Archive by Author

Food in books, #2

30 Jul

From Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (also briefly blogged about here), talking about different potatoes at the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship

“Crisp potatoes require an immense amount of labor […]. All this takes time, and time, as any fool can tell you, is what true romance is about. In fact, one of the main reasons why you must make crisp potatoes in the beginning [of a relationship] is that if you don’t make them in the beginning, you never will. I’m sorry to be so cynical about this, but that’s the truth. [….]

Sometimes, when a loved one announces that he has decided to go on a low-carbohydrate, low-fat, low-salt diet (thus ruling out the possibility of potatoes, should you have been so inclined), he is signaling that the middle is ending and the end is beginning.

In the end, I always want potatoes. Mashed potatoes. [….] You can always get someone to make the mashed potatoes for you, but let’s face it: the reason you’re so blue is that there isn’t anyone to make them for you. As a result, most people do not have nearly enough mashed potatoes in their lives, and when they do, it’s almost always at the wrong time.”

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Food in books, #1

28 Jul

From Holding still for as long as possible, by Zoe Whittall:

“I never followed recipes; baking was mostly science and intuition anyway. If you understood the basics and had a keen sense of pleasure, you were pretty much set. Like with sex.”

Olive oil Analysis See also Fraud Case studies

26 Jul

(that title was a librarian in-joke, btw)

What do you look for when choosing a wine? Normally, you look for a region or a country, a particular name, and/or a type of grape. You would also consider the context: is this going to be a cooking wine, an “evening in front of the TV” wine, or a bottle to bring to a dinner party?

Now, what do you look for when choosing olive oil? That’s right, olive oil, the old staple for cooking, dipping bread, or drizzling on salads or pasta (or, if you are like my friend’s mum, rubbing on your hands before bedtime).

…..?

I thought so.

I confess I too was woefully ignorant of the intricacies of olive oil production until recently. In fact, someone discouraged me from writing this post, exclaiming, “But they’ll think you’re stupid!” Be that as it may – as a Digestive Librarians’ Digest blogger, I have a responsibility, nay, a duty, to make sure you are all fully aware of the complexities of olive oil, and of the olive oil industry.

You see, I missed the 2007 New Yorker article that “exposed the underbelly of the global olive oil industry” (thanks to Lora for sending it along after I brought this subject up with her for a blog piece). Apparently, there is widespread fraud involving misleadingly-labelled olive oil: the problem, which is ongoing, involves both misleading origin labels (olive oil labelled Italian when it is not) and misleading product labels (olive oil that is half hazelnut, sunflower, or other oils, or even pressed olive waste).

Ew! If you, like me, are now wondering who is catching up with these olive oil scam fiends, you can check in with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, who, according to the Globe and Mail (more on that article later), have caught “several companies importing oil labelled as extra virgin olive oil that was, in fact, blended with 50 per cent sunflower oil.” Observes the New Yorker, the E. U.’s anti-fraud office has set up an olive-oil task force, no less (“Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks”).

I was shaken out of my own ignorance on a recent visit to Grace in the kitchen, a lovely Ottawa store selling everything from dinnerware to espresso makers to soup mix and organic potato chips (you know I spent longest in that last area, don’t you?) They sometimes set up sampling stations for a new product, and a lineup of olive oils and tasty baguette was hard to resist. I casually sampled a bit, and promptly exclaimed, “Wow!” This was no ho-hum oil. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, heavenly. I quickly called over the husband to bear witness. The cashier mentioned that if I liked it, I should tell the guy who makes it, waving his arm at a young man lurking among the Art-is-in bread.

Turns out he was a member of the Fazari family, makers of the olive oil, rated No. 1 for value in Eyewitness Companions Olive Oil. The Fazaris were recently written up in the Globe and Mail, and their representative in Grace in the kitchen (I am so very sorry I now forget his name) patiently and engagingly described the olive oil scams to us, and the process of making real olive oil, without once seeming to talk down to us.

I learned that oil should say “made in Italy,” not “product of Italy;” the latter may mean that the oil comes from elsewhere and is only blended in the country. I learned that different olives taste differently, so you should be aware of what cultivar (variety) is being used (that seems so obvious when you say it, but I wasn’t checking it!)

We were thoroughly scandalised to discover that the oil we regularly buy is a “product of Italy” blend of who knows what; my husband asked about a local well-known Italian grocery chain as a result, wondering if we just shopped there we could steer clear of trouble. Our olive oil guide actually told us that even they carry many blended oils not made in Italy, although he did qualify that by saying they do carry some excellent olive oils. Apparently, the old “shop the perimeter of the grocery store, not the centre aisles” applies here as well: what our Italian grocer puts up at the front in the “fancy pants” section is the good stuff; what he stocks en masse at lower prices in the aisles is crap.

