Monday, December 26, 2011

Thai Green Curry

People seem to love eating Thai food in restaurants but really do not know how to cook it at home. Like any cuisine, it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Such is the same of one of my favourite Thai dishes, green curry. Thai curries tend to be based on coconut milk and a very intense curry paste, as opposed to the ground spices predominant in Indian curry. The ideal way to make this curry would be to make your own curry paste, though getting the flavour balance and sourcing the ingredients can be difficult. There are good commercial curry pastes readily available in Asian groceries and some supermarkets. Thai Kitchen is a major brand that I can recommend. Just don’t use anywhere near as much as the homemade paste from this recipe as it is considerably more concentrated.

Curry Paste
1/4 cup peanut oil
3 stalks lemongrass
4 large cloves garlic
1 bunch of scallions
a 2-3 inch piece galangal
a 1 inch piece ginger
½ cup packed mint leaves
½ cup packed thai basil leaves
1/4 to ½ cup packed cilantro leaves
12 keffir lime leaves
10-15 thai bird chilies
1 Tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar
juice from 1 lime
zest from 1 lime
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
3 Tbsp thai fish sauce
ground black pepper

Grind everything in food processor, refrigerate at least 1 hour. Many of these ingredients may seem unfamiliar, which is why making the paste yourself is not essential though it is desirable. An asian grocery is the place where you would find most of these items. Galangal looks similar to ginger but has a thinner skin and milder, more lemony, flavour. Fish sauce is made from fermented small fish such as anchovies. It has a rather pungent smell, but its use in small quantities is indispensable to Thai and much other Asian cooking. It adds saltiness and gives a rounded, balanced, flavour. If you are particularly fond of cilantro (I am definitely not) you could add more cilantro and less of the other herbs. You could even add the roots as well, but bear in mind they have a very powerful cilantro flavour. Possible substitutions include regular basil for Thai basil, any hot chiles for thai bird chilies (just remember that thai chilies are stronger than most) or brown sugar for palm sugar. Like many recipes I have posted, the balance of flavour is all important and you may have to adjust the quantities of some ingredients to achieve that balance. Thai flavour is all about balance. Traditionally, one is to aim for a balance of sweet, sour, salty, and hot. In this paste, you should be able to detect a balance between all those tastes.

3 lbs boneless chicken breast, cubed
1 lb shrimp
1 bunch scallions
1 onion, diced
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans coconut milk
½ green papaya, peeled, seeded, sliced thin
2 cups snow peas
2 Tsp thai fish sauce

2 cups white or brown jasmine rice
4 cups water
1 stalk lemongrass, bruised, cut in half
3 keffir lime leaves
2 pieces lime peel
pinch of salt

Green, or unripe, papaya is a very thai ingredient. It is often featured raw in salads but I personally find it a little too starchy to be pleasant eaten this way. Cooking it in the curry however, really allows the papaya to take on the flavour it is simmered in. Just slice it thin and it will provide some very nice texture.

In a large saute pan or wok, saute the onion, green onions and green papaya in the oil until the onions are soft, then add garlic and cook 1 minute more until fragrant. Then add the curry paste. If you do not like things ultra spicy, you may not want to use all the paste but do use at least one half the recipe. Cook the curry paste for 3-5 minutes, to open up the flavours. Next add the chicken, ensuring that everything is fully coated, then add the coconut milk and fish sauce and simmer until the chicken is cooked, about 15-20 minutes. After about 15 minutes, add the shrimp so that it will not overcook. When everything is ready, add the snow peas and cook for maybe a minute longer, then serve over the aromatic rice.

For the rice, put all the ingredients together in a pot, bring it up to a boil, then cover and lower the heat to a bare simmer for about 25 minutes (a bit less for white rice), then turn the heat off and let the rice sit for at least 10 more minutes. Remove the lemongrass, lime leaves, and lime peel before serving.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Restaurant Review - Smoke's Poutinerie

A little while ago I wrote a partial review of this establishment and now I am ready to give a full review. This is also the first review I am posting of a Guelph restaurant, mainly because I do not eat at many restaurants here. It will also be something of an analysis of poutine - what it is and what makes a good one.

Most of the reviews I have posted so far are for upscale or mid-range eateries; fast food is not something I would generally consider worthy of review. And not only would this sort of food be considered fast food, but this is also a chain restaurant, with several locations in Toronto and has outlets in several other cities in Ontario and 3 other provinces. But to me, Smoke’s is different, as they specialize in one food item - poutine - and they use quality fresh ingredients.

Smoke’s Poutinerie Guelph is located in the heart of downtown on Wyndham street. The area is the closest Guelph has to a sketchy inner-city area (the storefront on the right is a shelter and employment centre). But more important for this establishment it is only a few doors down from MacDonell street, which has most of the city’s bars and clubs. As poutine is considered ideal late night food for those who are drunk and/or stoned, Smoke’s is perfectly positioned to make a fortune, especially since they stay open until 4am on Friday and Saturday nights. I had already told you how, when I was there at 2:30am during Nuit Blanche, there were huge lines filling the restaurant and it was a madhouse inside. I went back recently at a much saner time and found no lineup at all but there were several customers there even at 3pm, not a typical time for people to be eating something as substantial as poutine. While on my previous visit, I stuck to the basic, traditional poutine, this time I chose from their extensive list of more elaborate topped offerings. I ordered the double pork, which uses a green peppercorn sauce and is topped with chipotle pulled pork and double-smoked bacon. These meats are also part of several other possible combinations, along with ground beef, shaved roast beef, sausage, grilled chicken, chili and even Montreal Smoked Meat. There was also a cheese sauce used on some of the dishes.

I’m not sure that there really is a perfect poutine. I say this because it was originally intended to be a sloppy, utilitarian food, and also there are inherent contradictions within the structure of the dish that seem to deter excellence. Obviously the ultimate sign of quality in a deep fried item such as fries is to be golden and crispy on the outside and properly cooked on the inside. Now the fastest way to turn fried food into a soggy mess is to smother it with a sauce or anything else wet. So in principle, gravy on fries should be a bad idea. While some restauranteurs have attempted to elevate the poutine through the use of high end ingredients such as foie gras (I’m looking at you Martin Picard!), this is a food of humble origins - a workingman’s food - so being too fancy and meticulous seems at odds with what the poutine is supposed to be. The paragon of poutine excellence is supposedly found at Montreal fast food joints and places you could only call dives. I’m guessing they don’t use fresh ingredients or make their sauce from scratch. So, can poutine fit in with attention to quality?

Let’s get back to Smoke’s. I found mostly positives with some negatives in both poutines I tried, and what I found seems to reveal something about what a poutine is, should be, and can be. First the traditional poutine was quite easy to judge as there are only three elements: fries, gravy and cheese curds. The fries were absolute perfection. Soft and tender inside, and the very first fries I could taste before the gravy soaked in were golden and crispy. It is abundantly clear they double fry using fresh-cut, not frozen, potatoes. The cheese curds were quite tasty and at just the right temperature, somewhere between melted and still intact and squeaking. The gravy was not quite what I was used to and perhaps a little too herbed and peppery, but this gave me the idea that the sauce was maybe better suited to the more elaborate choices.

The double pork poutine was quite interesting. With this version, all the meat is topping the poutine, so you don’t get any crispy fries as they are all underneath. But the advantage is the flavour of the meat soaks into the fries and creates a more balanced flavour. The pulled pork was delicious. By itself it would maybe be a little too sweet, but mixed into the poutine and combined with the double-smoked bacon, it worked perfectly. Here the gravy became a peppercorn gravy. It seemed to be the same gravy as on the traditional with green peppercorns added. But where the gravy didn’t seem to fit so well with the standard poutine, it was perfectly matched for this meat-filled version. Which was just as I thought; their recipes are geared toward the more elaborate, topped poutines. Some of the other options on the menu scared me a bit, such as the smoked meat poutine which had Montreal smoked meat, pickle and yellow mustard and nacho poutines with cheese sauce, others with chilli and so on. But this seems to be their focus, so I believe that those should be good too.

I think what I can conclude from this is that poutine is not really an example of fine cuisine, but more a greasy and comfortable mess of food that will soak up the excess alcohol (or the after affects thereof) from a night of excess. At its best poutine would not be too fancy but we can see it is certainly possible to use well sourced and fresh, local ingredients to make the poutine quite close to real food. It can be simple or baroque. In general, I tend to prefer the simple, but Smoke’s has designed their menu to highlight the more complex offerings, so there I do prefer the more elaborate choices.

