Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Savour Stratford - Best Chef Challenge

Recognize this guy? Chef Francisco Alejandri? He had a busy week last week. In addition to running his eatery, Agave Y Aguacate, in Toronto in the Kensington Market, he spent time in Ottawa on Monday and then in Stratford on Saturday.

Shawna Wagman, food editor for Ottawa Magazine, ran one of her City Bites Live sessions Monday evening at the Urban Element on Parkdale Avenue here in Ottawa. Chef Alejandri was the main attraction for a demonstration dinner called A Fresh Perspective on Mexican Cuisine. I had never heard of him before and had hoped to go. I figured if Shawna wanted to spend the evening with Francisco, he had to be good. Alas, I would be out of town.

Fast forward to Saturday. Being in the other end of the province, I decided to squeeze in a bit of Savour Stratford as part of my 'fun time'. One of the first events of the day Saturday was the Best Chef Challenge. I knew who would be judging but heard nothing about the competing chefs. The program for the day gave no details either. I found a seat in the first row and patiently waited.

Imagine my surprise to find out that Chef Francisco Alejandri would be one of the contenders. Here he was, 600 kms away from his Monday gig. Chef Alejandri does have a Stratford connection. He trained at the Stratford Chef School.

I was equally pleased to see that he was going up against Chef Janet Ashworth of The County Food Co., a stone's throw away on Erie Street. This eatery was on my wishlist of places to try in Stratford. Janet is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

The judges were early to their table:

Well known cookbook author (James Beard award-winning, at that) Jennifer McLagan. Jennifer was also recently in Ottawa promoting her latest book, Odd Bits. (See Ottawa food editor, Ron Eade's blog post).

Celebrity chef, Chuck Hughes. This past March he took down Bobby Flay in kitchen stadium on Iron Chef America. He is also known for his Food Network cooking series, Chuck's Day Off. For those not caught up on the TV side of Chuck, they may just know him as chef and co-owner of Restaurant Garde-Manger, located in Old Montreal.

Editor-in-Chief of award-winning Best Health magazine, Bonnie Munday. The magazine was launched in the spring of 2008.

Owner and head chef of Nick and Nat's Uptown 21, Nick Benninger. I have dined at Waterloo's Uptown 21 three times now in the past year. Which is a compliment to Nick and Nat, considering that I hail from Ottawa. Uptown 21 is very focused on using local ingredients and they are constantly looking for creative ways of being current on the food scene. Last spring they hosted Iron Chef Uptown.

Andrew Coppolino MC'd the event. Andrew is well-known in the counties, Perth and Huron, for promoting food. You can listen to him on The Food Show on 570 All News Radio. He also writes about food on his website, Waterloo Region Eats.

Andrew shared with us the format of the competition. Chefs were to produce 3 dishes in one hour. Once they heard about the secret ingredient they would have 15 minutes to make their plans and then the competition would begin.

There was a twist. Instead of one, there would be 4 secret ingredients. All chosen from Tanjo Family Farm near Millbank, the secret ingredients were: duck, Hungarian partridge, bacon and quail eggs.

Helping to run the show and do the colour commentary were Steve Stacey and Paul Finkelstein.

Steve writes the food blog The Local-Come-Lately. I have been reading it for a while now, and that voice of caring and sharing which resonates from his blog and his tweets (@localcomelately), carried through to the stage as he had fun tussling with the chefs.

I only know Paul from twitter (@paulfink). He may look very serious but he was a lot of fun. He is a teacher at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School. He has changed how food is taught to the teenagers and how they go about applying what they have learned. The students run the food establishment called the Screaming Avocado. Paul is also a host of the show Fink on the Food Network.

In addition to following the chefs' every moves, Steve and Paul interviewed the judges. They dug deep for the good stuff. Who knew that Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 makes 150 sandwiches for Brown Bag Fridays. Or that Chuck Hughes gifted Bobby Flay a Canadiens jersey when they met in Iron Chef America's Kitchen Stadium. (And it was well received.)

