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Archive for July, 2009

The food: Best ever cookies

The stuff of obsession

The stuff of obsession

The story:

Experience has made me skeptical about best ever food claims. Like the cookies from a little bakery in midtown Manhattan called Ruby et Violette. I recently went out of my way (not too far out, but still, I took a crosstown bus!) to buy and try these expensive ($2.50 each) babies:

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They had a soft, chewy texture, were not too sweet, and were made with good quality chocolate chunks. But were they “Perfect” (the name Ruby et Violette gives this particular variety)? No. Were they “the best damn cookies on earth” (another Ruby et Violette claim)? Sorry, but again, no.

No, the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever eaten were the ones I made recently in my own kitchen, from a recipe I found on the beautifully photographed and always interesting food blog Kiss My Spatula.

The Kiss My Spatula blogger says she “tweaked” a Jacques Torres cookie recipe that appeared in the New York Times in 2008, but it is her recipe, with rolled oats and chopped almonds added to Torres’ ingredient ratios and method, that changed my life.

The white flecks are rolled oats, not coconut (hate coconut).

The white flecks are rolled oats, not coconut (hate coconut).

These cookies may not look like much, but they really are mind-blowing, thanks to the delicious hit of caramelized sugar once you bite through the crisp exterior, the satisfying crunch of the toasted almond bits, the flakes of oat-y goodness, and the kiss of sea salt over top (here we go again with the magic and irresistible combination of sugar, salt and fat.)

Make them, try them, prepare to be obsessed, and don’t be surprised if after eating one, you find yourself walking around the house singing the chorus of a song I actually dislike, The Best I Ever Had, by rising rap star Aubrey “Drake” Graham, who in years gone by attended basketball camp with my sons, and now numbers them among his fans.

Okay, I hate the song, but these cookies ARE the best I’ve ever had.

Ruby Et Violette on Urbanspoon

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The food: linguine with clams

Linguine vongole from Palma in New York

Linguine vongole from Palma in New York

The story:

Linguine with clams is my favorite pasta dish – the menu item I’m compelled to order whenever I’m in a good Italian restaurant that offers it.

For example, the last time E and I went to Palma in New York, a charming, rustically decorated spot on Cornelia Street in the West Village, we ordered the light, greaseless, and succulent calamari fritti ($13) garnished with fried sage leaves, to split like we always do when we’re there,

Calamari fritti at Palma

Calamari fritti at Palma

and also tried the carciofi croccanti – crispy artichokes with parmigiano and parsley ($13).

Crispy artichokes at Palma

Crispy artichokes at Palma

Which meant I didn’t really have room for Palma’s linguine vongole ($18) as well. But I ordered it anyway, because I especially like Palma’s version, with its pleasing ratio of clams to linguine, and fruity, fragrant gloss of wine and olive oil.

On another trip to New York, when I was in need of a quick lunch on the Upper (ish) East Side between a morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a matinee at the City Center theater, I stopped in at a modest (and slightly down at its heels: avoid the women’s restroom) Fresh Basil’s Trattoria on Lexington near 56th Street, because New York magazine said it did traditional pastas well, and because linguine with clams was listed on the menu. Or rather, because the menu listed as a house specialty a Linguine Al Frutti Di Mare in a “special marinara sauce” ($15.95) which the waiter quickly agreed to convert into a clams only version.

A whole lot of linguine with clams at Fresh Basil's Trattoria

A whole lot of linguine with clams at Fresh Basil's Trattoria

The platter of pasta that arrived soon after could have fed four, and contained what looked like ½ to ¾ of pound of linguine, not so much coated with that special sauce as drowning in it. (Pasta portions at a nearby table, where 3 out of the 4 patrons had ordered spaghetti Bolognese, were also super-sized.) Pasta purists would probably deem the linguine overcooked, but the clams were meaty and fresh-tasting, and the marinara sauce was special – silky smooth, and sweetly tomato-ey, with a peppery bite. I ate all the clams, with a third of the pasta – okay, maybe ½ – and gave up on the rest.

