Mangoes and Philosophizing

I read a true story, once, although now the origin escapes me, about a woman in her 60s who managed to lift the back end of a car off of her grandson’s arm. Or leg. Or something. You hear stories like this all the time; adrenaline and fear make you capable of seemingly impossible things. Anyway. Later the woman was interviewed about this miraculous feat of strength and she avoided talking about it altogether. Eventually when she addressed the issue, she said she felt uncomfortable acknowledging it happened because it meant that all of the other things in her life that she thought were impossible, were feasible.

 This came to mind as I was walking on the beach this afternoon. I realized that I decided about a month before I moved to Belize that I was going to pick up and leave.  A month before that, I had to google map the location (embarrassingly) because I wasn’t even sure where it was, exactly. What does this mean? If I can decide I’m going to move to a different country in a month, and pull it off within a week (seriously: it shouldn’t have been a week but procrastination struck again) what else can I do? What could I be accomplishing next month if I decide today that I want to do it? Frightening, right?

 This level of mental exertion calls for a beer and my new favourite snack down here; mangoes on a stick.

Here is the mango. NOM. They cut it so interestingly that I don’t question how it’s actually done and prefer to purchase it daily for about $1 US.

The first couple of times I bought this I ate it like any other Canadian  chick would. Right off of the stick with no accompaniments. Then I noted that locals were apparently purchasing some illicit looking substance to sprinkle over the mango-on-a-stick. Not one to pass up the opportunity to try it, I politely inquired as to what, exactly, it was, and the spanish local behind the counter responded as if I was perhaps the biggest idiot she had had the misfortune of talking to on that particular day. “Salt and pepper.”

Salt and pepper? On Mangoes? You also get it in this little drug baggie. Check it out.

So I sprinkled some on, and honestly – it’s delicious. The salt brings out the natural sweetness of the mango, and the pepper leaves a fire-y feeling on your lips after you’ve finished eating. Yum. 

This, a beer, and a beautiful pier with a stunning view of the ocean? Perfect day.

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I’m Moving.

            About a year and a half ago, maybe more, I had a conversation with a man I used to greatly admire. By societal standards, he’s a “success” and is undeniably very clever, so his words held a particular meaning for me, at the time.

            At this point, I was taking a break from my degree and pursuing a job in an entirely unrelated field. He was in town and we spent an evening talking over drinks and dinner. He asked me what my plans were with regards to my degree: was I going to complete it? I really didn’t have an answer for him or myself at this point, so I shrugged at the question. I told him that I had toyed with the idea as of late but I hadn’t reached any definitive conclusions one way or another.

            “You should,” he responded nonchalantly, “Because I would hate for anyone to immediately judge you upon meeting you, simply because you haven’t finished it.”

            Now, this may sound completely naïve, but until that point, it really hadn’t crossed my mind that people may gauge my intelligence based on whether I had received a piece of paper from a University. Some of the brightest and most successful people I know never completed a degree. Some never desired one to begin with.  Was it possible that without a degree a whole segment of smart, interesting people may never like me? 

            I won’t pretend that this conversation alone drove me back to school. That’s ridiculous. But after several similarly veined discussions, in combination with pressure all around me to prove academically what I already inherently knew I was capable of, back to school I went.

            I tend to not look at any experience like it’s a waste of time. Not only is it unproductive, but it’s a dangerous, cyclical mindset. I will say though that the most beneficial thing going back to school offered me was the realization that I do not want a career in academics, nor do I want a job where placing a BsC on my résumé will be of any help to me whatsoever.

            Lately I’m restless. I need a change, and being the moody, impulsive creature I am, that means I need a big change.  I’ve had the great pleasure of spending time with someone recently who is easily one of the most successful and wonderful people I’ve ever met, and he did it entirely on his own. Naturally I pick his brain as much as he tolerates me, particularly for advice about going against norms, or the “easy route” in life. I repeated to him the conversation I had a while ago, as mentioned above, and told him that I was worried. Worried about never fitting in, worried about choosing something I don’t really want because of social fears, and worried people won’t view me as intelligent. He took it all in in his very patient manner, and said simply;

            “Why would you want to spend time with people who gauge you by your degree or job title?”

            How come I had never asked myself that?  

            The truth is that nothing we ever do will be good enough for everyone. And I’m tired of trying to live up to someone else’s standards. What I do know is that the things that are important to me are different than the things that are important to my parents, friends, and past boyfriends.  And that’s okay.  Now all I have to do is figure out what exactly those things are.

