Comeback sauce

Shrimp with comeback sauce

The Canada goose stomping around the still-frozen lake last week honking angrily pretty much summed it up for all of us. My goose is a little rusty, but I am convinced he was  saying: “You gotta be kidding me – it’s the middle of April for crying out loud!”

Looking on the bright side, it seems that spring is finally here – kinda, sorta. And I am somewhat grateful that the giant dead birch tree that came down during the winter crushed the shed roof and not the cottage roof.  Plus, I am almost confident that summer might eventually come. Possibly, maybe.

The goose left – probably heading for Florida. Smart goose.

Those of us without wings – or sufficient air miles – will just have to wait and hope. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pretend. So today I am pretending to be in Jackson, Mississippi, where it is going to reach 75 degrees (24 C) today and where local restaurants have been serving “comeback sauce” since the 1930s.

A cousin to Louisiana’s more famous remoulade, this sauce got its name because – you guessed it – customers come back for it.

Comeback sauce is ideal for summer because it is so versatile. Use it as a dip for grilled shrimp (hot or cold), slather it on burgers, or eat it with saltines the way they do in Jackson. It turns an iceberg wedge into an instant salad.  Great for lazy lakeside cooks like me who would rather be on the dock than in the kitchen.

There are many versions of comeback sauce. The recipe below is adapted from one in the New York Times (not very  Southern, I know) and has celery seed, which adds a bright, slightly  grassy flavour. But play around with the ingredients until you get the flavour you like best.  It will keep in the fridge for about two weeks, but it won’t last that long.

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Five tips for eating on the road

Munich sign

This has been a busy month for travel – Seoul, Kyiv, The Hague, Munich and Berlin – and all it for work. Travelling on business has its perks – just this week I stood on the line where the Berlin wall once stood; I saw the barricades still standing in Kyiv’s Independence Square; I squeezed in a short early morning stroll along a Dutch canal on a beautiful spring day.

But it’s still work. “Sightseeing” is from the car window to and from the airport or after dark, and always close to the hotel. Time zones (and lobby bars) can play havoc with sleep schedules. And I am convinced there’s money to be made teaching North Americans how to operate European showers; every single one of them is different.

Dining well on the road isn’t always easy either. Doing business in Copenhagen and don’t want to miss the chance to eat at Noma? If you want a reservation, you’d better know exactly what night you will be free and how many colleagues will be joining you at least four months in advance. It’s not always practical to plan ahead. Expediency tends to dictate what the business traveller eats. But there are ways to make the experience better. Here are a few things I try to do:

  1. Get the right advice. The internet may be the font of all knowledge, but unless you know the city well or want to spend a lot of time on Google maps trying to figure out what’s good and close to the hotel, tap an expert. Ask the hotel restaurant and bar staff where they go for a bite when they’re done work. People who work with food tend to know where the best (and often inexpensive) places are. They always know the places that stay open late.
  2. Eat local. Just this week in Munich we were presented with the opportunity to have a quick lunch but, of course, none of us knew what was good and nearby. Some headed for the Italian restaurant on the corner. The rest of us walked an extra block to a biergarten, where I had the knackwurst and sauerkraut. A cliché? Perhaps, but it was good. Besides, eating sausage and sauerkraut just seems right when you’re in Munich. Sticking with the native dishes improves your chances of getting something decent. Who goes to Bavaria for Italian food?
  3. Eat exotic. If local cuisine is hard to find (is there even Dutch restaurant in The Hague?) historical links between countries can help you make good choices. We found a great little Indonesian place nestled in among the Irish bars and pizza joints near our hotel in The Hague. I have had excellent Vietnamese in Paris and Indian is always a good bet in London.
  4. Be ready. One time in Manhattan when our meetings ended early, I took a shot in the dark and called Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton’s wonderful but tiny restaurant in The Bowery. “Can you come right now,” they said, “we’ve just had a cancellation?” We were hailing a cab within seconds.
  5. Get inspired. I try to use business trips as a jumping off point to try new things at home. A single night in Seoul earlier this month didn’t afford me much of a chance to eat. But I was inspired to experiment with Korean recipes in my own kitchen. Ukrainian is coming next. The sign in the picture above says “Probieren Sie” – German for “try it.”  Good advice. Sometimes, however, you just have to try it at home.

