July 30, 2015

Toronto Food & Wine Festival 2015

Do you watch Top Chef? Of course you do. If you don't, then we can't be friends anymore. As you probably know, many Top Chef finales wrap up at the great Food & Wine Festival in Aspen run by Food & Wine Magazine. Top Chef Judge Gail Simmons was Special Projects Manager at Food &Wine Magazine for awhile. Now, you can experience all of the excitement of a Food & Wine Festival with the first Toronto Food & Wine festival. Formerly, the Delicious Food Show, the festival will be hosted by the magazine and include tastings, events, celebrity chefs and programming at the Evergreen Brickworks September 18-20, 2015. I don't need to convince you that you need to go because food shows are great and you should go. Just in case you need a reason, here are some highlights:

Food tastings at the Toronto Food & Wine Festival 2015

5 reasons you need to visit the Toronto FOOD & WINE Festival 2015:

1. Celebrity Chefs: Curtis Stone, Tyler Florence, Gail Simmons, Chuck Hughes, Roger Mooking, Mark McEwan, Antonio Park and many more will be taking to the stages for demos, talks and workshops.

2. Free samples: Sample, sip and savour all the flavours from 130 purveyors of premium products, fine foods and beverages from Ontario and around the world in the Grand Tasting Pavilion – presented by PC Black Label.

3. Chef events: Cochon 555 is bringing its flavour-packed marquee events series to Canada allowing guests to sink their teeth into over 1400 pounds of expertly prepared pork dishes by chefs including Chuck Hughes, Matty Matheson and more. 

4. Workshops: Expert-level educational workshops welcome legendary masters like Kevin Kent (Knifewear), Tetsuya "Ted" Iizuka (Soba Canada), and Antonio Park (Park Restaurant) to share their knowledge of time-held traditions like knife skills and soba noodle making.

5. Talent: Canada’s Best New Student Chef will be crowned after a cooking competition called Taste Canada Cooks the Books. Some of the brightest up-and-coming culinary talents from across Canada will gather in front of a live audience in the Miele Kitchen to make a dish from a well-known Canadian cookbook, with the author on stage.

Follow more news about the festival on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Chef Chuck Hughes, Toronto Food & Wine Festival 2015

I am giving away 2 free tickets for general admission (1 for you and a friend) and guest access to the Grand Tasting Pavillon and some celebrity chef events. The winner will receive 2 Adult Single-Day General Admission passes (approximate value of $58). The winner will be contacted by email and will receive the tickets by mail 2 weeks before the festival. Please only enter the giveaway below if you are able to attend the event in Toronto, Ontario between Sept. 18-20, 2015. No purchase necessary. Open to Ontario residents only. 

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July 18, 2015

Life Choices Natural food whole fish fillets and Rolling Meadows Dairy yoghurt

I try to support local food as much as I can with an emphasis on "as much I can." No one is perfect. I go to the farmer's market sometimes, check where produce is from at the grocery store and read labels. Then there are times when my husband is working nights and I want to eat chicken fingers and watch episodes of Keeping up with the Kardashians. Little did I know that I could somehow do both things. I received some coupons to try some free products by Life Choices Natural Foods and Rolling Meadow Dairy products. The coupons took me all the way to Whole Foods where I observed the hyperlocal trend at its most extreme. To be honest, convenience meat products are something I would not normally buy. I can definitely see the appeal if you have kids and want to whip up a quick dinner they will like. At least I knew with the Life Choices products that I could feel good that the meat was from pasture raised animals.

Life Choices Natural Foods fish fillets

I picked up a bag of the Life Choices breaded fish fillets made with a sprouted grain coating and whole fish fillets. I served it with "Mexican cauliflower rice" and some Rolling Meadows dairy 2% plain yoghurt. The dairy products are made from grass fed, pasture raised cows. According to Rolling Meadow Dairy, grass fed products have a better taste because grass fed cow's milk has more than a 300 per cent improvement in the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids versus conventional milk. Plain yoghurt is definitely something I use all the time, so I was glad to try a different kind. In terms of the taste, the yoghurt had a little bit of a creamier, less tangy taste than other plain yoghurts I have had. Although the fish sticks were convenient to make, the grain coating made them taste a bit too dry for my liking. 

Life Choices Natural food chicken strips and Rolling Meadows Dairy yoghurt

I much preferred the Life Choices multigrain breaded chicken strips to the fish fillets. The next night, I had them with some broccoli, pita and tzatziki sauce made with the even richer Rolling Meadow Dairy 3.25% plain yoghurt. I actually really liked the chicken strips. They also had the multigrain coating that seemed to taste better with chicken than fish. It seems kind of weird when stepping out of my food comfort zone involves eating chicken fingers and fish sticks. If you want to eat them or need to eat them out of convenience or on the go, then eating grass fed is probably a good way to go. 

