another one bites the dust

these are the days folks. if you aren't running a tight ship, you're going to sink.

another local business has shut down in my neighbourhood. and i can't say i'm suprised. first of all it's a statistical fact that 90% of food businesses fails within the first 5 years. isn't that horrifying? opening a restaurant or food service establishment is a huge risk. but i believe that if you have a plan, and follow some pretty obvious conditions, your chances of survival increase.

i guess they aren't obvious to everyone. but i have always figured that to run a successful business, it is best to "do one thing, really, really well."

yes the folks at steam whistle have it coined.

i've been working in food service-retail for 7 years. And it's been my observation that the most successful businesses that i've worked at have always had the most focused business plan. when shops begin as a bakery, but end up selling take out food... it starts out well. but slowly, perhaps as anxiety about sales and wanting to connect with their perceived niche market, these types of shops begin to fill up with.... stuff.

You cannot sell sandwiches in the same shop as tea towels. What begins as a simple desire to stock the shelves with 'impulse purchases' for stroller mommies... ends in a shop which simply has too much for sale. Think about it. If you walk into a shop that is supposed to be a bakery, but also sells assorted olive oils, wine decanters, jams from Niagara, eco-friendly travel mugs, and bread from another bakery uptown... what do you want to buy? the answer is nothing. customers, upon being presented with too many options, simply cannot choose. the same goes for menus that are too long and elaborate. im sure you've seen gordon ramsay ( how i loathe to even bring him up but anyway...) chop down 10 page menus to a simple 3 options which sees the restaurant through to not only higher numbers of orders but also better organization in the kitchen aswell. there are only so many products you can put yourself behind before it becomes impossible to master and maintain the quality of each one.

I believe that Pantry fell victim to this. It opened about 2 years ago on a slowly up and coming section of College st which is slowly seeing dingy hair salons and empty bars turn into indie coffee shops, bicycle stores, and spruced up laundromats frequented by the oh so trendy and their friends. The neighbourhood seemed to need a food shop - a place to go for a muffin and a good coffee, or a gourmet dinner on the go. It's quite close to the YMCA and a starbucks so you know there are a good number of wealthy artsy/liberal/lets-eat-organic-produce parents who have more money than time and need a place to buy a gourmet dinner on the way home from work between walking the dog and taking the kids to soccer practice. They all want to eat slow roasted locally raised pork but who has the time to cook it? Bingo. Pantry seemed like just the thing our neighbourhood needed.

Housed in a lovely narrow and long space, comfy seating befitted the entrance, next to a brand new display fridge stocked with expertly executed gourmet meals with darling tags handwritten with each dishes' title. Portions were ordered, scaled out and priced, and shoppers could also choose from several ready-t0-go desserts, or bottles of fancy sparkling water, to accompany their ready made dinner. In theory it began quite well.

Unfortunately over time, the shelves became cluttered with other businesses' products. SOMA chocolates, Thuet bread, jam from Niagara, cheese from Lanark county. Although these products are certainly high quality and fabulous accompaniments to what was being made at Pantry, I believe it may have taken the focus away from what they were doing, and thus left the customers feeling a little ... confused.

To grow a healthy and loyal customer fan base, you need to have confidence. Standing by your own products and developing a service or product which makes people love you, and want to come back, is probably the most important first step. If you're behind what you're doing, so are they.

Secondly, i believe that focus is part of the success aswell. Not only do you need to focus your products, but you need to focus your entire image aswell. Design is important - the ambiance of the space should match the feeling of the products. -Who wants to buy hand made 'country style' products in a space that is designed to look like a futuristic space craft? It doesn't work. I went to a self proclaimed ' gourmet burger shoppe' ( what they do to deserve the extra 'pe' at the end is yet to be determined) -and as I ate my $12 hamburger I realized that my chair was basically a institutional folding chair covered in rust which seemed like it had been dug out of the basement when they took over the space. Laying down my four 5 dollar bills at the end of my meal I wondered how a place that sells a burger and fries for $20 gets away with having chairs that make my butt feel like I am sitting on a wrench. Actually waitress... cancel my order. Here's twenty dollars. Please put this chair in the dumpster and save up for some new ones.

