Friday, September 30, 2016

Brussels Sprouts with Dates: or, Peeping into the Lifestyle I Can't Afford

As aforementioned, we at A Book of Cookrye recently had the privilege of going somewhere that requires a passport! Since our flight home was delayed, we had plenty of time to get acquainted with the various magazines left behind by previous passengers. Among other things, we found...

Yep, the Ontario liquor board makes an entire magazine of food-porn and expensive recipes (with interviews of local distillery owners and other such things thrown in). Given that the magazine is from a liquor board, I'm very surprised that it's not all spiked recipes. In fact, they spend more pages on what produce is in season than on what you should drink with it. I found looking through this magazine fascinating. As someone whose cookbooks come from thrift-stores, I've long fallen out of touch with the latest trends in food.
It seems the recession has pushed food back toward simple things. It makes sense if you look at notice how the most up-to-date restaurants and bars have replaced fancy plasterwork and chandeliers with exposed structural supports and bare light bulbs.
As I said when taken to a restaurant that looked a lot like this, "You know this place is expensive. They didn't finish the ceiling." image source

The recession may (allegedly) be over, but a lingering aversion to openly expensive things remains. All that designer stuff today may cost as much as ever, but instead of looking openly expensive, it is made to look artfully cheap. And so, instead of serving something with an extravagantly long French name, the up-to-date cook of today will serve something ostensibly cheap and homey like macaroni and cheese.... but subject everyone to a long dissertation on how the pasta was hand-shaped by vestal virgins and the lengthy history of each of the seven cheeses that went in it. This apparently distinguishes both one's refined taste in ingredients and how much one spent when purchasing them.
Anyway, we couldn't help wonder if we could get a brief taste of this lifestyle we can't afford, which leads us to...

Brussels Sprouts with Dates
1 pound Brussels sprouts*
3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
½ c dates
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp water
1 tbsp butter

Cut sprouts and dates in half lengthwise. Put in boiling water. When it comes back to a boil, cook 1 minute. Drain and put in cold water. Heat oil in a skillet on high heat and put the sprouts in, cut-side down. Cook until browned, stirring occasionally, adding more oil as needed (about 5 minutes). You likely will have to do this in batches.
Put all the sprouts back in the pan and add the garlic. Cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the dates, oyster sauce, and water. When it boils (which may be near-immediately), add the butter and stir until it melts and all is coated.
This refrigerates and reheats well.

*Based on some trawling of Yahoo Answers, one sprout is about one ounce. So if you don't have a kitchen scale, get about 16 of them.
This is too much bother. Put the raw sprouts cut-side down on a well-greased baking sheet and bake at 350°-400° until done (the oven temperature is pretty flexible, which leaves a lot of leeway for baking other things at the same time). When baked, they'll be both cooked through and browned in one step. If you put foil on the pan, you won't even have to wash anything.

Note: This recipe is halved from the original.

Food and Drink, Autumn 2016, Liquor Control Board of Ontario

We at A Book of Cookrye would like to defend the much maligned Brussels sprout. It turns out that Brussels sprouts aren't terrible so much as they are terrible when boiled. Sure, they smell bad when cooked, but they're still really good once they're done (unless you boil them). It turns out an awful lot of perfectly lovely vegetables, through no fault of their own, turn into bitter slime when boiled. It makes one wonder why so many people decided boiling was the best way to cook them. It turns out if you just salt and pepper them and then put them in the oven (as opposed to a pot of water), they're actually good.
Furthermore, we just happened to have everything on the surprisingly short ingredient list except the sprouts and the dates! We even had the oyster sauce from a brief but enthusiastic jump into Chinese cooking brought on by previously living right by an Asian supermarket.

Right, let's get to step 1 of this, and.... WHAAAAAAT? NOOOOO!!! WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

We calmed ourselves by promising that the recipe said they only boiled for one minute. A pot of vegetables can't possibly turn completely bitter and dead in just one minute, even if it is Brussels sprouts, right?
Well, in one minute, the smell coming out of this pot was utterly foul. There is only one place for the stink of boiling sprouts, and that is Madame Tracy's fortune-telling in Good Omens. The dreadful smell was only the beginning of how bad this recipe would smell before we were done. We were cursing the fact that the kitchen has one of those stupid recirculating vent hoods that makes a lot of noise but does absolutely nothing about the smell. Had we known the boiling stink was but a small taste of the awful smells this recipe would inflict on our unvented kitchen, we may have cancelled it. Instead, we moved on to...

