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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Failure: Okra


I suppose you could take lessons from your life and apply them to the kitchen and I suppose that you could do the reverse. I'm not sure it does anybody any good to try and take grand views of everything but here is my story.

I had some stuff in the fridge and tried to make something and it failed. There were numerous hints along the way but I either ignored them or thought I could work with that. It didn't work out. The end. That's the way this experiment went but it could've went many others. I write this as a warning to others who would ignore experiments that are going wrong. Our demise is often written in our beginnings.

Let's reboot that. I had some okra that I discovered in my freezer and remembered how good it was. It was fresh from the farmer's market when I froze it. I didn't rightly remember the date it was packed away. Was it from this summer or maybe last? This was like found treasure. It was like a forgotten friend coming from a trip with exotic treasures like a book written in some forgotten language. Being the kind of person who is okay with stale dates and 'aged' food, I thought I would give it a chance. Nothing bad could happen.
Mistake #1: If you are unsure of a frozen good, defrost it and taste it before making it the main ingredient.
What could I do? I always liked tomato and okra, so I would make one of southern dishes that I always feel slightly guilty about making. The food itself is entwined with its racist undertones. Okra was one of the veggies that would provide comfort for slaves. ...and you should always make sure there is at least one downer in blog posts for the redemption arc.

So tomato and okra stew it is. I looked in my pantry to discover I did not have the requisite canned tomatoes but thought I must have something to make do. A can of tomato paste and maybe that can of Manwich that I bought for the boys (and secretly me too). I put that in the pot and got all proud of my improvisation. Shit! Did I put onions and garlic as a base? Argh. There are many false starts. It is easy enough to backtrack at the beginning.
Mistake #2: Even when improvising, make sure you have tools and ingredients at hand. 
Out came a separate frying pan to try and correct this slight misstep. Added some ghee and habanero oil that I made a while back and things were looking good again. Wait. Did I put a whole can of tomato paste in that? Back to tasting the liquid. It was thick and overly sweet tomato like. My gosh and darn, I said. How will I ever serve this to anyone? Okay. I have this. I added some beer to bitter it and some vinegar from hot pickles that I had made. There were some good ingredients going in here. Some prime bits of love from my hands. This could fix it!

The sauce had turned around slightly. It was tasting more balanced and it almost resembled a spicy tomato soup I had made once. This may be okay. The slight off flavour could be balanced with the okra. This was going to work. Maybe.
Mistake #3: Sometimes give your doubts a little room to explain themselves. You have built up a lifetime of experience in some areas. If this is one of those areas, listen and figure out what is going on. Now is the time to plan and fix it. 
Okay, in went the half defrosted okra and it smelled pretty good for the next few minutes. I sat down at my table with my laptop planning how I was going to write a triumphant post on how to work with a recipe and improvise to great results. Then something started to come my way. A wet musty smell of vegetation and despair. Was my kitchen scrap pile going off? No, I had taken that out this morning. Sniff, sniff. Oh.

I tasted the tomato liquid that had once been saved but now was lost. The off flavour was more present. Raw tomato paste and bitterness. It had been joined by the rot of green and then freezer burnt taste of nothingness and the abyss. I spit the first sip out into the sink and shook my head. My taste buds were off. That was it. Went back for a second taste. Nope.

I put the spoon down with wide eyes. I could say I was in disbelief but that would mean that there was something to be let down by. There was nothing redeemable. Like a long time lover saying that they had never loved you, this soup went well past the ability of incredulity and into the waiting arms of incomprehensibility. The Lovecraftian and existential crisis of my abilities of a good homecook had finally come to a head. I should lay down my tools and walk away from the stove and never return. I sat down and took a moment. The enormity of my project and its ruinous end had still not taken hold.

The bubbling horror could be heard laughing at me from the kitchen. Each burble defied me to do something; anything to fix it. I realized that there is no turning away from the cosmic horror. The best way for me to preserve my sanity was to write a cautionary tale and implore others to close the door to this eldritch mess. I poured the liquid down the sink and disposed of the green tentacled blob of okra. Its gelatinous mess was punctuated by protruding stems. White seeds like eyes stared at me from the compost bin bursting out of the red gore of the sauce. There was no way I was ever going to forget this sight burned into my soul. I would be forever changed. I'm not sure of anything in the kitchen now. How did this happen?

So, I made myself a sandwich.
Lesson: Don't let a bad batch of something turn you inside out and to the edge of insanity. Make a sandwich and get on with it.
There were other lessons but really, sometimes you suck. I used a bad ingredient that I knew better about and thought I could make good. Most times it works but sometimes it doesn't. So what. I ended up making a delicious sandwich and a reasonable salad. Spent the rest of the weekend making roast vegetables for the week. A bad dish is just that.

