Food


2014-02-23 15.00.48A proper winter has finally descended on the mountains of the Lower Mainland in British Columbia.  If you ask any winter outdoor enthusiast, it has been a long time coming.  There is nothing worst than long days without the prospect of snow in the mountains.  Well, all that changed this week, with 1.4m of snow falling in about 7 days.  Egg-cellent.  Before heading up to the mountains with friends, I thought I should prepare weapons-grade chocolate brownies to give us that little mental (and sugar) bump we’ll need in the early afternoon.  After much research, I’ve cobbled together some good ideas from a number of recipes, and added my own decadent twist to the noble brownie.

INGREDIENTS

  • 185g dark chocolate
  • 185g unsalted butter
  • 90g of all-purpose flour
  • 45g of cocoa powder
  • 1 cup of milk chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup of Skor toffee bits (though you can substitute any other decadent bits to spike your brownies)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 200g of sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract

INSTRUCTIONS

1.  Start by setting your oven to 360F and letting it warm as you prepare the ingredients.  Butter the base and sides of a 20cm x 20cm brownie pan.

2.  Set up a bain marie, and as it warms up cut your chocolate and butter into pea-sized bits of awesome.  Stir the combination together in the bain marie as they melt together, until the mixture is uniform.  Remove from heat and let cool.

3.  While the chocolate-butter mixture is cooling, combine the flour and cocoa powder together in a bowl (I recommend using a sifter or a fine sieve to get rid of any clumps).

4.  Next, get out your electric whisk out, and combine your eggs and sugar together until you get a thick, aerated  batter (about 4-7 minutes).  This is a critical step.  You want to try to incorporate as much air as possible into the mixture.  You’ll notice the mixture’s colour lightening up as more air is incorporated.

5.  When your mix is complete, gently incorporate your melted chocolate mixture into the batter.  Once you have a uniform mix, add the vanilla extract and work in the flour-cocoa mixture until you get a creamy, consistent brownie mix.  Resist the temptation to simply pour the mixture directly into your mouth.

6.  What you now have is a typical brownie base.  Though I suggest a chocolate-Skor combination, feel free to switch things up (e.g., dark and white chocolate bits, chocolate and peanut butter bits, walnuts and chocolate…etc) because the batter will be able to handle it.  It’s like a delicious chocolate canvass.  For the purposes of this recipe, add the chocolate chips and Skor toffee bits into the brownies and gently mix until evenly dispersed into the mix.

7.  Bake your brownies for 25-35 minutes (depending on your oven).  You know they’re done if, after removing the brownies from the oven and giving them a giggle, the centre of the brownies do not wobble and you get a shiny layer on top of the brownies.  Let the brownies cool outside of the oven.  Then…get in there and if your feeling naughty add some vanilla ice cream.

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For some reason , adding booze to a desert seems to infuse it with a fun bit of naughtiness.  You could say the same about other kinds of food, with greater or lesser success.  Vodka-laced penne sauce?  Meh.  Brandy-soaked tiramisu?  I’ll take seconds, please.  In my quest to find an excuse to cook intelligently with booze,  I decided to combine Grand Marnier macerated fruit with this nice little Pavlova recipe.

This time 'round I left the whipped cream on the side to accommodate someone with a lactose intolerance.

This time ’round I left the whipped cream on the side to accommodate someone with a lactose intolerance.

A Pavlova, for those who don’t know, is said to have been named for a Russian dancer – Anna Pavlova – after her trip to Australia and New Zealand, which explains why the desert is so popular in that part of the world.  Below is a version of the recipe that I hope will make her – and my Kiwi relatives – proud.

INGREDIENTS

Meringue

  • 4 large egg whites (room temperature)
  • 1 1/4 cups white granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of cream of corn starch
  • 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Whipping Cream

  • 2 cups of whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon of white sugar

Boozy Fruit

  • 4 cups worth of assorted blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries.
  • 2-3 tablespoons of Grand Marnier
  • 1-2 tablespoons of white sugar

INSTRUCTIONS

First, set your oven to 300F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  In pencil, draw a 9-inch circle on the paper (you can just guestimate the diametre, and your circle doesn’t have to be perfect).

Next, prepare your fruit by placing them all in a deep bowl, and mixing in your Grand Marnier and sugar.  Feel free to put in less sugar if you want the desert to be less sweet – the Grand Marnier is already quite sugary.

