September 30, 2012

Toronto is full of really cool things, especially when it comes to the local food scene. I love wandering around the city for hours and perusing the neat food markets (St. Lawrence Market is one of my favourites), shops, events and restaurants. There are so many neat organizations and groups doing great things for local food, such as George Brown College--where I took a culinary course recently--and many more. Check out this list of food events this week for a taste of city life.

Despite what Chef David Chang (owner of Momofuku) recently said in the Globe and Mail about the Toronto culinary scene, I would say the city is doing pretty well for itself. You know that old joke that Torontonians think Toronto is the centre of the universe? In terms of the national food scene, it's up there for sure. On a global level, I would have to agree with Chang. But isn't room for improvement always a good thing? Don't we want to grow, explore and prosper?

Where else can you find an abundance of beautiful baked goods and pastries?

Top: Peanut butter and jelly cupcake from Prairie Girl Bakery
Middle: Macarons from Bobbette and Belle, Leslieville
Bottom: Baked goods from The Sweet Escape Patisserie, Distillery District

Eat from the restaurant of a Top Chef Master...

Top: Sashimi of charred tuna and spicy tartare from Susur Lee's restaurant, Lee in Toronto.
Bottom: "Top Chef green curry chicken" with sweet pea polenta, butter almondine, spiced tomato jam, dried pineapple and chili mint.

And sample of New York's finest, like the recently opened Momofuku restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto, Ontario. The noodle bar is one of four, and the casual version, of David Chang operations opened at the hotel, including nikai, daisho and shoto. Now if only he would considering putting one of his famous "milk bars" there too.

We got there at around 3:00 p.m in the afternoon, and right before it closed for the afternoon because I luckily got a seat at the bar facing the kitchen. Most of the seating is communal, long-table style, so it's fairly casual and cozy. I loved watching the kitchen staff prepare the food and I could see the delicate and careful preparation of the fresh ingredients Chang is known for: the poached eggs were carefully placed in mini ceramic bowls to warm, the steam buns were painted with a stroke of hoisin sauce and the fresh noodles were delicately dropped inside the steamer.

They were moving quickly to keep up with the high turnover, but you could tell they had wonderful respect for the quality of each ramen bowl and customer experience.

When I was in Singapore, there was a steam bun vendor right near our hostel that sold fluffy and fresh buns for only $1 each in savoury and sweet flavours. Having a steam bun became part of my daily snack routine for the few days I was there (that's probably a lot of buns). Usually for me, the soft, somewhat sweet bun is the highlight of the steam bun experience, but at Momofuku it is obviously all about the pork.

Behold the pork buns ($10 for 2) with hoisin sauce, scallions and cucumber. It had the right amount of gooey fat and melt-in-your-mouth pork belly. There were only a few ingredients between the buns, but the simplicity was enough.

Momofuku Pork Steamed Buns

I also got the famous Momofuku Ramen with pork belly, pork shoulder and a poached egg. I sat in silence for probably about 5 minutes with my head in the bowl slurping away and enjoying all the little treats. The broth was not too salty and I didn't feel like going into a sodium-incudeced coma afterwards, although I ate--or slurped--every last drop, so I did consume quite a bit of pork in one meal (two types in the ramen as well as the pork buns). The ramen is also topped with nori, fish cakes, green onions and cabbage.

Although it was probably the most expensive ramen I have ever had ($15) it is a hell-of-alot-cheaper than going down to New York City to try David Chang's restaurant. Getting a seat at Momofuku is a whole other issue though.

Momofuku Ramen

In other Toronto news, this Tuesday October 2 kicks off the Evergreen Brick Works GE Cafe Chef Series: Celebrating Southern Ontario Terrior. The program aims to connect people to Ontario's food culture and chefs with workshops and discussions each week until December 11, 2012.

This week's class is "Celebrating the Harvest" with Top Chef Canada 2 Winner Carl Heinrich (who also appeared at Savour Stratford last weekend). He'll be highlighting ingredients from Perth and Waterloo counties in Ontario and discussing how they have influenced his cooking.

Check out the site to register or follow them on Twitter @EvergreenCanada and #EBW

What do you think of the Toronto culinary scene? Do you think the city needs to do better or is it doing well for itself?
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September 26, 2012

I love visiting the beautiful town of Stratford, Ontario, so I never need much persuading to go. I will gladly see a show at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, stroll by the Avon River and try a new restaurant or speciality food shop there. I have even walked the chocolate trail and visited my favourite food trucks in Stratford. Even though I have lived in close proximity for the past few years I have never attended Savour Stratford before. This year I jumped at the chance to join in the festivities and spend another wonderful day in Stratford. 

