Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mushroom Rescue Project

Hey there!

I don't know about y'all, but mushrooms are one of my favourite foods, but they're also one the most frustrating. Why? Well, when dealing with your regular variety white or brown (cremini), it's the shelf life. When I buy the regular 227 gram/8 ounce packages of mushrooms, I rarely get the chance to use them all before they shrivel up and go off. 

So, as with all vegetables, I figured the best way to preserve them before they die was to get my pickle on! Now, in my previous pickling endeavours, I combined sweet and salty and sour, but in this case, I couldn't imagine that the bright, sugary pickling liquids that sing with beets and peppers would work with the earthiness of mushrooms. 

What I really wanted to do was impart some of the complimentary meatiness that mushrooms usually get with being paired with or topping a steak, but somehow in pickle form. So, my first ingredient would be steak spice of course! Luckily, we have some of the best, thanks to our last trip to Schwartz's.

Secret ingredient!!

Now, whilst most pickling is simply based on pouring a boiling brine over veggies, with mushrooms you want to add an extra layer of flavour by marinating them in an oil mixture, as follows:

Mushroom Marinade

- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1 pinch chili pepper flakes.

Pour this over the mushrooms and toss. Let the mushrooms marinate for at least an hour and transfer to mason jars.

Next comes the pickling brine. Now, I really wanted to use tarragon vinegar as the vinegar base for the pickling liquid, but we had run out, so I basically used a mix of four kinds of vinegar, which had some effect on the flavour but was, or the most part, unnecessary (I'll cover that in the recipe). The main reason for the unnecessity was that I threw in a whack of other flavours, most namely tarragon. So, I basically remade the missing ingredient!

Tarragon-Juniper Pickling Brine


- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
- 3 tbsp red wine vinegar (probably unnecessary - it didn't really change the flavour)
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar (again, probably unnecessary)
- 2 tbsp salt
- 1 tsp dried juniper berries, cracked (or more accurately, smooshed?)
- 1 tbsp Schwartz's steak spice
- 1 tbsp pickling spice (a prepackaged combo of  allspice, coriander seeds, cinnamon pieces, cloves, mustard seeds, and peppercorns)
- 2 tbsp dried tarragon leaves (I used a little too much again, about 3-4 tbsps, so keep it to 2)

Important note: There is no sugar in this recipe as opposed to most other pickling recipes since mushrooms and sweet really don't go together.

Maybe a smidge too much tarragon...

- Mix all ingredients together in a sauce pan and bring to a boil.
- Pour over mushrooms and let cool until lukewarm before refrigerating. You'll want to leave them in the fridge until cold as this will help them firm up.
- These will keep for about a month in the fridge before starting to soften. 

End result? Well, these aren't quite the same as the marinated mushrooms you buy at the Italian grocers. For one thing, I think I used about 10 times as much vinegar as they do. So, the bite, while being delicious, does lead to a sour-faced tarantella of vinegar overload. So, these are a "use sparingly" kind of pickle. that being said, the 4-months-pregnant lady sure liked 'em!

Next time, I'll use more oil, less pickling liquid and see how it goes. For now when serving, to counter the vinegar, I drizzle some olive oil over whatever bowl the 'shrooms are in.

And that is that! Maybe a partially failed experiment, but at least I didn't waste any food!


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pho-ming at the mouth...

Hey there!

I don't know how food trends and realities establish themselves, I really don't; maybe there's the occasional pop culture reference bump. Think The Avengers, where Tony Stark voices his desire, nay NEED, to try Shawarma after beating up ten million aliens. All I could think of was "Oi, go to Marroush on Elgin!" But it got me thinking as to whether or not some foods that are ubiquitous in one city or region might be nearly unknown in others. Is Shawarma uncommon in the U.S., or at least Los Angeles (thinking that Stark's from LA and maybe heard of Shawarma being a New York thing)? Because in Ottawa, it's all over the place. Might have something to do with a large Lebanese population, who knows. Same goes for Donair in Halifax.

