness of the rugola with the sweetness of the fruit and the tang of good balsamic vinegar. The meatiness of toasted walnuts and the sharpness of pecorino romano round out the flavour combination. Rugola has come a long way from those simple tossed salads of this bear chef's youth.

Arugula and Strawberry Salad

To begin, toast about one half (1/2) cup of chopped walnuts in a dry skillet over medium to low heat. Be sure to stir the walnuts often. This should take about five or ten minutes, you'll know they're ready when they turn a light brown and the smell of toasted walnuts takes to the air. Remove them from heat and set aside to cool for another ten minutes or so. Alternatives to walnuts can include cashews or almonds as well as hazelnuts.

Next, wash and thinly slice the fresh strawberries. You'll need about two cups or, to be much less precise, two good handfuls of each. Place one handful of strawberries at the bottom of you mixing bowl and set the other aside. Blackberries and raspberries can substitute for the strawberries in this salad. The important thing is that there is a tart and sweetness to them. Strawberries though add the best pop of colour.

Cover with about two tablespoons of the best balsamic vinegar you can afford and about one tablespoon of the best olive oil you can afford. To that add a pinch of sea salt and another of freshly ground pepper. Next, add either a pinch of sugar or a dab of honey and then mix altogether. This should probably be set aside to rest for about ten minutes or so, letting the flavours of the vinegar and strawberries to get to know one another and pair off.

Another possibility is to use a lemon dressing. Combine the juice of two lemons with olive oil, salt, pepper, and honey or sugar to taste. You may also want to include a bit of lemon zest to the dressing which will impart a nice, vibrant citrus flavour to the dressing. This dressing should be left to rest on its own, and only combined with the salad just before being served however.

While the dressing and strawberries are getting to know one another and the walnuts are cooling, you'll have time to make sure about four cups or so of fresh arugula (preferably baby arugula) has been properly washed and dried. Here I'm using the baby arugula/baby spinach blend the grocery store carries and it works just as well.

Next grate or crumble about one half of a cup of the pecorino romano. Alternatives to this are a sharp goat's cheese, feta, and, of course, a good Parmesan. With the goat's cheese, you can try browning it in the toaster before adding it to the salad for a bit of extra flavour. I've also wondered how an aged cheddar, with its rich and sharp flavours would work on this salad, but have not yet experimented with it. The quality of cheese is important to the success of this salad. You shouldn't have to spend a fortune, but you shouldn't skimp on it either.

Once cheese and arugula are ready, you can begin building your salad. To the mixing bowl with the dressing and strawberries add your arugula and toss lightly. One trick is to cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap before doing this to avoid any spillage and mess. Next, add the handful of fresh strawberries that have been set aside. Sprinkle on top with the toasted walnuts and then the cheese and enjoy.

There should be enough to serve about three people as a side and one person as a main.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"From the Library of Anita Masotti . . . "

If God had intended us to follow recipes, He wouldn't have given us grandmothers.

~Linda Henley

My love of cooking began in my Nonna’s kitchen. That is where we spent so much of our time, where we bonded, and where she first taught me about food. What I enjoyed most were those wonderfully simple and hearty dishes that had been carried over across the Atlantic from the “Old Country.” They felt less like recipes than they did traditions: knowledge that was being handed down from one generation to the next. Even now, whenever I’m in the kitchen I’m reminded of her. One of my Nonna’s best dishes was baccala, a simple stew of salt cod.

The History of Baccala

Fish preserved in salt -- mostly anchovies, eels, sardines, herring, tuna -- had been a part of European cuisine since antiquity. Baccala -- the Italian word for salt cod -- entered the Mediterranean diet sometime in the fifteenth century. European fishermen, mostly from England, Ireland, and parts of Spain had been visiting the Grand Banks off of Newfoundland for much of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but they were few in number and travelling in small boats, and so their trade was limited. Only in the fifteenth century, when more and larger ships began to visit the Grand Banks, did the North Atlantic fish trade begin apace. The salt pans of the Mediterranean provided Northern fishermen with the necessary salt to preserve their catches. A string of poor harvests, coupled with the general poverty of the Mediterranean fish stocks, created a ready market. Cod was plentiful and could be had for cheap and it quickly became a staple in the diet of Italy's poor.

