Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Frankly, sometimes the Globe & Mail is just plain wrong

Not too long after Frank (the new Frank Gehry-designed restaurant at the Art Gallery of Ontario) opened, it received a couple of not-particularly-favourable reviews in the Globe and Mail and soon became a sort of critical pariah, its interior likened to the worst sort of austere modernist structure (a subway platform? really?) and its food generally panned as pretentious and unappealing.

But Sean and I were mostly unaware of the buzz as we met at the AGO for a cultural experience (onto which we just happened to decide to tack a food experience). You may remember Sean from the Country Style post in which I foolishly took a vegetarian to a Hungarian restaurant. He very graciously snapped this picture of me in front of the AGO with my camera phone, and all the photos for this post were taken thusly (sorry for the small size!).

As we had our priorities straight we decided to eat before art, and so headed into Frank to see what was on offer. Sadly we were told that it was booked up into the next week.
Luckily, I spotted two free barstools at the well-stocked bar.

The bar was a great place to have a little lunch, providing a good vantage point and a nice focal point for all the hustle and bustle. It was nice to be a part of things and to chat to a couple of the waitstaff. The design of the bar (and indeed a whole wall) full of shiny glass cubbyholes for hundreds of wine bottles was brilliant. You can see part of it in the picture above.

We started out with some bread that came with a delicious goat butter – it was clearly goat, but not very salty, so there was a small shell filled with sea salt on the table. You can see the butter and salt behind my dish here.

Which was sooo tasty. It was called (okay, possibly a little pretentiously) Still life with pear, pancetta and fig, and it consisted of a pear (poached in my favourite, riesling), with caramelized fig, pancetta and blue cheese (hooray) – a Quebec bleu Benedictin. Mm. A classic combination, but done really well. The presentation was great and the flavours were fantastic.

Sean's dish, was, if possible, even better than mine. It was the soufflé of the day (!), a caramelized shallot and Maple Dale cheddar soufflé with lentil and roasted carrot salad. The soufflé's texture was absolutely perfect, which is hard to achieve! And so flavourful. We shared a side of frites with lemon mayo (really tasty) and quince ketchup (not sure I liked it, but I do like quince).

With lunch I had a glass of Cave Springs riesling, which was a quite nice inexpensive option, and it served me well for dessert too, which I shared with Sean. It was a baked bittersweet warm chocolate pudding with salted caramel sauce and sweet whipped cream. It crossed the sweet-savoury divide with impunity (several times!) and worked well. Sean and I really liked the salt on the caramel sauce and we salted it some more (from the seashell!). If you squint, you can make out the shapes of Sean and my spoons in the foreground as we were about to dig in.

We had some tea to finish the lunch and it came in the loveliest bodum double-glass cups. Mine was an Earl Grey with darjeeling, assam and rose petals. Wish I'd had my proper camera there as it was beautiful.

It's hard to know how some reviewers come to such unfavourable conclusions about a place where you've had a great experience, but perhaps it's because when they go they taste professionally, whereas the average restaurant-goer is having a social experience, and is perhaps more ready to be impressed in terms of food and atmosphere, and the excitement of visiting somewhere new.

Frankly, I thought Frank was a great experience, and well worth a visit. Give it a try and see what you think.

Art Gallery of Ontario
317 Dundas Street West Toronto
416 979 6688

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Molasses and Yogurt Look Pretty Together – A Bread Update

I haven't become a bread master yet, but there has been some definite progress, so I figured it's time for an update. Before I progressed forward though, I went back – back to one of my old favourites.

There's a quick bread recipe in Mark Bittman's endlessly useful book How to Cook Everything which I used to make often, back in the day before I pledged myself to bread-mastery. It's really easy. Perhaps even easier than cornbread, which is saying a lot, as I'm always shocked at how easy cornbread is. But, I hadn't made it for a while, mostly because it calls for molasses, which hasn't found its way into my cupboard in a long time. What brought the molasses back? Orangette's Chocolate Chip Ginger Molasses Cookies (which are so incredibly good, they've totally revived my interest in making cookies – not the point here, but I wholeheartedly recommend them).

