What I Ate On My Summer Vacation

4 Sep

by Marsha Taichman

Everyone I know seems to be holidaying in Maine this year. I was tired of hearing about the ocean and eating lobster, so I decided it was time I went somewhere and did something before I got perceptibly jealous. I ended up in Toronto. I wanted to go to the Toronto Islands, dine at good restaurants and go to museums. After getting too much sun on my second day away, which resulted in an afternoon on the couch with a fan and the Food Network, I decided that the beach was a bad idea. You can’t do it all. I ate, I went to museums, and had a good time without the thrill of sun-stroke.

In Toronto, I stayed with my oldest friend Annie, who I have been lucky to have in my life for the past twenty-five years. The two of us have shared many culinary adventures, perhaps the most memorable culminating in potatoes prepared in every way we could imagine sometime during middle school. As we have matured, so have our palates and our cooking skills. Annie has a pretty incredible food blog called The Egyptian Kitchen, which can be found at http://abissadacooks.blogspot.com/ . I hope that a publisher realizes how great it is and offers her a cookbook deal stat.

Since Annie and I don’t live in the same city anymore, we rarely cook together these days, and cooking seemed like the perfect thing to do on my last night in Toronto. With the house to ourselves, we made a feast of mushroom ravioli with pesto with a side of roasted yellow peppers.

Annie and her partner Dave have a beautiful garden, and we picked piles of basil for our pesto.

basil

I wish you could smell the sheer amazingness of this basil.

We ground pine nuts with grated parmesan in a small food processor and added the fresh basil a few leaves at a time. Then we added oil to bind the mixture, and seasoned the pesto with sea salt and cracked black pepper. We put that sauce aside to finish the pasta.

pesto

Presto pesto!

I got the easy job and worked on the ravioli filling. We bought a medley of mushrooms at the Saint Lawrence Market, which included mostly creminis, but also oysters and a few beautiful chanterelles. I chopped them up finely and sautéed them with butter and nutmeg (Annie’s great idea).

mushrooms

The mushrooms were magnificent.

They cooked down into a meaty, satisfying paste that I kept eating while Annie slaved away on the pasta.

filling

The filling, which looks deceptively like ground beef.

I don’t know what recipe she used for the dough, but a recipe I have always wanted to try can be found here: http://smittenkitchen.com/2008/02/seven-yolk-pasta-dough/.

dough

Annie makes the dough. Note the gorgeous beet greens in the sink, which were also from her garden.

The next time Annie makes ravioli will be easier because she’s going to buy an attachment for her pasta machine that will produce an assembly line of little pouches, but we ended up rolling the dough thinly, dabbing some mushroom filling on it, folding another sheet of dough over, and then cutting out the ravioli one by one with a postage stamp-shaped cutter, which simultaneously sealed them.

rolling dough

Rolling the dough out into even sheets.

Voila! I slid the ravioli into some boiling salted water, and they cooked up like champions. We gently tossed the ravioli with pesto and proceeded to eat way too much.

ravioli

The tasty results of our labour.

It was a delicious way to end an urban getaway.

Check out Marsha’s bio on the Contributors page.

Strawberry party anxiety

15 Jul

In case you missed it, Canada Day was a few weekends ago! Canada Day is A Big Deal here in Ottawa, something I wasn’t really prepared for until I moved here five years ago. People in the National Capital Region take Canada Day very seriously; even the people who would never venture onto the Hill for the celebrations hold their own parties, in backyards and parks across the city. If viewed from space on July 1, I’m convinced you would be able to pick out Ottawa by its sea of red and white: clothing, flags, banners, leis, and, bien sûr, food.

This year, we received our first Canada Day garden party invitation. The theme of this party was red and white, and I was tasked with bringing a red-and-white dessert. Excited as we were, we were (well, I was) also a little nervous, as this was a party involving some people whose opinions really matter to me, and who I hold in high esteem. I was also one of the younger people invited; I actually feel more comfortable around older people than people my own age (a weird consequence of a colourful childhood) but I was still a little self-conscious.

Add to that the fact that I am not really a dessert person, and you have a recipe for some anxiety. Don’t get me wrong: if someone set a warm chocolate cake in front of me, I would eat a piece (probably), but I’m just not emotional about dessert in the way that I am about, say, cheese. I have been known to throw a dinner party and forget to arrange for dessert.

