Category: food (Page 1 of 3)

Go Eat

Still from ‘Young Frankenstein‘ (1974)

I’ve gotten away from food writing, among other things, the last few years. There’s no real reason for this (other than dramatic life events, I suppose) — my love of cooking remains unabated, and I do it several times a week, more than usual the last while, as I stock up my freezer with portion-sized things in anticipation of a busy time.

However, sometimes I don’t crave anything hearty so much as fresh, light, tasty. I love my salads, but virulent IBS doesn’t make it possible to enjoy salads as much as I’d like. It’s only been through trial and error I’ve discovered what my body will and won’t accept: Boston lettuce, yes; kale-anything, no. Based on some tasty recent experiences at a favorite restaurant, I started experimenting with basic ingredients, ones I knew wouldn’t upset me, but would still satisfy my hunger for crunchy, tasty, light… and easy. It may come as a shock to some, but working from home doesn’t automatically mean that nothing is hard, tiring (even exhausting), or draining — quite the opposite, particularly if one happens to live alone.

Regardless of work environment and family status, the last thing one may wish to do at the end of a busy, full day is cook up a large, heavy meal, especially at the end of a winter season that’s already been filled with many meals of that nature. Some very basic washing, blotting, chopping (similar to Nigella Lawson describing stirring as “soothing,” I find chopping has a similar effect on me), and then light mixing, is the best kind of therapy I can think of, not to mention incredibly nourishing.

I’ve been heartened the last little while by the reaction I received to my first “light dinner” experiment; when I posted a photo of my creation on Instagram, the reaction was pleasingly enthusiastic. Tonight I decided to make a follow-up, using a few ingredients I wish I’d originally had, and usually always do have on-hand. I think we all have our basics we like to have at hand — in our pantries, refrigerators, sitting on the counter or breadboard, waiting to be used. My basics (as you’ll see listed below) include flat parsley (also called Italian parsley), cannellini (a white kidney, but smaller), plum tomatoes, roasted red peppers (else a chopped, marinated peppers), feta cheese, kalamata olives, sometimes sun-dried tomatoes, and more often than not lately, radicchio (because I can digest it without trouble; because it keeps for a while; and because it is tasty). These ingredients are in addition to very good olive oil and white balsamic, both of which I always have at hand. I use almost all the ingredients in the recipe below — but if you want to use everything, go for it; feel free to throw in some marinated artichoke hearts, pieces of cooked, chopped chicken breast, and/or snips of curly endive and/or fresh dill, too.

Of course, this should be enjoyed with crusty baguette that has been warmed up quick in the oven.

Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

Radicchio Dinner Salad

1/2 head of radicchio
1/2 bunch flat parsley
1 plum tomato
1 whole roasted pepper OR 2-3 spoons of chopped peppers from the jar
1 400g/398ml/14 fl oz tin of cannellini, rinsed and drained
8-10 kalamata olives, pitted
1 double-thumb-sized chunk of feta (optional)
6-8 sun-dried tomatoes (optional)
extra-virgin olive oil
white balsamic
fresh pepper
salt

Thinly slice radicchio lengthwise, then roughly chop. You’re aiming for luxurious, longish purple shards. Place in a large salad bowl.

Rinse parsley and roughly chop. Shake excess moisture off. Wrap in a towel to blot water.
Do the same with the cannellini; after rinsing and draining, wrap them in a towel (paper or cloth; either is fine) to absorb the excess moisture. This step is very important, both for flavour, and for the texture of your salad.

Chop plum tomato, keeping mind to discard the seeds before placing in bowl with radicchio. (Again, this affects not only the flavour, but the texture, and if, like me, you have a hard time digesting them, it’s a favour to your body.)

Roughly chop roasted pepper, or measure 2-3 generous spoons of chopped pepper from the jar. Throw it on top of your radicchio. Don’t worry if you get a bit (just a bit!) of the oil from the marinade in there; that gives flavour.

Roughly chop kalamata olives and throw in the bowl.
Same with sun-dried tomatoes, if using, and feta, which you can roughly chop, or crumble with your fingers straight into the bowl.

Retrieve the towel-blotted parsley, then cannellini, adding both to the bowl.

Add a small glug of olive oil, and a sprinkling of olive oil; grind in pepper and salt as you wish.

Toss.

Enjoy (especially with crusty baguette).

Store unused portions in airtight (preferably glass) container.

Easy, delicious, healthy; now wasn’t that easy?

