31 January 2014

An Act of Cod: Indian-Spiced Fish & Chips

An old standard finds enlightenment. 

Fish & chips is an unpretentious meal so cover your table in newspaper, gather everyone around and simply tip the food onto the table.  Eat together, with your fingers, from a shared pile of food.  Trust me.

Pakora Fish & Chips

a note on time management: If you do everything at once, it can take a few hours to prepare this meal (several things need to wait between prep and use). You can break up the work over a few days, doing the prep when it's convenient. The tamarind sauce can be made several days before or can be done the day of; same for the garam masala. The pickled onion should be made at least a couple of hours before serving to allow it to mellow; the potatoes need at least couple of hours in ice water, so prep these at the same time. Both can be made up to a day ahead. The batter needs to sit for a while before using, so mix up the batter and set aside while you do the first fry of the chips, batter and fry the fish (which will stay hot longer than the chips) and then do the second fry for the chips.  I know it sounds complicated, but stay with me, it's worth it.  If your kitchen is better stocked with tools than ours, it might even be easier than I'm letting on.

for the tamarind sauce:

1/2 lb tamarind pods
4 dried hot cherry peppers
boiling water
2 tbsp demerrara sugar (or more, to taste)
1/2 c. cold water (or more, as needed)

Put the tamarind pods and dried peppers in a heat-proof bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover. Cover the bowl with a plate and set aside to let soften. Do some laundry, take the dogs for a walk, change the bedsheets, dig out all your paperwork for filing your taxes... anything... but don't worry about the tamarind for an hour or longer. Run the tamarind mixture through a food mill to separate the skins and seeds from the pulp. This will result in a thick and sour paste. Dissolve demerrara in about 1/2 c. of cold water and stir into the paste. Continue to thin with cold water until it reaches the desired consistency (slightly thinner than commercial ketchup). Use right away or store in the refrigerator until you need it.

for the quick-pickled onion:

1 red onion
juice from 1 lemon
salt, to taste

Thinly slice the onion. I use a mandolin because evenly thin slices make me happy; but slice it in a more rustic manner if you like. Pack the onion into the bottom of a glass jar and add lemon juice and salt. If the onion is not completely covered, you can stir it once in a while or if you are lazy like me, just add more lemon juice or pack the onion down more tightly to cover. Set aside leaving at room temp for at least two hours or store in the fridge if you are leaving for longer than the afternoon.

The spices are toasted when they deepen in colour and become
immensely fragrant. You can buy pre-made garam masala as a time-saver
but you will be so pleased you made your own.

for the garam masala:

2 green cardamom pods
3 black cardamom pods
1/2 tbsp whole cloves
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp black peppercorns
6 pieces mexican cinnamon bark (or 1/2 stick cinnamon)

Combine all spices in a dry cast-iron skillet. Heat on medium-high (err on the side of medium... I think of this as south-southeast on my stove knob) stirring or swirling them around in the pan occasionally while heating. When spices become very fragrant and slightly browned, remove from heat. Continue to stir once in a while as they pan cools down. When they are cool enough to handle, grind the spices in a spice grinder (do them in batches as needed). Store them in a glass jar but do not cap until completely cooled.

for the chips:

1 medium-sized potato per person
peanut and/or sunflower oil for frying*
nigella seeds (jeera)

*see notes in the fish section on choosing your pan and checking the temperature

We used Emeril Lagasse's technique for french fries. Before working on the fish, cut your fries and get them soaking... leave them soaking until you have the fish batter mixed.  Do the first chip fry before cooking the fish and the second chip fry after. When you remove the chips the final time, put them in a sieve suspended over a heat-proof bowl to drain the oil. While they are still piping hot, sprinkle them with salt and nigella seeds and toss to coat. The nigella seeds lend a je ne sais quoi that you don't want to skip.

