Eat This, Sip That

Where to take your dollars, thirst and doggy bags

The World’s Simplest Scavenger Hunt: Gratitude & Inspiration

Sometimes future blog content clings to me like Saran Wrap until I acknowledge it. Often it sneaks up on me, manifesting in unexpected but repeated ways. Today began with mindless Facebook drifting, after very intense MLS searching, driving a cursor around Dundas in mad circles, wishing and willing a century home with a price tage under half a million to appear.

Kerri Minns, who I arm wrestled for the title of G Adventures Coolest Adventure Travel Intern in 2010 (she won, and talentedly so) often posts engaging and idea-erupting updates and links on her very articulate Facebook page. Sometimes they are Instamatic sugary donuts portraits, or just smartly snapped pictures of an open newspaper. Today she reposted this quote (source unknown): “In order to lead a fascinating life–one brimming with art, music, intrigue and romance–you must surround yourself with precisely those things.”

Like.

And, for a reliable creative boost and further inspiration injection, there’s always been Brene Brown and her WholeHearted Living manifesto that serves as verbal Red Bull. She is best known for embracing imperfection and saluting vulnerability. Brown’s site is dense with ideas, and her thoughts today fuelled my run through the breezy, fertilized and newly mulched suburban streets.

Brown’s post was simple, a “play list” of all that she was grateful and inspired by today from the likes of cilantro Thai grilled chicken to Willie Nelson’s latest album Heroes. And, with much credit to her, I am piggy-backing on her post.

Today I’m feeling very grateful for and inspired by:

1. Long Way Down. A few months ago I read Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round (2004), chronicling their enduro 20,000 mile ride across 12 countries on tripped-out BMW bikes. This time the macho boys are riding from Scotland to Capetown, South Africa. During my reading epidemic yesterday, I didn’t budge from my lounger until they crossed the Libyan border en route to lunch in Alexandria. Reading their impressions of the oppressive heat, obnoxious traffic and wayward camel crossings brought the carefully preserved memories of our  time in Egypt to the forefront.  The books we brag about are always the ones that successfully take us elsewhere, inward, backward, or to that high-security place in our mind’s matrix.

2. Offloading. Last week, Kim and I were on a “working holiday” in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. We were dutifully helping her parents move into an envy-inducing tony condo space (granite, stainless steel, oh my!) from their idyllic ranch of 30 years, complete with resident foxes in the woods just yonder. I’ve moved my parents once (after nearly 30 years in one house), and several friends (several times). After this recent move, Kim, Scott, Lynne (her siblings) and I came to an agreement. From now on, we are only allowed to collect our thoughts. Kim and I are known minimalists, and still, after seeing how 30 years of living can so easily escalate and accumulate, I couldn’t wait to come home and offload anything remotely unnecessary. My urban space is around 800 square feet, and after moving back and forth across Canada and sojourning to Africa twice, my cardboard box count has continued to dwindle. If something doesn’t have a story or a purpose, I am repurposing it (ie. how many martini glasses does one really need?). In the end, we are only left with our thoughts, anyway. Hopefully.

3. Banana Bread beer and a pale ale made with pinapple juice? I pick up hard copies of The Grid, NOW, City Bites, Food & Drink and Toronto Life for serious ongoing inspired eating research purposes. And, as an already avid thought collector (as witnessed on this blog–three years of blathering thoughts-strong), I like to keep these scavenged places documented in one coveted master list, mapping out all that I need to drink and eat in the city. A Gut Positioning System, if you will. It’s my version of a Five Year Plan.  I had read about the UK Wells Banana Bread beer somewhere in my reading travels and sourced it out at the RBC LCBO on Front. And in bonus beer news, Kim and I discovered Spearhead’s Hawaiian Pale Ale, brewed with pineapple juice at La Mexicana on Yonge. Tomorrow I plan to eat a Hrvati burg to support Toronto’s $5 Burger Week (Ontario beef, smoked mozza and caramelized onions on a Croatian steamed bun). It’s good to have goals. Even Burgers-To-Eat goals.

4. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Whether we are reading about or watching the intricacies, demise or foibles of other lives, it helps frame our own world in a gentle, fluid way. The trailer for this Judi Dench and Bill Nighy flick sucked me in months ago. Like the media approach of Never Let Me Go and Limitless promised, such movies are the scaffolding of coffee shop and bar stool conversations. Not total blockbusters, maybe, but, they force-feed troubled thinking and lend to mind-wandering through internal emotional forests days after. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a genuine and amusing look at an eclectic group of souls struggling to embrace their autumn years in India. The maelstrom of thoughts hummed louder than the handfuls of buttered popcorn being ingested as I watched it.  Could we? Would we? India, no. Never say never, but, no, never. But, where would we want to spend our golden years? I love how movies generate thoughts and engage constant plotting of our own life’s script.

5. Not climbing Everest. I’ve read several disturbing accounts of Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine’s death this week. I think many Twitter followers were appalled to learn via rabid feeds from recent climbers like Sandra Leduc (@sandraclimbing) of the number of dead bodies dotting the path to the summit, transforming the peak into a surreal high altitude morgue. Of the 3,000 climbers who have attempted to conquer the mammoth, over 200 have died. Due to the tangible danger and expense of removing the bodies, many remain exactly where they have last fallen. When I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air a dozen years ago, I found great inspiration in the bull-headed determination and unstoppable emotional force of those who needed to climb the mountain. But, I also found peace in knowing that I wasn’t hard-wired for that experience. I could live very happily without that pull and overwhelming need to summit.

6. Emily Haines! I know I’m late to catch on to her after her storied history with Broken Social Scene and Metric, but, after watching Daydream Nation, I found myself listening harder to the soundtrack strains than the actors dialogue. Does anyone remember Aussie folkies Frente? Their cover of Bizarre Love Triangle? Labor of Love? Very vocally reminiscent.  Another Australian darling is also on my  LOVE-wanna-hear-more radar: Trysette. When I was in Entebbe, Uganda, I drank many bottles of red wine with Trysette’s sister Merryde at the Gately Inn. Silky Fingers is often on repeat at my place, much to the chagrin of my upstairs tenant (payback for her Yo Yo Ma and sugar pop music interference).

7. Petting some dogs along my way. I met and had a heavy pet with “Pearl” yesterday. She lives just around the corner and is the most adorable (x 1,000) beagle, ever. Petting random dogs is just all around good.

See? It’s everywhere. The world’s simplest scavenger hunt, really. From banana bread beer to wagging dogs.

Inspiration and gratitude–where are you finding yours today?

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Flicks and Muzak, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cheese Whiz Waffles and Panty Rippers

Reina's hangover helpers --Cheese Whiz and ham waffles

Our sense of smell is a remarkable gateway to our past. There are scents that transport us to a time and place with the inertia of memory on auto-pilot. Zest soap: my great-grandmother’s bathroom. Tiny Tom donuts: the CNE fairgrounds, Labour Day weekend. Gasoline on a still and frozen winter morning: snowmobiling with my grandfather. Alone, they are generic smells, but they take us to individual and treasured parts of our being. I could type out a list of words and I bet five bucks you have a story or person attached to it. Pot roast. Drakkar Noir. Those grade school purple-inked ditto machines that we all got high on before a pop quiz. Wet dog. Sulphur. Mothballs. Root cellars. Lilacs. Tequila. Espresso. See?

When I leave Body Blitz at day’s end, I distinctly smell like spa. If I’ve been to Jimmy’s coffee shop on my break, then I smell like a hybrid: Americano meets spa. Both accessible and instant escapes. Mid- January, a sexy Italian fusion joint opened beside our spa. As I exit the spa’s back door now, I am spirited away by the best smell I know. Fire. The kitchen’s Tuscan wood fire grill cuts out the King West neighbourhood I stand in and throws me headlong into Africa. I’m taken to the Tuesday night markets in Entebbe where vendors beg for your business, motorbike taxis insist on their services, skeletal dogs pick at open garbage heaps and wood smoke clouds the air.

Coconut snapper at Iris Sunnyside, Hopkins Village

The smell of fire takes me a lot of places around the world, and as I walk towards home, away from Gusto and their Tuscan grill, I find myself back in Belize.

Lonely Planet had warned that Belizean food wasn’t remarkable enough to rave about, but not terrible enough to complain about. Arriving with few expectations we readied ourselves for a solid three week feed of starchy rice and beans, wimpy chicken and dismissable warm beer. Kim and I quickly found ourselves with not enough hours to eat all that we wanted.

