Smörgåsbord: Easter Feasting: Tanto, L.U.S.T., and Salt

We may have gotten a little bit greedy. Three big, multi-course meals over a long weekend… a decade ago, when we ate out for a living, that might have been achievable with stretchy pants and strategic naps, but now, when our constitutions were less enthusiastic? Sure, we’ve put on the Covid 19 (pounds) like everybody else, from a year of eating as a form of self-care, but as we perused the menus, we were unsure… that was a whole lot of food. But heck, we’re troopers, let’s take one for the team and support our local dining establishments.

Of course, we failed. 5-course dinners got split into two or three meals, leftover duck got reworked with blueberry preserves and waffles for breakfast. Desserts got cut in half and shared rather than eating a full portion each. We did manage to eat it all, just not all at once. But when a great meal is the only high-light of an otherwise dull existence, then why not splurge occasionally, especially for a holiday that you don’t technically celebrate?

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The Best Restaurant

Let me tell you about the best restaurant I’ve been to lately…

Nestled in a corner of Parkdale, the room is pale green with a wall covered in black and white photos of (mostly weird) celebrities. The table is large and round, glossy black with red and orange accessories. Seating is straight-backed parsons chairs; super-comfortable with lots of back support, and covered in slipcovers that evoke a mid-century lounge. The lighting is bright but not glaring, and nobody EVER turns down the lights to near-darkness just as you’ve started to read the menu. The soundtrack on the stereo is whatever you want it to be, but mostly leans to bebop jazz or Klezmer music at brunch. Nobody, diners or staff, wears perfume, cologne, or bad aftershave. Service can be a bit haphazard, but is warm and charming, and nobody ever corrects you when you mispronounce the name of the wine, or uses their pinky finger to point out the various elements of a dish while you sit impatiently waiting for them to shut up and go away so you can eat already. The linens are well-washed cotton napkins, not old tea towels that shed all over your outfit. The menu changes daily, and ranges from super-simple to multi-course high end fare, offered at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Brunch is served on weekends. There’s only one table so your meal is never interrupted by other guests, and there’s no worry about social distancing.

Welcome to my dining room, which I’ve discovered that I prefer over pretty much any restaurant I’ve ever been to…

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Lockdown Dining – Miku

Miku Toronto, part of Isolish
10 Bay Street, unit 105
(647) 347-7347
dinner for two: $130 plus tax

While restaurants are not able to open their seating areas, none of us in Toronto are hard up for take-out or delivery dining options, and that includes high-end offerings from almost all cuisines. There will always be pizza and wings, but a new service called Isolish is teaming up with fine dining restaurants to offer 4-course meals for delivery. So you can still eat posh during lockdown, but in your own dining room.

Working with a variety of restaurants around the city, Isolish offers a unique one-off meal for delivery, with each restaurant offering their 4-course menu on a specific date. A portion of the proceeds goes to Daily Bread Food Bank, making the prospect of a fancy feast even more alluring.

On April 30th, the participating restaurant was Miku, and for $65 per person we got a marvelous 4-course meal comprised of beautifully-detailed dishes. Some of these are currently on Miku’s To-Go menu for anyone interested in trying them outside of the Isolish promotion.

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Lockdown Dining – Greg Couillard at The Depanneur

The Depanneur
1033 College Street
416- 828-1990
Dinner for 2 – $48 plus tax, pick up only

With the prospect of actually going to a sit-down restaurant for a meal looking to be far, far off in the future, and little else going on in the outside world in the form of entertainment, we’ve been punctuating the weeks of isolation with interesting take-away meals, both as a means of giving ourselves something to look forward to, and as a break from cooking every day.

As long-time fans of Greg Couillard, we were excited at the announcement that The Depanneur was offering a take-away dinner featuring some of his dishes. The supperclub dinners hosted by The Depanneur and owner Len Senator are always a hot ticket when Couillard is at the stoves, and this Persian-inspired dinner was no different, selling out well in advance.

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Book Review — The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony

The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony
Adam Platt, 2019

Adam Platt has been the restaurant critic at New York Magazine since 2000, when he took over from Gael Green. His own food background skews heavily to Asian cuisine as he spent his formative years in Japan and China, so while he has no formal cooking background, he has a deep understanding of the current food scene.

The early chapters of The Book of Eating read more like a very tasty auto-biography, detailing Platt’s childhood eating experiences in the US and abroad. These are engaging as part of the bigger story and especially for anyone interested in regional Asian cuisine, but I can see where and why some readers on Goodreads gave up near the beginning as Platt doesn’t really dish a lot of dirt on the NYC food scene, and he can tend to be repetitive with phrases that he presumes are witty (the term “boiled owl” appears far too often).