Your staff should appear happy to be there. How often have we all been somewhere that the person serving you clearly cannot wait to leave? Which totally pops you out of the experience bubble and makes you start to think about leaving aswell. Service is probably one of the most important elements of not only building a reliable customer base, but also the longevity of this following long after you've surpassed the 5 year hump. I don't know if it's just Toronto but lately I have become so bitter and displeased with our customer service standards. I always encourage people to complain complain complain if they ever encounter something that disappoints them while dining out. Not only will this contribute to correcting the specific problem, but it will push the standards we hold in this country for what good service is. If we don't communicate, the businesses don't know they are making a mistake, and contrarily they are able to keep getting away with it. The more awareness we raise about bad service, the better it will become! I think Canadians are quite shy in general... and so we prefer to complain behind eachother's backs than come forward and demand better treatment for a service we are paying for - in the moment. I feel quite strongly about this. I'm getting heated just writing about it. seriously, it amazes me what people are willing to pay for and how shy they are to stand up for themselves. I suppose it gives observant young fledgelings a better chance to beat the odds. If most places have iffy service, and you open a shop in the same stretch with outstanding service, then you can guess where the customers will end up frequenting.

Unfortunately Pantry didn't really seem to have a very fine tuned staff. I didn't go there very often, but mostly this was because the few times I did I was met with quite an aloof attitude, and a feeling of frantic rushing by the owner behind the counter whenever I attempted to make small talk with her.

The places that do keep me coming back are those in which the servers make me feel valued. My business is important to them, and it's all about me. How was my meal/coffee/sandwich. Can they get me some water/condiments/a new tablenapkin/a better tasting coffee etc etc
And lastly they finish with 'have a good day' or 'thanks'
Wow! A shop where customers are thanked for their business! Instead of the more common use of the word thanks. Like when after waiting for 5 minutes, looking around and feeling like a loser at the highschool dance, the guy behind the counter at the bike shop stops chatting to his friend about his' wicked time lastnight' and ringsyou through for the grossly overpriced bike tube you're forced to buy from him because you're trapped with a flat tire in his neighbourhood. Or the girl at Tim Hortons that stuffed the wrong sandwich into a paperbag and handed it to you has finally, after 4 customers worth of ignoring you, replaced your sandwich, with a side of irritation of course. Because GOD FORBID you interrupt her from her obviously ridiculously stressful job of serving people. No one understands how hard she is working right now. No one on staff with her works as hard as she does. No one acknowledges her efforts, the customers are jerks, have impossible demands, treat her like a robot, make her remake sandwiches on purpose because they are assholes and HER LIFE IS SO HARD.

So.. when she finally remakes your sandwich and hands it to you with supreme attitude.. you say... Thanks.

Pantry didn't have terrible service, but it didn't have remarkable service either. And I think this may have contributed to it's demise.

Walking by a week ago I saw their curbsign "After 2 great years Pantry is closing it's doors. Thank you for your business" Too bad they didn't thank us enough when they were open.

A week later, the windows are already dirty. Trinkets in the window are starting to look like sad artifacts from a past age. The lights are off. Customers peer in and wonder what happened.

It's too bad that it didn't work out. But I learn from watching places like Pantry rise and fall. I always keep my eyes open and my mind working. I will keep paying attention and one day I'll put all my little ideas to good use. Look out people there's going to be a place for your to come and eat something tasty and feel like you are the happiest bug in a rug.

Leading by example I hope to change the way customer service is perceived here. The more it improves, and the more we push for it to change, the better it will become.

Thanks for reading. Please try to speak up the next time you feel like something you ordered, or the way you were served didn't live up to your expectations. Canada is still young and we need to set the bar for what qualifies as good service - one complaint at a time. And if a server is extra kind to you, or a dish you've enjoyed has surpassed your expectations, make sure you communicate that aswell.

over & out!


