Sunday, May 29, 2011

I've now tried lobster...

A while back I heard about an exciting (to me) event happening in the area.  The very name set my heart a-flutter.  The Niagara Food and Wine Expo.  Such an event virtually on my doorstep?  No long drive to Toronto?  No outrageous Toronto prices?  I marked the date on the calendar without needing any more details.

And details there were.  A weekend long event featuring some of the most brilliant culinary minds in the region, preparing carefully selected morsels designed to showcase their talents and passion in a few bites at most.  Couple that with relatively inexpensive admission, a short drive and ample parking and I was counting down the days.

Then the Twitter contests began.  Various connected people had tickets and were giving them away.  Answer this question, win a pair.  Missed?  Try again tomorrow.  And on it went, until finally I was the one answering the question correctly and having two tickets left at the door for me.  Let me tell you, for someone on a bit of a budget, freeing up $20+ dollars to spend on a wide variety of culinary treats was such a huge bonus!

And $20 went a long way towards sampling the amazing bounty the evening offered.  Not only was there a dizzying array of wine to try, there were very interesting beers as well.  And a couple of "other" beverages like slushy Margaritas, Pina Coladas and a really nice cocktail made from sparkling wine and mango puree.  I can't even begin to describe the variety of food offerings.

My husband and I decided to wander around first, getting a sense of what was available.  The tickets were $1, sold in strips of $10 and most things were between 1 and 3 tickets, with a few things for 4 or even 6.  But nearly everything was only a ticket or so, which was pretty amazing.

As I said, my husband and I planned to walk around to get the lay of the land so to speak before trying anything.  Until we got only a little ways in and smelled the amazing Sliders being cooked by Syndicate Restaurant and Brewery.  It was like walking into a wall of beefy yum!  I don't think there was really a choice made.  We just stopped, my husband ordered a beer and we handed over tickets for a slider and a pulled pork sandwich, which was good, but paled in comparison to the richness of the burger.

Our hunger distracted, we continued on.  We saw fresh oysters being shucked, assorted foods in cones, on baguettes, topped with creams and leaves, sandwiches, cupcakes, cheesecakes, chocolates, seafood, game meat, cheese... There were familiar restaurants, and ones we'd never heard of.  And the food wasn't over the top fancy, either.  It was creative.  It was inspired.  But it wasn't fois gras stuffed truffled lobster dipped in the butter of virgin rare breed European mountain goats.  It wasn't pretentious at all, really.

After touring nearly the whole floor, and grabbing a glass of Konzelmann Reisling, we came upon the Maritime Lobster booth.  They were offering Digby Scallops in (I think) a creamy lemongrass sauce and half lobster tails in (again I think) an apricot and Ice Wine sauce.  Or maybe just wine.  It's a bit of a blur.  My husband and I don't eat "sea bugs" as we call them.  I'll tolerate a little shrimp in a Spring roll, if it's chopped finely enough.  But to actually eat seafood outright doesn't happen.  Largely because much of what I come across in the seafood department is mingled with an overwhelming un-fresh fishy smell.  And I don't know how appetizing a lobster lying limp in a scummy tank really would be anyway.  But this was really fresh.  And for $6 I could have a half lobster tail and a plump scallop.  I was still hungry enough to be feeling adventurous (though not so much that I felt drawn to the oyster bar), so I took the plunge.  Hubby and I sidled up to one of the many bar height tables scattered about and I struggled with the plastic fork to cut into the ample scallop.  It looked a little stringy in texture, which is exactly what it wasn't.  Instead I can only describe the texture as being like undercooked chicken with a good deal of chewiness to it.  It had a slightly raw quality to it, but it was also a bit rubbery.  It was strange.  The flavour was alright (I suspect that was mostly the sauce), but the texture was unappealing.

On to the lobster...  The texture was better.  Only slightly chewy.  And a little fluffy.  No discernible "seafood" flavour.  I imagine I'd try it again, if I could find it that fresh.  But only in a very small amount.  I doubt I'd want a meal of it.  But I did it.  As did hubby (he tried bites of mine).  He was far less impressed and did not take a second bite of either.  And while I don't know a lot about wine and food pairings, I can say that I did not like the lobster with the Riesling.

