Tuesday, April 03, 2007

More Ice Cream, a Farmers' Market, a Craft Show and my first roasted chicken.

Phew! That's a lot of food related events for one long weekend.

The ice creams were a caramel and a mocha almond. I blame my own cowardice for the failure of the caramel. First I was worried about burning the sugar so I didn't cook it long enough to get that rich caramel taste. Then I was fearful with the salt and didn't end up with enough of a contrast. So end the end, it was just...nice. Creamy and sweet and a little too similar to the maple ice cream of yesterday.

Second came the mocha almond. I modified a chocolate ice cream recipe which used cocoa and melted chocolate and against my better judgement, I kept the cocoa and replaced the chocolate with espresso. Next time, I'd keep the chocolate and replace the cocoa, with a little less espresso. It was still good, but had a slightly granular texture.

I just got the Williams Sonoma ice cream book out of the library today and can't wait to try some of their recipes. Once I've mastered the basics and succeed at creating some of my own flavours, I'll post the recipes. Next is honey-pecan.

On Thursday I went to the Dufferin Grove Park farmers' market. It's the lowest point of the farm season so I can't really judge by this visit, but I still enjoyed it. There were about 11 vendors there and everyone was really freindly and happy to talk about what they were selling. I bought some wildflower honey, sheep's milk camembert, veggie spring rolls, and a fresh baked whole wheat lemon-thyme bread. The cheese was a little sharper than I like my camembert, but it went beautifully when combined with the honey.

On Saturday, I went to the One of a Kind craft show. I had no idea there was so much great food-related material there! I tried dozens of samples and came home with rhubarb-fig and ginger jams, an Indian spice mix and cookbook (which I'll write more about when I've had a chance to try it out) and some dark, amber maple syrup (which I am so excited to bake with - it's got so much more flavour than the light maple syrup I've been using!). My obsession with food is finding new places to manifest itself. A craft show- who knew? And it was quite inspiring seeing what was for sale at all the booths - while it looked delicious, I found myself frequently saying "I could do that!".

On Sunday I was having company for dinner so I decided to try out a recipe from the Barefoot in Paris cookbook. The recipe was for lemon-stuffed roasted chicken. I have never before roasted a chicken, so I was a little concerned about how it would turn out but it couldn't have been easier. I used the leftover lemon-thyme bread to make croutons and they went perectly.
For dessert, I came up with some easy variations on the ice creams I had already made. I used store-bought shortbread cookies and made a sandwich with the blueberry ice cream, topped it with an italian meringue and carmelized it with my kitchen torch. The carmel ice cream went well with tarts I made from the fig-rhubabrb jam from the craft show. And some maple syrup boosted the flavour in my maple ice cream. Delicious, but too much food! I always over-feed my guests. It's something I'd like to master, but for now, better too much than too little.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Some Musings on Local Food and Maple Ice Cream

The recent buzz about the importance of eating locally has grown to a roar, with at least four articles in local papers on the subject today. Here’s a link to a good resource on the topic: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/wol/challenge/Newsletter/Seven.asp, which addresses the dilemma: which is better, organic or local? (The answer? Organic and local is best, but if you have to choose, pick local.)

The impulse that draws me to the idea is equal parts gourmand and do-gooder. There’s something satisfying about the ability to provide familiar, comforting food where none existed. It’s the same impulse that drives my baking, taken one step further. While I’m aware that it’s the farmers who do the greater portion of the heavy lifting in this scenario, it feels survivalist and safe to be able to go directly to the earth where the food is grown to procure it. It feels like I deserve extra credit (and maybe a second helping) for making the effort.

Also, there are no more mysteries in the food chain. I know my produce wasn’t sprayed with something to make it green, or picked when unripe and chemically prodded to fruition. I can see where it grew, or talk to the farmer who raised it and picked it. There’s more trust because nothing is concealed.

The more research I do, the more thrilled I am with the possibilities that exist locally. Southern Ontario has such a wide variety of produce available year-round, and most of the staples I couldn’t do without grow here. I was worried for a while that we had no local salt since I thought it required a body of salt water but actually, the world’s largest salt mine is located here in Ontario. (Hey, I learned something new – I’m glad I got up today!). It’s a little further than 100 miles away, (134 to be exact) but better than I thought.

I’m excited to head out to the farm when rhubarb and asparagus season starts in May, but in the meantime I plan on visiting some local markets and seeing what year-round products I can get my hands on. The Dufferin Park organic market is on tomorrow and I think I’ll make a pilgrimage.