Savour Stratford 2012 is a Perth County Culinary Festival featuring tasting events, demonstrations, talks, entertainment, markets and more. Although it highlights Perth County, foodies, chefs and local food enthusiasts come from all over Canada to the premier culinary event. The town is transformed into a "foodie" mecca over the weekend. Of course, some celebrity chefs were in attendance as well to mingle, demo their "quick fire" skills and well, be admired by Food Network fans like myself. 

From left: Carl Heinrich (Winner of Top Chef Canada 2), Connie DeSousa (Top Chef Canada finalist, owner of Charcut Restaurant, Calgary) and David Rocco (Celebrity Chef).

The theme for this year--the fifth year of the festival--was celebrating "celebrating culinary roots." Stratford obviously has a strong farming heritage and they take pride in the fact that they are connected to and close to their local food, like this close...

I was invited to Sunday's main event, which was the 2012 Savour Stratford Tasting in Market Square. The tasting featured about thirty local chefs and restaurants who were paired with Perth County producers to create dishes to taste along with Ontario VQA wines and craft beers. The point of the collaboration is to highlight the authentic relationship chefs and farmers have in the area. Before the doors opened I got a sneak peek at some of the dishes and a chance to mingle with some of the chefs and farmers. 

Diners also got to vote on their favourite dishes and drinks of the day in the categories of People's Choice, best meat dish, best vegetarian dish, best dessert, most creative dish and best beverage

The first stop was the Stone Willow Inn Wildstone Bar and Grill from St. Mary's, Ontario and TJ's Fins and Feathers. They displayed a smoked trout (two-day cured) with roasted corn and heirloom tomato salsa in a cumin scented phyllo pastry cup.

Next up was the The Church Restaurant and Delmac Farms. The Church Restaurant has been a go-to fine dining destination in Stratford for years with their "seasonally inspired modern French cuisine."

A chafing dish full of meat is always a good sign. They made their gourmet take on a "pulled pork sandwich" with lamb curry, pickled red onions and apricot conserve on a mini bun.

Pazzo Ristorante and Pizzeria is one of my favourite restaurants in Stratford. I can admit to driving to Stratford solely for pizza. I wanted to ask them the secret to their thin-crust gourmet goodness (especially the dough), but I figured they wouldn't spill the secrets to their legendary pizza.

Head Chef Yva Santini was serving up some beef and pork sausage made with meat from DeWetering Hill Farms topped with tomato chilli jam.

Madelyn's Diner and Youngbult Farm's took the prize for best dessert with their bacon butter tarts. Who can argue with bacon and butter, especially in dessert form. Am I right? 

Rheo Thomspon Candies offered a beautiful piece of chocolate topped with ginger and lavender jelly from Steed and Company Lavender. As a preserves junkie, I need to get my hands on a jar of that ginger jelly. Of course any time I'm in Stratford I stop by Rheo Thompson's for their famous mint smoothie chocolates. 

The Prune Restaurant and Northern Wood Mushrooms were voted the People's Choice with their smoked mushroom tart with house made herbed ricotta, squash and red pepper relish. 

WaWa Grub--a new takeout/sandwich shop--served up leek and mushroom terrine on spoons. 

With all that food tasting and indulging, you need something to settle your stomach. Digestive Tea by Tea Leaves Tasting Bar is a blend of ingredients foraged from the area with help from Peter Blush Foraging, such as stinging nettle, lemon balm, fennel seed and pu-erh. I have been meaning to check out Tea Leaves Tasting Bar for awhile now, so I may stop in to pick up a bag of this stomach soothing blend next time. 

Beartoozies Bistro had a gluten-free cinnamon bun topped with cream, raspberries and a tea-infused chocolate sauce. 

The Local Community Food Centre is a great organization in Stratford (originally started in Toronto) with a garden where anyone in the community can learn about and grow their own local food. Their dish was a corn cracker topped with pickled vegetables from the garden. 

The goal of the food centre is to be "a place where community members come together to access, grow, prepare, share and advocate for good food" and hopefully these centres will be opening up in cities across Canada soon to spread the good word. Check out all the neat stuff they're doing. 

The Annex Room featured fresh ingredients from their garden too with a goats cheese and roasted vegetable crostini. 

Obviously "pork done six ways" stuffed between crunchy, fresh bread from Mercer Hall and Churchill Farms won best meat dish with their Muffuletta sandwich of coppa,  rillette, proscuitto, country ham, molasses ham and pig's head mortadella. Look at all of that meaty goodness:

Stratford Thai Food served pork, pickled carrots and roasted garlic on a crispy wonton. 