Most every region of Italy found its own way of preparing baccala. Some as stews, others as baked dishes, and some still as fritters. Likely each will also insist that their way is the only real way of preparing baccala. My Nonna’s recipe combines the traditions of two places: Vicentina and Livorno. Together, they produce a stew that is at once simple and rich, hearty and delicious.

Preparing the Baccala

Before salt cod can be cooked, it must first swim again. The first step in preparing baccala is to return the salt cod to something more resembling its fresh state. When buying salt cod, make sure you piece of baccala is close to white in colour, clean, and smells of fish. Even though it has been preserved, it should still retain its “fishy” smell. Bad baccala will look brown or grey in colour and smell "off."

At least two days prior to cooking, and probably three, thoroughly wash off all the salt that has collected on the fish. Next, soak the fish in a container what will hold a lot of water. The fish should soak for at least forty-eight hours and the water should be changed at least twice, and if possible, three times a day. While the fish is soaking, store it in a cool place. One method to speed up the soaking process is to cut the fish into smaller pieces beforehand. The smaller pieces of baccala will absorb water and lose salt faster than a larger piece will.

Cooking the Baccala

After those two or three days have passed, remove the baccala from the water. It should be, more or less, like a piece of fresh fish. Rinse it off under cool running water to remove the last bits of salted water and dry with a paper towel. Cut the baccala into similarly sized pieces, usually about two inches by two inches will do. Next, dredge each piece in flour. Here I’m using kamut flour but regular all-purpose flour will do just as well. Once done, set the dredged fish aside for now.

Set a large pan over medium heat. To that add a generous amount of olive oil, a few peppercorns, the tiniest pinch of crushed chili peppers, and a couple of bay leaves. Next add a one large onion that has been diced, two finely chopped celery stalks, and three cloves of garlic that have been crushed and finely chopped and allow them to cook until golden. Add to that a splash of white wine.

Next, add the baccala pieces and let cook for about five minutes or so on each side until they've browned. Add to this about one and one quarter cups of tomato. You can use whole tomatoes for this recipe, but I prefer to run them through a food mill before adding them to the pan. For this I use the same San Marzano tomatoes that I use for pizza. My Nonna often used tomatoes that had been peeled and jarred in the summertime. As always, tomato quality is very important. Too acidic and the tomatoes can ruin the dish; too flavourless and they'll just leave the meal bland and boring.

Bring the tomatoes to a simmer over medium heat and then add about one half of a cup of milk or cream along with a handful of parmesean cheese. Continue to cook over medium to low heat for another forty-five minutes to an hour. I was taught to hold off for as long as possible before adding any salt to the dish. Checking the seasoning with a dish like this is important. The cod can retain some of its saltiness but it is often difficult or impossible to predict how much. Adding any additional salt and pepper towards the end, once you've been able to taste the baccala, keeps you from over seasoning the dish.

Enjoying the Baccala

With its flavourful and creamy sauce, baccala is best served alongside, or atop of, a stiff polenta. In a pinch, some crusty Italian bread will do. Italian parsley also makes for an excellent garnish, adding a bit of fresh colour and flavour to the meal.

I've considered using fresh cod for this recipe. The results should be much the same and it would save the process of soaking the fish and the hassle of changing a large pot of water every eight hours or so. But I think that would be a mistake. Making baccala is about more than the meal for this bear chef. The tradition would be broken that way and the connection would be lost. It might be harder, but it feels right to do this the way my Nonna taught me.

P.S. Sorry about the poor quality on the prep pictures. My digital camera wasn't handy and so I had to use the camera on my cell phone.

P.P.S. The title of this article comes from the sticker that my Nonna placed on the front inside cover of each of her books. As I was looking through one of her cookbooks to learn a bit about the history of baccala, I came across one of those stickers. It struck me as the best, most appropriate title for a talk about this recipe and these memories.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Most Perfect Pizza

“You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six.” - Yogi Berra

Pizza, to my mind, is one of the most perfect foods. I love the combination of flavours and textures it offers. I love the versatility, the limitless possibilities that pizza affords, the way it can be adapted to climate, season, and locale. I love how much fun pizza is to make. I love to eat pizza and to share pizza. I love the way pizza can bring people together. I love pizza.

