Late to the Table: A Culinary Walk Through Tuscany

Tuscan countrysideLet me be upfront:  I never read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. Never saw the movie. I’m unaccountably indifferent to pasta (and Italian food  in general, if truth be told). Yes, I missed the boat completely on the raptures of Tuscany.

Friends who’d spent time in the popular Italian region said this was a gap in need of remedy. Stat.

So I booked a culinary walking tour of Tuscany, offering hillside rambles and an abundance of wine. Now THAT’S something I could commit to…

Read the full story in the current issue of Calgary’s City Palate magazine.

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Tenacious Crete

lunch at taverna monastiri, chaniaI’m here on the water’s edge of what’s considered to be the most beautiful Old Town in Greece.  From my vantage point, I see a Venetian lighthouse standing sentry over a narrow harbour entrance and a Turkish mosque – now serving as an exhibition hall – opening its doors to the morning air.

This is Chania, second-largest city on the island of Crete, where the architecture provides just a sliver of insight into a turbulent history…

Read the full story here and in the new issue of Taste & Travel International magazine.

Deep November

November Sunrise - Calgary

NOVEMBER IN CALGARY: it’s the perfect juxtaposition of dwindling daylight hours and increasing social expectations that’s destined to wreak havoc with your serenity.

Still, the silver lining of this time of year is witnessing a stunning prairie sunrise as you grab that first (or second!) morning coffee at work – and a mountain sunset as you make your commute home.

Those rose-hued skies of late have put me in mind of a couple of my favourite things to lighten the holiday season.

November Sky cocktail (Cirque Restaurant, Fernie, BC)
My rendition of the November Sky (Cirque’s is much prettier)

The first is the November Sky – a warming combination of brown spirits and red wine that is one of Aileen Shipley’s gifts to the cocktail-sipping community.  Shipley conjured it up for her apres-ski guests at Cirque Restaurant & Bar in Fernie’s Lizard Creek Lodge (and allowed me to share the recipe in my basil column last winter).  The cocktail’s evocative sweet and sour layers are up to the dual tasks of pleasing your holiday guests or lifting your spirits as you work through your seasonal checklist.

And my second favourite go-to? Broiled Feta Crumbles & Fennel on Mixed Micro-Greens – a quick and delicious topper for crostini or crackers that was taught to me by Chef Crystal McKenzie of Peasant Cheese Shop in Kensington.  The recipe for this appetizer inspiration has recently made its way to the website of Taste & Travel International where you can access it for yourself.

[You’ll notice T&T’s photo presents it plated like a salad – a delicious option – but Crystal likes to spread a thick layer of tiny sprouts (pea shoots are terrific!) across a small platter, then sprinkle the toasted cheese crumbles and roasted fennel bits across the top, for a layered ensemble that guests can simply scoop onto their bread].

Mmmm – warm, salty cheese and greens, together with an elevated whisky sour.  For me there’s no better combination for easy entertaining or a little self-care in the midst of holiday chaos.

Or for simply curling up and looking ahead to powder ski days in the Rockies.

Text and photos © 2018 Catherine Van Brunschot

Delicious Solidarity: Celebrating the 15th Anniversary of Food Day Canada

Berry harvest

In 2003, when international borders were closed to Canadian beef by our largest trading partners, Canadians responded with the World’s Longest Barbecue.  Chefs across the country came on board, sanctions were lifted over time, and that show of solidarity with our beef farmers morphed into Food Day Canada/Journée des terroirs, a nationwide party held every August long weekend in celebration of Canadian food.

Food Day Canada logoFifteen years on, with our blustery neighbour once again preoccupied with building walls, and our food producers under fire (from those, I believe, who would be allies if they better understood the reality), I have to agree with Food Day Canada founder, Anita Stewart, when she says that “Today we face similar, perhaps even graver, challenges”.

And I’m definitely on board with her call to all Canadians to not linger on lament but to throw a party instead, to “honour our own ingredients”.

Perhaps it’s my usual giddiness at the bounty that’s all around us at this time of year, but my personal Food Day Canada will be a celebration of delight as much as solidarity.  I’ll be pulling out some sweet discoveries that I made for my Canada Day barbecue in 2017.

spruce tip and rose hip syrup - webI’ll start things out with my favourite summertime cocktail, the Dominion Dram, created by Calgary mixologist, Myles Petley.  This drink has me gleefully picking new spruce tips in my backyard, and features a gin with botanicals traditionally used by the First Nations of the Arctic tundra.

