Archive for February, 2010

Mmmmm…fattening

Posted in Thoughts with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Thanks to my wonderful mother, I recently had some homemade french fries done in the traditional (read:”right” style, going by the Larousse) wherein the fries are cooked briefly in oil, removed and rested temporarily, and then immersed again until light golden. The results were delectable, to say the least. Where one can normally assume that most fries have a crisp exterior, soft interior, and decent mouth-feel and flavour, these excelled on all counts. They had a light, almost fluffy quality to them, with a surprisingly distinct surface texture-crisp, but not dry to the point of detriment.

They made a strong impression on me, to say the least. I’ll be honest, on my money, it’s generally going to be a nice pub or sushi joint when it’s time to eat out, rather than anything overly fancy (the visits to those sorts will be accompanied by distinctly more photos than has been the average, this far, and probably fairly emphatic musing as to how I wished I could eat there exclusively. My first visit to Canoe, a couple years back, haunted my taste buds for months. For a while, I could recall every flavour and moment of the meal in exacting detail). Due to this, I’m fairly hyper-critical of the perceived value of lower-end food, and love discovering cheap restos that do staple grease really well. Some, like the Auld Spot, on the Danforth strip in Toronto, excel at the fry du jour, the sweet potato fry. Others are clearly just deep frying the frozen oven fries, which produces middling results. Most fail to deliver something to the table that is both warm, fried properly, and flavourful.

The wind up of all this? While I still aim to try out some of the higher-end restos that offer fries (former JK Wine Bar, Les Halles in New York), I am utterly convinced that with enough tweaking and testing of all variables involved, I can create the perfect French fries at home. I aim to test various potatoes, prep methods, oil temps, until I’m completely pleased with the results.

I’ll keep you posted

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Cheese shouldn’t taste like lollipops, nor test my gag reflex.

Posted in Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Seriously, what the hell?

Jessica is doing a wine & cheese course as part of her GBC baking certification program (let’s just assume it’s an elective, as that seems a little outside the baking mandate). In said course, she has to do things like drink wine, and eat cheese. Shocking, I know.

For a project coming up, she has to pair wines and cheeses. Before even getting to the wine, she decided to get a bunch of interesting new cheeses to sample. As this involved food, I decided she needed my assistance in sampling and describing them (and as you’ll quickly learn, i have to come to grips with a certain lack of expertise or vocabulary to articulate how these cheeses smell and taste).

The Cheese:

Ermite Blue (blue cheese)-A Canadian cheese, this was perforated for veining (appetizing, I know), with the molding having a greenish/blue tint. It was fairly solid to the touch, with only a mild crumb to it. It had a very mild, pleasant aroma, and when eaten, was almost creamy on the tongue. Overall, a decent cheese.

Etorki Basque-similar to a gouda, this had a pale, yellow meat with a waxed orange rind (not sure why the rind description is important, but jess felt I should mention it-As I said, still gaining that expertise). Upon applying a light pressure, the body had a slight, rubbery give to it. The smell was fairly interesting, almost like a sweetened butter. Upon hitting the tongue, it became almost powdery, and then a paste, but not unpleasantly.

Provolone-had it on enough sandwiches, skipped it.

Vacherin Friebourgeois- Washed rind, pale yellow/orange meat blah blah blah. This one was very strange-it had an almost synthetic smell and flavour to it-Almost like a sharp, acidic version of that powered parm that comes in the cans. Hard and mildly crumbly, it tasted very salty and sharp. Unfortunately, almost too sharp for my palate.

Beaufort-Apparently comparable to a gruyere, but with a much, much harsher flavour base. Honestly, it basically smelled and tasted like sweet, wet gym socks. Appetizing, no? It was also very dry, with a strong crystalline structure to it. So, mouth feel was at least somewhat interesting.

Bleu de Gex-a very interesting blue-the meat is a yellow to gray, with the mold spread throughout to such a degree that there wasn’t really any discernible veining, just lotsa blue and gray. Wax rind. The aroma was very pungent, but not entirely unpleasant-it smelled very earthy and rich. Flavour wise, it wasn’t particularly sharp, sweet, salty-it had a strong, mouth-filling flavour of an almost mushroomy earthyness (dear god, they’re invading my cheese now). Actually quite interesting, but it’d need to be paired with something for it to be palatable in larger-than-sample-size amounts.

