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The Perfect Lobster

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LOBSTER FEST: Is happening right now at Characters & it will last throughout all of May, come enjoy some signature lobster dishes!

The finest lobsters in the world come from the cold coastal waters off the town of Fourchu, on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. At least that’s what the locals—most of whom make a living catching and selling the creatures—claim. And if the determination and savvy of one resourceful woman have anything to do with it, this densely meaty crustacean might well become the next Wagyu beef, Chilean sea bass, or jamón ibérico. Twenty years ago no one had heard of these now well-known name-brand delicacies, either.

That woman is Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the founder and CEO of New York’s French Culinary Institute and a descendant of a line of Fourchu natives that stretches back to 1760, when her Scottish forebears wrested this land from the French colonists who settled it. A longtime Fourchu booster, Cann Hamilton recently realized that she could do her ancestral home a great service by inducing top New York restaurants to serve Fourchu lobster at a premium price. And so it happened that on a weekend last June I joined Cann Hamilton and a group of New York star chefs to meet this sublime shellfish on its home surf.

Though you may never have been to Nova Scotia, let alone Cape Breton Island, you’ve likely already been introduced to Fourchu. Early in the film Jaws, as the harbormaster pages through a copy of the February 1968 issue of National Geographic, he comes across an article entitled “Sharks: Wolves of the Sea” and an accompanying illustration of a great white biting into a dinghy as two terrified seamen quake with fear. This might seem like the stuff of fiction, but that encounter really happened, just outside Fourchu in 1953, the only documented instance of a great white attacking a boat.

On the evening of our arrival, Kevin Burns, the nephew of the fisherman who drowned in the incident, retold the tale. “My uncle, Johnny Dan Burns, was out shiftin’ traps,” he said. “He was with Johnny Willie MacLeod and they was in a rowboat when out of the blue, a great white rammed her. Bit a hole in the boat and knocked my uncle out. Later they found a long shark tooth in the planking.”

Colorful stories like this sad last fishing trip of Johnny Dan Burns would not only help establish the identity of the Fourchu lobster but could also go a long way toward encouraging sophisticated urbanites to pay top dollar for the stuff in fine restaurants. Similar narratives help sell Burgundy wine, as well as Kentucky ham and Berkshire pork.

But while such lyrical lore might pique diners’ interest, launching a brand entails much more than just giving something a name and telling its story. Before the public will embrace a new ingredient, that product has to prove its inherent quality. The taste must live up to the tale. And in the case of the Fourchu lobster, that taste depends on two factors: geography and bureaucracy.

First the geography. Fourchu sits straight in the path of frigid currents that dive down from the Arctic Ocean, and colder water means firmer, fuller-flavored seafood. Just think about the difference between a soft, sweetish Gulf Coast oyster from the warm Louisiana shallows and a briny, complex-tasting, firm-fleshed Belon from the chilly North Atlantic. “Because of the colder water, our lobsters are slower growing,” says Gordon MacDonald, one of Fourchu’s leading fishermen, who also holds a master’s degree in organic chemistry. “Their biological processes slow down. They become heartier with much higher blood protein, which may explain the different taste.”

As for the bureaucratic part of the equation, “We’re hitting the lobsters at the right point in their life cycle,” says Alan Reeves, a crustacean technician for the Canadian government. In Fourchu, lobster season arrives in late May, just before these crustaceans molt, shedding their shells to grow roomier garb. This is when the meat inside those shells is at its tastiest and firmest. Freshly molted lobsters, in contrast, have a taste and texture like soft-shell crabs; the flesh is flabbier, and though they may be sweeter, they are decidedly less flavorful.

MacDonald provided our lobster orientation on the evening of our arrival, when Cann Hamilton prepared lobster chowder and Atlantic salmon. Among the New York culinary contingent were chef-restaurateurs Jonathan Waxman and Anne Burrell, as well as Dan Barber, the chef and owner of Blue Hill in the West Village and its upstate outpost at the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Three later arrivals, delayed by a flat tire, were David Pasternak, who runs Esca; Floyd Cardoz, the innovative interpreter of Indian-inspired cuisine at Tabla and Bread Bar; and Tuscan transplant Cesare Casella, whose new project, Salumeria Rosi, on the Upper West Side, has been getting recent attention. After our early dinner the road-weary chefs retired immediately. We had a 9 a.m. rendezvous with MacDonald.

This, as it turned out, was rather late for the local lobstering time clock. When his boat, the Wendy Marie II, picked us up, MacDonald and his two-man crew had been out since 4 a.m.

We motored out of the harbor, and MacDonald set a direct course for his traplines, just offshore. In short, efficient order, the crew winched in two dozen cages from a depth of 30 to 50 feet. The rocky bottom, we learned, is an ideal lobster habitat. It’s full of nooks and crannies where these creatures can hide from predators, and it teems with sea urchins and rock crabs, the lobsters’ favorites.

