Friday, December 24, 2010

Roast Chicken

rIt is tradition to have a roast bird of some sort around the holidays. The only one most people make at other times of the year, is usually chicken. While a very common thing to make, It can also be intimidating for many cooks.

The difficulty is that chicken, to be safe, must be cooked almost to the point of being overdone - there is very little margin for error. To make things more difficult, a chicken has an irregular shape, with a cavity in the middle and the breast and legs cook at different rates. Proper roasting of birds requires technique and I will share it with you. I will give the instructions based on roasting a chicken, but the general technique is similar for most poultry.

Roast Chicken

1 roasting chicken - 2 kg or larger
1 stick butter
salt and pepper
1 apple, quartered
1 lemon, quartered
dried thyme
1/3 cup orange marmalade

Obviously, the first step is to choose a quality chicken. Organic and free range is ideal, but do what your budget allows. If you are cooking for a small group of people, a slightly different suggestion is to use a capon. Capons are male chickens (castrated) and are larger than regular chickens, usually about 3-5 kilos. The bird you will see in the photos is actually a small capon. Some people will tell you to wash chicken before cooking. I don’t think it is completely necessary. If the bird smells a little, it is probably a good idea to give it a rinse, otherwise I wouldn’t bother - this will be in the oven for a long time and will be cooked to a high temperature. If you do wash it, make sure to thoroughly dry it before continuing. One optional thing you can do which may help with carving later on is to remove the wishbone before cooking. This will allow you to easily slice down the entire length of the breast. The wishbone is located just above the neck (opposite side from the cavity). You can make a little slit alongside each part of the bone and scrape along the length of the bone. As long as you just use the tip of your knife this will not damage the cooked meat. It will work best to work with your fingers. Follow each bone up to where they meet and use your fingers to tear meat away from the bone and pull the bone out. It may not come out all in one piece. If it doesn’t, find the remaining piece and pull that out.

Season the bird with salt and pepper on both sides. Toss the apple and lemon with salt, pepper and thyme and put them inside the cavity. This is the only form of stuffing you should be adding to your bird. That instruction goes double for turkey. If you stuff a turkey, there are only two possible results: horribly overcooked and dry breast meat or food poisoning from undercooked stuffing (which will contain undercooked turkey juices). Make your stuffing or dressing in a separate cooking vessel. There are ways to incorporate turkey flavour or drippings without running the risks of directly stuffing the bird. You can stuff small birds and still get a good result, but I personally wouldn’t stuff anything larger than a cornish hen. Melt the butter and brush it all over both sides of the bird. If you want to use a little less butter it can be diluted with a bit of chicken stock. I don’t do this, but my mom does and it works just fine. Place a roasting rack in a foil-lined roasting pan and place the bird breast side down in the pan and put in a 325 degree oven.

After about 20 minutes, remove the bird, flip it over so it is breast side up, and baste this side with butter and put it back in the oven. Don’t worry if there are marks in the skin from the roasting rack - the cooking process will get rid of these indentations. Return it to the oven and cook for 40 -60 minutes, or until almost cooked. It is almost impossible to give you a time frame, as this will depend on the size of the bird. Roasting chickens should take about 1 - 1 ½ hours total, a capon 2-2 ½ hours and a turkey 2 ½ to 4 hours.

The biggest challenge for most cooks is determining when a chicken is cooked. Unlike other meats, undercooking chicken and turkey even a little bit can be dangerous. To me, cutting into a bird (or any other piece of meat) during cooking is an unpardonable offense - do not do this under any circumstances. A common technique is to wiggle the drumstick - if the drumstick moves freely the bird is cooked. The problem is this technique is not accurate enough. The bird may be overcooked or parts of the bird may even not be cooked yet. The best method is to use a meat thermometer. Take the temperature of the breast and the thigh. It should read 160 degrees in the breast and 180 degrees in the thigh. If the temps are a few degrees below where you want - pull them out anyway - the bird will continue cooking as it rests (by at least 5 degrees). This is also a good way to decide when to glaze. As you will need another 10-20 minutes of high heat cooking, start glazing when the breast reaches 130 degrees. That should give you enough time. Always test the thickest part of the meat in both areas, and be careful not to hit a bone, or an air pocket (especially in the thigh) as that will not give you an accurate reading.