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We Be Jammin’ — How to Make No-fail, 3-ingredient Jam With Any Quantity of Fruit

Do you ever watch an episode of Bake-Off and boggle when the contestants make jam — in a frying pan? Just because their recipe calls for a small amount of jam for a layer of a cake? How do they do that? Jam must be made in huge quantities, in a gargantuan pot, from flats of berries or massive big baskets of peaches… doesn’t it?

And what happens if you get your fruit home and there’s not enough to make Grandma’s beloved recipe because it calls for 11 pounds of peaches and you’ve only got 7? The recipe will get messed up and jam is already a hot, scary, time-consuming task. Better to just buy a jar and forget about making your own, right?

Hang on, ya’ll, I’m about to rock your world.

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Book Review — Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic

Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic
Edited by Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017

In our easy 21st century life, we think we’re “roughing it” when the power goes out for a few hours. But the first emigrants to Canada not only didn’t have power, they also didn’t have roads, running water, nearby stores and shops, or shelter… until they built it themselves.

Catherine Parr Traill (and her sister Susanna Moodie) were part of the early waves of colonial settlers who cleared and farmed land in (then Upper) Canada, and Traill especially documented what her life was like, including the many recipes (receipts) used for daily meals and medicines, as well as instructions on how to do just about anything, from building a fence to making butter.

Originally published in 1855, The Female Emigrant’s Guide was written especially to offer advice to new settlers, explaining what to bring on the crossing, what to buy, and offering myriad tips and instructions on how to set up a homestead in the middle of the woods and not die in the process.

This hefty edition is more interesting than Traill’s own work, however, because of the massive amounts of research and supporting documents Cooke and Lucas include. At 608 pages, the authors include not just the original work by Traill, but a biography, a publication history of the work (it was printed in different editions, with changes and corrections to each version), and then an extensive section called “Guide to Traill’s World” that includes typical seasonal menus, modern interpretations (with measurements and cooking times) of recipes in the guide, a primer for fireplace cooking at home, plus an extensive look at cooking measurements since most recipes of the time didn’t include standardized measurements and when measurements were includes they might be metric, imperial, avoirdupois, Winchester, wine, or apothecary. Or you know, an actual teacup and teaspoon, regardless of how they compared to any official system.

A massive glossary of food and cooking terms might be unnecessarily completest; some entries are for things not actually referenced in Traill’s work but the editors have included them because they were in popular use elsewhere at the time.

Which is to say, that this is a definitive work on both Traill and her life.

The editors avoid delving into the political issues provoked by Traill and other settlers; that is, the outright theft of First Nations land by colonial settlers, other than to point out that they have reproduced the original work as it was written, including the use of terms that are now out of use or considered offensive. Traill and others like her believed themselves to be entitled to Canadian land, and certainly we wouldn’t be here without their efforts, but the general treatment of First Nations peoples in the effort to colonize North America is a shameful bit of history that is vaguely romanticized when admiring Traill’s work.


Book Review — Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef and the Rise of the Leisure Class

Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef and the Rise of the Leisure Class
Luke Barr
Penguin Random House, 2018

In his autobiography, renowned chef Auguste Escoffier refers to his dismissal from The Savoy Hotel as “a misunderstanding”. While some people obviously knew the reasons why Escoffier and partner César Ritz were let go, it wasn’t until documents were unearthed in the 1960s that the full extent of the payola and embezzlement the pair were involved in came to light.

Author Luke Barr traces the full history of the Ritz/Escoffier partnership, starting with the opening of the Savoy. The pair had worked together before at some of Ritz’s existing hotels in France and Monaco, but the move to London marked the beginning of their great influence on the hotel and fine dining world. While they built up the Savoy to be internationally-known their departure was but a blip as they had both moved on to other projects including the Ritz in Paris and then the Carlton Hotel in London.

While Barr does make use of the clear drama of the embezzlement and dismissal situation in 1898, this work is really about the huge influence the two men had on European and international culture. Escoffier’s dishes changed how kitchens were run and how food was cooked and served. Ritz’s innovations marked the beginning of the luxury hotel industry (imagine the decadence of a private bathroom when a typical hotel stay would have you sharing a bathroom with up to 60 other suites!)

The pair rubbed shoulders with royalty and celebrities and should have found happiness and satisfaction within their myriad accomplishments. Sadly Ritz suffered a nervous breakdown after the postponement of King Edward’s coronation in 1901 and never fully recovered. After decades of working tirelessly, along with keeping secret the embezzlement he had committed at the Savoy, he was too stressed to continue to run his empire. Escoffier wrote Le Guide Culinaire and continued to be the face of the hotel empire until his retirement in 1920.

