Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Festival Eats


fresh fruit at a festival
It all started four years ago in Montreal. Arcade Fire was headlining, but the days lineup included The National, The Walkmen and Pavement. My first music festival was in August 2010. Dining at Osheaga was limited to the usual hot dogs, hamburgers and some corn on the cob.

The food the following year at Pearl Jam's 20th Anniversary weekend in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin was no better. Food in the VIP area mostly consisted of nachos.

Things were looking up in 2012 at the Sasquatch Festival. The view at The Gorge is unparalleled to any other concert venue that I have visited. And perhaps because I was on the west coast, food options were better than what you would typically find at a large concert stadium. In addition to the hot dogs, there were soba noodles and Mongolian beef bowls. Happily, lineups for food were short as well.
food options at Coachella


Improvements in food options at music festivals have been getting better over the years to meet growing dietary needs, as well as inviting local chefs to participate. Lollapallooza in Chicago has their food offerings catered by Graham Elliott.

Which brings us to 2013. Hello Coachella. Certified organic produce at the campground farmer's market, food trucks, multiple coffee options and a selection of meal choices made by local vendors that are similar to those found in your mall's food court. However, prices remained overblown, like you would find at any other concert venue.

Here's what the husband and I ate over three days in the desert. 
beef sliders


chicken fries
On the first day we ate from The Lime Truck -- winners of the second season of The Great Food Truck Race. French fries were topped with jerk-style chicken, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and crema. The beef sliders were sweet and tender, topped with cabbage and fried onions. 

We also grabbed two grilled cheese sandwiches from the Manglers Meltdown. The Philly cheese was full of roast beef, caramelized onions and peppers with some horseradish aioli for dipping. The portobello melt was my favourite -- the mushroom was meaty and you could taste the balsamic marinade, add the gooey cheese and it was the perfect snack. And as a nice change from the usual fries, we bought a side order of tater tots.


Philly cheese
On the second night, we found one of the better value meals -- two generous fish tacos (cod) served with a side of house-made potato chips. For $12, this was a filling meal. 
fish tacos

By the third day, we opted for a lighter lunch from the Green Truck -- an organic food truck. The husband opted for the mother trucker vegan burger, which was served on focaccia with pickles and a beet sauce. I tried the chicken pesto sandwich, a plain chicken breast with delicious pesto mayo and arugula.


sandwiches from the
Green Truck
And perhaps my favourite treat all weekend was from Black Bean Ice Cream. In 35 degree dessert heat, we had three flavour options to cool us down. I tried the toffee as well as the chocolate chip (the latter being my favourite).
Served in 12oz coffee cups, this ice cream delivered the caffeine and sugar that I needed to make it to 2am.



Monday, April 22, 2013

Tacos Gonzalez

tacos and guacamole


The husband says that I have a superpower. Sadly this is not one that could save the universe from alien invasion nor bring about world peace. I simply have the knack for finding great local eateries in new places that I visit.

Tonight was such an occasion. You will not likely find yourself in La Quinta, California unless you plan to attend the Coachella music festival. After spending five days in California without yet having a taco or avocado, it was time to seek them out. A quick Google search of the words tacos + La Quinta led me to three choices. Tacos Gonzalez had a number of good reviews on Yelp and Urbanspoon. However, it was when I mentioned to our hosts for the night that we had decided on dinner, we got confirmation that we had made the right choice. Her words were, "it is the type of food you would be served by your Mexican grandmother, if you had a Mexican grandmother."

menu
Located in a strip mall on highway 111, the interior resembles a Subway franchise. You can either grab takeout or be served at a table. We ordered eight tacos, two of each beef, chicken, pork and chorizo, along with a medium order of guacamole.

The beef and chicken tacos were served with the most tender meat and the chorizo was a vibrant red colour, salty and not too spicy. The waitress will ask whether you want onions and cilantro as a garnish on your tacos when ordering.

The only word that adequately describes the guacamole is fresh. It is chunky and could have used a bit more salt and acid, but for this Canadian, it was a nice welcome to the potential that is fresh produce currently on its way after a long winter.

The meal was accompanied with three sauces, fresh tomato salsa, salsa verde and spicy tomatillo salsa -- the last one being the spiciest of the three but none causing pain.

The entire bill, along with a Mexican Coke and horchata agua fresca, came to $22. The service was exceptional and friendly. Perhaps the best tacos ever!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Night + Market

I have to admit that I do not understand Los Angeles. After spending a day and a half here, I could not find my way around town without Google Maps and I have never seen so many sidewalks barren of people.

