Tuesday, 28 October 2014

You Can Call Him Larry ... Or Maybe Neil.

Sometimes you meet the most interesting people in the most unlikely places. A few years ago, I was employed as a cook in a local long term care facility, a job that I very much enjoyed but didn't offer a lot of culinary freedom, and that is one of the reasons that one of my trainee cooks only stayed a handful of days. The other reason was that he was also a very authentic Neil Young tribute artist who had just been given the chance to open his own restaurant.

Lawrence Christopher, (you can call him Larry), was working part time as a chef in a small eatery located at 41 Maple St. and looking for some extra work when I first met him. He was friendly, talented and easy going. Then he was gone. His employer decided to give up their business and asked Larry if he would like to buy it. He jumped at the chance and has never looked back.

It has been 4 years now since Larry opened his dream business, the TLC Bistro. He hasn’t had a single vacation in that time, but Larry is okay with that. The TLC is his baby. I asked him about the meaning behind the name. Is it The Larry Christopher Bistro? Close, but the T is actually for his wife, and business partner and book keeper, Teresa. Or really, it can be anything you want it to be, such as The Little Café, as some have suggested.

I have been meaning to drop in ever since Larry opened the place. Several of my nearly grown kids are self taught musicians and I thought the Thursday open mic nights would be fun, but we simply never got around to it. Then recently, a writer friend asked me if there was any place I would like to try for lunch some day. Aha, the TLC Bistro! Perfect.

I arrived just before 11 on a sunny Thursday morning and popped inside and up the few stairs into the main dining area. Larry was all alone and working on some food preparation at the counter. I reminded him of his brief stint working with me in the nursing home kitchen and then began to quiz him about his new venture at the TLC Bistro. He seems to be in his element here, surrounded by a vast collection of music related memorabilia, obviously years in the gathering. Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Gordon Lightfoot, and Ian and Sylvia portraits crowd the walls. Musical instruments sit in a corner waiting to be used. And the menu is of his own making.

At first, I sat along the front counter on one of the tall stools. A great place for people watching. Also a good place to keep an eye out for my lunch date. When Janis arrived, we moved to a central table and took a peek at the menu fare, which was simple, familiar and very bistro-esque. Sandwiches, salads, soups or combinations of the three, omelets, quesadillas and pierogis. Finish with home baking - banana bread, Nanaimo bars and butter tarts. Have an organic coffee or maybe have a beer or glass of wine on the back patio.

"What's the soup today, Larry?" Cream of broccoli. Mmmm that sounds nice. I ordered that along with a salmon salad sandwich on whole wheat. How I love a good sandwich. I always feel somewhat guilty at a funeral because part way through the service I start thinking about those delicious little sandwich corners that they always serve at the reception afterwards. Why are they so good?

Janis ordered the soup too, and a ham and cheese sandwich. Our lunches were divine. Thickly piled fillings on the softest of breads and a bowl of steaming and creamy soup. It felt a lot like having lunch at your best friend's house after school, so homey and comforting. I'm not sure how many places around serve a lunch like this. It was really delightful.

I would have liked to have seen some musical performance, but no one stepped up to the mic that day. Most likely it was a bit too early. Larry said that if he wasn't busy, he would entertain us himself, but other customers came in and Larry never had a free moment to let his inner Neil Young out for us. Actually, Larry has an outer Neil Young too. He keeps his hair and sideburns in character all the time, likely because he performs his tribute show periodically at other venues too.

It must be wonderful to be able to combine two passions and make a successful business out of it. Cooking and Neil Young - who would have imagined? Larry Christopher took a leap and it has paid off for him. Well done, Larry. Long may you run. Long may you run. - Neil Young (1976)

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Operation Scratch Burger

This idea was born in the cold of last winter, when we could only dream of backyard barbecues. My burger fan son and I grabbed some great burgers many evenings in Barrie. While seated near the window in places like the Kenzington, The Works or Midway Diner, where excellent hamburgers are served, we watched the snow come down. We wondered aloud - could we make a really great homemade burger? Exactly how homemade should our burger be? This is the story of Operation Scratch Burger.

The very first phase began in late May when we purchased some vegetable seedlings at a local garden centre. What a joy to be buying green things to plant outdoors! We got leaf lettuce, pickling cucumbers, yellow onions and bonny best tomatoes. The garlic was already in, having been planted the previous fall much like a tulip bulb. We got some peppers, cantaloupe and an eggplant just for fun too.

By mid summer, there were some cute little cucumbers ready for the pickle jar. I sliced them lengthwise and packed them into a large mason jar with pickling spices, fresh dill, and some sliced garlic. The garlic was the first to be harvested from our garden. Wow, so fragrant! Much more flavourful than the handy but blander chopped garlic in oil that I usually buy. Over all of that went a simple brine of water, vinegar and coarse salt. One month later, these pickles were burger ready. (Links to all recipes located at the bottom of the page.)

Our tomato plants grew like crazy! While everybody's plants failed to thrive, or died completely, our plants outgrew their tomato cages by twice at least and developed thick healthy stalks. Soon they had tons of tomatoes, all growing bigger by the day and weighing heavily on the branches which reached over 5 feet in height when stretched up. All they needed to ripen was the dry heat and sun typical of late August, but it never came. Rain and cool prevailed. My lawn stayed nice and green ... and so did my tomatoes. They developed late blight disease from the dampness and all rotted away, which was a huge disappointment after such a super start. So in the end, I bought three 3 litre baskets of ripe tomatoes from Bob and Judi Clarke at the Barrie Farmers' Market.

The garlic grew fine, but the onions were pretty tiny. We picked lettuce for sandwiches etc. off and on most of the summer, but by late summer it was finished. I sound like a terrible vegetable gardener! It's a learning process, that's for sure. It's also a good thing I don't live in the 1800s or I might not have survived the winter.

