Archive for August, 2009

Pane Della Settimana

Puffed

For the second week in a row, I did not have the forethought to prepare a bread starter prior to Sunday morning.  And while I have a jar of funky looking levain stewing in the back of my refrigerator, I can’t remember when I last refreshed it with flour to make it usable.

You can hardly blame me for forgetfulness though; I was too excited about getting to see The Pixies to contemplate poolishes and bigas on Saturday morning.

Of course, if I wanted to bake bread still, I had to choose something that would be leavened only by yeast and time.  Lucky for me, I had one such loaf ear-marked from the last time I went through Local Breads to find recipes that interested me.

The bread I chose was a pane alla ricotta, which was a bit of a departure from the breads I’ve been baking of late, in that it contained both a soft cheese and butter instead of olive oil.  Being the fan of ricotta that I am (I could eat the stuff by the spoonful, and when we have it in the house, I often do) I was intrigued by the potential of this bread.  I crossed my fingers and hoped that it would live up to my expectations…

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In Excess

This Week's Haul

Yesterday afternoon after my sojourn to the farmer’s market, I had to make a stop at my favourite spice emporium, The Spice Trader to procure some of their delicious wares.

Despite the fact that I always go to the store with a very precise list, I invariably end up leaving with 3-4 times more product than I had anticipated.

Of course, yesterday’s visit was no different, and even though I only intended to buy 3 or 4 things, $100 later I arrived home with 13 items.

Most of what I purchased were refills for my already overflowing spice drawer, but a few new items called out from the shelves for experimentation.  Choice among those were the roasted paprika, which I was advised is quite different and more complex than pimenton, and is an ashy brownish black.  There were also crushed olive leaves, and though I’m not much of a fan of olives beyond their oil, something told me I wouldn’t be disappointed if I purchased these leaves, so I did.  The other item earmarked for messing around with was the rose petals, which off the top of my head might make an interesting addition to my pink pepper fleur de sel cocoa shortbread.

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Where Have All The Farmers Gone?

At the beginning of this year’s growing season, I was frequenting several farmer’s markets a week.

Some might consider that overkill (and they wouldn’t be wrong), especially since my approach to food shopping is not at all European, or in the style of purchasing only what I require at the time.  Over the course of the past few months I’ve progressively whittled the number of markets I attend down to one regular Saturday morning trip.  For someone like me, with a constant desire to have it all, that’s no small feat.  But it was made somewhat easier once I started to open my eyes and discard my naiveté about our markets and how they are generally operated.

Year after year, the number of farmers continues to dwindle as society becomes more technologically advanced and urbanified, yet they must exist somewhere, otherwise who is growing our food?  A great, bitter and secret irony in Ontario is that many of the people that you’ll find at your local farmer’s market aren’t actually farmers at all, because strangely enough, not all markets require such a criteria of their vendors.  While it’s true that the artisan purveyors at the market have been on the downswing for a while, one thing I always had faith in was the fact that the person selling me my food at the market was connected to it in some way.  Unfortunately, in a lot of cases those people lounging around under tents in parking lots and wooded areas are just as likely to have picked up that produce at the local food terminal as they were to have harvested it themselves.  I’d read about the prevalence of this dishonesty elsewhere before, but stubbornly refused to believe it was true.  Yet, the more I started to inquire about the provenance of the food or a vendor’s involvement in producing it, the fewer answers I was left with.  The last straw finally came when I asked a “farmer” what variety of vegetables they were selling and how they were grown, and all I was met with was a blank stare. Any farmer worth their salt or the products in their pickup could tell you which varietals they sweat blood and tears growing for the last few months. Or weeks later when I showed up to another notable market, only to find bananas (not a product that grows in Canada, even) and sweet corn (this was in the beginning of June before the corn would have even been tall enough to eat) available on the tables.  And if these faux-farmers are just buying up skids at the food terminal, how is that any different than if I were to purchase said food at a supermarket?  My faith in the process having taken a hit, I immediately stopped shopping at any vendors that were unable to provide answers to the simplest of questions.  In effect, if they are selling that food under false pretences, why should I believe any other claims they might make about it, like whether it’s local or organic?  How is one to know?