When the husband and I decided on the itinerary for our big trip west, I started following L.A. food trucks and Jonathan Gold (LA Weekly) on Twitter so that I could make informed food decisions on our visit. It is from Mr. Gold's feed that I learned about Night + Market.

Located on Sunset Boulevard, mere steps away from the infamous Rainbow Room and The Roxy, one enters through the curtain on the right upon entering another restaurant called Talesai. The decor of the room is just as confusing to me as the city in which it inhabits: photos of Thai cooking utensils and ingredients line two walls with a photo of Pete Sempras above them all for emphasis, and above the waiter station, the full feature length Beavis and Butthead movie was being projected.
pork satays

But I was not there for the decor. This Thai restaurant brought the flavour. I admit to you that wherever possible, we tamed down the heat because my tolerance for whole bird's eye chilies is pretty low.

We started with one of the evening's specials -- nam kao tod -- a cold salad comprised of papaya, crispy pieces of rice, peanuts and chunks of spicy sour pork dressed with ginger and chilies. There was just enough heat to bring a bit of burn to my lips but the sourness stole the show. We were happy that our waitress suggested a side of coconut rice because a) it was the most delicious rice that I have ever eaten, and b) the sweetness of the rice complimented the spicyness of this dish. Following that came four green pork satays had been grilled after spending time bathing in condensed milk. Sweet and smoky. 


The chicken wings were perfectly cooked and crispy but the only flavour to be had came from the rooster dipping sauce.

pad kee mao (right)
gang ho (left)
Our appetizers were followed with two noodle dishes. The pad kee mao comprised of slick broad flat noodles with a hint of chili and garlic with Thai basil and tender beef short rib meat. The gang ho is considered a dry pork stew that had the familiar smell of fermented goodness, but in this case bamboo shoots (and not the pungent tofu that I was introduced to last summer), slim glass noodles, pickled garlic and ginger, tender pork belly and shoulder, which combined brought back the light heat and sourness of the crispy rice salad -- salty, spicy, sour, sweet all together in one bite.

Thai ice cream sandwich
The night finished off with an ice cream sandwich -- a sweet bun still warm from being grilled that was filled with some of the previously mentioned sweet coconut rice and topped with coconut ice cream. Perfect, but not overly, sweet bites.

This meal was the highlight of our first five days in California.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

In-N-Out

The simple pleasures in life can be found along the highways in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Texas. Burgers are made fresh from 100% pure beef and never see a freezer. Lettuce is hand leafed. French fries are cut in each individual store. And lastly, I want every milkshake (and soft serve vanilla cone) from this point forward to taste like the one I had today. 

Well-made, fresh fast food does not come at premium cost. Two double burgers with fries and milkshakes was around $14. 

Thank you In-N-Out Burger for your services.

(And don't forget to familiarize yourself with the secret menu before entering.)

French fry box
  
two double doubles
animal style

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Dough Toronto and Donut Showdown


triple chocolate with corn nuts
This is not the first time that I have written about my good friend Rachelle Vivian and her Toronto doughnut venture called Dough Toronto. Rachelle's first appearance on this blog was following a trip that we made with our respective husbands in the summer of 2011 to Chicago. I would like to believe that it was my introduction to Doughnut Vault that helped change part of the doughnut scene in Toronto.

Rachelle co-owns Beast Restaurant with her husband Scott. Prior to that fateful day in Chicago, she was serving kouign amann as a starter on the Beast brunch menu. (Kouign amann is a delicious French pastry that is reminiscent of a croissant with additional sugar between the layers of buttery pastry.) But this pastry was not a great seller, probably because of its relative obscurity in North America.

Upon returning from Chicago, she replaced the kouign amann with doughnuts on the brunch menu. The first flavour, which remains her signature flavour, was maple bacon. A yeast-raised doughnut dipped in maple icing and then garnished with ground bacon. Doughnuts remain on the Beast brunch menu to this day.

chili crueller
Following the brunch success, Rachelle signed up to participate in the Toronto Underground Market. Held once a month at the Evergreen Brick Works, TUM was a one-stop shop for Toronto enthusiasts. Over the next eight months, I was Rachelle's sous chef and server at the TUM events. She typically made between 400-600 doughnuts for each event, often selling out before the end of the event. Flavours included the infamous maple bacon, fluffernutter, double chocolate, margarita (my favourite) and various flavours of cruellers.

