Saturday, 5 November 2016

Nibbling and Sipping in Toronto

I am a little jealous. Yes, I am. Last winter, my daughter moved into the cutest little room in a century home in Toronto, in Baldwin Village, a stone's throw from Chinatown and Kensington Market. To step out the front door is to step into the shadow of the iconic CN Tower, and into a sea of multicultural passersby all heading to funky little coffee shops, ethnic markets and indie mercantiles. The world is here. Chinese traders, hippies of all ages, art students, musicians, pot heads, baristas, and cyclists, Rich, poor, gay, straight, vegan, carnivore, young and old. These neighbourhoods are alive!

So I took the bus to Toronto last weekend - city driver I am not! My girl met me at Union Station and she set me up with a TTC rider pass, which I certainly needed as she whisked me all over the downtown area, both above ground and below, by bus, streetcar, subway and on foot, until my usually excellent sense of direction was mush.

After dropping my bags off at her place, she asked me what I would like to do next. Well, eat of course! We had encountered so many tantalizing smells of cooking on our way to her home, scents of garlic and ginger, the multilayered spices of Chinese and Indian cuisine, hints of citrus from open air markets and freshly ground fair trade coffees. I wanted in on that, but where do we start?

Don't ask me how we got there, but our first stop was actually a chain restaurant that  did not seem like a chain restaurant. Before looking it up later, we assumed it was a one-off eatery, as it appeared very natural in its surroundings, sort of rustic in decor and so fitting to the style of the neighbourhood that it must have evolved here. We had stumbled upon Bare Burger at 111 Dundas St. W, and we were glad we did!

Likely you have tried a couple of the local burger places in Barrie where you choose your patty, bread, toppings, sauces and sides from the menu and the kitchen creates a unique burger for you. Or you can pick a pre-curated hamburger already designed to please. It took us a while to decide. Part of my dilemma, as a nearly full time vegetarian, was the surprising amount of choices I had. Normally, there is a veggie burger on the menu. Bare Burger has three! In the end, both of us opted for the Farmstead Burger, which is a sweet potato and kale patty served with the most dreamy (and messy) green hummus, tomatoes, baby kale and a avocado basil dressing. Yum-eee! Four thumbs up.

Next, she zoomed me over to Roncesvalles Avenue where we perused some kitschy little shops before stopping in at Extra Butter for the best chai latte she had found in town yet. Small, unassuming and sparely decorated, my daughter and I sat sipping our fragrant lattes while wondering at the seemingly hand printed faux wallpaper. Is this silver paint and a Sharpie? Someone with a steady hand and a lot of patience must work here, and she was right - this is the best chai ever!

Many stores later, we rested our shop-weary bones in a comfy booth at the Black Bull Tavern at 298 Queen St. W. at Soho St. We enjoyed a couple of tall, cool ciders in this friendly 180 year old pub before strolling on home for the night.

On Sunday morning, more magical mystery touring on the TTC, and this time we found ourselves sitting in a window-side booth in Golden Griddle looking across at the famed Maple Leaf Gardens. We fortified ourselves with the breakfast buffet before heading out to explore more of Toronto's heart, starting with a look inside the beautifully laid-out Loblaws store in the old hockey venue. Be sure to check out their amazing cake and pastry display, if you get a chance to drop in.

She has been dying to show me a certain little bohemian tea room, so we headed to a street car stop to catch a ride. We could hear some faint techno music in the distance. Was it coming from a shop or an approaching car? As it got closer, and louder, we finally saw a customized bicycle jacked up twice the normal height with what looked like a home stereo, amp and a generator strapped to the sides, pumping out a steady dance beat while Groucho Marx's double peddled steadily along. I have to say - I love Toronto!

The last stop on Margaret's must-show-mom tour was Bampot on Harbord St. Warm, cozy and cavernous, steps go up only to go down again, couch enclosures, pillow-strewn window booths, curtains, eclectic art and a massive wall of board games and tea. Lots of tea. I wanted to sit on a pile of cushions at a low table but my back and legs asked me not to, so I had to comply. Instead, we picked a nice (normal) table near the front door and picked out a game to play.

The tea menu is like nothing I have ever seen before - so many types and sub-types, detailed flavour descriptions and healing properties on a menu that seems more like a tea reference book. Margaret chose a milky honey spice tea, while I was immediately hooked by the name Crabby Rab's Hot Toddy, described as "Inspired by a Scottish granda as crotchety as he was kind, this is the closest you will get to an alcoholic beverage in an unlicensed tea room.'' The menu called it smoky and peaty, words more often used to characterize a whisky, and they were very accurate. Even the aroma, with my eyes closed, brought me back to the small Highland villages of my early childhood and the smell of the cottage fireplaces. Amazing that a tea can do that.

So yes, I am fairly envious of my daughter's adopted city and all the fun little shops, one-of-a-kind eateries, human oddities and the kaleidoscopic mix of architecture, ethnicity and lifestyle. Toronto, you and I have been neighbours for years now and I feel like I hardly know you. Let's work on that, okay?

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Bourbon at The Simcoe Hotel: If These Walls Could Talk ...

