Monday, July 30, 2007

A Locally-Grown Canadian Feast in Ottawa

I’m standing in Jill’s kitchen in Ottawa staring at a mountain of fava bean pods.

“What do you think I’m supposed to do with them?” I ask no one in particular. Jill is actually in the dining room deciding which dishes will be used for the multi-course feast.

I was the one who thought fava beans would make a nice appetizer, but at the time I hadn’t really focused on the fact that I had to shuck three pounds of pods. The simple and elegant fava bean spread on crostini proves somewhat labor intensive. First, you must free the beans from the pods, and then par boil and shock the beans in ice water. The final step involves removing the outer skin of each individual bean before pureeing. I do hope the guests appreciate this …

A note about Canadian agriculture, since we are immersed in it now and I still have that quiz to prepare for. Farming is significant to the country’s heritage. Today, agribusiness is one of Canada’s top five industries. Wheat is a staple crop, but fruit orchards, poultry, livestock and viticulture are common throughout the provinces.

It is always a little worrisome to engage in a significant cooking project in someone else’s kitchen. Individual chefs develop their own routines. But, since we cooked together at La Varenne we manage to adopt a certain rhythm. Interestingly, Jill stores many items in her kitchen in the same location that I store them in mine. The difference is that Jill is noticeably tidier.

I work on the fava bean puree and Jill tackles the chopping, sautéing and pureeing needed to prepare chilled pea soup. I slice green beans and Jill roasts them along with beets, wrapped in aluminum foil. Jill mixes batter for a Blueberry White Chocolate Clafoutis, while I start rendering the fat from the duck breasts.

The searing of the Mariposa duck breasts proves time intensive. I borrow an apron and soon, duck fat is sizzling in the frying pan and smoke permeates the kitchen. I feel as if I have been slathered in tanning lotion. I complete the job on the duck breast and then move onto the reduction sauce. I start to improvise with the recipe a bit, and it requires straining, but we’re pleased with the results.

Jill does an expert job with the table setting, deploying a battalion of dishes, glasses cutlery and napkins. She even tucks petite colorful flowers from the garden into each napkin ring. While she finishes the table, I prepare sautéed apple slices with rosemary to accompany the foie gras.

Late in the afternoon, Jill mentions that perhaps the Escoffier menu originally considered might have been less complicated. That Escoffier was such a slacker.

It really doesn’t matter. Our results are impressive, and by 6:30 p.m. we are able to sit down for a few minutes and each partake of a glass of crème de peche with champagne, just like we did each evening at Chateau du Fey in Burgundy.

The guests arrive, many of whom attended the American Feast in Canada in March. “Medusa,” from our New York weekend last April is there, sporting a smart new hairstyle.

Due to the time spent at the stove, my feet are swollen and sweltering and I long to shed my sneakers and go barefoot. Two of the guests immediately relinquish their shoes upon entering the house, so I decide to join in what appears to be a local tradition. During dinner, I also learn that apparently, an inordinate number of people are struck by lightening in Ottawa. I wonder if this factoid will be on the quiz. Since the main dish is duck, I wax poetically about “The Big Duck of Long Island.” I’m not sure they actually believe such an oversized waterfowl exists …

The parade of courses, fresh and locally grown, begins garnished with multicolored edible flowers. The crisp fava bean crostini is a burst of pure chlorophyll with accents of garlic, thyme and lemon.

Jill pairs pan seared foie gras with apple and rosemary with a sweet sauterne. The recipe is from Restaurant Les Fougeres in Quebec. The foie gras is smooth and velvety and melts like rich gravy on the tongue.

The chilled pea soup with spinach and cream is a luminous sweet puree, the color of sea foam.

A salad of roasted beets and green beans with goat cheese and walnuts has deep, earthy flavors, contrasting with creamy cheese, delicate greens and pods that snap with the crispness of summertime.

The grilled Mariposa duck breast with fruit sauce reduction is smoky and tender. The aromatic sauce has burgundy hues, savory flavors and fruity highlights. Fresh raspberries and blueberries are scattered like jewels across the fanned slices of flavorful meat.

Jill’s Blueberry White Chocolate Clafoutis, is tall and golden, tender cake with tangy berries and chunks of white chocolate that evoke a sweet burst of sunshine.

Every dish is accompanies by an abundant selection of Canadian wines. There is no cognac, but plenty of gossip and lively conversation. The meal is a resounding success for the imaginative presentation, the taste and the companionship. Thanks, Jill!

Epilogue: I never did see a genuine Canadian Mountie during my visit, nor did I sample an authentic butter tart. My performance on the quiz of Canadian history challenged the boundaries of international diplomacy. While I correctly identified the proper height of Colonel By, I got tongue-tied during the test and confused about which prime minister was a famous orator, and which enjoyed indulging in a séance now and then. I couldn’t remember what year Parliament burned or what year the Peace Tower was built. This only means I’ll have to return for a refresher course. I hear there’s a local winter delicacy served in Ottawa after skating on the Rideau Canal called Beaver Tails, that is well worth sampling.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Ottawa Farmers Market

We are blessed with another luminous summer day, and Jill recommends that we get an early start to find the best available produce at the farmers market for our midsummer locally-grown Canadian Feast.

