Archive for the ‘food + wine’ Category

The real reason that I travel so much, as I confessed to my dinner companions last night, is to be able to eat my way around the world. They contributed to my journey by taking me to Room 39 in Kansas City, where there is a focus on seasonal, local food and a great wine list.

Room 39’s frequently-changing menu has a nice twist: it starts with a “featured farmer” – currently Green Dirt Farm of Weston, Missouri – including a loving description of the farmers, the farm and how Room 39 uses what the farm produces. This is followed by a list of the 10 other farms that are featured on today’s menu, before any description of the food begins: a great commitment to putting the local producers first, literally.

Devilled quail eggs - probably the cutest amuse bouche everThe chef started us with an amuse-bouche of devilled quail eggs, which has to be one the cutest things I have ever eaten, although I was struck by the idea of how fiddly it must have been to prepare them. Each was topped with a tiny sprig of dill that enhanced the devilled egg flavour without overpowering it.

Having spent sufficient time in French restaurants, I’m accustomed to seeing a cheese course at the end of the meal (either before dessert or instead of it), but here in the Midwest, dairy farms are a way of life and cheese comes first. I can live with that, especially when we start with a sample of each of the four cheeses that they have on the menu: a Montasio cow’s milk cheese from Friuli, Italy; a Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog goat cheese from Humboldt County, California; and two delightful sheep cheeses from Green Dirt Farm, the Dirt Lover and the Bossa. I fully intended to snap a photo of the cheese plate, beautifully adorned with clover flowers and honey, but we fell on it like starved animals, and I didn’t think of it until only a few scraps were left. It was awesome, with the Green Dirt cheeses very reminiscent of those that I have tasted from Fifth Town.

We all decided on the four course tasting menu, which allows you to select one each of a soup or salad, an appetizer or pasta, an entrée, and a dessert; these are smaller portions than when ordered separately, but gave a great opportunity to try out more of what the chefs had to offer. Also, at $39, a steal. They provided wine pairings with each course, some different for each of us even when we ordered the same dish, all nicely paired. I have to confess that I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the wines since the food was so great, but I have tried to reconstruct what I was served based on their by-the-glass menu.

Local spicy greens with prosciutto, strawberries, shaved grana padano, almonds & balsamic vinaigretteFirst up (for me) were local spicy greens with prosciutto, strawberries, shaved grana padano, almonds & balsamic vinaigrette. The greens were very spicy, with a bit of bitter thrown in, making a nice contrast with the sweetness of the cheese and fruit. One of the greens was raspy in texture, possibly a mustard leaf of some type, which had a bit of a weird mouth-feel. This was served with a lovely chilled rosé, but I couldn’t find one on their wine list so I have no idea what it was.

Mussels steamed in white wine with sopressata, lemon, shallots and grilled ciabattaFor the appetizer course, I had mussels steamed in white wine with sopressata, lemon and shallots, served with grilled ciabatta. The mussels were plump and tasty, and the broth wonderful: I absorbed as much as I could with the ciabatta, and wished that I had had a spoon since it was much too early in the dinner to be drinking directly from the bowl. The sopressata could have stood to be diced a bit finer; I found the chunks too big to match the dish, somehow, although the flavour was well-suited. This was well-paired with a white Côtes du Rhône (I always think of Côtes du Rhône as red, so this was new to me), presumably the 2010 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc that is on the wine list.

Berkshire pork chop with Rancho Gordo good mother stallard beans, pancetta, roasted tomato,   preserved lemon, sautéed local greens & hazelnut romescoThe main course was a huge decision for me: after pondering the crispy veal sweetbreads, I settled on the grilled Berkshire pork chop with Rancho Gordo good mother stallard beans, pancetta, roasted tomato,  preserved lemon, sautéed local greens and hazelnut romesco. The pork was perfectly pink, although a bit fatty as tends to occur with the heritage breeds, with the wonderful taste that I have come to associate with Berkshire pork. After cheese, salad and mussels, I was happy to see that the entrée course was, as promised, a smaller version of a main. The sides were really good, especially the beans, and the roasted tomato puree on the plate was a good contrast to the sweetness of the pork. This was accompanied by the 2009 Ridge “Three Valley” Zinfandel, which struck me as an odd pairing for pork, but went really nicely with the Berkshire and its assertively-flavoured sides.

Green Dirt cheese panna cotta, black pepper tuilleI haven’t been eating a lot of desserts lately and have lost some of my taste for sweets, making the savory cheese panna cotta (from Green Dirt sheep cheese, of course) with a black pepper tuille a good choice. However, I found the panna cotta a bit too firm and cold; both the texture and flavour would have been greatly improved from sitting at room temperature for a bit longer before serving, although since dessert orders were not taken until after the entrées were finished, that was scarcely possible. The black pepper tuille was delightful, and a nice contrast to the creamy, almost cheesecake taste of the panna cotta. I had a glass of ruby port with this, although I don’t think that it was the 2003 Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Ruby Port that was on the menu due to some discussion about various things being out of stock; also served a bit too chilled.