Meanwhile combine the marmalade with remaining butter and warm it up so it remains liquid. Make sure to select a high-quality marmalade, preferably made from Seville oranges and with no ingredients other than oranges, sugar, water and pectin. I actually use kumquat preserves, which is very difficult to find (I only know of one company that produces this). In my family, we always used to use orange marmalade, and that is what I suggest.

Remove the chicken, raise the heat to 400 degrees, flip the bird again, and baste with the marmalade mixture. Return it to the oven for 5-10 minutes or until the skin is nicely caramelized. Then take the chicken out again flip one last time and baste the breast side with the marmalade. Return it for another 5-10 minutes.

When the bird is done, take the chicken out cover it in foil, and rest for 10-15 minutes before carving. The easiest way to carve is to first remove the legs, then remove the breast as two whole pieces, by cutting down alongside the keel bone (the keel bone runs along the middle of the breast) and cut inwards following along the ribcage. The breasts will come off easier if you removed the wishbone beforehand. You can then split the legs into thighs and drumsticks and slice the breasts. Serve chicken, turkey, capon or whatever bird you are cooking with whatever holiday or other sides you want. Throughout the year, I usually eat roast chicken accompanied by baked sweet potatoes. Bake them in the oven just like potatoes (I usually find it helps to give each sweet potato a 5 minute head start in the microwave before foil wrapping them and putting them in the oven).

Enjoy and to all my readers, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Restaurant Review - Griffintown Cafe

This review is of the kind of restaurant you would never know about unless you lived in the neighbourhood or did some serious research. I recently had two meals there, both excellent.

View Larger Map
Griffintown café is a small restaurant in Griffintown, a community just outside of the downtown core that used to be neglected and a little slum-like until recently. A revitalization project is currently underway and there are lots of new condo buildings and property values are rising rapidly. The restaurant itself is a small rustic style establishment that feels exactly right for a neighbourhood restaurant. One little example of the atmosphere is that they serve water in old bourbon bottles and the water glasses are fashioned after bourbon glasses, so it almost feels like you are in a saloon going on a major bender. The cuisine is American Southern style combined with some Latin/Mexican offerings. There is a TINY open kitchen in the corner that would seem unworkable for serving their capacity of about 50 people, but they seem to do a good job, and there is evidently a prep kitchen downstairs. They serve dinner 5 nights a week, lunch Wednesday - Friday, and brunch on the weekends. I found the place in search of a restaurant for a large group of family for a brunch and found some good reviews for their brunches, as well as for their regular menu. On my first visit, I went for a Friday lunch by myself to test them out. While what I had could be considered a burger and fries, it was much more than that, and quite excellent. It was a beef, lamb and duck burger, with fried fingerling potatoes. The burger was amazingly juicy, cooked nicely and the flavour of lamb was certainly evident, something you do not always get in a burger made with combinations of meat. The fries were cooked correctly and appropriately salted. They asked if I wanted ketchup mustard or mayo, but actually brought the requested condiments on the side, which turned out to be a good thing. This was because I had requested ketchup and mustard, my usual for burgers, but I tasted the burger as is first, and it turned out that, not only were the condiments unnecessary, they would have distracted from the flavour of the meat. For dessert, I had a pumpkin cake with a cream cheese creme. It was kind of like a cross between a carrot cake and a spice cake. The sauce was like cream cheese icing you would find on a carrot cake, but thinned out, to the consistency of a custard sauce. Very good. I was impressed so I reserved a table for Sunday brunch. Just note that, for groups of more than 6, brunch reservations can only be made for 10am, when they open.

