Saturday, 30 July 2011

On the Company of Friends (& Strawberries)

The only thing comparable to good food is good company, and on the best and loveliest of days, you are lucky enough to get both. I tend to always include a few details about my dinner mates on here, because who we eat with can be as important as the meal itself.

An amazing meal can still be amazing in poor company, but how much more memorable is it when the conversation and laughter is as delectable as the food and wine? It's this wonderful marriage between food and friendship that makes me particularly fond of food cultures that can be considered communal in any way. Taking several hours to eat, over several courses, with many friends in France, for example. Or ordering dozens of dishes in Korea, all meant to be shared with your dinner mates, while none of which exclusively for you. It's the sharing of stories and lives, those connections across the table, that make what we're eating even more special. Your food becomes an event. A celebration.

Along these lines, last week, I had the vast pleasure of meeting Jenny Osburn: the exceptional woman behind Union Street Café and the Wick Pub in Berwick, Nova Scotia, and otherwise known as the Union Street Kitchen Witch. Jenny's food blog was the very first one I came across when I arrived back in Canada last March. I was in the Annapolis Valley at the time and looking for a place to take my dad for his birthday. That's when I found Union Street's website, and subsequently, Jenny's blog. After that discovery, I went and started this little blog, and Jenny and I began sharing some food commentary back and forth. This is what eventually led up to the lovely, sunny lunch (and dessert - of course) that we shared in person last week.

Rather than it being a first meeting, talking with Jenny was more like catching up with a long lost friend, so to say it was worth the road trip would be saying the very, very least. Within the first 20 minutes of our face-to-face lunch, we were telling heartfelt, personal stories over white wine and Indian-inspired pizza. The food was fantastic (especially that no-bake cheesecake!) but it's the conversation we had that day that will stick with me, and it's what made that glass of wine extra tasty.

If you are in the Valley and in the vicinity of Berwick (and if you're not - make the trip!), you absolutely must swing by and check out Union Street Café. Jenny and her family have been supporting and making truly local food for years, long before it ever became popular; which, as we talked about that day, is hardly a bad thing. Buying, eating, and supporting local produce/producers is a fine example of a trend gone right, and one that's hopefully here to stay.

Yesterday,  Jenny and her significant mister happened to be in Halifax, so F. and I met up with them for lunch. Over our too many plates of sushi, I learned that Jenny won the 3rd annual Local Food Hero of the Year award last winter, through Select Nova Scotia, for championing the local food movement over the past 10 years. The third annual! The award was only previously given out to Chives and Fid: landmarks in Halifax for excellence in food. What a wonderful way to recognize her commitment to her community and the food it produces.

Jenny has posted some gorgeous strawberry recipes on her blog over the past few weeks, well-stocked by her local u-picking haunt. Next time I'm in the Valley I might try to snag a few pints before they go out of season (which is soon!), along with more of Jenny's wonderful company.

To commemorate the final days of strawberry season, here is one of my mom's favourite, easy-as-pie ways to stock up on the berries and savour them long after they're gone.

Debbie's Strawberry Freezer Jam

4 cups chopped strawberries
1-1/2 cups of sugar
1 package of Bernardin Freezer Jam Gelling Powder

Place berries in a large bowl.  Stir in sugar and let stand 15 minutes.  Slowly sprinkle Gelling Powder into the fruit mixture, and keep stirring for 3 minutes.  Let stand 5 minutes (don't worry if you go a little longer).  Stir again for 1 minute.  Pour into sterilized jars.

To sterilize, you can: 1) put the jars on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven; 2) run them  through a hot wash in the dishwasher; or 3) put the jars and lids in a pot of boiling water for 15 minutes before filling.  Any method works fine as long as the lids are boiled for sealing. 

Add the jam to your jars, leaving about 1/2 inch head space. Put the lids and rims on, making sure to tighten them well.  Once you hear them popping you'll know you have the seal you need.  Put them in the freezer. 