So as not to end on a yucky note,  and as a final treat, here is some eye candy:

Olearia San Giorgio olive oil

Olearia San Giorgio olive oil: lovely clear yellow colour

And as a reminder, here is what the Globe article mentioned to pay attention to when choosing olive oil:

  • Family’s name
  • Country of origin (“made in!”)
  • Cultivars (varieties) used
  • The address of the estate and production (these should be close together; says the Globe, “the sooner a picked olive is milled the better”)
  • Importer’s information
  • Best-before date
  • Lot number; country-of-origin, region-of-origin classification
  • Amount of monounsaturated fat (should be about 75% of total fat content)

Fridays are for foodies (chez moi)

18 Jul

Tofu with spinach and red pepper, in home-made peanut sauce

I work alternate Saturdays, which means I have the Fridays prior to those days off work. This makes for a strange schedule that often confounds attempts to plan weekend getaways, and will likely prove to be even more irritating when more humans are added into the family mix one day. In the meantime, I secretly quite love my Fridays off. They are all mine, to do with as I please, and the most recent one was an example of a more or less perfect day (well, a massage and a butler would have made it utterly perfect, but, well, let’s be realistic).

One of my favourite things to do on a Friday off is cook something elaborate or try a new recipe. I often find myself thinking how sad it is that our frantically busy world more or less prevents anyone from eating properly, or slowly, or truly enjoying the act of cooking a meal on a regular basis. [In the interests of full disclosure, I also work two evenings a week, which really messes with dinner hour]. Fridays off are my chance to push the pause button for a measly 24 hours and re-capture the fun of cooking.

I wasn’t raised in an family of elaborate home cookers. My mother has some fabulous family recipes that she has shared with me, and some of my earliest memories are of helping her bake. During my school years, however, both my parents worked: I remember my father as the more improvisational, “forget measuring” kind of cook. He seemed to relish the chance to play in the kitchen, although he rarely had the time for it. Perhaps I got my love of food from him, since he loved many foods passionately even though his diet was restricted by medication and illness. Despite being under strict orders to avoid salt, I remember him spiriting me away for a plate of fries at a diner once on vacation, with strict orders “not to tell your mother;” I often wonder if this salty taboo explains my tendencies towards savoury over sweet. My mother says I certainly got the habit of drinking a glass of something (in my case, wine; in my father’s case, sherry) while watching over a pot on the stove from him. After his death, the rest of my childhood and youth is a blur of school lunches, harried dinners before my mom’s meetings, interspersed with mother-daughter pizza nights I treasured and the occasional delicious home-made chocolate chip square.

I only came to truly love cooking, however, and to be comfortable enough to experiment with it, in university, via a friend who first introduced me to brie, coffee made in a French press, and sun-dried tomatoes.

In many ways, I still live the life my mother lived (as sure a sign as any that I truly admire her passion and love of her chosen vocation): harried dinners before or after meetings and packed lunches to work (high school tuna salad sandwiches replaced with salad and fruit). Food doesn’t always come first, and it’s sort of tragic, I think, that with the way our weekday world structures itself, there is little room for devotion to a particular meal.

Potato salad

On alternate Fridays, however, food does come first in our house. This past Friday, after a leisurely breakfast and coffee over a novel, I planned my dinner (a mix of tried-and-true potato salad my mother used to make for me, and a new Asian-inspired tofu and veggie stir-fry, since the husband was pining for Asian food). I combined a long jog with a trip to the grocery store, spent the afternoon relaxing and cooking, to have dinner on the table when my tired husband came home.

I would probably get bored with a stay-at-home life on a regular basis, and I am admittedly a workaholic who is devoted to her professional life. Alternate Fridays, however, to be a lady of leisure who shops for the evening’s dinner and meets her husband at the door, are a gift, an homage to an earlier, less busy time, when dinner hour was sacred and meals were prepared with care.

The hidden side of your fruit

18 Jul

This is entirely random, but somehow utterly fascinating.

I just can’t help imagining the conversation that resulted in this blog:

“Hey, dude, let’s stick that watermelon in the MRI machine, eh? Heh heh.”

That being said, the view of an artichoke is nothing less than miraculous.

Gourmet mac & cheese

12 Jul

When I was a little girl, Sunday lunch was a fend-for-yourselves kind of affair. After a long morning in church, my father would tear off his clericals, and he and I often sat down to a microwaved bowl of frozen mac & cheese. I know, the horrors. To this day, I occasionally cave and nuke myself one, in part for the memory, and in part because it genuinely isn’t half bad (I have it with a glass of wine now. So sue me). Luckily, my palate has also become more refined in the intervening years, and so I have expanded my cheese repertoire. I could probably live on cheese and nuts, to tell you the truth.

As with any new city, the way to get to know Ottawa is to ask around for hot tips. Or, in the digital age, subscribe to a bunch of local blogs. Thus it was via Girl About O-Town that I first read about Serious Cheese (do check out their site for tips on buying, serving and storing cheese). Ha! I thought… I am very serious about cheese! Count me in!

