Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rice Pudding

Rice pudding may seem like an odd remembrance for an Easter Sunday post. I wonder about the timing myself but let's try to work it out.

When I was growing up, rice normally showed up in two ways, as a stuffing in cabbage rolls or as rice pudding. There were only a handful of times that rice made it into a meal. There were a few times where we bought a fried rice kit that included canned sauce. It was Dainty Fried Rice, I believe, and I don't think I've seen it since. Another time involved Minute Rice and orange juice from that commercial and another was a Rice and Sauce side dish.

In all, rice was second potato. It didn't have a place at the table unless it was covered in salt. Otherwise, its time in the cabbage roll and rice pudding was all that was needed. Strangely, it was my dad that liked rice pudding, even though rice wasn't his thing. In his later years, he grew to love chicken fried rice but then, not so much.

He made both a rice pudding and bread pudding from scratch. You add custard and bake the thing. That was all there was to it. It required for us to make rice especially to have 'leftovers'. His was a dry thing where you could feel the individual grains in your mouth. There was a sugary eggy taste that you get from Portuguese tarts (natal) or Chinese egg tarts. The top would be sunken in with cinnamon liberally topping it. We would have huge, deep pieces served with milk. The raisins would keep the blandness that was broken only with vanilla a bright punch. It grew to be one of my favourites.

My mom had tried various recipes including a creamy one but this was the winner recipe.

When I was courting my wife, we went out on Good Friday looking for rice pudding because somehow I had got it into my head that any wake for Jesus included liquor and rice pudding. We spent a tiring day looking for the food, came back and had our first kiss. In actuality, it was a reunion kiss as we had dated seven years to the day back and it was my birthday. We go married the next year on April 20th. The rice pudding we had that day was Kozy shack pudding. It was more on the creamy side but the raisins cut the taste.

Along the way, we discovered kheer, the Indian version of rice pudding that is creamy and in comparison, spicy, redolent with cinnamon, cardamom and faint tastes of other spices dependent on the chef. I fell in love with the idea of the buffet rice pudding. It is really different than the one that I grew up with. But our tastes change and very few places make that almost dry pudding that requires cream or milk.

In all this time, I have not tried to make rice pudding and I wonder why? This was the first year that I bought rice pudding for Easter and coincidentally, my anniversary. It has been thirteen years since that fateful rice pudding expedition and I wish I could recapture the moment of falling in love again.

Maybe, I'll go and make some rice pudding.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Easter Food

As the long weekend approaches and meal planning begins, I'm thinking about Easter food. The Easter Sunday meal has always seemed a poor cousin to Christmas and Thanksgiving although it is the highest of holy holidays in the Catholic calendar.

We often had turkey or ham for this meal. By ham, I mean fresh, unsmoked pork shoulder slathered in mustard, brown sugar with cloves poking through the meat. We would have a big roast with the leftovers tasting minty from the cloves served in sandwiches for days afterwards. It was one of my earliest recollections of wanting to eat the fat where most of the flavour rested. If I could easily find a recipe, I would have linked to it. Even in its reduced state, this was one of the biggest meals of the season. What I have more food memories about is Lent.

Lent is that time before Easter where we had to give something up and eat fish on Fridays. Usually, as kids we would give up dessert or candy making the Easter Bunny arrival all that sweeter. The arrival of Lent often meant that the snow was so deep in the bush that my father would be laid off work. He worked in the bush cutting trees or taking the trees to a landing (skidding) where they could be loaded onto trucks to be taken to mills.

This meant a couple of things. Money become tighter due to reduced income and my dad had more influence on food. We would begin to open our reserves and preserves. The deer meat would come out of the freezer. The last bits of the half cow or pig that was slaughtered and sent to the butcher to be wrapped would start making the way onto our plates. There was canned beef and venison that would make a quick meal fried with fried onions and served with mashed potatoes. The potatoes themselves would have to be hauled up from the cellar and you could see the age as the skins became wrinkled and hard to peel. The onions that came up were not always the ones that we had grew in the garden but sometimes purchased in 10lb bags. If Lent was late that year, eyes and yellow green tops could be seen from these basement dwellers.

