Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Quick Pickles

I was on CTV Morning news this morning, pinch hitting for chefs who are cooking for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society's Sustainable Gourmet Fundraiser.

I needed to do something that we could pull off in 3 minutes, and while there are several complex items on the Sustainable Gourmet menu, like sous vide bison and balsamic pearls, I decided I could do a carrot pickle, the garnish for Chef Darby Kells' trout fritters, without much trouble.

Here's the recipe for anyone who missed my instructions. And here is the original Epicurious recipe that I adapted it from.

Quick Carrot Pickle

Makes enough brine for a pint of carrot pickle.

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 T. sugar
1 T. pickling salt or sea salt
1/2 T. each peppercorns and mustard seed (I used a peppercorn mix, and a combination of yellow and brown mustard seeds)
1/2 lb. fresh garden carrots, sliced into sticks that will fit in your jar

Put all ingredients except the carrots in a pot an bring to a boil. In the meantime, pack the carrots into a clean pint jar, or two half-pint jars. Once the mixture is boiling and all the salt and sugar has dissolved, pour the hot brine over the carrots, cover, let cool and place in the refrigerator. Chill for two hours or overnight.

These quick pickles will last 3-4 weeks in your fridge, and then you can make fresh ones when they're all gone. It's easy to have great vegetable pickles with minimal fuss or mess.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

6 (and more) Ways to Eat Dandelions

I have been eating dandelions more and more lately. I don't always forage for them myself. Dandelion greens are actually available quite often in the organic produce section of grocery stores.

I also signed up for a Community Supported Foraging program run by Wild Infusions in Love, Saskatchewan. They deliver one box a month, sent by bus, full of wild-foraged foods and medicines, like Labrador tea, wild rose petals, nettles, wild mushrooms, and of course, dandelion greens.

Dandelions, while the bane of lawn enthusiasts, are drastically undervalued as a food and medicinal plant. They exist in North America because European immigrants brought the seeds with them. They considered dandelions so useful they couldn't imagine life without them. And now, it's hard for us to imagine life without them, too. But only because they are such a widespread weed.

The entire dandelion plant is edible. If you ever dared to taste one of the flowers, you'd be amazed how sweet they are. The leaves can be substituted for any dark, leafy green. Just be aware that they are sometimes quite bitter. If you are not accustomed to bitter flavours, it may be an acquired taste. But that bitter flavour is one of the tell-tale signs that dandelions are really, really good for you.

My sister studies herbology, and she is adamant that everyone should include more dandelion in their diet. They are considered a liver and kidney tonic, and help cleanse the body and improve digestion. Occasionally I try to wean myself off coffee, and when I do, I often use Dandy Blend, a commercially available coffee substitute, containing dandelion root, that I find surprisingly enjoyable in spite the lack of caffeine.

So if you were wondering what you might do with those pesky plants studding your lawn, here are a few ideas, curated from the internet, to get you started.

1. A simple salad (thanks, Martha Stewart!)
2. Dandelion greens with a warm hazelnut vinaigrette (I haven't tried this, but it's on my 'to make' list, so I thought I'd share)
3. Replace any dark leafy greens or wild greens in a recipe. I did that for this Hortopita, combining dandelion greens and chard mixed with feta cheese. My kids weren't keen on the bitterness, and my husband topped it with more cheese and said he liked it then. I liked it as is.
4. Make liqueur! Jenieats offers a guideline for cordial. I have tasted dandelion mead, made from dandelion honey, which was delicious. I love making liqueurs, because they tend to really capture the flavour of whatever fruit or herb you use. I'm going to have to try this.
5. Make dandelion cookies. Yes, you heard that right. My sister swears by them.
6. Make dandelion fritters. Sweet or savoury!

Eat The Weeds offers a nice list of recipes, from dandelion bread to dandelion wine.

The Kitchn offers up another 10 dandelion recipes that all sound delicious. Try them!

I get the sense that you can use them anywhere, in anything. If you need me, I'll be out picking dandelions.

Note: be sure you are foraging from a pesticide-free zone!