As a result, I don’t have many dessert recipes in my repertoire. After ruling out some kind of cookie (boring and … time-consuming?) and a pie (pastry? I didn’t think this was the occasion to try to make something that I’ve never made before…) I was beginning to get a bit panicky. In fact, truth be told, my internal monologue was beginning to remind me of one of my favourite children’s book characters, the dog Tootle. Nervous about his mistress’s upcoming party, Tootle tries to learn to walk on two legs, to no avail.

getting to the heart of the matter...

After a bath (ok, a shower) and a good brushing, I came to my senses and checked out some recipes online. I came up with this gem from the Chatelaine website: strawberry shortcake tiramisu. If there’s one dessert I can always get behind, it’s tiramisu (let’s be honest: it’s the cheese)!

Never have strawberries been hucked and sliced with such care. Never has such expensive chocolate sauce been called into duty in my household. I had to make some adjustments to ensure this easy (no baking!) recipe would work in a party setting at someone else’s home.

assembly: layer by layer...

Concluding it would be tiresome to have to melt and pour out the chocolate sauce, I decided to whip it with some of the extra whipped cream and smooth it onto the top layer. This left the top (well, bottom, when you’re making it) exposed: eek! Unsightly ladyfingers! To distract my esteemed party-goers, I layered some strawberry slivers along the top in two rows (like train tracks; I suppose, in retrospect, I could have been more creative with this design. A maple leaf would be a nice goal to aspire to, I would imagine).

I am thrilled to report the flipping of the dish was accomplished (by me, after a glass of wine) with what could almost be called actual panache; coming from a girl who once “helped” drop a $90 cake for a library summer reading club party, this was no small feat. My strawberry shortcake tiramisu received some lovely “ooohs” and “aaahs”, and the entire thing was gobbled up in no time! My first “real” dessert was a success!

I was far too nervous, and my head was much too full of various things to remember, to take pictures of this fledgeling foray into sweet things. I did, however, have a running monologue to you, dear readers, in my head while preparing this dish. I also had some leftover mascarpone cheese that was calling out to me to be made into strawberry shortcake tiramisu 2.0. My best friend’s recent visit to Ottawa provided the perfect opportunity to make this dish again, document it properly for all of you, and perhaps even enjoy it more the second time around.

*nom nom nom*

 

For reference, the local Italian grocery recommended Igor mascarpone as the best, and I splurged for Stonewall Kitchen Mocha Espresso sauce, which was divine (a few spoonfuls disappeared somehow along the way…).

Do you think I’m ready for pastry? Or maybe I should start with a crumble crust. That seems like a safe gateway drug before harder stuff. I do like a good Key Lime Pie….

Love letters, part 3 : France – Lyon, Colmar, Paris

8 Jul

As I mentioned at the end of the last post. I’m getting tired of writing in this voice but I’ll write a brief note to Paris here and then get on with the food.

Dear Paris,

I will be back soon. After visiting, I find myself obsessed with you. All the talk about rude Parisians is completely untrue. Everyone was nice beyond belief – to us and each other. You are in my top 2 of favourite cities. I won’t tell you who the other one is. I recently saw the documentary Midnight in Paris and loved it.

Ok, that’s enough of that. Here’s the chow.

cheese tray

cheese tray

Last things first. Here’s a shot of the cheese tray we had on our last night in Paris. It arrives at your table for an unknown length of time. You eat what you want and then someone comes and whisks it away. We had 20 minutes of cheese.

macaron

macaron

You know I love these things. I didn’t try this particular one. It seemed a bit heavy and as you know, I’m all about the light eating (ahem).

chips

roasted chicken and thyme

chips

jamon chips

Lay’s and Ruffles chips. The first pack is from France, the second from Spain. I love the idea of local flavours. The chips, however, meh.

tarte flambée

tarte flambée

Tarte flambée is an Alsatian specialty. It’s got a very thin crust, some fresh cheese, onions, and bacon on it. It’s shockingly large. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s an appetizer for 2 or do and eat the whole thing.

ma po tofu

ma po tofu

Yeah, we had some very spicy Szechuan food in Paris. Easily some of the best I’ve had anywhere.

raw root veggies and butter

raw root veggies and butter

This dish was so simple but all of the ingredients were wonderful – the vegetables, butter, oil, & salt. It doesn’t get much easier and better than this.

Ok, I’m getting hungry. Check out the Flickr account mentioned in the Spain post for more pics.