Neither of my Nonnas were really pizza-makers. Their specialities lay elsewhere, in soups and stews, sauces and lasagna, and oh so many kinds of dessert. No, my first pizzas were of the delivery variety, usually from Catalano’s or Franco’s and then later Villa Nova, Naples, or Capri. It’s pretty much what you would expect. Not great but neither was it awful: it was good, or at least, good enough. It fell to my Mom and my Uncle to start making pizza at home. Each of them went their own way, my Mom making something like a deep-dish pizza with lots of dough, cheese, sauce, and delicious toppings. My Uncle, instead, focused on lighter and more traditional fare: a thinner crust that was topped with sauce, cheese, and the occasional pieces of salami.

Now it’s my turn to try my hand at being a pizzaiolo or master pizza chef. The latest object of my culinary affections is the simple, traditional thin-crust pizza that is prepared in a wood-fired oven. My goal has been to replicate at home, to the best of my abilities, what I’ve read about online and experienced ever-so-often in Windsor’s Terra Cotta Pizzeria. The challenge in this is duplicating the cooking process because, sadly, I haven't yet found the wood-fired oven in my apartment. After a lot of trial and error, I think I've figured it out.

Making the Pizza

The Dough:

The first step to making the most perfect pizza is the dough. I prefer using a one-to-one blend between kamut flour and regular never-bleached all purpose flour. The kamut is a heartier flour (a healthier one too for that matter) and it gives the dough a stronger, richer flavour. You might also use a whole wheat flour or an oat flour to get similar results. You could also add a bit of cornmeal to the dough. Another bear chef I know, trying to add a bit of fibre, nutrients, and flavour to her pizza, makes this really fantastic dough that has flax seeds in it. There are endless possibilities available to you.

To make the dough, in a fair-sized bowl or, if you prefer, on a cutting board or piece of parchment paper, combine a cup each of kamut flour and regular unbleached flour. You'll need a bit more flour through out this process so keep another cup or so handy. To that, add 1 teaspoon of salt and then mix together until both flours and salt are combined. Form a well (which is called a fontana or "fountain" in Italian) in the middle of your pile of flour and add about half a packet, or around 5 ml, of yeast to it. Sprinkle a pinch of flour, a pinch of sugar, and a splash of lukewarm water (about 50 ml) over top the yeast and let sit for about half an hour or so. Once you see a foam form over top the yeast, you’re ready for the next step. Add about a quarter of a cup of lukewarm water to the well along with two tablespoons of honey. You can use sugar, about a teaspoon if you do, but I find that honey just tastes better.

The next step is to begin to incorporate flour by cupping your hands and drawing some of the flour from the sides into the 'fountain' and mixing. Add more water, a bit at a time, and incorporate more flour, until you have formed a dough, then knead by hand for a good 10-15 minutes. If you find that you've added too much water or the dough isn't doughy enough, simply add a bit more flour to the mix. Coat the sides and bottom of a deep bowl with a generous amount of olive oil, moving the dough ball around so that it becomes coated in olive oil. Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and let the dough rest for at least two or three hours.

The dough needs to rest for about three hours. Depending on the temperature and humidity in your kitchen, it might need a bit longer or a bit less. This is an organic process after all and your dough is alive. One trick I’ve learned to help the process along is to place the bowl into an oven with the oven light on. This doesn't mean that more time is a bad thing. The longer a dough rests the more time it has to develop a deeper and richer flavour. I’ve made dough in the morning and then let it rest all day or even the night before so that it has a solid twenty-four hour rest and the results have been amazing.

The Toppings:

One of the best parts about being a pizzaiolo is the fun you can have mixing and matching flavours and textures to top a pizza. For this pizza simplicity is key: crust, tomatoes, cheese, and that's all. With so few ingredients, each one will need to work hard. That is why quality ingredients are so very important. Use the best tomatoes and the best cheese you can find and you won't be disappointed.