"It came in this morning, love.  Landed yesterday."

for the fish:

1/2 lb. fresh local white fish per person 
1-2 tbsp garam masala

We used cod because locally-caught wild cod is in season, also cod is delicious, but buy whatever local sea or freshwater whitefish is best where you live.

adjust the batter ingredients as necessary, but for 2 lbs of cod (4 servings):

1/2 c. chickpea flour (besan)
1/3 c. whole wheat all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground tumeric
1/4 tsp salt
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/3 c. water
soda water as required
peanut oil and/or sunflower oil for deep frying

Cut the fish so you have 2 pieces per person.  Rub fish with a very thin coating of salt and garam masala. You made far more garam masala than you need, so don't worry about using it up, you want to season the fish delicately, but not overwhelm it.  Put the fish in the refrigerator until you are ready to batter it, but plan to cook the fish within a couple of hours.

Make the batter: Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Add the lemon juice and water; stir until evenly mixed (all the lumps should be gone).  Add soda water, a little bit at a time, until it reaches the desired consistency.  You want a fairly thin batter but it should still coat the back of your spoon.  Let the batter sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. 

This is a good time to do your first chip fry; use the same pan for the chips that you will for the fish, so choose a pan to suit both purposes. 

The chick pea flour will absorb some water and thicken the batter (but this also means it will cook properly, not taste dry and grainy).  Thin again as needed with soda water.  If you over-thin, add some all-purpose flour to thicken.

Fry your fish:  For deep frying, you need the oil to be deep enough to submerge your food but you also need enough space at the top of the pan to accommodate the change in volume when you add food and allow for bubbling-up as it fries.  So leave a couple of inches head-space.  Choose your pan based on how big your fish pieces are, how many you want to cook at one time, and how much oil you realistically have.  I fried our fish one piece at a time in a small-ish saucepan simply because we we were a bit low on oil.

I fried in a combination of peanut oil and sunflower oil.  I will admit that I would have used only peanut oil if we'd had enough around.  I thought there was more than there was (I've been having that problem lately).  Luckily, we also had some sunflower oil and it has the same smoke-point as peanut oil, so they combine easily for frying.  Use either or both.

We don't have a thermometer, but the good news is deep frying is not brain surgery.  The oil is hot when you can see long streaks in it and if you insert a wooden spoon handle to the bottom, some little bubbles rise up rapidly (for the first go at the chips, the little bubbles should rise up easily and swiftly, but not rapidly).  If you insist on using a thermometer, do the fish at about 375F.  (Emeril says 350F for finishing your fries, but I did ours at the same temp as the fish, more or less).

Fresh cod cooks up moist and flaky and feels like butter in your mouth.
A fantastic juxtaposition to the pakora batter.
Shoo all the pets and miniature humans out of the kitchen, just in case there is a hot oil incident.

In batches, coat the fish in the batter and let the excess drip off.  Lower gently into the oil and fry until the batter is golden brown (about 4-5 minutes).  Agitate the fish once in a while to ensure it doesn't stick to the bottom.  If you underestimated the size of your fish and it isn't completely covered, turn it over after a couple of minutes.  Adjust your heat as necessary so that the batter takes nearly 5 minutes to cook properly.  When cooked, fresh cod will be flaky and moist and have the mouthfeel of butter.  The batter will be crisp and thin and gold like the sun.  (The summer sun, not the winter sun.)

Remove the fish with a metal slotted spoon and drain in a sieve suspended over a heat proof bowl or pan.  

for serving:  

In my opinion, this is a meal best eaten with your fingers from a shared plate.  So, cover your table with a few layers of newspaper.  Tip your sieve full of fish and your sieve full of chips onto the paper.  Serve with tamarind sauce for dipping and quick-pickled onion to cut the richness.  If you eat with people who don't like a mess, you can provide a fork, or just tell them they're in the wrong house.

Guaranteed to be a success.


After listening to the recent BBC Food Program on fish & chips, we had an epiphany: fish and chips are a canvas, not a prescribed product.  The traditional Canadian presentation is beer-battered and served with tartar sauce, coleslaw and, if you're lucky, a slice of lemon.  Newfoundland has a variation that includes dressing (as in, bread stuffing) and gravy. There's nothing wrong with those formulas, but there's no need to feel stuck to it.

The show made us desperately wish we lived closer to the shop featured in the radio program, because, let's face it, east Indian spiced fish and chips sounds like an astoundingly good idea.  
So we did what we do when there is food we want but can't get: we talked about it for days.  We talked, we debated this type of batter over that, we consulted the miracle of the internet to get a sense of the flavour profiles of fish curries, we hummed and hawed over sides.  We discussed the winter pantry's suitable dried fruits and flours.  

