Friday, April 22, 2011

goodbye real life

So the time has come to say goodbye to family and friends and embark on another season of planting. While it's sometimes sad leaving behind our 'real' life, the planting world allows us the opportunity to experience nature in all its glory (and I mean really experience it since we live in a tent for the duration of the contract) as well as the chance to spend time with a whole other group of friends some of whom we have known for years. But, more importantly, I get to cook up a storm for three whole months, making whatever I want! Perhaps I should put that into perspective: every single day (well, other than days off) I, along with another cook, prepare a full breakfast (I'm talking fresh baked goods, hash browns, meat, eggs of all kinds, fruit salad, and homemade granola), the most amazing lunch spread you have ever seen, fresh homemade bread and soup, and a huge dinner always consisting of salad, a main, a carb, some veggie sides, a vegetarian option, and dessert. Not only that, we make all sorts of ethnic foods including Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Italian, even sushi. And since we generally do all this from scratch, this, my friends, is real cooking. Real food for real hardworking people.

While not a typical dinner, this was a final dinner for our BC contract before heading to Alberta. Since the whole camp was packed up, we made a dinner of bagged fries along with chicken ceasar, buffalo chicken, and roasted veggie wraps. Sometimes you just gotta make do!
Over the years, many friends and family wonder why I keep going back. It's the lifestyle, the friends, the knowledge that you can overcome anything nature can throw at you (although that kitchen trailer is some warm when it's snowing outside but don't tell the planters that!), the living in a tent with only the necessities, the power to make any menu I can dream up. I guess it also doesn't hurt that, as a cook, I'm one of the most loved folks in camp! But, honestly, there's no way to make anyone understand until they can experience it for themselves. So, while I am aware this blog is entitled eatHalifax!, I plan to continue blogging while out there in the bush (oh yes, we even have a satellite to get the Internet) in an attempt to let you experience a little piece of our planting life. No more restaurant reviews sadly but wait til you see what we`re cookin`up this season!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

a healthy challenge

As a contribution to Bacon Gravy's Come Dine With Me challenge for March, some friends and I cooked up a Mediterranean scran that was both healthy and delicious. Bacon Gravy's stipulations were simple: a healthy meal made without butter or heavy cream and easy on both salt and sugar. But, because a friend is on a candida diet (no sugar, gluten, alcohol, caffeine, or additives) for health reasons and another is gluten free, we were presented with a whole new list of challenges. Bring it on!

To start the evening off, we enjoyed some wine and snacked on olive hummus and tzatiki both served with fresh carrots, pita bread, baguette, and some rice crackers. As an appetizer, my friend made a roasted garlic and goats cheese 'pate' from a gardening cookbook I had given her for her birthday. She arranged each plate with a whole bulb of garlic that had been roasted with olive oil and fresh rosemary, a mixture of goats cheese, fresh herbs and walnuts, some pita bread or rice crackers, and a few extra walnuts. Believe me folks, this dish was as amazing as it looks! I won't even begin to express how great garlic is for your health, as I am sure most of you already know, but I believe even the smell of garlic roasting is enough to cure anything! And goat's cheese or chevre is not only lower in fat and lactose than cheese made from cow's milk but also higher in vitamin A and potassium. Just another reason to love it some more. Plus, walnuts are a superfood, packed with cholesterol lowering omega 3s. I eat them daily.

For our main meal, the same friend had prepared (and assembled along with some guests) stuffed tomatoes and peppers from a recipe she had acquired from a Greek friend. Stuffed with a mixture of brown rice, tomatoes, onions, garlic, fresh herbs, and, in half, organic ground beef, the tomatoes were fragrant and yummy (and I'm not one for rice unless of course it's wrapped around nori!).  For our protein, I sauteed up some lamb and pesto sausages from Sweet Williams (sorry they don't seem to have a site but you can find their sausages at the market) as well as some Windy View farm chicken thighs that had marinated in lemon juice, garlic, pepper, and oregano. To round out the meal, I made a salad of organic spinach, Ran-Cher Acres goat's milk feta, tomato, cucumber, olives, red onion, red and yellow peppers, and a dressing of freshly squeezed lemon juice, Tuscan herb olive oil from Liquid Gold Tasting Bar, fresh dill and parsley, some dried oregano, and freshly ground black pepper. With more pita for the gluten eaters as well as the remaining hummus and tzatiki, our meal was complete.