At this point you know this recipe was either written by someone who cooks a lot or someone who never cooks at all. See all the angry spatters in the hot oil? Try carefully laying a lot of slimy green things cut-side down with water spats making little burns all over your hand. If someone cooked a lot, they'd be numb to it. If someone never cooks at all, they wouldn't realize they were about to get small stinging burns from the wrist down. Anyone who fell between those two extremes would know the boiling spatters were coming, lack the calloused hands for it, and never write a recipe like this.
We'd like to think this recipe comes from someone who has one of those pseudo-industrial kitchens where the stove is the size of a stainless steel grand piano and the ever-so-fashionable exposed ducting for the kitchen vent takes up half the ceiling. It makes more sense that way. You need a really strong fan (that leads to a duct that goes out of the kitchen, not a stupid hood that blows it all right back into the room) to keep the stink out of the house or keep the smoking oil from setting off the fire alarm.

This is such a tedious, time-consuming way to produce cooked sprouts that are browned on one side. You have to push them about carefully, making sure none of them flip over. Then you have to check each one to see if it is in fact browned underneath. Of course, it's hard to tell which ones you looked at found weren't ready and which ones you haven't turned over yet- especially while you keep shuffling them around the pan to try to get them evenly cooked.
This recipe seemed more and more like the creation of someone who grew up eating boiled vegetables until it got firmly set in their mind that boiling is The Way We Cook Them. Either that, or this is meant to be one of those summer recipes that supposedly saves heat by keeping the oven turned off at all costs, even if it means a steaming pot of boiling water and a smoking skillet. We could have gotten the exact same result without the loss of water-soluble vitamins (which we care about only when bitching about how terrible boiled vegetables are) by putting the raw sprouts on a baking sheet and putting them in the oven. It also wouldn't have set such an unholy stink of smoking oil and boiling sprouts upon us.
On the bright side, the sprouts actually looked kind of pretty.
As soon as I put the first batch of them in a nearby empty pan, I slapped myself for so carelessly making even more dirty dishes I'd have to wash.

All right, we were closing in on the end of this recipe. Now we finally get to dump everything back into the skillet and within minutes, call this done.

I am so glad this recipe has garlic in it. Garlic is what allows us to try all manner of things we think sound icky. It's like training wheels for whatever food you fear eating. No matter how terrible something may seem, you can put enough garlic on it and reassure yourself that even if you are about to eat twice-cooked possum, at least the twice-cooked possum will taste like garlic. However, cooking the garlic only made the stink in the kitchen worse. But that was nothing compared to the utterly foul stink we had once the boiling oyster sauce got added to this. Oyster sauce is kind of like fish sauce, which as we found out when we dumped an oversized splash of it into a chicken recipe, smells terrible in the bottle but cooks down to something mellow and nice. Given that the kitchen had the sort of foul smells that usually come from the cooking of someone on a punitively self-righteous health kick, the mellowness that the sauce would cook down to was no consolation at all.
All right, we've got this thing done. Let's first see the high-dollar magazine fantasy world version of this:

And now, the reality:
At least my plates are the same color as theirs.

Honestly, for how awful the kitchen smelled after making this (and the stink lingered for most of the night), this was pretty delicious. There was just enough butter to make the sauce on these kind of velvety, but not so much it turned greasy. The dates were sweet, but not in some weird candied way that would have clashed with vegetables. The only things I'd recommend are first, bake the sprouts and then throw it all together in a pan once they're done, and second, be sure to purchase a soft and relatively sweet variety of date. There are many, many varieties of dates (as anyone checking the Wikipedia page will find), so I'm not going to bother naming which. But some dates are really hard, almost like hollow, thin carrots, and some are soft like really big raisins. The second type are the kind you want for this recipe.
And if you do decide to boil the sprouts and brown them in a frying pan like the recipe says to, I hope you have a really powerful, ducted vent in your kitchen.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Book of Cookrye goes to abroad!: or, Some countries really will let anyone in

You know you've left home when there are different logos on the street litter.

