Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Better Than It Sounds

In what has to be one of the best “left-handed compliments” in history, Mark Twain once described Wagner’s music as “better than it sounds.” The dish I describe here – pasta with vodka sauce and smoked salmon – may fall into the same category. I lived in Finland for about a year and one of the hotel restaurants in Tampere served a dish very much like the one given below, and I thought it was delicious. But then, I also thought the poisonous mushroom I had there was delicious, too (more about that next time). When I suggested the smoked salmon vodka sauce to my wife, she thought it sounded awful, so I prepared it one night when she was out. Collecting the ingredients for it generated a lot of questioning looks, so it seems clear that the combination is not something everybody would think of. Personally, I thought it was great when I had it in Finland, and I think the following recipe is not a bad approximation of the Finnish version, if I do say so myself.


• ½ lb. smoked salmon, skin removed

• 1 largish cipollini onion, diced

• 4 cloves garlic, chopped

• 1 Tbs. capers

• 1 26 oz. jar of vodka pasta sauce

• 1 lb. fresh linguine


1. Saute onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until the onions are translucent.

2. Flake smoked salmon into small pieces and stir into the garlic and onion mixture. Add the capers and sauté long enough to heat through.

3. Add the vodka sauce, reduce heat, and simmer while preparing the pasta.

4. Bring salted water to a boil, add the pasta, and cook until done (al dente), about three minutes.

5. Serve pasta on a plate and top with the smoked salmon vodka sauce.

The first time I prepared this, I had it with a Rosenblum Cellars 2008 Viognier, recommended by my favorite local wine store. As an alternative, they also recommended serving it with a nice Scotch whiskey, consistent with the recommendation of “smoked fish” with Scotch given by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page in What to Drink with What You Eat. The second time I had the dish, I tried it with a 10 year old Wolfe’s Glen single grain Highland Scotch, and I must say it was very good. For me, though, good as it is, a little Scotch goes a long way, so on the whole I would have to say I prefer it with the wine.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pairing Violet: Withstanding M.F.K. Fisher's "Perfumed Assault of the Blossoms"

A few weeks ago, I came across Crème de Violette, an Austrian violet-flavored liqueur.  Intrigued, I just had to try it and, indeed, it tasted as interesting as it sounded.  The liquid has a beautiful violet color and the first sip is deliciously floral, quite distinctive and unique.  After about two more sips, however, the adjective “assertive” began springing to mind: interesting as the flavor is, it needs to be paired with something.  But what?

Unfortunately, my two favorite flavor pairing books are silent on the subject of violet: neither The Flavor Bible nor What to Drink with What You Eat, both by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, have anything to say about violet. They aren’t silent on floral flavors overall, just violets: they list lavender, rose, and zucchini blossoms, but no violet. One of my other favorite books, The Food Lover’s Companion, (3rd edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst), has the following to say: “violets, crystallized: see crystallized flowers.” That entry refers you to one on “candied fruit, candied flowers,” which notes that “candied flowers are generally reserved for decorating desserts.”

Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food has a bit more to say, but even here, the results are not promising: he has two entries for “violet,” the first (with a drawing) defines it as “the French name for a sort of edible sea creature which does not have a current English name, although it may sometimes be referred to as a `sea squirt’.” His second entry gives a brief discussion of the flower, noting that, “In candied form they make good decorations for cakes, trifles, etc.” He does refer to M.F.K. Fisher’s “E for Exquisite” entry in her book, An Alphabet for Gourmets, where she describes what she once felt was the most exquisite dish she had ever heard of as “a satiny white endive with large heavily scented Parma violets scattered through it.” She goes on to note that, “It is a misfortune perhaps that not many months ago the salad was set before me in a bowl.” The salad disappointed her on a number of levels, but one particular failing was that “the dressing was light to the point of being innocuous, and it was unable to stand up under the perfumed assault of the blossoms.” Indeed, that is the challenge: the violet flavor is so assertive that it is important it be paired with another flavor that is strong enough to withstand the “perfumed assault of the blossoms.”

Tom Stobart’s book, Herbs Spices and Flavorings, has a one-paragraph entry on violets that mentions their use in flavoring “creams, ices and liqueurs,” notes their use in crystallized flower decorations, and concludes by describing a salad that sounds similar to M.F.K. Fisher's, made with endive, celery, parsley, and olives. The one-page entry on “violets, sweet” in Carol Ann Rinzler’s Herbs, Spices, and Condiments also notes their use in salads and as candied flowers for decoration. Extensive rummaging through my collection of obscure cookbooks didn’t yield much more. Probably the most interesting find was in the chapter “Jellies, Marmalades, Preserves” from The Picayune Creole Cook Book (Dover Books, 2nd edition, 1971, reprint of the original 1901 edition), which gives a recipe for violet conserve, made from 2 ounces of freshly gathered violet petals and 1 ½ pounds of sugar.

After much thought, the one pairing that did come to mind was the result of my trying, many years ago, some of the concoctions described in the 1971 book Howard Johnson’s Presents Old Time Ice Cream Soda Fountain Recipes, Or, How to Make a Soda Fountain Pay, published naturally enough, by the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain. One of the recipes that turned out to be delicious was the “violet lime rickey,” based on violet extract and fresh limes. That memory led me to try Crème de Violette with a key-lime pie I bought at Whole Foods. Alternating bites of the pie with sips of the liqueur made a fabulous dessert, just the sort of experience I had hoped for when I bought the liqueur.

A quick Internet search turned up a couple of other possibilities. While I haven’t tried it yet, the following website gives what sounds like a marvelous recipe for “violet flavor panna cotta:”


The other idea was to pair my violet liqueur with chocolate, which I tried in two different ways. The first was to serve it with a really good chocolate ice cream from Four Seas on Cape Cod, in Centerville, Massachusetts. Their ice cream is rich and creamy, with plenty of flavor to withstand the “perfumed assault of the blossoms.” The second variation was based on a suggestion from one of the “chocolate and coffee people” at Whole Foods. I was looking over their assortment of flavored chocolate bars, struggling to select something with a flavor assertive enough to withstand but not so assertive as to cause serious warfare on my tastebuds, and my inner struggle was obvious enough that a woman stopped what she was doing to ask if I needed assistance. When I explained what I was after, she had two suggestions, both varieties of Taza Chocolate Mexicano: one supplemented with vanilla and the other with cinnamon. She thought the cinnamon version would probably stand up better to the violet and she was right: the vanilla version was good, but the hint of vanilla pretty well disappeared under the “assault of the blossoms.” The cinnamon, however, held its own marvelously: alternating bites of the chocolate with sips of the liqueur yielded a fabulous three-way combination of chocolate, cinnamon, and violet. With apologies to M.F.K. Fisher, I would have to rate this one truly “E for Exquisite.”