What I remember most is all the fishing that was done. Dad would go ice fishing in hopes to get some fish for that night's dinner and of course, for Fridays when we could not eat meat. When we were unlucky, there was fish sticks on occasion, the only fish I would eat. Even thought there was lake trout and ling (fresh water cod), I would eat very little of it. The story is that I used to eat fish a lot but choked on a bone when I was small and never eat fish again. In truth, I will only occasionally eat fish but never have taken up the habit again. We would collect the fish grease and use it over and over again until the fish started tasting too fishy and it would be time to ditch the grease.

With the fish, we would often serve fresh fries made from those old Kennebec potatoes which I still believe make the best french fries. They would be cut thicker and I would be in charge of cooking them. The first batch in oil always came out pale and white and only slightly crispy. It is only in recent years that I found out that this always happens with fresh oil. The process was very messy. I don`t do it now because it is hard to find old potatoes in the store and Kennebec potatoes are not found there.

Other than fish and fries, the other food that reminds me of Lent is macaroni and tomatoes. When I started working when I was fourteen years old, I would often miss the Friday fish fry which didn`t bother me that much because of the whole not caring for fish thing but it set me off on a course of cooking. If I was hungry after working on Friday, I would come home and make some boiled macaroni, drain and add a can of tinned tomatoes after buttering and salting the pasta generously. After dishing it into the bowl, I would speckle it with black pepper and eat. Being a teenager, I would often demolish a whole tin of tomatoes with a half pound of pasta by myself before heading up to bed.

So, while I now I savour hot cross buns and plan to eat peameal bacon breakfast with a smoked ham lunch, I sometimes miss the other `lesser`traditions of Easter. It is hard even to achieve that food of fresh caught fish with french fries made from last year`s crop of old potatoes. Even in rural areas, these foods are disappearing for the sake of convenience foods. I`m not some old guy being in my early forties but these foodways are leaving and I miss them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Evolution of Taste

I recently read somewhere, a blog or twitter feed, a beer taster's arc. Beer drinkers move from mass market brews through to hop bombs and then back to simple brews. I have heard this observation before and it got me to thinking, are there parallels in other tastes?

The coffee drink starts with Tim Horton's and the double double, gradually moving into espresso and dark roasted brews of Starbucks and then ends up with medium and mild roast of independent baristas.

Food has a few of these parallels and maybe one for each of the basic tastes; sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury. I would add spiciness, as in capsaicin, as another dimension. For instance, sweetness moves to this sickly sweet place and most people move back to a simpler dessert such as a simple cake or pie.


I don't know. I have a few conjectures, though. One is habituation. If you keep tasting or smelling something for a long time, eventually you begin not to notice it. It is a  evolutionary trait that allows us to be able to smell through something to ensure that we are not missing anything such as danger. If any of you have changed enough diapers, you know what I am talking about.

Along with habituation, there is also an addictive type or tasting where we want to taste more of that thing that we like. Let's call it extremism. We keep trying to push the boundaries to have the hoppiest beer or the spiciest chicken wing. At some point, we reach the physical limit of taste. The 80-100 IBU units is often thought as a natural limit to be able to taste differences. Many people believe that at some point of the Scoville scale which measures spiciness, that there is no additional burn but that the flavour of the peppers themselves is different.

Another is taste differentiation. Not its real term but I have spent too much time on the internet trying to figure it out. The idea is that if you are given two closely related tastes you will begin to prefer one over the other. There is some thinking that this is also evolutionary, that in order to ensure that we get the best nutritive content, we prefer one food over another. Of course, this is where nature and nurture begin to raise its head in the discussion but we'll pat it and it will go back to sleep.

Another dimension that I want to touch on here is physical change. As you age, your ability to smell becomes hampered. Although the sense of smell and its physical structure are one of the senses that regenerate, there is a limit to its regeneration. This is a polite way of saying you get old. As you get older, the ability to taste these nuanced flavours disappear and you loose interest in the food. Funny, as you get older and begin to loose your sight, you dress in brighter clothes.

The last one I want to discuss here is experiential. As we go to the extremes and back, we begin to notice subtle differences. As Jordan St. John put recently, as a beer writer, you eventually begin to understand what makes good beer. It is not that you go back to simpler beer but that you can taste the flaws in bad beer or poorly made food. There is an appreciation for the technique of cooking vegetables well or making a lager that doesn't taste crappy.