Monday, March 30, 2015

San Francisco-Inspired Weekly Meal Plan

This week's meal plan is something of a balance between my memories of San Francisco and the reality of April in Saskatoon. We can't all have cardoons growing in our backyards in the middle of winter, and we can't just pull shellfish out of the bay when you live in a landlocked location.

Hence, my dinner menus this week are relatively light, but still making use of what is available in the stores, and what I have to use in my freezer (read: meat).

Monday

Molly Katzen's West Indian Red Beans and Coconut Rice with Collard Greens

I made this tonight, and while I had to ixnay the chili flakes from the red beans and the Tabasco from the collard greens so that my kids could handle the spice level, I was gratified to see D power through everything on his plate, and announce that he loved the cooked greens. "Cabbage?" he asked. "Collards," I said. "Kind of like a cross between cabbage and spinach." "Mmmm!" he said.

My husband was also a fan of the collards. We had the collard salad last night, and he said, "Can we have collards every day?"

Before we had kids we'd often have a beans and rice meal. But then our little kids rejected those kinds of meals. While G wasn't super keen on the meal, he is also recovering from a cold, so we'll test him again once his appetite returns.

Tuesday
Grilled lamb chops
Ottolenghi's Orange and date salad, posted by Stacey Snacks
Ottolenghi's Carrot & mung bean salad

I bought myself Plenty More after Christmas after I'd accepted that no one had fulfilled that wish from my Christmas list. I haven't spent enough time with it, but I intend to start.

Wednesday
Mark Bittman's Sesame Glazed Brussels Sprouts with Chicken from We Gotta Eat
Soba Noodles

Thursday
We're off to my parents' place for Easter on Friday morning, and I want to do a 'finger food' theme on the last day of school before a week off. I've decided to introduce my kids to cheese fondue. I'll hopefully give a report on how that goes...bread and cheese and dried beef, apples and grapes...how could it be anything but delightful?

San Francisco, Part 2 and Transition to Home

I've now been home for a few days; I landed into a frenzy of preparation for a presentation and some other events, so I was slow to get back to this. But San Francisco holds a large and fond place in my recent memory.

Tuesday, March 24

My day started with trying to wrap up my blog post which made me late for the keynote talk at the conference. I was looking for somewhere to grab a quick snack on my way to the conference (shouldn't be difficult, right?). I stopped at Boudin Bakery, thinking I could get some kind of pastry. While the latte they made was good, the cheese muffin I picked up tasted more like cake for breakfast.

I realized then how little sugar (except in the form of sparkling wine) I had actually been eating. I chose not to eat the muffin and instead gave it to a homeless man and carried on my way. There were several interesting shops just outside the hotel in Embarcadero Centre, so I decided to take my chances. Paramo Coffee was the answer. I grabbed a sweet potato paleo muffin that felt MUCH better to eat. It gave me pause, in fact. Maybe I should be eating like that more often...

Lunch at the conference that day was much more enjoyable. The Hyatt had set out a buffet of salads, fresh seasonal vegetables, soup and more. I filled up my plate with salad, veggies, and a little piece of chicken, and felt great about the meal.

I wasn't sure whether I would connect with anyone for dinner that night, but I had set my sights on The Slanted Door at the Ferry Building. My husband and I had lunch there about 10 years ago, so I was curious to see whether it had stayed popular and current—and more importantly, delicious.

By the end of the day of intensive downloads of information on web content, I was pretty much ready to go off on my own. So I headed to the Ferry Building and discovered that The Slanted Door is indeed still hopping. So much so that I snagged the very last chair at the bar. After that they were telling people there was a 45 minute wait for even one person at the bar.

Service at the bar was excellent. The bartender walked me through options for matching wine to the food I had ordered: green papaya salad, uni (also on my bucket list) and shrimp and green onion dumplings. He started me with a Gruner Veltliner, which was perfect with the salad. It also went well with the wild Mendocino uni.

More to say on uni, otherwise known as sea urchin. It's the Big Thing right now, and I had never had the chance to try it. Slanted Door serves it raw, over an avocado (I think) lime cream, topped with flaky salt and caviar. It was quite highly seasoned, with lime and salt coming through, with an undercurrent of the weird, briny 'other' flavour of the uni. The creamy avocado purée put the uni texture in context, since it was less creamy, and actually had some structure next to the avocado cream. The pop of the caviar and crunch of the salt added more texture.