Regular poutines range from about 6 to 10 dollars, with large (trust me, nobody needs to eat a large poutine) a couple dollars more. They have not only ordinary soft drinks, but some natural, locally bottled beverages as well. This is also a chain restaurant with several locations in Toronto and across Ontario and some other provinces. And I have found out that this winter they will open a location in the ultimate poutine battleground - downtown Montreal right in the middle of the city’s biggest bar scene. Overall, a fast food restaurant with a quality level quite a bit higher than usual for fast food.

Smoke's Poutinerie on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cherry Cheesecake

When I was working in restaurants, one of my specialties was pastry and baking. Yet you may have noticed that I have yet to post a single dessert recipe on this blog. First, I don’t do much baking at home and second, I tend more to follow written recipes rather than create my own, since baking relies far more on exact measurements and proportions. But here is a good one for you. I took the proportions from a recipe in a book but made changes to the flavours and used a couple tricks I learned as a professional. This is a fantastic cheesecake that is just a little bit different.

Cherry Cheesecake

2 1/4 cups chocolate cookie crumbs - I used a local brand of cocoa snaps
½ cup granola, ground to crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup coconut flakes (unsweetened)
2/3 cup melted butter

3x 250g packages Philadelphia cream cheese
2 oz plain goat cheese
½ cup + 2 Tbsp sour cream
2 cups sugar
3 extra large eggs
1 cup cherry pie filling - see recipe below

To Finish
2 cups cherry pie filling or enough to cover
1/4 cup toasted coconut flakes

First prepare the crust. This follows the procedure for a standard graham cracker crust but I have substituted a few ingredients for flavour. Instead of graham crackers or oreo cookies, I used ShaSha brand cocoa snaps made by a Toronto-area bakery. I suppose some other chocolate cookie crumbs might do - even oreo crumbs if you must. But they should be chocolate as this is a very good match with the cherries. Grind the cookies and granola together to form crumbs and combine with the sugar and coconut flakes (keep the coconut flakes whole for texture). Then add the melted butter, adding just enough to hold everything together. Press the mixture into a 12-inch springform pan or tart pan with removable bottom. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes or until the crust has hardened. Let cool.

Be sure that the cream cheese has softened to room temperature. Normally I prefer organic dairy or at least dairy products that are local and without tons of additives. Yet cheesecake is somewhat fickle so you need a cream cheese that is sufficiently firm so as not to make your filling too watery. This is why traditional cheesecake recipes do not work with low-fat cream cheese - they have more water in them. The next time I make this I will probably try an organic cream cheese and see if it works. Whip the cream cheese, goat cheese and sugar together in a stand mixer using the paddle attachment until the mix is smooth. Mix in the sour cream. I learned this trick working in restaurants. One of the restaurants I worked in (in pastry) had an amazing cheesecake recipe and the secret was the addition of sour cream. I have since found many experienced pastry chefs also are using sour cream in their recipes. It really boosts the flavour. Then add the eggs, one at a time. Make sure each egg is fully incorporated into the batter before adding the next one. Now with the oven preheated to 325 degrees, assemble the cheesecake. Pour the batter into the crust, then take the cherry filling and swirl spoonfuls of it into the batter. This will produce a small amount of marbling in your cheesecake. Bake in the centre of your oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the cheesecake has firmed up. Then turn off the oven but leave the cheesecake inside for another hour. This will allow the cake to cool more gradually without cracking. Due to the low oven temperature and a relatively small amount of egg, you don’t need a water bath for this recipe. Leave it to finish cooling at room temperature but do not take it out of the pan until fully cooled. Once cool, refrigerate the cake overnight. When ready to serve, unmold and top the cake with more of the cherry filling, leaving maybe a half-inch on the outside uncovered. Sprinkle flakes of toasted coconut on top and serve.

Cherry Pie Filling

No - I am not saying it’s okay to buy a commercial product here. This is rather easy and quick to make. The only difficulty is that it is hard to make this in small quantities. But then, you would require large amounts of this if you ever want to make cherry pie, and if you freeze the excess you will have filling available.

1 1/4 litres water
1 litre cherry juice
680 g sugar
170 g cornstarch
10 lbs thawed frozen sour cherries (in cherry season, stores often carry 10lb pails of frozen, pitted cherries exactly for this purpose - making pie)

Juice of ½ lemon

If the cherries are packed with sugar you will need to calculate how much sugar is already in the cherries and subtract that from the amount of sugar called for. 10% sugar by weight is typical, therefore a 10lb pail of sweetened cherries would contain 1lb of sugar (454g), meaning you would only add 266g of additional sugar. Cherry juice can be found at health food stores.

Combine half the cherries, one litre of water, the cherry juice and sugar in a large pot and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes or until the cherries have cooked down and softened. Then add the remaining cherries and the lemon juice and bring back to a boil. Dissolve the cornstarch into the remaining 250 ml of water, then whisk this mixture into the cherries. Let this boil for one minute, whisking constantly, and being mindful that, as the mixture thickens, there is a risk of splatter and that can hurt. After a minute, turn off the heat and let the mixture cool before portioning into containers and refrigerating or freezing. Though this sounds like an insane quantity, this will only fill 4 cherry pies. Of course for the cheesecake you will be using far less, so feel free to make a half recipe.

UPDATE: I recently used some of the frozen cherry filling for a different application, and realized that, before using thawed cherry pie filling, it must first be reheated to boiling, then cooled back down. Otherwise the cornstarch gel will develop an unpleasant texture resulting from the cornstarch coming out of phase. By re-melting and and heating the filling, the cornstarch will reset and recover its former texture.

This cheesecake is perfect for entertaining. While it takes some time to complete all the steps, it is not very difficult to prepare and looks impressive. And the taste is exceptional.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Separate School Board

Recently, there was yet another gay teen who was bullied and took his own life. Jamie Hubley was 15 year old student at an Ottawa, Ontario high school. I firmly believe that the schools need to do a far better job to combat bullying and discrimination, but that is not really the topic of this post. What caught my attention was one detail of Jamie Hubley's story that connects with other problems in Ontario. The detail was that Hubley originally went to a Catholic school, where he experienced some very severe bullying. His parents did what they could; they offered support and moved him into a public school, but bullying continued there. Many people outside of Ontario may not know this, but a great many catholic schools in Ontario are not private schools, as would be the case for any other religious school. In Ontario we have two separate publically funded school boards; the regular public board and a catholic school board. Residents indicate on their property tax bills whether they wish their tax funds support either the public board or the catholic board. To me, this arrangement flies in the face both of the separation of church and state and of the very principles of public education.

It should be pointed out that the separation of church and state is not quite as sacrosanct in Canada as it is in the United States and, less than a century ago, most schools had a religious affiliation. My parents grew up in Montreal and, when they went to school, there were two school boards: one protestant and one catholic (actually there were four - protestant and catholic each had an English and French board). Now my parents are anglophone and Jewish, so any school board was affiliated to a religion not their own. Some time ago, the system was overhauled and the church was taken out of the public school system. The Catholic board became the French school board, while the protestant board became the English school board (English catholic and French protestant had little enrolment and were merged into the larger boards). So Quebec has removed the church from their public schools, as has most of the rest of Canada. Yet Ontario continues to maintain the catholic school board as a publicly funded entity. No other religious group is granted this distinct privilege of having their religious schools funded by taxpayer dollars. In fact, in 2007 the opposition Conservative party of Ontario proposed a plan to, if elected, institute a voucher system by which people who send their children to private religious schools would be able to receive tax write-offs, essentially giving all religious schools a partial subsidy. This idea was quite unpopular with the voters and the Conservatives lost an early advantage in the polls to lose the election that year to the Liberals. I actually would have been conditionally in support of this idea were it not for the fact the Catholic schools would continue to be fully funded, thus leaving all religious schools still at a disadvantage. However, if the Catholic board were abolished I would support their schools being able to take advantage of a voucher program, as long as all other religious schools could partake as well.

Why does all this matter? Well, since public schools are funded and run by the government, they must abide by official government curriculum and fully conform with all provincial human rights and non-discrimination policies. As homophobia in the public schools will not (or at least should not) be tolerated, most schools have Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) or similar programs, at least if there is a desire for one. If a school principal or local school board tried to block it, the ministry would intervene as that would be against policy. Apparently, the Catholic board does not have to play by the same rules. The Catholic schools are allowed to include religious instruction in the curriculum and it seems they are not required to fully follow provincial guidelines if they are “contrary to religious principles”. Over the past year, there has been a push in the Catholic school boards in Halton region and Toronto to start a GSA, which the catholic board has been consistently blocking. There has been a great deal of overheated rhetoric and some rather disgusting comments, but the real point is that the Catholic board is apparently able to flout provincial law because tolerance of homosexuality is supposedly “contrary to Catholic teaching”. What the boards finally seem to be settling on, only after pressure from the education ministry, is to allow “diversity clubs” or “tolerance” groups - but they can't have “gay” anywhere in the name, and in one case they were not even allowed to use the rainbow symbol. Now, let me think, what is the original symbolism of a rainbow... oh that's right, in the story of Noah's Ark. So the ultimate religious symbol of peace and harmony is too contentious and symbolic of “the gays” and can not have a place in a “religious” school.

