Bear plum jam

We had been painting the white picket fence for hours in the afternoon shade. Big, black crows screeched incessantly, punctuated by the soft, nasal bleats of nuthatches echoing through the forest trees. David wore a black shirt and shorts that were splattered with white splashes of our 1-2-3 primer.  We had been working for hours in the hot, BC summer sun.  With only two sections of finished fence behind us, it was time to stop.

David took the paint brushes inside the house to wash up.

I wrapped my hands around the bars of our trusty wheelbarrow and started to amble towards the driveway. Full of dried-up blackberry bush, the wheelbarrow’s contents slid and scratched against the metal sides, the wheel rumbling against the dry, clay earth.

No crows, no nuthatches, but a sudden loud crashing of branches broke out.

I looked towards the orchard and watched a massive, black bear come falling out of our plum tree, some 100 feet away.

When I say massive, I mean the size of a Smart car. Black and furry. Yet ominously silent.

My jaw slack in awe, I watched him land on all four paws and hurry off. Bears don’t gallop, or race. They truck mysteriously fast like an ambling thunder cloud, a sheet of dark light that thankfully went away, not towards me.

“David!” I yelped at the top of my voice.

Worried the bear would hear me, I toned it down to a whisper-shout with, “There’s, there’s a bear!”

“Whaaaaaat?” David emerged, hands still wet from washing the brushes. “Where?”

“He ran that way,” I said, pointing towards the orchard. “Don’t follow him.”

But of course, David did, thrilled and happy, calling back gaily, “It’s the wild west, baby.”

Minutes later, we stood beside our bear-mangled plum tree. A large, deep gash from his claws streaked down the trunk. A large heap of black, seed-studded scat lay nearby.  Up above, broken branches hung in disarray. Half-eaten plums littered the ground.

I reached up and pulled down a plum and popped it in my mouth.

Soft, and deliriously sweet and sour, this orange-yellow plum was perfectly ripe.  Time for harvest. Thank you hungry bear for finding the ripest plums in the orchard. This was a wild, but timely alert.

David walked back to the garage and carried out the ten-foot ladder. He propped it beneath the tree and I climbed up into the branches. Balancing a bucket on the top rung, I started to pluck plum after tiny plum from the tree.

Novice fruit farmers, we thought the ladder, the bucket and all these plums would just come together effortlessly but it’s an awkward balance:  Reach too far, and the ladder topples; grab too many, and some fall. There are always more to be harvested that are too high, too far, too out of reach.

Still, in no time, our bucket is full and we carry our cache back to the farm house.

Star Anise Plum Jam

With so many plums, my jam creativity has blossomed. I’d rather spice up a jam than leave it plain. This jam can go on toast, pair beside pork or chicken or make a dramatic debut on your next cheese plate. The licorice notes of star anise are strong in this jam, so feel free to cut in half if you want just a whisper. But don’t mess with any of the other ingredients.

6 cups plum puree (use yellow, orange and red plums) about 6 lbs whole fruit

5 cups sugar

2 inches ginger, finely grated

4 star anise

1 stick cinnamon

1 dried red hot pepper, cut in half

To pit plums, put in a large pot and fill with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook just a minute or until skins start to peel off the plums. Carefully drain out and discard all the hot water. Transfer plums to a large bowl and leave at room temperature to cool enough to handle or refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 3 days. Using a sieve, remove pits, taking care to reserve as much plum puree and skins as possible. Wrap the pits in cheesecloth, knotted with kitchen string.

Put sugar in a microwave-safe glass bowl and heat for 3 min on high.

In a large pot, combine plum puree, heated sugar, pits (tied in cheesecloth), grated ginger, star anise, cinnamon and hot dried red pepper. Bring to a strong, rolling boil, and cook for 10 minutes stirring constantly or until jelling point is reached. (Jelling point can be determined by placing a spoon into the mixture and watching how the jam falls off.  When the drops start to drip in long strands or sheet together, jelling has been reached.)

Using sterilized jars (boiled for 5 minutes), fill jam mixture into jars ½ inch from the top, run a thin spatula around the inside of the jar to remove air bubbles, wipe off tops of jars with a clean cloth, top with softened lid (placed in a bowl of boiling hot water for 5 minutes) and closed with ring, finger-tight.

Process for 5 minutes (covered with at least 3 inches of boiling water).