Besides molasses, another attractive ingredient in this quick bread is whole wheat flour. I'm always out of white flour and absolutely rolling in whole wheat flour. Which leads me to try sneaking whole wheat into places it doesn't belong. Like in Italian grape bread, one recent bread mission that failed, I think due to my misguided use of whole wheat:

With part whole wheat flour, the grape bread just didn't have the right texture, didn't taste like a fluffy yummy dessert. I actually had to throw most of it out, which is something I never do. So I'm trying to get smarter with my whole wheat flour decisions. Which means finding recipes that actually call for it. Thus, Whole Wheat and Molasses Bread. This bread is dense, richly flavoured, and a tiny bit cakey with a nice crunchy crust. Over the past week, I paired it with chilli, poached eggs and caponata, and plum-orange jam for different meals – all very successfully. So it's versatile too. It's got everything going for it. I've included the recipe at the bottom of the post so you can get in on the action.

Now that we've discussed my bread failures and regressions of the past month, it's time to talk about what I've actually achieved, what I'm proud of.

First, I bought an oven thermometer! And discovered exactly how big of a lie my oven has been telling me for the past 4 years – a hot 100-degree-sized lie, to be precise. Gasp! Now, I dutifully check the thermometer before even thinking of sliding anything in, and I haven't burned one single thing since. Total success. Thanks Martha!

Second (also Martha-related), I attempted to make Multigrain Rolls, from her Baking Handbook. The result: I kind of screwed them up, but they're still delicious! And, I know what to do to make them right next time.

What went wrong? I killed the yeast by using too-hot milk. I was pretty sure that I had done so right from the beginning, but didn't have enough ingredients left to start over again and really wanted to make these rolls. Solutions? I'm going to add to my thermometer collection with an instant read thermometer to test the temperatures of milk and water before I subject my poor yeast to these warm (not hot!) liquids. I also called my sister to relate my yeast-killing woes, and sought her advice of course. She was familiar with my situation and commiserated that it's really easy to overheat milk (yay, I'm not stupid!). So, two new additions to my list of bread-teachings from Tessa:

  • With milk, it's better to err on the colder side. If the liquid is too cold, the bread will still rise, it will just take longer. Slower rising is better than no rising at all, I figure! It's such torture to watch bread fail to rise. I leave the house for two hours and return full of hope, only to be so disappointed upon seeing that sad ball of dough looking just like it did when I left...
  • If you're heating the milk a little less to be safe, it's a good idea to pre-heat the bowl that you'll be mixing the milk and yeast in. This ensures that the milk doesn't loose its heat too quickly. To do this with a stainless steel bowl, just run it under hot water for a few minutes.
Here's what the rolls looked like – not plump but still quite pretty:

My plan now is to try making the rolls again, equipped with this new knowledge. I think one of the things that works against my mission to attain mastery in the kitchen is that I'm always drawn toward experimenting with new recipes and rarely repeat one, at least not soon after enough to be able to build on my experiences. So, I'll restock my ingredients and then make these rolls again. And they will be perfect! Eating the small dense ones of this first batch, I can imagine how heavenly they would taste had they risen – the dough has a wonderful sweet and light flavour despite all of the healthy grains in there (whole wheat flour, oats, oat bran, flax seeds) and they're topped with coarse salt, fennel seeds, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds. This is a recipe it will be worth taking time to master. And speaking of the recipe, I'll post it in my next bread report (hopefully along with photos of a perfectly risen second batch), as this post is already too long – so stay tuned!

In the meantime, here's that quick bread recipe:
Quick Whole Wheat and Molasses Bread
[from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything]
Butter for greasing pan
1 2/3 cups buttermilk or plain yogurt (I used goat yogurt)
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup molasses

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease an 8 x 4-inch or 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.
2. Mix together dry ingredients.
3. Stir the molasses into the buttermilk or yogurt.
4. Combine the liquid with the dry ingredients, then pour into the loaf pan.
5. Bake until firm and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about an hour. Cool on a rack for 15 min before removing from pan.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Valentine's Day Roast Leg O' Lamb

So, this is essentially a shared post, as Chris deserves full credit for the absolute deliciousness of our Valentine's Day roast lamb dinner, however, since I'm the resident blogger here, I'll be recounting the story myself.

This past Saturday night, Chris and I decided to forego the hordes of couples dining out in lush romantic Vancouver establishments, and instead, enjoy a homemade dinner for two at home. Well, that and the fact that we couldn't get a reservation anywhere on two days' notice (which was when we finally thought about making dinner plans). Oops!