There was some other fun stuff to marvel at and taste, such as "spaghetti and meatball" mini raspberry cakes from Rene's Bistro and Sheldon Berries. 

And tamale gazpacho shooters (a little too spicy for me though): 

The streets were also filled with food trucks, such as El Gastronomo Vagabundo, Gourmet Gringos, Tide and Vine and Caplansky's Delicatessen, and some beautiful local produce was on display at the Sunday market. Plenty of the local food artisan, vendors, farmers and sellers were out with fresh apples, fall vegetables and preserves. 

Of course when I found out my favourite cupcake truck, The Cupcake Diner, would be there, I had to pick up a few treats for the road. Yes, you read that sign correctly: pumpkin spice donuts. They were mini pumpkin spice donuts dipped in white and milk chocolate. The Cupcake Diner has never done me wrong. 

Thank you to the Siren Group Inc, Savour Stratford organizers and the Stratford Tourism Alliance. I can't believe this was my first year visiting the festival after being in the area so long. The thing about wonderful local food is we sometimes forget it's ready to be discovered in our own backyards. 

Visit Savour Stratford for more info and follow them on Twitter for info on next year's festivities and events throughout the year @SavourStratford.
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September 19, 2012

When I was in University my go-to meal--besides Kraft Dinner or pizza--was quesadillas. All I needed to do was dice up some vegetables, dump some salsa and cheese into a tortilla and bake it in the oven. With my limited cooking repertoire at the time, it was the perfect easy meal:

I still buy tortillas on a regular basis to make wraps and snacks, but my cooking skills have vastly improved since my student days. So I was thrilled when Ulysses Press sent me a copy of Tortillas to the Rescue: Scrumptious Snacks, Mouth-Watering Meals and Delicious Desserts--All Made with the Amazing Tortilla by Jessica Harlan.

The book features more than 100 recipes for everything from snacks, wraps, breakfasts and even desserts. To be honest, the thought of a tortilla with ice cream or chocolate in a sweet dish doesn't appeal to me, but there were plenty of savoury recipes. There is even a section on how to make your own tortillas--obviously important in a tortilla cookbook--if you want to stray away from store-bought.

I used Dempster's whole wheat tortillas, but I would like to make my own at some point. The book has instructions for corn, flour, multi-grain and sweet flour tortillas and the recipes don't seem that complex. The first recipe I tried was Spinach and Cheese Empanadas:

There are a few other recipes in the book using tortillas instead of pastry dough, and although it's an easy recipe, I'm still not sure it's a perfect substitute. I would have preferred more of a pizza dough-type outer crust, but the tortillas are definitely easier to manage.

I suppose the book sums it up nicely: "When you don't feel like dealing with fussy pastry dough, just fold a flour tortilla around a filling and bake. It makes a light, crisp crust for empanadas and other filled pastries." (pg. 45)

I brushed the tortillas with an egg wash and put about two tablespoons of filling on each. The filling consisted of cottage cheese, mozzarella cheese, spinach, salt and pepper. I used 1% cottage cheese and light mozzarella cheese, so this would make a great, lighter alternative to traditional spinach and feta filling for a Mediterranean pastry or dish. Then I folded them over, pressed down on the sides and made a few slits on the top of the tortilla for air to escape. I baked them in the oven for about 15 minutes.

They weren't quite the texture of empanadas. The filling kind of reminded me of those spinach and cheese boreks (the Turkish spinach pies). I would have preferred the outside a little more chewy and crunchy, but for tortillas they held up pretty well. They went beautifully as a side to the Chicken Tortilla Soup:

I don't really like smokey, chipotle or spicy flavoured foods, so I wasn't sure I would like this soup, but after making it I think it will now go in my repertoire of go-to chicken soup recipes.

The soup contains onions, diced tomatoes, corn, chicken, zucchini (that I substituted instead of red bell pepper), some chicken broth and a touch of cumin and lime juice. I then fried up some tortillas cut into strips as a crispy topping. You're supposed to also garnish it with avocado and lime wedges, but I thought it would be too much with the spinach and cheese empanadas as well. The crispy tortilla strips added a nice texture (you could also use nacho chips) and the chicken, corn and vegetables came together into a nice, hearty--and not too spicy--Southwestern soup.

Even after the endless quesadilla meals of my past, I will still never tire of tortillas, especially with gooey cheese and tangy salsa. But it's good to know there are a lot of creative options out there for making and using them. I can't wait to make my own and try some of the other recipes in this book (and yes, there are quesadilla recipes too), like spicy tofu wraps, ceviche roll-ups and avocado and leek omelet wraps to name a few. "Tortillas to the Rescue" would definitely save someone stuck in a wrap or week-night dinner rut. 

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review purposes. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.  
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