So, how did we do? Not only did we use no butter or cream or sugar or much salt, we were able to offer everyone at the table a fresh, healthy meal that wouldn't make any of us sick. Nutritionally, our meal was high in vitamins, minerals and fiber (and let's not forget a little heart healthy fat-oh, I forgot to mention how incredible that olive oil from Liquid Gold tasted-it owned that salad dressing!), was extremely well balanced and, I think more importantly, was made primarily from fresh, local ingredients with nothing artificial. Just real food. Simple. Healthy. Delicious.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Vietnamese at home

I love me some pho. There's just something about customizing your soup that really appeals to me. And generally I jam all the usual accompaniments in mine. Basil, mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, lime, hoisin, and sriracha. All of it. The more flavour the better I say. There are several Vietnamese restos around town but none seem to come close to that one amazing bowl of pho etched in my memory. That incredible bowl of pho from a tiny Vietnamese joint in a strip mall in Australia will forever be with me. So, when I'm craving some pho, I tend to prefer to whip up a batch rather than hit up a resto. My version is vegetarian however, gaining all its flavour from a broth of simmering spices. Some day I'll make the real thing but until then here goes. And to make it more of a meal, because according to Brent soup is not a meal, we also made some salad rolls.

Vegetarian Pho 

4 c. veggie stock*
1 small onion, chopped
1 t. olive oil 
2 cloves garlic
2 t. ginger
2 star anise
a few peppercorns (1/2 t.)
3- 4 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 t. rice vinegar
1 T. soy sauce
1 t. honey
1/4 c. each carrots, broccoli, red pepper
1/4 block firm tofu, cubed
rice noodles, enough for 2
bean sprouts, mint, cilantro, basil, lime wedges, sriracha, hoisin sauce

To get started, saute the onion in the olive oil til soft. Add the garlic and ginger and saute a few more minutes. Add the remaining ingredients except the vegetables. Simmer covered for as long as you have, about 30 minutes to an hour. In the last five or so minutes, add the vegetables and rice noodles and cook til the noodles are soft and the vegetables done. Serve with remaining ingredients on the side. Although this soup tastes brilliant on it's own, it's all about the extras. Flavour away. Note: I didn't strain my broth before serving as it was easy to pick out the spices as we ate. If you wish, simply strain the broth before adding the vegetables and noodles.

*A word on stock. I don't know if there are any commercial stocks out there that do not include MSG as an ingredient (or whatever name they use to disguise it and there are many!). It's pretty easy to make your own stock and, in fact, it allows you to get everything out of your produce before composting it. Simply save all of your peelings (I mean everything- garlic skins, onion and carrot peels, broccoli stalks-everything) and, when you have enough, simmer in a big pot of water along with some bay leaves, peppercorns, and salt. You could even use your leftover bones or start off your stock the traditional way by sauteing some carrots, onions, garlic, and celery. Simmer covered for at least an hour and then strain before use.

Salad Rolls 
rice paper wrappers
red pepper

Peanut Sauce 
1/4 c. peanut butter
1-2 t. red curry paste
2 T. coconut milk
1-2 t. honey

For the salad rolls, soak a wrapper in warm water for a few minutes until soft. Working on a cloth, lay down the wrapper and place slices of cucumber, red pepper, and carrots in the center. Cover with spinach, mint, and cilantro. To roll, fold the back over the center, pulling it over the ingredients to tighten. Fold over the edges and roll out. Not only are salad rolls super easy to make, but you can essentially put anything in them. Some common ingredients include cold rice noodles, tofu, shrimp, and bean sprouts. For the peanut sauce, heat all the ingredients, whisking til smooth. Add more coconut milk if you find the sauce too think. But please use this recipe as a guide and make your sauce to taste (because you know I didn't measure mine!).