Having conquered that culinary mountain, we moved on and found ourselves at the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel booth.  Where the chef was deftly sauteing some beef.  But not just any beef.  Tender strips of what claimed to be Kobe rib eye.  I doubt it was authentic Kobe (think "Champagne" and the trademark on the name... ditto for authentic Kobe beef).  Probably more like "Kobe-style" beef.  Nevertheless, I was eager to try it.  The rib eye was piled on a mini biscuit with fried onions and mayonnaise.  I picked a bit of meat off the plate which had fallen from the slider and was immediately in awe.  The taste was so intense, so beefy and nothing like anything I've had in recent history.  Maybe, way back when I was a kid, before cattle was so intensively farmed and it still had flavour?  I don't know.  This was just... better.  Richer, with a deeper beef flavour and a silky texture.  Fat that would normally be gristly on your average cut was meltingly tender.  I ate most of the sandwich before realizing that the biscuit was just in the way.  It was too sweet and it took away from the savoriness of the beef, rather than compliment it.  It was also too heavy.  Later in the evening I went back to the Seneca Casino booth and asked for just a plate with beef and a little salt.  The chef laughed, piled the plate high and happily sprinkled a little salt on top before handing it over.  All for only $1.  Yes, only one single ticket for a plate of this amazing beef.

And so the evening went on.  Hubby sampled a very strong maple infused beer that would make an excellent barbecue mop sauce.  He also tried an apple ale beer float.  I tried some strawberry beer, the aforementioned mango and sparkling wine cocktail and a Margarita.  We had some Spring Rolls, some grilled pineapple and sausage, a slice of duck confit pizza (I didn't know you could dry out duck confit), chocolates, chocolate dipped strawberries, cheesecake on a stick, cheesecake in a container...  We even tried another incarnation of "Kobe" beef.  This time in a flat iron steak.  It was decidedly less flavourful than the rib eye, and it was on a cold puddle of pureed Sunchoke, which was really quite unappealing, both in texture and temperature.  We sat in on a cooking demonstration and got free samples of rice balls, eggplant parmesan and cannolis.

Another absolute highlight came when we wandered past the Niagara Fallsview Casino booth.  It had multiple stations, and one featured cured salmon with fruit "caviar."  Little beads of pure passionfruit, strawberry and lychee juice, coagulated via the magic of molecular gastronomy, so that they retained their liquid centres but popped in the mouth like beads of caviar.  Neither hubby nor I are fans of salmon, and we were pretty much nearing the end of our desire for savoury food, but I really wanted to try these fruit beads.  So I asked the chef if we could have a few and he happily obliged.  As each bead burst open in my mouth a flood of passionfruit flooded my tongue.  It was extraordinary.  I must find sodium alginate and calcium chloride in order to replicate this at home!

I hope I haven't forgotten anything.  The jazz music was lovely in the background, there was ample space to move and meander, everyone was very friendly and the whole place was well suited to the event, with stations dotted here and there with taps to rinse out glasses (and, as many did, to get much needed free water to stay hydrated) and tables all around to make eating more involved items a bit easier.  Even the parking was painless, unlike for the home show hosted at the convention centre earlier this Spring (what a nightmare that was).

Even though I won our tickets, I will absolutely go again, even if I have to pay admission.  I hope this event is here to stay.  I've done food for ticket/token events at places like the Grape and Wine Fest (sorry, "Niagara Wine Festival") and this was hands down worlds better.  The food, wine and beer was not only wonderful, but a far cry more reasonably priced!  My husband said it would have been nice if someone was offering coffee or other alcohol free beverages (aside from the $2.50 pop and water cart outside the hall), especially for those driving.  There were some free samples (including a cheese booth manned by someone who wouldn't actually offer us any... he just stared at us.  Only odd thing all night), but at $1 and $2 for most items, abundant freebies weren't missed.  I'm already looking forward to next year.

so What! Jazz finishing up the evening (sorry about the pic quality -iPhone).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Potato salad kind of day

It's been lovely out for a few days.  There's still a bit of squish in the ground from the copious rainfall last week, but the sun has been shining, the windows have been open and the plants (and people) are all so happy.  It's not hot out yet, either.  That makes me even happier.