When this farm girl arrived in the big city to attend college, the population of Barrie was around 45,000 people. I was excited to be living in an urban area for the first time in my life, eager to spread my wings, make new friends and have a bit of fun. I was given bits of advice from those who had lived in Barrie longer than I but, of all the many pearls of wisdom given by locals of my age group, I only really remember one. Never be seen coming out of the Simcoe Hotel. 

I am not exactly sure why I was supposed to avoid this particular establishment as there were plenty of other taverns of a similar vintage in Downtown Barrie - the Wellington, American, Clarkson and the Clifton over on Bradford Street. They were all perhaps a little rough around the edges but very popular nonetheless. So why the Simcoe? That advice was given to me by a long forgotten person in late 1982, and in all the years since then, I have never been in. Until today, that is!

If the Y.M.C.A. once proclaimed that Barrie is the wickedest town in the Dominion, how bad must the Simcoe Hotel have been earn the honour/dishonour of being the most unsavoury in Barrie? These are stories that I would really like to hear and I hope that some readers might share a few as I am very curious now. Why was this fabulously unique and historic flat iron building held, at least for a time, in such low regard? Oh please, do tell!

The current iconic building that anchors Five Points today was built in 1877 by Michael Shanacy, to replace an 1850s era hotel that was destroyed by fire the previous year. I understand that the former structure, also known as the Simcoe Hotel, had a reputation for wild west style barroom brawls in the 1860s and 1870s. So in through the door that so many farmers, lumbermen and traders walked in and staggered out, I stepped into the front dining room to have some breakfast.

Today, the sign above the south facing entrance says Bourbon, which is the latest (since 2013) eatery to be located within the walls of the Simcoe Hotel building. The rooms upstairs are still rental units, but the restaurant and bar area got a major face lift in 2007 when it became the (now gone) Flat Iron Grill. The Bourbon offers popular fare such as caesar salad, wings, poutine, nachos and burgers today, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings, breakfast.

My husband, Ron, and I took a little tour through Downtown Barrie this Saturday morning and stopped in to old Governor Simcoe's namesake for a bite. I almost wish I had seen the before to appreciate the after, because what we found was a lovely little place, neat, clean, modern with a million dollar view of Kempenfelt Bay. On this sunny day, in this quiet eatery, I found it hard to imagine one hundred plus years of inebriated ruffians being tossed bodily out this very front door onto a dirt street. Darn.

Our server was a delightful lady with a soft voice and gentle manner. She brought us some robust coffees and we awaited our breakfasts in a comfortable 10 year old booth while looking out 140 year old windows.  The easterly view would have changed in 1994 when the Sam The Record Man store burned. The western view met the same fate with the loss of the Wellington Hotel in 2007. Somehow, the ol' Simcoe still stands strong.

Mmmm breakfast! Ron got the classic bacon and egg breakfast and I got a fluffy cheese and mushroom omelette. The only thing wicked or sinful that I encountered at the Simcoe Hotel today were the Bourbon's fried mashed potatoes! Yum!

This blog post was originally written by me for and published there on August 8, 2016. Please check out this wonderful free, searchable online museum of Barrie's photo, audio and video treasurers from the 1880s until today!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Rock & Roll & Ribs: Switching to Glide With the Ninth Line

It was hotter than Hades outside, as it has been most of this summer. A barbecued rib festival was set up on the yellow, sun-fried grass next to a grocery store parking lot in a town a half hour drive away from my home. I still had a mountain of packing and organizing to do before our family was due to depart the next morning for a trip to the state of New York. Yet, I had to get there, just had to. Couldn't miss it. Did I mention that I don't even like ribs?

So what brings a time-strapped, shade loving vegetarian to a meat centered food festival 50 km from home? Nostalgia, that's what. My husband and sons were along for the chow down, but I was there to steal back just a little bit of my youth. The Bradford Ribfest has been held there for the past 4 years, just down the road from where I went to high school. The event was set up in front of a Zehrs store that didn't exist back then. I had fluffy hair and Road Runner jeans, and this was a farmer's field. But on this day, a concert stage set up next to Holland Street held the promise of a short trip back in time.

First things first. Nobody goes to a food festival and doesn't eat, so off we went in search of something munchable. Two of the guys are big rib fans, so they lined up under 2 separate giant barbecue banners. Patrick chose Richmond Hill based Pig Kahuna and Ron went to Billy Bones, out of Michigan, U.S.A., for his dinner. Mitchell grabbed some pulled pork and I wandered over to Billy Bob's Bloomin Onion to grab one of their signature deep fried offerings to share, and a poutine for myself. We met up under the welcome shade of a dining tent.

Since this event was a competition, and the vendors welcome being judged, I feel that I can put aside my usual rule against negative reviews this one time. Pig Kahuna was very disappointing. Perhaps the non-existent queue should have been a hint. Perhaps Canadian barbecue still has some catching up to do with our American counterparts? In any case, my #1 rib fan son, who dines  at every rib fest or barbecue joint he can get to, got a box of the driest, most sauce-less and flavour-free ribs he has ever eaten. He eventually went back and asked for more sauce but it helped little. They were a poor cousin to the juicy, tangy ribs my husband was happily attacking next to him. Patrick did not finish his ribs, which is unheard of.