Monday, February 13, 2017

My Week - 2017 - 6

Finally, I am a day late. After six weeks, I finally get to a point where I am a little late. Well, I guess the subject of mediocrity is a good one then?

I have had some excellent food memories; a dinner with my former spouse at Lemon Meringue, and an amazing night at Hoof are two where the food was excellent. There was more to making those nights special and some of my other memories bear that out. A Good Friday searching for rice pudding where it ended up being Kozy Shack, hot hamburger with homemade french fries and my kids' cookies. None of those foods go beyond average nor do they need to. By definition, most of our food is going to be average. What we hope is that our average is higher due to most of our food having something more to them. Soul or love is something that is often brought up as something that is in these moments. Maybe it is hokey but with Valentine's Day around the corner, maybe I will let that pass.

This all came about because I ate at Harvey's. There was a time in my life when Harvey's gave me somewhere cheap to go where I could get fresh vegetables. I had a few vegetarian friends who would just go in and get a bun with a bunch of toppings and veg on them. This week, I went in and had their braised beef. Braising is one of my favourite techniques but this beef seemed as if it was cooked in an industrial process and then added to a flavoured brown gravy mix. It wasn't special and it was below mediocre. I just wonder if at one time I would have accepted that? I don't think so because my dad used to eat home canned beef that tasted similar. He fried onions, popped the top on the canning jar, added the contents. Once they were warmed together, he would serve them with potatoes, normally boiled, and bread. I remember tasting the pickling spices that were added. Bright lemony pepper bursts that I would today know to be coriander seed, hot heat of black pepper and the mellow-sharp bite of onion. This too was mediocre food of a different variety. Ordinary but made with the idea of tasting of something and to put you through times when there was no fresh meat. Too much of today's food is just to fill a gap. Raise your mediocrity to something just a bit more.

Drank
- Gillian, a Goose Island brew that I got for a fraction of the price one day at the LCBO when they were launching. I'm not sure how I feel about a $35.00 sticker but I got it for a lot less. An interesting sour beer.
- Stone's Xocoveza. A surprising beer which reads gimmicky but tastes a lot better than that. It is the equivalent of a good Mexican hot chocolate. When they are bad, they are horrid but when they are good, you can't imagine not trying one.
- Finally figured out that drink I was talking about a few weeks ago. It is called The Industry Standard. It looks like diarrhea in the glass but is really a deceptively good sour.
- And my last thing that I thought was interesting was a Vietnamese dragonfruit liqueur that was incredibly vinegary and would probably be better served with a little olive oil and greens.

Ate
- A braised beef sandwich and poutine at Harvey's. The less we talk about it, the more likely it will go away.

Prepared
- Made a peanut sauce using a Thai recipe but immediately changed out ingredients; teriyaki sauce for soy, natural peanut butter for regular peanut butter, smoked maple syrup for brown sugar/palm sugar, and thai chilies for pepper flakes. Added to fried eggplant and fried cabbage

Thinking
- about what is Valentine's food
- whether I will finally break my food slump
- about this book that I read on cider, but that will be a review this week, hopefully

Sunday, February 5, 2017

My Week - 2017 - 5

I am really regretting the name of this series. It doesn't quite do what I want in terms of creating something interesting. However, it does drive me to at least post once a week. I would be embarrassed to see the number creep by two. So, this is where I am. I had a bunch of bits and pieces planned but I am pre-empting it.

My son didn't make his program for high school and what I had planned seems to pale in comparison to what is happening in his life. He doesn't want to talk about it and wasn't interested in eating. That is a big deal. It is tough to want to help someone through something that they aren't ready to talk about. It is not the time to try and talk through what happened. He is too old to be comforted by a hug, platitudes and a kiss on the sore spot. He would rather sleep and be alone. So, I trudge to the grocery store to try and make some comfort. Nothing homemade, nothing complex. Something that will let him know that I care and that I kinda get it. So, hamburgers, fries and steamed veggies. Mostly mass produced but dependable. Hopefully he will at least eat something and realize that tomorrow will be different and there are some things in this world that don't change much. It may be some small buffer against the feeling that everything is wrong and always changing. The horrible feeling of not being in control. It is not time to point out what could be done differently. Now is the time to just be for a little bit.

So, horrible segue but change is also happening in food in Toronto. We have already heard about many closings in the past while of institutions. Add Dangerous Dan's to the list. At the corner of Broadview and Queen, it is being pushed by gentrification. Rents went up by 80% and they don't think they can continue to make a go of it. So, it will be closing at the end of May.