Amelia does Italy

While browsing at the library last week I came across a cookbook from The River Cafe. For any non foodies reading, the River Cafe is one of THE best restaurants to eat at in the world. Here is a quick brush up on Rose Gray's life that you must read. It's important to know where she came from and how inspiring she is to me even though I have never met her ( and never will. She passed away earlier this year)

Here is an article about her published in The Guardian UK:

Rose Gray, who has died of cancer aged 71, was the co-founder, along with Ruth Rogers, of the iconic River Cafe in London, and was one of Britain's most influential modern chefs and cookery writers. In a 23-year partnership with Ruthie, she revolutionised Italian cooking in this country through an emphasis on freshness, seasonality and simplicity, and, with a bestselling series of ground-breaking and beautifully designed books, established a worldwide reputation for herself and the restaurant.

Rose was tall, worldly and beautiful, and had a well-earned reputation for indomitability. Watching her on the floor of her coolly glamorous restaurant, confident, composed, so obviously enjoying who she was and what she did, it is hard to imagine that Rose had ever experienced a single setback. But setbacks there were, in her personal and business lives. These she overcame with a no-nonsense determination that became one of her defining characteristics. "Rose just got on with things," her oldest friend, the architect Su Rogers, says of her. "She always made the best of whatever happened."

The knocks came early and hard. Shortly before Rose was born, her pregnant mother Anne returned from a trip to London to the cottage she shared with her husband and infant daughter to find the family home burned to the ground. Rose's father and sister were dead. Anne had come from a middleclass family – her grandfather, Sir Trevor Lawrence, had been the president of the Royal Horticultural Society – but life changed dramatically after the fire. She and Rose were taken in by Anne's sister Naomi, who lived in Box Hill, Surrey. It was a Women's Institute kind of atmosphere, money was tight, frugality was all and the politics were conservative.

Rose was packed off to a convent boarding school aged eight or nine, a spectacularly inappropriate choice for a girl who was already free spirited, outgoing and passionate about art. She was more at home at the Guildford School of Fine Art, where she gained a BA. She was exciting to be around – "the kind of girl you saw and just wanted to be friends with," Su recalls. She loved parties and dancing.

After a short stint teaching fine art at a girls' school in Shoreditch, in east London, Rose married Michael Gray in 1962. The couple had three children in quick succession, Hester, Lucy and Ossian (Ossie), and moved to a house in Warwick Avenue. Ever the entrepreneur, Rose created a self-assembly paper lampshade and furniture business with a friend, and their products sold in Habitat, Liberty and Heal's. She was also honing the cookery skills she had learned from her mother, setting up a crepe business catering for parties and nightclubs.

In 1969, a 21-year-old graphic artist called Ruthie Elias turned up at the Warwick Avenue house. Newly arrived in London from upstate New York, Ruthie remembers Rose, who was 10 years older, as bohemian, exotic and exciting, bursting with energy, despite the three young children in tow. The two women had an additional connection through the then relatively unknown young architect Richard Rogers, to whom Rose's friend Su had been married and whom Ruthie would shortly marry. But although they saw each other occasionally, Rose and Ruthie's extraordinary partnership still lay almost 20 years in the future.

While the children were still quite young, Rose fell in love with David MacIlwaine, a sculptor and artist, whom she later married. David was the love of her life; their union was happy, fulfilling and mutually supportive. Together Rose and David had a son, Dante, Rose's fourth child.

Rose and David started a new business together, importing cast-iron stoves from Europe, primarily France, for sale from their shop at Chiltern Street in London. But after two or three years of fairly successful trading, they over-stretched and went bankrupt. The early 80s were difficult years for the couple. Rose, David, Lucy and Dante moved to Italy, while David worked on an exhibition. They settled near Lucca, in Tuscany. It was here that Rose began to take a serious interest in Italian cuisine, collecting recipes and learning about ingredients and the region's cooking.

