The pressure’s high, just to stay alive / ‘Cause the heat is on…
”Summer is for leisure. Slow down. Take a break. Tune in,” the real me has been whispering to the other me for a long-long time. Multitasking and distractions have been my pet peeve this season (if not this year). I’ve been so busy and exhausted I stopped admiring food for a while: simple fresh garden food. Can you imagine? What can be worse for the food blogger in summer? I felt food numb, almost like that hilarious food critic played by the legendary Louis de Funès in The Wingor Thigh movie (L’Aile ou la Cuisse) when he was stroke by engurdie(food numbness in French) Naturally, I used this state as an excuse to start grilling dinners from anything I could grab fast on my way back home, mostly meat: bangers, steaks, chops, chicken breasts… Boys were happy, but soon enough I couldn’t tell apart grilled steak, pork, or chicken. They all tasted like trash to me and just added to the constant headache and fatigue. I wanted to slow down the time and get present again with the food I eat. I needed a good energy fuel. I started grilling peppers, zucchinis, radishes, scallions, eggplants, cauliflower to assuage the animal’s protein guilt and damage. Everything still tasted boring, but was at least a step up from just meat & salad. I’ve experimented with dozen takes on salsa verde and chimichurri… Hmm, better, but still boring. I couldn’t find the ingredient that would bring me back to life. I suppose this is what chefs or writers, or critics call BLOCK.
Then the asparagus season came and I decided to stop for 30 minutes and took time to explore just ONE very simple thing: how to make a perfect grilled asparagus. The result was outstanding: I finally was able to enjoy my dinner. I also learned a new skill and for a split second actually felt accomplished. It brought me back to the focus I craved so much.
Fast, affordable, simple, elegant, light, nutritious, this dish made me happy. As they say, happiness is not perfect until it’s shared with others, so I’m sharing it with you. Packed with UMAMI, the mysterious mouth filling fifth flavor plays very well with 4 other taste receptors in this quite minimalistic dish. Asparagus is a known umami intensifier, which in this recipe is powerfully enhanced by the Asian-style brushing sauce made of olive/sesame oil, dash of soya sauce, garlic and Dijon and sesame seeds sprinkle. Wow, as simple as it is, it makes FLAVORS GALORE!
Tip No 1. Previously, I used Mark Bittman’s recipe to drizzle the asparagus with olive oil (sometimes I would stretch to bacon drippings, or duck fat) throw it on a BBQ for a good 10-15 minutes along with other vegetables. Although acceptable, my grilled asparagus always left much to be desired.
I suspected that time and temperature had to do with it, but so all us do with boiled eggs, yet very few actually know or take time to check the exact timing to boil a perfect egg hard, coddled (soft boiled), or mollet (semi-liquid yolk). Last year I was reading My Canada Eats Foie Gras memoir by food critic Jacob Richler and in one particular story famous Torontonian, Chef Marc Thuet, was explaining in a very core way that the perfectly cooked asparagus has to be al dente. A-HA!
Tip No 2. I’ve always been frustrated with having to use giant tongs to grab the asparagus losing many valuable spears through the grill. It took me only few minutes to figure out the technique to grill a perfect asparagus from a pro: Sesame Grilled Asparagus recipe from Chef Steve Raichlen which I actually use for this post, with the brushing sauce slightly modified. He uses pre-soaked wooden toothpicks or bamboo skewers to make a raft boat from 4-5 spears at a time. What a genius idea!
Tip No 3. Finally, the dressing: before, during grilling, or after? I tried all three and they all work well with me. Some don’t like the bitter touch of the burnt oil, so they prefer to season the grilled asparagus after. I personally love the taste of that char, so I brush the asparagus rafts before and during grilling.
Tip No 4. Is optional and relates to the gardening. Last fall, around mid-October I made an experiment and planted some cut offs of asparagus spears into our garden (1-2 inches deep). I completely forgot about it. Last week I was mulching and saw some tiny little asparagus sprouts popping up. WHOA! Definitely maybe I will be planting more this year (will try to use the leftovers all summer long too): it’s a beautiful perennial, great veg and makes one of the most beautiful foliage to please the eye of a picky gardener or a florist. Try it for yourself in preferably half-shadow, moist place (starting it close to compost would be the best idea) planting 3 to 4-inches long cut offs 1-2 inches deep.
Soak skewers in cold water for 1 hour in a shallow pan. Drain and set aside.
Preheat grill to high. Snap off the woody bases of the asparagus and discard. Skewer 4 or 5 asparagus spears together, using the toothpicks or 2 bamboo skewers, forming a raft shape.
Combine the olive, sesame oil, soy sauce, mustard and garlic in a small bowl. Stir with a fork to mix. Brush this mixture on the asparagus rafts on both sides. Season the asparagus with a little salt and lots of pepper.
When ready to cook, place the asparagus rafts on the hot grate and grill until nicely browned on both sides, 90 seconds per side. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds as they grill. You can serve the asparagus as rafts or un-skewered.
Note: This recipe makes a large quantity. If necessary, cut the amounts of ingredients accordingly.
