Taste Trekking

Canned, sealed, delivered

Canners, those brave souls who sweat it out over stoves in August, will take an ingredient at its very peak and suspend it in glass – a snow globe of summer, where it showers dill leaves and mustard seeds. It’s a compact little world, protected from the forces of ageing that nab the rest of us on the other side of the glass.

With a pry of the lid, this world spills out, catapulting you to different lands and different seasons, some foreign, others familiar. Wild blueberry jam can carry you to the forests of Maine; San Marzano tomatoes can plant your feet in the volcanic soil at the bottom of Mount Vesuvius; oil-packed anchovies can sit you down in a smoky Spanish tavern.

Canning has always been a matter of survival: transforming summer’s bounty into winter rations, taking the perishable and making it almost immortal on the supermarket shelf. But for all of its practicality, it’s an intensely nostalgic chore. People seal memories and places in with fruits and vegetables to revisit later on – they make these feelings edible.

Greg Brown says it best, in his half-song, half-campfire story kind of way:

She cans the pickles, sweet and dill
She cans the songs of the whippoorwill
And the morning dew and the evening moon
‘n’ I really got to go see her pretty soon


A few weeks ago, four jars landed on my doorstep: two pillars of heirloom tomatoes, and dill pickles and pepper jelly – summer globes from Whiting, Vermont. They had made the journey from a place where chickens cross the road as they please and a hound dog asks you constant questions with her curious wet nose; where dud tomatoes go flying in the air from a trap and twigs glow in the dark.

That place is Fast Hitch Farm, a colonial-era property in western Vermont. It’s probably the only organic farm I know where Oreos are plunged into a deep fryer.

To my friend Donner Carr (the smilin’ sunglasses-wearer above), it’s home. After graduating from McGill, Donner bought the farm with his dad, Donner Sr. They raise chickens and turkeys, and grow tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatillos, sweet corn, cabbages, hot peppers, garlic, and basil – with the goal of someday outputting their own homemade pesto. And all of this is done in whatever free time they manage after their day jobs. While they gradually gear up to make the farm commercially viable, Donner works as a nutrient management planner, crop advisor, and fertilizer applicator to pay the bills. 

When I twist open the jars, I’m transported to Fast Hitch’s red barn. Looking out at me from just across the road is the main house; from this angle, you wouldn’t guess it could hold the fifteen plus people that come to stay each New Year’s Eve. The side porch of the house spills out onto the lawn, with its wildflowers and pear trees, and chickens running from stray croquet balls. If you wander off a little farther, you can sneak through the patch of woods that hugs the big pond, which sounds like bullfrogs in the summer and skates slicing through the ice in winter. On the other side of the house, there are the rows of vegetables that soak up all these sights and sounds and scents and eventually find their way into jars. I think to myself: I’ll take some more tomatoes and a ride in the back of a pickup, some more hot peppers and a crackling bonfire, some more pickles and a midnight swim.

The jars remind me of all of the work that the Carrs put into their farm in their spare moments – all of the elbow grease that goes into building this world tucked behind the main road that cuts through Whiting, and their generous impulse to share it. The life of a farmer is hard, but the Carrs make it look easy to those of us who stop by.

So it’s with a big thank you to the guys at Fast Hitch Farm that I share these recipes; may they help get you through the tail end of winter like they did for me.


Fresh-Canned Pizza Sauce
Fast Hitch tomatoes speak for themselves – they barely need any seasoning – so they’re a perfect reason to make this incredibly fast pizza sauce (you can use other good quality canned tomatoes, but they may not have the same taste of lawlessness as the Fast Hitch variety). Drain the tomatoes, reserving the liquid to use later in a soup. Crush the tomatoes with your hands, then add some torn basil, a few pinches of salt, and a generous glug of olive oil. Spread in a thin layer over rolled-out pizza dough, and top with slices of fresh mozzarella or burrata cheese. Bake at 450° for about 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the crust, until the crust crisps up and turns golden brown. A few minutes before you pull the pizza out of the oven, add some fresh whole basil leaves on top.