The Ottawa Farmers Market occurs each Sunday, May through October at Landsdowne, just near the site of the 1875 Provincial Exhibition. The centerpiece of the fairgrounds is a shimmering exhibition hall, in the style of the great crystal pavilions, known to residents as “The Cattle Castle.” A flying cow sits atop a weathervane, a testament to the area’s agricultural roots.

It is already sunny and hot, but numerous shoppers are traversing the rows of peaked tents and exploring the wares of local farmers. Jill suggests that we take an initial stroll through the entire market so we can get a sense of what’s available and so we don’t buy the first thing we see. I am clutching a scratch pad with notes on all the ingredients we will need. The menu has been designed to evoke a summer day – crisp and brilliantly-colorful with notes of sunshine, pure rain water, and earthy terrain.

Certain things remain on my “to-do list” for the visit. I have yet to spot a genuine Canadian Mountie and the search for an authentic butter tart continues. There are some pastries available in the market but no butter tarts. We cue up for bread, and Jill selects an enormous rustic loaf that we will use for crostini. Salt scatters as the baker slips the loaf into a white paper bag.

For a fleeting moment I wonder if Jill’s focus on vegetables is some kind of postscript to the menu of the Canadian Feast last March where there were very few home-grown vegetables to be had. Now, there is a bounty of seasonal produce to choose from.

We seek out bulging fava bean pods that we will use for a jade-green crostini spread.

We marvel at the palate of produce available. One vendor offers cauliflower in shades of intense purple and orange.

Crisp green beans will mingle with earthy scarlet beets and goat cheese for a roasted summer salad.

As we are about to depart, a new shipment of raspberries arrive, just picked from the field, glistening and still warm to the touch.

Laden down with summer fruits, vegetables, artisanal breads and even delicate edible flowers, we now have everything we need for preparing our locally grown Canadian feast and head for the kitchen.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Lunch in Quebec

The Ottawa River cuts a dramatic swath between the cities of Ottawa and Quebec. Jill and I cross the river and journey to the Quebec side and in short time we have left the city. It is a brilliantly sunny day. We are treated to rolling hills and greenery. These are the Gatineau Hills, part of an extensive national park area that is dotted with lakes, trails and summer cottages. Most people greet us first in French. The village of Chelsea is a quaint collection of eclectic shops and eateries.

Jill has chosen a picturesque lunch spot. Restaurant Les Fougeres is neatly trimmed in scrubbed white clapboard and the sign is framed by a cluster of wandering sunflowers. There is an expansive garden out back and a shop adjacent to the restaurant that offers cookware and specialty food. The interior of the restaurant evokes a country home in Provence. The walls are a sunny buttercup yellow, and there is rustic furniture, crisp white tablecloths, and colorful bouquets of wildflowers in small vases on each table.

The host greets us in French and whisks us to a nearby table. The menu is a charming minuet of fresh flavors and radiant colors. I order the appetizer Basil and Parmigiano Reggiano Mousse served with cherry tomatoes and toasted focaccia. The host describes it as “Summer on a Plate.” Indeed, the generous dollop of mousse tastes like a sun drenched herb garden and the tomatoes are lush, sweet and savory.

Jill selects Wild Mushroom and Brie Pie and I can’t resist the Caribou and Cranberry Tourtiere. Yes, a genuine Canadian Tourtiere, the traditional meat pie of the French Canadians! The caribou is rich, gamey and exotic with tart undertones of cranberry, cloaked in a golden flakey crust. The host pours us a lively dry rose wine from France.

Jill declines dessert, but I must try the creamy yellow Tarte au Citron. Every mouthful is bright, lemony and dazzling.

After lunch, we stroll in the garden, and enjoy the eye-catching array of summer flowers. In the afternoon, my immersion course in Canadian history continues with a visit to Kingsmere, the rambling country retreat of William Lyon MacKenzie King, the tenth Prime Minister of Canada who served for over 21 years. Intent on scoring well on my upcoming quiz on Canadian facts, I note that MacKenzie King was 5 foot 6, was a bachelor and his dog was named Pat.

In the evening, we attend a lovely dinner party with close friends of Jill. There is no cognac, but bubbly champagne flows freely as does the gossip.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Taste of Ottawa

My early morning flight from New York slides to a halt on the tarmac, on time, in the province of Ontario, Canada.

Jill, my friend from La Varenne, an accomplished food and wine aficionado and my collaborator on several shared several cooking projects (including the Tale of Two Puddings and the American Canadian Cooking Project) is there to meet me at the airport. Our agenda: food, entertaining, local history, Canadian cooking and more food.

I’ve never visited Ottawa and Jill has worked up a full list of suggestions. An e-mail informs me: “There will be no napping. I’ve got a full itinerary planned with a quiz on Ottawa history at the end!”

I know to take this direction seriously.

After several days of travel, and precious little sleep, I am in desperate need of caffeine, so our first stop is Second Cup, the authentic Canadian coffee house which competes with that other well-known place that begins with an “S.” I’m anxious to sample a genuine Canadian Butter Tart, since I had done some in-depth research on the famous pastry for the Canadian Feast. However, it appears that Butter Tarts are currently out of season at Second Cup. I settle for a Maple Latte, which certainly evokes the flavors of Canada.