Except for a few minor points, this was an outstanding meal, served in a lovely older building in Kansas City’s funky and historic 39th Street district. I really liked the focus on the local ingredients, especially at this time of year when nearly everything can be local if chefs make an effort. In addition to the amazing deal on the tasting menu, wines by the bottle (plus the tasting menu pairings) are half-price on Mondays. Expecting to eat nothing but barbecue while in Kansas City this week, Room 39 was a delightful surprise.

I really like Fresh, a small restaurant chain in Toronto that grew out of a juice bar and now has three thriving vegetarian food locations. We used to eat in there a lot – the rice bowls are really seriously good, and the pancakes at weekend brunch are amazing – but the noise levels seem to have crept up in the past few years so we tend to do more take-out. Living quite close to the Spadina location, I often pop in there at lunch to pick up one of their prepared salads or sandwiches. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the crispy tempeh on the salad was salty; in fact, so salty that I couldn’t eat it. I started poking around for nutritional information on their website, and found that they don’t have any, which was surprising for a company where, for the founder “learning about the numerous medicinal and nutritional benefits of many fruits and vegetables brought an almost evangelical desire to share this with as many people as possible”. Apparently, however, she only wanted to share the benefits, not the actual information.

I wrote to the info email address on the website, asking if they publish the nutritional content, and received the answer that they don’t publish that information, and were just writing a statement about why that is. I checked back on the site today, and here it is:

At Fresh, we have chosen not to have nutritional breakdowns for our food and juice menus. Here’s why:

We believe that for the last few decades, food industry marketers, nutritional scientists and journalists have confused us about what to eat. Knowledge that used to be passed down from one generation to the next has been taken over by a money-making agenda put forth by people looking to profit from the confusion. We are taking a stand against this and want to follow a philosophy closer to what Michael Pollan talks about in his book “In Defense of Food”. His mantra is deceptively simple.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Meaning: Eat real food-real ingredients that haven’t been processed beyond recognition. Don’t stuff yourself. Be mostly vegetarian.

Nutritionism started in the 70s, and is basically the science of breaking down food into its various components. For instance, rather than saying “Oranges are good for you”, nutritionism would say “Oranges have vitamin C, fibre and calcium. These elements are good for you”. Nutritionism suggests that food is simply the sum of its parts and that the effects of individual nutrients can be scientifically measured, and that eating requires ever changing expert advice. One day it’s saturated fat that is bad, next day it’s carbs, then it’s trans fats…what’s next?

I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it for me. For a restaurant chain to basically say that they don’t need to publish nutritional data because everything there is good, when they serve foods that are high in sodium and fat, is total nonsense. I want the data, not a patronizing statement that implies that Fresh knows more about my nutritional needs than I do. I responded:

I read the new section on your website but have a pretty serious problem with it because it implies that I’m not smart enough to handle data such as how much of any particular nutrient is in my meal. I like to know what I eat, in particular, I want the calories, fat, carbs, protein and sodium content so that I can manage my overall food consumption. Sorry, but I just don’t trust you — or any other restaurant — to pick the right choices for me since you have no idea what my specific needs are. I already eat mostly vegetarian, and not too much, as Michael Pollan advises, but I notice that my overall health suffers if I consume too much sodium, or if my protein-carb-fat balance is too much out of whack. That means that I track those things, and unfortunately, if I can’t track what I eat at Fresh, I’ll be eating there much less often.

You need to trust your patrons to make their own choices, not try to make those choices for them. Most people will never go to the website and look for nutritional information; for those of us who do, we really want that information, not a patronizing statement about what you believe rather than the nutritional facts.

If we’re going to get out of the dysfunctional eating mess that we’re in today, everyone needs to become more aware of what they’re eating. For some people, they just want a feel-good nutritional nanny statement like the pap that Fresh already serves up. But for some of us, that means that we want nutritional breakdowns including protein, carbs, fat and sodium. Bring it on, please.

I read this morning that Ontario university students are complaining that their OSAP loans/grants only allow $7.50/day for food; for the poor dear who will have to give up her $4.50 Starbucks fancy drink, that appears to be a true hurdle in life. Oh, please.