In more recent years, however, the ubiquity of the Shawarma joint has been superseded, at least partially, by the Pho joint. It seems like everywhere you go these days, there's a new Pho restaurant opening up! If you happen to head down Somerset Street in Ottawa between Percy and Preston, which is basically our version of Chinatown, you'll come across something like 5362 Pho restaurants. Well, maybe more like 20 to 30. But still! That's a crazy amount of restaurants based on a single dish for a span of a kilometre! What's even crazier is that a lot of them have been in business for over a decade and always seem to be doing good business. Even outside the East Asian section of town, Pho is everywhere.

So, what is it about Pho that makes it so appealing? I honestly don't really know other than the simple fact that it's perhaps one of the most diverse, nourishing and tasty soup concepts ever made. Conceptually, it's fairly simple: a flavourful beef broth (details to come), noodles, some kind of meat or tofu and all kinds of garnishes. Traditionally, it's served with Thai basil, mint, bean sprouts, lime wedges and whatever condiment you prefer (most Pho places I've been to have Sriracha, hoisin sauce, sweet chilli sauce, soy sauce or fish sauce, or some combination of all of these on the table).

Pho is perhaps the essence of Vietnamese cuisine, I've read that it's "Vietnam in a bowl". It was possibly adapted from a French style of stew, possibly not (the Internet is, as always, confusing on the subject). What is a fact is that by the mid-20th Century, Pho was a staple food in Vietnam and after thousands of Vietnamese people left the country over the course of the Vietnam War and moved all over the globe, Pho became widespread as well. Not sure why it didn't catch on in Ottawa as widely till the 90s, but caught on it has! I still remember my first Pho was at a place on Booth Street called New Mee Fung where they serve a kind of spicy Satay-inspired Pho (I guess it might not be actual Pho - not sure what the nomenclature rules are). To this day, it's the best I've ever had. Thanks to my squeeze at the time, Leslie, for introducing me to that!

And so the day came a few weeks ago that Kari and I agreed to try our hands at making our own Pho from scratch, mostly because when she says she has a craving, I listen! So, we trundled out to get groceries and went to work! What we came up with is far from an authentic Pho, rather it's a simplified version. Normally, to make your Pho broth, you'd have to cook down a hunk of beef or bones (one recipe I saw uses oxtail while another uses a combination of beef chuck and marrow bones). We cheated with ours and used a powdered stock. It also cut down the cooking time significantly.

Now that's a bowl of soup!

Now, I wanted to make my Pho broth really spicy to help clear up the ol' blocked sinuses. Turns out I went a little overboard and had to spend a good hour adding more water and seasoning to balance out the heat. It added at least an hour to the cooking time and was a general pain in the butt and as such, I won't be recreating the actual recipe as I made it, but rather as it should have been made.

So let's check it out!

Part 1 - Making the broth


- 1 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
- 2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
- 5-6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 litre (4 cups) beef stock/broth - I used the powdered stuff and it was fine, but then I recently read the ingredient list. Yikes. Stick with actual beef stock.
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2-3 stalks celery, chopped
- 2 whole star anise, broken into smaller pieces
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp allspice
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tbsp Sriracha sauce (optional; here's where I screwed up. I squeezed a little too hard and added about 3 tbsp. If you want your soup to be volcanic, use that much)
- 1 Thai chili, seeded and chopped (omit if you want no spice at all)
- 2-3 stalks lemon grass, trimmed and chopped (to trim lemongrass: cut off the "bulb" - basically the bottom inch or so, chop the hard green tops, about 10 cm worth or so, remove the bark-like outer layers until you get to the softer centre and chop, like peeling a woody onion with way more layers)
- 1 bunch cilantro stems, roughly chopped (reserve the leaves for garnish)
- 1 package rice or other other noodles (one package is good for about 4 large bowls of Pho)
- Meat (or non-meat) of choice: beef, chicken, shrimp, tofu. For this recipe, I used about a pound of boneless chicken thighs, sliced very thin.

You can always tweak it as you see fit with the seasoning (many traditional recipes also include cloves, but I find them a bit to strong tasting, so I used allspice instead), but the basic seasoning profile is mainly star anise, ginger and garlic. Well, and beef of course.

The beginning of "Red Pho" broth. I would later have to adjust everything as to make it edible... D'oh!