Nigella seeds are so magical we jump at any appropriate opportunity to use them. There was a definite tumeric-garam masala-tamarind theme across the fish curry recipes I read. The batter is modeled on pakora. There are as many pakora batters as there are pakora cooks, so I read a lot of recipes then used this handy guide for making deep fry batter when developing my recipe.

When the concept was well-hatched, we bought a boatload of fresh cod from The Fish Depot.  And by fresh, what I mean is, "It came in this morning, love.  Landed yesterday."  

Then we spent a weekend eating testing fish and chips.  I mean, after all, we have an obligation to be certain that the recipe works, right?

hey.... where did this cat come from?

Tamarind sauce & lemon-pickled onion on Punk Domestics

29 January 2014

It's About Time: A Recipe for Moose Curry

There's a lot more to moose than stew and sausage.

Let the moose marinate in the rubbed seasoning while you prepare the remaining ingredients for the curry.

Moose Curry, Variation 1:
Fefe Noir's Been-Lied-To* Moose Curry

*see commentary below

for the marinade:

Measuring out your ingredients into cute bowls will make you happy.
2 tbsp cumin seed
1 tbsp whole coriander
1/2 tsp black mustard
2 tbsp sunflower oil
3 fresh hot red chilies 
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 onion, quartered
1 tsp tumeric
1/2 tsp salt

~ 2 lbs moose blade roast (or other braising part, like the unrecognizable cut of moose from your uncle)

for the curry:

2 tbsp sunflower oil
1 bay leaf
3 whole cloves
small handful of cinnamon bark (or 1 cinnamon stick)
4 green cardamom pods
4 black peppercorns
2 onion, finely diced
4 tomatoes, diced
1-1/2 c. water

Make the marinade: Heat oil over medium-high in a small saucepan; add cumin, coriander and mustard seeds.  Watch them closely until they begin to pop.  Immediately put the lid on the pan, remove from heat so they don't burn, and let them continue to pop.  Leave them aside until the oil is cool enough to handle.

Pour warm (or fully cooled if you were busy with other things and not staring at the pan, waiting impatiently) oil and spices into a blender, chopper, or food processor.  Get a load of this: someone overly generous and now guaranteed to be well-loved, gave us a mini-chopper over the holidays.  That's the most exciting thing to happen to this house since the pasta machine.  Grind up the spices and oil.  Add chilies and garlic, whiz them around until ground.  Add the onions, tumeric and salt and grind again.  

Roughly cut your moose roast, leaving the bone-in.  Don't worry about bite-sized pieces.  First, we'll assume you will serve this to people capable of using a knife and fork and that if not, you'll be cutting it for them anyway.  Second, you want all the good flavour from the bone to be part of your curry.  Embrace the moose juice. 

Combine the moose and marinade in a bowl, massaging the marinade into the moose meat.  Set aside while you prep the remaining ingredients, or for a couple of hours, whichever is most convenient.

Make the curry: Heat about a tbsp of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Brown the moose meat (in batches if necessary); remove and set aside.

Add 1 tbsp of oil to the pan, and quickly sautee the remaining spices in hot oil.  Add minced onion and cook until golden brown (but not burned).  Take your time, there's no hurry.  Add the tomatoes and cook until softened.  Add the moose meat, scraping any remaining marinade into the pan with it.  Add the water, stir it around a bit, bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for about 2-1/2 hours.  While it is simmering, check occasionally to see if it needs more water.  It's done when the sauce is the thickness you want and the meat is pulling from the bone.

During the meal, be sure to remind everyone to watch out for the whole spices and the bones...  unless you went to the trouble of searching them out and removing them before serving.  (This is much easier if you use a regular cinnamon stick rather than the teensy flakes of mexican cinnamon bark.)

Serve your aromatic moose curry with things you like to eat with your curry.  We heated up some naan, broke open a jar of chili pickle, made a quick onion salad and dished out some plain yogurt.  We won't need to eat again for days.  Ha.


If you are a hunter, be assured that when you share your meat with other people they are really, truly, grateful.  It is not a wasted overture.  You will win loyal friends for life.

