Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Flavour Tripping

Miracle berries.If you have not already heard of a fruit called the miracle berry, this post is going to sound insane.

I'll start at the beginning.

There is a fruit called the miracle berry. It is indigenous to west Africa. After you eat this berry, for a period ranging from thirty minutes to two hours sour food tastes sweet. It’s weird.

Miracle berries are most commonly dried and sold in tablet form. There are countless dieters and diabetics who like to sweeten their food without the added calories or insulin spike. Lisa’s sister Tara, on the other hand, recently ordered a package of these tablets (10 pills for about $15) to host a "flavour tripping party". That means that we ate the tablets and then tasted a bunch of random foods.

When Lisa and I arrived, Tara's table was set with citrus fruits, crackers, goat cheese, mustard, yoghurt, cider vinegar, wine, Guinness, sour soothers, Tobasco sauce, and unsweetened lemon meringue and rhubarb pies.

To administer the miracle berry tablets, place one on your
tongue. Don't chew it, let it melt, exposing as much of your tongue to the pill as possible. It takes a couple minutes to dissolve. This is not a mind-altering drug: there is a molecule in the tab that binds to your tongue and changes your perception of taste. It's perfectly legal, but when you're sitting in a circle, waiting for a pill to dissolve on your tongue, and someone asks, "How long does it take to kick in?" it certainly feels like you're dropping hallucinogens. You're not.

The concept is so unbelievable that even after I had taken one tablet, it crossed my mind briefly that this was a hoax—a practical joke aimed at getting me to drink a bottle of vinegar. I shook my paranoia and bit into a lemon. Sure enough it tasted like lemonade. I proceeded to sample everything on the table.

The most successful experiments were the citrus fruits and the yogurt, which, with its tanginess converted to a mild sweetness, resembled a fine panna cotta. The pies were good, too. The rhubarb was so potent that some of its tartness "broke through" the miracle berry and made for a perfect balance of sweet and sour.

The least successful items were the sour soothers and the wine. The chief enjoyment of these foods comes from their tartness, without which they are simply sweet and (alcoholic content notwithstanding) boring.

The cider vinegar almost worked, but it tended to overwhelm the effects of the miracle berry, remaining uncomfortably sour.

Goat cheese tasted like sweetened cream cheese. Guinness tasted a bit like a milk shake, only with the beer's characteristic roasted flavour.

Though you can barely taste acid, you are still vulnerable to the other effects of the sour food you are eating. After consuming two whole lemons my tongue was acid-burnt and my stomach ached. I suspect that this is how most flavour tripping parties end: people start realizing that they just consumed tablespoons of vinegar and hot sauce and start to feel sick. Then it's a bit like drinking hard liquor: the hangover makes you forget the rush of excitement you felt during the first few drinks. Don't misunderstand me - I enjoyed flavour tripping, but right now I don't feel the need to ever do it again.

Maybe it mimics alcohol in that regard, too. Maybe next weekend I'll be back on the berries.

Monday, March 29, 2010


Last night there was a community screening of the movie Fresh at the City Arts Centre. A guy named Mike, a fitness instructor by day, decided he wanted to tell people about sustainable food. He bought a screening edition of Fresh, rented the drama room of the City Arts Centre, and projected the movie onto the wall. I was there with a date and a pad of paper. I also wanted to sneak in pop-corn, but since Fresh is about challenging the industrial food system... well, it seemed inappropriate.

Fresh is very similar to the 2008 film Food Inc. Two of the main voices in Food Inc., author Michael Pollan and farmer Joel Salatin, also feature in Fresh. For all I know, Fresh could be unused footage from Food Inc.

I don't point this out as a negative. The two movies are actually good complements: while Food Inc. focuses mostly on the problems created by the industrial food system, Fresh concentrates on solutions. Besides spending more time on Salatin's farm, we meet Will Allen, a former basketball player who has built an organic farm in the middle of Milwaukee; and David Ball, who runs a group of grocery stores in Kansas city that champion local, sustainable food.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Charcutaria Micaelense

Blood sausage and hot chorizo from Charcutaria MicaelenseThis Friday I went to a Portuguese shop on 118th Avenue called Charcutaria Micaelense. It's a pretty unassuming building. If you turn left after entering you'll find yourself in a small restaurant. Turn right and there is a store with a few shelves of imported goods, one upright freezer with salt cod, two chest freezers with whole fish and octopus, and a display case with cheese and blood sausage.