I reserve judgement on uni until I've tried it once more. As a good friend of mine says, "I'll try anything twice."

We did a bit of back and forth on figuring out the wine for the shrimp and chive dumplings. The bartender suggested a Riesling, which was just too sweet for me. He found another option, although I think I would have been better off to stick with the Gruner Veltliner.

I'm amazed though, at the continued popularity of the Slanted Door. 10 years or more in, and they're still packed.

Wednesday, March 25

I opted for a smoothie again this morning, and showed up less late, but still late, for the keynote. Luckily, the whole conference seemed to be running late, so I didn't miss much. I had lunch with some different people, including the organizer of the conference, and again kept it light in anticipation of my evening adventures.

This evening, I had tickets to a Howell Mountain spring wine tasting at the Presidio, a former military base in Golden Gate Park. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was glad to have received the Bottlenotes email promoting the event, which just happened to be taking place while I was in San Fran.

The evening was a wonderful education in Cabernet Sauvignon. While some vintners had other varietals, all of them offered at least one Cab. I tried Cabs ranging in price from $45 to $300 a bottle, and got a good cross-section from this specialized mountain region. The most memorable were a Cab Franc from Black Sears Estate Wines, which, strangely, had the aroma of baby diapers (not a bad thing, overall). Arkenstone wines offered a Cab blend that was unbelievably balanced and pure old world style. I loved those. Roberts + Rogers had a fairly pricy Cab that tasted meaty—as in beefy— and delicious. It was super fun, and I spoke with both some interesting vintners, and a very entertaining gentleman named Frank. If you ever see book published, titled PIMP: Personally Invested in Managing People, that's Frank. I think he'll be famous very soon.

From there, I was going to try to get in to a new and crazy popular restaurant called State Bird Provisions. I had hoped that I could sneak into the bar, as I'd been managing to do at other popular places, but no luck here. I arrived at 7:15 and was told that there would be nothing available at the bar until 9:45. Truly, I'm not even sure how that is even possible.

But they directed me next door to The Progress, owned by the same people, and set up in the same style of dim sum inspired small plates. I was seated almost instantly at the bar next to a restaurant manager from The Chalkboard in the Napa area. We chatted while he finished up his meal, and I started mine.

The menu changes daily, but on the day I ate there, I had:

  • grilled lap cheong (Chinese sausage) with salted chili paste
  • tempura of bouchot muscles and seville togarashi aioli (chili citrus aioli was fantastic)
  • shaved cauliflower with herbs and pig fries (that's pig ears in the form of French fries)
  • butter clams on the half shell with kimchi piccata and snap peas
  • Pecorino 'roti' with perigord truffle buttermilk
  • roasted mushrooms and kale with local wakame kraut (best thing ever, even if kale is so 2014)
  • black butter butternut squash with caramelized onion and swiss chard (also fantastic. Heck, it was all fantastic)
And for dessert, I had poppyseed angel food cake with Sicilian pistachio and mascarpone. Yum.

So that was my last meal in San Francisco, except for the delicious heuvos rancheros prepared by authentic Mexicans at the SFO airport the next morning. 

When I arrived home in Saskatoon, I was of course glad to be home but was struck instantly by the prevalence of meat and starches after living on shellfish and vegetables (with frequent garnishes of salted pork). I missed that style of eating.

I didn't get a chance to cook right away, because we had friends in town. At Aroma Restobar in the Radisson, I skipped the steak special and ordered the 'breakfast trout', served with a 'bacon and spinach soufflé' which was really more like scrambled eggs with spinach and bacon and a piece of oatmeal crusted trout on top. There were also a lot of potatoes. I ate the trout, and my vegetables, but skipped most of the scrambled eggs and the potatoes. My husband happily cleaned up my plate.

The next day our friend generously offered to order pizza for dinner after we had classic bacon and eggs for brunch. Tasty, but again, not quite what I had been used to.

Sunday, I made gourmet macaroni and cheese for my kids at lunch, because it's one of their favourites, but I didn't eat much. Instead I made a meal plan for the week and took the first step toward eating more like San Francisco by making a collard salad with cashews and lime. That was more like it. And D was keen on what he called the "cashew pudding" that you spread on the plate under the salad.