Love letters, part 2: Barcelona and Figueres

8 Jul

Dear Spain,

I love you. There, I said it.

broken eggs

broken eggs

Why are your eggs sooooo good? What do you do or not do to them? Why have I never had broken eggs before? If I were inclined to open a restaurant here, I would sell all the variations of your broken eggs dish and call it Spanish poutine. Potatoes, eggs, and every Iberico pork product available. P.S. Your potatoes are absolutely stellar as well.

anchoives

anchoives

I didn’t think I liked you, but you changed my mind.

fried artichokes

fried artichokes

Unlike your Italian cousins (see last year’s travel post), you arrive  showing only your best.  Vegetables are good. Deep frying the heck out of them is acceptable when on vacation from real-life.

cod

cod

Pine nuts, raisins, onions and cod – Oh what a surprise. So delicious.

candy

candy

Mercat de La Boqueria de Barcelona. So scenic, so plentiful. Possibly the best food market ever.  Tapas counters, fish stalls, candy to make your eyes pop.

chocolate and salt

chocolate and salt

When I hear chocolate I usually state my preference for cheese but throw some salt on it, and a few pieces of crunchy fried bread and it’s a different story. It’s a  story about a person who doesn’t usually eat dessert but finds herself with an extra spoon and partner willing to share. It’s kind of a love story or a teen movie where the girl hates the guy at first is then wooed by his edgy sweetness.

Glaser tea towel

tea towel - Computers are to design as microwaves are to cooking

Marry me, Barcelona. We’ll make beautiful cod fritters.

Ok, I’m getting tired of writing in this voice and it’s starting to feel creepy.  I have about way more pictures of food from Spain including shrimp, mussels, cod fritters, pretty salads, etc… Check out my Flickr account for more.

France is up next.

Love letters, part 1: Switzerland

8 Jul

Oh yeah, I was away for 3 weeks a little while ago. Here are some letters I’m sending back to Europe. Warning: I am speaking directly to countries and my food but at least you can’t hear the songs I made up as well.

Dear Switzerland,

The quality of your food is so astounding it almost makes up for the prices that are shocking to North Americans. Your dairy products = spectacular. Your bread, so far the best in Europe. Here are some pictures I took to remind me of your yummy goodness.

Shakeria

Shakeria

Oh Shakeria! I bought you for your hilarious name and because I still remember those school yard rhymes that still make me laugh. Despite your hilarious name, you are seriously delicious and not at all too sweet.

Bretzels

Bretzels

When traveling  through train stations (also pretty amazing), it was hard not to make cartoon sound effects as I screeched to a halt in front of the Brezel Konig. Brezel – you are soft, crunchy, perfect and make a good alternative to sandwich bread.

after Jungfrau

after Jungfrau

Dear giant rosti wok at the base of Jungfrau, thanks for the potatoes. After oxygen deprivation at 3500 metres up it’s nice to have another spectacular view, to have my skin return to its natural colour, and to drink some Fanta with your generous helpings.

cheese

cheese

You look like a flower but you taste like cheese. You are perfect. Please grow in my garden.

Ricola

Ricola

Just off the plane, I was handed a free sample. Ricola, you make all my jokes come true.

La Pendulerie, land of clocks and chocolate

18 Jun

On Montreal’s Crescent Street, you drift in and out of worlds in minutes. Traditional Irish pubs jostle with trendy nail bars. Fashion houses rest atop narrow staircases. My most recent discovery is a magical place that transforms the gentle slope north of de Maisonneuve into the Swiss Alps through a disarming combination of chocolate, cuckoo clocks, and flag-clad patio umbrellas.

La Pendulerie Sign

At La Pendulerie, choose from one of 40 varieties of hot chocolate or milkshake, ranging from milk to dark, including flavours such as hazelnut and orange. If you stay awhile, you’ll find yourself sipping your selection bemusedly to the ticking of nearby cuckoo clocks as tiny painted wooden figurines emerge at regular intervals and spin around to choruses of Edelweiss.

Hot Chocolate

On my first visit, I thought it best to start at the mid-point with one of the bittersweet varieties. I’ve since worked my way up to the noir-de-noir, an 84% cocoa concoction in hot chocolate form that witnesses will tell you made me weak in the knees and inappropriately flushed in public. I recently sampled my first milkshake version, wisely opting for mint chocolate, which was served with a rolled wafer cookie.

Milkshakes

Perhaps the most charming aspect of La Pendulerie is that every visitor notices something different, from the imported chocolate confections nestled in the store window to the model cars tucked away in the back of the shop beyond the Edelweiss clocks.

La Pendulerie Store Window

Whatever the weather, I suggest you make your way down to 2080 Crescent Street and indulge in a multi-sensory treat that will make you forget all of your first world problems.

P.S. There are truffles.

Restos + shops: double the foodie goodness

3 Jun

An article in the Globe and Mail beat me to this blog post: they wrote about the opening of Murray’s Market, three blocks from my house. Murray’s Market is a specialty food store, and sibling to the restaurant Murray’s Bistro.