            To do that, I think I need an extended vacation from the rat race here. I want to slow down, to make sure I’m not taking anything for granted. I want to get more acquainted with what I value the most, and what I want from myself in the next 6 months, 1 year, and 5 years. How can I expect anyone else to really get to know me, if I don’t even truly understand myself?

            In a stroke of luck, my aforementioned wonderful friend has been watching my internal struggle and suggested I spend some time with him in Belize. I immediately jumped at the chance without even thinking about it (as mentioned…moody….impulsive) and then found myself alone in my apartment, pacing, at 3am recently pondering the change that it will pose. Me being the considerate person I am, I contacted said friend to calm me down.

            “Do you think I’ll like it there?” I asked, “I’ll like it, right?”

            “Well…” he pondered, still half asleep, “It’s very different from what you’re used to. I’m not sure how you’ll react. Things are…simple. And many of the everyday distractions are eliminated. It seems to be more about enjoying the small things, and who you’re with. Not what you have.”

            What he regarded as dissuasion was actually all I needed to hear. It sounds….perfect. I can figure myself out slowly, without rush, and in the meantime have amazing company and the opportunity to create memories.  Time to pack 😉

            Wish me luck.

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Creamy Pumpkin Penne

I went for an absolutely fantastic run yesterday, and just to sabotage myself I had to have something creamy and rich when I got in the door. I had purchased a can of pumpkin recently out of sheer intrigue (note: not pumpkin pie filling, just pumpkin) so I thought I’d throw it in. This turned out utterly delicious; it tasted similar to a very rich macaroni and cheese. You couldn’t really detect any pumpkin other than that gorgeous color.

Let’s get started; like all great things, this dish started with some bacon.

Slice it up. This dish made about 4 bowls of pasta (although if we’re being honest, with me at the table it was more like 2.5)

Get that going in a pan heated to medium until nice and browned. Once done, remove and set aside on a paper towel to drain, and pour off the majority of the bacon fat (but not all! We need it to sear the rest of our ingredients)

Ok. Next for the onion, sage, and garlic. Half an onion will do; and I’m a garlic fiend so the more the better.

Get the onion going in the pan with the bacon grease first. Medium-low should do it. Remember to season your onions with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper; this is called layering your seasoning and will result in a much tastier dish in the end.

Roughly chop about 6 leaves of sage, and dice the garlic.

When the onion is soft, toss in the garlic and sage.

It’s had enough time in the pan when it starts to smell fantastic; about 30 seconds to a minute. 

Then, grab some white wine and deglaze those brown bits! I’m using a sweet German wine here, but almost anything will do. 

Scrape the bottom of the pan, and let the wine simmer for about 30 seconds. Then grab your canned pumpkin and add it. I used about half of this can (or 3-4 large dollops)

Stir that around for a sec, and add another pinch of salt and few grinds of pepper. Now for the heavy cream; I added about 3/4 of this carton

Now to add back in the bacon

Here it’s still a little thick but we’ll be thinning it out with some of the starchy pasta water. It’s important right now to taste and adjust; it’s going to need a lottttttt of seasoning because pumpkin is quite bland. Keep in mind that the pasta water is slightly salty too so go easy on the salt until the finished product, but go crazy with the pepper. Then, add a couple pinches of cayenne (which I completely forgot to demonstrate) and a pinch of nutmeg, shown here:

Now for a bit of fresh parmesan reggiano. A good handful or two. 

Ok! Now take your al dente pasta, and add it directly into the sauce. Try to get some of the pasta water along the way; the starch helps the sauce be more…..saucy. Yeah. 

Stir together. Taste again. Adjust. 

Serve with a bit more parmesan on top. Enjoy 😉

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Beer Bistro

Beer Bistro is located at the great location of 18 King Street East; basically King and Yonge. The schtick is that they have an extensive beer menu (as the name suggests) and recommend pairings with each menu item. The crowd is largely young business types; it can get very busy on any given day with the after-work crowd.

We started off with a “Christmas beer” for my date, and *ahem*…..wine for me. I’ll admit; I’m not a huge beer drinker. I know I know. At Beer Bistro it seems fairly unacceptable to have wine. What can I say. 

The Christmas beer was no longer on the menu, however our server suggested it when my date said he wished he could have a maple syrup beer. Apparently this beer had notes of anise, cherry, and maple. To me, it only had notes of…bitter. And yeast. But my date loved it.

My wine. It was…mediocre. However I’ll try to reserve my judgement of wine at a beer restaurant. 

To start we decided to go with lamb sticky ribs. Although I was *very* curious about the horse steak tartare. My date…not so much.

