Happy Hens and Fresh Eggs

When I got my copy of Happy Hens and Fresh Eggs by Toronto author Signe Langford I judged it, yes judged it, by its cover. Cute quirky name, I thought, guessing this was yet another cookbook on eating local with a beautifully art-directed cover.



This cookbook is a keeper.

Who knew I’d be racing hungrily through its 200 smartly designed pages to learn all the ins and outs of hen-keeping while simultaneously salivating over 100 egg-filled recipes, brought to life by Donna Griffith’s brilliant food photography? It doesn’t hurt that there are so many stunning portraits of Langford’s so-called Ladies- be it white-feathered Miss Vicky, her two ex-battery hens Ginger and Lizzy Borden, or that stunner on the cover with her black and white patterned feathers: Big Mama.

Langford is a former chef, Toronto food writer and illegal hen-keeper. She dotes over her recipes and her Ladies with equal attention, thus readers will find tips on how to cure hen maladies such as bumblefoot or calcium deficiency interspersed with designer food shots of “teeny tiny lemon meringues en coquille d’oeuf ”. On  one page you learn that egg whites are the secret behind truly crispy sweet potato fries and on another Langford winds you down her garden path, chases down a sick bird and before you know it, there’s a slightly TMI segue into the how-to’s of egg extraction from an egg bound hen that is soaking in her hot sink.

Needless to say, Langford is not your regular city girl. Her passion for hens, gardening and cooking (not necessarily in that order) joins forces with her sharp-witted (some might say ballsy) writing style to create a treasure of a book. She sidles perilously close to cutesy and cliché lingo- yet gets away with it with bravado, waxing lyrical about tucking her hens into bed at Cluckingham Palace; happily bringing them indoors to roost if they are ailing or nearing Henopause; laughing when “Ginger all drumsticks and bum-fluff” gets into a group cluck; and full of sage advice not only for a backyard garden but the kitchen – because this city farmer has a lot of eggs.

Having an entire cookbook devoted to the noble egg is heaven. I’ve been an admirer of the sheer simplicity and comfort of eggs for too many decades, yet I’ll be the first to admit that Langford’s ode to the hollandaise may give me just enough strength to tackle that obstreperous sauce. That’s because simple ol’ eggs can be deceptively tricky and Langford’s approach to recipe writing is thorough, instructive and full of neat solutions. She’s got the cure for the dreaded separated hollandaise and when it comes to the soufflé she writes, “Gingerly slip the soufflé in the oven. Yell at anyone who walks with more weight than a cat stalking a mouse, and bake until puffed and lightly golden – about 20 to 25 minutes. Rush to the table and serve immediately to grateful oohs and aahs.”

But it’s the basics that I really appreciate in Happy Hens and Fresh Eggs. Langford has an easy, timer-free solution to hard boiling eggs and reveals that eggs can be frozen for later use in baking. In a section titled, “essential egg recipes done perfectly… my way” she walks readers through scrambled, fried, coddled (woah!) and poached with the authority a brunch line-cook survivor. While she’s a purist when it comes to fresh eggs she’s no Prohibitionist, encouraging cooks to add “a couple of glugs of fruit brandy” or pop a scraped and cleaned vanilla bean “into a mickey of vodka for a real treat”. As I said, these are tips we can all use.


A wide variety of Canadian cooks have contributed recipes to this book, including grill king Ted Reader who supplies “Mucked UP Eggs” (possibly the least appetizing food shot in the book), scotch eggs from Chef John Higgins, Director of  George Brown College’s Chef School and Meeru’s Curried Devilled Eggs, a recipe also found in another of my favourite cooking tomes Vij’s at Home: Relax Honey by Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij.


My grandmother Maim made devilled eggs showered with chives that would have been worthy entries in this cookbook. She served them weekly when our onslaught of hungry family appeared for her Sunday buffet lunches. Back in the 70s, devilled eggs were a common feature at any formal lunch. Now they’re making a comeback  as are the classic, indented devilled egg dishes that hold the slippery mouthfuls in place. Here’s Langford’s take on the little devil.

My Devilled Eggs

Makes 10 devilled eggs

5 hard-boiled free-run eggs, peeled and rinsed

¼ tsp (1 mL) fine sea salt, or more to taste

¼ tsp (1 mL) white pepper, or more to taste

1 tsp (5 mL) dry mustard

¼ cup (60 mL) mayonnaise

1 tsp (5 mL) pickle juice

Paprika for garnish

  1. Slice the eggs in half lengthwise. Dipping a sharp knife in hot water and cleaning off on a damp dishrag between eggs is a good way to keep the final look clean and fresh. Pop out the yolks and add them to a small bowl; you can pass them through a ricer too, if you like them extra fluffy.
  2. Arrange the whites on a specialized plate or on top of a lettuce-lined plate; otherwise they will slide all around.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until super well-blended and smooth, or blend in a food processor. Once totally smooth and blended, add the yolk mixture back into the egg whites using either a piping bag or a spoon (with your pinky, natch!)
  4. Finish with a pinch or sprinkle of paprika, plain or smoked.img_5470_EDIT

Food Bloggers Unite

Sometimes you just have to go to a conference to feel like a professional.

That’s why I recently found myself in a downtown Montreal hotel surrounded by over 150 food bloggers – a handful of which were men and the majority under-40 females who could simultaneously post on Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter faster than I can crack an egg.