Blood sausage is exactly what it sounds like: pork fat and blood, which coagulates and turns black when cooked. Usually there are some added vegetables or grains to give the mixture body. The most common addition is cooked onions, but sometimes rice is used. Blood sausage, or black pudding, is made throughout Europe (especially in France, where it is called boudin noir), but it is obviously not popular in North America. In fact, this was the first time I had ever seen it.

I admitted to the proprietor that I was completely ignorant of Portuguese cuisine and asked what I needed to try first. He stepped into a cooler behind the counter and came out with two links of red sausage. They were chorizo. One was tied with a red string (indicating its aggressive heat), the other with white. I asked him, Which do you prefer? He smiled and tapped the red-stringed sausage.

At home I seared a few rounds of each sausage and ate them with bread fried in the same pan.

As it cooked, the blood sausage smelled of sweet spices (cloves?), and the burgundy stuffing turned coal black. The consistency reminded me of liver. The flavour of onions was dominant, but mellow. There was a bit of heat to finish. Delicious.

The chorizo was a surprise. Instead of the finely ground meat and fat that we expect in most sausages, this had chunks of pork, unground, stuffed into the casing. As the chorizo seared it released spicy, red fat that would be fantastic to cook with. Because it is unground, it had a lot more bite and chew. It was much less spicy than the red string suggested.

Whenever I go by a place like Charcutaria Micaelense, I assume it's just imports. I had no idea that artisan products like this were produced in such unassuming shops. Now that I think of it, I go by three Polish delis on my ride home from school. Maybe I should pop in...

[Update, September 17, 2010: I stopped by the charcutaria this afternoon and was heartbroken to find that they no longer make blood sausage. Instead they are selling a very mediocre commercial pork sausage that has some blood in it. Thankfully the house chorizo is still around.]

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day

Sausage "Patties": made with ground pork, bacon, apples, onions, and oats.
Colcannon potatoes: mashed potatoes with cabbage braised in ham stock and cider vinegar.
Brussels Sprouts O'Brien: Brussels sprouts with onions, bell peppers, and bacon.

Only the colcannon potatoes are traditional Irish fare: the other components are pseudo-Irish.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Cassoulet with duck sausage, bacon, and tomato concassé. The white beans were cooked in a broth made with pork bones and the trimmings of a smoked pork belly, including the broad sheet of skin. The dish was gratinéed with dark bread crumbs and garnished with dried celery leaves.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Winter Squash (In Spring)

With spring approaching, Lisa and I are taking inventory on items remaining from last year's harvest. There isn't much:
  • miscellaneous frozen vegetables (snap peas, romano beans, beet tops)
  • 2 jars raspberry jam
  • 4 jars tomato sauce
  • assorted winter squash (one pumpkin, one spaghetti squash, three lady godiva squash)
We use small amounts of the frozen vegetables and canned items regularly, so I'm sure our supply will be gone by the time spring is here. The squash, on the other hand, I rarely think of. They were harvested in September of last year, and besides the odd spaghetti squash I haven't used any since our Thanksgiving dinner (which started with hopi squash soup and finished with pumpkin pie).

Tonight Lisa and I crossed the pumpkin off the list by roasting, puréeing, mixing with goat cheese and black current preserves, and stuffing it into ravioli.

It's crazy to think that we have been able to keep these squash for six months. While they haven't gone moldy, they haven't kept spectacularly well, either. When I cut open the pumpkin I had to discard a small part that had turned mushy; I'm sure the bulk of the nutrients are long gone; and, most importantly, there was a dramatic loss of flavour, all the sugars being converted to starch. The goat cheese and black current preserves restored sweetness and added a bit of tartness to balance.

