August 31, 2005

Now with Spam!

Sorry folks - I've had a spamtastic day here, so I'm turning on the word-verification filter to try to get around it. Sorry for the extra step, and my apologies if any real comments got nuked with the spam, spam, spam, eggs, and spam that I've just deleted.


World Blog Day

I have been remiss in not providing a links section to some of the many food blogs that I read regularly. I do plan to add one in the not-too-terribly-distant future, but it hasn't happened yet, obviously. However, in honour of World Blog Day, I will share five remarkable food blogs whose pages I visit regularly, whose updates I look forward to more than any newspaper or magazine (well, except, perhaps Cooks Illustrated), and with whom I feel some form of culinary kinship, despite never having met any of them. It's hard to pick only five, because I read about 15 regularly and even more on a periodic basis.

Without further ado, and in alphabetical order:

Bakingsheet - Nic in Los Angeles produces volumes of stunning food with charming anecdotes from cooking school classes and simple, easy-to-follow recipes.

Chocolate & Zucchini - Clothilde in Paris manages one of the best known food blogs in the world, and has a forum full of helpful and interesting folks from around the world participating. Lots of well written short pieces on the food she finds and eats in Paris and occasionally elsewhere.

Delicious! Delicious! - Caren details her career as a personal chef to a hollywood actor (anonymous, of course) in movie-script format. The little stories are entertaining, the recipes are simple but impressive looking.

Domestic Goddess - Jennifer in Toronto has an impressive link archive of worldwide food blogs, but her own site is well worth perusing, with fun little notes on her personal culinary escapades.

Orangette - Molly in Seattle writes charming and delightful, highly personal, diary-like entries and posts fabulous recipes. Hers was the first food blog that I encountered after starting this one, and is the gold standard of its kind - terrific recipes (I've made a number of them without a flop), great photography, and thoughtful prose. After playing catch-up in her archives, I very nearly discontinued my own. I'm a stubborn cuss, though, and don't stop talking easily.

There are so many more: Pumpkin Pie Bungalow, Food Ninja, Lex Culinaria, Oswego Tea, Culinary Adventure...

I promise to install a proper links section soon.

August 25, 2005

Wine Club: BC Small Lots

The August wine tasting - BC Small Lots - was unexpectedly good. I don't know why I'm still amazed whenever I have good red wines from BC, but I still have this reflexive cringe from my very first (to my knowledge) BC red back in the late '80s - a Calona Vineyards Pinot Noir. I didn't know much about wine in general at the time, and I certainly didn't know anything about Pinot Noir, other than that it had a cool sounding name. You know, set yourself up with some film noir and a glass of Pinot Noir - it just sounded like it should be fancy and mysterious, and maybe a bit elitist. It should probably be wearing a beret. However, even in my utterly uneducated state, I disliked the wine intensely. It may have in fact delayed my interest in wine by several years.

How much has changed! While generally a little overpriced, some BC red wines can compete palate-to-palate with wines from Europe and beyond. This tasting consisted of seven BC wines that are produced in limited releases - one sparkling and six red. Many of these are not available in liquor stores, although you may have some luck in wine shops, or ordering from the vineyard directly.

Photo Credit: D. Langtry

Whenever we have a sparkling, that's where we start first. It's poured last, and the tasters fall on it with a cry without waiting for their peer's glasses to be poured. nv Blue Mountain Brut is where we started, and it was widely agreed to be a pleasant wine. It had a sharp, crisp scent of apples on the nose, and a sort of Strongbow-like flavour of cider on the palate. There was simply nothing outstanding about it, and several tasters noted that they could buy a lot of good sparkling cider for the $22 price tag. Still, it's always nice to start with a sparkling wine, yes?

We moved on to another Blue Mountain, this time a magnum of the 2000 Reserve Pinot Noir Striped label. A previous tasting of the much sought-after Blue Mountain Pinot Noir (regular) revealed it to be disappointing, so we were keen to see how this one stacked up as it was both a) the reserve, and b) a magnum size (wine generally tastes better if it is stored in a larger bottle than the standard 750 ml). It was pretty enough, with a garnet red colour and a clear rim, and even the scent of chalk and rock wasn't off-putting - Pinot Noir can have some fairly funky odors. Unfortunately, the palate was equally rocky, and very thin-textured, with no fruit or pepper flavours at all. It seemed rather sour to me, and I moved on relatively quickly. $75 for the magnum - yikes!

Happily, I moved on the the LaFrenz 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, from Naramata, at $27. Bloody and opaque, with just a faint hint of orange showing at the rim, the nose yielded very little. The palate however, was a musky combination of cherries and plums, with a faint acridity. It had good body - lots of body! - and it was generally concluded that a strong game meat would be ideal to stand up to the fierce flavours. Possibly something cooked with juniper berries...

