Monday, December 31, 2012

Culatello or the King of Prosciutto

If culatello is the king of prosciutto, what is the queen?

This was the first question that struck me as I started to read and learn about culatello.

After just a little thinking and reading, the answer became obvious: Jamon Iberico de Bellota.  A Spanish variety of cured, dried and aged ham.  So what makes Jamon Iberico de Bellota the queen?

Let's start with the pig, a gorgeous black color.  The pig version of the little black dress.  The thigh itself is large with fat winding its way through: Can you think of a more feminine image than a luscious thigh?  The process itself is simple, some would say almost self-contained, there's none of this dicing and slicing and wrapping in a bladder.  It is the thigh and salt, like a woman with character, nothing else is needed.  And of course, it's pricey.  Jamon Iberico de Bellota, the queen of cured ham.

Unfortunately, for this post I am playing with the king.  For several reasons.  He's smaller.  The culatello cut is only part of the back leg, the rump if you like, or the ass if you're feeling a bit spiteful.  It is deboned making it far more manageable, a puppet king one could say.  For my first attempt at a prosciutto, small and manageable seemed appropriate (and less wasteful if it all goes to heck).

I trotted up to my butcher, where I originally heard about culatello, to pick up my delightful little rump. They even managed to bring in a bladder for me, and a mighty big bladder it is.  Once I arrived home I unwrapped my meat to find it tied beautifully, unfortunately, I had to cut it apart because the skin was still attached and Ruhlman clearly says in his new book Salumi the meat should be skinless.

Just to brag for a moment, I am getting darn good at skinning pig meat.  The key is a sharp knife and a watchful eye.  You can see my directions here.

Once the meat hunk was skinned, I tied it back up in a rather unartful fashion.  But it was my first time and your first time is always a bit sloppy.  Once it was tied, I took several large handfuls of salt and coated the meat, massaging it in.  Then into the fridge it went for just over a week.

After a week and a quick bath in some white wine, it was ready for wrapping and hanging.  I soaked my pig bladder in hot water for several hours until it was nice and soft.  Then I cut it open, slipped the meat hunk inside and sewed it up.

Funny story.  I needed a trussing needle and yelled downstairs to my mom (it's Christmas, I'm at the 'rents and that's where I'm hanging my culatello) to see if she had one.  She did.  But it was my late Grandpa's.  For some reason, while he was in his old folks home he asked my mom to bring him a large needle.  What did he use it for?  None of us know...

Anyways, to tie the culatello, make several loops around it lengthwise and then twist twine horizontally through the loops.  Think of it as a net for your meat.  I hung mine in a cleaned out storage closet in my parents basement.  There is also rosemary, thyme and lavender hanging so my culatello feels like it is in Italy.

My parents live in North Vancouver and our climate is Coastal Rainforest meaning the air is quite humid so I am just going to leave the space as is with no extra sources of moisture.

Check back in six months when it should be ready.

The Verdict

The process is fun...  What will it taste like?


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

EPIC Christmas Eve Brunch 2012

Every year I host a Christmas Eve Brunch in my little apartment for a big group of mostly family with a few friends.  The numbers often get up into the late teens, early twenties so it is definitely a packed house.  My favorite part of this tradition (now in its fifth year) is choosing the theme.  I was struggling a bit with a theme this year, nothing was really standing out, that is until I was half-way through my trip to Ecuador!

Of course!  An Ecuadorian Christmas Eve Brunch!

Here's the plan:


Green mango slices with lime, salt, and pepper.  This was one of my favorite snack foods in Ecuador.  Green or very light yellow mango slices are packed into a little bag and sprinkled with salt and pepper.  Very refreshing and a wonderful way to wake up your palate in the morning!


Cafe con leche.  Made with my Ecuadorian roasted coffee topped with some delicious whipped cream and freshly ground canela.  I brought canela home from Mercado Central but in the hub-bub of almost 20 people in my apartment I forgot to put it out.  I put one of my cousins on latte duty and she made cows milk and soy milk lattes for my guests. 


Double-fried green bananas.  How could I not serve these delicious morning treats?  They were a breakfast staple on the farm.  Making them is simple.  The green banana is cut into 2-inch chunks and fried until golden.  The fried chunks are then smashed and fried again.  Keep them in the oven until you are ready to serve breakfast.

Queso blanco.  I love making cheese and this cheese is quite simple.  We also ate this fresh cheese on the farm as the neighbor next door made it.  While mine doesn't have the same depth of flavour (if only I had a cow outside my door to milk), it was quite yummy.

Fruit salad.  Watermelon, apple, banana, and papaya.  An Ecuadorian essential.

Avocado chunks.

Salsa.  A touch of culantro, red onion, tomato paste, chile to drizzle over the cheese...  Mmmm.
And that was my Ecuadorian-inspired EPIC Christmas Eve Brunch!  It was wonderful to share the food traditions I learned on the farm with my own family.

The Verdict

Like every Christmas Eve Brunch it is a packed affair.  My apartment is a decent size but once I fit, er, cram, 18 people in, it feels pretty small.  I really appreciate that my family humours me every year, shows up and eats me out of house and home.  The consensus this year was that the plantains were delicious.  A bunch of people in my family had never tried plantains before and I was happy to introduce them.  They also loved the queso blanco.  As well, my coffee was a hit!  It doesn't taste like the coffee we have here, but I don't know why.  Perhaps it's the roasting?  Or the bean is different?  Whatever the case, smelling it instantly brought me back to Ecuador...  Another EPIC Christmas Eve Brunch over, which leaves me with the question - what will next years theme be???


