The First BBQ of the Year, Soul Food-Style

Montrealers may remember that last summer was one of the hottest, stuffiest summers in recent memory. We don’t have air conditioning in our apartment, and so for much of the summer, cooking in our kitchen was pretty much unbearable. Luckily, we had just purchased a new BBQ, as well as the awesome veggie grilling basket pictured above, and so we spent months eating perfect dinners of grilled proteins with vegetables–whatever we had in the fridge just thrown on a the grill with a little bit of seasoning and oil–and loving it. It was about as much as we could handle “cooking” in that heat. And it ruled. As the weather has been warming up in recent weeks, I am looking forward to another summer of simple, tasty, hearty BBQ-ing.

This weekend we fired up the BBQ for the first time this year, and we were instantly nostalgic for last summer, and excited for this one. We kicked off the first BBQ of the season with a soul food-style feast. I have, in the past couple of years, become obsessed with soul food, which is a problem since this is a pretty much nonexistent cuisine in Montreal. Whenever we go to the U.S. I gorge myself and discover what I can, while back home, I have relied on a couple of cookbooks to show me the ropes. It is a pretty strange thing to cook dishes at home that you’ve never actually eaten before, so that you’re not quite sure if you’re getting them right. Last winter, for example, I was fixated on trying to make chicken and dumplings, and scoured a million websites to find the perfect recipe to introduce me to this traditional dish; the result was absolutely delicious, but who knows how it compared to the real thing!

One book that has been teaching me about soul food is Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South:

source

Sheila Ferguson wrote Soul Food when she moved to the UK with her British husband and felt cut off from her community and access to traditional recipes. She is a fantastic writer who takes great pains to introduce the reader to the origins of the food, its cultural significance, and why she loves it. She manages to be funny and colloquial without coming off as kitschy. Chapters of the book include, for example, “The High and Mighty Breakfast”; “Fine Feathered Fowl”; “The Almighty Pig”; “If You See It, Shoot It”; and “The Glorious Sweet Potato”; among others. I had been pouring over this book since I bought it months ago, savouring her writing on the evolution of this style of cooking, but it was not until this weekend that I finally tried a recipe. Many reviews online mentioned that Ferguson’s BBQ sauce recipes were amazing, so I thought that a fitting place to start. Often, when we BBQ, we use the Smoked Chipotle BBQ Sauce from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie cookbook, which is seriously so ridiculously flavourful that it surprises us every time, but I thought it  might be nice to add another sauce to our repertoire. And Ferguson did not disappoint. For whatever reason, I was especially drawn to the BBQ sauce in her recipe for spareribs, so I stole that and used it for a couple of chicken legs. We grilled some new potatoes, asparagus and nectarines alongside the chicken, and as a further accompaniment I decided to try my hand at another soul food perennial that I had never actually tried (or even seen) in real life: spoonbread.

The result was a literally finger-licking plate of food that could not have made a more beautiful kick-off to our summer cookery. The BBQ sauce was really simple but full of flavour: a little bit sweet, a little bit spicy, a little bit acidic, it complemented the char of the BBQ perfectly. I will absolutely be making it again; it strikes me as the perfect base sauce to experiment with, or just to use as is because it is so solid. The spoonbread was like a perfect cross between cornbread and bread pudding. We often do some kind of corn-based accompaniment when we grill–cornbread, grilled polenta, corn on the cob–and this is a great addition to our repertoire. Light and fluffy, and nice and moist, it really added to the succulence of the BBQ-ed chicken and also made for awesome leftovers; we had some for breakfast the next morning with butter and a fried egg.

What a lovely way to kick of BBQ season; I hope we will have many more such meals to share with you over the coming months. In the meantime, here are Sheila Ferguson’s recipes for Spoonbread and BBQ Sauce, slightly adapted by me.

Spoonbread
Adapted from Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South. Serves 6.

Spoonbread is to my mind a gourmet’s delight. You should be able to spoon it out onto your plate and eat it with a fork. To ensure this, I treat spoonbread with the respect it deserves and separate the eggs and beat the whites. Some people don’t and it comes out just fine, but I like that extra little bit of fluffiness that beaten egg whites give.