That's right, we at A Book of Cookrye recently went en voyage! Guess what country we went to!

I must say, while the US puts the national flag on everything from guns to underwear, Canadians have outdone us by making an entire chain of gas stations out of theirs.
You just want to stand under the awning, slap your hand to your heart, and sing "O Canada."

Yes, we went to Canada, which is best known to US citizens as either A) that country you swear you're moving to after every election, B) that country with the free doctors, C) that country where everyone says "aboot" (for the record, no one in the entire country actually pronounces "about" like that and they will be very annoyed if you keep saying "aboot" at them), or D) that country where everyone is actually polite. With regards to that last one, it turns out that Canadians aren't really nicer than Americans; they tend to just be more passive-aggressive where Americans would drop the "passive" business. For example, even my rent-a-bike felt the need to take swipes at my relationship status.

It turns out that while it's easy to be broad-minded in theory, it's a lot harder to do so in practice. While we were of course aware that the rest of the world does not operate exactly like the US, we could not help being utterly surprised at some of the most innocent of things. For example, all the stoplights have massive safety-yellow collars. I've been informed this is to make the lights easier to see when the sun is directly behind them. This is a much nicer approach than that used in the US, which is to make drivers squint right into the blazing sun and hopefully not be too blinded to see whether the green bulb is lit.

Sun-shielded stoplights are not the only way Canadians have adapted their infrastructure to the weather. If you come from somewhere relatively warm, you may wonder why there are signs labeling each fire hydrant. After all, the fire department surely already knows where the hydrants are, and since they're over the curb and well removed from the road, any driver who hits one is surely responsible for their own automotive ineptitude. It turns out they have signs because their winter snow gets so deep, sometimes the only way the fire department can find the hydrant is a sign like this peeping out over the white dunes. With so much snow burying their country every year, it is no wonder Canadians make snow muffins.

If you're like me, you'd be delighted to see that road construction is marked off with Halloween-colored cones.

Engineers and scientists will all appreciate that the speed signs are all labeled with units. Also, they use kilometers instead of miles. I know that the sight of non-metric units make engineers and scientists get twitchy, so look upon this and feel better.

Also, apparently Canadians can be trusted to remember basic road signs without the need to label them as the US does.

The idea that people in Canada have more common sense per capita than their southern neighbors extends to things like high-voltage power lines. In the US, you would never see a pedestrian trail threaded between the towers.

Look at how clean this trail is! If you wanted to, you could go barefoot for miles without getting shards of beer bottles embedded in your feet! (Yes, I personally tested this as my shoes were getting on my nerves.) Furthermore, there is no moat of barbed wire at the base of each pole. Please note the fact that the trail runs right up to this tower, which has nothing but a sticker to keep climbers off:

Granted, there is a barbed wire ring around it about 10 feet up, but that doesn't deter children and daft adults from deciding the bottom of it looks like an enticing jungle gym. Apparently in Canada, one cannot sue the state for injuries incurred by one's own stupidity. Note that the sticker simply says to keep off of the tower. It doesn't say anything about, say, walking directly underneath it (assuming we stay on the ground).

It seems that no one in the power company would have objected had they seen us directly under it taking a picture like this.
I took this just because I legally can.

While it seems silly to take such a picture, the point is that unlike the US, no one in Canada would see us directly underneath a high-voltage transmission line and frantically chase us away (or threaten trespass charges) under the assumption that we would surely do something stupid, cause very expensive damages, and then sue the electric company for any injuries suffered in the process. In fact, the closest we saw to a barricaded line was this one, where the power company decided they'd rather cars bump into some concrete wedges than into the lines carrying electricity across the country.

French is on such equal footing with English in Ottawa that the waitstaff in many restaurants will greet customers with "Hello! Bonjour!" just to make sure the customers understand at least one of them. Coming from an area with no French speaking population, we had always though of French as one of the languages one learns to fulfill the foreign language requirement in high school. Sure, we knew that in many parts of the world French is spoken as much as English is in our little corner of the United States. But in our personal experience, French was a language of dreary academic-approved literature (as we all know, no one is ever allowed to read anything fun in high school) and sentence drills. We were honestly surprised to hear people ordering at restaurants, having random conversations, and scolding unruly children in French. There were even children babbling to each other in French! While one can obviously surmise that said children had learned French the same way I did English, it still astonished me to hear people clearly not old enough to have taken fourth-semester advanced French actually talking in it. We certainly never thought of French as a language used for such ordinary things as candy packaging at gas stations.