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Spicy Smoked Pancetta & Lemon Coriander Pancetta

Every Christmas all of the cousins in my family do a Christmas gift exchange.  This year I got my cousin Hamish.  He's the perfect person to gift with his love of all things meaty.  So what was I going to get him?  Hmmm, ponder, ponder, ponder.  Ahhhh, yes.  Bacon.  No, pancetta.  No, smoked pancetta!  The best of both worlds!  

I decided on two types of pancetta.  The first would be flavoured and the second would be smoked and flavoured.  And guess what?  I got to build a smoker.  Oh yes.  Read on...

The first pancetta cured in salt and sugar, diced preserved lemon, toasted coriander and thyme.  I let it sit in the cure for a week, the water slowly seeping out as the salt and lemon worked their way into the belly.  It got a little bath to rinse off the salt and sugar before I grated fresh lemon peel straight onto the belly and then rubbed it with toasted and ground coriander.  Into the drying closet it went.

The second pancetta cured in salt and sugar, hot flaked red pepper and one clove of garlic.  It sat with the other belly, also being massaged and flipped every couple days.  After rinsing, it got another dusting with hot pepper flakes then it was time for smoking.  But I have no smoker!  What's a girl to do?  In my case, I decided to build my own and it worked like a hot damn.

I started with a kettle barbecue.  The little black one that people bring down to the beach.  There are four vent holes out of the top of the barbecue and to that I attached a ProFlex Dryer Vent Duct, with tape.  Oh yeah.  Hi tech.  I cut the dryer vent duct in half, which was the hardest part, and attached the other end to the barbecue grill with twist ties.  I suspended the grill between the backs of two chairs and then on top of the chairs I placed an oven rack.  Voila!  An ultra cold smoker!

I'm not sure what temperature a cold smoker is at normally but I wanted mine as cold as possible because I didn't use any pink curing salt.  How perfect that it is winter in Vancouver right now so it is about refrigerator temperature outside.  My little belly sat on the oven rack above the dryer vent for five hours and I didn't have to worry about food safety at all!

For the smoke itself, I used mesquite.  To light a fire, I bought Lokkii bricks from Canadian Tire and then put handfuls of damp mesquite chips on top of the Lokkii every 20 minutes or so.  The package said that each large charcoal chunk lasted for two hours but mine lasted longer than five hours.  I just stopped after five hours because it was late and I wanted to go to bed.

The belly took on a beautiful color, which I greatly admired as I hustled it down into the drying closet.  Now when I say drying closet, I really mean my unheated storage locker.  And let me tell you, it is smelling smoky.  Sorry other tenants!

After two weeks of drying both pancettas were given a tin foil blanket and passed off to my cousin.

The Verdict

I have no idea!  My cousin is getting four pounds of pancetta and I hope he enjoys it...  Maybe he'll comment on my blog!

Up Next?  My EPIC Christmas Eve Brunch 2012!


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Making Queso Blanco

One thing I really wanted to try was making fresh cheese like I ate in Ecuador.  While it's probably a pale comparison (I don't have a cow outside my door nor a woman whose been making it since childhood), it seems like a relatively easy process.  As well, I am using queso blanco in my Ecuadorian-themed EPIC Christmas Eve brunch this year and because it is one of the stars of the meal, I thought I should try it out beforehand.

The process is super simple and basically foolproof.  I didn't even use a thermometer and it's only my second time experimenting with cheese!


1. Start with fresh milk.  I am going to do a little thinking about where to source my milk for the EPIC brunch.  I might see if the farmer's market has anything to tempt me or I might just go organic.  The point is to buy milk that will make a beautiful cheese so buying the best quality milk you can afford is a good route to go.

2. Heat 2 litres of milk up until it starts to boil and as it's heating, add a heaping tablespoon of salt.  I didn't let my milk get to a roiling boil and the cheese turned out fine but you might want to let it get quite bubbly.  I noticed that my leftover whey was quite cloudy in comparison to other pictures I saw online.  Just sayin'.

3. Once the milk starts to boil, add three tablespoons of white vinegar or another acid and turn the heat down to low.  I'm going to use lemon juice for my brunch, but I didn't have any on hand for today's experiment.

4. Some recipes mention stirring and some mention sitting so do what you feel like.  I stirred my vinegar-milk concoction for about ten minutes and then let it sit a bit.  That worked well for me.

5. Once the whey (the leftover liquid) looks fairly clear, either scoop the curds out or dump the whole mess into a colander/strainer lined with cheesecloth. If you want to keep the whey then make sure the colander is in a bowl.  There aren't a whole lot of uses for the acidulated whey but you can use it for baking, making oatmeal, creating sports drinks, and watering acid loving plants such as roses and rhododendrons.  Waste not, want not!

6. I let my curds sit in the cheesecloth for about ten minutes before scooping out some fresh cheese.  You can put a weight on the cheesecloth to compress the cheese further but fresh off the stove is quite delicious.

I sprinkled mine with salt, which made it absolutely perfect!

The Verdict

What can I say?  I bought a croissant to enjoy with my fresh cheese and honestly they were the perfect combination.  A crusty baguette would be wonderful or a rustic loaf.  The recipe is so simple and so delicious that anyone who has ever even wondered about making cheese should try making this one.

