Québec’s New Visionaries of Boreal Cuisine

Chez Boulay carpaccio of Arctic char

Chez Boulay carpaccio of Arctic char (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography)

No stranger to Nordic cuisines – I’ve dined very happily in all four Scandinavian countries, as well as Iceland – I was intrigued with the notion of “Boreal Cuisine” using only ingredients from this northern latitude. So when I heard about Chef Jean-Luc Boulay’s restaurant Chez Boulay bistro boreal in Old Québec, I was on the road north.

Chef Boulay and his associate, Arnaud Marchand, opened Chez Boulay bistro to showcase their concept: nordic-inspired cuisine that features regional products harvested and served seasonally. Before dinner I had a chance to speak with Arnaud Marchand, and he explained their concept of a menu based responsible cultivation and harvesting of products of the boreal forest regions, and those that are unique to the Nordic climate.

Chef Arnaud Marchand (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography)

Chef Arnaud Marchand (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography)

“It’s a good way to get back to our roots,” he told me, then went on to discuss the health and nutritional advantages of these ingredients. Not only is it always better to cook with seasonal products that have been harvested at their prime and not shipped halfway around the world, but these northern ingredients are especially nutrient filled. Nordic cuisine uses either lean fish such as cod, which are especially rich in proteins, or those — salmon, mackerel and trout – that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Game meat is very rich in proteins and almost completely without saturated fats. The vegetables and berries from the region are rich in antioxidants and in vitamins B and C. Nice to know, especially as all these are also delicious.

But Boulay’s and Marchand’s quest and commitment goes further, with a determination to use only those ingredients.

“That means we have no lemons, no olive oil, no exotic spices, no cane sugar.” So the two chefs set out to learn about local plants and trees, relying on native lore and their own experiments. They discovered some interesting substitutes that have opened up a whole new – and northern – world of flavors. Take fragrant fir tips, for example, and the cranberry seed oil they serve for dipping bread. For aromatics they discovered Labrador tea, wintergreen and peppery green alder. Wild ginger grows here, and sea salt is plentiful, along with a full range of herbs that thrive in northern gardens.

Boreal seasonings (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography)

Boreal seasonings (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography)

Not that they feel they need to reproduce every sort of dish, but they have a wide range of ingredients to try out in traditional dishes of southern latitudes: risottos are made from barley and spelt, both of which grow in the shorter northern season.

Although they have a fairly wide palette of vegetables that grow in local farms, their explorations into wild native foods have turned up some delicious finds: wild celery root, cattail hearts (very much like hearts of palm) and piquant capers made from oxeye daisy buds. In addition to the obvious maple syrup, they can use birch and cherry syrup; although they have ample apples for cider vinegar, elderberry and cranberry vinegars give a darker more fruity tartness to salads.

The proof of boreal – or any other – cuisine is in the eating, of course. Stay tuned to hear about the dinner that followed our conversation.

Chez Boulay bistro boreal is in the heart of Old Québec, at 1110 Saint-Jean St., adjoining the lobby of Hotel Manoir Victoria. Reserve at 418.380.8166

Posted in Food Philosophy, Nordic Bites, Quebec bites | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Preparing Vietnamese and Thai Dishes at A Taste of the Mountains Cooking School

Vietnamese summer rolls  Taste of the Mountains Cooking School

Vietnamese summer rolls Taste of the Mountains Cooking School

Although I’m a fair hand with several Chinese and Japanese dishes, Asian cooking has never been my strongest suite, so I didn’t hesitate before accepting Steffani Adaska’s invitation to sample her A Taste of the Mountains Cooking School for a class on Thai and Vietnamese cooking. As February is Heart Health Month, these low-fat cuisines are especially appropriate.

The classes are taught in the Bernerhof Inn Bed & Breakfast, which fills an elegant Victorian mansion on Route 302 in Bartlett, NH, near North Conway, in the White Mountains.