We’ll nibble crostini baked from Canadian wheat flour, topped with aged Ontario cheddar and a drizzle of birch syrup that I sourced from a producer on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.  We’ll crunch through more than we should of Lobster Roll Bites (riffed from the delectable lobster rolls of Atlantic Canada, via George Brown culinary school alum/instructor, Annabelle Waugh).

Birch syrupMy husband will rule the grill with his famous West Coast Salmon (from a recipe shared by an old friend in Nanaimo) and *Nish Kabobs created by Aboriginal Television’s Chef David Wolfman (another George Brown notable. *Note:  “Nish” is slang for Anishinaabe First Nations).  With a few more mouths at the table, we might add Quebec Maple Pork Skewers to the platter, or some Bison Cherry Burgers (always a family favourite).

I’ll turn to Chef Wolfman again for Three Sisters Corn Relish salad, loaded with zucchini, onions, and peppers from my favourite Calgary Farmers’ Market producers.  And there will be heaps of Alberta-grown greens, carrots, and cucumbers, and sweet tiny tomatoes picked fresh from my garden pots.

Still to be determined are which Okanagan wines to drink.  So, too, is dessert – although it’s likely to feature the just-ripened fruit from my Juliet sour cherry tree (bred for Canadian prairie hardiness by the diligent researchers at the University of Saskatchewan).

Before the Plate film
“Before the Plate” directed by Sagi Kahane-Rapport; produced by Dylan Sher (Photo credit: Before the Plate)

To mark this 15th anniversary of Food Day Canada, Toronto’s CN Tower will light up the sky, and the film Before the Plate will make its sold-out premiere at that city’s Isabel Bader Theatre.  (This documentary, which takes one plate created by Chef John Horne at Canoe restaurant and traces each ingredient back to its Canadian source,  includes revelations about modern farming and distribution that are sure to surprise.  Watch for it – this doc is destined to appear at film festivals and indie cinemas everywhere).

Chefs will be hosting Food Day Canada events across the country; look for one near you from the list of restaurant partners at fooddaycanada.ca.

SO REGARDLESS OF WHAT YOU’RE INCLINED TO CELEBRATE – be it solidarity with our country’s farmers, delight for Canadian-grown/raised/fished/foraged/brewed/distilled/aged or otherwise-crafted ingredients, or simply a glorious long weekend in our oh-so-short summer – be sure to rustle up some culinary treasures from your local farmers and food artisans this weekend or hustle down to the digs of your favourite chef-creator of Canadian cuisine.  There’s a patio or deck with your name on it somewhere and a cornucopia of Great White North flavours close at hand.

Wherever you are, be sure to share your discoveries on your favourite social media platforms using the hashtags #FoodDayCanada and #CanadaIsFood.

Food Artisans of Alberta

 (And for my Alberta homies, there’s a brand new resource out there to help you find all that delicious local goodness.  Food Artisans of Alberta by Karen Anderson and Matilde Sanchez-Turri combs every corner of the province to highlight the best growers and producers harnessing and nurturing our unique terroir from land and water to plate, jar, and bottle.  Once you read their stories, you’ll want to track them down – and much of their fare is closer than you think!  Find this guide at bookstores, cafes, cooking schools, food artisans – even the odd gas station around the province – or online at Chapters/Indigo.)

 

 

Text and photos © 2018 Catherine Van Brunschot (except where noted)

 

Profiles of Kerala

Photo credit: S. Dunk

The screen door creaks a quiet complaint as I ease it shut and slide into a rattan chair.  Beneath the low-thatched eaves of my cottage, I ponder the trees emerging from the morning mist and warm my hands gratefully on my coffee glass.  According to the card on my nightstand, the brew is podi kappi, “the traditional black coffee of the local people in the High Range area”.  I only know it is hot and dark and redolent with cardamom, cumin, and fenugreek.  As caffeine and sun make inroads on my hazy dawn, a soft hoot emerges from the canopy: an unseen langur monkey alerts his family to my presence.

Read the full story here and in the Spring Issue of Taste & Travel International magazine.

 

Passion for Perigord

Chefs Fudge and Meret depart Château Montastru
Photo credit – Steve Dunk

It’s 9:30 am and I’m elbow-deep in foie gras in a château in southwest France.  Not literally to the elbows, mind you, but I’m as up-close-and-personal as I’m likely to get, thrilled and terrified in equal measure as I tease vascular tissue free from the prized duck liver.  Despite the cooling armour of the castle’s thick walls, the foie gras seems to be melting under my fingers and I’m beginning to sweat.  My mentor, Chef Thierry Meret, reassures me with his usual bonhomie – and a shot of plum brandy.

