Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Leftover Breakfast #1

Almost New Year's and I'm thinking about starting a new series of blog posts and reviving some older ones. Hopefully, it will last longer than most resolutions that die before a month is over. Anyways, I have been reading too much of Ideas in Food blog because once again their type of thinking has inspired me to look at my leftovers a bit differently.

Today, using some leftover naan, we had French toast naan. There were several aha moments and I could and should milk those insights for multiple posts but I'm so excited how the whole thing came together that I am going to do all of it right now.

French toast is like fried custard 
On some level, I know that but soaking some of the bread for a while in the egg mixture reminded me of how alike french toast and bread pudding are. I wonder what frying leftover bread pudding would be like?

Bread is Bread
Speaking about frying bread pudding, there are so many breads that are non traditional for french toast. Makes me want to make a spice loaf or a pumpkin loaf just to toast and the dip it in egg mixture and have a desserty french toast. The texture of the naan was pancake like. I wonder how pancakes or bannock would taste. Sometimes this is a case of more is more and this piling on of flavours will collapse into turducken territory. But these were leftover naan and definitely stale.

Sugar is Sugar
Had way too much apricot gomme from a review I did for beer cocktails for eatdrinktravel. Apricot gomme is just a simple syrup that is thickened with a gum, or in this case, I used apricot paste. It is thick and sugary with a light apricot taste. It is a syrup and tasted great poured over the naan. Reminds me of the time that I made a smoke simple syrup to be poured over fried leftover oatmeal.

I guess if you fry most leftovers and pour syrup over it, you can call it breakfast? So many interesting (to me) ideas that I may have to purposely make some leftovers.

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 I went for a walk where I saw the women foraging their food and it has been replaced by a community garden.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.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Teff Beer Attempt - Step 4

The story so far... In Step 1, we decided on an idea for a beer and in Step 2, we looked for a recipe. In Step 3, we went shopping for equipment and ingredients.
For next few hundred words, we will take you on a journey through time and space (BTW, all of our journeys are through time and space) to a placed called the Malting.

I've been reading and re-reading beer books lately. I feel as if there are no new ways to approach the topic of beer. Malting is the sprouting, drying and maybe the toasting/roasting of the grain being used to make the beer.

I bought teff. The smallest grain in the world because I wanted to make a gluten free ale from the cradle of civilization, Ethiopia. It happens to be one of the quickest sprouting grains. There were a bunch of ways to sprout grain on the internet that just didn't apply because the batch was so small. Most recipes are scaled to 5 gallons and above. Remembering my school days and having recently revisited the whole sprouting stuff on a window sill thing with the kids, this process was still fresh in my head. Recommendations are to put the grains in a bucket or some tray where water can be removed or in a clear jar or... Some of these methods were not usable due to the size of the grain but it was wide open. The only requirement was that the grain had germinated.

So, first I soaked the grain for about 3 hours and then laid it on an unused, as in new, dampened hand towel set in 9x13 pan. I took a second towel, also dew dampened by the mists from Toronto tap water and placed it over the grains and waited.

Most of the literature talked about optimal length of the sprout, some calling it acrospire and timings  for germination were all for the more common grains. There was talk about being 80-100% of the grain. Germination time for teff is two to three days. I was contemplating raiding the kids' toys to see if I could find a magnifying glass. These grains are so small that it felt like beach sand when I was soaking them. I had to rely on something other than sight, so I popped one in my mouth. Dry, vague cereal taste. Flavourful dirt.

After 24 hours, when I lifted the cloth, it seemed as if I was looking at an out of focus picture. The sprouts had started a lot quicker than I expected. I tasted it. It was slightly green tasting and less crunchy than the day before. I didn't have time to set up for drying so I didn't have time to make a decision. I think that was for the best. When I came home from work that night, there were visible sprouts at least 6 times the length while others were still in that starting stage. It was time unless I wanted the whole pan to become filler to sandwiches. I couldn't worry about the inconsistency of the sprouts.

The grain was dumped out onto cookie sheets. More cookie sheets than I expected. You need a lot of room to dry these suckers. This is probably why brewers get malt from malters. I turned on the stove at a low temp briefly and let the pans rest inside once I was sure that it would dry without starting to cook the seeds. After the initial time, I left the pans around the house to air dry. They were dry within days. Several blogs and books had recommended an optimal after drying weight but there was no way I was going to transfer these suckers back and forth. Already there were grains everywhere. Did I say that they remind me of beach sand? Same problem.

With the slight toasting they received in the oven when I put them in too early one time, they would be a very light colour. This appeals to me since I love lighter beer such as wit, weiss, and wheat beers. It will go well with the other ingredients mentioned in the previous post. Put the grains away in a cool spot and in a sealed container.

Okay, so some stuff happened. Firstly, don't use a cloth with teff. I now have a wonderful cloth that is ready to be planted. The seeds grew into the cloth.

Drying can be anxiety ridden, so if you have never dried anything, don't start with grain.

Taste the grain. I have an appreciation for the differences during the sprouting process and you are trying to get the most sugar out of the grain. We have an amazing ability to taste sugar. The larger sprouts were not as sweet as the smaller ones. While we can get all scientific about the process and remove grains that are too big or two small, the nature of handmade goods is that they are complex or sometimes muddy rather than clean and perfect. Think of the difference between a meal at home and a meal at a fancy schmancy restaurant.

Let's go at that point that I just made another way. After spending a few days worrying that the sugar would not be optimized, I took to twitter to ask about what to do. "Test during the boiling process and add amylase." That will come up in the next chapter but what I took out was that there was a possible solution. I had a more brillianter idea. I asked a few friends who spent time in Ethiopia, okay grew up there... Okay, I asked a few Ethiopian friends. You may ask why I didn't do this before but I had. The difference is that this time I described the process and got back a whole whack of information that I couldn't get from the internet. Go ahead, look. That is what I would do to. We'll wait.

Okay, for those know-it-alls, glad to see you are joining us again. Here is the recipe I got back.
My mom puts a bunch of teff in a bucket with water and lets it sprout. In another bucket she combines injera, water and sometimes spices. She also adds this green leafy thing, dried. Don't know what the English name is but we call it Gesho and here is the Amharic symbols. There is probably some on the Danforth. So, she chops it up and adds them together when the first bucket is ready. After a week or so, it is ready to drink.
There are so many great things about the recipe and how I got it, I'm not sure I can do it justice. Firstly, beer making is still the domain of women in Ethiopia and that harkens back to earlier days of brewing in Western societies. These women were known as brewsters or ale wives. A good friend of my wife is named Brewster and like the Millers, were a big part of regular life.