Bloomin Onion, were you in competition too? You certainly lived up to your name, as your crispy onion delights were huge and superb. I loved the dipping sauce too, although I should have been smarter and asked for more of it. However, poutine masters you are not. The fries were good but sprinkling on a bare ration of some sort of grated white cheese, with a less than generous ladle of warm gravy, was not cool. Not cool.

Okay, we ate. The reviews were mixed but this nibbler was not really there for the food, odd as that may sound. My eyes wandered to the stage area as show time approached. I began to look for some familiar faces because I was expecting to see quite a few of my former classmates as we gathered to watch a 30 minute show 36 years in the making. For a half an hour, the 1980s would be given back to us in the form of the Ninth Line, as they sang the same songs they had often performed on the stage in Bradford District High School's cafetorium.

I positioned myself by the stage in hopes of getting some good photographs of the band. My vantage point turned out to be ideal for classmate spotting too. So many of my former school mates turned up - it was absolutely fantastic!  Nancy Jean, Marcia, Lori, Dawn, Jo-Anne, Rob, Jim, Joe, Jeremy, Mike, Matt, Rhonda, Darryl ... all appeared, some out of the recent past and others not seen for nearly 4 decades. Big hugs. Shouts of "Oh my God!" High waves across the crowded field. Short conversations yelled over loud music.

I know of no other event, other than our actual high school reunion 7 years ago, that attracted so many BDHS alumni. The big draw, that seemed to surprise even the Ribfest organizers, was very obviously the Ninth Line. Possibly, the Ninth Line band members themselves were equally surprised. The boys, including a sound engineer, a lawyer and a professional musician, stepped onstage to a welcome worthy of the Rolling Stones. Forget side entertainment at a food festival, this was the main event, a sold-out show in a huge arena. This was our band from our time.

For a short while, we were transported, brought back to our teen years. Country kids and small town kids, grooving the music of the Beatles, Eagles and Kings, remembering a time when our biggest stressors were math homework and finding a prom date. Matt, Joe, Mike, Jim and Peter may be part-time musicians today, but to me they are more like the pilots of a time machine with the dial set to 1980. Thanks for the awesome trip, guys. I look forward to the next voyage of the Ninth Line.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

A Delicious Revolution Rocks Barrie

I buy a lot of frozen pizzas and chicken fingers. There! I said it. My secret is out. Ironically, those  purchases are mostly the result of my busy life as a full time cook who produces endless healthy, from scratch meals for low income people, and my part time endeavor writing about said healthy food! Well, how do you like that? Hopefully, that little confession of mine makes you feel just a little bit better about your own less-than-perfect shopping/dining habits, but you and I can do better. Yes, we can.

Real food is the best food. We all know that. The days of Beaver Cleaver's mother baking (non-bagged) cookies in her high heels and pearls are long gone, but we can try, little by little, to reclaim some of the lost skills of our grandmothers and re-introduce some wholesome foods back into our kitchens. Plant a little veggie garden - even a tomato plant in a balcony pot. Make a one dish casserole - Heaven knows there are enough online instructional videos for those! Shop more often at a local organics/health food store, farmers market, farmer, or simply spend more time in the meat, dairy and produce areas of your grocery store, leaving those highly processed foods in the centre aisles alone for a bit. Easier said than done, but I'm working on it!

It's not that we don't want to eat healthy food - we really do! Life often gets in the way of eating the good foods that we need for that healthy life. Lucky for us in Barrie, there is a growing movement by some smart-minded local businesses towards creating healthy convenience foods. Many of these small producers are also offering delivery services. I met a few of them at the recent Food Revolution Day event at Barrie's Southshore Centre.

Whoa, back up a minute, what on Earth is Food Revolution Day? The movement, started by chef Jamie Oliver, aims to tackle some very important issues facing our food supply - good food education, access to nutritious food, food waste, sustainability of our supply, cooking as a life skill and supporting ethically produced foods. Food Revolution Day is held worldwide every year in May and as Jamie Oliver puts it, "Food Revolution Day is an opportunity to shout about good foods, get inspired to cook great food from scratch and be empowered to help change the global obesity crisis ... "

Cool. So what do we do now? I recommend baby steps - educate yourself, make small gradual changes for the better and most of all, be good to yourself. You and your family deserve to eat good things and be healthy. We know that time is always in short supply, so here is a welcome and radical concept - healthy fast food. It really does exist and you can get it in three (soon to be four) locations of AvocoBar in Barrie.

Start your day off right, or snack time, or anytime  really, with the non-GMO, preservative free, hand made in small batches goodness of Not Yer Granny's Granola, created right here in Barrie. I have met the ever effervescent Fran Kruse before and watched her and her husband, Mark, work their magic as they create their tasty wares with the funky names - maple me happy, hello orange, pumpkin pizzazz and javanola mojo.