Mayhem and marvel at Wish Willy's

Caye Caulker, a car-less island 45 minutes from Belize City, was the most satisfying eating safari I’ve been on. Mobile vendors presented a carousel of inviting snacks in the form of warm, spice-hopped corn and chicken tamiltos. We bought jugs of just-blended melon, mango, orange and banana juices (to help balance the local paint-thinner vodka). A sinewy boy sold us iPhone-sized squares of his mother’s prized coconut fudge at the Split for less than a dollar. We had thick and dense banana bread and impromptu pillowy brownies at Wish Willy’s. We didn’t order the brownies, it was merely part of the Wish Willy experience that night. Maurice, a giant chef with a giant personality,  made his way to each table, regardless of whether customers had been served or were midway through dinner, to offer them a generous wedge of his signature brownies, straight from the pan they were just baked in.

By far, our experience at Wish Willy’s was the most comical. We could tell by the number of Belikin beer bottles on each table that “rush” or “fast” was not on the menu (and adherent to the Belizean motto of “Go Slow”). In fact, there was no set menu. A few entrees scratched out on a blackboard offered suggestions, but nothing that was advertised was available. I asked for conch skewers and was served spicy shrimp. Kim requested the curried pork but was convinced to try the snapper. Maurice later insisted she had chops because he ran out of snapper, but a beer later he asked Kim how the snapper was.

Step aside Colonel Sanders

Syd’s Fried Chicken took my Top Swoon Meal award. For $4.50 US we had a chicken leg and breast that was the equivalent of a wayward Thanksgiving turkey. A small army of vocal cats joined us in the garden area for dinner, expressing their mutual love of Syd’s chicken. It was like a Belizean take on Shake n’ Bake served with enough rice to throw at three weddings. With a petting zoo underfoot.

Reina’s Bakery was a carb-load sanctuary after a night of rum-heavy panty-rippers at the Thirsty Lizard. For $2.50US we had Bon Appetit magazine-perfect waffles with ham and (say it isn’t so!) Cheese Whiz. Kim was reduced to moaning over that brunch (mostly due to the Cheese Whiz and ham fusion, somewhat due to the panty-rippers). The syrup was dark and heavy and the punchy coffee helped realign our rum-logged heads.

Sometimes Things to Eat For Less Than a Dollar proved to be not-so-great gastro-intestinal ideas in Belize. This was discovered after buying grapefruit juice (to finish off the rocket fuel One Barrel rum we’d been nursing) and tablate from a singing Rastafarian on the bus. He hopped on as we idled at the Dangriga station with a cookie tray and a song and sold us a coaster-sized tablate for 50 cents. It was definitely a member of the fudge family, heavy on the sugar, butter and coconut frontier. Probably made with a little E.coli in less than sanitary kitchen conditions. But, c’mon, for 50 cents? It became our version of a cheap and instant cleanse when paired with the river juice probably made with ditch water.

The buses in Belize offered a convenient assortment of local ‘fast-food’ options. Vendors randomly jumped on the buses at unmarked stops along the Hummingbird Highway to hawk massive cinnamon buns, hot tamales and durosa. The durosa was another under-a-buck option that was questionable. Wrapped in a corn husk it was enticingly described as shredded plantain in a sweet coconut milk-tamale stuffing. It was more like wet barf in a corn husk. Kim wouldn’t let me finish it.

Belizean Seaweed Shake--they promise to "Bring out the man in you"

Better finds were the Irish Moss seaweed shakes at The Shak in Placencia (also available pre-made at convenience stores in plastic bottles). The shakes had an egg nog consistency and a subtle-not-sickly sweet custard taste with a good hit of nutmeg. The peanut shake was too much like Kraft peanut butter blended with table cream. Whipped a little thicker, it could have been served on a bed of noodles with cilantro as a Thai dish, not as a sweltering afternoon thirst-quencher.

Cheap eats were easily found near the beach in Caulker, allowing us to ditch our Pee-wee Herman one-speed bikes in the sand and kick off our flip flops while our order made its way to the grill. Budget Man and Fran’s pumped out hefty coconut curries and slaw (Budget Man by day, Fran by night) that were full of heat and authentic Belizean kick. Fran’s communal picnic table was never empty. Her blackboard seafood specials varied and when she sold-out, she went home.

In Hopkins Village we made dusty and dark treks to  IRIS Sunnyside cafe for golden coconut-crusted grouper and collards. (Since our return home I’ve given the coconut-crust treatment to shrimp and chicken). We subjected ourselves to the wind-whipped patio of The Barracuda Bar and Grill at Beaches & Dreams Resort (warm and boozed by the 2 for 1 sunset drinks) where we had blackened Cajun barracuda bites that we still rave about. Alaskan expats and chefs Tony and Angela Marsico also impress with killer flatbread pizzas, high octane cocktails and spoiled resort views.

Bravoo Over Proof -- bottled headache!

And the ceviche! Electric lime and generous amounts of conch and shrimp…we had it everyday.  I couldn’t get enough of the soursop juice, Marie Sharp’s grapefruit hot sauce, The Shak’s banana pancakes, mango-coconut shakes and salty plantain chips. Kate’s Bakery baseball-sized pumpkin muffins in Hopkins set the bar too high for anything I might find in Toronto. And the street hotdogs in Placencia with embarassing amounts of mayo, chopped onion and jalapenos? The jerk snapper and Dog House coconut water and rum sundowners? Unmatched.

Yeah, big sigh.

Best pit stop on the Hummingbird Highway

I drift back to Placencia and our most expensive beers of the trip ($15US) which we downed sitting all fancy and rich-like at Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn. On the flip side, I smile bigger at a flashback of our last Belikin beers which we had in plastic cups with (more!) of the infamous Belize steamie dogs at Jet’s Bar in the Belize City airport (on AOL’s Top 10 Airport Bars in the World list). I think of the charming simplicity of Mrs. Bertha’s tamale stand. The mmmm-inducing lobster and baked breadfruit at Rose’s in Caulker. The greasy and dangerously good fry-jacks (deep-fried dough) in Cahal Pech, immersed in a cacophony of tropical bird sound.

All this because I smelled a fire.

We can travel to places so easily. The best part is we can bring them back with us too.

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Doughnuts Gone Wild

Oh the saccharine days of youth, when “calories” were absent from our vocabulary and comprehension. Doughnuts tasted better then as they were acceptable at any time of day, and didn’t necessitate a higher intensity workout or instill guilt. They were a breakfast menu item before an early morning soccer game and certainly passable as a hors d’oeuvre before Sunday pot roast. One could live on Timbits alone when pulling an all-nighter.

Despite all the adverts for acai this and that, Zumba, bootcamps, Shape-Up shoes (and flip flops!), Weight Watchers loaves of bread, yoga-everything and acknowledgement that doughnuts are mere lard and icing—the dangerous doughnut is making a comeback. It’s the year of the Dragon AND the doughnut. Cupcakes and their red velvet loveliness have been pushed to the curb by the nostalgic resurgence of a childhood classic.

In Toronto, gourmet hot dogs and artisan grilled cheese sandwiches are also hogging the press. Duck and pulled pork poutine reviews are clogging blogs. Bannock on Queen is merging all the fatty trends with a duck poutine pizza. The Thompson Hotel Diner is plating “grilled cheese burgers”—a beef patty juxtaposed between two grilled cheese sandwiches. Joining the heavyweight ring is “The Butter Burger” at The Stockyards Smokehouse & Larder. It shares a griddle with red wine butter, bone marrow and blue cheese.

And this brings me to bacon. It’s weaseled its way into every food group: PC Black Label bacon marmalade, bacon & cheddar popcorn, bacon ice cream, maple bacon donuts and even bacon-washed whiskey. TOCA at the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, took bar snacks to the glass ceiling by offering maple syrup-infused bacon strips with hoity cocktails.

It’s no surprise that doughnuts have pushed their way back into the spotlight too. In comparison to the goliath burgers and poutine pile of curds and WEIGH, Tim Horton’s doughnuts score a more impressive nutritional mark. The Tim’s caramel apple fritter is only 310 calories, 0g cholesterol, 10g total fat, 5g saturated, .1 trans fat, 51g carbs, 17g sugar, 4g protein, 2% fibre and 15% of your daily iron intake.