A bonus recipe for another Fast Hitch favorite: Don’s Brie Bomb. Spread a generous layer of Fast Hitch Farm serrano pepper jelly over a round of brie. Then wrap the cheese in puff pastry dough (crescent roll dough works fine), tucking the ends underneath and setting it on a baking sheet. Bake at 350° for about 30 minutes, or until the dough turns golden brown. Serve immediately, with a bunch of crackers or bread. The lack of a picture is testament to how this flies off the plate.

Taste Trekking

How to cook 8 arms

Holding a dead octopus has got to be one of the strangest sensations. It’s humbling to feel its slippery weight in your hands and imagine what it must have looked like in the sea: an otherworldly creature propelling itself through the water, tentacles curling and flexing with graceful force. There’s something both terrifying and thrilling in the way the suction cups stick to your hands, releasing with a little pop – like the octopus still thinks it’s clinging to a rock deep in the ocean, even though it’s miles away, dangling above your kitchen sink.


Uprooted from its underwater kingdom, an octopus may look like a deflated version of its previous self, its color a muted gray-purple, its tentacles hanging limp. But simmering in a pot of water has a transformative effect. In a sort of stovetop alchemy, the slow-bubbling water restores firmness to the octopus’ flesh, bringing out the vibrant purples and pinks in its skin and coaxing its tentacles into playful spirals.


Mediterranean and Asian cultures, particularly Japan, have long mastered the art of cooking octopus. And it truly is an art: simmering long enough to allow the meat to become tender, with a slight chew, but not so much that it tenses up and turns rubbery.

Traveling around the world, you’ll encounter different tricks to achieving this treasured consistency. In Greece, Portugal, and other Mediterranean countries, people whack the raw octopus against ocean rocks. Japanese cooks, on the other hand, rub the flesh with grated daikon or salt. Italians add a wine cork to the boiling water, since cork contains an enzyme that helps tenderize meat. Lidia Bastianich, a dependable authority on Italian cooking, recommends one cork for every two pounds of octopus.

In Spain, the octopus is dunked in boiling water, tentacles first, in three short bursts before being completely submerged. Spaniards also cook the octopus in copper kettles since the chemical reaction between the metal and flesh lends a reddish color to the skin (if you want this effect but don’t have a copper pot, you can also toss a penny into the mix).


Perhaps the most celebrated of octopus recipes is pulpo a la gallega, or Galician-style octopus. It’s a dish that you’re bound to find as part of a tapas spread: pieces of octopus laid over a bed of golden potatoes, glistening with olive oil and covered with a dusting of brick red Spanish paprika. Its charm lies in the way it manages to be comfortingly rustic and irresistibly exotic at the same time.

As its name suggests, pulpo a la gallega comes from Galicia, an area in the northwest corner of Spain. In Galician, a combination of Spanish and Portuguese languages, the dish is also called polbo á feira, or fair-style octopus, since it is the centerpiece of a rich tradition of October festivals honoring Saint Froilán, an important saint in the region’s history. During these celebrations, women called polbeiras (literally, “octopus-cooking women”) simmer octopus in huge copper cauldrons and serve it alongside cachelos, boiled potatoes, on traditional wooden plates.


Even without a big copper pot, making pulpo a la gallega is surprisingly easy and yields impressive results – a plate full of bright colors and salty-smoky flavors. With the recipe below, I’ve deviated a bit from Spanish traditions and Italianized things by using the wine cork method.

A note on sourcing an octopus: the prospect of finding good fresh octopus may seem daunting, but don’t despair – often it’s actually better to buy a frozen one. Chilled shortly after it’s been caught, a frozen octopus usually promises greater freshness than one that has been sitting around in seafood displays for several days (just defrost the day before you cook). Either way, avoid anything that smells like fish. The octopus will usually come already cleaned; all you have to do is remove the “beak,” located at the bottom-center of the skirt, with a knife.