Second point, is the recipe itself. Read a post by Mirella Amato about losing sight of the craft. While she came to a slightly different conclusion and direction, there is definitely a sense that scientific geekery might be losing sight of a fundamental bit about brewing. It is more like making homemade bread than molecular gastronomy. Both have there places but don't worry if you mess up a little bit because there is some Ethiopian grandmother making this stuff in a bucket without heating it up to get all the sugar out. Food wants to rot. This is just controlled rotting.

And last one I'll make here. Gesho is a bittering agent. It is used like hops. Everyone makes a bitter fermented beverage. I'm wondering if there are all types of beer out there in the non European world that have so much for us. I have heard of Indian traditions and wonder about Asia. A world map of traditional beer other than the small one I have in my head that is centered around central Europe would be cool.

The next post for this topic will be on the boiling process. I just have to get some iodine and amylase.

So, the next step is here at Step 5.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Book Review: The Complete Beer Course

Another month, another beer book. This is one of those books that make the must read lists for beer readers. At some point, reading another book is a series of diminishing returns on knowledge. Each book only adds a bit more information while it takes more hours of investment. When a book is a classic or a must read, it often covers territory that a reader has read more than a few times. It has to bring something different.

In the case of The Complete Beer Course, there is a coverage of styles with a short history along with a few beer to try for every style wrapped in the idea of beer class. In twelve classes, Bernstein will take you through enough beer to call yourself an expert. The conceit of the tasting class works well with the first class taking up the standard information given to all of us trying to become beer nerds.  There is the usual stuff around history of beer, beer process and some information on the ingredients. Of course, how to taste and serve beer are in there as well. How is it different?

What this book does well, is in the tone. There are a lot of puns and groans that make material that would otherwise be dry and boring into a bearable reading experience. Some of us will find this approach amusing and entertaining and others will not care for the less 'technical' approach. Beer is democratic and education was intended to democratic. To teach a class is to take an approach that will work best for the greatest number of students. I feel the balance struck here is quite good.

From a Canadian perspective, I was surprised to see how many breweries and brews were here hailing from my land when this book is definitely aimed at educating Americans. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised given what I know is true about the Canadian brewing experience and drinking as a Canadian. McAuslan, Dieu du ciel, Charlevoix, Hopfenstark, Central City, Russell, Mill Street and Spearhead all make an appearance. There are a few others but these are the ones in the International beer style section.

The style sections are fine. I'm having a hard time assessing these sections due to overexposure of this information. His humour is what kept me going through these sections. The bonus sections that are not part of the standard curriculum of nerdification are the brewery profiles, a deeper discussion on topics normally skimmed (water, increasing bitterness techniques and inventions, Belgian light beers and how old styles are revived for example) and the whole section on cellaring and pairing beers. Some of the information will not age well but for someone taking the plunge right now, this would give them enough to talk the and walk the walk and sound intelligent. I have only had about 1/3 of the named beers but had a beer in every style except for two (Kentucky Common, American Style Barley Wine) but I would consider myself well versed in styles. Only one of them is actually a named style but I'm putting down the Kentucky Common so that I don't forget it.

After the review, here is what bits and pieces turned my crank and got me thinking.

p.98 mentions a grodziskie which I had only heard in passing. It is an oak-smoked wheat low alcohol beer with a lot of hops but little aroma. It is an historic Polish beer. Think of a smoky wheat beer with a possible little bit of sour from the wheat depending on whom you talk to. I would love to try it either as a home brew or pro interpretation.

Two beer alterations include adding milk to stout porter (p.188) and adding an espresso shot to Guinness Draught (Dry Irish Stout) (p.183). Of course, after reading this, I saw a post on Alan McLeod's blog on mixing beers. These two recipes got me to thinking. While I like the idea of beer cocktails, there is always a bit of chagrin due to my reliance on intentionality of the brewer when judging a beer. In other words, the brewers didn't intend it this way. In a weird postmodern way, Alan's puts it that 'the experience of the drinker is the only experience in relation to any given glass of zymergistic goodness that matters. Brewer's intentions be damned'. The drinker determines the beer and by extension how it tastes best and not the brewer.

I've long wanted to write about postmodernism, philosophy and food. The book is pushing me towards getting that down. Anyways, this is a good book to learn about styles and the North American contribution to stretching them. If you like the tone, then this is definitely a good book.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Cider Reviews for Ontario Cider Week

Serendipitously, I received a cider for review this week. It's from South Africa. I was looking for some kind of hook and realized that it was Ontario Cider Week. So, I'm going to do an omnibus review. Hopefully it will show the variety and quality of Ontario and help situate the South African cider within a context to understand it.

The highly unscientific testing method to determine the best cider was to have my wife and I to drink a bunch of ciders, mostly from Ontario, with a few from other regions like Quebec, UK and USA. We would note our reactions and try lemon juice to determine if it makes a difference. The lemon juice would be added after tasting the cider as a nod to one of the recommendations from a producer who declared that their cider tastes better with a lemon in the neck of the bottle.

So, I went to my local LCBO to purchase supplies. I didn't realize how many ciders were from Ontario. Sure, there is the Grower's Cider from BC which was one of the first that I remember seeing in the LCBO but now there is a whole lot more. With sixteen members in the Ontario Craft Cider Association, this could be the next craft beer craze. Even with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I do have to admit that cider in the last few years has often been a good way to round out a night of drinking and with its distinct lack of bitterness can provide a mellow respite from summer beer.

The Ontario list: Spirit Tree, Pommies, Thornbury, County Cider, and Waupoos. Both Waupoos and County Cider are from the same company.

The Other list: Savanna Dry (South Africa),  Woodchuck (USA) and Cremant Cidrerie St-Nicolas (QC).

And one not cider: Nickel Brook Green Apple Pilsner.

When I started the tasting, my suspicion was that the ciders were going to clump around two polar opposites of sugariness. I hesitate to use the word sweet because in cider talk, sweet means the apple juice product where hard means the fermented drink. Dry cider means using champagne yeast or less sweet tasting or alcohol content removing the sugars from the fruit. In reality, dry has regional meanings. There are whole categories in Quebec based on the carbonation levels and then there is the ice ciders, a Canadian innovation that is big in Japan. Since I am not going to be the one to develop new coinages for the whole cider industry or further add to the confusion factors, I will use sweet and dry like wine terms. But this paragraph on sweetness is just a long way of saying that I was wrong. There is more of a range than I expected.