With my local tomatoes standing in for my failed crop, I researched how to make homemade ketchup. Gotta love Google! I found a process that appealed to me and I set to work - messy, messy work. I thought to myself - if Mad Michael (in Wyebridge) can do it, so can the Foodie Girl. So 2 large pots of water were set to boil on the stove and tomatoes were plunged in, scored with an X on both ends, to remove the skin. If that wasn't messy enough, I then had to remove all the seeds from each tomato by hand. I now have new respect for Mr. Henry J. Heinz. The tomatoes were simmered in a pot with onions, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper with apple cider vinegar added in later. All of this went through a food processor and then a sieve, then boiled down to thicken. My kitchen looked like a murder scene in the end.

Some of the ketchup got an addition of molasses and liquid smoke to create a barbecue sauce. Everything got ladled into canning jars and processed in a hot water bath. It is very satisfying, after all that work and mess, to see a neat row of house made products lining the countertop and hearing the occasional pop sound as the lids seal themselves.

Once the first shambles was cleaned up, out came the bread maker. It's a handy item that takes up a lot of space and doesn't get near enough use, but I do appreciate it for times like this. I placed the ingredients for hamburger buns into it and turned it on to a regular pre-set bread program and just let it run until the mixing and kneading process was finished, then unplugged it. I turned out the dough onto my cleaned and floured countertop and rolled it out about a half inch thick. A simple drinking glass cut circular shapes from the dough. In fact, a simple can of pasta sauce became my rolling pin as it is still missing! Where do these things get to anyway? The dough circles went onto greased baking pans, brushed them with melted butter and sat them on top of the stove for 2 hours to double in size. I turned the oven on low to create a little warmth to help with the rising. Once risen, I baked the buns in a 350 F oven for about 15 minutes, when the buns were golden. They actually turned out pretty well.

About this time, I started thinking - I took my weekend off (from my cooking job) to do more cooking? My husband was hovering around saying things like "What else can you preserve? I like peaches."

But I was on the home stretch now. Trying to keep it as local as possible, I bought Orillia based Ledbetter frozen lean ground beef. It occurred to me that the pre packaged raw meats in the butcher section of a typical grocery store never give the place of origin. Why is that?

I picked up some Schomberg Cheese slices while I was at the store. My husband and sons had taken a trip down to the 400 Flea Market in search of some artisan cheese for my project, but sadly found none. I had thought one of the deli operations there would have some, but no such luck. Silani's cheddar from Schomberg looked very nice though.

Finally the grill went on! I had mixed up a dozen 4 oz. hamburger patties and placed them in the freezer to chill, and now the big moment - the barbecuing of the burgers. With no fillers, just onion, garlic, egg and seasonings, they did shrink a bit. Near the end of the cooking time, some of my newly prepared barbecue sauce was brushed on. Aha, it's all coming together now!

And there it is - the culmination of Operation Scratch Burger, some 8 months in the making. A hand made 100% beef burger on a home baked bun, on Holland Marsh onion, lettuce of undetermined origin (ooops!), Epicure Selections burger sauce, topped with tomato from Clarke's Fruit & Veggie Patch (of Minesing) and home pickled dills made from my garden cucumbers. You can't see my slaved over ketchup, but it's on there!

Oh and yes, the hamburger aficionados, one certain son in particular, enjoyed their hamburger very much. He wasn't just being polite either - he ate 3 that I know of!

If you want to try any or all of the steps I took to create this ultimate homemade and local burger, here are the links to the instructions that I used.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Eating Pie

As the 5:53 GO Train arrived at the Allandale Waterfront Station, I wondered if my college student son was hungry because I certainly was. In fact, twenty year old six footers are always hungry, so the only real question was where to eat. Heading towards the downtown core, I was considering various burger places, most of which we had been to previously, when I suddenly remembered the lake shore location of Pie, the wood fired pizza restaurant made famous by being featured on the Food Network's show "You Gotta Eat Here".

The location is in the centre of ongoing summer road construction right now, but the parking lot is well signed with Enter and Exit despite a tangle of fencing and piles of gravel, so we found our way in with no problem. We giggled at the 'Caution: Icy Sidewalks' sign near the front door - this must be their northern location!

We passed a huge front patio area. It was completely empty of customers despite the beautiful evening and lovely lake view. Has everyone given up on summer? It was a Tuesday and there were bulldozers and loaders parked nearby, so I'm not surprised. I can imagine this outdoor seating area was jam packed on hot holiday weekends.

I saw a few diners inside as we we were shown to our table by a south facing window. Pink and red and lots of wood - that is how I would describe the interior. Neon signs. Very clean. A pile of fire wood, hinting at the heat source for their ovens, stacked outside on the patio. No menus to pass out - they are printed directly onto the table tops. What a neat idea,

Being newbies here, we didn't know how to order. College boy is a seriously carnivorous , quasi caveman meat lover. I am a vegetarian. Do you think we can share a pizza? Um ... no. At first, I was a little taken aback when our server informed us that we had to order a whole pizza each for ourselves and very seriously added "We don't do halves."  For a split second, I almost considered going somewhere else to eat instead, but decided against. I suppose taking home a half pizza isn't the worst thing in the world?

My son unhesitatingly pointed to his choice - the porky pie. Drawn to the description, tomato, basil, mozzarella, wood fired bacon, spicy sausage and prosciutto, he was hooked. I was leaning in another direction entirely, of course - the olive me thrice. My least favourite part of any pizza is the tomato sauce. I often find it overwhelming, so to find a non tomato based pizza, like this one promised to be, was pretty intriguing.

Our pizzas came out very fast. That must be one hot oven! Both of our pizza crusts were thin and crispy, round but rustic. The pizzas were served simply on a round metal pan with a pizza wheel tucked underneath. Cut your pizza into 2 slices or 20 - it's up to you to decide.

My dining partner hadn't been too concerned about tackling an entire pizza by himself from the beginning and I can see why. He inhaled the whole thing with ease. He did come up for air once and mumbled "This is really good." He also managed to make one observation about my pizza. You have weird stuff on your pizza."

