Changing It Up

This past Thursday night, 250 lucky people trekked through the snow to attend Foodshare’s Recipe For Change fundraising event. I say lucky because the event sold out and many people found themselves on a waiting list, but also because some of Toronto’s top chefs were on hand with delicious treats for guests to enjoy.

The event raised funds for the Field to Table Schools program which brings food literacy back to students from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Held in Foodshare’s warehouse at their Croatia Street offices (the same space where the weekly Good Food Boxes get packed), the room was simply but elegantly decorated, with plenty of seats (no, really, there’s usually never enough seats or tables at these things – I always threaten to come wearing a toolbelt to hold my camera, notebook, wineglass and cutlery) and plenty of good stuff to eat. Our only minor complaint was the lighting, which, while it made the room look fantastic, was not so photo-friendly. As such, I don’t have photos of everything that was offered (the full menu is available on the Foodshare website), but hopefully these will inspire readers to support both Foodshare and the great work they do as well as the many chefs and restaurants who donated their time and product to this event.

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Getting Grubby

Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces
Gayla Trail
Clarkson Potter, paperback, copyright 2010, 207 pages, $19.95

It’s a romantic notion to think that we could all move to the country and start a farm. The fact is, the majority of people live in cities out of necessity, and few of us have space for a huge garden. But Gayla Trail thinks that fact shouldn’t stop us, and that most people have a little bit of space, whether it’s a yard, a balcony or a fire escape, in which to grow great grub.

Trail’s book is an excellent primer for anyone looking to get started on their own organic garden. Concepts and directions are presented in a straight-forward, down to earth manner that is welcoming to even the most alternative of personalities – and which will speak more to hipster than horticultural society matron. In fact there are a few passages that were even a bit shocking to me, such as the chapter where Trail discusses companion planting and uses the analogy of sticking “Jesus-loving uncle Bill next to your abortion doctor sister-in-law” at a wedding. Funny stuff, but it might offend anyone picking this up without being familiar with Trail’s style of writing.

Grow Great Grub touches on all the basics of gardening in small spaces, from how to build boxes or plant potatoes in garbage bins to creating great compost. A small section on community gardens and guerrilla gardens offers more alternatives to those with no space of their own, and Torontonians will recognize photos of some of the garden spaces included in the book from various spots around the city, particularly Queen West and Parkdale.

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A Toast to the Roast

A few years ago, Toronto was all over the communal dining trend. Restaurants installed big harvest tables and hoped that customers would not just bump elbows but start up a conversation with one another. But because Torontonians are mostly of the “keep to yourself, mind your own business” variety, the communal table wasn’t a huge success when it came to the average customer.

So what to do with those big old harvest tables that customers avoid like the plague? Unless a restaurant can book a large group to take over the thing, it’s kind of like a no man’s land.

Thank heavens for the resurgence of comfort food and lots of talk in the press about the importance of family dining. The idea of Sunday dinner is often romanticized by chefs like Gordon Ramsay who once created a campaign in conjunction with his F-Word series to get Britons to go back to the tradition of Sunday dinner.

It’s not a bad idea, really – most people enjoy eating a big ol’ roast – it’s all the prep and cooking that sucks the fun out of it. So a number of restaurants are now serving up family-style meals, often on Sunday, and usually, but not always, communal. Here’s a few that we found…

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(Robert DeNiro’s Waiting) Talking Italian

We have wine writers here at TasteTO for a very good reason – because neither Greg nor I know squat about wine. Oh, we like wine well enough, but we tend to stick to a few things that we know, and more often than not, we prefer beer, which we’re both much more comfortable with. Because while beer is made by huge numbers of craft brewers around the world, most offerings are a variation on a dozen or so styles. Wine, however, varies not just from winery and grape variety, but by region, and don’t even let’s get into the difference in harvests from year to year.

Particularly intimidating are the wines of Italy. A country famous for its wine, and various wine regions, wine from Italy can be intimidating, especially to someone who doesn’t speak the language. What I needed was a simple, basic, get you started kind of course that would let me compare a few wines without overwhelming me.

So when Angela Aiello of iYellow Wine Club invited me to check out iYellow Wine School, I jumped at the opportunity to attend the class on Italian wines.

