Tuesday, April 27, 2010
"It all comes back to the basic. Serve customers the best-tasting food at a good value in a clean, comfortable restaurant, and they'll keep coming back."
-- Dave Thomas
It seems to me that people tend to spend their lives walking a figurative tightrope between two extremes: comfort and adventure.
Some of us absolutely crave excitement and consistently shun the comforts of life in order to chase yet another adrenaline-charged thrill. And for others, the mere thought of such risk-taking behaviours gives us not a thrill, but a chill down our spines.
Between these opposites, I would imagine that the majority of us spend our lives somewhere in the middle; being seduced by the soothing comfort of familiar faces, places, and routines. But every once in awhile, we feel a desire to (however mildly) shake things up a bit.
Well, anyone who knows me personally at all will have no trouble choosing the category in which I feel the most comfortable. And for those of you who have yet to meet me, I have just given away the answer. I put a great value on safety, calm, and comfort, but as I said earlier, sometimes I pine for "something completely different."
This past weekend, Mark and I drove to Port Huron, Michigan, for an outing, really, and to do a little shopping - mostly grocery shopping. We headed out early (for us) on Saturday morning, stopping to pick up a take-away coffee before leaving the city. It was a pleasant drive and it was mid-morning when we arrived, at last, in Port Huron.
We found ourselves very hungry for breakfast by then, so naturally we wheeled straight in to the parking lot of the 'Daybreak Cafe' which I lauded in an earlier post. We were scarcely able to find a parking spot and we were worried that this was not a good sign. It was, in fact, a good sign for the Cafe as the restaurant was completely full and there was a line-up right up to the front door. It seemed as though the wait would be quite long and we would have been happy to endure it, but the woman ahead of us was so heavily perfumed that we just couldn't manage it.
Once outside, we decided that maybe we should, after all, be a little more adventurous and try another restaurant. We spied "Ted's Coney Island Diner" just down the street, so we set off optimistically. It actually sounded kind of cool. As we walked to the main entrance, we looked through the windows at the practically empty restaurant, and our optimism began to fade a bit. And when we walked inside and were greeted by a theatrical exhalation of smoke by a leathery-faced woman, we both turned and quickly walked out again without saying a word.
What should we do now? Well, there was a "Big Boy" restaurant across the street so we waited for the traffic to die down, then trotted across. It didn't look very appealing. And when the hostess asked us if we preferred 'smoking' or 'non-smoking' we hesitated, then chose 'non-smoking' and sat down with sinking hearts. We didn't like the fact that people were smoking just around the corner and it was a little unsettling. But when the waitress told us that there was, in fact, no breakfast menu, but a breakfast buffet over in the 'smoking' section, our decision was made for us and we quickly scurried out the door.
Back over to the 'Daybreak Cafe' where we found the line-up was gone, and we were seated right away. Ah! Familiar surroundings! Familiar great food! Warm and friendly staff! All that and fresh, hot coffee being constantly topped off. A little bit of breakfast heaven.
The rest of the long day we spent browsing through various stores and doing some shopping and were so busy and having so much fun that we didn't as much as stop for a drink of water. By dinnertime we were both feeling dehydrated and hungry and looking to sit down and relax a bit before organizing all of our purchases and heading home.
It was funny, but as much as we both wanted the comfort of the 'Daybreak' at breakfast, we both craved to eat dinner somewhere new. Somewhere different. Somewhere a little more exciting. And we both had the same idea at once. (As we so often do.)
About a year or so ago, when we were staying in Port Huron for the weekend, we had gone out for dinner at an Italian Restaurant on the Saturday evening, and had gone for a long walk afterward before heading back to the hotel. On the walk we happened upon "The Raven" - a coffeehouse, a pub, a restaurant - and it looked wonderfully appealing. We were delighted with the decor, the ambience, and the soft jazz music and were hoping to linger awhile over exotic coffees and soak in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, they were closing soon and not accepting any new customers. We walked out disappointed, but knew for sure we'd be back one day.
And that day was last Saturday. 'The Raven' is an amazing place! The owner took an old, broken-down building from the Civil War era, completely gutted it, and painstakingly transformed it into a 'magical' place that feels somewhere between an ancient pub in a quaint British village, and a cool, hip coffeehouse/restaurant somewhere in Greenwich Village. and it is, blissfully, smoke-free.
