Category Archives: Wine

Fabulous fava

I bought my first fava beans on the Danforth, years back when Fruit King still stood on the corner at Logan. They were big beans.  You couldn’t really miss them when perusing the usual green grocer contenders, be it potatoes, carrots or spinach. But in this basket was a stranger. Unlike their skinny cousin, the humdrum green bean,  fava beans were bulging, army-green giants with shiny, leathery skins and brown, pointy tips.

Eternally curious when it comes to fresh produce, I stood staring, incredulous at these five-inch-long, soft and spongy beans until I took a sharp elbow in my side from an elderly Italian woman dressed in black, head to toe.

No, it wasn’t an elbow, it was the corner of her shopping basket that she was in the process of shoving between herself and me as she stretched out one determined little hand towards the pile, ferreting out the greenest, plumpest ones.

“What are these?” I asked and she spat out  “fava” like it was a revolting, dirty word. Then she stopped for an instant, looked up from her clutch of beans and examined my ignoramus face just long enough for me to instantly understand the meaning of “evil eye”.

I decided to move towards the spinach and declined fava that day.

Fast-forward to now. My fridge is full of Ziploc bags stuffed with freshly picked fava beans from my Cowichan Valley garden. These aren’t any, run-of-the-mill fava beans, these are organic beans from bean grower Sal Dominelli on Gabriola Island.  He’s dubbed this fava variety “Exhibition Longpod Fava” and instructions on the seed packet called for sowing in “early spring”.

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Pre and post shucked fava

Owing to the carpet of snowbells under the magnolia and the clutch of daffodils ready to pop in our courtyard, I figured the cold wet soil of mid-February was ready to receive these seeds (dried, brown fava beans).  Amid the fog and incessant rain, I tucked them one-by-one into the soil telling myself the heavy layer of wet, chestnut leaf mulch would keep them warm enough to germinate.

Two months later, the bean stalks were already 18 inches high and needed stakes. In March, they had  white flowers with big black eyes.IMG_4717

In June, long, fat beans were growing up towards the sky.  The phallic nature of my crop almost had me blushing.  A hiking friend and fellow farmer sagely shared “they’re ready to pick when they drop down.”

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, my favourite wannabe-Italian, Randy of Scottish origin, had already tucked into fresh fava flown in from Italy that he’d purchased on the Danforth. Toronto was experiencing its usual lack of spring with a heat wave in late May.

“All day long, I can do this!” Randy enthused, sitting outside on his new deck, his mouth full of Pecorino cheese and freshly shucked fava, savoured with a “young Chianti, slightly chilled”.

My hiking friend shook her head and sighed when I told her of this flavour pairing.

Anything tastes good with wine and pecorino,” she scoffed.

Randy, I explained, was a dedicated  fava aficionado.  Who else but this mangiacake would de-robe the fava, not once, but twice, before he ate it?

My fellow fava farmer wasn’t listening to any of this gibberish, knowing full well the work and time invested in simply growing these beans. Shucking fava from the pod was an add-on compared to the ease of  bean brethren like snap or pole, who are ready to cook right off the vine.

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Fava Beans in Pod

Once shucked, the spongy fava casing reveals a loveable row of five to six, light-green-tinged beans each sweetly indented. I shucked out bowl after satisfying bowl full of beans and carted away bags full of fava shell refuse for the compost.

Scientist that I am, I measured my harvest. Ten cups! Was I up for Randy’s second peel out?

I gave a couple of beans a good try only to discover that the tight skin encasing each bean needed a small knife or long fingernail to remove it. Even still, I was nicking and separating the inner goodies. The process per bean, took the same amount of time as it did to simply shuck one pod and see five to six beans drop out.

It was, in the wise words of my engineer father, “A statistical nightmare!”

Unless you are Randy who awaits fava season with bated breath, ready to shuck all pods then tenderly hand-peel, each and every individual bean that comes his way. Last time we spoke, he cautioned me against over-cooking, too, suggesting that no fresh fava bean should be sautéed for more than a minute.