Christmas Love

There was once a time when Christmas was a very big deal in my life. Christmas Eve was a swirl of hot chocolate, cartoons, and peeks under the tree; the day itself was filled with a bevy of boxes, shiny ribbons, stockings filled to the brim.

My mother would always laugh and say I was the last kid to get up on Christmas morning; sleeping in felt like another gift, and I wanted to indulge. One year my mother got sick of cooking, so she took six-year-old me down to one of her favorite old hang-outs, the Royal York Hotel. Me, in a long red velvet gown, and my mother, in a fancy, flouncy dress, enjoyed several courses, as I took in the spectacle of the room, the fancily-attired waiters marching through before dinner started with a succession of Christmas delicacies carefully laid out on silver platters.  Later, she would drive through the city, and we’d look at the festive lights and decorations; I’d be asleep by the time we got home, and would be carried into the house, changed into fuzzy pajamas, and tucked into bed. Boxing Day (and many days thereafter) were filled with play.

As both my mother and I grew older, our gift exchanges became decadent, dare I say exorbitant. I still remember her, one Christmas morning about a decade ago, sitting on a cream-color sofa near the tree and looking beautiful in a red satin dress, exclaiming, not in judgment but in simple awe, “We are very extravagant!” I think something about the sheer volume shocked her, having come from such a meagre life as a youngster, when Christmas meant little more than an orange and an apple. 
Not long after this, we mutually decided to end gift exchanges; her, sensing my writing didn’t really pay that well, and being exhausted with the entire shopping/wrapping process. Also, we both acknowledged, gift-giving tended to happen throughout the year anyway — I’d go grocery shopping, to posh grocers, picking up special, lovely delicacies and cooking them up — sometimes (frequently), it was for no occasion at all, but for the simple pleasure of sharing, preparing, and enjoying them with someone I loved. It was also gratifying seeing my rapidly-shrinking mother eat. One of my most cherished memories of this year is grilling sea scallops for her; I shall always cherish that look of love and gratitude she gave me, more than once, as she carefully carved and them ravenously devoured them. That enjoyment, to me, is worth more than anything you could buy in a store.

Value comes in many forms, of course. Having dear friends coming over through the holidays this year, people close to both of mother and me, is a gift in and of itself. I thought it would be fitting (and fun) to look back at old times. Going through the many old photo albums stored in my basement has forced me to admit it something I’ve been avoiding the last month or so: the holidays hurt. I’ve been keeping myself busy with writing, baking, all manner of household thing, but the shock of my mother’s absence this year is sharp, unrelenting, brutal. Beyond going to the Royal York, and, more recently, my cooking up a beautiful Christmas dinner for us, we didn’t have many traditions. That doesn’t mean her presence in and around the house — as I baked, wrapped presents, drove her to friends’ for merry deliveries — isn’t sorely missed. She’d always laugh whenever I’d put on How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

“You’re a big kid at heart!” she’d say. True, I’d admit. I have to be; I never had any of my own.

Other memories of her at this festive time of year are dim, though I have some lovely photos to remind me of the wonder of childhood; a veritable smell of gingerbread and vanilla wafts off them, dreams of sugar plums and plush red dresses and the smooth threads of a Barbie’s hair. My world was cozy, cradling, perfect. Small snippets of that feeling came through in subsequent years; though I don’t have any photos from last year’s Christmas, I distinctly remember the absolute thrill I felt at seeing her take a second helping of turkey, exclaiming, “your chestnut stuffing is sooooo good!” 

An overpowering love pervades everything; that is what I see and what I feel when I think of Christmases past. The tidal-wave-power of that love is one I’m not sure I’ll experience again; I chose not to have my own children a long time ago, and I am really not the maternal sort (something my mother also acknowledged), though I admit it’s been very joyful to see updates of others’ families on social media.  “Christmas is for kids,” my mother dryly observed over the last few years. I couldn’t agree more. So it’s nice to experience the joy of the holidays vicariously, through the many hilarious/touching/smart updates I’ve seen on my Facebook feed; those photos and updates have brought many much-needed smiles and even laughter. To those who’ve provided such therapy: thank you.  

So, as 2016 rapidly approaches, the only way to move forwards — now, at the holidays, and after them, too — is to allow the memory of my mother’s love to power me forwards, through the scary melanoma stuff, through the work stuff, through the frequently lonely days and weeks that characterize so much of my life now. It also means remembering the kid who wants to play, and making room for that in my new normal; maybe that’s the best way to honor my mother, and the best way to keep the Christmas spirit alive, year round.