Crewman John Martell pulled a lobster from the cage and prodded it, and the crustacean responded with a kung-fu display of claw snapping. “The big claw,” Martell said, “is called a crusher. It can smash through a clamshell or break your finger. The other, even sharper, can cut right through you.” Martell measured the lobster with a pair of calipers, making sure it met the government-mandated minimum size. Under current rules, the carapace—from the head to the beginning of the tail—must be at least 82.5 millimeters, which means the lobster is about eight years old. This strictly enforced limit helps explain why the Fourchu lobster population has remained robust while other species, like these same waters’ once plentiful but now overfished cod, have diminished.

With each lobster that passed the size test, Martell and his fellow lobsterman Neil Tonet secured its claws with rubber bands and tossed it in a plastic tub. And as the traps were emptied, the crew placed a bag of chopped-up mackerel—a particularly stinky and effective bait—inside.

The day’s 600 pounds were average for the season (though it varies widely from year to year), and at a market price of $5.25 per pound, it represented a tidy, if hard-earned, profit. There is little room for badly set traps or uncooperative weather if the fishermen hope to earn a living and pay off the cost of one of the town’s lobstering licenses. Only a few are available, and they rarely come on the market. When they do, these days they can fetch upwards of $300,000.

We brought our catch back to land for a lobster boil and hootenanny at the Fourchu Community Center later that night. Cann Hamilton had invited the whole town—all 47 residents—as well as others from nearby. As we gathered in her garage, sipping beers, Malcolm MacDonald, Gordon’s uncle, sat in a rocker and watched the comings and goings. Having once let a chef commit what he felt was a sacrilege—undercooking lobsters—the elder MacDonald was not about to allow the same mistake. “You have to boil a lobster twenty minutes,” he instructed. “Any less and it’s kind of slimy.”

The faces of the assembled chefs fell in unison. Common wisdom among gourmets is that it takes only 10 to 12 minutes to render the meat tender and juicy. But 75-year-old MacDonald is the first citizen of Fourchu, so his word, while not exactly law, commands respect from visitors.

We consoled ourselves with more beer and more cooking while MacDonald spoke almost mystically about the lobsters’ seasonal trek to and from deeper waters. This is a man whose connection to nature is both deep and poetic. “They are a mystery, those lobsters,” he said. “Even with all that we know, we still don’t know a lot about what goes on under the sea.”

As for those evergreen branches that the lobstermen had thrown in the traps earlier in the day? “It was juniper,” said MacDonald. “The old-time traps were made of the stuff, and I think that something in that scent attracted lobsters. So now some fishermen put a branch in the steel traps.”

“Sometimes,” MacDonald then confessed, taking his thought to its logical conclusion, “I do like to splash a little gin on the bait.”

By 5 p.m. dinner was ready, and we ferried the lobsters down to the meeting hall, a utilitarian barn of a building that looked like an Elks Club or American Legion in any small town. The parking lot was full; the entire village—man, woman, child—had turned out.

On the stage a local band of fiddlers launched into a round of Highland tunes. Later, keyboardist Seamus MacNeil, whose fame extends up and down Cape Breton Island, accompanied his daughter, Monica, a schoolteacher and mother of three, as she poured out ancient Celtic melodies on her soprano saxophone. The old-timers square-danced with the energy of teenagers until, by eight o’clock, the party was over. It was way past bedtime for the lobstermen of Fourchu.

As a party it was memorable, but as the chefs feared, the lobsters were overcooked. We left the meeting hall determined to prepare some up our own way and asked Gordon MacDonald if we could grab a few more of the live ones that were stored in cages near his boat.

We returned to Cann Hamilton’s with a half dozen. Barber separated the tails from the claws, boiling the former for six minutes and the latter for two and a half. The difference from a classic Maine lobster was clear and unmistakable, much like the difference between a California Chardonnay and a Montrachet; where American Chard has one note, a buttery sweetness, the Burgundian wine is complex, mineralized.

As Barber said, “If it’s sweetness you’re after, I think there are lobsters, especially softer shells from Maine, that will deliver, but maybe that’s not what we should be looking for here. The Fourchus have this rich, meaty sea flavor that is also sweet enough.”

Waxman put it more bluntly: “With a lot of lobsters there’s a sweetness I dislike. But these boys had balls. They really were toothsome and delicious.”

So the Fourchu lobsters passed the palate challenge with these experts, but does that mean we’ll soon see them on New York menus alongside Périgord truffles and Alaskan king crab? That all depends on how big the market is and how soon Cann Hamilton and the townsfolk of Fourchu can work out the logistics and the costs of transporting their catch over a thousand miles south to Manhattan.