The Ritz-Escoffier story is one that has always intrigued me and Barr does a great deal of research here to cover every detail. While the work is clearly non-fiction, Barr’s descriptive prose makes it feel like a carefully woven story with characters, a plot arch, and denouement. He does a great job creating anticipation from a story where the basic facts are already well-known.

The inclusion of menus and details of important parties and events should keep every Escoffier fan happy and fulfilled. Just imagining the sheer quantity of truffles and foie gras that came out of Escoffier’s kitchens during this era is enough to take the breath away. Barr’s details and style really satisfy this aspect of the story, and move it past being a dry, historical detailing of facts to paint a picture of fine dining in the late Victorian era.

Loved this book, and I highly recommend it to anyone with a love of food and restaurant history.

Book Review — A Square Meal

A Square Meal
Jane Ziegelman, Andrew Coe
Harper Collins, 2016

The United States is known as “the land of plenty” but there were points in history when that was absolutely not the case. During most of the 1930s, unemployment was high, crops failed due to drought, and much of the US population was subjected to famine conditions.

In A Square Meal, food historians Jane Ziegelman (97 Orchard) and Andrew Coe (Chop Suey), trace the food situation in the US from the boom days after the first world war to the stock market crash of the late 1920s and the crop failure of the early 1930s, spending a lot of time exploring various government programs to help feed people, and how they progressed with starts and stops over the decade as funding sources disappeared.

Ziegelman and Coe spend a great deal of time discussing the meals of the Roosevelts (FDR was President through much of the depression) in comparison to the poverty rations and bread lines that the average American was forced to survive on. Eleanor Roosevelt passed off the running of the household side of the White House to a housekeeper/cook named Henrietta Nesbitt who, by all accounts, was a terrible cook, who served visiting dignitaries sparse, bland, poorly-prepared meals. (For more on the Roosevelts and Nesbitt, check out the chapter on Eleanor Roosevelt in Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate.)

There’s also a lot of content about home economics, which became a huge trend in the 1920s, and how that affected what people ate, both by choice and in terms of what they were offered in terms of food aid. A character named Aunt Sammy was created by the Bureau of Home Economics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide advice to US women trying to manage households. Interestingly, Aunt Sammy was a scripted column that was sent out to regional radio stations and presented by a local actress with that region’s dialect, so folks in Oklahoma would hear a different Aunt Sammy than listeners in Boston or Maine, in order to have people consider the advice more seriously.

The authors appear to have tag-teamed on various chapters so there isn’t always a clear narrative throughout the book, which makes it a bit dry and almost technical in places. Some bits (hobos, bread lines, the obvious racism towards African-Americans when it came to aid) are more interesting/horrifying than others. Also distressing is the amount of food that was destroyed by farmers because it had depreciated to the point that they would lose money trying to sell it, all while people across the country were starving.

Despite the occasional dry patch, A Square Meal is still a really informative work that offers a greater understanding of US foodways, trends, and attitudes, and demonstrates the base that current food systems were built upon.

Book Review — How to Taste

How to Taste
Becky Selengut
Sasquatch Books, 2018

We spend a lot of time learning to taste beverages such as wine, beer, gin, and even coffee, but seldom are non-chefs taught the intricacies of tasting food. Or more specifically, how to cook food to maximize its taste. In How to Taste, food writer, chef and cooking instructor Becky Selengut works though the different experiences and flavours of food, explaining how to optimize flavour in the food we cook, as well as how to recognize imbalances and correct them for the perfectly balanced dish.

Selengut works through salt, acid, sweet, fat, bitter, and umami, and extends her instruction into aromatics, bite, texture, and finally “color, booze and everything else”. She explains why some age-old instructions actually fail many cooks — for instance the recommendation to add enough salt to cooking water so that it’ “tastes like the ocean”, which, in fact, is waaaay saltier than you want your cooking water to be — and how to understand what a dish needs when it’s out of balance and how to adjust everything else to make it work.

Writing in a fun, conversational style with funny asides, and irreverent anecdotes, Selengut balances the serious science theme of this work, and the section in each chapter called “experiment time” allows the reader to see first hand the differences salt, sugar, bitter, etc, all make in terms of flavouring a dish. A selection of recipes at the end of each chapter demonstrate how to use the techniques learned.

How to Taste emphasizes the importance of understanding taste, as well as having taste experience; knowing what things taste like definitely help when it comes to creating balance with those same ingredient when cooking. I would recommend this book to anyone who cooks professionally, but the home cook, especially someone who didn’t learn to cook at an early age, would be well-served by Selengut’s wise lessons.