The Real Cosmopolitan

Photo via CBC Music

It was with a heavy heart that I heard about the passing of CBC Radio host Jurgen Gothe last month.

I’d been thinking a lot about him lately, what with starting my own radio show this past January, and a recent stock-taking of old cookbooks, where I found DiscCookery amongst my culinary collection. Gothe had penned the work on the 20th anniversary of his popular afternoon radio program, DiscDrive, in 2005.

The program, aired on CBC Radio 2, was a regular part of my young life; it was always on in the house or the car after school, and even when I started going to university, I found myself turning it on during my long commutes, between blaring the Pearl Jam CD and the Tom Waits cassette tape. The program’s avuncular host had a broadcasting style both elegant and casual at once, like a warm designer cardigan found in a Kensington Market stall; it was something very fine and special, though it was equally familiar, casual, and approachable.

After years of listening, it only feels right to call Jurgen by his first name, despite never working with him, and only meeting him briefly. Part of what I loved (and still love) about Jurgen is how much he defied the stereotypical “Canadian” cliche. He wasn’t a maple-syrup-and-hockey-with-Tim-Horton’s-tell-me-aboatit-eh kind of guy (even though he named the Canucks as his favorite sports team). He was smart, well-spoken, curious, deeply interested in viniculture, cuisine, and the world of arts and culture as embodied in his weekday program — but that didn’t make him distant; it made him cool.

The quote on the back of DiscCookery (from the Globe and Mail) called DiscDrive “(t)he most intelligent radio in the country.”The program was a charming compendium of facts, stories, passions, and pursuits; he’d play Mozart and Bach alongside Grappelli and Ellington. I was introduced to Billie Holiday’s magical, horn-like voice on DiscDrive, along with the sad sighs of Marin Marais’ viola da gamba pieces; I ventured into jazz clubs in New York because of the curiosity Jurgen fostered. I gained a whole new appreciation in my Toronto Symphony Symphony concerts, recalling a funny anecdote Jurgen shared about Mozart as I listened to “Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik“, or a food-wine pairing as one of Beethoven’s rich, meaty overtures washed over me.

Radio can change the way a person experiences the world; some programs will only confirm a worldview, while others help to expand, widen, and celebrate it. DiscDrive did all that, and more, helping me say, out loud, “yes, I love these things” while simultaneously making me question the whole idea of “Canadiana” and its relationship with a rapidly changing culture.

Jurgen himself defied the “hoser” cliche by embracing a cosmopolitan curiosity that he then transmitted over the airwaves; his wasn’t an attitude of superiority or snobbery. Quite the opposite. It was his warmth and joy and genuinely curious approach — all the things I try to emulate in my own broadcasting life. I miss Jurgen, and I miss Disc Drive — but the things they stood for and provided continue to inspire. My favorite sweater is so warm, and I am forever grateful.

Photo via CBC Music

Lovely Lawson

A new Nigella Lawson book is always cause for celebration in my world.

With plenty of know-how, an approachable style, and a playful spirit, Lawson’s work is an automatic go-to when I’m running low on ideas and inspiration. Her other works, like How To Eat, Feast, Forever Summer, Nigella Christmas, and Nigella Express are chalk-full of yummy, smart, and mainly easy dishes. Her basic pizza recipe from How To Be A Domestic Goddess is a staple in my kitchen, and it isn’t too much of an exaggeration to state that How To Eat was life-changing.

Sure, Nigella is a food goddess -much ink (and drool) has been spilled chronicling that aspect of her -but she’s also a seriously good writer. Without a trace of smarmy know-it-all-ness but with oodles of honesty, Nigella’s been chronicling what goes on in her kitchen now for almost two decades. It helps that she used to be a journalist; it’s equally helpful that she throws in plenty of personal references to keeping her children, friends, and work colleagues nourished. With a slew of titles and television shows under her belt, she strikes me as something like a super-elegant, knowledgable, refreshingly un-hipsterish, print-loving version of a food blogger. With great power -and beauty, and culinary skills -comes great responsibility, and Nigella ably, amply fulfills the requirements for being a wily, wonderful kitchen-witch.