We were a group of 9 people for brunch, all members of my extended family, none of whom live in Montreal. There were at least two other groups in the restaurant which, together with just a couple small tables made a full house for brunch. They feature the standard brunch items like eggs benedict several different ways, french toast, egg plates, sandwiches and salads, as well as some more unique dishes, like crab cakes, an egg dish somewhat like huevos rancheros, that they called huevos divorciados, but with more genuinely Mexican ingredients like avocado and Mexican crema, and a breakfast burger, which was a sausage patty on a bun topped with a fried egg. They make their own bacon in-house, make their own cured salmon (unsmoked) and generally try not to take shortcuts. I ordered the eggs benedict with bacon and goat cheese. Others ordered the benedict with the salmon or with the spinach. The huevos divorciados, the breakfast patty, french toast and the yogurt and granola were also ordered. While I certainly didn’t taste everyone’s plate, it was very obvious that everyone greatly enjoyed the food. The benedict was excellent. The eggs were perfectly cooked and the house-made bacon had perfect flavour. The hollandaise was flavourful and correctly made, though I would have preferred a little more, especially since the english muffins were rather thick. The goat cheese was of good quality and matched well with the bacon. It was served with a small side salad and a form of hash browns, with good flavour. I was also able to taste the house cured salmon. The texture and salt level was perfect, though I would have liked a little more flavour from herbs or citrus, as has been done in other restaurants I have worked in.

The service was very pleasant and rather competent, especially considering there were three large groups at the same time, filling the restaurant. Several in our party requested some additional sides during the course of the meal, and they were delivered quickly. For brunch in Montreal, the price was fairly reasonable, with most brunch dishes in the 10-15 dollar range. Believe me, brunch in Montreal, especially downtown, can easily get a fair bit pricier than this. Lunch prices are comparable with dinner prices a little higher, but with some very interesting dishes. I have not been there for dinner yet, but would certainly like to. They also feature live music in the evenings.

So to summarize, great atmosphere, friendly service, and great food. A hidden gem that deserves to be unearthed.

You will notice that at the bottom of this post I have an "urbanspoon" icon. I have decided to submit my restaurant reviews for listing on the urbanspoon restaurant review website. This site has helped me find restaurants in Washington D.C. and also helped me select this restaurant as well. If approved, the review page for this restaurant will directly link to this post in their blogs section. I plan to do this with other restaurant reviews as well.

Griffintown on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 13, 2010

How To Make A Stew

Stews almost always evoke memories of childhood. The thing is sometimes these memories are good and recall excellent meals, and sometimes they are bad and eating them was seen as a chore, if not even a punishment. I think this is because, although everyone at least tries to make stew, it does actually require some skill to produce well. The making of a stew transforms inexpensive ingredients into a magnificent product with a long period of time and careful cooking. I will give you the general method of how to produce a good stew as well as some guidelines for recipes.

The Meat

A quick rule of thumb - if it makes a good steak, don’t use it for stew. The tender cuts of meat are not only too expensive to use in a stew, many of them do not have enough meaty flavour to make good use of them. The tougher cuts of meat typically are marbled with a fair amount of intramuscular fat and connective tissue that takes a couple of hours of cooking to break down. But when it does break down, the meat becomes very tender and soft. My favourite piece of meat is beef or veal cheek. This can be difficult to find so, when it is not available, I choose either short rib or blade, which is a cut from the shoulder. Chuck or sometimes cross rib are also decent options. Cuts of meat from the hind quarters are often sold as pot roasts or stewing meat, and generally have the term “round” in their name, such as top round, bottom round, eye of round, etc. I generally avoid these cuts, as they are both tough and lean cuts so they are not flavourful enough for stew. Similar rules apply to meats other than beef, but this is what I will focus on as it is the most common. When trimming meat for stew, most people remove all the fat and cartilage from the meat. This is not necessary and it deprives the stew of good flavour.

Silverskin, shown on the back of the cheek here, should be removed, and if the fat is really thick it should trimmed back a little, but most connective tissue will break down and a little bit of fat is a good thing. Then cut the meat in equal size pieces. Smaller pieces will cook faster, but I find the texture personally more pleasing with large pieces. It also makes the browning stage go faster.


