Thank the spice trade of yesterday for excellent dim sum in Toronto today

The food: dim sum

My favourite: the steamed scallop dumplings

Frilly steamed scallop dumplings from Pearl Harbourfront

The story:

I recently read (for an upcoming review) An Edible History of Humanity, by Tom Standage, an intriguing book that looks at history as “a series of transformations caused, enabled, or influenced by food.”

An entertaining, edifying food history book.

An entertainining and edifying food history book

My favorite chapters elucidated how the demand of Western civilizations for spices, which dates back to the Roman era, if not further, led to world exploration for several centuries. Without ancient Egyptians and Romans, followed by medieval Europeans, craving spices big-time, the major navigation discoveries that connected cultures and countries around the world might never have happened when they did.

Cross-cultural influences at work: these shrimp chive dumplings are called hockey pucks.

Cross-cultural influences at work: these shrimp chive dumplings are called hockey pucks on the Pearl menu.

In other words, without spices being a hot commodity long ago, we might not be able to eat excellent dim sum in Toronto today, perish the thought.

Plump har gow (shrimp dumplings) with delicate, translucent wrappings.

Plump, delicate har gow (shrimp dumplings)

In my not so humble opinion, the best dim sum in Toronto, bar none, can be found at Pearl Harbourfront, a light-filled second floor space with panoramic harbour views in the Queen’s Quay Terminal building on Toronto’s waterfront. (And what about the oft-touted Lai Wah Heen on Chestnut Street, you cry? Here’s what: it’s too formal, too precious, and too expensive and the food is not as good as Pearl’s. So, no.)

Fried scallop dumplings

Fried scallop dumplings

Admittedly, the parking is neither cheap nor easy at Harbourfront. And the Queen’s Quay building, though it sports an airy, bright interior and a niftily restored Art Deco frontage, contains an odd assortment of touristy shops (Inuit sculpture, anyone? A Tilley hat?). What a friendly yet sophisticated white tablecloth Chinese restaurant offering delicious, high quality dim sum is doing in this setting, I don’t know, but the food, ambiance and service are worth the trip.

Stir-fried egg noodles with bean sprouts

Stir-fried egg noodles with bean sprouts

Feast your eyes on the Pearl Harbourfront menu selections shown here (There are many, I know, but hey, 5 of us ate that day), know that the food tastes as good as it looks, then go there, in any weather on any day of the week (weekend lunchtimes when the weather is fine can be hectic, with lineups, but Pearl does take reservations). Push politely past the odd busload of tourists wandering dazed through the ground floor shopping area, head up the escalator at the south end of the building, and delight your palate.

Shiu mai

Shiu mai

The non dim sum food, like this braised bean curd with vegetables in oyster sauce, is great too.

The non dim sum food at Pearl, like this braised bean curd with vegetables in oyster sauce, is very good too.

Pearl Harbourfront on Urbanspoon

Those Summer Nights

The food: Summer salads

Brown rice salad

Brown rice salad with salad cream

The heat has landed in Toronto, which makes me want to eat salad for dinner every night.

Summer Salad A in my repertoire has its origins in the summers I spent in England as a young person working on rescue archeology excavations. I gave that personal history to the title character in my latest novel, The Restoration of Emily, and in the novel named two of the actual digs I worked at: a Roman villa near Earith, Cambridgeshire, and a Neolithic hut settlement in North Cave, Yorkshire.

The living conditions were pretty rustic on those digs – we diggers, students mainly, slept in tents onsite and cooked hippieish dinners on Coleman stoves, including a main course salad composed, in my recollection, of cooked brown rice, canned tuna, hard-cooked eggs, cooked corn, a green vegetable or two, and fresh tomatoes. The dressing was Heinz salad cream, a sweet and tangy British kind of runny mayonnaise that can be found in many Toronto supermarkets, a vestige of Canada’s British heritage.

Brown Rice Salad

1 c. brown rice (yields about 3 cups cooked), cooked according to package directions and cooled (can still be warm when mixed and eaten)
8 or 10 strawberry tomatoes, halved
4 hard-cooked eggs, cooled and chopped
1 can flaked white tuna, drained
2 stalks of celery, chopped
corn from 3 cobs of fresh corn, cooked
1 c. crisp-tender steamed fresh green veg of choice, e.g. broccoli, asparagus, green beans
1 yellow, orange or red pepper, chopped, if desired
about 1 c. of Heinz salad cream
salt and pepper
chopped parsley

Mix and eat.