First of all, some overall impressions on the ciders. Almost all used sulfites. It is necessary. Most had a hints of sulfur in the smell or in the first few mouthfuls that dissipated if you left the glass for a few minutes. The smell/taste thing is particular to the bottles as I rarely find it in cider on tap. Haven't talked to a cider maker yet, but believe it is probably just a natural compound in rotting apples. When I used to live near apple trees in the country, you would notice that downed apples in late fall have a particular smell.

Let's get to the particular impressions, I do a mean Pikachu impression. Sorry, been watching a lot of Pokemon with my kids.

Ontario Ciders

Spirit Tree: Drier and bouncy on the tongue. Light colour and clocks at around 6%. More of a mid range apple flavour. I've had it on tap and this is one of my go to ciders. My wife hates this one due to mustiness. Due to my love of barnyard tastes, this one just registers as slightly funky for me.

Pommies: Clocking in at 5%, this has a lot of apple and sugar taste in another light coloured cider. It tasted juicy when tasted alongside any of the finer carbonated and drier tasting ciders. Although classified as a dry cider due to the alcohol content, I wouldn't call in dry. My wife likes this one. It is close to cooler territory for me. Lemon seemed to accent the sweetness and made this one veer into candy territory.

Thornbury: This one was the fizziest of the ciders poured on this night. It was the most like apple juice, maybe an Allen's apple juice that fades into a crisp finish. This one smelled like the pleasant version of downed apples. My wife liked this one and commented in particular that this one smelled appley. It is around 5% alcohol. The lemon juice brings out the latent tartness and gives the cider a cooler like quality that reminds me of mass market beer.

County Cider: Like the other cider, Waupoos, that we tasted from the same company, this is a 6.5% beverage. The body feels light to me with a milder apple flavour possibly due to a different varietal. Tasting these two side by side allows you to appreciate the difference the varietal can bring because you can assume similar production methods. Lemon brings out apples and a citrus taste in a way that other it didn't with the other ciders. It was a really pleasant addition.

Waupoos: The other of the two ciders that we tasted from County Cider. There is similar carbonation levels to the Spirit Tree. Light sour apple taste fading to a drier finish. A 6.5% alcohol beverage. There was a slight funkiness in the middle that my beer hating wife perceived as tasting like light beer. It was drinkable for her but I think she used the words 'Coors Light'. Adding the lemon enhanced the sour apple but made the slight unpleasant flavour obvious.

Other Regions

Savanna Dry (South Africa): The excuse that I used to round up a bunch of ciders was this sample sent for tasting. It's marketing is around being dryly humourous with a lemon in the neck of the bottle as a tasting gimmick. Think Corona and lime. South Africa is the 16th largest apple producing nation where Canada is 29th. We import a lot of apples from South Africa, they are the 5th largest by volume of countries that we import apples from. Anyways, enough background information and back to tasting notes. There was a slight smell that was hard to place but it was almost cheesy. It is at 6% alcohol content which contributes to a drier taste. It was the darkest cider we tasted and may have created the buttery tasting connection in our heads. It was more on the fizzy side. Their claim of lemon enhancing the flavour was true as it accented the carbonation, brought a distinct apple flavour to the front and pushed away the butteriness. This makes the drink more lively. My wife liked it with lemon but without the lemon, it tasted beery to her. 

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Woodchuck (USA):
An American cider that I always associate with Britain. It's partly the packaging and partially the taste. Its another dark cider that smells of socks initially before quickly fading to mellow apples. The flavour reminds me of sugary apples and while this would classify as a semi-sweet, it drinks closer to the sweet side. Lemon brings a tartness that plays with the carbonation in a way that makes it taste fake. Once again, this one heads close to cooler territory and appealed to my wife. Skip the lemon on this one.

Crémant St. Nicolas (QC): The lowest alcohol of the tasting at around 3%. It had the tiniest little bubbles with pronounced apple taste. Well rounded mild apple taste with hints of acid. Lemon juice turns the mildness into an aggressive "apple" taste like splashing citric acid onto a fresh cut Mac. This is where my wife's and my tastes come together. Without compromising what a cider is, this manages to please both the funky, beer like dry ciders with the cooler type sugary and apple forward ciders. This may be due to the champagne yeast. This was the most distinct flavoured of the ciders but remember, Quebec is the site of many innovation such as ice ciders.

Not a Cider

Nickel Brook Green Apple Pilsner: Easily recognized as a beer by the wife. Tastes like a flavoured beer. I like a lot of Nickel Brook products but this one always tastes fake to me. Lemon did nothing to improve it.

Overall Impressions: I've drank a lot of ciders in the last few years but by focusing on Ontario craft ciders at one time, it made me realize the breadth of products available. I'm not sure if there are any remaining drinkers out that gender cider by putting it into a corner with coolers that are best left to womenfolk. If so, they are missing out. None of the ciders tasted were bad. One or two crawled towards a more bland flavour profile but none screamed mass market.

The cider market may have been given a gift when the juice canning factories closed down in Southern Ontario. This left many orchards with few choices. Alcohol sells. There are more innovations that are happening in the Ontario market such as using different yeasts, dry hopping ciders, and barrel aging. Cideries are applying both brewing and vinous methods. West Avenue Cider is one to watch.

The cider industry in Ontario has many stories to be told. Craft cider is fast approaching craft beer territory, in terms of innovation and excellence. This week was the inaugural Cider Week. Now, all we need is the craft version of Sessions. Get out there and find a cider you like. The search is well worth it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Ideas #1: Re Imagining Carrot Cake

I'm blatantly stealing this concept from one of my favourite blogs, Ideas in Food. Smaller posts about possible experiments that will fill the gaps in blogging days and at the same time provide a repository for ideas for recipes or techniques. This will, hopefully, replace the scrawly bits of paper that end up in tiny paper mache balls in my pants on laundry days.

Been messing around with drying stuff and creating dusts for a while, mostly fruits. Wonder what would happen if you dried carrots and then rehydrated them using different flavoured liquids. The approach would have to be weigh before drying then rehydrate to the same level if you don't want to change the recipe.

The liquids could be anything:

  • Carrot juice - to magnify the carrot flavours
  • Spice infused liquid - wonder if adding it to the fibers would make a difference
  • Apple Cider - apples and carrots
  • Fruit Juice mixture - my wife makes a carrot salad with mango, apple, and raisins. Could some type of this mixture be used to boost the flavour?
  • Vegetable Stock - Could subtle flavoured stocks lend a savoury element that would be set off by the traditional cream cheese icing.

