La Cucina – Regional Cooking of Italy

I love cookbooks.  I rarely follow recipes.  It’s a contradiction I’m working on resolving but it’s been this way as long as I remember.

We have had the recent privilege of being spoiled on Italian cuisine several times through a friend (who is also a client of Dana’s in the spirit of full disclosure) and my eyes have been opened to an entire cuisine that I thought I knew.  I certainly didn’t qualify as an expert but have surrounded myself with a lot of Italian inspired food in my lifetime (including a 25 day tour of parts of the country) and I can freely admit my ignorance – I had no idea just how diverse different regions were.

These dinners arose a curiosity with me and when I stumbled on a cookbook called “La Cucina” I knew I had to take a look.  It tookmere  seconds to realize I would leave the store with it under my arm.

La Cucina   Regional Cooking of Italy November

The cookbook contains 2,000 recipes and no pictures (something I consider a feature in this case).  it’s well-organized and covers the food of Italy by identifying the roots of each recipe.  Local traditions are woven into the book and it feels like reading history as much as it feels like reading  a cookbook.  And there is good reason for this – the book has roots which stretch almost 60 years to a group of people in Milan who decided to preserve the culinary heritage of Italia.  The Italian Academy of Cuisine was born and they maintain this tome today.

The book is designed fabulously.  Red writing tells you that there is a note about the food other than how to cook it and the recipes are straightforward and well explained.

La Cucina   Regional Cooking of Italy November

Food with such tradition is exciting to me – preserving of a different kind but preserving nonetheless.  Preserving culture, tradition and recipes passed down through the ages.

The only drawback?  It’s $54 Canadian for the 900+ page encyclopedia.  You can find copies as low as $30 USD on Amazon (I can save you the search here).

I am most excited to pick something and actually follow a recipe – the problem now is the amount of options at my fingertips!

Paella Party – Recipes that sing and type

It’s Friday and a Thanksgiving long weekend for many of you (we’re working in Canada today as our Thanksgiving is in October) and I thought a post on the lighter side was in order.

I was hoping to find some kinetic typing videos of Food, Inc or another food movie – instead I found a recipe that both sings and types itself through its directions.

Any other fun food videos you are seeing out there?

Guess who’s coming to town?

He’ll be checking his list and checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…  That’s right!  Thomas Keller is coming to Toronto (you weren’t thinking about someone else now were you?

For those who don’t recognize the name, Keller is one of the top chefs in the world.  He owns multiple restaurants including French Laundry (California) and Per Se (New York) which are typically both featured in the top 10 restaurants in the world.   Ad Hoc is a scaled down and more affordable (yet still not cheap – dinner is around $50 a person without beverages) version.

Ad Hoc has an emphasis on casual, community and family style dinner.  It is open 5 days a week (plus brunch) and has a menu which changes daily depending on the season and market offerings.  The menu appears on the website every day.

Here’s Keller giving a small introduction to Per Se and his view of it:

Keller is in Toronto to promote his new cookbook, Ad Hoc at home.  The offering appears to be accessible recipes for many of us who could find some of his previous cookbooks intimidating thought exciting.  He will be interviewed at the Toronto Reference library.  Tickets are $80 and include an autographed copy of the cookbook.  You can buy them by visiting or calling the Cookbook store.

I’ll be in attendance so if you’re there let me know and say hey!

Beau’s Beer… More than just a pretty face

I’ll admit it was the packaging that stopped me in the aisle – a Canadian Craft Beer with phenomenal packaging stands out from it’s peers.  There are many that are fairly good and others that are even very good – but there are few that are this pretty:

Beaus Beer...  More than just a pretty face November

Beaus Beer...  More than just a pretty face November

We ran into the fine folks at Beau’s at the Royal Winter Fair.  They had a small booth and were super friendly and we were glad to say hi.  Our friend Margaret had tipped us off that there was a new beer lurking around Toronto and we simply had to try it.  3 days later we were provided with our chance.  We came home from the Royal Winter with two bottles of their Lug Tread Lagered Ale.