Three cupcakes in a Foldio lightbox

Three cupcakes in a Foldio lightbox

I felt challenged, so to speak, but wanted to be surrounded by “my tribe” even if I didn’t know the difference between Tumblr and Flickr and was the only person in those sessions keeping notes by muttering (cupped hand over mouth) into my iPhone voice memos.

It started off well.

Andrew Scrivani and some of his food styling tools.

Andrew Scrivani and some of his food styling tools.

Some 20 of us bloggers were in an expansive conference room on Le Westin’s 11th floor with floor-to-ceiling windows learning about the artistry of light. Our leader, food photographer extraordinaire Andrew Scrivani was patiently helping a roomful of DSLR neophytes use their cameras, assisted by two Montrealers: food stylist, chef, blogger and cookbook author Aimée Wimbush-Bourque and food photographer Tim Chin .

“Food bloggers are driving food industry advertising,” proclaimed Scrivani in his New Yorker accent – all the while smiling like a wistful Nonna serving up hand rolled pasta – as he clicked his way through a slide show of his work. Each shot was a true masterpiece and ingeniously instructive. Frame by frame we learned how to prop, “stalk the light” and create a “strategic mess”.

Then it was our turn.

Photography workshop. Photo by Beth Dunham.

Photography workshop. Photo by Beth Dunham.

Scrivani parceled us up into five small groups and instructed us to pick out a selection of food and props piled high at the side of the room. Before long I was sharing lens and lighting tips with Looneyspoon’s Greta Podleski  and trying out the portable smartphone photostudio by Foldio with Marsha the  You Gotta Eat This blogger.

You know what they say about too many cooks spoiling the pot? Not this time. We-the-bloggers gently prodded and poked a stalk of Brussels sprouts, pears and ground cherries to create what Scrivani called “hyper reality” using the light (nothing beats natural) and a selection of Scrivani endorsed props “full of patina and age” because, as the master decreed, “we are selling emotion.”IMG_5156

That’s exactly what I felt when I opened up my ten-pound swag bag after the photo session. I had lugged its hulking, burlap mass across town in Montreal’s eternally over-heated Metro to my Airbnb pied–à–terre. After which, I needed a drink.

Swag time: Swell bottle from Delta, Food Network Canada amp charger and something yellow from Eggs Canada.

Swag time: Swell bottle from Delta, Food Network Canada amp charger and something yellow from Eggs Canada.

Fortunately, water bottles were heavily represented. Not only was I the recipient of a S’well insulated stainless steel water bottle made by the water faucet people at Delta, but I could be entertained for weeks tucking different fruit and vegetable combinations into the infuser insert of my Half Your Plate sippy-style and foot-tall water bottle.

But it was the Food Network amp charger that really got me going. Who knew that a little white box and cord could elicit such admiration? I delved into its Lilliputian manual and quickly understood that this lithium baby was going to keep my iPhone battery in the green for all those long days of out–of-office, mobile blog work ahead.

Me, and my brand, were pumped!

And nobody seemed to know more about branding at this conference than the one-name wonder Ricardo, our keynote speaker who was happy to stand in front of the adoring crowd and say without a note of regret, “I am controlled by women.”IMG_5227

Which can’t be a bad thing from where he stands, at the helm of a Montreal-based food empire primed to take over English Canada and the world.

“Taking the leap” was the inspirational theme of 47-year-old Ricardo’s presentation.   His lilting accent, suave looks and self-deprecating style all combined to hold the room spellbound. In over just two decades, this ambitious, high-energy, self-trained cook has mesmerized TV viewers with over 1,600 shows, the majority viewed in French on Radio Canada. It’s no surprise he’s a household word in Quebec and is busily breaking through bilingual barriers with Ricardo and Friends on The Food Network and Global. Monsieur Ricardo has his own wine label, a line of cookware, a massive web site and launched the first Canadian food magazine published in both French and English last year.

Inside my swag bag was a copy of “Best Cookies” by Ricardo snuggled up beside Manitoba Harvest’s  hemp hearts and hemp heart bites IMG_5487that proudly carry Non GMO verification and are a delicious way to add more Omega 3s and 6s to the diet. Now when I add a daily spoonful of hemp hearts to my morning cereal or afternoon yogurt snack, I’ll do so knowing that it comes from the world’s largest hemp food manufacturer.

Speaking of large, Lentils Canada  were a major sponsor at FBC2015 and were quick to inform me that our nation grows more lentils than anywhere else in the world. Unlike dried beans, lentils don’t require soaking and cook up faster. Now that my vegetable garden has closed up for the winter, I’ll be sprouting lentils  in my kitchen and tossing into salads or using as a garnish for soups.

Speechless moment with MC Mairlyn Smith. Photo by Beth Dunham.

Speechless moment with MC Mairlyn Smith. Photo by Beth Dunham.

Beyond the lentils and swag, the food shots and ceaseless Tweeting, FBC2015 was spiced up with the split-your-gut humour of MC Mairlyn Smith who wields the quickest wit and fastest home economist whisk in town, not to mention a great sign off: Peace, Love and Fibre.

Digging Sweet Potatoes

Last week I put on my boots and jeans and boarded one of two, large tour buses heading for a sweet potato farm in Simcoe, Ontario. You’d think the author of a book on fresh produce might know that sweet potatoes grew in Ontario – but she didn’t. And you’d think that the farm we were about to visit might be run-of-the mill, but it sure wasn’t.IMG_4914

Berlo’s Best Sweet Potatoes is the largest grower in Canada, with some 700 acres devoted to the adobe-coloured roots, annually harvesting a whopping 14 million pounds. Right smack in their busiest harvest of the year, head farmer, visionary and CEO Peter VanBerlo Sr. stood at the ready to tour us around his acreage, armed with an amplifier, microphone and 16 years of sweet potato farming experience.