It’s indicated on the menu that they are “smoked tender with coffee porter and molasses”

These were fall apart tender. You could really taste the smoke, however (and I’m being a bit picky because they *were* delicious) you couldn’t really taste the coffee or the molasses. Nor were they exactly sticky. Also; (again; picky) I have a problem with completely superfluous additions to the plate that don’t serve a purpose other than garnish. Case in point: this grilled lime. Interesting? Sure. However when you actually add it to a rib it adds nothing but an unpleasant bitter taste.

For our main meals, I chose the Autumn Ricotta Pasta. “Heirloom carrot, celery root and parsnip julienne, broccolini, tomatoes, belgian ale, whole wheat spaghetti and basil pesto – $16.59”

The pasta was perfectly cooked and the whole wheat was a good choice; the nutty flavor held up to the ricotta. Also, the vegetables were crisp tender. However, overall the dish was a little bland; could have used more salt and another interesting depth of flavor. Even something as simple as sauteed pancetta. 

My date chose to have the Gourmet Dog. “Featured homemade frankfurter sausage with accompaniments. Onion and multigrain beer-bun – $12.75”

So on that particular evening the gourmet dog consisted of a take on the chicken club: the sausage was chicken and bacon, and the toppings were tomato, lettuce, pickle, and mayonnaise. On the side is a mayo-based coleslaw. 

So, the actual sausage was pretty good. The bun was a great choice; it stood up really well to all the toppings without being too hard. There was a little too much mayo, and I felt like the whole sandwich could have used some zip. Maybe a garlic/lemon aioli? There was a lack of seasoning overall; note that the tomatoes aren’t seasoned. I’m partial to a vinegar based coleslaw in general, however in this case the mayo-based coleslaw was a poor choice and it was a tad bland. Mayo overload. My date said he would have been happier with just a tangy side salad instead.

Here was my date’s choice for his 2nd beer: I just had round 2 of the same wine. He raved about this one.

Random wall art

For dessert we decided to go with the dessert platter for two. Basically a chef’s selection of whatever is on hand that day. 

Ok so here we have an orange creme brulee. It had that trademark I’m-eating-a-great-creme-brulee crack when you tap it with your spoon. Perfect crust. The texture also had a very creamy, well executed consistency. However the flavor of the orange was completely overpowering and slightly bitter. Shame. 

Next we had a bourbon vanilla icecream. Unfortunately again the bourbon flavor was completely overpowering and actually unpleasant. I couldn’t taste vanilla at all. 

Next was a rocky road ice cream sandwich. The vanilla ice cream in the middle was yummy, however the cookie was almost impossible to break apart with a spoon (or even with a caveman-spearing motion with your fork). It tasted good, but honestly the effort was not worth the reward. I almost wonder if the chef had never actually tried to eat one him/herself. 

Next we have chocolate and raspberry mousse. The raspberry was very light, airy, and refreshing. Delicious! The dark chocolate mousse was just *slightly* too bitter. I’m a huge fan of very dark chocolate and regularly snack on 85%…however this just needed a touch of sugar. 

Finally we had the beer-skor bar icecream. Now *this* was great. You could really taste the beer however it was utterly delicious somehow in ice cream. There wasn’t too much skor or too little. Really they should just stick with making beer ice creams and skip the bourbon/rocky road. 

So, overall the highlight of the meal were the ribs for appetizer. The dessert was the most poorly executed course. The total bill (without tip) came to $101.06. The atmosphere was nice, and the server was very knowledgeable (and extremely tolerant of us taking pictures in a crowded restaurant :P). Is it somewhere I would go back to? Yeah probably, for a late-night meet-up with friends for a drink and an appetizer. It’s open until 2am Thursday-Saturday and is in a prime location of Toronto. Would I recommend it to any foodie friends with discerning palates? Probably not.

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The Art of Food Styling

My friends at 2dphotography decided to embark on a food styling mission for portfolio purposes, and of course I inserted myself directly in the middle of it, figuring it would be a piece of cake.

So apparently, food styling is hard?

I’ll share a couple things I’ve learned, and hopefully be able to help anyone trying to take reliably great photos of food in general. 

1) Natural light is key. However, when natural light isn’t possible (as is the case for most of my 2am dinner projects) we used a cubelite, which is a translucent cube allowing light to pass through/bounce off the interior for a more natural effect. When a very natural look was desired, we used one light. When a not-so-natural look was ideal, we used two. Case in point:

This is with one light; you can see how it creates the effects of shadows/soft lighting on the eggs as if they were sitting in a windowsill. 

This is with two lights

2) Use a variety of backgrounds/props to really help create the illusion that you are in an entirely different building/environment. Focus on different textures and colors. These were taken on the same day, in the same cubelite. 