While we live in a part of the US with a heavily-Spanish speaking population, the Spanish subtitles on most things sold on the general market (as opposed to specific businesses aimed at the Spanish-speaking population) are rarely printed in the same size as the English.

Apparently French/English signage is limited to specific parts of southeastern Canada. However, that was where we happened to be. Also, (in case you forgot most of your geography classes) Ottawa is the national capital, so they really go out of their way to make sure you'll be at home regardless of which language you speak. You can barely find a job in Ottawa unless you speak both. Perhaps because the national capital draws a lot of American politicians who can barely find their way to their own offices without a GPS and three aides, in some places one finds that not only are the signs in two languages, but the numbers are too.
They may have gotten tired of Americans muttering that they didn't have time for them meter things and then ramming the beams with their raised-suspension SUVs.

When I say all of the road signs are in two languages, I do mean all of them. They even translated the suffixes on the streets. I thought it added a lovely symmetry to the street names.

 Even the most ordinary of signs will be in two languages.
I always associated the word "arrêt" with unusually prissy ballet teachers telling their students to put both feet back on the floor.

Incidentally, you should know that this stop sign is right outside of the Canadian Parliament building. We at A Book of Cookrye walked all the way from the street to the front steps and could peep in the front doors without encountering any barricades or being interrogated by any suspicious policemen who thought we were casing the joint. Indeed, were the tours not over for the day, we could have walked right in unimpeded.
But this is A Book of Cookrye, not A Book of Street Signage. Let's get to edible things!
If one goes to doughnut shops, one will find the selection is about the same as in America. However, some items get renamed in ever-so-genteel ways:

Tea biscuits! I love it! Also, it seems Canadians aren't as addicted to sugar as Americans are, for if you order "plain doughnut holes," you get this:

Literally a plain doughnut hole. I did not know these existed. If you order plain doughnut holes in the US, you will get glazed ones. This is partially because American doughnut shops have cheapened their formulas so much that without the glaze, you could tell how terrible the wads of fried dough are. But apparently enough Canadians can do without sugar that doughnut shops keep these on hand. They are not a special order item; there's a stack of them under the counter because apparently enough people order them to justify keeping them on hand. Also, because you're likely dying to know, it was faintly sweet, kind of like fried pound cake except not as dense.
But perhaps you're not in Canada to purchase doughnuts and the like. You may look at most restaurant prices and decide to cook for yourself. So, let us see what one finds in Canadian grocery stores! Going to the grocery store is an interesting way of seeing what people eat, and in more general terms, an interesting peep into the day-to-day lives of those who live where you are visiting. For example,you just never know what will be so popular the grocery store will have to ration it.

However, I regretfully must add that the gluten-free craze has apparently hopped over the border. While this is doubtlessly wonderful news for the handful of people with actual gluten problems, I'd kind of hoped the I-don't-know-what-a-gluten-is-but-the-morning-talk-show-said-it's-bad-for-you crowd would stay confined to the US. Maybe this is an unfortunate casualty of sharing the world's longest unprotected border.

While the produce section has the same selection as one would find on the other side of the national border, Canadians had the ingenious idea of putting handles on those bags you're supposed to put your vegetables in.
You can either tie it shut or carry it on your arm to free up your hand.

Speaking of produce, some of it actually comes from Canada! That's right, it's grown and sold in the same country.

It really is the little details that remind one that one is abroad- things like two-language signs, handles on bags, and phrasing that is just a little bit different. In the US, no grocery would ever make reference to the Mexican aisle. They'd use a word like Hispanic.

Also, the diabetes-and-caffeine aisle uses completely different names for everything. "Sport drinks" (read: energy drinks) sounds like an optimistic suggestion, in hopes that most people purchasing it were about to do something very athletic. "Juice crystals" suggests that the powder in the Kool-Aid packets is at least partially derived from fruit. And "alternative beverage" is a very vague term for the sodas you just know are terrible for you.

