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Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Best Restaurant Meal I Ate That I Didn’t Blog About: mixed salads at Joan’s on Third in Los Angeles

Joan's on Third

My pics don’t do the food justice – that might be why I didn’t post about how much I loved the sophisticated comfort food and the airy, casual ambience at Joan’s on Third in L.A. Among the delicious salads I tried as part of two different Salad Trio plates (only $12 for a heaping plateful) were a wonderful roasted potato salad with blue cheese dressing, a tarragon chicken salad, and a pretty and fresh shrimp salad with grapes and celery. I’m psyched to go back for more.

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And hey, Ellen Pompeo (of Grey’s Anatomy fame) was eating at a communal table at Joan’s on one of the days I was there.

Best 2012 Restaurant Breakfast: the poached eggs with fennel pollen Hollandaise at Little Dom’s in L.A.

Poached Eggs at Little Dom's

Poached Eggs at Little Dom’s

Little Dom’s is another Los Angeles restaurant I’m eager to return to, for the breakfast eggs and potatoes, because I might see frequent customers Emily Van Camp and Josh Bowman (of Revenge fame) there, and for the delicious little olive oil cake I bought (and did not photograph) from the Little Dom’s deli after brunch. I ate that cake in two bites, without sharing it with my husband E, who is still sulking, I mean talking, about this, a year later. Now we have to go back, so I can buy us each two little cakes.

Best Toronto Restaurant Trend: The Ramen Invasion

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It doesn’t even matter where this particular bowl of ramen is from (okay, it’s from Kinton Ramen, on Baldwin Street). The plethora of new authentic ramen restaurants that have arrived in town means there’s a very good and possibly great bowl of ramen available downtown at almost all times. Hell, keep that spicy broth away from me, and I’m even liking Kenzo Ramen these days. And Ramen Raijin. With, lucky me, several more new spots still left to try.

Best Frugal Gourmet Fare: The aperitivo buffet at Taverna del Campiello Remer in Venice, Italy

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Amazing all you can eat risotto. For free. Read about it here.

Best 20th Century Recipe That Still Tasted Damn Good in 2012 : Chicken Chasseur

Chicken Chasseur Hungry Novelist Style

Chicken Chasseur Hungry Novelist Style

Because sometimes I actually cook.

Best New (to me) Burger and Food Truck: the burger and fries from Miho Gastrotruck in Carlsbad, California

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My first exposure to a California style food truck was at Miho Gastrotruck, a Farm to Table operation that uses artisanal ingredients to produce a great tasting juicy burger and impeccable fries on the road. Worth going out of the way for when in the San Diego area.

And finally, because I’m not just hungry, I’m a novelist:

Best Thrillers I Read in 2012: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Alys Always by Harriet Lane

My current novel-in-progess is a psychological thriller, so I read several novels in that genre this year as part of my research. I disliked some, was meh on others, and liked a small number, of which the best, to my taste, were these two.

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The much-lauded and buzzed-about Gone Girl, about a woman who goes missing, and the suspicions cast on her husband, gets pretty crazy and twisty in its last third, but I found it to be engrossing, well plotted, paced and written, and very memorable.

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Alys Always, about a young newspaper subeditor (of a books section!) who happens upon a fatal car accident one night on a dark country road, is a quieter sort of thriller, with fewer extremes and no violence, but I loved its slow build, mounting suspense and unreliable narrator. It reminded me, in good ways, of another past favourite: Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal.

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The food: vegetable dishes inspired by Yottam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Plenty

The story:

I’ve been a fan of Yottam Ottolenghi’s cooking since sampling his cuisine at one of his eponymous shops in London and trying some of the recipes he has published online via The Guardian and Telegraph newspaper websites.

So I’ll be buying the North American version of his cookbook Plenty, when it is published this March, with a cover featuring eggplant (or aubergine, as they like to call it in England) with pomegranate seeds and a buttermilk yogurt sauce.

