Saturday, December 28, 2013

"I was working in the Laab late one night..."

Moi encore,

If you've been reading my contributions for any significant stretch of time, you'll know that I don't usually subscribe to the concept that "simplest is best". I like to complicate things and throw more stuff into a recipe than might make sense. But sometimes I come across a dish whose strength lies in its (relative) simplicity. One such case is a Loatian/Thai staple called "Laab" (or "Larb"). Laab is, essentially, a salad of ground pork or beef mixed with shallots, fish sauce, lime juice, herbs and a couple of other ingredients. I first tried it at Play where it was served on lettuce wraps, and I was hooked. It can be served hot or cold, raw or cooked (I recommend the latter) and presented pretty much any way you like. As I said: simple.

The flavour profile highlights a few of the cornerstones of Southeast Asian cooking, namely the uniquely funky saltiness of fish sauce, the tart sweetness of lime juice and the herbal notes of mint, cilantro and/or Thai basil. And that's just the basic model.

So, today I'll be walking you through the how-to on this delicious and easy bit of gastronomy!



- 1 lb. ground beef or pork
- 2 shallots, minced or thinly sliced
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 inch piece of fresh ginger or galangal, minced OR 1 tsp dried ginger or galangal
- 1 lime, cut in half
- 2 tbsp fish sauce + 1 tsp on the side
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp sriracha (optional)
- 2-3 tbsp jasmine rice

Plus, choice of any or all of the following:

- 2 tbsp mint leaves, chopped
- 2 tbsp cilantro, chopped
- 2 tbsp Thai basil, chopped
- 2 tbsp green onion, sliced
- 1/2 cup grated carrot
- 1/2 cup grated red cabbage

Putting things together


- Mix meat well with shallots, garlic, ginger, juice and zest of half a lime, 2 tbsp of fish sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, and sriracha. Let stand in fridge for at least an hour to let flavours mix.
- Toast the rice in a frying pan for about 5 minutes until golden brown. Grind rice into a coarse powder in a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. Set aside to cool.
- In a large frying pan, cook meat for 10 minutes until well cooked through. Set aside to cool for a little bit until it's warm, but not hot.
-  Stir in whatever herbs and veggies you like (I went with mint, cilantro and carrot the last time I made it), along with the remaining lime juice and fish sauce.
- Serve on lettuce wraps or in a bowl or whatever you like!

Getting closer to deliciousness

I love Laab so very much. It combines meaty richness with all the freshness of lime juice and herbs and veggies, with a little bit of an exotic crunch from the toasted rice. It's a fairly light meal, but still satisfying. I highly recommend you try your hand making it or at least finding a restaurant that serves it.

The finished product, except not the one I made, because I forgot to take a picture of it... oops...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Which Brisket Is Best? - Pt. 2 - Montreal


I'm back with the second part of my examination of the art of smoking brisket. Last time we went to Texas, where slow-smoked brisket is the cornerstone of BBQ. This time our travels take us a bit closer to home, to la belle ville de Montréal where brisket has become one of the city's most recognizable culinary hallmarks in the form of Montreal Smoked Meat. Smoked Meat is to be found any of the dozens of kosher delis spread across the city and is renowned the world over. There's a bit of discussion on who invented the process, more than I have the time or inclination to get into (clearly!), but currently most opinions point to Schwartz's as the best Smoked Meat, and I agree. Either way, Smoked Meat is pretty much one of the best, if not the greatest, of Canada's contributions to the global palette.

Being a convert to the Church of Smoke, the idea of making Smoked Meat was in the back of my mind as a kind of "holy grail" for years, but:

Heed the words of Boromir

As mentioned in a recent post, a good hunk of brisket is at least 40 bucks and you don't want to screw around with that much meat and ruin it. If you're like me, you take to the Internet for inspiration and guidance and then try to make the recipe your own. With the Texas Brisket, the instructions were fairly straight-forward, but flexible; with Smoked Meat, I wanted precision, I wanted to know how they do it at Schwartz's. Remarkably, a recipe from the deli itself was made available on the Food Network Web site, sort of. Those instructions were a bit over-simplified for my taste, so I kept looking around and was able to find a bit more information on a Big Green Egg forum. This gave me a bit more info on the actual procedure, but I had to come up with my own ideas on what to use to actually cure the meat.