I'm glad the Canadian winter food desert is over as well, so we can get more vegetables from closer to home. I found an organic cucumber, Canadian grown, in Safeway yesterday. Hallelujah! My fresh meal plan for this week will be up next.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

West Coast Adventures: Vancouver, Point Reyes, San Fran

I keep suffering from the frustrating situation of having lots to write about, but no time to do so. But what's going on right now is just too good not to share. I have been having days of epic food adventures while I'm traveling for work and a conference. Here's a 'taste' of how I mix food and pleasure:

Friday, March 20: We Overdid It

It was an early morning (5am) wakeup call to catch my flight to Vancouver. I traveled alongside a neighbour and her daughters, so there was no sleep on the plane (that's okay, sleep is never my priority, and it was nice to have some time to visit with her), and arrived in Vancouver in time to make my way to Richmond for a business lunch. I tried to not overdo it at the all-you-can-eat sushi place, because I knew we were going to be hitting a few restaurants that evening.

I met up with my girlfriend downtown around 3:30, and after a quick trip to Long Tall Sally (the only store with clothes that fit this Amazon), we headed around the corner to have a cocktail at Hawksworth. Hawksworth is currently listed as the best restaurant in Vancouver, the second best restaurant in Canada, and the chef won bronze at this year's Gold Medal Plates competition. I have been hearing about it everywhere, and when I looked at the menu, I knew I had to try it out.

We started with champagne cocktails (you'll notice this is a theme), but this one blew all the others out of the water, as it included crème de violet, and smelled like a bouquet as I brought it close to take a sip. The combination of aroma and flavour were fascinating. My girlfriend's drink was more classic, and she said that while she liked the smell of mine, she preferred the flavour of hers. Which was good, because I wasn't interested in sharing.

We sampled a few appetizers, including KFC (what?!), which at Hawksworth stands for Korean Fried Cauliflower. It was a gorgeous combination of creamy cauliflower florets, crispy skin (those florets have lots of nooks and crannies to create even more crunch, not to mention surface for the red chile—maybe gochujang?—hot sauce).

We followed that with crispy fried oysters, which were served on a wooden board dusted with something that I couldn't quite place, only I knew it instantly reminded me of fish and chips with vinegar on them. That's because it was malt vinegar dust (of course it was!). There was a fantastic piquillo dipping sauce that we were tempted to just spoon up and eat on its own.

I also had to try the foie gras torchon, which was served in a way that was completely new and unexpected: it was shaved and served over coconut tapioca, exotic fruit and a macadamia nut granola.  They mentioned that some people were having a hard time with it because they were hoping for a more traditional presentation. I was completely engaged with the combination of flavours and textures: the rich, silky foie, made lighter and more airy by being grated, the crunch of the savoury granola, the sweet fruit, and tapioca pearls... It was an amazingly playful dish, and I would have it for dessert (or breakfast) any day.

We moved on from there to Blacktail, a new restaurant in Gastown, where we had another take on oysters, this time raw with a cucumber foam and fresh grated horseradish. Best oysters I've had in a long while, and they haven't been matched since, actually, and you will see that I have been eating a lot of oysters. We also sampled the beef tartare with truffle mayo and kale purée. It was studded with pickles and other savouries, but was surprisingly rich (not sure why I was surprised that raw beef came across as rich, but there you go). More champagne cocktails, this one called the Blacktail, and then we moved on to our dinner reservation.

That's right. We had two full on appetizer experiences at two amazing restaurants and THEN we went to dinner. I was truthfully quite satisfied at that point, but we were meeting two other friends that I haven't seen in a while and my girlfriend had told me great things about La Quercia, so we went.