Up Next? Smoked Spicy Pancetta & Lemon Coriander Pancetta


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gingerbread House Cupcakes!!!

I was desperate to make a gingerbread house this year.  Probably because last Christmas I took part in a gingerbread competition (we did an Occupy the North Pole theme) and the competition this year was canceled!  What a let down!  So I decided to go solo and came up with tiny gingerbread houses on cupcakes.  Totally cute in my mind and I have to say they turned out not too bad.  Let me know what you think.

Before I begin?  Where did gingerbread come from?  This is always an interesting question because the beginnings of any foodstuff is murky.  Gingerbread is no exception.  It all supposedly started in Medieval Europe in the 11th century with spiced ginger cake.  Sometimes the cake was hard and sometimes it was soft.  The ginger itself probably came from Asia and I don't know if they have their own variety of ginger cake.  Germany built on the popularity of gingerbread and to this day there are little towns who specialize in gingerbread creations.  And then the Grimm brothers happened.  Hansel and Gretel came to life in their writing and the candy-covered gingerbread house became a mainstay in the popular imagination.

Now on to mine...

First of all I need to confess that I didn't make gingerbread.  I made ginger spiced sugar cookies.  To make the cookies, I followed a Sweetopia recipe.  Just a side note: What an awesome site!  The things that woman can do with icing!  The only change I made is cutting the recipe in half and only using 1ml of baking powder so the cookies didn't puff up.  The fabulous thing about sugar cookie dough is that it's hard to overwork so you can roll it and re-roll it and re-roll it.

I also used her royal icing recipe but really it's just icing sugar with some water and cream of tartar.  I don't use the meringue powder but you might want to if you are making something large and architectural.


1. Roll out the dough nice and thin.  Using templates, cut out the required number of pieces.  I needed 24 side walls, 24 roofs, and 24 peaked walls.  Now that I have tried this out, I recommend making them as small as manageably possible.  Mine were small but once baked, they did get bigger.

2. Let them cool and then decorate.  I put doors on the peaked walls and tiny windows on the side walls.  I tried making tiny wreaths but my icing point wasn't fine enough - that would be really cute doncha think?  The roofs got the special treatment:

  • First, a rim of white icing filled with white icing.  
  • Second, an outer rim of colored icing with silver balls embedded.  These need to be placed with tweezers.
  • Third, cut a thin slice off the side of the roof that will connect with the other half.  

3. Let everything dry.  Don't rush this step because you will just smear all your beautiful handiwork.  Put two lines of icing on the outer edges on the inside of one peaked wall.  Take two side walls (the ones with windows) and attach them with the windows facing out.  The walls will be wobbly so let them dry a little bit and then adjust so the icing is a bit stickier.  Using two lines of icing on the other peaked wall attach it to the other side of the two side walls.  Hold the whole thing together for at least 30 seconds and then set it aside.  Let it dry.  

4. Put icing on the top edges of the peaked wall and on the inside edge of the roof pieces.  Place the roof pieces on and hold in place for 20 seconds.  Fill the middle gap with icing and then hold the roof in place again.  Let it dry for a while.

5. Draw a line of matching icing along the centre line of the roof and place a silver bead at either end.  Let it dry completely.

6. I decided to add an extra touch - a tiny Christmas tree out of white chocolate.  A little surprise for the person who eats the cupcake.  To make the tree, draw four or five circles on a piece of paper, each one progressively smaller.  Tape the piece of paper down and then cover it with a piece of saran wrap, also taped down.  Melt and color some white chocolate and put into a piping bag.  

Pipe jagged shapes into each circle - don't worry about how they look too much because the overall effect will be awesome.  For the last, smallest piece, I placed a silver ball on top with tweezers.  Once the pieces are dry, put a dot of chocolate on top of the largest piece and place the next size up on top.  Continue until the tree is assembled.  Be careful, the pieces are delicate.  

7. Whoo!  What a process.  I am not going to say how many hours this took me, but suffice to say, many.  Now make some cupcakes (or do this earlier, whenever works for you).  I used a cake mix because I was spending so much time on the other elements.  I added cinnamon, nutmeg and clove for some kick.  Let them cool and then cut out the centre.  I filled the cupcakes with coconut jam, which is just a cup of coconut milk and a cup of sugar cooked down like a dulce de leche.  I also added a squirt of lemon juice and a pinch of baking soda.  Really yummy...

8. Now it is time for the cupcake icing.  I made a coconut buttercream with my leftover coconut jam (about 2 tbsp), 2 tbsp of salted butter, about a cup of icing sugar and enough coconut cream to make it spreadable.  Once this was all whipped together I added about half a cup of shredded coconut.  

Do you understand now why I used cake mix???

To assemble everything:
  • Take the filled cupcake and ice it with the coconut buttercream icing (I dipped the cupcake in shredded coconut, just an option).
  • Delicately place a white chocolate tree in the centre of the cupcake, with a dot of royal icing if you want.
  • Ice the bottom of the house with lots of white royal icing.  Globbing it on makes it look like banked snow once the house is in place.
  • Gently place the house over the Christmas tree and press down firmly.
  • You're done!
  • Who am I kidding?  You'd have to be nuts to do this recipe!  
The Verdict

Whoa so yummy!  The house got ooh's and aah's to no end.  Totally worth the effort.  I also entered my little fairy house into a cupcake competition over at Movita Beaucoup.  It will be posted tomorrow just in case you want to vote for me, ahem, hint. hint.