I was very inspired by 2 young entrepreneurial sisters, Grace and Madeleine Dufault, of Y.U.M. (Your Ultimate Meals), who produce fresh baking, salads in jars and many other delights for sale online or at the Barrie Farmers Market.  Equally impressive was another young one, the teen son of Earth's Emporia's owner, who spent his entire day happily helping other vendors with their heavy loads, then bravely stepped up to the microphone to speak about healthy eating.

I also re-met two new faves of mine, from the recent Savour The Flavours Show, Chris of Momma Mari's Dressings and Sauces and Ally of Rabbit Food Bakery & Deli. I bought a bottle of Sneaky Momma barbecue sauce from Chris and we are really enjoying it with our barbecued foods at home. The sun dried tomato almond cheeze that I purchased from Ally called to me incessantly from the fridge and was eaten by me in one sitting. Sorry but it was damned good!

From my seat at the welcome table, I had a great view of Barrie's Garden Centre's lovely green display. My own small veggie garden at home is sitting empty right now waiting for me to get planting my pickling cucumbers, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, lettuce and eggplants. I can hardly wait to get my hands dirty! There is a great feeling of satisfaction that comes from growing your own food from seed/seedling to something that can be eaten. Maybe challenge yourself to grow one small thing this summer, be it a pot of chives or planter of cherry tomatoes, that you can use in a meal later on.

Bring a little of the Food Revolution into your own kitchen and treat yourself the way should be treated. Be kind to your body, your family and this little blue planet. Viva la revoluci√≥n!

Sunday, 15 May 2016

7 Reasons Why I Love Lakeview Gardens

My deepest apologies to preteen boys. When I look back at my grade eight school year, I recall a lot of rather loud and rude guys. Sure, we girls were no models of elegance ourselves, but when I remember all the burping, cat calls and off-colour remarks from my male classmates, one oasis of civilized behavior stands out. Solid as a rock, always friendly and polite, never dragged into popularity contests or other muck. That was Rob. Carrying forth these positive traits, Rob Radcliffe is a successful business man today as part of Lakeview Gardens, the beautiful garden centre located in Innisfil, Ontario.

Recently, I made my second visit to Lakeview Gardens. I needed a Mothers Day gift for my mum and I was eager to take a behind the scenes peek at the greenhouse operations on their annual spring preview tour. Rob led the tour himself and when I left, I was thoroughly educated, energized for my own gardening and supplied with a collection of gorgeous and colourful garden flowers. Let me tell you some of the reasons why I am the newest big fan of Lakeview Gardens.

1. Bugs. Yes, bugs. I love to buy a few big baskets of flowers for my garden planters but I do not love chemicals. Without pesticides, I take a risk that the plants that I purchase with my hard earned money might be gobbled up by nasty creepy-crawlies. The Radcliffes employ swirskii mites, predatory good bugs that protect the plants in a natural way.

2. LG is a family biz. Since 1979, not too long after those eighth grade glory days, the Radcliffe family has called the nearly 3 acre property at 1712 Killarney Beach Road home. Rob's father, a Yorkshire born and trained horticulture specialist, is Stephen Radcliffe. In 1986, when previous business partnerships ended, Stephen partnered with his wife, the bubbly Gaynor Radcliffe that you will surely meet at the garden centre entrance. He also partnered with Rob at that time. Thirty years later, Rob's wife, Rosemarie, grown children, including  son Andrew, and other extended family members are vital parts of the team.

3. Everything is done by hand. Three generations of tireless workers, basically half a dozen people, hand seed 10,000 flats of annuals and vegetables. Every one of those flats contains 48 plants. Impressed yet? They also do 4,300 hanging baskets and an astounding 45,000 assorted pots from 4 inches up to 2 gallon sizes. These plants are also hand watered. Suddenly, my own gardening chores seem minuscule.

4. Bees. I love bees. We all should because without them, there is no food for any of us. If I wasn't such a chicken (bee stings - ouch), I think I would enjoy keeping bees of my own. However, I will leave that to the experts, the Radcliffes, who keep a few hives and produce some local honey for sale. Did you know that you must leave at least one third of the honey behind for the bees to eat over winter? These hungry little guys eat a lot too - between 40 and 60 lbs. of honey!

5. Parking is terrible. Actually, that is a good thing! There is a small lot and plenty of concession road to stop along, so who needs a vast car lot when precious ground can be used for so many other purposes? Believe me, the ground is well used. Lakeview Gardens has more than 26,500 square feet of greenhouse space and even the narrow patches of soil between the greenhouses gets tilled up for more planting space. No fertile corner is wasted!

6. Much more than a garden centre. Yes, you can drop by the garden centre from 9 -5 from Monday to Saturday, and pick up your flowers and veggie plants, but so much more than is going on than meets the eye. Lakeview Gardens has contracts to supply large customers such as cemeteries and military bases with flowers. You will also find Radcliffes, and their fresh produce, at 3 different farmers markets including the one in Bradford. How do they do it? Cloning or some sort of magic can be the only reasonable answer.