Neither of us hunts (yet, says caribougrrl, but she's been saying that for years), so we rely on the kindness of friends and neighbours  - but most especially a particular colleague and friend of caribougrrl's who always comes through with the holiday gift we look forward to most.  This year especially, because once we had some moose in the freezer, we knew we'd be able to answer to our blog name.

Fefe decided the first moose curry recipe should be a simple one.  Something that could be done without too much effort, without any fancy equipment or experience, without multiple dead-end trips to supermarkets and specialty shops to find the right spices.

Which was how Fefe Noir and caribougrrl ended up in a grocery store not buying anything for the blog-edition moose curry.  Everything used in Fefe's fast and easy weeknight moose curry recipe is a staple in the home, including the hot curry paste. 

What?  You don't see curry paste in the ingredient list?

Right, caribougrrl swore up and down that yes, absolutely, just the other day when she was looking for a new jar of apple ketchup, she had seen at least one jar of curry paste in the cupboard.  Her recollection was very particular... just to the left of the partridge berry jam, right behind the priced-to-sell coconut milk that's been there for a couple of years.  And caribougrrl is, afterall, taller than Fefe Noir and thus can see things in the cupboards with more ease.  So against her much better judgement, Fefe Noir did not put a jar of curry paste into the shopping basket.

Well, as it turns out, the first blog-edition moose curry is not a Monday-night-after-work curry (unless you made it Sunday afternoon).  Not only was there no curry paste, but the fresh ginger had started to wither and rot and we were out of a couple other spices.  What does it say about you when your pantry has obscure mexican cinnamon bark but not even one piece of ordinary cinnamon stick?

So make it up and make do.  Make a good moose curry with what's on-hand, just like so much of the cooking we do.

17 January 2014

The Island. The Winter.

In which Fefe Noir and caribougrrl are reminded what winter on an island in the North Atlantic Ocean can be like.  Plus, instructions for making corn tortillas whether the power is on or not.

Even the boats outside our kitchen window were feeling the cold during the polar vortex.

When you live on a large island with highways and cities*, cheap long distance phone rates, television, radio, and the miracle of the internet, it can be easy to forget you live on an island.  Not forget, exactly, just not think much about it.  Then, out of the blue, a series of events can stick you in the eye with how very much indeed you live on an island.

*well, one city anyway... er, with a bit more than 100,000 people - twice that if you count the sprawling suburban/ superural area around the city

The Deep Freeze

Winter happens every year, it's no surprise.  Contrary to popular belief, a vast expanse of Canada gets much harsher winters than Newfoundland does.  Sure, the Labrador current is like a refrigerator for the island, but we're still surrounded by water, so we aren't used to the extreme cold of a continental winter. 

But, hoo boy, did we get cold.  Laugh if you will (I probably would before I was acclimatized), but we were well below freezing for days (double digits Celsius below freezing! during the day!)... with wind chill temps that made you look around for Dementors, just in case.  Unfairly, we also got snow.  (We labour under the illusion here that it can either be bitterly cold or it can snow, but not both.)  Massive amounts of snow fell over several days...10 cm here, 35 cm there... and it added up. and it piled up.  We shoveled ourselves into fatigue. 
The snow was pushed up level with the eight-foot
retaining wall that runs along the side of our property.

So we hunkered down and stayed inside.  Perhaps we let our cupboards deplete in an attempt to add more insulation to our frames and, let's face it, to avoid the cold 14-second walk between the house and the car.  Besides, we were still leftover-turkey-complacent and steamed-pudding-sluggish.

Our thermostats fought against the deep freeze.  'Twas the season that many were home rather than at work or school, so our thermostats didn't get a break during the day.  Feeling like we could never get warm, we might have even turned up the heat because you can only put on so many layers of wool socks before you can't actually walk.    

The Wind

Along with the snow and the cold, it was windy, making both seem worse.  It's no surprise though, Newfoundland is a windy place: gusts in the 60-100 km/hr range are not all that unusual.  The thing is, our connection to the rest of the world relies heavily on our ferry system.  Stormy weather leaves those ferries tied up at the docks instead of making the crossing.  Which leaves produce sitting in trucks, going nowhere and feeding no one, as it continues to approach it's sell-by date.  Then when it does get here, blowing snow slows traffic to a crawl, causes accidents, closes highways, and generally creates further delay.