Following an afternoon of cross country skiing at Cypress mountain (or mostly falling down, for me), we drove towards Granville Island in a race against time. With only twelve minutes until the market closed (no joke, it was literally 6:48 pm when we parked the car), by some miracle, we managed to purchase a huge 5.5 lb bone-in leg of lamb from Tenderland Meats, roasting potatoes and salad greens from one of the produce shops, a marvelous selection of olives from Duso's, three glorious cheeses including Roquefort, Manchego, and Gruyere from Dussa’s, and last but certainly not least (managing to sneak in an order after closing time) some Finocchiona salami from Oyama, which has fennel embedded in it. Chris is a huge fan of both fennel and salami, so this was truly a special treat for him.

Once home, we began preparing the lamb. Though a very simple recipe, it really brought out the flavour of the meat.

First preheat the oven to 450 F. Then, mix the following together in a mortar and pestle until it becomes a paste:
2 tbsp fleur de sel (or coarse salt)
1 tbsp cracked pepper
1-2 large sprigs of rosemary
5-6 cloves of garlic
1 tin of whole anchovies (about 50 grams)
50 ml olive oil

Cut small holes in the meat with the tip of a knife and stuff each hole with the rub. Smear the remaining paste all over the leg of lamb.

Place the lamb in a roasting pan on an oven rack in the bottom third of the oven. Immediately after placing the lamb in the oven, turn the temperature down to 325 F. The lamb should cook until a meat thermometer reads 125-135 for medium rare and 135-145 for medium. This should take between 1-1/4 hrs and 1-3/4 hrs for a 5-7 lb leg. (Ours took 1-1/4 hrs.)

For sides, we had roast potatoes which were parboiled and placed around the roast about half way through the lamb's cooking time, and brussel sprouts which were steamed and then pan fried in a bit of olive oil. To complete the feast, we made a light spinach salad with a simple olive oil and balsamic dressing. Oh, and Chris also managed to whip up an amazing gravy with the lamb drippings, a bit of stock, a spoonful of flour, and some cracked black pepper.

I've always thought roasting meat to be an incredibly daunting endeavour, but this meal was one of the best I've had in ages. And if I can do it, so can you!

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Seafood, four ways

After a long hiatus from WeDine, I've become ridiculously behind on my posts and am finding it overwhelmingly daunting thinking of how exactly to get caught up. And with each week that passes, more meals are cooked, consumed, enjoyed, and the list just keeps on growing and growing! So, in the interest of killing two birds with one stone here (or more aptly, four recipes with one post), I'm doing some multi-tasking.

Please forgive the somewhat incomplete recipes that follow, as some of them were concocted a while back. Though I can tell you that all four were delicious, so I urge you to test them out soon.

1. Fisherman's Stew: a heartwarming meal for any day of the week

6 tbsp olive oil
2 large onions, sliced
1 red pepper, seeded and sliced
4 oz cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced
1 lb canned whole tomatoes
pinch of salt and pepper
pinch of dried thyme
430 ml water
2 lbs white fish fillets, cut into large pieces (we used a combination of red snapper, cod, sole, and also threw in a few large shrimp, for good measure)
140 ml dry white wine of your choice
2 tbsp chopped parsley

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and add the onions. Cook until beginning to look transluscent.

Add the pepper, mushrooms and the tomatoes and bring mixture to the boil.

Add thyme, salt and pepper and water and simmer about 20 mins.

Add all the fish (and shrimp) and the wine and cook until the fish flakes easily, about 15 mins. Stir in parsley.

You should serve this stew quite simply, either with toasted french bread, or as we did, atop a bowl of brown rice.

2. Steamed Mussels: summer decadence on a budget

This was the first time I'd ever attempted homemade mussels, and it was a true success! Unfortunately, I didn't record the recipe at the time, and am now at a bit of a loss. Here's what I remember:

Buy fresh mussels from your local fishmonger (we went to Seven Seas on 4th Ave in Kits). We bought approximately 1 lb of mussels per person (and if you can believe it, the cost was only about $20 total for four people).

Clean and debeard the mussels (if not already done). Throw away any that are open and that don't close when you tap them.

Put about 2 tbsp oil, 1 chopped white onion, and 2 crushed cloves of garlic into a large lidded saucepan and cook over low heat until onion is transparent.