This is how their lovely brochure describes the atmosphere: "Adding to the richness of the interior decor are the stained glass facade windows....These are set off by the colorful tiffany lighting, eye-catching gargoyles and statuary, a virtual library of antique and classic books and dozens of eclectic photographic and poster art prints, secured from the poster galleries of Manhattan.....These elements are tied together by architectural designs incorporating an array of angles, elevations and special spaces, including an upper balcony level with a rear outside deck providing a view of the St. Clair and Black Rivers."
They have a seven page menu featuring real food!! Fresh local ingredients served in interesting, creative, and delicious ways. And they don't even have a deep fryer. Hallelujah!
Mark and I had a wonderful time at 'The Raven'. It was absolutely one of the most memorable places I have ever dined. It was incredibly interesting - so much to look at and talk about. Our waiter was superb; perfectly gracious and seemingly relaxed and in such a good mood, even though the place was hopping and he was seriously busy. And the food was absolutely exquisite. Even now, several days later, I can't stop thinking about our visit to 'The Raven.' It was fun, fun, fun!
I think Dave Thomas knew what he was talking about. 'The Raven' seems to be doing everything right. It is like nothing I've ever seen or experienced before. I strongly encourage any of you who are able to go there, to go. You will be enchanted. I know we were. And we simply can't wait to dine there again. And the next time, we will plan to stay over so we can dash back in the morning for breakfast. Sorry, 'Daybreak', but we're on a roll.
For my meal, I enjoyed a "Grilled Hummus Veggie Wrap". Now, having been a vegetarian for over 40 years now, I have eaten my fair share of veggie wraps, but nothing else could compare with the sheer deliciousness of this one. I don't have an actual recipe, of course, so I can only share the description on their menu:
"Your choice of our traditional or roasted red bell pepper hummus (my choice) with leaf lettuce, tomato, onion and cucumber in our sun dried tomato tortilla." They don't say, but my guess is that they also added salt and pepper and some chopped fresh cilantro. The wrap is all folded up nice and neatly, then grilled to perfection. The tortilla has slight char marks making it extra tasty, while the inside stays nice and chilled and crisp. A wonderful combination. I certainly plan to try it myself. And soon!
Please check out 'The Raven's' website for more information, and for more inspiration to make a trip there:
This week's photos and recipe are courtesy of "The Raven", Port Huron, Michigan.
(The expression, "And now for something completely different" is, of course, from Monty Python's Flying Circus. Now, these were certainly lads who knew how to keep expanding their horizons!)
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
"Everything you see I owe to spaghetti."
-- Sophia Loren
For the past six years, since I moved to the city, I have spent most Monday evenings volunteering to help new immigrants practise speaking English. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Each week I have the opportunity to sit around a table at the Central Library and talk, listen, and laugh with an ever-changing group of people from all over the globe.
Over the years, I have noticed the differing patterns of immigration to London. In the early years, most of our newcomers were from Colombia; that was a very broad wave indeed. There are, in fact, so many Colombian immigrants here now that London has earned the nickname "Londombia." French may very well be the other Canadian official language, but you won't hear much French spoken on the streets of London. Our second language is Spanish.
Other years there have been more newcomers from Africa and the Middle East. There are always quite a few Asians, especially those from South Korea. And a few years ago, we enjoyed a large number of highly energized and hilarious young men from Japan. We don't generally have many Europeans, although at the moment we have a couple of great young European women.
I smile whenever I remember a particular European woman who decided to shake things up a bit and move to Canada from France. She had originally moved to Quebec so she could continue speaking her own language but she was quite shocked to find that the Quebecois spoke a very different sort of French. In fact, in her opinion, it was an inferior dialect so corrupted that she had a hard time listening to it without becoming intensely annoyed. She steadfastly refused to speak that way, held firmly to her Parisian French, and as a result succeeded in really annoying the Quebecois in her life who felt she was deliberately trying to sound 'uppity'.
In the end, she decided to solve the problem by moving to Ontario and learning English. At first it was practically impossible to converse with her because she knew so little English, and when six months went by and we hadn't seen her, I thought perhaps she had given up and moved back to France. But, no, she hadn't. She reappeared one Monday evening looking very bright and happy AND speaking English so well it was mind-boggling. I immediately asked her what on earth she had been doing to have achieved such an incredible improvement. Her eyes began to sparkle as she rather coquettishly replied, "O! Mon Dieu! I 'av foun' a English boyfren!"