3) Keep it simple. Food is beautiful. Buy quality ingredients and really emphasize how gorgeous the different textures/colors can be on their own. 

4) Have an image in mind before you start setting up the food. Sometimes, food is time-sensitive (as is the case with this avocado) but in general it’ll save you a lot of headache. With this avocado shot, I thought about how the avocado is very round, so perhaps a squarish plate/background area would help contrast that. We contemplated folding the napkin on the side neatly, however the entire picture looked just a little too orderly and inserting a bit of chaos can help make it that much more appealing. 

Ok. I’ll stop pretending to know what I’m talking about now. The biggest piece of advice I can offer anyone talking food photos is: be patient. We started out taking some fairly horrific photos, and then gradually got so used to styling that it became easy and fun.

🙂

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Le Select Bistro

Le Select Bistro is an authentically french restaurant located at Wellington and Spadina, Toronto. I’ve been a couple times before and have enjoyed myself, and I thought it was time I went in with a critical eye. It’s also reasonably casual, so after a day of apartment-hunting in jeans and heels downtown I thought it a good choice. 

We started with a bottle of wine (above). It was a half-decent bottle of Sauvignon Blanc which was fairly overpriced. However, to order wine by the glass you need to choose between a 3oz taster, or a 5oz (??) full glass. Who only drinks a 5oz glass of wine?

Our appetizer was a cheese plate, with some very thin cranberry toasts to accompany

My complaint here is the variety. The Bleu on the far right was obviously distinct, however the Riopelle (softer in texture) and Tomme de Grosse Isle (semi-soft, milder) were too similar to be sharing a cheese plate, in my opinion. I would have appreciated something creamy and spreadable in texture (neither of these were) and perhaps something sharper. There were also far too few toasts, and I hate having to ask the server for more crostini while staring longingly at cheese which now has no vehicle into my mouth. Just upsetting.

Our main courses were a drastic improvement. My date chose Risotto a la Courge: with squash, sage, wine, and parmesan

This was excellent. *JUST* salty enough; as in, half a teaspoon more and it would have been inedible. The texture was perfect, and very rich. I asked my date what he thought, and he replied, “You know, I think I like your asiago risotto better.”

Smart man. But he lies 😉

I chose the Cassoulet: braised white beans with pork belly, lamb, duck, and sausage.

It was wonderful. The beans were perfect, and I’m not even a huge bean fan. The lamb was very tender, the pork belly melted in my mouth, and the duck perfectly cooked. My only complaint was the sausage; while it was seasoned well and tasted great, the casing was slightly too tough and I ended up removing it altogether.

We decided after much deliberation that we were far too full for dessert. Sadly. The entire experience was enjoyable, however. The server was fairly knowledgeable and helpful, although a little abrupt. The bill came to $110 or thereabouts, which is very affordable/not unreasonable. I think it’s worth checking out . Also note-worthy; according to their website you can bring your own bottle of wine for an $18 uncorking fee.

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Sous Vide Cooking: Trials and Tribulations

Well; here it is. The brand spankin’ new release of SousVide Supreme, and it’s alllll mine. SousVide literally means “under vacuum” in french, and refers to a method of vacuum packing your food. The SousVide Supreme is basically an incubator that regulates the temperature of water to cook your food to the desired temperature. The beauty of it is that meat (or whatever you choose to cook) remains very very moist because moisture has nowhere to go. Steak can be cooked to a melt-in-your-mouth consistency and eggs can be perfected so the yolks are utterly luscious and creamy. Poultry can be so deliciously moist and tender that you feel like you’re trying it for the first time. 

Chances are, if you’ve eaten at any really good restaurants in the last few years you’ve had something cooked sous vide. My first experience (that I’m aware of) was at Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas a couple years ago. They served me a steak as part of the tasting menu that was unlike any steak I’d had before. I barely even needed to use my knife. I asked if they could show me how they made it, and generously the chef demonstrated how he used the sous vide method and then finished the steak in a cast iron pan to achieve a perfect crust. I was blown away.

Until recently this method was fairly unachievable for the home cook; something to be reserved for fine dining restaurants. Enter SousVide Supreme. I am completely ecstatic to own one; this is easily one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. It retails for $499, which is extremely affordable when comparing it to the restaurant equivalent. You also need to own/purchase a food grade vacuum sealer, and those vary in price widely. I have a FoodSaver sealer and it was about $200. Vacuums can get extremely expensive (upwards in the thousands) but for my purposes I drew the line at the FoodSaver one. You can also purchase a hand-pump, however the better the vacuum is at removing air from the bag, the better your results will be. 

