Friday, May 25, 2012

Ginger-Rhubarb Compote

Often the first vegetable to pop up in the spring, rhubarb is one of my favorites. 

While I love it in pie my new favorite way of using rhubarb is making compote.  Compote is french for "mixture" and is basically just a stewed fruit dish.  Rhubarb makes a beautiful compote. 

Compote is also a great way to prepare rhubarb for canning so it can be enjoyed in the winter.  The version I am making is sweet but a savory variety is fabulous with roast pork.


1 cup rhubarb - diced finely and freshly picked from your garden if possible!
1/2 cup sugar (to taste)
1/4 cup liquid - water is fine, a clear juice would work as well
1 tbsp ginger - diced finely
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 vanilla bean pod - scraped out is fine (see notes below)

  1. Rhubarb leaves are poisonous so they should be removed and discarded as you pick it.  The rhubarb stalks should then be washed well to remove any dirt, oil/grease and diced finely.  The easiest way to dice rhubarb is to split it several times lengthwise (depending on the thickness of the stalk) and then to cut across the lengths.
  2. Add diced rhubarb to a non-reactive pot (it's quite acidic) and then add your sugar, liquid, ginger, cinnamon and vanilla bean pod.  Everything can be adjusted according to taste.  The liquid facilitates the cooking down and softening of the rhubarb so add more if your compote seems to be drying out.  As it cooks down, taste your compote.  Add more sugar if you feel it needs it.  I tend to like my food not-too-sweet so make sure the compote tastes good according to your tastes.
  3. Once the compote is cooked down, remove the vanilla bean.  The compote is now ready for eating or for canning.

  • I chilled my compote and then ate it over dark chocolate pudding and it was outstanding.  It would also be wonderful over mousse.
  • A rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream topped with a scoop of warm compote could possibly make your guests swoon or your family insist that you make rhubarb compote every day.
  • I also love compote on porridge in the morning!  Some diced apple would make it extra wonderful.
  • Many recipes call for the tiny seeds inside the vanilla pod but don't use the pod itself.  Well there is only so much vanilla sugar a person can make.  This recipe is great to extract all the flavour out of your leftover vanilla pod.
  • A vanilla bean is the fruit of an orchid.  I think it is the most sensual spice.
  • To make the rhubarb compote savory just start thinking like a chutney.  Chunks of lemon peel (preserved works), garlic, thyme, black pepper, coriander seed...  You get the idea.  With chutney I like the texture to be a bit chunkier so I would add some large dice apples at the end and cook them long enough to soften but not disintegrate.


Thank Yous!
  • To my girlfriend Marla with her wonderful partner Leevon and their new baby Joni for the delicious rhubarb from their garden in Courtney, BC. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sheep Brain Fritters

For my first recipe out of Odd Bits, I decided to bust it open, literally.  

The author, Jennifer Mclagan, mentioned that a sheep's head was quite fiercesome looking.  When my butcher brought it out from the back, held right about head level, I'll admit that it looked quite hideous.  The eyeballs bulged from the naked flesh, teeth bared, tongue limp having fallen through the bottom of the jaw.  He wrapped it up gently so the eyeballs didn't break - a sheep's head with a broken eyeball could be even more gruesome if it were possible - threw in a couple pig's feet and off I walked home.

Once I unwrapped it I realized that the brain had not been removed.  Pleased, I opened up my Odd Bits recipe book to find something yummy to make.  Sheep brain fritters it was (page 42), and here is my story.

1) The first step obviously is to get the brain out.  This is no easy task and not for the faint of heart.  I pulled out my trusty hacksaw and sawed the skull open where it seemed thinnest.  I also aimed to the edges of the brain so that when my saw broke through it would do little damage to the brain itself.

The key to getting the brain out of the skull unharmed is to think about where it attaches to head.  On the side closest to the back you will find the brain stem.  The brain stem is attached to the spinal cord so if you gently grab the brain and pull from the stem then it should come out easily.  Don't use too much pressure and if there is someone in your household with small hands try to cajole them into the task.  Don't be surprised if it's a hard sell.