In 1985, while David's exhibition was shown in New York, Rose received an invitation to cook there at a newly opened fashionable Italian-style restaurant, Nell's Club. It was the first cooking Rose had done professionally and she loved it. Returning to London two years later she worked briefly as a chef at Carluccio's – but there was never going to be enough freedom there for a woman of Rose's strong ideas and irrepressibility.

It was at this time that Rose and Ruthie's paths crossed again. Richard Rogers had just set up his office at Thames Wharf, in Hammersmith, and he was keen for the development to be not just offices but a community: this meant having somewhere for everyone to eat. Over a cup of coffee, Ruthie proposed the idea of a restaurant to Rose. Rose said simply: "Let's do it."

The result was The River Cafe, which opened in 1987, when Rose was almost 50. Her children were grown and she threw herself into the project. She sourced ingredients, cultivated relationships with wine-makers in Italy, and worked long, punishing hours. To begin with there were just Rose, Ruthie, one waiter and one washer-up (later, all of Rose's children would be involved).But Rose had big ambitions for their little restaurant. In those days, Rose was to say, Italian food in London "was spaghetti Bolognese and tiramisu". She wanted to cook the kind of food she had eaten and prepared while living in Italy – grilled meats, bread soups, pasta.

The restaurant's reputation grew quickly. Five years later the premises were expanded, and, Rose, a passionate and hugely respected gardener, created a stunning herb garden, which was graced by David's sculptures. In 1998 the River Cafe earned a Michelin star, which it has kept ever since. Her partnership with Ruthie was close; their uncompetitive and generous spirits became the ethos of the restaurant.

Initially Rose and Ruthie were reluctant to write a book, insisting they were chefs not writers. But they quickly understood that a book was the natural next step. Once the idea took hold, they threw themselves into it with typical energy and incredible attention to detail. With their backgrounds in fine art, Ruthie and Rose had clear ideas about how they wanted the book to look. Rose's visual sense was always acute: everything from the design of the restaurant to the waiters' dress received her careful attention.

The publisher was persuaded to break with the tradition of having an illustration of food on the cover; the text was minimal; the photographs were of food that had just come out of the kitchen. The first River Cafe Cookbook appeared from Ebury in 1995, and several more followed. It is impossible to overstate the influence these books have had in shaping our eating habits and our expectations of what we are served inrestaurants. In 1998, Rose and Ruthie presented a 12-part series on Channel 4, The Italian Kitchen.

Rose was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2001. After surgery and chemotherapy she was clear for five years. But in 2009, just as she was finishing what was to be her last book, The River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook, doctors discovered brain tumours. She refused to be an invalid, insisting on joining her great friends Su Rogers and Su's husband, John Miller, on a summer trip to France, even though she could hardly walk the length of the platform at the Gare du Nord. Lovingly supported by David, she bore her illness with a stoicism that was admired by her friends but did not in any way surprise them.

She is survived by David and by her children.

I couldn't believe that she was FIFTY when she opened her restaurant. This fact is completely amazing and inspiring to me. I work with someone who worked there for a short time and he has described his experiences many times with utmost honour and fondness. He described how the day's staff would show up quite awhile ahead of their shifts to learn about the day's produce, to help the kitchen with whatever prep needed to be done - and to work as a team. There was no division between front of house and back ( which is extremely common in all food businesses) everyone worked together as a team and was involved in every part of working towards a common goal. Not just the serving or the cooking. It was the experience that was important and everyone was involved. I would love to work there. I would love to even dine there. One day I will pay a visit.

With this introduction I feel safe to proceed with my own story. So... browsing at the Library, knowing what you now know about the River Cafe, I came across one of their cookbooks and decided to take it out. Well I just absolutely fell in love. The recipes are so simple and inspiring. Directions flow with a functional simplicity:

"Roughly chop the leeks. Shred the prosciutto. Peel and finely chop the garlic. Grate the Parmesan

Bring the stock to a simmer, check seasoning.

Melt half the butter in a thick bottomed pan, add the leeks and garlic, and cook until the leeks are soft.


