Saturday, April 28, 2012

in Just-

in Just- is a springtime poem by e. e. cummings.  I pull out that poem at this time of year as I begin to notice signs of spring.

The earliest sign was about three weeks ago when older Greek ladies of the neighbourhood began combing the sides of the berms in public areas looking for dandelions and other greens.  This has been an interesting result of reducing pesticide sprays in Toronto.

Another sign is my rhubarb in the backyard has unfurled its leaves and shows signs of this year being a more productive year than last.  I have also started a few seeds of vegetables that I cannot get at a farmer's market or the specialty shops.  These tend to be heirloom varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and beans.  Stuff that can grow well in a compact city garden.

Then comes the ramps.  I get ramp recipes from my RSS feeds; cooked and pickled.  Pickling has always been a way of preserving abundance for me, so I always wonder who has so many ramps that they need or want to pickle.  The advent of the ramps brings on the inevitable backlash about the upcoming death of the wild garlic.  I guess that it is not a bad thing that the thing that ushers spring in for foodies also comes with a discussion around sustainability.

My father would sometimes pick some ramps from a spot pretty near to the house.  It was a small patch that barely seemed to grow.  There were no other patches near it and I had seen no signs within walking distance.  I always wondered where they came from.  Some people are still trying to find a way to cultivate these wild plants but I wonder if that is from where our garlic and our chives have come.

Fiddleheads are starting to creep into my feeds as well.  Funny how RSS feeds make me think of food.  Hell, feed is right in the title.  Many of these seasonal crops, I would not like year round. Fiddleheads is a good example.  After cooking a few snacks of fiddleheads, I am done with their greenish brownish flavour.  I don't know how else to describe the taste.  So, spring reminds me of a fleeting season with produce that I only wish to try once a year or is it just that we only have them once a year that has caused me to only desire them then?

Regardless, spring is too fleeting to be spent at my keyboard.  I think I'll go outside and see if I can figure out what those old ladies were picking...

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Restaurant Review: Tea N Bannock

This review is going to show my personal food bias.  It would be nice if there was some way of judging a reviewer's bias when reading a review.

Walking into Tea N Bannock, an aboriginal cafe, newly opened at Gerrard and Greenwood reminded me of walking into a converted house that serves food that can be found on the less travelled highways of Ontario. Highway 60, 62, 7 and so many others have these small restaurants cum gas stops that dot cottage country.  In many of these, you can find solid, honest food for a good price.  Sometimes it feels as if you are in someone's basement or roughly decorated hunting lodge.  To many, this may sound kitschy or even downmarket but to me this feels like home.  I grew up in Eastern Ontario and I sometimes miss this straightforward approach to food.

You hunt it or grow it.  You cook it.  You eat it.  It is comforting, heavy and nourishing.

This small room has several tables whose legs are birch branches and paintings of near wilderness hang on the walls.  The wigwams on the table edge towards tacky but are saved by the sincerity of this place.  A local friendship circle meets there and the menu speaks to a more rural palette.  Along the back, there is a low counter placed across where a double door used to be and separates the kitchen from the dining room.

Inside the kitchen, I could see the cook and her two young male helpers.  The story "The Ransom of Red Chief" came unbidden to me as I watched the red haired, white faced young men watch me alternately warily and self consciously as I watched them prepare.  The young cook spoke nervously as she explained the few dishes.  She was apologetic for not having an extensive menu and explained that they were going to work their way from cafe to full dinner menu.  On Fridays, they have Indian tacos but the menu right now has blanket dogs and soup along with bannock, tea and coffee.  There was notes promising smoked deer later.

There was gentle ribbing about the fact that one of the prep cooks must be in a hurry.  He quickly surmised that maybe the tomatoes that he chopped for the Indian Tacos were a mite too big.  The cook laughed quietly at him.  This was in direct contrast to the testerone curse filled kitchens captured on Food Network or in Anthony Bourdain's inside looks at New York kitchens.  It is a welcome difference.

The combo at $5.50 is ridiculously priced including coffee/tea, bannock and soup of the day.  The soup was a corn soup with bits of pork.  It was good but could use a little more seasoning.  The bannock was bannock.  Their explanation of calling it scones is a little deceiving.  Bannock is a quick bread that is often associated with campfires or cast iron skillets.  It is a dense and filling.

My favourite way to make it is took fry it in a skillet and serve with maple syrup.  It would make a great dessert or small bite.  Their bannock was exactly that.  They do offer it with raisins but I would like to challenge them to use a little more "traditional" ingredients -- dried berries or even dried wild grapes or serve the bannock with wild jams.