So, come with me as I get into this nigh two-week process of transforming a hunk of brisket into deliciousness.

Montreal Smoked Meat Step-by-step

- 5 lb. piece of brisket, trimmed of excess bits of connective tissue (you'll want to keep fat to help keep the meat moist, but the tougher bits of membrane and connective tissue you can try to remove as best as possible)

Smoked Meat Cure

- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. onion powder
- 1 tsp. mustard seed
- 1/2 tsp. allspice (ground)
- 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
- 1 tsp coriander seed
- 1/2 tsp cardamom seed
- 1 tsp. fennel seed
- 1 star anise pod, roughly ground
- 2 cloves, ground
- 1 tsp. juniper berries, roughly ground
- 1 tsp. caraway seed

NOTE: Most restaurants and industrial producers use "pink salt" (sodium nitrate or nitrite) which gives the meat the uniform deep red/pink colour. I didn't, so the result had a colour more like roast beef, although the smoking process did impart a pinkish smoke ring which is to be expected.

- Mix all ingredients together well.

- Brush a thin layer of yellow mustard on the brisket, than apply the cure to the top and bottom of the meat, pressing a little bit to ensure it stays on.

- Place the meat in a large Ziploc bag and put in the fridge for 9 to 10 days, flipping over twice a day.

- Once the meat's been cured, remove from bag.

Hallelujah, I'm cured!
- Rinse meat quickly then soak in cold water for about 3 hours, changing the water every 30 minutes. This step removes a lot of excess salt, which is important in the process of making Smoked Meat rather than Salt Lick. Pat meat dry.

- Coat with a layer of peppercorns, coriander seed, mustard seed, fennel seed and caraway seed, slightly cracked with a mortar and pestle or roughly ground in a spice grinder. I spread a thin layer of maple syrup over the meat to hold the spices in place, but it didn't really do anything to the flavour. Return meat to bag and leave in fridge overnight

- The next day, remove meat from fridge and leave out while you prep the smoker.

- Soak 2 cups of mesquite chips in water for about 30 minutes. Light your fire using lump charcoal or wood chunks (I suggest either apple or maple) and get a temperature of 250 Fahrenheit going.

- Smoke brisket for 4 hours, adding small handfuls of apple or hickory wood chips every 30 minutes to produce more smoke (and more flavour).

- At the 4 hours mark, wrap meat in foil and continue to smoke for another 4-5 hours. Remove meat from smoker, unwrap and let stand for 30 minutes.

- Slice meat into portioned hunks depending on how much you want to eat at any given time.

Mission accomplished!

Now, you don't want to start digging in just yet, as the meat needs one more step before actually serving it. If that's now, then get at it!

- Steam hunk of meat for an hour. I used a bamboo steam basket over a pot of boiling water. Line the basket with a layer parchment paper and place meat on top, cover with lid and steam.

- Once steamed, remove with tongs, slice meat against the grain at desired thickness (I think about 1/4-1/2 cm is perfect) and serve on warmed slices of rye bread topped with mustard, with a side of pickles, fries and coleslaw.

NOTE: If you're lucky enough to have access to it, ALWAYS use Rideau Bakery rye bread. You just put all this love and care into making Smoked Meat, it's what it deserves.