A sign of a great chef is what they can do with an omelet or to put another way, how simplistic their food appears. When you are eating a plate of meat and two veg, it takes a lot to wow a diner. To be able to be considered great, the simple nuanced food, coffee or beer has to taste great against others in the same category. There is something marvelous in the idea that we go through the simple stage twice, once on the way up and then on the way back down. We don't know what we have until its gone but with taste, we get a second chance to appreciate it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Turning 1000

I did it. I just reached 1000 distinct beers on untappd. To some of you that statement isn't going to make sense and to others, it will be a dubious statement. So, let's just figure out what the hell I just said.

Yeah me! A new beer badge.
Untappd is a social beer application that helps you track beer while earning badges along the way. When I first heard about it, it seemed as if it would drive you to drink in a literal way as you tried to level up. I'll admit that I did drink a beer that I wouldn't have drank (or is that drunk - guess it depends on how many) in order to gain a badge but I don't think it pushed me anywhere.

What the app did do was change the way I looked at my drinking habits. I joined on December 24th, 2011. That means that in 28 months, I have drank 1367 beer with 1000 different beer. That's 48 beer per month or 12 a week. Let's step away from that number for a second and try to break it down or rationalize it.

Chris Schryer posted an excellent blog post about alcoholism and craft beer drinking when he attempted to drink a traditional monk's diet for Lent. Drinking a lot of beer is not necessarily alcoholism. The element of addiction is what moves drinking into that arena but then there is that very big number there.

When I was gnashing my teeth at the whole privatization of alcohol sales in Ontario debate, Brian Papineau, a beer blogger from Ottawa quipped that the real issue is that I haven't been able to find a beer that I like and that may be making me cranky.

So, both these folks have made me question both how I am drinking and what I am drinking. How did I get to this number? Well in the last 28 months, I have gone to four large beer festivals where I have sampled around 20-30 beer at each. Not all samples were fully quaffed and in reality, it was probably around 2 ounces for each sample. That handles 100 right there. There are smaller tap takeovers and more indie type beer events in the city that would account for about 10 different beer each time. Let's say, I've been to around six to eight of those beer events in the last two years. So, another 60.

Now, for regular bar going, it is in my local where every six weeks where I split six beer with a buddy, resulting in a three pint night. That would account for another 110-120 listed beer. So, 1000 beer less 270 is 730 distinct beer that I drank, mainly at home. That makes for just over a beer a day when you add in the duplicates.

That number feels about right. But how do I feel about that number?

Let's go after the second part of my introspection, why so many kinds of beer? Is it just novelty? Before I used the app, I rarely drank the same beer twice in a row and would come back to a beer in a seasonal way. I still do that now but if given the choice of a new beer, I will go for it. Part of it is due to the app egging me on but another part is the growth of beer in Ontario and LCBO's focus on seasonal releases.

Now, every quarter or so, the LCBO introduces a number of new beer that will only be around for a short while. Interspersed with these known releases, there are brewery spotlights and local breweries switching in their seasonal brews. This makes for a set of options that will only be around for a while and in some cases, will not come around. It tickles my scarcity and exclusivity bone. I want to try this rare bird before it flies away. The same drive that causes the Pokemon itch in kids, drives my need to collect them all. Do I feel bad that there isn't a go to beer for me? Do I believe that the next thing is better?

Upon reflection, the idea of a beer a day that changes only coming back once or twice a year doesn't sound so bad. It is very close to the way I eat, seasonal with variations on a theme. My burgers are rarely dressed the same way twice but because they are burgers, they are easily compared and help me appreciate the great ones when they come around again. Here's looking forward to the next thousand beer(s).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Did you ever have to make up your mind?

I'm just a guy who likes good tasting beer. If possible, I'd like to get it in more convenient places while supporting local, small breweries. Given the amount of hyperbole on twitter lately between the Beer Store and the Ontario Convenience Store Association, I was beginning to believe that I was the only one. Either I was in the pocket of big beer and wanted to continue the monopoly while keeping craft beer down or I wanted escalated costs and wanton death and destruction of Western society as we know it. Which one to choose?