After a few weeks’ rest and recovery, I ate one more serving of linguine vongole: a serving I’d made at home, with littleneck clams, combining elements of two different recipes that married clams with lemon juice. This was my first time cooking fresh clams, and the process was easier than I expected, since the fishmonger had cleaned the clams for me, and when I steamed them in the wine, lemon juice and olive oil sauce, every shell opened.

The clams in their shells before I covered and steamed them.

The clams in their shells before I covered and steamed them.

My home-cooked linguine with clams

My home-cooked linguine with clams

The home-cooked version of the dish was tasty, though because I held back on the olive oil, it lacked the fruity glossy goodness of the Palma version. And for colour, I should have added the chopped parsley at the end (like the restaurants do) rather than at the beginning. I’ve amended the recipe below accordingly.

Linguine with Clams (adapted from Martha Stewart Living magazine and Epicurious.com)

1 lb. linguine
¼ c. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped (optional – I omitted these)
3 lbs. fresh littleneck clams, scrubbed
1 c. white wine
¼ c. fresh lemon juice
2 T. lemon zest, finely chopped
¼ c. fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add linguine and cook according to package directions.
2. Heat oil over medium heat in large stainless steel sauté pan. Add garlic, if using, and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Stir in lemon zest, lemon juice, and wine, and simmer 2 minutes.
3. Add clams, raise heat to medium high. Cover and cook until clams open, about 5-7 minutes (discard any that remain closed).
4. When pasta is cooked, drain and add to sauté pan with parsley, then toss to coat and season with salt and pepper.

Serves 4.

Palma on Urbanspoon

Fresh Basil's Trattoria on Urbanspoon

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The food: ramen

Ramen from Konnichewa in Toronto, where the noodles are lovely, but the broth is not.

A bowl of ramen in all its glory

The story:

I’m currently in recovery from an exhilarating but exhausting week spent teaching at the Summer Workshop in Creative Writing at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto.

I spent the mornings in class with my delightful students, pictured below with our delightful classroom assistant. At 12:30 each day, I ate a quick lunch with my fellow writer instructors, during which I enjoyed the comedy stylings of Isabel Huggan and Guy Vanderhaege, and spoke only briefly to Martin Amis, the week’s marquee author, who impressed me by making a throwaway yet pleasingly specific reference to a child in a school play being assigned the role of “third moonbeam.”

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On the last day of class, I asked my students to do an in-class exercise, and write about a memorable meal. They all produced funny and evocative stories – variously, about uneaten Chinese food; a tart lemon meringue pie; chocolate eaten in bed; and shenanigans at a Rosh Hashanah dinner, a Thanksgiving feast, and an Easter family gathering.

I told them that food doesn’t have to play a big part in everything they write – only in most things I write, including the scene excerpted here, from my first novel, Looks Perfect.

Looks_Perfect

The scene is set in a Japanese restaurant (meant to be Omen, in New York), where, during Fashion Week, Rosemary, the half-Vietnamese, half-French narrator, eats dinner with Brian, a hunky Australian magazine mogul, and some other hangers-on:

Brian served the noodle soup into smaller bowls. “Who would like some ramen?”

“I would, I would!” I said, though I noticed both Anna and Matthew refused any.

I pulled the small bowl close, picked several strands of noodles with my chopsticks, and brought them to my mouth. I drew in the first few inches and started chewing. So far, so good – both taste and texture were satisfying. Soothing, even. I sucked in another wad, looked down, and realized that these noodles were long, I mean really long, and what had started out as a few strands had become a big clump between my lips. And there was no conceivable way of dealing with the clump unless I got into major slurping, or did that biting-off thing that looks as if you’re spitting food back into your plate – a pretty disgusting sight. Especially if the person with the best view would be Brian, who – noodle-less himself – picked this moment to say, “How’s the ramen, Rosemary?”

