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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….

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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?

Sometimes, in the depths of (a Canadian) winter

12 Feb

Sometimes, in the depths of winter, you get tired and feel lethargic. Food tastes a little off, like it has frostbite. Sometimes, food isn’t the only one with frostbite.

Sometimes, you can’t find fresh fruit anymore that doesn’t come from the Southern hemisphere (damn them!), and you miss the bustle of the local market.

Sometimes, you feel like hibernating, like a bear, in a cave somewhere. Before crawling in, you want to gain 5 pounds a week. You plan to gain that weight expressly through potatoes and bread.

Sometimes, you lose the will to jog, which means you lose the endorphin rush, which means you eat chocolate, and you don’t even like chocolate. What’s up with that?

Sometimes, you wonder why your father and grandfather emigrated from fairer isles to this godforsaken land. No, seriously.

Sometimes, you feel utterly uninspired: you can’t think of a single meal you want to cook, a single thing you want to do when you get home from work, or a single blog post topic. Yo can’t be roused to take photographs, even, unless they are on your phone.

In cases such as this, here is a prescription:

  1. In the morning, take two cups of fortifying coffee, not one.
  2. In the evening, rely on canned soups. In every meal. Even if it means making Easy chicken a la king, an entirely wonderful recipe (use peas instead of pepper, and multi-grain bread instead of rice or pastry) instead of the real thing.
  3. Drench things in warming red wine, even if said thing is out-of-season, overpriced asparagus. Because sometimes you just need exorbitantly-priced vegetables steeped in red wine, garlic, and butter in the depths of a Canadian winter.
  4. Rinse. Repeat. Things will get better.

Happy Thanksgiving

10 Oct

We here at Digestive Librarians’ Digest are grateful for family, friends, FOOD and you, dear readers.

Thank you for sharing many meals with us through our first three months … and here’s to many more!

Happy harvest!

A is for autumn, A is for apple

25 Sep
(and X is for waXing philosophical)

The hordes are back at school, the suits are out in full force downtown, and the air is crisp – summer, alas, is waning.

Autumn is my favourite season. Can you smell it? It smells like a fresh start, a clear head, a sweater, a pile of leaves, a freshly-stoked fireplace. It tastes like turkey, fresh cranberries, gourds of various shapes and sizes, and apples.

Always, apples.

One of the (many) strange (and in this case, lovely) things about being the child of an Anglican minister (well, of two Anglican ministers, but let’s just let that go for now, ok? Ok…) is that you get to discover new communities every time your parental unit is moved to a new parish. Thus we moved from the wilds of Laval (it was the wilds back then, sort of) to walks along the riverfront in Verdun, to fireworks in St Lambert, to the rolling hills of the Montérégie.

We lived in Otterburn Park, nestled at the foot of Mont St. Hilaire (a mountain I climbed several times during our three years there). Were you to jump in a car and drive along Chemin de la Montagne, hugging Mont St. Hilaire’s south peak (as we did every Sunday), you would reach Rougemont, one of three points in my mother’s parish, and the heart of Quebec’s apple industry.

No place ever spoke to me like Rougemont did. Granted, the small town had all the right Alex ingredients: a deserted, romantic graveyard, a picturesque, tiny church, a host of eccentric characters, and (let’s be honest here) horses. It also, of course, had orchards: orchards as far as the eye could see, leading up in pin-straight rows or haphazard zigzags to the Rougemont mountain itself. I learned a great deal about farming in those years: I saw early mornings and late nights, biting frost and blighting sun. I, less so than my mother but still enough to make an impression, was invited into the old farmhouses of Anglophone rural Quebec: butter churners and rocking chairs, wooden stools and hiking boots. I ate fresh corn on the cob, I bore witness to the most magnificent Thanksgiving altar displays; singing the hymn “Come Ye Thankful People Come” never had such humble significance. I also got my first shock from an electric fence, but never mind that now.

I picked apples: up ladders and down. I ate apples: fresh apples, cooked apples, apple crisp, apple pie. I grew to love and respect the trees and their fruit; I could identify dozens of types of apples by smell and taste.

I am lucky enough to still have a Rougemont farmer in my life; one of the lesser blessings is the bags of apples he brings me every autumn. I’ve moved from Otterburn, to Bedford, then Pointe Claire, and Montreal (2 apartments; 1 condo), and now Ottawa; the bags follow. There are few more happy phrases uttered than, “Alexandra, I’ve got some Cortlands for you!” Cortlands remain my favourites: their tart, crisp, clear white insides, and the way their red skins bleed a little when you cut them, are a constant marvel (wait, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? Have I been watching too many criminal dramas?). My mother favours Paula Reds; my husband likes Spy apples (which I turn my nose up as an Ontario apple). I hate nothing more than the wax they put on apples to give them a shine in the grocery store: those things look to me like the fruit equivalent of someone with a fake tan: why take a good thing to extremes? I am also a local cider fiend: the best, in my book, is Covey Hill’s own Mystique. An excellent article about the cider route in Quebec is here, featuring Rougemont’s most well-known cider-making resident, Michel Jodoin.