Almost any vegetable will work in a stew. Since the meat takes a long time to cook, and because I make stews more often in winter, I tend to use hard, winter vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, squash, turnips, beets or similar hard, dense vegetables. These vegetables should be cut into fairly large chunks so they do not cook too quickly and can be added at the beginning. If most of these vegetables are overcooked it will not be too problematic. It will not have the ideal texture, but should hold together and the flavour will be there. Squash is an exception, as it cooks a little faster and tends to break down into mush. Potatoes can be a good option as well, but they will release a fair amount of starch and also cook a little faster. For these ingredients, the meat will need to be cooking for at least 1 hour before adding these vegetables. Other, quick cooking vegetables need to be added towards the end of the cooking process. Most often I use mushrooms, which I add a half hour before the end of the cooking. You can use any variety of fresh or dried mushrooms. Any other tender vegetables you would want to add, such as peas, corn, beans, etc., should be added in the final stages of cooking, as it is important that they maintain their texture. Other options includes greens such as spinach, collards, swiss chard or Asian greens like bok choy. Collards and similar deep greens should be added with at least 1 hour to go, while spinach just needs to be wilted at the very end. I avoid cabbages as I do not like how they taste with long cooking.


This is a very important step that is often skipped, resulting in weak flavour. When meat is exposed to very high heat, chemical reactions take place that brown the outside of the meat. The process is similar to, but not the same as, caramelization and is called the Maillard Reaction. Some chefs and food “experts” claim that searing meat seals in juices. You should know that this is not true at all. As meat cooks, water will always be expelled from the meat. When high heat searing, you will not see the water because it is evaporating instantly. While searing does not retain more meat juices, the real reason for doing this is that it generates deep flavour than can not be accomplished through stewing alone. The basic rules for searing or browning meat are to keep the heat high, don’t move the meat around in the pan, and don’t crowd the pan. Each piece of meat should only be moved to brown another side of the piece. If the pan gets too dry, add more oil.

An additional step I like to do after browning the meat involves searing parsnips. I often use parsnips in my stews and I find the flavour is much better if they are caramelized. So I cut the parsnips on the bias so there is a lot of surface area and brown them for about 30 seconds per side.

Braising Liquid

When the meat is finished browning, add onions to the same pan and saute the onions until soft. At this point, add garlic and cook for about 1 minute until it is fragrant. If you are adding tomato paste and/or paprika, they should be added next and cooked for 1-2 minutes. Then add another tablespoon of oil and 2 tblsp of flour and cook, stirring constantly, for another 2 minutes to cook the rawness out the flour. Then slowly add red wine, stirring to make sure the sauce thickens evenly. Add stock or other liquids, if using, and bring everything to a boil. Any other spices and any dried herbs should be added at this point, as well as salt and pepper. Taste the sauce - it should be well balanced but very powerful. Remember that lots of liquid will be released from the meat and vegetables, which will dilute the sauce. Add the meat back to the stew, along with the longest cooking vegetables, particularly the carrots. If you are using parsnips without browning first, which I do sometimes, add them now as well. Many stewing and braising recipes will tell you cover the food entirely with liquid, or at least 2/3 of the way up. This is not necessary. All that is needed is for everything to be coated with some liquid going up maybe halfway. It will probably seem much too thick but, with the liquid that will be released from the meat, there will be plenty of liquid at the end. Just be careful when bringing the mixture to a boil that you keep mixing and make sure nothing burns or scorches. Once the stew goes in the oven this is no longer a concern.

Cooking and Timing

Bring the stew to a boil, then put in a 275 F oven to cook. Be sure that the cooking pot is oven safe and has a tight-fitting lid. Depending on what meat you used and the size of the pieces, it will take anywhere from 2 - 6 hours, but I have found that most stews I make require about 4 hours of cooking. If you are using vegetables like squash or beets in the stew, add them about 1 hour into the cooking process. At about the 2 hour point, you should check the doneness of the meat for the first time. Press the meat against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon. If the meat is hard and rubbery, it is not ready yet. When it is ready, the meat should pull apart with direct pressure from the spoon. When the meat is almost ready, I often add chopped mushrooms. Sometimes it is a good idea to saute the mushrooms first, but I don’t bother. When the meat is done, check the seasoning and add finishing touches. Possibilities include fresh herbs, tender vegetables or liqueur, such as brandy. Some vegetables you add will benefit from different cooking times, which would require careful timing and a knowledge of how much more time the meat will need. For someone just starting out I recommend a very simple version, based on the French classic Boeuf Bourgingnon.