7. The Royal treatment. I have saved the best for last. Once Gaynor Radcliffe has learned your name, she will remember it and always call you by it. Any family member will carry your purchases up to the front cash for you and keep them off to the side until you are ready to leave. After that, you will be pleasantly surprised when your newly bought plants are carried out to your car. I challenge you to find that kind of treatment at any of the big garden centres.

Mrs. R, you did something right and you still are!

Saturday, 14 May 2016

The Curious Nibbler Returns to the Food Show

That Sunday was cool and rainy with a Scottish mist rolling over the green hills of Tangle Creek Golf & Country Club. Never mind the dismal weather because all the action was indoors, where the Savour The Flavours Food and Drink Show was in full swing. Obviously, nobody told the golfers this because they teed off, one after the other, oblivious to the wet conditions. They can have their game. I will have mine!

Warm and cozy inside the club house, live acoustic guitar music, good smells, a bustling crowd of eager munchers and friendly greeters were waiting at the reception desk. Now this is my kind of day at the golf course!

I was accompanied by my husband and two of my sons, all of whom were immediately drawn to the first beer display that met their eyes. Side Launch Brewing Company, out of Collingwood, was offering up samples of their wares and the boys all tasted their Pale Ale, which promises to be balanced in the malt and hops department. This is a brew made in the traditional way, so their rep suggested it be consumed within a few months since it was unfiltered and free from preservatives. With a hot Canadian summer coming up, I can't think that many of their beers will languish too long in any fridges,

Okay, beer is nice but where are the munchables? Ah there we go - Cross Wind Farm had some nice samples of aged cheddar to try. I took a small square on a toothpick and immediately realized that this was not the cheddar I was expecting. Cross Wind is a goat milk operation. Sometimes goat cheese is rather strong, at least to my palate, but this was not. Different yes, but not overbearing. What I really enjoyed was their artisan chevre, which is a fluffy cream-cheese-like product available in many flavours. I tried the creamy dill - the fresh dill flavour sang out and once again, no strong goat taste.

There were a number of barbecue vendors at Savour The Flavours and I managed to visit Momma Mari, or at least her friendly and enthusiastic son, Christopher Marinakos. This Orillia based family has been dabbling in dressings and sauces since 1974 and have products in all kinds of local shops and markets. I asked Christopher for a sample suited to my self described infantile (too many heat receptors!) palate and he suggested the Sweet Momma. Mmmm a lot like Diana Sauce. To which Christopher added "But better."

I spent a fair bit of time chatting with the lovely young lady behind the Rabbit Food Bakery & Deli table. I was very intrigued to find the term vegan (as all of her products are) combined with the word deli, which makes me picture a glass case full of sliced meats and various sausages. She had a colourful display of wonderful little nut cheezes with lots of flavours to sample. I tried sundried tomato and cranberry - so good! When I tracked down the boys again, I steered them over to Rabbit Food. I introduced them as my cavemen, (sorry, guys!) and encouraged them to give the vegan fare a go. They were particularly impressed with her potato salad with vegan mayonnaise and her cheeze sauce that goes great on nachos or burgers.

Zing Zang is a well made and well named product. This company produces very flavourful drink mixes including caesar, margarita and pina colada and I can certainly see where the zing comes in. I was happy to try all three and I would say that all are fantastic. I could see my sister and I, and a bottle of that margarita mix, having a very nice little time beside her pool this summer.

Birch syrup is going to be the next big thing. We all know about maple syrup but why should the maple get all the glory with so many other potentially tappable trees growing in our forests? Napoleon's chef, Don Cruickshank, had a small bottle of it beside his barbecue last year and that was the first time I had ever heard mention of it. One year later, I found an entire booth dedicated to the educating, sampling and selling of birch syrup and its by-products. The Canadian Birch Company is leading the way with its Manitoba based business. I am not much of a sweet tooth, but the syrup was good and I can imagine myself using it for some nice barbecued blackened salmon √† la Chef Cruikshank. 

Such a crowd around Superior Meats! This company is not new and their products are available practically everywhere, but folks sure were keen to line up and try their samples. I considered passing by but a small card with the words English Smoked Wildwood Cheddar Cheese kept me firmly rooted in place until I got my reward - a small but flavour packed taste of cheese gold. 

Ripe Juicery has been in my favourite neighbourhood, Downtown Barrie, for a while now but I have not yet been in to visit. Lucky for me, Ripe had a tasting booth at the Savour The Flavours Show this year. Tiny cups of vibrantly coloured liquids were laid out on a wooden board. I just had to try them all. You will not believe this number, but 3 - 6 pounds of fresh produce go into every 500 ml bottle of Ripe juice! I sampled green (cucumber, kale, lemon, parsley, pineapple and romaine), then orange (mainly carrots and oranges) and lastly the brilliantly purple sweet beet. I have never liked beets, (too earthy for me), so this last drink was not my thing, which proves how authentically beety this fresh concoction really was. 

It was still drizzling away when we left. We decided to finish off our nibbling with a visit to Smoke's Poutinerie, one of several food trucks stationed outside the Tangle Creek clubhouse. Mmmmm fresh hot fries, cheese curds covered in steaming gravy on a cool day - why not?!

