Monday, June 22, 2009

Sour and sweet

As summer approaches most people are singling out their beverages of choice; mojito, gin and tonic, lemonade, etc. I have recently discovered mine, it's vinegar (black sweetened rice vinegar, to be exact). On the rocks it's delicious. When I told B he grimaced and asked why on earth would I subject myself (and by proxy him too) to something that's supposed to go in salads.

In fact that is exactly the same perception I had of vinegar before I did a vinegar tasting. That's right, you heard me right, a vinegar dégustation at one of my favourite food boutiques called Workshop Issé. Initially I was there just to get a bottle of nashi vinegar but ended up sampling quite a range of vinegars they carry, thanks to the enthusiastic shop assistant. What I learned was that there are a number of vinegars that indeed are for seasoning, but also a large selection for drinking. Apparently Asians, namely Chinese, Korean and Japanese have been drinking vinegar for ages because of the number of health benefits it offers. Drinking vinegar each day is supposed to increase blood circulation, acts as a diuretic, aids digestion, just to name a few.

Though any vinegar can be consumed, some with rather nasty side effects, most vinegars which are consumed as a beverage usually have a low acidic level (around 4% - 6% acetic acid) and is diluted with water. It can then be either sweetened with sugar or honey. A concoction of these ingredients, plus some aromatic spices, was called posca in ancient Roman times, being consumed mostly by soldiers as it masked the bad taste of local water supplies and acted as an antiscorbutic helping to prevent scurvy.

Vinegar has been around for ages in numerous cultures, serving a number of purposes both alimentary and otherwise. To make vinegar you need an alcoholic liquid, oxygen and bacteria of the genus Acetobater or Gluconobacter. For centuries vinegar was produced by allowing alcoholic liquids to go sour, a process that was unpredictable in terms of timing and end results. Then from the 17th century onward a quicker and more controlled process was developed in France where wine was poured through grapevine twigs to speed up the aerating process. In order for acetic acid bacteria to develop it requires oxygen. Today some of the best wines are developed using a method where an alcohol is diluted then stored in either wood casks or in ceramic urns and left to ferment, slowly being exposed to oxygen over time. In some instances this is known as the Orléans Process. For those who want to try their hand at making vinegar at home the best way to start is with combining a wine or fruit base with a cultured yeast and a vinegar "mother" (it's the gelatinous scummy cloud that one finds lurking at the bottom of a bottle of vinegar). I myself have never tried it but some of my friends who have and swear that it works like a charm.

Vinegar is not just for salads! It is beverage, health tonic, science experiment, and even household cleaning product. A wonder we don't exercise all it's charms more often.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Practically Criminal

Article and image courtesy of Amanda.

It's no secret--Toronto bread is dreadful. Tough and dry, delicious but scandalously priced, monstrous, doughy and large enough to feed a family of twelve; the few bakeries littered across the city each fall short when it comes to bread. Little Italy and neighbouring Little Portugal are jammed with bone-dry loaves, mean pretzel-like twists and the occasionally decent cornbread, but for the most part, these places specialise in bread inflated with yeast, huge, airy pockets ruining the crumb. The crusts are sharp and nasty, and invariably reduce the roof of your mouth to a tender, aggravated condition.

Fetching a baguette to accompany dinner, a nice sandwich loaf, or sturdy sourdough to pair with winter soup requires a discouragingly complicated expedition, carefully planned in advance. It also helps to have deep pockets, since a good stick of bread is going to run at least $5, and passable croissants about $3.00 apiece.

People will argue that there are plenty of good bakeries in this city, but they will probably follow their testimonial with a caveat:

"Thuet has excellent sourdough, so long as you don't mind paying $7.50 a boule."

"Le Fromagerie carries pastries from Pain Perdu, but the baguettes, oh my gosh, you could have a sword fight with the damn things!"

"Clafouti is great for grabbing something and taking a walk in the park nearby. Of course, the croissants are more like stuffed brioche and so big you'll need to sleep it off on the grass. Watch for dog poo--Trinity Bellwoods Park is yuppie dog heaven these days!"

"Ace will do, in a pinch, and you can get it at Loblaws."

I rarely eat bread--it makes my belly hurt even in small amounts, and yet, once I get started, I'm likely to devour the entire thing with a brick of cheese and several handfuls of olives and cornichons, leaving no room for dinner. But, each season calls for good bread in its own way: Spring is rainy and cold and begs for grilled cheese; summer nights are perfect for white wine, baguette, cheese, arugula salad and a wedge of chocolate to finish things off; autumn is soups and stews with a torn wedge of sourdough on the side; and, winter is lazy weekend breakfasts with leftover slices grilled in eggy milk and sprinkled with cinnamon, while you do the crossword and jog your memory for odd words by absentmindedly running your pencil through your unkempt bedhead.

