The beautiful, beautiful world of pork

When people asked us what we were planning on doing in Barcelona, I always replied: “eat ham”. A funny, jokey response, right? Wrong.  It’s not that I wasn’t interested in seeing Barcelona’s sights, walking along the Ramblas and the narrow, winding, shaded medieval streets of the Gothic quarter, lounging on the beach, seeing the Gaudi buildings and all that, it’s just that I am first and foremost interested in the things you can do to a pig.

I was not to be disappointed.  Anna wrote about the wonderful tomato bread we had on our first night here, but our meal at the excellent Paco Meralgo also consisted of octopus with caramelised onions, cod fritters, asparagus sauteed with wild garlic, a ham and potato salad (Anna was initially skeptical of this, thinking that it was going to be some grocery store-style salad with mayo and cubes of diced ham–look how wrong she was):

and a plate of gorgeous dried sausage:
Our exploration of the fine meats Spain has to offer went on from this exciting start.  The next day we went to the Boqueria Market and bought a small selection of Serrano ham and jamón ibérico to snack on:

The Serrano was excellent, with a deep, rich cured flavour, but the real revelation was the jamón ibérico. This is the famed Spanish ham made from a specific breed of pig raised only in the Iberian peninsula, with the most prized animals fed only on acorns.  As far as I can tell, the hams are simply made–just salt-cured and dried for as long as three years–and they have this incredibly complex and sophisticated flavour: tangy, salty, nutty (Anna thought that the ham reminded her in a way of a well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano), sharp, this is the greatest ham I have ever tasted.  This ham haunts my dreams and mocks me with its simple beauty.

The other great discovery was morcón, which we first had as part of an extremely (extremely!) generous mixed charcuterie plate at a tapas bar called Onofre.

It was so good that we went back there on our last night to have it again.  Morcón is the poor country relative of chorizo: the paprika-heavy seasoning is the same, but the morcón uses fattier, less expensive cuts of meat (my Spanish language comprehension is next to zero, so I believe that the server said that it is made from back meat…but I could be totally wrong about that) that are diced instead of ground.  If you have any doubts about how delicious fat is and the difference it can make in food, do a side-by-side comparison of morcón and chorizo.  The chorizo is excellent, yes, but I will take morcón over it any day.

Look at that beautiful fat!

When we got back I called my parents to let them know how the trip was and that we made it back safely, and my mom–who had been following Facebook updates about the vast quantities of ham and sausage we were eating–asked why we kept talking about ham and weren’t eating seafood.  We did eat seafood, delicious seafood, and that’s perhaps for a future post, but who can resist eating excessive amounts of cured meats when ones this good are on offer?


On Fancy Comfort Food

I always feel conflicted about the current trend towards restaurants serving upscale versions of comfort food. On the one hand, because I believe so strongly in food being about care and social connection and because this is just what I love to eat, I am a a diehard devotee of comfort food. These are the kinds of foods that connect us to our families, our cultural heritages, and each other. And so I am thrilled that when I go out for dinner, I increasingly have the option to indulge in this kind of eating. On the other hand, I am very skeptical of the commodification of traditionally “peasant” foods, which are re-appropriated and marked up to become acceptable to our yuppy palates. I hate the pretension of some of these efforts, and I am not sure they always do justice to the cultural traditions they claim to represent. They often seem like expensive versions of food that are tastier, and more satisfying, when I make them at home. Additionally, I wonder why we need fancy restaurants to rehabilitate these foods for us. In this post, I talked about rediscovering head cheese in one of Montreal’s nicer restaurants. It was absolutely amazing and I have no objection to a nice restaurant serving a delicious food that they’ve done super well–in fact, I am obviously glad that they’re perpetuating an often maligned form of charcuterie–but I kind of hated myself for only trying it within a fine dining context. And I hate that culturally, we increasingly talk about what used to be the food of the poor like it is exotic and mysterious. It makes me feel like Marie Antoinette playing in my peasant village or something.

(And of course, all of this reclaiming of “poor people food” is happening while very real issues related to actual poor people’s access to food are a huge social problem. And a problem that the very same “foodies”, while savouring their/our gorgonzola mac and cheese, tend to treat patronizingly as being about laziness, negligence and ignorance, rather than, you know, poverty. But this is a rant for another time.)

How can we honour these foods, and genuinely love and enjoy them, without fetishizing them? I don’t know, but this has been on my mind ever since we visited the Au Pied de Cochon Cabane à Sucre this weekend. For the non-Montrealers, Au Pied de Cochon and its accompanying cabane  à sucre, are the creations of Montreal’s prodigal chef, Martin Picard. The former has been one of the most talked about restaurants in the city ever since it opened a little over five years ago. I first heard about it in the context of one of the restaurant’s most well-known dishes, its foie gras poutine, and I was instantly annoyed; I thought it sounded gimmicky and stupid, and a bastardization of a food that is meant to be cheap and simple. I came around, though, once I actually ate there, and understood what Picard was trying to do. Rather than simply trying to make “fancy” versions of local dishes, Picard has made it his mission to do justice to québécois foods such that they are recognized and taken as seriously as the French classics that have for so long dominated local fine dining. There is this fine line between bastardizing local dishes like pouding chômeur (literally “unemployed person’s pudding”) and doing justice to them that epitomizes my ambivalence with the fancy comfort food trend that I discuss above. And somehow Picard, who bathes half of his food in local foie gras that he miraculously manages to present totally unpretentiously, really pulls off the latter. I am not quite sure how he does it, but I think a large part of it is the genuine love and affection for these culinary traditions that pours out of the food his restaurants serve. They do not feel like a re-appropration; they feel like a love letter. While his restaurants are pricy, they are oddly good value given the generosity of the dishes and their richness (bringing home doggie bags is pretty much the only way to survive one of his meals). Despite the upscale nature of what he’s doing, the food is profoundly satisfying and comforting, as it should be. And it is absolutely delicious.