While vegetable shortening has all but replaced lard in the US, the baking aisle selection suggests Canadians aren't so squicky about the fact that lard comes from pigs. Not only does half the shelf space go to lard, they have store-brand lard.

You just never know what spices will be commonly used wherever you go. For example, while Americans so rarely use savory that only the foofier supermarkets stock it, apparently Canadians use savory a lot.

But perhaps you aren't interested in being able to buy literal bunches of savory. If your cooking inclines toward desserts, you will be very interested to know that while manufacturers shrank baking chocolate packages down to half their size in America, they still sell it in half-pound boxes in Canada.

The Canadian selection of artificial flavorings gets a lot more creative than the American one. Notice that while the actual vanilla extract is labeled simply "Vanilla," the fake stuff is classied up into French Vanilla.

 Also, while Canadians are better than Americans at recognizing basic roadsign symbols and at basic safety around power lines, apparently they need more disclaimers than Americans do on their food. Check out the warning on this recipe from the back of a chocolate chip bag:
Also, yes that brownie recipe looks amazing and will likely appear very soon.

"Appliances vary in power, these instructions are guidelines only."
Disclaimers like this are standard on microwave recipes here in the US. However, in Canada, they apparently just put them right under every recipe. Maybe they got inundated with complaints from cranky cooks with defective ovens.
Of course, whenever one is in a different country, the money will be different too. If you pay cash in Canada, odds are you must face Queen Elizabeth, who with her very gaze says "You don't need to buy that shit." My friends whom I was visiting thought it was creepy that US money has all those dead people on it, so you just never know what will be noteworthy to people not used to it.
Also, Canadian paper money is actually plastic and has little see-through parts.

Also, Canadians do not have pennies. While this doesn't cause any problems if you're paying an odd amount by card, it does make paying a bill of, say, $2.78 difficult if you're paying cash. If you're from the United States where pennies are still plentiful, you may wonder how Canadians cope. Check under the total on this receipt (and ignore the ungodly prices):

Truly, the Canadians have solved their problem of being literally penniless.
But you may not want to travel all the way out of your country just to end up back in the kitchen. Perhaps your (and your friends') budget allows you to avoid cooking and instead dine out. Even at the most ordinary-looking of restaurants, you will find things are subtly different. Check out the condiments available for one's French fries:

Yep, that is a bottle of vinegar given equal space with the mustard and ketchup. It's not even something fancy like wine vinegar or malt vinegar. It is the same stuff one dumps in the washer with unusually smelly clothes or uses to wipe down the countertops.
Despite thinking it must be utterly revolting, I allowed myself to be persuaded to try some of it on fries. And I hereby  report that if you like salt-and-vinegar chips, you will wonder where vinegar has been all your life. You will consider bringing a little bottle of vinegar with you the next time you get drive-thru.You will then lament that even in Canada, vinegar is only set out in steakhouses and not on every table in every restaurant that sells fries.
It's always interesting to see what foods have traveled from other countries. Seeing how dishes change as one goes farther and farther from their origin point is like an edible game of telephone. Since I haven't been outside of the United States in many years, I've never been on the receiving end of seeing foreigners mess with your food. While I know that (for example) most of our Chinese takeout bears little resemblance to what is served in China, and that a heap of spaghetti hidden under canned sauce and a thick pound of gooey, nearly-burnt-under-the-broiler cheese has only the thinnest connections to Italy, I've never had the chance to leave my country and see what it feels like when the culinary tables are turned. We at A Book of Cookrye are not authenticity snobs, but only care if the food is actually good. With that in mind, let's see what has crossed from the US into Canada!

Pulled pork, a staple and a religion throughout the American South, would never be put in the same advertisement with the word "panini," or worse, "wrap," in the Southwest which Tim Horton's claims this represents. But you have got to see my personal favorite:

Tragically, I cannot report whether the Mexican crêpes were any good because the restaurant only sold them weekdays. However, as someone who has lived in Texas for the past few years, my friends just had to take me to... uh... this place.

Nothing says Texas quite like walking right into a two-story mural that says WELCOME Y'ALL.