Up next?  Making Queso Blanco.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Cambozola-Stuffed, Bacon-Wrapped Wild Black Dates

Aka the perfect holiday appetizer.

So how did I find these little beauties?  I think I've mentioned before that I started a cleaning company to pay for school.  I was at a client's house the other morning and we got to chatting.  Both being food lovers, we often trade recipes and good shops and general food chitter chatter.  This morning I was telling her about my recent bacon-makin' and she immediately seized on the opportunity to let me try "the most delicious thing I've ever eaten."  Seriously.  Unbelievably.  Delicious.

And so simple.  And so delicious.

The secret is to find the perfect ingredients.

I chose wild black dates from Ayoub's dried fruits and nuts on Denman.  If you live in Vancouver and haven't taken a visit to Ayoub's yet then I urge you to go.  Yes, urge.  Simply for the giant, ornate pewter containers that the nuts and fruits sit in, gorgeous.  He roasts the nuts himself and you can just tell that he takes what he does seriously.  I love food people like that and I love to support them.  So buy your dates from him.

The cambozola I purchased from Les Amis du Fromage - their Hastings location.  I've been wanting to check out this location and what a perfect opportunity.  The cheese lady recommended Fourme d'Ambert, a french cow's milk cheese.  It melted beautifully.

I am using my own bacon.  Salty, smoky deliciousness.


1) Cook the bacon to a nice level of doneness.  You want the bacon cooked through but still soft enough to wrap around the date and cheese.

2) As the bacon is cooking, cut a slit in the dates and pull the seed out.  Take a little chunk of cheese and stuff it into the date.  Take a piece of bacon and wrap it around the date - secure in place with toothpicks.

3) As this point you can either pop the delicious cheesy datey packages into the oven at 400 degrees until the cheese starts to ooze out or you can pop them in the fridge until you want to use them.

You know they're done when the cheese is melty and bubbly.

The Verdict

What a perfect holiday appetizer!  They are easy to make, can be made ahead of time, use cheese and bacon and are absolutely delicious!  I've served these on two separate occasions now and both times they were adored.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Chicken Foot Soup

When I returned home to Vancouver from Ecuador, fall was in full swing.  As those who live on the Northern Wet Coast know, this means rain and chilliness.  I don't mind either because they inspire cooking and nesting - two of my favorite activities.

I was contemplating the cooking portion of this equation one night and decided to take some inspiration from Ecuador, and make a chicken foot soup.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Juan, the owner of the farm, loves chicken feet.  I've never actually eaten a chickens foot and decided that if he loved them that much, I should really see what they're all about.

Chicken feet are my new favorite thing (I know, besides all of my other favorite things).  But seriously, they are a forgotten little piece of offal and I will forget you no more little feet.  The feet themselves are full of soft tendon and delicate chicken skin.  The experience of eating them is fun, with lots of sucking on bones and pulling joints apart.  And the texture, the texture.  The broth of your soup will be silky and luscious if you add just one chicken foot, let alone thirteen like mine had.

And my thrifty Scottish side:  This recipe made her happy.  Only $1.36 for the 13 aforementioned chicken feet.  Damn that is a deal.

I also decided to try another veggie that I discovered in Ecuador - a yuca root.  I'd seen these brown roots in the grocery store up here but never tried one.  Why?  I'm not sure as I am usually very adventurous.  It might be its color and potato-like character, not a big fan of starchy veggies.  But yuca, especially in soup, is also quite delicious and has a wonderful texture.  So here is my Chicken Foot Soup recipe, a great way to warm up on a cold fall night.

  • Package of chicken feet (about a dozen feet)
  • 1 large yuca root, cubed
  • 2 medium sized carrots, cut into soup-sized chunks
  • 2 celery stalks, cut into soup-sized chunks
  • 1/2 cube of chicken boullion
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 medium onion, cubed
  • Water as needed
  • Salt and hot sauce to taste
  • Oil for sauteeing


1) Turn your oven on to 375 degrees and pop your chicken feet into a roasting pan.  Roast until golden, approximately 45 minutes.  The roasting is to help develop the flavour of the soup once the feet are added.

2) As your feet are roasting, heat up a tablespoon of cooking oil in a heavy bottomed pot (your soup pot), cube the onion and saute until translucent.  Add the bay leaves, the boullion cube, the roasted feet and enough water to cover.  Let simmer for twenty minutes.

3) While the broth simmers, cut the hard outer layer off the yuca and cut into similar-sized pieces.  There is a woody string that runs down the centre of the yuca.  If you can take that out then do so, but actually it has a nice effect of slowing down the eating process as you enjoy your soup.

Side note: In the West (and I am guilty) we often equate efficiency with goodness.  Remove the bones, take out the bay leaves, anything inedible should not be on the plate.  While this definitely makes eating easier, I think it can, at times, reduce the pleasure of slowly and mindfully picking through a meal.  Eating chicken foot soup is an exercise in patience (and greasy fingers) and I found that having to slow down and pull the woody yuca core out of my mouth really added to the mindfulness of the meal.  Just a thought.

4) Approximately half an hour away from dinner time, add the yuca chunks.  They turn translucent when cooked so are kind of like a built-in veggie timer.  After the yuca have cooked for approximately 15 minutes, add the carrots and then after 5 minutes add the celery.  Turn the temperature to low-medium, put a lid on and let the whole mess bubble away until it is time for dinner or the yuca are translucent.

