To Library, To Library, To Borrow A Fat Book

The food: imperfect potato pavé

The story:

My husband E is an avid reader and a heavy library user. He puts on hold any book he reads about that sounds remotely interesting, and brings home from the library 5 or 6 library books a week, minimum.

Sometimes he puts books on hold because he thinks I might like them. Sometimes he passes on to me a book he chose for himself and I take a look at it. We rarely like the same books, but our differing opinions give us something to talk about over dinner.

Last week, E handed me The Lovers, the latest (2010) novel by American writer Vendela Vida.

He hadn’t liked it much, but I found it engrossing, suspenseful and thought-provoking. It tells the story of a widow in her early fifties who, two years after the death of her husband, travels to Turkey for a solo holiday in a rented house. The novel’s tone is fairly arty, and it deals with themes as sombre as grief, the vicissitudes of a long marriage, and the challenges of parenting troubled children. But its premise brought to mind, in a good way, my favourite sub-genre of romantic suspense novels (one I’ve blogged about before), the kind that transports an intrepid single woman alone to an isolated foreign location and lets the story rip. (Only this time without the romance.) So, good catch by E: I liked this novel a lot.

Also this week, E brought home Ad Hoc At Home, a large, heavy cookbook by chef Thomas Keller, of French Laundry (in Yountville, California) and Bouchon Bakery (in New York) fame.

This best-selling, much-lauded cookbook is billed as containing accessible recipes for comfort food that can be easily made in home kitchens, to which I can only say “Hah!” And “Hahahahaha!” Because my attempt to reproduce a ‘simple’ side dish called potato pavé made me realize anew that I could never be a chef. Not with my authority issues.

The ridiculously complicated (yet admirably clear) instructions for the recipe (there’s also a video at the recipe link, of Thomas K making the dish with Martha Stewart) start by requiring a pan of certain dimensions and a mandolin. I had neither, so I used a smaller pan and a knife. I also refused to cut the peeled potatoes into oblong shapes and discard the rounded bits. And I went with 18% cream instead of the 35% heavy cream the recipe called for. So that when it came time to start neatly layering the potatoes in the pan, I was already in trouble:

I kept layering anyway until I’d filled the pan:

Once I’d baked the pavé for 10 minutes less (such a rebel) than the recommended 1 hour and 50 minutes, I wrapped a piece of cardboard in foil to cover the pan and set a can and a jar on it as weights, as instructed by the recipe:

But I felt pretty idiotic when I’d done it. So I ignored several of the recipe’s remaining steps: I froze the weighted pavé (I used an oblong tub of ice cream as a weight instead of the cans) for 1 hour instead of refrigerating it for 6, did not trim the edges off the pave that I unwrapped after freezing, and did not let the slices rest for 30 minutes after I cut them and before I sauteed them in canola oil and thyme leaves (but without garlic).

Given my unwillingness to comply with Keller’s instructions, it’s surprising that at least one slice (I won’t show you the others) came out looking semi-presentable. Here’s another view of it, garnished with chopped chives from my own garden (woo-hoo) and minus the final pat of butter the recipe calls for.

How did it taste? Good. It reminded me of the mushroom pithivier I enjoyed at The Queen and Beaver Pub in Toronto, and made me want to go back there and order that again. But the taste wasn’t good or special enough to warrant the effort (and the mess in my kitchen after making it), in my opinion.

E liked it more than I did, so good on him again for bringing home the book from the library. I’ll probably never cook another recipe from it (okay, I may try making the vaunted chocolate chip cookies), but dissecting the book did make for some lively dinner conversation.


Kimbo’s Slice

The food: buttermilk bread

The story:

I’ve become fond of an excellent buttermilk bread I found at the Alli’s Bread stall, pictured below, in the Evergreen Brick Works Farmers’ Market:

The market runs on Saturdays from spring through fall, at the Brickworks, a former quarry and brickyard turned meadow and community market space that also happens to be the site of a key scene in my mystery novel The Glenwood Treasure.

The bread is sturdy, dense – not airy – and slices well. To enjoy it, one need only toast it (preferably with a toaster that toasts more completely and evenly than mine), and butter it:

You may also, as I do, shower a buttered, toasted slice with watercress (I like the organic hydroponic variety), salt and pepper, and call it lunch on a hot day.

As cunningly assembled and summery, though it contains more ingredients than the 3-ingredient watercress sandwich, is the line-up for the Paul Quarrington Levee, which will take place, as part of the Leacock Summer Festival on Sunday July 25, at the Leacock Museum in Orillia, Ontario.

In the excellent company of my friends and fellow writers Nino Ricci, Antanas Sileika, and Joe Kertes, I’ll be paying tribute to Paul. I’ll reminisce about having had Paul Q as a mentor when I started writing and I’ll read from my first novel Looks Perfect, a romantic comedy about appearances (and being biracial) that I worked on with Paul, back in the day, through the Humber School for Writers correspondence course.

Here’s a short video shot last month in which I ramble on about the book and other things. Best viewed while eating a slice of hot buttered toast, made with buttermilk bread if possible.

Oh what a week

The food: Summerlicious highlights

The story:

The Summerlicious Prix Fixe restaurant promotion is on now in Toronto (till July 25). Some cynics I know shun Summerlicious (and its cousin Winterlicious) as nothing more than a free dessert promotion, and who needs to eat three courses of food in a meal anyway, but I like to think of it as an opportunity to try out some new-to-me restaurants at reasonable prices.

The warm, flaky, buttery, savoury cheese biscuit shown above was a highlight of the prix fixe meal at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, a groovy, modern airport-lounge type space in Liberty Village:

Also good there was an appetizer of house smoked rainbow trout with fingerling potatoes, cucumber, sorrel and yoghurt dressing. The portion was small but the fresh, delicate flavours of the vegetables and fish were enriched by the creamy, herby dressing.