Well, I like weird stuff on my pizza, thank you very much! The crust was brushed with olive oil and topped with a selection of large and tasty olives - not the canned or jarred tiny things that I buy, but gorgeous ones like you see in a food store olive bar (ones that I never buy but would like to!) Thinly sliced red onions, bits of roasted red pepper and artichoke hearts topped with a zig zag of aioli (like a garlic mayo) on top - weird but wonderful. I ordered pineapple as an extra topping. I got big pieces of sweet, seemingly hand cut pineapple that had obviously never seen the inside a factory or can.

I surprised myself. I cut my pizza into about 8 pieces and could manage all but one. College boy suggested I just fold it in half and just finish it off, his theory being something about my stomach will think it's less food? Hmmmm maybe he should enter himself in the next 'Let Em Eat' pizza eating contest held here, with strategies like that. I went with my better judgement and got a to-go box for my slice.

I want to come back again next summer and this time sit out on that open air patio. The construction should be wrapped up by then. I will have a cold Somersby cider and watch the sailboats in the bay. I'm fairly certain I will be ordering the same pizza again. I know it's fairly early on in the game to be stuck in a rut already, but I really liked that pizza!

My pizza slice was only in the fridge at home for a couple of minutes before another family member grabbed it and popped open the box. "Awww this must be Mom's pizza!" was followed by the sound of the box being returned to the fridge. Sometimes it pays to like weird stuff on your pizza.

Photos courtesy of https://twitter.com/OntarioTija Thanks Tija!

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Sláinte! The Local Gastropub

Most of my family has been away in our birthplace, Scotland, this summer. I have been home and actually spending quite a bit of time writing travel articles about Argyll, my particular part of that beautiful land, for an about to launch website called Treksavvy. So I was more than due for a wee taste of home when I dropped into the Local Gastropub with my husband and son.

We arrived just before 5:00 pm on a warm summery day, expecting to find a Friday crowd taking up every table, but we were just ahead of the rush it seems and had no trouble finding a cosy booth for three. The windows were flung open to allow the breeze in, and from our booth we could see the more colourful Barrie-ites pass by on the sidewalk. The Gastropub prides itself on its wide selection of local craft beers so my husband ordered a glass of the very light sounding Flying Monkeys Anti Gravity beer. Produced just down the street, you can't get much more local than that!

Me, well I've been on a cider kick for many years now, actually since I was an apprentice chef at an inn in Scotland back in 1984. All the staff were allowed a drink after work, right down to the 15 year old Irish girl washing the pots. I always got a half pint of the sweet cider on tap. Until recently, your choices here in Ontario were few. Strongbow was more or less it and your flavour choices were zero. I was cheered by a recent trip to the local Liquor Store where I found umpteen brands, (Somersby, Molson Canadian, Alexander Keith, Thornbury and Rekorderlig) and some cool flavours like blackberry and wild berry. This Local had a new one for me to try - Waupoos. A product of Picton, Ontario, this cider was light, sweet and delicious! Their website shows a peach one - whoa baby! http://www.countycider.com/

The Local Gastropub has a neat, eclectic menu. It's an offering of all things fresh, local, fun, flavourful with a few tastes of the auld country tossed in and given a Gastropub twist. Where else can you get haggis lollipops with orange marmalade bbq sauce or an ecclefechan butter tart mess? Other more familiar faves with expat Scots are cod and chips with house made spicy ketchup and tartar sauce, or the ploughman's salad (sometimes known as a shepherd's lunch in Scotland). My husband and I ordered the cod and chips. Our son opted for the plainest poutine on the menu.

The poutine arrived in a very hot little cast iron skillet. It was topped with asiago cheese, a neat variation, and piping gravy. The fries were golden and crispy, and the kid enjoyed the unusual poutine with the almost parmesan-y flavour - it all disappeared anyway!

Our fish and chips was presented almost traditionally styled - there was a newspaper below, but perhaps health reasons dictate that a food safe liner be placed on top of that. Too bad. How I love a takeway fish supper from a real chippy wrapped in newspaper! The steam from the hot food gets trapped and everything goes just a little bit mushy. That may sound awful to the uninitiated, but it's a good memory for me.

The Local's cod and chips was very good, I must say. The batter was quite light and crisp. The fish was nice and the tartar sauce was the perfect accompaniment.  The spicy ketchup wasn't overly hot at all, in fact I'm sure I detected a sweetness in it. Molasses? Honey? I should have asked. Great fresh cut fries.

Our server offered us dessert and we almost never order any. But four simple words reeled us in - deep fried Mars Bar. In our most recent travels in Scotland, our son was on a mission to try this legendary confection, but somehow it never happened. What is it about the Scots and deep frying? I recall my first trip back after our immigration to Canada. I was 17 years old and we stopped for lunch in a small west coast fishing village. I was looking for something sort of Canadian to eat and ordered a hamburger. Well, didn't the darn thing come battered and deep fried! It wouldn't have been so bad if the frying oil didn't taste strongly of all the fish they mostly fried there. I am happy to report that the deep fried Mars Bar at the Local Gastropub was nothing like that culinary disappointment of 1981, and was an absolute dream. Inside the (not fishy!) batter was the creamiest melted chocolate bar ever, served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and garnished with a fresh strawberry. Mmmmmm.

We only had an hour there, in early evening, but I think this must be a beehive of fun later on when the locals who frequent this local Local come out and really get going. I can imagine the laughter and live music pouring through the open windows. I can hear the debates - Rangers or Celtic, Leafs or Habs? I must give it a try some night. It looks like a comfortable spot to hoist a pint. Located at 27 Dunlop St. W., Barrie. http://thelocalgastropub.com/

Friday, 1 August 2014

Herb n Sage With Anne

Anne and I were great friends in high school, years ago. I won't specify how many years ago, but let's just say big hair and leg warmers were a thing. Anne and I were so close that we called each other sister-in-laws, as we were dating brothers at the time. She married hers. I did not. Sadly, we lost touch for some 30 years. So you can imagine my joy at reconnecting with my long lost friend, a couple of years ago, through social media! Our first get together was at William's Coffee Pub and we caught up for three hours! We were surprised they didn't kick us out!