Life Choices Natural Foods chicken strips

Speaking of on the go, you know those vacations that aren't quite vacations? Like the week or two you take off to get things done, go on a staycation or visit family? I had one of those a few weeks ago. Since I live in Ottawa now, my husband and I try to go back to the Southwestern Ontario region a few times a year where we used to live to visit family and friends; it's like a reunion of sorts. That also means taking time off to travel to see people, and not necessarily things, which is good sometimes. Google+ actually put together a neat "collection" of the photos from my phone from that week, which you can see here

The first leg of the journey was from Ottawa to Guelph on the Saturday. We arrived just in time for a private block party on the street where my husband's parents live. The court gets together each year for a street party and decided this year to hire a "pizza food truck." Those Pizza Guys in Guelph are a new business starting out that drives around with a wood fire oven for private events. The dough is made from scratch and rolled out at the venue, and then cooked in the wood oven with the toppings. 

Those Pizza Guys Guelph Ontario

Everyone paid a set amount to get all the pizza you could eat from four different flavours, like "Green, no eggs, no ham" (mozzarella, shallots, roasted tomatoes and pesto) and "The Queen" (Mozzarella, Tomato, Basil). I ate way too much pizza and sat out in the sun way too long and it was so worth it. It reminded me of the street parties we used to have on my street growing up. 

Those Pizza Guys food truck Guelph Ontario

On Monday, we headed down to London, Ontario for a few hours to visit some friends. We moved from London to Ottawa, so we wanted to go back to visit after not having gone back there since we moved last year. It is always so hard when you're only there for a few hours to see everyone you want to see and do everything you want to do.

We had dinner out and then hung out at The Cardboard Cafe, which is a new board game cafe in town. I can't resist a board game cafe (seriously, I love those places) and it was a great way to catch up with friends. If you're looking for a fun game, somewhat easy going game, for a lot of people, then try Camel Up (pictured below).

The Cardboard Cafe London Ontario

Near the end of the week, we headed to Toronto for the day to meet up with my parents and my Uncle and cousin. My relatives fly from England to Toronto for the weekend to see the final Rush concert. They are die-hard Rush fans, and to come all the way from England to see the band play is dedication right there. We met everyone for lunch downtown and then afterwards went to Ripley's Aquarium. 

I know it is a complete tourist trap and somewhat overpriced. I have to admit, it was pretty cool though. We were there for about 3 hours looking at all of the different galleries, exhibits, fishes and sharks. There is one point of the aquarium where the glass is a 360 degree view of the fish and they all swim over your head. I had a good time even though it seems primarily geared towards children. The efforts they put in to conserve the fish and their habitats is neat to see. Plus, you can take all sorts of "selfies" with the fish.

Ripley's Aquarium Toronto

Ripley's Aquarium Toronto

After a week of traveling--and not quite a week of relaxation--it was back to Ottawa. It still had some of the features of a regular vacation, such as food. Food is always the focus of any vacation. A change of scenery is always nice for a little while to get yourself out of a busy cycle of life. Sometimes, it's nice to take a road trip and see old and new things, as well as familiar people. 

Disclosure: I received free product coupons for review purposes. The opinions expressed are completely my own based on my own experience. 
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July 05, 2015

The Saguaro Hotel Scottsdale

Since it was just July 4th weekend, I thought I would post about my experiences traveling in the U.S this past April. Canadians joke about America, as I am sure they do about us. The truth is, there is no wonder why Canadians flock there like birds (literally "snowbirds") during the winter months. First of all, where are you going to see palm trees and sunshine? We don't get those things until at least July in Canada. As well as the warm weather, we might not think that the U.S is a major travel destination because we are so close in proximity. Again, there are many things to see and experience that make you appreciate the vastness of the land that our neighbours to the south occupy. After much deliberation of which American destination to go to, we settled on Arizona for a one-week vacation.  

The Saguaro Hotel Scottsdale Arizona

When I go somewhere, I like to see history and culture. Relaxing by a pool is all well and good, but the destination needs to have something memorable to see. Arizona seemed to have all of these things: history, resorts, national parks, landmarks and scenery. Where there are all of these things, there are usually many tourists. The place definitely caters to flocks of families, retirees and luxury golfers. Arizona seems to appeal to tourists and adventure travellers alike, as well as the more passive travellers. We started the trip in Scottsdale, a suburb if you will, of Phoenix, Arizona. Scottsdale is where people go to be seen at the many resort pools, nightclubs, restaurants and shops, including Trader Joes. As a Canadian, I was so excited to stop in at the famous grocery store to pick up breakfast supplies. 