Big House Pizza is dropping a new menu starting on Monday. Minor changes to the menu with a few added pizzas and a meat sauce. I'm thinking, perversely, of ordering some of their veggie pizzas with this meat sauce.
Drank
- A great beer by a Cobden brewery, Whitewater Brewing, called Whistling Paddler. They also got called out for their sexist marketing by Ben in Ben's Beer Blog. Worth a read. And I remember tweeting about their can a while back.
- Some odd oolong tea that I had to add milk to. It is sweet and not sure how I feel about it. However, bulk barn had a sale and I can be a sucker for flavours I have not had before. Give this one a pseudopass. I think it will find its way into a dessert of mine.

Ate
- Neal Brothers has a take on Masala potato chips called Vij's Delhi-licious. Having had a few of these type of chips lately, my son likes this one the best.

Prepared
- Doctored white miso soup with some togarisa. I use that shit on top of most of my soups. So good.

Thinking
- Do we really need a coffee and tea festival?
- How much does locally roasted matter if the beans are sourced like everyone else's? Is it just to give some roastery jobs or is there some other value?
- The connection between emotions and appetite; sometimes I stress eat and other times, I cannot stomach any food.



Sunday, January 29, 2017

My Week - 2017 - 4

Two weeks in a row where it almost feels like I have given up on food during a time when I would traditionally be more into it. January has been a month of beginnings and endings. It has been a mild month that is starting to get bitter and cold. These are the times when I normally hunker down and begin making soups, stews and other stuff for loved ones to keep the closeness as much as possible; a salve against the feeling of the winter half over.

This year, I invited some guests to celebrate Chinese New Year. It was a departure from the familiar past of planning a huge menu and making everything from scratch. I gave myself only a week to prepare for three guests. Made only a few dishes and used prepared dumplings for the rest.

It was uncomfortable for me and I made a bit of an ass of over apologizing for the quality of dumplings. Something interesting happened though, I had a good time. After the first few comments and the result was that unearned compliments were solicited, I gave up worrying. There is only so much that you can hear someone complimenting frozen dumplings that taste just okay. I mean feeling insecure is one thing but no one ripped my taste buds out of my mouth.

I imagine that the feeling was something similar to the one guest who leaving my house called me by someone else's name, only to text later with an apology. That is what January was for me.

There is a story that I remember hearing and I always think about it when I think about grace. A new boyfriend goes to dinner to meet his girlfriend's parents. It is clear that he is not of the same class. He is making an effort in his appearance. At the end of the meal, a small finger bowl with lemon is presented. He promptly drinks the warm lemonade. The mother without missing a beat also drinks hers.

Sometimes the etiquette and niceties of the table and eating food get in the way of enjoying the meal and the company.

Prepared
- pepperoni grilled cheese
- Son-in-law eggs

Ate
- Nothing memorable

Drank
- Toronto sake, smooth and silky with the dumplings
- My dunkel weizen. Decent. Not my favourite but a solid beer that went well with the dumplings.

Thinking
- Chocolate and sour? Do they go together?
- about posting about NOMA and its impact on homecooks
- eggplant and peanut butter together
- Naga pickle from Bangladesh
- Meyer lemons showing up again
- what exotic fruit to get my son


Sunday, January 22, 2017

My Week - 2017 - 3

So, my fear has come to pass. This is the first week in the new year where I didn't feel particularly interested in food. It happens to everyone, not just the people who aren't interested in food. It is not that I didn't continue on and try new things or cook something but rather that I am not thrilled by anything in particular.

I feel good about this. Food is not an obsessive preoccupation that overtakes my ability to take joy elsewhere. Sometimes we lose sight of that in this more food focused world where we have at least one channel and umpteen magazines and whole sections of papers and, and, and... In North America, you can go into a grocery store and see hundreds of options for breakfast cereal but only a few types of apples. It goes to show that there is an imbalance in eating unprocessed food compared to packaged and processed. That means that sometimes preparing food is a chore.

I bought meat as a main ingredient this week as I had my kids most of the time. For them, if it isn't pizza or ramen, then meat and pasta have to be the focus. It isn't really true but it is the quickest way to supper on a school night. I did feel remorse at buying packages of pork chops and ground beef at the grocery store. I wished that I had gone to the local butcher but money is still sometimes an objection to me. This is an ongoing dialogue in my life and I will work through it on a case be case basis. So, this week, even shopping became a chore.

But being with the kids this week made me realize that sometimes chores are necessary. One of my kids has that lesson down while the other struggles in the ego state of teenhood. Examples teach. So, I cook, I shop and I wash the dishes. I ask for help and accept it when I get it.

...And I write my blog as a new commitment to doing chores as well.

Anyway, here is last week's list.

Prepared
- chia pudding, take 2 as I tried using those coffee additive things. Turns out they are sweet, really sweet.
- Manwich stuffed pasta
- stock to be used with a pork chop supper with couscous (made potatoes instead)

Ate
- chocolate mints from Christmas (Reindeer Poop) and milk chocolate Pop Rocks
- at a really good taco place that I really should review, Tacos del Carmen. They make their own salsa from imported peppers.