Recently, we decided it was time for another lunch and gab fest, so we went looking for a new venue for our chatting and chewing. Herb n Sage had been on my mind recently, having been recommended by an acquaintance, so we made plans to meet there at 2:00 after my shift was done. That late lunch turned out to be an ideal time. When I arrived first, there was only one occupied table inside the restaurant and they soon departed. Mid afternoon, between lunch rush and dinner, is perfect for gabby girls who tend towards marathon lunches!

Anne arrived perhaps 10 minutes after I did and we had our pick of cozy booths, so we picked one near the back and settled in. A very friendly young server brought us menus and explained the specials. Barrielicious was going on and they offered a back bacon on a bun special with app, drink and dessert for $15. I'm mostly vegetarian (other than fish, eggs and dairy) and Anne doesn't each much meat either, so we passed on that offer. We both ordered caesar salad to start, fish and chips and a tall iced tea.

The caesar salad was one of the best I've tasted in a while. It actually had flavour! So many restaurants drizzle on the dressing, while healthier that may be, it doesn't impress me much. I like a caesar that has a bite. That homemade dressing was awesome!

Enter the fish and chips. Nice big, crispy pieces on good fries. The two things that stood out were the house cole slaw and the tartar sauce. The tartar sauce? No, you wouldn't expect a tartar sauce to be a stand-out item on it's own, but it wasn't your from-the-jar diner condiment, but lovingly home made and loaded with flavourful dill. A very nice touch.

The server returned and offered us dessert, as they always do. And I always politely decline. But Anne was looking interested and once the server said those two magic words that combine so well - cheese cake - I was hooked. There's always room for cheesecake ... and every flavour is a good flavour! I was expecting a slice of something dreamy, but Anne and I got our own little personal pan cheesecakes in a round dish, fluffy whipped cream piped around the edges. Anne got cherry. I got mixed summer berry. I don't know what I was anticipating, but it was not the collection of fresh fruit I received. Not canned, not frozen, but straight from the field good. Heaven in a bowl!

How did we eat so much??? I suppose when you drag a meal out for two or three hours in an otherwise empty eatery, it's possible. We felt a little guilty but the meal was absolutely delicious and the company so good, who could blame us? I asked our server if all of this is house made food. Yes, all but the desserts, she replied. Obviously, they have chosen a fabulous dessert supplier then. I wonder who it is?

As two technologically challenged diners struggled to take a selfie or two (don't laugh), our ever helpful server came by and we asked her if she would help us out - end our suffering, really! She snapped a couple of great pics for us. Thank you, young server. I didn't get your name, but you were wonderful. Herb n Sage is wonderful too.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Lazy Tulip Lunch

This food blog was started over a year ago, partly just for fun and partly because I discovered that Barrie was without a food blogger or restaurant reviewer of any kind. It has been a service and a hobby, but never a business. Shawna Bailey, a local virtual assistant, messaged me recently with her ideas about gaining revenue through blogging. She was also interested in my someday dream of perhaps organizing a ghost walk and dinner event in downtown Barrie. Shawna suggested we meet for lunch to talk and the Lazy Tulip, a fave of hers, was chosen.

I have been hoping to try the Lazy Tulip for quite a while. At its 29 Maple St. location, just south of Dunlop St., it is almost next door to my workplace. I quickly tidied myself up from my own cooking shift, changed clothes and skipped over to the Lazy Tulip while hoping I would recognize my lunch date. We only had social media profile pics to go by! No need to worry, I spotted Shawna right away.

We were seated at a small table at the far right wall, near the fireplace. It was the perfect spot for taking in the surroundings and people watching. Oh hello - there's Randy Aywin, owner of the Grilled Cheese Social Eatery! If other local restaurant owners like the LT, it must be good. I love the chalkboard message below the front counter. "A tulip doesn't strive to impress, it doesn't struggle to be different from a rose. It doesn't have to. It is different. There is room in the garden for all flowers." I liked the decor - a mix and match of old and modern, a palette of black, white and splashy tulip red. The white painted stone/brick north wall is especially cool and looks to be the exterior wall of an adjacent building.

Shawna and I chatted a lot right off the bat, and sipped ice cold minted water. Some days, the water jug includes sliced lemon or watermelon instead of fresh herbs, she tells me. I forgot to look at the menu, with all my gabbing, but Shawna already knew what she wanted. She is stuck in a happy rut and looks forward to her meetings at the Tulip so that she can order the free range chicken and brie panini with caramelized onions and cranberry-red pepper jelly. When I finally got my act together, I ordered the Thai tofu wrap with a rustic tomato soup to start.

The soup was very nice. The fresh homemadeness was apparent - flavourful and full of bits of real tomato. The wrap was a work of art on a plate. Beautifully presented and boldly colourful with carrot, tomato, sprouts and organic mixed greens. The tofu is organic too and marinated in soy sauce. (I must try this.) I would also love to know the exact ingredients to that wicked thai peanut sauce that totally made that delightful wrap! The other great thing about the Thai wrap? The crunch! That crunch says fresh to me.

Neat little place with a conciousness about healthy people and a healthy planet. Eat vegetarian, gluten free, organic, free range, fair trade and local at the Lazy Tulip in what their website aptly describes as "a quaint and funky setting". No taste has been sacrificed in the name of healthy living. You will be surprised at how good the good tastes. Thanks for showing me, Shawna!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Got Any Dip For That?

Last week, I took a trip to Midland for the Ontario's Best Butter Tart Festival with my volunteer taste testers in tow. I was born with the unfortunate lack of any kind of sweet tooth, but lucky for me, I have some very supportive family members willing to take one for the team. My husband and son stood in long lines to get their sample tarts, then had to endure a barrage of questions from me - is it runny? How's the pastry? Do you detect any particular spices? Then there were photos to be taken before even one bite was to be had. Brave, brave men are these unsung heroes of food tasting!