Now I am sure that intolerance in the name of religion takes place in other religious schools. The difference is these are private schools - entirely self-funded through student tuition, church or other religious association sponsorship, and private donors. So as long as they are not actively violating the province's human rights code they may teach whatever religious doctrine they please, even if many of us may not agree with it or if it is intolerant. But when a school receives public funding, whatever it does ought to be in the public interest. While you can choose to have your personal tax dollars go toward the public rather than catholic school board, this obviously splits the total available revenues. That means whatever goes to the catholic board is money that could have gone to the public board, so whichever option you select you are still subsidizing both school boards. Despite this public funding, the catholic schools are still permitted to include religious instruction in the curriculum and they are currently insisting that they not be required to teach anything that contravenes their religious principles. If their religious teachings state that being gay is unacceptable, then they can claim that not only do they not have to teach anything about gay issues (if that ever becomes part of the curriculum) but they can refuse to allow students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance. So how does a gay Ontario resident feel, having their tax dollars go (indirectly) to support a school system that will teach kids that you are sinful and ought not to exist? It would serve us well to remember that so much of the most vitriolic homophobia out there today uses the pretext of religion to justify the hatred.

Unfortunately, I don’t really see any prospect of this arrangement changing any time in the near future. There is simply no political will to undo an arrangement that benefits the Catholic Church, which represents a very large number of voters and wields considerable political clout. In the recent election, only the green party was saying anything about disbanding the catholic board, all the parties with any significant vote share are not contemplating any such thing. But if we are serious about equality in education, we cannot continue to support a school system that allows inequality.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Day At Foodstock

I’m sure you are eager for news of how Foodstock turned out (at least some of you are), so here is my report and review of the event.

We planned to arrive around about a half hour after the official opening time of 11am, so we left Guelph at 10am, planning for about a 90 minute drive though the countryside. As it turned out we got within a couple miles of the farm in only an hour and 10 minutes - then came the first clue as to how popular this event was to be. All of a sudden, we hit total gridlock. When we eventually got to 20th sideroad and made the left turn I was able to really see how far back the line of cars continued down county rd 124. The volunteers did their best to let people know where the parking was and guided people in fairly well but, due to them lineups, it took about 50 minutes to get to the field being used as the main parking lot - a distance of maybe a few miles, if that. Seeing all the cars already parked there, in another full parking lot, and along the sides of a few sideroads as well as all the cars still on the road behind us, it was clear that many thousands of people were attending. Add that to the several buses that were bringing people from Toronto, Guelph, Collingwood and other places and this makes for massive attendance. I was wondering how many people would show up, as the forecast had been calling for rain most of the week and that day’s forecast was calling for mix of sun and cloud with a chance of rain. Driving up, it was raining in Guelph but closer to the event the weather was beautiful. Later in the day, the weather was more mixed, with intermittent showers, and a cold wind by mid-afternoon. The great thing, though is it didn’t seem to bother too many of the attendees. They came prepared and committed; perfectly willing to accept a little discomfort for a great experience.

There were close to 100 chefs at the event, from restaurants in Toronto, Collingwood, Niagara, the local area and many other places in Ontario and two from outside the province. Each booth was spread along a network of paths leading through a forested area and around the outside of that area. The paths were quite muddy, but people were warned to bring boots.  At each booth, the chefs served up tasting portions of a dish prepared especially for the event. There were rather long lineups at most, if not all, of the stations, which meant a good deal of time was spent waiting in line. Also there was no place to sit, but these two things kind of worked together; you would get one bit of food and you would eat that while you waited in the next line. I did not even get to half of the booths, especially since by the afternoon many were starting to run out of food. Still I must have had at least 20-25 different tastes, possibly more.

All the food was of high quality and as there were so many different things I can not even remember all of them. Many offerings featured potatoes, as this is a potato farm. Also, given the weather and number of people to feed, it was not at all surprising that there were a great many soups and stews on offer. An early standout was a Jerusalem artichoke soup with brown butter. They heated the soup on a campfire and suspended the pot rather than placing it on a grate.

Another standout establishment was Café Belong, a new restaurant in Toronto owned by celebrity chef Brad Long who has made multiple appearances on Food Network. Long was there himself, shucking and serving oysters. They also featured a vegetarian stew that was quite tasty and enhanced to spectacular effect by a chutney (don't remember what it was though). And the freshly shucked Malpeque oysters were among the best oysters I have ever had - juicy and very pleasantly briny. My mom has never really liked oysters but tried one and loved it - much to her surprise.

Later came two very good fish dishes: a smoked whitefish mousse with local potato chips (not sure if they were made commercially or in-house but they were phenomenal), then arctic char hot-smoked over a bed of hay and served on a thin slice of daikon with some sliced onion.

There was a very good apple and pumpkin cake that really got some nice juiciness from the apple.  Then was what I think was the best bite of the day - Le Select Bistro offered mustard-braised rabbit on a white corn polenta with dandelion greens, topped with julienned apple and pea shoots.  This was one of the more elaborate and composed dishes, yet still warm and comforting with a stunning  flavour.

Caplansky’s food truck, the only food truck operating in the Toronto area (though they are still not allowed to operate downtown) was at Foodstock as well, and offered smoked turkey on a beet-flavoured goat cheese. Maybe not one of the best items but still very good.

By this time we were in the area closer to the main stage where the musical performances would take place and the lines were even longer. There were some very good apple crullers dusted with maple sugar and served with an apple caramel. Then we entered what we thought was the line for the next booth but it was in fact a line that continued past several booths in a steady flow. First was pulled pork on an apple slice. Then was the George Brown college chef school which had several offerings: a squash soup with candied pecans, an excellent antipasto on fresh bread, and apricots preserved in an icewine syrup. Then was celebrated chef Jamie Kennedy’s booth. He was serving french fries.   No kidding. Of course he used potatoes from farms in the township and they were absolutely perfect.  It was raining when we were served, but the fries stayed crispy and they had some nice herb seasoning. They came with a choice of two mayonnaise-based dipping sauces, a chilli mayo or a cider vinegar mayo which was very tasty. There was also a good smoked pork sausage with an apple compote. Then finally came Michael Statdlander's booth, occupying the ultimate prime location right next to the main stage. That was only appropriate as he was the organizer of this entire group of chefs. He was serving a potato, pumpkin and cabbage soup with smoked bacon, which he ladled out of a giant pumpkin.  One booth I regret not stopping at was one that had bison prosciutto which the chefs were carving as they went.

Chef Stadtlander with his "No" Pumpkin

Yes, that is a leg of bison, cured like a prosciutto

We left a little after 3:30. The wind had picked up, it was getting a bit cold, and most of the food had run out.  There were many big name musical performances yet to come on the main stage, but that wasn't really the reason I was there. But for those that stayed on, the final hour and a half of the event featured performances from the Barenaked Ladies, Jim Cuddy and Sarah Harmer, among others. 

It was very hard to gauge exactly how many people showed up at Foodstock but the numbers were clearly massive. Based on a quick view of how many cars were parked in the field, it seemed quite likely there were at least 5,000 to 10,000 attendees, and of course the buses likely brought many more. Some of the preliminary estimates are suggesting there were as many as 28,000 -30,000 people on this one farm on that one day. That amounts to half the population of the entire county and was most likely the most attended event ever held in Dufferin County. Up to 30,000 people were willing to drive a good way to visit this beautiful bit of farmland and make a statement that this land must be kept as a potato farm, and a mega quarry is a very bad use of this land. There are also some  suggestions that the organizers may do this again next year. Now that an environmental assessment has been ordered, there will not be any final decision on approval of a quarry for several years, which will mean that the quarry opponents will have a long fight ahead of them with plenty of legal expenses to pay for. Proceeds from Foodstock and donations to the NDACT will pay for legal costs and advocacy work to make sure that the environmental assessment is done properly and addresses all of the potential risks. There was also some worry in previous weeks about what effect the provincial election might have had, as the opposition Conservative party is very pro big business and seems to be against environmental concerns (they are very much like the US Republicans) and if they had won it was very likely they would overturn the call for the assessment. As it happened though, the Liberals barely won re-election so what was agreed to before will continue. No decision will be made as to approving the quarry for years. Still that does not mean there is no risk, since many environmentally damaging projects still receive a go-ahead despite such concerns.  I am glad many of you care about this issue; while aggregate is always needed for building projects, it is not acceptable to take Ontario's most fertile land and take it out of food production, especially when there is also a real risk of damaging so many important watersheds.