Polbo á feira / Galician Style Octopus / Pulpo a la gallega
Serves about 6, as part of a tapas spread

4-5 lb octopus
About 2 lbs medium-size waxy yellow potatoes, peeled
Generous pour of extra virgin olive oil
Handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 bay leaf
About 2-3 tablespoons pimentón (sweet Spanish paprika)
Salt, to taste
A couple of wine corks

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In the meantime, rinse the octopus under cold water.

2. When the water boils, submerge the entire octopus in the water, and add the bay leaf and wine corks. Bring the water back to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly to allow the octopus to cook at a medium simmer.

3. Let the octopus cook for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on its size. You’ll know the octopus is done when you can pierce it easily at its thickest part, the skirt area, with a knife – just like a potato. About halfway into the cooking time, add the potatoes to the same pot.

4. When the octopus is tender and the potatoes are done, turn off the heat and let them sit in the pot. Meanwhile, chop the parsley.

5. After about 15 minutes, drain the contents of the pot, discarding the bay leaf and corks.

6. Slice the potatoes into thick rounds (about ½ inch) or large chunks and place on a serving plate. Sprinkle with salt.

7. With a pair of kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, cut the octopus tentacles into medium pieces. Chop the octopus head into bite-size chunks – though this is optional, since some do not consider the head as flavorful as the tentacles. Arrange the octopus on top of the potatoes.

8. Using a spoon, liberally dust the octopus and potatoes with the pimentón, then season with salt and dress with a generous pour of olive oil. Finish off the plate with a sprinkle of fresh parsley.


Taste Trekking

Gumbo z’herbes

With gumbo, you do watcha wanna; trying to pin down an exact recipe is like searching for gators in bayou swamp water. The mention of gumbo might conjure up thoughts of shrimp, chicken, and andouille sausage, but the beauty of the catch-all stew is that there are infinite ways to make it your own based on your mood or whatever is fresh or on hand that day. Creole seafood gumbos often include crab or oysters, while versions from Cajun country make use of venison, squirrel, and alligator. And then there’s gumbo z’herbes, a venerable sub-category of its own within the gumbo family.

Like the majority of gumbos, gumbo z’herbes uses the “holy trinity” (onion, bell pepper, and celery) as its foundation and Cajun seasoning as its primary spice. However, as its name – a shortened form of gumbo des herbes – suggests, its main ingredient is a hodgepodge of greens. According to Louisiana lore, every green you add to the gumbo signifies a new friend you’ll make that year. This past week, I used collards, mustard greens, curly kale, Lacinato kale, and dandelion greens, but you can use whatever combination of leafy greens you like – spinach, chard, turnip greens, chicory, beet greens, carrot tops, cabbage, sorrel, parsley… Gumbo z’herbes is a kale smoothie I can handle.


There are as many different histories and meanings attached to gumbo as there are recipe interpretations. It’s generally agreed that gumbo z’herbes originated as a meal made during Lent. Traditionally, Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays in the 40-day period after Fat Tuesday, so some say the gumbo emerged as a meatless alternative that could feed families on these Friday evenings, especially on the main day of fasting, Good Friday.

For Leah Chase, chef and owner of the legendary New Orleans soul food institution Dooky Chase, gumbo z’herbes is eaten on Holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. Her version has seven different kinds of greens matched by seven different kinds of meat, and is meant to fortify its eaters for the day of fasting to come. Others claim that nine types of greens should be used to symbolize the nine churches visited by Catholics in New Orleans as part of their traditional Good Friday pilgrimage. Regardless of the day or the exact number, everyone agrees that an odd number of greens should be used to signify good luck.


Gumbo achieves its trademark consistency through three different thickeners: okra, filé, or a roux. Cooked okra’s slimy texture may be off-putting to some, but it is actually a treasured binder between chopped vegetables and broth. Filé is a powdered form of sassafras leaves, a contribution made by the Choctaw Indians to Cajun cooking, and is added to gumbo to thicken the stew once it finishes cooking, shortly before serving. Roux, on the other hand, speaks to French culinary influence in Creole cooking. In this method of thickening soup, flour is slowly stirred into fat and cooked to either a light or dark brown color.