Did we have to order the seven course tasting menu? No, we certainly did not. But when faced with the opportunity to let the chef just choose dishes for us, how could we say no? Things started getting a little fuzzy part way through the seven courses (likely due to the excellent Italian wine we were drinking), so I may not remember all of them...there was a sous vide veal with tuna purée and capers; braised pork belly and scallops with puréed carrots; a fennel salad in anchovy vinaigrette; agnolotti with ricotta and chard in a brown butter sauce; a combination of two pastas: amatriciana, and something else I can't remember; braised beef; a cheese platter; and a platter of two desserts: lemon torte and flourless chocolate cake. Then, because we'd been mildly harassed by some very drunk men at a nearby table, they brought us a second dessert: chocolate salami (a chocolate log studded with nuts and sliced to look like salami).

All fantastic. But definitely, considering the rest of the evening, too much.

We had made plans to check out a new breakfast restaurant before I had to catch my plane the next day, but when I woke up the next morning, I was nowhere near hungry. "Kim," I said, "I have to tap out. I can't possibly eat a full on breakfast right now." Instead, we drove to the airport so I could check in early, and we had a sad, sad airport breakfast. But it was all I could handle after a night of fabulous excess.

Saturday, March 21: Point Reyes Station

I was heading to San Francisco a day before my conference started so I could connect with a friend in Point Reyes Station. That meant I got to drive the Pacific Coast Highway along the coast and through redwood forests. Beautiful, and so much fun to drive that curvy, hilly highway! I was grateful to not have my boys with me, because I was pretty sure they'd be puking in the back seat.

By the time I got to Point Reyes Station and connected with my friend, it was after 7 pm. I had only really eaten the sad airport breakfast, so I was getting pretty hungry. The whole Point Reyes region is a huge tourist area, and we discovered the hard way that EVERYONE was into dinner in Point Reyes on a Saturday night. We finally secured an 8:45 reservation at Nick's Cove in Marshall.

While it was dark when we got there, I could see this would be a gem of a place. It's right on the water, and you can even order food down at the boathouse, where they have a wood stove you can curl up next to. In the restaurant they have a wood burning fireplace where you can make your own s'mores with house made graham crackers and marshmallows.

We signed on for fresh oysters, bbq'd oysters, and oysters Mornay, and then instead of ordering a main course, opted to share some fantastic side dishes, like warm mushroom salad with ham, celery root and truffle vinaigrette; chard with duck confit; a salad with pecans, goat cheese and buttermilk dressing; burrata cheese with kumquats; and fennel with Meyer lemon risotto. Luckily my friend's husband arrived and helped us finish off all the dishes, because our eyes had been bigger than our stomachs. But it was all. So. Good.

Sunday, March 22: Foodie Serendipity

I spent Sunday morning basking in the gentle sunlight outside a nearby deli and organic market, waiting for the local metaphysical store to open. That's right, in a rural region of northern California, the only two stores on a country road are an organic market and deli, and metaphysical store. Is it any wonder I love it here?

I sipped a latte, tucked into a pretty fantastic breakfast sandwich of very fresh bread, ham, bacon, avocado, eggs, cheese and picante sauce, and watched the world go by. My friend and I visited some more and then I headed back to San Francisco to spend the night there before my conference started the next morning.

After returning my rental car, I checked into the Hotel Mark Twain, because why wouldn't I surround myself with Mark Twain quotes if I can, right? I walked a block to Kin Khao, a recommended Thai restaurant. It was a short wait for a spot at the bar, and I immediately honed in the Namprik Long Rua, a "funky, spicy, umami-bomb Kapi shrimp paste relish, served with caramelized pork jowl, crispy Passmore catfish, salted duck egg and vegetables." The disclaimer under it said, "don't order this if you're new to Thai food."

I struck up a conversation with one of the people that worked at the restaurant who was sitting next to me. She admitted it was technically her day off, but she still came to eat there anyway. Good sign, I thought. It turns out I was sitting next to the owner, which eventually came out in our conversation. When her food arrived, she kept offering me a taste, so beside the Namprik, I also sampled some fantastic chili lime squid, and equally spicy and funky steamed clams. I was in heaven, and grateful for the chance to share food stories with the owner.

Monday, March 23: Making up for conference food

I opted for a smoothie for breakfast and walked 20 minutes to my conference hotel. The conference itself is proving to be very useful already, but from a food perspective, our conference lunch was the most disappointing thing I had eaten in a while. When our workshop ended at 4pm, I walked the half block to the Ferry Building, and reveled in the food on offer there. I sat at the bar at the Hog Island Oyster Company, next to a couple of other women traveling on business, and of course the woman next to me does similar work to me, so we talked about how we get what the other does (in this case, running interference in communication between scientists and the marketing world).