I did speak to the cook about the addition of more traditional ingredients and it seems the biggest problem is finding suppliers.  This is evident in the procurement of game meat.  It turns out that all meat has to be provincially inspected and this means that no 'wild' game can be served.  There must be some ways around this -- the only current way around in the Health Protection and Promotion Act - Regulation 562 seems to be to run a wild game dinner.  The rules are under Section 52(1) of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997.

The cook's eye lit up as she spoke about the wild game in her freezer; beaver, goose, moose and deer.  I believe that she was sincerely sorry that she was unable to offer it to her patrons.  I grew up eating the odd small game (duck, deer, partridge, and rabbit and others).  My father was a hunter and fisherman.  Sometimes he would try some of the foraged greens such as dandelion or lamb's quarters done up like spinach.  I understand why someone would love this type of cooking.  I would love to be able to eat like that in a restaurant.

It is simple, straightforward way to get food to mouth without paying the exorbitant prices found in rural grocery stores.  Even twenty years ago, a head of iceberg lettuce could cost three dollars or more.  Most people canned and hunted and fished to supplement the goods from the grocery store.  I remember the times that urban people offered me duck or venison as a special treat.  This was something that was often on offer when I lived at home.

I am looking forward to what this restaurant will become.  I am hoping that its humble food will ignite the imagination of foodies and bring pleasant memories of past lives lived for me.  It is not there yet.  It is just a cafe that serves Higgins and Burke tea and a good coffee with a slice of bread.  Hopefully, it will challenge us with more 'aboriginal' food and drinks such as birch syrup, pawpaw preserves, and 'wild' game.  I am thrilled to have them begin this experiment and I hope it succeeds.

This is not a high concept, high restaurant catering to hipsters or foodies but a solid place to share some humble food.  I having been looking for this.  I hope it continues to meet my expectations as it morphs into a full service dinner restaurant.  I look forward to sharing this with my family and a few select friends.

Tea-N-Bannock on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The other day, my younger son was shoulder surfing while I was scrolling through feeds of food blogs.  One picture of an hotel pan filled with cow eyeballs being prepared for an extreme eating competition caught his attention.  He asked enthusiastically about them.  I thought, "Here we go again".

One of the rules of food in our house is that one bite of something has to be tried before stating that you don't like it.  An extended corollary appears to be to try something that will gross out mommy because that means she will have to eat it too. This rule boils down to "Don't laugh at someone else's lunch".  A friend of mine who toured with a band had that as one of the van rules.  It is a good rule to have in life.

The idea of the eyeball eating isn't so terrible when you think about headcheese, blood sausage, cheeks and belly.  My issue is that I would be afraid to cook it.  How do you know when it is done?  It isn't exactly a straightforward meat like heart.  So, I mentioned it to one of my meat purveyors - Mary at Close to the Bone and she had a brilliant suggestion.  If my youngest persists, (he hasn't mentioned it again), then why not try a sheep's head.  You can boil it and their are recipes available.

We discussed the pig's head as an option but had to dismiss it as a pig's head has too much gelatin.   I still remember the pig's head on the cover of the edition of the Lord of the Flies that we read in high school.  I also remember the smell of cooking pig's head, as my aunt boiled it for head cheese.

After discussing and dismissing pig's head, we discussed the many practical reasons for choosing sheep over cow.  The size of the eye is smaller, the amount of meat is less and you can dispose of the carcass in a small bag for the compost bin without attracting undue neighbourhood attention.  A cow's head is a little more of a disposal chore if your bairns suggest after seeing the head in a serving bowl that they will not eat it. Neigh, they cannot eat it.  I am not sure that I could enforce the try it rule for the eyeball but I couldn't through the whole thing out.  I don't care for sheep or lamb but I would probably be left with it on my plate.

But what to do about the leftover bones.  I could fantasize about putting a cooked head into some arch rival's bed.  It would serve as a warning.  A warning to not let your children view extreme food blogs.

I am thinking that my kid will have forgotten it and I will not have to live up to my fear of not being able to cook an eye properly...and having to eat leftover sheep for a week.

Monday, April 16, 2012

On Fasting

Orthodox Easter has just finished.  This year it was a week later than the Unorthodox Easter of the Roman Catholics, of which I am a non practicing member.  I miss some of the pomp and ceremony of some of the great moments in the church year.  The holiest of days are always around Easter.  Easter is the time that we recognize the physical death of Jesus Christ.