5) Before serving, adjust for seasoning.  I like to add a couple squirts of hot sauce for good measure.

The verdict:

Deliciously unctuous from the cartilageouness of the chicken feet.  Other than that?  As delicious as only a bowl of homemade chicken soup can be!


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Christmas Gifts: Whole Wheat Christmas Crackers

Christmas cookies are a traditional holiday party gift.  They're great!  Who doesn't want beautifully decorated cookies handmade by a friend?

But what about handmade crackers?  They're kind've even a better holiday party gift.  Most holiday parties involve cheese, bean dips, salsas, avocados... in other words perfect foods for cracker dipping.  Give your party host handmade crackers and they can bust them open right then and there adding a fun touch to the appetizers!

Not only that, crackers are easy to make, but people seem to think they're hard so they'll be really impressed with you!  What a win-win-win situation?

Making crackers is basically like making pastry.  I found a great recipe on Smitten Kitten so use that as your basic cracker recipe.

To make your crackers perfect, keep pastry-making techniques in mind:
  • Cold butter, cold water, cold everything.
  • Don't overwork your dough as this makes pastry tough.
  • Grate your cold butter to make the pieces uniform and to reduce the need to handle it.
How to spice up your crackers?  The variations on this basic recipe are endless.  A few thoughts:
  • Smoked paprika and garlic
  • Honey and dijon mustard - the honey might make the crackers burn more easily so either brush a honey mustard glaze on at the end or watch the crackers closely.
  • Coriander seed and lemon zest - make sure you toast and grind the coriander seeds.
  • Cumin and garlic
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Cracked black pepper and lime zest
  • Finely chopped cilantro
  • Get creative and let me know if you try any fun and interesting flavours!
For packaging?  Stay green!
  • Old-fashioned cookie tins are a great way to package crackers.
  • Many kitchen shops sell decorative cardboard boxes, but a fun craft for kids is to make pretty cardboard boxes that they can decorate.  You can then fill the boxes with crackers (wrapped in parchment or tin foil).
  • Reusable cloth sandwich bags.
The Verdict: Crunchy, salty, buttery deliciousness.  


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Vanilla-Infused Sour Orange Juice

In my post on the delicious fruits and juices of Canoa (and Ecuador in general), I mentioned my favorite, a juice I considered Paradise in a Glass.  A juice that actually made me want to make juice once I returned from my trip (please note I am not a juice drinker, it's coffee or water thank you).

Yes, you all know what I'm talking about...

Vanilla-Infused Sour Orange Juice.  The juice that I couldn't stop drinking on the farm.  If Mami had a jug of her amazing sour citrus juice in the fridge, I was in there too!  Yummy!

So not having my own mandarin and orange and lemon trees to pluck fruits from, I obviously have to resort to grocery store fruit.  Sad I know but thank you globalization for making these fruits available.  My recipe is my own.  I never watched Mami make her juice, I almost didn't want to know how she did it because then the secret would be out!  And don't you think things taste better sometimes when there is an air of mystery to them?  I do.

So here it is.  A taste of the tropics and a ray of sunshine for our cold, rainy Vancouver winter nights, not to mention a hit of Vitamin C!  Always a good thing during the winter.  Please enjoy!

  • 2 navel oranges
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 green mandarins
  • 2 key limes
  • Water as necessary
  • A plump vanilla bean
  • Sugar to taste


1. Put on some salsa music.  This step is key because it sets the mood and tone for what you are about to do.  If you can turn the heat up and put on a sarong or a summery outfit that helps too.  You might also want to buy some fancy umbrellas for the finished drink.  With food, as life, it is the details that really create the experience.

2. When you are in the right mood, gather up all your beautiful citrus fruits and, of course, your plump vanilla bean.  Slice the vanilla bean open, scrape out the oily paste and add the paste to a jug.  Grate the peel of the lemon and oranges on a fine setting into the jug as well.  Make sure you grate the fruits directly into the serving jug so you capture all the citrus essential oils.  Now cut all of oranges, lemons and mandarins open and squeeze the juice into the jug.

4. All that is left are the adorable little key limes.  We are doing something special with those!  In Egypt, they serve a lime drink with key limes where they puree up the limes whole with water.  The pureed mixture is then poured through a sieve to remove the seeds.  This method captures all of the delicious and intense lime essence from the peel.  So, puree the two limes with a cup of water until the mixture is foamy and luscious and then pour the mixture through a sieve into the waiting jug.

5. At this point it is a matter of adding a few scoops of sugar and tasting it.  Add water and sugar as needed until you are in love with the taste. 

This juice captures my experience in Ecuador.  Why?  It's complex, a mix of sweet and sour; it's full of the sun - lemons, oranges, mandarins.  It's sexy, perfumed with vanilla bean, but subtle.  It's perfect on its own, but also could be spiced up a bit with a touch of gin.  Ecuador in a glass.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Eating in Quito: Part 2

My trip back to Quito involved another harrowing journey on the bus.  This time going up a mountain. As is obvious I survived the trip, much to my relief.  With three days in Quito until flying home, I decided to really dive into the food culture.  This desire was made easier with the discovery of the most amazing place ever, a food paradise of food paradises, Mercado Central.

So my blog is called An Offal Experiment and one of my goals is to develop a taste for offal.  Let me just say that my experience at Mercado Central moved me much closer to my goal with the help of a beautiful young Andean woman and a classic case of mistranslation.