This post might look like an epic tale about what you can do with roasted cauliflower, but it is basically one undeniably mighty fine and elemental soup formula, which on the merits of simplicity, economy and taste is hard to beat. Depending on the take you decide to choose, the cream of roasted cauliflower can stretch from a bowl of a humble cold weather comfort to the utterly festive haute cuisine dish you’d find in Michelin-star gastro-pub, or at a festive banquette.
In this post I will feature the following five splendid recipes:
As you might have noticed already, some images from our latest travel through Quebec countryside and NYC full of spring blossom made a splendid back drop to showcase these recipes.
First thing first: why roasting cauliflower? Why not just boil it? Good point. Roasting cauliflower (see the tips below) to slightly browned and caramelized taste gives an added value, as does any extra ingredient from spice to vegetable, to nut, or bacon, or crustacean bits. This soup tastes wonderful when served piping hot, but on a hot sunny day you can cool it down and serve with the splash of cream or almond milk. The basic roasted cauliflower soup formula is gluten free and totally vegan. Most importantly, for a simple few ingredients dish, it’s a low-caloric highly nutritional flavor bomb that you can easily overdose on few times a day feeling deeply satisfied and guilt-free. Which I guess is especially crucial now that many of us are poppin’ bikini/speedo tags, n’est–ce pas?
TIPS on ROASTING CAULIFLOWER: The method of oven roasting cauliflower in most recipes suggests that you separate the cauliflower into the florets, season with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast it at 350F to 400F for up to 30 minutes. Well, my experience suggests that cutting the cauliflower into the 1-inch thick steaks works better and using the oven preheated to 425F for 20-30 minutes, provides better, more evenly roasted results. Note, if your oven is very powerful, keep the temperature at 400F.
SPRING TO WINTER: My favorite all-year version is with hazelnut brown butter and a pinch of smoked chili/paprika or curry (the choice is yours) garnish. It is easy, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, adding a smoky nut crunch contrast to the creamy cauliflower goodness. It is exceptionally balanced and the combination is thought out and trendy. How about turning it up more by doubling on the smoke and crunch with some bits of bacon? HEAVENLY…
TIP on SHELLING HAZELNUTS: Contrary to the popular advice to shell hot roasted hazelnuts in a slightly wet towel (which doesn’t do a good job from my experience), this good ol’ tip coming from the SNL sketch look-alike video from 70s with glorious Julia Childprovides the fool-proof result on shelling hazelnuts (ps: this video will also arm you with a biscotti recipe).
Adding one or more vegetables (i.e. leeks, sweet potato, squash, etc.) to the roasting process and/or some sautéed greens to garnish can make an interesting twist in flavor and nutritional value. Try adding any root vegetable of your choice in fall or winter, and/or some garden/foraged greens in spring or summer. I like to apply almost any fresh farmers market finds to it, like in this version with chives and foraged fiddlehead ferns (pre-steamed or sautéed for 3-5 minutes in butter).
I use whatever is in season, from chives and green peas in summer; to corn, squash and pumpkin in fall; to cubed sweet potatoes or carrots in winter – the basic formula is a wonderful host for all of them. The only non-variable remains cauliflower.
SPECIAL OCCASIONS. The Cream of Roasted Cauliflower with Lobster Dumplings comes to my memory first. I remember having this exquisite soup at the wedding reception years ago. Fixed wedding menus/dishes can be hit or miss, with most of the time being and unfortunate miss of which young Winston Churchill would say: “It would have been splendid… if the wine had been as cold as the soup, the beef as rare as the service, the brandy as old as the fish, and the maid as willing as the duchess.” But that time the food was exceptionally good. I consumed that bowl of soup with reverent awe. Later, I found the approaching recipe on Food Network by Chef Michael Symon, whose taste buds I trust almost blind-foldedly. I used a roasted cauliflower instead of the sautéed one and the result was fantastic.
Today I’m sharing this recipe with you. This riff on roasted cauliflower is highly festive, helps to stretch the lobster to many plates and evokes the felling of comfort and elegance. If lobster is difficult to find, feel free to use shrimp (peeled, cooked and deveined) instead.
For the top notch finish, season with coarsely ground black pepper and drizzle with a bit of truffle oil.
And for the lobster dumplings:
I made it with the mix of crumbled goat cheese and feta bought from Chevriere de Monnoir farm I wrote about previously here and here. I also modified it by adding some roasted chestnuts (which you can buy now small-packaged in Adonis and even Walmart) into the soup and garnish and added a few drops of maple syrup. It came up sweet and umami and lick-the-plate-clean good. If goat cheese is not your thing, try it with grated cheddar, Monterey Jack, Gouda, Emmental, Swiss, etc. or any cheese that you put in your favorite cheese fondue – all would work wonders in this forgiving cream of soup formula.