How do you eat well on the road?

 

 

Scallops in brown butter sauce

Scallops

Do you say sCAL-lop or sCALL-op? Turns out there is no debate. Years ago, when I was the best man at a wedding in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, a life-long scallop fisherman – and the father of the bride – set the record straight for me and threatened bodily harm if I ever said scallop wrong again. And I never have.

I only wish I’d spent that weekend paying attention to how the scallops were cooked instead of practising my diction. They were perfect – bacon-wrapped or butter-soaked – straight off the boat. Creamy, barely cooked centres, the tops and bottoms caramelized just right. They didn’t last long (neither did the marriage, but that’s another story).

Sadly,  my own early attempts to recreate that feast at home produced little more than rubbery lumps that were hardly worth eating no matter what I called them (and I called them a lot of things that can’t be printed in a family blog).

Now that I know that cooking them correctly is almost as easy as pronouncing scallops the right way, I regret waiting so long to make them regularly at home.  Served over buttered egg noodles, they are a quick and surprisingly filling week-night meal. On their own, they are a fast first course for a dinner party (and you can lecture your guests on pronunciation).

I have to admit I learned the trick (exact timing, a non-stick pan and butter basting) from Cook’s Illustrated, which is not nearly as cool as learning it from a scallop fisherman. But they taste just as good.

Oh, and it’s sCALL-ops, not sCAL-ops. Don’t ever forget it.

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Tomato soup

Tomato soup 2

The gelatinous slurp of condensed tomato soup sliding out of a can and into a pot was the sound of my first act of independence in the kitchen. I loved that the goopy lump slowly slumping in the pan was still vaguely can-shaped – the tin may have been Andy Warhol, but its contents were pure Salvador Dali.  Add one tin of milk (no low-class watered soup in our house) and stir over medium heat until, presto, lunch was “cooked”. I served it with a side of saltine crackers. Not bad for a nine-year-old.

Skip ahead more than fort…let’s just say a number of years…and the food snob in me has little use for tinned soup (skeet shooting?). But there’s still something special about a simple bowl of creamy tomato soup, especially when you make it yourself.

I serve this soup garnished with croutons and a little chopped fresh basil (if I happen to have some) and crusty bread on the side (or saltines, if no one is looking).

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Pork saltimbocca

Saltiboca 1

A midlife crisis can be great. What’s wrong with a new Porsche or a well-equipped man cave? Even a boys’ golfing weekend in South Carolina could work – Spring Break for pseudo-seniors.

Or, how about going back to school part time for two years and spending every waking hour outside of work desperately trying not to fall behind so you can get that master’s degree you always wanted (and probably never needed)?

How’s my new car, you ask? The leather La-Z-Boy with built-in cup-holder in my camouflage-themed basement retreat? My nine-iron shot?

Let’s just say that none of my textbooks has a creamy leather interior or a 60-inch flat screen with Dolby surround sound. And next time I want to have a mid-life crisis I am definitely going to take the advice of my male friends, not my wife.

Meanwhile, the first grades are in. The one nice thing about going back to school at this age is that you don’t have to tell anyone your marks – they are between you, your professor and perhaps the lending institution funding your ill-considered return to university. No one needs to know whether that ear-to-ear smile and slightly maniacal laugh mean you aced accounting or simply that the course is over and you will never, ever, ever, ever have to pretend to understand how to create a consolidated financial statement or consider the discounted cash-flow model again. Ever.