For more information on the fight against the mega-quarry and for the latest news and updates on the fight, visit the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce (NDACT) at Those of you from Canada are also encouraged to contact your local members of federal and provincial parliament to make your views known. NDACT has petitions that can be signed and sent in (the government needs original signatures so an online petition is not available). There are also links to related media articles and you can also follow no mega quarry on facebook and twitter.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Foodstock 2011 - Stop the Mega-Quarry!

I know that most of my readers don’t live near here, but this is an important issue and I want to draw attention to this. Melancthon township is a small rural area northwest of Toronto, between Orangeville and Collingwood that is primarily farmland. Specifically, it is one of the most prolific potato-growing regions in Ontario and supplies the Greater Toronto Area with a large percentage of its potatoes. A couple years ago, a large corporation known as Highland Companies began buying up farms in this area, telling sellers they would continue with potato farming. They amassed a plot of 7000 acres, then submitted a proposal to the Ontario government to operate a limestone quarry on this land. Initially proposed at over 2300 acres this is by far the largest quarry to operate in Canada and they have been granted perpetual rights to draw a 600 million litres of water per day from the area. The region is near the headwaters of the Grand River watershed, which serves over a million people in Southwestern Ontario, including Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, the Niagara region - oh, and Guelph. The quarry will dig 200 feet below the water table so the potential for contamination of the whole watershed is high. This land is far from any major highway, yet they will be running 300 trucks an hour carrying stone back and forth. While they intend to grow crops again on the quarry floor, this concept is laughable, as quarrying generates soil contamination and it is highly unlikely that this would even be possible. Further, this company, while supposedly Canadian, receives primary backing from a New-England based hedge fund, and neither company has ever operated a limestone quarry, let alone a mega-quarry. That tells me they will likely be bringing in an outside operator after approval, so any concerns regarding safety records will not be addressed. Furthermore, there is a loophole in the law saying that quarries do not have to undergo an environmental assessment to be approved. This land is located just outside the Greenbelt, a protected area that grows much of Ontario’s produce. Fortunately Ontario’s government has recently reversed course and has finally ordered an environmental assessment for the project.

With this impending threat to our local food security, local Ontario chefs have come together to show solidarity with the protests against this mega-quarry. Leading this is celebrated chef Michael Stadtlander, one of the country’s best chefs and one of the strongest advocates of local, farm-to-table cuisine. The Canadian Chef’s Congress, of which he is the chairman, has organized a fundraising dinner at an area farm that did not sell out to Highland and they are billing this as “Foodstock”, with the implied reference to Woodstock quite intentional. More than 70 chefs, including Stadtlander, Jamie Kennedy, and other top chefs will be present and contributing dishes. Unlike most celebrity chef charity events, that will usually cost more than $100 per person, Foodstock is a pay-what-you-can event. You can either register in advance at or pay at the gate - the suggested donation is a mere $10. Of course, since all funds go to support the cause, larger donations are obviously welcomed. This is a no-frills event - except for the food. Attendees should bring their own plate, cutlery, napkin and water glass. As this is on a farm and will go rain or shine, it is probably also a good idea to bring a chair and boots. The event is on Sunday, October 16, 2011, from 11am - 5pm. The farm is in the village of Conover, at county road 124 and Melancthon 20th sideroad. To get there from Toronto, take Hwy 401 to 410, then to Hwy 10 (Hurontario st.) and stay on it past Orangeville to Hwy 89 at Primrose. Go left and continue to county road 124, just before the town of Shelburne, turn right and follow 124 until 20th sideroad. I imagine there will be signs near the location. I believe it is about 1 hour’s drive from Toronto, depending on where you are. It seems there are also bus trips being organized to the event from Toronto, Guelph, Hamilton, and Collingwood. These are being organized primarily on Facebook.

View Larger Map

I have always wanted to attend one of these multi-chef dinners but the price was always way too high - even though it would be going to support a worthy cause. This one is different. Not only is the price much more reasonable, this really is an important issue for this region and I want to give my support. Also, this event is occurring on my Birthday, my 30th. I will most definitely be attending and I hope if there is anyone else reading this who lives in the GTA or Southwestern Ontario, please consider taking the time to attend this event, have some great food, and show your support for our environment and our food supply.

For more information on the mega quarry and the risks it causes, visit:

For information on Foodstock, or to register in advance, visit:

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Homemade Tomato Sauce

In my recipes, I have often mentioned using either canned tomatoes or homemade tomato sauce. Tomato sauce is fairly easy to make at home as long as you have a way to store it. The best way is to make a very large quantity near the end of the tomato season, like now, and freeze it in the portions you will use.

Tomato Sauce

1 bushel ripe plum tomatoes
1-1/2 cup vodka

That is all the ingredients. This does take some preparation time though. I recommend having someone else help you with this process, otherwise it can seem overwhelming and take a very long time. If you make this much, you will also need a VERY large stockpot - perhaps two. You will have at least 20 litres at the beginning - perhaps more depending on whether there are some rotten tomatoes in the bunch and how full the bushel was. To buy the tomatoes, a farmer’s market is usually the best bet. You do not want beefsteak or other round tomatoes, as they have more juice and not enough pulp to provide a rich sauce. In Montreal, I was able to find a variety called “Super Marzano”, which is a variety similar to the famous Italian San Marzano tomatoes. These tomatoes are very sweet and on the dry side, which means when cooked they make a very deep flavoured sauce with a fair amount of sweetness. I don’t think these are commonly grown in Canada though, but the more common Roma tomatoes are pretty good too, as are any variety of plum tomato. The tomato season runs until the first frost, which in this part of the world is usually sometime in mid-October, though it can sometimes come earlier. Although field tomatoes start becoming available in August, plum tomatoes ripen later and the large quantities at low prices are not available until the season is nearly over. Bushels are generally available starting in September running until about a week or two into October, unless a frost comes before then. This year was bad for tomatoes, and many other vegetables. We had a cool and rainy May and June, then very little rain for the rest of the summer. Also, except for a period of a few weeks in July, it was not exceptionally hot. And finally in September, we got more rain, and colder weather. As they were predicting a chance of frost this past weekend, we needed to get our tomatoes last week. Even in the last week in September many vendors had mostly under ripe tomatoes in their bushels, but we were able to find one vendor at St. Jacob’s Farmer’s Market with good quality ripe tomatoes. If a bushel seems too much for you, half-bushels are perhaps even more common than full bushels, especially this year when both yield and quality were off.

When you get the tomatoes home, the real work begins. This is an all-day process so you may want to wait until the next day and get started in the morning. The first thing that must be done is the tomatoes need to be peeled. To do this, you will need to blanch the tomatoes in boiling water then cool them down, after which the skins will come off easily. There are a few ways this can be done, depending on your equipment, how much help you have, and your own preferences. My preferred method is to set up a pot of boiling water and a large bowl or tub filled with ice water. Place a batch of tomatoes - not too many at one time - into boiling water for about 45 seconds to a minute, maybe more if they are especially big. Then fish them out using a skimmer (depending on the size of your basket and pot, a fry basket could work as well, or lacking anything better, a slotted spoon) and transfer them immediately to the ice bath. Once the tomatoes have cooled back down, they can be removed from the water and peeled. Once peeled, cut the tomatoes into chunks - size doesn’t matter that much - remove the core if it seems quite large and woody (otherwise don’t bother) and put them in your big stockpot, making sure all the juices get in the pot too. Try to be as efficient as possible in these steps, to save time. This is where an assistant can be incredibly helpful. You can divide up tasks so both of you are constantly working. Still a full bushel can take two people about 2-3 hours. So maybe if you are new to this, it might make more sense to start with a half-bushel.