Thai ingredients Taste of the Mountains Cooking School (Stillman Rogers Photography)

Thai ingredients Taste of the Mountains Cooking School (Stillman Rogers Photography)

As we were donning our aprons and washing our hands, Steffani described the ingredients, which she had arranged on the counter. We recognized most of them: Fish sauce, rice sticks and paper sheets and a selection of fresh herbs and vegetables. But a few were not so familiar: palm sugar (similar to brown sugar, but more delicate), tamarind paste, kaffir lime leaves and galangal and Sriracha, a Souteast Asian chili sauce. We tasted these in turn, and learned how to soak and mash the tamarind paste to strain out the seeds. Galangal is a relative of ginger.

Throughout the lesson, Steffani tossed in cooking shortcuts, information on other ingredients and little details: how to identify the most flavorful coconut milk (the heaviest can), never let coconut milk come to a boil, how to freeze ginger root and grate as needed on a microplane, and more tips.

In the course of three hours we made Vietnamese summer rolls, Pad Thai, chicken satay with peanut sauce and a delicate soup based on coconut milk called Tom Ka Gai. As each was finished, we stopped to eat, accompanying the food with a medium Riesling. We had always chosen beer with most Asian dishes, but the Riesling went very nicely.

Pad Thai at Taste of the Mountains Cooking School (Stillman Rogers Photography)

Pad Thai at Taste of the Mountains Cooking School (Stillman Rogers Photography)

We enjoyed each dish and the new flavors, but most of all we enjoyed cooking with Steffani and adding several new tricks and ingredients to our repertoire. The kitchen at Bernerhof Inn Bed & Breakfast is spacious and well equipped, a good home for Steffani’s cooking school. And our overnight stay there was as enjoyable as the class.

Our room had a giant whirlpool tub and a sitting area with comfortable wing chairs, as well as a fireplace. And although we thought we would never be hungry again after the Southeast Asian feast we’d prepared with Steffani, when it was time for breakfast the next morning we found plenty of appetite for the Irish Eggs Benedict, made with a lime-based hollandaise.

A Taste of the Mountains Cooking School offers classes in a wide variety of cuisines and themes, including pasta making, vegetarian, cooking with grains, a traditional New England clam bake, sushi, and the cooking of Provence. Along with Steffani’s own classes, guest chefs teach their specialties.

Ingredients for Vietnamese summer rolls  (Stillman Rogers Photography)

Ingredients for Vietnamese summer rolls (Stillman Rogers Photography)

Vietnamese Summer Rolls

Recipe courtesy of Steffani Adaska, A Taste of the Mountains Cooking School

1 tsp peanut oil

3 oz fresh shitake mushroom caps, sliced

2 oz dried thin Chinese rice sticks (maifun)

6 round rice paper sheets (8-9-inch)

½ cup each, fresh mint, cilantro and Thai basil leaves, chopped

1/2 cup each, jicama, carrot and seeded cucumber, cut in matchstick-size strips

½ cup shredded lettuce

9 cooked shrimp (about 4 oz), peeled, deveined and cut in half lengthwise

Chef Steffanie Adaska demonstrates wrapping Vietnamese summer rolls (Stillman Rogers Photography)

Chef Steffanie Adaska demonstrates wrapping Vietnamese summer rolls (Stillman Rogers Photography)

Dipping sauce

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

1 Tbsp brown sugar

1 ½ Tbsp fermented fish sauce (nam pla)

2 tsp unseasoned rice vinegar

1 Tbsp chopped cilantro

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp finely minced jalepeno pepper with seeds

Make sauce at least 30 minutes ahead by whisking all ingredients until sugar dissolves. (Can be made a day ahead and stored covered in the refrigerator)

Heat oil over medium-high heat and sauté mushrooms until soft, about 5 minutes. Cool.

Soak rice sticks in a large bowl with hot water to cover, about 30 minutes until soft. Drain.One by one, soak rice paper sheets about 30 seconds until soft and arrange side-by-side on a towel, making sure each one is flat.Divide herbs evenly in lines across the lower third of each sheet, leaving a 1-inch border at each end for folding. Top with softened rice sticks, compacting into a log. Top with remaining vegetables.