I nodded in reply, not a smart move, because the nodding action caused some drops of soup to fly onto the tablecloth. So I held my head very still and pulled noodles up to my mouth in tiny increments. But when my wild-eyed glance around caught an expression of amused comprehension on Anna’s face, I abandoned all attempts at decorum and hoovered in the rest of the mouthful in one loud slurp, a maneuver which splattered liquid clear across the table and onto Brian’s shirt.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry. Your shirt – forgive me.” I covered my face with my hands. “Can’t take me anywhere.”

“Don’t worry, “ Brian said. “Slurping’s the proper way to eat soup in Japan, you know.”

Anna said, “Are you Japanese, Rosemary?”

“No.” I looked Anna staight in her deep-lidded eyes. “Are you?”

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The food: steak frites at Le Select

Canlit lions Nino Ricci and Alistair MacLeod

Canlit lions Nino Ricci and Alistair MacLeod at Le Select

The story:

For a recent Globe and Mail round-up review of serious food books, I read David Kessler’s The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite.

Part One of the book, called “Sugar, Fat, Salt,” is devoted to analyses of why and how we respond to the hedonic, palatable foods that contain a combination of those subtances. I’m talking about chocolate mousse made with fleur de sel, for instance, or a BLT sandwich loaded with salty, fatty bacon and sweet tomato slices slathered with more sweet, fatty mayonnaise.

I get the appeal of salt, sugar, and fat wrapped up in one package – that’s why I lament the seasonal-only distribution of PC Dark Chocolate Covered Caramels with Sea Salts, a product which should be available all year round, in my opinion.

But my hedonic meals of choice have historically been those that feature a starchy food (like bread or potatoes) infused with salt and fat, no sugar added.

A kindred spirit salts the sweet butter spread on the delicious warm dinner rolls at Le Select.

Kindred food spirit and Humber School for Writers Artistic Director Antanas Sileika adds salt to the sweet butter spread on the delicious warm dinner rolls served at Le Select.

So when I attended a welcome dinner for author instructors of this year’s Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop in Creative Writing, at Le Select restaurant in Toronto last week, I salted the butter on my bread and I ordered steak frites for my entree.

Check the gilding of the lily: butter on top of the steak

Butter on top of steak: a gilded lily

The steak was tender and juicy, the frites salty and soft with crisped edges – I ate every one. Between bites, I talked about realism in fiction, among other topics, with some of my fellow instructors: writers Isabel Huggan, Rachel Kushner and Erika de Vasconcelos.

I enjoyed my food, but something was missing from my plate, some small additional element or condiment that would have made the whole experience more satisfying. What, though? Wait, I knew – a dab of mustard would have complemented the steak and potatoes perfectly. Sweet honey mustard.

I think Kessler might be onto something.

Le Sélect Bistro on Urbanspoon

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The food: Artisanal pizza

The Stracciatella Pizza at Company in New York

The Stracciatella Pizza at Company in New York

The story:

There was an interesting story in the New York Times Dining section this week by Frank Bruni about the artisanal pizza trend in New York city.

Bruni was not too enthusiastic about the pizza at Co.,

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the newish Chelsea restaurant opened by Sullivan Street Bakery proprietor Jim Lahey, a baker well-known for devising the revolutionary no-knead bread recipe which caused a huge stir (but no knead, heh) in North American foodie circles when food columnist Mark Bittman published it in the NYT in 2006.

Forget Bruni. I LOVED Company’s stracciatella pizza, and not just because I’m a sucker for any thin crust pizza that features melted fresh mozzarella topped with fresh arugula.

Santo Stefano pizza at Terroni in Toronto

Santo Stefano pizza at Terroni in Toronto

I’ve eaten a variation on that theme at Terroni in Toronto, the Santo Stefano (tomato, mozzarella di bufala, fresh arugula, proscuitto di Parma $16.95) but I found it bland and boring.

C't Mang Pizza at Terroni

C't Mang Pizza at Terroni

I much prefer Terroni’s C’’t Mang White Pizza with Mozzarella, Gorgonzola, Fresh Pears, Walnuts, Speck (Smoked Prosciutto), and Honey ($15.95), even though it’s arugula free.

