Cookbooking with Karl
By Karl Wells
(As first published in Atlantic Books Today Magazine, fall 2020)
Cookbooks Celebrating the New and Old (with Fresh Ideas)
Never underestimate the power of a cookbook. You may think it nothing more than a bound volume of recipes. A guidebook designed to help you create food that you’ll (hopefully) enjoy eating. It is that, of course; but it’s also a kind of curative.
As I felt and examined the covers of, Flavours of New Brunswick, Some Good Sweet Treats, Grandma’s Cookies, Cakes, Pies and Sweets, Out of New Nova Scotia Kitchens, and slowly turned each page with an eye appealing photo and appetizing recipe name, my sombre mood changed. I felt reassured, optimistic. Who would have thought that staring at a fiddlehead salad or reading the ingredients for hotpot could make such a difference? It made me want to try some of the recipes. Consequently, I engaged in my personal, never-fail relaxation therapy called, cooking.
A recipe for Coffee Rubbed Steak Tacos caught my eye as I leafed through Flavours of New Brunswick from Tom Mason and Heidi Jirotka. The recipe was created by Chef Gene Cormier of the outdoor restaurant, Euston Park Social, in Moncton. I love coffee. I love steak. Wrapping those flavours in a taco with punchy spices and accents sounded appetizing. If you follow the instructions, you’ll be making this recipe often, because the amount of coffee rub, you’ll end up with is far more than you’ll need for 16 ounces of beef tenderloin.
I opted to cook my steak on a pan instead of the grill. Be prepared for steak with a blackened surface. Don’t panic. As long as you’ve cooked it four minutes per side (and no longer) it will taste great. The rub imparts deep, rich flavour to the meat. If you’re using soft tacos and decide to warm them in the oven, do so on very low heat, and only for a short time. I left mine in too long and they became brittle and broke when I started noshing. With a filling that also calls for salsa, shredded lettuce and grated cheese these tacos are a two napkins two hands dining experience.
Tagliatelle d ’Amalfi does not sound like a recipe you’d find in a book called, Flavours of New Brunswick, but this book isn’t about traditional dishes. It’s about today’s popular “flavours of New Brunswick.” Tagliatelle d ‘Amalfi is basically tagliatelle pasta (fettuccine works too) with nut sauce. The recipe comes from Chef Michelle Hooton of Italian by Night in Saint John. Once you’ve gathered up the wide variety of nuts called for (pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts, almonds, cashews and macadamia nuts) it’s just a matter of giving them a quick roast in the oven. Then the nuts and remaining ingredients of garlic, salt, lemon thyme, parsley and olive oil get turned into a coarse nut butter in the food processor. Next the mixture is tossed in a large bowl with steaming hot tagliatelle.
It took longer to thoroughly mix these ingredients than, say, spaghetti and tomato sauce but adding some water from the pasta pot helped. The garnish of Parmesan and cherry tomatoes looked attractive and added to the flavour. Speaking of flavour, I found the raw garlic to be too strong for my taste. Next time, I’ll roast the garlic (unpeeled or it will burn) along with the nuts. Roasting mellows out the flavour of garlic. A few other notes: if lemon thyme is hard to come by just use thyme; also, this is a very filling dish. Tagliatelle d ‘Amalfi is not a light lunch. It’s dinner. You may not be left with room for dessert.
Making Avocado Chocolate Pudding from Some Good Sweet Treats by Jessica Mitton wasn’t much more complicated than putting ingredients in a food processor (or good blender) and switching it on. The wonderful thing about avocado is its texture. It’s creamy smooth, like butter; but only when it’s properly ripe. I guessed that the few avocados I bought at the market were ripe. I guessed wrong. They were too firm. I found that after I’d processed the chopped avocado, cocoa powder, honey and almond milk, the resulting pudding was grainy. Still, it tasted good, if less sweet than I’d expected. I added more honey to make it sweeter and it was fine. Later, eyeing avocados at the market, that I was assured were sufficiently ripe, I decided to make the dessert again. It was delicious and had the kind of texture I’d expected in my first attempt. Considering the handful of ingredients and the simple goodness of them, this is probably the most guilt-free dessert I’ve ever made.
Gently baked fruit is sublime. Crumbles are an easy and popular way to enjoy baked fruit and wild berries. Mitton’s recipe for Berry Crumble delivered an enjoyable dessert, or sweet snack with tea or coffee. It called for a mixture of frozen berries. I used up the only frozen berries I had, blueberries; and to qualify as a “mixture” I added some frozen, dark cherries. The filling also called for honey and almond flour (to help thicken the mixture). When the fruit was placed in the baking dish, I sprinkled the topping on. It featured rolled oats, almond flour, coconut oil, more honey and cinnamon. I left it in the oven at 350F for the recommended 45 minutes.
It wasn’t bubbling as the recipe said it should but it appeared to be done; except the topping had not browned. The broiler took care of the pale top. I jacked up the heat to high and left it under the element for about 30 seconds. Broilers are tricky. If you try this, make sure you watch the crumble constantly, or you’ll end up with a charred mess. Remove it at the first sign of browning. My crumble was quite juicy. Lots of dark cherry-blueberry juice pooled up in the bottom of the dish. Perhaps if I’d patiently allowed the crumble to bake on and bubble like crazy, I’d have had a less soupy crumble. I really didn’t care. That’s why spoons were invented.