I had read that Ecuadorians make a tripe soup much like the Mexican soup menudo.  Hearing that Mercado Central was the place to go for this soup I ventured in and ordered a bowl from the aforementioned beautiful young Andean woman. I quickly learned that menudo in Ecuador is not the same as menudo in Mexico.  Menudo in Ecuador is every possible bit of chicken offal that can be stuffed into a bowl.  It is heart, liver, intestine, I think windpipe, thymus gland, and probably spleen topped with cabbage and mint stuffed into a casing that is too tough to even bite through.

Yes.  This is what I ordered.  And this is what I ate.  Because my parents raised me to be polite and I would never dream of insulting that lovely Andean woman.  It was so strange for Ecuadorians to see an obvious foreigner (I am very, very pale) sitting in this little booth eating menudo that as I finished and was leaving, one man looked at me and quizzically asked, "muy rico?" which meant "Very delicious?" or "Did you actually like that?"  To which I of course responded, "Muy rico!" or "I freakin' loved it."

As I walked out of Mercado Central, I'll admit to patting myself on the back quite a bit and then drowning the memory of the soup with a pastry.  The soup was quite good and the taste of various organs fairly mild, but it was heaped with organ meat, an almost unbearable amount for someone who doesn't really like offal.

Clearly, however, I'm a glutton for punishment because I went back to Mercado Central later that day.  This time though I got a much safer meal with chorizo and potato pancakes and avocado.  The chorizo was delicious with a deep, rich taste.  It obviously had a bit of organ meat in it as well but the rich flavour was tempered with the spicing.

I also returned to Mercado Central the day after.  What can I say I loved the place!  This time I again ventured into organ meat territory with a soup called Yuarlocro.  This is a chicken soup again with bits of organ meat and then blood sausage on the side.  The pictures above are the Yuarlocro.  The organ meat in the soup was much subtler and I found the blood sausage quite tasty if quite bloody tasting.  The key with the sausage was to eat it in small amounts mixed with the avocado and the red onion - almost like a blood sausage side salad!  Mmmmmmm...

Mercado Central illustrates the difference between the modern industrial diet and the food found in poorer or more adventurous food countries.  In Canada there is a movement towards eating the "whole hog" but you won't find an entire food court devoted to various organ meats.  It just doesn't happen - the Canadian palate is not developed enough for that.  Call it a result of privilege or whatever, I loved seeing all the people slurping down interesting bits of meat.

But Mercado Central is not simply limited to organ meat.  Juices abound, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, dried goods, fresh flowers, fresh herbs, chicken parts, butchers, fish mongers.  It was seriously my idea of heaven and as soon as I would leave I wanted to return again.

The rest of my time in Quito was spent hunting down my food favorites.  These included:
  • Cheese stuffed empanadas covered in sugar from this one restaurant in the historic district.  I seriously went four or five times in the hopes that they were making them.  My last attempt right before I left met with success.
  • Green mango slices with lime, salt, and pepper.  This is my new favorite thing (or one of them).  Mmmm, so tasty.
  • Fresh fruit in the park.  This giant cup of fruit cost a buck in almost any park I went to.  What an amazing deal and such a great way to stay cool and hydrated.  That grape sitting on top of the cup was possible the tastiest grape I've ever eaten in my life.
  • This fascinating pastry that I've never had before.  It was perhaps marzipan baked into pastry with the edges folded over?  That is my guess but it might be wrong.
Ah!  What a wonderful trip full of food and beauty and amazing people.  I truly loved going to Ecuador and trying to get to know the culture in just a few short weeks.  It gave me a taste of Latin America and I can't wait to go back for more.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Food of Canoa

A description of my trip to the farm in Canoa would not be complete without describing the food that Mami made.  As part of the cost of staying at the farm, I was provided with three meals a day, eaten with the family.  Normally I cook for myself so it was an absolute luxury to have someone else cooking for me everyday.  I just loved rolling into the house in the morning with fresh cheese and buns waiting for me, a beautiful big bowl of fruit salad sitting there and double-fried bananas sizzling away on the stovetop.  

This is by no means an exhaustive account of all the food I ate in Canoa.  Mami made a lot of different foods.  These are just some of my favorites.

Canoa is a seaside town, and though the farm itself is about 10 kilometres away from the shore, it was a quick trip into town to pick up fresh fish.

There were a ton of fish types that I had never seen before and my favorite way of eating them was when Mami fried them whole.  A fresh whole fried fish is just so tasty with just a little salt and maybe a squirt of lemon or lime.

Every Sunday, a chicken was killed and made into a delicious potato and chicken stew.  I don't know what spices Mami and Juan's sister used but I would guess there was cilantro as that was quite common.  I might also guess cilantro root but don't quote me on that.

For those who read my original post on going to the Amazon, please note that I didn't kill a chicken.  Juan's sister was just so damn fast that I didn't get the chance even to offer my help. It's like I would go to the bathroom and by the time I got out the chicken would be dead and half-plucked!  My goodness.

Papi was quite proud of the chickens.  He told me that they are a special variety called criojo (spelling?) and are very tasty.  I will say that the chicken soup was quite good.

Juan and I had an interesting conversation about how Westerners generally like their food sanitized and Ecuadorians don't.  He had a big chicken foot poking out of his soup and he was telling me how much he loved it, that it was his favorite part.  I was saying that unless you are eating at an Asian restaurant in Vancouver, you rarely find chicken feet.  This amazed him!