I can’t even recall the last time I had a real-live-doughnut. In 2008? Uganda, I think. However, I’m a sucker for fusion, upscaled nostalgia and bacon-anything.

When I was 20, I remember pacing in the congested office space at Youth Challenge International, just hours before our group was to fly to Costa Rica. Phil, a team leader with swagger and developing country prowess, divided the room when he entered with dozens of Tim’s doughnuts. They were pillaged by most, but I shied away (because calories had entered my vocab and comprehension). Phil insisted. I resisted. “Trust me. A few days in the jungle and all you’re going to think about is doughnuts.”

My god, he was right. I thought about stupid doughnuts for three months straight. After a steady fill of lacklustre porridge, beans, rice and bananas, I’m surprised I didn’t build a raft and then a plane to get myself out of that very jungle and to the closest doughnut shop.

Even Africans are gaga for doughnuts! My craving-ravaged jungle term served as a quick reminder that passing up on a mandazi might also be something that I would regret. Deep-fried in cooking oil, sometimes dusted in sugar, they became an inevitable weakness. Wrapped in newspaper for less than a quarter, they paired well with the local Ugandan beer Bell, hot and milky ginger tea, Tangawizi ginger beer and lemon Krest soda pop. They paired well with everything and stirred up weepy memories of home. Despite the Ugandan sun saturating my t-shirt and cargos with sweat and the vervet monkeys chittering in the trees, I thought of Canada and doughnuts. I’d trail off on a memory of my dad taking us to Tim’s for the liquid invert sugar rush of hot chocolate after skating at the rink. There would be coveted Boston Creams, strawberry-filled powdered sugar bombs and any of those kid faves groaning with artificially-coloured and flavoured sprinkles and dots. In my data bank, skating equated doughnuts, as did badminton tournaments and any trip into town with my dad where he made us wait in the stifling Oldsmobile while he did banking or got a haircut from Caesar.

Tim Horton’s has always provided a reliably warm glow to any Canadian’s heart. The sappy Christmas commercials and stronghold in our childhood has created a familiar place where a coffee can still be a coffee (but you can get the fancified kind if need be, but you shouldn’t there). Despite their baked good expansion, Tim’s still churns out maple dips, old fashioned glazed, walnut crunch, Dutchies and honey crullers with the same guaranteed taste as anything mom bakes. A 1982 chocolate dip couldn’t be differentiated from a 2012 dip.

But, this is the age of Top Chef, Iron Chef, Cake Boss and the Next Great Baker. The doughnut as we know it needed a makeover. As Melissa Etheridge said, “the only thing that stays the same is change.” And along came pastry chef Ashley Jacot De Boinod and her lard wonderland, Glory Hole Doughnuts, to change our baked good frontier.

On January 14th, The Grid exposed Glory Hole to the hungry masses and, gasp, introduced us to De Boinod’s chicken and waffle doughnut. Chicken and waffle and maple. How fantastic is that? Imagine (with slack jaw): vanilla cookie waffles, buttermilk-battered popcorn chicken and a thick maple glaze on a pillow of a doughnut. And it gets better. She also makes peanut butter and grape jelly (swoon), apple pie, lemon meringue, maple bacon, dulce de leche and coconut cream doughnuts.

Available only at Thor Espresso Bar (35 Bathurst St.) and Burger Bar (319 Augusta) or by direct order, they are impossible to get your greedy hands on. I’m at my fifth failed attempt (at both locations) and have gone to such dire lengths as to follow Thor on Twitter (@thorespressobar) to get a by-the-minute doughnut cargo report. They are usually gone by the time I wake up.

In the interim? If you fancy yourself a fix, and are disappointed by a sell-out, Little Nicky’s (at Queen & Peter) cranks out hot, bite-sized CNE/Tiny Tom-esque doughnuts for cheap (6 for $2.75, dozen for $4). Caplanksy’s food truck, if you catch sight of it, serves up maple and beef-bacon doughnut holes. The Hoof Cafe has gained notoriety for its bone marrow donuts. At the 2011 CNE, Epic Burgers and Waffles scared crowds with the debut of its “doughnut cheeseburger.”

And here’s even more lard hotspots: a precious list of the best donuts in Toronto.

What doughnut do you pledge allegiance to? Have you been lucky enough to nab a Glory Hole? Does the mention of Tiny Tom’s make your heart race a little? C’mon you’re in good company. Dish! What’s your guilty pleasure?

The chicken & waffle in all its lardy glory

Glory Hole Doughnuts

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Digesting Last Year

Tonight, my intention was to move all my Word documents and photo gallery on to a memory stick, directly due to the haunting memories of the Great Laptop Crash of 2011. The serious focus of my work dwindled quickly with wine and the warmth of the fire. I found praline almonds to snack on and began to revisit 2011 in pictures instead.

During an intermission (wine glass refill) I suddenly decided to be proactive and do my 2011 taxes. Buried in my receipts I unfolded a ripped-out section of The Toronto Star. It was a feature by food critic Amy Pataki, on her perfect week of eating. She documented seven days of breakfast, lunch and dinners, culling various outposts in Toronto. As I tabulated my restaurant and booze bills I started thinking of chicken and waffles, gourmet hot dogs, chocolate chip and blue cheese cookies and the like.

Taxes accomplished (and post-effects of my indulgent late afternoon massage at the spa long vanished), I felt guilt-free to return to the recreational creeping of pictures to piece together my perfect week of eating. It would go something like this (in no particular order, but consisting of all of the below and a daily 5km run included):

It was a shook-up snowglobe kind of day in Quebec City. Pink-cheeked skaters spun tight circles around the Place D’Youville outdoor rink. Here, en route to find elk and wild boar burgers at Chez Victor, we stopped for the sugar rush of childhood cocaine: maple butter and maple syrup filled cones. Probably the same nutritional value as a morning glory muffin.

I love this trend of childhood staples getting a gourmand slap of the spatula. Fusia Dog on Duncan Street has done just this. A Rowe Farms kosher weenie gets a substantial upgrade: paratha bread, kimchi, daikon slaw, coriander and a one-two punch of wasabi mayo.

50-50 fries at the Burger Bar on Augusta (Kensington Market). They are hit with a few shakes of salt and masala, and the marriage of white and sweet potato is a force to be reckoned with. Serve with July sun, pint of Augusta Ale, someone you love and a brunch burger: 6 oz. beef burg, with a fried egg, bacon and dollop of maple syrup on top. Reasonable fascimile: lamb and kimchi burger with gorgonzola & King pilsner.

A girl cannot live on hotdogs, burgers and fries and maple syrup-filled cones alone, but, my god, that would be a great existence. I am a salad specialist, mixing sweet and savoury at all costs. I think I put more fruit in salads than vegetables, and this one featured mango, raspberries, cuke and sugar peas. The dressing was a Mother Hubbard concoction of plain yogurt, honey, grainy dijon and orange juice. Never recreated the same way.

This was actually my girlfriend’s order, but, we intermingled our pastas. The Drake Hotel gets much praise for its classic mac & cheese, but Kim’s pumpkin-stuffed ravioli in browned butter sauce with smashed hazelnuts and basil was divine. One must order the splashy $12 Drake mojito too–rum, mint, fresh lime + sugar and soda. Add a night at either the Drake or The Gladstone to round out the night of romance.

When in Rome, or Egypt, one must do what the Romans/Egyptians do. So, we ate camel. It was the most sensational dish we had in all of Egypt. After being buried in sand as part of a therapeutic “sand sauna,” we plunged into a nearby cold spring and recovered with rosehip tea and hookah pipe. As night fell, Ali Baba, our dear donkey, carted us back  to the Al-Babenshal hotel. We sat on the rooftop of the 13th century fortress and felt like royalty. In fact, royalty was dining beside us–the King of Siwa Oasis was 20 paces from us.  The camel stew with pita bread and spicy plum tomatoes and roasted potato was a 2011 stand-out.

In 2010 I was all over the Le Gourmand chocolate chip-walnut cookies for good reason. They are soft  as clouds and the chips are a still in a melty, seductive state. But…move over Le Gourmand. About Cheese (483 Church street, Toronto) was hawking chocolate chip and blue cheese cookies until the baker of these tastebud magnets selfishly went on maternity leave.

Burgers with bacon & eggs. I sense a theme and wild animal attraction. This one was from the Gourmet Burger Co. on Parliament. I have since moved to the Annex and miss my burger go-to joint.