Our bus had travelled from Mississauga to the sandy loam of Norfolk county, one of the most diverse agricultural areas in OntarioIMG_4889Tall and lanky, VanBerlo stood roadside motioning us to park beside one of his sprawling sweet potato fields. Armed with smartphone cameras, pens and paper, our mostly-female group got off the bus slightly dazed and disoriented. City folk, we stumbled an unsteady course through the field, negotiating our way over burrowed trenches and uprooted debris.

Suddenly VanBerlo shouted “Look there!” and pointed frantically at one of his custom engineered digger/harvesters off in the distance. It looked like a travelling assembly line, crowded with over a dozen seasonal workers busily sorting, shaking and tossing an incoming sea of the pinky-red sweet potatoes.

“These workers have been with me for 29 years,”said a satisfied VanBerlo. He paused politely as we let out a collective sigh of approval. “I must be doing something right.”

He is.

VanBerlo and his sons Nick and Peter Jr. have teamed up to take the kinks out of sweet potato farming.  It’s a fussy, temperamental root wrapped in a thin, delicate skin that abhors the cold and demands gentle treatment. Traditional farm machineryIMG_4940 wasn’t up to the job so the VanBerlos designed their own   harvesters, and in 2006 established a state-of-the-art facility.

After our romp through the fields, VanBerlo Sr. took us into this gargantuan packing, curing and storage facility to watch employees wash, sort, bag or box the spuds before undergoing their four to seven day curing process.

“Basically we fool these potatoes into thinking it’s summer and time to get growing again,” explained VanBerlo with a twinkle in his eye. “We put them in a hot, humid 85 degree (Fahrenheit) room and their skins thicken and the starches convert into sugars.” Once fully cured, sweet potatoes are stored for up to three months in his computer-controlled facilities that automatically shut off the curing process and turn on cold storage in well-ventilated, 55 degree F rooms that are stacked high with crates from ground to ceiling. It’s massive.


Curing not only makes sweet potatoes taste better, but it helps promote longer storage. Van Berlo says his sweet potatoes can store for 12 months but once they’re moved out of storage, shelf-life is reduced to a couple of weeks.

At home, store your sweet spuds in a dark, cool cupboard rather than the fridge.  In fact, give them more TLC than you might confer on regular potatoes for if sweet potatoes are dropped or punched around, their sweet interiors will quickly bruise and decay.

When asked about the sweet potato-yam confusion among produce retailers, VanBerlo just laughed and said, “If Sobeys asks for yams, I give ’em yams.” But that’s an inside joke between all of us sweet potato experts. (Real yams don’t grow in North America and look very different: they are white-fleshed, long starch tubers with rough scaly skins.)

Berlo’s Best sweet potato farm bears testimony to the resilience and innovation of  Simcoe’s former tobacco farmers. It’s a one-stop-shop for growing, harvesting and packaging a capricious root from the American south.

Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Sweet potato puree with pecans served at Bonnie Health Estate

Sweet potato puree with pecans served at Bonnie Health Estate

Sweet potato soup with ginger and cinnamon

Fresh ginger is the magic of this soup.  Peel it and grate with a microplane for best results. If you’ve got a spice grinder, cinnamon is always at its peak when freshly ground.

2 tbsp            vegetable oil

1                       onion, chopped

2 tsp                 finely grated fresh ginger

4 cups               low-sodium chicken stock

3 lbs (1.5 kg)     medium sweet potatoes (about 5),                                                                                      peeled and cut into half-inch (1 cm) dice

1 tsp                    ground cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp             salt

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 cup                     milk or cream

In a large pot, heat oil and cook the chopped onion at medium low for 5 minutes or until soft and fragrant. Add  ginger and cook for 30 seconds. Add stock, sweet potatoes, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Remove soup from heat and allow to cool. Use a handheld immersion blender or puree in batches in a blender or food processor. Gently reheat and whisk in milk. Makes 8 servings.

Pesto Perfect

It’s August and I’m dipping fingers and bread into a bowl of freshly made pesto. The colour shimmers emerald green and licorice notes of sweet basil jump into my nostrils, the garlic-tinged oil making a smooth slide down my throat.

IMG_4022I want to eat it by the spoonful, but instead rush to store it before the colour and flavor are ruined by oxidization. So off it goes, portioned into small, glass jars covered by a thick layer of oil, lidded and refrigerated. I will slather it on warm toast, piling on sliced garden tomatoes and crisp bacon to make daily BLTs to be consumed with lascivious abandon. A teaspoon or two will find its way into homemade salad dressings, more will be drizzled over grilled shrimp and sometimes I’ll float a coin-sized island of it in the middle of a creamy cold cucumber soup or smear it on crostini with grilled veggies.

How was my life ever lived without pesto?

IMG_4007My first (hand-written) pesto recipe came from the finest Mediterranean-style cook I knew in the 80s. Lisa made her mom’s pesto and instructed me to freeze it in ice cube trays then toss the bright green cubes into pasta or minestrone soup. Lisa’s mother was a Greek culinary goddess, issuing out platters of moussaka and spanakopita in a single afternoon, then topping it off with her legendary finikia – soft, honey-infused oblong cookies covered in a crumble of crushed almonds. I found any excuse “to help” Lisa with her high school homework so long as we worked in her mother’s kitchen, drinking demitasses of muddy Turkish coffee and nibbling on the orange-scented finikia.

