Vegetables a la Beef
Fine dining the Montreal way
I’ve long been a big fan of chef, writer and TV celebrity Anthony Bourdain. His bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, led to his career in television hosting the Food Network’s “A Cook’s Tour,” Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” and “The Layover,” and CNN’s “Parts Unknown.”
I vividly remember a 2013 episode of “Parts Unknown” in which Bourdain visited Montreal and met up with David McMillan and Frédéric Morin, chef/owners of Restaurant Joe Beef and authors of The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts. Restaurant Joe Beef, recently rated Canada’s third best restaurant, serves traditional French-influenced Quebecois cuisine. In this episode McMillan and Morin prepared a multicourse meal for Bourdain in an ice-fishing shack on the St. Lawrence River, complete with a white tablecloth and vintage china. They served him oysters, lobster and wild hare with black truffles and a thick slab of foie gras seared directly on top of the fishing shack’s wood-burning stove. All this extravagance transpired while sitting on three feet of solid ice over 100 feet of water in the dead of winter.
I knew right then that I, too, wanted to create similar over-the-top dining experiences in similarly unlikely settings. So the next month I bought a school bus. I took out the seats and installed a kitchen and dining area, as well as sleeping bunks. For the last four years I have been attempting to create elegant candlelit dinners in my bus a la Joe Beef.
I had the opportunity to dine at Joe Beef last March while my son and I vacationed in Montreal. The experience totally exceeded my expectations and prompted me to inquire if I could come back and spend a week working there as an unpaid apprentice. My dream came to fruition last month.
Joe Beef is a small restaurant with rustic wood floors and eclectic décor. The menu, which changes daily, is written in French on large chalkboards. Out back is a beautiful vegetable garden, a smoker and a large wood-fired oven. This is where I spent my first day shelling peas and fava beans, trimming radishes and cutting layers of shallot into two-milimeter squares known as a brunoise.
Montreal is the world’s second largest French-speaking city, which is why I was constantly reaching for my phone for my Google Translate app. If a chef walks behind you and warns: “Chaud!” you move closer to the prep table and hold still until he gets by you with his hot pan. When a recipe calls for farine, œufs, miel, lait and sel, you gather up flour, eggs, honey, milk and salt and say a little prayer.
After surviving my first nine-hour day, standing on my feet the whole time, not taking a break, I had proven that my intentions were serious. The next day I was promoted to the basement prep kitchen where I learned to make brioche dough, ricotta gnudi (little dumplings) and an over-the-top classic Marjolaine (a painstaking, six-layered chocolate and hazelnut cake).
One evening I was let off early and was given a dinner reservation. The service staff asked if they could select for me and for the next 2½ hours I feasted on 11 courses of the most amazing food I’ve ever experienced. In one night I consumed more than I usually eat in a week.
When it was time to leave, owner David McMillan said he wanted to cook a Joe Beef meal on Bertha Bus! I promised I would return. He gave me a hug and said: “Merci mon frère. A bientot.”
The growing season in Montreal is short and when the kitchen garden is prolific, efforts are directed to fully using its bounty. Petits Farcis are vegetables stuffed with a sausage mixture, then baked and eaten lukewarm. The word farci means to “stuff” or to “pad out.” In the south of France, vegetables are stuffed with small quantities of meat and other vegetables in order to make a small amount of meat go further. At Joe Beef they make them in the summer when patty pan squash are in abundance. “What else are you supposed to do with those little squashes other than admire them?” The stuffed vegetables are awesome with a salad and partner perfectly with a glass of rosé.
Vegetables (Look for vegetables about the size of a golf ball)
• 4 small new onions, with tops attached
• 4 small patty pan squashes
• 4 small tomatoes
• 4 small eggplants
• 4 small bell peppers
• 4 small zucchini
• Olive oil for drizzling
• 1 small onion, finely chopped
• 1 tablespoon neutral oil
• 8 ounces ground veal
• 8 ounces ground pork
• 1 egg, lightly beaten
• 1 slice white bread, crust removed, crumbled, and soaked in 2 tablespoons milk
• ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
• 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
• ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
• ¼ teaspoon chopped garlic
• ¼ teaspoon dried chile flakes
• Salt and pepper
• Cut the top one-third off the onions, squashes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, and set aside to use as caps. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise. With a melon baller or an espresso spoon, scoop out the inside of each vegetable the best you can. Leave the walls about ¼-inch thick. Set the vegetables aside.
• Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. To make the stuffing, in a small frying pan, sweat the onion in the oil over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes, or until translucent. Remove from the heat.
• In a bowl, combine the veal, pork, cooked onion, egg, bread, Parmesan, thyme, fennel seeds, garlic, chile flakes and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Mix together using your hands; it should have the texture of a raw meatball.
• Divide the meat mixture among the vegetables, stuffing it carefully and deeply inside each one. Stand the vegetables, without their caps, in an oiled gratin dish or cake pan. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the meat is cooked but not colored. Remove from the oven, top each vegetable with its cap, and return to the oven for another 10 minutes, or until the tops are getting crispy and the meat is sizzling.
• Remove from the oven and drizzle olive oil on top. Serve lukewarm.
Reprinted from The Art of Living According to Joe Beef by Frédéric Morin, David McMillan & Meredith Erickson, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
Contact Peter Glatz at email@example.com.