No wonder I reached for a glass of chianti when pondering culinary creations for the multitude of green orbs lingering in my fridge. I crowded Arborio rice with the, um,  little buggers to create a risotto failure that even my carb-loving husband declined. I made a luscious Mexican black bean soup and finished it with a scattering of fava, cooked only a minute or two (following you-know-who’s recommendation). The fava beans bobbed in the soup like buoys and I watched my guests politely skim their soup spoons around them.

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Dragon Tongue Beans

Finally, I had a fava epiphany, based on the cooking laws of terroir and desperation. My garden was spilling over with not just fava but an heirloom, purple streaked pole bean called Dragon Tongues. Wouldn’t they be perfect with the fresh pattypan squash I had pounced on at the Duncan farmers’ market that day? The cooking gods and I collaborated on a very fusion, very vegan dish that can be served hot over rice like a curry. Or it can be served French haute at room temperature, just like a Provencal ratatouille, tucked inside a lettuce leaf and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. C’est ca.IMG_5530

No matter what you do, be sure to serve with wine.  While Randy’s go-to is Chianti, he also recommends two crisp Italian whites: Vermentino di Sardegna or Falanghina.

And if your larder isn’t plum-full of fava and dragon tongue pole beans, substitute fava with lima beans, and try yellow wax string beans instead of the heirloom variety. Raise a glass to Randy and remember that 2016 was the International Year of the Pulses.

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Herd Road Bean Curry

Herd Garden Bean Curry

If you are obsessed enough, consider pulling out the just-cooked fava beans and squeezing each one out of its jacket, returning the deep green fava hearts to your curry. (Use my name in vain if you burn your fingers.) Like most curries, this will taste best the day after you cook it. Leftovers freeze well.

2 tbsp organic canola or sunflower oil

½ large sweet onion, chopped

2 garlic, chopped

1 garlic scape, finely chopped *optional

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated

1 tbsp finely chopped or grated fresh turmeric OR 1 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp coriander powder

1 cup tomato puree or passata (I like Mutti brand)

2 cups water

1 Poblano chile, membrane and seeds removed, thinly sliced

4 cups Dragon Tongue beans (topped, tailed and sliced in half.  Julienne if really thick)

½ yellow bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces

½ orange bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces

2 cups fava beans

½ tsp sea salt

½ tsp hot smoked paprika (I like La Chinata)

Fresh sage, sliced

Toasted pumpkin seeds

Heat oil in a large pot add onions, garlic, garlic scape, ginger and turmeric and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add cumin seeds and coriander powder and cook another minute. Add passata and water and bring to a boil.  Add poblano chili strips, Dragon Tongue (or wax beans) and bell peppers.  Cook, simmering uncovered for 5 minutes.  Add fava beans and cook until tender.  Season with salt and paprika.  Serve hot or at room temperature garnished with sage and toasted pumpkin seeds.

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Left: Peeled fava hearts Right: Bean casings

 

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.

A little piece of T.O. Riviera

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.

IMG_7817First 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.

IMG_7770No 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 IMG_7768 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.

IMG_7783Next, 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) IMG_7786and 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.

Deconstructing Chianti

“The baron is standing right over my left shoulder,” enthuses the man offering me a glass of wine, nodding his head in that direction. “I’m not kidding. A real baron.”

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Sidekick on the left, Baron Francesco Ricasoli on the right.

So I look. I have to. I am drinking the man’s homegrown Chianti and am curious what a real baron looks like. Suave and impeccably attired, he’s smiling ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t in his shoes?

Baron Francesco Ricasoli is thirty-second in a long line of barons overseeing Ricasoli estate in Tuscany, the essential birthplace of Chianti where his forebearer Baron Bettino Ricasoli developed the first modern Sangiovese-based Chianti recipe in the 1800s. (I’m not sure if this happened before or after Bettino became Italy’s second prime minister, but do know his governmental office shows just how seriously Italians take their wine).