Coming from a culinary background more acquainted with Hamburger Helper and Sloppy Joes than pine nuts and olive oil, IMG_4019I naturally assumed pesto was a Greek thing, especially when Lisa sent me to her favourite food stores on the Danforth to purchase my supplies.

But a trip to Cinque Terre two decades later set me straight on the basil and pesto front. My husband Don and I had found a small room in a three-floor-walkup hotel in Vernazza, one of the five fishing villages that have made this spot along the Ligurian coast famous.

That, and the star item on every menu: “Trofie al Pesto”.

Don dove into his first steaming bowl and made a vow that he would eat none other, for the next three days. It was love at first pesto bite: handmade spirals of trofie pasta, cubes of potato and strands of crisp, green beans all covered in a voluptuous green blanket (no, duvet) of garlicky, oil-infused basil. There was not a trace of bitterness in this pesto and we were so happy with ourselves to be dining on the most local of all creations, “pesto Genovese” born a mere 100 km north in Genoa.

Don paid tribute every evening devouring a bowl then instantly dreaming of his next. He talked about it all day long as we hiked along the coast meandering our way from village to village, stopping for cappuccinos and photography, a glass of blood orange juice here, or a chilled glass of Limoncello there. All of it led up to dinner and another bowl of Trofie al Pesto.

I bought a few small jars of pesto Genovese and brought them home from Cinque Terre, IMG_4020yet none, dear reader, were as vibrant or as fresh as my homemade creations. Basil is currently at season’s peak. Whether you find it on the Danforth, at a farmer’s market or growing on your third-floor deck like a jungle, I bid you to pull out your food processor to create a delectable sea of green and make a toast to Don and his pesto.

Basil pesto

This is a very basic recipe that is open to modification. If you have a bumper basil crop as I did this year, you can triple it. If you want to mix it up a bit, substitute some of the basil with flat-leaf parsley, chives, arugula or baby kale. Add twice the oil if you like a less green, richer sauce. Even the pine nuts can be substituted with Macadamia nuts, blanched almonds or even tahini. Many cooks like to add   Parmigiano Reggiano but I like to hold off and serve it freshly grated over pasta that is tossed with pesto.

1 clove garlic

¼ cup pine nuts

4 cups packed basil leaves

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Pinch of salt

Toss garlic clove into the tube of a running food processor to mince finely. Pour in pine nuts and process until minced, about 30 seconds. Place basil leaves in the food processor bowl and pour over with oil. Process until emerald green and smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice between processing. Season with salt.

Becoming a San Francisco Baker, Part 2

By day two of Artisan Bread Baking Level III, I had a hunch: The cards just weren’t stacked in my team’s favour. Sure, we looked the part.Team 3 wore white chef’s coats buttoned to the collar with crisp, starched aprons secured at the waist. We clutched the same roll of formula-printouts in our hands as we entered the production facility. Just as the others, we plopped down our pens, smartphones and water bottles on our workbench and had access to the same high tech mixers and ovens. But there was no doubt about it: Team 3 lacked a certain, shall I say, je ne sais quoi.

Me and my mixer.

Me and my mixer.

Didier tried to be diplomatic but I know he knew what I knew, even before I knew it.

It was called experience.

The pros in our class knew exactly how to operate the second they stepped into the spotless bakery. But for us rookies, it was our first swing up at the bat in the big leagues.

Worse still, the real bakers knew that time was of the essence. They circled around the large room and took a mental log of where all the important stuff lived, like tubs and cylinders used to scale ingredients or hold fermenting dough. They instantly sourced out the Essential Four (flour, water, yeast and salt) and understood that all the water had to be cycled through a digital cooler then laboriously calibrated with a probe thermometer.IMG_2828_EDIT From the corner of my eye, I saw a flurry of activity, bakers racing by our workbench wielding tall, plastic stacks of containers, pulling bins-on-wheels full of flour and figuring out which scales worked and which didn’t.

But my team was just too busy standing still, staring at each other’s nametags and politely pointing at the pile of formulas and wondering which of us would lead our naïve flock.

It was Chef Jesus, of course.

But how would I possibly address this tall, broad-shouldered teammate who stood by my side, yet towered above me? Should I pronounce the name embroidered on his chef’s coat like Sunday school or offer up a Spanishy “Hey Seuss? When I mangled out the latter, a cringe swept over the Texan’s mug then Jesus Lugo calmly inhaled, looked me straight in the eye and said dead-pan, “That’s right, Madeleine.”

From then on, I knew our team had an inkling of a chance. Not only was Chef Jesus Lugo experienced, but an extremely patient man who just happened to be built like a Mack truck. A community college instructor from El Paso, Texas, Jesus took the bull by the horns and picked up (no, levitated) a 20-kilo pail full of poolish and deftly poured it into the VMI Phebus mixer near our workbench.


L to R: Teammates Claudia Rezende and Gabrielle Thomas

Meanwhile, Claudia Rezende from Sao Paolo was scaling flour, reading glasses perched halfway down her nose, bouncing kid-like on her tiptoes in order to see the digital numbers flashing in front to her. She was giddy with joy to be standing in this facility in South San Francisco. Like I, she’d booked a room at a nearby airport motel and was titillated to be honing professional skills. But after less than a minute at the scale, Claudia stamped her foot angrily and swore something completely unsterile in Portuguese. One huge scoop of flour had just tipped the scale and the digital readout had gone blank.


Scaled yeast in a container on top of scaled flour.