There was much to do in 60 minutes and the teams moved quickly, feeling the intensity of the competition. The induction cooktop did not perform as expected. Too hot. Not at all. We all wondered if Chef Ashworth's fries would be done on time as the oil in her pot boiled violently to its meniscus.

Finally, the plating began.

It was down to the wire, but both teams finished on time. Now it was up to the judges.

Both teams used all 4 ingredients across their 3 dishes. A heavy peppering of accolades as they tasted. But it was probably Chef Alejandri's (bottom left) lightly scrambled quail eggs cooked with bacon fat, guajillo sauce and Monforte's Pecorino Fresco Cheese that released the judges from their reserved posture. "I could have this for breakfast every day."

His other dishes: Duck breast served to medium rare with a purée of heirloom tomatoes and coriander chimichurri and puréed pumpkin seeds (top right) , Kentucky Fried Partridge with a light spiced batter served with celery root slaw and a cornbread made with bacon, bacon fat, jalapeño, a little scallion, and a bit of maple (bottom right).

Chef Ashworth took lots of ribbing for her duck poutine with fennel and celery root fries, suggesting she was playing to Chef Hughes' tastes. Some observers think Chef Hughes ultimately defeated Bobby Flay with his calorie hefty lobster poutine.

Chef Ashworth's dishes: Beer and barley risotto with Stratford Pilsner, partridge breast sliced with a bit of beer in it, roasted tomato couli and beer basted quail egg on top (top right), Poutine with fries made out of celery root and fennel with duck breast on top and Monforte's Pecorino Fresco cheese, drizzled with a sauce of red wine and tomato(bottom left), A savoury dessert and cheese course all in one: Traditional Scottish shortbread underneath with caramelized apple, squash and bacon. Also, with honey and white wine. On top some of Monforte's sheep's milk ricotta with a little lemon zest and a tiny bit of sugar. Kind of sweet and salty surprise (bottom right).

We saw some fancy plate work for just one hour in a kitchen unfamiliar to both. The final result was very close. Chef Alejandri came through with 217 points, just edging out Chef Ashworth by 7 points.

Not acquainted with the names, Alejandri and Ashworth? I think we may be hearing more of them.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Edgar - Is It A Secret Place?

Sometimes I get the feeling that Edgar is a secret place. Not that many don't know it. Many definitely do. By secret place, what I mean is, that it's a getaway from real life stuff. A place to go when you want to leave everything else behind. Just for an hour or so. Safe. Comfortable. Trusting. Consistent. Enveloping.

I have wondered if this effect is just because it is across the river from me. A place a bit more French than I use in my day to day in Westboro. Or maybe, it's just because it is wee. As an 11 seater, it helps to get there first. The summer patio pretty much doubles the space.

One would think that their seasonal focused menu wouldn't suit this feeling. So many unknowns. Wouldn't you want predictability? In fact, it is something that signifies that this place is always moving, ever changing, never in a rut. But I find that this brings comfort of a different kind. A freshness that is rejuvenating.

I sense that others have this 'secret place' feeling too.

[My vegetarian panino.]

[My friend's Indian panino with tandoori chicken and chutney.]

[Our shared desserts: Strawberry, Rhubarb and Raspberry Cheesecake; Lemon Meringue Tart; Chocolate Brownie with Orange and Cayenne. We mellowed the sweetness with our Cha Yi teas - Rooibos Safari and Honeybush Raspberry.]

60 rue Bégin
Gatineau (Hull sector), Quebec

Update to Brunch hours (effective Oct 1, 2011)
Wed to Fri: 10 am - 6:30 pm
Sat: 10 am - 5 pm (Brunch 10 am - 2 pm)
Sun: 9:30 am - 5 pm (Brunch 9:30 am - 2 pm)
Mon and Tues: Closed

Edgar on Urbanspoon

The Confession of My Coffee Bar Affair at Blumen Studio

Have you ever been to Blumen Studio?

I have passed by it many times, driving south on Parkdale from Wellington, since it opened in March. It has a 'come hither' beckoning with it's sophisticated curbside styling of containers and plants. The modern minimalist feel has been calling me in.