Trader Joes

In Scottsdale, we stayed at The Saguaro Hotel, a hip and colourful boutique hotel in downtown Old Scottsdale. The area is not a cheap one to stay. This seemed to be one of the less expensive hotels even though it was quite nice. Resorts and hotels in Scottsdale cater to the rich and famous. You may have heard of the Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria hotel where Marilyn Monroe used to stay or The Phoenician, a luxury resort and golf course. When we arrived at the Phoenix airport to pick up the rental car, the attendant asked us which hotel we were staying at and I said the "Sa-gu-aro." "The what?" he said. "Do you mean, the Sah-wah-ro?" My first mistake in Arizona was my botched pronunciation of the name of the famous cactus to the area. After we learned how to pronounce the name of our hotel correctly, we were on our way. 

The Saguaro Hotel Scottsdale Arizona

The Saguaro Scottsdale had a hip vibe and I loved the bright colours and vintage touches in our room. It had many cozy spots to lounge in outside and by the two pools. I could have sat by that pool all day every day. Plus, the location is convenient right downtown Old Scottsdale steps away from bars, restaurants and shopping. Just be careful in budgeting that you still have to pay daily resort fees on top of the nightly rate. In this case, it was $25 a day. 

The Saguaro Hotel Scottsdale

Among the glitz and glamour is strangely enough, an Old-town neighbourhood in the style of the old Wild West. Stores upon stores on covered sidewalks sell Western and "Indian" souvenirs. It was completely kitschy and somehow not totally unappealing. We stopped for ice cream at The Sugar Bowl, a bright, vintage looking ice cream soda shop. Despite the cheesy exterior, the area is quite full of culture and has one of the highest concentrations of art galleries in the U.S with weekly Art Walks. On our first night there, we ate dinner at Sumo Maya, a Mexican Asian fusion restaurant. Yes, it was a hip and bustling Mexian-Asian restaurant located in a strip mall. Only in America. The menu had a full range of different options from guacamole to sushi to ceviche and noodles; it sure stayed true to its name. 

Old Town Scottsdale Arizona

This was a vacation after all, so I was happy sitting by the pool and soaking up the heat. I know people in Arizona complain about the heat. For us Canadians, it is a welcoming warmth, especially coming from a freezing cold winter. I understand now why many people like the appeal of resorts as vacation destinations. By the time February, March or April rolls around, you are in desperate need of some rest, relaxation and a change of scenery. I liked how Arizona had all of these things without feeling like you're stuck on a resort the whole time. 

Saguaro Hotel Scottsdale

I was also happy to sit on some cafe patios and drink iced coffee. We found a favourite cafe that we visited twice. The Herb Box serves fresh and innovative lunch and dinner food with healthy options with a patio right next to the downtown canal great for people watching. I would also recommend Snooze an AM Eatery for an easy breakfast or brunch option, which you will need a car to find. Besides the few kilometre stretch of Old Town Scottsdale for walking, most places are located in malls or outside of the main downtown square, so we found a car absolutely necessary for Arizona travel. 

Scottsdale Arizona cafe

Scottsdale, as you can see, is only a small tucked away part of Phoenix. Although we drove around extensively, we didn't nearly see all that Phoenix has to offer. Phoenix has a population of about 1.5 million and is located in the northern part of the Sonaran desert. The city is surrounded by mountains and desert landscape. On the second day, we planned to hike Camelback Mountain, a 2706 ft mountain in the middle of city. When we got there too late in the morning, the parking lot was completely full of other people with the same idea. 

Old Town Scottsdale

So we went to the Desert Botanical Garden for an afternoon activity. The thing about planning activities there is to limit your time in the hot sun and make sure you take into account plenty of cool down time by the pool in the afternoon. I didn't mind it so much, as it was neat to walk around and see the desert foliage up close. 

Desert cactus Arizona

The Desert Botanical Garden has several trails that educate you about cacti, agave, saguaros, birds, bugs and everything you would want to know about desert gardening. You see this type of greenery all around Phoenix in the landscaping and not just at the botanical gardens. Coming from Canada, it was bizarre to me to see cacti everywhere I went. It is obviously impossible to maintain a lawn in the the desert heat, which is why many people forgo grass for sand or concrete--unless you count the luscious green golf courses. 

Desert Botanical Garden Scottsdale

Desert Botanical Garden Scottsdale

Did you know that saguaro cacti can live to 100-200 years old and can weigh up to a ton? Cacti absorb water and also access it underground through "taproots." They then expand and contract over the course of a year as they "drink" water. Arizona also cultivates a lot of agave, plants that we now know as being used for agave nectar. Many of the different species of agave reside in the Sonoran desert. And of course, there are many succulents, one of my favourite plants. 

Saguaro cactus Arizona

After two nights in Scottsdale, it was on to the next destination: Sedona. Even though you have to drive to get around Arizona, road tripping is always fun. The major cities aren't that far from each other. In total, we didn't drive for more than 2 or 3 hours at a time to get to each place we went. Sedona is about a 2 hour drive from Phoenix. This guy loves doing all the driving (at least I think he does), so I can help navigate, take photos and make sure we have adequate fuel, meaning food and drinks. 