Jill had already provided some advanced reading on Ottawa so that I might prepare, including a May article from the Toronto Globe and Mail titled “Portrait of A Capital,” by John Ibbitson. My favorite Ibbitson quote: “A truly great evening in Ottawa begins and ends in your friends' living room, where people have gathered for dinner, and where the evening winds down over gossip and cognac.” My expectations are understandably high.

We do a quick automobile tour of the capital city, and I’m charmed by the majestic Parliament Building resplendent with copper green peaked roofs and honey colored stone. The Peace Tower – reminiscent of that clock tower across the pond that goes by the name Ben – reaches high above the city. A Canadian Flag, with the distinctive red maple leaf against a white background, tops the tower.

Our first stop is the Byward Market, in search of ingredients for a planned feast several days from now comprised of local Canadian meats and produce. Established by Colonel John By in 1826, Byward Market is one of Canada’s most historic public markets. Remember the name Colonel By. He will come up frequently in this story.

Jill and I have debated the possibility of cooking an Escoffier inspired menu, but eventually decided the sauces and garnishes were perhaps a bit too ambitious. Instead, we’ve opted for an uncomplicated summer meal comprised of the freshest Canadia fare. The Byward Market is lined with specialty food shops, restaurants and boutiques. We visit Aubrey’s on York Street, a meat merchant located in Ottawa since 1908. The shop is framed by smart green awnings and the bright white walls are decorated with black and white photos and illuminate beautifully displayed local meats and poultry. There is even a letter from Dwight D. Eisenhower thanking Aubrey's for a delivery of meat during a visit to Canada. We stock up on plump Mariposa Duck breast and Foie Gras. The Mariposa Farm is renowned within Ontario for its tender, free range products. Brian, the proprietor of Aubrey’s chats with us and offers a primer on the care and feeding of ducks.

Here are a few facts about Ottawa, in case you too are studying for an important exam on the topic. The city is impeccably clean and well-manicured. Residents are gracious and flower blossoms are everywhere. The Rideau Canal Waterway cuts through the city. The Rideau Canal is 125 miles long and is a Canadian National Historic Site celebrating its 175th anniversary. In the winter, the canal freezes over and residents take long skating excursions. It was built between 1826 and 1831 by Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. Are you starting to get the picture? Colonel By figured so prominently in the development of this region that Ottawa, was actually once known as "Bytown." One more fun fact: as we travel the city soaking up the history, we learn that Colonel By stood 5 feet 9 inches tall – presumably without his military hat.

The designation of Ottawa as the capital of Canada in 1857 is often debated. Some say Britain's Queen Victoria stuck a hat pin in a map halfway between Toronto and Montreal. Others say the city was chosen because it was better protected from invaders. Feeling well-prepped for my quiz, we take in the Renoir landscape exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada.

In the evening, we dine at Restaurant 18 in the Byward Market. Proving that Ottawa is indeed a small town at heart, Jill meets Lucy at the door who is a hostess at 18. They took a sommelier class together. I am optimistic about the wine selections.

Restaurant 18, promises “Canadian free-style cuisine” and the meal delivers. Jill selects briny lobster bisque with shrimp, sweetened with coconut milk and lamb flank with whipped potatoes and curry sauce. I enjoy honey ginger lacquered black cod with sweet carrot puree and sugar snap peas. Dessert is not a butter tart, but a creamy smooth peanut butter cheese cake with raspberry gelato.

The dinner is seasoned with a touch of gossip but at the conclusion, instead of cognac, we are treated to a fine port that compliments the nutty essence of the cheesecake.

Later in the evening as we walk past Parliament Hill around 11:00 p.m., we are treated to a sound and light show where colorful images of Canada shoot across the façade of the capital building like fireworks.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dinner with Veronica at The Little Owl

The first thing you notice about Veronica, the Chief Scientific Officer of the blogosphere’s top Test Kitchen, is the lighthearted curiosity that radiates from her eyes. She is always observing and discovering something new.

We are midway through the Harold McGee Lecture Series at the French Culinary Institute, and together we grab a cab headed for Greenwich Village for dinner at The Little Owl, a tiny bistro on the corner of Bedford and Grove Streets, which Frank Bruni of the New York Times described as an eatery of “irresistible earnestness and exuberance.”

I’m there to learn what makes Veronica, an established and successful food blogger, tick. Veronica, an avowed carnivore, is there for the signature pork chop entrée which has made The Little Owl a favorite on the New York restaurant scene.

From the time I first started reading her blog, I could sense Veronica’s passion for observation and documentation. She meticulously chronicles each ingredient, the techniques in each recipe and the results she creates in her Richmond, Virginia Test Kitchen. As we share a salad of arugula and peaches and an appetizer of meatball sliders with gravy, I want to know to what she attributes her precise attention to detail.

“It’s the engineer in me,” she explains. “The Hungry Hubby says I have an analytical and logical mind.”

As we talk she is examining the salad and makes a discovery. “Figs! I love figs,” she exclaims with delight. Then, she notes, “The peaches seem a bit raw, but it is refreshing.”

Casual readers of Veronica’s Test Kitchen might not realize that she first came to the United States in 1996 from her homeland of the Philippines with just a large suitcase and a carry on bag to take a job in the Information Technology sector. Although her father ran two restaurants at home she had actually never learned to cook from family members.

“When I came to the United States ten years ago, I was even afraid to boil water,” she laughs.