Ideally, you'll want two large soup pots and a strainer for best results, since straining the broth is the best way to keep the "purity" of the stock and not have to bite on giant chunks of seasonings!

- Heat oil and sauté garlic and onions in a large pot.
- Stir broth and water into pot and bring to a boil.
- Stir in all ingredients except cilantro and meat and bring to a boil for a couple of minutes.
- Reduce heat to medium-low (2-3) and simmer for another hour.
- Once hour has passed, turn up heat back to medium and add cilantro stalks and meat. Continue to boil until meat is cooked in broth. Using a slotted spoon, take out pieces of meat, or do this while straining the stock. Put meat aside.

Nearing completion
- Cover second pot with strainer and strain broth. Put back on heat at minimum.
- Some time during this whole process, you'll want to cook the noodles according to the package and portion them out per serving in a large soup bowl.
- To serve: Portion out noodles and meat into bowl and ladle broth over top until you have as much as you want.

Part 2 - Garnishes

This is the easy part and the kind-of customized part. There are no real rules for what kind of noodles you can use in Pho, but rice noodles tend to be most common. As for garnishes, traditionally, as I mentioned, you go with bean sprouts, mint, Thai basil and lime wedges. Unfortunately, we live in Ottawa in winter and sometimes the availability and quality aren't so good. The bean sprouts that were there were manky as hell so that was a no-go, so we used chopped romaine lettuce instead to recreate the "crunch and fresh" factor the sprouts would have brought. Also, Thai basil is hard to find except at Asian grocers (none of which being handy on this occasion) so we had to use normal basil.

Setting out garnishes
Here's the list of garnishes and how we prepared them:

- 1 small head Romaine lettuce, roughly chopped
- 1 bunch mint, roughly chopped
- 1 bunch basil, leaves picked
- 1 bunch cilantro, leaves picked (the stems from this bunch will already have gone into the broth)
- 1-2 limes, cut into wedges
- Hoisin Sauce

As mentioned before, you can also have Sriracha, soy sauce, fish sauce, sweet chili sauce and whatever else you feel like saucing up your soup with.

And that's that! A super-tasty Vietnamese soup feast in the making. Of course, in our case, Kari decided to add some Chicken-Celery Pot Stickers into the mix!

Pho and pot stickers - hellooooo comfort!

Here's hoping you enjoy this version of Pho, even if it breaks tradition.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Breakfast Goodness - part 4 - Where To Get The Goodness Made for You in Ottawa

Hey there!

We're back to look at breakfast and specifically what happens when the idea of making it yourself seems ludicrous. We've all been there: whether it's weekend laziness, workday timing or a brain-splitting hangover on any given morning, we've all been in a situation where making breakfast at home is simply a no-go. Luckily, pretty much any decently-sized city has somewhere you can go for breakfast/brunch. Some of us are lucky to live in cities large enough to have all kinds of great breakfast options.

While Ottawa's best known (downtown) breakfast nooks might be the Elgin Street Diner or Zak's Diner, neither of these will be featured in this post, mainly because they're not all that impressive to me. For standard breakfast/brunch fare, I've always found the Lieutenant's Pump or the Manx on Elgin Street are far better value for the money. And if you want to greasy spoon it up for real, there's Mellos on Dalhousie. All of these and many others are adequate, even remarkable, places to indulge your need for bacon n' eggs, but in this post I'm going to tell you about some of Ottawa's truly exceptional breakfast experiences, as well as plugging something awesome should you decide you *can* make it at home.

1 - Chicken and Waffles

A couple of years ago, the concept of Chicken and Waffles was completely ensconced in the realm of "crazy-ass things that Americans put into their bodies". There's been references to this incredulous dish in film and TV (I think Pulp Fiction mentioned Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles at some point), but surely no one would try to export the idea outside of the U.S., would they? Well one man did, Chef LeRoy, formerly of Jean Albert's Soul Food restaurant, which has, unfortunately, closed its doors. But Chef LeRoy was the first to bring Chicken and Waffles to Canada (and still makes them via catering). Since then, many restaurants all around have come out with their own version of this soul food classic.