After a dozen oysters and a glass of bubbles, I happily carried on my way, and picked up a fresh pressed root vegetable juice to make up for some of the excesses of the last few days.

I had a few minutes before the conference reception that evening, so I did a bit more research on nearby restaurants and discovered that Boulevard was only a block away. It had abalone on offer as an appetizer, and since that is on my 'must-try' list, I decided to stop in there before I headed back to my hotel. Close to the end of the reception, I ran into one of the people that had been in our workshop earlier that day, and we discovered a mutual love of food, so she came with me.

Even though the restaurant looked packed, we were instantly seated at the chef's table, which (delightfully) gave us a view of the chefs at work. We sampled the best scallops I've tasted in a very long time, as well as the abalone (delicious), and told food stories while the chef in front of us sliced meat and nodded approvingly at our conversation. He then suggested a couple of other restaurant options, which I may just have to try out in the next couple of days. Or do I go back to Kin Khao? Kin told me I should really try the curries...

So many restaurants, so little time...

Did I mention I'm blissfully happy?






Wednesday, February 18, 2015

My Own 'Date Night In'

Thank you for your patience, dear readers. I have been away far too long, working under an insane deadline for a web content project. I had so much more time for blogging when I wasn't working full time!

But I would like to share my own recent experience with a Date Night In.

I was inspired by a speaker at last year's Food Bloggers of Canada conference. Ashley Rodriguez, of Not Without Salt fame, was about to release her second book, titled Date Night In. The idea sounded intriguing. Something I hadn't even considered before.

When my kids were smaller, and I was more housebound overall, the concept of a date night in sounded horrible. I just wanted to get the hell out. Besides that, I was struggling to continue as a local dining columnist, which meant any and every rare date opportunity had to involve dining out at my next review location.

Now that my kids aren't waking up every two hours to nurse, and we can get through a movie from 8:30 to 11PM without someone waking up crying, and now that the intensity of my work life has increased exponentially (it's good, I'm not complaining), I find the prospect of a quiet night at home, eating dinner together after the kids go to sleep, much more appealing.

The event was not without challenges. First, was explaining to my kids why we weren't going to eat dinner with them. Since we almost always eat together, this was not going to go unnoticed. Then came G's fretful questions:
"If you're going on a date, who will look after us?" We're not going anywhere, sweetie, we'll be right here the whole time.
"How come I never get to have a date?"
How do I even answer that? What can I say kid, you live a life of abject deprivation.

My own challenge with the concept of a date night in after kids are in bed is that we'll be eating late. The idea of a heavy meal late in the evening didn't really appeal to me. My husband wasn't much help. When I asked him what he'd like to eat on our 'date', he said, "well, steak sounds good..." Good, yes. Not so much on the light side though.

My own approach, whenever I get to cook a meal that my kids aren't going to eat, is to fit in the things that I like that they don't: spice! mushrooms!

I started building a meal plan around steak, using what we had in the house as much as possible, and also fitting in some of my cravings, while not going overboard with dishes that were too heavy so late at night.

Here's what I came up with:
T-bone steaks on the grill, seasoned with smoked salt and smoked peppercorns and topped with blue cheese
Roasted butternut squash with spicy onions (spicy, see?)
Braised hardy greens with mixed mushrooms (mushrooms!), from Nava Atlas' Wild About Greens
...and red wine of course...Altos de Luzon to be exact.

The Universe stepped in to up the romance quotient. The steaks were seasoned, the squash was roasting, and I was just prepping the ingredients for the braise, when I suggested to my husband that he light a fire in the fireplace. Then the power went out.

"I guess I'd better light the fire sooner than later, eh?" he said. First he got some candles so I could continue preparing dinner.

I did a quick inventory of what needed an alternate fuel to electricity. My range is gas, but the oven is a combination of gas and electric, which means it kicked out when the power went out. I decided to switch the pan of roasting squash to the outdoor grill, hoping that we had enough propane for both the squash and the steaks.