Our entrees arrive, and Veronica immediately begins to study the grilled pork chop that sits atop a bed of butter beans. “It’s so big,” she marvels about the oversized bronzed chop. She starts to dissect the dish. “How is it seasoned? This looks like cumin,” she comments. She takes a bite. “Oh my God, it’s so tender!”

In the spirit of scientific exploration, she samples my crispy chicken and I test her pork chop. Both dishes meet with resounding approval.

So what prompted a self-taught cook to enter the uncharted territory of the blogsphere and set up shop?

“I was looking for a recipe for Duck Confit on the Internet, and I came across a blog.” Veron tells me. A compulsive note taker, she saw the blog format as an ideal way to chronicle her observations in the kitchen.

“It gives me accountability,” she says.

She opened “Veronica’s Test Kitchen” in September of 2006 and by late October of last year, she was already tagged as a Typepad “Featured Blog.” To date, the Test Kitchen has had more than 40,000 visitors.

Veronica has certainly found culinary soul mates, first through the comments that readers left on her site, and later, with professionals in the field who respond to her questions about different techniques and dishes.

“Your blog helps you reach a vast amount of people who are as passionate about food as you are.”

While her focus is always on precision, accuracy and results, Veronica is never shy about documenting failures, because she feels there’s something to be learned from each kitchen project. She admits to being somewhat obsessive about the details, and even went so far as to create a spread sheet to document a recent croissant challenge (“That was the engineer in me coming out.”). But, she tries to keep a healthy perspective.

“I like the scientific part of cooking. Immediately I think, what’s the equation? Sometimes it clouds the artistic side, so I’m trying to find a balance.”

I ask what her favorite dish is, and she gives me a sly look. I realize I should know better than to ask. It is, of course, duck, the subject of many posts on her blog. “Anything crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside – I’m there!” Recently, however, she’s developed an infatuation for tarts.

We are presented with dessert. Veronica gets a warm brownie cake flavored with espresso and I get the raspberry beignets with Nutella. I can’t resist asking about “The Hungry Hubby,” a constant presence in her blog posts. She explains the origin of her spouse’s nickname.

“I made some brownies and took them to work, so he complained that he was left “hungry.” Afterwards, he started posting under the nom de plume.

Recently, they shared a week of “boot camp” training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.”

“I took him to boot camp because he’s my lifesaver,” Veronica explains. “He preps very well, he’s got awesome knife skills, and he’s got hands that are impervious to heat!”

She is still working on her written accounts of boot camp, but says it was a rewarding experience. “We’re having withdrawal symptoms. The Hungry Hubby says it was the best vacation ever.”

So what’s next for this intrepid chef, explorer, and correspondent on science in the kitchen? At some point in the future, she might like to teach cooking or open a pastry shop. But for now, she’s intrigued by a high-tech infrared thermometer that Harold McGee has been using as part of his demonstrations at the French Culinary Institute.

“I really want that thermometer!” she smiles, and I know Veronica is already contemplating her next kitchen experiment.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Harold McGee Lecture Series (Part Three)

It is the final day of the Harold McGee Lecture series at the French Culinary Institute and our hosts on this journey about using the scientific method in the kitchen are struggling with a little chaos theory at the front of the room. An important package containing essential oils for a segment on flavors has failed to arrive, and even the projector doesn’t seem to respond as Director of Culinary Technology, David Arnold repeatedly pokes the remote. Finally the equipment comes to life and we begin.

Today’s topic is Science and Modern Cooking, and Dr. McGee opens with a bold statement that initially takes me by surprise – the trendy term “molecular gastronomy” is a fad. As in empty. No meaning. Hogwash.

For a second, I wonder if the lecture hall’s audio system is faulty. The phrase just sits there for a moment between McGee and the audience resembling a collapsed soufflé. Why would the world’s most preeminent authority on science in the kitchen purposely deflate such a deliciously highbrow phrase?

It seems it’s a matter of sheer practicality, which I’m beginning to realize is Harold McGee’s preferred method. As he elaborates, I like what I hear more and more.

He explains that the phrase is really a marketing term that was dreamed up to attract participants to a workshop in the mid-1990s, but the fact is chemistry and cooking has been linked since the mid 1800s.

“Nobody who’s cooking is thinking about molecules,” says McGee. “They’re thinking about ingredients and flavor.”

He then presents an intriguing premise – the “MG” phrase has actually been shunned by the very chefs the media applies it to. “It’s much more about the individual and their vision,” he explains. McGee presents a number of position statements or “manifestos” by leading chefs that address the conundrum. McGee even worked with a number of top chefs to write a statement that sets the record straight about science in the kitchen. He offers a perspective by Ferran Adian of elBulli that I find particularly compelling:

“Cooking is a language through which all the following properties may be expressed: harmony, creativity, happiness, beauty, poetry, complexity, magic, humour, provocation and culture.”

McGee brings it all together for us in a mild-mannered but authoritative way: “Science is a piece of it, because it allows these people to enable their vision, but science is just a tool.”

We then plunge into a segment on new tools and ingredients top chefs are using each day in the kitchen. But McGee cautions that while ingredients like “hydrocolloids” are au courant, the processes they facilitate, such as thickening, gelling and emulsifying have been used by cooks for years. David Arnold starts up a vacuum distiller, a massive device with dials, rubber hoses and glass tubing that looks like it belongs in an emergency room. Nils Noren mixes up a concoction of cucumber, oranges slices and herbs into a green soup. David puts it into the distiller and it starts chugging. The exercise shows how pure, crisp distinctive flavors can be condensed and extracted from a mess of ingredients.