While the fruit is absorbing the Grand Marnier and sugar, take you eggs and whisk them with an electric mixer until soft peaks start to form.  You know that you have soft peaks when you remove your whisk and the frothy peak forms but then droops back down.

Gradually add your sugar as you continue to beat the eggs until everything has combined.  I like to then gradually add my vanilla extract an corn starch at this stage, right before you can form firm peaks with your egg mixture.  Alternatively, you can gently (you don’t want to punch out any air) fold in the vanilla extract and corn start after you’ve hit the “firm peak stage”.  Do not beat beyond firms peaks.  You will know you’ve done so because your mixture will look dry and may leak some liquid.

At this point, if you’re ambitious you can put the mixture into a piping bag and make your Pavlova base, but I like to make mine with a large wooden spoon.  I do so by first by filling the 9-inch circle on my parchment paper with about 1/2 of the egg mixture.  Then, with the rest of the mixture, build up some wall on top of the outside of the meringue base so that you get a large, meringue basket.  The magic happens in the basket, ’cause this is where you’re going to pour in your boozy fruit and whipped cream.

Bake your Pavlova in the oven for 1 hour.  A trick I use is to actually keep the oven door slightly ajar with a wooden spoon that I’ve soaked ahead of time (to saturate it with water and make it less likely to burn/char).  You’ll know your Pavlova is properly cooked if you tap it and it sounds hollow.  Let the Pavlova cool in the oven with the door slightly ajar.

You’re almost done.  Right before serving, make whisk your whipped cream until it start to solidify and gradually add your sugar until you get your preferred consistency.  Place the cream in the middle of the Pavlova’s centre.  Then, drain your fruit (I recommend drinking the delicious boozy run-off…) and decorate your Pavlova.  The effect of the final product is quite lovely, and I can guarantee you’ll be amazed at the positive reactions and comments you get.

Also, this desert is fabulous for dinner parties because you can make the base up to 8 hours ahead of time…if you have the will power to leave it uneaten for that long.

It was minus 30C during my most recent trip home, and that is most certainly mac ‘n cheese weather.

2014-01-02 13.23.10Mac ‘n cheese has had a renaissance these past years, and with it a plethora of recipes have surfaced.  I’ve tried a few of them – all delicious in their own right – and I think that I’ve come up with a nicely balanced one that has the right mix of gooey-ness, cheesiness, and saltiness.  This is not what you ate on Sunday nights in your dorm room.  That said, I will always have a special place in my heart for the fluorescent orange mystery powder and fossilized macaroni that mixed together so beautifully, and that tasted so good.  If cooking is ever to be demystified, I guess the simple preparation of Kraft Dinner is as good a way as any.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups of macaroni
  • 1 glug of olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • ½ teaspoon dry mustard
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 big clove of garlic, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1½ cups of panko
  • 2-2½ cups 2% milk
  • 1 handful of pancetta slices, chopped thin and short.
  • 2½ cups grated cheddar cheese (smokey if you can find it)

INSTRUCTIONS

Start by setting your oven to 375F.

Then, boil the 2 cups of macaroni in well-salted water, until tender.  Strain them, put them in a bowl, pour in a glug of olive oil, (just enough to coat the macaroni) and then mix around until the pasta is covered.  This will keep them from sticking together. Set aside.

Mix together the flour, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and smoked paprika in a bowl.  Next, melt your butter in a frying pan at medium heat, cook your minced garlic for 20 seconds or so (making sure not to burn it), and then mix in the flour mixture until well combined (2-3 minutes).  You’re looking for a thick paste, but not a dry one.  This is like a kind of hoser roux.  Add your milk and the pancetta slices to the mixture, and stir constantly until the sauce is thick and consistent (make sure to break up those clumps).  This should take about 8-10 minutes.  I would recommend you leave the sauce a little loose (i.e., not too thick)- you may need the extra moisture to ensure that the cheese melts properly, and you can always evaporate the extra liquid.

At this point, still at medium heat, add your cheese 1/3 at a time, making sure that each batch melts down properly (though a few clumps of delicious cheese never hurt anyone).  Carefully, give the mixture a taste, and adjust the seasoning if required.