And, I hate to say it, I find Mill Street has done it better (sorry LeRoy). Probably because they threw authenticity out the window and went for "over-the-top tasty". Mill Street's Chicken and Waffles is boneless chicken tenders coated in a thick, peppery, crispy buttermilk batter served over a giant waffle made with Belgian Wit beer and topped with rich chicken gravy, with maple syrup on the side. There is truly no better hangover food that I can think of, and you'll be full for the rest of the day! Seriously, only get this if you have a giant appetite, it's a stuffer! It's also 14 bucks, so not a cheap breakfast by any stretch. But treat yourself to it at least once in your life, you'll thank me!

Leading potential cause of my obesity, except the beer

2 - Gourmet-ing Classic Breakfast Fare

Let's face it, one can get the standard 2 eggs with bacon/sausage/ham, homefries and toast plate just about anywhere and it's not very different from one place to the next. I honestly don't know WHY breakfast in Canada and the U.S. has become limited to only a dozen or so "classic"dishes, but it has. I guess that's fine if you use really good ingredients and make it original. So with that in mind, I present the Murray Street Brunch.

Murray Street, as I've mentioned before, is one of those high end restaurants that makes what one could call "gourmet comfort food". This certainly applies to their brunch offerings. Last time we went for breakfast/brunch, the menu just sang out all kinds of fun little renditions of classics and a lot of creative twists. But for me it came down to three simple words: Garlic. Maple. Syrup. FRAK YES!!! It helps that said syrup was the topping to a kind of reinvented "McGriddle" dish called the Pauly-D. It consisted of an in-house-made sage-ginger-maple sausage patty, a fried egg, cheese and pancakes. And it was goddamn delicious!!!! I was even lucky enough to have a server who told me how to make Garlic Maple Syrup (which will be featured in a future post).

the Breakfast Sammich as God intended
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Kari's epic breakfast as well. Her Corned Beef dish was a madcap fusion of Eggs Benedict and some kind of Denny's skillet monstrosity featuring cheese, potatoes, corned beef, egg all under a bone marrow Hollandaise. BONE MARROW HOLLANDAISE!!!! Who comes up with this stuff? Oh right, this guy does.
Needless to say, it was about as rich as rich gets. I have to admit, I'm not a huge Hollandaise fan. It's something I can only eat when I get a craving for it, which happens once or twice a year, kind of like poutine. But when I get that craving, WATCH OUT! That being said, today was not that day. All I know is that Kari loved it, so it must have been awesome.

I'm getting full just looking at it...

3 - On Your Way To The Office (aka Screw Timmies!)

I'll admit I'm plugging food purveyors that I've already blogged about in the past, but what can I say? I'm loyal to really top-notch restaurants and bakeries!

So, moving on. It's 6:55 and you're due in the office at 7. Not really time for a big hearty breakfast is it? Now you could go to Tim Horton's or Starbucks for their overprocessed (albeit sometimes tasty) breakfast fare and some okayish coffee. OR you could truck out to Bread and Sons (and if you work for the feds in Ottawa like I do, it's not much of a truck - or is it trek?) and partake of some of the city's best coffee (as I've already mentioned). On top of that, you can treat yourself to either a Boreka or a Black Bean Roll.

A Boreka is a puff pastry stuffed with feta and two other unidentified cheeses (it used to be just feta) dusted with sesame seeds and is pretty much the best morning salt rush a person can ask for. As for the Black Bean Roll, it's a black bean and cheese filling surrounded by a rich buttery pastry shell. It's basically an entire meal in 3 inches. Way better than a doughnut or McMuffin. 

Want to eat them alllllll!!

And finally, as a last little breakfast plug, I want to give a "shoutout" to Michael McKenzie and his charcuterie business, Seed to Sausage for making some of the best bacon I've ever had that wasn't mine (hey, no food is better than that you make yourself, including charcuterie/deli). Specifically his Garlic-Juniper Bacon. Yes, it's a bit more expensive than the commercial stuff from the supermarket, but it is TOTALLY worth it. It's another one of those "once in a lifetime" flavours everyone needs to try. Luckily, they sell it at Saslove's Meat Market in the Market and on Wellington Street, and many other shops as well.

Bacon Heaven - photo from the Saslove's Web site

So, now you know where to get the goods. Get out there and snarf some scran, man!