To be sure, they will be expensive, but still they are great lobsters with a great story, and in Dorothy Cann Hamilton they have a formidable champion. Lobster is, for most of us any-way, a special-event kind of meal, so it could very well happen that the opportunity to choose these Canadian beasts over less pedigreed ones will cause our collective gourmet gene to kick right in.

I can see the bumper sticker now: “Fourchu or forget it!”

Food Trends of 2015

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Forget kale and quinoa…

Flavors/Ingredients

smoked, bitter, sour + salt, harissa, peri peri, za’atar, sumac, hot honey (habanero, jalapeño, chili honey), matcha (green tea powder), ahi, gochujang, togarashi (Japanese 7 Spice), marash pepper, Aleppo pepper, smoked spices, savory jams, real maple syrup, flavored salts, coconut sugar, hemp seeds, jalapeno, culinary cannabis

Food Preparations/Techniques

fermentation, smoking, flavor without fat (rotisserie, slow roasting), DIY food bars (crostini stations, s’mores bars), spiralizing vegetables

Cuisines

Spain, Middle Eastern, Japan, Vietnam, New Age Asian, Korea, Filipino, farm-to-table kosher

Food Issues/Marketing

food waste, sustainable packaging, restaurant tipping, advanced tickets for restaurants, healthier kids’ meals, nutrition labels no longer just on packaged foods (apps, bar codes), supermarkets convert into socializing spaces, grocery shopping goes 24/7 online, fresh food delivery, GMO-free, artificial colors/flavors, gluten-free, return of fats

Vegetables

ugly root vegetables (celery root, parsnips, kohlrabi), cauliflower (in all its forms, including cauliflower “steaks,” “rice” and pizza crusts), seaweed beyond sushi, radishes, hybrid vegetables such as kalette (kale + Brussels sprouts), broccoflower (broccoli + cauliflower, broccolini (broccoli + Chinese broccoli), rainbow carrots, purple vegetables, spiralized vegetables (veggie noodles like zoodles made from zucchini), kimchi in new places, legumes

How to make a martini

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While variations of martinis have moved well beyond the traditional mixture of gin and vermouth, you can’t beat the original. With just a few ingredients and simple steps, you can readily enjoy this classic cocktail at home, but remember: The key to making the perfect martini is to think perfectly chilled.

Step 1: Ice Is Nice

To start, grab a cocktail shaker and fill it with ice cubes. Fill the shaker all the way to the brim, as this is key to chilling the martini while still allowing the ingredients to melt just a tiny bit of the ice into the drink.

Step 2: Add the Ingredients

Add 3 1/2 ounces of your chosen high-quality vodka or gin, and a tiny splash of dry vermouth, to the ice. Then start shaking. Shaking for a full 30 seconds to 1 minute achieves the coveted perfect martini chill we’re after, so be sure to keep that shaker going.

Step 3: Pour It Out

Pour your cocktail into a well-chilled martini glass. Place glasses in the freezer for 15 minutes before preparing your martinis, to get that perfect martini chill.

Step 4:Garnish & Enjoy

Finally, garnish your drink as you’d like. Want to be traditional? Use olives or lemon peel twists. Want to shake tradition up a bit? Garnish with caper berries, cherry tomatoes, cocktail onions or even baby dill pickles.

 

Explore flavors of the world with spices

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At Spice Ace, a San Francisco shop that sells over 350 spices, blends, herbs, salts, peppers and sugars, the best-selling spice is vadouvan.

Some spices are trendy today. “Right now, sea salts are really, really big,” says Ronit Madmone, co-owner of Whole Spice, a spice shop in downtown Napa’s Oxbow Public Market selling over 1,000 spices, blends (from Afghan ribs to zahtar), herbs and salts. Tastes in cinnamon have also changed. “A few years ago, they’d grab a cinnamon off the shelf. But now there’s knowledge about it – they realize it isn’t just one type, it comes from different parts of the world and tastes different.”

Though Mourad Lahlou, chef-owner of Aziza restaurant in San Francisco, who buys spices from Whole Spice, hails from Morocco – whose signature spice is ras el hanout, a blend of anywhere from 12 to 100 spices, including cinnamon, allspice, ginger, black pepper and coriander – he says less is more.

“Spices to me are simply flavor colors — there are basic spices that can be mixed in so many different ways to create a new shade,” says Lahlou, the cookbook author of Mourad: The New Moroccan. “Just like paint colors, ratios are critical. I think people tend to get carried away with the number of spices used, and muddy it with unnecessary additions.”