Unlike her last book, a holiday/Christmas book from 2008, her latest, Kitchen: Recipes From The Heart Of The Home (Knopf), offers a cross-section, multi-seasonal approach, with a firm focus on the basics and homey favorites. Within the pages of the 400+ page hardcover tome, you’ll find clear directions, easy-to-understand terms, as well as a thorough Express Index. The book is handily divided into two sectons: “Kitchen Quandaries” and “Kitchen Comforts”. Each section contains chapters like “Hurry up, I’m hungry!”, “The solace of stirring” and, happily, “Chicken and its place in my home”. Nigella has never made a secret of her love of a simple roast chicken throughout her work, and indeed, I still use her basic recipe from How To Eat as the basis of my own: start with a good organic bird, stick half a lemon up the bottom, “annoint” (her word) with butter and olive oil, stick in the oven. Easy-peasy.
So it’s nice to see her acknowledge her love of poultry, and to introduce fresh new ideas that are, as ever, Nigella’s signature blend of yummy and easy. As she writes in the chapter introduction, “for me, a chicken remains the basic unit of home. I don’t really feel a kitchen is mine until I’ve cooked a chicken there.” I can’t agree more. Dining out last week in New York, I struck up a conversation with a restaurant manager one night about our shared love of food; he asked me about my own specialty in the kitchen, and answered, after a momentary shyness, “roast chicken.” There’s something undeniably wonderful about its scent filling the house, the yummy drippings, the moist meat, and the luscious leftovers. Equally, it’s nice to see these easy, warming recipes; Thai Chicken Noodle Soup, Poached Chicken With Lardons & Lentils, and Chinatown Chicken Salad are all delicious, easy, and yes, inexpensive. I defy anyone who swears they can’t cook to try Nigella’s Quick Chicken Caesar recipe. I suspect, like much of Kitchen itself, that she wrote it just for them.

The introduction also features a fantastic section called “Kitchen Confidential”, which outlines all the tips, tools, and tricks for home cooks of all abilities. She details the usefulness of having boiling water handy, the benefits of buttermilk in cooking, the uses of baking soda, when and how to freeze stock, and her love of having a myriad of bottles (like vermouth, marsala and garlic-infused oil) around her stovetop. She also doles out an important piece of advice for home cooks of all levels:

This is so much easier to say than to do, but try, when you’re cooking for people, not to apologize nervously for what you’ve made, alerting them to some failure only you might be aware of, or indeed, might have invented. Besides, it only creates tension ,and although I do believe food is important, atmosphere matters so much more.

Atmosphere, and I would argue, confidence. Kitchen: Recipes From The Heart Of The Home is a tool to provide you with just that when you approach any culinary -or indeed, sensual -endeavor. You can make something, and do well, and enjoy it, with others, or just by yourself. And why wouldn’t you? Go forth. Cook. Eat. Live. Be happy. So says Nigella… and it’s gorgeously, delicious true.

Choking On Sun

Appropos of nothing, I’ve been thinking about sunchokes recently.

Actually, there is a reason I’m bringing them up; I enjoyed a beautiful dish with them before I went to New York. Accurately described as “gnarly little tubers”, they’re also called Jerusalem artichokes, though they more closely resemble ginger root than normal artichokes. Yummy grocer Dean and Deluca happened to be conveniently close to where I stayed earlier this week, and it was with much interest that I noted they carried the nubbly little root veggie. Upon setting eyes on them, I was immediately taken back to my memorable evening spent at Toronto’s Bricksworks (run by the Canadian not-for-profit company Evergreen) for their inspiring inaugural GE Cafe Chef’s Series.

With the aim of simultaneously entertaining, and educating Torontonians, the series boasts an impressive array of big names in the Canadian food scene; writer/host Ivy Knight, Chef Anthony Rose, and food/wine journalist James Chatto are just some of the impressive names who will be taking part in the bi-monthly series. The combination of info and eats was launched a few weeks ago with Chef Jamie Kennedy, winemaker Dan Sullivan, and Executive Director of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, Rebecca LeHeup. Together, the trio talked up the role of Prince Edward County and its bounty of incredible food and wine producers. Personal experiences, cooking techniques, and local events were all chatted up between the beautiful four courses served as part of the event.

Prince Edward County is located about two hours east of Toronto, and contains the town of Picton, popular with summer holidaymakers. Nearly everything served within the gorgeous three-hour event was from the area -including the sunchokes Chef Kennedy used for a beautiful, velvety soup. Chef Kennedy told the assembled crowd how he came to buy his farm in the County, his love of the land, and how his passion for food and wine have guided his style of cooking -fresh, approachable, and deeply connected to the concept of terroir. His original idea was to serve goat in its various aspects: the cheese, the milk, and the meat. However, unable to find local goat meat, he substituted lamb, and… it was magical. Lambs shoulder was braised in goat milk (an Italian technique, the chef noted), while leg was served roasted, succulent and sweet; the lot came with little happy pillows of goat cheese gnocchi, laced with a thin, flavorful gravy. As I told Chef later, I experienced a “Sally-in-the-diner” moment eating it. No kidding. And to think it was the first time the award-winning Order Of Canada chef had tried that recipe! Color me shocked… and utterly, thoroughly, deeply satisfied.

