Monday, January 23, 2012

Chinese New Year

Chinese Food Sign by fab4chiky, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License
  by  fab4chiky 

I have a near lifelong friend with whom I share my passion for food and food culture.  Before we had kids we spent a lot of time exploring Chinatown in Toronto, and the Pacific Mall in Markham.  We were told off by an old Chinese man for daring to ask what a Dragonfruit was.  We marveled at the array of amazing edibles in boxes along busy sidewalks, and old grandmothers sitting quietly with bunches of fresh garlic at their feet, waiting to sell to whomever needed garlic right there.  We stood, dazed by the choices for lunch in the food court of the largest indoor Chinese mall in North America.  We also discovered that if you're going to need a washroom and are afraid of creepy basement corridors with bare bulbs hanging between dusty pipes, go before heading to Chinatown along Spadina Avenue.

Over the years we've celebrated our love of Chinese food (and Asian food in general) in many ways, including a few Chinese New Year inspired feasts that we've both shared with friends and had the pleasure of catering for others.  Now that we have children, we're passing along our passion for these flavours to them.

Yesterday I spent a good part of the afternoon prepping a relatively simple meal of Char Siu (Chinese barbecue pork - in this case tenderloin), Chow Mein (stir fried noodles and veggies), and scallion pancakes.  Not authentic, but as Chef Michael Smith once said (paraphrase alert), "When playing culinary tourist, my goal isn't to be authentic.  My goal is to make dinner."  So while we didn't enjoy any whole steamed fish or lotus bean tarts, we enjoyed some new flavours and dishes.  Okay, so the pancakes weren't as good as I remember, and the kids didn't care for them either, but the pork was a hit, and the noodles were so good that hubby found our son eating leftovers off of Dad's plate after we'd all finished.

And that was the goal for me.  To find some new foods and flavours that we can incorporate into our menu.  Hoisin sauce isn't some weird, foreign flavour now.  Noodles can replace rice (without calls for pasta sauce on them).  "Chinese food" doesn't sound strange.

I think I'd like to continue this through the year, as more culinary festivities come up around the world.  This means I get to research food traditions and play culinary tourist, the kids get to learn about the world around them through food, I get to recreate global dishes using local ingredients whenever possible, and hubby... he gets to enjoy it all.  LOL  Though I think I may skip the Haggis for Robbie Burns day on Wednesday.  Perhaps a nice bowl of Cock-a-Leekie soup instead?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I love vinegar

I am a sour freak.  I love sour things.  Always have.  When I was pregnant with my kids, one of my cravings was for sour things.  Especially gummy candy doused in citric acid.  As a kid I loved those 5 cent sour soothers (or sour keys as we called them) and their penny candy cousins (they're probably all a quarter each at least now).  Don't give me "Sour Patch Kids."  They aren't sour enough.  When I want sour, I don't want to mess around with sweetness that takes over after a few moments.  I want face puckering, tongue twitching sourness that may even bring a tear to the eye.

So it's no surprise that I love vinegar.  And a few years ago I happened upon a lovely couple who would rock my world.  I was at a Thanksgiving craft show, perusing the gourmet food tent.  There were so many vendors with so many lovely things to try.  Spreads and jams and sauces and chocolate and cookies and... vinegar.  Not your average flavour enhanced vinegars that are everywhere (shouldn't raspberry vinegar actually be made from raspberries?).  This was the real deal.  Small batch, home made, properly fermented vinegar.  I was drawn to one called Ale and Rum, if I remember correctly.  It was apparently made with Smithwick's Ale, and it was like the punchiest malt vinegar you've ever tasted.  My taste buds exploded.  Wow, was it amazing!  I was hooked.  I forget what else was offered that day, as the varieties have changed and evolved over the years, but from that day nearly 10 years ago, I have been a loyal customer of Mr. Vinegar - aka Roger Lambert and his wonderful wife Joyce.

If you go to their website ( you'll see Roger and Joyce's smiling faces first.  Then you'll read a bit about what makes their vinegar special.  Words like "small batches" and "static fermentation" share space with "premium" and "international awards."  But this isn't a huge corporation.  It's a cottage business, run by a couple with a passion for quality and innovation.  From their original offerings, they've played with ingredients and created some amazing varieties of vinegar.  Among my favourites are the "Rapture of Raspberry" and Peach Chardonnay.  The "Barley Wine," which is their malt vinegar is the best thing fish and chips ever met, and while pricey (you have to inquire about the price and availability), Roger's Maple Syrup Vinegar is a sweet/tart offering that is out of this world and worth every penny.  It is a showstopper on a salad of mixed greens, dried cherries or cranberries, toasted nuts and Feta cheese!