Yes, pink grapefruit, kiwis, dried cranberries and Wensleydale cheese (which is about $10 for a wedge that wouldn’t even prop open a door). It’s the yin meal to my yang meals of burgers.

Once upon a time I loved sushi, especially wild salmon rolls. Until I thought I was going to die from sushi poisoning and had 5 years of dry heaves whenever I saw sticky rice or soya sauce. I’m on my third attempt on re-entry. This art piece was from Omi Sushi on Carlton. I want to love it, I really do.

Kim’s birthday breakfast request: a fried bologna & Velveeta sandwich. Now, this puts a traditional grilled cheese to shame. I had never seen the likes of Velveeta before. It’s an actual cheese “loaf.” Paired with ketchup and a mimosa, let’s just say it was a happy birthday afterall.

But that was last year. Upcoming? I’ve already started a Belize Must Eat/Drink list for February. Armadillo, “Panty-rippers,” raisin fudge, gibnuts (something similar to a guniea pig I think), coconut tarts, cashew nut wine, plastic pudding, tamiltos, cowfoot soup and Syd’s fried chicken on Caye Caulker.

But before then, tell me. What’s the best thing you ate last year? And what’s on your list this year?

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Dog Walking: Toronto’s Fusia Dog is the Hottest Hot Dog Around

If you are of Canadian stock (maybe even American), and of the 70s-80s wonder years, you probably have a soft spot for the highly anticipated “Hot Dog Days” of yore. It was the brightest highlight of my elementary school years next to Blue Baby séances held in the dark of the change room after phys-ed.

This I remember as clear as my grade three complexion: pillowy steamed buns (sometimes overly steamed), boiled wieners that hung out the bun ends, and the staple condiments that invariably ended up on 20 out of 30 t-shirts and laps– mustard as bright as the sun, generic ketchup and green relish (which received the same sneer as caviar, Dijon or Brussel sprouts might from those under 10).

I also recall the awe and envy as teachers called out the confirmation numbers of how many hot dogs we would like to order (what were they? Twenty-five cents? ). Jeff Kellam and Corey Roberts always ordered three. Three hotdogs! Imagine! They were no epicurean delight, but there was an unmatchable thrill found in the anticipation for Hot Dog Day. It was an event!

I recently read Jann Arden’s memoir Falling Backwards and was nearly falling backwards out of my club chair as I read about her hot dog episode in grade school.

“I unscrewed the top of my Thermos and couldn’t figure out what I was looking at. I could see a beige bubble looking out at me. I poked at it with my finger and it hardly moved. What was it? I got out my pencil and stabbed at the thing, still not knowing what to make of what was in there. It turned out the wiener had absorbed all the water and had expanded into every possible bit of space in the Thermos. I had to pull out the wiener piece by piece with my pencil and put the pieces into my bun. My mom swears to this day she never put a wiener into my Thermos.”

 My mother tried to recreate the same Hot Dog Day experience by sending us to school with surprise hot dogs packed in Thermoses. Once.  Although, unlike Jann’s mom who wrapped the bun separately, my mom put the whole enchilada (errr, the whole hot dog, although I’m sure the same result would have happened with an enchilada) into the Thermos. The bun was like wet oatmeal, falling off the bloated wiener in big damp dough clumps with every bite.

Until now, it seems as though hot dogs were banished to those nostalgic grade school days where the entire school smelled like a woodsy armpit for three days after boiling 500 wieners. A lot of childhood birthday parties showcased hot dogs (and even worse, money cakes, but that’s another story), and were the backyard barbeque option for kids who couldn’t possibly eat an entire grown-up friendly burger.

In the Annex, there are always three or four whippet-thin students queued up for dogs and split sausages, regardless of the hour. For the rest of us non-students, “street meat” seems to be reserved for anytime after 2 am when a veggie dog or Bratwurst acts as the Hangover Helper sponge for the student-style drinking that took place earlier in the night.

And now? Hot dogs are the new black. They have pushed out all those annoying “deconstructed” things, the downtown burrito war, pulled pork poutine and cutesy Angus beef sliders with three pretentious condiment treatments.

The Grid’s Food Spy just dished it today in “Who let the dogs out?” Ironically, pre-Grid pick-up, I stopped for a Fusia Dog (65 Duncan Street) on my way home. It’s been on my must-have list for a good two months, when I first heard that Dinah Koo was opening up her wiener wonderland on Duncan, just south of Queen in the Crumbs column of The Grid.

Karon Liu (Food Spy) gave a 5 Wiener Dog rating to Fusia. This is serious! Other contenders were Umi Sushi Express who “pimp their franks with teriyaki sauce, sautéed onions and bonito flakes”—dried, fermented skipjack tuna flakes–mmmmm).  Little Dog’s Montreal  steamies on College were sent to the dog house with the hot dog stands. The Stockyards (699 St.Clair Ave) gained momentum with pork crackling and pimento cheese “accessories.” And, the Real Sports Bar earned 4 Wiener Dogs for Brian Burke’s (Leafs GM) $13 heart-defibrillating poutine-sunk franks.

Fusia Dog is the latest light bulb of Dinah Koo (of Dinah’s Cupboard fame in Yorkville).  Her knives have been thrown in many directions—as manager of Ace Bakery and a duet with Pie Pastry Princess Wanda Beaver at Wanda’s In the Kitchen. There was also her Tiger Lily Noodle House/Cafe venture on Queen West (a successful 10 year notch) and her springboard: catering to the swishy set in Rosedale in Forest Hill.

When I visited Fusia Dog today, both smiley staff insisted that because it was my first time, I should order the standard “Fusia Dog.” Topped with carrot daikon slaw, cilantro, sinus-searing wasabi mayo and kimchi, the beef (or chicken) wiener found its best marriage in the Indian paratha flatbread it was wrapped in. For $6.95 it has a sneaky spicy kapow and the flatbread doesn’t hog the flavour. It makes me want to have Hot Dog Day every week.

The Crisp Creamy dog will be my next visit pick. With dill pickles, cream cheese, scallions and fried pork belly, it’s already a shoo-in for me.  Third visit? The Boston with baked beans, crispy bacon, fried onions and cheddar. Note to self: add extra kilometre to daily run.

Japadog in Vancouver, BC is credited with kicking off the upscale hot dog race years ago. Their motto? “Making the world happy and alive through hotdogs.” Mustard and ketchup were kicked to the Burrard street curb in favour of wasabi, edamame, kimchi, miso and radish. The website menu descriptions offer a small roar:

“The Love Meat”

Luxurious melted cheese dish of meat sauce over crowded in a long time. This menu and grow rich taste of cheese is a popular source ranging from an adult child.

“Tonkatsu”

The signature dish fried pork exciting taste wrapped in a carefully selected clothing. Involving a popular hot dog sauce cabbage and cut thin.

“Gokudare”

Generously with sauce ultra-deep, and flavorful dish. Acidity of the sour flavor of Kraft and fried green laver, to further deepen the depth of flavor.

Japadog has also created a hot dog inspired desert called “Age Ice” (lost in translation I presume, with the cheese that appears to be sourced from an adult child). It consists of fried bread with melted ice cream (vanilla, black sesame, mango or strawberry). Does it get any better?

Where are we heading next? If we can buy cake on a lollipop stick (Starbucks wedding cake pops), macaroni and cheese sushi (“mock-i roll sushi”), duck poutine pizza, bacon marmalade and cornmeal muffins with entire hard-boiled eggs inside them—what next?

Better go for a dog walk today before hot dogs lose their Toronto de rigeur.

 

Japadog Vancouver (and now NY!): http://www.japadog.com/menu.html

Fusia Dog: http://fusiadog.com/

Make your own mock-i rolls: http://www.thefoodinmybeard.com/2009/04/macaroni-and-cheese-mock-i-rolls.html

Categories: Eat This, Sip That | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Waffles and Waffling

I’m not that mysterious. There are constants in my life that serve as a cement foundation to my predictable Sturm und Drang (a fancy German term for “storm and stress” that I love and lifted from writer Keph Senett as she also contemplated her annual autumn Sturm).

This afternoon I sat at the The Starving Artist on Landsdowne Sturm und Dranging with a Labatt 50, because, sometimes, a Labatt 50 is the perfect balm for such epic thinking. And, it seemed to pair nicely with my bacon, chive and cheddar studded waffles.  I was reading the latest Zoomer magazine, which, yes, has a masthead that indicates “For 40s 50s 60s 70s 80s PLUS.” My mom usually gives me the back issues and I am totally absorbed in the pages (like a tween with the Twilight series) and gladly trade her for my Toronto Life mags. (Disclaimer: I actually stole this copy from Jimmy’s Coffee, but surely a hundred drip coffees qualifies this steal?)