--

Apparently, most freezer jam recipes call for equal part berries and sugar, so, for example, 4 cups of strawberries and 4 cups of sugar. My mother thinks that it's overkill, and I tend to believe her. With her method, I'm ashamed to say that I could eat an entire jar of the freezer jam straight: it's that good and keeps a remarkably fresh taste. I even gave a spoonful to Colleen the other day, when she was sick, joking about its homemade, medicinal properties.

Much to my great horror, I discovered that my mom uses Splenda instead of real sugar (see my post about real vs. fake food!). Given my love for her jam, however, and that white sugar isn't terribly healthy to begin with - ahem - I suppose I can't be too hard on her?

Here's to strawberries, and to those new friends who pop into our lives, seemingly out of nowhere, but who feel like they've been there all along.

(... and to the two glasses of wine I had while writing this post last night, which may or may not have added to its sentimentality!)



Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Confronting Cheesecake

One thing I've been talking a bit about lately is my apprehension over baking. This might sound silly to many of you aficionados out there, but given that only one of my many apartments over the past several years abroad had an oven in it (and that was only for a couple of months), baking still makes me feel like I'm in over my head. I've been dabbling with easy desserts here and there since coming home, but nothing terribly impressive or technical. I've been stove-top cooking by the seat of my pants for so long now, that baking - with its very precise instructions and ingredients - tends to make me nervous! You can't taste it and add more salt half way through, if need be, or thin it out if it gets too thick. As a result, I have an ever-growing stack of untested recipes at home, but slowly, I'm getting the courage to tackle some of them. 

On Sunday night, I experimented with this Lemon Cheesecake with Fresh Berries recipe from a website called My Baking Addiction. Jamie, the baker and operator of the site, calls this recipe 'the best'. You may be thinking that cheesecake is not a very adventurous step forward for me, but if you take a look at Jamie's website, you'll see that she's a pretty amazing baker, so it is with great trepidation that I try her 'best' recipe for anything

There were several moments when I thought this cheesecake just wasn't meant to be: Realizing at 11pm that I had 3 eggs and not the 4 the recipe called for, remembering how long cheesecakes need to cool in the oven after baking, and then how much attention they still need after baking and cooling. This led to scrambling for an egg replacement (1 tablespoon of cornstarch + 3 tablespoons of water) and hoping and praying it wouldn't ruin it, a phone call to my mother, setting my alarm several times throughout the night to check in on the cooling process, and then bringing the cheesecake into the bedroom to cool so as to avoid unneeded attention from the cat (who has a penchant for hunting down late-night snacks). I have never been so devoted and attentive to a baked good in my life.

Needless to say, it turned out to be a late night for me that night, but the pains seemed to have been worth my while: what a beauty she was! Smooth, fragrant, and firm. I served the cheesecake last night when F. and I went to a BBQ with some of my oldest friends, and I was inwardly begging the culinary gods that it'd be as nice inside as it was on the outside. 

This being my first cheesecake in probably 8 or 9 years, I was pretty pleased with the result. I had forgotten my camera at home, once again, so I had to take these on my phone.


No cracks!
 




Here is Jamie's recipe, taken directly from her post called The Best Cheesecake. If you follow this link, you'll also see lots of great tips for baking cheesecakes in general, not to mention gain access to the rest of the website and her fabulous collection of recipes.

---

Lemon Cheesecake with Fresh Berries
(by Jamie, My Baking Addiction) 

Crust

2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 stick unsalted butter; melted

3 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt

Cheesecake
4 sticks of cream cheese, 8 oz each; room temperature
1 ¼ cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs; room temperature
3/4 cup heavy cream
zest of two lemons
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

Topping
2 cups of fresh berries
¼ cup apricot preserves plus 1 tables spoon hot water


Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Tightly wrap a 9 inch springform pan in heavy duty foil. This step prevents leaks when using a water bath. I also take the extra step by placing the foil wrapped spring form pan inside an oven bag while baking.
2. Mix together the crust ingredients and press into the bottom of your pan and about 1 inch up the sides. Bake for 7 minutes and cool completely on a wire rack.
3. Begin to boil a large pot of water for the water bath.
4. In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with your paddle attachment, combine the sugar and lemon zest and mix until the sugar is moistened and fragrant. Add in the cream cheese and cream together until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next. Make sure to scrape down the bowl in between each egg. Add heavy cream and vanilla and mix until smooth.
5. Pour batter into prepared crust. Place pan into a larger pan and pour boiling water into the larger pan until halfway up the side of the cheesecake pan.
6. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, the edges will appear to be set, but the center will still have some jiggle to it. At this point, close the oven door, turn the heat off, and let rest in the cooling oven for one hour. After one hour has passed, carefully remove the cheesecake from the water bath and place on a cooling rack to cool completely. Once the cake is completely cooled, place it into the refrigerator for at least 5 hours. Top will fresh berries and serve.


Notes:
1. For glossy berries, simply add 1 tablespoon of hot water to ¼ cup apricot preserves. Blend until combined and thinned out. Place the berries in a bowl and gently brush and toss the berries with the apricot and water mixture.
2. If you are not a fan of lemon, simply omit the zest.

--

What I loved most about this recipe was its wonderful lemon flavour. It was light and tangy on the tongue and gave it a nice summery twist. Next time, I might even add a little more lemon zest, along with finding a way to secure the berries to the top, so they don't scatter while cutting into the cake. I also added the fresh basil from Angie's herb garden to set off the colours in the cake and give it some additional flavour. The only other thing I did differently from Jamie's recipe was that I didn't submerge this cake in a full bath to avoid cracks: I simply added a shallow pan of water to the bottom rack of the oven. A genuine shortcut or did I just get lucky? Either way, I definitely feel like I'm getting back into the swing of things.


Me and my oven; my oven and me. 


Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Wine Country

Road trip? He asked.

Bien sûr! I replied. Likely in a terrible accent.

On Canada Day, July 1st, F. and I embarked on a whirlwind road trip that took us from Halifax to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario and back again within 6 days. Nearly 4000 kilometers driven, with stops in 5 cities, and countless wonderful meals and memories, it’d be hard to detail this trip in one or even ten posts. That being said, here’s an attempt to give an abbreviated and largely photographic account of the highlights of those exhausting, but fabulous, days.

We only drove as far as Fredericton on the first day, not because it was a convenient or well-timed stop by any means, but because I spent five very formative and precious years there while completing my undergrad at St. Thomas University, and F. knew of my giant soft spot for the city. After a short but sweet visit with my cousin, we ventured downtown to fill our hungry, road-tripping bellies. F. wanted to eat somewhere that was representative of my time spent there in university, rather than check out any new places in town, so off we went to the ever-reliable Snooty Fox. Despite being insanely busy due to its proximity to holiday festivities, we were seated quickly, and our meals and micro-brews did not disappoint. I was less than enthused with our server, who flat out refused to give me a recommendation (does anyone else find this strange?), but the displeasure didn’t last long as we were both in vacation mode and not in the mood for moods. 

The food highlight of this quick stop in Fredericton was the next morning, however, when I got to show F. the Fredericton Farmers' Market. We feasted on some early-morning samosas from Samosa Delight, freshly squeezed orange juice from Sam the Juice Man, and Victoria’s Secret Blend coffee: my three market staples while in university. The icing on this already happy cake was getting to catch up with an old friend from STU while we stuffed our faces with the legendary samosas.

The rest of Saturday was spent in the car. Entirely. Many a messy timbit and Subway sandwich were had by the time we reached Toronto that night!

Sunday - consistenly the best day of my week, every week - began with another round of dim sum with F.’s family in Toronto, which was even better than the last. We hit the road not long afterward for Niagara-on-the-Lake, where we were treated to wine tastings “downtown” and a fantastic production of My Fair Lady, as part of the Shaw Festival. If you're in the vicinity, I'd highly recommend catching this or any of the Festival's other shows. As an added bonus, if you're under 30, your ticket is heavily discounted. (Sidenote: Amazing! I didn't think I would qualify for discounts again until old age! We happily took advantage of my final 2 months in my 20s. F. was too old for the discount. Cough, cough.) 