Satisfaction continued with a luscious dessert of homey apple strudel with nutmeg ice cream; I wound up skimming the serving dish with my finger, which should tell you something about how often I eat homemade ice cream. Kennedy happily shared the recipe after he’d carved up pieces for everyone. There was something truly rewarding about seeing Kennedy work in the simple Brickworks kitchen, with its home-style oven and smooth-top elements. The way he carved bread, chopped veg, even washed and sharpened his knife conveyed both intense skill and innate gentleness. I enjoyed watching him go about his culinary business as much as the information being provided by LeHeup and Hill, though in a different way; it was, really, a beautiful, silent, poetic counterpart to the torrent of words and images, a soothing glass of red to the sparkling bubbly of LeHeup’s passionate presence.

In the wine vein, Sullivan’s handywork paired beautifully with every course; the affable vintner shared stories of his challenges and quickly, clearly answered all questions directed at him with simple, everyday language. I especially enjoyed the red selection he brought, a rich, fruity red that operatically sung with the succulent, tender meat of the main course. Sullivan planted his vines in 2001, and he joked about having “an overnight success in a decade” with Rosehall Run. Kennedy’s interest in the region was, he told us, sparked by the wine potential there; he described himself as a “committed oenephile”, and it showed in everything he cooked for us. “What grows together goes together” was the theme of the evening, and I left determined to visit Prince Edward County once the nicer weather comes.

But, being in New York this might prove difficult. We’ll see. In any case, I have a whole new appreciation of the riches of the region, the talents of its food producers and winemakers, and just how good sunchokes -despite their “gnarly” appearance -really are.

Appropos Of Nothing

Get on your celery glove.

Somewhere, somehow, Dali is twirling his moustache and cackling.

Oooh-LaLa

I always enjoy sharing my special dining experiences online -I find the response, both here and in the real world, to be both inspiring and heartening. So I want to share the wonders of a recent visit to Restaurant Didier in Toronto. But a few caveats before we begin.

First, I am not the most dedicated fan of French food; in the past, I’ve found it too heavy, too rich, and just too filling for me. Also, it’s really hard to reproduce at home. There’s something satisfying about being able to whip up basic approximations of yummy past meals in the comfort of my own kitchen, but I’ve never been able to do that with any degree of success when it comes to French cuisine, which places it in the rarefied world of eat-once-a-year-and-don’t-eat-for-a-week-after-ness. Meh. If I like something (or someone), I want it (or him) again and again and again. (And for the record, yes, I equate food and sex; sensuality is central to each, and to the enjoyment and celebration of life. See the Sex On A Plate post.)

Personally, I like food -and restaurant experiences overall -to be approachable, easy-going, pure, and unfussy. While I appreciate the art of molecular gastronomy, I can’t get my head -or tastebuds -around it making for an all-around satisfying meal. French with touches of modern, however, is something I really love, especially if there’s a light touch. Such is the case with Chef Didier Leroy. Dish after dish of amour pur emanate from his kitchen like pearls in a waterfall. and there’s no need to feel intimidated; servers are happy to explain ingredients and method, suggest pairings, and Chef might even come out and chat when all is said and done. Bravo! The restaurant itself is located in midtown Toronto, away from the hub of the scenester-foodie carnival, where basics like service, knowledge, and attention to detail can sometimes get lost amid the buzzwords and well… the buzz. Restaurant Didier is refreshingly un-hipster-esque, but at the same time, is classy, casual, and yes, affordable.

Chef Leroy comes with credentials. He is a member of the Association Des Maitres-Cuisiniers De France and the Academic Culinaire De France. In 2007, he was awarded France’s prestigious Medal of the Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole, one of the country’s highest honours. Dating back to 1883, the Medal recognizes the services of individuals who have promoted French culture through their activities within the sphere of agriculture. Leroy worked in numerous Michelin-starred restaurants and has been a part of such fine establishments as Auberge Gavroche and The Fifth. Impressively, Chef Leroy has been the official Executive Chef for the French Embassy/Consulate General in Toronto since 1990. Not too shabby.