In Toronto a body of concerned citizens exists to vet the farmers that sell at their markets; they formed an organization in 2007 called My Market, and their goal is to ensure that the people selling you the food are the people who grow that food, which also helps to certify that the food is actually local.  The My Market locations (there are 5) are not exclusively organic, but they are a step in the right direction towards keeping our food dollars within the community.  The market that I visit each week happens to be a My Market, and while there are a few things that seem to be missing (decent bread, a meat or sausage vendor and blueberries) the motley group of 10 to 12 vendors are always happy and friendly, and exhibit exorbitant amounts of passion when discussing their wares.  Not only will they talk your ear off about the latest assortment of fruit and veg from their farms, but they have the dirt under their nails and smeared over their boots to prove it.  In this day and age, authenticity still counts for something, after all.

And that is something I can feel good about.  So now you know where I spend my Saturday mornings, but what about you?

Until next time…

The Right And Wrong Way To Make A Grain Salad

The Right Way

Years ago, while working at my previous job, a dear friend (and coworker) of mine and I started up a lunch club.

The premise was simple.  Each week, we would alternate prepping lunches for each other, and the only caveat was that they had to be affordable, healthy and tasty.  Though I’m a decent cook, I often felt she had an unfair advantage, as her boyfriend at the time (now husband) was a chef at The Royal York Hotel.  Nonetheless, between the two of us we churned out some pretty amazing and diverse meals, but the one thing I vividly remember was a fragrant cold couscous salad that she concocted one day.

The Wrong Way

Over the years I’ve recalled that couscous salad often.  I’ve wanted to recreate it for some time, but the Everyman and I don’t really eat too much in the way of grain or bean salads, though I know that we should.  When I got home from work the other night, it occurred to me that a variation of that couscous salad would make a wonderful addition to our weekly vegetarian lunch roster, so I haphazardly began throwing grains into a pot of chicken stock that was simmering on the stove.  In went the wheat berries, which take the longest to cook.  After an hour, next went the teff and bulgur.  A few minutes before I thought everything was done, I mixed in some couscous and additional liquid, plus a pinch of chili flakes, some chopped zucchini, corn and oven-dried tomatoes.  Disaster!  By the time it was done, the pot was one big pile of glop, though the veggies were perfectly cooked.  At first I thought it might set up overnight in the fridge, but when I got up in the morning all I found was a disgusting congealed mass resembling day old oatmeal more than fluffy grain salad.  Clearly if you want to cook various grains they need to be prepped separately before being combined into a salad.

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Mission Mile High

Interior Shot

The August 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers’ cookbook Kaffeehaus:  Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.

So, this month’s Daring Bakers challenge was quite an adventure.  As the header says, the hosts selected a dobos torte, which a) is something I’d never heard of before, and b) was yet another recipe from this Kaffeehaus book (as was the strudel I made a few months ago).

At first I was a little bummed that we were doing another recipe from the same book (variety, people!) but after reading through the recipe a few times, I realized that the techniques required were quite different and would be somewhat challenging.  I threw myself into this one wholeheartedly, all the while anticipating wonderful results.

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Around The World In 80 Bites

It’s been a while since the Everyman and I went on vacation.

We started our relationship by going on a roadtrip to Ottawa for a concert, then to Cuba for a friend’s wedding, but the last true vacation was to Panama in 2007.  Last year we did a few 4 day jaunts to the US, but they’re kind of a tease because as soon as you start getting relaxed you have to turn around and go home again.  We’ve been meaning to take some time off this year, but between the two of us starting new jobs within the last 9 months, it never seemed like the right time.  We’ve done a few long weekends this summer, but haven’t gone any further than our recent drive to Bradford for the Outstanding In The Field dinner.  This year, it’s been all about the staycation thus far, unfortunately.

