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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What To Do With... Celeriac

How would I describe this vegetable to someone who had never seen one before? Knobby? Gnarly? Ugly? Hmmm. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. How about delicious? Fresh? Delicately-flavoured? The more I thought about this neglected tuber, the more I realized Celeriac needs a publicist or better still, an agent. Celeriac needs someone who can help it cultivate a reputation for being delectable, versatile and easy to work with.

Sure, Celeriac isn’t the darling of the vegetable world (yet) and that’s okay. But certainly it is destined to feature in more than French bistro favourite, celeriac remoulade. It doesn’t have to be a niche vegetable, as it can be integrated into everyday meals and has far greater range than you might expect.

As I have gotten to know Celeriac over several meals together, I have really come to enjoy this time. In fact, it came to remind me of one of Canadian literature's most beloved characters, Dunstan Ramsey, from the novel, Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies. (Mandatory high school English Lit around these parts. In my mind, it is a shining example of the Canadian literature at its best.)

The main protagonist, Dunstan Ramsay, is a headmaster of an elite Canadian boys school, who reflects upon a life lived. As he tells his story, he comes to realize that he is Fifth Business, referring to a plot device who isn’t a main character but essential for plot progression.

Anyway, it’s a food blog and not an English essay so I will get to the point. In food terms, celeriac is Fifth Business. It is a great supporting cast member in many a meal, perhaps making an appearance as part of an appetizer or soup course or as a great side to a main.

Celeriac is generally easy to find at the grocery store (of course, this varies depending on where you are reading this), and is deceptively easy to cook. Celeriac has an incredible but mellow flavour, too. Being related to celery, it carries the familiar faint aroma of that childhood snack. It tastes clean and crisp but unlike it’s school yard counterpart, celeriac can be filling and substantive with a texture similar to potatoes (when cooked.)

Celeriac, I am a fan. If you’re looking for an agent, call me. I could be the Jerry Maguire to your Rod Tidwell. We’ll do lunch or dinner…

A note on produce selection: When buying celeriac, phalange-like roots are okay. Pick up the celeriac. It should feel sizable and firm but not heavy for it’s size. It will be a little dirty and there should be limited spots of green on the vegetable. Check the ends for white mould, and if it feels soft or wrinkled, put it back down. It’s old.

To prep celeriac: Carefully peel the celeriac with a sharp knife. If you think this is going to take a little bit of time, prepare a bowl of acidulated water (add lemon juice to a bowl of water), and drop chunks of celeriac as you go along to prevent it from browning.

Here are a couple of things you can do with celeriac:

1. Roast root vegetables with duck fat– celeriac, carrots, turnips, Swedes (rutabagas), and potatoes. Peel vegetables and cut into large chunks. Cook potatoes, swedes and celeriac for ten minutes, until it’s mostly tender. Drain well. Toss vegetables (parboiled and raw) with (brace yourself) a tablespoon or two of duck fat. Sprinkle with salt and toss well to coat evenly. Roast in a 425 degree oven for about 45 minutes. After about 25 minutes, remove from oven and give them vegetables a flip. Resist the urge to flip them more than once so that the outside develops a nice golden crusty exterior with a soft fluffy interior.

(Yes, you read that right. Duck fat. Yes, artery clogging glorious luscious animal fat. I know I have said this before, but you’re going to have to trust me on this one. Duck fat lends an incredibly rich, complex but subtle flavour. Even if you don’t like duck, you still may like duck fat. It’s absolutely delicious. Save the fat next time you roast off a duck, or if you’re like me, just ask your butcher.)

2. Celeriac remoulade- the classic French bistro preparation – so easy to do at home: Peel celeriac and julienne 1 medium sized celeriac. Toss gently with lemon juice. Mix 1/2c mayonnaise, 1/3c to 1/2c light sour cream. (I have seen some recipes with a full cup of mayo, I am substituting to lighten the dish) with 3 cornichons, diced finely, 1 tbsp of capers (here’s another use for capers if you need a refresher), and 1 tbsp of grainy mustard (we have one with a bit of horseradish and it’s nice.) Add a pinch of salt and pepper, toss with celeriac and garnish with about 1-2 tbsp of chopped parsley. Taste and adjust seasonings and serve.