As I read about Jeff Bridges and his second career as a musician, and a west coast 60-something couple that picked up and moved to Cairo, I realized the appeal in Zoomer. The articles are entirely about pursuing arrested passions. The sun-soaked ads for turqouise beaches target the about-to-retire, Freedom 55-ers and  lucky snowbirds with perma-Bob Barker tans, 4pm happy hours and a schedule that accomodates reserved dreams. The focus is on transition and how everything familiar evolves and resolves. It’s comforting and hopeful. It’s 24-7 philanthropy. Chicken Soup for the Retired Soul.

I  dog-ear the spoils of the lavish Armani Hotel in Dubai where guests are appointed their very own “Lifestyle Manager” for the duration of their stay. I read about weekend jaunts to Vienna for the sole purpose of eating: Andalusian Jabugo ham, mustard-rubbed organic roast beef, veal scallops fried in bread crumbs and warm chocolate souffles.  There are endless pages devoted to career reinvention. I want to retire and reinvent! Retired people, Zoomers, do all the things I love most–they travel with itineraries that involve finding the best souffles and riojas. They fly for nearly a day to maybe spot the fabled Double-Watted Cassowary in Queensland, Australia. They move to Cairo and establish shelters for dying women and their soon-to-be orphaned children. But why not do this sooner?

My fulfillment doesn’t necessarily come from my paid work as a massage therapist, it sneaks in right here. It is deeply rooted in one of my constants, writing. And, so, tonite, after waffles and waffling, I enrolled in a writing course through a new media school for travellers called Matador U. Because, it’s not so much that I want to retire, it’s more that I don’t want to put my bleeding passions on hold much longer. I don’t want to wait another 20 years to do what makes me truly stretch my mind and soul.

I wasn’t actively looking for signs to take this course of action. In fact, I was mindlessly sweeping to Buffy Sainte Marie and paused in front of my bookshelf to see if I could get rid of a few titles to make room for my latest. I pulled out How To Live on Nothing, not because it was ready for the discard pile, but because it makes me smile. My mom gave it to me when I was 17 or so. When she thought for sure I was going to live on some commune, plant trees with eccentrics named Ladyslipper and Sparrow and make clothes out of feathers and shells. Really. I leaned the broom against the wall (this is why it takes me an hour to sweep 700-square feet) and randomly opened the book to “How to Vacation on Pennies.”

The Starving Artist Waffle Espresso Bar biz card

See? A sign. Although we spent a lot of pennies on three weeks rounding Egypt in September, I would do it all over again. But, not in Egypt (see previous post). The How To Live on Nothing author’s advice was more in the vein of, you can have an adventure in your own neighbourhood. You can discover pseudo vacation thrills a mere subway ride away. And this is true, which is why I went west of Bathurst (which, as everyone knows, always gives me a nosebleed. What? I can’t see the CN Tower. I’m still in Toronto?).

I made a field trip out of The Starving Artist just to try their much-raved about bacon dipped in waffle batter. Perfect time to have an epiphany.  Plus, cheaper than the trip to Vienna and that Andalusian Jabugo ham.

I know what I want but am really gifted in avoidance. Of course I want to write travel guides and be sent to Belize to interview a toucan expert on mating rituals.  I’d be equally happy to write about the banana chocolate chip muffins at Jimmy’s that are nearly Mom-like. I’d jump at the chance to document Peregrine falcons nesting in the “a” of a Wal-mart sign in Ancaster. I want to write more but I only seem to want to start things on Mondays and every Monday passes until it’s another year of Mondays missed. I blog and blab and blow my energies on attempted witty Facebook status updates, and when I don’t write at length, wow, I am disjointed and disenchanted in every way. Like I said, not very mysterious at all.

 I have kept an anonymous quote that was probably an epiphany on another sunnier day. Maybe I came up with it, I can’t remember. “Stop thinking about what you think you could do and start doing what you know you can do.” My brain server threatens to crash with all the electrical activity I generate when I think of the hope injected in this statement. I am overloaded with possibility and it makes me pant and pace and drink Malbec like I am already celebrating. I write entire books in my head while I massage and run.

But then I re-read another quote I squirreled from somewhere and it sounds tres Oprah-ish. It may have originated from an inspirational poster in some dental office with a serene country landscape backdrop with horses and such–”Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” (Lau Tzu). So then, thanks to Tzu, I’m content and rejoicing. And still drinking Malbec. And celebrating how I am lacking nothing.

I am want for nothing. I say this all the time. Somehow I work more and make less every year, so this is a good thing. What I know for sure? I like vacation versus vocation. My work-life balance tips towards life, always.

Frito, world's cutest chihuahua at rest

A few nights ago Kim asked what I would do with $350,000. We were talking about housing prices and how $350,000 basically buys you a crackhouse without a roof or plumbing  in Etobicoke or a condo more suitable for a chihuahua than a human. I imediately thought of a share in a winery (Argentinian), owning a bookstore with an extreme  blood red espresso machine and a hunky guy named Joel (with an South African accent) doing the latte art, a trip to Bora Bora with very idle days just staring at the water and each other…and maybe a donkey sanctuary with room for retired llamas and Plymouth Rock Barred cockerals.

With Kim’s imaginary $350,000, she opted for a LandRover (so she could drop me off at the sanctuary) and would donate the rest to the vet bills of the donkey sanctuary.  This is why I love her so immensely.

But really? What are we all working for? What do you want? Why not do it now?

What do I want?

I often wait until decisions are made for me. But sometimes, as rare as the Double-wattled Cassowary, I jump-start my writing bones again. It is Monday. Or it was 42 minutes ago. It’s 12:42 and I’m 37 and not a Zoomer, but realizing in this very not-so-profound moment, that I want and need to write more. And when you say things out loud, they get bigger. Or, you say to yourself, “shit, I said that in a blog, now I better put out.”

The rest will follow.

It always has.

***

Check out the writing wizardry KAPOW! of Keph Senett: http://www.abuscalledforward.com/

Check out  The Starving Artist Waffle Espresso Bar: http://www.starvingartistbar.com/SA_SITE/Welcome.html

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Passport Please, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

Blaming Sardine Sandwiches & Summer

“They” say it takes six weeks to break a bad habit. I say it takes only six days to break a good one. My last post was written days after the seductive fog of  a week in Roatan, Honduras. Immediately after that I slipped into an unannounced blog sabbatical. I could lie and say I was diligently funneling my effort into a new venture or some ambitious writing project, but, nope. Meanwhile, Jann Arden has written a book, is in the studio recording a new album, finished filming a television series with Vanilla Ice and is gathering material for her radio show. Now I feel like a slouch. Can I not commit to a weekly blog post?

It all started when I walked down to the Bellevue Diner in mid April with a bold mission and the swinging arms to match. I was listening to Elliot Brood (rather loudly) and only slowing to take in signs that we had survived winter. Robins hopscotching across snow-bit lawns. Maples squeezing out leaves as fast as tulips popping out bold heads of butter yellow and blood red. Waterfalls of wisteria.

I had read rave reviews about the “Squirrel Sandwich” and by god, on that April day, I was finally going to eat one. Even if I threw it up soon after on some dainty lawn dotted with carefully orchestrated flowerbeds on the way back. The Squirrel had been on my list of peculiar things to eat (in the company of tongue on brioche with bone marrow and jam donuts to finish at The Black Hoof). The Squirrel, losing  a few adventure points after mentioning tongue and marrow donuts I’m sure, is still a gross mash-up: peanut butter, cucumber, hot sauce, cheese and–wait for it—canned sardines. On rye. For $10 it would be a cheap throw-up. It was reminiscent of something I would force upon my poor, unsuspecting kid sister with a sinister grin.

Kensington Market was its usual gong show of commotion: catwalk fashion, longboards scraping curbs, eco-gladiators in vegan shoes and bike bandits popping wheelies. I walked into the Bellevue much like that Joni Mitchell song, like I “was walking onto a yacht.” I eyed Guinness on the taps and asked for a pint and the famed Squirrel sandwich. I boasted that I had come all the way from the Annex for this very moment.

“We don’t make that sandwich anymore.”