The apex of sammichery, with pickles

As you might have noticed from the picture, I portioned this batch into three pieces, each one being enough for two satisfyingly meat-laden sandwiches. What was interesting about it was that the first serving, which I ate right after smoking and steaming the meat, didn't quite taste as much like Smoked Meat as I had hoped, there was a bit of a pot roast undertone to it. Buy the time I got to the last hunk about a week later, however, it had become a really good approximation of the Schwartz's flavour profile. So I think a bit of post-smoked aging for a few days to a week is your best bet. The steaming is an important step also, as it gives the meat the moisture it needs to be melt-in-your-mouth.
Now, with the Texas Brisket, I used it in all kinds of different ways, but the Smoked Meat was purely for sandwiches. That being said, I'm sure it would be spectacular in an omelette, or even spaghetti! Ah, who am I kidding? Make sandwiches with it, any other usage feels a bit like sacrilege.
All in all, I think I really nailed Smoked Meat (on my first try!). It wasn't as good as Schwartz's and I'd be a fool to expect it to be, but for something done up on my back balcony in a cheap-o smoker from Canadian Tire? Not too freakin' shabby...
And in the end, maybe because I followed directions better or maybe because I'm geographically biased, the Montreal Smoked Meat gets a 9 out of 10, edging out the Texas BBQ to win the "Battle of Brisket". Vive la Viande fumée!
Boy howdy did I have fun with this! Here's hoping you do too! 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Which Brisket Is Best? - Pt. 1 - Texas

Well, this might be one of my most important posts yet...

As you well know, I've become a bit of nut about smoking meat over the past 4 years, ever since I first tried my hand at ribs. Since then I've done fish, pulled pork, shrimp, veggies and many, many more. But there's one particular staple of smoking and BBQ that I've been a little nervous about trying and that's beef brisket. First off, you can't do "just a little" brisket, you need to buy a pretty massive hunk of meat and it's hard to justify spending 40-50 bucks on a piece of meat you might screw up and turn into leather.

Another important element to my brisket cooking reticence has been the fact that I don't know the style in which to cook it! Being only 2 hours away from Montreal, my experience with eating brisket has come mainly in the form of the Hebraic staple simply called "smoked meat", probably made most famous in Canada by Schwartz's Deli . But over the years, I've had the chance to try the other most popular form of brisket, which is smoked barbecue style, most famously found in Texas. Both styles are absolutely over-the-top delicious if done well, but brisket's a risky piece of meat to work with. I've had Texas-style brisket that was the texture of sawdust and Montreal smoked meat that was like rubber.

Not one to ever be able to make a simple decision, I decided to treat myself to a 10+ pound (or so) brisket and try cooking both Texas-style and Montreal-style. I cut the 10 pound piece in half, so for each recipe I'll be dealing with 5 pounds of meat.

First step: cutting one giant piece of meat into two really big pieces of meat

Now, to be fair, there's really little difference in how one prepares the brisket initially. Both involve a rub/curing process, both involve smoking, both involve a certain measure of rehydration when serving and both are used in a variety of ways, although smoked meat is most often found piled high between slices of rye bread, where it belongs.

I scoured the Internet for recipes on both techniques; I've allowed myself to experiment willy-nilly with various smoked meatstuffs before, but this was a little more high-risk and I wanted to make sure I got off on the right foot. Today, I'm going to stick with the Texas Brisket, and cover the Smoked Meat in a later post.

For the Texas Brisket, I found a bunch of recipes and adapted things as I went. There was one recipe from Bobby Flay that helped me approximate the rub time and heat to use, and I perused a few more for some other tips. But as I did my research, I found that the information was like most information off the 'Net: mostly useful but maddeningly contradictory. In the end, I wound up ad libbing the rub, albeit not the cooking process.

So, here we go:

Texas Brisket Step-by-step

- 1 5 lb. piece of brisket, trimmed of excess bits of connective tissue (you'll want to keep fat to help keep the meat moist, but the tougher bits of membrane and connective tissue you can try to remove as best as possible)

Texas Rub

- 2 tsp cocoa powder
- 2 tsp chipotle pepper, powdered
- 2 tsp guajillo powder
- 2 tsp pasilla
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 2 tsp cumin powder

- Mix all ingredients thoroughly

- Pat meat dry, then liberally apply rub to meat and press on. Seal in a zipper bag and leave in fridge for at least 24 hours (48 is better). You can also apply a layer or mustard or syrup to help the rub stick to the meat. I never find it necessary, but many BBQ gurus swear by this.