Blumen (German for 'flower') is first and foremost a contemporary flower shop with European flair. If you need it to be, it can also double as your corner store for eggs, Lactantia cream, Cochrane's Dairy milk and Stirling Creamery butter. They have a few magazines and newspapers for the picking too. There is room to sit and relax cupping a coffee or tea, matched with a decent selection of fresh baked goods.

When I go out for a hit of caffeine, my coffeehouse of choice is Bridgehead. Any one of the twelve locations will do. I thought we had a rock solid relationship. But on this day I fell to the temptation of Blumen Studio's café crema ($2.83 with tax). One shot espresso and one shot microfoamed 10% cream.

Kat planned to serve it in a hip-style tumbler but I asked for the well-known #3 size Könitz Coffee Bar cup. Wow! With much restraint and discretion, I just closed my eyes and kept all the wee noises to myself.

I know I have been far too flirtatious with my coffee style status. My collection of 'in a relationship' partners has flipped from cappuccinos to lattes to most recently, flat whites. But as of today, my newest 'forever coffee true love' is for sure the café crema.

If you are taking in the Taste of Wellington West this weekend, consider stepping off the beaten path to see what Kat Kosk and Nathan Turner have to offer in their menagerie of wonderful things.

My favourite Ottawa flower shop is Tivoli Florist on Richmond Road. Now I wonder. Will I end up cheating on them too?

Blumen Studio
465 Parkdale Ave.
website: www.blumenstudio.ca

Tues to Thurs: 8 am - 6 pm
Fri: 8 am - 8 pm
Sat: 9 am - 7 pm
Sun 10 am - 4 pm

My Homemade Pressure Cooked Tomato Sauce Is Vermillion Red

Bright, vermillion red probably best describes the rich colour of our latest product from the home canning factory. It is also the description of Farrow & Ball's 212 'Blazer', a close sister to Benjamin Moore's 2171-10 'navajo red'.

Long after the seals were on, we found we were constantly returning our glances to the rows of glassy 'red', fixating on 20 beautiful jars of home canned tomato sauce.

One does not make and can homemade tomato sauce for the cost savings. Not even close. Even if the tomatoes were free, there was some pretty high priced talent working tirelessly in the kitchen on Tuesday.

Happy as clams? Yes we were! And a most satisfying day it was.

My culinary partner, JK, is also a book club buddy of some 10 years. We know each other well. As much as I am full of Viking blood, she is pumping high octane Lebanese through hers. A potential for conflict over those steamy pots? Nope. Luckily we tend to have similar epicurean passions.

Deciding On Technique:
To get ready for our big work day, I dabbled in prep and canning techniques. Ah, the many combinations. I have skinned, not seeded, then stewed. Not skinned, but seeded, then stewed. Not skinned, not seeded then stewed. Eventually pushing it all through my food mill. All these ideas came from reading books, Internet sourced how-to's, and other food bloggers writing about their seasonal experiences.

But JK had already picked our path through the tomato patch. She was hyper-focused on EXACTLY how these luscious Romas and plums would be prepared. And why not? She went to a highly reputable and undisputed source. She phoned Mom, back home in Lebanon up in the hills in the small town of Bentaël, near Byblos on the west coast. How could I argue with that? I come from a land imaged as icy and covered in lichen and tundra. She from the warm regions of the middle East on the Mediterranean Sea. Now, had I been Italian....

Mama Antoinette's secret to effortless tomato sauce? The pressure cooker.

Sourcing The Tomatoes:
We put a lot of thought into purchasing our tomatoes. So this part may seem a bit long winded. Partly because our decision wasn't just price-based and we had to come to terms with what we would spend and why. Both in agreement. Both of us happy.

We were leaning to local and also organic.

I had spent some time looking at plum tomatoes at the Parkdale Market. Some sell local product but not necessarily organic. Many of the stalls are resellers where the produce can be coming from further afield. I did buy a 'tester' batch there.