The night I went I enjoyed a prix fixe menu, which, at $50 for three courses, offered tremendous value considering a/ the quality of ingredients (everything is organic); b/ the care and respect with which those ingredients are treated; c/ the incredible degree of knowledge, service, and honesty from the RD staff. They’ll steer you to the very-best wine pairings, any yummy accompaniments, and have an impeccable sense of timing, spacing out courses appropriately, and filling wine glasses at just the right times. And, of course, you’re getting the work of a first-class chef too. Yum.

For my first course, I chose Salade de Betterace, Orange, Fromage De Chevre, a delicately-flavoured beet salad with tiny medallions of snowy goat cheese and orange segments, and topped with Ontario greens. The beets were sliced paper-thin and were tender but not floppy, the fork prongs easily impaling their moist, sweet flesh. The goat cheese was, thankfully, not fridge-cold, but just the right temperature for swirling along the beets & greens, or spreading onto the beautifully crusty baguette side with the succulent, juicy citrus fruit. I could’ve downed another plate of this luscious, jewel-like salad, really, but I was happy the first course -along with the others -were proportioned accordingly, with absolutely no weird food architecture.

My second course was Duck Confit. It did, in fact, come with a gorgeously-charred sweet potato-half tucked beneath the meat, but there was nothing sky-high about the presentation, or indeed, off-putting about it at all. Quite the opposite! Duck confit is one of those dishes I have once a year (if that), owing to its extreme caloric content. In truth, it was closer to two years since I’d had the dish, but …. goodness me, Chef’s handling erased any negative past experiences entirely. It was, quite simply, the best duck confit I’ve ever had. Moist, if amazingly un-greasy morsels of tender meat, in a beautiful, rich-but-thin sauce that encircled the plate (with a just-so tender side of greens), each bite providing a pure, real connection to the bird and to the skill that so lovingly prepared it this way. Needless to say, I am now re-considering my once-a-year-only confit stance. Any increase might entail jogging home, however -or at least skipping dessert, which, on this night, was totally, wonderfully impossible.

Dessert was Trilogie De Chocolat Valrhona -or a chocolate trilogy, which consisted of layers of moist, ebullient bittersweet darkness. Runny, solid, soft -all the textures and flavours of this special, luscious treat were nestled together in one gorgeously posh, small portion. The level of detail was truly impresssive, with a lovely, subtle presentation and again, a just-right portion. The dessert -with a full-mouth flavour of rich cocoa, but without any cloying sugary qualities -paired beautifully with the 2005 Penfolds Grange wine my companion and I were enjoying the evening of our visit, and (as before, but in reverse) I would’ve gladly downed a few plate-fulls, were it not for the salade and confit that came before.

All in all, my visit to Restaurant Didier was a wondrously delicious experience. I happened to notice on the menus that the kitchen also caters to vegans and vegetarians, and offers a Chef’s Tasting Menu for tables. Truly, something for everyone, but with a smart, stringent respect for the French culinary tradition -along with the quality of ingredients -that, in this world of over-saturated hype and wannabe-stars -is truly inspiring. I am now a confirmed French food fan, thanks to the masterful work of Chef Didier. Yes, I want to return soon. And I will.

A la prochaine!

Local Chef


Further to my last post, I’m pleased to present my chat with Chef Trevor Middleton, who’s with The Local Company in Toronto. I think you’ll find his thoughts on food, presentation, and the cultivation of relationships enlightening. Does it get my any closer to defining what “local” means in this day and age? Yes and no. See for yourself.

How would you describe yourself?

I’m a moody bastard.

Where do you source your meat?

It all comes from The Butcher Shoppe. All the meat coming through (there), you have a guarantee -you know it’s Canadian.

The biggest challenge has been getting set up with (local producers).

What about dairy?

I’ll use Mr. Dairy -they source Canadian -but I will also source artisanal stuff, like Quebec organic. And I’ll also use stuff from the street (Danforth Avenue). Sysco is a major supplier to all the restaurants. You have to use it -but I only spend about $500 a week with Sysco, whereas I spend $1400 or $1500 everywhere else. There’s a local market near here, a village market, and I drop $60-$100 a day there.

How does the word “local” relate to what you do?

