Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Thoughts: Service

We are traditionally at home and thereby feel most comfortable sitting at the bar in dimly lite, cluttered pubs that have well placed television on which to watch the game and a friendly, affable but not too invasive, knowledgeable bar tender pouring us great craft beer. Our favorite Toronto places are quite diverse in atmosphere, menu, and service structure but they all are held as 'favorites' and are visited according to some not-arbitrary but difficult to communicate system wherein we 'feel' like a certain place.

Why do we choose the crowded comfort of Tall Boys on some days? Or the hipster living room vibe of 3030 on others? Or the informal atmosphere of Junction Craft Beer? Or the welcoming atmosphere of Mugshots? These favorite Toronto bars offer us variations of the same feeling – familiarity. We are comfortable and at home in all of these places. But no bar – like no friend – is ideal for every occasion. Your love-able but loud friend, while the perfect choice for a beer festival, may not be the right choice for a visit to the symphony.

This is how we choose which of our favorite bars to have a pint at. Each favorite bar makes us feel at home – the definition of home varying depending on our outlook on any given day.

My recent excursion to Azure made me think about service. The atmosphere at Azure was not one in which I was immediately comfortable but upon reflection this was due primarily to the (mostly imagined) personalities, goals and desires of the other patrons than to the staff themselves. By the end of the night, I had come to appreciate the atmosphere at Azure for a different lifestyle but acknowledged, without judgment, that it simply did not fit my aesthetic – or my sense of 'home'.  

What is the service like in your favorite haunt?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Review: Azure

(Excuse the stock photo - the lighting was terrible!)
I've never attended a Winterlicious event before due mainly to the griping of fine dining restaurant staff about the busyness of the restaurant during this time. I always figured if I am going to drop that much money on one meal the service better be impeccable but when contacted for a complementary Winterlicious dinner for two at Azure I gladly accepted - if only to see what the hype about Winterlicious was all about.

I intentionally picked a reservation time that would be the least busy to avoid any server burnout (which means I ate supper with all the senior citizens!) Our server was friendly and we (my husband and I) really enjoyed the meal and atmosphere. We are not 'fancy' people so I went in jeans and my husband went in combats (ps. He is in the military). However, most people in the restaurant were dressed up which I found weird because the restaurant is, after all, attached to a hotel. 

The music was loud and very pop/clubby but the restaurant was well lit and remained so throughout the night. The wait staff knew who ordered what - which I appreciate because I dislike having meat meals waved around my face! There was one host guy who didn't introduce himself but walked around and talked to people - he was the only staff member that made me uncomfortable.  

On to the food!

I had the Dried Cranberry and Apple Salad which was made interesting with the addition of honeycomb and brie. My main was butternut squash risotto which was the only vegetarian option. It was heavy and slightly sickening while not tasting of butternut in the least. 

My husband had the Parsnip Bisque and the Osso Bucco. He didn't complain - which is the most anyone can expect of him.  He did state that they shouldn't have the tv tuned to CP24.

We got all three of the desserts! Cafe Mocha Chocolate cake, apple carmel cheesecake and banana walnut ice cream. The cheesecake and the banana ice cream were amazing.    

Overall, this restaurant really needs to step up their vegetarian game but the service and atmosphere made for an enjoyable evening.  

The Small Print: I was provided a complementary Winterlicious dinner for two at Azure. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Montly Mini ISS 002: DRINK

As part of my One Little Word for 2014 (WRITE), I'm writing up a food themed mini-zine each month in 2014. February's theme was DRINK - so this issue is filled with drink themed essays and recipes. Issues are available here

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Thoughts: Ginger Beer

Like all my culinary habits, the frequency of my fermentation projects come in waves. After a fairly lengthly dry spell from fermentation I am back fermenting with a vengeance. I've started a batch of kimchi and made borscht with fermented beets. I have made yet another attempt at a fermented ginger beer.

Homemade soda was one of the first culinary projects I undertook. I was living in my horrible basement apartment in Saskatoon while I attended university. I read about a soda equivalent that was fermented in a 2 L plastic bottle and used bread yeast so I decided to give it a try. It was unsuccessful but that did not stop me from being terrified that the bottle would explode. To combat my fear I lined a cardboard box with a trash bag and stored the supposedly fermenting bottle in there. Nothing happened. 