Getting back to Co. though, and here’s an interior shot –

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what makes the Stracciatella pizza ($17) so amazing

Looks good, tastes amazing

Looks good, tastes amazing

is the cheese – a shredded texture type of fresh mozzarella that is tangy, creamy, and absolutely delicious when melted over the Co. crust, drizzled with a fruity olive oil, spiced up with some ground black pepper, and yes, topped with fresh arugula.

The Stracciatella pizza was so good it reminded me of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten, the Biancoverde (Fresh Mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, Ricotta, Arugula, $14.00) from the legendary Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona. I’ve only been there once, on a weeknight in November, 2008, when E and I figured there wouldn’t be much of a lineup for the restaurant’s 5 p.m. dinner opening time. We were wrong, arrived at 4:40 p.m. and waited 2 hours for a table. The reward: fabulous pizza, and Marisa Tomei at the next table (she was in town promoting the movie The Wrestler.)

Could the pizza at Company be as good as the pizza at Pizzeria Bianco? I’ll have to go back to both restaurants to find out.

In the meantime, I tried making my own artisanal pizza, using a Manoucher focaccia loaf for the crust, some fiore di latte cheese, sweet cherry tomatoes and arugula.

Homemade pizza with arugula - next time I'll have to source out some stracciatella cheese.

Homemade pizza with arugula - next time I'll have to source out some stracciatella cheese.

It looked and tasted okay, but it was nowhere near as dreamy and creamy as the pizza at Company or Pizzeria Bianco.

Update: I just tried out the newish and much-vaunted Toronto pizza place Pizzeria Libretto, on Ossington. I ordered the Margherita D.O.P. pizza ($13) with arugula added.

Margherita D.O.P. pizza at Pizzeria Libretto

Margherita D.O.P. pizza at Pizzeria Libretto: where's the cheese?

And my sister had the duck confit pizza with pear ($16).

Duck confit pizza at Pizza Libretto

Duck confit pizza at Pizza Libretto

Both pizzas were billed on the menu as featuring Ontario Fiore di Latte mozzarella but there wasn’t enough of it on either pizza, and not enough pear or duck confit, either. The crust had a satisfying, slightly chewy texture, which makes it a bit better than Terroni’s crust, which I have occasionally found to be too crisp, dry and cracker-like in spots.

Final rankings: Co. and Pizzeria Bianco dwell in the food heavens, Pizzeria Libretto and Terroni hang out somewhere near ground level.

Terroni (Midtown) on Urbanspoon

Co. Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

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The food: Dundas Street West sandwiches

A BLT at Musa

A BLT at Musa

The story:

On a quick trip to New York last week, I caught a preview performance of Roundabout Theater’s production of The Tin Pan Alley Rag, a new musical about the lives and music of Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin.

A good, not great, show

The show did not elicit from me a single joyous musical theatre tear (a mark of excellence in my personal rating system), and I thought the way the book dwelled on the early deaths of both composers’ young wives (used to demonstrate what the two had in common other than being cultural outsiders who were musical genii) was pretty maudlin.

But what a great score! The songs and music were wonderful, I found the scenes when the composer characters talked (all too briefly) about how they wrote their music fascinating, and I loved hearing the two leads (a charming and sweet-voiced Michael Therriault and a rather stiff Michael Boatman) sing Irving Berlin’s Play A Simple Melody – a delightful tune in counterpoint from 1914(!), which was, for me, the highlight of the show.

Also simple, and a recent eating-out highlight, was “the sandwich” – containing a fried egg, bacon, tomato and cheddar cheese – that I ate at Musa, a restaurant on Dundas Street West in Toronto. We had intended that day to try the oft-hyped Saving Grace nearby, but, discouraged by the large number of people lined up outside Saving Grace, in the rain, we went to the larger Musa instead.

The thrift shop décor (and recycled tacky coffee mugs) at Musa gave us pause, but the golden challah was warm and well-toasted, the fried egg cooked just right, and the combined ingredients of the sandwich altogether satisfying.