The cabane à sucre is the latest effort in Picard’s mission to pay hommage to québécois cuisine. For those not in the know, going to the cabane à sucre, or sugar shack, is an awesome springtime tradition in Québec; around the time they tap the trees for maple syrup, folks head out of town for their first breath of fresh air after a long winter, and generally eat a disgustingly rich meal of a dozen different kinds of pork/ham/lard, as well as pancakes and eggs, all bathed in maple syrup. This meal is usually finished off with tire, which involves one’s kindly host pouring lines of hot maple syrup into a trough of snow, which you then pick up and wrap around a popsicle stick and savour as it hardens. Trips to the cabane à sucre usually happen in big groups and often end in square dancing, or in another local “tradition” of sorts, crappy 80s disco music (a remnant of failed attempts to make the cabane à sucre “hip”). This is the stuff of extreme food nostalgia when you’ve grown up here, and so, as we headed out to Martin Picard’s version of the venerated institution, I was, again, skeptical. Cabanes à sucre are not meant to be fine dining experiences, I protested!

But it was so, so, so good. And once again, you had this space that certainly reinvented and fancified traditional québécois foods, but it was still so hearty, and so generous, and kind of sloppy and indulgent and food coma-inducing, that it worked. It still felt like a cabane à sucre, albeit a clearly unorthodox one, and I think I loved the food there even more than what I’ve eaten at the Montreal restaurant. My one complaint is that I do wish the cabane was able to offer the larger experience that one generally enjoys at a traditional cabane à sucre–such as walking trails in the surrounding areas, or dancing–but otherwise it did real justice to my food memories, and was absolutely delicious to boot. I won’t bother “reviewing” the meal further as there are a million reviews of the place floating around the internet. I’ll just finish by posting photos of the ridiculously indulgent meal that we enjoyed there (and that we enjoyed the next night, too, as we had enough leftovers that all six of us were able to take plenty home!). Sadly, probably my favourite dish of the night is not pictured–probably because I was too busy gorging myself on it–which was this amazing salad of arugula, cubes of ham, cubes of cheddar, walnuts and a dijon dressing topped in the lightest, crispiest oreilles de crisse (literally “Christ’s ears”) I have even eaten. I swear I could eat that salad every day, although it probably would not be a good idea.

On Surviving Passover and Kitchen Sink Frittata

Passover is hitting me especially hard this year. While Graeme and I enjoyed a luxurious and delicious seder at my parents’ house on Monday evening by Tuesday morning, I was already craving all the delicious carbohydrates that I had only just begun depriving myself of. This was not helped by the fact that that very first Passover morning brought me the newest issue of Bon Appetit in the mail, which seemed intent on personally taunting me with this cover:


Really, Bon Appetit? Really? How could you do this to me? I felt so betrayed.

Unleavened dramatics aside, each year I find that the trickiest thing about Passover is trying not to OD on various combos of heavy meat and potatoes (as well as the excessive doses of Passover cakes and cookies that my mother inevitably sends me home from her seder with). While I love me some meat and potatoes, 8 days of only that will get to even me. Last year, the discovery that quinoa is, miraculously, kosher for Passover is what saved us. This year, we are trying to be more mindful about balancing light with heavy meals in general, with some quinoa, mussels, and salad-y goodness complementing all of the brisket, chopped liver, tongue and gefilte fish.

Which brings us to frittata, which is a meal that Graeme and I seem to consistently pull out every time we are feeling overwhelmed by recent rich and heavy eating. It is our go-to “we’ve had guests in town and been out to eat every night for 2 weeks” meal, our “we just came back from New York where we ate fried chicken and tacos every day” meal, and now, our “Passover is seriously getting to me” meal. Graeme whipped some up for lunch today, using whatever we had sitting in the fridge, which is another thing that we love about frittata–it is awesome for using up random foods that don’t have much time left in this world.

In a great twist of irony, the stuff we had to use up in our fridge was… meat and potatoes. Or more specifically, ham and new potatoes. Yes, I forgo chametz, but love my cloven hooves. It is a Passover tradition in our household. There is no recipe necessary for such a simple concoction as frittata. Graeme started by boiling the new potatoes, and sauteing some shallots, celery and ham on medium heat in our small cast iron pan. He then added the potatoes and some goat cheese, and then stirred in half a dozen beaten eggs and seasoned it all. He finished cooking the mixture in a 400F oven for about 15 minutes. We ate it with salad greens, strawberries and a honey/balsamic vinaigrette.

It was nice to eat something hearty but still relatively light, even if it was meat and potatoes. I did not feel like someone had dropped lead into my stomach. My digestive system was thankful for the break, so that it could prepare itself to get back in the game tomorrow night: roast chicken night.

Happy Pesach!