When they were nearly sugared out, the boys stopped at one last booth for a final tart. I had stopped in front of it, attracted by the bright yellow display, signature colour of Mad Michael's Restaurant & Bakery, located in nearby Wyebridge, Ontario. I was explaining to my team how I had once had the pleasure of visiting Mad Michael's on a media tour, when a woman in the crowd asked if I had eaten there. I told her that I had only sampled their home made lemonade that day, but I hope to have a meal there one day. As the woman behind the sunglasses offered her recommendations of Mad Michael's, I began to think that the voice sounded somewhat familiar and that the stranger in the sea of 25,000 festival goers might be someone that I had met previously somewhere.

Taking a risk, I stopped her mid sentence with "Do you sell Epicure Spices?"  She tilted her head and smiled. "Yes, I do." Then it finally hit me that I had met her on at least two occasions before at my friend Candy's home in Phelpston. She told me that she was holding another spice party there that coming Monday, and I replied. "I know. I'm going!"

When Monday arrived, I headed to Phelpston, the quietest of rural villages about 15 minutes north of Barrie, and went to Candy's house where Epicure spice representative and fellow tart festival attendee, Julie Laurin, had set up some delicious displays. I love home parties, but only the ones that sell food related items, because ... well ... samples to eat! Unless, winter storms, illness or work get in the way, I never turn down an invitation to one of these fun get togethers.

I must call it by it's proper name, Epicure Selections. The spices and dip mixes are always the first things that come to mind when I think of Epicure, but the company is so much more I have come to find out. Founder, Sylvie Rochette, was a young mother living in British Columbia, when she started growing her own herbs and flavourings to better feed her children in this world of artificial food ingredients. Her hobby grew into a booth at a farmers' market, which turned into a bigger venture first called Victorian Epicure Inc. Once the company began to do tasting parties and take on independent consultants, it spread across Canada quickly. Women were quick to appreciate Sylvie's twin goals "As a working mother, I longed to spend more time with my young family and provide them with delicious, nutritious meals that were quick and easy to prepare and not loaded with unhealthy ingredients."

Julie is a great sales rep. She never talks for very long, just gives a bit about the company's roots and an overview of what's new in the catalogue, any specials or changes to the products, because she knows girls just wanna eat! The dining room table is a colourful and inviting display, with a dazzling assortment of products on view - loose leaf teas, salad dressing mixes, dip mixes, dry rubs, mustards, sauces, and gadgets. The outer circle is ringed with small cups of many of the dry mixes combined with mayonnaise and sour cream, labelled and ready for the tasting. Big bowls of pretzels, cucumbers and carrots are nearby, ready for the dipping. A sweet version of the cheese ball has been mixed up and is surrounded by thin slices of green apple.

The kitchen is a busy spot too. Candy's own Epicure collection lines a wall near the stove, where it remains full time, she tells me. There is a tray with chicken breast pieces, all seasoned differently, ready for nibbling, as well as one of bruschetta and another with 3 oil based bread dippers.

So many yummy dips! Who doesn't love a good dip? I have a theory just about anything tastes good with dip. I tried so many of them and I couldn't decide which one I liked best. So I tried them all again ... and again! Epicure has nearly 30 fabulous spice blends, out of which I have tried 3 Onion, Chipotle Bacon Cheddar, French Onion, Lemon Dilly, Summer Berry Fruit and French Onion to name a few.

Julie offered to put the kettle on if anyone wanted to try one of the several teas on the table, but the evening was warm and most everyone opted for the cool citrusy punch that Candy had made. But the fragrance of the loose leaf teas was incredible. To twist the lid off a jar and take a sniff, was to float to heaven. Coco Vanilla White Tea, Creme de la Creme Earl Grey and Decaf Yoga Chai - intoxicating!

A dozen women grazed and chatted, and Julie answered questions about things like gluten free items (all Epicure products are gf now) and sugar and sodium issues, while the products pretty much sold themselves. In time, a line up ladies clutching catalogues and credit cards formed at Julie's make shift office at the end of Candy's kitchen counter. What did I buy? Actually, mindful of my budget, I intended not to buy anything but just snack and socialize. In the end, I decided on a couple of items for one of my budding chefs at home. My middle son is another champion volunteer eater, mostly when it comes to meat entrees, and a hobby cook with an expanding repertoire of dishes he can cook. So I ordered a silicone waffle mold for the oven and a jar of Epicure Burger Spice containing onion, garlic, red bell pepper, sea salt, black pepper, herbs and spices and nothing unpronounceable.

I am looking forward to receiving my order. When Candy delivers it, we can perhaps have a coffee and a visit. I am looking forward to trying out the new gadget and spice mix and seeing the young cook find some new excitement in the kitchen. I am definitely looking forward to the next Epicure party!

*Bottom 2 photos courtesy of http://www.epicureselections.com/en/

Monday, 26 May 2014

Poutine Invasion

It’s spreading! Arm yourselves with forks and as many paper napkins as you can gather! No, it’s not anything as sinister as an invasion of killer bees, but get ready because poutine has crossed the border from Canada into the U.S. and it will certainly be making its way to your town. The question is not if, but when.
If you live in a northern border state, or an area where Canadian retirees like to winter, you may see this strange dish appear on local menus. But believe it – poutine is poised to be everywhere sooner or later. Pronounce it poo-teen or get fancy with a bit of a French Canadian twist and ask for poot-seen because this messy snack originally comes from dairy country in the province of Quebec.

I remember the first time I learned of poutine’s existence. Back in 1986, I was visiting a boyfriend in his home town, a francophone community in northern Ontario, and I spied poutine on a cafe menu. “What on earth is that?” I asked. He was amazed that I hadn’t heard of it before. It was very common in areas with a large French speaking community, but completely unknown where I was living in southern Ontario, a five hour drive from where my boyfriend lived.  He explained that it was basically french fries, cheese and gravy. My first reaction was yuck! I didn’t try any that day.