The province only produces a fraction of the vegetables and fruit we consume. In the mid-late summer and through the fall, getting a variety of local produce from the garden, from farm markets and from roadside stalls is fairly easy with little effort. By late December, the garden has long stopped producing and the markets are shut down until the new season. We are more reliant than any other time of year on supplies from the mainland, at precisely the time when transit is most unpredictable.

The more disruptions to the ferry schedule, the emptier our shelves and refrigerators got.  Normally common items became rare.  Coming up to New Year's Eve, it took stopping at 5 stores in 3 different towns before finding a bunch of green onions. 

All that snow we were shoveling in the frigid air was blowing back in our faces anyway.  More motivation to retreat to our houses, turn our electric fire places on and watch a marathon of Glee.

The Power Outage

The lights went out.  The lights, the heat, the stove, the hot water.

The refrigerator and freezer cases in the shops. 

Toasting orange-almond flavoured marshmallows over
an open candle fire was a good replacement for screen-time.
Rolling blackouts had been going on for days, no big deal: an hour to two without power.  We were vaguely aware that there was some sort of scheduled or unscheduled maintenance at a generating station, and what with all that heat being turned up it was no big surprise when the cordless phone beeped its protest at suddenly and unceremoniously being shut off.  What was a surprise was finding out it wasn't a planned outage.  The entire island was in the dark. 

The entire 110,000 km2 island.  Because of a transformer fire.  Okay, a big important transformer by the sounds of it, but still, what a way to find out we're wired up in series instead of parallel. 

But the power companies and the Powers That Be reassured us. 

Not to worry, the light and power b'ys were hard at it (and they really were, I'm not being saucy) and additional help was on its way.  From the mainland.  They could get here in two days.  As long as the weather cooperated...

Not to worry, this was all perfectly normal: if you stress the system, things go wrong. Electrical doohickey bits and pieces trip to prevent problems. Large bangs and blue-green flashes and fires are just part of doing business.

Not to worry, some minor overcapacity issues.  The only thing that's wrong here is that we're on an island.  By 2017, we'll be all geared up to tap into the continental power grid if we need some extra juice once in a while. 

Nothing to see.  Move along.

In the meantime, in the cold and dark, we began to regret staying at home eating our way through our pantries...

Why (a) you shouldn't throw out the burnt batch of pork
buns and (b) maybe you shouldn't bother putting away
your barbecue for the winter: you may need to produce a
feast during a power outage.
Chez The Moose Curry Experience, we were luckier than many.  A 20-ish hour blackout followed by power for most of the day, then a 14 hour black out.  I'm not sure if our house guests saw how lucky they were, but we managed alright.  What was probably the best cup of coffee in the history of time (or tea, or hot chocolate depending who's mug you sipped from) was produced with water boiled up on a campstove.  Sure, we looked a bit kooky, playing Doctor Who Yahtzee by candlelight, wearing an assortment of mix and match hats and scarves and socks and robes, but we were warm enough.  And there were left over slightly burnt New Year's Eve pork buns in the freezer which, wrapped up in aluminum foil, heated up rather nicely on the barbecue I had serendipitously not managed to put away for the winter yet.  And we learned that home made marshmallows toast up nicely with a fork, an unscented candle and a bit of patience.

Post-Apocalypse Shopping

I made the mistake of going into a grocery store the day the power came back on.  I was over-tired, not because of hardship, but because of an early morning trip to the airport of deliver house guests into Air Travel in the Canadian Winter, which would subsequently turn their 3 hour flight into a 36 hours adventure of delays, cancellations, re-bookings, more delays and misdirected luggage.  But I digress...  

The supermarket was complete and absolute madness.  The battery displays were stripped bare, bottled water shelves were practically empty... nary a candle, flashlight, propane cylinder, or Sterno can to be had. 