The wind was sucked out of my sails. The lumberjack plaid-shirted server shoved a menu towards me and suggested the trout, it was really good. Trout? I wanted the inappropriate marriage of sardines and peanut butter and a Guinness to choke the quagmire down with. The  menu fell flat without the Squirrel option (but it is indeed worthy, I’ve eaten there before and swooned). I didn’t even want the Guinness anymore.

“Don’t you have the ingredients? Can’t you just make it, even though it’s not on the menu anymore? It’s still listed on the menu outside the door, you know.”

There was a quick conference and raised eyebrows with the matchingly plaid-shirted chef who marched out to see above mentioned menu for himself. Nope. Even though.

I left (politely, no slammed doors or dramatic Paris Hilton-esque rage scenes) and made my way back up to Bloor. I paused at Caplansky’s on College and contemplated a smoked meat sandwich piled so high I’d have guaranteed lockjaw. Then my hungry thoughts drifted to Chippy’s and their Guinness battered haddock as big as a cricket bat. The kind of fish n’ chip feed that makes you moan midway and long for a supine position. Nah.

I felt like nothing but that stupid Squirrel sandwich, which I could have very easily made at home. Instead I made my way back to the Annex, very glum, and popped open a Niagara blonde beer and stabbed at the last of my girlfriend’s mother’s sugary pickled beets. I was going to write a blog about the Squirrel sandwich and felt the material was snatched away from me faster than the paperback my grade 6 BFF Tyra and I were reading at recess that mentioned sodomy. Asking our teacher directly what “sodomy” meant was obviously pre-Google days. And not a good idea.

And then summer inched into my life and I gave way to a new routine that forgot about blogging. Yes, I’ll blame my hiatus on not having that sardine sandwich and summer. The soupy days when clothes transform into Saran Wrap on sweat-slick skin. When thunderstorms are so violent they rattle your bone marrow. Even the bone marrow in your donuts. When appetites give way to the flesh of robust fruit and the primal satisfaction found in grilled meat. The tart kiss of lime in mojitos. Sangria-soaked Sunday mornings. The distinct pleasure in gossipy nights on packed patios with beers sweating as much as those swallowing them.

The smell of hot heat, mown grass, gasoline. The day’s sun radiates up from the sidewalks pockmarked with flattened bubblegum. Dogs hang their tongues lower than the breasts of women who have decided they are already too hot to wear bras, or anything mimicking support. There is a thwack of flip flops on bare feet, fish belly white skin and skin pink and angry from the humidity.

Soon kids will be screeching like little dolphins at the public pools–the whites of their eyes the colour of cotton candy. Their mouths stained orange and purple from sucking on the lifeblood only a freezie provides. There will be tears over upside-down ice cream cones and skinned knees from poor finger and toe holds on beckoning hard-barked trees.

I’ve already been to the island and embraced the coconut-oil infused breathing space of the beach. Shoved a bathtub warm beer can deep into the sand. This is my quintissential summer moment. Drowsy with an open book, a brothy lake wind whipping at my face and tangled hair. Cocky seagulls questioning personal space. Awkward frisbee throwers causing concern. Salty chips in a ziplock. A sandwich with inevitable sand actually in it. And a unity.

It’s a truly Canadian moment when we tell our parkas and toques to F-off for a few months so we can scorch our skin and coagulate our blood and drink things with umbrellas and limes and do unpredictable things at drive-in theatres, despite not being teenagers anymore. We join an unspoken army that approves of burgers five nights out of seven, of grass-stained short bottoms, of putting off career ambitions and landmark decisions until September. And of thick milkshakes winning out over those protein shakes that taste like vanilla chalk and chocolate cement.

But, despite this carefree grace period, I will try to maintain my blog relationship. And if I can’t blame a sardine sandwich and summer, I’m sure I’ll find something else just as worthy to point a finger at.

Categories: Eat This, Sip That | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Bon Appetit, a la Quebec

Yes, I was one of those kids in elementary school that you rolled your eyes at in annoyance. I boiled with excitement at the announcement of any type of project that required research.  I could already visualize myself with a tall glass of cherry Kool-aid with golf ball-sized ice cubes, flat on my belly in my grandmother’s library. She had every issue of National Geographic from (seemingly) 1908 to present day. There were 32 sets of encyclopedias, yellowed newspaper clippings, atlases bigger than the console TV and Sally. Sally was my grandparents’ Great Pyreneese who doubled as a very comfortable, but heavy-panting bean bag chair.

In our familial library, I researched the Galapagos Islands to the extent that I could probably still beat Charles Darwin in Jeopardy on that category. I spent countless prone hours making footnotes and line drawings of blue footed boobies, tortoises, frigate birds and the mighty albatross. I studied the aurora borealis, Orion, the Amazon, the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot with PhD concentration.

I am still a mad researcher, especially when planning a trip—whether it’s the province beside us, the Congo or Angel Falls, Venezuela.

Two weeks ago, Kim and I went to the Ice Hotel in Quebec, and added a few extra days to absorb the romance and charms of Quebec City. She had never been, and my memories were rooted in a grade 8 trip that involved a maple sugar shack, a creepy church that had crutches and canes nailed to its walls from those who had been cured of their ills, and a snore trip to the Plains of Abraham. 

As the date approached, I flipped through a Lonely Planet guide and made note of the Artillery Park that housed the army barracks and ammunition factory that operated until 1964. The Cathedral of Holy Trinity seemed to be worthy of a drop in, just to see the oak pews imported from the Windsor Castle’s Royal Forest by two Brit military officers.

I refreshed my Canadian history lessons that had expired long ago. As a bigger fan of geography and art class (well, every class over history), reading about the Citadel was largely brand new to me. I shared all my findings with Kim. La Citadelle, built by the British, had cannons pointing at the river and Quebec City itself. There was fear of an American invasion coupled with a revolt by the French.

I made point form notes on the Eglise Notre Dame Des Victories, built in 1688 (the oldest church in Canada and the US). A wooden ship hangs on the ceiling as a good luck charm to those making ocean crossings.

And that was enough of the history. Who was I kidding? I had to research where and what we were going to eat! I sat myself down with a glass of Malbec and pulled up Frommer’s on Google.  Moving on to more serious matters, I tapped in: “Best place for poutine.”

Then I was on a tangent.

The L’inox had a Viking cranberry beer made with barley, wheat, local honey and cranberries.  A friend of a friend on Facebook insisted on the L’inox hot dogs. Hot dogs? I do a hot dog maybe once a year at a staff barbeque, and even then it’s mostly an emergency situation– so I don’t tip over from half a dozen beers . However, we did as we were told, except I thought we were supposed to have the hot dog at L’oncle Antoine’s, which we did. It was as long as my forearm, served on a buttered bun that somehow tasted exactly like a pogo stick, without the deep fry treatment.  After braving sub zero temperatures and a bitchy wind from the east (might have been the west, it seemed like it was coming from all directions, really), that hot dog was the best thing I’d eaten in a month.

Each day I pulled out “The List,” folded neater than a map in one of my pockets (often lost in one of those many pockets). I had listings for brioche with caramelized pears, elk with sautéed apples and leeks, duckling in maple syrup, the best pheasant and buffalo casserole, caribou in blueberry wine sauce, where to get yard long beers and spaghetti bolognaise, hot fresh crepes that tasted like clouds and dreams, the local secret “Epicerie de la Rue Coillard,” where to get strawberry basil truffles and a place that was gaga over all things maple syrup (Le Petite Cabane a Sucre du Quebec).

Kim was my perfect food adventurer sidekick. Even when it was snowing and blowing of Arctic proportions, and we needed snowshoes to traverse the city sidewalks, she was at my side, willing to walk three miles for a wild boar burger. Because Chez Victor had the best ones. They were so good we could hardly speak after our epic walk and thaw. We drank pints of Boreale stout and Griffon Rousse, embracing the local beer-making community and swooned over our burgs. I had a Cerf (venison) burger with pears braised in red wine. Kim found love in the Le Sanglier (wild boar) burger with brandied Portobellos and rosemary-maple mayo. Our plates arrived heaving with at least a pound of fries each. Hot, oily, salty and so sublime when dunked in more of the rosemary-maple mayo that came in a side dish.

I think we were still half-starved from our dinner the day before at Le Dijon. Prior to our stay at the Ice Hotel we thought French Onion soup would be a wise and O Canada-esque choice. And it was. But, the salad we decided to split came in a shot glass with a blade of grass shooting out of the top of it. Kim and I split the grass evenly and the smoked trout and scallops that were given a beauty treatment on the menu were more suitable for a sandpiper versus humans.