Why am I writing this?  Because I am passionate about food, and about local food.  And Mr. Vinegar is a local (Hamilton) producer of top quality vinegar.  It is a company that I am proud to support and promote. 

They used to be full....

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cookies and Cameras

Those of you who have read this blog for a while (or even just skimmed it and noticed the pictures) know that I have never claimed to be a photo blogger.  I don't imagine I will ever post recipes in photo by photo detail, with ingredients neatly displayed on my counter and dozens of images of each step along the way.  I don't even really enjoy reading posts like that, so it's doubtful that I'd ever adopt that style.  I'm more of a "give me the money shot and get to the recipe already" kind of person.

That said, I got thinking about my humble blog as the new year began.  I don't think I want to be a mega-blogger, with deadlines and sponsors and thousands of readers.  Not right now.  I like being a small time blogger in a big pool of talent.  It affords me the time to be inspired and learn from that inspiration.  So it is with photography.  I looked up the manual for my little Nikon 8mp camera the other day and discovered that I can do things with it.  Like use a setting called "macro" to take better close up shots.  And play with light levels so that not everything I take a picture of in natural light looks like it's glowing.

There is a lot to read, and I have much practice before I can claim that I'm doing well, but I played a bit today and I think I got an image or two hat I can say are better than they would have been before I was inspired to learn more.

And on the plus side, having cookies to photograph means that we have cookies to eat.  These were inspired by Chef Michael Smith's chocolate chip cookies.

Marbled Cocoa Chip Cookies

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1 egg
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup cocoa
1 cup chocolate chips


Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C).

In a large bowl (or stand mixer) cream the butter and sugars together until smooth.  Add the corn syrup, egg, vanilla and salt and beat until totally blended. Scrape down the bowl, sprinkle over the baking powder and add the flour, mixing just until combined (yeah, I don't follow standard cookie protocol). Stir in the cocoa and chocolate chips until just marbled.  Streaks of cocoa should still be visible (it may be best to do this by hand, as I overmixed it a bit in my stand mixer).

Working with a teaspoon, scoop up some dough and roll it between your hands and flatten it lightly on a greased or or lined cookie tray. Leave space for the cookies room to expand.

Bake for 12 minutes (15 if you like them crisper), and let cool on a wire rack.

I got 2 dozen from this.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Evolution of Dinner

I woke up this morning with no clue what tonight's dinner would be.  There's soup in the fridge, but the kids won't touch it (just because it's black bean and cabbage... what's so bad about that?).  There's pork cutlets that I browned the other day because they'd come out of the freezer and had to be cooked.  The freezer holds meatballs, various frozen appetizers that hubby and I keep on hand for in house "date nights," and some larger cuts of meat that would not freeze in enough time to enjoy tonight.

By this afternoon I was no further ahead.  I got thinking of the meatballs and the pork cutlets.  I didn't want to do pasta and tomato sauce.  What about gravy?   Ooh, there's time to caramelize some onions.  How about onion gravy?  How about onion gravy with cranberry sauce, finished with sour cream?  Yeah, that's what I want.  I love onion gravy, and my 7 year old loves meatballs with cranberry sauce in the gravy.  But... the pork cutlets need to be used up first.  So we're having those instead.

The gravy goes like this (no real recipe)...
* Caramelize some onions (4 small in this case) in some oil and butter over low heat until lovely and sticky and brown.
* Deglaze with booze.  I had a little whiskey on hand.  I let it all cook off.
* Sprinkle with flour (generously heaped dessert spoon).
* Add beef broth (a couple of cups?) and bring to a boil to thicken. 
*Add a little cranberry sauce (I made up a small batch - 1/4 C water, 1/4C sugar, 1C cranberries, simmered 10 minutes)
* Add meat and simmer for a while.
* Adjust seasonings to taste.  Add sour cream (I hope I don't forget that step).

I'd serve it over mashed potatoes, but the kids don't like them, so I'll do something more like home fries.  I'll serve it all with pickles and some cucumbers in vinegar in lieu of a salad.

So that's it.  From nothing to a spark to a craving for yummy gravy to supper.  In the middle of the afternoon.