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Y’all Come to Supper!

Hank’s
9-1/2 Church Street
416-504-9463

A few weeks ago, when I interviewed Scott and Rachelle Vivian about their take-over of the Wine Bar and Hank’s, the duo let me know about their plans to open Hank’s at night with a menu of southern favourites that Vivian had learned to cook growing up in Atlanta. Hank’s at Night was unveiled and opened to the public this past week, and the menu is indeed a collection of homey and stick-to-your-ribs southern comfort food.

Sourcing all beer, wine and the majority of ingredients from local growers or producers (there’s a chocolate dessert, but no stewed greens until they come back in season locally), the pair are offering up a pretty decent assortment of southern dishes, done really well.

Here’s a few of the things on the menu…

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Don’t Count Your Chicken Before You’ve Tasted Them

The phrase “tastes like chicken” is beyond cliché. We use it for any whitish meat that we can’t accurately describe any other way – frog’s legs, alligator, lizard – guaranteed someone trying any of these for the first time will compare them to chicken.

But what, exactly, does chicken taste like? The specimens we get in supermarkets or most restaurants are all the same breed (White Rock), probably fed with some mixture of GMO corn and other grain, raised in a barn for optimum growth in a minimal time frame, and likely pumped full of a saline solution during processing to make the meat look plump and full and heavy.

But chickens come in different breeds, and like beef and pork, those different breeds have different characteristics, in the kitchen and on the plate.

At a recent tasting event at Victor Restaurant, participants got to clearly see the difference between breeds, and the phrase “tastes like chicken” no longer applies.

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Stirring the Pot with Angela Aiello

Angela Aiello is a dynamo wine ambassador with 10 year of experience in the local wine industry. She runs iYellow Wine School, an organization that offers events and courses that help teach people about wine in a fun, relaxed atmosphere. Ange is the regular wine host for the CBC’s Steven & Chris Show and for Le Gourmet TV.

How did you become interested in wine? What steps did you take to learn more about it?

The simple and short answer to both questions is “I drank a lot of it”. I started in the wine industry young, but truly developed a passion for wine as I grew older. I believe that you can really only learn about wine if you’re tasting it, so when I stopped working in wine country and in the industry, I started a wine club and starting drinking with friends and colleagues and we all explored, discovered and shared as we went along. And now after close to 12 years in the wine industry I am proud to say I’m still learning! And that is one of the greatest things about wine – every year, every vintage and every wine is constantly changing, so as it turns out you’re constantly learning, and that means you’re constantly drinking, tasting and reflecting on the wines you like. So in reality I am constantly taking steps to learn more about wine including traveling, attending wine schools and tastings at events. I think building your own confidence with your own palate preferences is a very important step to being interested in wine. For me I love Rieslings, Pinot Noir, sparkling wines, Syrah and dessert wines. Knowing what you like is half the battle, anyway!

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Pinch Me – Alexandra Park Comes Together Over the Stove

People who know Alexandra Park can speak to its great ethnic diversity. Like a smaller version of Toronto itself, it rings with the sounds of a hundred languages, and the delicious cooking smells of many different cultures. A Pinch of This – Recipes From Alexandra Parkis an initiative of Recipe For Community, a resident-inspired partnership with a focus on food, convening, youth engagement and neighbourhood beautification. The organization has spear-headed an number of projects that range from window flower boxes and public art to an outdoor commons area that includes benches and picnic tables. An organic vegetable garden has been created in a central courtyard with a variety of plots, two of which are raised to provide access for those with mobility restraints. There is also an outdoor kitchen with barbeques so residents can prepare meals and swap recipes.

A  project of the Green Space Collective, Recipe For Community brings together local residents to share their individual recipes, foodways and cultures. A Pinch of This offers recipes from Jamaica, Trinidad, China, Italy, the Middle East Afghanistan, the Philippines and others. With the assistance of food writer Marion Kane, and contributions from Kane, local councillor Adam Vaughan, and mayor David Miller, the book offers a culinary snapshot of the neighbourhood.