I also checked in with Waratah Downs Organic Farms from Iroquois, Ontario. They sell at the Ottawa Farmers' Market at Lansdowne and also the Main Street Farmers' Market at St. Paul University. They had a couple of varieties of Roma/paste type tomatoes. Owner, Colleen Ross, recommended mixing the San Marzano Romas with another variety to make sauce.

Together we headed to Saturday's Main Street Farmers' Market to make our purchase. The people at Waratah were able to put together a 3/4 bushel mix of Romas and plums that were reasonably ripe.

As we cruised the market, we found 'the veggie underground'. They say they use organic growing practices but are not certified yet. They are located in Vars.

We picked up two baskets (10 pounds), again mixing Romas and plums.

Although not quite a full bushel, with the two purchases we sure had a lot of tomatoes.

The value proposition when buying food is constantly a tricky one. What are the criteria going into the decision? Price. Quality. Organic. Local. Ease of access. Use. Everyone puts a different weight on each. And we ourselves may not necessarily make the same decision every time.

So some people went to Pearl Jam this week. Bought new outfits for the occasion. Ate out beforehand. Paid for special transportation. Had concert refreshments. But us? We bought local, organic tomatoes. And in that light, the purchase doesn't seem so dear.

Caring For The Fruit:
Canning day was 3 days away and the tomatoes would need some TLC.

Some things to consider when caring for the raw ingredient:

First, wash the fruit well as soon as you get it home. Then lay them out on a tea towel for a few days to ripen to their full potential. Close to a sunny window if you can. 2 or 3 days will make a big difference towards increasing the rich tomato flavour.

Prepare The Jars And Lids:
The jars need to be sterilized before being filled. It is good to read up on this process with a reputable source before you do it.

We put the jars in the canning pot covering them in water. Once the water came to a boil we let them bubble away for 10 minutes. We turned off the heat and then added the lids and screw bands to scald them.

Once your are ready to fill the jars, using jar tongs, place jars upside down on a clean tea towel. Do not touch the opening of the jar with your hands. Do not touch the under side of the lid. You can use a magnetic lid lifter to minimize contact with your hands.

Starting Production:
JK looked after cutting the tomatoes into chucks in 10 pound batches. This amount fits in most dutch ovens. In our case we were using a pressure cooker as our primary heat source. No need to peel the tomatoes or remove the seeds. Do take off cores if they are notably woody.

JK's mom swears by using the pressure cooker to 'stew' the tomatoes. With her cooker it took about 3 minutes once the pressure was up. But a dutch oven works well too. Start off on low heat to tease the moisture out of the fruit and cook away until the pulp has softened and is malleable. Don't over cook. The intent here is to draw out the 'water' and to make the fruit soft enough to put through a food mill with ease. Because of our volume of fruit, we used both methods for stewing. The pressure cooker was definitely faster.

Do not disturb the tomatoes once they have completed stewing in the pressure cooker. If you use a dutch oven, really try to minimize stirring. Again, if you are starting the tomatoes on a low heat, the juices will come out and prevent the tomatoes from sticking.

Over a large pot, put stewed tomatoes in a large colander to strain out excess juice. Reserve this juice to be canned later.

Put the drained stewed tomatoes through the food mill. My food mill is made by Frieling. I used the finest disc (3 millimeter diameter holes). I like that this model has two brackets that stabilize the mill over just about any size pot or bowl.

It works quickly and sorts out the seeds and skin. It is important to work it until the seeds and skin seem 'dry'.

JK used her food mill as well with her 'medium' disc. The brand name is RSVP. We had similar results.

Once all the tomatoes are milled, simmer the sauce on the cooktop and reduce to the desired thickness. Add some salt. For our 10 litres of sauce we added 3 or 4 tablespoons.

Canning The Sauce:
Using a wide mouth funnel, fill jars to near the top. It should have 1/2" of head room. Add lemon juice to help increase the acidity. We added 1 tablespoon of lemon juice since we were using the 500 mL jars. It helps to keep the colour bright. More importantly, acidity in canning helps to decrease the chances of botulism and San Marzanos are one of the tomatoes with a lower acidity. Put on the lid and screw band. Do not twist the screw band too tightly. (It is both important to not overfill or under fill the jars. Both can decrease the chances of a successful and safe seal.)