Although, we are reminded of this at every mass where the transubstantiation of the host where the bread becomes the body of Christ...When we eat it. Yeah, I guess that makes us cannibals.

One of the other connections for me was the days of Lent where you fast.  Most religions have a fasting period where the person taking the fast is to prepare, spiritually and in some cases physically, for the holy days ahead. When I was younger, we chose something to give up in remembrance of Jesus' trials in the desert.  Also, no meat on Fridays.  Never mind that this was not something ordained by the church but rather done out of ritual.  I miss the weeks of mindful eating, being aware of what you are and are not putting in your body.  It was a forced cleanse.

Now, to mark these days, many people use March Break or the beginning of summer where they want to look their best in a bikini or <shiver> a speedo.  There are all these fads of different types of cleanses that mimic the type of starvation that happened naturally in the wild.  It seems that this quest for naturalism is something that can only be done by people of privilege.  Only a person who has too much has any need of pretending to have too little in order to ensure healthfulness.

I am not sure if the vanity on one hand or the false piety in the other really serves us well.  There is no doubt that after the weeks of denial, the first tastes of forbidden fruit taste great but the same experience can be had by eating in season.  The spiritual has been replaced by the personal.

Food and dining are important to me.  One of the most sacred rituals for our family is the supper meal where we sit down and share.  If I can stop myself long enough from popping up and getting another drink or serving for the children then we ask each other about our days and enjoy each other's company.  It is a resting spot that separates our work and school days from our regular home life.  In some ways, I suppose it stands in for the special fast days that separate regular time from feast times, making the experiences greater.

When our children eventually leave our house, I hope that they will find those special rituals that enhance their days and that they can reflect fondly around our daily rituals.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Book Review: In the Kitchen

In the Kitchen is a novel by Monica Ali.  It is a story that starts out with a dead body in the kitchen run by Gabriel Lightfoot, the executive chef.  The beginning feels like a modern detective novel and then kind of veers off into a family drama with political overtones.  The dead body is only passingly thought of actually being murdered.  Dreams of the body continue to haunt the rest of the book.   When the literal body is almost forgotten, the story of someone selling human meat to a restaurant reminds us that a restaurant is the scene of  both literal and figurative deaths.  It is where deaths are transformed into something more.

This novel reminds us of the figurative deaths of many new immigrants.  As Gabriel's life falls apart, most of the other workers in the kitchen seem so much wiser than the executive chef.  Whether it be someone who survives war in Liberia, a depressed pastry chef or an ex-obstetrician, they all have a clearer idea of how the world works.  While Gabriel is making plans behind the back of his current employer to start his own restaurant, he misses the intrigues that are happening in his kitchen, his family and his home life.

Nothing is as Gabriel believes.  Memories of his mother are suspect.  His relationship with his father and his grandmother are based on misreadings by a young man. The most telling lies are the ones that he tells himself about his motives as he destroys a relationship with his fiance.

At its heart, this is a book about human trafficking and our complicity in it.  I don't like the main character.  In most stories where you have the main character as being clueless and making bad choices, you stick around for the  redemption arc.  Right up front, you hear that this is an untrustworthy story told from the perspective of a man whose life is falling apart.  I guess by admitting the shakiness may help swallow the bad stuff that comes along but man, this guy is a real asshole!  Even in the final stanza where we are to feel the warm fuzzies as the protagonist makes some good decisions, I feel uneasy because the body presented in the beginning is still dead.  The dreams of the kitchen are still dead.  I don't feel the transformation of Gabriel and I certainly don't feel better about eating out.  Maybe that is the author's intent.

I wished that there was more about the cooking but the book has very good merit and I am happy to have read it. It is a book whose themes have come back to me even after having finished it two weeks ago.  This is not a feel good book and I am not sure it is a satisfying meal.  Like a high concept meal, I do not feel full and well fed but I am intrigued and intellectually delighted.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Cookbook Review: Eleven Madison Park

Okay, we all have them.  Some monstrous coffee table food porn cookbook from some famous 'IT' restaurant.  This is one of those cookbooks.  In this case it is Eleven Madison Park.   Daniel Humm and Will Guidara are the authors but if you read enough of these books, you know that in reality there is a whole bunch of people behind the scenes that make these books tick.

