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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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. We 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 tacos 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
She 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.
Learn something new every day.
And when you get to taste it all amid one thousand other happy campers, it is a win-win.
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.
The 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.
Next 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.
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.
I like to hang with like-minded individuals. Translation: all my friends live to eat – ravenously! Including my book club buddy and fellow running mate Glennis, who dropped this bomb last week, “My Kiwi friends just opened a bakery.”
She barely finished her sentence before we hightailed over to Wiseys Pies & Bakehouse (874 Eglinton Ave. E. (416) 423-9473).
Truth be told, my expectations were low. I’ve never been a fan of savoury pies (i.e. chicken pot pie), knew nothing about New Zealand baking and was dubious that anything other than speeding TTC buses and barreling semi-trucks could be found at the corner of Eglinton and Laird.
But one look at their spiffy logo and expansive storefront windows and I knew Wiseys meant business (despite opening just a month ago). Glennis and I walked in to their bustling bakery/cafe and were mesmerized by the bounty of it all.
Unlike many independent coffee shops in Riverdale that stock the same old muffins, croissants and scones, Wiseys bakes everything in house and much of it with true Kiwi flare.
Take the Sally Lunn Bun. It’s a sweet dough bun full of sultanas about the size of a personal pizza that’s covered in white or pink icing then dipped in coconut.
“A bunch of blokes will take that out for a smoker,” explains owner/head baker Gary Wise. In other words, this bun is fit for a crowd and enjoyed during work breaks in New Zealand.
Then there are the pies. As ubiquitous as fish and chips in New Zealand, Wiseys “hand held” take-away personal pies drew a lineup outside their doors at their June 28 opening. A lineup of ex-pat New Zealanders, that is, prompting Gary to shout out “Let the Canadians try one!”
Wife and co-owner Karen Kriese-Wise likes to pull out Wiseys Pie Chart for the uninitiated. Each pie, whether it’s mince (ground beef), steak and mushroom, butter chicken or potato top (there are currently a dozen different varieties) has a unique slash in the pastry to signify what’s underneath. Hand-held pies cost $5 or $6 and family-size, large pies $17.
I chose Thai Green Curry Chicken and fell in love the first mouthful. Emerging warm from the heated display case, my pie had a crisp, golden crust and its rich coconut chicken curry filling made for a spicy, breakfast pick me up.
Glennis ordered the raspberry cream bun and dug into its pillowy, sweetness laden with freshly whipped cream and jam.
Not a coffee drinker, Glennis was lured by Karen’s offer of another Kiwi-invention, a “flat white” which straddles the line between latte and cappuccino. Wiseys use beans from Pilot Coffee Roasters (Tasting Bar at 50 Wagstaff Drive) not only because they are excellent but surprise, fellow New Zealanders are at the helm there, too.
Glennis is picky about the coffee she doesn’t usually drink and loved her flat white, as did I. It didn’t hurt that a crispy little chocolatey cookie comes on every saucer. There’s an extensive list of coffees on the Wiseys’ blackboard including a Long Black, which is Kiwi for an “Americano” and if you’re bringing children, it’s nice to know you can order a “Fluffy” which is frothy hot milk topped with chocolate or sprinkles.
Translations don’t end there. Try an Afghan Biscuit, which is a brown, crisp, cocoa-rich cookie full of corn flakes, or a Lamington. Baker Gary likes to “dress up” his Lamingtons “the posh way” splitting a round sponge cake into two thin layers, filling it with whipped cream, jam and strawberries then blanketing with chocolate ganache.
Wise is full of ideas and has plans to introduce more to the bakery. He’s got three new pies in the works: Lamb and kumera (the Maori word for sweet potato), beef and dark ale, plus The Popeye: beef, spinach and potato mash. Also coming are fresh artisan breads, sandwiches and a Pavlova for Christmas. He might even bake up some ANSACs, named for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and developed during World War I.
I’ll leave that one to your imagination, or reconnoiter your way over to Wiseys for a live tour.
We live on a lake but you’d never know it. Torontonians have been robbed of their waterside and there’s no time we feel this stronger than in the heat of summer.
But there’s a culinary solution called The Rectory Café.
First bonus: You get to take a boat there. The Rectory Cafe is situated on Ward’s Island and the gale of a great lake will rush through your hair if you stand on the deck.
Second bonus: You’ll forget you live in Canada’s biggest metropolis and may feel a little Riviera coming on as you settle into the Rectory’s spacious patio and point your chair towards the blue, blue, blue of the lake view beyond.
That’s what we did on a recent lazy Sunday afternoon. We were on our bikes and took the first ferry. No matter that it went to Centre Island. It was a 10 or 15-minute ride past all those Centreville shenanigans to Ward’s idyllic southern boardwalk. Watch for the sign, turn left and enjoy the cafe’s regal lakeside entrance.
No matter if you arrive at their 11 a.m. opening or mid-afternoon, the Rectory’s kitchen keeps the place hopping all afternoon long and into the evening — especially if the weather is cooperating.
Thanks to a little inside info from the staff, we started with a tall glass of Barking Squirrel amber lager produced by Toronto microbrewery Hop City. It’s no secret that I love beer and the squirrel really satisfies with its rich burnt orange colour and what Hop City calls “noble hop aroma”.
We paired this with the perfect app: Char Grilled Calamari ($12) draped in a lemon oil and scallion thyme aioli. The calamari was perky and tender to the bite, its inherently bland personality enlivened by a perfectly piquant sauce.
Next, the day’s “special”. If you’re a devotee of Anthony Bourdain, you won’t go near a restaurant special but at the Rectory, it’s a must. This special was so fine, I have to apologize in advance that it’s not on the menu. Imagine the world’s best fish taco: juicy morsels of spice-rubbed Basa fillet topped with caramelized onions and salsa verde on a simple wheat taco softer than a cloud.
David opted for the Steamed Asparagus and Goat Cheese Omelette ($14) and was not disappointed. Okay, omelettes seem simple but can be a disastrous, eggy mess if handled poorly. This one was fluffy, light, and turned by an angel.
I considered dipping a straw into the Rectory’s trendiest drink for dessert. But I was hesitant… did I really want to sip from a tiny can of Italian sparkling wine made from some royals in Austria that have hit the drinking waves with their Prinz Max Emanuel Thurn und Taxis sparkling bianco?
Bucking the trend, I ordered cake instead. The Rectory has a long list of desserts but the best are always, again, the specials made in house by pastry chef Sergio. Even the house-brewed coffee is above average. The only thing that doesn’t seem to work at the Rectory is a rainy day. Most of the seating is al fresco.
That’s why I love their website http://therectorycafe.com/ where you can plug into the weather forecast and the ferry schedule instantly to plan a little Riviera in Hogtown this summer season.