Never reuse lids. Screw bands can be reused as long as there is no dents, rust, or bends.

We followed the recommendation from JK's mom and canned the jars of sauce in the pressure cooker. Her cooker holds 4 of the 500 mL jars at one time. A cloth at the bottom of the pot minimizes the 'knocking'. When canning in a pressure cooker, the jars are only halfway submersed in water.

The length of time in the pressure cooker depends on the size of the cooker, how many jars are in the cooker, the size of the jars, what your are canning and the altitude of your kitchen. It is best to go to reputable books and websites to find the right length of cooking time for your situation. There are guidelines available from reputable sources such as canning supply companies, university food sciences programs and government food safety agencies. What you will see in these guidelines is that using a pressure cooker takes less time than the conventional hot water bath technique. The trade off is that the big canning pots can usually hold more jars at one time.

When the process was done, we placed the hot jars on a tea towel to cool. Within minutes we were hearing the music of the lids popping and completing their seal. It is important to not tip the jars. Always keep them upright.

Let the jars rest for 24 hours. Before storing, check the seals. If some jars did not seal, they should go to the fridge to be the first used. Treat as you would the contents of an opened jar. Check the screw bands and tighten if loose. Store in a cool, dry location in your home. Many sources said that canned tomatoes are safe for up to a year if their seals are still intact.

End result:
I am guessing we started with about 40 to 45 pounds of tomatoes.

We ended up with:
20 jars (500 mL) thick tomato sauce.
10 jars (500 mL) tomato juice.

What I Learned and Why I Now Feel Smarter:
The pressure cooker worked really well for cooking up the tomatoes for the sauce. It was so fast. Also, it seemed to leave more flavour in the pulp and curtailed flavour seeping out to the separating juice. (This is why it is important to minimize disturbing the stewed fruit before straining.)

The food mill created a wonderful consistency to the sauce. It nearly eliminated the seeds and skins. Because of this, it seriously cut down on the prep time - no skinning or seeding required beforehand.

Using the pressure cooker for canning required less time (although it meant working in smaller batches). Using a pressure cooker for canning is considered more safe because of the high temperatures it can create.

Straining the juice off the lightly stewed tomatoes before running them through the food mill had two pluses. First, it gave us another product to can for later use, instead of having the excess juice vaporize and drift out my hood fan. Secondly, it took less time and gas to reduce the sauce to the desired consistency. When canning, time is gold.

500 mL jars are easier to handle and not too tall in the pressure cooker when canning. They suit our family size for most cooking needs.

The bonus jars of juice will make great additions to soup and also for cooking Spanish rice.

I have canned tomatoes before and will likely do it again. I do struggle with the idea though, because of the time involved and knowing how cheaply you can purchase a can of tomatoes. On the other hand there is great satisfaction that comes from knowing the farmer who grew my tomatoes. So was it worth it? It won't be until we taste the tomato sauce this winter that we will know for sure.

I have become a pressure cooker convert and have shed my feelings of intimidation. I am now looking longingly at Kuhn Rikon's website.

Although canning tomatoes is serious business, going into it understanding proper food safety, it is easy to do.

Canning tomatoes with an epicurean enthusiast is WAY more fun than doing it alone.

[Notice the 3 square jars in the front row. My VERY old Mason jars still in circulation.]

Monday, September 12, 2011

Red Pepper and Peach Relish - A Staple in Our Home

Of all the jars in our 'fridge pharmacy', the one we value the most is Red Pepper and Peach Relish. Like butter tarts and espresso beans, we seem to be on a perpetuitous search for the best. Even though that best may possibly be our own.

We are coming off of a canning/preserves bender. Jars of minced garlic were first to the freezer, followed by basil pesto. 3/4 of a bushel of tomatoes have been reduced to sauce. Another 3/4 bushel to go. Since there were some wee jars left and produce readily available, we just continued to indulge.