Gumbo z’herbes often calls for filé as its thickening agent. However, in the version of gumbo z’herbes below, which is a combination of different recipes I’ve come across, I make a roux for a base, then add okra for some variety in texture. I also add shrimp, since they liven things up while keeping everything Catholic-friendly. Happy Friday!


Gumbo z’herbes
Serves 8

5 bunches of greens
1 green pepper
4 celery stalks
1 white or yellow onion
1 bunch green onion
1 clove garlic
1 pound okra (about 4 cups chopped)
1 – 1 ½ pounds medium sized shrimp
2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil (I recently tried out olive oil to attempt a healthier version and was actually surprised to discover it works well)
2/3 cup flour
1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning (my personal favorite is Slap Ya Mama, but you can make your own with cayenne pepper, paprika, salt, oregano, and black pepper)
1 bay leaf
2 whole cloves
Generous pinch of allspice
Salt & pepper

  1. Wash greens, remove any tough stems, and tear into large pieces.
  2. Place the greens in a large pot with about 3 cups of water and some salt. Cook over medium-high heat until the water starts to simmer, stirring occasionally, then tightly cover with a lid. Turn down the heat and let cook for about 10-15 minutes. Depending on the size of your pot, you may want to divide the greens in two batches for this step, or add the greens to the pot in stages as they cook down.
  3. While the greens are cooking, start prepping your other vegetables: dice the green pepper, onion, and celery, mince the garlic, and chop the green onions and okra.
  4. Once the greens have cooked down, put a colander over a large bowl and drain them, reserving all the cooking liquid. Puree half of the greens in a food processor or blender. Chop the remaining half into small pieces and set aside.
  5. Make a roux: Heat oil or butter over a medium flame in the large pot. Gradually sprinkle in the flour while stirring continuously with a whisk, taking care to keep the roux from burning. Cook, constantly stirring, until the roux takes on a dark caramel color and smells nutty. If you’re not in a hurry and are looking for an arm workout, cook over low heat for about 45 minutes, armed with a beer in your other hand. If you’re pressed for time you can cheat by turning up the heat and cooking for about 15 minutes.
  6. Once your roux has browned, add the “holy trinity” (onion, celery, and green pepper) to the pot, together with the green onions and garlic. Cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring often. When the onion begins to turn translucent, add the okra and Cajun seasoning. Continue to cook, turning down the heat slightly, for 10 minutes or so, letting the vegetables brown.
  7. Add 3 cups of water and the reserved liquid from the greens to the pot, followed by the pureed and chopped greens. Turn up the heat and bring the gumbo almost to a boil. Add the bay leaf, cloves, and allspice, along with salt and pepper to taste, and stir well. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and let cook for about an hour or longer, stirring occasionally.
  8. When you are about ready to serve, add the shrimp and let cook 5-10 minutes.
  9. Serve the gumbo in a bowl over a bed of rice. For an extra spicy and vinegary kick, add some Green Tabasco.

While it simmers:

Songs celebrating NOLA and its food

Dave Bartholomew, Shrimp & Gumbo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxVcNYsKwLA

Dr. John, Mama Roux: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3n3CShvEWWs

Louis Armstrong, Struttin With Some Barbeque: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSbRs2TjVKs

James Booker, Piano Salad (probably the only salad you’ll have in New Orleans, if you’re not counting Bloody Marys): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUup6vXI6aE

Clifton Chenier, Jambalaya (On the Bayou):  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfuOet2mDRM

Cousin Joe, Chicken a la Blues: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCqbdgg8xd4

Professor Longhair, Red Beans: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CMz9WX1pfI

Louis Jordan, Saturday Night Fish Fry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGiJ0bUzuaw

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, I Ate Up The Apple Tree: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qQuqjkRdGg

Taste Trekking

Mile End memories and le bagel

Where else can you find a family-owned Italian cafe, a hipster cocktail lounge, Hasidic Jews walking to synagogue, and a mechanical bull all in the same 5-block radius but Montreal? The city is an ideal blend of North American and European style, spiked with colorful multicultural flair and feisty Quebec nationalism – the perfect conditions for a thriving food and nightlife scene.