This simple idea of coming up with a carrot cake but starting from dried carrots presents some interesting opportunities.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Teff Beer Attempt - Step 3

The story so far... In Step 1, we decided on an idea for a beer and in Step 2, we looked for a recipe.
Now that we have a recipe of sorts, it is time to go shopping. The question for me was what ingredients and equipment did I need.


The ingredients were the easier of the two to contemplate. I needed yeast, hops, malt, and water.

Yeast was easy to find and the only real choice was between dry or liquid. I chose liquid yeast as I trusted the brand name after hearing great things about it. Hops, I had already figured that I would use English hops and a number of different shops had them. No biggie.

Then I thought, let's get the liquid malt and save some time. I don't need to go all alpha beer nerd and make my own malt. A quick search through the beer suppliers of Toronto yielded no teff malt. Okay, let's see about the states. Oh, Colorado Malting will do it custom. With the customs and excise tax and the waiting and everything, I decided to ask a few brewing supply stores in Toronto with little luck. I'm sure someone does it out there but I wasn't able to find it easy by a search or a tweet.

Now comes the pseudo confession time. I'm writing this breezily and as if I am doing everything off the cuff. This is largely because I'm feeling ducky. I want this to look easy like a duck swimming but underneath the water, I'm paddling like hell. To put it another way, I've been talking about trying to home brew for two years. I have read two years of subscription to Brew Your Own, own more than six books on fermentation and brewing, read forums, follow twitter folk, ask questions of beer guys and strengthened my google fu in this glorious quest. While I AM talking out of my arse, I have a fair idea of what is going on. Most home brewers do NOT malt their own grain. Here I was with only a handful of articles, some tutorials on YouTube with no information of teff malting. So, of course, I decided rather than wait that I would malt my own. I bought teff at a local grocery store. It was easy to find as it is a common grain for celiacs and people who want to go gluten free. More on the malting process and outcome in the next step. I still have to finish buying everything.

This realization made me curse my choice of grain for a few seconds until it dawned that I was going to one up all those home brewers who look down on those that used liquid malt rather than brewing for grain, I was malting my own. Just as a background for those uber new into brewing, one of the first questions you get asked when saying you are home brewing is whether you have ever brewed from grain. Brewing from grain is just about whether or not you make the porridge and then add the yeast.
Quick review of the standard home brewing process - make the porridge and add hops, cool it down and add yeast, let the yeast do its job and bottle. Some brewers don't make their own porridge but rely on buying ready made malt. No shame. Not too many people make their own ketchup either. 
Okay, that only leaves water. I've got water in my tap and that should be okay. There are huge discussions on forums about whether treated water affects yeast and how differences in water accentuates bitterness and so much more. Water is very important but its not worth the amateur worrying about. Leave some water from your tap overnight if it is treated with chlorine. Other than that, whatever you use as drinking water will be fine for most beer purposes.


Yeast, hops, water, and grain. All taken care of in a trip to Toronto Brewing. What about the equipment? My original thought was to just use stuff from my kitchen. I had given the question of volume some thought. Standard recipes are 1 gallon, 5 gallon or 10 gallon. I've decided that given my space, I would do 1 gallon test batches and 5 gallon batches for now. The reasons are that I can only drink one kind of beer for so long. One gallon yields about 3.8 l, that's about 11x33cl glasses, the standard metric 'pint'. More of one beer than I normally drink. Also, if a batch has gone wrong then I don't want to throw out more than a gallon. Five gallons is probably the limit of what can be done in our second kitchen due to the size. This batch from unmalted grain would be a one gallon batch.

I had most of the standard equipment - something to make the porridge in and something to ferment in and even some bottles from the U-Brew-It. Yes, a lot of books make a huge deal about the equipment but the disagreement is so wide. I ended up buying a one gallon kit.

I was swayed by a book that had the same issues I had with the uber recipe nature of most brewing books and he explained something in simple scientific terms that reminded me of the time I spent with the guys at Fermentations. I had asked them when they knew the beer was done. I had some experience with a balloon over a one gallon old timey jug used for fermenting mead and wondered how they did. A hydrometer. This handy dandy thing lets you know when all the sugar is fermented. I had to have one because Beer Making For All said so. I've also bottled and it is nice to have tubes and stuff to make it easy. Oh, and I didn't want to have to worry what was last cooked in my stock pot. Maybe there would be a need to make stock and beer at the same time.  If I brew more often, I can't take my stock pot out of circulation. Anyways, I bought a kit for some of the reasons listed above.

The trip to the brewing supplies store was fun. I proudly stated my first time status, as if they hadn't heard it before, and got all the help I needed. It was fun. I also walked away with ingredients for a backup batch for my second beer but that is another story. Did I say that it was fun?

With all the ingredients together and shopping done, it was time to start brewing. But first, I guess I had to malt the teff. That is where we will leave off today, kids. The next part will be on the malting. Sounds like a horror movie, doesn't it. The Malting.
Other posts in this series: See up top for the earlier posts and Part 4: Malting and now Part 5: Mash and Boil.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Teff Beer Attempt - Step 2

In the last exciting episode, I had talked about my grain decision and promised to talk a bit about science versus art. But first, I'm looking at that title. Step 2, it says. I'm not sure how to break it to you but I'm not sure of how many steps there are or how to break it down in digestible blog post style. So, there it is. I know the end will be the drinking of the beer and the beginning the concept. Buckle up.

After picking the grain, (not literally, I picked it up at the store in the gluten free section) I wanted to see what had been done before so off to the internet we went. Yeah, that's when I started to realize something. Just like in cooking, recipes and approaches fall into some broad categories. There are the recipes followers, the scientists, the artists, and the goof offs.

The two more junior members of the homebrew band, note that I did not say artisinal or craft, are recipe followers and the goof offs. The recipe followers measure and follow the steps without any understanding, hoping for some insight to come along the way. Some are keeping decent track of what is going on so that when it fails, they can see where they deviated from the recipe. Often these failures will push the followers into more rigid following of said recipes or push them into troubleshooting mode. The second way leads to geekery. There are a lot of geeks on the internet.

The goof offs are those who want cheap, but not awful beer. These tend to be frat boys, handy men and friends of friends who had a friend who brewed this stuff one time. Good times.

Then there are the scientists, technicians and experimentalists, who measure and note take. Sometimes they have a very clear idea of what they are replicating and other times they are testing one or more parts of the brewing protocol. What happens if I overhop here or use this method for wort chilling? How can I tweak my setup to get the qualities I desire out of the beer?