White Stilton w/Candied Lemon Peel- Apparently a special, in-house offering from our favourite local cheese shop, Alex Farm Cheese. Jess was super excited about the idea of a stilton with some sort of candied fruit in it. I was non-comittal, but am willing to try nearly any food placed in front of me (especially in the name of school work!). Goddamn, what a horrifying mistake.

My stomach heaved just from the smell of it-Like cheese soaked in lemonade, only with an extra few cups of sugar added in for good measure. I was content to have the relationship end there-platonic at best, with only the mildest animosity on my part. But noooo, Jess egged me on, so I ate the damn thing. And yeah, it tasted like the most cloying, saccharine lemon lolly I’ve ever had, and my sample size was probably under a centimeter cubed. A CENTIMETER, YET MY MOUTH WAS FULL OF OVERWHELMING FLAVOUR.

Now, there are tons of rich foods (including various blue cheeses) that I find slowly overwhelm my tastebuds over the course of a meal-at first, it’s powerful and seductive, and then it eventually begins to feel like my tastebuds are being held hostage. I’m fine with that-it means I’m constantly aware of how the food actually tastes, and avoid having eating become a mechanical reflex. This was something else, as it felt like awfulness had detonated all over my tongue.

For the record, lemon flavoured candy in all forms is generally fantastic, and stilton is definitely acceptable in either it’s blue or white forms. The combination could even work, given a more sensible amount of candied lemon peels-if i had the barest hint of it within the cheese, it probably would’ve been a very pleasant way to end the tasting.

Instead, I’m going to go hunt some Tums down. They’re berry flavoured, so there won’t be any conflict-of-interest at the moment.

Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert? Damn my lack of satellite radio access!

Posted in Thoughts with tags , , , , , , on February 17, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Does anyone know if there’re archives for Sirius XM shows? I don’t have a subscription, and now desperately want one for a 5 week duration. Now, if this was a physical dialogue between me and you, this would be the time to ask “Oh, why do you want a subscription to satellite radio?”, and I’d have to respond, “well, silly-you clearly aren’t paying too much attention to the news” Or the title of this post.

At this point, my conversational sparring partner would probably roll their eyes and ignore me, so, I’ll spare you- It’s been announced that Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert are going to be hosting a 5 part show on Martha Stewart’s (no need to hyperlink for her, right? I’ll assume everyone is on the same page as to who she is) Sirius Channel. At her behest!(apparently they appeared on her show last year, and were such a hit that it gave genesis to this) Weird, huh? It’s called Turn & Burn, and will discuss things such as the near-pornographic advertising and embellishing used in the food industry, and have a call-in portion.

I knew Bourdain had gone from having disdain for Ripert, to open admiration (if I recall, in Kitchen Confidential, he more or less admits to being jealous of his prodigious skill), but it’s amusing to learn that they’re actually good friends now. If anything, it’s one of the things I respect Tony for-unlike most of the celebrity chefs who still rail about how much they hate celebrity chefs, he’s come to grips with it, and is able to delineate between someone who has just been commercialized and branded, to chefs who have come under the spotlight based on their own merits. I’ll probably touch more on this in the future, as it’s something that deserves a focused look, and not something I’ll just casually toss together to fill out the end of this post.

Ah well, it’s not like I’m up to date on No Reservations, so I’ll console myself with episodes of that.

El Bulli-I didn’t know ye.

Posted in Obituaries with tags , , , , , , , on February 15, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Now, I won’t go into histrionics here, but most people will admit, there’s been some celebrity death or something that has touched them in a personal way. Whether some musician had a song or album that reminds them of a special child memory, or an actor had a role that always brings a smile to ones face, most (or many, I shant speak for the majority, just the majority of that majority) create ‘relationships’ that are almost entirely one way. A restaurant you visited regularly could even strike at something deeper-bonds formed with staff, favourite dishes and what have you. Now, what if you’ve only heard of the restaurant, and its only connection to you is tenuous at best?