I don't know who decided Canada needed Texas-themed restaurants, but apparently they were right. There are two of them in downtown Ottawa alone, and both of them were crowded. And get a load of the dedication to the theme! There are a lot of restaurants just like this in Texas. It's where you take your out-of-state relatives who want a "Texas Experience."
Wagon wheel lights, log cabin ceilings, pictures of farms and John Wayne...

You may wonder just what a Texas restaurant in Canada would serve. The answer: Mostly barbecue and fajitas, with free chips and salsa while you wait for your order. However, nowhere in Texas have I ever encountered a special dish just for serving chips and salsa.
Note that they even ordered Texas-themed tablecloths.

While of course both of them can be found all over Texas, it was very strange seeing Mexican and barbecue coming out of the same kitchen. I'd never realized how separated the two of them are in Texas restaurants that are actually in Texas. Also, because we are in Canada, we have "Classic Poutine Texas-Style."

For the uninitiated, "Texas-style" in Canada means it has either barbecue sauce, jalapeños, or both. It turns out Canadians apparently put more effort into making their food tidy than any Texas restaurant would. In addition to the aforementioned designated chip-and-salsa dishes, they had special partitioned trays for the fajita condiments.

Furthermore, quesadillas came carefully arranged with an artistic line of sauce and delicately placed salad leaves. For the record, they really did taste like something one might get in a Mexican restaurant in Texas. (note: I didn't say they were anything like Mexican food, but that they're just like Mexican food sold in Texas.) But I've never seen them so carefully laid on a plate.

While it seems quesadillas made it all the way across America and over the border nearly unchanged, fajitas changed a lot in translation. We present: pulled pork fajitas!

It is exactly what it looks like. Pulled pork under a generous dipperful of barbecue sauce, served on a sizzling platter with onions and bell peppers. I was fascinated by the whole experience. I love to see what features of a dish remain the same as it makes its way across great distances. What do people think make any food definitively that specific food? For example, lasagna has made its way out of Italy and over the Atlantic, where the good people of the United States transformed it into things like chocolate lasagna and Mexican lasagna. Apparently by American definitions, it's a lasagna if it has thin layers of something bread-like (noodles, tortillas crushed Oreos, thin slices of chocolate cake), layers of some white stuff, possibly layers of meat, and layers of some other sauce. Likewise, it's fajitas in Canada if it involves meat and onions on a sizzling platter with tortillas on the side.
It seems Canada is a ready market for the American South, because we were later treated to a restaurant with menu items like this. Please read the second item:

I dare someone to attempt serving Texas Onion Rings (or Texas Anything, really) with an "Alabama Sauce" while in either state.
However, this being Canada in the fall, apples are in season. Apples grow so well there some places simply have them as ornamental shade trees. You don't realize they're supposed to be apple trees until you notice some wormy yet recognizable fruit in random hedges.
Once you cut away the bug-eaten parts, the rest was tart but very good.

This foreshadowed a lovely treat my friends had planned: Apple picking!
Just like Florida makes such a big deal out of their state's orange production (or at least, they did before they replaced all the orange trees with housing subdivisions), Canada is very proud of their apple production. Every year, many people make the pilgrimage to various apple orchards. After paying a small fee and donating blood to the local mosquito population, you can go out and gather all the apples you think you'll eat before they go bad on your countertop. You also get to see that outside the supermarket, many apples are misshapen or oddly sized. Some may look like someone's butt.

Other apples are the size of cherries.

We at A Book of Cookrye have to warn anyone who's never gone apple picking before about tasting the apples. Yes, there may be so many different kinds of apples in the same orchard they have to put signs on each row...

And yes, they will all look so good that you'll want to taste each different kind of apple, especially the ones you've never heard of before, and yes, they'll all be so delicious compared to what was in the supermarket just a few miles (sorry, kilometers) away, and yes, they'll all look so tempting you can't resist...

But if you're not careful, this will happen:
Shrub Monkeys by ktshy, full size here

We at A Book of Cookrye would like to thank those who graciously let us visit. Your hospitality, generosity, and benign bemusement as we photographed grocery stores, street signs, road stripes, and everything else is deeply appreciated. We would like to close by commending Canadian vandals for their commitment to legibility.