Let’s look, for example, at the dinner that I made last night – note that this was not a dinner made with the purpose of proving a point about low-cost dinners (since I hadn’t yet read this morning’s article), it was a dinner that I chose to make because it’s healthy, delicious and easy to make. In a slow cooker, I put the following (prices are rounded up):

  • Lamb shoulder chops on the bone, 0.5-0.75 lb., $4.50 (price is accurate, not sure about the weight)
  • Large can diced tomatoes, $1.50
  • 2 huge sweet potatoes, about 3 lbs total, $2
  • 4 large carrots, $1
  • 1 cup dried green lentils, $0.50
  • Spices (1 tsp cumin seeds, a whole red chili, 1 cinnamon stick, 3 whole cloves), $0.50 or less

That’s $10 for a lamb and vegetable stew that makes at least six servings, or about $1.70/serving. I served it with a slice of whole-grain bread that I happened to make myself, but adding bread or pasta or rice for a carb would not add more than $.50/serving. The key is to use meat for flavor, not as the main event: the lamb on the bone makes the stew very rich tasting without adding a lot of meat, while the lentils boost the protein. As an added bonus, there’s almost no fat in this except for small amounts in the lamb, so this is pretty healthy. If you’re vegetarian, do it without the lamb and add more lentils, or some other legume; if you don’t like lamb, substitute an inexpensive cut of beef or chicken, but be sure to include the bones in the stew for full flavor. If you don’t want to eat the same thing several days in a row, package some of it up in serving-sized containers and pop it in the freezer, for those days when you come home hungry and didn’t plan ahead.

If you really think that you need more meat than that, check out Amanda Laird’s crock-roasted chicken: a whole chicken, a bit of spices to rub on it, and you have four or more generous portions of chicken for about $7, or $1.75/serving. You can often get whole chickens at a cheaper price than this, so could do it for less. You can eat the chicken as is, add to pasta, or make sandwiches from it; it can last you an entire week if you’re careful. Save the broth that collects in the bottom of the crock to make another soup or stew, it’s very rich-tasting and can be used instead of a cut of meat, which will reduce the cost significantly. The nice thing about a slow cooker is that you can just throw some things in in the morning, turn it on, and head off to class for the day, coming home to a home-cooked meal.

Okay, that’s the main meal for the day. For breakfast, fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal will set you back another $2 if you buy the large-size yogurt rather than the individual servings, and a large box of cereal, shopping at regular grocery stores rather than convenience stores. An apple or pear weighs about 1/2 lb so will cost $0.75-$1; a liter of house-brand yogurt will be less than $3 and provide 4 servings for $0.75 each, and a large box of cereal will provide 10+ servings for about $4, or $0.40/serving. Oatmeal, if you buy in a large bag, is even cheaper, and can be made quickly in the microwave. Throw in another piece of fruit for good measure for a breakfast total of less than $3.

That leaves $2.50 for lunch, which means that you’re not eating meat. Load up on veggies: buy salad greens (preferably something like cabbage, spinach or arugula that can double as a cooked veg if you like), carrots (unpeeled, not the overpriced “baby carrots” in little bags), cucumber and other veggies that you can eat raw – it’s better for you, and easier to carry to campus if you need to. If you must have dressing, make it yourself with oil, vinegar and dried herbs. Add some bread if you’re carrying out, or cook some rice or pasta at home. I often make a lunch of whole wheat pasta, a few veggies lightly microwaved or sauteed while I’m cooking the pasta, and a drizzle of olive oil or a spoon of pesto as a sauce. A few capers or sundried tomatoes (which I buy in bulk at Costco) add a lot of flavor without much cost. If you need a protein boost, cook an egg or open a can of chickpeas. Consider $1 for the veggies, $0.50 for the carb, and another $0.50 for olive oil, pesto or whatever you use to dress the pasta or the veggies. If you got your apples on sale, you can even afford to thrown in one of those as well and stay under budget.

I am definitely not on a food budget, and I spend more than $7.50/person/day, but to be honest, I don’t spend that much more unless we eat in a restaurant, or it’s a special occasion with a more expensive cut of meat, such as a rack of lamb or that amazing Berkshire pork roast that we had at Christmas. I also don’t spend a huge amount of time on cooking: the slow cooker is definitely my friend for evening meals, and lunch will be leftovers, salad and whole-grain bread, or a quickly-prepared meal such as pasta. If you don’t have a full kitchen, get yourself a slow cooker and a rice cooker (you can often pick these up at yard sales for a few bucks) and a microwave (which you probably already have), and you can do pretty much everything with these three appliances.

There are a couple of keys to success in low-price eating:

  • Don’t buy processed foods. They’re not good for you anyway, and that processing costs money.
  • Eat less meat. There are many other sources of protein that cost less, have less fat, and are easier to learn to cook if you’re intimidated by the raw meat aisle in the grocery store.
  • Skip the junk food.
  • Buy larger-sized packages of items that you know that you will eat, since they are cheaper per serving. This includes non-perishables such as rice and pasta, but also meat and vegetables if you can consume them before the best-before date, or if you can freeze them for later use.
  • Shop at a regular grocery store rather than a convenience store. If possible, shop at a discount chain, such as No Frills or Costco. For example, I buy a case of canned tomatoes and a case of chickpeas at Costco, bringing the cost to around $1/can (half the price of grocery stores), since I use the tomatoes in stews and soups, and have the canned chickpeas on hand to add to a salad for lunch. Costco requires a membership and a car, of course, but that’s what parents are for. If you go to your local No Frills and buy the No Name house brand, it’s not much more expensive.
  • Plan your menus a couple of days in advance, so that you can shop for what you need, think about cooking a meat dish that can be reused in another dish later in the week, and do any preparation needed in advance. For example, buying dried chickpeas then soaking and cooking them yourself is way less expensive than canned, but you need a day of lead time.