As I said, I’m not hysterical over the bombshell that El Bulli, the  “greatest restaurant in the world” would be closing. Still, it does give one pause-a restaurant with a waiting list in the millions (hot damn!), has been operating at a loss for the last decade. Apparently, ten years of losing money finally overcomes whatever artistic statement Ferran Adrià has been making. Fair enough-I’m not enough of an idealist to believe art can exist entirely divided from commerce.

What do I know of molecular gastronomy (or avant-garde cooking, or experimental cuisine, or whatever genre you’d classify it as, as molecular gastronomy is considered something of a misnomer)? Well, sadly, not as much as I wish-yes, I’ve had some flavoured foams on desserts, and tried some food that looked like other food, and I’ve read extensively on the subject. What I do know, is that it seems damn entertaining, and that with El Bulli closing, I’ll have to check out The Fat Duck, Alinea, or one of the other restaraunts of repute that mess around with liquid nitrogen and thematic deconstructions of staple meals, or whatever individual wild stuff they get up to.

Why? Well, I know a lot of people who cluck their tongues at the thought of it, but if I’m paying several hundred dollars for a meal, I don’t care how scintillating the conversation is. I expect atmosphere, and entertainment-make me remember every element of that meal, so I can spend the following nights, and weeks going over it in exquisite detail in my head (trust me, a sushi train restaurant can provide me with hours of entertainment, so something like this would be a bit of a step up). Taking such a unique approach to food nearly guarantees that result.  And also, LIQUID GODDAMN NITROGEN. Seriously, all my boyhood endeavours failed due to a lack of it (I was a weird kid. Now I’m a weird adult. Go figure).  Now, I can play around with it…in the name of furthering my culinary horizons…>_>.

In all fairness, it may be some time before I actually attempt anything so esoteric, as I’m still working on many of the fundamentals (eg. my pan reduction sauces still generally lack something). As well, this isn’t something I’d bust out for a monday night dinner or somesuch-good home cooking is still preferable to something someone else cooked the majority of the time.

Oh well, imaginary experimental food is nearly as good, for the moment-I never said I gave up those boyhood endeavours.

Sandwich Box-my lunchtime saviour

Posted in Reviews, Thoughts with tags , , , , on February 14, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

My 30(ish) minute lunch break is always a mad dash for food. I’m normally hurried enough in the mornings (and forgetful enough in the evenings) that I only bring a lunch a couple times a week; most of the time, it’s either whatever leftover goodies from a meal Jess made (the meals I make never seem to take the next day into account), or random canned goods that can be heated at the lunch site.

Now, as previously stated, it’s not like there’s a dearth of  restaurants in the Queen West area, but unless I feel like stretching that 30 minute lunch by another 15-20, there are definite limitations imposed o my gastronomical agenda. Enter 238 Queen St West-Across from the CityTV/MuchMusic headquarters, this little plaza held a multitude of little food counters, from burgers to bubble tea (bah!) to icecream to a million chinese places to sandwiches.

The obvious Food du Jour there was Sandwich Box-for around $10, you get a great sandwich, a side salad (baby spinach leaves, a bit of radiccio, and barely a hint of a balsamic vinegar-some employees are known to be less stingy with it, but they’re generally new to the company), and a pop(jones Orange&Cream soda is my poison of choice).  There was also Big Stan’s Burger, and a smoothie joint. These were all great options at various times, though Sandwich Box was notorious for having a fairly lengthy lineup.

Then, they closed.

More specifically, they posted a notice that they weren’t allowed to renew their lease for complaining about the plaza conditions to the management, or somesuch. I was crushed.

Then Big Stan, the Ben & Jerry’s, and most of the other higher-end places closed within a year of each other. I haven’t been in there in many, many months, but at last glance, all that’s left are a few low-end chinese places, not worth mentioning.

All of this was devastating, as Subway, McDonalds and Taco Bell/KFC aren’t exactly meals to look forward to.