In a life somewhat geographically schizophrenic, nothing takes me back to lazy teenage days in the country quite like a fresh bag of apples, tied tight and stowed in the car, promises to future autumn afternoons.

Some apple factoids to crunch on:

  • Apple saplings came over to the New World with Champlain
  • That cad, Sir George Simpson, turned up on the shores of the most westerly HBC fort with apple seeds tucked into his vest pocket
  • McIntosh apples are as Canadian as, well, I’ll let you fill that blank in…: Every McIntosh can trace itself back to one discovered in 1811 by John McIntosh in Dundas County, Ontario.
  • Did you know that Canadian researchers analysed eight popular types of apples and found Red Delicious, Northern Spy and Ida Red had the most antioxidants? Guess I should play nice, then.
  • Apples should be stored in a cool, dark, slightly moist place: I put mine in the crisper drawer of the fridge, with a dark, wet tea towel completely covering them (yes, I chortle when I tuck them back in).

My favourite apple crisp recipe (adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be A Domestic Goddess  Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking and The Yoga Cookbook: Vegetarian Food for Body and Mind, by the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres):

Filling ingredients:

  • 4 large apples, sliced into eighths, skin on
  • 25 g raisins
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

Topping ingredients:

  • 60 g chopped walnuts
  • 2 1/2 cups granola (I swear by this stuff)
  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 2/3 cups honey and/or maple syrup (I like to mix both)

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Mix the filling ingredients together and transfer into an 8-inch square baking dish. Combine flour with butter, then honey and/or syrup and mix well. Stir the liquid mixture into the granola. Spoon the topping over the filling. Bake for 45 minutes.

Lunchtime variety

26 Aug

Do you ever think, Argh, if I have to plan one more packed lunch I am so going to shoot myself in the head? Well, I do, and I can’t even complain that much, since I only have to prepare my own lunches.

Every once in awhile, I just get utterly sick of lunch options. Moreover, my altruistic career choice of public librarian prevents me from chowing down at the Château every day (alas). I have more or less been riffing on “Salad variations” for the past year or so, except for my evening shifts, for which I try to pack something more substantial. I eat little meat, so I also always have nuts on hand.

This week, even the spouse was feeling that the trusty regular choices just weren’t inspiring anymore, so something had to be done. I decided to whip us up some grilled sandwiches to pack and re-heat for lunch.

File this one under: Recipes, Unlikely Sources for: I got this recipe for a Portobello Mushroom Sandwich from the Globe & Mail. It’s simply divine, and easy to make and simple to pack and re-heat (if you have a toaster oven at work; if not, I’m sure it’s lovely cold, too). This is an easy-peasy sandwich with few ingredients, and it tastes gourmet; it’s also a great pick for vegetarians. I like to use Première Moisson whole wheat bread instead of the baguette recommended above; this time, I used some lovely olive miche from Fidélice, patisserie fine.

Warning: last time I warmed up this sandwich in the toaster oven at work, library staff flocked into the staffroom to hover over my food like vultures. The pesto smell will win over even the most reluctant nose. Bring a stick to beat back the masses if necessary.

One delicious sammie

Love letter to the brioche

21 Aug

Dear brioche*,

I have always loved you. Since we first met, I knew you were vastly superior to the common croissant and its infinite variations (almond, chocolate, apple, and so on).

I love your substantial nature: since you contain eggs, you can be considered a meal in a pinch, to be consumed (head first) while walking down the street (preferably in Paris, but Montreal will do). Unlike  other viennoiseries, you are also low-maintenance: you leave no sticky residue on fingers or flaky shavings on clothing.

I love your size: you are just right, compact, a perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee. Bakers, take note: this is how big a muffin should be (well, unless they are adorable mini muffins). My poor brioche! You are dwarfed these days by cookies and muffins (and sometimes – gasp! – even croissants) seemingly made for giants!

I love your shape: your beauty is unique. You are instantly recognisable in a crowd, with your jaunty head perched on your crimped bottom. I think it’s sweet that you need your own fluted tin to be baked in. This may be your only high-maintenance moment, but you save it to have in the secrecy of your own oven. I thrill in your shiny egg wash.

Others may dress you up with a sugar dusting, or dried fruit, but I love you au naturel – your simple, rich taste should not be undermined or distracted from by empty baubles.

Even if the French Baker only makes a few of you each day, (apparently “people here don’t know what to do with a brioche”), and you haven’t yet found your way into every ubiquitous Starbucks or Second Cup, you are still my favourite.

Yours,

Alex.

xoxo

*Or brioche à tête, to be specific.