At Spice Ace, a San Francisco shop that sells over 350 spices, blends, herbs, salts, peppers and sugars, the best-selling spice is vadouvan. “It’s a delicious, savory, aromatic blend, sometimes called ‘French Masala Curry.’ You can use it on everything from chicken, squash to cauliflower,” says co-owner Olivia Dillan, who also sells blends like coffee-chile meat rub and bourbon-smoked cane sugar. Tasting before buying is allowed at her shop, and packaging is in half- or quarter-ounce glass jars.

The chef of Troya, a nearby Turkish restaurant on Pacific Heights’ Fillmore Street, a shop- and restaurant-lined retail strip, buys urfa biber flakes, a smoky, raisin-smelling, not-overly-hot Turkish chile pepper, at Spice Ace. Chris Borcich uses it in his roasted cauliflower and lamb meatballs, balanced with an equal amount of baharat, a Middle Eastern blend of mint, cinnamon, oregano and nutmeg, among others, which he serves with yogurt and paprika sauce.

A legend that sells over 4,000 international products, Kalustyan’s in New York City is a favorite of Lahlou, Martha Stewart (who filmed a TV segment here), and Emeril Lagasse. Besides over 500 spices and blends, the bazaar-like emporium in Murray Hill – nicknamed “Curry Hill” for its many Indian eateries and groceries – sells Middle Eastern and Indian prepared foods, over 100 herbs, 180 teas, 50 coffees, over 50 beans, 30 chile peppers, dried and canned fruits, nuts, bulk chocolates, sauces, grains, oils, syrups and its own chutney line. A counter upstairs serves lunch.

Srijith Gopinathan, executive chef at Taj Campton Place, a gourmet Indian restaurant in San Francisco, buys from Le Sanctuaire, a San Francisco shop that once sold to restaurant clients from Napa’s The French Laundry to Spain’s El Bulli only, but whose online store now sells to the public. The best way to implement powdered spices: cook the spices first, in a fat medium to release their flavor before adding the food, the Kerala-born chef says.

For his Spice Pot dish, he sautes onions, ginger and garlic in ghee (clarified butter), and adds fennel seeds, cumin seeds and mustard seeds. Then, he adds powdered Deghi chile, turmeric, fennel, coriander and chile, and cooks for a few minutes, finally adding potatoes — which he blanched in water with turmeric – and cooking for under five minutes. Last, he adjusts the taste with lemon juice, sugar and salt.

Fond of cardamom for sweet-and-sour preparations, from game and poultry to desserts and sauce, or with stone fruits in compotes — “I call it the feminine spice, extremely soft, sweet and pleasant” – Gopinathan says cardamom, mango and coconut are “the best combination ever.” You’ll find it in his mango cremeux, wrapped in a coconut tuile, served with tamarind gel and cardamom-scented candied rice puffs.

In Montreal, Olives & Epices sells boxed sets of six spice blends, packaged with the owners’ recipe book/travelogue, Spice Hunters: Asian Family Cooking, which showcases their suppliers from Sri Lanka – producer of the world’s best cinnamon, they say – Kerala and China’s Yunnan province. Other spice kits: BBQs of the world, curries/masalas from the world’s islands, seafood and game spices. Besides their shop is in the Jean-Talon Market, a huge farmers’ market, their online store lets you spice-hunt by cuisine – from West Indies to Southeast Asia or Mexico – or by spice, from Aleppo seven-spice to Zapotecan mole negro blends.

Written by: Sharon McDonell of USA Today.

The Art Of Plating.

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Food presentation is just as essential to the success of a dish as its taste and flavour.  The way the food looks on the plate is what tempts our eyes and makes you want to taste it. Imagine how your room looks when it’s messy and how it looks when you clean it up, the same ingredients, different results. It is just as true with food presentation and how the elements are arranged on the plate.

So yes, food presentation is important. It can make or break a restaurant and it can turn a dinner party into a great success if done right. What are the components of good food presentation? How do you know what to pay attention to when presenting food to your guests?

    • No matter how delicious a dish may be, if it is served on a dirty plate, you will definitely not be tempted to taste it. Make sure all plates are sparkling clean.

 

    • Adapt your plate presentation to the occasion. If you are preparing a kids party, choose fun food presentations that will make them want to eat. They prefer “fun” designs rather than serious and traditional presentations.

 

    • Food presentation is all about timing. There is no point in offering your guests a fancy dish if it is served cold, when it was supposed to be served hot. So spend just enough time plating your dish.

 

    • Another important rule of food presentation is balancing variety and contrast. It is good to have a variety of textures on the plate, but how these textures are combined is just as important.

 

    • Garnish or no garnish? That is a crucial question when it comes to food presentation. There are foods that would look uninteresting without garnish.
    • Matching portion size with plate size is another important aspect of food presentation. A plate that is too small for the food portion it offers will look messy and overcrowded. On the other hand, a small portion on too large a plate will look sparse.
  • Never serve hot foods on cold plates and the other way around. This is another essential rule of food presentation.