Fast forward some un-specified amount of time (seriously, if you care, you probably should stop reading this now-I’m not likely to ever be too specific on time frames, unless they’re the crux of a story), and I’m walking down Richmond, just off of Peter, and I pass by SANDWICH BOX!(388 Richmond St. West). This was some time last year, but I still remember the intense excitement I felt, which is surprising-it’s a frigging sandwich place, not a fountain of gold. Still, since then, lunches have improved a couple times a week.

The food:

Sandwich Box breaks construction of its sandwiches down a few simple categories with several options each

-Bread-

ryes, swiss triangles, some with onions, some with yukon gold potato flakes-they have room in their bread display for 12 types at any given time, but they rarely have more than  5 or 6 available at a time. I generally choose something different every time I go

-Spread-

avocado/chipotle mayo, basil pesto, black olive, curried apple chutney…

-Meat-

Smoked Salmon, Grilled Chicken, Smoked Turkey Breast, Prosciutto…

-Cheese-

Goat cheese, asiago, jalapeno havarti, …

-Veg-

Caramelized onions, roasted sweet peppers, avocado, bland tomatoes (sorry, but even when in season, they never seem particularly good here)

And then, they drizzle a little olive oil, lemon juice, some salt and pepper, annd then grill it on a panini press for a couple minutes.

It generally always tastes good, but I use  it as a opportunity to do simple flavour experiments to further my culinary knowlege (eg. how well certain strengths of cheese go with certain spreads, if I can improve on a classic sandwich by altering an ingredient or so…the possibilities aren’t endless, but they do provide an interesting diversion during my lunchbreak).

a recent foray of mine:

Whole grain panini/basil pesto/goat cheese/turkey breast/avocado

Restrained in flavour, but very mouth filling-the avocado and goat cheese pair in a very laid-back manner. Neither is especially overwhelming (once again, screw you AS jr), though the avocado seems to have an even further moderating effect. The basil pesto adds a nice tang and savoury aroma, with out getting in the way. The turkey, moist, but not incredibly flavourful.

It was kinda pedestrian, but as something to keep my engine running for the day, it was pretty awesome.

And the Jones soda with it was damn fine.

According to their uber-minmalist web presence, they now have 5 locations in downtown Toronto, so if you see one, stop by. That is a command, not a suggestion.

Mushrooms-Benign fungi, or would-be assassin-fruit?

Posted in Thoughts with tags , , , on February 7, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

Crap, I think my post title gave away the surprise ending-I still detest mushrooms. This shouldn’t shock people-they definitely seem like one of those foods that people have strong feelings about, one way or another. With this in mind, let me regale you with a lurid tale of desperation and violence, men at odds, and unnatural evolution.

I had decided, some time ago in my infinite wisdom, that an aspiring admirer of all things edible should probably expand his horizons a wee bit (Otherwise, Antonio would have reason to brand me a hypocrite! And we really can’t have that, now can we?) . I’ve already grown to enjoy things that previously roiled the contents of my stomach sac-mussels, various pastas, and other squishy, strange foods now are at least palatable.

As I mentioned previously, it’s obvious that people aren’t born hating foods, and subconsciously collect experiences during their formative years that determine a lot of their likes and dislikes (eg. why after all these years, the smell of McDonalds fries wafting in the air has me instantly hungry and salivating, regardless of how demonstrably vile the food inside really is. That, and I’m assuming they lace that stuff with some sort of aersolising MSG, so your tastebuds can’t help but be drawn to it.)

I don’t recall what set me on the path of avoiding mushrooms-Maybe it’s that they always look dirty, taste spongy, and have a fairly weak flavour that borders on tasting like dirt? I dunno. I do recall a family gathering of some sort at my grandfather’s place many moons ago-probably 13 years or so. There were these delightful little finger-pizzas that could be consumed in a few bites (or one large gulp, for the adventurous sort). I must’ve had a dozen of them, and as I was if nothing else, and inquisitive child, I had to discover what delightful animal provided the chunks of meat in them.