5 lbs stewing meat, trimmed
olive oil
3 onions
1 head garlic
5 carrots, large chunks
1 lb parsnips, cut in large pieces on bias
2 tblsp tomato paste
1 tblsp Hungarian paprika
2 tblsp flour
1 bottle red wine AND 1 tblsp beef stock concentrate
3/4 bottle red wine AND 1 cup beef broth
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp rosemary
3 bay leaves
½ tsp cayenne
salt and pepper
½ lb mushrooms, quartered
chopped parsley (optional)

Trim meat and cut vegetables. Sear the meat, then parsnips if you want. Add onions, then garlic, then tomato paste and paprika as directed above. Add more oil and flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes, then add wine and beef stock. Add the herbs and spices, salt and pepper and taste. Then return the meat to the pan along with the carrots and parsnips. Bring to a boil, put a lid on the pot and put it in a 275 degree oven for about 4 hours or until meat is tender. With ½ hour left in cooking time, add mushrooms. When meat is tender, add chopped parsley, if using, and serve over mashed potatoes.

Now you can see that, start to finish, my stewing method takes a lot of time. That said, I believe this is an excellent dish for entertaining. The reason is almost all the work involved is done hours in advance, leaving you free as a host. Because it is cooked slowly, there is a substantial margin for error, meaning that a little extra time won’t hurt anything, in fact the flavour will probably improve. Of course it tastes amazing the following day, so you could even do much of this a day ahead and just reheat and finish it. This also works fairly well as a pot luck, as it reheats fairly well and only needs one pot. I have probably already said this, but it deserves another mention. The possibilities for variation are endless - in the meat, the vegetables, the liquids and the seasonings.

In future I may post recipes of other stews, or braised meat dishes that I prepare using the same methods. I will most likely refer back to this post, as this is the general method behind many meals.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Multi-Party Politics

Recently, a friend in the United States has expressed frustration with the political situation and has been seeking information about the pros and cons of multi-party government systems. I would like to discuss this issue, with a focus on the US and Canada, about which I know the most, and some discussion of what little I know about some European governments.

The obvious advantage of a 2-party system is that it is easier to get a majority in the legislature, which should make laws easier to pass. It also ensures the country’s leader is endorsed by a majority of the population.

In general however, I believe multi-party systems are a better option. If you do not happen to agree with the position of either party in the United States, you have no options. In Canada there are three parties that run everywhere in the country (and an additional very powerful party in Quebec only) and have significant representation in parliament with a fourth party beginning to emerge with significant vote totals, though they do not yet have any representation in government. As a result, we have not had any one party with majority control since 2004. Despite this, things still get done and they have gotten done with minority governments in the past. In fact, Canada’s most significant piece of legislation was created by a coalition government. This was the Canada Health Act, which guaranteed our universal health care. This measure was promoted by the New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s “third party”, which leans to the left and was supported by the larger, centrist, Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. On a side note, I firmly believe Pierre Trudeau was Canada’s best prime minister. In addition to bringing about universal health care, it was during his leadership that Canada received its own constitution, finally achieving complete independence from England. Included in the constitution was the Charter of Rights, which I already posted about some time ago (see the post titled Rights and Freedoms, posted September 29). Trudeau was also a key figure for gay rights in Canada. It was Trudeau that removed homosexuality from the criminal code. In explaining his reasoning, he used a line that has become very famous: “The government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation”.

The obvious drawback of a multi-party system is the threat of repeated, frequent elections when no majority can be reached. To try to avoid this, coalitions are often formed, as has happened recently with the British government. It seems to be going very well there, as the Conservatives are being tempered by the Liberal Democrats. Then again coalitions can bring their own problems too. An example of this is Israel. In addition to the 2 largest parties, there are numerous small parties with representation in the Knesset, some representing radical elements of society, especially the religious right. To hold power, one of the main parties usually requires coalition support from these fringe groups, and I believe that these compromises hurt possibilities for peace with their neighbours, as these parties tend to insist on growing the settlements and promoting other contentious issues. A method some countries use to get around the issue is to require a minimum percentage of the national vote to be able to get seats in their parliament. Germany is an example of this and Italy has apparently recently done this as part of a plan to reform their notoriously messy political setup.