Recipes include pastelles (a Trinidadian twist on tamales), a vegetarian version of a Jamaican mackerel dish, kosheree, chicken adobo, and an oxtail stew contributed by resident Effie Henry, whose claim that she doesn’t cook by books inspired the ‘pinch of this’ title. While a few of the recipes, such as Henry’s, are obviously long-standing family specialties, a few are culled from published cookbooks and obviously represent the vibrancy and diversity of the neighbourhood. The ingenious part is that this is how many Torontonians eat – choosing to “visit” different cultures through their restaurants or recipes, so such a diverse collection doesn’t seem odd at all.

Money raised from sales of A Pinch of This will go to the Alexandra Park Green Space Collective to fund a community cooking program and gardens. The book is available for purchase for $5 by calling 416-678-3439 or emailing greenspacecollective@yahoo.ca.

Image: Geanie Sarjue prepares for the launch party of A Pinch of This – Recipes From Alexandra Park in early December. Photo courtesy City of Toronto.

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Why We All Need to Wise Up

Ocean Wise celebrated its 5 year anniversary this month by announcing a number of new restaurant partners across the country. Readers who haven’t heard of the Ocean Wise program need not feel out of the loop – it’s only been a year since a handful of Toronto restaurants signed on, and while this anniversary celebration included some of the newest Toronto-area restaurants to join, the total still numbers under a dozen.

Created as a conservation program by the Vancouver Aquarium, it makes sense that the majority of restaurants involved in the sustainable seafood program are in British Columbia. While Torontonians have been on the sustainability bandwagon for a few years now, that same diligence seems not to apply to fish, an item that regularly hits our plates without any concern as to how it got there or where it came from.

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Assessing the Haggis

I was just about haggised out after putting together last week’s round up of Robert Burns activities and dinners. Then Chef Martin Kouprie of Pangaea (1221 Bay Street) sent me a message on Twitter. He was holding a haggis competition for his kitchen staff; the winning dish would be served in the restaurant on Robert Burns Day. Would I like to come and be a judge?

I was of two minds; my experience with offal – all organs and all animals (I’ve only recently learned to like foie gras) – hasn’t been good. But then I remembered the advice of Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, that you must try a food at least ten times before you can determine that you truly don’t like it. I’d had haggis once before and found it repulsive, but here was an opportunity to try seven additional versions of the dish, created by seven different professional cooks who would be pulling out all the stops to make the lowly stuffed sheep’s stomach into gourmet fare.

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Cooking With Love at the Wine Bar

 

Wine Bar
9 Church Street
416-504-WINE

It seems clichéd to start a piece about a new restaurant and roll out the “food = love” metaphors. But in the case of the Wine Bar, it seems apt, given that the principals involved are two couples who have saved what has become known as a landmark dining spot from what might have potentially been a corporate overhaul.

When word came out in the summer of ’09 that Jamie Kennedy was selling his Church Street Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar restaurant due to financial troubles, nobody knew for sure what might happen to the place. Kennedy offered the place to staff members first, and Chef Scott Vivian (who had run Kennedy’s Gardiner museum restaurant) along with his wife, pastry chef Rachelle Cadwell (who had been head of pastry for all of Kennedy’s operations) decided to take over the place and make it their own. Along with Vivian and Cadwell, Ted and Mary Koutsogiannopoulos (who had previously run Joy Bistro) came on board to remake the restaurant, now simply called the Wine Bar.

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TV Party Tonight!

Okay, not tonight. Thursday, actually. But if you can hold off until then, the folks at Grace (503 College Street) will serve you up a TV dinner like no other, paired with some kick-ass cocktails and a big screen TV showing old episodes of M*A*S*H and I Love Lucy.

As a follow-up to their incredibly successful summer BBQ series, owner Lesle Gibson and Chef Dustin Gallagher wanted a weekly winter event with the same fun and casual atmosphere. Something kitschy and communal that evoked the warm homey feel that Grace is so well-known for.

This past Thursday, Grace Upstairs was graced by a 33-pound brined and roasted turkey in order to re-create the first ever Swanson TV dinner, made available to the public in 1954. It was accompanied by authentic mashed potatoes (right down to the frozen pat of butter); mixed veg that included peas and organic carrots; stuffing made from mushrooms, apples, garlic, sage and onion; housemade cranberry sauce; turkey jus; and apple crumble made with apples from Algoma orchards.