It’s been said that Ottawa is a dull, uninspiring city, lacking heart (or culture, or beauty, or fun, depending on who you ask). Ottawa gets a really bad rap, for food and, well, for lots of things. Heck, on Monday, the area right by Murray’s Market was called tawdry.

Here’s what I think. While there is an element of truth in the stereotype, Ottawa is mostly just difficult to get to know: it’s like that shy girl at a party who looks kind of weird but turns out to become a good friend.

When it comes to food and bevvies, Ottawa is heating up: we have a few interesting chefs doing some really innovative work, and we have spawned our own local coffee chain, but I find we are still lacking great independent, simple lunch spots. I have written here previously of my love of the sandwich; things are improving in Ottawa in this department, too (with Ottawa magazine even featuring a sandwich smackdown) but it’s like sticking one sandbag in the Montérégie right now: it’s just not going to cut it. Ottawa is geographically … I believe the scientific term is …. massive, and we could gobble up lunch spots like there’s no tomorrow.

So that’s why, when I walked into Murray’s Market, I was thrilled. They sell cheese, and lots of meaty sandwiches, natch, but also boxed salads, home-made grilled cheese, muffins, cookies and local produce. Smart move!

One thing I especially love is their hand-painted wall map, illustrating with string and nails where their food comes from:

What a great idea, and what a creative way to represent this!

While I think Murray’s is  pretty cool, a quote from the Globe (“And from a retail perspective, you get that up-sell of people who are sitting in your restaurant or your bistro, going ‘Oh my God, lobster oil. Where in the world do I get that?’ ”) made me a little erm, vomitous (maybe it was the use of the term up-sell? Are my reluctant-capitalist roots showing?)

For a bit more background, the Globe mentions that “food trend forecaster Andrew Freeman is predicting the mixed business model will become one of the top 10 restaurant trends for 2011.” Examples include EatalyToronto’s Lakeview Storehouse, and Edible Canada (which expanded the other way, but to the same general end).

I appreciate the efforts of many retailers and restaurants to support local foods (I know one of the farmers who supplies for Murray’s Market, in fact), and I am so all over Murray’s Market (like a fruit fly to a glass of wine!) I was thinking a bit, though, (always dangerous) about this up-sell phenomenon. I recently finished reading The Authenticity Hoax, by Andrew Potter, and had local and organic food trends in mind when visiting the Market. Potter’s book, which is all about our quest for the “authentic” experience and the “authentic” life, contends that regardless of the science, many people prefer organic because of “framing effects,” meaning the fact that we know we are eating organic frames the experience in a way that makes it more satisfying for us.

Potter also contends that “the environmental benefits of local farming are actually highly overstated. [...] In the end, moving locally grown produce around in small bundles [...] is far more wasteful than putting thousands of tons of bananas on a container ship.”

Potter’s whole premise is that we are looking for sources of distinction in our lifestyle choices; moving the food discourse from organic to local was a way of “ratcheting up the stakes” for society: a kind of culinary one-upmanship in which “the shame of actually buying stuff on the open market” will eventually, in extreme cases, be “left for the lesser folks.” In case you think he’s exaggerating, think about the 100-mile diet craze, The Compact, or No Impact Man.

[Incidentally, I once did a display at work called "The 100-mile (book) diet," which didn't get too much attention; I guess reading locally just isn't as cool as eating locally. Locally-sourced Canlit just doesn't have quite the same cachet as locally-sourced carrots? Or it just doesn't make us feel as virtuous?]

A recent article on the Sojourners Magazine blog addressed organic and local food as well, Author Joennifer Kottler announced she was planning to make some changes to her grocery store trips, including buying food close to its source and as close to its natural state as possible. She mentions friends who have purchased shares in Community Supported Agriculture, again, arguing as people do about similar programs in Canada, that this helps keep “fresh food more affordable.” Kottler does acknowledge that these options are not always available: “Please know I am very aware that the ability to make these choices is a privilege I have. And know at the same time that I am advocating for policies that will permit more of us to do the same — particularly folks who live in communities where food choices, especially fresh food choices, are severely limited.”

So, where am I going here? Murray’s is a great place, and I’m so glad it’s in my neighbourhood, offering more choice and variety to consumers, and supported by knowledgable, creative staff. I’m happy to have the privilege of choice.

Really, what I want to ask is, how do you feel about some of the larger issues at play here? What do you think about the organic and local food movements? Do you buy organic or local for all or certain products, and why or why not? What do you think about restaurants opening foodie shops?

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