Looking back at the 4 years I spent in Montreal as an undergrad student, what stands out most in my mind are the experiences I shared with friends exploring the city and the culinary joys it has to offer: late night poutine and late morning Bagel Etc. brunches, potluck picnics in Parc Jeanne-Mance, lazy afternoons with Portuguese chicken, boisterous dinners at BYOW restaurants on Duluth, Mile End cafe study sessions with coffees and pain au chocolat, homemade paella and sangria nights, waiting in line at Schwartz’s for smoked meat sandwiches, descending upon the free samples at Marché Jean-Talon on weekends, making friends with the bakery around the corner from our Esplanade apartment together with my roommates and getting free leftover bread whenever we passed by on our way home from the bars –


So when my close college friends and I spent this past weekend in the city, it was pretty much an excuse to revisit our old haunts, trying to fit as many foods and drinks as humanly possible in a 48 hour window. It’s all a blur of Le Cendrillon cheese spreads, local rabbit, bagels and lox, ducks-in-cans, PEI oysters, maple syrup cheesecake, brunch upon brunch… If there’s one place where excess reigns supreme in the middle of winter, it’s Montreal.

2014-01-12 05.29.17

Thanks to my friend Lauren for having the wherewithal to capture this moment at La Banquise amidst fierce fork battling.

In the spirit of nostalgia, I thought I’d share something I wrote back in my McGill days that I was reminded of while walking through the Mile End:

Bagel Wars

Ask an American where the sacred provenance of the bagel lies, “New York City, of course!” will be the answer. Ask a Canadian? Entirely different story.

Just across the border, the bagel is often included among iconic Canadian foods and is occasionally referred to as a national treasure. But, unlike the ubiquitous Canadian bacon and maple syrup, Canada’s bagel allies itself more with the Quebecois city of Montreal and its Jewish neighborhoods than the whole country.

The very name of the prized baked good attests to this specific loyalty – it has been christened the “Montreal bagel” or “Montreal-style bagel” rather than the “Canadian bagel.” Just as (and, to a certain extent, because) it is difficult to reach agreement on the exact history of the iconic food, it is difficult to determine its exact cultural territory. It frequently finds itself at the center of what is often referred to as “bagel wars,” in which bagel appassionatos attempt to stake claims to the baked good and define what it means to be authentic.

Strangely, the Montreal bagel serves as a point of unity and contention among native Montrealers, as citizens join together to fortify their defense against outer threats to the integrity of their city’s bagel. But they are also divided by the internal disputes rooted in the rivalry between the city’s two main bagel factories and, on a more symbolic level, the bagel’s ethnic identity.


Rue Saint Viateur Ouest.

From the Old Country to the Mile End

For the most part, Montrealers believe making their bagels at home is almost impossible, so the popular conception surrounding their production is that they must be made at special bakeries committed to the traditional method of wood oven baking and honey-water coating (as opposed to the New York version made with salt, boiled in plain water, and baked in a standard oven). In particular, Montrealers champion the Fairmont and St-Viateur bagel factories as the two long-standing locations where the “true” bagel is produced according to the method introduced by Jewish immigrants, and dismiss any other reproductions as inferior knock-offs. Both bakeries are resistant to the notion of standardization, since no two of their hand-made bagels are the same.

Though the exact details of its history both abroad and within Montreal are contested, it is agreed that bagels originate from the Jewish enclaves in the Old Country of Eastern Europe. The introduction of the bagel to Montreal through the early establishment of the Fairmount and St-Viateur bakeries, respectively launched in 1919 and 1957 by Jewish entrepreneurs, is generally rooted in the heavy influx of Jewish immigrants who brought their traditional bagel-making technique from Eastern Europe to Montreal during the late nineteenth century, and the consequential development of one of the most traditional Jewish communities in North America.