Yields  8 1/2   250 mL jars

The saga of a starter

I recently gave some of my sourdough starter to a dinner party guest. I had known Donna only a few hours when I passed her the salad and piped up, “Want some of my starter?”

She just seemed like the kind of lady who I could trust with a living piece of ­­my baking.

Donna had made a splash of an entrance earlier in the evening, ambling up the pathway with an armful of gifts: a two-pound bag of daffodil bulbs she’d arduously dug out of her garden; a spray of wild daisies and sea mist from her fields; and a large fistful of dill that she urged me to dry and re-seed.

The twain had met and I couldn’t stifle the urge to give back.

IMG_7883But that night, after the guests departed and a very full dishwasher rumbled in the kitchen below, I lay sleepless, fearing Donna had left my precious offspring in the trunk of her car, or indoors in a smelly closet, or amid cobwebs in an attic storage room.

I emailed Donna the next morning, very early, nagging with the bossy subject heading, “Feed your sourdough starter”.

I’d barely pushed “send” when my phone rang.

“I fed it,” she reported instantly. “I gave it 3.5 ounces of distilled water and 3.5 ounces of organic white flour. It has some bubbles. What next?”

IMG_8618What Donna should do next is enough to fill a book. I’ve been kneading and mixing and pulling lovely mounds of dough for almost two decades and am still transfixed by the mystery of it all.

Is the starter active and vibrant enough to use? Am I using the right flour? How’s the temperature: Should we rise at room temperature or refrigerate? Does an overnight rise mean 8 or 12 hours? Did I stretch and fold the dough enough?  Am I shaping properly?  Will we get a better rise if I bake in a combo caste-iron cooker or a steamed oven, outfitted with unglazed quarry tiles? Does it matter if I wash my KitchenAid mixer bowl with soap or should I just clean and scrub with hot water? Should the bulk ferment take one and a half hours or three? Is it better if my starter has been kept alive for a decade, or a month?

Baking draws me in like a puzzle and rewards every time.

However, everything, I mean everything, predicates on a live starter. And Donna had to promise me she wouldn’t kill it.

After the first feed, I recommended she wait 24 hours then remove 3.5 ounces of starter, throw out the remainder and feed it with 3.5 ounces each of water and flour in a glass bowl that is big enough to let it grow three to four times in size. Mix it with a fork until smooth and fully dissolved, then cover with plastic wrap. If desired, mark the surface line with a piece of masking tape on the outside of the bowl so that rising progress can be  clearly gauged.

IMG_1093After each feed, Donna will get to know her starter better and better.  She’ll know how many surface bubbles appear, how high it can rise and that critical moment just before it drops and deflates.  After one to three days of consecutive feeding, she will watch her starter grow to its fullest potential within 8 hours. Now it’s ready to use.

I can’t tell Donna exactly when that will happen because temperature, flour and water all affect the outcome. As will the energy she gives – for the baking gods are always about us.

But once it’s ready, she can make a levain. If Donna bakes bread every day, she won’t need a starter because she’ll remove and set aside 1.5 ounces of her levain and use it in the next day’s levain. But that’s unlikely.  Donna has told me she wants to bake only once a week.  That’s why she needs a starter and this recipe.

The rest is all up to the magic of baking .

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50% Red Fife Levain

  • Servings: 2-3 loaves
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This levain highlights the richness of whole wheat without letting it overtake. Toast it for  breakfast with almond butter and blueberry preserves – bliss!

LEVAIN

8 oz               organic unbleached white

5.2. oz           water (spring is best)

1.3 oz                starter

Mix in a medium glass bowl until a stiff dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap. Ferment at room temp 12 -16 hours.

FINAL DOUGH

1 lb                 red fife or organic whole wheat

8 oz                organic unbleached white

1lb .6 oz         water

2 tbsp             honey

.6 oz                sea salt

Levain minus 1.3 oz (reserve in a small bowl in the fridge).

Put all the ingredients of the final dough in the bowl of a spiral mixer, mix for 3 minutes at first speed, then 3 minutes at second speed. Transfer to a lightly oiled large bowl covering with plastic wrap, or in a plastic tub with a lid.

Bulk fermentation at room temperature 2.5 hours, stretching and folding twice at 50 min intervals. (To stretch and fold, run your hand under cold water and use your wet hand to pull up the dough to as high as it will stretch, then fold over surface, pushing down firmly.  Turn the dough a quarter turn and repeat three times).