There’s more to poutine than that cursory description. There must be, otherwise why all the excitement? Start with good fries. Nice big, chunky potatoes deep fried to deep brown on the outside, while remaining soft on the inside. The minute they hit the plate, drop a generous handful of fresh cheese curds on top and drown it all in a not-too-thick, peppery, brown gravy and serve immediately. It sounds like a bit of a swamp, I know, and you will need those napkins I mentioned.

Hold the phone – what are cheese curds? It wasn’t until I was discussing poutine with a cousin in Germany last week that I discovered that the eating of cheese curds as a snack is also very regional. Outside of Quebec, Ontario and a few other adjacent areas, curds are simply part of the cheese making process and nothing more. The best curds for poutine purposes are the freshly made cheese solids from white cheddar. Ideally, they should squeak when you bite into them.

Well, I married my boyfriend and he moved to my city just outside of Toronto. It was probably a good 15 years later on before poutine was seen for sale anywhere in this part of the province. Burger King was actually one of the first chains to see the attraction and place it on their regular menu, where it remains today.  It is interesting to witness the slow southward migration of a regional dish and the mainstreaming of it, much like what happened with the hamburger and the pizza. Poutine first appeared in Quebec in the 1950s, was found in northern Ontario by the 1980s, arrived in southern Ontario around 2000 and has broken into more than a few American states now. It would appear there is no stopping poutine.

Poutine is not a health food. Poutine has been described as a “heart attack on a plate” by some, and is not meant for daily consumption I would say. There is great debate over the true meaning of the word, but legend has it that when asked to top some fried potatoes with curds and gravy, Fernand Lachance, purported inventor of said dish, complained that it would “faire une maudite poutine” – make a damn mess! Messy, salty, not dairy free, loaded with grease, so why eat it? That question can only be answered after you try it.

I took a bit of a poutine tour in my city this week. I clogged my arteries in the name of foodie science. Next week, I should probably go on a garden salad tour to achieve some balance, but for research purposes I visited three local eateries known for serving a fairly decent poutine and dug in. I took my family along with me. Funny – at the first stop I had three teenagers with me, only one at the second place and I dined alone for the last one.

We began at a newly opened chain restaurant called Smoke’s Poutinerie. If someone can open a restaurant devoted solely to poutine, you know poutine has hit the big time. Can you really serve just poutine? Sure you can, if you offer a bazillion different extra toppings for it. I got the traditional poutine with vegetarian gravy. One of my sons opted for a topping of double smoked bacon, while my older son went for chicken fajita, which comes with grilled chicken, roasted red peppers, sour cream and salsa. Calorie count unknown – didn’t dare ask!

A few days later, the younger son and I were looking for lunch again and we popped into another chain restaurant, this one a burger place with an industrial vibe, called The Works. The young fellow had a hamburger with onion rings, while I ordered just poutine, as I wasn’t very hungry. Well, joke’s on me because their poutine is simply huge! It comes in a metal bucket, for pete’s sake.  It was quite tasty, no doubt about that, much the same flavour wise as what we ate at Smoke’s. I took half of it home for later!

With all my dining partners and once eager assistants all poutined out, I headed downtown one more time, this time alone. I stopped at a brightly painted green and yellow box of a place, a chip wagon called Jerry’s Fries. Jerry’s has been there probably 20 years now, dishing out fish and chips at first and adding the poutine later. They must have mastered it because as I was waiting for my food, I encountered a French Canadian gentleman and his two little girls, who had just ordered and extra large poutine. He told me that this was his go-to poutinerie. He knew that the potatoes used by Jerry were locally grown and that the cheese curds came from Quebec. Even the teenage boy doing all the chopping and frying inside the booth was enthusiastic and informative.

I carried my overflowing cardboard box of yummy stuff a few blocks down to the waterfront and found a vacant picnic table for myself next to the sparkling lake water. The francophone man had assured me that I would like this poutine the best and, after a few bites, I began to believe he was right. I can’t quite put into words why this was the best tasting poutine I had sampled, but perhaps it was a combination of the fresh, authentic ingredients along with the small business type of care that went into the food. By strange coincidence, a few minutes after I began eating, a man on a bicycle came along and sat down on the rocks by the water and began to play a concertina. Thank you, mystery man, for the Québécois atmosphere music. 

*First published at http://www.sogoodblog.com/2014/05/20/poutine-a-canadian-favorite/ on May 20, 2014 as a guest blog.

Monday, 28 April 2014

The Curious Nibbler Goes To The Food Show

Who doesn't love a food show? For me, it brings back great memories of sampling my way through the food building at the Canadian National Exhibition when I was a kid. I'm fairly certain I first tasted oka cheese there. Perhaps I've always been a foodie. The Savour The Flavours Show held this past weekend at Tangle Creek Golf & Country Club was the perfect event for a curious nibbler like me.

Tangle Creek is a lovely setting. I had been there once before for an outdoor wedding a few years ago. It was nice in itself to take a short drive just beyond Barrie's westernmost border into the countryside on a sunny spring day. The show was held inside the clubhouse, which isn't massive, but has a cottagey but modern feel to it, and is situated on a hill with a fantastic bird's eye view of golfers and farmers for miles around.

Techno music pumped from the Smokinstein food truck setting up just outside the front doors. I didn't see any obvious signage proclaiming that a food show was inside, but the food truck and the multitude of vendor vehicles in the parking lot was a dead give-away. Inside, I was greeted by a very friendly young woman at the pass desk. I felt like a genuine V.I.P. when she looked my name up on 'the list' and handed me my swag bag. I could really get used to this!

Mary Macleod's Shortbread booth was my first stop. It's not that I have a big sweet tooth, (I really don't), but anything Scottish related stops me in my tracks every time. Scotland is my birthplace and also the location of a very old inn where I did part of my cook apprenticeship many years ago. So I stopped at Mary's and a well spoken grand daughter, possibly a great grand daughter, gave me a sample of their chocolate shortbread, and explained how their business got started. The verdict: melts in your mouth!