The next wine was the 2002 Sandhill Syrah Small Lots - Phantom Creek at $30. This is not a Burrowing Owl Sandhill, by the way, but a very interesting boutique wine. It was the kind of dark opaque red that almost looks like a black hole - as though light would have trouble escaping its surface. The legs were thick, quick to form and fast moving. The nose was unusual, consisting solely of plums and salt-licorice. The palate was even more unusual, evoking the words "dark, bark, metal, rocks, licorice, and salt." Almost unanimously, tasters declared it "kind of weird" but many of us kept going back to our glass, sipping and frowning and sipping, and gradually confessing a sort of growing fondness for it.

We eventually put our glasses down and picked up the 2003 Oak Bay Meritage, at whopping $35. The composition of this wine was 40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc. It was a pretty, bright red with a cherry-pink rim, a fair amount of acidity and a little red fruit on the nose, and a sour-cherry flavour that was quite refreshing. The price tage makes this one a little too steep for what is essentially a fruit-and-cheese sipping red, or the second bottle at a dinner party, but it wasn't bad at all.

2002 Burrowing Owl Meritage, however was worth its $35, which is a relief to those of us already housing one in our wine cellars. The composition of this wine was 20% Merlot, 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc. The wine is a dark ruby colour, opaque, and with good body. The nose is a little rocky, but the flavours were fruit, spices, nuts and a hint of Christmas. This is a very tasty wine, and worthy of the gold medals and attention that it gets.

In the grand tradition of saving the best for last, our final wine of the night was the 2003 Black Hills Nota Bene, comprised of 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, and 20% Cabernet Franc. This is a heckuva wine for $34. Dark, bloody red, with dark red fruit, flint and raspberries on the nose, the flavours were smooth, balanced, fruity, and with just a hint of pepper. The body was elegantly velvety without being overly thick, and the entire glass just disappeared to the soundtrack of universal approbation.

Six out of Seven isn't a bad haul, and although this tasting has done nothing to improve my outlook on Blue Mountain wines, it is comforting to know that BC reds are improving at a remarkable rate. Now, if only we could keep the prices under control...

Previous Tastings:
Portugese Table Wines
Pinot Noir
South African Red Wines
Spanish Wines
Summer Patio Wines

Sesame Sambal Chicken

Fortnightly update!

The main Always in the Kitchen website has a new recipe:

Sesame Sambal Chicken - with variations for the barbeque/grill or oven

and a new essay: Scotland the Brave

"...There has never been a shortage of good local ingredients to work with, but somehow Scotland fell into a similar post-war fug of bland and indifferent cuisine that until recently plagued England."


August 20, 2005

Return to the Kitchen: Crepes!

It always feels a little strange, stepping back into my kitchen after being away from it. True, I was only gone ten days, but that's a pretty long time to go without cooking anything, as far as I'm concerned. I'm always slightly concerned that I'll have forgotten how to do something important, or that I'll fail to remember simple things like monitoring pan-temperatures, or whether something has been left in the broiler. Such things have never come to pass - yet! - but I am always still a little concerned.

Today also brought a return to a dish I've not made in a long time: Crepes. I've always been partial to them, but when I travelled to France on my Big Trip ten years ago, I fell in love with them. Sweet, savory, stacked, folded, on a plate, or in a folded paper cone, crepes were my number one hunger-buster on the streets of Paris, and they're awfully good at home, too.

Since I have been primarily cooking lighter meals since we got back from Scotland, I decided to make a breakfast of savory crepes. With their payload of a single egg and but a half-teaspoon of canola oil, they fit well enough in with my criteria that I decided to include slices of Freybe's Italian sausage - part of their line of lower-fat chicken and turkey sausages that I use in a number of supper dishes (like Sausage and Hominy Chili) quite frequently.

Like a number of food bloggers, I've recently been pillaging the Williams Sonoma website for its recipes, and the one that I decided on for my crepes was their Black Pepper Crepes with Goat Cheese and Tomatoes. Since I was using a 9 or 10" non-stick frying pan instead of a WS crepe pan, I only got five crepes instead of eight, but I also was using between a third and a half cup of batter for each one, too - so that sort of makes sense. I also decided that the black pepper element of the crepe batter was negligible, so next time I may well add more pepper - or perhaps grind additional pepper over the crepe as it cooks on its first side, so the fresh black pepper sinks evenly into the batter and is locked in when the crepe is turned.

I also discovered that I did not need to re-season the pan between crepes, as the recipe suggests. Perhaps that is an advantage of the non-stick pan over the crepe pan, but it worked in my favour, so I'm not complaining.

I had forgotten how much fun crepes are. You can prepare them in advance. You can fill them with practically anything. You can dress them up or down. You can freeze them. And, you can microwave chilled crepes to heat them back up!