And so all of the flavours of 2016 were well savoured. Definitely looking forward to what 2017 might bring!

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Pretty and Tasty Soup Girl Creations

Soup Girl, you were busy last year and sent your wonderfully enthusiastic mother in your place to represent you at Barrie's Savour The Flavours Show. She gifted me two beautiful jars of artfully arranged soup ingredients, and allowed me to choose my flavours - Curried Cashew and Spicy Coconut Lentil. Very soon afterwards, my daughter and I broke out the Curried Cashew and made a delicious lunch with it. Oh oh - I meant to take pictures of that! It was so good that all thoughts of photography and blogging went out the window.

So the pretty jar of Spicy Coconut Lentil sat for quite a few months more on a shelf with collector tins, antique cookie cutters and vintage soda bottles. I almost forgot that it was not a knick-knack but actually food. As Savour The Flavours is fast approaching again, I thought I better try out the soup that Soup Mama so kindly gave me.

All you really need for this soup is the contents of the jar, water and coconut milk which is optional. The ingredients themselves are vegetarian, made from 75% Canadian ingredients and very high in protein, fibre and iron. This particular flavour contains 2 kinds of lentils, brown rice, unsweetened coconut, sea salt, chili pepper and other spices. My husband got the idea that shrimp might be a good addition to the soup, so we sauteed some cocktail shrimp in garlic butter ... Heaven forbid an entirely vegetarian dinner!

The soup needs to simmer for one hour in order to soften the lentils, so during that time I baked a loaf of artisan bread that had been resting on my counter-top for 24 hours.  Fresh bread and hot soup - yes please! Thank you  for my new favourite, ridiculously easy bread recipe.

The result was a lovely, creamy and delicately spiced soup. Despite the name, Spicy Coconut Lentil, this soup was not hot at all. Warming yes, but nothing my fair weather, British-bred taste buds couldn't handle - I fully admit that I can tolerate little more heat than the average infant. My husband might actually be worse. So, in the words of Goldilocks, Soup Girl's soup was "just right."

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Full Heart. Full Stomach: The Queen Street Warehouse

Our out of town visitors from Montreal had left for home, so we spent the day with our newly minted city girl daughter who has become an excellent tour guide for the China Town - Kensington Market - Queen Street area in her 2 months of Toronto life. She led us on an adventure through all the funky little thrift shops, record stores and international markets. Our small city senses were bombarded with colourful sights, the sounds of sirens, foreign tongues and street musicians while some of the smells were intoxicating but others an assault to the nose!

Up and down stairs into cavernous basement shops, through shabby back alleys where the owners of the Asian restaurants park their Porsche SUVs, and past some questionable looking cannabis markets and massage parlors, we found ourselves ready for some food and our guide girl had just the ticket - a late lunch at the Queen Street Warehouse!

Located at 232 Queen Street West, this well situated little spot is super popular. There are multiple reasons for this but one of the biggies is that every item on the menu is priced at $4.95. Yes, you read that correctly - every item! There are optional upgrades for things like special sauces or sides, but they are priced very low too - $1.00 or thereabouts.

We arrived at the right time, just as the place was beginning to get busy. They had just one table left and it was a tiny one right beside the front window. This spot turned out to be absolutely ideal as the view was awesome. The CN Tower rose a few blocks away but appeared even closer while the east wall of the City TV building and its iconic Live Eye truck bursting through the bricks was in right across the street. Soon a line-up of waiting customers formed outside allowing us some great people watching opportunities too.

My husband, daughter and I ordered our food and just glasses of water to drink. Our pretty and friendly server, Alison, explained to us that they have a program similar to the Suspended Coffee movement whereby you can order an extra meal for $4.95 that will be brought to Evangel Hall and served to the less fortunate, as happens every Sunday. We ordered one and I was so happy to have the opportunity to do this that I had a hard time fighting back tears. I told her that I am a cook in a soup kitchen in another town and she told us that she is also a social worker. My heart filled up before my stomach did. Eat a Sandwich. Give a Sandwich.

We laughed and chatted and thoroughly enjoyed the 1980s music videos on the many TV screens for quite a while. Alison refilled our water a few times and mentioned to us that the kitchen was starting to get backed up. We were understanding of this situation but our experience was becoming slightly less positive until our server came over with an offer we couldn't refuse - FREE drinks or dessert courtesy of her manager (an owner) who said that our maximum wait time had been exceeded. Wow, I was very impressed! Queen Street Warehouse, your points with us just went up again, waaaaay up! We got a red wine, a Strongbow cider and a beer for no extra charge, Nice.

Always curious about the recent much mentioned trend of chicken and waffles, my daughter, Margaret, ordered the wafflewich which came with a side order of home fried potatoes. Ron and I got burgers, with mine being a veggie burger, as some of you may already have predicted. Both came on a light and toasty brioche bun with a side of (upgraded) yam fries, as well as a small ramekin of chipotle sauce (also an upgrade). My beautifully done soy based burger was topped with cheese, tomato and lettuce and also some less traditional but delightful items - avocado, green pea shoots, corn salsa and nacho sauce. We all agreed that this was some very delicious food here. My two table mates, a couple of still hungry (all that walking - 11 km in all) turistas, had room left for dessert and ordered a deep fried apple pie with ice cream to share. Where they put it, I do not know!