It’s a conceptualized name, meant to be a local restaurant, more local to the Danforth. The food philosophy side came with me -this comes from my love and intimacy with food. I’ve done enough fine dining, … (to know) I don’t want run-of-the-mill. I don’t ever want to be known for pretty food; I want a wonderful experience. I want to feel good about myself and what I ate.

A lot of this goes to my childhood. I was raised poor and with Crohn’s disease, and I was always hungry. Because of my own disease, I have to make it work for me, I can’t use garbage. Anything processed makes me sick, and it’ll make you sick along the way too.

What is your ultimate ambition?

My end goal is to teach. I want to be teaching culinary arts within five years. Part of it is, i have a gift with mentoring the young, and taking in lost souls. If you’ve got it together, don’t talk to me. I want someone who’s a f*ck-up, that’s how I heal myself. My former dishwasher is a young man most thought was autistic, and I found out it’s just social anxiety. No one would let him do anything but wash dishes; now he cooks every dish on the menu. He doesn’t have a high school diploma, though I have him enrolled in George Brown as a mature student. He carries that passion for food through his life now.

What do you think of sensuality as it relates to the restaurant experience?

When I worked at The Boilerhouse, they had beautiful food, wonderful execution, they were the best of the best. They had high-level chefs too, but I noticed one thing within a few months, something they tried to beat out of me: they take the rustic-ness out of food. They wanted perfectly trained-out stuff. I want chunks, not perfection. Restaurants take the technique part too far; they forget food is a living thing, that it’s natural, just because it has to be pretty. i think a lot of newer chefs are in a backlash, so now there’s more comfy food again.

What’s the end goal, for you, as a chef?

It’s morphing. At the beginning, it’s like everyone: you want to be a superstar. But really, the greatest experience is to sit down, invite people to have a glass of wine, a good meal, and talk. Dining isn’t just about food, it’s about how you interact – how you interact with your world, your surroundings. I’d rather be known as someone who cooks plain, simple food, more than anything else.

Do you know the people you buy from?

I do. If I don’t come in, they go, “where have you been?” One Asian lady at the local market, she and her husband always joke with me. Once a week, because of the nature of our relations, they’ll give me a care package to take back to kitchen, I have friendly relationships with local people. There are no pretensions. But I lament not being able to drive hours out to food sources. In the past, I ordered from Echo Bay -they provide grass-fed organic beef -but that means I have to charge more, and when I do, people (customers) complain.

What’s a chef’s job?

To engender respect for agriculture. If i can’t get organic, there are companies that have ethical way of doing business. I don’t want the fancy stuff if it’s not harvested ethically or sustainably.

Local or “Local”?

Ironically or not, the term “local” has come to mean a number of things, especially when it comes to food. The word “local” is generally defined as “close by” -but in what context? And to whom?

I pondered these definitions as I took a gander recently to a farmers’ market near to where I grew up. Only one -yes, one -producer had a sign up stating where their veg & fruit comes from: Clement Farms, in Newcastle.

“I’m really glad you have that up,” I remarked to an individual guarding the cherries.

“What do you mean?” he inquired.

“Well… ” I hesitated, worried I might sound snobbish, “aren’t farmers’ markets supposed to be local?”

“I guess…”

I walked around the rows of farmers and their goods, and the whole thing struck me more as an exercise in feel-good-ism than a chance to educate people about food issues. I want my farmers’ market to be more than an outdoor produce section, and this one isn’t. It isn’t difficult to find eager local producers to be part of the market, either -numerous food groups exist and maintain active websites and online presences. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by better markets with more conscientious farmers, artisanal food producers, and super-cool suppliers.

Having bought potatoes, tomatoes, & the last of this year’s asparagus (the latter proved perfect for soup) along with cherries from Niagara (which, taste and texture-wise, definitely beat those horrible woody things from California), I walked off still thinking hard about what local means, and whether caring about its definition is the oeuvre of food snobs, or good, simple common sense.

This internal debate about “local” came up a while ago, when I had a beautiful dinner at a restaurant located in the eastern end of Toronto. The gorgeous, white-and-wood-toned room is not exactly in the most culinary astute of areas; it’s located in what we Torontonians call Greektown, meaning there’s lots of souvlaki, dolmades, and flaming feta to be had. That stretch of Danforth Avenue has experienced a kind of renaissance the last few years, as other cultural tastes moved in -you can find Thai, Indian, and vegetarian restos along with the Greek stand-byes. But fine(ish) dining, with a big dollop of Locavore? Not so much. Not until The Local Company.