You don’t have to eat poorly when you’re on a budget, even one as tight as $7.50/day. And if you want to eat more meat, you can always get a job to pay for it – that’s what the rest of us do.

After spending the summer and part of the fall as a volunteer at the local St. Andrew’s farmer’s market, I thought that I’d seen the last of that great group of people – the farmers, the Farmers’ Market Ontario team and the other volunteers – until next year, but I didn’t count on the year-end review, celebration and luncheon hosted by FMO to bring us all together one last time in 2009. The purpose of the day is to review the progress of each of the markets this year, and bring together some ideas of what worked and didn’t work at the markets. Oh yeah, and we got to start the day with Angela Russo’s fresh-baked fruit muffins!

I especially like that they had assigned seats that mixed up the market volunteers, farmers and others so that we didn’t just clump together in our cliques: I was seated with two farmers and a volunteer from another market, none of whom I had met previously, and had great discussions with them.

There are five MyMarkets, each of which is certified by FMO to include only vendors who grow their own produce: East Lynn Park, Sick Kids Hospital, Bloor • Borden, Liberty Village, and Historic St. Andrew’s. The volunteers and/or market manager for each market gave a short presentation:

  • East Lynn Park, taking place on Thursdays from 3-7pm: they’re a big-ish market with 15 vendors, drawing 18,000 shoppers over the entire season, which is roughly the same as last year. They were impacted by the city workers’ strike since some people were under the impression that the market was cancelled during that time; the lack of city-run facilities such as the wading pool meant that less people came out to the park and ended up as accidental shoppers. Since they block off the street during the market, they have issues with moving and setting up barricades; since they’re in a lower-density residential area, they also have more issues with parking for shoppers. They had some good ideas for next years, such as improving the MyMarket website to link to the individual market websites and other social media sites (I’m obviously in big agreement with that); since they don’t have any local restaurants giving cooking demos such as happens at other markets, they’d like to get that started as well. They also see the need for prepared food at the market to make it more of a destination for people. They have great community support, and involve local children’s groups and artists as well as providing community service opportunities for youths to do setup and teardown at the market each week. They also had a partnership with a local food bank, where food that would have probably been thrown out by the farmers at the end of the day went to the food bank. They had a number of green initiatives, such as Not Far From The Tree, handing out information. They also had a lot of child and family-oriented events such as face painting; obviously, this doesn’t work in all locations (such as ours) where the demographics are radically different, but lots of good ideas at work here.
  • Sick Kids Hospital, taking place on Tuesdays 9am-2pm: this was the first hospital in Canada that allowed a farmers’ market to be held on its grounds, driven by their director of nutrition and food services. They just finished their second year; in 2008, they had 10,300 customers over the season, increasing to 12,000 in 2009. They obviously had a lot of traffic from the hospital staff, not just of Sick Kids but of the two other hospitals and many other businesses along University Avenue in the same area. They obviously have some different logistics issues than the rest of the markets, and have to be very cognizant of the fact that they’re set up in front of a very busy, fully functioning hospital, situated on a busy thoroughfare. They have a difficult time hosting events because of the location and the low numbers of volunteers.
  • Bloor • Borden, taking place on Wednesdays 3-7pm. They see this a key community event that takes place in their neighbourhood, where the locals can come out and see their neighbours participating as volunteers, driven by three fairly active neighbourhood associations and supported by two of the local business associations. Just finished their second year, they had spent a lot of money in their first year on print, but found that word of mouth was most effective, as well as the cards that were mailed to homes or placed in local businesses. They combined this with on-the-street volunteers handing out fruit samples and the market cards to remind people that the market is back at the beginning of the season. They had a great idea for their weekly draws: MyMarket market bucks“market bucks”, where the winner of the draw received four $5 vouchers to be spent at any vendor in the market. They also reorganized their layout to have a central social area with a coffee/tea stand run by a not-for-profit organization. They had several product feature days, some of them combined with cooking demos by local chefs, but some as simple as corn roasts or apples and honey. They had 12-13,000 customers throughout the 2009 season.They also took the food leftovers to a local charity, an idea that we should all be thinking about.
  • Liberty Village, taking place on Sundays 9am-2pm. In its 3rd year, this is the probably the largest of the markets with 18 vendors including meat and cheese, as well as several local businesses and restaurants who did demonstrations or otherwise participated, although their attendance is lower than some others at about 9.500 for the year. However, they have less neighbourhood involvement since the residential area in Liberty Village is still growing and likely a very young (and single) demographic that are unlikely to be involved in volunteer activities. The area, however, is growing rapidly which is likely to ensure continued success for the market.
  • Historic St. Andrew’s (that’s us!), taking place on Saturdays 9am-1pm. Colin Mooers, who was instrumental in getting the market starting and current heads up our volunteer committee, gave a presentation with me about our market:

To wrap up the morning, we had a session on what worked and didn’t work at the markets this year. Here’s some of the ideas that came up from everyone:

What worked Areas for improvement
Live music Direct contact with local chefs to get them shopping at the market
Volunteers chatting with the shoppers to create a sense of community Hire local students to assist farmers and organizers at market
“Market bucks” as weekly draw prize and available for purchase by local businesses (e.g., real estate agents) to give to patrons Weekly updates from the farmers of what’s coming to this week’s market for pre-market distribution
Sandwich boards on market day to draw in pedestrian traffic Program to allow local businesses to buy produce from farmers for direct donation to food banks
Cooking demos by local chefs Reduce carbon footprint through farmers collaborating on distribution to markets
Encouraging viral distribution of market information via email Music levels too loud for farmers to have discussions with patrons
Uniform MyMarket branding Competitive price point
Mini markets at places such as Queens Park Greater variety, including cheese, meat, eggs, mushrooms and flowers, to allow for one-stop shopping
Great support from FMO and MyMarket organization Promote understanding of why prices are higher for quality of produce
Profile a farmer each week tied in with weekly product features Too many vendors selling the same product
  “Official” start times restricting vendors from selling to early customers
  Educate shoppers on preserving fresh food (e.g., freezing) for later consumption

We stayed for a delicious lunch, including Angela Russo’s incomparable apple pie, but skipped out on the afternoon session on “innovative marketing made easy” featuring Lori Colborne.

All in all, a great day that generated a lot of great ideas.

Lufthansa First. Very civilized. on TwitpicSometimes, you just have to treat yourself, especially at the end of an extravagant birthday week. I traveled a lot last year, and racked up a lot of Aeroplan points. When it came time to make a trip to Germany for a conference this month, I decided to burn up some of those points and book a first class ticket. Air Canada does business class to Frankfurt, which is nice: they have the business class “pods” in the Boeing 777. I was too late to get a business class flight on the long weekend, so decided to book Lufthansa first class to Dusseldorf instead. Air Canada only has two classes of service, but Lufthansa has three: coach, business and first. I have to say, Lufthansa First is really wonderful.

Lars was pretty much my own personal flight attendant: there were only 4 of us in first class, and he had part-time help from the purser and another flight attendant, so I didn’t want for anything. He was so adorable, I wanted to tuck him into my bag and take him with me. As I got on the plane, he was there to greet me by name, put my bag overhead, give me pyjamas, slippers and a ladies toiletries bag, and bring me a drink and a dish of macadamia nuts. He served me Piper-Heidsieck champagne, talked me into having the caviar as an appetizer as he walked me through my dinner order, and when I accused him of being a bad influence by offering me dessert, he said “I am here to seduce you” (I’m quite sure that the literal German translation of that is less innuendo-laden than the English).

Lufthansa First - caviarAlthough the food was obviously prepared ahead of time, it was expertly plated and quite good: as good as many restaurants that I’ve been to. An amuse bouche of a seared scallop with mango salsa and a dollop of avocado; then the caviar accompanied by finely chopped egg, chopped onion, sour cream and toast. Technically the caviar was one of the appetizers, but I had also ordered the roast guinea fowl, which was a few slices of quite moist (cold) meat on a bed of thinly sliced beets with hazelnuts scattered around. The main was salmon steamed with ginger, a bit overcooked but to be expected for food that was prepared at least an hour before, with quite good rice and bok choy. And of course, Lars remembered to bring my fish knife. I washed that down with a glass of a German white burgundy, then had a taste of a muscat dessert wine with a slice of Cambazola and a few grapes.

I never sleep well on planes, and this was no exception. Although the seat lies completely flat, it’s a bit hard and lumpy – I think the lumbar support sticks up in the wrong place if you sleep on your side. However, dozing for a couple of hours does take the edge off an overnight flight, and the afternoon departure from Toronto meant that it was only midnight in my brain when we arrived in Dusseldorf at 6am. I’m completely looking forward to the return flight, which will be in daylight so that I can enjoy the excellent service even more.

If money were no object, I’d travel like this all the time. Instead, I do it every 10 years or so, on points – I think that the last time I did a long haul first class flight was going to Australia in 2001, also on points. That makes it an especially nice treat when it does happen, but does make it hard to go back to cattle class the rest of the time.

First class on the ICE train from Dusseldorf to Ulm, on the other hand, was a big disappointment: probably the most uncomfortable premium class seats ever, very shallow, lacking about 3-4 inches of support under my legs. No power at the seats (although with the magnificent HP Mini, I didn’t need it for the 3-1/2 hour trip) and no wifi. The tray table didn’t reach far enough out to put the computer on and type for anyone with arms less than three feet long, which meant having the netbook on my lap. To be fair, it was on time, fast and efficient; but I’m not going to miss the train ride if I end up driving back up to Dusseldorf.