We didn't have enough propane in the tank that was on the barbecue, but we had a backup, so my husband did some scrambling, swapping out propane tanks, hauling in wood, and lighting a fire.

Our meal was by far more romantic by candlelight. So much so, that when the power came back on midway through, we just turned out the lights and continued with the candlelight. I was relieved that we wouldn't have to worry about frozen pipes or piling the kids into our bed to keep warm without a furnace overnight. Modern convenience is much preferred, even if it means candlelight is optional.

Romantic candle-lit dinner for two; who wouldn't love a date night in?
Our meal was wonderful. I was pleased with how all the flavours blended. We hit all the elements: sweet squash, spicy onions, creamy goat cheese, pungent blue cheese, earthy greens and mushrooms... I marvelled at how everything that goes well with steak (robust greens, garlic, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, red wine) can be found in a vegan side dish (oh, the irony). We finished our meal warm, comfortably full, with the flavours still swirling on our tastebuds and ready to skip dessert in favour of more romance.

We're sold on date nights in. I'll keep you posted on the next one!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Slow Food Saskatoon Boreal Feast Event

I didn't post about this earlier because I was in the midst of planning and executing the event. dee Hobsbawn-Smith and I just co-hosted a six course, small plates dinner, matched with wine, to celebrate Michele Genest's new book The Boreal Feast. Michele honoured us with her presence, and we cooked recipes from her book for the event.

I haven't done any catering or hosting of large events for a couple of years. But I knew I wanted this event to happen, and I jumped at the chance to offer both my help and my house as a venue.

My house isn't very big, but we'd hosted up to 45 people before, so I figured 30, for a 'stand-up' dinner, would be manageable.

It wasn't until the Monday before the event, after it had sold out, that I wondered at my own sanity. Why did I think it was a good idea to sell tickets to an event at my house, for 30 people, potentially strangers? It was too late to do anything but wonder and make sure I did my best to make it a success.

And of course, I remembered, it IS Saskatoon after all. In any group of 30 people, I'm bound to know at least a couple of them.

So the menu was this:

Welcome course
Modernist Celery & Olives, Grilled Halloumi, Hakan Sarkaker's Thin Bread, Smoked Saskatchewan Whitefish Spread, Juniper Aioli
Served with dee's Market Sangria

First Plate
Toasted Sunflower Seed Soup, Finnish Pulla Bread
Served with Torreon de Paredes Reserve Chardonnay

Second Plate
Buckwheat Blini, Walnut-Mushroom Filling
Served with Melipal Malbec Rose

Palate Cleanser
Endive, Daikon & Kohlrabi Salad with Walnuts and Cranberries, Cranberry Vinaigrette

Next Plate
Goat sausage with juniper and blueberries, Turnip Gratin
Served with Medeiros Red wine

Sweet Plate
Five cookies (spruce jelly thumbprint cookies, Kolakakor, Smoked labrador tea shortbreads, wild cranberry biscotti, sugar cookies with candied lemon)
One meringue (rosewater and rose petal!)
Coffee, tea

The wine was recommended by Doug Reichel of Fine Wines Saskatchewan, and matched beautifully with the food. dee's son Dailyn, a pastry chef at NOtaBLE in Calgary, fell in love with the Medeiros, so I sent him home with a bottle.

Speaking of Dailyn, thank all the gods that he was there. Reflecting back on the night, I couldn't imagine having pulled it off without him. He was dressing salads, dishing soup, grilling halloumi and goat sausage and washing plates, while dee was plating dishes, orchestrating the courses and doing the last bits of seasoning, and I was playing hostess and telling people where to put their coats, pouring wine, and setting out the cookies and coffee. Had we not had three sets of hands, we either would have just made it work, or eventually someone would have taken pity on us and offered to wash a round of plates. As it was, everyone got to enjoy their evening, and Dailynn had fun grilling and cutting vegetables, since most days he is baking bread.

I'm delighted to now have a copy of The Boreal Feast and I have a couple of favourite recipes from the evening, and others I can't wait to try. I was enamoured with the magical elements of both Harkan Sarkakar's thin bread (it's just seeds, mixed with cornstarch and boiling water, and then you bake it in a low oven for a long time. It makes a sturdy, seedy cracker that I will be making again) and the cream of sunflower seed soup (it starts out as seeds floating in broth, along with onions and roasted garlic, but then you purée it and it turns into this velvety, buttery, silky and comforting cream soup. Amazing!).