It's a potato salad kind of day.  The kind of day that says, "Welcome" to the nice weather and acknowledges that we've turned a corner from grey and damp to balmy and bright.  It helps that someone on a forum that I frequent was asking for ideas to help her bland potato salad.  Hers has small red potatoes, which I actually don't care for.  I am not a fan of the "earthiness" of new potatoes at all.  It also had mayo, hard boiled eggs, salt, pepper, and some dry mustard.  That's it.  Mine is quite different.  I like my potato salad to have different textures.  It's actually basically my mother's recipe.

It starts with dicing some Yukon Gold (or other waxy) potatoes, and boiling them until just done with some peeled cloves of garlic.  Then I drain and rinse them under cold water to cool them quickly.  Usually I fish out the garlic to mash into the dressing.  I forgot today.  So there will be some little bits of big flavour scattered about in the salad this time.  LOL

While the potatoes cook, I dice veggies.  I like to use celery (with the leaves), tomatoes, cucumber, red or yellow or orange peppers, radishes and red onion.  The dressing is simple.  Mayo, a little dry mustard and a little yellow mustard.  Plus the boiled garlic, salt and pepper.  My mother mashes in egg yolk, adding the diced whites to the salad, but I don't bother.  I don't really notice much difference without the egg.

Then the whole thing gets gently tossed together and sits in the fridge for a few hours, or overnight.  I garnish it with a sprinkle of paprika and a little freshly ground black pepper.  Hubby and I feast on it for a few days, since the kids won't eat it (they just do not like potatoes that aren't crisp, like my hash browns or grilled slices).

So that is what I made today.  If you don't mind an over exposed iPod pic, here it is...  Tastespotting material it ain't.  But it still tastes great, and is perfect for a day like today.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Trying to find inspiration

Last week was lovely.  Absolutely lovely.  Warm but not too hot, and gloriously sunny.  After much rain, more rain and a lot of rain, plus downright un-Springlike cool temps the warming glow was so welcome.  Then came this week.  We've had so much rain that the city closed down all of the recreational parks.  The week that many minor sports were getting ready to start.  Both kids had their activities canceled due to the intense squishiness of  the fields.  It's been so gloomy that I felt like I was going to bed pre-drepressed by the lack of sunshine ahead.  Then there was that wind storm a few weeks ago...

As I type, it's foggy out.  It's lifting, but the tops of the trees still appear softened by a hazy film.  It's quite calm too.  No breeze at all.  There is a majestic Chestnut tree in my view that was only bare branches earlier this month.  Lilacs that are promising to bloom at the first sign of warmth.  A vase of tulips from my garden sits on my desk, reminding me that it is indeed Spring and not Autumn, regardless of how it feels out there.

It sure doesn't feel like it's Victoria Day this weekend.  The "unofficial kick-off of summer" seems at odds with the weather we've been having.  In past years we've  had the air conditioning running for weeks already.  Yesterday morning the furnace ran.

But it is the May Two-Four (for my American readers that is the first holiday weekend of the season, and usually falls on the weekend closest to the 24th of the month.  It is also traditionally a large beer consuming weekend, and a case of 24 beers is called a Two-Four).  And I am looking for inspiration.  Lately Pinterest has been my go-to for illumination of all sorts.  Today I am perusing pins with barbecue tags.  Check out this space from Design To Inspire...
Now that's a summer kitchen!  Put in some plumbing for a sink and some lighting and I'm there.  Not that I could do that with this house, but I can dream.

For a little more realistic inspiration, I'm looking at the wonderful barbecued foods.  Like Barbecued Thai Chicken Legs and Korean Barbecue Beef.  There are some wonderful kebab images on Pinterest too, as well as salads, drinks, cute summer party invitations and more.  Even though it doesn't feel like summer yet, I can still live vicariously through fabulous pictures and find inspiration for the grilling and entertaining season ahead.