It truly is a remarkable experience to be able to sit and talk with people who have come here from all over the earth. Every week the mix changes and that really makes it interesting. It feels something like a mini-U.N., but on a very casual and friendly level. It is a wonderful opportunity to explore a bit of the world without having to leave town.
The purpose of our 'Conversation Circle' sessions is simply that - to enjoy conversations with each other. And these conversations are a lot like our lunchroom chats at work. The topics vary widely and they constantly bounce all over the place. There is, however, one topic that pops up again, and again, and again, and never fails to elicit enthusiastic participation. And that is the subject of food.
Everyone loves to eat, and many people love to cook as well. It doesn't matter where people have come from, they always seem to become more passionate in their speech and their mannerisms when talking about their favourite foods and dishes from their homelands. We learn a lot about different food traditions, listen to stories about special occasions or humorous events - all revolving around food.
Sometimes recipes are shared. And on occasion, a few of us have had to dash upstairs to the cookbook section of the library to track down a dish that a newcomer loves dearly and wants to tell us about, but is unable to come up with a description in English. I have also had several participants bring me gifts of traditional foods and that is always a wonderful treat.
Two weeks ago I was at the table with the two lovely young European women I mentioned earlier. Adriana is a Hungarian formerly living in Slovakia, and Alessandra is an Italian, but very proudly from Sardinia. As usual, that evening we talked a lot about food. And what a fun conversation that was! Adrianna and Alessandra are very charming women whose extremely positive energy is quite a joy just to be around. They each have such a sparkling wit - even while speaking English! - that we spend a lot of time in thralls of laughter.
This particular evening, Alessandra was telling us about a traditional Sardinian dish - 'linguine al pesto' - and she was making us all very hungry with her description. She wondered if she could buy a pot of basil to grow at her apartment so she could cook with it, and make this dish. I told her where I had recently seen such pots of basil for sale and then another woman suggested that she could just buy pesto from that very supermarket. To be polite, I turned to Alessandra and agreed that, yes, she could indeed buy ready-made pesto at that store.
Alessandra then opened her eyes very wide in mock horror, and with a smile on her lips she playfully punched me on the arm. And then, with the well-known sweeping arm gesture of dismissal that her compatriots are famous for, she responded. "I would never buy pesto!!" she cried. "I am Italian!" Point taken. Point taken, indeed.
This week in Alessandra's honour, I am giving you a recipe for 'Linguine al Pesto'. Alessandra strongly suggests that a peeled and chopped up potato be cooked along with the linguine as it apparently makes all the difference in the taste and texture of the dish.
This post's photo and recipe are courtesy of:
I hope you will try it and enjoy the beautiful, fresh, springtime taste of the homemade pesto. And don't, for heaven's sake, even THINK about buying it!!!
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
A yoga master stepped up to a samosa stall and said: "Make me one with everything." The vendor fixed a samosa and handed it to the yogi, who paid with a $20 bill.
The vendor put the bill in a cash drawer and closed the drawer. "Where's my change?" asked the yogi. The vendor smiled, "Change must come from within."
Last week I celebrated the 7th 'Annual Samosa Day' in style. I even dedicated a full four days to the event rather than the customary one. And, on top of that, I was celebrating well over two months early.
If you are scratching your head and wondering how this food festivity had slipped under your radar, don't worry. You will never have heard of it. To be honest, I, myself, represent half of 'Annual Samosa Day' celebrants. Let me explain.
Back in July of 2004, I began my current position at the university here in the city of London although I was still living 100 km away in a small town. I had been invited to come down for a morning, have a tour of the area, and meet some of my future colleagues. At the time I was very busy trying to keep my house presentable in the hope of selling it quickly, as well as getting rid of a lot of 'stuff' and trying to get organized enough to move. It was so much work! And I'm sure many of you can relate.
My plan had been to zip down to London on the sunny morning of June 23rd, have the tour, meet some folks, then head back a couple of hours later. I wasn't going to take the time for lunch. In fact, I was so stressed out in those days that I rarely ate at all! I had brought along a protein bar and felt that a quick stop at the mid-way Tim Horton's for a coffee would be enough to hold body and soul together.