Rubbed n' ready
- Two days later, remove meat from the fridge and let warm to room temperature. Next, there's a step that I took for the smoked meat that I didn't use for the Texas Brisket, which was to soak the meat in cold water for a couple of hours in order to remove a lot of the saltiness. I would recommend this step with the Texas Brisket, but only giving it a quick rinse or a 15-20 minute soak and then patting thoroughly dry.

Start a fire using lump charcoal or blocks of hardwood (oak or hickory or mesquite) and soak 2 cups of mesquite chips in water for about 30 minutes. You'll be looking to get the fire burning at a consistent heat of 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit for 8-9 hours. Once the fire is ready, smoke the meat for about 3-4 hours uncovered, adding a small handful of mesquite chips to the fire every 30 minutes or so to produce smoke. You'll also want to apply a "mop" to the meat as it smokes. A mop is a liquid sauce used to help keep the meat moist and add flavour. Because brisket is essentially a giant sponge for all kinds of tasty goodness, I used a lot of strong flavours in the mop. Often, mops are usually just apple juice or cider vinegar, but in this case I wanted to add even more:

Brisket Mop

- 1 cup Mill Street Coffee Porter (or other dark beer)
- 2 tsp prepared yellow mustard
- 2 tsp cider vinegar
- 2 tsp brown sugar

- Whisk everything together thoroughly and apply to meat with a basting brush every 30 minutes.

When you get 4.5-5 hours in, it's time to wrap the meat in foil, adding any remaining mop to the foil package. Smoke for another 3-3.5 hours at 225. Unwrap and smoke at 250 for 30-60 minutes. Let meat rest for at least 30 minutes once removed from smoker.

Now, you'll probably be chomping at the bit to chomp at the brisket, so slice off a piece and give it a taste. If it turned out the same way mine did, you might find it just a teeny bit tough. Delicious, but I wouldn't eat it dry. So, my technique is to chop or slice pieces of brisket (about 1/2 cm thick) and simmer them in sauce for about 10-15 minutes on medium-low heat. Once you've done that, you should have melty, meaty, saucy perfection.

Now, I'm a big fan of homemade BBQ sauce, I just find it is way more interesting (and tasty!) than store-bought stuff. In keeping with the "KA-POW! BRISKET!" flavour profile, I whipped together a sauce with lots of deep, rich-tasting ingredients like coffee porter, molasses and berries paired with high notes from ginger and lime juice.

Brisket Sauce

2 tsp olive oil
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, minced
1/2 cup mixed frozen berries (blueberry, strawberry, raspberry and blackberry)
1/2 bottle coffee porter
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp coriander, powdered
1 tsp cumin, powdered
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 guajillo chili, ground into powder
1/2 pasilla chili, ground into powder
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
4-5 drops liquid smoke
1/2 cup ketchup (high-quality and/or homemade)
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp molasses
1 tsp honey
juice of 1/2 lime

- Heat oil and saute garlic and ginger.
- Add all ingredients from berries to brown sugar and stir well together. Reduce heat to medium-low (4). Simmer sauce for 20-30 minutes, until it thickens (you may have to simmer longer).
- Stir in molasses, honey and lime juice and cook for another 5-10 minutes.
- Put chopped/sliced meat in sauce (ratio of sauce to meat is up to you, but you want that meat SAUCY!) and heat for 10-15 minutes on medium heat, allowing to sauce is bubble for a while.

Let the giant meatfesting begin!

Serve with whatever sides you think work, but a little research told me that potatoes and green beans are traditional sides in Texas, so that's how I served it in the first go, as you can see above.

Final verdict? REALLY tasty, but just a bit too salty. Hence why you should soak the meat a little in water before smoking. I had leftover brisket and gave it a soak before using it in a batch of chili. All I can say to that is YEAH! Brisket Chili, b*tches! 

So, all in all, an interesting experiment that mostly turned out the way I wanted it to. I give it an 8 out of 10. 

That's it for our brisket tour of Texas, next time we head to Montreal to find out which brisket is best!