I think I ate that entire pound of fries, save for three or four.

Pre-trip notions that we would eat poutine and croissants on a daily basis actually fell through because we ran out of days to eat. But we did have a high roller pit stop at the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac to take in two beers for $20. As a former Fairmont Royal York employee, it’s a bit of a pilgrimage for me. I feel obliged to visit any Fairmont in my radius and breathe in that old gentleman’s club feel of wood and polished brass.

We did attempt to see the Citadel, choosing a road that seemed to run parallel to it on the map. Indeed it did, but the map didn’t show the 50 foot cliff of Canadian Shield that split the road and the entrance. Again, it was Arctic conditions and we opted for the semi-roaring fire and warm hug of a pub called Le Pape Georges. The exposed stone walls and rustic feel transported us back to fur trader days when a day’s work required whiskey in the debrief.

A pint later, after a sunset ferry to Levi across the St. Lawrence and the bobbing ice floes, we found refuge at 1670, a swanky joint that prefers hushed voices and overly attentive staff ready to dab the corners of our mouths with napkins if need be. We found another fire to sit beside, this one a modern gas and ambient. We had been working on the caloric intake of our Pain Beni breakfast (located inside Auberge D’Armes, our fairy tale attic loft in the shadows of the Frontenac). Kim had an open-face Croque Monsieur with Bernaise sauce, as I embraced the pillowy French toast with strawberry preserves to be extra authentic while in Quebec City. It came with a side baton of bread pudding that tasted exactly like French toast, but without the mess of the syrup.

At 1670 we ordered half a carafe of a French white and the venison and rabbit stew. And I thanked Kim for not being a vegetarian. The stew was a perfect salve to a winter’s day in Quebec. Thick and sinfully rich, but unfortunately, doled out in prisoner rations. We went back to our hotel room and ate 600 pistachio nuts shortly after.

In our travels that day (a failed attempt to see the Church of Notre Dame), we re-routed in Place D’Youville and happened upon a lumberjack-shirted man who was all smiles and joie de vivre. And I now know why. He was serving up hundreds of miniature ice cream cones filled with maple butter and syrup. In heaven, this will be my breakfast food of choice. With bacon.

The cones swept me back to childhood days when we would buy less palatable versions for 25 cents. The maple syrup was usually a rock hard plug that made the cone disintegrate with a single bite. These? Perfectly executed.

We moved on to the Erico Choco Musee (chocolate museum, for those who are French as a forgotten high school language). Most of the tiny museum was in French (duh), but, the chocolate was in a universal language of decadent.  Kim had the Coccinelle with pacanes sautees au beurre dans un caramel a la fleur de sel. I praised my French teachers of yore, because I could translate that truffle! I opted for the Miquette with a puree de poires Bartlett et fromage de chevre (pear puree with goat cheese). We found another chocolate shop in a few hours and tried a lavender and Szechuan pepper dark chocolate. Which, as you might imagine, tasted like Nana’s bathwater with a hit of Vick’s Vapo Rub.

Of all our wanders, L’oncle Antoine’s was our favourite hideaway. The ambience was quintessential Quebec. A fire burning bright, story-telling stone walls and the world outside carrying on, but far from our thoughts. I had a Dieu au Ceil rye peppercorn beer that mimicked the sensation of swallowing tiny embers. Kim went for a blonde (beer), and we made quick work of that gourmet European hot dog.

I always believe that you should leave something to return to in a place. A reason to go back. And our reasons will be:

The Citadel (just because we should try again), the bison and duck burgers at Chez Victor, poutine at Chez Ashton and a flaky croissant, somewhere.

I’ll be sure to research that.

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Passport Please | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Octopus Stew on a February Night

At Christmas I received the annual “Dax Verbal Gift.” He always has something in mind, sometimes it has already been purchased, but more often than not, “it’s coming.” This time Kiley was in on the verbal gift that was loosely described as a tapas cooking class some Tuesday in February.

Well, the some Tuesday was this week, and the tapas were of the hot and spicy Latino family with Chef Carlos Fuenmayor. Last year (another verbal gift), Dax and I did a champagne tasting at the Summerhill LCBO (for out of province readers, it’s the Liquor Control Board of Ontario—and Summerhill is a colossal boozy amusement park for adults).

The classes at the Summerhill LCBO become even more fabulous when the LCBO product consultant steps in. Each of the dishes that are prepared are paired with an appropriate white, red or Brut and a Sommelier For Dummies introduction.

As Chef Carlos chopped at the speed of beating hummingbird wings, Ilario Gulli pointed out the abundance of orange creamsicle flavours in the Torrontes Alamos ($13.95). Did we find the nose pleasantly floral? Could we detect the orange blossom, jasmine and minerality? I tasted greenhouse and Grandma’s bath water with baby powder. Dax expressed his genuine love of the flowers with raised eyebrows.

The beauty of this class was that it was 100% watching and sampling, versus nervous slicing and dicing under the steely eye of a pacing, barking chef. Twenty of us sat semi-reclined, cross-legged, sipping our Torrontes, taking in the seductive smells of the kitchen as the chef softened onions and garlic in a pan. Cannellini beans, white wine and cumin mixed with the salty smack of steaming fresh clams.

We watched an octopus being plunged into boiling water three times, resting a minute between immersions. The banana peppers were chopped with Food Network finesse as we were wowed with pepper stats. Mexico alone has over 800 kinds of peppers. From the United States to South America? Over 3,000.

The chef surveyed the deer-in-headlights (read: starving) crowd.  Could we handle the heat of the Serrano pepper? We could. He promised us a quick sweet heat that would disappear. There’s nothing more disturbing than a heat that ignites your throat and stomach lining (as witnessed in a hot chilli chocolate bar from Quebec  that I dangerously bought Dax. I laughed while eating it and coughed flames for three minutes afterwards).

To start, we travelled vicariously to Brazil, where Pulpo Feijoada (octopus stew) is commonplace. The stew was thick like a bean cassoulet, jump-started with coriander, bay leaves, stewed tomatoes  and beefed up with chubby clams and octopus.

I picked a fat octopus bit out of the broth and admired the tentacles. The texture was similar to escargot and Portobello mushrooms, but, I likened it best to seafood-flavoured bubblegum. We decided the feijoada would make for substantial and comforting après-ski  or après-Amazon rainforest fare.

Between bites of warm baguette and a creamy chive dip, we listened to Ilario justify his pairing of Combe Aux Jacques Beauj-Vill ($15.95) with Chef’s Chicken Croquettes with Sweet Pepper Salsa. When I was in the Congo, croquettes dominated the menu (largely due to the Belgian influence). They are basically pan-fried (usually deep-fried) mashed potato snowballs with glamorous picadillos (fillings). The croquettes to be sampled were stuffed with chopped chicken breast, white onion, garlic, Roma tomato, cumin and nutmeg.

The secret of these croquettes? Panko (Japanese bread crumbs). The recipe indicated making plum-sized balls, but the sous chef was very generous on the croquette and made softballs for everyone.  Fuenmayor fielded questions, exposed his secrets, praised Snappers in Bloor West Village and insisted we visit the Latin Emporium in Kensington Market. He spoke nostalgically of his Venezuelan homeland as he chopped chayote (“it tastes like nothing, but it absorbs the flavour, and is a Venezuelan staple”) and peeled celery. Yes, peeled celery! I made note of this with an asterisk because hairy celery fools me all the time. What you think is an embarrassing hair in the stir-fry is a mere celery thread. Peel it away!

I made note of other chef-isms like bringing the pan to a high heat and then adding the oil. Otherwise you burn off all the nutrients of the oil. And, you can scorch the oil which adds that ick-scorch taste to the more sensitive vegetables. Red onions were chopped and then placed in cold water to decrease the acidity. I almost believed I was ready for the Iron Chef.

The softballs were delivered to us and the panko was perfectly golden. The Serranos were like tiny embers in my mouth, but the fire did diminish as promised. Coriander was present again and offered a fresh and fragrant flash to the pow of the heat in my mouth.