No complicated steps, misleading terms or outdated fads ( foie gras foam anyone?) here. This cooking is all about the ingredients and how to cook them simply and properly to bring out the flavours that are inside them. I would guess that this is the Italian way.. but let's stay focused on one topic for now ;)

This is the River Cafe way... and I was hooked. Later in the week I decided I would like to buy one of their cookbooks and cook out of it for all my coworker's for a Saturday staff lunch. I had 11 mouths to feed. Keeping in mind their dietary restrictions ... ( one celiac ( no gluten) one vegetarian) and their personal hangups ( one extreme cilantro hater, one goat cheese snubber) I developed a menu I thought would appease them all:

Zuchinni Scapece ( marinated fried zuchinni)

Peperonata ( stewed red peppers)

Fagiolini Con Prezzemolo ( green beans with parsley & vinegar)

Pici Al Limone Con Pecorino ( thick spaghetti with lemon and pecorino sauce)

I started, naturally, by going to the market to get all my produce. Cycling home with 2 pounds of green beans, 1.5 kg of cheese, 8 red peppers, 2 bunches of basil, 2 bunches of parsley, 10 lemons, 2 huge red onions and 8 zuchinni... was no easy feat. I made it most of the way home and then popped a tire - likely from all the extra weight!!

I started cooking with Pepperonata - stewed red peppers. A simple dish. I sliced onions, garlic and peppers.

Then I piled them in the largest pan I own... which almost wasn't large enough!

But after 2 hours of stewing, the peppers softened

The dish is finished with tomatoes. Not just any tomatoes. Peeled tomatoes. How do you peel a tomato? Bet you've never thought of that. But in cooking it is often important as tomato skins can be tough and not complimentary to the consistency of the dish. It depends on what tomatoes you are using aswell.For this recipe I am using Plum or 'Roma' tomatoes. They are meaty and not overly watery and hold up well in a sauce. They also have good flavour. I could research and write a whole blog on tomato varieties and what to do with what kind... But let's stay focused. this recipe called for skinned tomatoes, and this is how you do it. Gently score ( to score... means to gently make a small cut with a VERY sharp knife - in fact it is just best to understand that if you plan on accomplishing anything in the kitchen.. that your knives are very sharp) So with your SHARP! knife, gently score the bottom of your tomatoes with a small x. This will enable you to peel the skins of more easily later. This isn't mandatory... the skins will come off anyway but it helps. Bring a large stock pot of water to boil. Dump in your tomatoes and let them boil for no more than 3 minutes. You will see the skins start to peel up and away. Have a bowl of ice water ready. After 3 minutes, fish out your tomatoes and immediately submerse them in the ice water.

This cools the tomatoes and ensures the flesh of the tomatoes does not cook. After they have cooled for a few minutes, simply peel away the skins, and voila! Peeled tomatoes!

I learned in cooking school that they are quite popular in french cuisine as the concept is that the tomato skins can be unpleasant to the palate in certain applications such as a small canape where there is not much cooking involved and the skins would be too toothsome. Also... french recipes often call for the GRAPES to be peeled so ... you can see they take their peels very seriously... ( a little too seriously) Anyhow I believe it was important for this recipe -albeit Italian, because they are to accompany the peppers which have been stewed for two hours which has softened the peels. And if you put the tomatoes in with the peppers at the beginning the flavour would be completely different. So- raw tomato with a soft texture. I hope you are following. These peeled tomatoes are used in french cuisine as garnishes aswell. If you core the peeled tomato and then slice it into strips it becomes 'Tomato Concasee' - which I did about 100 times during cooking classes. Anyhow it is a nice little trick. Very simple and can be quite delightful for guests if they have never had it. It's a way to fancy up the tomato!
I will add one last comment on this topic - i think it could be debated that a certain variety of tomato with a gentle soft skin could be used as a replacement and skip the whole skinning broo-haha. But this goes back to my reluctance to turn this post into a discussion on heirloom tomato varieties... perhaps another day!