Yesterday’s maple ice cream turned out well. It was more substantial than the blueberry which had a good flavour, but a texture more like frozen whipped cream. I made the maple without any nuts since I really want to perfect the bases before expanding into add-ins. It still needs a little tweaking. It tastes richer that the blueberry, but maybe a little too rich. Now it feels like the egg is overwhelming the added flavour. Today’s batch will be salted caramel, and one of the egg yolks will be replaced with an egg white. I actually made the batter yesterday and it’s chilling in my fridge. Tonight I’ll be making a mocha-almond recipe by special request. After that, I’ll have to slow down as I’m running out of freezer space.

Monday, March 26, 2007

I scream for ice cream!

Yesterday, I felt suddenly compelled to buy an ice cream maker. I went to Williams Sonoma just to look, but I think they knew I was coming. Not one thing in that store was on sale, except for a Krups GVS 1 ice cream maker. Of course it followed me home and I’ve been preoccupied with it ever since.

The Krups is the old fashioned kind of ice cream maker where you have to refrigerate the bowl for 24 hours before you can use it, as I learned when I unpacked it. 24 hours!?! But I wanted to make ice cream today! I haven’t been this impatient waiting for food since I was a young child waiting for the light bulb in my Easy-Bake oven to cook brownies!

But tonight the 24 hours was up and I put in my blueberry ice cream mix. It was a Philadelphia-style ice cream with no eggs and while March may not be the right season for blueberries, in all modesty, I must say, it was delicious! I memorized the recipe in Williams Sonoma and improvised with what I had at home – cream, sugar, frozen blueberries and a dash of lemon juice. I only had whipping cream, which might explain why it is a fairly soft ice cream, and the cream might slightly overwhelm the blueberry taste, but it still leaves store-bought ice cream in the dust.

I was so excited, I immediately moved on to my next batch, an egg-custard-based maple ice cream. (Maple has been my obsession lately—more on that later). It’s cooked and cooling in my fridge and will go into the Krups when I get home from work tomorrow. I plan on adding some crumbled maple cookies I have hanging around and some of the maple toffee sauce I made yesterday for some baked apples. I know, it’s kind of a busy recipe, but my sweet tooth knows no bounds. I’ll let you know how it turns out tomorrow!

New direction!

Note: As of today this blog will go in a new direction. Or less of a direction. I’ll be blogging about general food-related topics. I find I’m not eating at restaurants as often, and when I do, it’s the same ones over and over. However, I have been baking up a storm, so I’ll be writing about more of my culinary adventures at home. I’ve also become very interested in the environmental implications of the distance our food travels and the possibilities available close to home, so I’ll be making more visits to local farms to pick up my own seasonal produce to experiment with here in the home lab.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Ah, Summerlicious , I wish I knew how to quit you.

Every year around this time and again in the dead of winter, I get my hopes up. At the first whisper of the “word” Summerlicious http://www.toronto.ca/special_events/streetfest/summerlicious.htm (or Winterlicious, for that matter), my imagination soars with thoughts of the lovely and innovative cuisine available at some of our city’s finer establishments at a fraction of the usual price. And ordering dessert is mandatory!

I race to the internet, fingers flying, to discover what’s on the menu. I form lengthy lists of possibilities. I plan and schedule and research. This is where the dream starts to fade away. Too often, the vegetarian item is pasta. Usually, this is not the restaurant’s specialty. In fact, it’s often not good enough to appear on its menu. If, from the restaurant’s point of view, the purpose of Summerlicious is to lure you in, impress you with what they’ve got and get you to come back at full price, why are they offering second rate, half-hearted vegetarian choices with little resemblance to the cuisine that they are famous for? And when the item is on the menu, if you do them math you’ll find out it would be cheaper to order off the menu than to get the special.

The Summerlicious restaurant list denotes the restaurants with vegetarian items with a picture of a carrot. (I take partial credit for this- in past when they only published a list of restaurants without a menu, I must have driven the restaurants mad, phoning them to ask which had vegetarian items only to lose my list and be forced to call them again!) However, if you click on these menus, you’ll often find that they don’t have a full vegetarian meal, only an appetizer, or only have vegetarian items for lunch, or have decided fish is a vegetable.
I first discovered the concept of Summerlicious while I was visiting Boston, at their much less embarrassingly named Restaurant Week. ( For anyone considering a career in the adult film industry, may I suggest the stage name Summer Licious? And if you have a twin, she can go by Winter Licious.) In Boston, I had a delicious meal with a unique puffed pastry vegetable tart to start, a creamy risotto for my main course and a rich chocolate cake for dessert. Imagine my disappointment when I attended my first Summerlicious in Toronto only to be served pasta out of a bag with a handful of frozen vegetables.

Still, older and wiser, I’m making my list this year. I’ve learned to avoid the pasta except at the Italian eateries. I’ve learned to read the menus with a discerning eye to see which chefs really understand vegetarian cooking and which are just tossing us a bone.