We’ve been discussing a few potential places for several months, having narrowed it down to a long weekend in the Carolinas, a 7 to 10 day journey to Spain, and the decadent CuisinArt Spa in Anguilla.  The Carolinas might still be possible this year, but Spain requires a bit of advanced planning, since I’d have to visit El Bulli and the reservation wait list is notoriously long.  I’ve been thinking I should put our names down now for next year, even. On the other hand, the CuisinArt Spa is prohibitively expensive, so I don’t think we’ll be going there any time soon, but it’s certainly nice to dream.

Earlier this summer I wanted to take a short sojourn to Montreal or Ottawa during some time off, but the Everyman claimed ignorance once the time came, so we didn’t end up going anywhere.  When he happened to come home last week and tell me that we were going to go to Quebec City for Labour Day weekend, I was ecstatic.  Before even contemplating any sites to see or things to do, I hit up the Quebec Chowhound board to mine for edible recommendations.  I do enjoy travelling, but realistically, tourism is just something I tend to do between meals, which are really the star attraction for me.  One thing I’ve come to realize about myself is that no matter where we’re planning to go, the first thing I have to nail down is where I’m going to eat.  It’s the mark of a true foodie, I suppose…

We’ll be arriving on Friday around lunchtime, and returning to Toronto on Monday around the same time, so that leaves us with 9 whole meal opportunities!  So far, I’ve managed to gather 7 recommendations in the vicinity of our hotel (Chateau Frontenac) from haute cuisine to café fare, but I imagine we’ll just be stopping in to random places that we find.  Because we both have allergies and very rusty French, we have to be somewhat vigilant about not patronizing restaurants that do not provide English menus, because there’s always the chance that we’ll miss something and fall ill.  I had wanted to go to either Restaurant Toast! or L’Utopie, but the Everyman wasn’t a fan of the menu at Toast, and L’Utopie’s website does not have anything listed in English, so we’ll have to see once we get there.  It’s sort of a drag, because I was really looking forward to going to one of them, but I hear the food at Le Clocher Penche, Le Pain Beni, Cochon Dingue and Le Billig is fabulous, so hopefully I won’t be missing much.  The Everyman’s brother and wife did a trip to Quebec City for their anniversary recently, and they said the food was fantastic, but everything was over the top rich, to the point that by the end all they wanted was salad.  I’m hoping to mitigate that excess by sourcing a few vegetarian options for lunches, or alternatively packing an impromptu picnic or two.  Regardless, I’m sure the easy access to poutine and pain au chocolat will mean I’m 10 pounds fatter by the time we come home, but sacrifices must be made.  It’s a good thing I’ve been eating all this vegetarian food lately, I guess!

Of course, if any of you out there on the interwebs have recommendations, I am all ears!  Just drop a line in the comments, it would be much appreciated.

Until next time…

She’s Got Pig, And She Knows How To Use It

Sliced

This past weekend project bacon reached it’s inevitable conclusion with the smoking of the first 2.5 pound slab.

Dried Out

After sitting in a honey, vanilla and pink peppercorn-laced cure for a week, I was surprised at how little liquid was expelled.  I partially attribute that to my decision to run the sea salt through a spice grinder first, which yielded a finer powder than I was expecting.  The honey was also particularly viscous, and did not adhere well at first.  In the end though, the cure seems  to have penetrated the meat fairly well.  When I retrieved it from the cure for it’s day of pellicle formation, the bacon gave off a sweet, heady aroma that was vaguely floral, possibly owing to the honey.

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Bella Bianca

Baked

Truthfully, I’m not usually one for compromise.

I want what I want, and I want it my way, so woe betide those who might get between me and whatever I’m after.

One of the things I enjoy about Sundays is the opportunity for solitude that comes from quietly baking.  However, the Everyman and I had to go out to the KW yesterday afternoon, so any bread I intended to bake needed to be a little easier or more low maintenance.  After last week’s recipe perusal, I had a list of close to a half dozen breads I wanted to play around with in the near future, so from that I selected the one bread that didn’t require any sort of starter or biga; the pizza bianca.

Pizza bianca is pizza in it’s most elemental form.  The dough is similar to focaccia, except it’s not quite as airy.  For a bianca, it is nothing more than dough baked in a blazing hot oven sprinkled with olive oil and sea salt, but to fancy it up a little, you can turn it into pizza rosso, where it becomes a tomato sauce-based pizza.