August 15, 2005

Eating and Drinking to the Sound of Bagpipes

I am home again, after ten days abroad in the lowlands of Scotland. We stayed primarily in Glasgow, due to our attendance at WorldCon, but managed a couple of days east in Edinburgh.

There is a sound to the city of Glasgow, and trite as it may seem, it is almost the sound of bagpipes. At night, when you've left the window open to lose the muggy air, there is a certain hum that is almost like a whispery drone of bagpipes just starting, in the background. Toward the end of our journey, it became a full on pipe sound, as the Piping Festival got underway.

I am almost at a loss about where to start, so I will start where my day usually started, with breakfast:

The Charing Cross Guest House boasted a full, cooked Scottish breakfast included with the room cost, so it made sense to avail ourselves of it as a cost cutting measure, if nothing else. As it turns out, it wasn't bad. True, it was meat-heavy and desperately rich, so after a couple of days we took to ordering our breakfasts somewhat modified. For Palle, that meant asking them to hold the beans - somewhat anemic and tomato-y as they were - but for me it meant refraining from the Lorne sausage - a strangely rectangular patty of blended pork that came to resemble spam more and more in my mind as the days went by.

While the egg, the rasher of bacon, and the half-tomato (usually a little less than ripe) need no explanation, the Lorne sausage (in some other hotel it might be black pudding instead) and the potato scone were something of a novelty. The flat, boxty-like, fried potato bread that they rather optimistically refer to as a "scone" is actually a little on the sweet side, which can be a bit disconcerting against the richness of the meat and eggs. Breakfast was made complete by a glass of juice, some brutal coffee (served with milk, as is the fashion there, rather than cream) and copious amounts of toast and delightfully yellow, flavourful butter. Sometimes there were oatcakes, too, and there was always cold cereal available from the counter near the coffee pot.

Of course, this is not the average breakfast of your average Scotsman. Cornflakes are a more likely bet. The very idea of facing this onslaught of calories had me humming "Scotland the Brave" under my breath on my way down the stairs each morning. It's not that it was bad - it was quite tasty. But I am not used to facing such hearty, meat-laden fare day in, day out.

I have already described the delightful dinner that we had at The Piper's Tryst, but I failed to mention the entertainment. While we were dining in this charming little restaurant (which is attached to the Piping Hall and a hotel) there was a wedding in progress in the hall next to us. What this ultimately meant was that the groom and groomsmen, in full traditional kit (skein dhu and all) were taking turns at the bar for a belt of whisky or two, bridesmaids in colourful satin gowns were lurching around breathlessly, and at one point the bride, all young freckled shoulders and elaborately arranged fair hair, swept through on her way to collect some of her bridal party. In all, a merry time was had by all.

Our dinner at The Piper's Tryst (the more sweetly named, for the wedding taking place) remained the culinary highlight of our trip, although there were other delights in store. It was there that Palle tried haggis - as did I - and discovered it to not be that bad, after all. My previous experience of it was ten years ago in Edinburgh, and I was decidedly unfavourably impressed at the time. This example was far superior, particularly in that the contents were much more finely chopped than my previous sample.

Over in Edinburgh, we stayed at perhaps the most half-assed B&B ever. The people were friendly, but not terribly good at their jobs (it was primarily staffed by young people who were in residence in the ancient building themselves). The breakfast was blessedly continental, because I don't think I would have been too confident about the cooking skills of the motley lot in charge. However, it was during the Edinburgh festival, and we had little other options for available accommodation, outside venues so decidedly uppercrust that they advertised inclusive butler service. Since even the inexpensive places in Scotland were burning a fierce hole in our pockets (prices are elevated during the festival, sadly), this was clearly out of our league... this time, anyway.

We were staying in the picture-pretty suburb of Leith, right where the Water of Leith meets the Ocean, on the same block as a pub called the King's Wark which had originally been built in the early 1400's as a seaside residence for James I, then turned variously into a plague hospital and then, in the early 1600's into a pub, which it remains to this day.

The butcher shops along the main shopping artery in Leith all had delightful displays, including the requisite haggis and Scotch brisket. The fishmongers also had lovely displays, including a lot of shellfish from the North Sea, and - oddly enough - farm fresh eggs.

I at first thought that Grampion was the breed of chicken for sale, but it turns out to be a misspelling of a UK poultry wholesaler, which is infinitely more disappointing. Grampian is also a region in Scotland, but that doesn't seem to be relevant to the chickens sold here. Shocking prices, like everything else here.