The beer is a combination of two styles – it is top fermented like an ale (it uses malted barley which conducts a fast fermentation and typically results in a sweet and full-bodied taste) and then cold-aged like a lager.  The roots of this type of beer trace back to Germany though the beer also reminded me of the Czech Styles of beer (of which a Pilsner is one of the more distinct).

The beer is a golden color and crisp to drink.  If you`ve not had a crisp beer before and are struggling to imagine what I mean by that, think of club soda.  Club soda is way crisper than any beer I`ve drank but if you`ve had club soda then you know the direction we`re pointing at.

Each of us is entitled to their own taste so my review is relative.  This beer, quite simply, could be the best Ontario Craft Beer I have consumed yet.  It is certainly in my top 5 and is one of the best beers I have tasted all year.

On top of a great product and a great package (and a great website), Beau`s has a great story.  It is a family business that is primarily helmed by a father and son team and their friends.  In a world where so many companies are trying to make themselves look bigger than they are to try to compete with giants, Beau`s is proud to be small and family based.  Part of their corporate philosophy insists that they will always have time for their friends.

Beau`s has been around Eastern Ontario for several years – it is just starting to come west.  Look for the specialty bottle above in Toronto area (and the rest of Central Ontario)  LCBOs in early December before it is replaced in January by a new design.  A great holiday gift that won’t be re-gifted!

New Feature – “Cheap” Tuesday Gourmet

Dana and I have had a lot of discussions about the state of food and the many movements (formal and informal) that are trying to change it  – organic, local, vegan, raw, 100 mile, 250 mile, guerrilla, CSA, non-profit, full-profit, community-based, industrial, pro-food, pro-biotic, genetically modified, antibiotic, antibiotic-free and more.  There are a lot of people trying to solve many confounding problems and opportunities within our current food chain.

There is no shortage of writing, talking, discussing and acting on improving the quality of the food we eat and how we get it, just as there is no shortage of solutions which sometimes compliment and other times contradict each other.  There are a lot of experts and even more claiming to be who share their knowledge, ideas and theories.

I am not an expert in any movement though I am a passionate observer.  Dana and I spend a lot of time discussing food, the current state of our society as it relates to food and examine our own behaviors within the food system.  We are far from perfect and have a lot of things we continue to work on to improve our personal impact on the food systems around us.  We are in no place to stand on a pedestal and are conscious of that.  But I do read many posts which simply end by pointing out the problems with our current situation without providing practical solutions and wish more would help us start to solve our current problems today.

Consciousness is a theme of who we are and what we try to achieve with the time we invest here.  The primary goal is to raise our own awareness to the choices we make and we hope this may be of interest to others.  I do feel that if no one read these postings that I would continue to write daily at this point in my life – it is, pun intended, a way for me to chew on my own food for thought.

A story from Food, Inc still haunts me.  A young family in the U.S. demonstrates that eating well is too expensive for many – that McDonald`s is a cheaper alternative, especially when people don`t have time or much money to cook.

It`s an argument I`ve heard from people in all financial brackets.  Good food is either too expensive, too labor intensive, people don`t know how to cook or it`s just not worth the time.

It`s also a very sensitive topic.  I was involved in the food movement in 1995 when my Member of Provincial Parliament (David Tsubouchi, who was the social services minister and making drastic cuts to our welfare system) left most of the entire province (and country) in shock and, frankly, disgust when he suggested that poor people should haggle on the price of dented cans of tuna to get them for 69 cents.  He added insult to many when he created a menu for `poor people`that included pasta though he cut out the sauce as unnecessary (and out of budget).  His suggested menu further criticism when the menu was compared to the one in our prison system and uncovered that local inmates would eat better and more healthy.

We have recently been discussing that some of the solutions for these complex problems are very expensive in their current forms.  I saw organic red peppers from $7.99 per pound today – and that`s a single example.