I took a look at various vendors, but some more than others grabbed my attention, so I would stop for a chat. I tarried at SeriTeas because I'm a tea drinker ... or so I thought. Apparently, I don't know as much as I thought I did about brewing teas. No wonder I don't like green tea, (too bitter in my past experience), as it seems the boiled water must cool a few degrees before steeping the leaves. Oh.

Cottage Country Vegan; ah what can I say about Carolyn Allgeier? What a lovely soul, full of knowledge and warmth, passion and dedication. At least that's what I took away from our short interaction at her booth. Being a quasi vegetarian myself, or a vegan with training wheels as she so smartly put it, I was a sponge for those few minutes soaking up the information she offered. Some day, I must sign up for one of her all day culinary classes held in the kitchen of her house on Georgian Bay.

Hello, kilted gentleman! I'm so glad that no one walked into my back as I stopped dead in my tracks at the booth belonging to the aptly named Highlander Brew Co. Very soon, I knew that the kiltie was a Wilson of Glasgow descent, the tartan he was wearing was the Canada tartan, and that Highlander Brew Co. produces several varieties out of their South River, Ontario brewery. I'm going to check the LCBO this summer for these inspired names: Blacksmith Smoked Porter, Scottish Ale and Twisted Spruce. No, I did not buy a sample ticket. Some of us Scots are as notoriously frugal as they say!

Harvest Share Food box caught my eye too. Based out of the Holland Marsh, where I grew up, the Verkaik family has been farming in the south end of the marsh for 80 years. They have branched out from simple market gardening to selling seasonal produce in boxes that customers sign up for in advance. The contents vary as the growing years evolves. We had a great gab about everything from heirloom carrots to mutual Holland Marsh friends and family.

During my childhood playing in those swampy woods, I had only noticed in passing the dark growths of fungus on birch trees and never thought of it again. At Annanda Chaga's informative booth, I received a mini education on the healing properties, long known to aboriginal people, of the chaga mushroom. The black chaga, relative to shiitaki mushrooms, forms over injuries to the tree and forms a 'bandage'. It saves the tree, yet lives from the tree. I sampled a mild tea that is known to detox, de-stress, fight disease and add vitamins.

Suprsingly, especially to me, my most memorable and moving conversation of the day was perhaps with Steve Benson of The Restaurant Store of Barrie. Food service supplies don't exactly jump out and grab me. I work with them every day. But Steve was very warm and friendly, a born salesman of course. He told me about their free knife sharpening service, among other things, and told me that they happily accept donations for the Seasons Centre for Grieving Children at any time too. Steve explained that this charity is near to his heart ever since a fellow motorcycle enthusiastic who was suffering from pancreatic cancer once said to him "Yes, my children already go there." In the end, I left with a supply catalogue and goosebumps on my arms.

When I left the food show, I found that I had eaten a lot less than I had imagined. It wasn't for the lack of yummy samples - there were plenty! Somehow I exited feeling filled up anyway. The tasty tidbits are a great draw of course, but I found that the interesting people were the biggest treat of all.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Kenzington Thursdays

My middle son, Patrick, is an almost 20 year old, 6 foot 2 inch sports nut with a big appetite and a particular penchant for a well made hamburger. He spends Monday to Thursday at Humber College in Toronto studying Sports Marketing (naturally!) and arrives back in Barrie for the weekend on the first GO train. Patrick brings with him his laptop, four days worth of laundry and an immediate need to eat something! The big fella always says he is good with any eatery that I choose, with the exception of Indian or vegetarian fare, which is partly a joke because he knows those are two of my favourite cuisines. Brat.

I had been hearing good things about the Kenzington Burger Bar for some time. The name always came up in discussions about what might be Barrie's best burger. A few months ago, a couple of my high school friends and I were looking for a casual place to grab a bite down town before we saw The Spoons and Saga at the nearby Sound Empire. We settled on Kenzington at 40 Dunlop St. E.. It certainly impressed us girls, but would it score high in the standings with Patrick, the ultimate burger fan?

Patrick takes his hamburgers very seriously. He is a master of the 'cue at home, and is currently longing for our patio to reappear from under the winter snow so that he can produce some fine grilled meats once again. He has been a world burger seeker on his travels so far, with good finds in the U.S., passable in France and non existent in Scotland! When he arrived at the Allandale Waterfront station a few weeks ago, I asked him if he wanted to try what might very well be Barrie's best burger. As you can imagine, he was all for it.

Our first visit, burger aficionado and food blogger, was on a snowy night. We sat at one of the tall tables in the front window and watched the winter weary citizens of Barrie pass by. The menu is not complicated, but does have a formula that might require a bit of explaining on the first visit. We both chose the brioche bun, which is not yet printed on the menu, as our bread. The brioche is light, airy and as I call it 'squishable', a necessity when the burger is bigger than my mouth. There are 5 choices of meat. You can bet the farm that Patrick will order prime rib beef and I am a fan of the black bean veggie patty. You have 7 options for a side dish, and so far we have yet to stray from the delightful home sliced yukon fries. All burgers come with lettuce, tomato and onion, but the fun part is selecting your burger style. By that, I mean you choose from a list of funky names such as the porky, the black & blue or the dunlop, with each moniker describing a set list of eclectic ingredients.

On my first visit, with the girls, I chose the dunlop which includes roasted red pepper, spinach and goat cheese. I found the goat cheese to be overpowering. But if you love goat cheese, you will be beyond thrilled. My next time out, and actually ever since, I moved on to the burger style called prime, which I find absolutely magnificent. Prime is a gorgeous layering of grainy mustard, brie cheese, chipotle mayo and crunchy little fried onion strings. I cannot seem to pry myself out of my prime rut. I'm not saying this is a bad thing.

My burger loving son has been more adventurous. If memory serves me correctly, I believe he has worked his way through the cowboy, rodeo, porky and most recently the kenzie in our 4 or 5 visits to Kenzington. The kenzie includes a fried egg, something new for Patrick, but he liked it so I expect to be buying more eggs when barbecue season returns to our back yard.