Back when I first started making focaccia, the Everyman commented that they were similar to the ones he used to buy in Italy as a snack, but mine came with more in the way of herb topping.  After awhile it occurred to me that perhaps what the Everyman had been reminiscing about was a pizza bianca.  I always meant to get around to making him one, but with so many tempting options in Local Breads to sample, who could blame me for neglecting the bianca a wee bit?

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Mrs. Foodie, You Make Good Cookies

Baked

More than just about anything else, I love cookies.

I like big ones, small ones, chewy ones, crispy ones, and my own patented brand of cookie, the “fookie“.  For those of you not in the know, a fookie is a fuckin’ big cookie, usually chocolate chip, that is made by taking a batch’s worth of cookie dough and forming it into one gigantic, deep dish pizza-sized cookie.  Yum!

Since the Everyman and I were planning on visiting his very awesome grandmother, it seemed only fitting that I should make a batch of baked goods to take along.  I knew she was a fan of my oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, but I felt like doing something a tiny bit different this time.  After all, I like people to know I am more than just a one trick pony.

Since it’s been quite humid in Toronto this week, the bananas have been ripening faster than normal, so I had half a bunch on my hands that needed to be dispatched with, ASAP.  Combining the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with bananas seemed like the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone, and sounded like they would produce an awesome hybrid of cookie/bread, while also allowing me to reduce the fat content.

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A Local I Wish Was My Local

Since moving to Little Italy a few years ago, the Everyman and I have been on the hunt for a local haunt.

Paramount to him has always been a decent beer list and classic, pub-style fare, but I’ve been searching for something more.

I don’t drink beer, so that’s never been a consideration for me, and I prefer food that’s slightly more thoughtful than your run of the mill wings and veggie sticks, or chicken fingers.  The Everyman’s just as easily satisfied by a club sandwich as he is by a steak, so it can be challenging at times for us to find common ground.

The closest we’ve come to having a regular spot would be Czehoski, where the comfort food is fancified, the drinks are top notch and the staff are hip, but the furthest thing from pretentious.  I also have a soft spot for chef Leor Zimerman, who always has a kind word for us whenever he sees us sitting at the table in the window, and even comes out to deliver our meals occasionally or ask how we enjoyed his specials (note to Leor, please please please put that delectable tamale on the regular menu!!!)  Czehoski excels at simple, delicious edibles, makes a fantastic homemade burger (those milk buns!) and also serves a decadent brunch, with a croissant bread pudding that is not to be missed.  The menu is small, and the room lends itself to lounging, and considering we have not found a true brunch place in the area that isn’t overrated, it’s where we typically head when we want to get our morning weekend eat on.

But sometimes, you really do just want someplace you can go to have a well made cocktail (or in the Everyman’s case, a beer) where the staff are friendly, and the food (if you want it) is good.  A place that has ambiance, that is more like a bar.

Recently, we found that place.

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Comfort Food, Foodie Style

Comforty Delicious

Earlier this year, the Everyman and I had a mostly forgettable dinner at Noce during Winterlicious.  At the time I thought it was quite a shame, because I’d heard nothing but good things about the restaurant prior to our visit.

The one bright spot in our meal was a creamy polenta dish with a sausage ragu that the Everyman literally inhaled.  The other night while trying to come up with something appealing to make for dinner, that particular dish came to mind.  It had a richness of flavour to it that was wholly comforting in its simplicity, like being wrapped in a warm, fluffy blanket on a cold winter day.

Comfort foods are usually creamy, somewhat fatty, protein-laden dishes, and while I enjoy all of those elements, I have been trying to make a shift toward slightly healthier, less meat-centric dishes lately.  With that caveat, I intended to create a dish that had all the impact of its comfort food counterpart, but lighter and exhibiting a refined elegance.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was confident that I could pull it off.

First I started a pot of chicken broth and milk to boil.

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You Don’t Win Friends With Salad

Peppers And Salad And Bread, Oh My!