When I was informed that it was in fact that foul food nemesis, The Mushroom, I felt betrayed by my tastebuds. I felt sick. How could these glorious little discs go from tasting wonderful, to suddenly be the most revolting things I had accidentally endured? It’s not like the damn things changed one iota, but my mental handicap prevented me from ever enjoying them again (Don’t fret too much-“They” make them with pepperoni sans mushrooms, so my micro-pizza needs are being adequately met, for the moment).

With that firmly in mind, and my other recent forays turned victories, I felt I now had the mental toolkit to “learn” mushrooms, and go from suffering from them, to enjoying them, as much of fine cooking seems to revolve around their benighted existence.

First step-start small

Thanks to my lovely girlfriend, Jessica, I recently took some night courses at George Brown College (the college has a well respected cooking program-future entries will touch more on it). As is expected, mushrooms came up in many of the recipes-at first, I used them sparingly, with the excuse that Jess would enjoy them, and I’d be doing her a favour. I struggled through a few meals, and became giddy-headed with enlightment-I now had consumed mushrooms on a regular basis and had not only survived, but had enjoyed the food. Logically, mushrooms were awesome.

Sadly, I’m not widely reputed for my logic. Mores the pity.

I was now consuming mushrooms on a weekly basis, but they were still being hidden by the main elements of any given dish-my ultimate test was just around the corner, but once again, it wasn’t my choice.

The lunchbreak. For the average retail wage-slave, this is a 30 minute mad dash in which you have to eat food, and still find time to unwind, before getting your ass back out there to face the tired, unwashed masses. Sometimes, I bring a lunch, and sometimes I eat at one of the many vendors offering their wares. For the day in question, I chose to eat out at a local pan-asian place that offers decent food for a decent price (i’ll keep this brief, otherwise, this will become a restaraunt review). They aren’t exceptional, but they fill you up with food that isn’t deep fried and served to you by surly teens.

On the day in question, I wanted something quick to take back to our lunchroom at work, so I could return to whatever book I was tearing through. Soup? Yeah, that seemed like something manageable, that wouldn’t distract from my brain food. Unfortunately, the Hot n’ Sour soup I had previously was apparently of the Thai variety, and while pretty good, apparently wasn’t representative of all varieties. The one I brought back to work with me was at first mouthful, exactly what I had longed for, until my spoon chanced to plumb the depths of the container and return with a slice of a GIANT SHIITAKE. Now, being the kind of person who hates to waste food, I dutifully ate the damn thing, though my stomach began to tremble at the thought of having to put up with a bunch of slimy roommates who resemble pickled leeches.

After I dredged further, it became apparent that the make-up of the soup was roughly 50% broth, and 50% mushroom. Feeling queasy, I began the slow process of fishing for mushrooms, and depositing them in the paper take-out bag with a wet ‘plop’. Needless to say, it was revolting.

I was defeated.

So what happened?  Apparently, my previous successes weren’t as hard-won as I thought-I clearly had some well-crafted food (just to toot my own horn) that wasn’t utterly demolished by having mushrooms in them. When faced with a dish utterly, slavishly devoted to them, it became clear to me that I still can’t abide by them.

Who knows, I may give them a shot again in a few months, but for now, my energies are better used elsewhere.

Screw You, Antonio Sabato jr

Posted in Rants with tags , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by grimgastronomicon

So, Iron Chef America-while oft maligned as a shallow spin off of the japanese one, I’m disinclined to cast it aside as readily as some people. While the theatrics and spectacle is generally far simpler and smaller in scale, it actually plays out as a better sporting event-the challenger actually has a better shot at winning, and having two food critics and a +1 versus 1 food critic and 2 others allows for a more sophisticated analysis of what the competitors are offering.

Mostly.

The other night was one of the most anticipated battles in quite some time (for me, and probably for Food Network Canada)-Iron Chef Bobby Flay vs Chef Michael Smith. Battle Avocado. I ‘ll go into detail about him later, but I’ve always been a huge fan of Smith. My excitement-palpable.

And then they introduce the judging panel. The first, a restaurateur who I recall being on the show before-she’s a bit waspish, but nonetheless has the necessary acumen to deliver judgement, even if it errs on the side of harshness.

