Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fall musing

A while back, I posted an ee cummings poem as a way of starting to talk about the first signs of spring. In-Just is the post where I talk about the older Greek ladies weeding the side of the road and collecting food.

Earlier this month, I talked about black walnuts and food falling from the sky. I went for a walk where I saw the women foraging their food and it has been replaced by a community garden. There is not a single food plant. The spaces between ivy are covered in wood chips that will prevent food from growing.

I understand the idea that this side of public roadway was poorly maintained by the city and that it was a need project to bring community. But sometimes when we circumscribe a public space for public beautification, we do see what was already there.

I saw a place in spring where food was picked. In summer, it was a source of my allergies and a way for critters to get from place to place without being exposed. In fall, it replenished itself and winter was rest.

This has been replaced with pretty. I lament this loss and others. Here is a fall poem by ee cummings called l(a.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Food from the Sky

Moved into a new house in October and in days it began to rain hard fruit on the roof. There is a walkout that is begging for a patio to be built next year and it was covered with these yellow greenish fruit. When you squished it, there was this yellowish stain that turned quickly to black. The stain took days to fade and required much scrubbing.

My sons had tons of fun taking the fruit and throwing, kicking, squishing and taking the insides out. We had to use gloves to make sure that we didn't become permanently stained. 
Found out that this is what black walnuts look like. So we spent several hours repeating the activity until the kids got bored. We just removed the outer fruit to expose the nut. It turns out that the flesh was used to make stains and dyes. It really is hard to get off. Even with the gloves, my thumb got stained and stayed that way for about a week. 
The shucked nuts have been drying in the porch for a while and we are going to figure out what to do with them. Fresh nuts have a different taste than the ones you get in the stores. Last year, I got some black walnuts from Forbes' Fine Foods and used them sparingly to add a slight bitterness and nuttiness to salads and soups. This year, I have more and picked by my own hands. I wonder if that will change how precious I feel about them? 

The boys had fun and are proud of their work. They are really interested in trying them. It helps kids to connect to food when they can see how plants grow and the fun you can have. When I was younger, my folks kept us out of the garden except for weeding. We were fairly destructive and it was probably a good thing. But some nights when we went picking for beans for that night's supper, I would find myself taking a few extra to have right there in the garden. 

Here is the free food from the sky, drying. Next weekend, we are going to crack open some of these. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Simple Lifts

I'm recently separated from my wife and have been trying to deal with cooking. Cooking or rather eating on the off days when my children aren't around can be trying. You don't want to make a bunch of dishes that you aren't going to eat and just leave the leftovers to gather blue moldy friends in the fridge. So, a few tricks for those who want to cook but don't want the hassle of "cooking" or the over reliance on processed foods.

Cook Simple

Make a simple dish that can be changed up every day. Think of it as a base recipe that can be used over and over. Stock and tomato sauce are two good examples. Stock is really easy and can be made into soup, sauces, and used to cook vegetables in and all sorts of fun stuff. Tomato sauce has similar properties. Pasta sauce, used on a sandwich, base for chili or curry, add flavour to a soup...

Add Something Special

Some good ingredients from your pantry can be added to a regular meal and make it something different. This is especially helpful if you have leftover carbs (potatoes, rice, pasta, bread and on and on). What you have in your pantry that you consider special is up to you. I like to have different kinds of curry powder, dried fruits (currants, goji berries, tomatoes), different dried peppers, vinegars and flavoured oils. These are more geared towards adding to salads and rice but if you were a potato person make sure to have dill, celery salt, flavoured oils and other things that work.

Mess Around

The risk when cooking in a small batch is low. If you mess it up, you only have to throw out a little. This is a great time to experiment and see how chopped up pickles work with fried potatoes or dropping a few fruits into miso soup. Cook like a hippie with the munchies. You never know what will work.

Make Something Special

You deserve it. It doesn't have to hard.

I made these poached pears to add to sandwiches or to act as a savoury sweet component to desserts like ice cream or served with some cheese. It took fifteen minutes. There are pears, sugar, maple syrup, black pepper, saffron, bay leaf, clove all put together and simmered. That is it. The hardest part was cutting up the pears. 

