Jacob Richler and a fettle over fennel

Excerpt from a culinary memoir with bonus recipe for ‘Lobster pasta with f–king fennel’

A fine fettle over fennel

Photograph by Reena Newman

A fine fettle over fennel
Photograph by Reena Newman

My Canada Includes Foie Gras is my personal portrait of Canadian cuisine at its best, the chefs who make it, where they come from and what makes them tick, with a little analysis of what makes their food so good and why it is worth paying attention to. All that is interspersed with a bit of memoir, because like most everyone else in this story, my appreciation of good food began at the family table. My father Mordecai’s table, graced with my mother Florence’s food. The book begins with a story about a dish that was a favourite of father’s, and how it evolved in my kitchen.

In the years after my father died it was my custom to take my wife and family on vacation to Memphremagog each August, always pausing in Montreal en route from Toronto to collect my mother, who enjoyed being part of it. That is the cast, it is late afternoon, and as usual at this time I am to be found in the kitchen. The workspace is spacious, and equipped with plenty of windows and skylights to let the sunshine in. There is a central island and peripheral counters too, for those inclined to help, along with plenty of seating for those who are not. And on this particular occasion it was as usual something of a split, with a lot of drinks being poured and re-poured, and just about everyone ignoring my mother Florence’s No Smoking signs, even though she was there in the midst of it—just as my father had always done. Meanwhile (as we got by without a summer-only backup set of ovens and hobs), the AGA cooker was going strong, billowing unwanted heat around the room. All the same, it had a welcome way of somehow using the silent assertion of its 600-kg heft to ground the chaos around it in the shared purpose of dinner.

A casual dinner for eight, this time. And on the menu was a dish of my mother’s that had been one of my father’s favourites: a lobster pasta with a tomato cream sauce, enriched with an extensive mirepoix of vegetables and fragrant with paprika and thyme. It was also a dish that in his estimation his hard work more than hers put on the table. Not because he paid for the lobster, but rather because he boiled them and shelled them—and what a spectacle that was. He was not at ease in the kitchen—or at least, he shouldn’t have been—and for him processing three or four lobsters was a multi-cigar-and-whisky job. Cleavers, hammers, screwdrivers and whatever other tools happened to be on hand somehow got involved. There was much huffing and puffing, and the bits of shell and muck and guts flew absolutely everywhere. The cleanup (not his thing) was arduous. Invariably, all the same, many weeks and sometime months after this Jew vs. crustacean showdown, someone would reach up to a high shelf to retrieve an obscure cookbook or a seldom-used piece of cooking equipment and a dried-up lobster leg or hunk of shell would tumble down and bounce, rattling, across the quarry-tile floor, and everyone in the kitchen would stare at it silently where it came to rest, thinking, “How the hell did that get up there?”—and slowly, the horror would come back.

I was trying to do the job with a little less mess, and quite successfully. I was also preparing the dish my way. For in the years when my mother made the dish, the prevailing culinary wisdom had it that even when preparing lobster for the first phase of a dish where it would later be cooked again—say, for lobster thermidor or soufflé—it should be cooked very nearly to completion. So it was with her lobster pasta. But my preference had long been to only lightly par-cook it, as one would in preparation for making butter-poached lobster, and then let the meat finish cooking in the sauce itself. The second change was a new one—one ingredient dropped and a fresh one inserted—and this was not of my doing but rather at the vociferous instruction of a real chef. And as it was my mother who had originally taught me the dish, and all who know her would describe her as, well, rather sensitive, it was to me obvious that it would be best all around if I kept news of both of these possible improvements to her dish to myself. So I did not mention it as I cooked, or when I toasted her at the table just before we all tucked in. But looking down the table at her as she took her first bite, I noticed a mildly perplexed expression on her face, and it remained there, gaining concentration, as she took another small taste, and then another.

“You’ve changed something,” she said.