While doing the usual touristy things such as exploring the Royal Mile and touring the Edinburgh castle (questionable value, really) we planned for lunch at the renowned restaurant The Witchery, which is right by the gates to the castle.
The room is easily as pretty a restaurant room as I have seen, but we do not have pictures, sadly. The space seems literally to have been just that - a space between two buildings that was turned into a building of its own, using the rough, exterior walls of the flanking buildings as interior walls for the restaurant. We were seated in the portion called the Secret Garden, which had elaborate frescoes on the ceiling, and Celtic knotwork painted on the beams. The tables were covered first with brown velveteen, then crisp white linen, and each table had one low candle and one high candle, giving a very romantic appearance to the room even at mid day.

We started with the Light Lunch fixed menu, each choosing the Cream of Cauliflower soup, which was velvety and flavourful, without being overly heavy, and then moving on to the blanquette de veau main portion. I couldn't resist, actually. I have such fond memories of blanquette de veau from my time in Paris, that I leapt at the chance to have it at a nice restaurant again. Here, we were let down, however. The veal was a touch murky-looking, as though it had not been blanched properly, and Palle had some pieces that were cottony in texture - a sign of long boiling, usually. The creamy sauce was thin and slightly sour, as though injudicious use of lemon juice or perhaps white wine had marred its ability to achieve its proper texture (lightly coating the back of a spoon). They had garnished it - the purist in my shudders, but the cook in me does understand - with finely chopped chives, which is definitely against the point of blanquette de veau, which should be a stunningly, uncompromisingly white dish. I would have forgiven them this, if the sauce had been better. The dish should be succulent, and this, well, it just wasn't.

We attempted to drown our disappointment in the very good Burgundy wines that we ordered, one white, one red, at prices that should have fetched us a small, working estate somewhere. The wine was delicious, but neither it, nor the charming sampler of miniature desserts, managed to console me. I left disappointed, and with a cramped visa-signing hand.

On the up side, in Edinburgh we sampled some delightful Alsatian cuisine at Daniel's Bistro in Leith, including a delicious Tarte Flambe (Flammekueche) and for me - cassoulet, because apparently I was not entirely sick of beans, and for Palle, confit of duck, which he finds impossible to resist. Our dessert there was a dense, rich chocolate terrine drizzled with orange sauce, and the best coffee to be found in Scotland.

We also went to a modern, upscale Italian eatery in Edinburgh, named Centotre. We had a devastatingly good bruschetta there - raw milk buffalo mozzarella, chile-infused olive oil, arugula, and anchovies, but sadly chose main courses that were heavier than we really wanted. We should have sampled some of the other bruschetta offerings, and simply made a meal of that. The wines were affordable and delicious, and we left without feeling like we'd had our pockets ransacked.

Our last night in Scotland, we joined a fellow Canadian and some of his Scottish friends (he used to live in Glasgow) for dinner and then later, drinks. Dinner was at Stravaigin 2, about as true a bistro as you'll find in Glasgow. Some lovely wine, some lovely food, and then we were off to Cottiers - a bar (and restaurant, although we weren't in that portion) in a converted church in the west end. The evening was an absolute delight - a true pub night with wonderfully friendly and welcoming people, charming venues, and a good deal to eat and drink. Fortified thusly, we bravely made our way back to the Charing Cross for our final night, our final breakfast, and finally, onto the plane for the long flight home.

I am still recovering from jet lag, climate change, and a meat-hangover. I shall eat little other than fresh vegetables for the next week.

August 07, 2005

Wee Update

I am writing from Glasgow, where WorldCon has thoughtfully provided fee (although very limited, understandably) internet access to its members.

After a few days of fried things, we have discovered the elusive nouvelle Scottish cuisine at something less than the astonishingly high prices of the places that are heavily advertised. A tiny restaurant called The Piper's Tryst, just on the north edge of city centre, has a short but carefully considered menu of traditional Scottish foods created and presented in a thoroughly modern way. The wild game terrine, which I started my meal with, was particularly lovely: it was very clean tasting, although completely meaty, and the garnish of red onion relish went beautifully with it. My main course was roasted lamb served on a bed of barley risotto, and was as sophisticated in flavours as fine dining gets - a subtle chiffonade of mint instead of the ubiquitous green minty sauce, a discreet use of wine in the sauce, and a beautiful pinkness to the juices of the meat, which was none-the-less cooked through.

Alas, we had no room for dessert - I am embarrassed to report that I could not even quite finish my barley. But, if any place we've visited so far merits a second go, this is the one. Perhaps when we return from the Edinburgh leg of our trip, before flying home on the 12th.

I'm pleased to report that I have again tried haggis in whiskey sauce, and this time managed a much better sample than I got ten years ago in Edinburgh. It's not a dish I'm likely to put on a weekly or even monthly menu at home, but it was pleasant to discover that it needn't be unbearably bouncy in texture.

More to come when I return.