Drank
- a take on a lime rickey using a really cool method for getting more from your citrus fruits. I used this trick in the summer and now starting to use it again for now.
- added the simple lime syrup from above into some wheat beer with good results

Thinking
- making a cyser (half cider/half mead with adding some hops for dry hopped flavour)
- about stuffed peppers a lot lately

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Sometimes too much is... too much


I've been trying to think of a way to add more vegetables into the diets of a teen and a preteen. This used to be easy as both my kids loved veggies. I think they still do but with age comes wisdom and my eldest has become less enamoured while my youngest still does. So, I keep on keeping on with trying to find a balance between clean plates and healthy food.

This recipe isn't a good compromise but it was an attempt at stretching the ideas of what can happen within certain idioms. A plate cleaner is Manwich. So, I made Manwich one day but added sweet potato and carrots. They were visible but cut up and added tomato sauce because tomato is a vegetable (or is that a fruit). Yes, the sodium counter is through the roof. The first night we served it on a bun but I had an aha moment of serving it in pasta shells and adding a little more tomato sauce. 

So, I proceeded to do that. It is still high in sodium and there is less carbohydrates but it is still meet intensive and the plates got clean. I found it too much. As in there were too many flavours too much. My kids seemed to enjoy them. 

I think the next step is to remove the Manwich and replace the filling with a better meat to veggie ratio and use non canned sauce. Make it a bit simpler. Make it a bit healthier. I have taken away the skepticism of the stuffed pasta meal that I have been trying to make and replaced it with a "That's okay from the eldest." and a "Thanks a lot, daddy" from the youngest. This means that I can sell the other idea.

Sometimes, you have to go to the too much in order to get buy in for a simpler and more delicious and nutritious meal. And now my eldest was curious enough to wonder how you make it. Maybe it will spark his interest enough to get him to try making it himself. 


Monday, January 16, 2017

One Smart Trick ... :Martini

Gin Martini using a Red Vermouth

I love me some booze forward cocktails and one of my favourites is a gin martini. I almost feel like regurgitating all those cool factoids and stories that are easily found with the google-fu. Ideas of bruising, mixing, and dryness are all over the internet tubes. Examples include: Churchill opened the vermouth bottle, bowed to France and drank the gin. Julie Child put a lot of vermouth with a touch of gin. And the Vesper... that's James Bond's martini.

It amounts to the idea that either straight gin or vodka is a cocktail or some variation on the proper ratio of vermouth to the white liquor. I don't think that I can add much to that conversation. I love me some booze and there are many variations that make me happy, satisfied or tipsy. Sometimes even all three at once.

I haven't gotten to the problem with my home mixing yet that was solved by a conversation with Ryan, a bartender at The Clocktower and occasional barista at Boxcar Social, but I will.

Firstly, my own idiosyncratic ideal of a decent martini, are really two different approaches. Either a generous amount of vermouth with a little bit of gin or a more modern 6:1 ratio or less. At home, I accomplish this with ice. Ice everywhere; glass, shaker, and bottle. I end up shaking it slow because I want to get it cold but not dilute it too much. If I stir it, invariably, it comes off as three separate boozes with a sometimes harsh edge or some watery, vaguely piney and juniper thing. The only way I have made it work is to shake to integrate it. Sometimes there is a slight harshness but it is imminently drinkable. People like my martinis.

So I lamented this flaw of getting the edge on my home martini and Ryan suggested a simple trick. The first issue was identifying the problem. The problem was that the dilution was either too much or too little when I tried to stir it and shaking kind of muddies the flavours of some gins. Supposedly, the perfect amount of stirs is forty or about 30 seconds. The point is to get the right temperature and the required amount of water into the drink.

Ryan suggested mixing the vermouth and bitters in for about five or ten stirs first, pour it off into the glass and then put the spirit in and stir it for the remainder of time/stirs. So far, this approach has worked incredibly well. I have tried it with both variations of martini listed above and proceeded to try it with another cocktail or two that was vermouth based. Speaking of vermouth, it is important and I am thinking about messing around with making my own but that is another topic. I'll leave you with that thought and two cocktail ideas.

Using the technique above, I tried two off the cuff ideas.

2 oz Crown Royal Harvest Rye
1 oz Lionello Vermouth
2 dashes Dillon's Ginger Bitters
Grated lime peel

Tasted Christmas-y.

The second was more vermouth heavy. I had a little bit of sour cherry juice from another experiment so I wanted to do something with that. Yeah, I know you should shake anything with citrus juice but this was just a little bit to make the cherry taste come to life. I could have added the smallest amount of citric acid to accomplish the same thing.

1 Tbsp sour cherry juice
2 oz Vermouth
1 oz Wiser's Dry Hopped
Squirt of lemon juice
2 dashes Dillons DSB