Preshape into 2-3 pieces for free form or sandwich loaves. Bench rest 5 min. Place into floured banneton or oiled loaf pans. Put in large plastic bags and close with twist ties.

Refrigerate 5-6 hours.

Preheat oven loaded with dutch ovens (if making banneton loaves) on second from the bottom rack at 500 F for 30 min. Invert bannetons loaves on to parchment-lined baking sheet. Score. VERY carefully place inside hot lidded dutch ovens, bake 20 min, remove lids, reduce to 460 F, bake another 20 min. or until golden brown. For sandwich pans, preheat oven at 460 F for 20 minutes and bake for 35- 40 min. spraying loaves with mister before closing oven door to provide steam.

Lemon ginger scones

I avoided scones for most of my life.  They were high-fat. Bland. Boring.

But scones magically changed when I savoured my first one with David.  They were our courting food.

We used to walk down to the Mercury Coffee Shop in Leslieville hand-in-hand, Kobe in tow. David would ask if I’d like a “bakery item” and I’d laugh and giggle like a star-struck teenager. We both had our hearts set on a certain scone that always sold out first: Lemon Ginger.

Little knobs of spicy-sweet ginger interspersed with lemon zest made for rich mouthfuls, melting our hungry hearts. These scones had just the right amount of heft. They weren’t one of those feather-light imposters that kept you guessing where the flavour was – but a divine elixir of butter, cream and flour.

We were in love.

Kobe, our elderly dog, was not.  He hated waiting outside the coffee shop tied to a pole and made sure we knew  his misery well with ceaseless barking.

That didn’t bother Sexy Santa one iota. Our favourite barista, his bushy long beard hiding his neck and cascading over his sternum, mindfully worked the espresso machine while we watched and waited, clutching the crinkly, white paper bag containing the last Lemon Ginger scone of the day.

Of course, they carried our favourite scone only three days of the week. It always sold out, leaving us wanting. Its rarity made every bite, every crumb, remarkable.

Like all good things, it didn’t last. Our barista packed up and moved to the west coast. A dreamy look used to cloud his face whenever he said “Vancouver” and “coffee beans” in the same sentence — then he left.

Kobe stopped barking and was laid to rest one cold March evening in our kitchen, his favourite room of the house, near his bowl and on his dog bed, tears streaming down our cheeks and the palliative vet’s as she inserted the needle into his thigh.

Without a Sexy Santa, the lattes just didn’t taste the same. Without Kobe, a leash-less, bark-less walk was unimaginable. The lemon ginger scone was forgotten.

Until one winter morning when I awoke with a craving and started to bake even before coffee. My B.C. kitchen was still new and awkward, the drawers and cupboards still confounding. I searched for oats and flour, smiling when I thought of their providence and mine. The butter and cream was locally produced, too. I figured everything but the dried ginger, lemons and sugar had been tilled, or milked, or churned on Vancouver Island and I was ready to recreate the scone we’d found in downtown Toronto.

Without a food processor, I used a pastry cutter to fragment the butter into tiny, pea size morsels. I didn’t sweat the fat content and poured on the whipping cream. I cribbed a scone recipe from Fanny Farmer and marveled at its low sugar content. I mixed and played and baked, making indelible marks on my nascent kitchen’s unfamiliarity and came out with a bakery item that is almost as good as our courting one.

 

Lemon Ginger Scones

So simple and easy, you can make these first thing in the morning for a decadent and maybe romantic breakfast.

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup rolled oats

¼ cup sugar

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

Zest of one lemon

4 tbsp cold butter, unsalted, diced

½ cup dried ginger, chopped

2 eggs, beaten

1/3 cup cream

2 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat oven 450 F

In a medium bowl or food processor, mix flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, salt and lemon zest.

Cut butter into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter  or pulse in food processor until the size of small peas. Add ginger.

In a small bowl beat eggs with cream. Mix in lemon juice.

Fold egg mixture into dry mixture until just combined.

Mound dough in the middle of a baking sheet lined with parchment. Pat into an 8-inch diameter circle. With a large knife, cut the dough into half, quarters and eighths, wedging the knife down to the parchment paper and creating a decorative ¼-inch space between scones slices.

Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden brown on top.  Transfer baked scone mound on parchment to a wire rack and allow to cool 5-10 min before serving. 