Fold bottom of each rice sheet over filling, then tuck in ends and roll as firmly as possible into tight cylinders.

Rolling summer rolls (Stillman Rogers Photography)

Rolling summer rolls (Stillman Rogers Photography)

Place each, seam side down, on platter. (These can be made as much as 6 hours ahead, covered with a damp towel and plastic wrap, then chilled.) To serve, cut each in half diagonally, arrange on plate and serve with dipping sauce.

Posted in Asian Bites, Cooking Schools, Recipes, Traditional Bites | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Discovering Sardinian Soul Food

Pecorino cheese at the market in Cagliari, Sardinia

Pecorino cheese at the market in Cagliari, Sardinia

Until a rainy night in a granite town high in the mountains of northern Sardinia, I never thought much about the culinary possibilities of stale bread. Nor of the universal inventiveness of cooks in hard times.

A regional dish called Zuppa Gallurese changed all that. It was love at first bite. I had discovered a new soul food, and its ingredients couldn’t be simpler or more universal — stale bread, cheese and broth. As its satisfying flavors and homey textures warmed me to my still-damp toes, I meditated on the universality of stale bread as soul food. And how it was used in endless combination with the other two ingredients all over the bread-eating world.

But first, the Zuppa Gallurese itself: despite its name it is not a soup. It’s not even runny. It is served as a “primi” course, alongside pasta on the menu (if it’s on a menu at all). It’s made from slices of leftover bread layered with cheese. In northern Sardinia’s Gallura, where sheep outnumber people by at least five to one, it’s likely to be a sheep cheese. Or several sheep cheeses, with Sardinian pecorino among them. Like the bread, they may be the dry bits and ends of cheese that has outlived its best moments. This is moistened with a covering of broth — mutton or beef  bones cooked with carrot, onion and a handful of local wild herbs, maybe a tomato or a bit of leftover tomato sauce, the way anyone makes broth, with a bit of this and a bit of that.

Sheep grazing in Vale de la Luna, Sardinia

Sheep grazing in Vale de la Luna, Sardinia

The mixture is baked in the oven until the broth has been absorbed into the bread and the cheese has melted into it, and the top is golden and just a bit crisp. That’s it. Bread, cheese and broth. But the aromas and flavors that simple mixture blends into is ambrosia.

Maybe, I thought as I savored the last bites, it is the chilly wet January night that makes this so wonderfully satisfying. Rain still beat on the granite-paved street of Tempio Pausania outside, and any warm hearty dish might have had the same effect. But no, a dish of the best culingionis (a local ravioli) or a plate of steaming malloreddus would not have been the same. Tonight was indeed a night for simple artistry with bread, cheese and broth.

I tried it again next day, bright and sunny, at lunch and since I would only be in Gallura a couple more days before moving south into the central mountains, I tried it a third time at the larger town of Arzachena.

It was then that I began considering what other mamas in other hill towns had been doing for centuries with stale bread and cheese bits and meat bones in varying combinations. In Tuscany, ripe tomatoes join the broth and bread, to become a soup that brings tears to the eyes of Tuscans who are far from their mama’s own version of it. A similar soup in Portugal may have a few bits of sausage in it or an egg dropped in at the last minute, instead of the cheese. And for all its popularity at trendy Alpine ski resorts, what is that Swiss staple cheese fondue but stale bread and cheese melted in wine instead of broth? Or how different are the ingredients in Welsh Rarebit, for that matter.

They all began in days when food was scarce and bread went stale — as real bread still does, made without a list of unpronounceable additives to keep is soft and squishy. Surely French peasants had a version that used up the leftover pain, and the Germans for the crusts of brot. In my own New England, we added eggs instead of cheese and called it bread pudding.

So I have not only a new soul food, but a new quest for my travels — the local take on stale bread. It won’t be any better than Zuppa Gallurese on a cold night, though.