Add 3 large diced tomatoes, 1 bay leaf, 1 finely sliced fennel bulb, and sea salt, and simmer for about 10 mins.

Pour in about 1 cup of white wine, bring sauce to the boil, and add the mussels. Cover with lid and cook for a few mins, shaking the pan a few times.

Check that all the mussels have opened (throw away any that are still closed) and spoon them into large bowls. Sprinkle with chopped flat leaf parsley and serve with crusty bread and a green salad.

3. Shrimp Tacos: a quick and easy weekday dinner

This one was a throw-together-whatever-I-had-on-hand recipe, so I'll try my best to remember what I threw in.

Essentially, all you have to do is sautee some shrimp in a bit of olive oil, and add salt, pepper, a few chili flakes, and a pinch of cumin. Remove the shrimp when they are pink throughout, and in the same saucepan, sautee some diced red pepper and mushrooms. Then, warm a couple of flour tortillas and spoon on the following: red pepper and mushroom mixture, tomato salsa, a few slices of avocado (or homemade guacamole if you're feeling especially motivated), fresh corn kernels (or canned if you don't have fresh on hand), cooked shrimp, and a squeeze of lime juice. Roll up and enjoy!

4. Coconut Prawns: a cocktail party pleaser

4 egg whites
1 cup flour
1 1/2 cups shredded coconut
2/3 cup vegetable or peanut oil
1 to 2 lbs large raw prawns, peeled and deveined, tails intact (I used tiger prawns)
sweet chili sauce, for dipping
lime wedges, to serve

Whisk egg whites in a bowl until light and fluffy. Put flour and coconut onto two separate plates. Heat a deep pan and add oil. Toss prawns in flour, dip them in egg whites, and finally roll them in coconut. When oil is hot, fry prawns a few at a time until golden brown on each side. Drain prawns on paper towels and serve with chili sauce and lime wedges.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Two Christmas Favourites

How happy was I, when, before I arrived in England for the Christmas season, my dad told me that my stepmum had purchased a full wheel of Stilton cheese for our family's post-meal enjoyment? Even happier when it turned out to be this lovely cheese here:

Ah, Hartington! One of the best producers of Stilton. Stilton is one of the few products in England that has successfully won PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, awarded by the EU to recognize a food that is representative of the place from which it originates. As the BBC describes it, the food 'must owe its characteristics to area.'

If that sounds familiar to the French system of appelation d'origine controlée or even terroir (the idea that a food derives its special characteristics from the land it's grown on and the unique local techniques and ingredients that are used to create it) that's because the concept of PDO was based on those French ideas.

Other foods that have won PDO or PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) status in the UK include Single Gloucester cheese and West Country Farmhouse cheddar, Cornish clotted cream, Shetland lamb and Arbroath Smokies (Scottish smoked haddock), Whitstable oysters and Hereford cider.

To meet PDO guidelines, Stilton has to conform to the following:

* the cheese has been made by a licensed dairy located in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire
* the cheese has been made to a traditional recipe from locally produced milk that has been pasteurised before use
* the cheese has been allowed to form its own crust
* the cheese has never been pressed

These make a true Stilton. Tasting the results is evidence of the usefulness of the system in action, as it ensures that Stilton cheese (and other protected foods across Europe) will always have the level of quality that you expect them to.

The Hartington Stilton was delicious. I know many of you may have issues with enjoying blue cheeses, but a good Stilton can be incredibly creamy, crumbly and not too acridly sharp (although the robustness of blue cheese is one of its most wonderful characteristics!).

The wheel came wrapped in paper and encased in an aerated cardboard box, which made opening it after dinner feel like unwrapping a gift every night. You can see all the holes where the stainless steel needles pierced it in order to allow air in to form the beautiful blue veins that run through a good stilton.

Sadly I have no good pictures of the cheese cut open, but trust me, if you haven't tried a good English Stilton on a biscuit after dinner (with a little glass of port) you don't know what you're missing! If you're not a fan of blue cheese you can temper it by using it in recipes such as Stilton and broccoli soup or Meg's recipe for delicious blue cheese burgers here (there are some great sheep & goat cheese blues! Try roquefort, also PDO-protected).