Another great recipe from Chris Zielinski from last week’s cooking demo

Ingredients

1 Quebec duck breast (magret from moulard duck)
Sea salt
Extra Virgin Olive oil
2 ripe peaches
Coriander seedlings

aug 29 market-ultra demo 043I [Chris] like to serve this recipe over an arugula salad with candied walnuts in summer or root vegetable barley in the fall. A nice accompanying sauce can be made by pouring off excess fat after cooking the duck and deglazing the pan with fig balsamic vinegar and add a couple dabs of cold butter to thicken before pouring over the duck.

To prepare the duck, turn breast over and remove duck filet. Gently remove small piece of silver skin with boning knife. (This step is no necessary but it does keep the breast from curling up when cooking.) Turn back over and lightly score skin to allow fat to render more quickly. Heat a thick bottomed or cast iron pan. Season duck breast with salt and pepper on all sides. Place breast skin side down in pan and cook over low heat to evenly brown and crisp skin while allowing fat to render off. You made need to pour the fat out of the pans a couple of times during cooking. After about 8- 10 minutes, skin should be thin and crisp. Turn over and cook for about 5 more minutes on very low heat. Remove from heat and allow to rest 7 minutes before cutting. Slice peaches in the mean time. Slice duck as thinly as possible. Layer slices of duck with peaches. Top with coriander seedlings and extra virgin olive oil.

Serves 2 as a main course, 3 as an appetizer

Here’s the recipe from last week’s cooking demo

Ingredients

6 boneless Lake Erie Pickerel filets
1 tbsp butter
1tbsp olive oil

3 ripe Ontario peaches
1 heirloom or vine ripe tomato
2 jalapeno peppers
½ tsp ginger
1 clove garlic
12 thai basil leaves
12 mint leaves
2 sliced scallions
Juice of 2 limes
1 tbsp white balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil
Pinch sugar
Salt to taste

03.salsa.263Dice peaches and tomatoes approximately ½ cm dice. Cut jalapeno peppers in half lengthwise. Discard seeds and stem. Fine dice jalapeno. Chop ginger and garlic fine. Coarsely chop Thai basil, scallions and mint. Place all chopped ingredients in bowl and gently mix. Mix all remaining ingredients in a separate bowl to create dressing. Pour over chopped mixture and season with salt if necessary. Salsa will taste better if it sits for at least 15 minutes before using. Salsa tastes better if it is made the same day as it’s being used.

Preheat a frying pan over medium heat. Add oil and butter. Season pickerel with salt and place flesh down in hot oil. Cook on one side for 3 minutes until light brown in color. Flip over and lower heat to crisp up skin and continue cooking until cooked through. Serve immediately topped with salsa.

Serves 6

Considering that I live a 7 minute walk away, it’s amazing that I’ve never been to Blowfish restaurant and sake bar. Never until last night, that is, when my neighbour Irene invited me out for birthday drinks and appetizers (I love my birthday week: with a lot of foodie friends, I eat very well this time of year).

We went fairly early, a bit after 6pm, so it wasn’t busy at all and the service was very attentive. Also, it was a Tuesday night, probably not their busiest night. I think that they changed our plates 3 times during the meal, and even came over and lowered the window blinds when the setting sun had Irene full in the eyes.

Before ordering, we decided on cocktails. I had a “chilli berries” saketini, made with sake, vodka, cassis, Thai chili, fresh mixed berries, lime juice and simple syrup to sweeten it slightly. Delicious, not too sweet, and with a bit of the chili heat as a finish. Irene opted for the “chilly breeze”, which was tequila, X-rated liqueur, sage, Thai chili, vanilla bean, lemongrass, thyme, black peppercorn, watermelon and lime juice. The tequila taste predominated, although nice complexity in the mix of fruit and spices until Irene accidentally bit into a black peppercorn, thinking it was a berry.

The food was, not to put too fine a point on it, great. Here’s what we had:

  • We each had a Blowfish giant ebi shooter, which is a hand roll stuffed with an enormous (cooked) tiger prawn, mango, avocado, cucumber, lettuce, daikon sprout, tempura bits, spicy kewpie (Japanese mayonnaise) and tobiko (flying fish roe). Interestingly, the wrap was a very light and edible soy paper instead of nori (seaweed), each in different colours, that tasted very slightly sweet but did not detract from the filling. The best part is that it was served propped in what could only be described as an oversized shooter glass, which I assume is where the name came from. I will go back to Blowfish just for a drink and one of these in the future.
  • We shared an order of steamed lobster dumplings, which looked just like the har gow that you would have at dim sum, but stuffed with lobster. Each one was nestled in a little pool of spicy tobanjan sauce, seated in a Chinese soup spoon. The server was thoughtful enough to ask, when we ordered, if we wanted an extra dumpling: the standard serving is three dumplings, and we agreed to the fourth so that we didn’t have to fight over the last one. Perfectly steamed and a nice complement of flavours, although it was easy to scoop up too much of the spicy sauce and overpower the lobster.
  • We shared a spicy tuna roll, filled with (raw) tuna, negi (green onion), and spicy kewpie; this was done in a classic roll style with nori and sushi rice, rolled with the rice side out, then rolled in tempura bits. Six pieces to share, and very tasty. I like their use of tempura bits as a garnish: this showed up in the shooter hand roll as well, and gives a nice crunch.
  • For our last shared plate, we had roasted miso-marinated black cod, a very generous portion of two pieces, served with asparagus spears. The flavour of the fish was amazing, the cod definitely coming through the complexity of the miso marinade. It was also incredibly rich, and I don’t think that I could have eaten the whole plate on my own.