A few days, I was challenged to take a position and frankly, I didn't know what to say. I've been brewing at a U-Brew-it for a little over three years and seriously drinking Belgian and what is now considered craft beer for around twenty years and I feel unqualified to have an opinion on Beer Store versus Convenience store. This is not some feint where I'm taking the piss out of them but rather a reflection on the labryrinthine regulations and dense legislation surrounding alcohol sales in this province.

If it wasn't for Jordan St. John's poll, I wouldn't have bothered writing anything. It is only because most of my opinions are reflected in his findings that I feel confident to say a few things here.

The Beer Store is not something I necessarily want to protect. It is owned by three large multinationals on a cost recovery basis where they use the advantages in the regulation to boost their profits through reduced costs, advantageous product placement and pricing practices to licensees. I won't bother rehashing their arguments for the continued survival of the Beer Store but rather note that they do have one shining benefit, recycling. Our recycling program is damned good and any replacement would have to do as well or better.

As a consumer, although it is a pain in the ass, I can't imagine what type of patchwork returns would exist without them. I am old enough to remember doing bottle returns at the grocery store where we would only accept glass bottles from certain brands and not others. I can imagine a return to that era. There is a reason that bottle returns are no longer done.

The convenience store arguments are all around promises that cannot be kept, including an expanded ability for craft beer breweries, more jobs and a beer in every pot. They don't seem so keen on ensuring that there is a true open market for all stores, only convenience stores. Anyways, their claims are fairly spurious and their defense is rabid. I don't trust a convenience store to have the best interests of a beer drinker at heart any more than they support the local snack food industry. They are in business to make money.

In short, they both suck.

A few observations. Currently, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario already does risk based licensing. What does that mean? Studies show that more outlets selling alcohol (density) among other effects of privatization leads to rising costs due to alcohol. If people claim bias, it would be a weird claim that CAMH wants less money by reducing alcoholism. AGCO bases sales location on this reasoning. So, any new stores of any type would have to continue to undergo this licensing scheme.

Maybe the way forward is to modify our system slowly rather than taking the legislation out and burning it in the streets of our provincial capital. Modifications such as:

  • Open the market to any location while keeping AGCO methods of evaluation whether convenience store, grocery store or Tim Horton's. I don't care.
  • Allow for novel places of business while respecting AGCO. (Farmer's markets, co-owned craft beer stores, boutiques). Currently can only buy at LCBO, Beer Store, licensees, and on site breweries.
  • Allow for small breweries to enter the market easier by limiting SKUs at Beer Store and LCBO. Each brewery can only have so many products at a time.
  • Allow for either co-op stores of some type for small breweries from any where in the world or allow for small brewers to buy into the Beer Store.
  • Offer assistance for development of small breweries as is offered for other agricultural and manufactured products. Put another way, incentives to get people who are brewing out of other breweries their own place to increase jobs.

That's all I have come up with in the last few weeks. The message is clear, younger beer drinkers don't care for the beer store but all beer drinkers like greater access. Many believe the LCBO is doing a good job. Full stop.

My point is that this false choice between either a Beer Store or a convenience store is just silly. The good part is that in the past week, I have heard more play of the beer geeks, blogger, columnists and aficionados than ever before. Real experts are finally being heard and that can only be helpful when trying to move forward. Of course, their bias is more good beer.

Restaurant Review: Hogtown Vegan

I don't hate Vegans. Does this seem like a bad start to a review where the blogger is already in defensive mode? Let's try this again. I really love vegetables. I own some extraordinary recipe books on cooking vegetables that blow me away. Entertaining at home often forces me to consider my guests restrictions, likes and dislikes. There is a perversity that suggests that I will try to find a way for them to like a childhood nemesis. It often works.

What I find perverse about veganism is this stretch to equate their food to taste better than meat by using meat substitutes. I'll try to explain as I go through what we ate.

I took a friend who has been some sort of vegetarian or vegan in parts of her life and she had been wanting to try this place. Also, she wanted to see what went on while I was tasting food at a restaurant. So, after months of calendar wrangling we set off to find this place, Hogtown Vegan. It was at the sign of a pig. Not quite sure what they were trying to say here. Pigs are notorious omnivores and can be vicious biters. This already set me off by saying we will be selling not pork on their calling card. Mixed signals.