Alright so tomatoes skinned, the recipe called for them to be seeded and chopped then stirred in with the stewed peppers. Voila! A simple antipasti. The slow cooking of the peppers made them very sweet and tender. The juices were almost a syrup because of all the sugar that was released. Delicious! They would keep in the refrigerator for 7 days in an airtight container and make an excellent quick salad or sandwich topping for weekday lunches.

Next came the beans. A very simple salad. Cook the beans in salted water until tender. Cool slightly and toss with olive oil, red wine vinegar, chopped fresh parsley, and salt & pepper. Delicioso!

Next up was the ever curious zuchinni.

The first step was to slice the zuchinni on the diagonal ( oh the diagonal - shapes and cuts are very imporant with food presentation. You can make a slice of zuchinni look much more posh if you slice it on the diagonal! It's true! Don't laugh!)

So following a rather excellent diagonal slicing session, the zuchinni were ready to be laid out to dry. This was important - Said Rose&Ruth.. as the zuchinni will release a bit of moisture while sitting, which you can then pad with some paper towel to remove.. and this ensures a good brown frying once you get them in the pan. So I laid out some paper towel and I actually let them sit overnight.

Fewf I was tired from all that skinning and diagonal slicing.

The next morning ... D DAY! I tackled the zuchinni. It took quite a long time to get this into swing.. so looking back I would have completed this the day before. But Alas!

Next step said Rose&Ruth was to heat enough olive oil to easily cover a heavy bottomed pan. Quarter a clove of garlic and fry it gently in the oil. Remove the garlic. Begin frying the zuchinni in batches until brown.

This part was extremely frustrating as I will admit now that I have a completely useless stove with electric burners that only heat up properly in about 1/3 of their total surface. I've learned to cook with them anyway... Any good cook should know how to improvise ..right? Or is this just what I tell myself when I'm shuffling the pan around this way and that to get everything cooking evenly. After a few rounds the pan finally heated up thoroughly and I got them all browned off. Then they were sprinkled softly with red wine vinegar, chopped mint, dried chili and salt.

Worth the effort :)

Now that I had sufficiently delayed my time management expectations I had to immediately pack up and head to work! With two tote bags filled to the brim with the 3 completed dishes plus the remaining 10 lemons, 1.5 kg of cheese I hobbled my way to work on transit. I smelled like fried zuchinni, hadn't eaten breakfast and was sweating like a tennis player in August sun. Stopped once enroute for dried pasta and arrived at work! 11am. Excellent. I had 1 hour to complete my last dish -
Pici Al Limone Con Pecorino ( thick spaghetti with lemon and pecorino sauce)

I cooked my pasta - again on a completely frustrating induction burner which hardly boils water on a good day.

I unwrapped my beautiful cheeses. This dish called for Pecorino- which is a sheeps milk cheese from Italy. Two kinds were used in this dish. An aged 'Pecorino Staginato' which had a strong nutty flavour and crumbly dry texture similar to parmesan

As well as a 'fresh' pecorino which is alot more like mozzarella in texture - but still quite strong in aroma and flavour.

So I shredded like a mad woman. I juiced and zested 10 lemons. Over a strainer to catch the seeds

The cheese was blended with the lemon juice.. and after a few minutes began to 'melt' into a sort of sauce. Doesnt look appetizing on its own but boy was it tasty!

I rapidly tossed the pasta with the sauce and threw in the basil leaves and checked for seasoning. I had left the recipe book at home for this part so luckily it wasn't too tricky. And it turned out beautifully:

I was really glad there was almost no one around for this part of my cooking. I have to profusely thank my dear friend Isaac for his help and patience during my final steps. From pulling my hair out trying to find the measuring cups and strainers in the cooky work kitchen to my obsessive plating and incessant worrying and agonizing over whether it would be enough food, Isaac was there to help me find things.. and take deep breaths. Thank you Isaac :)

It was all worth the sweat ! It turned out beautifully and everyone was pleased. Especially me. The stress and worry and bother of it all becomes instantly worth it as soon as I watch someone slurping up my food with a big smile on their face. Cooking is my favourite thing to do. And what makes me even happier than cooking is sharing my food with others.