And so, I declare it practically criminal that Toronto bread sucks eggs, and it's an even worse offence that glamourous cupcake shops are popping up everywhere, meanwhile it's impossible to make a good sandwich without leaving town.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

End of round 1!

It's the beginning of summer and the end of round one of our culinary exchange. I hope that all of you are in the midsts of either receiving, packing up or finishing off your shopping of ingredients. Don't forget to include some notes regarding the ingredients and perhaps some ideas as to how to use them. Then it's off to the kitchen to see what we can concoct....

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Harvest Envy

Article and image courtesy of Amanda

For weeks, I've had harvest envy--reading blogs based in more "hospitable" climates like California, British Columbia, France and the UK have showcased the first berries, veg and garden parties of spring. Meanwhile, Ontario remains icy at night and slightly warm during the day. Blossoms have come and gone, which at least casts a spell of hopefulness over the province--we have neither strawberries nor heat, but if we close our eyes and spin around three times and wish very, very hard, when we open our eyes again, it'll be summer. Maybe.

Consulting Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries for delicious dinner suggestions, I flip to roughly that day's date then sigh--"first dinner in the garden!" he declares, while I huddle beneath three quilts. "Enjoyed the season's early shoots and sprouts!" he boasts, while my local weather forecast advises against putting seedlings in the ground and cautions that overnight, it might be wise to wrap flowers and shrubs against the frost.

I suppose it all evens out, at some point. Perhaps we have a more intense summer, a more bountiful autumn, a more languid September or less rainy October. Or, perhaps the payoff for the pokey Ontario growing season lies not in the warmth of summer or flashy autumn harvest, but in the incredible relief we experience when winter's deep freeze finally thaws, or the desperate clamour to wring every last drop of goodness from summertime, before we slip under the ice again. If Ontario were more moderate, would the blueberries be as juicy, the corn as buttery, the pollen as cloudy or the beans as snappy? Probably not.

Canadians are notorious weather-bitchers--we complain about the cold, the early nightfall, the wind and chills and rain and so on. We declare the sunshine and heat so fleeting, and groan about how grueling a particular season was to endure.

Since the birth of Open Pantry, I've been trying to think more critically and microscopically about the things that make my location delicious and special--France has its wine, cheese, boudins, and so on. California is the land of fruit and greens and coastal fish. Quebec, although snuggled against my own province, is stingy about its culture, keeping all that excellent beer, cheese, syrup and pastry to itself. And so, what makes Ontario so Ontario-ish? Historically, I'd framed it as the place where I lived because I liked it better than Vancouver and it came without the language hurdles of Montréal. But what of its pantries?

Big change is afoot, particularly in the little regions surrounding Toronto. Artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, rare wheats for fantastic breads, granny methods of curing, preserving and brewing...heirloom seeds and rare breeds of livestock...all these things are gaining not only ground but broader acceptance. Things are more affordable, and this sort of quality and diversity is becoming expected, rather than remaining buried in the domain of the monied and arrogant foodie.

So, while most of the things I love about living and eating here are perishable--the fleeting wild blueberries, my friend Mario's hand-cured speck, the sparkling rosé bottled at a Niagara Falls winery, the ginger cakes baked down the block from my house--I think the thing that singles out Ontario food culture most for me would be the weather. Winter is so desperately cold; summer weather starts mid-July and is gone by early September if not sooner. Autumn means it's dark by 5 p.m., and it rains pretty much straight through from March till late June. The languid portion of the year is so compressed, seasonal eating and garden dinners and picking fruit and relaxing with a drink on a crowded patio, settling in with a picnic to people-watch in the park. These are things I can't cram in a box and mail to you, as my Open Pantry partner, but perhaps the blog posts I present here will give you an idea of Ontario eating, moreso than the things I drop into the post.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Late Spring in the countryside

Every time B and I head out to his family's maison de campagne I eagerly look around to see how the garden is doing. It's a welcome relief for this urbanite to see all the lush greenery reflecting the changing seasons. With the passing of spring (all pollen and flowers) the first signs of summer fruits are beginning to emerge.

Baby pears, I believe these are Poire William.

Baby peaches. Peach trees have the best leaves, all spear-like and shiny.

And the bestest of them all, wild strawberries. Normally I would just pick these little lovelies off and pop them in my mouth but the French have instilled the fear of fox pee in me, so now I carefully wash them off.

Also on their way to growing some fine fruit, a cherry tree, grape vine, and a quince tree. Can't wait for canning season! Plus I'm eyeing all the rose bushes as possible culinary opportunities...