Bread is baked by weight not volume and bakers follow formulas, not recipes. On day two of the course, we would bake four different breads: semolina durIMG_3270_EDITum crowns, rustic filone, spelt bread and 100 % whole grain bread. Every bread formula was designed to produce 25-40 kilos of dough (enough to cover the surface of a bath tub like a big, fluffy pillow) and would bake off into 50-75 loaves.

Everything was weighed.

On average, every one of Didier’s formulas was based on 10 kilos of flour. I’ve watched Toronto bakers slash open humungous 10-kilo-bags of flour mix, dump the entire contents into a mammoth mixer, pour in litres of water by the pitcher-full then turn on the mixers’ timer and walk away.

Not us. At SFBI we were “in production” in a refined, complex, scientific and artisanal way. Thus, the semolina durum crowns we mixed up on Day Two required 10 kilos of hard, white bread flour but our job was to meticulously scale (baker-speak for weigh out) this flour into a large, plastic rectangular bin, haul and dump it into a mixing bowl the size of a jumbo exercise ball, then add two (not one!) pre-ferments: a whole wheat durum sponge and a durum semolina poolish that had been prepared the day before and left to ferment from sundown to sunrise.IMG_3035_EDIT

“The pre-ferment!” shouted out Didier in the classroom the day before, his pitch just shrill enough to wake anyone snoozing in the back. “This is our secret tool. We can add something, something so fantastic to the final dough with a pre-ferment. What do you think that is?” he asked, his tone rising on the last syllable and left hanging in the air. He stared at us expectantly for a long while until he couldn’t stand it anymore and teased up the air above us, pointing and waving his magic marker frantically.

“Uh, uh, more fermentation?” suggested someone as if risen out of a coma.

“Yes, so….?” he prodded and waited, the room growing loud with silence until he sang out “Flavor my friends, flaaaaaavorrrr!!!” he droned with religious fervor.

But of course.

To be continued


Becoming a San Francisco Baker, Part 1

I am a happy baker but a very reluctant scientist. Certain that I could pump up one of my greatest passions with some technical muscle, I recently enrolled in the five-day Artisan III Advanced Bread course offered at the San Francisco Baking Institute.

I chose the course somewhat illogically. I wanted a challenge and knew that most of the scientific baking terms outlined in day one of the curriculum were an utter mystery to my blonde brain: IMG_2815_editwhether it was interpretative flour terminology like ash content or falling number or fermenting fundamentals like knowing your acetic acid from your lactic, the truth was it would all come in handy if I ever wanted to get totally serious about bread and open a bakery – which I don’t.


Didier Rosada

But I like to dream that I might… and even our instructor, certified Master Baker Didier Rosada was prone to talking at length about romance and passion as any fine, French born and trained professional might when lapsing into a reverie about all things gastronomique.

Bread, despite its lowly origins and simple ingredients, had captivated 18 adult students enough to willingly sit behind cramped little desks in a fluorescent-lit-classroom for six long hours on that first day before we even came within a nose of inhaling the toasty, rich aromas of blistery crusts baking in the eight-deck, 200-loaf- capacity behemoth oven downstairs.

IMG_3246_editWe came from all corners of the world, we students of flour, water, yeast and salt, with a dozen different accents among us. Every so often, the instructor would speak of “yeast going dormant” or “dough conditioners” and questions in all different accents would pop up like mushrooms making for a broken telephone of misunderstanding interpreted in South African, New Zealand, Italian, Japanese or Brazilan-accented English.

Two bakery owners came from the far reaches of Johannesburg and Auckland to assess the week’s training, considering whether it was worth the expense to ship their staff to San Francisco for a week or two of bread school. Another two students, both recent San Francisco city college baking program grads, came for post-grad detailing while I belonged to the ‘serious home bakers’ faction which included a mother of teens from Sao Paolo, Brazil and a French history professor from Oklahoma. An exclusive Utah grocery chain sent two employees to finesse their ciabatta and baguette skills while Urth Caffé of Los Angeles dispatched two of their executive chefs.IMG_2954_edit

Big dollars were riding on many of the bread brains in the room and our leader, Didier often rolled his eyes upward in obeisance to the food gods as he rolled his r’s dramatically and proclaimed in his thick, French accent the defining hallmark of the course, “Production!” which is industry-speak for — well, baking.

Enter the contradiction. We were enrolled to learn artisanal techniques in an industrial, high tech environment. The institute is situated under the same roof as TMB Baking, a distributor of baking equipment from around the globe. Imagine an airport hangar divided into three separate bakeries (two used as bakery/classrooms, the other a commercial off-site bakery for SFBI’s two,


downtown retail stores) beside an equally vast area housing bakery equipment stock. I liked to linger outside our second floor classroom, perch on the balcony and take in an eagle eyes’ view of the high-energy production facilities below.

“Only 20 % of baking in the USA is artisanal, “declared Didier on our first day, explaining that the remaining 80 percent is of the more commercial variety, namely pan loaves and bun production. Think baguette versus Wonderbread, ciabatta versus Kaiser rolls. IMG_3184_editArtisanal is based on traditional, Old World techniques compared to high quantity, fast and industrial modern bread baking. Yet, enter the word “production” and we are talking about large-scale baking of old school recipes.

After five hours of classroom science on the first day of the program, I was chomping at the bit to get my artisanal hands into flour and start production.   Didier pointed at me and four other students in the same row of desks and declared with his usual flourish: “You five are team Number 3!”