Oatcakes are popular. The ones sold in most coffee shops look like chocolate coated manhole covers, able to feed an entire family for several days. Small and dainty is not how I’d describe them. The oatcakes recipe in, Grandma’s Cookies, Cakes, Pies and Sweets, updated by Alice Burdick, did yield small, dainty and light oatcakes. I’ve been told that traditional oatcakes are quite dainty. The recipe was very easy to follow. I was surprised when I read that the recipe yielded five dozen oatcakes. Yes, that’s right, 60 oatcakes. I guess all grandmas don’t make oatcakes the same way. The recipe called for the dough to be rolled out to 1/4 in. thickness. The cakes were to be cut in squares. After doing this I realized there was no way this amount of dough would supply 60 oatcakes, unless the cakes were Lilliputian. I was willing to go communion wafer small, but no smaller. My only option, if I wanted to achieve 5 dozen oatcakes, was to roll out the dough thinner than 1/4 in.
If I had gone with that thickness the yield would have been about 40 oatcakes. Just over three dozen. Curiosity got the better of me. I had to see what kind of oatcake I’d get with a thinner layer of dough. Maybe they rose high, I thought. (Not so much.) In the end I put 64 in the oven, just over five dozen. The recipe called for 15 minutes at 350F or until golden. They didn’t show any gold at 15 so I left them for another five minutes. Still no gold. I didn’t dare leave them longer. If I were to try this recipe again, I’d ignore the yield of five dozen and make them larger and a little thicker. I liked the taste. They were the opposite of stodgy. Quite light and sweet with plenty of oat flavour. Perhaps a little dry but my coffee took care of that. Oh yeah, I gave some to my mother-in-law, a grandma, and she loved them.
Fortnum and Mason is a famous UK department store. It’s best known for its food hall, expensive food hampers and other gift items. Fortnum’s popular Dundee Cake was often enjoyed by the British upper class with an afternoon cup of Darjeeling. Sir Winston Churchill enjoyed a piece of the traditional Scottish cake every day at about four. I’d never made or tasted one, but I was keen to give the recipe in, Grandma’s Cookies, Cakes, Pies and Sweets, a go. Personally, I liked that it called for a cup of raisins and a cup of currants and only a quarter cup of mixed candied fruit. After mixing the wet ingredients, made quite soupy by five large eggs, I mixed all of the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and stirred them into the wet ingredients. It took quite a bit of physical energy to make an effective job of this.
The blended ingredients kept getting denser and thicker each time I added more of the dry ingredients. What I ended up with wasn’t exactly something I could pour into my greased cake pan. The recipe generously called it batter. It was a very close cousin to dough. I had to spoon it into the pan and fight with the spoon each time to release its contents. I was concerned about the ultimate result and kept retracing the steps I’d taken in following the well written recipe. As far as I could tell, I’d done as instructed. After putting the filled pan in the oven, I hoped for the best. I needn’t have worried. The baked cake was delectable. It was bright, with evenly distributed fruit and surprisingly light tasting. Perfect with a cup of Darjeeling. Hip, hip.
I first dined at Craig Flinn’s Halifax restaurant, Chives, many years ago – in 2012 to be exact. In fact, I reviewed it. It was a positive review and Chives is still one of my favourite Halifax restaurants. Out of New Nova Scotia Kitchens is Craig Flinn’s latest collection of recipes, and the good taste he’s always shown is very much present in this book. Your cupboard may not contain every ingredient listed (some ingredients can be substituted or omitted) but you won’t be wasting your time or money by picking up whichever ingredient it is that you don’t have.
I smiled when I saw Corrie Hotpot in the winter recipes section. Corrie, as any fan of the UK soap, Coronation Street, knows refers to Betty’s Hotpot, which has been on the menu of The Rover’s Return since barmaid Betty Turpin first made and served it. Essentially, it’s lamb stew (not watery) also known as Lancashire Hotpot in the north of England.
There’s some peeling, slicing and dicing involved at the outset. All root vegetables. Once that’s taken care of you dredge pieces of stewing lamb in flour and brown them in a hot pan. The lamb is added to a mixing bowl along with less than half a cup of red wine and a variety of herbs and seasonings. Don’t forget the good old English mustard. It makes a difference. When you’ve thoroughly mixed everything, tip all into a Dutch oven. Then you add bay leaves, sliced onions and top it all with a layer of very thinly sliced potato. Once covered it cooks in a low, slow oven. It’ll be at least three hours before you can eat, but it will be fantastic.
I had a frozen chicken that needed to be cooked; and I decided to try Craig Flinn’s recipe for BBQ Whole Chicken. Gathering all of the spices, flavourings and herbs, measuring them out and mixing them was the most taxing part of the preparation. Key ingredients included: garlic powder, onion powder, salt, paprika, cumin and thyme. Don’t omit any because it won’t taste as good. Once you’ve rubbed this pungent dry mix on the skin of the chicken (which has been flattened out after removing the bird’s backbone) it’s also important to let the chicken sit in the fridge for many hours. This will help the skin absorb the rub’s flavours.
Before letting the chicken cook on a covered grill, I put it on direct heat to achieve a golden hue and grill marks. Watch it very carefully. The recipe suggests too much time for this procedure (at least for my grill). If I’d followed instructions, the grill marks would have been beyond black. After browning, the chicken is placed away from direct heat and allowed to cook covered on indirect heat for about 40 minutes. About 10 minutes before removing from the grill the chicken is brushed with a combination of lemon juice, zest, honey and butter. There should be plenty left over to brush more on just before serving. The result was a succulent chicken made beautifully fragrant and flavourful by the rub and basting sauce. A thoroughly successful combination. By the way, please check the internal temperature of the chicken’s thigh before carving. If it’s at least 170F you can safely tuck in – with a large glass of pinot noir, of course!