Anyway, once you have a few inches of tomatoes in the stockpot, you can turn the heat on to low. This will save time since while you continue to process tomatoes, the others already in the pot can start cooking. Once the tomatoes have broken down somewhat and there is a lot of liquid in the pot, it is time to add the vodka. As vodka has no taste, you may have wondered why I am using it here. Similarly, I used to find it odd that a classic Italian pasta sauce was “alla vodka”. Vodka sauce doesn’t taste “boozy”, in fact doesn’t taste out of the ordinary at all. But vodka sauce is a rose sauce, which has a base of tomato and cream. When you make a sauce out of something solid, your goal is to extract as much flavour as you can out of the food into the sauce. Most flavours dissolve well in water, which means any liquid works well for making a sauce or stock. However, not all flavour compounds dissolve in water. Some of the distinctive flavours in a tomato are soluble in alcohol and not water. Other ingredients share this quality. That is why many commercial extracts, like vanilla extract, are created using alcohol as the medium. What this means for our purposes is that by adding alcohol to the tomatoes, you will get heightened flavour you would not get otherwise. Since we want to taste the tomato and not other flavours, vodka is the best choice, as it is high in alcohol and has no flavour. In these early stages, stir the pot frequently, making sure nothing sticks on the bottom and scorches. Once the tomatoes are fully broken down, there is less risk of this, but occasional stirring is important.

On a side note, you can use this knowledge to make your own vanilla extract as well. This is extremely easy. Take three vanilla beans, split them but do not scrape out the grains, and put everything in a 300-500 ml glass jar, and fill the jar with vodka. Seal it, and store this in a cool, dark place for about 1 month and your extract is ready to use. If you find it is not strong enough, add another bean and set it aside for a couple more weeks. You can even make the vanilla go further by continuing to top up the bottle with more alcohol, as long as the bottle is still at least 3/4 full. And if you seek out really good vanilla beans, you will have some amazing extract.

Once all the tomatoes are in the pot, let them simmer for several hours, until they have formed a thick, chunky sauce. 4-6 hours is a good guideline, but that depends on how much you made and how concentrated you want the sauce to be. When it is done, let it cool for a couple hours, then ladle it into containers. In our family we use 500ml containers for a portion, which is two cups. These are usually sour cream or deli containers that have been saved and reused. Some people prefer to create a smooth sauce by grinding the tomatoes through a food mill, which also removes the seeds, before storing. I think it’s much better left chunky in its more natural state, seeds included. Store these containers in your freezer and take them out as needed. Obviously if you do not have a lot of freezer space, that will limit how much you can make. One bushel should make about 18 litres of finished sauce. This amount will normally last us at least two years, sometimes three.

There are some additional variations you could make to this. You could add some garlic or basil to the tomatoes, but if you are going to use this for a variety of purposes that may not be what you want. Also, if the tomatoes are under ripe, or just not very sweet, a small quantity of sugar added to the pot can help things out a bit. Don’t add very much, a few tablespoons ought to do it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Having Fun in Guelph

One thing I miss about living in Montreal is the festivals. So much goes on there that one can always find something interesting to do. There is also a great deal of nightlife that is generally assumed not to exist in smaller communities. I have always considered Guelph to a very sedate city, where everyone goes to bed early and not much exciting happens. Well, that’s not entirely the case. Having a big University here is of course one important driving force, as university students want to have some kind of nightlife. Today I will discuss two events I attended recently that were well attended and great fun. First is the Guelph Ribfest, which I mentioned in an earlier post, that took place at the end of August. The other is Guelph’s own Nuit Blanche, in conjunction with the Guelph Jazz Festival, that occurred two weeks ago.

Ribfest has been an annual event here for some time, and is put on by the Rotary Club of Guelph. It is part of Ontario’s BBQ contest circuit, just like the Rib and Chicken cook-off in Ottawa that I mentioned previously. It takes place on the north end of Riverside Park, one of Guelph’s largest public parks, which features a large field more than big enough to accommodate a festival. There were 9 competing ribbers, including Blazin BBQ that I reviewed in Ottawa. However, unlike Ottawa there was a lot more to the festival than just the contestants. There were many other stalls that sold various sides, most of them along the lines of carnival foods. There were blooming onions, roasted corn on the cob, ice cream and even a funnel cake cart that did all kinds of stuff fried and “on a stick”. There was also a midway, a stage with live musical acts, and a beer tent. And thanks to new provincial liquor laws, you could actually consume alcohol anywhere inside the grounds of the event, rather than only in a designated “beer tent”. Still, there wasn’t that much drinking, as this seemed to have a definite fairground sort of atmosphere and very family-friendly. Near the entrance to the festival site, there was a classic car show. Unlike classic car shows at, say, a major auto show, there was only minimal registration for this event. The way I understand it, if you want to take part, you simply show up in your car and let them know you want to display in the show. This means that not all the cars are on display at any one time and they are there as long as their owners want. This has always been successful and I know there are many classic car owners in the Guelph area.

I had visited before, years ago, with my family and they were not overly impressed. Partly, my dad doesn’t like pork ribs or waiting in lines. Also it was rainy when we were there and it didn’t seem all that impressive. This year, we had beautiful weather all weekend and we approached the event in a smarter way. I went first to scout things out and ensure that at least some of the contestants were offering beef ribs, which we all love, and to determine a reasonable plan of action. The one difficulty was parking - this event is getting so big and popular there are not enough parking spaces. The dual problems of lines and finding a place to sit were resolved by having my dad reserve a place and sit while the rest of us went to wait in line for the food. The ribs were great once again, and the blooming onions were huge and perfectly fried. We all had a great meal and a great time and we plan to go again.

Nuit Blanche is a general term for a festival that is held at night, and runs from dusk to dawn. This is something that has been done for a while in Paris and Berlin and has expanded to Canada. Montreal has had one for quite a while, and Toronto has one as well. They are usually associated with music festivals, but sometimes they will be tied to other celebrations. This is the second year that Guelph has included a Nuit Blanche as part of the Jazz festival. As I said above, Guelph is not considered a late-night kind of place, but the timing was perfect. Student move-in day at the University was one week before this event so the city has just had an influx of many young people wanting to stay up late and party. Generally, the late night scene in Guelph focuses on a cluster of bars and clubs in a section of the downtown, which many downtown residents do not like because of all the late night drunkenness and disorder. Last week, it was certainly busy at the bars, but there were even more people downtown for the jazz festival. In the evening they had a jazz tent covering about a block of a downtown street, complete with food, beer and a stage featuring free concerts, continuing until a bit after midnight. But the real action was in various other locations throughout the downtown with numerous concerts continuing all through the night. There was one in an alleyway behind a café on Douglas street, a very small street right near the square. There I heard A Dangerously Funky Night with Mr. Danger. The crowd was really into it and there was a bit of dancing (oh, and a few hot guys too!) After that, there was a great set, headlined “Love and Affection”, performed by Woodshed Orchestra, in a hall inside a nearby church. They were kind of a jazz/dixieland mix and had a good sense of humour too. A lot of the same people from the Douglas Alley show were here as well and were even more exuberant. Many of those same hot guys were there and dancing at this one too, and I did get the impression that at least some of them, and possibly a large number of them, could be gay. I didn’t get a chance to talk with them and you can really never tell in an environment like this, but this was encouraging to me. First of all, it is so rare to see men really enjoying dancing when they’re not directly dancing with a girl, and especially for guys to dance as a group. I have always considered Guelph very conservative so this is a good sign since this indicates more openness at the least. And of course no one took any offense to these guys in any way. Of course I spent a good deal of time watching them! I probably should have tried to strike up a conversation though. Well, at least I got more involved than I usually would. One step at a time.

At two I started to listen to another performance at the same location, but I wasn’t really into this one, so after a while I decided to leave and get something to eat. Yes, it was 2:30 in the morning but there is a new establishment in Guelph that specializes in Poutine. Poutine is a Quebec specialty which is, at its most basic, french fries covered in brown gravy and topped with cheese curds. Smoke's Poutinerie, part of a chain, stays open until 4 in the morning, allowing them to make a mint off the crowd coming out of the bars. In Guelph, the bars close at 2, so going there at 2:30 on Sunday morning (after Saturday night) was probably a mistake. The shop was packed with the ordering line snaking back all the way to the door. Everyone seemed to be yelling - but apparently only the customers (!). More proof, drunk people love poutine! But you don’t have to be drunk to eat this - just not be health conscious. Also fantastic for a hangover. I feel that I need at least one more visit before providing a full review so consider this a preliminary review. In addition to the traditional poutine, they also offer many variations, mainly with various meat toppings, such as sausage, chilli, pulled pork or even Montreal Smoked Meat. There are also vegetarian options, which use a vegetarian gravy. I only had the basic poutine, and after tasting it, I found it was very good, but I have reason to think their more elaborate offerings might be better. For this reason I want to try them again before giving a full review. What I will say that their fries are impeccable and they do not cut corners by using packaged ingredients.

So there is some fun to be had in Guelph, at least on occasion.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An Article Worth Reading

This is not really a full post, but one is coming very soon, probably tomorrow. I just wanted to share a very interesting editorial piece that appeared in the Toronto Star this weekend. Back in April, I wrote about how people want to maintain the rights inherent in citizenship without fulfilling any of the duties. Read my post here. The opinion piece, by Edmund Pries, centres on the trend of transforming “citizens” into “taxpayers”. He says it better than I could - this is exactly what I was talking about.