From the looks of their Facebook page, it’s being promoted more as a Danforth party spot than a place you’d go for a fine, inspiring meal. But that’s just what a companion and I enjoyed a few weeks back. I wrote a review if you’re curious about the meal details. (Addendum to that: I still dream about the flavourful goat cheese appetizer and the moist deliciousness of the chicken main.) Tomorrow, I’m posting my interview with The Local Company’s chef Trevor Middleton. I think his answers will surprise and delight. That definition of “local” means a lot of things to him, mainly involving the cultivation of relationships in the immediate community, which is certainly refreshing to hear in this age of TV-star chefs and kitchen egos.

I’m still not sure what “local” means, or why it has to mean so many things to so many people, or why it’s so hard to find actual, local food in outlying areas. I’ll post more thoughts on this in the coming weeks, including Chef Jamie Kennedy‘s reactions when I asked him about it on the radio recently. In the meantime, look out for the chat with Chef Middleton a demain.

In the meantime, have a delicious Monday.

Peace Full

It’s been a dramatic weekend in Toronto.

Amidst reports of police brutality and wanton violence, it’s hard to know who or what to believe. My household, like many in the area, hunkered down with the TV, radio, and internet. The dreary, cloudy day didn’t help the collective mood of the city -it made the sounds and images that much more depressing.

So it was that I spontaneously decided to cook. My kitchen really is my refuge.

Despite the humidity, soup felt right. It’s comfort food, after all. I decided on a Jamaican-style sweet potato soup, owing to a half-bag of said veg in my cupboard, and the crying need for something hot, spicy and nourishing. As the news reports detailed more arrests (as well as -oh yeah! -actual progress at the G8 an G20 meetings), I held my soup bowl and felt, in my literal and figurative guts, that things would be okay. And they were, at least in my little world.

You will need:

  • olive oil
  • roughly 6-8 sweet potatoes (you can also use yams), chopped
  • roughly 2-3 tbsp chopped fresh ginger (about a third the size of your hand)
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 4-6 cups chicken stock (depending on how runny you like your soup)
  • 2 medium-sized orange slices
  • 1 cup cream
  • Spices (in order of use): ground turmeric, ground coriander, ground cumin, organic brown sugar, fresh ground pepper, fresh nutmeg, cinnamon
  • salt to taste (I like sea salt)

Pour oil into a deep pot -make sure it’s enough to cover the bottom and warm on a medium heat.

Place chopped garlic and ginger into pot; stir and let saute for about 3 minutes, until fragrant. Sprinkle 1/2 tsp of turmeric on top and stir.

Add chopped sweet potatoes (or yams). Stir so that the ginger and garlic covers the pieces. Saute for about a minute, and then add roughly a 1/2 cup of stock. Stir. Replace lid.

Note: you’ll be repeating this add-stock-and-stir thing a lot, so be sure to keep a watch. You basically want to cook the sweet potatoes in stock until they’re mushy.

During this time, be sure to add your spices: turmeric (about 1 tbsp), ground coriander (1/2 tbsp) and ground cumin (1 tsp). Add about 1/2 tbsp of brown sugar (less if you’re using yams). Squeeze in the juice from the two orange slices with your hands. Stir it all and keep cooking.

Use the bottom of the spoon you’re using to stir things to break the pieces apart. Keep adding stock and stirring. I like this slow method -it produces a rich flavour and you get to control how thick or thin the soup is.

When the potatoes are soft (and you have a decidedly soup-y looking concoction), add a bit more stock and stir. Using either a hand-blender or a traditional blender, puree the lot right down. This make take a few tries, as ginger tends to be stalky sometimes, but keep going. If you don’t get every little bit, don’t worry; you can always put the whole thing through a hand blender one more time later on, unless you like bits of spicy ginger in your soup.

In any case, post-puree, you should have a beautiful orange-yellow pap. Put back onto low heat and stir. Add cream, in little bits, constantly stirring and taking care you don’t get any flare-ups from the thick soup (they hurt!).

Add the rest of the spices: a pinch of cinnamon, and a few good grates of the fresh nutmeg. Grind a good amount of fresh pepper straight into the pot as well as roughly 2 tbsp of salt and stir well. Cook on low heat (lid on) for about 15 minutes, stirring a few times.

If you still find the soup too thick, add more stock to taste, heat, and stir. Keep in mind -it’s supposed to have that pungent, spicy hot-sweetness to it. The odd chunk of ginger is actually quite delightful. And it’s even better the next day.

Ladle into bowls and enjoy.
Voila, comfort.

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