Would I go again? Yes! In the summer months, it looks to me like the side patio would hold as many guests as the interior. I love a good patio on a warm day and I would certainly be up for another visit to the Queen Street Warehouse.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Lunch at Sammy's

The retired school principal and the millwright have quite a bit in common. Married to sisters, they have found over the years that they both enjoy a cold non-hoppy beer, yard sale treasures and a great big saucy shawarma pita at Sammy's. On an unusually warm early March day, I followed them into this favourite haunt of theirs to see what all the fuss was about.

I remember when this was Chau's Chinese Restaurant years ago. From Sammy's south facing window, you can see the back of the Queen's Hotel and the still un-glamorous looking rear of the very old brick building where we had our first apartment. It may have been 20 years since I stepped inside this structure. It is lovely inside - clean, painted in warm tones, an upscale feel, lots of Middle Eastern decorative pieces (I particularly love the metalwork window grills) and lots of natural light.

At five minutes before twelve, it was very quiet inside. My brother-in-law, Ken, was already there and he assured us that there would be a sudden upswing in business any time. And he was right. A steady parade of well tailored suits came through, city employees, local barristers and such I would imagine, to pick up lunch to go.

Our menus were scarcely  studied as the guys knew exactly what they wanted, what they always get - the chicken shawarma pita! The falafel pita was on my mind already, so I ordered that. We all got the soup, and by the soup, I mean the house lentil because there is only one soup on the menu. The menu is not extensive, and in my opinion, that is a smart thing. Why carry a huge inventory of ingredients when you can do a few things really, really well?

The soup was very nice, and milder than I was expecting it to be. After having a lentil soup in an Indian restaurant recently, I was prepared for more spice but it was a more laid back soup, almost reminiscent of a French-Canadian pea soup.  The guys were hungry so they also ordered a falafel plate as an appetizer. They dug into it with lots of mmmmmms. Careful boys, that's a vegetarian dish you know!

Our pita orders were amazing. The guys were in heaven with their much anticipated shawarma pita sandwiches - tender and perfectly seasoned chicken, crisp salad toppings and all saucy with tahini, wrapped in a huge  pita. My falafel pita was equally enormous, the biggest I have ever seen. The first bite was soooooo good! In fact, every bite was as good as the last, right down to the messy finale when you find yourself trying to extract every last morsel hidden in the foil wrapper. How I enjoyed the oddly green interior-ed  falafel balls (spinach and parsley), the salad ingredients and the smooth hummus and tahini in my pita. I can see why the boys keep coming back over and over again.

Check out Sammy's In And Out Pita at 53 Collier Street. They are very non-tech with no website that I can find, no Twitter and no debit so bring cash! Whatever they are doing is working. Go see for yourself. I may see you there because I will be back!

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Twisted Indian: Something New and Wonderful in the East End

What do school principals do when they retire? Well, they go out for lunch a lot! Ken is enjoying being stress-free and with his new found nearly empty schedule, he is making the rounds of all the fun sounding local dining establishments at least once a week. His lunch date is usually my not quite retired yet (but wants to be!) husband, Ron. These two brothers-in-law are always up for something new and tasty, somewhere they can fill up, catch up on the latest family news and trade some  borderline inappropriate "Dad" jokes. Look out, Barrie!

One day, when my work schedule actually fit with their's, I joined the duo as they checked out a new place that had been on my radar for a while now. The Twisted Indian Modern Wraps opened on May 27th in the Duckworth Plaza and I have been dying to try it ever since. A sub shop model with all the flavours of Indian cuisine - yes please!

Much like the way in which you begin your order at the big sub shop places, you choose your bread first - soft, fluffy naan or lighter roti. Next, you pick out a meat or vegetarian filling - keema, chicken tikka, pork sausage tikka, butter chicken, rajma or chana. Don't know what any of these things are? Not a problem. The friendly and knowledgeable staff are very happy to explain each item and give you a sample if you wish. Lastly, there will be some lovely fresh vegetables and creamy chutneys to choose from to finish off your wrap. Make your meal a combo by adding samosas, masala fries or spicy poutine. When we were there, buying a combo meant getting a free daal (lentil) soup included.

The Twisted Indian is as fresh and modern as the name suggests. Even from the outside, the storefront is appealing, new looking, contemporary and a nice pop of excitement in a somewhat tired looking plaza. Hey, where was this when I was in college and living around the corner on Sylvia Street? Of course, back then Georgian College had 3 buildings, Michael Jackson had multiple hits on the radio and Indian food of any kind was unheard of in Barrie.

Inside, the look is rustic meets modern with ultra now light fixtures over stonework walls, bright red walls and displays of Indian art and jars of spices.  It feels clean, exotic and trendy, casual and friendly. New immigrants and college students alike would enjoy Twisted Indian.