Then artists. With the idea that brewing has been happening for thousands of years, the basic recipe hasn't changed. All that is left is ornamentation and experiment. Yes, you still have to understand basic techniques and science but beer is a living thing. Beer is beautiful. Brewing is art.

Look, those are quick and dirty ideas of what I found on the internet. Of course, being the internet, the scientists and goof offs are well represented. The recipe followers often show up in forums starting their questions with "I followed the recipe exactly but..." and the artists... Hmm, I found most of them writing books. Sandor Katz wrote a great book on fermentation, Wild Fermentation, that will put your mind at ease. It doesn't cover just beer, which is only a small mention, but all types of fermentation.

I am usually more on the technician side rather than the artist side but we all fall somewhere along that line. If you are a perfectionist, the problem is that there is so much information with a lot of it being bad ideas masked in technique. How do I know this as a novice? Cooking and fermenting other stuff. When I looked at the recipes, they offered little in technical matters cause it just seems so straight forward. Boil some stuff (okay not really boil), cool it down, add yeast, let them eat, bottle and add some more food for yeast to eat and then enjoy. My sons put it this way, I am drinking yeast poo.

But that process is not how beer was always made. And there is the rub. Having read historic recipes for all sorts of food including medieval bread, the technique of cooking and brewing was known to everyone so much so that the techniques were never written down. I fear that a lot of our homebrewing knowledge is of recent vintage. Sandor Katz' book and other older homebrewing books such as 'BEER Making For All' don't have the focus on styles and tight grip on process but really understand the whole idea from an historical perspective. The basic idea is that stuff rotted and people found the best way to get that rotting stuff to taste good. There is some theory that humans are scavengers and therefore like the taste of savory and sour goods because of it. That is a whole other discussion.

With all those concepts rolling around in my poor undersized head, I tried to figure out the best approach for me to get this teff brew done. I wanted to make sure I could understand what the grain would taste like. I wanted to make sure that I had yeast and hops I was familiar with. Also, the choice would have to be complementary to bring out what I thought would be the best from the grain. I chose some British hops (Williamette and Fuggles) and Belgian Golden Yeast. I'm not sure if I'll use a mix of the hops or just one. That'll be a brew day decision.

What's that? What style of beer will it be? And this is where we will part company. I'm not interested in the style. Style is a recent phenomenon to help consumers know what they are getting. It is a way to categorize beers of the world for comparison. It is a way for amateur brewers to enter into competitions and learn to make better beer. The home cook who draws from different cuisines and techniques isn't all that interested in describing their food in terms of naming the dish or determining the style of cooking. Remember, I am just a talented home cook at heart.

Thus ends part the second. In the next part, I take a trip to the store and then I wrestle and cry about the grains I chose. Hopefully there will be some real information that someone trying to brew a beer can use.
Other posts in this series: Part 1: The Big Idea, Part 3: Shopping, Part 4: Malting and Part 5: Mash and Boil.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Teff Beer Attempt - Step 1

I'm finally doing it and making my own beer at home. I'm making a gallon just to see how its done. The preparation to get to this point has been a lot of reading, talking to some homebrewers and doing a lot at the local U-Brew-It. (Hi Fermentations!).

I'm fairly confident of doing a brew from malt extract or even malted grains. Mead was no problem to do, and neither is cider. So, why did I think that this was a good idea. Teff. From grain.


How did this come about?

I was talking to a few buddies about what the next recipe was going to be <aside> Making a recipe at a U-Brew-It! means choosing a style, choosing hops and some adjuncts -- except when it doesn't. Sometimes you can mix and match what they have at the shop and not worry about it too much. It's more like making a meal out of leftovers than cooking from scratch. It doesn't make it any less tasty or creative just a little less DIY. </aside> and he brought up the fact that he was having problems with gluten intolerance.

Wait, wait, I know that some of you are now going to point out a hypocrisy, especially if you read me regularly. You'll talk about how gluten allergies have been debunked or roll your eyes or whatever. Here is the truth about that. People eat a bunch of stuff and feel crappy afterwards. Eating a gluten free diet, has up until now, meant eating less processed food. The kid feels better not eating things with gluten like eating more veggies and stuff. It could be that veggies are better for you than processed food. As big business gets into the market, we will see what happens. There is no denying the GI problems that someone who is eating a diet that happens to have gluten along for the ride causes.

It could be that processed food and additives pile up and you don't feel well. It could be that when they eat all the carb rich foods, they ignore the other good for you stuff that may regulate their lovely stomach critters. If my friend believes it is the gluten then so be it. As long as he is willing to try my older wheat type of breads and less processed food then we can keep the scientific door open. Not everyone wants to go on some elimination diet to figure out what is really causing the problem.

I haven't tasted a really good gluten free beer. I know there are a lot stateside but I'm not setting out to make a gluten free beer. I am setting out to make a beer that hails from the cradle of civilization and one of the earliest grains. Teff is the smallest and one of the quickest germinating (36 hours) grains so that if I mess it up, it will be easy to do another batch. There are two Ethiopian drinks that are sometimes made with teff but those would qualify as a mead like substance and I make take a try at those later.

A lot of attention has been paid to hops over the past few years. Grain bills, the stuff that the malt is made out of, has been changing a little too but it is still largely barley due to have readily available sugars and proteins. Wheat is particular to a few styles and corn and rice are still (unjustly) four letter words for craft beer. Older grains that are less likely to be GMO and processed are still forgotten. If I'm going to make a beer at home from scratch then it has to be something quick, simple, historic and not solely steeped in scientific homebrew geekery. I'll get into that as I go along. I'm simply trying to make a good beer from a grain that is not a common grain that has a quick germination so that I don't feel like some hippie growing sprouts.

So, I've sprouted the grain and am now drying it. It unevenly germinated but I'm not going to fuss. What I hope to understand is the process of making beer and I am not so worried about being perfect this time out. If the resulting liquid even tastes remotely like a beer that I would like to drink, then I will do this again. I'll try to blog this process as I move along. So ends the first part of the program. I think the next part will be on Science versus Art.

Other posts in this series: Part 2: Recipe Selection, Part 3: Shopping, Part 4: Malting, and Part 5: Mash and Boil.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

For the Young and Old

Recently read a profile of the chef, Flynn McGarrie, in the New York Times magazine. Much was made of his age. He is fifteen years old. He is being hailed as a wunderkind.

Most of us have heard about dreaming Jiro and his sushi. He is the oldest Michelin three star chef at 82. This is also claimed as a miracle. We seem to live in the era of miracle children and never aging seniors. This could be a product of the baby boomers on both ends. As they age, the society switches it focus from boundless youth to the fountain of youth. The biggest bulk of North Americans self indulgent focus shows up in the reflections of the products and stories they consume. The advent of youth focus and teenagers grew with the baby boomers and now they turn to aging.