We accompanied all of this with a Lillypilly Sauvignon Blanc; the acidity was a good complement to the richness of the dishes.

To finish, I indulged in the ginger creme brulee, and we both had the Lillypilly Noble Blend dessert wine, a botrytis-affected blend that approaches an ice wine in sweetness but with a fresh acidity and some complex fruit character.

For something that was originally proposed as “drinks and appetizers”, it turned into quite a splendid pre-birthday dinner.

I knew that I would like the people behind the Chicken Farmers of Canada social media the minute that I saw their Twitter bio:

Chicken Farmers of Canada Twitter identity

And how can you not like a group that organizes a free Toronto Food Bloggers Meetup with an interesting panel of speakers at Edward Levesque’s Kitchen, complete with tasty chicken appetizers and free-flowing wine?

The topic of the evening was the decline of home cooking: hosted by Theresa Albert, nutritionist and cookbook author, and including Anna Withrow, food writer and founder of the LIVERight awards,  Amanda Laird, food blogger, and Ryan Anderson, Web strategist and PR blogger. Theresa started by passing around a copy of the recent NYT article by Michael Pollan (author of several books including The Omnivore’s Dilemma), “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch”, contrasting the rise of food-related TV shows that fetishize cooking with the decline of anyone actually doing it. His article points out that the average American spends 27 minutes per day on food preparation, which is less than half the time required to watch one episode of most of the hugely popular shows on the Food Network; what’s wrong with this picture? Even the word “cooking” these days can mean opening a few cans and heating something in the microwave, rather than actual cooking from scratch: food researcher Henry Balzer said that washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it is considered cooking by most Americans (and probably Canadians) these days. Food TV has jump-started interest in food and cooking, but also created has fearfulness about the complexity: if someone can’t even figure out what the ingredients are or where to buy them, it stifles any adventurous nature that they might have had. And how do movies like “Julie and Julia” impact our popular culture around food? Cooking has shifted from being a matter of survival to an art form.

This shift to more prepared and processed foods has a health impact, too: typically, you’ll find more bad stuff such as fat, salt and weird chemicals in processed foods, and less good stuff such as fiber and vitamins. A few years ago, Damir and I switched to a mostly macrobiotic diet – which eschews processed foods – for several months, and I never felt so good: I lost some weight (which was not my primary goal) and had a lot more energy. Some of those eating habits stayed with us, resulting in almost no processed foods at home, lots of whole grains and raw vegetables, and semi-vegetarian eating habits; today for lunch, for example, we had brown rice with toasted sesame seeds and raw sunflower shoots, which was delicious. People on non-standard diets, whether macrobiotic, vegetarian or vegan, tend to cook more and eat better, although there always exceptions, like one vegetarian I know who lives on take-out cheese pizza.

Getting back to last night’s panel, Theresa opened with some words about food as the “center of our universe”, related to both health and culture. She realizes that what she shows to an audience is limited as a Food Network chef; as she put it, “I stand up there and chop shit…the producers decide what you see”, and related a story of the producers cutting out a segment because you could hear the bone crunching when she spatchcocked a chicken: an indication of how disconnected we have become from how food is created. Anna agreed, saying that we need to recreate that connection with the nutrients, and how packaged and fast food has separated us from that. Unlike the research shown in the NYT article, she doesn’t consider mixing fresh ingredients into prepared food to be “cooking”, but admits that it’s better than just using prepared food. She has canning parties with her friends, which shows a greater dedication to being aware of what you eat than many of us have.

Ryan and his girlfriend have embarked on an interesting culinary experiment: for a month (which they are halfway through), they are cooking everything from scratch. And by “scratch”, he means making everything from tortillas to butter. He said that he didn’t realize that he was that good of a cook until he started cooking with friends, and contrasted his skills with theirs; what we might consider basics such as making a chicken stock or a roux is intimidating to others.

Amanda discussed the influence of coming from a family where there was a home-cooked meal on the table every night: she follows recipes fairly religiously, and plans ahead for meals five nights each week to avoid becoming overwhelmed and ending up eating take-out junk. I’m not nearly that organized, but I also rarely use recipes so my cooking can usually accommodate whatever happens to be in the fridge. She also mentioned some good starter cooking tips on Pretty Savvy, including her suggestion to make YouTube your sous chef.