I got swept up in all the panic.  I know full well that it's obscene to buy canned salmon when you live in a place that produces fresh salmon year round.  Yet there I was, standing in line with 2 cans of baked beans, a tin of salmon and what might, for all I knew, be the last bag of masa harina on the island.  It was certainly the last bag on the shelves of one of the largest grocery stores and although I walked by it initially, I practically ran back when I started to worry that might be my last chance ever to buy masa harina.  (Ridiculous, I admit, but the atmosphere was heavy with foreboding, it's amazing I didn't buy every olive in the store, just in case...)

Besides, tortillas are cooked on dry cast iron, which means they can be done with a skillet and a single-burner camp stove.  And the dough doesn't require precise measurement, as long as you know what it should feel like.  You can make them in the dark, more or less.  Perfect bread for a power outage.  And 2017 is still a few years away.

Lettuce could not be got for love nor money...
But never mind the mad-rush-anxiety-shopping that happened in those brief interludes between power outages.  A full week after our last blackout, the shelves in the grocery stores still hadn't recovered.  I can only hope this is because the delays at the ferry docks are still causing slow downs in deliveries, but I can't discount the possibility that what arrived was in such poor shape it never made it to the shelves.  And if that's the case, it's frightening if the best of the shipment was put out.  What little fresh produce could be found was in sad, sad shape.  Tomatoes that were flat on one side and held your finger prints if you dared pick them up.  Lettuce that looked like it was dug out of our composter.  Wax beans better suited as kindling than as food. 

Or is this just the state of Newfoundland in the winter?  Do I forget year to year as a defense mechanism against fear and dread?

Not to worry, there's always root vegetables.  Guaranteed Fefe Noir can find some devious way to serve turnip up in a tortilla. 


How to Make Corn Tortillas

for 8 small or 6 medium tortillas:

1 c. masa harina
a good pinch of salt
3/4 c. water

In a mixing bowl, combine masa harina and salt.  Add water in mix with a fork or your fingers until thoroughly combined.  The dough will form large clumps and crumbles but will stick together easily with a bit of pressure.  If it doesn't stick easily, add water, a bit at a time until it does.  If it feels like it's actually wet, add masa harina a bit at a time until it feels like fresh playdough.  Knead lightly a few times in the bowl until it forms a ball.

Don't worry if some of the balls of dough are smaller or
larger than the others.  Unless you are obsessive that way.
Break dough into 6 or 8 pieces about equal in size, but don't get hung up about even-sized pieces.  Worst case scenario, you have a tortilla or two bigger or smaller than the rest.  Roll the pieces into round balls.

If you have a tortilla press, get it out.  Put your cast iron skillet, dry, on med-high heat.  Tear off a sheet of plastic wrap big enough to lay over the top and bottom parts of the press.  (In my ideological fight against plastic wrap, I have tried waxed paper, parchment paper, and used plastic bags, but have had to admit that plastic wrap works best here.  I am, however, open to suggestions for things I haven't tried yet.)  Place a ball of dough on the press, just above center (toward the hinge).  Lower the top, press with the lever and, voila, beautiful round tortilla.

Top left: Plastic wrap is draped over both sides of the press.  Place the ball just above center, toward the hinge.  Top right: Drop the upper plate, then press down with the lever.  Bottom left: Nearly effortless round tortilla.  Bottom right: Cook tortillas in a dry cast iron skillet.  Or if you are so lucky to have one, more than one at a time on a griddle.
If you don't have a tortilla press, you can roll these out with a rolling pin, but you should consider buying a press.  It might be the best $15 I ever spent. 

Place the tortilla on your hot skillet cooking for about 1 minute on each side.  Adjust the heat as needed to cook through in the two minutes, but not so high as to burn it.   You have time to press the next tortilla while this one cooks.

Cover cooked tortillas with a cloth to slow the escape of
steam and soften the tortillas.
As the tortillas are cooked, put them on a heat proof plate and cover with a cloth napkin or tea towel.  The cloth will slow the escape of steam, and this is what makes the tortillas soft and flexible.  Stack them up under the cloth and leave them there until you are ready to eat. 

If you won't be using them right away, allow them to cool completely, then wrap and store in an airtight container at room temp (if you are using in the next couple days) or in the freezer (thaw before use).  To soften them up, you can reheat on a hot dry cast iron skillet, one at a time, or you can wrap the whole stack in aluminium foil and heat in a 350 F oven for about 10 minutes.