Greek salad with fennel

Greek salad with fennel

Summer Salad B at my house this week was a Greek salad, reminiscent of the summer week I spent on the island of Hydra in 1978, (the year the movie Grease came out), visiting my mother and stepfather in a house they’d rented there for a few months during my stepfather’s sabbatical. We sailed by day, ate in tavernas at night, and danced at the disco.

This time around, I added slices of fresh fennel to the usual ingredients of tomato, cucumber, feta, olives, and peppers (no raw onions, thanks), mixed in some chopped basil and fennel fronds for added colour and flavour, and used a drizzle of lemon oil for dressing, making the salad both virtuous and refreshing, kind of like young Olivia Newton-John in the clip below. Make sure you sing all the parts – hers, John Travolta’s, and those of both choruses, when watching it, for maximum nostalgic and summery effect.

Beef Wellington for Father’s Day

The food: Deconstructed Beef Wellington

Check the delicious looking nugget of paté at the front of the pic.

Check the delicious looking nugget of paté at the front of the pic.

The story:

After my parents divorced, my mother met, fell in love with, and later married a man named Reg Herman. Reg, who died in 2007, was an old school gourmand whose taste in food sometimes seemed mired in the mid-20th century: he was big on protein-heavy luxury foods like raw oysters, shrimp cocktail, roast duck, steamed whole lobster, Beluga caviar, “fine wines” and Beef Wellington.

It’s not that I don’t like some of these Reg-hyped foods – I do, but I’m sometimes embarrassed to tell people I’m making Beef Wellington, for instance, for fear it’s a dish that’s not so much a classic as passé.

Passé or not, I prepare a deconstructed (and therefore more modern, or should that be post-modern?) version of it for special occasions, like New Year’s Eve. This year, in a coolish month of June, I made it for E’s Father’s Day dinner. He liked it, I liked it, the kids liked it (the beef part, anyway). I bet Reg would have liked it too.

Deconstructed Beef Wellington

2-3 pound beef tenderloin
olive oil
fresh rosemary
chicken liver paté or foie gras mousse, about 6-8 T. (1/3 lb.?)
1 lb. sliced fresh mushrooms
frozen puff pastry shells (AKA vols-au-vent)
demi-glace (purchased), about 1/2 c.

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Sear tenderloin on all sides in 1 T. olive oil over high heat in large pot, 2 – 4 minutes until browned.
3. Remove from pot, place in roasting pan, pat with fresh, chopped rosemary leaves. Insert meat thermometer in middle of roast.
4. Roast for about 30 minutes, then check internal temperature at 5 minute intervals until desired temperature is reached (150 F for medium rare.)
5. Meanwhile, sauté mushrooms in 1 T. olive oil until nicely browned, about 5 minutes, add paté cut in chunks to taste. Stir in paté and let melt into mushrooms.
6. Remove beef from oven when done to taste. Let roast rest in pan outside oven for 10 – 15 minutes.
7. Increase oven temperature to 400 F and place puff pastry shells, on baking sheet, into oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Remove pastry lid with fork.
8. Slice tenderloin into 1/4 inch thick slices, then cut slices into 1 inch long strips.
9. To serve, cut slightly cooled pastry shell in half vertically and spread on plate. Nestle spoonfuls of mushroom paté mixture and slices of beef inside and outside of the shell in an artful manner. Drizzle with warm demi-glace and serve with dollops of mustard and horseradish alongside.

And Chocolate Chip Cookies for All

The food: Gluten free chocolate chip cookies

Soft, crumbly gluten-free chocolate chip cookies

Soft, crumbly gluten-free chocolate chip cookies

The story:

My most recent novel, The Restoration of Emily, is about an architect named Emily Harada, whose 14-year-old son Jesse, has celiac disease. To some extent, the Jesse character was based on my now 19 year old son Michael, who has followed a gluten-free (GF) diet since he was diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of eighteen months.

In Michael’s younger days, I laboured mightily to find and prepare gluten-free meals and snacks for him, with varying success. So when I one day came upon a simple recipe that resulted in GF chocolate chip cookies with an authentic homemade texture and taste, I held on to the recipe, and baked them whenever I had the time to make two batches: a gluten free one just for Michael, using rice flour, and a gluten rich batch using unbleached all- purpose (wheat) flour for my other son.