Read the full story in the Winter 2018 Issue of Taste & Travel International magazine.

Leftovers Black Box Challenge – Week 3: Burdensome Basil

Handful of basil

I have a LOVE-HATE relationship with basil.

LOVE – because it’s my all-time favourite herb, whose sweet scent and peppery taste I can never grow tired of.

And LOVE – because whether its Genovese basil or Thai, lemon basil or purple,  it thrives in my patio pots all through the Calgary summer.

But HATE – because no matter what I do – water more, water less, choose a sunny spot, or not  – I cannot keep its glossy leaves alive through the winter.

And HATE – because when I  buy it in those plastic packets from the store, I use a little for a single meal and the remainder plummets toward an all-too-rapid demise in my fridge.

There’s some lurking in there now.

It arrived at my house a few days ago.  Served its duty in a lively Thai chicken stirfry.  And now sits there, taunting me.

Basil bouquetStorage is key, I know, for all herbs – but particularly for oh-so-tender basil.  When I spot it in the grocery store with roots intact, it always follows me home – where it stays happy in a tiny juice glass of oft-replenished water, a green bouquet on my kitchen counter, for more than a week.  (Or so I surmise – the irony of its constant visual presence means it disappears at a meteoric rate).

Not so much in a plastic coffer.

Other herbs, like mint, thyme and rosemary, lend themselves to simple drying.  Basil tends to go black unless it’s dried in the oven – and the resulting product loses everything I like about basil’s incomparable flavour.

I can’t pop it in the freezer (like I do with so many of my leftovers quandaries) unless it’s pureed with a bit of oil.  But then I’m likely to mix it up with the cubes of green adobo sauce that I keep there – and THAT can lead to some unpleasant surprises.  (I’m not a great labeller of freezer items).

A few years ago, Chef Patrick Dunn of InterCourse Chef Services introduced me to a slick trick.  He’d had great success storing his basil and other herbs in a sealed container with a whole raw egg.  The semi-permeable shell apparently allows excess moisture to be absorbed into the egg, and herbs stay crisp and fresh for two weeks.

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr SeussIncidentally,  the egg absorbs some of the herb colour and fragrance, as well – but this offers possibilities for delighting the Dr. Seuss fans in your house (and aren’t we all Dr. Seuss fans at heart?).

I’ve never tried Dunn’s technique.

I could whip up a little pesto in the blender – but my fridge already harbours half a jar of commercial pesto that was bought in a time crisis.

I could toss the basil into salads, tuck it into sandwiches – always a bitey enhancement – but its leaves are already drooping in a texturally-unpleasant way.

Friends tell me to stir it into whatever pasta dish I’m preparing.  I cook pasta maybe four times a year.

Meanwhile, the basil quick-marches toward imminent death, a prospect that just might drive me to drink.

But perhaps therein lies the answer.   My current favourite cocktail features a basil simple syrup.   Shaken with Canadian whisky, lemon juice, and egg white, and topped with a splash of red wine, it becomes a mouth-puckering and eye-pleasing November Sky.  It’s essentially an amped-up whisky sour created by Aileen Shipley at Cirque Restaurant in Fernie’s Lizard Creek Lodge – and I’m forever grateful for her ingenuity.

The simple syrup is probably its most luscious when the basil is fresher – but when everything’s all in, I doubt my tongue will be able to tell.

Think I’ll go conjure up some now.

 

NOVEMBER SKY

Serves 1

November Sky cocktail (Cirque Restaurant, Fernie, BC)

2 oz Crown Royal

1 oz lemon juice

1/2 oz basil simple syrup (recipe below)

1 egg white

1/2 oz dry red wine

Garnish: 2 skewered brandied cherries (or red grapes)

 

In a cocktail shaker combine Crown Royal, lemon juice, basil syrup and egg white.

Dry shake.  Add ice and shake again.

Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.

Float red wine on top, and garnish with brandied cherries.

 

Basil Syrup

2 cups water

2 cups sugar

Generous handful of basil, rinsed

 

Combine water and sugar in a saucepan and heat until sugar is dissolved.

Add basil and simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and let steep until desired basil flavour is reached.

Strain out basil and store syrup in the fridge for up to a month.

Shared with permission from Cirque Restaurant at Lizard Creek Lodge (slopeside at Fernie Alpine Resort).

 

Text and photos © 2018 Catherine Van Brunschot

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