Waiting for the curtain to raise at My Fair Lady

Once the curtains closed and standing ovations quelled, we found our way down a long country road to our lodgings for the night. The stunning River Bend Inn overlooks the vineyard we were to tour and dine at that night, so after checking in, we put on our Sunday best and walked (walked!) through the fields and up the grand driveway to Peller Estates Winery. While waiting for our tour and tasting to begin, we naturally opted to fill the time with an additional tasting in the Estate's store.

River Bend Inn, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

The lobby of the River Bend Inn from above.
While we waited: Tasting # 2 at Peller Estates. Private Reserve Riesling (2009),
Private Reserve Pinot Noir (2009), Private Reserve Vidal Late Harvest (2010).

After this, we quite literally wined and dined the night away in the Winery restaurant. We spent the following 4 (or was it 5?) hours being dazzled and intrigued by award-winning Chef Jason Parsons' tasting menu, that eventually sent us home across the vineyard buzzing happily on both food and drink. This was tricky in heels, let me tell you!

Because the tasting was blind ("Put all the decisions in our hands and allow us to awaken your palate with an unscripted and inspired culinary journey..."), I asked our server if she could write down the dishes for me, since there was no way I’d remember all the details after that many glasses of wine. Thankfully, she very sweetly complied and here are some of the highlights of our meal. (Check out my Flickr page if you'd like to see even more!)

Our view while eating.  Bliss.

This was not included on the menu, but it was a tasty and pretty spoonful of skate.

Rabbit Boulanger, with mushroom & summer greens and maple foam dressing.
Accompanied by Peller's Riesling "Private Reserve" 2009.

Roasted Red Pepper Gaspacho with cucumber granite.
Accompanied by Peller's Sauvingnon Blanc "Private Reserve" 2009.

Smoked Digby Scallops, with sweet pea purée, pickled white asparagus, and toasted cashews.
Accompanied by Peller's Sauvingnon Blanc "Signature Series" 2009. This was F.'s
favourite dish, and he joked about having to come to Ontario for the best Digby
scallops he's ever tasted.
 
Ontario Beef Rib Eye, with parsley root purée, herb roasted pearl potatoes
woodland mushroom, and sea asparagus. Accompanied by Peller's Cabernet
Franc "Signature Series" 2008. This was my favourite, by far, and how appropriate
to be eating gorgeous, Ontario beef while in Ontario? With a sumptuous
glass of red, no less?

Strawberry Mousse, with cucumber frappé and cracked black pepper.
Accompanied by Peller's Ice Cuvée Classic "Signature Series." Truthfully, this was
an odd combination for me, as I wouldn't typically think of anything cucumber as dessert.
           But awaken my palate it did! The combination was undoubtedly refreshing. 

Our late-night departure from Peller Estates.
I've been very lucky to dine in some beautiful restaurants over the past few years, and particularly in the past several months, but dining at Peller Estates Winery Restaurant was truly an event: one I won't soon forget. If you'd like to read more about the impact Chef Jason Parsons and his restaurant are having on the industry, in Niagara-on-the-lake, and beyond, take a look here for what City Line has to say, or on the James Beard Foundation's website.

Last but not least, here is our beautiful breakfast, courtesy of River Bend. They had actually closed the breakfast menu (we didn't know they had one; it's not on their website!) by the time we mozied on downstairs, but the chef ever so kindly agreed to make us a dish of our choosing anyway.


English Breakfast
Banana Pain Perdu



















I had been on several vineyard and winery tours in the past, but this visit was special. A new experience with a personal investment. The pinnacle of a wildly successful 6 days in a small car going a great distance.

If you haven't already done so, a sunset dinner on a beautiful vineyard, in excellent company, is something any wine- and life-lover ought to do while still on this planet. By all accounts, it was an experience that employed, excited, and indulged all of my senses.

It was, in a word, perfection.


Peller Estates Winery (3 July 2011)