Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pairing Pumpkin Beers

I haven't been able to come up with a good opening, so I am going to give you a choice of two lackluster openings.

Option 1:

By the third week of October, I had enough of pumpkin beers. I was tasting quite a bunch for the tasting that I had done at The Only Cafe. So many of them seemed the same. There were a few bright lights and I was going to share them on the blog but never got around to it. Then last week, my interest was recharged when I found that Chatoe Rogue's Pumpkin Patch Ale was released late to the LCBO. Now, I have been roused from my pumpkin stupor enough to share what I learned about pumpkin beer pairings over the last month.


Option 2:

Every year it is the same thing. I receive too many feeds from the States giving me pumpkin recipes that are too late to use. They are past their best use for Canada. So, to teach those myriad of 'Mericans a lesson, I am publishing my advice after THEIR Thanksgiving so they can see how it feels. So there.

Like I said, neither opening is particularly strong. I have learned some tricks and made some observations regarding pairing pumpkin beers and I will share that with you now. has some great resources that largely boils down to if it feels good then do it. Much like wine, there are some helpful guidelines out there. 

Look at some traditional pairing charts. Weissebier goes well with seafood, porters and stouts go good with dessert and chocolate. That gives you a start. Adding pumpkin gives another challenge but we will get there.

Take a look at the national cuisines where the beer comes from... Belgians have a whole culinary tradition based on cooking with beer. German styles go well with German food palate - altbier with mustards, sausages and sour cabbage. Think about where your dish comes from and see if you can think of a beer from that culture or country.

Now sometimes flavour profiles transcend or inspire a particular eater. I think that Indian cooking and their meat and carb heavy meals with reliance on sauces seem to mirror the traditional American Italian style of cooking. So, I would pair an IPA with a penne arrabiata.

The thing is the pumpkin. Pumpkin beers come in a variety of guises as can be evidenced by some local bloggers Hops and Malt tasting notes.  I would characterize the pumpkin beer flavours as roasted, spiced, vegetal or raw pumpkin. Now when you mix these profiles with different styles, you get some great beers that were available this year such as Beau's Weiss O'LanternBlack Creek Pumpkin Ale, and Great Lakes Brewing Saison du Pump. Most of the pumpkin ales use an amber ale base and so it is important to match the spicing rather than the style when the beer is labelled as an ale with no further designation.

So, if you have a roasted characteristic that is present but not forward such as St. Ambroise's pumpkin ale then you can pair it with an earthy dish that will make the pumpkin jump out. It will also showcase the delicate hand that they have on the spicing. I usually use buckwheat with this beer for that reason.

Let's take the Weisse mentioned above. Weisse goes with fish and seafood. Pumpkin goes with coconut. So, a coconut shrimp soup or chowder would go well. Sometimes, the flavour pairing is the hardest part. If you think of both the beer and the food as one dish, then it helps to figure out what has to be added or taken away from the food to balance or accent the flavours that you want.

The first rule is to taste it. If it is good to you then it is probably good. I hope this blog post has given you a few rules of thumb to take away those first butterflies and allow you to take a leap to try to pair a whole Thanksgiving meal. Seafood appetizer with Weissbier, main meal with a St Ambroise or a saison and pumpkin pie with a chocolate stout. Why not? You can always put the beer away until after the meal if a particular match doesn't work. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Book Review: A Taste of the Sun

I'm pressed for time and although I wanted to write about Pumpkin Beers and Thanksgiving dinner matching (well sort of), I haven't collected my thoughts. Instead, I am going through my notes on one of the Penguin Food Books I just read.

 Cookbooks are a type of literature. Food writing is as well. I am not sure that it is some monolithic type of writing like poetry, mystery or horror. Sometimes, I find those genres not so monolithic neither. A good example of food writer that has been held up as a good writer in the recent past is Elizabeth David. The book that I read was A Taste of the Sun. There were three ideas that caused echoes into the future. Granted, our author has only been deceased in 1992 and that is not too far distant. Mind you, looking at photos from the 80's might seen incredibly foreign at this time.

Anyways, the first idea that caught my eye was a thoroughly modern way of cooking pasta. Bring the water to a boil then turn it off and let the pasta cook. This method has been recently making the rounds in blogs but it turns out it isn't as modern as we would like to believe. This piece was just before a bit on the Italian Futurists.

Now this is an extremely timely piece given the emphasis placed on Modernist Cuisine. The Italian Futurists are best looked up on Wikipedia and given a lot of thought. They were a political, artistic and social movement. Think reactions to modernity, cubism, Art of Noises (that begat the group Art of Noise) and fascism. Really, if you are a fan of modernist or molecular cooking, you owe yourself a chance to read some of these grandfathers.

