Sunday, December 05, 2010

Last night I cooked an “Underground Eats” dinner for friends. It was organized so that I came in to their home and prepared what seemed like umpteen courses for them. The appetizers were set out family style, while the soup, salad, seafood, main, ice and dessert courses were plated. Kind of went crazy on the courses when combined with the appetizers. The meal stretched out over three hours so that ideally people didn’t feel totally stuffed at the end. My friend J came over from the island with huge bunches of kale picked fresh from a local grower. She was an incredible help and because of that we were done by 8:30 pm. That has never happened before! Usually at L’s house dinner starts about that time.

Here is the menu:

To Start
Figs in a Blanket
Little Oysters
Chopped Steak, truffled

The Meal
Winter Squash Soup with Celeriac
Warm Kale Salad
Scallops with a Mustard Tarragon Beurre Blanc
Marcella’s Braised Lamb Shanks with Gremolada
Saffron Rissotto
Christmas Granita
Pear Tart with Hazelnuts and Cream

Cheese Platter
La Sauvagine – cows’ milk cheese from Quebec
Grey Owl – a goats’ milk cheese from Quebec
Chateau De Bourgongne – a cows’ milk cheese from France
Sila Cheddar – an eight year old, raw cows’ milk cheese from Quebec
Bleu Benedictine – a blue cows’ milk cheese from Quebec
Nuts, apples, apricots and cherries

The most cooking fun for me was working on the Pine Granita. It started with a conversation with my friend K, who does underground diners regularly, both here and on his travels. His last trip took him to the wondrous cities of Istanbul, Copenhagen and Paris. Oh yea, Toronto too. Anyway, he was talking about this Pine Granita he was working on. He had made it about four times and was trying to get the balance right. The first few times hadn’t worked. After I hung up the phone I started thinking about it, and decided I needed to have a granita on my menu.

Pine Granita

If you live in the city, you will need to go to a big public park with little car traffic and pinch some pine branches. You don’t need too much. I managed to go to the park at the one time when the parks people were the only ones in the parking lot with me, so I had to discretely break off a pine branch and shove it up my sleeve. When I got clear of the parks people I had to pull the branch out through the armpit hole of my jacket because moving my arm or the branch was excrutiating as the pine tips would dig into the tender flesh of my arms. Note to self – wear tight, long, thick sleeved fabric shirt when shoving pine branches up sleeve. Spruce was so much easier (for tea).

Here is a photo of the pine needles. The little one on the left is spruce.


1 generous cup pine needles cut from the stem
1 cup sugar
3 cups water


1. Buzz the pine needles in the food processor to bruise and pound them. Or, for therapy, do it with the back of a chef’s knife. I found this to be most satisfying, until the pine needle shoot out of control all over the place, thus defeating the tension release as you relize you have to clean up the great mess you have made.
2. Meanwhile, in a saucepan start dissolving the sugar in the water set over medium heat. Stir occasionally till the sugar dissolves.
3. Drop the smashed pine needles into the hot syrup and simmer at a very slow bubble for 45 minutes. Taste for piney-ness. This sugar water ratio is quite sweet (you can reduce the sugar if you like) but for the course I was using this granita for, I wanted it dessert-like. I also wanted it quite piney. If it is not piney enough for you, simmer a little longer, or until it reaches the right flavour balance.
4. Pour into a shallow glass container and place in the freezer. Every once and awhile stir it to work the frozen crystals into the rest of the mixture. Do this every regularly until you have a slushy frozen granite. Or, you could let it freeze solid, and then for service drag your spoon over the surface so that you get thin, delicate shavings. Scoop these into a small bowl and serve.

I’m guessing this will serve 6 to 8. For my dinner I served this palate cleanser course on a small white porcelain spoon that held about a tablespoon. In that case it will serve a couple dozen.