Unfortunately, because this is such a new concept for home-cooks to be broaching, there lacks any consistent literature or recipes for the SousVide Supreme. I’ve done a lot of research and came to the conclusion that I’ll just have to experiment with good ol’ trial and error. 

My first attempt at making steak, I followed the pamphlet guidelines provided with the SousVide Supreme. They recommend that for a rare steak, you should cook a 1″ piece of meat at 49C for an hour. How hard can that be? So, I lured a date into coming over to be my taste-tester. He picked up some fairly pricey steaks (bless him) and we got to work. I seasoned both sides of the meat with salt and pepper, and then vacuum packed it without any other adornments. I wanted to just taste the texture and quality of the meat without any extraneous variables. I cooked it for the recommended hour, removed it, let it rest for 10 minutes, then blowtorched the surface. Let it rest for another few minutes, and then proudly served it up to my date. He took the first bite and a look of pure confusion came over his face.

“Well?” I asked, “is it good? Like really really good?”

“Ummm.” He said, still chewing. “Well it’s….. ah. It’s…. interesting.” He swallowed. 

Interesting? What does that even mean?” I asked. I could see him trying to be delicate. After all he had just witnessed me vacuum seal a steak, simmer it for an hour, and then blowtorch it. Clearly I was invested in the process.

“You know, it’s a little chewy,” he responded tentatively. When he saw my eyes narrow he backtracked a bit. “Ok I mean, it’s not the chewiest steak I’ve ever had or anything.”

I grabbed the fork from him assuming his Neanderthal palate just wasn’t fully appreciating my sous vide steak. And I took a bite. I chewed it. And kept chewing it. And finally I swallowed it after assessing that it was now completely devoid of any steak flavor whatsoever. As my poor date attempted to console me, I proceeded to drink the majority of a bottle of wine while obsessively writing down possible things I did wrong. If I am one thing, it’s goddamn stubborn.

I got in touch with the extremely helpful Haas from No salad as a meal and he recommended that I cook the steak according to Thomas Keller’s guidelines: which is 59.5C for 45 minutes when dealing with a 400 gram piece of sirloin. Haas explained to me that he had used Keller’s temperature and the times from the SousVide Supreme pamphlet. Ok. Commence Trial #2. 

I cooked two steaks at 59.5C. The steaks were approximately 1.25 inches each, so I cooked them for an hour and 25 minutes according to the pamphlet cooking times. When I explained to Haas that my steak was completely lacking that beefy flavor, he suggested that perhaps I should sear it first to really lock in the steak flavor throughout the cooking process. So, I seared one of the steaks prior to cooking it, cooled it completely, and then vacuum sealed it. The other I didn’t sear prior to cooking it. 

Trial #2 was far more successful but still not great. The steaks were slightly too dry for my liking, although they had a wonderful beefy flavor. The consensus was that the steak that was not seared prior to cooking it was far more moist and did not have noticeably less flavor. 

Ok. Trial #3. I used two 1 inch steaks (NY striploin) and cut them into four pieces total after trimming them and seasoning with salt and pepper.

Then I sealed each piece with my vacuum sealer.

I put all four pieces in the SousVide Supreme simultaneously, at 59.5C. The plan was to remove one at 45 minutes, one at 55, one at 1:05, and one at 1:15 to note the differences.

Here is the first steak removed at 45 minutes. Note how unappetizing it looks: that’s completely normal, it just needs to be seared. I let it rest for 10 minutes.

Once rested, I put it in a stainless steel pan and topped it with a pat of butter. Then I blowtorched the exterior to get a crust. 

I let that rest again for about 5 minutes, just to ensure I wasn’t going to lose any moisture. I also sprinkled it with a pinch more salt and a few grinds of pepper.

Here’s the finished product. Note that with sous vide cooking, when you desire a medium steak (for example) the steak will be medium throughout. Meaning, it won’t have that characteristic pink middle surrounded by greyish-brown. It will be entirely pink but still have the texture of a medium steak. 

This steak was very good. Slightly lacking in flavor. Ok: Steak B taken out at 55 minutes – 

You can really see how moist Steak B was. It was very good. My taste-testing friend didn’t want to share it with me and kept sneaking bites between pictures, hence the interesting shape of this one 😛

Steak C, taken out at 1:05 minutes

This one was also very good, although just slightly drier than Steak B. 

Steak D, removed at 1:15 minutes

This was the least successful steak of the bunch. It was noticeably drier than both Steak A and Steak B.

Whew. Ok. I have eaten more steak than any human being ever should in the course of the last week. It’s still not perfect; I’m going to play around with times and temperatures to achieve a better version of Steak B. But, it’s a start.

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