Ingredients:
1 cup yellow or white cornmeal
2 cups water
1 tsp salt [I would add a little more]
1 cup milk or buttermilk
2 tbsp melted butter
1 tsp baking powder
3 egg yolks
3 egg whites

Preheat your over to 375F. Pour your cornmeal into boiling salted water. Cook, over medium heat, for 5 minutes or until thick, stirring constantly.
When the consistency is just about right, remove the pan from the heat and slowly stir in the milk. Let it cool down a bit before beating in your butter, baking powder and egg yolks. Beat vigorously for a couple of minutes then fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites (stiff but not dry, that is).

Pour the batter into a well buttered 2 quart baking dish and bake for 35-40 minutes [it took me about 45] or until golden brown. It’s done when a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

You can serve spoonbread with just about any kind of meat — ham, pork loin or chops, spareribs, roast chicken or seafood dishes. It is also terrific for breakfast!

Spare Rib BBQ Sauce
Adapted from Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South. Again, I used this to BBQ chicken and it worked out beautifully; I am sure it would also be awesome for ribs too.
Serves 6.

Ingredients:
2 tbsp melted pork fat or bacon grease (or melted butter)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp cider vinegar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp mustard dry or prepared (not too strong though or it will take over the taste)
1 tbsp celery salt or 1 tsp celery seed
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper [I put closer to a tsp and it gave it a nice kick]
1 cup tomato ketchup
3 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
4 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 cup water or meat stock
1/2 cup beer
1/2 cup dry white wine (optional) [I skipped this]

Heat the bacon grease or butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Brown the onion, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or so. Add in all the remaining ingredients. Bring them to a boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20 minutes or so, uncovered.

Taste and adjust seasoning, and then slather all over your chosen protein!

Comfort and bitterness

To say I’m unhappy with the results of Monday’s election would be a vast understatement. This isn’t the sort of blog where we’re going to dwell on that sort of thing, but suffice to say that this post is about two simultaneous feelings I’ve been having: bitterness and the need for comfort.

First the comfort:

If roast chicken doesn’t really require a recipe, then this is especially the case with chicken soup, right?  Sure, but since I was threatened with divorce–in the very pages of this blog no less, dear readers!–if I didn’t post about my chicken soup, here it is.   The recipe mainly comes from a cookbook Anna received for her birthday entitled, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily, by Jessica Theroux.  As the title suggests, the author travelled around the various regions of Italy, and met and learned to cook with Italian grandmothers. She talks about them, their lives, where they live, and gives us a sampling of their cooking.  We’ve tried a number of recipes from the book–gnocci, roasted rabbit, a rabbit sauce made from those leftovers, a sumptious chocolate and orange tart–and they’ve all been excellent.  But does chicken soup really require a recipe?  Well, maybe…

Whenever we roast chickens, we save the carcasses and stick them in the freezer, and when I make wings I chop off the wingtips and freeze those because nobody wants to eat those anyway, and they’re great for stocks. So we had a freezer full of chicken bits when I attempted this.  The quality of your stock is going to make or break this recipe.  I didn’t do anything special with mine, but I did arguably overreduce it so it ended up quite thick with a nice gelatinous quality to it that worked really well and turned this into a far more robust soup than I had anticipated.  The book has a recipe for stock that I didn’t look at before making mine, but kind of wish that I did since it calls for lemon juice that in conjunction with a long simmer “pulls the minerals out from the chicken’s bones, delivering them into the broth.”  I imagine that it would also contribute a refreshing lightness and acidity to the broth.  I will have to try this next time.

This broth, strained, and then simmered with garlic and then finished by poaching eggs in it made one of the most delicious chicken soups I’ve ever made.  It was so rich and flavourful and considering that it is basically just broth with an egg in it, was surprisingly filling.  We ate it as an appetizer, but served with some nice bread, or with some pasta in it, it would easily be enough for a full meal.