Then, Antonio Sabato Jr, whose first example of his keen culinary erudition was “Well, I don’t really like avocados, but, I’m hoping that by the end of this battle, I like avocados”.
The third judge, not a true food critic-she was an expert on sustainable farming. She clearly possessed a fair knowledge of how to articulate her opinion on food, but it still felt a little hinky letting her occupy that slot-especially as it turned fairly grating as she and the other legitimate judge kept trying to tell the other that she clearly didn’t know how to properly eat the food-Sorry ladies, Jeffrey Steingarten already has a lock on that sort of thing, and manages to be self-effacing and funny while doing so.

Anyways, I digress-Most of Sabato Jr’s commentary was in the vein of “Yeah, it was really good” and somesuch. The most articulate he gets is when he manages to explain (and I’ll probably mangle the quote-I remember gists, not specifics, sorry) “Well, I really liked how this dish was cooler than the last one, which was spicy. I don’t like spicy food, so it was nice that this one cooled off the spicyness” or something to that effect.

Now, is there any point in this rant, or am I just being needlessly harsh? Well, my point is multifold (or maybe just twofold-let’s see how much I feel like expounding on. Though if I had three points, would that be trifold? Is multi allowed? Quadfold sounds ludicrous)

1. If you’re being asked to lend your expertise to something, MAKE SURE YOU HAVE EXPERTISE!
In this case-It’s probably a useful job skill to like food, y’know, when you’re going on a show as a food judge. Now, I realize that Jr’s got a new reality show, and a good agent, but I also know that the chefs are given a list of 3-5 possible secret ingredients to prepare for, so realistically, if someone has so many professed dislikes for food, they could ask not to take place in certain battles. Now, I get that some people might not like avocados. Some may not like oysters (still on my list of bivalves to try, so I can’t comment). Some have no stomach for spicy food.

All of that is fine, EXCEPT if you dislike that many foods, you’re probably not much of a foodie. It’s seriously not hard to develop a taste for a wide array of foods-while we inculcate ourselves at a young age to detest certain foods, as our taste buds develop, our tastes change. As tastes change, try stuff you previously disliked, or could only eat in small quantities. Hell, when I was a kid, even the mildest cheddar felt like a flavour bomb on my tongue-it overwhelming it into submission.

Now, all of this is entirely immaterial to Jr’s appearance on the show, as they expressly mentioned his new reality show-in this instance,  it’s entirely a business move.

2. How hard is it to describe flavour?

I’ll admit, when someone asks my opinion of a food, I’ll generally just mumble a ”  ‘S good”, or something, unless specifics are asked for. Then, I illuminate them with a dazzling burst of culinary expertise! Or whathaveyou-Regardless of how trained or untrained your palate is, every person is able to articulate their thoughts on a subject with the vocabulary available to them. If a hamburger is juicy, or well-seasoned, or cooked to perfection, you’ve still communicated to me the necessary information, even if you’re not adding some gastro-flourish to it.

Once you’ve made the decision to go onto the cooking show, and judge cooking, shouldn’t you do your best to actually judge it, rather than half-assedly mumbling that it’s good? (it’s especially telling that for 3 of Smith’s 5 dishes, Sabato Jr wasn’t shown saying anything).

Think about this, the next time a friend or family member asks you to comment about something they’re feeding you. (a contented sigh is also a positive comment that’s hard to misconstrue).

3.I forget.
Clearly, I shouldn’t go off, mid-post to eat, as my memory is notoriously leaky. Eh, bifold it is.

Anyways, the episode itself was somewhat disappointing, as Alton Brown and Kevin Brauch weren’t really up to their usual commentary standards, and two judges were fairly unpleasant in the proceedings. Smith also got his ass handed to him, which I feel was unfortunate, and partially due to having a ‘judge’ who blatantly disliked a large portion of the ingredients he used (now, maybe that was part of what provoked me…)

Next up:
I expand on Michael Smith (Who if we knew him, would be my girlfriend’s archnemesis), my quest to enjoy mushrooms, and more!