And so exploring I went, to meet the giant blue Beemster cow (yes, apparently everyone has to pet it; it’s instinctual) and survey the wonders of cheese (over 150 kinds!), cheese accessories (from fondue to cheese cutters to crackers and compotes) and freshly baked bread from the True Loaf Bread Co. in the Glebe.

They also serve their Serious Mac & Cheese (with bacon or plain), grilled sandwiches, and daily soup (they also make a mean coffee).

Fancy-ing up comfort food seems to be a whole “thing” these days, and this Serious Mac & Cheese is notable in this genre for its exceptional mastery of tastes and texture. Smooth, even, complicated, not excessively stringy, with a hint of spices, the Serious Mac & Cheese is a work of art. The first time I had it (with bacon, since that was all that was left that afternoon, and I don’t even especially like bacon), I very nearly wept. As described on the website, Serious Mac & Cheese is “made with an imported Elicoidali Pasta,” and is a blend of “Perron Cheddar (Quebec) and a Thunderoak Gouda (Ontario)” with “a touch of delicate spices.” Mmmmmm….

One cannot do justice to mac & cheese with a photograph, but I made a valiant effort nonetheless. Behold the wonder (and get more cheese porn from the bottom of this page):

The perfect scone

12 Jul

I have to begin this inaugural post with a disclaimer. I don’t even really like scones. Prior to being bewitched, I had only eaten one scone worth blogging about, at the garden restaurant of the Ritz Paris. It was divine, but so was the cream, and the jam, and the garden, and the whole sensory experience is, in retrospect, hard to properly untangle.

Then I moved to Ottawa from Montreal a few years ago. The thing about Ottawa is, it’s much nicer than it used to be, and much more cool than people think it is. Ottawa is that slightly stand-offish girl at a party, who looks deadly bored and is dressed in an ill-fitting suit, but who opens up and tells you about her t-shirt design business and her weekend job as a DJ when you take the time to talk to her.

What? Scones, you say? OK, ok.

So one of the first places I discovered in Ottawa was the Scone Witch. At the time, she had two locations, one in a lovely old home at Albert and Lyon (in the heart of Ottawa’s “business” area downtown) and one on Crichton in New Edinburgh (essentially a doorway and a counter-top).

Heather Matthews is indeed a witch; there is simply no other moniker for a woman who can do such marvelous things to a scone. Not to mention the play-on-words of the name of the establishment: Heather may be the witch, but among the other white magic she performs, she also makes her scones into sandwiches (or, of course, sconewitches).

The scones in question are both light and crunchy, with the perfect mix of flavours (she makes sweet ones: vanilla cream, lemon-poppyseed, orange-cranberry; and savoury ones: cheddar, herb and onion). They are never, ever dry. You can eat them on their own, and they are an adventure, or you can opt for the more traditional accompaniment of Devon cream and/or jam.

Behold my favourite, a cheddar sconewitch with tuna and black olive paste.

In addition to your regular scones (individually priced, or by the half-dozen or dozen; also available frozen or day-old) and your sconewitches, you can also get a lovely breakfast (eggs and veggies with a scone, and a tiny salad and fruit garnish), or a mealwitch. Oh, and of course you can get infinite varities of tea, strong coffee, and cool drinks (I love her even more for stocking Bottle Green drinks – why is Elderflower so hard to find in North America?)

The Scone Witch has made some changes in the (few) years since I have been in Ottawa, also: she closed down the Crichton St. closet, and opened a much larger (thank God!) location in the heart of Beechwood Village here in Ottawa, a location with lovely big windows looking right out to Beechwood (and in the same building as Books on Beechwood), featuring the same simple pale wood furnishings as the Kent and Lyon location. She also sells lovely cards, tea cosies, and assorted other crafty items, especially in the larger Beechwood Village location.

For many years, my place of employment (and some of the librarians I consort with) have used Scone Witch’s catering services for events. Nothing takes the edge off another professional meeting like a Scone Witch scone. In fact, recently, a colleague tried to entice me to an event with the promise of lunch-time catering from Scone Witch. It almost worked (perhaps thankfully, it does take more than a scone to buy me).

We almost had a Witch – Librarian schism looming, as the site for our new Central Library was intended to be the city block on which Scone Witch’s original location (Albert and Lyon) now sits. Alas, plans for this site fell through, thereby meaning librarians had to both breathe a sigh of relief and feel disappointed at the same time.

So I suppose you are wondering, did I have any scones when I was recently in England? No! Why would I bother? The perfect scone is just a hop, skip and a jump away for me! Hooray!

Scone Witch publicity:

“Scone Witch: Ensorcelant” par Christine Moisan (sur Voir.ca)

“Sweet and savoury sorcery” by Shawna Wagman (from Ottawa XPress)