Another thing they grow on the farm is peanuts and one day Juan roasted and ground fresh peanut butter.  I only got a little taste (mixed with a little freshly ground chocolate) but it was definitely the most delicious peanut butter I've ever eaten.

One meal that I didn't get a picture of but that was my favorite was crab-fried rice and beef tendon soup.  Mami had all these tiny crabs from town that she made the most amazing stock from flavoured again with some kind of spice that hinted at curry but that I just couldn't place.  It was the best fried rice I've ever eaten.  The beef tendon was put in a pressure cooker and came out decadently soft.  I absolutely adore beef tendon and am going to make this soup for my parents now that I'm home.  The texture of the tendon was just so luscious and the broth had the subtle taste of onion and cilantro.  It was amazing!  And she also introduced me to the vanilla-infused sour mandarin juice at this meal so it was like I had never eaten before.  Everything was just so delicious.

The last meal that they served me was "tortillas" but they were unlike any tortilla I have ever had.  When I think of a tortilla, I think of flat corn wraps.  These tortillas were more like a muffin and were stuffed with fresh cheese.

Papi spent at least an hour grating dried corn into this giant wooden bowl and then Mami spent what felt like the entire day kneading and mixing and forming.  Once the cakes were ready they were put into a big metal pot and out onto the fire pit.  A piece of sheet metal was put on top and then a burning log was put on that.  It was an old school oven to be sure but the flavour of the tortillas was amazing.  What a treat!

It would not be right to finish a description of food on the farm without mentioning the delicious cheese from across the street.

The cows would be milked and cheese was made and pressed right away.  From recipes that I've found online the whole process takes about seven hours, and the outcome is so yummy.  We would eat the fresh cheese on toasted buns or on top of the double-fried bananas or plantains.  It was also stuffed into plantain dumplings and cooked in soup.  Cheese...

A couple days after I arrived, one of the little girls and I walked over to the neighbor's house to pick up some cheese and because I was a guest she had to feed me.  The slab, and yes I mean slab, of cheese she fed me was something to see.  It was the size of a typical chunk of cheese you would buy in the grocery store.  Huge!  What wonderful hospitality and of course I needed to eat it all so that she wouldn't feel insulted.

My experience on the farm was just lovely.  Despite my limited Spanish, I really felt like I got to know the family by the end of my stay.  They stuffed me with food, the girls overwhelmed me with hugs, and Juan kept me laughing for most of the day.  We both found out that you don't need to speak the same language to make fun of each other.

I hope to make it back in a couple of years to roam the cacao trees, eat the fresh bananas, and enjoy the company of the wonderful Estancia family.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Making Coffee: Roasting, Grinding, Drinking

I am a coffee fanatic.  Some would call me an addict.  I am known to not want to interact with the world until I've had my two morning coffees.  An appreciation for a good cup of coffee goes hand in hand with my addiction and so the chance to roast and grind my own coffee was a prospect that excited me terribly.

Besides growing cacao and citrus fruits, Juan and his parents also grow coffee.  Mmmmm, coffee.  The berries are a beautiful bright green and ripen to a dark red.  As you can imagine from my post on cacao, all of the colors in their food forest are stunning.

Once the beans are ripe, they are laid out in the sun to dry, until they turn a dark brown on the outside.  The bean on the inside is a light green and splits down the middle into two halves.  What we traditionally think of as the coffee bean is half of this bean.

After the beans are dry they are put through the same mill that was used in the chocolate making at a very loose setting.  This is to separate the beans from the hull without breaking the bean itself.  Once the beans are milled though, you are left with a big bucket full of beans and chaff.

This is where Mami stepped in.  She scooped up a big handful of beans and held it high in the air, pouring the beans into a bowl waiting below.  As the beans dropped, the wind blew the chaff away, leaving just the green beans behind.  It was amazing how well this worked.  She and I then picked through the beans to remove any remaining chaff.

With the beans separated, it was time for the roasting.  Mami first rinsed the beans in water and then put them into a large pot over high heat.  It was then my job to stir, and stir, and stir - to bring the beans from green to a golden brown without burning them.  This meant relentless stirring for at least an hour with Mami tutting over me saying, "Ne cancelar", which means, "Don't stop" in Spanish.  She finally took over when I got quite tired.

It was fun watching her stir the beans because you could tell how practiced she was, how she must have done this hundreds if not thousands of times.  And finally, the beans were ready.

Once they reached a dark brown, she took them off the heat and I started to stir again as she set up the food mill one more time.  Into the hopper the beans went and this time we called on the two little girls to muscle through the coffee beans.  Of course they were such balls of energy that more coffee was getting on the ground than on the pan so I quickly took over.

The smell of the freshly roasted and ground beans was amazing.

The next day Juan treated us all to cappuccinos.  He got fresh milk from the neighbour across the street, and heated it up gently in a sauce pan.

While the milk was heating, he poured boiling water into a tin can full of ground coffee, letting the dark liquid seep out of the drilled holes in the bottom.  Spoonfulls of coffee were added to the heated milk and then each cup was topped with a dollop of whipping cream and a generous sprinkling of canela.

As I drank I noticed golden fat droplets forming on the surface of the milk.  It was so rich and delicious that all I could do was sit and sip.  Oh my goodness that is a coffee that I will never forget.

It also made me question my relationship with coffee, my treating it like a drug, and the careless abandon with which I consume it.  To know that there is this lovely family in Ecuador who go through this process to create a cup makes me realize how little I actually appreciate coffee.  How I mindlessly scoop my grinds into my little french press, impatiently waiting for my morning hit.