Asian BBQed Chicken 101

My go-to marinade for pork or chicken is Asian-style.  That means soy sauce, cooking sherry and lots of shredded ginger and garlic: four essential items I like to have in my kitchen despite ginger’s proclivity to go into hiding. That spicy root likes to sneak behind a box of cereal or get buried in my crisper thus a couple of chopped green onions often must substitute. Add a little sesame oil and sugar and this marinade transforms into a rich teriyaki sauce that is soaked up by the meat and translates into something caramelized and super-moist on the barbecue.

IMG_1175Chicken thighs are a perfect place to begin. I’m talking bone-in, skin-on to ensure real flavour. Forget those fat and expensive chicken breasts that often taste no better than the Styrofoam they are packaged on.  We want dark, flavour-filled meat and you’ll find that with the thighs.

img_1178.jpgBarbecuing chicken with the skin-on may create flare-ups if cooked on direct heat. But any BBQ-pro knows to use indirect heat, heating the two outer grills on high and leaving the middle grill off. According to my in-house BBQ specialist, you need to pre-heat the outer grills for 5- 10 min (lid closed) then lay on the thighs, skin side up, along the centre grill. Wait a couple of minutes, turn them over, basting with the remaining marinade. A long cooking time, lid closed, with constant turning and basting are the keys to success, says my BBQ king.

Dark juicy meat calls for 30-40 min depending on the size of the thighs and heat of your grill.  Be sure to test one thigh before serving, making sure the juices run clear and the meat is well cooked, especially near the bone. You aren’t apt to overcook or dry out an Asian marinated chicken thigh but you might be tempted to say the cooking is over before it is.  Give these babies the time they need and know that they can rest covered with aluminum foil for up to 10 minutes before serving, too.

IMG_1180Chances are you’ll be drinking some beer or wine while you cook and perhaps entertaining. Despite all that partying, promise me you’ll keep food safety first and remember that barbecuing is the number one cause of a dreadful affair called cross-contamination.

Remember that dish you carried the raw meat or poultry out to the barbecue in? Send it (and its raw juices/contamination) right back to the kitchen once your marinated meat is cooking.  Use a new, clean platter to receive your cooked goods and alas, you will cross over into a land free of food poisoning and full of Asian barbecue flavour.

I like to serve Asian bbqed chicken with hot, steaming Jasmine rice,  stir-fried Shanghai bok choy and/or a quick cucumber salad. This meal is quintessential summer food, in my books.

Asian BBQed chicken thighs

While chili paste is essential to this marinade it does not produce a spicy chicken thigh.  Trust me.

½ cup   cooking sherry

¼ cup   soy sauce

1 tbsp  sesame oil

1 tsp    sugar

1 tsp    sambal oelek

1 inch knob ginger, grated

2 garlic cloves, pressed or grated

8          skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs

In a bowl, combine cooking sherry, soy, sesame oil, sugar, sambal oelek, ginger and garlic. Pour over chicken thighs (I like to marinate in a glass casserole with thighs in a single layer). Marinate for at least 30 min and up to overnight, in the fridge.

Barbecue thighs on indirect heat (as described above) for 30-40 minutes or until juices run clear and meat is thoroughly cooked.

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Stir-fried Shanghai bok choy

Most Asian markets carry this green leaf, green stem bok choy (about 8 inches long).

2 tbsp              canola oil

1-inch              knob ginger, grated

1                      large bunch Shanghai bok choy, stems and leaves separated, washed thoroughly and chopped

½ tsp               salt

Heat a wok on high.  Add oil and swirl around the sides of the work. Add ginger and stir rapidly for 10 seconds, add bok choy stems, stir 2 minutes. Add leaves, salt and ¼ cup water and cover with lid. Leave to steam/cook until leaves are wilted and stems are tender. Serve.

Easy Asian cucumber salad

English cucumbers are long and thin, wrapped in plastic and greenhouse grown, versus the pudgy, thick-skinned field-grown cucumbers.

1                      English cucumber, sliced thinly

2 tbsp              seasoned rice vinegar

1 tsp                sugar

1 tsp                sesame oil

Pinch               hot pepper flakes

¼ cup               chopped fresh coriander

Salt                  to taste

In a medium bowl combine all ingredients and serve.

 

 

 

Luxurious Lentils

I don’t think there is anything I make more regularly and with more satisfaction than soup. I never make a small pot, I always go big because soup is a mainstay of my diet and freezer. So is bread. One and one equals dinner or lunch, from season to season.