Inside it was another of the thrift shop throw ups that seem to be cropping up everywhere. I suppose it is to reflect small town diner, given the menu. It seems weird to me that so many places are trying to bring the rural byways into the city without reflecting the underlying reasons. I guess the restaurant may be running on a shoestring and that the decor was an afterthought but I doubt it. Someone went to a great deal of trouble to make this work.

We got in before the dinner rush and saw a steady stream of clients while we were there with table service being good and tables turning over rapidly. Since I had a dining companion that was willing to be a guinea pig (there's the pig again), we decided to order a wider range of food than I normally would.

We had two starters, fried "clams" and poutine. There are at least two problems with that last statement; the inclusion of quotation marks on a menu that read like air quotes and the omission of quotation marks around poutine as there is no way that poutine can be made without animal products. There are 29 uses of air quotes around meat based products that have been faked on the menu.

The clams where shiitake mushrooms lightly battered. Unfortunately, the mushrooms were raw and tasted of the nothingness of a raw mushroom and provided no additional give of a cooked fungi. The batter still had the dusty flavour of raw coating, a flour of some sort. If the mushrooms had been marinated or cooked before or just even cooked through this starter would have worked. The poutine gravy was a savoury mushroom based sauce that was rich in umami and felt thick and viscous on the tongue akin to a traditional veal reduction. The sauce was awesome. A refrain that you will hear through out this review. The fries, limp. The Daiya cheese provided saltiness but maybe a better choice would have been to add nutritional yeast. For a purist, putting cheddar type cheese on a poutine is sacrilege anyways. You need cheese curds. This was a fake of a fake and a double fail but the sauce saved it. I'd order it but ask for no cheese.

For Mains, we pulled the pulled "pork" sandwich with mac'n "cheese" and the "peppersteak" and dumplings. It may seem that we choose the most challenging of the menu items but all we did was pick the most interesting items given the claim to having vegan comfort food. I'll say a little but first, thank goodness for drinks. It seems that they have done their due diligence and the beer and wine is all vegan friendly. It might be nice if they stretched their options but good to see local organic alcohol.

Strange, but the peppersteak could have been written ""pepper"steak" as there were no peppers. Peppers and wine are my two prerequisites for a pepper steak that could be vegan. Once again, the beer mushroom gravy was awesome. The underlying meat substitute was bland. Maybe find a way to add flavour before the cooking phase or use a slow cooked vegetable such as squash or meaty mushrooms. The side veg were ordinary and could have used seasoning. Adding a little extra salt and maybe nutmeg or cinnamon to the sweet potato mash would have made it sing. Collards always seem undercooked in this town. They were fine. But I demand that my vegetables exalted in a place that specializes in vegetables. I can get this grade of vegetable cookery at any steak house in the city and that pisses me off.

The pulled pork sauce was once again great but the shredded texture came more from the coleslaw than the meat replacement. There are so many other directions this dish could have taken. What was there went a ways to salvaging our meal but by calling it pulled pork, it drew unfair comparisons. If they had used cardoon, bamboo shoots, spaghetti squash, even slow cooked shredded mushrooms along with the coleslaw and called it shredded cardoon or whatever, it would have made the dish so much better. The coleslaw's acidity eventually eroded the taste especially since there was a dollop of acidity in the sauce. Acid on acid without respite. I like the sandwich and the sauce but couldn't get through the whole thing. We won't talk about the mac'n'cheese. Don't.

The dessert of fried apple pie with coconut ice cream that we split was one of the highlights. Other than maybe requiring carrageenan or something to thicken the mouthfeel of the ice cream, it was good.

It seemed that so much of the meal was avoiding meat in favour of fake meat that it missed the point. The sauces were great but there was nothing to put them on other than tasteless soy products. In today's cooking age of sous vide, marinades and international cuisines, there is so much to be gleaned from good cooking... It saddens me that I could call Black Hoof ahead of time and ensure that I could get an amazing vegetarian and probably vegan meal. Hell, I could get a better vegan meal at the Keg. To be clear, I fucking love vegetables and my dining companion was so apologetic that she promised to take me to Live who focuses on getting the best out of the veggies rather than paying homage to meat.