We’ve recently entered my favourite segment of summer; abundance.

You can’t swing a cat at the farmer’s markets around town without hitting a veritable cornucopia of jewel-toned fruits and veggies just ripe for the eating.  The dazzling arrays of produce are mildly hypnotic, and I often end up purchasing more than I would normally eat just because it looks so yummy.  Of course, there’s really no downside to increasing your fruit and veggie ingestion, just let your senses guide you toward the items you find pleasing to the palate.

To that end, I’ve been running a bit of an experiment in our household this week, using the Everyman and I as guinea pigs.  Not only has our f&v consumption increased due to seasonal factors and availability, but I’ve also been decreasing our meat intake and replacing it with vegetarian protein sources for lunch, therefore only consuming modest amounts of meat for dinner.  In a roundabout way it’s sort of an offshoot of Mark Bittman’s VB6 (vegan before 6) concept, except that I am not ruling out the occasional bit of milk, cream or cheese.  Otherwise it’s somewhat more challenging to provide ample protein to the Everyman who is allergic to nuts, averse to eggs and until recently, detested tofu.

As I mentioned earlier this week I finally mastered a decent tofu dish, and our lunch Tuesday was broiled tempeh in a cherry jalapeno barbecue sauce.  Yesterday’s midday meal was a textured vegetable protein (soy flake), bulgur and ricotta stuffed pepper, and of the three, only one was a dud (the tempeh).  I’ve been supplementing these meatless meals with all of the bounty my local markets have to offer, including gorgeous yellow watermelon wedges, handfuls of plump multicoloured heirloom cherry tomatoes, the second coming of strawberries, wild blueberries, grilled corn, beets, nutty sunflower sprouts and freshly shelled peas.  We certainly haven’t been starved for options in the Foodie and the Everyman kitchen this week.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I could give up meat forever (far from it), but the exercise has allowed me to get more comfortable with omnivorousness and the flexitarian mentality.  I can cook well, but there is a marked difference between making a veggie side dish tasty and making a vegetarian meal satisfying enough that you don’t miss the meat.  Except for the tempeh fiasco, the Everyman’s not complaining either, so I must be doing something right.  The main upside for me is that this more plant-centric diet has left me feeling lighter, less sluggish and bloated during the blistering heat and humidity wave we’ve been enduring.

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The Foodie 13 – Compulsory Kitchen Gadgets

Being that I was ruminating over my dream kitchen yesterday, I thought it would be wholly appropriate to delve into the various gadgetry that I find essential for any well equipped kitchen.  I tend to subscribe to the Alton Brown school of thought; meaning I try not to clutter my kitchen with single-use tools, because in most cases, less is more.

However, that philosophy hasn’t stopped me from the occasional impulse buy (really, who needs an ice cream scoop in the shape of a cow, anyway?)

So, without further adieu…

1 – Tongs – Ah, tongs.  Tongs are like the duct tape of the kitchen world; exceptionally versatile and always innovative in their usage.  I can use tongs to cook (clearly), but they also make great tools for holding oily pieces of paper towel when wiping down a BBQ grill, they’re key for retrieving foods from narrow-mouthed jars, and if you place half a lemon between the arms, the lever action makes a pretty bitchin’ impromptu juicer.

2 – A Santoku or other really sharp chef’s knife – My preference leans toward an Asian-style knife, and Santoku’s are notable for their comfort, reliability and precision.  A Santoku is a Japanese knife that is typically shorter, stouter and easier to handle in my dainty hand than a traditional 8 or 10 inch chef’s knife.  They occasionally have scalloped “divets” on the sides of the blade to prevent food from sticking to the knife, but Wikipedia informs me that these might not be entirely traditional.  As a rule of thumb, every kitchen should have one really solid, sturdy knife, and for my money, the Santoku does it in my kitchen.

3 – Salad Spinner – Even if you only occasionally eat your greens, it makes good sense to have one of these around because nothing deflates a salad faster than limp, water-logged leaves.  The internal bowl in the spinner can also double as a colander, and the whole thing can also be used (gently) for washing cherry tomatoes or delicate summer berries.

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