Part of the blame for Italy’s political troubles derived from the multitude of small political parties that made up their parliament. To get anything done, many behind the scenes deals would have to be made. That would seem to be a recipe for corruption, and that is what they got. Their system also does not have the people directly elect individual representatives but rather vote for parties, a system called proportional representation. When used in a small country like Israel, it is the only way that makes sense, but in larger countries that have distinct regional differences throughout the country, this method poses problems. Germany has used a mix of direct regional representatives with at-large politicians chosen from party lists. Canada and the UK take a different approach, simply choosing all members of parliament individually in their local districts, called ridings. While I believe our system would work a little better with a mixed system, and I would like to see Canada move to some semblance of a mixed proportional system, the current system is a little more similar to what happens in the United States.

This is where the possible benefits of two party systems return. Most elections are understood by the people as a choice between the current governing party and making a change. When there are many small parties, they can split the total vote opposed to the current government, thus ensuring the incumbent wins again, even though a majority of the voters did not want to continue with the status quo. We see a lot of this in Canada. Our current prime minister, conservative Stephen Harper is liked by about 35% of the population, and despised by most of the rest, myself included. However, this opposition is split between the Liberals, the NDP and the Green Party. This scenario often allows the Conservatives to continue to win elections, albeit without a majority of seats (I fully realize there are other dividing issues that influence how votes are split, but this will get me too far off track). Americans seem to prefer a binary, either/or solution. When an exception appeared in 2000, the response was telling. Ralph Nader entered the presidential race as a third-party candidate and did succeed in attracting more votes than a third party candidate ordinarily would. Since the race between the two leaders, Bush and Gore, was so close, even the relatively small number of votes cast for Nader greatly influenced the final results. It is widely believed that Nader’s votes came from people who would otherwise have voted for Gore, allowing Bush to win (of course this analysis sets aside the controversy over electoral college votes and the general weirdness of what happened in Florida). During the next presidential election, in 2004, many people wanted Nader not to run. He ran anyway, but he received far fewer votes this time around. Of course by then it was clear that the American people were divided more or less 50-50, with very strong convictions over which leader to choose. The people clearly did not want a third option that might risk easing the way for the candidate they opposed.

So what options are there for those who might like to have a choice other than the obvious two in the US. Perhaps if a third party can find a way to get candidates elected to the house, it will become genuinely impossible to get any legislation enacted without some form of compromise, something that is generally avoided in the current situation. You would not expect the politicians to be less partisan, as that does not happen even in multi-party systems, but at least the government will have to find some way to incorporate diverse opinions and policies rather than the current obstinacy. But whether the desire for representation is more important for enough Americans than the preference for clear black and white solutions is an open question. Furthermore, there is an attitude among some people that every new idea that comes from outside America, especially from Europe, is evil and dangerous, while the American solutions are always the best. With this in mind, we will probably never see any dramatic changes to the political model there.

Finally, for those of my readers from European countries, I want to say that my research on European governments has been minimal so, if I got things wrong, feel free to let me know. I would also like to know your thoughts on this issue, wherever you may live.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Quick Post - Happy Hanukkah

Sorry I haven’t been posting much lately. I’ve had a bit of a stressful time with work and in other ways over the last few weeks. There are more posts coming in the next few days, including one that might prove very interesting. In the meantime, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah has begun. While Christmas decorations are ubiquitous, and often verge on the extreme and/or ridiculous, we do not tend to do much of any decoration for Hanukkah. That is why I found this sight quite interesting. Walking down a major street in Montreal yesterday, I saw this van parked and just had to take some pictures. Yes, the menorah is strapped to the roof. I don’t think you can tell from the pictures, but there are light bulbs on the two raised branches, the positions for the first day of Hanukkah. I can only imagine that they are lit at night and light bulbs will be added each night. I wonder what kind of scene this will be next week in the evening. I also wonder how this would affect the handling?