At lunch, Veronica and I return to Balthazar because there is a better selection of sandwiches on weekdays. But I soon learn that she has an ulterior motive. A recent convert to tart baking, she purchases a full sampler platter of tarts – including Cherry Clafoutis, Mango Souffle Tart and Apricot Frangipane Tart.

“You’ll help me eat all these, won’t you?”

Clearly, I’m there to enable her obsession, and I participate willingly. We return to the classroom and set out the tarts on a desktop, buffet style so we can evaluate the finer points of each. We both vote in favor of the impossibly fluffy, golden Mango Souffle Tart.

“You’re probably going to write that I force fed you all these tarts,” she says.

“I would never!”

During the afternoon Dr. McGee and company take us on a magical mystery tour of sensual perceptions. We study taste, smell and flavor, and I learn through a simple test that I am what the experts call a “hypertaster,” which means I have more taste buds than the Average Joe. We sample different parts of a tomato and discover that the savory taste is more intense at the core, and sniff banana slices to discover that some aromas from the fruit are actually the same as those that emerge from cloves. A strawberry has dozens and dozens of aromas that are released from one piece of fruit and meld to create that unmistakable essence of strawberry.

Our course completion certificates in hand, Veronica and I say goodbye on the steps outside the French Culinary Institute. She must return to her Test Kitchen, and I to my other daily endeavors.

“Back to reality,” Veronica says.

“Well, for us, that would be virtual reality,” I reply. “I’ll catch up with you in the blogosopher.” We hug, and I head for the subway. The last few days have been extraordinary for their many discoveries.

As Harold McGee says, “You never know.”

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Harold McGee Lecture Series (Part Two)

When last we left our story, Veronica, the proprietor and Chief Scientific Officer of the blogosphere’s top Test Kitchen had successfully unmasked me at the Harold McGee Lecture Series in New York City using her superior observation skills and keen deductive reasoning. Meanwhile, I was desperately struggling to comprehend the scientific principles behind what makes an egg an egg…

It is Day Two and Dr. Harold McGee is the picture of academia with the sleeves of his blue striped shirt rolled back to his elbows. Nils Noren and McGee are drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups and each are using a kitchen thermometer as a stirrer. It is a highly scientific approach to Sunday morning caffeination.

Veronica gives me a wave from the front row. I fear that she may be sitting a little too close to the deep fryer…

It is 90 degrees outside, and they have increased the air conditioning in the International Culinary Theater, but the subject is “heat.” McGee says it is complicated, but in reality, heat is an ingredient.

The concept is so simple that those of us (like me) with science-phobia might actually miss the point. Heat – or the energy of that makes atoms move faster – transforms everything we cook, and understanding its properties and the ways to manipulate it are key to success in the kitchen.

Nils and David Arnold launch into a series of exercises to illustrate the properties of heat. McGee pulls out something called a “thermocouple thermometer” which looks like an Iphone on steroids with wire probes extending from its base like tentacles. He also has an infrared thermometer which resembles one of Captain Kirk’s phasers. Nils and David are locked in a fierce competition. It’s like Iron Chef for science geeks. They each boil a pot of water using a different conductive technology. David uses a magnetic field burner, and his pot is simmering in just less than three minutes. Dave sears a steak, and Nils flips a steak repeatedly to see which cooks faster. Nils has the more evenly cooked steak. McGee takes the temperature at three different spots in a pot of boiling water to show how heat and cold circulate. By the conclusion of the segment, I’m convinced that I’m running a fever and that the heat conductibility of my kitchen equipment is inferior. When the lunch break arrives, I am ready to head straight to Sur La Table and buy new pots and pans.

Veronica suggests a more cost-effective alternative, and we walk to the Balthazar sandwich and pastry counter on Spring Street to pick up lunch and bring it back to the classroom. She can’t resist a cherry clafouti tart for dessert, which I help her finish. Afterwards, I learn that she had already had cherry clafouti tart for dessert last night and the leftovers for breakfast!

As soon as McGee has finished his lunch sandwich, I approach him to sign my edition of “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” He neatly prints the inscription inside the cover with a fountain pen. I ask him how he moved from the study of literature to kitchen science. He tells me that he was an undergraduate in science, before switching to literature. It was tough to get jobs, and as he searched for something to write about, he found that “nobody was writing about the science of everyday life.”

I then ask if literature and science require similar skills. He says they are really different disciplines – “One is research, and one is expression.” He admits he always loved the research phase of his studies, digging into each new topic. I can see how he earned the nick name of “The Curious Cook.” He personifies the convergence of the analytical and the creative mind.

The afternoon is devoted to a variety of topics, including the rather technical ramifications of the process called “sous vide” which is vacuum sealing. We also examine how the cell structure of potatoes and vegetables can be manipulated by holding them at various temperatures for defined periods of time. As we near the end of the day, we have sampled beef cubes, scallops, green beans and potatoes cooked at a variety of temperatures. It’s kind of an endless parade of appetizers. With that in mind, we close by sampling grapefruit juice which has been clarified by adding gelatin and freezing and then defrosting the mixture. It is sparkling, smooth and crystal clear and all of the bitterness has been eliminated. It is served with a “splash” of gin. I ask what the proportions are and one our Iron Chefs says, “We just eyeballed it.”