My friend Karen recently gave me a box full of pantry goodies.  She was cleaning out her gourmet cupboards for a move and decided she’d rather give me toys for my culinary sandbox  than put them in storage and out of usage for half a year.

“Mostly flavoured vinegars and lentils,” she droned, then spiced it up with “there’s a bottle of truffle oil, some wasabi and white Chinese fungus.”

It was the lentils that sung out for soup.

img_1202.jpgYet… lentils left to their own devices can create the most boring soup in the universe.

Under the spin of magic, lentils can also offer up mouthfuls of rich vegetarian Soup Bliss that is so complex, you’d want to shoot the writer who just wrote the last line’s blasphemy.

One such soup can be found in Myra Goodman’s delectable tome “Food to Live By: The Earthbound Farm’s Organic Cookbook”.  Her Mediterranean Lentil Soup is layered and rich, despite missing one of the most quintessential ingredients found in my soups: homemade chicken stock. To make matters more envious, this lentil soup reaches the finish line with nary a piece of bacon, prosciutto, ham, pancetta, sausage or speck.

I couldn’t do it. My copy of that cookbook was in the wrong city’s kitchen and none of its magical equation could be dredged up from the swamps of my memory.  Meanwhile, evil cooking gnats were hissing and spitting in the dark gutters of my hesitation, taunting with incantations of “You’ve got drab lentils, drab lentils!”

IMG_1194Thus, I gave my blonde curls a good shake and pulled out the bacon.

This in tribute to what I imagine was either a Spanish scam or one of Karen’s most luxurious food purchases ever.  Here was a bag containing just three cups of brown lentils with two, not one, $25 price stickers.  Highway robbery! I had to give these Mexican lentils the respect Karen’s wallet deserved, so I pulled out the big guns: a litre of freshly made chicken stock, simmered for 8 hrs on my backburner the day before.

I started chopping.

First, a quarter pound of PC Applewood smoked bacon which went into a large hot pot shimmering with olive oil. IMG_1198Next, a very crisp Walla Walla onion (love our Stateside produce from Washington), two stalks of celery, followed by a red and green bell pepper. Next, I cracked open a 796 ml can of no salt-added, organic “Terra Dolce” tomatoes that I bought – brand unknown – at Costco, gambling on a whole box that has delivered thrice the flavour for all its economy. Finally, in went a cup of Karen’s precious lentils washed and drained, followed by a litre of chicken stock.

Despite the bacon and homemade chicken stock, these lentils were heading perilously close to the oblivion of bland and comprehensive seasoning was in order.  I started by squeezing five cloves of roasted garlic into the brew, and chuckled with a witch’s glee as I rubbed two teaspoons of dried oregano from Karen’s box. No truthfully, I cackled, because Karen’s dried oregano is wickedly strong and full of oomph compared to the dross I had just given the sniff test from my spice cupboard.

Once I had dumped my old oregano stash into the compost pile, I was ready for more foraging through flavour-land (a.k.a. my spice drawer). IMG_1210A fat pinch of smoked paprika, a teaspoon of Club House ground cumin, one “DAN-D-PAK” hot, red dried pepper from Gerrard Chinatown, half a teaspoon of mild chile guajillo molido from Kensington Market, one chopped fresh green serrano pepper, half a cup of chopped fresh coriander and juice from half a lime. Because my stock is made without salt, I added a teaspoon of course Mediterranean sea salt from Italy, straight from Karen’s box (but without a price tag).

In less than half an hour, a scrumptious soup was born. Esta la vita!

 

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Karen’s Pantry Mexican Lentil Soup con Bacon

This is a spicy, full flavoured soup that brings lentils out of the pantry so they can live a little.

1 tbsp              olive oil

¼ lb.                PC Applewood smoked bacon, chopped into ½ inch slices

1                      large Walla Walla, Vidalia or Spanish onion, chopped

2                      stalks celery, chopped

1                      green bell pepper, chopped

1                      red bell pepper, chopped

1                      796 ml can tomatoes

4 cups              chicken stock

1                      cup small green lentils, washed and drained

5                      cloves roasted garlic (or 2 cloves, chopped)