We adapted our recipe from Canadian Living's Red Pepper and Peach Relish. We used two small jalapeños to give it some extra kick. We simmered the batch by an additional 20 minutes. I prefer my relish a bit thicker. It meant 8 cups instead of 9. I may consider even longer next time.

Our Ontario peaches were picked up at Farm Boy. The jalapeños and one of the red peppers came from our CSA basket from Roots and Shoots Farm. The remaining red peppers also came from Farm Boy. This week they were 99 cents a pound.

It is a lot of work doing the chopping but it makes for a beautiful, delicate relish if the peaches and red peppers are chopped very finely. On that point, I wished I had fussed a bit more. It pays to have great knife skills for this task.

We often use the relish as an accompaniment for grilled salmon. It is a good garnish for hors d'oeuvres that use cream cheese, salmon or goat cheese.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Rockin' the Basil with Pesto Passion

This is either my third or fourth batch of pesto this summer. We have been consuming it in quantity, as well as gifting it. Each batch has been a bit different and this has been my favourite so far.

My basil was sourced from Waratah Downs Organic Farm at the Main Street Farmers' Market. The market operates on Saturday mornings from 9 am to 2 pm on the grounds of Saint Paul University, 223 Main Street, Ottawa. Waratah Downs also goes to the Ottawa Farmers' Market at Lansdowne on Sunday.

I purchased 4 bunches for $2 each. Each bunch had approximately 10 stems. After I picked and sorted the leaves, I had 280 grams of basil for my pesto. (Probably between 9 and 10 cups.) I gave the leaves a wash, spun them dry in the salad spinner and then laid them out on a tea towel to dry. It is important to move quickly, as bruised basil will start to darken.

My garlic was from my Roots and Shoots Farm CSA basket. I almost used one full head for a single batch.

I purchase my extra virgin olive oil (Kirkland brand), pine nuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano from Costco.

The lemon juice is used to keep the green as bright as possible.

I have toasted my nuts and roasted my garlic but this time I took them both straight up.

I considered using my VitaMix to make the pesto but ended up moving to the KitchenAid food processor. It just gives much better control of the pulsing. I like my pesto with a bit of body. Not to super smooth. Do we call that 'rustic'?

Leave a bit of room in the top of each jar to top up with a cover of olive oil. This also helps to keep the colour. Whenever you use any, level out the top and cover again in olive oil. I great tip from my foodie friend, JK.

The flavours in this batch were my favourite so far. Was it because my basil and garlic were organic? Were the leaves just the right degree of tender? Who knows what made this batch so perfect. I am just pleased that I could double the batch and tuck 1 5/8 litres into the freezer for the coming months ahead.

Basil Pesto
Adapted from many.

140 grams of cleaned basil leaves (~4.5 cups)
1 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 - 5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3/4 cup pine nuts, raw
3/4 to 1 teaspoon salt
lemon drops, just a few squirts

Combine prepared ingredients in the food processor. Pulse chop until the desired consistency. Fill jars leaving room for a cover of olive oil. Keep in the freezer.

Gelato ... Watermelon ... Gelato ... Watermelon ...

It is those bright, sunny Sundays that have a gentle pace to its gait, that fuels ones temptation to cool down with a midday treat.

We had spent the early afternoon preserving some recent market purchases. At that natural rest point of task completion, I was fixated on cooling down. To a heaping Stella Luna gelato.

But beckoning me in the chill of the fridge was a sturdy, fresh, young watermelon. An extra special something that came in our Thursday CSA basket from Roots and Shoots Farm.

My mind ping ponged back and forth. Gelato ... Watermelon ... Gelato ... Watermelon ...

I conferred with the mister. He rescued us from my thoughtful volley and began his surgical cuts into our flawless melon.

The flesh was cold and sweet and juicy. And like a 'real' watermelon, there were seeds. Imagine sitting out on the back deck, trying to arc the seeds into the neighbour's backyard. But did we? Or did we just close our eyes and take succulent bites, pondering the last days of summer?
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