As it turned out, a very warm, friendly, and funny professor named Dan (now a very close friend) showed me around the place and made all sorts of very gracious introductions. It was a little overwhelming, as it was such a big place with so many faculty and staff about, but I was encouraged by all of the kind smiles.
Suddenly it was noon, the tour was over, and I was all set to leave. Then, Dan suggested that we go to the 'Grad Club' for lunch with some others as it was right across the street from our building. I didn't know what to do! I had slipped only a five dollar bill into my wallet that morning as my only planned purchase was a cup of coffee.
I was a little (OK, a lot) intimidated by Dan's lofty status and I didn't want to be so bold as to ask him if he were footing the bill. I knew I had only $5 and I couldn't imagine what sort of paltry lunch item could be bought with that. I surveyed the menu board carefully and was absolutely thrilled to see this entry: "Samosas - 2 for $3". Great! I couldn't risk a beverage, what with taxes and all, so I opted for tap water.
Well, we ended up sitting on the patio and having a fun lunch, chatting with some other people and having some laughs. It was a very enjoyable time and it became even better later on when Dan, bless his heart, didn't even bat an eye at my $3 lunch and very handily picked up the tab.
Somewhere around mid-June of 2005 I felt comfortable enough with Dan to tell him the samosa story. We had a good laugh at the memory and decided that we should declare every June 23rd 'Annual Samosa Day'. The celebration was really nothing more than enjoying a pint at the 'Grad Club'. And occasionally we even had a samosa, too. I can scarcely believe that the 7th one will be coming up soon.
And now, back to last week. My son Daniel's friend, Richard, and his mother, Christine, were coming to stay overnight last Thursday. They were planning to have dinner at home before leaving, but I wanted to give them something interesting and tasty as an evening snack. I was thinking of samosas because earlier the same day, Winona, an Indian-Canadian friend from work, had brought some in for us to share. They were delicious. They are a wonderful Indian snack food - generally a nice curry of potatoes and peas wrapped in pastry and deep fried. I love to eat them, but I had never made them before.
I looked for a recipe on my favourite Indian food blog (see below) and found a great recipe for baked samosas made with wonton wrappers. I was pleased because it seemed they would be easy to make, much lighter and more delicate, but would still be intensely flavourful. I was right.
Daniel helped me put them together and we had quite an efficient assembly line going on. As we worked, we got talking about all kinds of topics, as we often do. Before we knew it, we had 5 dozen samosas sitting before us. Mind you, the kitchen smelled marvellously aromatic as they baked, and afterwards it was like samosa heaven.
In the end, Christine and I each enjoyed about 2 or 3 little samosas each, along with a nice glass of wine. And the boys, I believe, ate only 1 apiece before disappearing into Daniel's room to play guitar. That left quite a plethora of samosas yet to be consumed.
On Friday, I had samosas for lunch. And, when my partner, Mark, came down to London on Friday, we had samosas for dinner. We had them again for lunch on Saturday, though we did switch it up a bit Saturday evening by having just the (leftover) samosa filling over rice. I decided to freeze the remaining samosas on Sunday as I just couldn't face any more. And today my daughter, Abby, came to visit, so when I got home from work, I whipped up an easy chick pea curry and rice and baked up the remaining samosas.
I have to tell you, I'm actually pretty glad that the 7th 'Annual Samosa Day' is more than two months away. As much as I adore scrumptious samosas, I think it may take every one of those days to rekindle a fitting appetite for them.
I hope you will try this great recipe. It comes from a fantastic blog featuring Indian vegetarian cooking called "One Hot Stove". The writing is excellent, the photos wonderful, and the recipes more than tantalizing. Enjoy!!
The wonderful photo collage is courtesy of "www.samosa-connection.com".
Monday, April 5, 2010
"The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight."
-- MFK Fisher
'The Art of Eating'
There wasn't much of a selection of bread when I was a young child back in the Fifties. Not like today when a person could spend a good half hour in a large supermarket's bakery section just trying to make a decision. No, we had no such choice. There was sliced white bread only, which was pretty boring indeed. But the cool thing was that we didn't have to venture out to a supermarket to buy our bread. Back then, our bread came to us.
Every day our family sat down at the kitchen table and had lunch together. And every week day at that time, a white van would pull up in front of our house. The van door would quickly open and shut and then we would see 'the baker' (as we kids erroneously called the bread delivery man). He would always come trotting up the walkway carrying a tray of bread, then would pop open our front door.