He then scribbled a haze of weights, team numbers and formulas on the white board and suddenly it was time to get out from under our school desks and into the production lab . I detected a certain hop and vigor in everyone’s descent down the stairs. In the next hour, we would prepare vats of rye and spelt polish, durum sponge and whole wheat levain that would ferment and bubble all night long until our return for Day Two.

To be continuedIMG_3042_edit

Stop right now, thank you very much

Lately I’ve been feeling out-of-touch with the trendsetters of Toronto’s vibrant food scene. But just a few nights ago, I spent several delicious hours updating my internal food app at The Stop Night Market. I even stood in line – despite my well-known personal aversion to this urban predilection.IMG_2660

I joined a thousand other ticket holders entering the vast, empty lot at 181 Sterling Road in Toronto’s west end and felt a gentle thrill as every line moved at a painless, carefree pace. It didn’t hurt that the evening was bathed in a warm, golden June light that put a glow on everything and everyone, including my neon yellow wristband – an all-you-can-eat ticket to sample from 47 unique food and beverage carts manned by many of Toronto’s food celebs from Momofuko Shoto to up-and-coming stars like Rasa, Branca, Dailo and Boralia .

I was ready to brave the mission alone but was happily joined by yoga-buddy, neighbour and CBC radio host Gill Deacon who tapped my shoulder hello and offered to cart-cruise with me. IMG_2655We ambled up to a counter and found ourselves spooning up esquites or messy mouthfuls of creamy, cheesy smoked white corn spiked with chillies and lime juice. Gabriela Ituarta of Maizal explained that we weren’t eating your average peaches ‘n cream corn but an heirloom white variety grown sustainably in the Kawarthas alongside blue, black and green corns.

Two carts away, the aroma of Hawthorne’s signature dish beckoned: crispy chicken skin tacosIMG_2702 piled high with braised chicken, carrot kimchi, flash-fried vermicelli and guacamole edamame (I dare you to say that three times). Gill and I kicked back our sliders in mere seconds, delighting in these unctuous, texturally divine creations.


Crispy Chicken Skin Tacos

Next stop, Dailo and chef Nick Liu’s large, welcoming platter of locally produced smoked trout served on delicate betel leaves, covered in a toss of kaffir lime leaves, hot Thai peppers and coriander. Commonly used throughout Asia to wrap around highly addictive chewable betel nuts, these leaves are rarely found on the plate, yet they’re surprisingly sweet, tender and thin, providing the perfect vehicle for a sampler.


Smoked trout on betel leaf with satay almond sauce and fried shallots

Unlike many of the Night Market offerings, Dailo’s betel leaf preparation was a one-bite morsel that suited my mission to taste widely yet wisely. Night market feeding is a bit like binging on Netflix. You don’t want to stop. The pull of eye candy is immense. Yet the overwhelm factor easily sets in. Besides, the host of the event, The Stop, is all about food consciousness.


KanPai red rice, barbecue pork and lotus root

According to Kathe Rogers of The Stop, this two-night event raised $200,000 to help “fight hunger, build hope and inspire change” and sponsors such as Blue Goose (naturally raised beef, fish and chicken), Fiesta Farms, and Boulart (artisanal bread) donated raw materials to these restaurant teams that worked like mad to pump out 800 samples in a single evening.

Eavesdropping at the AGO cart, I could detect a slaphappy, Red Bull induced banter   among the half dozen chefs scrambling to keep the Pan American Tamale Stand operating smoothly. Yet despite the crowds and the unceasing need-to-feed, executive sous Chef Renée Bellefeuille had plenty of time to share recipes and enjoy accolades from fellow eaters.

IMG_2697“Do not eat the corn husk,” laughed one of the chefs as I dove into smoked chicken with caramelized onions, charred corn and queso rolled inside a steamed cornmeal cake that sky-rocketed from delicious to miraculous once doused with dollops of salsa verde , cherry tomato salsa and lime crema.

“Cholulu, don’t forget the cholulu. It’s my favourite,” said Renée, when she saw me lingering at the high-traffic condiment station.

IMG_2700_editShe also noticed that I took only one heavenly nibble of her dessert tamale with its rum soaked pineapple and caramel rivers of dulce de leche spooned over a sweet, steamy masa harina.

But pacing, my friends, is the only answer to a night market feast especially when the sun starts to set, samples get lost in the shadows and chefs lose their happy-to-serve-you mojo.

Hail to sales people.

Marketing Meredith at Libretto Pizzeria was still revved up enough at sunset to provide a full introduction to frittatina, or stuffed bucatini pasta that inexplicably transformed into square cubes once tossed into the deep-fryer! They emerge with a creamy hot interior of provolone and bechamel sauce beneath a lightly battered surface. Dunked into tomato sauce, these addictive creatures are a hallmark of Libretto’s newest resto concept, A3 on College Street.


A3’s Frittatina

Learn something new every day.

And when you get to taste it all amid one thousand other happy campers, it is a win-win.

Thank you, The Stop.


The rub on spices

Decades ago, I warned Toronto Star readers in my “Taste of Asia” column to throw out any ground spices and herbs in their cupboards older than six months. I said they were past their prime. Defunct. Bad stuff.

No one likes a bossy food writer, so I tried to soften the tone and replace visions of global spice carnage with a gentle challenge: Close your eyes, open a random bottle and take a whiff.IMG_2593

“If you can’t smell anything, toss it,” I cajoled.

Well, I’m still on a spice rant after all these years. Commercially dried and ground spices and herbs lose most of their je ne sais quoi the moment they are harvested and processed, for it is at this juncture that their flavour-filled essential oils begin to degrade.