I don't know how this experience will change my relationship, maybe I'll drink less, or drink with more care or drink with a greater appreciation?  I look forward to finding out.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Making Chocolate: From Bean to Ball!

One of the big draws for me when deciding to work on the farm was that they grew chocolate.  The website mentioned the possibility of learning to process chocolate and that sold me.  As people who read my blog know, I love to get down to the nitty, gritty of food production.  That being one of the main reasons I started this blog.  The opportunity to learn about chocolate was one I couldn't pass up.

Almost as soon as I arrived at the farm, I took a tour of the cacao forest.  The pods start off as the tiniest and most delicate flowers that you can imagine.  The flowers to the right are about the size of my pinky fingernail.  I am a bit of a nut for tiny, cute things so I was quite entranced by the cacao flower.  Once fertilized the flower turns into a tiny purple pod, becoming a brilliant yellow or red once it grows and ripens.  The mature pods are about the size of a football.

Cacao trees grow quite tall but the cacao pods that contain the chocolate bean grow directly off the main trunks and branches so they are relatively easy to harvest.  

To harvest the pods I used a machete and chopped through the little stem attaching the pod to the tree.  As I did this I also looked for unhealthy or "malo" pods covered in a white fungus.  These pods were also cut off and thrown into central piles where they will be burnt in order to control the spread of the fungus.

The chocolate that Juan grows is called criollo and it makes up only 5% of the world's chocolate supply.  The flavour of criollo is less pronounced than the two other more common varieties but it has a more complex taste.  Chocolate connoisseur's generally consider it a superior chocolate.  It is much harder to grow and tends to suffer from fungal outbreaks more readily than the other types.  It takes a dedicated person to grow this variety and Juan uses organic methods no less.  Very inspiring.

Once the pods are harvested, they are sliced open and the seeds with their pulp are removed.  The pulp surrounding the chocolate seed is sweet and moist and delicious.  It makes a wonderful snack to just suck the pulp off the chocolate seeds and it is quite easy to eat an entire pod of pulp in one sitting.

As you open each pod, you have to check that the inside is pure white.  If the pulp is brown then the inside of the pod has rotted or is infected and the seeds must be thrown out.  The pods themselves are full of phosphorus and the empty ones are cast back onto the floor of the forest to add their nutrients back into the soil.  The fallen leaves of the cacao trees are also left on the ground to protect the soil from moisture loss.

Juan's farm is an integrated system so all of the parts work together.  The citrus trees grow among the cacao trees to offer shade and the rotten fruit and discarded peels also add nutrients back into the soil.  I am sure that it doesn't hurt the flavour of the cacao to have all those citrus essential oils permeating the earth.

Breaking open a seed at this point reveals a beautiful purple nut with an extremely bitter taste, nothing like chocolate.  It tastes raw and quite horrible.  In order to begin transforming the cacao seeds into chocolate, the seeds need to ferment for several days.
All of the pulp-covered seeds are collected and put into a wooden box, covered with banana leaves and left outside.  This is where the tropical air and micro-organism's begin to do their work.

As someone who has some experience with fermentation, I found it quite interesting to smell and watch the chocolate seeds as they fermented.  A clear chocolate liquor drips out of the beans and they begin to smell like cheese.  Almost like a soft blue cheese, not especially chocolate-like.

After a few days of this though, the smell begins to change and the scent of chocolate begins to tease at your nose when you smell the beans.

Once the beans are fermented they then need to dry in the sun.  In Canoa we had a few nice days with some sunlight and so the beans got a nice sun bath out in the yard.  Chasing the chickens off the beans was the farm work for a couple days as they seemed to find cacao beans quite tasty.  The color of the dried bean is still a vibrant purple and the chocolate smell is much more intense.

After the beans dry, they need to be roasted.  At Juan's place this means being roasted over an open fire for quite a long time.  This was my job and I anxiously baby sat and stirred my beans while they were roasting away.  The beans turn quite a dark color and once they are roasted the aroma of chocolate is compellingly clear.  But watch out!  The bean is still overwhelmingly bitter.  The smell will fool you into thinking otherwise.  

Once the beans are roasted the hulls need to be removed.  On the farm we did this by hand, gently pinching each bean until the hull cracked and fell off.  One by one each chocolate nut was revealed.

The next step was to turn the roasted seeds into a smooth chocolate paste.  There was a hand-cranked mill, much like my hand-cranked sausage maker with two metal plates rather than a grinder attachment.  The beans were fed in through the top and a paste oozed out the sides.  The paste was then fed through again to make the chocolate as smooth as possible.
Once the cacao beans had been milled twice, the paste was allowed to cool slightly and then was hand rolled into a chocolate ball.

This ball of chocolate is as pure as it gets.  Just a big hunk of freshly made chocolate.  Watch out though because it is still super bitter.

To eat, use a beautiful old grater and grate the freshly made chocolate bar finely.  Don't be stingy if you don't have to be.  Once the chocolate is grated, warm up fresh milk in a sauce pan and add the chocolate to it.  Allow the milk and chocolate to simmer until the chocolate is completely melted.  You could add some fresh canela if you like, though it might detract from the taste of the cacao.  Add sugar to taste.  Sugar changes the flavour of chocolate radically - it's like alchemy.

Enjoy your hot chocolate sitting around a kitchen table with friends.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.