And because it was bigger than your average TV dinner (we joked that it was one of those “Hungry Man” versions), a compartmentalized Indian thali tray worked perfectly.

Gallagher popped in and out (regular service was still taking place in the main restaurant downstairs), leaving the TV dinner service in the capable hands of cook Bryan Lavers.

Lavers explained that they spent a lot of time researching the various brands and types of TV dinners, right down to digging through the boxes in the frozen food section of the grocery store, and hoped to recreate them all, suggesting upcoming weeks will include pork chops with mushroom gravy and biscuits, fried chicken, roast beef, and ham that they plan on curing themselves. He said they’re still working on perfecting the Salisbury steak, which is apparently harder to recreate out of quality meat than they thought.

A slight wrench got thrown into the plan when a vegetarian showed up (old school TV dinners don’t come in vegetarian versions), but owner Lesle Gibson graciously found a replacement in the form of Gallagher’s famous mushroom gnocchi.

For $20, this hearty meal of a main plus dessert might be a bit more money than the plastic microwaveable tray from the supermarket frozen food aisle, but the quality and quantity of food certainly makes this a great deal no matter how you look at it. Paired with a glass of wine or one of Grace’s outstanding Manhattans, this might just be the coolest meal deal in town.

TV Dinner Thursdays take place every Thursday at Grace Upstairs, starting at 6:30pm. $20 gets you the TV dinner feature of the night. Tax, tip and beverages extra.

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Fondue Yu

I’m not sure how, but fondue passed me by in the 70s. My folks had all the other trendy appliances of the day; crock pots, electric frying pans, but the communal dining experience of dipping bits of food into cheese, oil or chocolate never happened in our house. When Greg arrived on my doorstep in 1994 he came with a fondue set, a leftover wedding present from his first marriage. It sat on a shelf in a closet until we sold it at a yard sale.

Sure, there was the occasional party where someone put out a fondue for guests to nibble at. These brief attempts at the process were frustrating – I’d end up losing more than I managed to eat. I assumed the tradition of losing your food in the pot and buying a round of drinks meant that the fondue was just an excuse to get drunk. Because booze and fondue go hand in hand.

A classic winter comfort food, this Swiss creation was invented to use up bits of stale cheese and bread during the long cold winters. A splash of wine, or maybe beer, thinned the melted cheese enough to dip bread and other items into it. The shared pot came from not only a lack of utensils, but a need to stay close to the warm fire, as well as a sense of community and sharing. And while the food cooked, more beer and wine was consumed all around.

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Toronto’s Terre Madre Day

Over the past few years, Slow Food activists have taken part in a bi-annual event in Torino, Italy called Terra Madre. First held in 2004, the event brings together food activists from around the world in a giant conference and marketplace where people can exchange ideas and information. There are conferences, symposiums, dinners and markets, all with a focus on sharing ideas about how to promote sustainable food. Terra Madre takes place during the even-numbered years (2006, 2008… another coming up in 2010), and this year, Slow Food decided that it would be a good idea for individual convivia to hold local events – both as a great way to support local food producers, and because, well, not everyone can afford to get on a plane to Italy.

Organized and paid for by Slow Food Toronto (monies raised at the Picnic at the Brickworks allowed them to pay participating farmers and producers to take part, a rarity in the world of markets and trade shows where the producers usually have to pay to participate), this year’s Terra Madre Day took place at the FoodShare warehouse.

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The Charms of Buca

Buca
602 King Street West
416-865-1600
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and wine: $150

The recession might have played a role, but Toronto seems especially caught up in the idea of rustic food. We’re uninterested in molecular gastronomy and sundaes sprinkled with gold leaf; we crave real authentic food like (someone’s) Mama used to make.

In the world of Italian food, the leader of this pack has long been Terroni, where Cosimo Mammoliti built his business on food so authentic he wouldn’t allow changes or substitutions. When Pizza Libretto opened last year, some thought (and still do) that the pizza there was better (I’m still trying to get over the soggy centres on the two pizzas I had there) but both now have some serious competition from Buca.

