Category Archives: Toronto food finds

Memoir of a muffin

When I tasted my first bran muffin at the corner of College and Bathurst at The Mars, it was a revelation. I was 19, wore a peasant skirt over Kodiak boots and rolled my own cigarettes with Drum tobacco. I thought myself street-wise but was anything but … Just incredibly curious and always, always hungry. Thus, that first ravenous bite into a Mars bran muffin – dark with molasses and dense like black forest cake – is pure gold in my food memory bank.

My boyfriend Bob was also a revelation. Nothing about him resembled where I came from. He hadn’t grown up in North Toronto or gone to Upper Canada College (like my brother, father or grandfather) but he sure knew enough about betting to pique my father’s gambling instincts  and instill a gin rummy playing camaraderie between them.

One summer evening at a family cottage dinner, my stately grandmother innocently asked “And what is it that you do, my dear?” while passing Bob the gravy boat.

“I’m a bookie,” chirped Bob grinning like a cherub, thrilled to make this reveal. Nonnie promptly cleared her throat and my grandfather mumbled “Holy sailor” but no one else asked another word, quickly sweeping this unpleasant news under the nearest carpet.

IMG_2896But back to the muffin. The Mars muffin. It was big, filling and dotted with plump, fat raisins. They were served hot from the oven, sliced in half with a large pat of cold butter wedged inside and fully melted in seconds. Diners, breakfast eggs, take-out baklava and percolated coffee played large in my coming of culinary age. These gigantic muffins were new to diners in the 70s and customers would line up in front of the cash register hoping to leave with half a dozen of these towering –no, glistening – babies stuffed inside a Mars embossed, white cardboard box.

Near that same cash register, along the long, white Formica diner bar, were stools occupied by inner-city characters of dubious distinction. Bob seemed to know them all. They had nicknames like Baldy, Joe the Dipper or Car Fare. Some came “packing” and others had Mafia affiliations following them like shadows.

Bob, being Bob, liked to break away pieces of my W.A.S.P. veneer by unexpectedly pushing me in front of one of these cigar smoking men at the Mars saying, “Hey Dukey, meet my girlfriend Lynn.  She’s a Haver-girl.” I seethed at these embarrassments…  but they didn’t stop me from moving to New York with Bob a year later and attending an Ivy League college while he worked as a bouncer at Studio 54.

IMG_2898But back to the muffins.  I made some today in my West coast kitchen as the rain pelted across a gray, foggy horizon in a day-long deluge. I searched through my baking boxes and pulled out a bag of wheat bran, which now looks oddly old school next to newer fibrous fads like chia, flax or hemp. I found some spelt which adds such friendly nuttiness to any baking equation.

I mixed the dry and wet ingredients in two separate bowls. Quick breads and muffins all like this preparatory segregation with just minimal combining prior to the bake. Crosby’s molasses is a necessary must if you want real tasting bran muffins. And remember to measure the oil in the measuring cup first as prep for the molasses, which will slide out of the measuring cup effortlessly if you do.

Unlike the Mars bran muffin, these ones are good for you: moist, satisfying and rich. I’m willing to place a double-or-nothing bet on Crisco as the trans-fat source of those yesteryear muffins. Yet still, I savour that muffin’s nostalgia and happily munched on all these memories when creating, baking and eating my latest version.

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Banana Bran Muffins

Healthy, fibre-full muffins with a rich, moist texture and just a hint of banana or apple flavour.

Dry Ingredients:

1 ½ cups          wheat bran

¾ cup               all purpose flour

¾ cup               spelt

¾ cup               raisins or chopped dates

1 tsp                 cinnamon

1 tsp                 baking soda

1 tsp                 baking powder

½ tsp                salt

Wet ingredients

2 eggs              mixed

1 cup               mashed, really ripe bananas (about 2 ½) OR unsweetened apple sauce

¾ cup              plain yogurt

½ cup              milk

1/3 cup            molasses

¼ cup              vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 400 F

Mix dry and wet ingredients separately in large bowl.  Combine until just mixed. Use a ¼ cup measure to dollop into large paper muffin cups. Bake 20 minutes.  Makes 12 large muffins.

 

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.

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Wrong.

This cookbook is a keeper.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

Getting all steamed up over fish

When I lived in Taipei, Taiwan I discovered steamed fish. It seemed to be on every restaurant menu and highlighted the divine, subtle flavours of fish.

IMG_6932The hallmark of this dish is its simplicity. Any klutz in the kitchen can do it. That’s because steaming is a moist and gentle way to cook the piscine population and even if you steam a little longer than necessary, it won’t (OMG!) dry it out.

Start with a steamer. If you don’t have one, make the trek to the best housewares shop in town: Tap Phong Trading (360 Spadina Ave, (416) 977-6364) where you’ll find many options, from the standard bamboo baskets that fit inside a wok or over a pot, to a full stainless ensemble with pot, stackable trays and cover. The latter is easier to clean and less prone to mildew. Many rice and slow cookers also convert into steamers. No matter the format, make sure you find a steamer that is wide enough to accommodate a pie plate since the fish cooks in sauce and steamer trays are full of holes.

IMG_5109Next step: choose your fish. Salmon, halibut, tilapia, sea bass, cod, haddock, sole… you name it. Anything can work from inexpensive, supermarket frozen fillets to local fresh findings. Both Bill’s Lobster (599 Gerrard St. E; 416-778-0943) and Hooked (888 Queen St. E; 416-828-1861) are walking distance from my kitchen and both offer excellent fish and service. While you are there, nab a recipe or tip from them. Bill’s wife has plenty of quick culinary ideas, as do all the staff at Hooked who use the tagline “we are chefs, first.”

You’ll need to access your inner chef when slicing the fresh ginger. Go thin. Once you’ve peeled a three-inch piece, cut lengthwise into paper-thin slices then stack them together and slice into thin matchsticks.

Mirin makes this dish. It’s a Japanese rice wine similar to sake, but with a lower alcohol content and higher sugar content. Most Asian food stores sell it. In a pinch, you can use sherry, cooking wine, Vermouth or dry white wine but add half a teaspoon of granulated sugar to the cooking liquid if you do.IMG_5110

Simple steamed rice is the perfect compliment. The fish steams up a delicious sauce of its own that will soak into the rice. Stir-fried baby Shanghai bok choy rounds out the meal perfectly.

© 2015 Madeleine Greey

Chinese-style steamed fish

1 lb (450 gm) fresh or (defrosted) frozen sea bass, cod, salmon, haddock, tilapia or halibut fillet, cut into 4 pieces

Sauce:

1 + 1/2 TBS black bean and garlic sauce OR 2 tsp soy sauce

2 tsp sesame oil

2 TBS water

2 TBS Japanese mirin

1 three-inch knob ginger, peeled and thinly sliced into matchsticks

3 green onion OR 1 small leek, thinly sliced lengthwise

2 TBS fresh coriander, chopped

Mix sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

Place fillets in a heat-proof dish that will fit inside an aluminum or bamboo steamer. (Or, create your own steamer by placing a rack set in a large skillet.)

Using a spoon, place an equal amount of sauce on each fillet. Sprinkle over with ginger matchsticks and green onions or leek.

Bring several inches of water to boil in the steamer. Wearing oven gloves, place the dish with fillets into the steamer.

Cover and steam 8-10 minutes on high, or until the fish flakes at the touch of a fork and is opaque in the middle.

Garnish with fresh coriander and serve over steamed rice.

© 2015 Madeleine Greey