Saltimbocca is the perfect way to mark any life event, good or bad – even something as bad as your accounting grade. This simple dish can be both celebratory and comforting… a bright jolt of flavour to end a perfect day, or a consoling pat-on-the-back when you’re feeling a little down. Debit or credit – nobody needs to know but you. (And you already forgot which is which!)

There are many ways to make saltimbocca, which means “jumps in the mouth” in Italian. (And jump they do – I have never had leftovers.) I make mine with pork rather than veal because it costs less and goes just as well with the earthy sage, salty prosciutto and lemon-butter-white wine sauce that give this dish intense flavour and richness. Some recipes call for toothpicks to hold everything in place, but that’s too much work. I just fold the pork over the sage and prosciutto before dusting with a little all-purpose flour and sautéing in butter. 

Anyway, who needs a Porsche when you’ve got saltimbocca? Plus, it won’t depreciate your assets! (Or something like that.)

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Steak and kidney pudding

Steak and kidney pudding

My grandmother was a remarkable woman. Widowed young just after the Second World War,  and armed with not much more than a fierce work ethic, she left Scotland and emigrated to Canada with her three daughters – the smallest just three.  I think that took great courage.

Nana lived upstairs from us in the house she bought with my parents and her kitchen was my favourite place to be. I learned to sit nicely and mind my manners – the wooden spoon on the counter was the ultimate deterrent to bad behaviour. (I was nine or ten when she moved into an apartment and her old kitchen became my new bedroom – I was the only one of my friends with my own sink in my room.)

When she moved to her own apartment, I went almost every Wednesday for lunch, which was always waiting for me so I could get back to school on time. I loved her soups and the creamy egg noodles. But each week, as I made my way to her place, I hoped for my absolute favourite – steak and kidney pie

Sadly, I have none of my grandmother’s recipes. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing her refer to a cookbook or recipe card. So the particular secret to that steak and kidney masterpiece is lost. Even in my bravest moments in the kitchen, I have never attempted to replicate it. The potential for disappointment is too great.

I can hear Nana right now: “Are ye daft?” she says. “Stop all this sentimental blether and get into the kitchen and make the damn thing.”

OK, OK. But not quite. There’s something even better.

I first had steak and kidney pudding in a London pub and it was like going to heaven – except for the cigarette smoke. The same thick gravy, the same earthy smell of kidney as my favourite pie, but wrapped in a rich suet crust that’s more like a dumpling than a pie casing. Absolutely perfect.

Puddings are steamed, not baked like pies. You’ll need a pudding basin to do this (found at any decent kitchen shop and useful as a mixing bowl or rustic serving dish when puddings aren’t in season). A one-litre basin will hold enough for four. After you’ve lined the basin with dough, filled it and sealed it with a dough lid, you wrap it in foil and steam it in a large pot. It seems a lot more daunting than it really is. And you’ll be very proud of yourself when it turns out beautifully. I was. I think Nana would be, too.

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Peanut butter cups

Peanut butter cups 1

There’s nothing quite like seeing the faces of a group of  adults at a dinner party when you put a plate of these beauties out for dessert.

The calorie-counters who insist on half-servings and surreptitiously check their smart-phone apps to see if they can squeeze in another glass of wine…

The polite pickers who quietly move the potatoes (perfectly roasted in duck fat, I might add) around so that it looks like they’ve been eating…

Even the waist-watchers who wouldn’t touch the lovely artisanal bread you painstakingly sourced if their life depended on it and who happily lecture the entire table on the evils of carbs…

They all have the same look – shock, then disbelief, then – slowly, but inevitably – joy. Pure, unrestrained joy.

They are kids again and they’ve just been given a candy store. They dive in.

Politely, you remind your guests that choking will be less of a risk if they eat them one at a time.

Later, when it is all over and the fingers circling like sharks have found the last crumbs, they all ask – still breathing heavily from exertion – for the recipe.

So here it is. Continue reading

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