There is still a preciousness that is attached to young people. In the New York Times article, it is noted by one of the European chefs that this would not be such a big deal in Europe. Not that he is saying that this is a product of electronic media saturated USA nor that Flynn McGarrie isn't gifted but I feel that there is an unstated thought that this should not be as big of a surprise as it has been made out to be. As far as aging, it seems that we have forgotten that the concept of retirement for the masses is relatively new.

This attitude towards age extends to foodstuffs and beer. There is the exultation of fresh cheeses such as burrata and curds to the mature bleus and cloth bound aged cheddar. In the beer world, cask beers and real ale campaigns bracket the one side while sours and barrel aged beer squeeze the other.

There is a cost to age. Shelving, storage and the work required to ensure there is no spoilage make these expensive. The sales cycle is long. It can take years to finish the first sale and unless you are sure of your product, it is very hard to make changes. It takes a while for changes to happen. When you factor all these in, it is easy to see why these things cost money

Both artisianal cheese and craft beer are still fairly young industries in Ontario and I've noticed a trend. In cheese making it takes time to raise a herd. In beer, the sour lambics take time to age. I have recently tasted some noted Belgian lambics that have tasted thin and unaged. In a rush to meet the new demand for these products, not enough time is being spent waiting. A large brewery has recently bought many of these breweries for their portfolio and I wonder if profit is being put before product. We have isolated some of these yeasts and are now using innoculation methods that take the guessing about what critters are in the air and reducing risks for bad tasting ales. The traditional method means to expose the beer to the air and let wild yeast do the work.

Are we, as consumers, too impatient? I have tasted a cheese from a newer cheesemaker and can tell that the cheese still hasn't got there. It will. I'm not going to give up on these Ontario dairies just because their cheese doesn't have all the ripeness that is promised. It takes some years. In the meantime, I'll enjoy where they are in the process and support them when I can.

Producers risk new consumers tasting their products to be let down on what all the fuss is about. The producers are relying on the neophytes not knowing any better and leave old curmudgeons, like myself, sounding dated with 'they don't make it like they used to'. A funny thing though, this hypermediated environment may cause them to rethink their strategies. As more people get together in virtual bars and discuss relative merits of this over that, there will be a gravity towards clusters of products. They risk not being old enough or not popular enough. People will see through strategies that only serve the interest of the producer's pocketbook.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What do Moms Eat?

When I was young, I remember Mother's Day gifts as being firstly, crafts from school but as we got older, it became oven mitts, tea towels, aprons and small kitchen appliances. For Father's Day, it was clothes, tools, and fishing gear.

If someone were to ask me what was my Mom's favourite foods, I would say well cooked pork chops and sweets, especially squares and cakes. My Dad's would be meat and potatoes, even though I remember rice pudding and bread pudding being things he liked.

I wonder how often food is still compartmentalized into the sexes? Ladies who lunch implies salads and teas while a businessman's lunch is often steak at a strip club. When I've talked to restaurant owners, there is still the idea that they have to have a salad on the menu for women who watch their weight, even though we have overall become a more body conscious society.

Ladies drink wine and men drink beer or scotch. Some of this might be biological, in that, women are more likely to be supertasters and therefore more sensitive to bitter flavours. So less beer, green tea, coffee and the whole brassica family. The popularity of kale salads may render that totally incorrect.

There is also the calorie requirements being different which may impact how we choose our food. If you have to eat more to maintain your equilibrium then choices for more efficient energy would be required. That doesn't explain the sexing of healthier foods nor the feminity attached to chocolates and candy. A way through a man's heart is through his stomach but a woman requires chocolates and flowers. Yes, these are tropes but they seem to be expected, even in less traditional households.

My wife's favourite is probably a steak or sweets. Emotionally, I feel that sweets would be her choice and only steak when she craves it. I'm not sure I would describe her or any woman's appetite that I know as feminine but for Mother's Day, there will be flowers and chocolates.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mother's Day and Food

Many of us remember our mothers and grandmothers by the food they cooked. Even when we outgrow or become more "sophisticated" in our tastes, it is those supper dishes we remember. My Mom knew very little cooking when she and my father were married. She learned on the job.

While my father loved steaks rare, she needed them cooked quite done. Vegetables were always done past the current style of al dente. I've come to appreciate the value of a really well cooked vegetable as I age. There is a time for it.

Whatever she cooks, she cooks with love. Today, I can still see that she is cooking something that she thinks her family will love. She never wants to cook something that we will not like. This is a big deal in a family where some of us have strong likes and dislikes.

I can remember the first time that I made something at school for Mother's Day and felt embarrassed by giving it to her. It was a pipe cleaner flower. It just didn't seem to express how individual I felt my love for my mother was. My one son is getting to that age where you can see his feelings about making something in a class environment that doesn't reflect him. They are a mixture of feelings. Even his dad gets it wrong sometimes.

When the children were younger,  I wasn't sure whether we should brave the crowds for a restaurant meal on Mother's Day. It seemed too much for me. I assumed that it would be too much for the children and my wife. Big mistake. She had wanted to go out. So, we tried going to a restaurant that I mistakenly thought would be good. A ribs and barbeque joint, and I was sorely wrong. My wife said it was her worst Mother's Day ever. I felt the same embarrassment that I felt giving my mother the flower when I was younger. Thank goodness, our kids were too young to remember. I've felt that I could never make it up to my wife.

Every year since then, we have made her breakfast in bed. She gets this treat a minimum of twice a year. The other time is on her birthday. This year is the first year that instead of "helping" me make breakfast, my kids will be helping me. It does mean that we have to keep it simpler but you can tell this is something that they are putting their feelings into.  They are excited and keen on helping with the menu that is already loosely set. The kind of joy and love that they are putting in reflects how I feel most days when making meals for them and it is interesting to see it so unbridled and apparent. I only wish that I could show that same enthusiasm on the outside too.

I can see the toned down version in both my mother's and my cooking. Trying to cook something that I know my family will like but sometimes my worry gets in the way. I do remember my mother faking her delight at all the gifts but there was something genuine in the response as she realized where it was coming from. Sometimes, the reaction to what I have cooked is the same but most times, it is gratitude and happiness at being well fed and well served.