Anyways, my point is that there is a small bit on these futurists that echo some of the same discussions that is being had about modernist or molecular cuisine. We have seen the impact of science and chemistry on food since the 1930's and can extrapolate what effect the modernist movement will have on food in the next fifty years. Is it important for everyone to understand? Only if they have a stake in maintaining the present skill sets. In general, if we are only reheating, finger dialing, microwaving or de-packaging and arranging, we will be safe with what the future brings. However, if you are one of the recent believers in bringing back old skills such as canning, brewing, scratch cooking or anything that your grandmother would call cooking then you may want to pay attention to the effect that these technologies have on your kitchen.

The last idea that grabbed me was a quote on picnicking. I posted a blog on cottage food a couple of months back, in which I described two approaches to making cottage food. Of course, Elizabeth David  has greatly outflanked me in a more apt description. She was describing picnics in this way:
"Picnic addicts seem roughly divided between those who frankly make elaborate preparations and leave nothing to chance, and those whose organization is no less complicated but who are more deceitful and pretend that everything will be obtained on the spot and cooked over a woodcutter's fire, conveniently to hand; there are even those...who wisely take the precaution of visiting the site of their intended picnic some days beforehand and there burying the champagne."
I find myself firmly in the weasel camp. The modern world of the internet makes this subterfuge of discovering the area less of an arduous chore so making me less deceitful. I always fess up to looking for things on the internet when someone asks how I found this little place in the middle of nowhere. I used to use phonebooks for the same tasks.

I think this is the last of the Penguin Food Books that I will read. I hope that you have enjoyed the reviews that you have visited. I'll probably post a linked page and relabel all the reviews, mainly because I think they show some value in revisiting old cookbooks and food writing. Most of the way forward to new food is to reflect seriously about where we have been. As has been said about science, politics, war and history, we must look backwards in order to move forwards.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Review: Love in a Dish or MFK Fisher: First Food Blogger

This isn't really a book review. It is more of a rambling monologue after reading another of the Penguin Food Series. This time is it is Love in a Dish ... and Other Culinary Delights. The reason this isn't a book review is because I had already prejudged this short collection.

You see, about five years ago, I finally read a substantial amount of the canon of M.F.K. Fisher. I had been reading a bunch of chefs on cooking and writers on writing and her name kept cropping up. When I hear about classics, I often get turned off by the hyperbole and the quest for deeper meaning by the reader. With Fisher, I found that the reviews did not matter. There was a deeply personal tone to her work that resonates today. She admits primal urges and explores food in a delightful way. Food is not just nourishment and cooking is not just technical. At the same time that she recounts great meals or discusses her mother's cooking or her grandmother's dietary needs, she is communicating a deeper interior relationship with food.

My wife has a visceral reaction and compulsion with sweets. The fact that something has a sugary taste and a starchy base makes her happy. This physical act of eating a cookie drives her to take another and another. These personal stories were not shared much in traditional food writing (think of restaurant and lifestyle sections in the early twentieth century).

Many of Fisher's pieces are small. There are mini essays that differentiate between gourmand and gluttony or personal recollections like when she travelled with her uncle on a train. It is precisely these vignettes that make me think that if Fisher was alive today, she would be a food blogger.

Online food writing sometimes relies too much on shortcuts; pictures, memes (OM NOM NOM), and opinions without consideration. It is refreshing to see someone do something special. Some of my nominations for bloggers that seem to be using the tools of irony or new media to create this same feeling would include Nadia G., My Drunk Kitchen, Epic Meal Time, and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. I am not saying that these are at the same calibre but what I am saying is that they are showing their relationship with food in a visceral and personal way. I like that. I can only hope to achieve that level of honesty whether it is slathered in humour and bacon or not.

I guess this goes a ways to say, read M.F.K. Fisher if you are an aspiring blogger. There is a lot of good that can be had by watching a masterful chef or writer. You may not be able to do the same in your kitchen but you will get a few hints to make you better.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Restaurant Review: Shawarma Fresh

Shawarma Fresh is co-located with a pizza parlour at 1444 Yonge Street which is just south of St. Clair and Yonge. I've waited a while to review this place for a variety of reasons. The first is that it had been shut down for a week a while ago due to the sewer backing up in the basement. Public Health closed it for that reason. The closure had nothing to do with the restaurant and more to do with the owner of the building. I know I am mentioning the closure here but if you researched on the City of Toronto website, you may not get both sides of the story.

Another reason was that it is a five dollar sandwich. It is hard to review something that is such a great value that you have a hard time being objective. A friend had lamented about the lack of five dollar lunches or even any cheap lunches in the area. The best value that is not some fast food menu item starts at around ten dollars. Those lunches are often starchy containing an overload of pasta, rice or noodle and not so healthy.