We've been keeping the squash on a shelf at room temperature. This is far from ideal cellaring conditions (low temperature, high moisture - very difficult in Edmonton's dry winter). Maybe some day I'll be able to dig a cool, humid, ventilated root cellar out of the side of a hill, but renting the main floor of a house in McKernan, that plan will have to wait. I have a different solution to tide me over. This year I'll roast, pur
ée, then freeze most of our squash right after harvest to preserve nutrients and flavour.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

On Acquiring Tastes

Olive Boot Camp

During the months preceding my 2008 trip to Greece, I had one major apprehension about travelling. It had nothing to do with passports or language or money: it was about food. I was going to spend five weeks in southern Greece, and I despised olives.

This was a problem.

I would not be able to appreciate a fruit that has been central to the country's history, culture, and cuisine for thousands of years. It would be like going to Athens without visiting the Parthenon.

So, being of a logical bent, I decided to systematically train myself to enjoy olives. I would eat one olive every day, until I left for Greece, and thereby force myself to acquire a taste for the briny fruit. This is essentially the way that I
acquired most "adult" tastes. When I was younger I had a revulsion for coffee, tea, wine, beer, and blue cheese, but through gradual exposure I came to love them all. This was to be a controlled and intensified version of that natural acclimatization.

I bought two jars of olives: one green and one kalamata. The first week was rough. Each olive brought a grimace, a wince, occasionally a gag. The second week was smoother, but not enjoyable. I started to worry that the experiment wasn't going to work, so I intensified the process further and started eating a few olives every night before I went to bed.

At this rate I exhausted my two jars quickly. This is when I came upon Olive Me, a specialty shop on 109th Street that sells house-marinated olives.
I didn't realize that there was such a difference between grocery store canned olives (rubbery, one-note wonders) and these "fresh" olives (better texture, a fuller, fruitier taste). I put "fresh" in quotation marks because all olives are hydrated in water, then a brine, before being eaten. The fruits at Olive Me are only fresh in that they haven't been canned.

In time the experiment was a success. I was able to enjoy the small bowl of olives that preceded most Greek meals, and even the olive paste that filled some pastries.


One taste that I never developed naturally, despite several sporadic attempts, was that for scotch. I have a few
friends who wax eloquent about the smoky, peaty, campfire tastes of a good scotch, but the drink has always made me gag. This is troublesome because of my partial Scottish heritage, and because I'll never be a worldly film noir private eye until I can drink a stiff glass of scotch.

A bottle of nineteen year-old Bruichladdich ScotchAnd so I have decided to apply the system once more. By providence I was recently given a bottle of nineteen year old Bruichladdich (said "Brook-laddie"), which I plan to drink regularly in the evenings. Yes, it sounds like I'm ritualizing my descent into alcoholism, but this is really just a small step in refining my palate.

I had my first taste tonight. While I did shudder after the first sip, the scotch was much smoother than I anticipated . Maybe it's that this bottle is about three times more expensive than anything else I've tried. Surprisingly there was a fruit note. I don't know what kind of fruit, exactly: something complex and lingering. Grapefruit, maybe. And of course there was smoke. I don't know how to reconcile all these different tastes.

I can see that there's a long road ahead of me. Somehow I'll manage.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Quebec Part II: Pouding Chômeur

A Quebecois classic: a slice of pouding chomeur with homemade ice creamNo Quebecois winter meal would be complete without a simple conveyance for maple syrup.

My dad grew up in eastern Ontario, in sugar shack country. The most common applications of maple syrup in his home were pouring over pumpkin pie and cornbread, or, if he was especially well-behaved, as a dip for white bread. These dishes win for most direct conveyance of syrup to mouth without drinking from the bottle, but I need something (slightly) more refined.

My Quebecois dessert of choice is pouding chômeur. "Chômeur" means unemployed. Here it functions as a substantive, so this is "unemployed person's pudding." "Poor man's pudding" is a more natural sounding translation. Whatever you call it, it's a fantastic, unadulterated way to enjoy maple syrup.

A simple batter of creamed butter and sugar, eggs, flour, and milk is spooned into a baking dish filled with maple syrup and cream. The batter looks like islands on a lake. Once cooked, the islands expand through the baking dish and cover the syrup entirely. The syrup thickens, partly by reduction and partly from mixing with the batter.

Once the top has browned thoroughly, squares are cut from the cake, and the maple syrup is ladled over them. Even though the dish is extremely rich, it benefits hugely from the presence of ice cream.

Ricardo of Food Network fame has a good recipe here.