Here is my lovely little brain.  If you look at the lower right corner of the brain you might see a white area.  That seems to be where the sheep or lamb had their head drilled.  I am not sure why this happened but if you notice any damage to the skull then be sure to check the brain for skull fragments.  I found several large chunks.  No one wants to eat sheep skull. 

2) Once this first task is over give yourself a little pat on the back for a job done.  Then steel up your courage (and maybe stomach) and move on to brain prep!  If you are serious about getting to know offal then I would recommend purchasing Julia's book, which is chock full of recipes and preparation tips.  However, in essence what you are doing now is getting the brain ready to cook.  This starts with soaking the brains in salted water from six hours to overnight.  Soaking helps get rid of the remaining blood.  Once the brain is soaked, split it open and check for more skull fragments.

Look at how tiny this brain is!  It's pretty cute.  Once the brain is soaked and split it is time to attempt to peel off the outer membrane.  I couldn't get my membrane off without seriously desecrating my little brain so I opted to leave it on.  The recipe I am using calls for coating and then frying the brain so it doesn't really matter if the membrane is on or off.  Now the brain is ready for poaching.

I used a broth similar to the one described in Odd Bits (page 21).  Basically I threw in a whole bunch of spices, simmered it for a while and then strained it.  I poached my brain in this broth for about five minutes because it was quite small.  The brain should firm up when you poach it, but it will still be quite soft.  The softness is the beauty of the brain.

Once it is poached you can either use it right away in a recipe or cool it and store it in the cooled broth for several days.  I recommend using it right away because who wants to eat brain that is a few days old?

3) Whoo!  On to actually cooking this luscious little pile of wobbling grey matter!  The lobes, now of a decent firmness need to be sliced approximately half-an-inch thick.

The brain slices are then coated in a cheese, egg and chive mixture (see ingredients below) and fried until golden brown.  Specific directions are taken from Odd Bits with permission from the author.


3 eggs
1/2 cup Gruyere
1/4 cup Parmesan
2 tbsp finely chopped chives
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 cup lard

  1. Put a baking tray or heat proof plate in an oven preheated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Whisk the eggs, then add the rest of the ingredients except the lard and the cornstarch.
  3. Toss the brain slices in cornstarch to coat and then add them to the batter and stir so that all of the brain slices are coated in the batter.
  4. Using a heavy frying pan, melt the lard over medium heat.  The lard is ready when a drop of batter in the oil sizzles and rises to the surface.  Each little piece of brain should be cooked for approximately 3 minutes on each side.  Don't put too many slices in at one time (see note below).  Once they are finished cooking, place them on the baking tray or plate in the oven and eat as soon as you can.

I paired my brain fritters with a light salad - green lettuce, tomato, avocado, orange segments, olive oil and a splash of white wine vinegar.  I enjoyed the salad tremendously.

The brain.  Oh the brain.  Did I love it?  Honestly.  No.  I didn't love it.  It was okay.  I almost ate the entire brain so that's pretty good for a first timer.  I didn't taste much cheese so that didn't help.  I also found that the batter didn't get crispy enough.  If I were going to try again I would mix it up a bit, maybe more salt, something spicy?  Maybe jalapeno poppers stuffed with brain?  That might be nice.  The texture was beautiful and silky but there was a distinct flavour that I am going to have to allow to grow on me.

  • Whenever you fry food, only a few pieces should be cooked at a time so that the oil doesn't cool down too much.  If food is fried in too-cool oil the batter absorbs too much oil rather than having a nice crisp outside.  The best idea is to use a thermometer to ensure that the oil stays hot enough.
  • Odd Bits by Jennifer Mclagan

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Food Library: Odd Bits

I was signed up to volunteer the other day at the Grape Juice Wine Auction with Big Sister's at the Ferrari-Maserati dealership on Burrard.  I've been a Study Buddy with Big Sister's for five years and do whatever I can to help this organization raise money.  Arriving early for set-up I was told that they had enough volunteers so I had an hour to entertain myself before the event started.  What does a food lover do with a free hour when they are at 3rd and Burrard?  Anyone who lives in Vancouver knows that they visit Books to Cooks.