It gets worse.

When herbs and spices are ground into a powder, they are exposed to the ravages of oxidization and time… especially if they fall into obscurity in a deranged spice drawer like mine.

Luckily, mine underwent a radical makeover last week. I threw out all the wizened and yellowed dried red peppers, aroma-less ground powders of dubious distinction and the contents of any package, bottle or tin box that landed in said drawer prior to 2015 – with the exception of nutmeg.IMG_2545

I’m the proud owner of some relatively ancient nutmeg nuts, encased in shells and decorated with a fancy filament of mace. They come from Grenada and I began to horde them after several culinary visits to the Spice Island of the Caribbean. Alas, these nutmegs have broken all my self-imposed “Spice and Herb Guidelines”. They demonstrate incredible flavour once I hack off the shell with the blunt end of a knife and finely grate with my Cuisipro rasp.IMG_2586

The places this nutmeg goes! Sometimes it’s just a sprinkle over a Grenada-style rum punch. Or, a teaspoon into garam masala bound for a Punjabi-style curry. So alive are my nutmeg relics that a taster at my table recently detected a single smidgen slipped into a creamy, rich Yukon gold potato gratin.

Despite an undeniably close connection to the ever-popular nutmeg, mace is one loner of a spice. It boasts a well-known affinity with pumpkin, but just doesn’t seem to pop up on the recipe radar otherwise. You can imagine my glee, when I stumbled on a rub recipe calling for a whopping teaspoon of the stuff. I had some whole mace at my fingertips and was ready to put it through the grinder.

IMG_2545I simply peeled the lacy filaments off my whole nutmegs and placed them in my trusty spice blender that has continued to get revved up over all the cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom (green and black), peppercorns, hot peppers, coriander, all spice, fennel and fenugreek I have been feeding it for the past three decades.

In went the mace filaments and out came a surprisingly pumpkin-toned powder that tasted more pungent and citrusy than its soul-sister nutmeg. When I closed my eyes and did a side-by-side sniff of the two, it was difficult to tell them apart. No wonder McCormick spice’s web site suggests putting either one in many of the same destinations, be it custards, eggnog, spice-filled quick breads or dusted on steamed veggies like carrots or sugar snap peas.IMG_2546IMG_2550

Back to the rub, which I spotted in my beloved Joy of Cooking but as per usual, put my own riff on. I chose it not only for the mace, but all the roasted cumin and cracked peppercorns.

Admittedly, cumin is my favourite. Sometimes I grind it raw, but I’m more apt to first toast the seeds in a dry frying pan over medium heat until they start to smoke. (Dry-frying spices is a risky venture as there’s a fine line between browning and burning. It helps to keep a sample of raw cumin seeds nearby as you dry-fry, to offer a visual comparison.) I like to grind the cumin seeds while they’re hot so as to savour the hot cloud of nutty cumin smoke released when the lid comes off.

IMG_2554I used my Thai mortar and pestle to crack or coarsely grind the black peppercorns used in this rub. To add authenticity, I took my hulking mortar outside, placed it on my back deck and visualized the northern Thai town of Fang where I saw countless fine cooks squat and pound – a satisfying way to approach this kitchen tool and more effective than placing it on a kitchen counter.


Last but not least, salt. If you like smoky flavours, check out Salish, an Alderwood smoked sea salt.

Smokey, toasty pork rub

Get out your spice grinder and have some fun concocting this gorgeous mixture. Whole nutmeg nuts can be found in Kensington or St Lawrence Market or Little India. Try this on grilled pork chops, baby back ribs or slow-cooked pork shoulder. Rub one tablespoon per pound just prior to cooking or better still, rub and refrigerate overnight.

½ cup sweet or smoked paprika

¼ cup ground roasted cumin

¼ cup packed brown sugar

¼ cup cracked/coarsely ground black peppers

2 tbsp hot cayenne powder

2 tbsp sea salt

1 tbsp chile guajillo molido (or any mild chile powder)IMG_2564

1 tbsp smoked salt

2 tsp mace

Makes 1 ½ cups

My mango mania

I met my first mango in Taiwan in 1980 and it was love at first bite.  Like so much for me in Asia then, a mango was terribly exotic and new. I was floored by its fresh, juicy, tropical taste and loved eating it “inside out”,  those luscious orange cubes popping out from a leathery,  inverted skin.thai20ice

Mango orchards covered much of Taiwan and small mountains of these fruits used to fill the markets during mango season. On a student budget, this was something I could afford to binge on, but my Chinese Auntie was appalled by my ravenous appetite.

“Too much yang,” she’d scold, wagging a finger. “This fruit is too yang. It’s  too hot!  It’s going to make you sick.”

It didn’t.

I know that Chinese notions of dietary, yin-yang balance are centuries old and very wise but when mango season comes to town, I open wide and gobble up.

IMG_1704Every spring in Toronto these yellow, kidney-shaped mangoes called Ataulfo and Alphonso start to appear and I can’t wait to peel off their skin and slice into their rich golden, fibreless skin. Deeply sweet and intoxicating, it’s no wonder Persians named it samarbehist or fruit from heaven.

I’m happy to eat it straight for breakfast, or slice it up and toss it into a fruit or green leafy salad. It goes into my Thai mango salad and stars in a salsa (recipe below). Sometimes I’ll cook up some coconut sticky rice and serve that adorned with thin slices of mango. Nothing beats it pureed into a mango lassi or strawberry smoothie.