I know the book is a good one because I recently skimmed the British version, borrowed from the library,

and found it to be full of delicious-sounding and looking recipes for vegetables prepared in what I’ve come to recognize as the Ottolenghi style: one that combines Middle Eastern ingredients, flavours and cooking methods with those of other cuisines – such as Japanese, French, or Hawaiian, for example; employs fresh herbs, and often pairs vegetables with fruits and/or nuts.

Take the three dishes from Plenty that I – clearly craving something sweet – freely adapted and made this past week: broccolini and sweet sesame salad, sweet winter slaw, and roasted butternut squash with sweet spices, lime and green chili.

The key to the broccolini salad recipe was the sesame seed garnish, and the dressing, made with tahini, water, tamari, honey, cider vinegar and mirin.

The recipe for the roasted squash with sweet spices, lime and chili, can be found here. Its delectability comes from the textural and taste contrast between the roasted squash pieces and the cool tahini-yogurt-lime juice sauce.

And my rendition of Ottolenghi’s sweet winter slaw (recipe here) came out as a sunny combination of mango, red cabbage, mint and toasted macadamia nuts tossed in a dressing made fragrant with more lime juice, maple syrup, soy sauce and sesame oil.

I ate these dishes and imagined a not-too-distant future in which my dinner plate was often filled with colourful, healthy and delicious vegetables prepared in the Ottolenghi style. A future I hope to realize when I buy the book.

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The food: Cauliflower, Potatoes and Peas, Indian-style

The story:

My former student from the Humber School for Writers summer workshop in creative writing, Robin Spano, has just had her first novel, Dead Politician Society, published by ECW Press.

Dead Politician Society is an entertaining mystery starring a sexy, lippy, profane young undercover cop named Clare Vengel. It features short chapters, multiple points of view, and kickass passages like this one, an excerpt from a conversation between a police detective and a hostile witness:

“Where’s your class?” Kumar asked, pen poised.
“It’s at the school of None of Your Fucking Business,” Susannah said. “And after that, I’ll be joining friends at the You Can Fuck Yourself Cafe. Stop in if you’re not busy.”

Call me irreverent, but that made me laugh when I read it. I’m a fan of well-placed profanity in fiction, especially when spoken by well-educated women like the Susannah character, and I’ve often employed it in my own writing. That’s probably why Robin thought I’d be amused by a popular website she told me about, What the fuck should I make for dinner?.

The first time I visited the site, I appreciated the resonant universality of the site’s name – Who among us has not despairingly asked that question as dinner time approaches? But I didn’t understand how the site worked until Robin told me you’re supposed to click on the suggested menu items (and the statements that begin with the words “I Don’t Fucking Like”). If you do, you get a perfectly respectable recipe from epicurious.com, the site that features archived recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines, among other sources. Which contrast between the sacred and the profane makes for comedy in itself.

A dish I’ve been known to make when I don’t know what else to cook – and when I have cauliflower in the house – is Cauliflower, Potatoes and Peas Indian-style, shown above, garnished with a chopped hard-boiled egg. The recipe for it can be found here. With some basmati rice, a spoonful of chutney, and perhaps some sliced fresh field tomatoes in the last few weeks that they’re still in season, this dish makes a lovely meal. And unlike the food served in Dead Politician Society, it’s not poisonous!

For more on Robin’s novel, follow her virtual book tour and check out this nifty book trailer for it:

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The food: sesame-crusted salmon on salad

The story:

About a month ago, a publicist from a company called BookSparksPR contacted me to ask if I would like to “take part in a blog tour” for a new novel to be published in early August – Georgia’s Kitchen by Jenny Nelson.

Once I figured out what a blog tour was, I agreed to review the book, partly so I could experience new style, social-networking-type book publicity first-hand, though I opted to observe and report on some aspects of the tour (giveaways! a virtual blog visit! facebook and twitter updates!) from a distance.

So here’s the nicely designed and tasteful (yeah, I did that) book cover of Georgia’s Kitchen:

And here’s my review:

Georgia’s Kitchen is a light-hearted work of commercial fiction about a 33-year-old chef who, after getting fired from her job in a high-end New York restaurant and dumped by her lawyer fiancé, miraculously scores a job cooking at an esteemed chef’s about-to-open trattoria in Tuscany. She jets off there for the summer to lick her wounds and refine her craft, only to be courted by the handsome owner of the vineyard next door.