This was no idle visit, however; I knew what I was looking for - a book about offal. 

My experiments with organ meats so far have not gone well.  The internet is useful but not thorough and cobbling together random recipes has resulted in some questionable results (stinky beef kidney, overcooked goat heart, disgusting liver soup, rubber tire pork liver).  Because I'm trying to develop a taste for organ meats, eating bad organ meat is very counter-productive.  I needed a passionate expert to hold my hand and I found her in Jennifer Mclagan.

As soon as I stepped into Books to Cooks I was greeted warmly and within moments was ensconced at the book bar, piles of offal-centred books grew around me.  Being a student I'm very careful about spending my limited budget and after chuckling through a few pages I knew that Odd Bits fit my bill.  Within a few days I had almost finished reading it, bringing it with me on my weekend trip to Vancouver Island.  Who brings a cook book with them to read on vacation?  Guilty as charged and I unabashedly admit to relishing every page.

This book will be an incredibly valuable reference book and source of inspiration (see a future post on turkey neck soup, a delectable and meaty odd bit).  For anyone who is serious about expanding their palate and celebrating every part of the animal, Odd Bits is an essential addition to their food library.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Roman Bacon: Part 1

I first heard about guanciale on Chopped.  It was a secret ingredient and for some reason I decided to look it up.  Oh my goodness!  Luscious pig jowl washed with wine and scented with black pepper and thyme.  This was something I had to try.

The word guanciale comes from 'guancia', which means cheek in Italian.  The jowl is the lower part of the cheek, the part that droops down, all fatty-like.  Mmmmm...  Supposedly the taste of the jowl is intensely porky, I would imagine because it gets a good workout from the pig chewing all day.  I won't know for another couple weeks though, when my guanciale is ready.

To make the guanciale I cobbled together several different recipes (see my reference list down below).  My method relied on sensuality rather than strictness.

1. The first step: purchase the jowl.  I called my local butcher and they brought one in from Gelderman Farms.  It weighed about a pound and a half.  Once I arrived home, I unwrapped the butcher's paper and found a very fatty and very hairy piece of pig cheek.   Hmmm...  What to do with all this hair?  Rather than look it up, I decided that I would tweeze out all of the hairs.  Yeah, tweeze them out.  After tweezing for half an hour and making some but not a whole lot of progress I decided to leave it hairy (see notes).  I figured the salt and sugar and/or final cooking would disintegrate the hair and if not, I would either remove the skin or just eat the hair.

2. The second step: bathe the cheek in wine.  Not being a wine drinker I wasn't sure what kind of wine to buy.  White I decided, because I didn't want the pig flavour overwhelmed or the fat stained burgundy.  I chose the brand to inspire my guanciale process - Barefoot.  Any suggestions for better wines to choose are appreciated.  I massaged half of the bottle into the jowl, taking my time.  The beauty of home cooking, or one of many, is the ability to luxuriate over the process.  There is no head chef barking at me to finish with my cheek already or a customer distracting me with an order.  It's just me and my pig cheek and a bottle of wine on a sunny day in early spring.  Lovely.

3. The third step: cover with cure.  The cure recipes I found contained sugar, salt, thyme, and black pepper.  Normally I like to fiddle around with my spice combinations but not so with my guanciale.  It seemed like the spicing was the essence of the charcuterie, as if I couldn't call it guanciale without using the correct spices.  I used equal portions of salt and sugar, a solid amount of freshly ground black pepper and several sprigs of thyme (picked fresh from my garden).  All of this went into a ceramic dish with the jowl and was popped, covered, into the fridge.  It was supposed to be left for 5-7 days but mine got ten and was flipped half-way through.

4. The fourth step: rinse and hang.  The last step before I eat my cured cheek is to let it hang in a cool spot for at least three weeks.  Oh the patience it takes!  I decided to use my storage closet in the unheated basement of my apartment building.  While it doesn't have the sweet Mediterranean winds blowing through, it is cool and close so it will have to do.  I tied up my pig cheek in cheesecloth with a few extra sprigs of thyme tucked in.