The same recipe made with wheat flour and pecans.

The same recipe made with wheat flour and pecans.

These days, the other son doesn’t eat sweets (he’s an athlete who’s perpetually in training), so the second batch I make is for me. It contains pecans and a little extra salt to cut the sweetness. Michael and I both like the flat, soft cookies that the recipe makes (the GF ones are flatter and crumblier), but he prefers his cookies without crisp edges. So when I make his, I crowd the whole batch onto one cookie sheet. They join together into one big cookie when baked, and I cut them into cookieish shapes when they’re cooled.

One big cookie

One big cookie

Chocolate Chip Cookies – GF or Not

½ c. butter
¾ c. sugar (mixed brown and white)
1 c. rice flour OR 1 c. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
¾ c. chocolate chips
½ c. pecans, if desired

Cream butter and sugar together in large mixing bowl. Combine dry ingredients in separate bowl. Add egg and vanilla to butter and sugar combo, beat till combined. Add dry ingredients, beat till combined. Stir in chocolate chips and pecans.

Drop by tablespoon onto parchment paper covered cookie sheet. Bake at 350 F for 7-9 minutes. Remove from oven when still a little moist on top. Let cool on baking sheet. Makes about 20. Store gluten-free cookies on layers of parchment paper in an airtight container.

Compare and Contrast: School Bakery & Café (Toronto) and Clinton Street Baking Company and Restaurant (New York)

The food: bakery café fare


The story:

In advance of the short trips I take to New York, I carefully plan every meal. I have to, in order to mix tried and true favorites, like the lobster roll at Pearl Oyster Bar, with new dishes and restaurants I want to try.

Falling into the new category on my last trip down, in April, was the Clinton Street Baking Company & Restaurant on the Lower East Side.


E and I arrived at around 11:30 am on a Thursday and were surprised to find a lineup of mainly hipsters waiting for tables inside the tiny shop counter area, with more hipsters milling about outside on the sidewalk. A welcoming host took our name and assured us the wait shouldn’t be too long, since people who left their names often bailed. Sure enough, we were seated within 10 minutes, after the same host called out six or seven names ahead of ours and got no reply.


We squeezed into a small table for two, and quickly ordered: for me the wild Maine blueberry pancakes with maple butter (voted best pancakes by New York magazine in 2005), and for E, the buttermilk biscuit sandwich, made of scrambled eggs, melted cheddar, and homemade tomato jam, and served with hash browns. Because we’re bad that way, we also ordered the onion rings that looked so delicious on a neighbouring table.


I found the pancakes and maple butter to be delicious indeed, and so did E, when I gave him a bite. E was less pleased with his biscuit sandwich – the biscuit was too bready and heavy for his taste. We both liked the onion rings, which had a delightful hand-crafted, flaky quality to the batter, but we couldn’t finish them. On the way out, mindful we’d be eating another big meal for dinner that night, we declined to buy any baked goods but decided we would definitely return sometime. For the pancakes.

An inside room at School Bakery & Cafe

An inside room at School Bakery & Cafe

Back home in Toronto in June, we tried School Bakery & Café , a buzzed-about new joint in Liberty Village, a former factory and industrial neighbourhood that’s being gentrified with new condos and design shops.

We arrived at School at 11:45 am, on a Friday, and found the largish restaurant – it has two good-sized interior rooms, and two good-sized patios as well – fairly empty. It was almost full when we left an hour later, though, of some hipsters, some office workers on a lunch break, and at least one family with kids.


E obligingly ordered the Chipotle Cheddar Biscuit Sandwich, made with a fried egg, pepper Jack cheese and back bacon, and pronounced it better and less overwhelmingly biscuity than the Clinton Street version. For comparison purposes, I should have ordered blueberry pancakes, but I was in the mood for fries (as always), so I had the SBC Fried Chicken with pepper biscuits and gravy, and we ordered a large fries to share.


The chicken was crunchy and juicy, and, like the neighourhood, had an artisanal rather than industrial look and texture, with a refined, peppery sauce. The fries, though skinnier than I usually like, rated pretty high on my fry index – they were fresh, soft and hot, and the rosemary and Parmesan cheese they’d been tossed with added flavour.


On the way out of School, we picked up some baked goods: a sour lemon scone, a blueberry almond orange muffin, and some 25¢ each chocolate chunk cookies.