Chicken Soup with Poached Eggs and Herbs
Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

6 cups chicken (preferably bone) broth, lightly salted
3 cloves peeled, whole garlic, finely chopped, or 1 shoot green garlic, finely chopped
4-6 eggs
2 tablespoons chopped marjoram or parsley, or a mixture of both
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

Bring the chicken broth to a boil and add the garlic. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Season to taste; if you used whole garlic cloves, remove them from the broth at this point. Crack the eggs into ramekins or small bowls, and while the broth is at a low simmer add 1 egg at a time to the pot. I find that stirring the broth gently between adding each egg helps to keep the yolk and white united.

Once all the eggs have been added, place the lid on just slightly ajar; be sure the flame is low, otherwise the broth could boil over, disrupting the eggs. If you prefer runny yolks, cook for 3 minutes total. If you like your egg yolks solid, cook for 5 to 6 minutes total.

To serve, spoon an egg into each bowl and ladle the broth over. Garnish with freshly chopped herbs, salt, and black pepper.

And now the bitterness:

While waiting for the CBC’s election night coverage to begin, I racked my IPA into a secondary fermenter.  Like the election results, this beer is bitter.  Unlike them, however, this beer will not only be easy to swallow, but positively enjoyable as well.  I’m really looking forward to bottling this one.  Here I am taking a reading of the beer.  It’s currently at 1.010 gravity (for you non-beer nerds, gravity basically measures the amount of sugar in the liquid.  As the beer ferments the sugars are converted to alcohol and you can calculate the alcoholic strength of the beer based on the difference between the starting and finishing gravity).  My starting gravity was a little lower than I had expected: I was aiming for 1.060, but got 1.054.  The beer is at 5.74% abv right now, which is a little low for the style, but certainly close enough.  It also smells and tastes delicious.  The body is maybe a little bit light, but it’s hard to properly judge that before it’s carbonated.  I’m pleased with it so far.

I threw about an ounce of Centennial leaf hops in the secondary fermentor to give it more aroma.  I’m almost regretting brewing a small batch of this because I don’t think it’s going to staying around the house for long once it’s ready to drink.

I’m planning on brewing a mild this weekend, so stay tuned for more on that.

On Reclaiming Maligned Ingredients and the Search for a Perfect Roast Chicken

Apologies for having only a chicken carcass to show you as a visual representation of the roast chicken I made the other night; we demolished it before I thought to take a photo. That is a good sign, of course, and so perhaps the most appropriate way to illustrate this post. Read on.

I am a bit embarassed to be talking about roast chicken recipes on here, as roast chicken is quintessentially the kind of dish that should require no recipe. It should be simple, warming, and something that you know how to make just so. There should be no measurements involved.

It is also one of my very favourite foods. Whenever I find myself in one of those “what would you eat for your last meal?” conversations (ok, I am often the one to start them), I usually do a little dance around all of my favourite comfort foods and end up in the same place: roast chicken and mashed potatoes (ok, occasionally it’s fried chicken. But always mashed potatoes.) Sadly, though, despite my devotion to this classic comfort food, I have never mastered making it.

This is why every time I roast a chicken, I try a new recipe, in search of the tablespoon of butter here, or the clove of garlic there, that will lead me to glory. I have never made a bad roast chicken, but I have also never made that one that you want for your last meal. To me, this ability to try out new ways of creating such a classic dish is the heart of why I love cookbooks and recipes. They help me experiment, giving me new ideas for how to chase the elusive craving that I can’t quite seem to satisfy. Roast chicken can be prepared in so many different ways, all of them delicious, and it is fun to examine the options. To date, I have probably tried a good dozen roast chicken recipes, the most memorable recent ones being Julia Child’s melt-in-your-mouth bird from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and this awesome one with a million cloves of garlic from Nami-Nami. Both were awesome. But of course there are still more recipes to explore.

This past Friday evening, my dear friend Vero came over for dinner, and I wanted to prepare something simple and easy to throw together that was Passover-friendly. Roast chicken it was. Excited for the opportunity to try a new recipe, as well as a chicken from a new-to-me Quebec farm that I picked up at the butcher’s the other day, I turned to one that I have had my eye on for a while: the “Simple Roast Chicken” from Jennifer McLagan’s Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes.