Is there a similar system for food protection in Canada, I wondered? I found the VQA (Vintners' Quality Alliance) at work in both Ontario and BC, that ensures that wines "follow standards throughout the winemaking process that govern content, processes and additives" (according to their website). Apparently there are 20 wine stores that solely carry VQA wines in BC (check it out here.) I haven't found anything out about protected cheeses or other foods here yet. Are there some in Quebec? Is oka a protected cheese for example? If anyone knows more, do comment!

My other Christmas indulgence (well, one of my other indulgences) is Christmas cake. As you may know from previous posts, my stepmum makes a delightful Christmas cake, infused with much alcohol over a couple of months prior to the holidays. Like the Stilton, I slowly made my way through it over the week and a half that I was in Devon. I know that fruitcake is also not everyone's cup of tea, but it's certainly mine, especially when it's so moistly fruity and richly treacly.

But my stepmum showed me the scrimping-and-saving recipe for Christmas cake that her grandmother concocted during the Second World War, and I'm trying to imagine how it might taste. During the war (and indeed until 1954 in England) some fairly severe food rationing was in effect, and luxuries like butter, sugar, meat, tea and biscuits were in short supply. Ration books were handed out, and long lines were commonplace.

Margarine was often a substitute for butter, and it is here. The recipe calls for ingredients like margarine, dried egg, marmalade and orange squash. At the bottom it says cream, but I think that means to cream the ingredients together. In any case, cream was also in short supply, as Jenny's grandmother also lists a wartime recipe for 'mock cream' which calls for a combination of milk and margarine.

I wonder what it would have tasted like? Looking at a modern recipe for Christmas cake, such as one by Delia Smith or Nigel Slater, the sheer variety required to make a tasty cake is fairly impressive. What would a cake made with such restricted quantities and ingredients have been like? It's hard to imagine when we now have such easy access to so many global ingredients.

Certainly something to think about. I have to say it filled me with new appreciation for the sweet luxuries of Christmas.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Old school quick dinner + new cornbread variation

A couple of Wednesday's ago, it was my turn to menu plan, and I wanted to keep it simple (as we usually do!). So I went back to my old recipe box, with those classic lined recipe cards, most of which I copied from my Mom's recipes way way back in the day when I was just starting to think about cooking. And I found one that I haven't made in years, but which I have yummy memories of eating around the family dinner table as a kid – a warm salad of Moroccan chicken strips and greens. I don't know if Mom made this a lot, or just one or two memorable times, but either way I was eager to bring it back.

The salad is extremely quick and easy to put together, and both the dressing and the marinade are super-flavourful – bright, tangy, and fresh tasting. To balance out the healthy salad with some carb-y goodness, we made cornbread too.

I love cornbread, and make it all the time (another classic recipe from Mom, this one written in the recipe notebook she made me years ago) because it's so incredibly quick. Sometimes I add chipotle puree, which is great, but that's as much as I had messed with cornbread before this. Maybe I was inspired by my sister's cornbread experimentation (we had an awesome one of hers over Christmas, with pieces of fresh corn and an assortment of ancient grains), or maybe it was an attempt to make this basic recipe more Wednesday-worthy... One way or another, sundried tomatoes and cilantro made their way into the batter before baking.

The tomatoes were awesome – chopped in large-ish pieces, they provided a chewy, intense flavour hit. The cilantro was a bit underwhelming, I thought. It looked pretty, dotting the bread with bright green, but somehow its flavour got lost in the mix. I think next time I'll try blending it with a bit of oil, and maybe garlic, first, and then stir it through the batter pesto-like. Do you think that will work better? Any other ideas?

Try the salad recipe – my verdict was that it's definitely tasty enough to make it in to my regular repertoire of quick healthy meals. Score!

Warm Salad with Moroccan Chicken
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp salt
pinch of cinnamon
pinch of cayenne

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into strips
1 tbsp olive oil
4 cups mixed salad greens

3 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp honey
1/2 tsp salt
pinch cayenne

3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

1. In a medium bowl, combine marinade ingredients. Add chicken strips and stir to coat well. Marinate 1/2 hour at room temperature, or overnight in the fridge.

2. Just before serving, heat oil in a wok or non-stick skillet. Add chicken strips. Stir fry until chicken is cooked through.

3. In a small bowl, combine dressing ingredients. Toss with greens. Arrange chicken on top of greens and sprinkle with cilantro.

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