Pour the lake of cheesy goodness into your bowl of macaroni, add in 1 cup of panko, and mix everything together properly.  Pour the whole combination into a casserole dish, cover everything with the remaining cup of panko, add a few sprinkles of paprika for colour, and bake for 25-30 minutes.

Let it cool for at least 10-15 minutes because your mac ‘n cheese will be lava-hot.  Also, letting it cool will allow the flavours develop (this tastes good reheated the next day, too).  I recommend using a big spoon to ladle this bad boy onto your plate…and don’t be shy about seconds.

This past weekend, my wife and I went up to Whistler for a ski fix and to give its food scene a look/taste.  After a some research, we settled on Alta Bistro, a nice little place in the Lower Village.

After a long day of skiing, we were famished and actually showed up 30 minutes early to the restaurant in the hopes that they could accommodate us.  “No problem” was the answer, and we were ushered to our seats by the affable waiter.  Once seated, we were greeted by our main waitress, who walked us through the menu.

Why, hello there...

Alta has two set courses:  one at $29 and one at $39.  They are available online, and though they don’t look like much, they are excellent value in every sense.  While we decided on what to eat, we ordered some cocktails.  My wife had the delicious Hemmingway Dacquiri, while I had the Boulevardier.  I have to say that the Boulevardier was a rather stiff drink.  That stuff will put so much hair on your chest you’ll feel like Robin Williams.  But I digress…

We opted for the $39 menu.  We both started with the lovely Miyagi oysters which were creamy smooth and ocean fresh.  A great way to start the meal.

Next up was the house-made duck liver parfait, smoked duck rillettes, rye and molasses breadcrumbs, and lemon balm.  The dish was served on a rustic-looking cutting board, and you are invited to mix and match the ingredients to your liking.  I found the duck liver parfait to be wonderfully veloury.  Liver can taste a little tinny/bitter if prepared poorly, but this stuff was so well prepared I wished I had a tube full of it so I could carry it around 24/7.

Angus Beef Love

The final course for me was the Angus Beef Bavette, which involved numerous, thick cuts of beef accompanied with, amongst other things, swiss chard, beets, chard and sunchokes.  The meat was rare/medium-rare, which is just how I liked it.  It wasn’t overly seasoned and the taste of the beef went well with the earthiness of the winter vegetables.  Again, a big “thumbs up” to the kitchen for preparing the swiss chard so expertly.  They managed to maintain the integrity of the taste and texture, without it being rough and difficult to eat/digest.  The portion size of this dish was just right, and by the end of this very enjoyable meal we actually had to say no to dessert.

Our entire experience was really heightened by Alta Bistro’s atmosphere.  It has a quiet, informal kind of charm, highlighted by the tasteful lighting, murmur of conversations, and ski-inspired art work.  All members of the waitstaff were very friendly, knowledgeable, interested in the food they served, and passionate about all the kitchen had to offer.

It has been a while since I’ve had such a pleasant dinner experience.  I would definitely recommend coming to Alta Bistro, and would absolutely come back again, if only to soak up the atmosphere (and a drink or two…).
Alta Bistro on Urbanspoon

Say what you want about Oliver & Bonacini’s brand, they have recently hit on a great little formula that seems to work in my book.  Their newer restaurants like Luma and Cantina provide good food, good service, and a relaxed-yet-classy ambiance.  This opinion extends to the Bannock, a lovely little spot just across from Old City Hall in Toronto.

We came here during a recent trip out East to visit the family and stopped into Toronto for a few days of reunions and face-stuffing.  We had moved from Toronto to Vancouver before the restaurant opened, and when we first saw Bannock we were amazed at how the place looked (especially when you compare it to the coffee place that was there before).  The natural-looking design materials add a nice warmth, and seem to absorb hard sounds, so that all that is left is the energetic murmur of customers’ conversations.

Our waitress was great, knowledgeable about the food, enthusiastic about the ingredients, and quick to take our orders.

Burger and Root Crisps

I was in the mood for a burger.  I know it’s not the most exciting selection, but I always consider burgers to be a kind of litmus test for a restaurant (like an omelet is for a chef).  Bannock’s burger and “root crisps” (i.e., fancy chips) were great.  The burger was well seasoned and beautifully moist.  the root crisps were nothing to write home about, but they added a nice crunch to the place, and were more interesting than regular chips.