On our first visit together, Patrick and I were puzzled and delighted by the small ramekin of zesty sauce that came with our yukon fries. It was delicious, creamy, reminiscent of all dressed potato chips but completely unidentifiable to either of us. When our server returned, we inquired. "What is this wonderful sauce? We just can't figure it out." We did feel a little silly when he told us that it was a house made specialty - ketchup and mayo. Oh. If you've ever seen the comedy film, 'Stepbrothers', you'll know that this same condiment is fought over by 2 idiots who refer to it as 'fancy sauce'.

The service is great at Kenzington's too. We are always treated like friends, shown to the nicest available table and served with both professionalism and humour. Somehow the Kenzington Burger Bar has managed to create a unique vibe, a comfortable place that is both bar and restaurant, both casual and upscale. I'm fairly sure that you could easily bring any friend, guest or family member of any age to Kenzington and have a very nice time. The place was hopping the Friday night my girls and I popped in, and we did wait maybe 10 minutes for a table, but Thursdays are more laid back, always a place to sit to warm up and fill up.

As for filling up, you know I have never yet managed to finish my dinner at Kenzingtons! No matter what or when I eat earlier in the day, I just cannot do it. I mentioned that fact to my server last week. He pointed to Patrick, who was happily downing my left overs, and said "Well, that's why you bring that guy, isn't it?"

Monday, 6 January 2014

Confessions Of A Granola Convert

Granola never appeared once on any shopping list I ever made. Not ever. Why would it? Nobody in  my household, including me, was interested in clumps of dusty, overly sweet bits of uninteresting mystery nuts and fruits glued together with some sort of sugar syrup. I had the vague idea that it was supposed to be good for you, but it certainly didn't look all that good. I certainly had better things to spend my money on than something fairly unappealing that was destined to sit in the back of the pantry untouched for months. The closest I ever came to being a granola fan was back in the 1980s when I was living in the UK and I had a brief love affair with the packaged breakfast muesli called Alpen. Even that product lost its appeal to me, either over time or by adjustment to ingredients for North American tastes.

I was excited to be asked by Fran Kruse, co-owner of Not Yer Granny's Granola, to come and observe her while she and her husband/business partner, Mark, made a batch of their product, but I admittedly was not over the top excited about the product. I still had my long held notions about granola. I can tell you, in all honesty, I was completely transformed and converted by the first delicious mouthful I took. No word of a lie - I went from yawn to wow in under five seconds!

We trudged in the side door of the kitchen facility, my photographer son and I, leaving the worst of a Barrie winter outside, and were greeted by the sweet aroma of orange in the air. Fran and Mark were in the midst of making a batch of what I think is their best granola flavour offerings, Hello Orange. The near finished product was being toasted in the oven on parchment lined baking pans. After giving one pan a bit of a stir for even cooking, Fran passed Mitchell and I some little sample packages to try

The first one was called Maple Me Happy. As Fran said, how can you eat something with a name like that and still be grumpy? I was hesitant. Long years ago, as a somewhat greedy child, I once overindulged in a tall stack of pancakes and never could face them nor the taste of maple syrup again, but in the name of foodie science, I ventured forth. Surprise, no in your face maple taste! How can this be, I wondered. Fran explained that it is the fake so called pancake syrup that is so sickly sweet and overly mapley (if that is even a word). How can I describe that first taste I took? Pleasantly surprising, that much is for sure. Nice toasty, loose seeds and oats, mixed with big pieces of real walnut and the most flavourful cranberries and cherries that literally burst out with flavour. My teen son tried his sample too, first out of politeness I think, but then kept going and eventually gobbled up all our combined sample packs on the car ride home!

Why is Fran and Mark's granola so good? Firstly, they don't aim to be a granola maker, they aim to be the granola maker. They aim to make a stand out product and have their granola be the very best. They have been researching and testing for a good year now and launched Not Yer Granny's Granola in August. The discerning buyers at the Mariposa Market and Nicholyn Farms, to name just a few, have welcomed their product onto their shelves. And why wouldn't they? The Kruses start with carefully sourced, fresh, natural ingredients, mix and toast it all by hand, and add no preservatives. It is as genuinely home made a product as you could buy.

If you haven't figured it out already, Not Yer Granny's Granola isn't just delicious, it's definitely good for you! Of course you can have it for breakfast, and of course it makes a great substitute for trail mix, but as a topping for yoghurt and fresh fruits, (add a scoop of peanut butter as Fran likes to), you have a much better mid afternoon work snack than a doughnut or chocolate bar. For just such an occasion, the Kruses have also created a new snack item, Javanola, containing a nice mix of cocoa, dark chocolate and espresso to pick you right up. Local nutritionist, Katherine Parent, of Make Good Choices Holistic Nutrition Counselling, makes Not Yer Granny's Granola available in her office.

So why is Not Yer Granny's Granola not your granny's granola? Fran is trying to shake our preconceived notions that all granola is dry, tasteless hippy dippy food. She goes a step farther by referring to her product as granolahhh on her packing. You start off thinking blah and quickly move to ahhh. I certainly did.

Want to sample the goodies like a foodie? Next weekend, January 11th and 12th, head over to the 5th Annual Women's Show being held at Bradford Greenhouses at 4346 County Rd. 90, just west of Barrie. Fran will be handing out lots of free samples. If you are not an instant convert like me, I want to hear about it. I would be quite shocked.

Fran gave me a full sized bag of her Pumpkin Pizzazz granola as we were leaving. Unlike other bags of granola that never made it into my cupboards because I never bought them, this bag never made it because the family went a little crazy over the stuff when I brought it home. Most were on-the-spot converts too, with the "I won't like this." attitude very quickly falling by the wayside. In truth, we probably still don't care for most granolas, but we certainly enjoy this one! My ever dramatic teenage daughter, one arm stuck into the bag, was heard saying "This stuff is so good, I could cry!" 

Check out Not Yer Granny's Granola on the web http://www.notyergrannysgranola.com/ Fran would really love it if you 'Liked' her page on Facebook too! https://www.facebook.com/NotYerGrannysGranola