The Peruvian-Chifa style Shrimp Dumplings (bolas de masa) with Sweet Red Peruvian Pepper Relish (Encurtido De Aji Rojo) took  my first place ribbon though. Chopped tiger shrimp, garlic, ginger, coriander (do you sense a theme?) and yuzu (a citrusy-sour soya sauce) were tucked into neatly-formed crescents. I was immediately reminded of a failed perogy venture when my not-so-neatly formed crescents gave way to the boiling water and blew apart like a dozen piñatas. I was left with empty wrappers and cloudy potato water. But, oddly, a lot less Zywiec beer in my fridge.

Chef explained to us that this style of dumpling, El Chifa, was a term used in Peru to distinguish a style of Chinese cooking with substitutes. Chinese immigrants who arrived in Peru in the late 19th century adapted their recipes with chayote and daikon (white radish) in an attempt to replace lemongrass and ginger. Since, Chifa has become one of the most popular types of cuisine in Peru. (Chifa is derived from the Chinese Mandarin words Chi-Fan, meaning to eat rice.)

The Chifa dumplings pushed the croquettes off the map. The crunch of the julienned daikon with the heat of the peppers and ginger and zing of lime juice was worthy of a closed-eyes-and-mmmmm moment. That is, until we moved on to the grand finale of the night and the Crepes with Caramelized Goat’s Milk and Pecans were presented.

The kitchen took on an instant sweet and sugary transformation with the sweet hit of honeyed pecans toasting. This is a scent I want to dab behind my ears and spray on the nape of my neck. The cajeta (caramelized goat’s milk) tasted exactly like 1,000 Kraft caramels melted down into an obsession creating syrup. Perfect crepes, pinched with cloves and cinnamon and splashed with vanilla, were flipped before our mesmerized eyes.

The Trivento Brut Nature (Bodegas Y Vinedos $14.95) was poured as the crepes were set before us like the most marvellous presents.  Ilario told us to make note of the fine mousse with floral, honey, mineral, cream and cherry aromas of the Brut. I was already making note of the cajeta and hoping that someone in the audience had a pecan allergy. Surely one in the crowd would!

The crepes won out. If you want to serve a breakfast in bed that still has you between the sheets at dinner time—make those. And the Brut with all its notes and “cheap cheerfulness” (as Ilario best described it) definitely marries well with its toasty extra dry finish.

*Editor’s note: And I forgot my camera.

**Thanks Kiley & Dax. I love verbal experience gifts!

Check out Chef Carlos here—he is also a private chef: http://www.sabrosito.ca/

When Dax and I learned about all things Champagne: http://julestorti.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/drinking-the-stars/

My last cooking class–Cambodian Cuisine: http://julestorti.wordpress.com/2009/05/05/so-you-think-you-can-cook/

Categories: Eat This, Sip That | Leave a comment

Breadfruit, Buttered Tea and Bahn Mi Subs

Hawaiians used its sticky sap to trap birds whose feathers were used to make colourful cloaks. The termite- resistant wood was prized as timber for outrigger canoes by Pacific Islanders. When baked, the fruit of the breadfruit tree is reminiscent of freshly baked bread.  From Belize to Malaysia to southern India to the Dominican Republic, breadfruit is a choice starch staple.

And, one can buy it at the Oakville freshmart too. About the size of a small bowling ball, the two pound breadfruit cost $5, which is a very cheap flight from Jamaica. I had heard rave reviews of the mysterious breadfruit years ago from a client of mine who was born in Trinidad. And then I read about it in The Embarrassment of Mangoes (Ann Vanderhoof’s  Eat, Pray, Love-ish—but  more engaging tale of finding life’s answers at the helm of a sailboat along the Atlantic to the British Virgin Islands). Vanderhoof deemed the breadfruit “bland but inoffensive” and mixed it with chopped onion, dill pickle relish and mayo. The other half she panfried with olive oil and swore she was eating home fries.

I googled breadfruit and began to wonder if I needed some kind of Breadfruit Degree to prepare the two pound, pebbly-skinned paperweight. Most of the recipes I pulled up insisted that the breadfruit be roasted over an open fire. And that I should wear gloves when cutting because of the sticky sap that no Goo Gone could ever remove.

I read on and learned that for years breadfruit was fed to hogs. Captain William Bligh thought the abundant, cost-effective Tahitian breadfruit would be the perfect staple for the slaves in 1793 Jamaica. The slaves rejected the blah-ness and the hogs called dibs. Although in 1793, it probably wasn’t served in the rich coconut milk and bacon soup recipe I discovered.

Opting against building a fire in my Toronto backyard on this -12 C night, I ramped up the oven to 400 and massaged olive oil into the skin of the breadfruit. Within minutes, after being rubbed and placed inside the oven, my entire place smelled like I was living inside a strawberry jam-filled powdered donut.

But, it didn’t taste anything like a donut. After an hour of roasting, I sliced and diced the breadfruit  and ate more than half of it as I did so. I kept trying to taste the “freshly baked bread” element, but could only taste a relative of the potato. Who may have kissed a squash.

Ann Vanderfhoof was bang-on with her home-fries i.d. I sliced some celery and red pepper (as I didn’t have coconut milk or thawed bacon, or the work ethic to make a soup). I wished for sliced purple onions and rosemary and a big dollop of crème fraiche—that would have made the breadfruit a repeat recipe. Instead, it was an expensive potato that needed accessories to be appreciated, but, it had to be discovered.

As I was cutting into it, I was reminded of my first jackfruit experience in Uganda. I was thinking I could slice the prehistoric fruit up like a pineapple. Gawd, no, it had rules and regulations too. And that jackfruit sap stays with you and your fingertips for weeks. And don’t eat the heart, and only the flesh around the pits, and not the part close to the skin! In the end, the giant jackfruit yielded very little in the edible department, a big sloppy mess, but, satiated curiousity.

And that’s what it all evolves from. At the eclectically stocked convenience store on my street corner I recently spied aloe vera leaves as big as baseball bats for $2.50. I know that my friend Leslie raves about the Aloe drink for those on the go—and aloe is supposed to treat all that ails you from heartburn to herpes to sunburns. I actually considered buying a leaf and making juice. Simple enough—as long as you remove the yellow layer below the rind  and the rind itself because that can cause severe cramping and diarrhea. Which a bowl of breadfruit probably helps. But, then I read about having to remove the latex residue with a watered-down vinegar solution and quickly scrapped my aloe vera juice production.

Blue cheese & chocolate chip cookie. Really.

No, instead I decided Leslie and I will drink Dead Elephant beer from Railway City Brewing when we are together next. And I’ll check off what’s next on my 2011 To Eat & Drink list. There’s spaghetti squash (a carry-over from 2010), the waffle batter dipped bacon at The Starving Artist on Landsdowne, dark and malt-smacked Neustadt Springs Brewery 10-W-30, blue cheese truffles as big as golf balls at the About Cheese on Church, and the nomad favourite: Tibetan buttered tea.

Om Restaurant (1439 Queen Street West) serves up the tea that  takes 15 minutes to steep. Then milk, butter and salt are added for a caloric punch. The tea is supposed to be “particularly warming” but, the salt overrides the sweet “and can catch the unfamiliar off guard.”

I’m on guard though. And ready to take on the Venezuelan cocoa tea (Herbal Infusions Tea, 404 Adelaide Street West). It is rumoured to have the flavour of coffee with the soothing properties of tea. And, it’s a natural mood enhancer and antidepressant. They also offer sugar made from beets to boot.

Other must-eats? Susur Lee’s new, much-whispered-about lounge  on King is going to offer “cheeseburger spring rolls.” And I need to try a Bahn Mi Thai sub: pickled carrots, daikon radish, pate, mayo, headcheese, and sometimes ham. Yeah, horse barf on a bun.

What I’ve already determined though, is, even though it’s premature to announce–that the blue cheese and chocolate chip cookies at About Cheese take the 2011 prize for Last-Meal-on-Earth-Worthy  Cookie.

Right after the buttermilk fried chicken and waffles with a chipotle-lime maple syrup at Fire On the East Side. Which was the Best Thing Eaten in 2010 and may reign for another year.

Any other suggestions? I’ve done the tequila with lime dredged in cracked black pepper versus salt.  I’ve had the maple & bacon cupcakes at For the Love of Cake (Liberty Village), sipped bacon-infused whiskey in Nashville, done garlic chocolate with lavender petals, had a $10 cup of coffee at Cafe Artigiano in Vancouver  and even semi-enjoyed a deep-fried Mars bar.

 I’m open to anything, obviously, but I’m over the grasshoppers and termites of 2009. And deep-fried guinea pig is so 2005.

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