Read the article here: “Taxpayers vs. Citizens”

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Justice Not Vengeance

You may have noticed I do not link to very many sites on my sidebar. When I began blogging there was a lot of concern about sites being nuked for “questionable content” or even linking to such sites. Even though I knew none of my material would stray into that problem area, I worried that linking to certain sites might attract problems. Therefore I decided that, if I was going to put a link in my sidebar I had to be 100% comfortable with that site’s content and could feel comfortable recommending it to anyone who happens to read my blog. With that in mind, I am introducing two new links today. First is something new for me. While I am affiliated with two food websites that have blog listings, I have not linked to any food blogs. Recently though, I have found one that is well-written, diverse and even has something of an intellectual side to it. If you like what I write about food, pay a visit to Down Home Foodie, I think you will like her writing too. The other site I have been familiar with for a while, and I think some of my regular readers know it too. This site has an adult content warning in front of it, but I can assure you the site is clean. You may see a nude picture once in a great while but is not at all a porn site and there is nothing I would consider at all offensive. Because this is registered as an “adult” site, and also because at one time I was unsure about some of his previous content, I have been reluctant to link to Randy’s blog in the past but lately I am getting to really like this blog - he is one of my favourites. Like me, he seems to have a background in psychology/behaviour or something in that line, so we have been having some interesting discussions as of late. He is a regular at Scottie’s Toy Box and does visit here on occasion. Visit Randy’s blog at Or Words To That Effect...

Lately, I have noticed in this blog community there is much focus on the justice system and what it is doing or not doing. I have also waded into this discussion, as I find it quite interesting. I believe that part of the difficulty is that “justice” can mean different things to different people, and while it is supposed to officially be free from emotional response, most peoples’ concept of justice is heavily based on emotions.

And there lies the problem. I believe the motivation for many people who “seek justice” are not really after justice but revenge. Now revenge encompasses more than what you probably consider it to be, like vigilantism and multi-generation family grudges that usually involve a great deal of bloodshed. Revenge in a more mundane form is actually a desire to have the perpetrator of a crime suffer as much as the victim, because of the anger and/or hurt that the victim feels. Here is where vengeance get entangled with the concept of justice. Obviously as a society we consider it unacceptable that someone who has committed a crime should be able to avoid facing any consequences for their actions. It would also be heartless to disregard the suffering or damages inflicted on the victim(s) of such actions.

The desire for vengeance is deeply ingrained in us. As a social species, we rely on a set of communal laws to ensure we can continue to thrive as a collective. Therefore, if someone violates these laws, it threatens everyone and undermines confidence in the ability of one’s society to function. That is why fear and anger often rule and there is a desire for harsh punishments that inflict suffering. Over time, most societies try to implement a fair and effective justice system to ensure that the consequences meted out are appropriate. One of the earlier forms of justice is the biblical standard of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life”. The purpose was to set a punishment that was equal to the offense. Today this standard, especially when interpreted literally, is seen as barbaric and, in the New Testament, Christian tradition moves beyond his standard, in keeping with Christ’s teachings of love and forgiveness. It should be noted though that “an eye for an eye” was never considered by Jewish scholars to be a literal requirement. There are a couple reasons for this. First, this rule was actually a limitation as other contemporary nations punished minor offenses with disfigurement or death and the Israelites determined that the punishment can never be more severe than the crime. Second, due to the implications of this limitation, it is not actually commensurate to literally take out someone’s eye or knock out one’s teeth as punishment for doing these things. If you did these things, the accused might suffer additional harm as a result, rendering the punishment excessive. So instead, the practice was to require the offender to pay the monetary value of an eye, a tooth, etc. The exception was “a life for a life” since murder is a crime that can never be undone and it is completely impossible to place a value on a human life, the sages determined that the literal penalty of death is still appropriate. After all, there is no way in this case that the penalty can be exceeded as death is terminal. It should also be noted though, the Jewish high court in the days of the temple were extremely reluctant to impose any death penalties. Because such a penalty is irreversible, they put so many constraints and such a high burden of proof it was almost impossible have a case strong enough to merit the death penalty and a lesser punishment was used instead. Still, starting from the base principle of an eye for an eye still seems like unthinking retribution, albeit somewhat tempered, which is probably why in the New Testament, different standards were espoused.

So if we do not want our justice system to be based on seeking revenge, then what is the purpose? The best I can tell, the ideals of justice would entail that any wrong or illegal behaviour is met with appropriate consequences, the victims are protected, and an opportunity is provided for rehabilitation. The efficacy of the court systems of providing this ideal is not really my focus here as I am more concerned with personal ethics. Although justice is primarily considered a legal construct, we generally believe that “justice must be done” even in matters of ethical or moral violations that do not violate a governmental law. In any event, in discussions of ethics, civil laws are not constructed based on ideals but on consensus, so you take what you can get.

In my teens, one person whose life and writings greatly influenced me was Simon Wiesenthal, a man who was commonly known as a “Nazi Hunter”. He was a survivor of the Holocaust and the concentration camps and after liberation he dedicated his life to seeking out and putting escaped Nazis on trial for their crimes. With the passage of time, more people criticized him for doing this, as they felt that there was no good to be served in prosecuting old men decades after the crimes and surmising that Wiesenthal’s motivation for this continuing quest was revenge for what was done to him, his family, and his fellow Jews. He took great pains to explain how this was not at all the case, especially in his memoir published in the late 1980's, entitled Justice Not Vengeance. After the camps were liberated and Simon had recovered most of his physical strength, he went to work helping the allied tribunals set up to try Nazi war criminals. Over the next few years, he found that many former Nazis, who had committed some horrific offenses were living quite comfortably in many other countries, as close as Switzerland and some even seemed proud of what they had done. Many other survivors he talked to considered the only appropriate punishment to kill them - in other words getting revenge. This seemed wrong to Wiesenthal, like one was sinking to their level and being just as inhuman as their tormentors. By contrast, the Nuremberg trials were fair and sober proceedings, allowing those accused to defend themselves, and making judgements based on the evidence, even acquitting a few. To Simon, this was proper justice: outside judges who were not biased by being directly victimized judged the accused’s guilt and the severity of the crimes and set an appropriate punishment. Meanwhile, the process itself would ensure that the people do not forget about what happened and prevent such a tragedy from happening again. As for those who say it does not serve justice to prosecute men in their 80's and 90's in frail health whose crimes took place decades ago? To me, letting this go sends the message that there are no consequences for the crimes, as long as you hide away or lie about your past for long enough.

Contrast this to the current mess that goes by the name of the U.S. Justice System. I was particularly disturbed by the media circus that surrounded the recent Casey Anthony trial. Now it seems pretty clear that Ms. Anthony is no model citizen and certainly, as confirmed pathological liar, should not be trusted in any way, shape or form. And given the available evidence I would say that it is quite possible she did in fact kill her child. But considering the charges laid, the evidence presented, and the principle of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, not guilty seemed to be the only responsible verdict. Of course this infuriated everyone. I won’t even get into the appalling behaviour of the so-called “experts” on TV, and especially Nancy Grace, except to say that she actually is a lawyer, and as such ought to maintain some professional standards. But what really caught my attention was the insistence that she ought to be punished, despite the lack of proof, because the kid is dead. While they present this as justice, this is what I would consider vengeance. They start with the fact that a little girl is dead, quite likely murdered (but again, not proven). Therefore someone has to “pay” for this crime. But here the judgement of guilt has been made in the court of public opinion rather than law. With law you actually have to prove the case and the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. With public opinion it is the reverse except without the “until proven” part. And how does the public opinion form? Well, from the media reports, just about always sensationalist. This is why I can’t watch HLN for more than a few seconds without feeling like puking.

Another related concept that is quite interesting is perhaps more sensitive. We have just past the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks this past weekend. How do you see justice done here? For one thing, all the actual hijackers died while carrying out their evil. And can any of the other actions taken since be considered to be even some measure of justice? What if, for instance, the U.S. had been able to capture Bin Laden alive and try him, as was done with many top Nazis such as Hermann Goring, Rudolf Hess, and eventually, Adolf Eichmann? And currently, former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic is on trial for crimes against humanity for his role in the massacres in Bosnia. First of all, a fair trial for such a hated individual on U.S. soil and abiding by the rules of US law would be highly unlikely. But even if that were to happen by some miracle or if he could have been prosecuted at the International Criminal Court like Milosevic, would it even then be possible for justice to proceed? When other suspected Al-Qaeda members have gone on trial, they have turned it into a spectacle to continue their hatred and vitriol. Given the messages Bin Laden released in the past, such a scenario would be likely. So you would have the American people on one side howling for blood, and Bin Laden on the other issuing a rallying cry to all the other terrorists. The pursuit for justice dissolves into a tangled mess with no good outcomes. And the way it actually did end, there is certainly no justice but only a small element of revenge. But perhaps in such cases you can’t really do any better.