Later, Veronica and I head for the Little Owl in Greenwich Village for dinner, so I can hear the story of her life as a food blogger. That however is a story for another post!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Harold McGee Lecture Series (Part One)

The alarm pierces my sleep at 5 a.m. and I must come face-to-face with my fear of science. I earned a whopping D+ in high school chemistry. The “plus” was awarded for showing up and staying awake. After all these years, I still shudder a bit when people talk about chemical reactions …

But when the opportunity arose to return to the French Culinary Institute in New York City for a three day lecture series and crash course in culinary science with the legendary Harold McGee, I had to do it.

Fortunately, there’s no letter grade. It’s not even Pass/Fail. I just have to show up. I suppose that’s the perfect definition of “adult education.”

I make the pilgrimage into New York and arrive at FCI to register. I offer my “everyday name” to the woman in charge and take a seat on a slightly uncomfortable folding chair. It is a medium-sized classroom with not enough chairs for the students present. It’s all looking frightfully low-tech, with none of the Mr. Wizard pizzazz I’ve anticipated.

There seem to be 15 to 20 participants consisting of current FCI students, culinary professionals and talented amateurs. There are braids, Lacoste shirts and “kitchen-inappropriate” flip-flops. One woman is cramming from McGee’s classic tome “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” One guy has an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth.

Shortly before 9 a.m. we are led into the International Culinary Theater where Harold McGee and company await. McGee is a tall, slender bearded man with closely cropped hair and a furrowed brow, wearing a tattersall button-down shirt and khakis. There are raw cuts of meat on the workstation and a blender is running. He is joined by Nils Noren, Vice President of Culinary Arts and David Arnold, Director of Culinary Technology. Arnold wears a lab coat instead of an apron. The last time I saw him at FCI he appeared to be trying to blow something up inside a microwave oven.
Arnold makes introductions and state unequivocally that this series is not about “food science” but “culinary technology.” I’m curious about the differences and what drives McGee. From the moment he speaks, he makes his motivation clear – this is all about “the application of science to become a better cook.”

McGee’s face beams as he describes in a mellow voice the joy of pursuing curiosity in the kitchen. He promises “controlled chaos” and “creative chaos” in the 50 experiments and demonstrations they will perform over the next three days.

He opens with an overview of the evolution of science in the kitchen and takes us through a long and checkered history of culinary explorers and kitchen discoveries. Today, it’s all perceived as somewhat avant garde but, he makes a case that the early origins of science in the kitchen can be traced back to the 1750s, where one expert named Francois Marin made the statement that modern cooking “is a form of chemistry.” Today, chefs like Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal are setting up their own laboratories and revisiting the principles of science in the kitchen.

McGee dissects it down to several concepts that even I – with my miserable scientific pedigree – can understand. Thinking like a scientist in the kitchen is all about being curious and seeking understanding, being skeptical and questioning common wisdom and playing with your food to discover new answers.

And play, they do with a focus on specific ingredients and their properties. The team dives into an experiment to determine if searing meat actually seals in the juices. They prepare skirt steak several ways to test the theory, and the theater smells like a Beefsteak Charlie’s. McGee maintains that you must craft kitchen experiments that focus on one factor at a time, observe carefully, and keep a log book of results. The whole focus should be to think carefully about the question you want to answer.

In the case of the seared meat, we learn a lot I didn’t realize. The “sizzle” when the meat hits the pan is actually moisture reacting with the heat and escaping from the meat. But the meat proteins are also squeezing shut. If that’s the case, the sizzle should stop, but there is continuous sizzle and moisture loss. They prepare the steak several ways – including cooking at low temperature and brining and we sample chunks of each. The “juicier” meats cooked under low temperatures actually have less flavor. So the conclusion to the experiment is that you do not sear meat to seal in the juices, but actually to make it more flavorful. My taste buds agree.

During the morning break, a woman with jet black hair, sparkling dark eyes and a sunny countenance approaches me and tells me she observed me registering my name and vital statistics with the registrar this morning.

“Do you ever go by T.W. Barritt?” she asks.

“Um…yes,” I say, rather startled. As someone who usually manages to travel in complete anonymity I’m not sure what to expect next.

She extends her hand and smiles. “I’m Veronica,” she says.

My jaw drops. Veronica, the passionate blogosphere chef who pursues culinary solutions in her Test Kitchen, was one of my first regular readers and commentators and there she is standing right in front of me in the flesh! I’ve often wondered if I’d ever meet her. We are both pleased at the sheer culinary karma of this unexpected encounter and agree to talk at lunch.

The rest of the morning toggles between scientific discovery and culinary myth busting. McGee debunks the idea that an avocado pit can keep avocado puree green and introduces a segment called “Rediscovering the Egg” where we learn about the reaction that occurs when egg proteins are heated and coagulate. We scrutinize the different consistencies of egg foams whipped in copper and glass bowls and sample “Thousand Year” eggs preserved in acid where the egg white has turned a purplish-brown and the yolk is the color of jade. I take a bite and the former egg white is the consistency of gelatin.