Cooking from this book was a joy and I will definately be trying more recipes from the lovely ladies of the River Cafe. Stay tuned.

If anyone is interested the book I cooked out of is the newest book by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray:


Smoked Fish!

My friend Sarah and her boyfriend Gavin have a smoker, and she invited me over to smoke something on a lovely saturday afternoon. If you've never seen a smoker, here is the style that I was using:

Basically there is a bottom layer of hoat coals. On top of the coals you put wood chips! I won't even dare get into what kind of woodchips you can use... I am merely a beginner.

I decided I would bring some fish. I have an old book from my Dad that he used to use with his smoker :

And I did some research. According to the book you should brine the fish before smoking it. I will now paraphrase some of the parts of the book I found very interesting :) maybe I'm a nerd but so what!

Chapter 3
The Key to Good Flavour: Brines and Seasonings

There are two main factors in sucessful production of smoked foods. One is correct use of the smoke oven. Heat and smoke by themselves will flavour and preserve foodstuffs to some extent. But heat and smoke are not enough. The second factor helps to create the widest possible range of flavours, improves the texture and appearance of the finished product and, in many recipes, powerfully aids in preserving the food against spoilage. All this achieved by the use, before, during and after the smoking process, or properly selected brines, seasonings and curative agents.

In preparing food for smoking, it is generally desireable to have the salt and other flavourings penetrate the meat or fish -the more deeply the better. All fresh foods contain water, which holds the nutrient materials - carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins - in solution, in emulsion or in the colloidial state. This water content is higher than is generally recognized. Here are some typical figures:

Hard Cheese - about 40% water
Beef - about 60% water
Veal, Chicken, Turkey - about 66% water
Soft Cheese - about 70% water
Fatty Fish - about 70% water
Non-fatty Fish - about 80% water

If dry salt be placed on the food surface, it immediately begins to dissolve in the water content, and will quickly be absorbed. This solution and absorption process takes place even if the food is apprently dry. If brine, instead of dry salt be applied, the process takes place in the same way. Salt from the brine mixes with the water content of the meat or fish, and penetrates toward the interior.

Salt, applied to meat or fish, tends to extract water. For example, in the Brine Salting method of preservation, fish packed in a crock with dry salt, about 1 part by weight of salt to 3 parts fish. After 2 or 3 days, the fish are found to be immersed in brine, formed by water extracted from the fish.

If fish are placed directly into an excessively strong brine, a similar action takes place; water is drawn out of the fish to dilute the brine, and the fish lose some weight.

When meat or fish is removed from a brine bath, certain protein constituents are dissolved in the salt water. On drying, these dissolved proteins form a thin, glossy layer at the surface. This layer, somewhat like a coat of varnish, is called a pellicle. It takes on an attactive colouration in the smoke oven, and is believed to aid in preservation of the smoked food. It is usually desireable then that the meat or fish, upon removal from the brine, be allowed to dry before smoking. If it is hurried straight from the brine to a hot oven, the pellicle will not form properly and the keeping qualities and appearance of the finished product will be impaired.

At 68F 100 parts by weight of water will dissolve in 35.8 parts of salt. This, the strongest brine that can be made at the temperature is called a 'saturated solution'

Isn't that interesting!?! The book goes on and on about the science of brining... about special salt saturation thermometers and all the rest! I can't wait to really explore this world of smoking. But for now... I started with my fish!

Following this recipe for brine:

Basic Fish Brine:

This brine is far superior to a straight salt solution and is reccomended for use with fish, oysters, clams, shrimps and prawns.

4 US Gallons ( for us Canucks this means 15.4 Litres)
8 cups of salt
1 lb brown sugar
1.5 cups lemon juice
2 tbsp liquid garlic
2 tbsp liquid onion

I used real sliced garlic and onion which the book ok'd.
I also divided the recipe by 4. I certainly don't need 15 litres of brine.