I think what we ought to strive for is not perfection, but to do the best we can, while remaining aware of our own natures, whether in policy or our personal lives. When it comes to the justice system, it is much more difficult as we have to weigh the priorities of all a country’s citizens, some of whom have no interest in the ideals of justice. Also, since our written laws must stand up in all circumstances and be fair to everyone, there is a certain lack of flexibility built into the system. But when we have been personally victimized, it might be helpful to remember that there is a natural tendency to seek revenge, but this urge is not good for society as a whole. Take a step back and think about what rules/laws were violated and what a fair and appropriate penalty would be. Note that I am not discussing forgiveness here. Forgiveness is something that comes later and is different in nature. It is also frequently misunderstood and I will discuss my thoughts on it in an upcoming post. That post will come together with a review of a book written by Simon Wiesenthal that poses some fascinating and difficult questions.

And one last thing before I close. A Happy 16th Birthday wish goes out to a special online friend. Thanks Amar, for being such a great inspiration and example to all.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Choosing Your Ingredients - Part 2

This is the second part of my post about choosing your ingredients. This post covers stock, alcohol and spices.

The ingredient you use for meat flavour can be difficult to choose. Your options include stock, or demi-glace, homemade or commercial. If you use commercial product, be careful of the sodium level of the product and read the label - you want to avoid preservatives and any ingredient that you do not recognize. Please do not use bouillon cubes - you are basically putting an artificially flavoured salt lick into your food. Making your own stock is a skill in its own right, and I was thinking about making it a separate post but I think I will just include it here. Making stock is not that difficult and the basic process is as follows.

Making Stock

Take some bones, preferably some that also have some cartilage attached. For some stocks, especially beef or veal stock, you may want to roast the bones in the oven first, along with some onions, carrots, celery and a dollop of tomato paste, but for other stocks, put the bones directly into the tallest and biggest pot you have. Cover the bones with cold water and bring everything up to a simmer. Make sure it does not reach a full boil and keep the stock at a bare simmer for anywhere from 2-8 hours depending on what kind of stock and what bones you are using (fish or vegetable stocks take much less time - about 45 minutes). Chicken stock takes from 2-4 hours, dark (roasted) veal stock takes 4-6 hours, white beef stock takes longer. As it simmers, especially in the first hour or two, some scum will form on the top of the stock. This needs to be skimmed off, either with a skimmer or with a ladle (being careful not to take off too much water).

About halfway through the process add onion, celery and carrots cut into large chunks, along with some thyme sprigs, a few bay leaves and some whole peppercorns.

Do not add salt. Because the liquid is being reduced over time, any salt you add during this process will become more concentrated. Since stock is not a finished dish, seasoning is not as important. When the stock is done, let it cool a bit, then carefully strain the stock into a container using a very fine mesh strainer (if you really want to be anal about this you could even line the strainer with cheesecloth or a large coffee filter, like some restaurants do). Multiple wide containers are a good idea if you have a lot, as this will cool the stock down faster making it less vulnerable to spoilage. If you are going to use all of this within a couple days, you can keep the stock in the fridge. Otherwise, portion into amounts you would use at any one time and freeze. From a roasted beef or veal stock, you might want to make your own demi-glace. To do this, put the finished and strained stock into a fresh pot and bring it to a boil and reduce the liquid until you have half the total volume left. Adding some red wine at the start of this process can produce a nice result.

Alcohol is a very important cooking ingredient. Because alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, it evaporates and reduces quickly, providing a lot of flavour. The problem is, depending on what you buy, it can get expensive. For wine, you have probably heard that you should never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. This is generally true but a little misleading. If a wine doesn’t have much flavour, or is too sweet or tastes unpleasant it will probably not be a good choice, because you are putting something that doesn’t taste good into your food. On the other hand, many characteristics of good wines are volatile. This means they are aromas that dissipate into the air. When you cook, these complex aromas and nuances will disappear. So a fine, complex wine will essentially be wasted. So buy wine that is acceptable to drink but there is no need to spend large amounts for a cooking wine. Beer can be very useful for cooking as well but can be a little trickier to work with. Most beers are bitter so this has to be accounted for. I also would not suggest using most mass market beers as to me they are nothing but water with some alcohol in it. Choose fuller flavoured and darker beers as they will be more likely to leave behind a noticeable flavour after cooking.

Almost any hard liquor can be useful for cooking. However, if the flavour of the booze is either non-existent or very distinctive, the applications will be limited. For this reason scotch and gin have limited uses. Some of the alcohols I find most useful are brandy, sherry and rum. I also use Calvados, an apple brandy. I may use other things for specific applications. For rum, use dark rum only. White rum is only acceptable for mixed drinks and even then I’d rather use Jamaican medium or dark rum. For brandy, the key is to find a balance between good flavour and reasonable price. For this reason, it is often good to look for a non-French brandy as you will pay more for equivalent quality for a French brandy. I prefer Spanish Brandy from Jerez, the region that also produces Sherry. However, when I was in Quebec it was almost impossible to find any brandy that is not from France, so I had to look for a V.S.O.P. Brandy that is not too expensive but has good flavour. Recently at a friend’s house, I tasted a Greek liqueur known as Raki. It was very impressive with a complex, brandy-like flavour with hints of fruit and vanilla. I am very interested to see if I can get a quality version here and how well it will work in cooking. For sherry, I would apply similar “rules” to those above for using wine. Just keep in mind that for savoury cooking, you should be looking for a dry sherry. While vodka has no flavour I do find it useful in making tomato sauce, because the tomato has certain flavour compounds that dissolve in alcohol and not in water, giving a tomato-based sauce more flavour.

The next category I will discuss is spices. I firmly believe that, here, quality is a very important consideration. Spices can lose their freshness fairly quickly so the form in which you buy them is important too. The most important thing is to not buy a lot at a time, particularly if you buy pre-ground spices. If you plan to cook frequently and with many different spices, I would highly recommend buying whole spices and grinding them yourself. While ground spices may be more convenient, they have a maximum shelf life of six months, during which time they continuously lose flavour. If you have never ground your own spices, try it once and you will be amazed at the difference. There are two options for grinding spices. For most people, a simple coffee grinder is the best choice. They are inexpensive and grind spices quickly and effectively. For those that are really serious about spices, you might consider getting a mortar and pestle. For these there are smooth ones, usually porcelain or granite, that are good for very hard and dry spices. For spice ingredients with some moisture, you may want a coarse stone model, often made with lava rock. All the bumps and ridges help make a paste. These items do tend to be big and bulky and they also require more time and effort to prepare your spices. I do take my spices very seriously and I have not bothered to get one (though a stone mortar and pestle is on my eventual wish list).

Because I cook with a lot of spices, I have a very wide variety so I have access to anything I might need and I can make my own spice mixes. That leads me to spice mixes. Many cuisines have rather complex blends of spices that are integral to many dishes. If you are unfamiliar with the flavours it may be easier to simply buy the appropriate mix. But here you must be very careful of the quality of the mix you buy and to make sure that there are no “fillers” or other ingredients that do not belong. Many use an abundance of salt as an alternative to flavour. One example I have already mentioned in recipes before is chili powder. To most people, “chili powder” exists only as a jarred spice that one uses to make chilli. Years ago, we used to use commercial chili powder in our family, as we had found a brand that was full flavoured and of good quality. But in time they stopped making this (isn’t that always the way things work - as soon as you find a product you like, they stop making it!) and nothing else on the market met even our lowest standards. The solution was to make our own. What is chili powder? Well, it is a blend of ground dried chiles with a few other spices. Mixes can vary, but the most prominent spices are cumin seed and coriander seed. I believe that some may use some form of powdered tomato paste or some similar powdered tomato product. Some might contain salt and/or sugar. My own chili powder combines pasilla and guajillo chiles in a 2:1 ratio (sometimes I add ancho as well), to which I add cumin and coriander. I have written before that, if you have a chili powder that tastes good to you, it will work fine in your recipe. However I don’t believe there are many good chili powders out there so I generally recommend to use the chiles and spices instead.