Check back in a few weeks to see what happens or better yet subscribe to my blog!  Thanks for reading!

  • Learn more about the awesome anti-microbial power of thyme here!
  • Since making my first batch of guanciale I have bought Odd Bits by Jennifer McLagan and now know to shave the pig skin with a disposable razor or burn it off with a propane torch.  I will probably shave it because I don't like the idea of taking a torch to my little piece of piggie.

Guanciale, The Magical Roman Bacon
The Art of the Cure
Guanciale from Babbo

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Dream Farm Item #1 - A Cob Oven

As I've begun developing my blog and reflecting on my life I've realized that it's time to start thinking about owning a small farm one day.  Nothin' crazy, just a little parcel of land where I can grow some veggies, raise some chickens/sheep/pigs, and make some bread.  This blog not only gives me space to learn the skills I'll need to operate my little farm, but also gives me dreaming room.

If there is one thing I like to do it is dream.

And plan.

So here is the start of my farm dream-plan.

My inspiration: Building a cob bench in Robson Park with a lovely group of people.

I am a member of the Vancouver Society of Storytelling, and as part of an initiative called Elemental, I took part in the building of a cob bench in a local park.  Cob is clay, sand and straw that is mashed up and then packed onto a stone foundation.

A large heart stone lying at the centre of the bench foundation.

Mmmm... clay.

The clay acts like cement and binds the mixture, while the straw is kinda like natural rebar - reinforcing the mix.  Once the cob is packed and sculpted into place, it is left to dry and then covered in plaster.  It is an ancient form of building but is still used all over the world in developing and developed countries.  I learned all about cob from the Mud Girls, a group of lovely ladies dedicated to furthering natural building.

Stomping and mashing the straw into the sand and clay.

It was an awesome experience.  Cob is messy and hands-on.  Getting a community together to spread the work around is essential, and a whole lot of fun.  I left the two days of building feeling my sustainability journey deepening, perhaps in the direction of a cob house eventually.

While I'm not quite ready to commit to moving into a mud hut, I am ready to dream-plan about building myself a cob oven one day.

Check out this link on Sourdough Companion for an example of a finished cob oven.  A guy at the build mentioned that he was going to build a cob oven this summer so I am going to get in contact with him so that I can document the process. 

My love affair with natural building begins...

PS I will be posting a picture of the finished bench but it needs to be plastered once it dries so check back!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Nature saving her seeds

Part of my food exploration journey is growing my own vegetables.  One aspect of veggie farming that I want to explore is seed saving.  My inspiration for seed saving comes from Wangari Maatai.  She was a Kenyan woman who started the Green Belt Movement in 1977.  Several years ago I watched a documentary called Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maatai.  It discusses why she started the Green Belt Movement and the challenges she faced.  To call this movie inspirational is an understatement.  It turned me into a sobbing mess.

One of the movies unforgettable messages is that rather than teach women how to plant trees, Maatai taught women how to grow and then plant trees.  She did not want them purchasing trees from a grower, because this was not true independence.  Saving seeds falls into this vein.  When people don't know how to save their own seed, they are forced into relationships with companies like Monsanto, who breed their seeds into sterility.  A sterile seed is a horribly perfect symbol of our modern industrial diet - growing market share and profit at the expense of life.

The natural world though is hard to stifle.  My recent experience in my little garden proves this at least anecdotally.  I was out on my deck doing an early spring clean-up when I came upon some bean pods from last year.  I plucked them off the vine even though they looked rough.  In the kitchen I pulled the pods apart.  Some of the beans were moldy and I threw them out, but several looked good and like they could possibly be planted.  Was it possible, I wondered, that these little beans survived the wet and cold Vancouver winter with their ability to grow still intact?

I planted the seeds and three weeks later, beautiful little beans started emerging from the soil.  I'm excited to plant these peat pots in my veggie garden and watch them grow.

While I am planning on purposefully saving seeds in the future, this experience shows that when mother nature is left to her own devices she is remarkably resilient.