It worked out ok!! I used the book's chart to calculate how long I should brine my fish according to it's weight. I had a 1.5 lb piece of salmon which I brined for 2.5 hours. I also had a small filet of Trout which i brined only for 40 minutes.

They turned out well! I think next time I will score the thicker pieces of fish ( i read about this later ) to help the brine penetrate. and I will perhaps leave it a bit longer. The book suggests to stick to the same recipe for brine and if you want it more salty or less salty you do not tweak your recipe but instead tweak the time you brine for. Smart!

Here is the fish after brining:

You'll notice that the salmon is quite white. This faded once I set it to dry.

I set up a little drying station just as the book suggested. I used a backing rack, and a fan. Since my apartment window is at ground level, it wasn't too hot and there wasn't direct sunlight on the fish. The book also mentions that the salt from the brining process actually helps to prevent the fish from breaking down at room temperature. It is essentially a mild preservative.

Here's my little station:

So there they sat for FOUR HOURS!

For the first hour I kept checking them every 10 minutes. I was so anxious to see the infamous 'pellicle' form. I started to annoy myself so I decided to go buy some potting soil and do some gardening to distract myself. After four hours of beautifying my entrance way - which was QUITE satisfying :).... I came inside to shower and found my fish pleasantly dried!! They really had lost alot of weight and had formed a sort of crust!! I think this was a successful pellicle! But who knows... only practice will tell.

Here is the salmon after 4 hours of drying. Notice it has darkened quite a bit and seems to have a slight 'skin' This is the pellicle

The trout really darkened ! And dried out nicely and also formed a crusty coating

I found it really really fascinating to learn about the pellicle. I had never thought of 'drying' food. After I read about it I realized and remembered already knowing that travelling tribes and natives would have used smoking and drying as one of their main ways of cooking and preserving their food for deep winter and also for travelling. The smoking I did today was 'hot' smoking . There is also 'cold' smoking which takes place at very low temperature over several DAYS. I think it takes fairly specialized equipment to do this.

Another interesting point was learning that pacific indians used to smoke blueberries for enjoyment during winter months. Sounds soo delicious. The book has a recipe and id like to try it some time. It says they are delicious with icecream

Now that my fish was properly prepped it was time to get smoking! With my container of fish, my special and now completely invalueable book, and a rack.. i cycled off to Sarah's.

Well now they already had some delicious treats on the go!

From what I could gather, Sarah's boyfriend Gavin seemed to be 'the smoker' and I think he might pretty much always have it going, and just tosses on what he happens to have that way. Arriving with my mini text book and brined and dried fish I was feeling a bit shy. Almost like a kid with all his pens in his shirt and 3 calculators showing up for a math test.

All was well thought, my fish was happily welcomed into the smoker .. on the bottom shelf below the meat.

Now I'm really starting to catch myself starting every sentence with 'the book says'

The book says! That its ok to put fish below meat, but not a good plan to put fish above meat as the fishy flavour on meat does not work in the same way as the meat drippings on fish.

A couple hours of playing with Sarah's adorable Coon Hound/ Beagle mix named Huck:

And chatting with Sarah, and trying to talk smoke science with Gavin ( this was somewhat unsuccessful... My sharing of 'The Book' resulted in mild friendly interest for a few minutes... then it found itself casually placed on a chair.

It started to rain a little bit and I decided it was time to check the fish and pull them out! They looked beautiful!

Now for the tasting...

The trout was the first thing I tasted, and it was absolutely delicious. There was a chewy and meaty quality to it that is normally not found in eating fish. And the flavour was smoky but not overpowering, you could still taste the nice fish flavour.

The salmon was much jucier. But also delicious! I think because it was so thick it could have used more time in both the brine and the smoker. But all in all a great success!! I can't wait to make a salad with my OWN smoked salmon for my lunches this week.

I will definately do this again!! I think I will buy a whole trout next time and clean and fillet it myself and smoke the whole fillets. It had the best flavour and is alot more affordable AND environmentally sustainable than salmon.

A great project ! I am now very stinky and ready for bed :)

Hope you enjoyed my adventures!