By the way, we will be going out for lunch afterwards but it is a surprise. Shhh!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Recipes for Sleep: Matrix Style

Insomnia. The inability to fall asleep or once attaining sleep, the inability to stay asleep. After days of being in this twilight world, things seem different. It is almost as if the world is finally exposed as the Matrix.

The Matrix abounds with reality/not reality, sleep/not sleep and drug like references. Being one of a few sufferers in my office, we have discussed home remedies that we have used. I wouldn't suggest using them but here is what we came up with.

2 packets of NeoCitran
225 mL boiling water

This is the unjacked version. Add two packets to the water and you will be meeting Morpheus, the god of dreams, soon.

The One shot of vodka
The One glass of prepared NeoCitran 

Add the vodka to the NeoCitran. Always use the one without acetaminophen in alcohol based stupor because you don't want to tax your organs.

There is no spoon.

3 shots of vodka
1 packet NeoCitran
225 mL boiling water

Add all to the boiling water. At this point, you may wish you trusted in the One instead of going with Trinity.

1 shot curacao
1 shot cherry brandy
1 packet NeoCitran
225 mL boiling water in a glass

Put all ingredients on a silver tray. Place it down and concentrate.
You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
Now, I'm not a pharmacist nor a drug rep but I believe these remedies are not recommended. What I will say that as a long time sufferer of insomnia, sometimes this gives you a momentary respite from the daily grind of the Matrix. For a few hours, you can enjoy an alternate universe where movies happen in your head. They are not necessarily joyful and can sometimes be overlong. When you reach the point in you non sleeping cycle, sometimes, just sometimes you believe. Like Neo with your being at the computer every night, hardly sleeping, you want to believe in the Matrix. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

New Coffee Shops Along Gerrard - Part 2

This is the second part of a continuing series whereby we explore the cafes and coffee shops along Gerrard Street, in particular, the newly evolving and gentrifying India Bazaar... ah hell, I live in the neighbourhood and wrote about some of the changes happening in the area in August 2011. Now it's time for an update.

There is no series but there are some happenings that prompted this post. At the time I wrote the first post, Lazy Daisy's Cafe and The Bandit were opening. A third cafe, Sideshow Cafe was on the strip between Coxwell and Greenwood. Upper Beach Cafe was in the midst of moving from morning commuter focus to renaming and reframing itself as a local lunch and brunch place called Beach Hill Restaurant to align itself with the local BIA name.

There was change in the area for Gerrard Street. In one of the reviews, I felt that there would still be some semblance of East Asian influence in the area and I'm still not sure how accurate I was. With some of the new cafes and coffee shops now popping up along here, there more of a community focus and a reflection of people living in the area.

With three more shops opened or opening along the stretch, something must have changed. The early adaptors have shown the way. Dawn at Lazy Daisy's Cafe added craft beer and wine and throws additional late night events. These events include a comedy night that leverages talent in the area and provides a way for established stand up comedians to test out their material. A lot of the events are driven by area mothers. The place has become a place to be to connect career moms on mat leave and socially active mothers like those that drive school events. That's important when you are trying to attract a customer base but it seems that some of these new places, it is the customers who begin to define the place.

The Flying Pony focuses on the gallery aspect. If LDC is a place for mothers then Flying Pony is for the more artistic bent. There is a distinct book vibe in the place. You walk in and at the center of the communal table there are books to take and leave. Wide comfortable chairs mix with shared tables and spaces with a back area divided from the front by the kitchen. The walls have constant changing art. The colours are both artsy in a traditional bohemian flair and reflective of the South East Asian vintage of the area. A bicycle rack sits outside. The coffee is fair trade and baked goods constantly come out of the oven. This is a place for artists and artsies.

Further down the strip, Brickyard Grounds has high gloss wooden tables, coffee and light fare. The light fare part is important. The whole place, in the best way, reminds me of the converted Coffee Times. Now hear me out. When I came to Toronto, the cafe scene was a little odd. The only places that felt as if you had a community were these ex-franchisees of Coffee Time. I wrote a post about how each was a reflection of their owners and the community. This is a great thing. The light fare reflects the area in the offerings. There are flavourful and pronounced spicings available. They sell rotisserie chicken and are working on getting local craft beer -- on TAP! It is an updated Mom and Pop Greek shop. This is a place to come as family.

The Social Gardener will be opening soon and it really drives home the point that I'm trying to make here. It's focus will be on  -- well, let's pull a quote from them --
Riverdale’s best kept secret is an eco-hub called The Social Gardener, providing a working model of change that is responding to emerging social and environmental issues with community economic development and civic cooperation.
It comes from a social justice and social enterprise perspective and focuses on what a cafe provides rather than on what it serves. A look at the coffee menu does reflect that approach as well. This is a place to come to work and share ideas.

Will all of these places still exist when I get around to posting a third update? In short, I think they all serve a particular community. There is not much in the way of difference for the product they are supposedly serving, coffee. None of these will win barista awards or become destination eateries. The real value in these neighbourhood places is in the community they bring and serve. A friend recently talked about how she needed a new cafe in the neighbourhood so that she could talk about the women who frequented the cafe where she usually went.

This particular area is diverse in an socio-economic way even though it is not reflected in skin colour or ethnic backgrounds. A mature area where people come to settle down and that is shown by the businesses that are growing and those that are leaving. I'm sad to see the slow dismantling of Little India and hope that some kernel continues to stay but I'm heartened to see what is happening. Every five minute walk can get me a change of community and keep me inspired and connected to different people. I like that.

Update: Brickyard Grounds has closed up. It was the first to succumb. 10/3/2016

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Cafe Review: Boxcar Social

In January, after cutting coffee out of my diet for a while, I began to drink one or two a week. In March, a traditionally stressful time at work, I began to drink coffee regularly in response to the stress and tiredness. Part of the reason for this lapse must be blamed on Boxcar Social.

Before we get into this review, let's be clear. I'm biased. I like these guys and what they do. I've handed them some of my beer to taste for reasons that will become clear. I've wrestled with writing reviews of places where I clearly like the people and get to know them before forming an opinion but in this case, it happened backwards. I also have problems writing bad reviews for the sake of bad reviews for similar reasons. That post can be found here. In my defense, nice people often make bad businesses or in other words, the nicest cashiers have the longest lineups.

Anyways, this place came out of the idea of a wine/beer/bourbon place that would serve coffee. Right now, it is just a coffee place. Since opening almost two months ago, the perpetual answer to when the alcohol licence will be in place is two weeks. It has become a bit of running gag amongst regulars.