(Bottled plain and grapefruit/rosemary ginger beer)
Years later, with multiple successful fermentation projects to my name I attempted a ginger-beer made with a ginger bug. The ginger bug never achieved 'active' status due, perhaps, to imported ginger. A few weeks ago, I decided to give home brewed ginger-beer another go. This time, due to organic ginger, the ginger bug was soon bubbling away. I managed to make a gingery and sweet beverage but it did not carbonate in the bottles the way I wanted. This could be due to my extreme fear of bottle bombs and/or I may have rushed the process a bit and should have let my active ginger bug get slightly more active. 

(In addition to failing to carbonate, I had severe problems capping my bottles!) 
(Tasted delightlful but sadly no carbonation.)
I have high hopes for the next attempt!

I've been really enjoying the tactile nature of fermentation. I loved getting my hands in that kimchi and mixing it up! But fermentation projects have the potential to remind us of several important aspects of the food industry. While we, as city dwellers, may not have much opportunity to interact with our food in the ground or even with the farmers that grow it – we do have the opportunity to interact with our food before we consume it. Fermentation and other food projects also allow us, as individuals, to quietly and in a small way, resist corporate domination and offers us an activity in which to produce more than we consume.
Why do you ferment?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: Delicious Probiotic Drinks by Julia Mueller

I was very excited to receive the PR email offering me a review copy of this book. As you might be aware from my kombucha posts, I'm kind of obsessed with experimenting with kombucha and other fermented drinks so I was delighted at the opportunity to review this book. It is a nice hard bound book with beautiful photographs and the occasional interesting flavor combination. 

I was really prepared to fall in love with this cookbook but the overall quality simply does not merit a glowing review. On her blog, Julia Mueller states that she began writing this cookbook in February 2013 and moved on to her second by June 2013. This cookbook really shows the rushed writing and recipe development that such a schedule must require. The yogurt section seems misplaced in a drinks book and the smoothies (while acceptable as a probiotic drink) seem like a page filler. The paragraphs and are short and choppy and information is presented in a sporadic and non-intuitive manner. The majority of this cookbook reads like a book proposal and could have benefited from a good edit.

Perhaps the most damning thing about this book is the recipe order. The recipes are not well ordered as after the basic information is presented the flavoring recipes (requiring additional fermentation) are mixed into cocktail style recipes (requiring a fully fermented product). I find this very bothersome and not fermenter friendly in the least.

Overall I recommend checking this one out of the local library if only for the few interesting flavor combinations but pick up a book like 'Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods' for serious fermentation action!

Small Print: I received a complimentary review copy.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Eating the Web: Culinary To-do List

In honor of the great website - punkdomestics - and of me getting over my anxieties and contributing the following links were all discovered via punkdomestics.

1. Kimchi. I've been making kraut for years and the principle of kimchi is the same. I love the story that accompanied this recipe.


 2. I have all of Sandor Ellix Katz's books and tried to make a ginger bug with non-organic ginger a few years ago. Here's to organic success!

3. I've been brewing up a lot of kombucha in recent months but this Mexican Hot Chocolate Flavored Kombucha sounds crazy!
Check out my punk domestics profile

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Thoughts: Conquering Culinary Anxiety

My to-do list of culinary goals is far longer than my list of kitchen related accomplishments. On one hand this may be a good thing - as I will continue to learn and be challenged in the kitchen but on the other hand I may just be too scared to accomplish certain things. 

I have wanted to start a underground kitchen for many years. People like Urban Acorn, Vegan Secret Supper Club, and Apiecolpyse Now inspire me but I continue to remain too scared to try.

Other things I have culinary anxiety about include:
- toasters (they literally scare me every time I use one)
- broilers (controlled burn anyone?)
- using my oven over 400 degrees (I think it will blow up)

But I'm not scared of everything. 
I can deep fry with the best of them - sans deep fryer. I use a deep skillet. 
I make marshmallows on a whim as I love seeing the boiling sugar be whipped into pillows.  
I jumped into brewing Kombucha with both feet!
The thing is that one person's culinary anxieties are another person's joy. If you have read about someone doing the thing you are scared of then you can do it too! You just have to jump in!

What do you have culinary anxiety about?
How do you get over it?  


Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: Urban Acorn - I heart Robbie Burns

I've been lusting after Bento Miso's Vegan Supper Club experiences for a few months now. Finally, in January (the month of my birth) I decided that that the I heart Robbie Burns dinner would be my birthday meal. These monthly Vegan Supper Clubs are put on (ie cooked) by Urban Acorn

Knowing that the event would be 'family style' and having a particularly high anxiety day (plus a sick husband) we arrived early to get an end seat - meaning 1/2 the social interaction!  The first interaction with the Urban Acorn staff were friendly and the room was pretty even with folding chairs.   


First course was 'Bubbles and Squeak' which was very spicy!

Traditional Black Bun. The pie was a little dry without the sauce but the combination of elements on this plate were tasty.

The hearty and 'meaty' vegan Haggis was the main attraction at this dinner. I really enjoyed the turnip sauce as well.

And of course, dessert. The shortbread in this was amazing. I asked the chef about it - and I think he gave me enough information to try to recreate it!

Overall this night, while a tad expensive, was enjoyable. We didn't really socialize with other people basically because we are weird and like it that way! But the family table aspect of this event could really add to your enjoyment of the meal.

Urban Acorn's Vegan Supper clubs happen monthly at Bento Miso.    

Friday, February 7, 2014

Eating the Web: Focus on Community

1. 'Beet the System' - Radical communities are an important part of the picture as radical food communities are passionately working toward social justice surrounding food.

2. Fermentation on Wheels - The founder is traveling and teaching individuals about fermented foods.

3. Got Bannock? - A food related response to Idle No More where the founder stated "in honor of the village our people once had".


5. What makes you happy in the kitchen? Answers

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Thoughts: Creating Community at Food Events

    The primary reason that Steamwhistle's Craft Beer festivals are so successful in my mind is that the festival both respects and creates a sense of community. This event feels more like a group of like-minded individuals drinking together in a backyard than a traditional beer festival filled with drunken strangers. The relaxed feeling of community that results is the consequence (intended or not) of several decisions made by the organizers.
    The festival is not solely economically motivated as you can return excess tokens, buy them in various amounts, and use the summer tokens at the winter event. This creates an environment where the customers are participants in the event in rather than walking dollar signs. As an individual, feeling like a participant in an event creates a sense of ownership over that event – which in turn creates a sense of community.
      The event is small with 'true' craft beer and independent food trucks in attendance. (The semantics of what is a 'true' craft beer to be debated at a later time.) This helps to create a sense of community between the vendors as mutual respect, friendship and admiration are evident between the various craft beer companies. When vendors respect and admire each other capitalist competition is not the predominant emotion available to individuals. This changes the interaction between vendor and consumer from one dominated by aggression to one dominated by passion. Positive passion filled interactions create community.
    The ways in which community is respected and created at this particular beer festival can be extrapolated to other food communities. Other food communities, such as farmers markets, are frequent sites of positive passion filled interactions but seem to lack the notion that customers are participants rather than solely economic exchanges. Large food exhibitions lack the focus on immediate economic gain and also lack the positive passion interactions and consequently create no sense of community.

What do you think of my expose on community within Steamwhistle's Craft Beer Festival?
How do your favorite food events create community?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Review: Winter Craft Beer Festival

Steamwhistle's summer craft beer festival was very well organized and respected (and added to) the craft beer community in Toronto. So when the press release regarding their Winter Craft Beer Festival landed in my inbox I immediately added it to my calendar. I have been excited about this beer festival for literally months unfortunately my husband (who never has to work weekends) had to work the weekend of the beer festival but I managed to find a pretty good replacement in the form of a food-centric friend. There isn't much better than craft beer and food related conversation!
It was a pretty chilly Canadian winter day but the beer flowed freely (well most of it! There are a couple of frozen keg lines) and the hot cider (discovered via bathroom line gossip) really hit the spot. I also drunk bought a charred 8 dollar grilled cheese. (#noregrets) The festival was well organized once again! Tokens were pre-sold (in dime bags) in the line. Bathrooms were very nice. Water coolers abounded. Heaters and wood fires helped warm people up. Everything was where you would expect it and all needs were anticipated. There was apparently also indoor warming stations/bathrooms but I am too Canadian to require that!
My favorite beer was Neustadt's Everard Dark Mild. The nuttiness was really apparent, even through the chilly weather. I'll have to give it another – room temperature – go to offer any more insights into the taste.