I'm not quite sure this post will inspire anybody to change their Chef Boyardee ways or I suppose now a days it is Lean Cuisine but hopefully it will get you to thinking. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Cafe Review: Marvel Coffee Co

So, there it is. A coffee shop on Donlands at Danforth. Marvel Coffee. The stuttering half sentences that morning brings often requires some form of caffeine to stretch nonsense into sense. It would be easy to write a puff piece on what they offer and whether or not their baked goods are worthwhile.

It is interesting to see how this space and focus separates itself from the One in the Only which is around the corner and Starbucks which has been making its way ever eastward along the Danforth. It is a clean white space that uses marble, high bar stools and metal highlights. They use Social Coffee, a solid local roaster. The espresso comes out aggressive and the roast is evident in the flavour. While that does not appeal to me in an espresso forward drink like an americano or straight shot, there is something to be said for having it in a milk based drink. 

There is a nuttiness and coffeeness to a drink made with medium dark and above blends that you just don't get with the coffee roasted for coffee nerds. It is one thing that I wish could be addressed and believe that we are on the cusp of a revolution in coffee. I chide some of the higher end coffee shops for this. Why does it have to be good milk drinks or sublime espresso? But that digression will have to wait. 

The placement on a side street before the subway stop points out an obvious thing. This place is meant as a quick liminal spot between house and work. There are a number of seats that really benefit someone coming in for a quick drink and bite before braving the TTC. The owner is happy to talk to you and often greets regulars with questions about their business. This is a local shop that is about that first moment that people get in the mornings to talk to a person. For many people, the first words they speak are to the barista for the coffee order. Makes me wonder why there aren't these type of commuter coffee bars inside stations but I guess we have Gateway to thank for that.

In terms of being around the corner from the One. Think of the One as being an extension of the bar and hostel where baristas sometimes look like patrons and there is a tendency to nest and nurse. One invites you to sit, brood, read and feels like home in some senses. Marvel is the friendly neighbour you wave to on the way out the door. It offers you a gentle way back into the world. 

I'm glad that Marvel is there to offer TTC travelers an option. This is not a destination coffee joint but it is definitely on my way to work. 

Edit: Ooops. Meant to mention that in order to be a destination spot, they may want to reflect Greek culture on their menu by adding a frappe or doing a new version of the custard pie or traditional doughnuts. If I had remembered, the prose would be flowery and the proper spelling of the goodies that I am talking about would be there. Also, not too sure whether that would sell but it would generate interest...

Marvel Coffee Co. on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Restaurant Review: Union Social Eatery

"How was everything?"
"It was fine. The vindaloo wasn't very spicy and..."
"Next time, we'll just add sriracha mayo for you. Thanks for coming." 
My dining companion suggested I open this way. It encapsulates the experiences I've had at the restaurant succinctly. A short yelp! type review would go something like this.

Pros: Attentive service with lunch served in less than an hour for under $20. Extensive bar menu including a lot on tap. Menu has something for everyone including vegetarians and gluten sensitivity.

Cons: Can get loud and busy at lunch. Some of the dishes were just okay. Tiffany didn't like the guy standing next to her and there wasn't a television where we were sitting.

Okay, that last line was snark on the focus of yelpers. I could write a whole blog on how to get the best out of yelp, urbanspoon or any crowd sourced review site. I'll put that in the idea pile. Anyways, let's expand this review for the parts that I found interesting about this type of restaurant in general and some of the bits about this restaurant in particular.

I've been here a few times largely on the merits of the affordable tap list and the cost of a sit down lunch in the area. It is cheaper than the Monk's Table and Rebel House and better tap list and food than the Sports Centre Cafe. 

This transplanted Mississauga restaurant looks like it has been dropped from your local big box mall parking lot and squeezed, wedged and shoehorned into a largish space at St. Clair and Yonge. High industrial ceilings create echoes and loudness at lunch and make for an empty feeling when the place is not busy. There is the whole high tech/high touch vibe going on where natural elements mix with synthetic to create a sophisticated but overly used trope on retail and dining. This aesthetic extends past the physical trappings and makes its way onto the menu. 