Posted in Italy Bites, Recipes, Traditional Bites | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

In Praise of Haggis

Haggis is as Scottish as Stewart tartan or the thistle on the royal crest, a dish that speaks eloquently of this land’s rugged history and resourcefulness. More important, this often maligned meat is delicious, especially when garnished with a sprinkling of that other Scottish icon – whiskey.

Born of the grim necessities of making do with whatever was at hand, haggis is made from an assortment of less-used lamb meats, including liver, kidneys and other pieces-parts. These are ground and mixed with Scottish oats, onion and seasonings, then stuffed into a sheep’s stomach, just as sausage meat is stuffed into lengths of pig intestine, which we euphemize as “sausage casings.”

After several hours cooking, the flavors blend and mellow into a savory dish that doesn’t taste like any of its ingredients; there’s no trace of liver or even lamb, just a flavorful slightly crumbly dish that somewhat resembles roast-beef hash. But instead of potatoes, it has Scottish whole oats to give it a pleasant, slightly chewy mouthfeel.

Haggis gets its bad rap in two ways: not all haggis is created equal, and some people simply balk at any mention of organ meat (though they don’t turn up their noses at a nicely seared foie gras, despite its organy origin).

The reverence with which Scots regard the haggis is perhaps best exemplified by the ceremony that attends its presentation, especially when Scots gather on January 25 to observe the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. While it may be found at breakfast, served with tattie scones piping hot off the griddle, haggis is accorded a state reception at dinner, when properly presented with a skirl of bagpipes and the recitation of Burns’ Address to a Haggis.

I’d heard the haggis saluted before, but never so splendidly – nor, I must admit, so stirringly – as by a fellow passenger on board the Hebridean Princess. After the ship’s own piper had heralded the haggis into the dining room on its silver tray, this passenger, in full kilt livery, proclaimed the glories of the dish in Burns’ words, beginning:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course, but what other food is accorded such honors before it’s slain with a dirk?

Posted in Scotland Bites, Traditional Bites | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Laguardia – Medieval Hilltop Town in Spain’s Rioja Vineyards

Wine bar in the caves beneath Hospedaria los Paredes  (Stillman Rogers photo)

Wine bar in the caves beneath Hospedaria los Paredes (Stillman Rogers photo)

Rising above the vineyards of Rioja, south of the coastal city of Bilbao, Laguardia is a postcard-perfect medieval town. No cars can enter the gates in the massive walls that surround Laguardia – the ground beneath the hill is too fragile. Since medieval times, it has been carved into a maze of tunnels and passageways that were used as shelter and escape routes in unsettled times and later as cool storage cellars for the wine that flows so freely here in the heart of the Rioja vineyards.

Above these dark underground corridors, Medieval buildings are close packed along its narrow stone-paved streets, some of them homes still occupied by descendants of the families that built them in the 12th and 13th centuries. Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago – the Way of St James en route to Santiago de Compostella — stopped at some, where families offered them food and a place to sleep.

Polychromeda Arch,  portico of the church of Santa Maria de los Reyes

Polychromeda Arch, portico of the church of Santa Maria de los Reyes (Stillman Rogers photo)”

One of Spain’s Finest Gothic Portals
The main street they trod leads from the modest Romanesque church of San Juan Bautista up the hill to the crest of the village, crowned by the church of Santa María de los Reyes, both stops on the pilgrimage route. The original portal of Santa María de los Reyes is inside a later narthex, a vestibule that has protected and preserved one of the finest Gothic portals in all of Spain.

Most of these have lost their polychrome painting, and many of them have lost the details of the carving as well. But here the colors survive on the stone images of the Virgin, prophets, saints and angels, and on relief carvings on the tympanum over the door and on the pillars at either side. The church was completed in the 14th century and the stone work was painted two centuries later.

Bodegas Ysios by Santiago Calatrava

Bodegas Ysios by Santiago Calatrava (Stillman Rogers photo)”

Bodegas Ysios Winery
Behind the church, a walkway leads to an overlook at the highest point, far above the vineyards, with good views across the valley to the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range beyond. Easily identified among the vineyards below is Bodegas Ysios, designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, its undulating roof composed of metal pleated into accordion folds that shine in the sunlight.