|Red Wine Braised Goat Shoulder with Roasted Sweet Potatoes. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
What we have in our house of cards for the main today is a new kid on the block: braised goat shoulder. Please don’t run away, it’s actually better than anything you can imagine braised in red wine, especially if you buy it fresh from the farm where they treat their goats with love and respect. Once you try it, you will know why the goat meat is the most widely consumed around the globe. Heavenly tasty! Paired with roasted sweet potatoes spiked with caraway seeds on a side it’s a pure delight. FYI, this recipe also works very well with goat/lamb shanks as well as the goat/lamb leg or shoulder. PS: this post is also written to encourage you to leave the metropolis from time to time to enjoy the incredible farm scenery in Quebec.
|View of Montreal City Downtown from the Farm Road. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
|Chevriere de Monnoir Goat Farm, Quebec. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
Contrary to the widely popular goat cheese, goat meat is not exactly a food staple in North America. For those of you who never tried the goat before and believe that it can be a challenging experience, here is an advice about eating some exotic foods for the first time from Jay Rayner, The Man Who Ate The World: ‘…(Chef) Marcus made a very good point in last night’s show: that the odd is only odd the first time you eat it. After that it just becomes dinner. How right he is. A similar point could be made about the use of the word “exotic” when attached to certain food stuffs. What may be exotic to us, is part of the staple diet to others. For example, both Jody and Tony cooked with goat, which happens to be the most commonly consumed red meat in the world. It’s just not the U.S. and Europe that’s doing all the consuming. Goats are sturdy animals which can survive in arid conditions and that’s why they are so popular in Africa and the Middle East. Jody might not have much call for it in her corner of New England, but that doesn’t make it particularly outré. The same is true of black chickens, monkfish livers, and the rest.’
Goat meat is not just about its unique taste quality, check this comparative table of meats and you will quickly notice that goat (chevon) is much lower in calories, minimal in fat and strikingly low in saturated fat while higher in protein than beef or lamb.
|Boutique at Chevriere de Monnoir Goat Farm, Quebec. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
|Fresh Goat Curd Cheese from Chevriere de Monnoir Farm, QC. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
Don’t expect to just get away with $10.00 – there are so many choices, you can get lost. Their goat milk is pristine and their cheeses are to die for! The daily fresh curd cheese is my absolute favorite (the bag usually never reaches our house – I empty the whole bag while driving) and feta cheese is hard to beat.
|Quebec Countryside. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
Because it is very low in fat, the goat meat requires a slow cooking with some additional fat: I used bacon strips. The bacon adds a nice touch of smokiness and brings richness and the crunchy indulgence to this slow-cooked dish that along with herbs and spices lift it far beyond a mere meat roast. I also layered the botton of the pan with carrots to place the meat over to prevent burning: you can choose to eat them or discard after. The taste of meat is rich, mineral and distinctly sweet (perhaps because of the way goats graze: unlike the sheep goats never eat roots of the grass).
|Step by Step Braised Goat Shoulder Preparation. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
If you have time, marinating the meat overnight (rub it with ¼ cup of olive oil, mixed with three cloves of crushed garlic, 1-2 tablespoon of dried thyme, coarse sea salt and pepper) would be a good idea – the meat will turn out to be more tender and juicier. Although this recipe calls for the red wine, feel free to opt for half a bottle of beer, ½ cup of brandy or 2 cups of dry apple cider. I garnish the cooked meat with minced crisp bacon I used to cover the meat, fresh lemon zest and minced parsley for an extra punch of the flavor – worked well, adding notes of crisp, smoke, tang and freshness.
|Red Wine Braised Goat Shoulder. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
The pan-roasted sweet potatoes with caraway seeds perfectly complements the dish and is fast and easy to make.
|Pan Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Caraway Seeds. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
If you happen to have the leftovers, just warm up the meat in the skillet along with some other root veggies cooked in the braised sauce – mouthwatering!
|Goat Shoulder with Roasted Root Vegetables. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
Here’s my other secret agenda about the goat: it might be that secret dream worker I’ve been looking for years to take over our tractor-cutting-the-grass summer labour (we have a big land – cutting the grass is a bummer). If they do it in France and California, we can do that too, right? Imagine how much time it would save, not to mention the eco-benefits!
|Chevriere de Monnoir Goat Farm Trademark. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
Carefully, I approach the issue with the farm owner, Marie-France Marchand: ‘Have you ever thought about renting one of your goats for summer?’ She grins and just nods and nods. ‘One day may be,’she chimes in as she catches my eye. This gives me hope. I love her goats. And her products. We will be back.
|Interview with Marie-France Marchand at Chevriere de Monnoir Goat Farm. Photo © www.letsheatit.com|
SPEEDY PAN ROASTED SWEET POTATOES WITH CARAWAY SEEDS
|This is our next morning Sunday Brunch photo: Rainbow Broth & Fried Sushi – What a Wonderful Marriage!|
Well, may be except for this case, although the broth does help to stop devouring the sushi a bit earlier…
PS: SATURDAY AFTERNOON REPORT. This is what we just had (a day after me featuring the proverbial broth): the out of this world fried sushi I made last night on a wing, but was too tired to eat at midnight to avoid having my next visceral cauchemar… We just had them now for brunch, and LIFE CAN’T BE ANY MORE BEAUTIFUL. Viva Japanese breakfast!
PS2: God, I need to start Instagram!