When you consider the number of items and the breadth of selection, you wonder how they do it. There is a separate gluten sensitivity menu that is shown on their website but not offered at the door. The food itself is a mix of East Asian, bar food, and Southwestern cuisine. Most plates are a mix of food service items dressed up and some original additions. From afar, it looks extensive and inclusive, reflecting the city from which it sprang. Closer looks shows where this approach begins to break down. 
"We are obsessed with quality ingredients and delivering addictive, tasty food. Its common food, but done uncommonly well." U.S.E.
Much has been made recently about racism in describing food such as kaffir which is used in their description of the popular Goan dish, vindaloo. In an effort to be exotic and to add flourishes of ethnic cuisine, it ignores the overall composition of the dish. Most of their menu items are about adding something. Truffle salt to fries or tortillas to a Mediterranean platter. More is more. So, when asking for a spice on the aforementioned vindaloo, the response makes sense - add an ingredient that doesn't make sense for the context and will just add more tastes to further muddy the flavours. In some ways, this unintentional homogenization reflects the ethos of most suburban environments in Canada. There is a blending of conservative elements that lead to a tasty, exotic but ultimately bland palette. 
"We are a premium casual restaurant known for its well crafted menus and cocktails, an extensive draught and wine selection and the kind of place where comfort rules, and your table is your own little escape. It’s a place where you can be yourself, relax, laugh with friends and enjoy great food."
Their beer tap menu is eclectic, stretching from big brewers to micro brewers to craft beer. Unfortunately, the servers do not seemed well versed in helping the customer through the list. They will always lead you to more popular and less offensive (read that as bland) options rather than considering your tastes or what you are eating. Anyone with Delirium Tremens on tap gets a nominal pass for me. Just don't ask for it like that. It's just Delirium on the menu and it confuses the servers.

The servers. All female. Verging on breastaurant territory. Sometimes I feel infantilized and wonder if it is a policy of the restaurant or just the experience of the staff that this type of behaviour garners more tips. The first time I went here, there was a super excited server who was really curious about the food and beer. She got the answers to my questions. I've never seen her there again. No other server has been as interested as her and the service, while always professional, has been spotty with the feeling that there are many scripted moments. 

Look, this isn't a bad restaurant. I try to stay away from reviewing places like this because I like to see other regions cuisine slip into white people's food. My objection lies where there seems to be a commodification of culture. The mainstream takes a highly distinctive dish and reprocesses it to appeal to the most people and sells it back. That makes sense for a restaurant trying to appeal to a sub $20 lunch crowd where it needs to fill butts in seats a couple times in a few hours to be successful. If it just paid attention to the small details then it could become a really good restaurant with no extra cost and that's what pains me in these type of restaurants. By having less scripted interactions but adding a knowledge of the beer menu for instance, could yield more profit by selling that one extra draught. Sure, it is harder to teach and control the experience but it may increase the profit margin. Instead I'm left with the feeling that no one cared what my preferences were because there was already something for everyone. Add a little sriracha mayo. That will fix the problem.

Union Social Eatery on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Magazine Review: The Gourmand

Since the Cookbook Store has closed, I've been looking at less likely places to pick up food magazines. I picked up this periodical at room 2046, near Summerhill subway station. The store has hints of food with their bowls, plates, napkins, cookbooks and food magazines. A design shop that is tight and focused. Like Cibo Matto, food isn't central. In a more pretentious place, this would be called curated due to its relation to art and design but it is more eccentric and deliberate; candle with scents like thyme and lemon and of course, they serve coffee and sweets.

The Gourmand is a magazine that tries to marry this same type of focused eclecticism. The look is somewhere between 70's naturist mags and museum guide book. It says on the spine that it is Issue 3 but inside the editor's not states that it is the fourth issue. Far from being an error, it reminds me of the joke of the person standing in the express line; wondering if the person ahead of them is a math major that can't read or an arts major that can't count. They may be channeling the comics industry where Issue #0 is the origin issue but then that isn't counted as part of the number system.

The strange thing is that in this internet age, you can be a polymath and find all the information you need. This means that a periodical has to bring more to the table than more of the same. Either specialized knowledge or a point of view that no one else has. The general interest mag is dead. Now you have to be a part of a community of interest or geography, or have a unique collection of goods that are put together in an interesting way. Design has become a reason to read.