I met the present-day Baron Francesco Ricasoli at the Canadian unveiling of Chianti Classico Gran Selezione on June 16 at The Carlu and planned to take this wine tasting as seriously as a wine-drinking journalist can. I was up for the slow amble… table to luxurious table, tasting endless glasses of voluptuous Italian red wines. I took notes. I asked questions. And I leaned into the shiny, silver spittoons IMG_7630with grace and feigned expertise, all the while knowing I’d  rely heavily on a certain wine guy once back in front of my computer, writing this piece.

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Wine Guy Randy Hodge

In my books, nobody knows wine better than Randy Hodge. He will tell you the contrary, but that’s just part of his charm. Randy is all about enjoying wine and accepting personal preferences.

Like mine.

Randy and I both knew I had a grudge against Chianti. Turns out the first glass I met didn’t appeal and I’d never given another one a chance – until The Carlu wine tasting where every single drop went down like pure elixir.

It didn’t hurt that I was sampling Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, which in wine-speak means top-rung. Most of the bottles I tasted retailed for no less that $50. But honestly, after my second or third sampling, I couldn’t articulate a single, sober tasting note or fact.IMG_7625

For Chianti is more than just an intoxicating drink. It’s a confusing and complicated puzzle, unless Randy is leading the tour.

He says the first thing to understand is the terroir of this wine. All Chianti hails from Tuscany and is sanctioned as a DOCDenominazione di Origine Controllata (controlled designation of origin). In other words, wine makers can’t put “Chianti” on the label unless it comes from the designated area (parceled into seven sub-regions, of course). Strictly defined, regular Chianti must contain no less than 75% Sangiovese (a red) but can contain white grapes in the remaining 25%.

The specs don’t end there. Up one notch from regular, old Chianti is Chianti Classico, with its black rooster logo and yet another award: it gets a “G” on the end of its DOC making for a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) pointing to a smaller, higher quality regional area. The Chianti Classico consortium currently rules, I mean, stipulates that Chianti Classico must contain no less than 80% Sangiovese grape (and rules out white in the mix, calling for red grapes only in the other 20 %)  which explains those “bright red cherry flavours” Randy says dominate this medium-bodied wine.

Chianti Riserva, he says, is another story. The best comes from Classico and Rufina sub-regions and is often aged in oak barrels from an estate’s best grapes. These tend to be fuller in body and richer in flavour. Think black cherry.

And if all these notes, regions and classifications aren’t enough to make non-wine-geeks quit their wine education, Randy jokes that the “Chianti Mafia” have upped the ante with Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, which goes another step, aging up to 30 months, versus the Riserva’s measly 24.

IMG_7622Forget the rules and regs.  Have a glass and taste this newcomer for yourself!  I can heartily recommend the pricey Ricasoli Colledilà Chianti Classico 2010 Sangiovese the baron was pouring. As I savoured its nuance, the baron’s  sidekick giddily pointed at the drawing on the label, bragging “That’s his house, no joking!”

But when I go Chianti shopping on my dime, I’ll stick to Randy’s guidelines. He says reliable producers of Chianti Classico are Fontodi, Fonterutoli, Castello di Ama, Badia a Coltibuono,  Castello di Querceto and Volpaia. Look for these at Vintages and expect pricing to range from $20-$25. For the economical among us, there are even under $20 bottle such as Rocca di Castagnoli, Valiano, Cennatoio and Lornano.

P1030353But beyond the right bottle is the right food pairing.  Rich, meat infused tomato sauces makes a great match for Chianti’s relative lightness and bright fruitiness. P1030276Shut your eyes tightly and travel to Tuscany on your palate. If visions of wild boar, Pecorino cheese, grilled lamb and forest mushrooms dance before your food-obsessed imagination, nab them. All will make fine companions for this age-old wine that funnily enough, made its first crude debut in a fiasco, or flat bottom carafe woven in straw. Yet nothing about Chianti is a ludicrous failure, especially when a perfect bottle graces your lips and turns a fine meal into an aria.