Category Archives: Food in my travels

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

1 tbsp smoked salt

2 tsp mace

© 2015 Madeleine Greey

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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.

MANGO SALSA

Serves 4

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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

Salt

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.

The Fish Store

I’ve been on a fish kick lately, eating it much more regularly than I usually do because truth be told, fish can throw me off my game. Every time I eat a flaky, moist fork-full of perfectly cooked salmon,Rainbow Trout tilapia or black cod I dive in with true adoration, savouring every mouthful, but the food issues inherent to our finned friends often throw me a curve ball. I get to thinking about their dwindling numbers and feel guilty if there isn’t an Ocean Wise logo nearby. It gets worse when I start to ponder mercury or the high price tag of fresh caught fish.

Enter the fish sandwich.

Of late, it’s been canned wild sockeye salmon for my noontime repast. Not only is the provenance of this fish considered as politically correct as you can go, but even the Food Police agree that the bones are edible and calcium rich. Give the can a drain, spritz the lot with fresh lemon juice and lay on the Asian ingredients: finely chopped fresh coriander, green onions and mayo whipped up with a healthy dose of sriracha sauce. Roll it up in a tortilla with some baby greens and few wraps satisfy better.

Or ditch the kitchen and head to the numero uno fish shack in town – aptly named- The Fish Store (657 College St. at Grace).IMG_7025

Is it a store or a resto? The answer is both and the space is a lot less than you’d think when considering this tandem offering. In fact, summer is the best time to visit as the front patio affords more seating than the closet-sized interior with its two small tables for two. Pull open the door and not two feet away is the cash register with a huge display of fresh fish on ice and another foot away, there’s Chef Mama toiling away.

Take your pick: Tuna, shrimp, calamari, wild sockeye salmon, grouper, snapper, tilapia, scallops, halibut and black cod all ready for purchase or cooked à la minute.

Despite the lack of space, there’s no lack of signage, IMG_7026advertising a slew of dining options at unbeatable prices, be it sandwich, burrito, salad, tacos or the ”brown rice meal”. No deep fryer to be found here plus a gentle emphasis on good health, from the whole wheat option in the sandwich bun to the brown rice.

On a recent visit on a cold rainy day, I was warmed by a luscious bowl of butternut squash soup ($3.99) that was perfectly calibrated in both sweet and IMG_7028 salty departments and duly rich in deep, squash flavour. I asked Mama for the recipe but she laughed sweetly and declined. Beside her work section is a shelf piled high with their signature paposecos bun (from nearby Golden Wheat bakery) all pre-loaded with sliced tomatoes, red onions and lettuce.

I ordered the day’s special – grouper – and was rewarded with three flash-fried and very fat morsels of silken, juicy fish pillowed in a soft bun draped in a garlicky, tangy vinaigrette. IMG_7029What’s not to love about this combo of hot, insanely fresh fish, mixed up with the soft yeasty bun and the crunch of lettuce? I could imagine ordering several and getting lost in consumption… staring out the sea-blue paned windows of this ultra adorable eatery for hours.

But all good things come to an end and The Fish Store does it aptly. IMG_7027When it’s time to pay at the cash register, Papa Hwang nods down at the tattered edges of a cardboard box full of complimentary pieces of personal-sized gum that he has painstakingly and individually hand cut from a sleeve of Dentyne. I like to oblige him and “ooh and aah” a little between chomps of the gum, saying goodbye to my garlic after-glow but not to the memory of the finest fish sandie in town.

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Prego Sicilia

After eight, olive oil infused days of travel through northwestern Sicily with my husband, I’m in withdrawal, missing not just the meals and the wine, but the people. Never before have I been surrounded by a population more endearingly obsessed with food than, well, I am. Continue reading