We`ve been very fortunate (and had some luck to boot) in our careers.  We are grateful to have options available to us that were not available only a few years ago and we try to remain conscious of that.  It appears, to me, that some of the solutions that we see are leaving many behind ($8 peppers certainly leave us in their dust :)).  Farmers Markets (something I am a massive fan of) can, in some cases, cater exclusively to high income brackets.

Certainly there must be a middle ground between selling food to the highest bidder and shoving off others to the crumbs left behind.

We are going to challenge ourselves to try to provide a solution to a real problem – wholesome recipes which are economical and accessible for everyone.  We will be posting every Tuesday for the next several months on recipes that we think may help everyone extend their food budget while producing exceptional meals.  We are not trying to simply make easy, cheap food.  The intent is not to replace expensive ingredients with cheaper fillers or eat but to make great meals and show that they can be affordable and easy to make.  These may not be everyday meals for everyone – where possible alternatives will be provided to alter the cost (sometimes lowering the price, other times allowing you to raise it as you wish).

Here`s our guiding principles:

  1. Meals must taste good enough to feed to my Grandmother.  I may add hot peppers since she won`t eat all of it but she`s my baseline for quality control.
  2. Meals will cost around $5 per portion – $7 per portion is the absolute limit (based on the approximate price).  This is not merely about saving money – it`s about eating fantastic food while being conscious of the price.  We will provide ways to adjust the recipe to make it more economical where possible.  Prices are, like us, in Canadian dollars.
  3. Portions will be generous – I am around 200 pounds and my healthy appetite will count as a portion.
  4. Portion cost will include leftovers.  If additional ingredients are added to create something new with the leftovers, these costs must also be factored in.  I.E. a chicken dinner that feed four and becomes a soup which has 4 portions will count as 8 total portions and all ingredients for both dishes will be considered part of the cost.
  5. Prices will include the cost of any food prepared for the meal, including waste.  Unused portions that are used for other meals (i.e. unused parts of a block of cheese) will not be counted.
  6. All efforts will be made to accurately cost and measure things that can be done reasonably.  Guesstimates for things like salt and pepper and other spices are permitted.
  7. Good food cheap takes time.  For those without `free`time to cook, consider making this a family activity – kids that help cook are more likely to eat and experiment in the kitchen.  Many recipes can be made ahead or doubled to freeze a future dinner with minimal additional work.
  8. I am not a chef or dietitian.  There will be an effort to include healthy options which taste great.  The posts are as much to stimulate thought and provide ideas than to be taken as instruction from an expert.  Gourmet is a relative term in this case (as is cheap).
  9. We will include tips that are reusable beyond a single recipe.
  10. We welcome and encourage comments and ideas which can help everyone learn more from each other on eating well and on a budget.

The first post is next Tuesday – we hope you`ll come along!

Romanesco Broccoli Cauliflower – a fractal vegetable

Although there seems to be debate on the internet whether the Romenesco is a broccoli, cauliflower or a hybrid of the two, I have always been told it was a cauliflower.  Regardless of it’s origins, I am thrilled whenever I see them in the market and think that they could possibly be the coolest vegetable in the world – though the fiddlehead would give them come competition in a formal pageant.

Romanesco Broccoli Cauliflower   a fractal vegetable November

The Romenesco is a bit softer in texture than a cauliflower and most North Americans cook it exactly as they cook cauliflower (though be sure not to overcook it as it can become tougher).  It is also ideal for a crudites platter.

Italians have been cooking with these for more than 400 years and I understand they developed a few recipes specific to the Romenesco.  I plan to do some research in coming days and see if we might be able to find a new way to cook this mathematical object!

No Knead Bread – step-by-step

[Read more...]

Beer Wars

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had a beer post – as winter sets in there will be more evenings at home and we’ll be sampling more than ever and enjoying a collection of cellared beer that we’ve collected over the summer.

In the mean time, there’s Beer Wars – a movie about the US beer scene and the independent breweries who are challenging the giants.  There’s several regular beer heroes in the trailer including Greg Koch from Stone and Sam Calagione from Dogfishhead Brewery.