Moroccan-inspired Lamb Stew

My wife had a daily special, a kind of Moroccan lamb stew.  Now that was something to write home about.  The temperature in downtown Toronto that day hovered around -15 celcius with the wind chill, so the belly-warming goodness and subtle spiciness of the stew really hit the spot.

From a value perspective, I have to admit that these dishes were a little pricey (my burger was $15) but if you have a little extra cash to throw around the entire Bannock experience is worth it.  My main criticism, however, is how they charged/gouged us for flat water without informing us, making us feel as if we’d been had, and making the restaurant look cheap.  I’m fairly easy to please, but such antics constitute a cardinal sin in my book.

Ignoring the entire “water issue”, Bannock is a solid all around experience, and though the food is a tad pricey, its worth visiting at least once if you find yourself in downtown Toronto.  I’m not sure I’d go back, but I’m glad I went.

Bannock on Urbanspoon

I have lived a charmed life, and some of its summers were spent in France. Part of my healthy diet was chocolate…lots and lots of amazing, high octane chocolate. Despite my best efforts, rare were the chocolate places that stack up to the those childhood memories until I went to Thomas Haas in Vancouver.

Though I only spent a little time here, everything was amazing. The coffee was good, the atmosphere warm, the decor sleek, and the staff was very friendly. Mr. Haas was even behind the counter, smiling and laughing with clients.

Lemon Tart

On the menu for our little afternoon snack were two cakes. The first was a phenomenal lemon tart. The lemony taste was sharp and bright, and the smooth texture of the filling was beautifully contrasted by the (not too) crispness of the crust.

The second item was a pistachio sour cherry tart. This was also a real feast for the eyes and the palate. Again, the execution was great, and the tartness of the cherry was highlighted and tamed by the dessert’s sweet dimensions.

Pistachio Sour Cherry Tart

On a second visit, we also bought some pretty exceptional Thomas Haas chocolates. The quality of the chocolate was some of the best I’ve found in North America, and the balance of each chocolate’s flavours was a great pleasure. Each chocolate was like a glittering jewel that I found myself admiring for a few moments before my more primal instincts took hold and it disappeared.

We also bought a Stollen cake which was something to behold.

The only factor to keep in mind when visiting Thomas Haas’ stores is that they can be wildly busy. The first time I came here a line actually snaked out the door! If you can wait, however (and I strongly recommend that you do), you will not be disappointed. This may very well be the best chocolate and viennoiserie in the city.

Thomas Haas Fine Chocolates & Patisserie on Urbanspoon

It is said that the small entrances of Japanese teahouses forced travelers and samurai to remove their heavy bags and swords in order to enter, thus allowing them to symbolically jettison there outer selves and better relax into the building’s serene atmosphere.  Momiji in Seattle, Washington also provides such an oasis from the city courtesy of its interior Japanese garden, warm design, and delicious Japanese food.

Momiji's Garden

When we arrived, we were immediately greeted and ushered to the back of the restaurant, which houses a seating area with a wonderful garden in the middle (pictured on the left).  As night falls, and as you feast on the healthy selection of food, night falls and the garden glows peacefully in the background.

While perusing the menu, we enjoyed cocktails.  My wife had the delicious Dhampir (Ikkomon, orange, lemon, brown sugar-vanilla syrup) and I had a shochu (I love me my imo shochu).  After a while we thought we should just go hog wild and order a little bit of everything.

First to arrive was the oyster shooter.  It was  great start to the meal, and cleansed our palates.  Next, we ordered some some sashimi and sushi.  The fish was top quality and the sushi on offer was beautifully crafted and intelligently conceived.  There were no heavy sauces or surplus ingredients.  The rice, I note, was also beautifully seasoned, leaving us with the feeling that the chef knew exactly what he was doing.

Parallel Sushi HighwaysAs we ate, the other side dishes arrived, including some lovely gyoza, and a very nice and fragrant chawan mushi.  The pace of the service was just right, and we felt well taken care of by our waiter and waitress, who zipped around the dining room attending to the many, full tables.  When the bill arrived, I found the total to be very reasonable.

Momiji is a very special place.  We’ve all been to countless restaurants, most forgotten and others forgettable, but this is one that will live with me for quite some time.  In fact, we hadn’t even left for the night when we started to talk about coming to Seattle again to come back to Momiji.

Momiji on Urbanspoon

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