Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Stealing Montreal

As a few disgruntled readers have pointed out, I've been noticeably absent from the blog for a week or two. The bad news is that I've been a bit lazy due to my recent unemployment. I thought I'd have all the time in the world to cook and experiment until I found another job (I have a bit of a bright side complex), but the truth is that not having a reason to get up early in the morning is tough, and really sets a bleak and apathetic tone for the day. Coming home and cooking was always my way of leaving the work day behind, of stretching my culinary muscles and getting creative by giving the logical side of my brain a rest. I don't know if I'm more upset that my job was cut (this economy thing really does affect everyone) or that my favorite part of cooking was taken away without my permission. But that's all fodder for a different kind of blog.

The good news is that I haven't actually stopped cooking, and it's still my favorite thing to do. Even better, while I probably won't be taking any road trips any time soon, my last one provided quite a bit of culinary inspiration all on its own. Our last night in Montreal involved a rich and delicious meal at Le Club Chasses et PĂȘche, an underground restaurant that somehow managed to blur the line between chic bordello and hunting lodge. The sleek lights were dimly lit while the amber glow of simple white candles illuminated each spectacular dish. The menu is based on the restaurant's theme of hunting and fishing (as the wall mounted antlers reinforced), and has been considered a modern and elegant take on "surf and turf". Needless to say, it is certainly the most refined version of surf and turf I've ever seen, starting with the exquisite piglet risotto, and followed by a veal and sweetbreads dish served over bacon, artichokes, greens, mushrooms and a curious unknown ingredient.

It looked like a curly seashell and crunched like a radish, but with a mild flavor that we just couldn't place. Was it a potato and the fancy knifework of a talented chef? Some kind of root vegetable? Some weirdo pearl onion? These question gnawed at me for days, until a week later I came upon the following sign at the farmers market:

After being borderline rude and slightly violent to the tourists blocking my view, I elbowed my way to the front and found the answers I'd been looking for. And after accosting the vendor with questions for a good five minutes and trying a handful of them raw, I knew I had to give these little buggers (actually called "crosnes") a go. It turns out they are popular in France and named after the town where they were cultivated after their import from China in the nineteenth century. They're also known as Chinese or Japanese artichokes, and taste like a lot like a mild sunchoke with a radishy crunch. They're meant to be eaten with the skin on, since that is what provides most of their actual flavor. Without the skin they'd be flavorless and discolor quickly. It was just my luck that they happen to be in season during the winter, which explains why I saw them twice in a row this time of year.

It didn't take long to figure out what to do with them, since I'd been wanting to try a dish based on some of the flavors I'd experienced in Montreal. Everything there had a deeper, richer flavor, even if it wasn't creamy or particularly heavy. I began to realize that everything was made with beef, veal or duck stock instead of chicken stock. There was an inherent salty goodness and depth of flavor to all of the reductions, sauces and soups, that I just wasn't used to tasting here in New York. That very day I bought some beautiful greens (rainbow swiss chard, to be exact) and delicious shiitake mushrooms, and planned to build a dish inspired by Montreal. In the end I braised the chard in beef stock, with the mushrooms and crosnes, along with shallots and lots of finely sliced garlic. The dish was amazing, and achieved exactly the kinds of flavors I was looking for. If you can't find crosnes, diced sunchoke would make a great substitute. Here's what I came up with:

Braised Swiss Chard with Shiitake Mushrooms and Crosnes

4 cups loosely packed swiss chard (I used rainbow), tough stems removed
1 1/2 cups shiitake mushrooms, sliced, stems removed
1 1/2 cups crosnes
1 cup beef or veal stock
1 large or two small shallots, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1. Add shallots and extra virgin olive oil to a large, non-stick skillet and sauté on medium heat.
When the shallots begin to caramelize, add the garlic, crosnes and mushrooms and cook until mushrooms soften.

2. Add swiss chard to skillet in batches until it's all wilted and fits in the pan. Cook a minute further, then add 1/2 cup stock and season with pepper. Cover and cook on low heat until stock is absorbed. Taste for salt (I only needed a pinch since my stock was salty). If the greens are still not cooked through, add 1/4 cup broth and cook covered until they're tender and wilted. Enjoy!


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