I like their spunk. I like their sauces. This place may appeal to converts to veganism but it does not appeal to me, a meat eater who loves vegetables and wants to try the kind of food that I would make on a winter's day when I am sick or feeling down. At least that is my definition of comfort. If they end their reliance on meat replacement and move towards vegetable protein that is vegetable forward, then I will try this place again.

The Hogtown Vegan on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 31, 2014

Pimp My Chili

For me, the required element for a good chili is that when you finish a bowl, you want another bowl. I'm going to share a few ways to increase the umami or savoury aspects of your chili.

When I am talking chili, I'm not going to get into the merits of beans/no beans, Texas chili or bust or any of those great and valid debates. I'm going to assume the thing that you get when you go to a soup counter or at the local lunch time place is what we are talking about. Some of these tips apply regardless.

I'm not going to regale you with tales of the new Naga Scorpion hybrid that someone smuggled for me or the latest capsaicin extract or even the relative fruitiness of some of the mid Scoville range peppers. If you didn't understand the last paragraph, then I'm talking to you. Those other food nerds can go to Chile Pepper.

I'm going to share a few ways to increase the umami or savoury aspects of your chili.

Reduce the Water

The enemy of intense, rich flavours is water. For many of your ingredients, you want to get water out and maybe replace it with a different liquid.

Start by looking at the vegetables that you add but let's leave the onions until later. If you add carrots and celery, chop them (it reduces time) and try roasting them in a 250C oven until they have lost some water.

Roast or cook down tomato paste before adding. If you over reduce or find that you need to loosen up the tomato paste, add a liquid that will add depth such as stock, malty beer or that tomato water from the can of tomatoes you usually add.

Toast Stuff

If you are using chili powder, take a few seconds and toast it in a dry pan over a low heat. Keep mixing or swirling it around so it doesn't burn but there you go.

Be brave and make your own spice mixture. Toast the spices and grind them together. Last time I made chili, I took cumin seed and star anise (more on the star anise later) toasted them and then ground just the cumin. I toasted some ground spices; cinnamon, allspice, sweet paprika, sweet-sour paprika, and cayenne. This was my spice base.

Buy your own dried peppers and toast them. Ancho, pasilla and New Mexico are often available in stores. Any of the dry smoky ones are best. Leave the seeds in, if you like the heat. You can even improve these peppers by doing the next hint.

Use Dried Ingredients

This works especially well, if you are using ingredients to build umami. Dried mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and parmesan rinds work well for building flavour. Those are the quick fixes.

Beans. Take the time to soak and cook your own beans. That way, you can get the texture to your preference. Do up extra and freeze or make baked beans. Mix up the type of beans. Colour, texture and flavour differ between beans and these differences can add complexity.

Another great trick is to reconstitute these dried ingredients using warm stock, beer, or even excess bean water from cooking the beans. For instance, using a malty beer to make a mushroom tea and then adding that to the chili pot will definitely add a layer of flavour. You can use the reconstitution method along with the toasting method to compound flavours. Toast dry chiles, reconstitute them and use a blender to make a sauce and add it to the chili pot.


A little smoke can add depth. Anything from using smoked chili peppers, smoked paprika, liquid smoke or a bit of bacon can put another layer of moreness into the bowl.

Add Flavour Early

The earlier the flavour is added in the process, the more time it has to develop. For instance, if you sweat the onions, add the spices and the dried carrots. Drying the carrots before adding them is earlier than add the carrots later. I added star anise when browning the beef. Star anise has a slight liquorice flavour when noticeable. When added at a low level, it makes meat tastes meatier. I also toasted star anise with spices and when I took them out, added the stars to the tomato paste that I was reducing.

Cheats Are Additive

This time I added smoked sundried tomatoes that had been soaked in warm beer. I toasted smoked paprika and added them to the onions. You could use a rauchbier which is a smoked beer as the liquid for your peppers, tomatoes or extra liquid. 

You don't need to do all of these to make a chili with depth and umami. If you just do a few of these, they will improve it. There are other cheats but these are the ones that make me happy. Try a few out. Let me know how it goes.