Montreal’s relatively lax fire code is also cited as a reason for the bagel’s success in the city, since the characteristic wood-burning ovens which ensure the singularity of the Montreal bagel are banned in other cities. Nurtured by a thriving immigrant Jewish community and less stringent regulations, Fairmount and St-Viateur bagel factories were immediately associated with their home city, as they were named after Mile End neighborhood streets rather than their parent Jewish families.


Inside St-Viateur Bagel.

Vive Montréal

Staking a claim to the baked good, native Montrealers often use a territorial rhetoric when discussing the bagel. The Gazette, for example, refers to the baked good as “ours,” declaring to Toronto: “You’ve got the banks. But we’ve got the bagels.” The Montreal bagel helps unify city natives under a broad, common identity, cursorily patching the divide between Francophone and Anglophone culture.

However, there are also fissures within the seeming unity of the city, like the rivalry between the Fairmount and St-Viateur factories. In the competition between the two bagel sites, authenticity emerges as a key issue, and there is an impulse to ascribe a single location with the status of originality. In the words of Canadian food writer Erin Zimmer, “the two bagelries are only a few blocks apart so picking one doesn’t usually involve convenience—it’s about loyalties.”

Both bagelries were established by Jewish immigrants of Eastern European origins. Fairmount is very much a family operation: everything must meet founder Grandfather Isadore’s standards, and the bakery remains distinctly family business. In contrast, St-Viateur is now owned by Joe Morena, a Southern Italian immigrant whose 45 years of experience makes up for the lack of Jewish family ownership. Purist Montrealers remain staunchly dedicated to whichever bagelry they see as most genuine, and, in either case, the bagel signifies a loyalty to old-school Montreal culture. 

Inside Fairmount Bagel - what to choose?

Inside Fairmount Bagel – what to choose?

Poutine, Tourtière, and…Bagels?

The degree of association of the Montreal bagel with Jewishness is also a point of contention. Together with smoked meat, the bagel is a distinct product and signifier of Jewish Montreal – tellingly, the Fairmount bagelry includes matzo bread on its daily menu. But Montreal’s Jewish community has severely shrunk since the 1970’s, giving way to increasing Portuguese influence in the Mile End neighborhood, where the local synagogue is now a Portuguese community center.  The insistence on sponsoring the authentic Fairmount and St-Viateur bagelries, and, by extension, the traditional methods they embrace, speaks to an agenda of conservation involving the Montreal bagel. The bagelries have become sites of pilgrimage where nostalgic patrons can get a taste of the old Jewish Montreal they used to know.

The Montreal bagel doesn’t solely appeal to those of Jewish descent, though. You are just as likely to come across a hockey jock standing in line for his order at St-Viateur after a night of drinking, since the bagelries are open until the wee hours of the morning.


Case in point: 3am bagel run.

Interestingly, bagels are very popular amidst the French-Canadian population of Montreal, even though the history of their relationship with Jewish immigrants has been fraught with strife. French-inspired embellishments to the bagel – bagel with feves au lard, bagel with les frites, bagel with les oignons ronds – abound in neighborhood restaurants and cafes, and some people take issue with what they see as a Quebecois appropriation of Jewish culture. Will the Montreal bagel join poutine in the ranks of traditional Quebecois food?

As McGill University sociologist Morton Weinfeld puts it, “It is not clear whether Francophones register that deli is something Jewish. It’s an adopted cultural item. They can be eating smoked meat and completely disassociate it with Jews. Jews are the crazy ones in black hats, les maudits juifs, and they’ll say it while eating a smoked meat sandwich.” With regards to the bagel, it seems ethnicity can be hard to digest.

Native Montrealers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, share a commitment to the traditional method of preparation that distinguishes their bagel from its puffier New York counterpart. Although it offers Montrealers an opportunity for unity, the masking of the bagel’s Jewish history in favor of a cohesive Montreal identity can be problematic. Ultimately, though, the Montreal bagel’s lack of fixed territory gives it the promising potential to be a bagel of many tastes.