Besides rocking in the taste department, mango is a nutritional powerhouse, ranked right up there in the top ten list of good-for-you fruits. It’s an excellent source of vitamin A, high in C and a source of fibre, vitamins E and B6. Moreover, it’s bursting with carotenoids (plant pigments) such as beta carotene and zeaxanthin, which protect against cancer, enhance immunity and help to prevent age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness.

Before Ataulfo and Alphonso entered the market, most consumers were familiar with Haden, Kent or Tommy Atkins mango. These are oblong or roundish, about the size of an adult hand, covered in green skin splashed with red and sometimes yellow patches. They usually weigh about twice that of the smaller yellow ones.

IMG_1711It’s good to know that colouring does not indicate ripeness in a mango. How it feels, does. A ripe mango should yield to slight pressure and have the feel of good leather. Sniff around the stem end. A ripe mango will emit an intense, flowery smell.

Two new varieties of mango have become available, the big green Keitt from the USA and the Pango Mango from Puerto Rico. Both are large meaty mangoes. The Keitt stays green, even when ripe.   And the newly developed green Pango Mango with its reddish blush has no fibre at all.


Serves 4


This salsa offers up a quartet of flavours: sweet, sour, salty and hot. It’s a cinch to make and, like most salsas, the flavours intensify if you let it sit in the fridge for a few hours before serving. Mango salsa is the perfect counterpoint to grilled poultry or fish, Tex-Mex dishes or even curry served on rice. Be sure to use fully ripe mangoes.

2 ripe mangoes, peeled and diced into 1/4-1/2-inch cubes

1/2 cup            chopped red onion

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/4 cup            chopped fresh coriander

Juice of 1 +1/2 limes

2 roasted sweet peppers   * optional

1 large dried hot pepper, dry-roasted


In a non-metallic mixing bowl, add the mangoes, red onion, garlic, fresh coriander and lime juice. Dice roasted red peppers if using and add to mixture. Chop dried chili pepper and add to salsa mixture. Salt to taste. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving for best results.

 Dry-roasting your dried chili peppers helps brings out richer flavours.   Plus, it’s simple to do. Either roast it in a dry frying pan at medium heat for a few minutes or until it turns dark brown, or roast it in your toaster oven. It’s easy to burn a dried red chili pepper, so watch it carefully.

Dress it up

My niece Katie loves salads. I think she likes to crunch through one every day, if not every lunch and dinner.

Last Sunday, I served her a mix of red and boston lettuces, frisée, sunflower sprouts, sliced mango, red peppers, and lots of chopped fresh coriander. IMG_6801

She liked it and gave me further compliment by asking, “What’s in the dressing, Aunt Maddy?”

I get asked that a lot and am shocked that more household fridges aren’t crowded with as many little jars of homemade vinaigrettes as mine – especially when you taste the difference between your own creation and some lousy, store-bought facsimile.

Here’s the basic template, which starts with an empty lidded jar.

Fill it with this:

IMG_77811 shallot, finely chopped

½ tsp Dijon mustard

1 tsp maple syrup

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Big pinch salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Screw on the lid and make sure it’s on tight so you can shake it like crazy (a.k.a. emulsify). Before you pour it on a salad, dip in a tasting spoon or a leaf of lettuce and taste it. Consider if you’ve got the balance right and add a little bit more oil, seasoning, sweetness or acid to find the exact flavour you are looking for.

Making vinaigrettes and salad dressings is a great place to flex your culinary muscles and develop your palette. The contents of your fridge and cupboards are your personal playground and it’s time to start romping through it, pouring, mixing and tasting.Flowerpetalsalad

Abide by a simple rule. Add one part souring agent (be it vinegar, citrus juice, pureed fruit, yogurt or even tamarind) to four parts oil. If it has too much pucker power, you can dilute it with more oil. Sometimes all it takes is a little sugar, honey or maple syrup to balance things out. While it is called a vinaigrette you don’t want it to taste too sour.

Watch out for lemon and lime juice. Both are potent additions compared to their milder cousins, grapefruit and orange.

Vinegars vary in acidity too. That’s why many salad lovers like the sweet, subtlety of balsamic over the bludgeon power of white or cider vinegar.

Leonardi Oro Nobile IMG_1817is a white balsamic produced using white grape must. It has a fruity, mildly acid aroma that will caress any vinaigrette into a work of art. I bought mine at Olive and Olives, a fine olive oil emporium that suddenly closed its Queen St East and Market St Toronto locations last month.

IMG_1816Another of my current favourites is a Portuguese red wine vinegar produced by Herdade do Esporao. I’ve found it at Metro stores.

Extra virgin olive oil is the first oil I turn to for my basic vinaigrette. It has a rich, definable flavour compared to canola, sunflower and safflower which offer a clean slate to build more flavours upon. If you’re making something fruity, like a raspberry or mango dressing, turn to these. Ditto for a spicy dressing with cayenne or chipotle.

Nut oils, like walnut or hazelnut, offer a rich deep flavour that can dominate so add just a little, say a quarter, to the overall oil content. Nut oils beautifully temper bitter greens like arugula or endive.

Shallots offer a great base, since their flavour sits halfway between onions and garlic, the latter which easily overwhelms a dressing.

IMG_1818I find herbs never add as much punch to a vinaigrette as I’d like and rather than pour over the greens gracefully, they clump. But I’d never say no to finely chopped chives, especially now, as they poke out of the spring soil and are as sweet as sin.

Make a vinaigrette this week. I hope Katie does.