The three competing factors in food today are cost, health and time: you’re usually trading off on at least one of these, whether you’re eating at McDonalds (bad for your health), buying gourmet prepared foods at Whole Foods (your pocketbook suffers), or cooking meals from scratch at home (if you have the time). With a greater awareness of health issues – thanks to Super Size Me and a raft of other information sources – many of us are only making the cost/time tradeoff, and with the economy in the toilet, lots of people are okay with spending more time if it costs less. Theresa pointed out that there are a lot of ways to save a lot of time while still cooking good food from scratch. For one, start using your oven again; food TV is biased towards stovetop cooking, which typically takes constant attention, but most things cooked in the oven are tossed in there are left on their own for a while, freeing you up for other activities. The same is true of slow cookers: she suggested that a student heading off to university could be equipped with a slow cooker, a rice cooker and a few basic recipes, and eat healthily all semester without spending a lot of time in preparation.

The panel seemed in agreement that if we lose the ability to cook, we become dysfunctional in many ways in our life. I also concur: in my experience, cooking what we eat isn’t just about eating better, it’s about making a house into a home.

The finished product: baby tomatoes cooked with garlic and basil, served with ricotta

A few weeks ago, Chef Alida Solomon from Tutti Matti gave a cooking demo at our local St. Andrew’s Market, where she cooked baby heirloom tomatoes with garlic, olive oil, salt and fresh basil to make a delicious sauce for pasta. The fates conspired against getting a large pot of water to the boil that day at the market and we weren’t able to enjoy it on pasta, but she served it in small cups with a dollop of ricotta mixed with fresh herbs. Since then, I’ve recreated her recipe at home with delicious results: very easy, and very reliant on the tastes of the fresh ingredients.

I haven’t been in Tutti Matti for a long time, probably since just after it first opened, and her demo reminded me of a great Tuscan restaurant in the neighbourhood with which I should become reacquainted. Luckily, my sister Betty and friend Pat read my blog, and decided to take me there for a pre-birthday dinner last night. It wasn’t at all busy on a Saturday night at 7pm; it did pick up by the time that we left, and I think that they draw a bigger crowd during the week from all the office around there.

The food was divine: we started with their speciality appetizer of the evening, “prosciutto four ways”: the classic prosciutto-wrapped melon, prosciutto wrapped around figs and then grilled, the same treatment for peaches, and a fourth way that completely escapes me right now because the grilled prosciutto-wrapped peaches were so freaking good that I was completely transported to another dimension. This would be so easy to do at home: firm, largish pieces of freestone peaches, probably almost a quarter peach, wrapped in prosciutto then grilled until it starts to crisp on the outside, which means that the peach is starting to caramelize a bit inside. We also shared the carpaccio affumicato, which paired smoked duck and smoked venison each with complementary garnishes: orange and pecorino for the duck, and figs, pine nuts and arugula for the venison. The third appetizer, which I know that we ordered from the menu but is not on the version on their website, was thinly sliced roasted pork with a tuna sauce, which sounds a bit weird but was incredible: the sauce had sufficient acidity to perfectly offset the sweetness of the pork.

For the mains, Betty and Pat both had the pasta special, a lobster ravioli with fresh peas; I tried a taste, and it was lovely. All their pastas are made in-house, and the quality really shows. I had the pappardelle con stracotto, which is wide, hand-cut noodles with pulled brisket, cherry tomatoes, garlic and fresh herbs. The flavour was wonderfully rich and complex, the perfect meal for the cool evening that we were having. I’ve had pappardelle with cinghiale (wild boar) in Italy, a very typical Tuscan dish, and this was reminiscent of that in all the right ways; I notice that she has tagliatelle con cinghiale on the lunch menu, which definitely motivates me to head over there for a long lunch some day. We accompanied this with a nice – and nicely priced – Chianti Classico Reservi.

We had skipped the secondi (meat or fish course) in order to save room for dessert; for that, we shared a selection of biscotti (including seriously decadent dark chocolate cookies) and a cheese plate, washed down with vin santo. All excellent.

The service was perfect: our main server was there when we needed him, offered friendly advice when asked, kept the water glasses full and generally seemed to enjoy talking to us. Chef Alida came by near the end of our meal and chatted; I know her from the market, although this didn’t seem to be special treatment for us: she was checking in at most tables to make sure that everyone was enjoying their evening. We were not rushed at all, and spent a leisurely 3 hours or so at dinner.

Open for dinner every day except Sunday, and open for lunch on weekdays. Although their website doesn’t mention it (so you should call to check before showing up with bottle in hand), BringMyWine states that they allow BYOW Monday-Thursday for a $30/bottle corkage – pricey, but worth it if you have an expensive bottle at home that you want to have with your meal.