First thing, the photography is gorgeous. Will I ever cook from this book?  No.  There are some notes suggesting that you can, as a home cook, do this things but don't attempt some of them if you do not have the proper equipment.  My immersion circulator is in the shop right now...  Anyways, these techniques will become more common place and I wouldn't be suprised to see circulators and anti-griddles show up some time in your local WalMart.  But for now, some of these recipes are not possible regardless of the prose suggesting otherwise.

So, what use are these books?  Well, the ideas that anyone can get from them is fairly personal, so I will give you what I took away from this book and maybe that will help you figure out if you would be interested.  The main tricks that I would like to try from this book as a concept are things like flavoured beurre blanc, quince and cocao as a flavour combination, gels and using acetate sheets with them, and making savoury and spicy dusts.

I have made beurre blanc and I don't know why I never thought to flavour them but I will start.  The acetate sheets are interesting, I usually use a silpat or a hard plastic surface when making an agar-agar jelly but I may try this.  I made apple and tomato dust a while back and liked how they turned out.  It allowed for a punch of taste without impacting the look of a dish too much or relying on reduction, reduction, reduction.  A good trick when wanting to add a texture or a lot of flavour to a traditionally bland dish like custard.

What really amazes me about this book is the length of work to make dishes looked organic or natural.  Kind of reminds me of the natural look that was advertised by cosmetic companies.  The amount of work to make something look that natural is, well, ...unnatural.

There is a lot of work in this book to explain and show what the restaurant is about.  I enjoyed reading about the conception of the restaurant and the plating of the food was helpful if you wanted to recreate the dishes at home.  There are also sections on a regular day in the life of the restaurant along with a diagram of the restaurant and each of the staff positions.  I feel that I gained some insight into how eleven madison park works.  That is the great conceit of this book and any other books of this ilk. You begin to see how much work is involved and begin to dream that you too could do this, even though you have just seen witnessed what goes into it.  Unfortunately, I already own too many of these books and I will return this one to the library.  If I find myself wistfully dreaming of these dishes then I may have to pony up the money and buy this book.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Restaurant Review: Kilt and Harp

This review could be called the Suzanna's face lift.  Suzanna's was the restaurant that existed previously just east of the Woodbine subway stop on the Danforth.  It was a greasy spoon that my wife and I had gone to a few times.  Hangover food served in the morning, hangover makers served in the afternoon.

This was a working class neighbourhood and to some extent still is.  There is a lot of people who still work at the traditional blue collar jobs mixed with artists and the encroaching young families.  This strip which is invariably called destitute, decrepit and other 'd' all meaning dump in restaurant reviews misses out on what this strip and the parallel strip travelling Gerrard is all about.  It is about the people living in these areas.  

On Gerrard, there is the beginnings of a resurgence with GAS (Gerrard Art Space) and Tea n Bannock opening soon while along Danforth, east African restaurants and hookah shops ply their trade.  All this to try and explain what the Kilt and Harp is working with.

Firstly, the Scottish name is just that, a name.  Nothing Scottish here.  When we visited, there were a number of televisions, half tuned to a fishing channel and the other half with the information screen for turning on the satellite set.  There are high stools at narrow tables.  Black wainscoting is topped with deep red walls.  A couple with school aged kids was talking to another neighbourhood dad while some friends caught up behind us.  While we were drinking, a couple of young lads fresh from a day's work, still in their work clothes came in and had a pint.  A sign in the window asking for a cook warned us off trying to ask for a menu which was good because no menu was offered.

There are 12 taps with mostly similar tasting stuff: Rolling Rock, Budweiser, Canadian, Foster's, Sleeman, Rickard's Red, and Sleeman's all make an appearance.  Some of the others that we offered without irony (but non-ironic has become the new irony BTW) were Pabst Blue Ribbon, Smithwicks, and Guinness.  This bar is starting to sound as if it is trying to feel out what will work.  The hood is in flux and there must be a way to maintain the old while getting the new to see the merits of places like this.  

The balance has to be struck.  The waitress was wearing a Flying Monkey's tee.  That beer was one of the last one's she mentioned as in 'Oh and we have that Flying Monkey's thing.'  It turns out they have two taps for the Monkey's - Anti-Gravity and Hoptical Illusion were on tap.  If this place continues to carry a few interesting taps to mix with their work-a-day beers along with their hipster beers (work-a-day and hipster seem to be very closely associated, weird!) then I think this place could work out.  Unfortunately for beer snobs, Castro's and the Only are so close that this place will only get a sniff and the occasion out for drinks with the buddies crowd.  For the rest, this place seems to be a good place to meet and drink and see the next door neighbours.

The kilt & harp on Urbanspoon