"the sandwich"

Soon after, we returned to Dundas West to try Saving Grace on a weekday, and again found a lineup outside, though empty tables, also of the thrift shop variety, could be seen within the bright but rundown interior. (The sole overworked waitress seemed to be having trouble keeping up with her triple roles of hostess, waitress, and busgirl.) The weather was fine, so we waited this time, were seated after about 10 minutes, and ordered sandwiches warm and cold from a menu that listed them alongside breakfast foods and a few lunch items.

We tried the corncakes, which I thought had a rather industrial shape and texture, though E found them tasty, flecked as they were with coriander and green onions.

Corncakes

Corncakes

Our sandwiches, in contrast, looked very home-cooked (and a little sloppy). My cold sandwich – an old cheddar, avocado, tomato combo on what was billed as toasted whole wheat raisin bread with rosemary mayonnaise – sounds better than it tasted, which was ordinary: my perfect home office lunch sandwich on Epi fruit and nut bread is way better, partly due to the superiority of the Epi bread.

Does this look toasted to you? Yeah, me either.

Does this look toasted to you? Yeah, me either.

E’s hot sandwich, listed on the menu as “brie pear walnuts honey on open baguette,” was also not as good as the brie and walnuts sandwich he sometimes makes at home on a superlative baguette from Thobor Boulangerie Patisserie Café.

Green-skinned pears would make a better presentation, IMO.

Green-skinned pears would make a better presentation, IMO.

So the next time I want a simple, satisfying brunchy sandwich near Dundas and Bathurst, I’ll return to Musa. And the next time I want to clear a lovely melody, I’ll listen to an Irving Berlin song, or to one of Scott Joplin’s wonderful piano rags, like my current favorite, Sugar Cane:

Musa on Urbanspoon

Saving Grace on Urbanspoon

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The food: Main Course Summer Salads

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The story:

Many years ago, in my salad days, I cut out of Vogue magazine a recipe for a chicken, mango and avocado salad in a gingery lime juice vinaigrette that struck me – on the page when I read the recipe, and after I’d made it and tasted it – as elegant, exciting and grown-up. It still seems elegant and refreshing today, when recipes for main course salads featuring those ingredients are more common.

I’ve prepared it at least once every summer since, though I’ve never worked it into my fiction, because most of my novels don’t take place in the summertime. Also because in The Glenwood Treasure, the novel I wrote that did span a summer, I used up my food references by a) feeding Blithe, the main character, a depressed school teacher, comfort food, b) having Blithe’s parents, Establishment WASPs and devoted Anglophiles, eat food befitting their stations and predilections, and c) dreaming up all manner of baked goods to help make Patrick, the aspiring pastry chef, more endearing (and serious).

Also sophisticated and fresh-tasting – and a regular feature in my repertoire all year round – is a main course salad of hot cooked pasta (I used spaghettini for this version) mixed with several handfuls of fresh salad greens (this time, I had baby arugula on hand), chopped fresh tomatoes, olives, cheese of your choice (here: feta, but bocconcini, fresh mozzarella, or Brie would all do as well), dressed with a scant amount of extra virgin olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar, and seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

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For that salad, there’s no recipe, but I’ve included the recipe for the chicken mango salad below. Serve both salads to dinner guests and maybe a cute guy with distinctively coloured eyes will start leaving artisanal baked goods on your doorstep like Patrick does to Blithe.

Okay, that won’t happen. But the salads are so delicious and refreshing to eat on a hot summer night that you might not even need dessert afterwards.

Chicken Mango Avocado Salad (adapted from Vogue magazine)

For the vinaigrette:

7 T. olive oil
3 T. lime juice
2 T. white wine vinegar
2 T. minced fresh ginger

For the salad:

2 half chicken breasts, cooked and chopped
1 mango, diced
1 large avocado, sliced
¼ c. chopped fresh mint leaves

Mix vinaigrette. Pour over salad, stir gently to combine.

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