Sedona is full of beautiful red rock formations. The main scenic drive through Sedona is known as the "Red Rock Scenic Byway" and it is home to Red Rock State Park. As soon as you approach the city, the mountains glow red and emerge out of vast greenery. It has a totally different feel from Phoenix with even a bit of cooler weather than the hot desert climate of the southern cities.

Sedona mountains Arizona

As well as day trippers looking for something different than Phoenix, the area is also famous for having some kind of sacred energy known as "vortexes." There are vortex sites around Sedona that healers believe circle energy. The redness of the mountains is caused by iron oxide "rusting" over the sandstone and limestone that eroded over millions of years. One great scenic view in Sedona is Airport Rd. At sunset, hundreds of people go up there to see the red and orange light hit the colourful mountains. I would say avoid the downtown as much as possible. 

Sedona Arizona

That is why we stayed about 10 minutes from the downtown at the quiet Butterfly Garden Inn. Nestled in Oak Creek Canyon, we found some peace and relaxation in these quaint cabins. Don't mistake quaint for shabby, as these cabins were incredibly cozy, clean and full of amenities. There are 18 cabins ranging from one and two bedroom to full suites with kitchens. There is also a general store and restaurant attached with everything you need to for "roughing it." 

The Butterfly Garden Inn Sedona Arizona

In the morning, breakfast in a lovely basket with mason jars was delivered to our cabin door. The basket was full of juice, milk, cereal, pastries and yoghurt. I mean, it was like Disney-like birds carried it over to our cabin while I sung to them or something. I loved waking up to the sounds of nature feeling like we were in the middle of the forest. 

The cabin was perfect for unwinding with a fireplace and a good book. One of the nights, we ordered pizza from a local restaurant and brought it back to the room for dinner. Then I was classy as usual and bought a mini box of wine from the general store. It was a nice change from a hotel for once. 

The Butterfly Garden Inn Sedona Arizona

On the first morning in Sedona we drove not even 5 minutes from the cabins to the entrance of the West fork trail at Oak Creek Canyon. The easy trail follows the creek as you see canyon walls of up to 200ft. Oak Creek Canyon is a river gorge that flows between Sedona and Flagstaff. You could say it is like the "smaller cousin" of the Grand Canyon. It is actually the second most popular tourist destination in Arizona besides the Grand Canyon. 

Oak Creek Canyon Sedona

We criss crossed from forested areas, to canyon walls and then back out to dipping our feet in the creek. Some people were simply sitting by the creek with picnics admiring nature. Sometimes on a vacation, you need to walk out in nature for a few hours to clear your head. That can feel even better sometimes traveling than sitting by a pool or shopping. We're not even serious hikers. Somehow we just want to walk everywhere whenever we go traveling. 

Oak Creek Canyon Sedona Arizona

Oak Creek Canyon Sedona Arizona

After a few hours of walking, we headed back to our cabin for lunch and then back to downtown to pick up a Pink Jeep Tour. As soon as you drive up to Sedona, you will see these pink jeeps everywhere. Hundreds of people get on the jeeps every day for an off-road tour. Honestly, as cheesy as it sounds, it was fun to let someone else drive around the terrain for us. There was no way I would drive an ATV myself through some of those rough roads, even though the driver let me "pretend" with a posed photo:

Pink Jeep Tours Sedona Arizona

Sedona Arizona

Sedona Arizona mountains

The tour guide was knowledgable of the rock formations and mountain names, as well as a skilled off-road driver. It was also a chance to take a lot of photos as we zoomed by all of the mountains. Sedona was the filming location for many old Western movies and you may recognize it from those car commercials where trucks are standing at the top of mountains. Elvis even filmed a movie "Stay Away Joe" around there where he played a cattle rancher.

Sedona Arizona red mountains

When you think travel destinations with hundreds to millions of years of history, the U.S might not be the first place to come to mind. Depending on who you talk to, the earth might not even have existed yet. There was an odd moment during the tour where the driver tried to test the waters with our group as to whether or not we believed the earth was more than 6000 years old. Our tour group was the two of us and a family from California, so he eventually figured out that yes, we believed the rock formations were formed over millions of years. 

Sedona red mountains Arizona

Whatever you believe, it is a stunning place. The photo above looks like a backdrop from a photo studio. As you will see from the rest of the photos I will post later including the Grand Canyon, there are more scenic views than you can shake a stick at. Whether you want to find them by car, hiking or jeep, they are there to explore and admire.  

Sedona downtown Arizona

Stay tuned for part 2 of my Arizona trip for the rest of Sedona and The Grand Canyon. Learn more about Arizona with the Lonely Planet Southwest USA guidebook. 
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