For this pizza I used La San Marzano di A. Romano Brand tomatoes and a local buffalo milk fresh mozzarella. The San Marzano tomatoes are a bit more than the canned tomatoes you'll find in the
supermarket, but they're worth the cost. Sweeter and fleshier, they're much less likely to taste bitter and acidic once cooked. Open the can and using a fork, remove three or four tomatoes (depending on their size) and place them into a bowl. Using that fork, or if you feel like getting messy, your hands, simply crush the tomatoes into a bit of a sauce. You can splash some of the puree from the can into the bowl to help with this. Whatever is left in the can, seal up into a container and set aside. You can use it to make a sauce or to make another pizza. Buffalo milk mozzarella is slightly sharper and saltier in flavour than fresh mozzarella made from cow's milk. If you can't find buffalo milk mozzarella, the bocconcini you find at the local supermarket will do. You'll need two or three per pizza. The last of the ingredients you'll need are a bit more olive oil, some sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and fresh basil.

The Pizza:

About an hour before you want to cook, place your baking stone into the oven and turn the oven up to its highest setting. To come close to replicating the cooking process of a wood-fired oven you'll need both oven and stone to get as hot as possible. After that, open a bottle of good Italian wine and pour yourself a glass. Nothing too heavy, just something that will go well with pastas and cheeses. The wine will help to set the mood and release your own inner pizzaiolo.

Spread out a good sized piece of parchment paper, at least as big as your baking stone. To that, add a good handful of flour, you'll need it. Take about half the dough, and place it on the parchment paper. Using the flour and a rolling pin, your goal is to spread out that dough as much as possible so you'll have the thinnest crust as possible. It'll take some effort -- think of it as a work out maybe? -- but it will be worth it. Don't worry that the dough isn't forming a perfect circle, it will still taste amazing. As William Denton says, "food is to eat, not to frame and hang up on the wall." Once the dough is only about a quarter of an inch thick, perforate the crust every couple of inches with the tongs of a fork, this will keep it from bubbling up as it cooks.

Now the crust is ready for your toppings. Spread out the crushed tomatoes. Sprinkle a pinch of sea salt over this and a bit of cracked pepper. Next, tear your fresh mozzarella into one or two inch chunks. You may need to taste a piece of mozzarella at this point just to make sure the flavour is alright. Pizzaiolo's prerogative. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone if you won't. Add that to the pizza next. Remember, the trick is not to smother the pizza in cheese. Rather, the fresh mozzarella is meant to accent and enhance the flavour of the tomatoes which should really be dominant. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over top the pizza and a pinch more of the sea salt over top the chunks of fresh mozzarella. Now this pizza is ready for the oven.

Using a pizza paddle, or, if you don't have one, a wooden cutting board as a make shift pizza paddle, transfer the pizza and parchment paper to the baking stone. I can't stress enough to be careful as everything in that oven is going to be very hot. Also, remember to keep the pizza flat, you don't want all your delicious toppings to slide off it and onto the bottom of your oven. Cooking time will be anywhere from ten to twelve to fourteen minutes. Keep an eye on the pizza but if you can, don't open the oven door. You want to make sure all that heat is trapped in the oven cooking your pizza, not escaping out into your kitchen. However, depending on how heat moves around in your oven, you might have to rotate the pizza to allow for more even cooking. When the crust has become a nice golden brown, with darker bits around the edges, and the cheese has melted and browned a bit (a process the drizzled olive oil helps along) your pizza is ready to come out.


The smell of freshly baked pizza is going to fill your kitchen and you're going to be overcome with the desire to eat pizza right away. Don't! Trust me on this. For one, you'll burn your mouth and that's not fun. Also, the flavours need time to settle down and merge together. Set the pizza aside on a cooling rack and let it rest for about ten minutes. During that time, clean, and if you like, roughly chop, three or four good sized basil leaves and add that to the top of the pizza. You can also prepare a quick hot sauce for dipping, again a trick learned from Terra Cotta and a fellow bear chef, using a sweet chili sauce mixed with a bit of regular hot sauce.

Once you've let the pizza cool a bit, it's ready to be eaten. This kind of pizza can work well as a primi piatti (a first course), as a secondi (second or main course), or even as a snack. It's equally enjoyable served warm or at room temperature. It works especially well when served along side a simple salad of arugula tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and lemon juice. Be sure to enjoy alongside a glass of good Italian wine.

Perhaps the best compliment to the most perfect pizza, the only thing that can really improve it, is the same thing that makes all food better: good company. All food is better when there is somebody worth sharing it with.