His name was 'Harold' and I remember his name so clearly for a reason. Each and every week day, Harold would burst into our kitchen with a big smile and bright attitude and call out to my Dad, "Hello, Harold!" To this, each and every time, my Dad would return, "Hello, Harold!" I remember thinking it was quite funny that they shared a name and I looked forward to this daily ritual.
When I was a young teen, our family suddenly went wildly crazy and we switched to 'brown' bread. It wasn't 'whole wheat' or 'whole grain' back then. It was simply 'brown'. So, really, living in a very small , very non-ethnic town, I had no broader knowledge of bread or bread products than this. Very, very narrow, I'm afraid. And it wasn't until I was 18 that my knowledge was cracked open a little wider.
That year I had become friends with Barb Samuels, a Jewish girl, who had been raised in Mount Forest, another small town in Southwestern Ontario. Because she was the first Jewish person I had ever met, and because I was curious about Judaism, I plied her with all kinds of questions and always got a blank stare in return. She had never even been to a synagogue. Living in this little town all her life had certainly not exposed her to any Jewish culture or community.
One summer day I planned to visit her and so I borrowed my Dad's car and drove to Mount Forest. Unfortunately, Barb was out doing some errands when I arrived, but her mother, Mrs. Samuels, very warmly welcomed me inside. I can still recall her kind, happy smile and her gracious hospitality.
She brought me to the living room and led me to a comfy chair. Next, she asked me if I'd care for a cup of tea. Absolutely. She bustled away to the kitchen to put on the kettle and soon returned with a nice steaming cup. As I sipped the hot tea, she continued to smile. It was obvious that she enjoyed visitors. Then, she startled me with a question that I did not understand. "Would you like a bagel?"
Such a simple question! It seems incredible to me now that I had no idea what she was talking about. She asked me again and I was still none the wiser. I was terribly shy in those days and quite reluctant to speak up. Plus, a few years before I had become a serious vegetarian and I was cautious about what I ate. At last I knew I just had to say something, so I ventured a very timid, "Ummmm......I wonder.....is a bagel.....ummmm.....meat?"
I thought poor Mrs. Samuels was going to fall down from her gales of laughter. She kept dabbing her eyes with the edge of her apron and every time our eyes met she laughed even harder.
Eventually she recovered sufficiently to head back to the kitchen to toast up a bagel and spread it with luscious cream cheese. (I did eat cheese.) I laughed myself when I saw what it was and then we both laughed some more. What a lot of fun, and all from a simple bagel. No, wait, I won't say 'simple' because it was a very special bagel, as Mrs. Samuels explained to me. It was a Montreal bagel - the best bagel of all.
For many, many years there has been a great rivalry between New York bagels and Montreal bagels. I don't even need to describe New York bagels to you at all because they are ubiquitous in these parts. Indeed in most parts.
But in the Montreal-Ottawa area they are precious commodities and many thousands of bagel lovers sing their praises. And rightfully so. Montreal bagels are almost always rolled by hand and before baking are boiled in bubbling cauldrons of water sweetened by pure honey. Then, they are brushed with a light sugar syrup, topped by either sesame seeds or poppy seeds (and, more recently, additional toppings), and baked in large, rustic wood ovens. The flames of the wood ovens cause the bagels to brown in a slightly uneven fashion and this adds a lot of interesting colour as well as flavour.
Montreal bagels are smaller, flatter, with a larger hole and a more irregular shape than the New York bagels. They are also much chewier with a delectable 'mouth feel' and flavour that will make you want to close your eyes and sigh. It's a texture and a flavour that you will remember and that you will crave. What is it exactly that makes a Montreal bagel such a magnificent creation?
Well, the method of preparation described above certainly does contribute to a scrumptious baked good. But anyone who has had the pleasure of tasting one will know that there is something else as well. It's definitely a little touch of 'je ne sais quois'. Of course it is! It's a Montreal bagel, after all.
Both the photo and the recipe are courtesy of "sevenspoons.net". Thanks to "Seven Spoons" you don't have to worry and fret that you live so far away from Montreal or Ottawa. You can put on an apron, roll up your sleeves, and bake yourself a batch of Montreal bagels in your own kitchen. Even if you don't happen to have a wood oven. Enjoy!!