I am here to praise the five dollar sandwich. In this city, there are many "ethnic" sandwich like items that fit the bill, whether it be hotdogs, hamburgers, banh mi or tacos. The middle eastern entry is the shawarma. Most come in around five dollars and consist of spit roasted chicken or beef in a pita with fresh vegetables, pickles (especially beets), and some sauces. You cannot expect free range animals and organic vegetables at these prices but you wouldn't figure there would be much variety.

Unlike the overabundance of Shopsy carts in the city, it turns out that many of these places vary. One of the noticeable differences is the texture of the meat. After being on the spit, some do nothing else but cut and stuff the meat into a flatbread. Many others want to ensure that they fully comply with Toronto regulations and reheat the meat in a variety of ways (flattop, microwave, oven and fry pan are common). Sometimes the meat is crusty or dry or inedible. Another difference is the pickles. I like pickled turnips but they can be a little flaccid. The tahini and the hummus can vary quite a bit.

To Shawarma Fresh's credit, the sandwich they serve is the right amount of meat to vegetable to bread. The sauces are garlicky and tangy and cut by the vinegar of the pickled turnip. There is a nice contrast of warm bread against the cool veggies and hot seasoned meat that make each bite different enough to provide variety but not so much as to be jarring. When the veggies such as tomatoes are not in season, it is easy enough to ignore them and add extra lettuce. As I mentioned before, if you are a true hardcore foodie, then you will have a hard time eating in a place like this but for a tired and hungry office working counting the pennies, this is the type of neighbourhood place that makes you happy.

Shawarma Fresh on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Drunk Review: 7-Eleven Taquitos

This is the first time I am doing a drunk review while sober. I did try the food while being slightly happy and made some notes. Reading those notes has been fun and I vow only to do drunk reviews while drunk. Who knew your handwriting could get so bad and still legible in one state? I guess I could always drink a bit and see if it begins to make sense again...

I am not unfamiliar with the meals provided at 7-Eleven. We have a history. I lived in Ottawa for many years and survived and thrived in the winters provided. Working late shifts, I often found myself walking through the Experimental Farm paths at two or three am, tired, slightly chilled and a bit hungry. The funny thing about walking across a field with no protection that late (or early if you are a farmer) is that the wind has died down and temperature has dropped sub minus fifteen. Exposed flesh is a problem but as long as everything is covered and kept under wraps, you can take your overstuffed body across the crunchy ground. The noise of the snow is the only thing you hear but it is so loud.

Anyways, at the edge of that large field there was, and probably still is, a 7-Eleven. I would stop for one of those hot sugary milk based drinks disguised as coffee and something microwaveable in plastic wrap. The coffee would take the edge of my tiredness so that I could get to sleep when I finished the twenty minute walk from the store to my house. The meal would warm the exterior of my gloves and eventually seep to my fingers that had a touch of cold. It would also save me the time of rooting for leftovers in the fridge and waking my housemates when I got home. Those are kind of fond memories.

So, now, how does that compare to my experience on Friday night after an outdoor beer event at The Only? We drank a few beers and had a slight mellow buzz going on. This was probably not the necessary level of inebriation for enjoying those vast, fast food cravings that strike people of a certain level of intoxication but it was close enough. The night was cool but not cold. The sign on the convenience store provided more than enough warmth to chase the chill away but still I had committed to trying the taquitos.

I must of been drunk enough because it took me three sweeps of the store to find them. They were right beside the cash where they kept the rotating wieners. The taquitos were rotating with the wieners. I have never liked those wieners, that should have been a warning sign. The value for the puchased goods was good. Three of those cigar sized deep fried taco things for five dollars. I began to wonder why I didn't come here more often. Remember I was on the edge of drunk. Don't judge.

The taste test comprised of the spicy beef taco one, the buffalo chicken one and Monterey Jack and chicken. They were all a little salty but after the hoppy beers, it was one of the flavours that came through. All three had this shell that vaguely reminded me of cannoli or those chocolate rolled cookies that everyone eats at Christmas. I wouldn't have recognized the hermetically sealed container (the wrap) as being a taco. The temperature was quite hot. Hot enough that I was glad for the paper bag that separated me from them.