As we break for lunch, I’m beginning to get the picture. The science of the kitchen is all about poking, prodding and testing the boundaries of what we know, carefully observing the results and applying the knowledge to future culinary pursuits. It is extraordinary to have Harold McGee as our congenial and professorial guide through this journey of discovery.

Veronica and I head to a local sandwich bar called the Miro Café for lunch and immerse ourselves in getting acquainted. For two people who’ve never met face-to-face, we know quite a bit about each other. We exchange cards. She hands me hers with the distinctive animated logo of a passionate kitchen scientist immersed in culinary discovery. Our conversation is snippets of questions and recollections from past postings. At times, we are finishing each other’s sentences.

“How did the Hungry Hubby survived CIA boot camp?” I ask.

“I went to Balthazar for dinner last night,” she says. “You know I’m in search of the perfect duck confit.”

“I’m going to Ottawa next week …” I start.

“…to see Jill?” she finishes.

I learn that Veronica studied engineering – hence the scientific and systematic approach to food – and she uses the blog as a way to organize her thoughts and results. She is also considering the purchase of a microscope and wants to do more baking. The conversation is a delight.

“You’re the first blogger I’ve actually met in real life,” she says.

Back in Harold McGee’s Test Kitchen, we “explore emulsions” and their characteristics in everything from balsamic vinaigrette to mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce and ice cream. The theories are becoming clearer as I observe, taste and make notations. Emulsions are either added or already present and coat the fat droplets. Cream can be manipulated into butter and back into cream again. You can incorporate several gallons of oil into a single egg yolk. Somehow, translating science through food actually makes sense to me. The heck with the Periodic Table.

We wrap the session in an effervescent mood studying the effects of oxygen on wine. We watch David Arnold aerate red wine until it tastes soft and mellow, and sample Riesling to which he has added CO2. We taste champagnes from California and France to assess the tastes of each sparkling wine in its bubbly and flat state.

The next session will focus on specific culinary techniques and Veronica and I make plans to discover the local cuisine of Manhattan tomorrow so I can investigate more about her adventures in blogging.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 06, 2007

Breakfast in the Berkshires

The statue of the Newspaper Delivery Boy greets me once again as I enter Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It has a Norman Rockwell-esque quality and the way he thrusts the paper forward always catches my eye. This somewhat quaint, antiquated symbol of the early information age has become my symbolic greeter each time I return to the Berkshires.

There is a line of gentle, rolling mountains that separates the border of New York and Massachusetts. The Berkshire Mountains stretch from the Northern section of Connecticut well into Vermont. The region is sprinkled with magical destinations – Tanglewood, Shakespeare & Company, Monument Mountain, Mount Greylock, Chesterwood and The Mount. Music, imagination, language and culture infuse the crisp, pine-drenched air.

One of the key reasons I’ve come back year after year is the people and the breakfasts at the Rookwood Inn on 11 Old Stockbridge Road in Lenox, Massachusetts. Innkeeper Amy Lindner-Lesser has owned the Rookwood Inn since October 1996, when she and her late husband Stephen left their careers in social work to come to the Berkshires. The oldest portion of the inn was built in 1825 and was located in the center of the village. It was later moved to its current location and several additions were added. Described as a “painted lady” in the Victorian style, the mauve and violet hues of the Rookwood are a distinctive sight in the historic village.

I’ve been away for some time, but it all feels incredibly comfortable and familiar, like a second home or a special retreat. I sleep better here, and I am able to forget daily pressures. Classical music fills the breakfast room, and the tables are decorated with American flags for the Independence Day holiday. I enter, and Amy and her right-hand, Christine Manarchik are both already hard at work in the kitchen. This particular morning, the entrée is scrambled eggs flecked with spinach in a crispy parmesan cup, and garnished with chives from the kitchen garden.

Breakfasts are made with heart-healthy ingredients and lots of flavor. Steve was a graduate of the Hotel Management program at The Restaurant School in Philadelphia, and developed many of the recipes still used today, but Amy and Chris continue to experiment with new dishes that are low in fat and sugar.

“Our recipes are low fat, easy and delicious,” says Amy as we chat over coffee about the Rookwood breakfast menu.

“We get lots of requests for the recipes,” says Chris. She describes her cooking methodology as Italian-style. “I don’t measure anything,” she confesses.

Another morning I’m presented with an individual breakfast parfait, layered with granola and vanilla yogurt and finished with a patriotic flourish of strawberries and blueberries.
A Croissant a l’Orange is an ingenious variation on a soufflé. One croissant is sliced in half and placed in an individual soufflé dish. Marmalade and tart orange zest is layered inside along with a custard of cholesterol-free eggs and a little half-and-half for flavor. A sweet orange aroma rises as I puncture the flakey golden crust with a fork.

In the afternoon, I relax on the rambling porch with a homemade chocolate chip cookie and some pink lemonade. It is summertime at its finest.

Amy has been vowing for years to publish “The Rookwood Cookbook.” I’m lobbying hard that this be the year. She’s got all the right ingredients – hospitality, flavor, a vintage setting and that touch of Berkshires magic that has brought me back each summer season.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Taggged by The Food Blogga

Susan, the clever author of one of my must-read blogs, “The Food Blogga,” has tagged me with the “7 Random Things about Myself” meme. Since today is the first birthday of “Culinary Types,” it seems quite appropriate to accept the tag and add a little dimension to my profile. My other option was the “What was I doing 10 Years Ago,” meme, but 1997 seems like an awfully long time ago, and I’ve worked hard to repress as much of it as possible.