And the food? Ohhh the food! The guys chose meat fillings. Ken - keema (ground beef with mild spices. Ron - butter chicken, (chicken in a mild tomato-butter tikka sauce) which must be one of the best dishes ever invented by anyone anywhere! I opted for chana, which is a mildly sauced chick pea stew. All of us ordered our wraps on naan bread, made combos with samosas and got our free daal soups.

What a feast! As if the wraps weren't big enough, the samosas (you get 2) were the biggest samosas I have ever seen and such a soft outer shell - not over fried or too crunchy, just delightful. The daal too was beautifully done. Not hot at all, but spicy in the sense that it was rich in layers of flavour, and mild enough to suit any palate.

Our stomachs were far from empty when we left and happily our wallets were the same. This abundance of savoury delights was not at all expensive. All house made dishes from the best of fresh ingredients, as the hostess/owner enthusiastically explained, were created with health and budget in mind. I would say that this little place must be a nice break from endless pizza and subs for the college students in the area. It certainly will be bringing me back to the east end of Barrie soon again.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Eating Art at Vegetarian Haven

If you were wondering why I adopted a new blog name recently, places like this are the reason. My number one interest is the food grown, produced, served and eaten in the Barrie area but I am also aware that there are some very cool things going on in other places within easy driving distance of our own beautiful area. The Curious Nibbler is still your Barrie Foodie, but she is very nosy and wants to try out a few fun out of area places that you might very well want to explore some day too.

I don't normally get to Toronto too often but I have a feeling that is about to change. My youngest child, and only daughter, Margaret, made the big leap to the city this weekend. She registered for school, got a job in the Eaton Centre and rented a room in the funkiest of neighbourhoods, Baldwin Village, in the heart of everything. Chinatown, Kensington Market, trendy little cafes, jazz bars and oddball shops - it's all there. We packed everything she owns into the minivan and off we went.

My girl is no stranger to the Big Smoke. She is a regular visitor down there, with festivals, concerts and endless shopping opportunities being very attractive to her, not to mention a certain handsome young man who calls Toronto home. So she already has a collection of little eateries that she wants to show me. After the boxes were stowed in her new room and the all important wi-fi was set up, her Dad and I took her out to eat at one of these must-try places - Vegetarian Haven.

Not a flake of snow, unreal warm temps courtesy of El Nino, we walked 5 minutes down Baldwin Ave. past rows of tightly packed century homes, the CN Tower looking down on us as we went. The neighbourhood was alive with people coming and going from noodle bars, seafood restaurants, high end bistros or just chatting on the sidewalk. As with most of the places to eat there, Vegetarian Haven looked tiny from the outside, with a very small front patio area out front, but was long, narrow and roomy enough inside.

"Hey guys, come on in." a very hip server greeted us. She had the specials of the night already plated to show us, which I think is an excellent idea. A borscht soup to start followed by an entree of 3 crispy fried tofu rings stuffed with a mash of carrot and other root veg, served with noodles and broccoli and grated carrot - very artful and bright.

As a dabbling vegetarian, I look at most menus and find 2 or 3 things I would like to eat. Full out vegetarian menus are actually more difficult for me because I want to eat everything! My husband, Ron, on the other hand, is pretty much a carnivorous caveman (he will agree!) and tends to be a little hesitant about going all veggie. His only other experience with a vegetarian restaurant was a raw vegan place and was not terribly thrilled with that meal.  Tofu we know, but seitan an tempeh were new terms even for me. Ron chose the special. He felt like he had a least some knowledge about one menu item.

My girly has been exposed to some of the hotter Asian cuisines and has developed a taste for the spicy. Me - not so much. Our server told us that the spicier items on the menu were likely "white people hot" which is the absolute truth and no disrespect at all - our meat-and-potato raised taste buds (mine anyway) aren't always equipped for the fire of other cuisines. The chef could easily tone down the heat by 20% or 50% if we wanted. Yes please - 20% works for me. So I chose the spicy coconut seafood souper bowl.

Margaret ordered the bird's nest which is best described in the words that appear on the menu - al dente setain nuggests with diverse vegetables and bulbs of lily flower sauteed in a slightly sweet and spicy Szechuan sauce, snuggled on a nest of sweet potato noodles and served with purple rice. Wow. What arrived at our table was a veritable piece of art work. Should she eat it or hang it on the wall? Tall spires of crispy noodles reached up from the plate like coral and collapsed immediately into soft noodles once mixed with the sauce. An odd crackling sound like Rice Krispies in milk came from her dish. This colourful art piece/mad science experiment was delicious too.

And how did the caveman do? From looking mildly frightened at the first suggestion of a vegetarian meal, he ended up being quite surprised at how much he enjoyed his dinner. Nothing remained on his plate when he was finished. Margaret's bird's nest vanished too. My souper bowl seemed to be magically refilling itself or something as I could not seem to get to the bottom! I took the remainder home and had it over some noodles for my lunch the next day - a win win!

I hear that Baldwin Ave. closes to vehicles on summer Sundays and that the area comes further alive with street vendors and music. I would love to come back then and enjoy Vegetarian Haven's front patio on a warm evening.