3. Mashed celeriac (like mashed potatoes) – peel celeriac and cut into large chunks. Cook in a large pot with lightly salted water until fork tender. Drain well. Add 1/2c warmed milk, 2 tbsp of butter, salt and pepper and mash well.

4. Cream of Celeriac Soup - peel celeriac and cut into large chunks. In a large dutch oven, melt 2 tbsp of butter, once the butter has melted, tumble in celeriac. Cook until celeriac is soft and the edges are golden. Add 1 liter of chicken stock and 1 tsp of celery salt. Turn down heat to medium-low and cover. Cook until tender (about 15-20 minutes). Carefully blend until all the soup is smooth and free of chunks. Stir in 1/2 c of cream (or evaporated milk if you're cutting the calories.) Adjust seasoning and serve.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Believe the Hype: The New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookie Is It!

Today has been a busy but excellent day. For one, it is Superbowl Sunday, for two, the sun shone brightly & the day was warm and for three, it was a day of cooking. These three things made today excellent. (This day would have been great had my football team been playing in the Superbowl.)

It was nice to feel the sun on my cheeks, it was a little taste of Spring. (We will find out how long winter will last tomorrow morning after the groundhog prognosticates.) It’s Superbowl Sunday and while we wait for kick-off, I reflect on a great day of cooking and reading about food. I woke up early to get the chili into the slow cooker, I stumbled upon a great recipe for pull-apart bread that will be hitting the oven in the next hour and I read one of the funniest things I have read in a long time. (Click here for a Virgin Airlines in-flight meal complaint letter that is making the rounds on the internet. The letter is hilarious and well-written.)

For something sweet to close our Superbowl meal, I perused the food blogs this week, and I noticed a recurring theme:

the New York Times recipe for Chocolate Chip cookies. Everyone I know who has made these cookies has been raving, and I thought it might be nice to throw my hand up so I can see what all the fuss is about. If the venerable New York Times tells you this is a superlative cookie recipe, well, you have to at least give it a go.

Well, the NYT knows. Their food section is arguably the best food section of any paper I have read: the restaurant reviews, Mark Bittman, and of course, the recipes. I love the discourse on all things food (from high-end snobby food stuffs to politics of inner city urban gardens) and the recipes that come weekly. Whether it be world politics or food, our dear friends at the Times make no short cuts. In the case of this chocolate chip cookie recipe, the Times published 3 (web) pages detailing the quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Enough to convince the most skeptical foodie that the NYT did its due diligence.

I didn't rush out to make this cookie because I tend to steer away from recipes that seem unnecessarily fussy and admittedly this recipe appears unnecessarily fussy: it needs to rest for at least 24 hours, requires chocolate disks (versus chips), and two types of flour.

I wasn't able to source out high quality feves/discs for the cookies so I had to settle for the best quality semi-sweet chocolate chips I could find. (I had a big block of Callebaut chocolate but I visions of chocolate flying all over the kitchen as I started to chip away at the block for this recipe.)

Despite the two types of flour (not knowledgeable enough to assess if it made a difference), the fancy chocolate (good chocolate does makes a difference), and the weekend-long rest time (makes a difference), these cookies were heavenly. Within minutes of hitting the oven, the smell of chocolate and butter wafted throughout the house. I peered through the oven window and watched the cold cookie dough melt and bubble into its final form. It felt like an eternity as I waited the twenty minutes baking time. Then ding! Out of the oven, the cookies emerged tanned, golden and oozing chocolate. The little flecks of salt embedded themselves into the cookie and sparkled in the light. I only waited long enough to avoid burning the roof of my mouth before I tucked into the first one. Oh heaven. The chocolate was molten and the cookie, crisp on the outside, buttery and tender on the inside. The dusting of sea salt created an interesting and complex contrast against the sweetness of the chocolate. It's subtle but this addition makes this a chocolate chip cookie for grown ups. And you needn't worry about the cookies being salty. Sea salt may seem like an unusual addition to the cookie, but it really does they make it special. If you’re not so sure, try it on a couple to taste the difference. Adding salt to sweet things may seem a bit trendy these days, but rest assured this trend wouldn’t have taken off unless there was something to it.

The Verdict: They ARE the best chocolate chip cookies.

Happy baking.

New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Jacques Torres

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content
Sea salt (your best)

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.
2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.
3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.
4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day
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