Here are some of the menus that have caught my eye. Hopefully, I will get to at least one before the event is over so I can let you know how it went. If not, I may go on a full price day. They’re making the effort for vegetarians, I should make an effort for them, too.

Mistura: offering a Red Beet Risotto to start, with Pomodoro Ripieno, a couscous stuffed tomato and vegetable ragout as the main and molten chocolate torte with pistachio ice cream for dessert.
The restaurant at the King Edward Hotel: Offering “Ajo Blanco”, a white almond gazpacho with roasted pepper salsa, Green Pea Risotto with shaved parmesan and summer truffle oil and dense chocolate truffle tart with pistachio ice cream and raspberry coulis (There seems to be a trend toward pistachio ice cream here!)

Here is my wish list of restaurants I’d like to see participating next year: Jamie Kennedy Gardiner, Perigee and Scaramouche. But I doubt it will happen. I think they’re doing just fine without my help.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Golden Triangle: Iron Chef, Yonge and Bloor Edition

If, as I suspect, Yonge and Bloor is the heart of Toronto, and if the loyalties of that heart can be determined based on the cuisine it chooses to embrace, Toronto’s heart belongs to Asia. (Actually, it may belong to mass chain sub shops, but Asian is a close second, and that’s what I’m going to focus on today.) There are three excellent choices in close proximity to each other all offering variations on the theme with varying degrees of success.

The first, and best known is Spring Rolls. This little Toronto institution has grown up into a full-fledged chain with four locations and two spinoffs, but the 693 Yonge Street location remains busy all day and into the evening. The dining room is lovely to look at but the acoustics are terrible for conversation. Luckily, your mouth will likely be too full to talk anyway. The eponymous spring rolls are tasty, with a zesty sauce. Servings of main courses are large, and almost every flavour of sauce offers a veggie option. One complaint might be that with the heavy sauces, the dishes become a little one-note. Two doors down, there is a fast-food version of the restaurant sharing the same kitchen. Here you can choose smaller portions of several dishes for more variety.

Green Mango, like Spring Rolls, is a chain of four restaurants, and like Spring Rolls, it has a smaller takeout version. In this case, the quality of food in the larger table service restaurant at 730 Yonge is superior. There is a full page of vegetarian menu selections. Green Mango’s food is consistently good but rarely reaches a memorably excellent level. There are exceptions to this. Quality ingredients make the asparagus with roasted cashews and oranges stand out, and an Asian version of the crepe stuffed with tender-crisp vegetables and a subtle lemon sauce impresses with its originality. It’s unfortunate that Green Mango is often overshadowed by its better-known neighbours, but perhaps its reputation is dragged down by the mediocre quality of the food from their take-out shop.

Indochine (4 Collier Street) is several blocks north and in a league of its own. The sleek serenity of its dining room will make you feel immediately both relaxed and trendy. There are more than 20 vegetarian items on the menu, several of which can be ordered in a combo with a spicy Vietnamese hot and sour soup and veggie spring roll. Ironically, their spring rolls, with a thick crispy wrapper closer in texture to an egg roll and flavourful mushroom and sprout filling, put Spring Rolls mushy pretenders to shame. One strange idiosyncrasy of this restaurant is that the combos are different for the in-house and delivery menus. Pledging my complete allegiance to their veggie pad thai and mango salad combo, I now insist on ordering in, which has the added benefit of larger portions. In the end, the only thing better than dinner from Indochine is two dinners from Indochine!

Green Mango 730 Yonge Street http://www.greenmango.ca/

Spring Rolls 693 Yonge Street http://www.springrolls.ca/

Indochine 4 Collier Street http://www.indochinethaicuisine.ca/

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bread-Heaven is a place on earth

“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.”
Robert Browning (1812-1889) English poet

I’ll let you in on a secret: I know the bread Robert Browning was writing about. It is available here in Toronto, but here’s the catch: they won’t sell it to you. No, they insist on giving it to you for free!

The French are known for their bread, and with good reason, but let’s give credit where credit is due: Some of the best bread around can be found at our city’s Italian eateries. From the unlimited bread at the Spaghetti Factory whose soft warm bounty has spoiled many a keen appetite, to the sharp squares of olive bread at Trattoria Vaticano whose flavour strikes you in bold strokes like a Mondrian painting, bread has become so much more than an afterthought to tide you over while you await the appetizers.

But it is in the outer reaches of the borough formerly known as North York where bread has been elevated to an art form. Bread-heaven can be found just a short subway ride away, at a restaurant called Mezza Notte. The first few times I visited, I ordered bruschetta as an appetizer. This was a mistake. There is nothing wrong with the perfectly lovely bruschetta they delivered, but it sat unappreciated next to the delights of the free bread basket. There’s fresh, light white bread of the finest quality for traditionalists, a zesty tomato focaccia that manages to be simultaneously nostalgic and adventurous and an unexpectedly savory potato-rosemary focaccia. You know you’re in for a special meal when you can’t stop raving about the bread basket.