Due to the eclectic nature, a few bits were impressive to me:

  • photos of pasta
  • Teenage Little Chef - a view into Britannia that I had only seen on Food Television with Heston Blumenthal.
  • Sunday specials about a synaesthete, who experiences sounds as tastes. The interesting bit was that they tried doing it backwards by presenting a dish and asking what sound would give you this taste and photographing the representation of sounds. For me, it is like trying to deconstruct a restaurant dish with a pantry of items with mixed familiarity. The photos generated are oddly cohesive and disjointed.

The strongest two pieces together bring what this mag can be at its best. Driving Light about a roving food truck in Jerusalem and The Living Archive about sourdough as an art installation. Smak Polski a description of the Polish influx into Britain tries to define Eastern European and locate the impact through Lituanica, a Lithuanian wholesale company who imports much of this 'ethnic' food.

There are a number of articles that have been covered elsewhere and I would consider them close to their expiry date. This magasine is written for a British audience and maybe the coverage of these things are more North American but I'm not so sure. These topics include; an article on Milton Glaser, coverage of the ortolan, and Les Blank coverage. With a little more exposition and focus, the last piece could have been a great piece. Maybe part of the issue is with publishing in general where more of the effort of editing has been pushed back onto the writers. Not all writers are good editors or have a good eye on how to make a single article fit into a whole mag.

It is an expensive proposition to buy this publication due to the exchange rate. It provided jumping off points for my own explorations but it was the gentle nudging of wistfulness rather than the spark of ardor. It didn't drive curiosity like a well selected mag would. I will try another issue or two to see if I can understand the accolades and awards but it doesn't offer much for the hardcore connected foodie.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: Beerology

Hmm. What background must I give to make the following make sense? Let's start with the fact that I am reviewing Beerology by Mirella Amato. I've been following her on twitter for a while. She is one of 7 Master Cicerones in the world. So, she knows beer and is very dedicated to education and promotion.

In near proximity, I have read Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher and The Complete Beer Course by Joshua Bernstein. I did a review of the Bernstein book here. These cover similar areas and it was helpful to compare and contrast against Mirella's approach.

The stated goal is beer appreciation. The design is quite engaging. Coasters dot the chapter title pages. There are smaller, more concise sections for beer ingredients and process. The pour that is recommended is one of the two classic pours. I've not seen an explanation of the differences between the pours but I bet it's out there on the interwebs. Quick run down.
Pour type 1: Vigorous center pour, stop halfway through for foam to settle then continue. 
Pour type 2: 45 degree angle and pour to middle of the glass, gradually tip and center pour.
The style section is smaller than the other books I have recently read but those differences are big and important. One is the addition of a graphic that splits the characteristics of the brew into four dimensions; ale vs. lager, colour, distinct taste (bitter/sour/sweet), and alcohol. The second is splitting the styles into purposeful adjectives such as refreshing, mellow, striking, captivating and brews beyond. This moves beyond the traditional lists that operate in a variety of ways. Sometimes by beer style or country of origin or light to dark. What is important is that Mirella doesn't recommend her categories as the final say but actively suggests that you learn more.

There is so much to say on styles especially from the point of view of beer geekery. Styles are newish and have somehow come to dominate many discussions on beer judging rather than the taste of the beer. The sense that I get from this book is that taste is probably the most important aspect of the beer. Mirella put together a great post to describe how she figured out the style and beer section. It is a great read and really illustrates the point of style versus taste and the difficulty of using style as a primary description of beer.

My favourite sections are after the style section as she gets into the ideas of food pairing, beer tasting games, and beer cocktails. While she gives some thoughtful advice on how food and beer work together, the caveat of try stuff outside the box lingers. Her framework goes beyond the cut, complement and contrast. It is not so much multidimensional as a list of considerations about everything from intensity and weight to flavour components.

Now, comes the hard questions. Would I buy this book? I'm considering it for a some very good reasons, there are so few beer guides that have Canadian references and this is one. The extra 'u' in many words might be worth it alone. This is a good companion for the big beer guides mentioned above if you want a Canadian context. If you have David Ort's cookbook then this volume works well to present the beginnings of an interesting culinary approach to beer. The third is the graphics compile complex information into a readable, digestible and immediately understandable format. Her styles as graphic representation of bitterness and intensity make it easy to compare styles. If you happen to be a food geek as well, you have probably seen flavour wheels and other tools that help you match against her graphs.

I'm in the midst of doing a trim of my books in food and beer and playing a one in, one out game. When I have finished, this is one book that would be closer to the top.