I'm also fascinated by the prospects of harvesting spruce tips next spring, and using them as a fresh herb, or drying them for later use. I can just walk out into my front yard and pick them off our massive spruce tree, which I now see as having renewed purpose.

My night was made when a woman who was born in Finland tasted the Pulla bread that originates in Finland. She proclaimed that dee and Dailyn had done it perfectly, and that it brought a tear to her eye, remembering her mother's Pulla. At that moment, I decided it had all been worth it.

And what was the 'it' that had all been worth it? It wasn't too serious. I'd done worse before, like hosted something like that on my own. In that case I wouldn't have been quite as ambitious with the number of courses and what was in them. I'd be doing a lot more make-ahead/serve yourself kind of stuff, rather than plating every course. dee, you amaze me!

Most of my work had to be done on the Saturday, and it involved shopping, baking the thin bread, cranberry biscotti, turnip gratin and sunflower soup (vegetarian and with chicken broth). That didn't seem like much until I realized that it was 2pm and I hadn't finished my shopping, and that the thin bread (for which I was making four batches) required an hour and 20 minutes in the oven.

I quickly revised my plans for a date night with my husband (lucky thing we had gone out on a whim the night before) and advised him that we would be ordering in while I waited for stuff to come out of the oven.

The cooking took place between 4 and 11:30pm on Saturday, which left me time to play league volleyball from 9-noon on Sunday, and then get right back into prep work. Sunday was a long day, but an overall success once people got over their initial discomfort with the close quarters, and began visiting with the other guests.

I did know about a third of the people there, and now I know the rest of them! We got great feedback, Michele got to sell a pile of her books, and we wrapped up the night with Dailyn our saviour doing the king's share of the cleanup (if the king were to do cleanup, that is) and then having a glass of wine or liqueur (Michele's cookbook has several liqueur recipes as well, and I lined up my own collection of fruit liqueurs for her to try) and putting our feet up for a few minutes. We crawled into bed around midnight, and my mind stopped spinning around 1:30.

While it was a gratifying experience all around, I have to say that until my kids are older, I won't be able to do this very often. My parents graciously looked after my kids for the weekend, even though G had a nasty cold and barfed in their car on the way back to the farm. While I enjoyed the unbroken rest that came with not having the boys around, I missed them.

While I couldn't have kept the house clean, accomplished my to-do list and kept my sanity with the kids around, D was not convinced that he should be missing a party where food was happening. So I think next time (because yes, there WILL be a next time. I am compelled to do these kinds of events), maybe we'll find a different venue, so that my family has somewhere to be while I help with the cooking.

In the meantime, we're enjoying our mini-family reunion as well as the leftovers. I have cookies and buckwheat blini galore in the freezer, and some halved lemons are now being preserved for some Moroccan adventures to come. We had sunflower seed soup for lunch, and I spread some of the juniper aioli on some jackfish fillets and broiled them for our dinner, served alongside the turnip gratin (which the kids rejected outright—although D ate two servings of jackfish), and leftover salad fixings. I will be eating pulla bread until it is gone. It is just so good with a bit of butter on it!

But the cooking never stops. In the midst of final cleanups, I turned some slightly old goat milk (the kids drink it, but they were away for the weekend, and it was a little too 'goaty' by the time they returned) into ricotta, and I fried some leftover halloumi for G as a mid-afternoon snack. Tomorrow I will be turning some turkey stock and curly endive that I found at the Farmers' Market into Italian wedding soup, and I have volunteered to bring Halloween cookies for both boys' parties on Friday.

I decided that I should make some kind of decorating cookie in the hopes of using up some of the orange sugar I bought for the boys' birthday cupcakes. I have a pumpkin cookie cutter, so then decided that I should make cookies that contain actual pumpkin. Bless the inter web, someone thought of it before me. So I'll be making pumpkin gingerbread cookies, shaped like pumpkins, for Friday. That's how we roll.