Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, Weblog!

It's erev Christmas, and I am home alone, plague monkey that I am. Unwilling to broadcast my illness far and wide, I am quarantined with my cats, some short ribs braising in the oven, and eager anticipation of Alan Maitland's reading of The Shepherd on the CBC.

This is evidently becoming a tradition for me, only last year, I was screwing up my first ever batch of ice cream, and this year, I can churn ice cream like it ain't no thing. In my year of sporadic weblog postings, ramblings and incoherent ravings, I have, apparently, made progress, in some sense of the word. I am getting my learn on at Chef school, for one thing. Finally, I can tell the front of a chicken from the back, once the legs are off. Puff pastry is no longer an abstract and theoretical challenge. I can (with every ounce of concentration I can muster) produce springrolls that in no way resemble pregnant worms. I am becoming proficient at all kinds of things I wouldn't have imagined possible, this time last year. With my accumulating confidence and experience, I realize that the mountain of all things gastronomic that I don't know is actually growing, even as it seems less insurmountable. Nice to see that an old dog such as myself can learn some new tricks, I guess.

I wish you all a restorative and joyful holiday season, a happy and healthy New Year, and peace (and peas) in your hearts.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jewish Penicillin vs. Dirty Stratford Germs

I had been fighting a cold all week, and my body graciously granted me a stay while I finished up my exams before heading home for the holidays. No sooner did I disembark from my overbooked train to Kingston, however, than the invading Stratford germs executed a coup, and felled my school-addled self.
I don't remember the last time I was this sick, and while I will spare you the nasty details, suffice it to say that I am a mess, and am best left to my own devices until this plague clears up.

I was less sick yesterday, when I committed to making brown veal stock. My plan was to turn it into a demi-glace base for a sauce diable, sauce chasseur, or sauce charcutière for the chicken I also picked up whilst at the butcher. I cursed myself over and over today, lying in bed, half-blind. Here I was with a chicken, some vegetables and a vat of veal stock for an elegant chicken sauté, but all I wanted, nay, all I needed was my mom's chicken soup. I couldn't see my way to leaving the house to pick up dill, the essential missing ingredient.

I rallied with an equine dose of cold capsules, pain killers and antibiotic eyedrops, and managed to produce a chicken sauté with local shiitake mushrooms, a port-demi reduction and baby potatoes roasted in duck fat. I even managed to put away the bulk of the bottle of sauvignon blanc I was cooking with. All in all, not a bad effort, but it paled in comparison to the restorative magic that my mom's chicken soup would have wrought.

This is the best thing you can do, if you or anyone you care about, is sick:
1) Get a chicken. A kosher chicken is the best for soup, because they're saltier (and therefore tastier, IMHO). Barring that, see if you can get your hands on an older stewing hen. Beyond that, just get a chicken, or even a bag of dismantled chicken parts (to save yourself the trouble of butchering the thing, if you don't know how, or are too sick to wield a knife safely). Remove any organs like heart, kidneys and liver, because they will make your soup a) bitter, and b) a funny colour. There are tons of delicious things you can do with these morsels, but if you're illin', don't worry about them- deal with them later, or feed them to your pets.

2) If it hasn't been done for you, cut up the chicken into large pieces (breasts, thighs, drumsticks, halve the remaining carcass). Leave the skin on, but remove any pin feathers sticking out. This may require tweezers, which will then require careful disinfection.

3) Put the chicken in a soup pot, cover with cold, clear water by about 2 inches. Set on the stove top, and slowly bring to a boil. Once the water has boiled, turn the heat down to a simmer. Now you can prepare your vegetables. My family's tradition dictates that the only acceptable vegetable accompaniments for chicken soup are: carrots (either peeled and coarsely chopped into chunks, or the baby shaped carrots), celery (strings removed, chopped into pieces roughly equal in size to the carrots), and dill (added as a bunch, then fished out once the desired level of dill-ness has been attained). Black sheep that I am, I embellish on tradition, and add potato, leek, lemongrass, lime leaf and white turnip (if I can find any. The waxy yellow rutabaga has too strong a flavour for the delicately flavored soup). I also chop the dill before I add it, and leave it in. I really like dill.

4) You want to let the chicken simmer for a while, though, before adding the vegetables. These should only be added in the last 45 minutes of simmering, so they retain their structural integrity. The exception, of course, is the lime leaf and lemongrass, which can be added early, to extract the maximum flavour. The secret to a clear soup is careful skimming- all the scum, fat and impurities that rise to the top should be ladled off, without removing too much soup. If the soup is at too vigorous a boil, the excess fat and schmutz will emulsify into the soup, which will them be cloudy, and muddy-tasting at the end.

5) How to know when to add the vegetables? Taste the soup. It should be flavorful and alive with chicken-y goodness, but not very strong- remember that unless you are using a kosher bird, the only salt in the pot will be the natural salts occurring in the bird itself, which aren't that potent. Wait until the end to season the soup- if you salt it, and then reduce it too much while cooking, it will be overseasoned. Better to be patient.

6) Once the vegetables have been added and simmer until tender, you can season your soup with salt and pepper. Your pepper choices are many. Black pepper tastes amazing, but the black flecks may distract you from the golden perfection of your soup. I use black pepper. My mom does not. A really good way of getting the clear pungency of black pepper would be to tie some up in a sachet of cheesecloth, suspend it in the simmering broth, and discard at the end. You could also include: bay leaf, parsley stems and thyme, if you wanted. These seasonings (peppercorns, bay leaf, thyme and parsley stem) can also be tied up in a leek leaf, for the ultra-traditional bouquet garni, which is a generally nifty trick to have up your sleeve for imparting subtle aromatics to all manner of stocks, soups and sauces.
But I digress.
To avoid pepper flecks, you could use white pepper, although I find it generally tastes like ass, and I try to avoid it. What my mom does, is not season the pot of soup with pepper at all, and instead, she passes a shaker of celery pepper at the table. This is the only seasoning ever on the table at my mother's house. It is made of celery seed that has been ground with black pepper. It is commercially available, or you can make your own.

7) Now I like to remove the chicken, discard the carcass and skin, and shred the meat, returning it to the pot for a really hearty, chunky soup. I also boil small pasta shapes (I am partial to stars and alphabets) separately, and add them to the bowl (not the pot- they will get ultra-soggy) to serve. My mom usually leaves the chicken out altogether, saving it for cold lunches, and refrigerates the soup overnight so that all the fat congeals at the top and can be discarded easily. I never have this much forethought. This is something I am working on. Aside from pasta, you can add matzo-farfel, dumplings (potato or meat-filled kreplach), matzo balls (which, when I am sick, are way too much to ask of me), and soup mandlen (which are basically little puffs of choux paste, probably made on water rather than milk so they are pareve).

My mom calls this Jewish Penicillin, with good reason- a homemade chicken soup can cure all manner of ailment, from a common cold to a broken heart to whatever ungodly illness I managed to pick up in Stratford. I should have sucked it up and picked up some dill, which is exactly what I plan to do tomorrow, assuming I am more ambulatory.