What, more pasta?

The food: spaghettini carbonara at Il Mercato in Halifax

The story:

I’m travelling more often to Halifax this year to see my son Simon Farine play basketball (he’s the captain of the Dalhousie University Men’s Basketball team) in this, his last year of CIS eligibility.

When in Halifax, my husband E and I often take Simon to eat at Jane’s on the Common, about which I’ve written before. Our last time out, though, we also tried the Italian cuisine at Il Mercato, a happening, no reservations hot-spot on Spring Garden Road.

Most of the diners around us on a busy Saturday night were indulging in multiple course dinners with wine and lavish desserts, but with a game to go to, E and I opted to split a pizza and pasta between us. The pizza, billed on the menu as “Thin crust pizza topped with pancetta, fresh herbs, marinated artichokes, broccolini, mozzarella and balsamic drizzle” seemed more like an appetizer-ish flatbread than a pizza to me, with its very thin crust and somewhat skimpy light layer of toppings:

But it was tasty and pretty.

I can rarely resist ordering a pasta carbonara when I see it on the menu, and Il Mercato’s cream-less, eggy version, made with spaghettini and pancetta and garnished with a flourish of baby greens, was hot, satisfying, and perfectly cooked. My only complaint with it was that I had to ask for Parmesan to top it with (none was offered), and the Parmesan that finally came was of the finely grated (= powder) non-Reggiano variety.

Cheese or no cheese, it was delicious enough that E and I both ate our half portions with gusto, and will be sure to return there the next time we’re in Halifax, to order a full portion each.

Il Mercato Trattoria Bedford on Urbanspoon

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Comfort/Survival Food

The food: Spaghetti Bolognese with Cognac Sauce

The story:

I recently saw (and very much enjoyed) a preview performance in Toronto of the Broadway-bound production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert – and I posted a mini-review of it here.

The show uses pre-existing music of different pop genres (though mainly disco) in its score, much like the musical comedy adaptation of my novel Old Flames that I’m working on, which also features pre-existing show tunes and pop tunes.

One song featured prominently in Priscilla is Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic (and gay anthem) I Will Survive, which made me think about a classic comfort food dish that has survived for decades in my repertoire: spaghetti bolognese with cognac sauce.

The recipe for this two-layered pasta sauce came to me years ago from my mother’s friend Berthe Buckland. When I cooked it recently, I tweaked Tyler’s Florence’s recipe to make the bolognese sauce, and topped it with my version of Berthe’s creamy, buttery cognac sauce.

The decadent result, garnished with chopped fresh basil and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, is almost as over-the-top as the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and just as satisfying.

Spaghetti Bolognese (adapted from Tyler Florence) with Cognac Sauce:

Ingredients

For bolognese sauce:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 pound pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
4 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves stripped from the stem
2 fresh oregano sprigs, leaves stripped from the stem
1 fresh rosemary sprig, needles stripped from the stem
2 bay leaves
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground beef
1 cup milk
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, hand-crushed
2 cups dry red wine
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound dry spaghetti or spaghettini
1 handful fresh basil, hand-torn, for garnish
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving

For cognac sauce:

6 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup cognac or brandy
20 drops Worcestershire sauce (optional)
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. chili powder
4 Tbsp. sour cream

Directions:

In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta and saute for 2 minutes to render out the fat. Add the onion, celery, and carrots, stirring to combine. Toss in the thyme, oregano, rosemary, and bay leaves. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring, until the vegetables are very tender but not browned.

Raise the heat a bit and add the ground pork and beef; brown until the meat is no longer pink, breaking up the clumps with a wooden spoon. Add the milk and simmer until the liquid is evaporated, about 10 minutes. Carefully pour in the tomatoes and wine; season with salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat and cover. Slowly simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring now and then, until the sauce is very thick. Taste again for salt and pepper.

When you are ready to serve, put on a large pot of salted water to a boil, and make cognac sauce: melt butter in small saucepan and add other ingredients. Simmer very low for 10-12 minutes until reduced by one-third.

When water boils, add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente. Drain the pasta well and toss with the Bolognese sauce. Spoon a few tablespoons of cognac sauce over each serving. Shower with basil and pass grated cheese around the table.

Scrumptious Cream Biscuits

The food: cream biscuits

The story:

A year ago this week, my husband E and I were in England, walking through beautiful landscapes like this one in Cornwall, on the approach to Tintagel (the 13th-century castle ruins can be seen at the top left of the photo):

A month ago, we were reminded of that trip when we saw the charming English film Tamara Drewe (opening soon at a theatre near you), at the Toronto Film Festival. The film is closely based on a critically and commercially successful graphic novel of the same name, by artist/author Posy Simmonds:

The very contemporary story, itself loosely based on Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd, is a fascinating mix of comic strip-style illustrated panels and passages of narrative text, presented from multiple
first-person points of view:

Both book and film tell the story of an ugly duckling turned swan named Tamara Drewe, a trendy London newspaper columnist who returns to the picturesque village where she grew up, and proceeds to break hearts and collect lovers. Among her conquests is a successful (and despicable) middle-aged writer of popular crime novels who lives on a lovely farm where his long-suffering wife runs writers’ retreats for paying guests.

There was much to like about the film in addition to the gorgeous green English scenery: impressive acting by the writer character and his wife, entertainingly slangy rapid-fire dialogue from two teenage girls who live in the village, Dominic Cooper in eyeliner as a louche rock star, various clever jokes and jabs about writers and writing. And then there was the delicious-looking food served to the aspiring writers at the retreat. Biscuits with cream and jam were prominently featured in one scene, and inspired me to make some soon after I saw the film.

I made my biscuits using the admirably simple (and American!) James Beard recipe for cream biscuits that I first encountered in the New York Times Sunday magazine a few years ago. The biscuits come out soft and light on the inside with a crisp golden outer shell. They can be eaten, warmed, slathered with salted butter, or spread with whipped cream and strawberries for a decadent mid-afternoon snack that would be a suitable reward for a writer who’s met her goal in number of words written that day.

They could also provide solace for a writer who has not met a word or page count goal.

Cream Biscuits Recipe:

Ingredients:

5 tablespoons melted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the surface
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
1 ½ cups heavy cream

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Brush a baking sheet with a little melted butter. Sift 2 cups flour, the baking powder, salt and (if using) sugar into a large bowl. Fold in 1 ¼ cups cream. If the dough is not soft or easily handled, fold in the remaining 1/4 cup cream, little by little.

2. Turn dough onto a floured surface, mound it into a ball and, using a rolling pin or your hands, press it to a thickness of about ¾ inch. Cut into rounds, 2 ½ inches in diameter. Gather dough scraps and continue to make rounds. Dip the top of each round in the remaining melted butter and arrange on the baking sheet. Bake until golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve immediately. Makes about 9 biscuits. Adapted from “James Beard’s American Cookery.”