The scone had a nice lemon bite but was a little heavy-textured for me (E liked it, though), the muffin was pleasant but unexceptional, and the cookies were excellent and addictive. For them, I’d definitely go back to School. And buy multiple packs. Maybe I’ll try the pancakes then too.

School Bakery & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Clinton St. Baking Company on Urbanspoon

Essential Macaroni and Cheese

The food: Macaroni and Cheese


The story:

Several years ago, I wrote a you-can’t-go-home-again short story that featured macaroni and cheese. It was about a single woman in her thirties who has quit a corporate marketing job to go to university fulltime and take a master’s degree in French literature. Midway through her degree, she starts to think she’s made a big mistake.

Over the Christmas holidays, she housesits for her parents in a posh part of town. At the local grocery store, she runs into an old childhood friend who has become a rich stay-at-home mom. The friend is happy to see her, and invites her to a holiday cocktail party she’s having that night, where there will be other childhood friends, all married, and, unlike the main character of the story, living again in the old neighbourhood.

The party doesn’t go well for the heroine – everyone has turned into their parents, and no one remembers the same things she does from their youth, or will admit to remembering them. She leaves early, goes back to her parents’ house, and makes herself some macaroni and cheese for dinner, but not the way her mother made it. She makes it her own way, a new way, a modern way.

In the story, I had her add new-fangled ingredients to her mac and cheese, to show how far she’d left behind the old neighbourhood and the conventional life choices.

These days, I make macaroni and cheese according to a 4 ingredient recipe that also represents a fresh approach to a traditional recipe.


I devised this approach to capture what I think are the essential elements of the dish: noodles in a creamy, cheesy sauce, topped with crunchy browned breadcrumbs.

Essential Macaroni and Cheese

½ lb. short pasta of your choice, such as cavatappi
About 2 cups grated Swiss Gruyère cheese, expensive but deliciously nutty in flavour
½ to ¾ c. cream – I use 18%
½ to ¾ c. Panko breadcrumbs

1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Undercook by 1 minute or so. Drain and pour into casserole dish. Use a shallow one to create more surface area for the breadcrumbs.
2. Pour in cream. It should come half to three-quarters of the way up the sides of the dish. Stir in all but 4 T. of grated cheese.
3. Mix breadcrumbs with remaining 4 T. of grated cheese. (You can mix in a bit of melted butter too if you want to be excessive). Arrange breadcrumbs in layer over top of noodles.
4. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes until bubbly. If top is insufficiently browned, broil for 2 minutes.
5. Eat with a dollop of honey mustard or chutney as a condiment, alongside a salad of dark greens such as arugula or spinach.
Serves 4.

My Grandmother’s Banana Cake

The food: Banana Cake


The story:

My maternal grandmother was French-Canadian, from Montreal. Her name was Alice, pronounced in the French manner, though like many French-Canadians of her generation, and my mother’s, she was bilingual.

Alice came to live with us in Toronto when I was 10, after my parents separated. While my mother went out to work as a French teacher, my grandmother kept the house, cooked the meals, and in good weather, sat in her rocking chair on the front porch, rocked, and smoked cigarettes. At night, she watched colour television in her room. She preferred to watch alone, without a restless child present who might talk or fidget during her “programs,” but she sometimes let me watch episodes of a show called The Name of the Game, that starred a glamourous Susan Saint James.

In the afternoons, when my mother and we three kids were away at school, Alice often baked simple one layer cakes or cookies, iced with a ‘glaçage’ made of icing sugar beaten together with butter and a little milk. I’d come home from school and see a cake in a glass pan set out on a counter under the kitchen window, and know that I couldn’t eat it until after dinner, though I always wanted a piece right away.

My mother recently unearthed my grandmother’s old banana cake recipe – written in French – and passed it on to me, wondered if I’d remember it. Of course I did. When I made it, it came out quite sweet and not very high. I guess my grandmother had a lighter hand than me. She spoke better French than I do too.

Banana Cake (Gateau Bananes)

1/2 c. butter
1 c. white sugar
2 beaten eggs
2 mashed bananas
1/2 c. sour cream
1 tsp. baking soda (mixed in with the sour cream)
2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 pinch salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Mix, pour in 8″ x 13″ baking pan. Cook 20 – 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Ice when cooled. Dress up with walnut halves and strawberries if you like, but Alice would never have done that.