A press release that came with the book calls it “reminiscent of Julie and Julia and Under the Tuscan Sun,” which is quite the stretch, since both of those books are non-fiction memoirs told in the distinctive 1st-person voices of their authors.

What this living-the-good-life women’s novel (told in the 3rd person) reminded me of was Sex and the City (TV or movie version), re: the sex, drug (cocaine) use, swilling of expensive wines, name-dropping of NYC bars and restaurants, and the handy gal pals (one a fashionista) who take Georgia to a spa to cheer her up.

The novel also made me recall Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer,

a novel with a similar fluffy and entertaining tone about a Pasadena pastry chef, who, like Georgia in this book, has parental issues to work through when she’s not cooking, brooding about her love life, and aspiring to chef-ish greatness.

Georgia cooks plenty of (mostly Italian) food in Georgia’s Kitchen. In what I thought was the novel’s most vivid and well-realized scene, she prepares a torta a strati alla primavera or savoury “spring layer cake” – a layered, moulded creation made of risotto, organic spring vegetables, pesto, and a chilled basil-mint sformato – that she hopes will be chosen as the Tuscan trattoria’s signature dish.

The talk in the novel of signature dishes started me pondering if I have one. Seeing as I’m no chef and never will be, I think the closest thing to a signature dish in my current repertoire is the sesame-crusted salmon on salad main dish (pictured at top) that I have often made for dinner à deux and for company.

The recipe for it comes from Bonnie Stern’s cookbook Simply Heartsmart Cooking. Her version of it can be found here For the summery edition I made today, I substituted nectarines for orange sections, yellow peppers for red, and toasted black and white sesame seeds for regular ones.

Until I come up with a new signature dish – maybe some of chef Georgia’s brilliance will rub off on me now that I’ve read the book! (or maybe I need to go to Tuscany to be inspired) – this lovely, colourful main course salad will do just fine.

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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.

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The food: pasta primavera

The story:

I just read After the Workshop, a satiric novel by John McNally about a failed writer in Iowa City who has become a media escort for authors on book tours.

Writers who write fiction about writers and the writing life are often accused of being self-indulgent and self-reverential. Worst of all, they’re said to be producing work of interest only to other writers (good god, not that).

Sure enough, my non-writer husband E, an avid reader of contemporary literary fiction, had no interest in reading beyond the first chapter of After the Workshop, but I did. Not because of its in-depth skewering of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program, about which I know very little, but because I like reading about blocked writers (and about how they overcome the block); the satiric bits about agents, publicists and high concept memoirs were funny; and I found one of the characters, a courtly, older author named S.S. Pitzer, quite endearing.

I also recently enjoyed the comic novel How I Became A Famous Novelist by Steve Hely, published in 2009, which, like After the Workshop, is a faux memoir of a writer in crisis, though How I Became is both more ambitious and more broad in its comedy – it takes on all genres of bestsellers, and is rife with punchlines and parodic passages of bad writing.

I feel a little guilty when I read this kind of insider novel (another notable one that comes to mind : the comic Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon), the same way I feel when gossiping with my writer friends about other writers (not that I ever do that).

In contrast, a refreshingly guilt-free indulgence is the pasta primavera recipe with shrimp, fresh tomatoes, feta cheese, asparagus and arugula that I recently devised – it’s a fresh, lively dish that combines cooked and raw ingredients to satisfying effect and will taste good in summer, too.

Linguine with Shrimp, Tomatoes, Arugula, Feta and Asparagus

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp. butter, divided
2-3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 Tbsp. dry white wine
4 cups arugula, stems removed, washed and drained
1 ½ cups cherry or strawberry tomatoes, seeded and quartered
¾ cup feta cheese
1 lb asparagus stalks
1 lb large (20-30) shrimp, shelled and deveined, thawed if frozen
1 lb linguine
2-3 Tbsp. lemon juice (juice from ½ a lemon)

salt and freshly ground pepper

Method:

1. Put on large pot of water to boil for linguine.
2. While water is heating, chop arugula leaves coarsely, and cut feta into ¼-inch dice. Place arugula and feta in large serving dish along with quartered tomatoes.
3. Snap off bottoms of asparagus stalks, and cut stalks into 2-inch-long pieces.
4. When water boils, add linguine to pot and cook according to package directions.
5. While linguine is cooking, heat 1 Tbsp. butter and 1 Tbsp. oil in sauté pan under medium high heat. Add shrimp to pan in single layer (cook in 2 batches if necessary), and cook for 1 minute on each side until pink. Add 2 Tbsp. white wine, turn off heat and cover pan, let sit for 2 minutes until shrimp is opaque. Turn cooked shrimp and any liquids in pan into serving dish.
6. In a large skillet, heat remaining 1 Tbsp. butter over high heat. When bubbling, add asparagus pieces. Turn quickly to coat with butter, then add 2 Tbsp. water to pan. Cook over high heat for 1-2 minutes more until asparagus turns bright green and is crisp-tender and most of the water boils off. Add cooked asparagus and any liquids in pan to serving dish.
7. When cooked al dente, drain linguine into colander and while still hot, add to serving dish. Drizzle with 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil and juice of half a lemon, toss linguine with all other ingredients in dish, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
9. Serve immediately.

Serves 4-6.

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The food: grain-fed steak vs. grass-fed steak

The story:

This past week, I read an entertaining and informative book by writer Mark Schatzker called Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, for a review I wrote that appeared in the Globe and Mail newspaper.

To quote my review in part: “Schatzker has done an ace job of combining interesting historical facts and stories, dense lessons on food and animal science, and amusing accounts of his steak-seeking travels into an entertaining, story-shaped narrative arc, complete with suspense, clever setups and payoffs, a satisfying steak resolution – this is not a personal redemption memoir about finding oneself through eating, it really is all about steak – and mouth-watering food descriptions.”

After reading Schatzker’s account of eating a great steak from a grass-fed cow – steak that made life worth living (!) – I decided to go out and invest in a piece of grass-fed steak for myself.

My first stop was Cumbrae Meats, an artisanal butcher shop on Bayview Avenue in Toronto, where the naturally raised steaks cost $25.99/pound, and come from “animals grazed on fresh grass and alfalfa hay and finished on grains for flavour and marbling.” I wasn’t yet willing to order a box of beef (minimum order $75) from Alderspring Ranch in Idaho, the source of Schatzker’s life-changing steak, but I wanted to try beef that was raised solely on grass, so I left the shop without buying anything, and moved on.

Down the street on Bayview, I stopped in at Whitehouse Meats, another artisanal butcher, where the counter man told me the naturally raised beef from Top Meadow Farms was grass-fed – though he neglected to mention that, like the Cumbrae beef, it was finished with grain, which I later found out when I looked up the brand online.

At least the Top Meadow steak was a little cheaper, at $20.99/pound. I picked out the $13 strip loin pictured on the right, above, and also bought a supermarket, grain-fed strip loin — undoubtedly pumped through with antibiotics and hormones — for $4 (pictured at left, above), which I was almost afraid to eat after reading the book’s account of how feedlot cattle are raised, and brought both steaks home to cook.

Schatzker’s 15-step recipe for how to cook steak was published in the Globe and Mail this week and can be found at the end of the article here. To summarize, his method is to wipe the steaks dry with paper towel, salt them, cook them at high heat on both sides until well-browned, then let rest for 5 minutes off the heat and out of the pan.

I cooked both the steaks in one big pan according to that method, sliced them up – they came out perfectly medium rare – and plated them with some suitable steak dinner accompaniments: mashed potatoes, sauteed mushrooms, blue cheese, and sauteed-in-butter asparagus and green beans.

On the plate you can’t tell the steak slices apart, but I could definitely taste the difference – the partially grass-fed, naturally raised steak was more tender and juicy than the supermarket steak. Was it significantly more full of robust beefy flavour though? I don’t think so. If I want to find a steak with the delectable “pure savour” that Schatzker writes of – the taste of the grass and soil and sun and water that produce a cow – I’ll have to keep searching for purely grass-fed beef.

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