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Find All the Flavours at One of a Kind

It’s Black Friday in the US, and Buy Nothing Day for those who oppose all that consumerism, but here at TasteTO we espouse a a kinder, gentler approach to the inevitable holiday shopping. We call it “Buy Something Good Day” (no, seriously, it’s an alternative day I made up about 10 years ago), and the premise is to neither go hogwild in the line-ups fighting to get cheap crap, or to boycott shopping completely, but rather to shop conscientiously, buying only what you truly need, and when buying gifts, to source beautiful products from local independent artisans so your dollars go back into the local economy and support craftspeople.

There is no better place to do that than at the One of a Kind Christmas Show and Sale, which runs at Exhibition Place until December 6th. With something like 700+ artisans offering everything from clothing and jewelry, toys, furniture housewares, food and art, there’s something for everyone.

Of course, we’re mostly interested in the food-related items and we arrived early yesterday morning to peruse the aisles before the event opened to find a fab selection of great stuff. Follow the clicky for an array of gorgeous food-related goodies.

Above image: Peas in a pod – handmade serving dishes from Wellington Pottery.

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Follow the Scent of Cookies to the Happiest Place on Earth

 

Mary Macleod’s Shortbread
639 Queen Street East
416-461-4576

Some people say Disney is the happiest place on earth. I’d say those people are wrong. I have proof that the happiest place on earth is on Queen Street East, just past the Don River, where Mary Macleod and her small team of bakers make the very best shortbread ever.

Don’t believe me? Take James’ Beard’s word for it – on a visit to Toronto in the early 80s, the acclaimed chef declared Macleod’s shortbread the best he’s ever tasted.

Mcleod emigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1955 when she got married. She shares a story of meeting her mother-in-law for the first time; her reputation for being a great cook had preceded her, and her mother-in-law had asked that she bake an apple pie. Not used to the differences in North American flour compared to the softer, more delicate products used in Europe, Macleod’s pastry was a disaster, and she set about researching the different flours and how she could add other natural ingredients to manipulate the dough to work more like the European products she was used to.

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What’s On the Table – In Pictures

Okay, so I know you readers are divided on the topic of event recaps. Some of you hate them, preferring an event preview instead so you can actually buy a ticket and go – and for the most part, I agree. Who wants to hear about all the fun they missed? But others of you love the food pr0n, the piles of photos of gorgeously executed food and drink, particularity at events with higher ticket prices that might not be affordable to most.

Here’s our take on this – since the fancy events are usually charity fund-raisers we have no problem running a photo-essay after the fact, because it raises more awareness of the issues and the charity (even though the event is over, I’m sure The Stop would be happy to accept any donations our readers might want to make). And it also helps to promote the many wonderful restaurants that donated their time and product to such a worthy cause.

So if you hate the recaps, look away, and we’ll use the same images when we write the event preview article next year! But if you want to see the tasty treats offered to What’s on the Table guests, click on through and enjoy.

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The Life-Changing Mole

I am befuddled by people who don’t like food. It’s partially why I hate the term “foodie” so much – who doesn’t like food? Who among us isn’t a “foodie”? But I guess it’s fair to note that some of us care a bit more than others. Not just fuel to keep us alive, food is beauty and art and love, all rolled into one. A perfect meal can be as emotional as a first kiss or a last goodbye.

Which is why I found myself sitting in Frida restaurant last week, barely able to hold back the well of tears.

Having just eaten what might possibly be one of the best meals of my life, I found myself clinging to Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo’s hand, unable to let go, uttering “thank you” over and over again. Yes, I’d had a fair amount to drink, including a gourd of mescal, but the sheer brilliance of Cabrera’s 30-ingredient authentic Oaxacan mole will likely remain one of the highlights of my food writing career.

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Out Standing in a Field

Yeah, I know, but I’m coming up empty in the witty subject line department today. And for those of us who attended yesterday’s Feast of Fields event at the Kortright Centre in Vaughan, we not only stood around – in a field (badum bum), but the event lived up to the outstanding part as well.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the event that was created to bring together chefs and promote local organic food has become a must on the calendar of every Toronto-area chef and food lover. With over 40 chefs taking part, guests had the opportunity to try everything from local wine and beer to ice cream, spit-roasted pork, fresh bread and even pizza, most made from local and organic ingredients.

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