Monday, May 2, 2011


And the strange weather continues.  Last Tuesday we broke records for the warmest weather at 27C or so.  On Friday it was all of about 8C.  And in between, on Thursday, was the storm.  Not a rain storm or a snow storm (thank God) but a wind storm.  With gusts of up to 100+kph.  Combined with the over saturated ground, the winds took down entire evergreen trees, roots and all.  The damage was widespread and terrible.  A man was killed when a door that was on his property was hurled into his head by the wind.  Near us an entire front porch was sheared off of a house when a whole tree fell on it.  Thousands upon thousands were without power.  Including us.

The power blipped 4 times on Thursday morning.  Each time it came back in moments, but it's never a good sign in bad weather to have the hydro go wonky.  Then, around 10:30 or so it went out and stayed out.  For 50 hours!

At first it was kind of amusing.  The wind was blowing debris around in a swirly dance and it was fun watching the birds try to fly by against the gusts.  I figured it would only last a few hours though.  I put ice packs in the fridge, just in case.  Hubby got home and we were still without power.  He called his parents, who were also without electricity.  We called around the city and found a restaurant that was open and they took us out for dinner.  Then they returned home to power.  We returned home and lit candles.  My husband hooked up our fridge to a power inverter in his work truck so that we wouldn't lose the contents.

Friday morning found us a little chilly.  Hubby opted to stay home from work to take care of things here and keep the fridge going.  We plugged it in for a bit and "recharged the cold."  Then we packed up the kids and went to our favourite breakfast place for warm food and coffee.  We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon outside, with hubby and his father putting some finishing touches on the kids new playset, which we were very thankful for.  It was quite cool out, and the kids were in their winter coats.  It wasn't a lot warmer inside, so I pulled out our firepit and made a small bonfire to warm us up.  We roasted huge marshmallows and I made some garlic onion bannock over the coals.  I was able to use the side burner on the barbecue to warm some nutmeg and vanilla spiced milk for the kids.  The inlaws had us over for pizza that evening and then the kids hunkered down under very warm blankets.  We stayed up, alternating running the fridge and using the power cord to run the computer to get the taxes done (yeah, we were not on the ball this year).  More candles were burned.  More calls to the hydro company were made.  More promises came forth that did not come to pass.  We ate chips and curled up together. 

It was so cold in the morning.  13C in the house.  And hubby had to go out to help a friend move.  We had been taking it all in stride, as we were more inconvenienced than anything else.  Our home and property had sustained no damage, we were safe, fed and cared for.  But I was still starting to get frustrated by it all.  They were saying that some areas would be without power for days yet.  I feared that we were among them.  Did I mention that the rest of the neighbourhood was up and running?  Since Thursday?  Yep.  There were about 40 of us in a little pocket who were still in the dark, so to speak.

To say that we were grateful to see the red light on the TV come on in the early afternoon on Saturday would be an understatement.  The furnace came on and we were warm again.  We didn't need the work truck idling in the driveway anymore. And once the power had been on for a while and seemed stable, we let out a sigh of relief.

All in all it wasn't a harrowing ordeal by any stretch.  But it did leave us realizing how ill prepared we are for a long term disaster.  Our biggest problem was heat, both for our home and to cook with.  Our camping gear is at the inlaws place.  It will be coming home so that we can at least have the stove here.  The home heat... well that will have to wait until our family room is done and the fireplace is in working order.  It's a wood burning one, but it needs to be inspected and probably needs some work.  I am looking forward to that, as I will be able to cook in it as well.  In the end, though, I am more aware of the power of being deliberately grateful in difficult circumstances.  I am thankful for God's provision and care during what could have been a much worse situation.

And thus continues the strangest Spring I can recall.  We're in May now, with Mother's Day less than a week away and it's time for the gardens to get planted.  But it's still cold and wet and it feels like we somehow lost April.