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

daMaurizio does it best

It is a rare occurrence to go to a restaurant where everything is amazing. Generally, something isn't as satisfying, as decadent, as delicious. Well, our recent dinner with our food loving friends (let's call them A and S) at daMaurizio broke all the rules. It was utterly amazing. Not just my dish but every single piece of food I tasted. It was perfection. And I don't just say that about anywhere. After ordering a bottle of wine and snacking on some bread and butter (although, at a fine Italian restaurant like this, I expected fresh baguette or focaccia with olive oil and balsamic), we settled in for what would turn out to be a truly unexpected culinary adventure.

To start, I ordered the calamari alla Gradese with tomato, garlic, chilies, lemon and parsley. No word of a lie, it was easily the best calamari I have ever had. The coasting was so crisp and light, not the heavy, greasy batter you find at other restaurants. Furthermore, the simple yet delicious tomato sauce was the perfect accompaniment (and a nice change from cocktail sauce I might add). This was calamari done right.

Brent ordered the Lumache alla Trebbiano, an appetizer of snails sauteed with white wine, garlic butter, and parsley served on a crostini and topped with fontina. I'll be honest. I would never have ordered snails and I even went as far as suggesting he order something else. I'm glad he didn't listen to me (like he ever does!) because this dish may have been the highlight of the meal. It was simply amazing. 

Our friend decided on the Carpaccio al Tartufo, beef tenderloin crusted in peppercorns, seared rare and served with truffle aioli, capers, crostini, and Parmigiano Reggiano. I only got a bite of this dish but what I did taste-some perfectly rare beef with a nice peppery kick-was delish. However, while our friend did enjoy the carpaccio, he did not find it as amazing as I had previously thought, more likely because he was regretting not ordering the calamari which he had fallen in love with during a previous visit! 

Our other friend ordered the Radicchio alla Friulana, a warm radicchio salad with garlic, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, prosciutto, and Parmigiano. Served with flatbread (we actually can't quite remember exactly what this flatbread was made of but it was quite yummy!) and a crispy serving of prosciutto, this salad was wonderful and plentiful to boot. The oil and balsamic dressing, while simple, was the perfect balance to the bitterness of the radicchio and the flatbread and prosciutto added both texture and a depth of flavour. She loved it.

With the taste of our appies still fresh on our palates, it was not long before our chosen entrees arrived.

A and I both ordered the Ravioli alla Zucca, a roasted pumpkin and apple ravioli served with the usual sage brown butter in addition to a balsamic reduction. You may remember I not so long ago made this (and dined on it with this very friend!) so we were extremely excited to order it. Upon first bite, we knew we had chosen wisely. The pasta itself was perfect and the flavours I was craving- pumpkin and apple and nutmeg and butter- were arranged in a subtle yet very delicious balance. But upon further tastes, we realized the flavours seemed stronger, somehow becoming richer and richer with each bite.  How they performed this magic, I do not know but I was glad to be part of it. The balsamic reduction was also a wonderful addition but, then again, I'm already a big fan. Thankfully, we both had ordered the appetizer sized pasta as I doubt we could have eaten another bite.

S had ordered the Gnocchi al Gorgonzola, something I too had my eye on. The gnocchi was perfect, chewy yet velvety, the Gorgonzola sauce was beyond rich, and the toasted pecans added an unexpected yet delicious crunch. This gnocchi may very well be another best I've ever had. S went big and ordered the larger entree size but just barely finished it both because of size and sheer richness. 

Brent, unlike the rest of us, decided against pasta and instead opted for an entree. His dish, the Scaloppinie di Vitello all'Astice, included veal scaloppinie and lobster in a sauce of garlic, tomato, brandy, and cream accompanied by mashed potatoes and a few side vegetables. Again, (clearly a repeating theme here) this dish was amazing. The veal, of which there were three substantial pieces, was tender, the lobster, perfectly rich and buttery, and oh, that sauce. What can I even say? Brandy, tomato, cream, garlic....insert drooling sounds here! I don't know how into veal I am but put this dish in front of me again and not one drop would be left behind. I would literally lick the plate. (And once again Brent, who was way more adventurous when it came to the menu, picked another winner.)

While finishing our wine, we were almost speechless. We discussed how the quiet ambiance and understated decor (think old world Italian) helped to show off the food; how the food was the experience. And the service, you guessed it, was perfect. I am counting the days til we return in the fall so I can try more things on the menu. Even now, weeks after dining there, I am still in awe. Wow.

Check out the menu but good luck deciding!

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