So, here are 7 Random Things about Myself:

1. I am the third of four brothers, and I have two outstanding nephews. Women mostly marry into this family, although my dad had a sister and she had four daughters. We paired up nicely at family gatherings.

2. While “The Food Blogga” confesses she has never eaten a Twinkie, I once harbored a serious addiction for the yellow cream-filled sponge cakes. Twinkies were such a staple of my brown bag lunch in Junior High that my seventh grade crush at the time dubbed me “Twinkie the Kid.”

3. My younger brother and I have called each other Fred since high school. It has something to do with our eccentric astronomy instructor in High School, who as you might imagine was named Fred, and an obscure reference in an Alfred (there’s that name again) Hitchcock movie.

4. While my favorite place to be is the kitchen, my second favorite haunt is a museum of any kind. I have to resist signing up for those sleepover nights in museums, because I know I’m really too old.

5. I actually once sent in an audition tape for the first series of “The Next Food Network Star.” I didn’t make the cut, as you might have guessed. However, the salmon I made during the “shoot” was pretty tasty.

6. I’m not good at making small talk at parties – especially office parties.

7. I’m considered particularly dependable in emergencies.

With those true confessions off my chest, on this first anniversary of the debut of this blog, let me offer my thanks to all of those “culinary types” whose stories have been the ingredients for this blog, and thanks to all of you who keep coming back for extra helpings. I greatly appreciate your visits and your comments.

Now, according to the “rules,” I must tag five people who can choose to play if they so desire. I choose:

Jann, the Traveling Food Lady

Veronica of Veronica’s Test Kitchen (because I’m dying to hear more about her time at Culinary Boot Camp)

Fellow native-Long Islander Christine of My Plate or Yours

Valentina of Sweet Temptations

Patricia of Technicolor Kitchen

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Getting Emotional about Cinnamon Ice Cream

I’M SCREAMING!!! Yes, summer is here, and I’M SCREAMING FOR ICE CREAM!!!

OK, it’s the biggest cliché going about one of the world’s most uncomplicated treats, but you’re paying attention now, right?

Who knows where the phrase came from, but it sure is rich with imagery and calories. Ice cream can evoke all kinds of emotions and memories. Ice cream inspires wild creativity, as in the Garlic Ice Cream on the menu at the Stinking Rose in San Francisco, the Basil Ice Cream I tasted at the restaurant, La Madeleine in Burgundy last autumn, or the sinfully-smooth gelato at the Bar Vovoli Gelateria in Florence, Italy that claims to be the best ice cream on the planet.

Ice cream can evoke a memory of times past, a season or a place. My brothers and cousins always knew that Sunday Dinner at Nana and Grandpa’s would conclude with Nana stealing away to the kitchen to beat fresh whipped cream by hand that we’d plop in generous dollops atop absurdly tall ice cream sundaes. As a youngster, I always associated Friendly’s Peppermint Stick Ice Cream with Christmas, and my little brother would inevitably request a trip to Carvel for soft vanilla ice cream in a cone the minute Memorial Day arrived and signaled the start of summer. Of course, he called the holiday, “Remorial Day.”

Ice cream is the stuff of legends. There are unsubstantiated tales of Marco Polo discovering ice cream in China and bringing it to Italy. First Lady Dolly Madison was said to have served ice cream at the inauguration of her husband James in 1813. Perhaps more historically accurate, President Thomas Jefferson gets lots of credit for popularizing ice cream in the newly formed United States of America, particularly because there is a recipe written in his own hand for Vanilla Ice Cream, a popular dessert at his Monticello home.

For me, this humble concoction of milk, eggs and cream can instantly transport me to the “Happy Dimension.” When things get tedious at the office, I escape to the Mister Softee truck on 51st Street for a touch of frozen custard therapy. This past “Remorial Day” weekend, I ventured out to the North Fork of Long Island and enjoyed a lovely outdoor lunch at a restaurant called The Lobster Roll. Their signature chunky lobster roll is worth the price of the trip, but their Cinnamon Ice Cream is a dairy delight and sent me soaring into the summer season.

What could be better than this combination of balmy spice and cool cream? The deeply aromatic cinnamon comes from the bark of tropical trees and is one of the oldest spices in recorded history.

Back home from the North Fork and facing the harsh realities of daily life, I was convinced I could recreate that sweet, sun-drenched moment at the Lobster Roll. The recipe is incredibly simple. You just need to commit to a little time at the pot stirring the custard, and carefully watching as it thickens. Plan ahead. The custard should be extremely cold before you put it into the ice cream maker, or it may not firm up as needed. Your best bet is to make the custard the night before, so it has a good eight hours to chill in the refrigerator before you churn it into thick, tawny mountains of snow. Be prepared. A mere two teaspoons of good quality cinnamon is intense and will send your palate on a whirlwind expedition on the Spice Route of antiquity.

The luscious, honey-colored peaks invite exploration. The taste – silky, extravagant and exotic, yet at the same time comforting, evoking Mom, childhood and warm cinnamon-sugar toast.

I can hear you SCREAMING right now…

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved