Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Chicken With Kasha

Before I get into my recipe, I would like to acknowledge a sad passing among the readers of this community of blogs. Our good friend Darryl, whom you may know if you read Amar’s World or Scottie’s Toy Box, has passed away of a heart attack. He was a man of great love and honour. He was a man of God, yet he refused to accept people who used religion or any other reason to attack gay people. While he was straight, he had the greatest respect for us and was raising his children to be caring and tolerant people in their own right. He was a great example of how everyone should behave and comport themselves if we are to become a more tolerant world. He leaves behind a wife and six children, and my condolences go out to his family at this time.


This recipe is my mom’s. It’s an old Eastern European/Jewish style recipe for roasted/stewed chicken. While the chicken is not cooked in the sauce it is cooked in a closed pot and a sauce or gravy forms underneath. And it is served with kasha prepared in the traditional manner. I have made this recipe for myself in a somewhat different manner, but I am presenting you my mom’s method.

3 small chickens
5-7 yukon gold potatoes
6 carrots
½ lb mushrooms, sliced
2 onions, diced
rendered chicken or duck fat
butter and/or oil
2 tblsp paprika
salt and pepper
½ cup white wine
½ cup water
2-3 tblsp sour cream

2 cups toasted buckwheat groats (kasha)
1 egg
3 cups water

Cut the potatoes into a small-to-medium dice, 1 inch cubes at the largest, maybe a bit smaller than that. Slice carrot rounds to a similar size, or even smaller. There should be approximately as much carrot as potato. Put the vegetables on the bottom of a large roasting pan with a lid that will be large enough to contain the chickens.

In a saute pan, either render some excess fat from the chickens or melt duck fat. Butter is also an option. Saute onions in the fat until soft, then add paprika and cook briefly until a thick paste forms. If it is too dry, add a little oil. Place the chickens on top of the potatoes and carrots back side up. Using a basting brush, paint the onion and paprika mixture on the chickens, then flip them and do the same on the other side.

Add wine and water to the bottom of the pan and put in a 350 degree oven with the lid on. Meanwhile, melt butter in the same pan you used for the onions and saute the sliced mushrooms until cooked down. When done, add the mushrooms to the pan and cook everything for about 1.5 hours, or until the vegetables are tender and the chicken is fully cooked and very tender.

When I have prepared this for myself I have used slightly different techniques that also work, though they may produce a slightly different product. For instance I would cut the vegetables a little larger and roast them with paprika and oil and a lesser quantity of wine for 30-40 minutes before adding the chickens simply seasoned with salt pepper and paprika and cook only until the chickens are just done. I have to say though, I like my mom’s version better.

When the chicken is almost done, prepare the kasha. A groat is the nutritional part of a grain such as oats or buckwheat. When toasted, the groats from buckwheat are often referred to as kasha. This is a very nutritional grain and not all that expensive. It can sometimes be found in supermarkets, usually in the kosher foods section. Otherwise, it can be found at health food stores.

Now kasha can simply be boiled in a pot of water, the same way as rice, but my mom’s method, while a little more technically difficult, produces a better product. It is also the traditional method to prepare kasha. Boil the water on the stove or in a kettle. Meanwhile, combine the kasha with one beaten egg in a bowl and combine. The trick here is to make sure that all the groats are coated and there is NO visible egg left unmixed. If you are preparing a different quantity of kasha, you will likely have to adjust the amount of egg used. One egg with 2 cups of kasha is about the right ratio. If there is too much egg, there will be some loose egg and, when cooked it will fry and stick to the cooking pot. When the egg is thoroughly mixed in, add the kasha to a very lightly oiled sauce pot and cook the kasha until there is a nutty smell and the kasha looks quite dry. When you reach this stage add the boiling water directly to the pot. The kasha will clump together at this point (because of the egg), so break up the clumps with a fork and let the kasha simmer on low heat for about 10-15 minutes or until tender. When the kasha is cooked this way, the texture will be smoother and not as grainy as with boiled kasha. You are also less likely to have groats sticking to the side or bottom of the pot if you have coated the kasha with the egg.

When the chicken is cooked and the vegetables are tender, remove the chickens from the pan and stir the sour cream into the gravy and vegetables. Carve the chickens (it’s O.K. if they fall apart a bit) and serve.

The addition of the sour cream is where this recipe deviates from traditional Jewish cooking. To be Kosher, in compliance with Jewish dietary laws, dairy products cannot be eaten in the same meal as meat. So sauteeing the mushrooms in butter would not be done either. If one truly wished to keep this kosher (or at least traditionally Jewish) you would use chicken fat or oil instead. Finishing stewed dishes with sour cream, however is a very common element in the non-Jewish cuisines of Eastern Europe. It works particularly well in dishes where paprika is a prominent ingredient, thus we use it to finish this recipe. Sour cream adds richness and counters the spiciness of paprika while giving a pleasant tang of sourness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Moving On and Starting Over

I told you in my last post that I was leaving Montreal. I’ll explain what happened and what I’ll be doing next. I have said earlier that I was planning on a career change away from cooking. Over the last couple months the situation has become more pressing as my hours at work were drastically cut back and I was having a lot of trouble finding a new job, or even a second part-time job that would help to fill the gap. Part of the problem is that some of the qualities needed to be a good line cook are my weaknesses: keeping everything neat and tidy while working fast, doing things fast without thinking, and some mild weakness in organization. While some of these things were improving - at my age and years in the business it is not fast enough in my mind, especially in light of how far there is yet to go before I could hope to make a decent rate of pay. Over this time period I was making almost no money, certainly not anywhere near enough to merely meet my basic living expenses, and found myself with a large amount of debt and also unable to pay my rent and utilities. So, the remaining solution is to move back home with my parents, where I am now. I will be living here for a while until I have cleared out most of my debt and can again afford to live independently. I hope to be passed this stage soon, but it could be several months. Oh, and if anyone was wondering about the $100 I spent for that restaurant meal I reviewed in my last post, it was part of a loan from my parents and they gave approval to use the money for this.

Now I want to make one thing clear. I am not moaning or complaining about my situation, nor am I fishing for sympathy. I have seen several blogs that I will not name, wherein many posts seem to make dramatic, or even melodramatic, statements about how horrible their life is and they’ve lost hope, feel they can’t go on, etc., etc., ... Now I’m not denigrating genuine depression and authentic cries for help, but I honestly find it hard to believe the natural outlet for such feelings and emotions is a blog read by the public. I’ve often noticed the most despondent sounding posts seem to get so many more comments. Because comments and hits are the best measures of how popular your material is, I can’t help but suspect that these sob stories are an attempt to play on people’s sympathies so as to increase their numbers. So maybe this post should instead be about how I’m sinking into a spiral of despair and am buried under a mountain of debt and am forced to suffer the indignity of moving back in with my parents at the age of 29. None of this is an accurate depiction of my outlook or how I view the situation but then, it would be nice to attract more readers...

So why am I posting about this? Well, for starters, this blog is primarily for myself, as a way to express myself and write about the ideas I’m pondering. While I am in no way depressed or embarrassed about my circumstances, I do sometimes think of this as a failure so writing about the experience helps me to sort out my feelings and recast this as a positive learning experience and a chance to regroup to prepare for a step forward.

My blog will continue as before and I will be continuing to post from my new location. My parents have upgraded to a wireless network so I will be able to have independent internet access from my laptop and maintain my privacy. They understand things are different from when I moved out years ago and my needs for privacy have increased. Still, this makes me even happier that I came out last year, otherwise trying to hide this increasingly large part of my life would have been an unbelievably heavy burden to bear. It’s hard enough to be in the closet and coming out is such a liberating experience, it would be really distressing to have to go back inside. My parents know about my blog and many of the blogs I follow and that I may be interested in things that they may not have a desire to see.

As for work, I will still probably get another kitchen job for a while just to make my payments while I look for something better. I think it will be easier now that I am living in Ontario, as the language barrier is no longer an issue. I am fluent in French, but the problem is “fluent” is really not enough for many in Quebec. Even by my name, I am immediately identified as an anglophone and, while I don’t think I lost jobs based on not being francophone, my lack of ease with the language likely hindered my progress. And if I am going to enter a career where I use my mind and communication skills more, I will certainly have to be able to do that job in English - something not possible in Quebec. If it seems like I’m being vague about my career path, it’s probably because I don’t yet have a fixed idea of what I am going to do. Human Resources is a possibility and it would be nice to do something within the food or food service industry. If I stay in that industry employers will likely realize that my work experience does provide skills I can use in other jobs. I may go back to cooking sometime in the future, especially if I get the funds to go into business for myself.

I haven’t been blogging for a while but that is pretty much because I was trying to detail with all the details of my move, packing everything up for the movers, cleaning the apartment, and having more limited internet access for the first few days back home before the wireless got set up. With everything on my mind, writing blog entries was very low on my list. Now things are settled down and I want to write again. I may or may not give you updates on my progress, as that will depend on whether I think there is something interesting to discuss about my life and/or career path. I will of course continue to write about food, recipes and whatever else seems interesting to me, just as before.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Restaurant Review - Pintxo

I have now left Montreal. I will explain the details in a forthcoming post. But the night before leaving I went to eat at Pintxo, a Spanish/Basque restaurant tucked away on a side street in the Plateau Mont Royal neighbourhood of Montreal.

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The street is mainly residential and 2-3 blocks from Rue St. Denis, where many more restaurants are found. I first went to this restaurant with my parents almost 2 years ago and was impressed then. The style is tapas - “pintxo” is the Basque version of Spanish tapas. The restaurant features a menu with a wide variety of pintxos that use typically Spanish ingredients but are combined and presented in a modern way. They have main courses as well and offer a tasting menu that includes four pintxos selected by the chef and a main course of the diner’s choice. While I’m sure the main courses are good as well, I have not tried any of these larger dishes on either of my visits - opting instead for many smaller ones because tapas restaurants offer the opportunity to sample many different things. This is especially good if you are the type of person that, when faced with a menu at a good restaurant, wants to order everything because “it all looks so good!” I am definitely like that so, like on my previous visit, I ordered all pintxos.

The servers suggest 5-6 plates per person, but I would suggest that, to have sufficient food from small plates alone, you will probably need at least 7 per person. I started with six, found it not to be enough and added three more dishes.

I began with an octopus carpaccio with cava vinegar. This dish certainly showed innovative technique as the dish was presented in sliced rounds as for beef carpaccio, but an octopus consists primarily of tentacles that are much thinner than a loin of beef. What they appear to have done is gather a mass of octopus tentacles and possibly additional body meat to fill the gaps and somehow form the mass into a tube and frozen to set. This remained intact because carpaccio is usually sliced thin while frozen and allowed to thaw on the plate. The actual flavour of the dish was mild and not overly distinctive, but worth trying at least for the novelty. Second came maple smoked scallops with green beans and sundried tomatoes, served cold. The smoked scallops were excellent and within the smoke you could taste a hint of the maple. The other elements of the dish also worked very well together. Third was fresh sardines layered with avocado and marinated vegetables. A very pretty dish (see picture) and a good concept but it could have been a lot better. The main problem was the avocado was underripe. If the avocado was ripe and properly creamy I believe it would have worked well with the strong flavour of the sardine. More marinated vegetables would have helped too. As it was, the sardine was really the only thing you tasted and, while nice, did not make for a good, balanced dish.

After that came a goat cheese ravioli with duck gizzard confit. The texture of the ravioli and the mouth feel as the warm goat cheese coats your mouth as soon as you bite into the pasta feels really good going down (hmm, is this food porn? If it is, hope it’s good.)

The next dish was a piece of local lamb saddle, seared on all sides, cooked medium-rare and served with sweet potato puree. The dish was probably the simplest dish I had, but perfectly executed and one of the most flavourful. They left just enough fat on the lamb to provide the lamb-y flavour that I like so much but was not fatty to the point of it being unappetizing. The lamb was cooked correctly, nicely seared, well seasoned and accompanied by sweet potato that was perfect.

Up to this point, I had been drinking a glass of Spanish red wine with my food. Wine matching can be very difficult with tapas style dining as you are eating a wide variety of foods that don’t necessarily match with any given wine. Just choose what you like and go with it. At this point I decided to go with a sherry called Apotoles, which was very impressive. It had a taste kind of like salted caramel on top of the traditional sherry taste. And the timing worked out well, because the next course to arrive was seared foie gras with vinegared lentils, making an excellent wine pairing. A wine that is slightly sweet is often a good match for foie gras.

The second wave of plates began with mushrooms stuffed with duck confit. What was unexpected here was that rather than “stuffed” mushrooms, the duck confit seemed to be more of a sauce for the mushrooms. The taste was almost like a bolognese pasta sauce, but with duck. Exquisite. The cremini mushrooms had good texture as well to stand up to the deeply flavoured sauce.

Next was a seared scallop served on what they called a “chorizo tapenade”. Now a tapenade is typically a coarse puree or spread, often made from olives. What this was was pieces of chorizo cut into very fine dice and fried or sauteed until crispy. These were tossed with pieces of some type of pea and served as the base for the scallop which was topped with tobiko, or flying fish roe. While very small, this dish was probably the best of the night. The scallop was perfectly cooked, the chorizo was amazing and there were so many different textures going on that it was a joy to eat. I have known chefs to top many a dish with some form of fish eggs as though adding caviar was a sign of quality, with little regard to what kind of roe was used and whether it actually made the whole dish better. In this case, the tobiko was perfect as it has a most peculiar texture that provided great contrast to the dish. The eggs have crunch to them but they also kind of pop when you bite them so it’s a really interesting experience when eaten with the soft scallop and chewy, crispy chorizo.

The final dish was chorizo sausage with morcilla, or blood sausage. They use a good quality chorizo here so once again the chorizo was excellent. Now normally I do not like blood sausage, as it usually has a texture I describe as “chalky” that does not appeal to me. This was different. They did not pack it into a casing but left it in a pate consistency, so it was almost like a spread. The taste was very good and the texture was all right for my taste. And of course the pairing with the chorizo was successful as well.

I recall from my previous visit that their desserts are good, but I had already gone a little overboard on food and wine and decided not to order one this time. The service was very good, especially as this was Saturday night and the restaurant was full. There were one or two very minor errors, not even really worth mentioning as they did not detract from the experience. The bill can get away from you here, but it is certainly possible to spend less if that is an issue. The main courses are around $20 and seem to be of a good size whereas the pintxos average about $7 apiece, running from $5-10 with a couple going to $12. The tasting menu I mentioned earlier might be a good deal here as it includes four pintxos and a main course for $32. If you do what I did, you will end up paying more, up to $100 with wine, tax and tip.

The restaurant is small and is rather popular so reservations are a good idea, especially if you are going on a busy night. Although I have now left Montreal, I may still post some additional reviews from places I have eaten in previously.

Pintxo on Urbanspoon