The place was put together by the five owners who did most of the work to create two floors of exposed brick and gleaming wood, everything but the electrical and plumbing. Part of the coffee bar is science lab stuff like pots that look like beakers, equipment that registers particulate matter and scales. Rustic and high tech, a mix that you see often along trendy streets in Toronto. This is Rosedale. The morning crowd moves through the place with little fanfare and only glimpses of the genius of this place. Each barista has a different personality that is revealed in subsequent visits. If you show your interest in coffee, they may perk up and offer you something interesting in information or knowledge. They know their stuff.

Some of the faces will be familiar if you have been drinking coffee around the city. The owners have been around. What is special is that almost all the coffee is single origin by superstar roasters of the globe. The thing is, you don't feel talked down to or a knob for not knowing it. The pretensions are very low. During busy times there is nary a slurp as they "dial-in" the coffee and weigh the perfect cup, tossing those that don't meet their high standards. They still do this hard work but you don't see it. Inveterate coffee snobs who turn their nose up at sugar and milk or scoff at latte drinkers might feel a little ill at ease watching office workers head to the side board to do just that but the servers, nah.

That is what is cool about this joint. If you want to get into the coffee geekery of a beans difference between the first day roast and a week of aging, they can throw down. Even if batches from the same roaster taste a little different, they can tell you but it is not requisite knowledge. If you say that you can't taste that melony persimmon and grape notes that is listed on the bag, they don't sniff at your uneducated palate (well maybe Joe does) but rather explain to you how the roasters chose the notes. Also, if its bullshit, they'll tell you.

All in all, I'm effusive about this place. There has been two things that have made me think hard about coffee and that is rare for me. I drink a lot of coffee. A lot. As you drink more, you tend to prefer more acid and lighter roasted coffee that expose more exotic flavours. Also, espresso loses its lustre. There are few places that I enjoy an espresso in Toronto. This is one. They mess around with grind, amount of water and weight of shot to bring out what they feel are the desirable elements of a particular bean. That's the dialing in portion and what the science bits are for. None of the coffee I have had there has been above a medium. There may have been a medium dark but that would be an exception. Some of the flavour profiles have been astounding, especially when they are at the test phase of figuring this stuff out. I'd advocate for lighter roasts for espresso bars every where.

The second is the experiment of creating a regular coffee in an espresso machine. That's right. Making the equivalent of a french press or drip coffee. Technically, it's pushing the extraction at a lower pressure. Normally, this makes the coffee bitter because of the roasts and the profile of the beans chosen for the brewing method. Roasters are messing around with this idea and passing it on as experiments to the baristas. It is blurring the lines between drip and espresso. Think of the intense rich flavour on the espresso married with the clean smoothness and variability of tastes of a regular Joe. It changes, for me, what coffee can be.

I do have a few slight criticisms and I've made them known. The first is that the few employees they have lack the confidence and bonhomie of the owners. They don't have skin in the game and are probably unsure of their own abilities. They'll grow into it.

The second is that due to the subtleness of the coffees they are brewing, their lattes like the depth of taste that I like. Granted, the coffees that do work for that are traditionally roasted darker and give it that typical coffee flavour. If you want that type of thing, there is 9 bars at Yonge and St. Clair. It is a more straight forward coffee bar.

I'm not saying that Boxcar latte is not good just that I've not found them to be transcendent as the rest of their coffee experience is. They are working on it and I'm sure that they will eventually make a latte or a cafe au lait that moves what I think of these drinks but not yet.

If you want to learn and grow your coffee experience to include tasting the same bean three different ways, taste three coffees from the same region in a comparative pour over or see some experimentation then come here. I can't recommend this place enough. It is a good coffee geek experience.

Boxcar Social on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say...

I sometimes have a hard time with writing reviews on this blog. Restaurant reviews can be the hardest. For the most part, people who run small businesses want to make their customers happy and make money.

Restaurants fail for so many reasons. Sometimes it is the service, or the pricing or it's a bad idea or poorly executed food. I've wanted to start a sandwich business for a long time but the fear of not getting it right coupled with the huge risk has held me back. When I review small places that are trying, I try to remember that.

I doubt too many people intentionally go out and make a bad restaurant. This brings me to yelp! and other such microblogs. Too many times there are comments that don't help me decide if I like a restaurant or not. Too many of the "they don't make the steak right" said of a spaghetti house. There is often no context of the reviewer or the restaurant. Going into a coffee shop and complaining about the tea just doesn't make sense.

It is sometimes hard to separate individual tastes for things that are really bad or really good. I don't like fish but I can tell when it tastes good. However, I probably wouldn't go to a seafood restaurant and dish it because I didn't like the fish.

A second type of review is along the lines of "The food was nice. The tablecloths were nice so therefore the food was good." It tells me nothing. There are tons of tricks used by restaurants that make food taste better. Presentation, different colours, and evocative descriptions influence the way we taste. Slathering a dish in fat, salt and sugar also work. Sometimes these tricks can be employed to make marginal food taste "good". Without all the frills, it probably tastes ordinary or mediocre. By definition, most food will be mediocre. So what does that leave a reviewer to do?

While there is a postmodern argument that all views are valid and everything is taste, I just don't buy it. Yes, you can take the average of all Yelpers and determine that if everyone is saying something is good then it probably is. My favourite reviewers of stuff whether it be movies, food or books offer me an insight into the experience that it is reviewing. Maybe some history on the place or the chef, shedding some light onto their dining and what prejudices and bias they brought to the table and how the meal affected it. Foremost, the writing needs to be "good" writing. It has to capture my attention.

This can be done with snark, humour, intelligence, sparkle, literate, engaging or a bunch of different ways. It cannot be just I had a good nomnom burger. Not enough. Unfortunately, food writing like most restaurants is at best mediocre. I'm no better than the average writer but I strive to, at least once and a while, be better at my craft. Sometimes, I really like what I write. It is with this perspective that we should look at restaurants. Most are just trying to make a living. Try to illustrate what you like, what is truly remarkable and where the place falls down. Be fair and give the benefit of the doubt. Be clear and obvious when you have bias and explain it. Constructive criticism is best.

This does not mean that if you feel a place truly deserves to be trashed because they are only in it for the money then that is okay too. My rule is that I won't write anything that I wouldn't say to an owner and couldn't defend.

All this soul searching was caused by the fact that I really want to write about one of my favourite coffee shops where I have become a regular. I really should have written before but didn't get around to it. I'm trying to figure out what is fair and what is not. I'm also thinking about embarking on guest writing for a few blogs to get my chops up and wonder how writing for someone else will change my thinking. So, if you don't have anything nice to say, find a diplomatic and constructive way of saying it.