Let me take the opportunity to mention how much I love this book. I have read, and enjoyed, much of the contemporary canon on “whole foods”, the “slow food movement”, “food ethics”, “nose to tail cooking” and all that jazz. While I am a proponent of everything I’ve put into scare quotes there, I get frustrated by the underlying puritanism of the rhetoric that sometimes comes out of this stuff, especially regarding what is considered “healthful eating”. To me, ethical eating should also be joyful, as pathologizing food and eating, especially food that comes from meat, is disrespectful both to the animals that were killed for my consumption, as well as to myself. What I love about McLagan’s book in particular is that, while she really excellently debunks the demonization of saturated fat and does explain the place of fat in a healthy diet, she also focuses on pleasure. Fat makes food taste good. It does beautiful things to our ingredients and transforms them into food that is filling and flavourful. It helps us to justice to the ingredients that we treasure. The book really solidified a lot of my distaste for the fear of fat found in everyday disucssions of food and cooking; it is part of what has made our food cultures joyless, disconected from our various heritages, and hung up in dysfunctional ideas that confuse nourishment, pleasure, diet, health and morality. Reading Fat, and making sense of my ideas about how I do and don’t want to use it myself, is one of the most important ways I have really pushed my own cooking forward over the past couple of years. McLagan’s book is really liberating; not only has butter become a more regular staple in mine and Graeme’s cooking, but more importantly, we are not apologetic about it anymore. We allow ourselves to admit out loud that we prefer chicken thighs to breasts; that we don’t think the lardons they serve at one of the brunch places we frequent are gross. We get a wink from the butcher when we tell him not to cut the fat of our roasts. Life is good.

That said, I have not tried that many recipes out of the book to date; I have loved it primarily as a really great study of fats, and the recipes are sort of like the (buttercream) icing on the cake! But McLagan’s roast chicken has been calling out to me for some time, because it seemed a perfect combination of unfussy and indulgent. And it did not disappoint. When I first slathered on the 100g of butter that she suggests, I thought the bird would end up greasy and over the top (as I thought it did when I tried the otherwise delicious and extremely buttery Julia Child recipe). But cut with herbs and citrus it was not overly rich at all, it was just juicy, comforting and a perfect relaxed Friday night dinner. We ate it with mashed potatoes (of course!), sauteed broccoli and snowpeas, caramel apples for dessert courtesey of Vero (an unexpectedly original Passover-friendly dessert!) and Graeme’s incredible chicken soup as a starter (which he will be blogging about shortly, under threat of divorce if he does not). We were a very satisfied bunch at the end of the night, and the carcass above was all that remained (which we have since demolished, gobbling up the leftover bits of meat and freezing the bones for stock). I am not sure that I’ve found my perfect roast chicken just yet, but this recipe has me well on the way.

Simple Roast Chicken
Adapted from Jennifer McLagan’s Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes
Serves 4

Ingredients
One 3 lb/1.5 kg chicken
Handful mixed herbs (I used fresh parsley and rosemary)
1 large garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped (I used 3)
7 tblsp/100g unsalted butter, softened
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, cut in half

Preheat the oven to 450F/230C. Pat the chicken dry. Set aside a couple of herb sprigs and chop the rest. Using your hands, mix the butter, chopped herbs and garlic together until blended. Smear the herb butter all over the bird, placing a little inside of it, too.

Season the bird well with salt and pepper. Place it in a roasting pan and squeeze the lemon juice over the top. Put the lemon halves in the bird’s cavity with the reserved herb sprigs.

Roast the chicken for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and baste the chicken with its own juices (I usually do this with a brush). Reduce the heat to 375F/190C and continue to roast, basting occasionally, until the thigh juices run clear when pierced with a skewer or the temperature of the thigh registers 165F/73C, 45-55 minutes. Turn off the oven, open the oven door, and leave the chicken in the pan in the oven to rest for at least 15 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and cut into serving pieces. Add any juices from the chicken to the pan, and place the pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, deglaze the pan, using a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve, and serve the pan sauce with the chicken.

Until next time!