2 tsp                dried oregano, rubbed

1 tsp                ground cumin

¼ tsp               smoked paprika

1                      hot dried red pepper, crushed

1                      fresh green serrano pepper, chopped

½ tsp               chile guajillo molido or mild chile powder

½ cup               fresh coriander, chopped

½                     lime, squeezed

1 tsp                sea salt * or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a large pot, add bacon and cook until golden and crispy.   Add onions, celery and peppers and sauté for five minutes or until fragrant. Add tomatoes, stock, lentils, oregano, garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, dried hot pepper, fresh serrano pepper and chile powder.  Bring to a boil then simmer for 20 minutes or until lentils are tender soft. Season with fresh coriander, lime juice, salt and pepper. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Media night at Mistura

Media dinners are staged to impress yet publicists often have trouble filling a table full of food writers. We get lots of invitations. Plus, we aren’t always ready to write about each and every meal that comes our way. But last night’s meal at Mistura (265 Davenport Rd) is a story I want to tell.

Every mouthful was remarkable and shared in the most convivial fashion. It marked the first media meal I’ve attended where the owner sat among us, introducing each dish with the kind of detail only a cook can possess, then looking out at us warmly, raising his glass in tribute and eating hungrily.img_8451

“Our agnolotti is stuffed with wild boar,” explained owner Paolo Paolini, as he introduced our primi course. “We reserve the cooking juices and combine with port or wine. To finish, we add sun-dried sour cherries. They add dimension.”

I could barely stifle the swoon from my lips after devouring half of my portion in one gulp. I looked to my right and watched wine writer Tony Aspler expertly slice small, exquisite pieces while quietly rolling his eyes in ecstasy.

I should have exhibited more professional control with the crispy artichoke appetizer, but it too, left my plate in seconds, swathed in a creamy, piquant sauce of fresh herbs, caper, gherkin and boiled egg.

Paolini introduced the artichokes as “crispy and flaky, never leathery like some artichokes can be” and at that instant, deep-fried crumbs crackled at the bite, raining down on my dress as wine writer Margaret Swaine proclaimed loudly, “these are better than any I have tasted in Rome.”

We are a jaded, opinionated bunch, tasting delicacies all across the city and around the world. Aspler had just returned from the 300th anniversary Chianti celebrations in Florence and Swaine was heading off to Wenzhou, China on a morning flight. But both had time for Mistura’s lamb ribs last night.

“These are our pride and joy. You can’t find lamb ribs anywhere except here at Mistura,” proclaimed Paolini, introducing succulent, meaty ribs bathed in a sweet, finely tempered Balsamic glaze.

“Where do you get them?” asked someone.

“Ah, ah, ah… a butcher!” stammered Paolini, smiling broadly at his coy response.

Luckily, his right hand man entered and further questioning ceased.  Executive chef Klaus Rohrich was wearing a chef’s jacket and a Blue Jays cap, nervously scanning the table full of food writers. Extracted from his kitchen domain, Rohrich looked exposed and twitchy, perhaps more due to the imminent Jays’ game than our inquiring gaze.

“Chef, tell us where you’ve trained?” asked the first and Rohrich murmured a muffled response about growing up cooking then entering the Mistura fold, cooking for years under the man he has now replaced: Massimo Capra.

Before more questions ensued, Paolini came to his rescue, extolling Rohrich’s charcuterie skills and his ability to use local and seasonal ingredients to recreate the Italian fare that has kept Mistura in business for 20 years.img_8449

Bubbly Prosecco and a huge platter of cured duck prosciutto, bresaola, cappicola, prosciutto and bellota pata negra was set out on a table to welcome our arrival. But it was the crostini slathered in duck liver pate that captured my attention and the warm mushrooms and gorgonzola hit a close second.

Pacing is a virtue that wise food critics employ at every professional opportunity but last night, I lost any workable tempo and simply dove in. Who could blame me when the salty, crisp skin of a pan-seared Branzino beckoned, offset by plump Manilla clams and even plumper cherry tomatoes? img_8457

Others would say no to dessert, but again, duty called and I obediently spooned up a voluptuous vanilla panna cotta draped in a strawberry sauce and studded with blueberries. A perfect medley of thick cream and soft, whipped air, mouthful after mouthful floated down my throat in sweet, puffy clouds.img_8460

Next, Paolini offered grappa and I started to shake my head wisely in abstention until the wine writers among us voiced their interest in this first Ontario-made grappa.

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“You need a separate license to distill,” they intoned, knowing that grappa is a recycled liquor made from wine-making’s dregs, its flavor akin to fire water. But this delightful potion had been supplemented with maple syrup and cayenne, to create a bewitching sip of sweet heat that closed the evening’s meal like a kiss.