If you haven’t seen the I am a Craft Brewer video yet, take the 2 minutes to watch the stirring clip for a view into the very real battle for beer that is happening in the US right now.

Do you have any favorite craft/ small beer from around the world?

Could mad cow disease have helped local food?

The following post is not intended to make light of the very serious problems we had with mad cow disease nor is it intended to disrespect people and families who have had tremendous negative impacts from it – including death of loved ones and losses of entire herds and family farms themselves.  It is intended to look at another impact that caught me by surprise on a recent trip to Scotland and is an attempt to find a potential silver lining in an otherwise very dark cloud.  To be perfectly clear, I am not suggesting that mad cow (something I do not understand nearly enough on to be any source of expert) is or was a good thing.

I was sitting in Glasgow with two colleagues for a late dinner and looking through a menu when I stumbled on the following declaration:

Could mad cow disease have helped local food? November

I was very excited to see this type of transparency declared on the menu.  We were not in an expensive restaurant (by Scottish standards).  Prices were equivalent to the local Thai, Pizza and Italian food we had  eaten through the week.

It also took me by surprise that the menu declared provenance for items that were not  on the menu.  It was explained to me that they declared the origins of all ingredients that enter their kitchen – by printing all of their sources on the menu this allowed for daily specials to also be covered by this statement.  Essentially this guaranteed diners that they knew where every dish they ate came from.

I was told that more and more establishments across the continent were adding these descriptions.  Many were sharing the specific farms and farmers that their food was coming from (here’s another example I found with a quick web search for one of the farms in the menu above).  I was fascinated – local farmers being recognized on the menus of places serving their food.

My heart went from light to heavy when it was explained to me that the root cause of this push for provenance stemmed, largely, from the mad cow disease issues that circled the UK (and the press) over the last number of years.  People simply wanted to know where their food was from and who they were trusting with it.

I now find the provenance eerie.  There is substantial support for eating local that’s come at a brutal price.

I have tried to write my closing statement for this post for 15 minutes and continue to stare blankly at the screen – I have more questions than answers.  Is this a good thing?  Would provenance help made food safer and animals healthier?  Does this promote local food?  Would it have made a difference in the first place?  Can we get there without the average person in society feeling an impending threat on their safety?  Is there something we can learn from this?

I don’t have these answers – would love to hear and share your thoughts in the comments…

Sous-vide… at home?

Sous-vide may be a term that is unfamiliar to some – it’s a relatively new style of cooking (developed in the 1970′s and popularized recently by Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Joel Robuchon and other world-famous chefs) which cooks food at a snails pace under a vaccum.  “Sous-Vide” is French for “under vacuum.”

Chefs seal ingredients in a plastic with he intent of removing all air from the package.  This package is then placed in water which is typically heated to around 60°C or 140°F).  Food is left to cook at these temperatures for up to, and sometimes longer, than 24 hours.

Proponents of this method rave about it.  Their argument is poignant though largely scientific.  This low temperature keeps the integrity of the original product – fat does not render off, water content does not evaporate, cell structure remains in tact, texture of the original ingredients remain in tact and hte original appearance often remains in tact.  There is no liquid loss and cannot be overcooked – the two-minute video below shows how UC Davis uses slow-cooking in their cafeteria to reduce food waste and incrase overall quality of what they produce:

Sous-vide is possible at home though not common.  Chefs use expensive water-bath machines to maintain the integrity of temperature and acknowledge that even the smallest change of temperature can change the results – including the possibility of botulism (just like preserving in jars) as the food is in an air-tight environment.  I can’t imagine trying to keep a pot of water consistently at 60°C for 24 hours on my relic of a stove.

Along comes the SousVide Supreme – a new product that has yet to ship (it promises to start in the next few weeks).  It’s a home water bath that (for $400) will allow you to consistently create sous-vide at home (vacuum sealer not included).  It’s essentially a slow slow-cooker (that’s even slower than a normal slow cooker).  It offers the potential of gourmet-level meals with very little work.