Where to Dine in Laguardia
Wine and food are prized in Laguardia, where many of the tunnels are still vaults for wineries that welcome visitors to tastings in their dim coolness. Particularly inviting are the passages beneath the charming little hotel and restaurant Los Parajes, where they have been preserved to house a wine bar, a tiny shop selling local food products and a viniculture spa. The restaurant on the street level is exceptional (reservations are highly suggested) and upstairs, the old home has been converted into elegant guest rooms.

Dinner at Hospedaria Los Parajes, Laguardia

Dinner at Hospedaria Los Parajes, LaGuardia (Stillman Rogers photo)”

Prehistoric Sites Near Laguardia
The area is rich in prehistoric remains, including the Dolmen of San Martín and the archaeological site of La Hoya. This Bronze Age settlement dates from the first millennium BC and is well interpreted in a small museum. One of the houses has been reconstructed and furnished with objects found in the excavations, to give visitors a glimpse of Bronze Age life.

Shore Excursion from Bilbao
Laguardia is one of the most popular shore excursions offered by cruise ships calling at Bilbao’s new cruise port. It is often combined with a visit to the Marques de Riscal Winery, designed by Frank Gehry, in nearby Elciego.

Posted in Spain, Wine Regions | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Mandarin Chicken, Much Evolved

 The evolution of recipes is as complex as any theory advanced by Charles Darwin, and to me, no less fascinating. Few among us can resist tampering with even the most treasured culinary traditions, and further changes adapt recipes to the ingredients at hand, or the inspiration of the moment.

 So it is with one of my family’s favorite dishes. To make it I still pull out my soy-sauce-speckled Joyce Chen Cook Book, which falls open on its own to her recipe for Sweet and Sour Pork. All I use it for any more is to be sure of the proportions for the sauce itself – I’ve stopped referring even to the notes I’ve penciled in the margins.

 The resulting dish probably bears little if any resemblance to anything now or ever served in China, but it brings back fond memories of Joyce and her little restaurant just opposite Alewife station in Cambridge, where we always stopped for dinner on our way home from a day in Boston. She would stop at the table to comment on the girls’ increasing skill with chopsticks, and sometimes give them some little treasure. Somewhere in the bottom of Julie’s jewelry box is still, I suspect, the treasured enamel panda pin that Joyce gave her after a trip to China.

 With apologies to Joyce, here’s our much-evolved recipe:

 Sweet and Sour Chicken

(liberally adapted from Joyce Chen’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Pork)

 Mix well in a bowl:

2 cups (1 pound) chicken meat, white or dark, without skin, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 tablespoon dry sherry

1 tablespoon soy sauce

3 tablespoons corn starch

 Separate pieces and fry in 1 cup oil (350°F.) until well done and crisp at the edges, 6-8 minutes. Spread pieces on paper towels to drain; keep warm. Combine:

2/3 cup sugar

¼ cup catsup

1/3 cup pineapple juice

½ cup cider vinegar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

 Just prior to serving, heat sauce pan with 1 tablespoon oil. Lightly cook 2 cloves crushed garlic in oil and then discard. Add one sweet red pepper, cut into 1-inch squares and stir until pepper is lightly cooked, but still slightly crunchy. Set aside with chicken.

 Add sugar/vinegar mixture to pan and cook over low heat until bubbling. Stir in 2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 1/3 cup water, stirring constantly until it is thickened and translucent. Add 1 cup drained pineapple chunks and stir until heated through. Add cooked chicken and peppers, stirring well to combine and reheat. Serve immediately with rice.

Posted in Asian Bites, Recipes, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Welcome to WorldBite: The whole world, one bite at a time

We mean “bite” literally and figuratively: As in food and as in small segments. Don’t look here for travelogues or tour itineraries (except maybe a cheese trail or a walk through vineyards). Instead expect delicious morsels you can plan a trip around or fit into your own itinerary – or just have available in case you happen to be there.


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