“Well, yes,” I said, and fearing the worst, quickly added, “It wasn’t my idea—it was Marc Thuet’s!”

She has met the Alsatian chef with me many times in Toronto—first during his stint at Easy & the Fifth, on Richmond Street, and later at his own restaurant, on King Street West, then called Bistro and Bakery Thuet. Whether or not, like me, she considered him to share sensibilities with Fernand Point—or just a physique—we had never precisely discussed; but I knew her for a fact to be a great admirer of his cooking, as well as of his rather astonishingly unselfconscious nature. So I went ahead and told her the story.

The week before, I had been enjoying a reinvigorating post-lunch cognac at the bar at Bistro Thuet when Marc sat down alongside to join me. The customary topic of discussion—food—soon turned to what I would be eating at the cottage on vacation the following week. I told him about the local super-market—Métro Plouffes—15 minutes up the road in Magog (population 25,000), which stocks an exceptional selection of items that you would have to special order at even the finest stores in Toronto (population six million): horsemeat, cold-smoked venison loin, whole lobes of foie gras, fresh local (Brome Lake) ducklings, dozens of different terrines and pâtés, you name it. I got started on the fish counter and its Matane shrimp and three kinds of sea bream—and that’s when he began questioning me rather forcefully about how exactly I made my lobster pasta.

“ . . . so you sweat the onions, garlic, carrot, celery, red and green bell peppers—”

“F–KING BELL PEPPERS? YOU PUT BELL PEPPERS IN YOUR LOBSTER PASTA?! YOU F–KING IDIOT!!!” He extinguished the horrible menthol cigarette he was smoking directly in his freshly emptied can of Diet Coke and glowered at me. Staff and customers alike who knew him and were accustomed to his vigorous language nonetheless stared at us, but he continued undeterred: “YOU DON’T PUT F–KING BELL PEPPERS IN LOBSTER PASTA, YOU IDIOT! YOU PUT F–KING FENNEL!!”

So that was that: out with mirepoix of red and green bell peppers and in with the half bulb of fennel. My mother enjoyed the story. But she did not say what she thought of the dish, not until many hours later, when, in the early hours of the morning, matters tableside were devolving some and she had announced that it was time to retire. I walked her to her room, shut her door and was heading back to the dining room when she opened it again and called after me.

“Oh, Jake?” “Yes.” “About the fennel.” “Yes?”

“I think Marc’s f–king right!”

My mother was then 78. It was the first time I had ever heard her use the word.

Lobster pasta with f–king fennel

Florence Richler

Serves 6

2 lobsters, about 1.75 lb. (790 g) each

3 tbsp (45 ml) olive oil

1 small Spanish onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 stalk celery, peeled and minced

1 carrot, minced ½

fennel bulb, minced

2 tsp (10 ml) thyme leaves, chopped

2 cans (28 oz./796 ml each) San Marzano tomatoes, milled

2 tsp (10 ml) sweet paprika

Salt and pepper

1½ cups (375 ml) 35% cream

Fettuccine (or some other pasta) for 6

Minced chives for garnish

Plunge the lobsters into a pot of boiling salted water and cook for 2 minutes. Remove and twist off the claws. Cool lobster bodies under cold running water. Meanwhile, return claws to the pot for 4 more minutes. Cool under running water. Extract all the meat from the lobster, reserving coral if either one is female, and refrigerate.

Heat the oil in a heavy pot. Sweat the onions, garlic, celery, carrot and fennel until wilted—about 10 minutes. Add the thyme and tomatoes; simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Add the paprika and simmer 5 minutes more. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and then stir in the cream.

Cook the pasta. Cut the lobster into bite-size chunks. When the pasta is 3 minutes shy of ready, add the lobster to the pot of sauce and stir to heat through. Fold in any coral. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Toss the pasta with half the sauce and starchy cooking water to taste. Distribute among 6 warmed pasta bowls and top each with an extra ladle of sauce. Garnish and serve.