Following the success of the TUM, Rachelle started selling doughnuts out of the back door of the restaurant this past summer. On Thursday mornings, the door would open at 8am and would remain open until she sold out. After a few weeks, there would be a line 10 people deep before the door even opened.

The success of the back door venture has evolved into two other locations within the city selling Rachelle's doughnuts. On Thursday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, you can find them at Sam James Coffee. They can also be found on Saturday mornings at Sanagan's Meat Locker in Kensington Market.

And then the Food Network came knocking. I am proud to announce that Rachelle (and I) will be contestants on a new show called Donut Showdown. Each episode begins with three teams creating doughnuts from a mystery basket of ingredients with one team eliminated after the challenge. The remaining two teams compete to create a large batch of doughnuts based on a theme. The winner gets $10,000.

margarita doughnut
(lime curd, tequila icing, salt)
The first episode airs on Tuesday, April 2nd at 10pm. We will appear during the May 14th episode.

I can't tell you the results of our episode because I am under strict confidentially agreements, but I can say that it was one of the most fun days of my life and I am thankful that I was included. There are not many chances that you get as a chef to experience the adrenaline and creativity of black box competitions. My last experience prior to this was a final exam at culinary school.

I hope that you will watch and cheer us on.

----------

Update: May 20, 2013

A huge thanks to everyone who watched us compete and shared the 'love'.

You can watch the entire episode here.

And a reminder that backdoor doughnuts have started up again on Thursday mornings from the side door at Beast Restaurant. You might even meet the doughnut champion in person.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The First Home Ec of 2013

Last year, Joel and Dana (the duo behind Well Preserved) hosted a monthly meet up at an east-end Toronto bar. Each month there was a different theme and participants received a badge. They have decided to continue their Home Ec series in 2013.

The theme for January's event was resolutions -- make em' or break em'. Participants were asked to make a dish to share that either represented a resolution that they wanted to keep or one that had already been broken.

Now, I am not the type of girl who makes resolutions because I do not feel like my life can be reset at midnight on New Year's Eve. However, I do like to set goals and write lists.

For the last three years, my annual goal has been to try to floss more. What better way to remind myself to floss than to stuff my mouth with a whole bunch of caramels? So my contribution to the event was this apple cinnamon caramel recipe from Smitten Kitchen. The strong apple flavour in this caramel comes from reducing a liter of apple cider into a sweet syrup.

I chose the Resolution Keeper badge because I have flossed three times in 2013 -- not a stellar performance but not a complete bust.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Perspective

I like to think that I am the type of person who strives for constant improvement. So in addition to simply trying to get better at my job one day at a time, I like to read cookbooks to find new ideas. And I like to attend events where I get to hear from successful chefs to gain inspiration, which is why I attended the discussion with Thomas Keller on October 30th, 2012.

Chef was in town to promote the Bouchon Bakery cookbook. Not only am I a fan of his previous books (and aspire one day to dine in one of his six restaurants), I was doubly excited that it was a baking cookbook. As a pastry chef, there does not seem to be the same depth of cookbooks by true professionals from the baking side of the kitchen as there are for the savoury side.

Although there was little actual discussion about baking, there was one comment that he made that has stuck with me through the entire trip home.

I think that most of us choose to eat at a particular restaurant for one or several of the following reasons: the restaurant is familiar or a local favourite; the restaurant has had good reviews or is being discussed because it is newly opened; the restaurant or chef is well-known and repeatedly cited in top restaurant lists. But tonight, in response to an audience question, Chef stated that in his kitchens, the cooks cook for themselves. Because the people in the kitchen do not know the customer, they are unaware of their preferences and dislikes, so they create for themselves.

Is this the state of modern dining? Since food for many of us has become more than simply fueling our bodies, we now seek out people preparing food that interests them (be it farm-to-table, whole beast, molecular), which makes us seek out the food that they are interested in preparing.

Thinking about this led me to the conclusion that Chef is correct. Cooking is a survival skill -- most of us know how to cook to one level or another in order to survive. Beyond basic sustenance, when we go out we want more than an experience that we could give ourselves at home for far less money and far greater person satisfaction. I can buy a cookbook by any of these chefs, but I don't go to their restaurant simply because I am hungry. Rather than expecting someone to cook for me, I choose to experience their vision.