E and I were not moved, however, by either of the main courses we tried. The filling of the chicken pot pie was thin and bland:

and the hamburger and fries were both overcooked though E had requested his meat medium:

E liked his dessert, a summer berry bread pudding that was pretty, light and tasty:

whereas I was not fond of the hard, crunchy blocks of meringue featured in the “rough and tumble lemon meringue”:

The lemon curd and berry coulis were good, though! And yeah, we probably won’t be back.

On another day, we tried the Summerlicious menu at Vittorio’s on Avenue, an old-fashioned Italian restaurant that was quite busy at lunch, despite its slightly out of the way location at Dupont and Avenue Road.

Its salads were small and featured underripe tomatoes, packaged croutons and tired lettuce. And the slightly tough veal in E’s scallopine limone was neither Provimi nor milk-fed. But the unsummery Spaghettini Bolognese that I was inspired to order after having seen the excellent Toronto production of Jersey Boys (closing August 22!) a few days before, was very good: made with a good quality dried spaghettini, and a hearty, meaty sauce, and a desirable (read: the pasta was not drowned in sauce) sauce to pasta ratio.

And the rich dulce di leche cheesecake I had for dessert left me with a good taste in my mouth and the resolve to make cheesecake at home sometime soon.

So I may go back to Vittorio’s, maybe for the linguine alla vongole. I do like linguine with clams

Think pink

The food: cupcakes

The story:

I was, ahem, in the pink this week, because I got to attend the opening night performance of the touring production of Legally Blonde, the Musical, currently playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.

I saw the original cast on Broadway, including standout Laura Bell Bundy as Elle Woods, and very much enjoyed the show – it had great production values, high energy, and songs that were both tuneful and funny, thanks to the clever, self-parodic lyrics. And the touring production, which features several original cast members, is definitely of Broadway calibre, my only quibble being that the charmingly spunky Becky Gulsvig, who plays Elle, and sings in a voice pleasantly reminiscent of Kristin Chenoweth’s, is not as accomplished a dancer as Bundy is.

The book retains the movie’s more dubious plot points (I could do without everything about the “bend and snap”) but you gotta love a show that opens with the catchy and nuttily but entertainingly long number “Omigod you guys” – a song sequence that introduces half the cast, sets the story in high-speed motion, and includes a talking dog.

Best of all, the show features dancing, lots of it, wittily choreographed (check the different styles of dance the male chorines pull off – with grace, charm and comedic chops – including ersatz reggae and hip-hop, ballet, cheerleading and fitness class routines) and performed by great dancers with killer bodies.

In the spirit of Elle Woods, I wore something pink to the opening (as did many others in the audience) and felt compelled to buy pink food the next day, specifically a Pretty N’ Pink cupcake (made of chocolate cake with raspberry buttercream) from The Cupcake Shoppe, pictured above, and a Strawberries N’ Cream one (vanilla cake with vanilla and strawberry swirled buttercream), shown below.

I like my cupcakes chilled, cut into bite-sized pieces, and eaten with a fork. And I like my musical comedies a lot like Legally Blonde, The Musical – funny, dancey, featuring catchy music and clever lyrics, and performed by a large, talented cast on a big stage with nifty sets and pretty costumes.

Mirvish Productions presents Legally Blonde, the Musical, until August 8, 2010, at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.

Amazing Pizzas, Part Trois

The food: pizza at Queen Margherita Pizza

The story:

I had to check out the Neapolitan style pies at Queen Margherita Pizza on Queen Street East, near Greenwood, in Toronto, since the flurry of press it earned this summer indicated its pizzas might be – alert! – better than those at Pizzeria Libretto, the Toronto pizza place that became my go-to spot for Neapolitan pizza after I figured out that the thing to order there is the Margherita with extra cheese.

My efforts at finding out more about Queen Margherita Pizza were stalled at first – early reviews stated the restaurant was open for dinner only on weekdays, and took reservations, when I wanted to go for a relaxed lunch without booking ahead. The extremely unhelpful restaurant website lists no hours of operation or menu items, and when I broke down one day and made an actual phone call to the listed number (phone calls being something I avoid whenever possible), the mailbox was full.

Finally, a review appeared in the Toronto Star that listed the hours of operation as 7 days a week (though a sign on the door says the place is closed Monday), from noon – 11 pm. Encouraged, E and I set out for the wilds of Queen East on a rainy Tuesday.

We found the space to be industrial, high-ceilinged, casual, and large:

The view out the many windows to the streetcar yards across the street was interesting in a gritty, urban kind of way, we liked the mellow vibe of the service, and we didn’t mind that the lunch menu offered only pizza,

since that was what we were there to eat.

E ordered the Giovanni ($18.95), with tomato sauce, fior di latte, prosciutto di Parma, arugula and cherry tomatoes:

And I had the Vegetarian ($15.95), with tomato sauce, fior di latte, artichoke, black olives, mushroom, and zucchini, shown at the top of this post.

We each liked our own pizza better than what the other person was having – I thought the prosciutto on E’s pizza should have been thinner and the arugula less limp, but he was satisfied. I was happy because the crust on my pizza was chewy and tangy on the edges and softer and wetter in the middle, the way I like it. And I didn’t have to request extra cheese – the blooms of melted fior di latte that adorned the pizza were in pleasing proportion to the other topping ingredients, if you ask me.

Was the pizza at Queen Margherita better than that at Pizzeria Libretto? No, but it’s as good as, in my opinion. And since I live more on the east side of the city than on the west, it looks like I’ve found a new go-to spot for Neapolitan pizza.

Queen Margherita Pizza on Urbanspoon