The taco one was spicy but it was hard to figure out the flavour. Cumin was high and the crumbly beef gave me enough information to determine that this was indeed the taco one. The second one was misinterpreted by my colleague of tasting like Campbell's chicken soup. I am not sure which variety he was speaking about but I can see how the buffalo chicken could be mistaken for cream of chicken with a touch of vinegar. The third was a flavour that tasted like processed cheese and chicken because that is what it was. I would not eat these drunk again. However, if I find myself in the middle of field late at night in the winter in a northern city anywhere in the world and the last of the tortilla wraps had gone, I would cast my wary eye to these heated poles. They serve a purpose.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Book Review: Coffee Life in Japan

There are people who like to read cultural anthropological studies about specific niche areas and I am one of them. These books intrigue, especially when you are part of the phenomenon they are describing. In this case, I am not Japanese nor a Japanese cafe goer. However, I am an ardent fan of coffee and have studied some Japanese history. The throw away part of the phrase about being a subject refers to reading a bunch of studies on cyberpunk and other subcultures in the 90's while being on the edge of some of these cultures. Sometimes, they got it right and other times, the nuances of meaning were lost while the researcher tried to boil down multiple experiences into something wrought with academic meaning. Sometimes, it just doesn't work.

It was good that I had some passing familiarity because there are some unexplained terms and some descriptions of Japanese everyday objects and concepts that may challenge someone with no background. I am getting too far into the criticism without covering the basics. The book is, of course, Coffee Life in Japan by Merry White. It is a cultural history of cafes in Japan.

Japan opened their first cafe in 1888. They are the third largest coffee consumers in the world. They bring a special approach to the brewing of the beverage. There is a concept of craftmanship called kodawari which the author notes definitions of obsession, fastidiousness, disciplined dedication of a personal passion to pursue something. Based on her observations, it kind of like a nerdy hackerness where repetition to get something perfect for the sake of perfection and the craft. It feels like a deep curiosity. The kodawari  lives in the thing that is being crafted. It is like a elegant hack or a beautiful piece of code.

There are very few shops that sell espresso drinks, favouring the more delicate preparations of pour-overs, siphons and sumiyaki (charcoal roasted coffee). Some of the shops, the masters are referred to as coffeemaniakku. The other great Japanese word that floated through this book was koohii meaning coffee.

Another theme was how coffee places social places had changed over the years to evolve into a place where you go to not have the pressures of the outside; in a cafe you are not mother, daughter, employee, boss. This is a place of no obligations rather than a liminal place that the cafe serves in American culture. Japanese cafes are not for waiting or being something (no posing in the corner with your laptop as a famous writer or having loud conversations showing your erudition) but rather for being free of all social obligations.

I am not doing the coverage justice.

I wonder if it would be possible to take that most Japanese of ideas and translate into a North American location like Toronto. Toronto cafe culture often feels forced. When I moved here around thirteen years ago, the only cafes worth visiting were few and far between. There was so much emphasis placed on the commercial aspects and not as much on the social reasons for the cafe. That has been evolving and now there is a type of independent cafe that rewards visitors with both an atmosphere and a good cup of coffee.

After all that, if you are interested in the role of cafes in society, this might be a good book to read. Sure, it is a foreign culture but it is often when we take a look at someone else that we can start to see our similarities and differences.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Drunk Review: Subway Meatball Sub

So, I am walking home from one of my locals (The Only Cafe) after having a couple of good beers and a half decent one. I had been tweeting earlier with a person who remember Ottawa in the 90's as a land of shawarmas and Imperial Pizza, so I had a hankering for a donair.

I stopped at Fuzzbox and had a donair and continued on my way. There was still a little space for a little something something and so I decided to stop by the Subway. When I was younger and poorer, if that is the right term, I used to order a meatball sub with veggies, especially jalapeno peppers. For old time sake, I order one of those beasts and got the creamy smoky sauce, hot sauce, jalapenos, green peppers and red onions. After the bitterness of the hops, I find that spice can cut through it and provide some type of decent flavour.

 The problem was that all the additions tasted great but the meatballs tasted of mush. There was a vague meaty taste but it was the type of preformed meatishness found in cans of Puritan meatballs and gravy. I know that the hoppiness of the beer that I indulged in earlier kills some of the more nuanced notes found in food later consumed but it would not kill every note. Think of it like going to a loud concert. When you get out, you get that strange form of ringing in your ears. Usually, you can still understand what is on the radio as you drive away from the venue. You could recognize the band and even hum along. This would be the equivalent of not even realizing the radio was on. The meatballs tasted of nothing. I would be hard pressed to let you know what the meat was.

In some ways, I guess this is a good drunk snack. Not offensive with enough breadiness to quell your stomach and slow down the absorption of alcohol. In another sense, it does not punch through the alcohol numbness. It is a toss-up if you are a youngster but as a more seasoned foodie, I think I probably should have ordered some fried pepperoni with my donair.

  Subway on Urbanspoon