So how do you know what quality is? The ideal situation is if you can buy spices somewhere that specializes in spices. Often you will be able to sample the product and maybe even learn something about it. They will also source the best quality product and sell some of the more obscure spices unavailable at other stores. The disadvantage is that these stores can be pricy and, unless you live in a large city, you are unlikely to find one in your area. Fortunately, some of these stores sell online so you can have things shipped to you. Health food stores that sell bulk spices can also be good, since you can actually smell these and check for quality. For most people, this is the source I would advise. Many sell spices that are organic and/or Fair Trade certified, ensuring good growing practices and good treatment of the harvesters. Because they are sold in bulk, you can buy only the amount you need - another advantage for freshness and budget. I generally advise against buying in supermarkets - they are overpriced, especially when you are paying extra for a fancy jar, and the quality is generally not good. Some ethnic food stores, especially Asian and Indian, sell many spices often at low prices but, with some exceptions, the quality is often suspect to me.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is which spices you should get. Well, I can’t really answer that. It all depends on what your tastes are and what kind of flavours you will want on a regular basis. Some of the more versatile spices include pepper (either black or a peppercorn blend), paprika, cumin, coriander, cayenne, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. Despite its name, allspice is not a blend of spices - it is a distinct individual spice. In Jamaica it is also called pimiento and is probably the most used spice there. Also note that there are two kinds of cinnamon - true cinnamon and cassia. Most supermarket cinnamon is actually cassia and anything that does not say true cinnamon or ceylon cinnamon is also probably cassia. Cassia is a bit sweeter and spicier, while true cinnamon is earthier and more complex. If you mainly use cinnamon for baking or other sweet applications, cassia will work just fine. Cinnamon is also useful for savoury applications, particularly in Indian food or in spaghetti sauce. If you will be using cinnamon in a lot of savoury foods it may be worth searching out true cinnamon. Of course if you read through my recipes you will find I use many spices other than those listed, some even more than others I have mentioned. The point is what I said at the start of this paragraph - what spices you use depend on what you want to cook and which flavours you prefer.

If I think of other ingredient issues I feel I should pass on, I might well add a new post on this topic.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Choosing Your Ingredients - Part 1

In many of my earlier posted recipes, I gave instructions or guidelines about how to choose ingredients for the recipes. However since I use many items frequently in other recipes, it can be difficult to find the information for making subsequent recipes that feature those same ingredients. Therefore in these next two posts I will outline what I look for in a variety of ingredients. As a general rule I try to choose the highest quality options that fit into my budget, as I outlined in earlier posts. The major food categories I will discuss are chicken, pork, beef, fish, stock, spices and alcohol or liqueurs, divided into two posts. This post contains some material lifted from earlier posts added with new material.

When possible, avoid ordinary supermarket chicken. First, because they are water-chilled, you are paying for water and more importantly there is a much greater risk of salmonella contamination than when chicken is air-chilled. Second, the cheapest chickens are so priced because they are raised in truly horrible conditions. They live jammed together, are fed food of questionable origin and are more prone to diseases. There is a very good TV special hosted by Jamie Oliver where he exposes the practices of chicken farmers. Finally, higher quality chickens tend to have better flavour. Obviously, free-range organic is the best choice but can be pricey. A decent compromise would be to buy chickens that are fed 100% vegetable grain. Another budget option can be Kosher chicken. The chickens have to meet higher standards of health and, because the process of Koshering involves soaking the chicken in a salt solution, the meat is more flavourful. Just be sure to use a little less salt if you use this chicken. Depending on where you live, a similar acceptable option may be Halal chicken, which I believe follows many similar processes. The difference is not all halal meat has official certification whereas all kosher food is certified by a recognized agency. If the halal chicken is from a certified halal provider then that is also an option.

Many people do not realize this, but many of the same problems I just identified with chicken farming apply to pig farming as well. Many of the factory farms keep the pigs in pens at all times, much like milk-fed veal, which I generally avoid in favour of grain-fed veal. The conditions are atrocious and this is why pig farms smell the way they do. Pigs raised in healthy and humane conditions do not stink. A recent development in pork production is the raising of “heritage breeds”, such as Berkshire (also called Kurobuta), Tamworth and others. These tend to have a more pronounced taste and, since they are farmed on a small scale and command a premium price, they are usually raised in more humane conditions. I don’t eat a lot of pork (partly due to my Jewish upbringing) so, when I do, it has to be good. My favourite pork products are cured items, such as bacon, salami, prosciutto, kielbassa and the like. Unfortunately, most of these products require the use of nitrites and/or nitrates to preserve them. Overconsumption of these chemicals has been linked to certain health problems so, it can sometimes be worth searching for products that only use sodium nitrate (curing salt) for preservation. Some traditional prosciutto and a few very dry cured sausages can be safely cured without any nitrates, but they are few and far between. And when you can find them, they are very expensive, because nitrate free products have to have a very high overall pH, which is usually accomplished through additional drying, which means more raw product is needed to produce the same amount of cured meat. Otherwise, just don’t eat too much of it. Cured pork tends to be high in salt anyway.

The beef you select has a lot to do with its intended use. Some cuts are better for slow cooking and others for quick searing. In my last post I told you in general terms that meat cut from more heavily used muscles are more flavourful but need longer, slower cooking times. For a stew, my favourite cuts are short ribs, bottom blade (from the shoulder) and cheek. If you want to make a pot roast or a similar slow cooked whole piece, brisket is the best for that. For steak, I prefer rib steak or rib eye (that is rib with the bone removed), but striploin and T-bone are good options. If you want something less expensive, top sirloin is a really good choice. Usually even cheaper is bottom sirloin (also called tri-tip) and flank steak, but these require some care. Flank steak should be marinated beforehand and either cut should be sliced across the grain of the meat to make sure the meat is tender when eaten. The grain is where all the visible muscle fibers on a piece of meat run in a uniform direction. You will see a bunch of ridges or grooves, most of them clearly going in the same direction. Cut thin slices across these grooves and the meat will pull apart tender. Many less expensive cuts of meat you will see in the store have the word “round” in their names (top round, bottom round, eye of round). Don’t bother with these. They are not tender and don’t have enough fat for good flavour. Finally, ground beef or hamburger meat. Your standard ground beef is made up of all the miscellaneous parts of the cow that can’t be sold as an individual cut of meat. Also if a butcher has more supply of one cut than they can sell, it will be ground into hamburger. The cheaper, mass produced hamburger uses all kinds of bits and pieces you probably don’t want to think about. Because they run so many different parts through the grinder and isn’t always very fresh, there is more risk of E. Coli contamination. If you buy preground and prepackaged hamburger meat it is not safe to cook it less than well done, an unfortunate situation for the quality of the finished product. So can a hamburger be safely cooked to medium or medium-rare? Yes, if you use the right meat under the right circumstances. Ideally, buy a whole cut of meat, such as chuck or blade and grind it yourself and use it right away. Obviously you need a meat grinder to do this. You may be able to do this in a food processor as well but the consistency will not be as good. If you have a quality butcher shop near you, you should be able to buy a cut of meat and have them grind it for you. The key element is that risk of contamination increases the longer the ground meat is exposed to the elements and if the grinder is not properly clean. This is why there is no risk to eating a rare steak, and little risk even for steak tartare, raw chopped meat, since it is hand chopped right before serving.

With all of these meats there is the issue of whether or not to buy organic. In general it is true that meat produced using organic methods are treated more humanely and taste better. However, quality meat does not necessarily have to be certified organic. The thing is, the requirements to be considered organic are quite stringent. Not only are the animals only allowed to be fed good food with no chemicals, antibiotics or hormones, but the source of all feed must be certified organic, which requires pure, organic, uncontaminated soil that remains so for several years. That means new, start-up farms can never be certified organic. And sometimes there are practices that do not meet the criteria of “organic” that are not necessarily an indication of unsustainable practices or inhumane treatment. The best thing to do I suppose is find out as much as you can about the source of your meat.

I don’t eat a lot of fish and seafood, so I don’t have much to say here. The main thing is that if you think you don’t like fish because of the “fishy” taste, you were probably eating old fish! Fresh fish should smell of nothing but the ocean. The problem is that fish is very perishable and not as popular in North America than other meats so fish often sits around longer than it should. Also, if you live in the middle of a large landmass, (like in the prairies or the midwest) fish has to be transported a long distance before even getting to the store. Just try to buy as local as possible and at a shop that sells a lot of fish. The other consideration is sustainability. Many of the most popular eating fish have been overharvested to the point where the numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate. Seafood Watch in the United States and Ocean Wise in Canada are programs that monitor global fish stocks and rates whether certain fish are still being caught in a sustainable manner or if they should be avoided. Many of the big deep sea fish are not caught in a sustainable manner and are to be avoided. The manner in which the fish are caught also factor into the ratings.