The experience was in no way diminished by the courses to follow. All the homemade pastas are perfectly cooked and the sauces that bathe them are harmonious combinations of earnest, quality ingredients. There are six vegetarian pastas, and numerous pizzas. Among the standout pastas are the plump gnocci in a salty and savoury sauce of pesto with cream and tomatoes, both regular and sun-dried, and the crespelle alla napoletana, similar to but head-and-shoulders above the typical cannelloni with a silky béchamel sauce.

In the highly unlikely event that you are still hungry, the desserts are by Dufflet Pastries and as such are delicious but oddly familiar. Then you can relax in the elegant yet somehow still rustic ambiance of the dining room as you and your dining companions repeatedly query each other, “Have you ever tasted such amazing bread?”

5304 Yonge Street

Grazing: Thoughts on Vegetarian eating in Toronto

Some people think that it’s hard to be a vegetarian, that if they try to give up meat, they’ll find themselves starving in the corner, cinching their belt one notch tighter and looking on enviously as the carnivores feast on fat, juicy steaks, or meditatively contemplating their moral superiority while ordering the side salad at McDonalds. My opinion is this: if it’s hard, maybe you aren’t meant to be a vegetarian.

I don’t see myself as a master of self-control for resisting the siren call of the bacon double cheeseburger. Instead, I see myself a picky eater. A very picky eater. There are foods I just don’t like and never will: artificial banana flavour, olives, mushrooms and meat. It’s not that the smell of a Christmas turkey in the oven doesn’t get my stomach growling, it’s that when it comes time to eat it, I can’t forget that it’s a turkey. A big ugly gobbling bird running around in the dirt that I am about to grab and take a big bite of. I just can’t circumvent that mental image. If you can, I say bon appetite.

The truth about vegetarian dining is this: you will rarely find yourself with nothing to eat. Virtually every restaurant has something for you on the menu, and those who don’t will often alter a recipe or put together a collection of side dishes for you. As a last resort, you can always order double dessert. (Food for thought: If the tomato is a fruit, pasta pomdoro contains the same food groups as a slice of cherry cheesecake: fruit, cheese and a refined flour starch. It’s practically health food!)

While most anywhere will suffice, there are lots of restaurants in Toronto that have something special to offer vegetarians. This space will feature my thoughts on some of my favourites. I’ll be gradually adding my reviews and random thoughts over time, but lest you think I’m holding out, I’ll start at the top:

In my opinion, the best vegetarian meal in Toronto is to be found at Biryani House. One can be forgiven for never having come across this gem because it is located in Roy’s Square, which is, let’s face it, an alley one block south of Yonge and Bloor. Even if you ventured down the alley, the unobtrusive ten-table space might not jump out at you. But looks can be deceiving. At lunch it serves a cafeteria-style buffet of perfectly decent choices, but it’s after five pm that it comes alive. The bustling dining room is overseen with the utmost efficiency and courtesy by a gentleman I believe is the owner, and alone he can provide a full house of hungry customers with better service than a team of 20 waiters of the kind you’d find at a suburban chain restaurant.

The menu is roughly 50 per cent vegetarian choices. Crispy appetizers such as pakoras and samosas with sweet-tart relishes warm up the taste buds, but the best of the bunch is the Dal Soup. Lentils cooked so long they’ve liquefied carry the perfect blend of spices, delivering just the right amount of heat without sacrificing flavour. Main courses always seem to arrive just as you finish the last spoonful. I’ve tried almost every vegetarian option on the menu (with the exception of the mushroom curry; this is a decision based on my own personal feelings about mushrooms. If you like mushrooms, I’m sure this dish would be good too), but harbor a fondness bordering on addiction for their Aloo Gobi Masala, and Eggplant. The first dish is a potato-cauliflower blend coated in a sunny yellow mix of spices, the second a stewed mix of tomato and eggplant mashed up to become so much more than the sum of its parts. Neither is hot-spicy but both are seasoned in a distinct yet complimentary manner. Served over nutty basmati rice and soaked up with a piece of fluffy naan bread which comes in servings big enough for two, every bite is perfect. There are desserts on the menu but I’ve never made it that far. A meal for two rings in at under $30 and I usually have enough leftover to eat for lunch the next day.

I’ve been to a lot of restaurants I’ve liked and oftentimes I’ll find one I’ll rave about. But if I keep going back, eventually I’ll be let down. I have been to Biryani House dozens of time and have never been disappointed. This is why I can confidently declare it to be the best vegetarian meal in Toronto.