Monday, October 26, 2009

Unpretentious La Bruschetta

I've long-heard of the restaurant, La Bruschetta, and on a rainy, pissy Friday in October, I finally went.  Located in St. Clair West, the exterior is marked by a light-adorned blue (and ugly) "RESTAURANT L.L.B.O." sign.  Inside, its long narrow room is cozy, modest and welcoming.

We are greeted by Silvia, the daughter Benito, who with his wife started the restaurant almost 30 years ago.  She is kind with an easy way about her; she makes us feel at home.  Silvia still does some of the cooking, but spends most of her time helping out during service.

First, the complimentary bruschetta arrives.  If you're going to have a restaurant named after a traditional Italian appetizer, you better not disappoint.  And it doesn't.  As a starter my friend orders the carpaccio (which I happily share).  The meat is tender and beautifully thinly sliced.  My one criticism is there was so much parmesan the meat took a back seat.

Then came our mains: pappardelle tartufate and gnocchi gratinati.  The pappardelle was beautifully fresh, and the mushrooms chopped to almost a ragu.  It was hearty and had incredible depth of flavour (surely accented by the brandy in the sauce!).  The gnocchi was light and the dish bountiful.  The sauce was a little too tomatoey for my liking, but had a nice creaminess (and my friend had no trouble polishing it off!).

The servers were friendly, each with a megawatt smile you couldn't help but be charmed by.  As our dinner came to a close, we noticed the room had filled.  It was abuzz with lively conversation and laughter; what a lovely place to be on a dreary Friday evening.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Making Nice With Salt

Too many times I hear friends say, "not too much salt!" or, "oh, I don't add salt to anything" or, "salt is bad for you", to which I usually respond, "SALT IS GOOD!!"  And it is.  Let me explain why:

1) Salt enhances food's flavour.  Salt brings to food far more than one of the five basic taste sensations (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami). Sweets taste sweeter. Salt masks bitter tastes, making naturally bitter foods like chocolate and broccoli become delicious.  It brings flavours together, making them play in unison far better than without.  I always recommend cooking with either sea salt or kosher salt versus table salt (or iodized salt).  Kosher salt is additive-free, and has a lighter taste than iodized salt.  Sea salt is, well, made from salt water; it contains trace minerals that aren't found in mined salts (Kosher and iodized are both mined).

2) You actually need salt in your diet.  Sodium cannot be produced within the human body so it is important to the diet. Sodium helps regulate water balance ph and osmotic pressure.  Chloride is equally important in the human diet as it helps the blood to carry carbon dioxide; potassium absorption; helps in digestion; and conserves acid-base balance.

3) Beyond taste, salt can be used as a preservative, texture aid, binder, fermentation control, and colour developer.  It's multi-purposed fun!
Now, don't go all willy-nilly and start adding heaps of salt to everything you do.  I'm not saying that.  Remember it's easy to add and almost impossible to remove.  When you're cooking, TASTE EVERYTHING.  Taste it as you go along and taste it before you serve it.  When you say to yourself, "I think it's missing something", try adding a pinch of salt.  After that, you might need acidity or sweetness or sour or bitterness.

One thing to keep in mind is some other food items are already salty, so be careful how much more salt you need (if at all).  Soy sauce is salty, as are capers and olives.  Some cheeses like halloumi or parmesan are salty.  Bacon can be salty, too (mmmm, bacon).

Lastly, don't be offended if you've made a meal you think is perfectly seasoned and someone asks for more salt.  Our palettes are all different.  Let people add whatever they like.  And, don't cook to the lowest common denominator (i.e. "if it's bland, everyone will like it") - you'll just always be serving flavourless food.  

So there it is, folks.  Don't be afraid of salt.  It's a good thing.  A great thing.  And it doesn't have to make food taste 'salty' - it can make food taste amazing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cooking Classes: Where To Learn (in and around TO)

So, you decide you're ready to up your cooking game.  You've tried a recipe or ten and think, "Hey, this is actually pretty fun; I want to know MORE!" or, "Ooooh, I could use some mad skills to impress my girlfriend" or better still, "Now how the eff do I make pasta?"

Your next question is probably, "um, okay ... where the hell do I go?" 

Well, here's a list:

Calpahlon Culinary Centre is located at King and Spadina in downtown Toronto.  They've got both demo (you watch, eat, and ask questions) and hands-on (you are equipped with a knife and get to the grunt work yourself) classes.  I've done both, and each are good for different reasons.  If you're making something for the very first time that would require you to really feel it out first-hand (like making pasta), I'd say pony up the extra money and ALWAYS go for the hands-on class.  If you just want to sit back, drink some wine, watch the cooking, and take home the recipe to try on your own, the demo is perfect.  It's like going out for dinner, only less ambience and more cafeteria-like.  Think TV cooking show, minus the cameras.  Prices range from $70 (demo) to $500 (series of 4 hands-on classes).  They also offer wine classes for about $135.

Dish Cooking Studio, owned by Trish Magwood, operates similar to Calphalon in that they have both hands-on and demo classes.  They do both scheduled and corporate/private classes.  They often bring in guest chefs to teach the classes, and have very knowledgeable, friendly staff.  The set-up is more intimate than Calphalon, which can be nice with a group of people.  The down-side to the hands-on classes is you generally do not make all elements on a menu - you are broken into teams and are assigned one portion of the menu.  You walk away with all the recipes and can ask all the questions you want, but you are not at your own individual station like at Calphalon.  Prices range from $75 (demo) to $175 (intensive hands-on or celebrity chef demo).

George Brown College's continuing education program in hospitality and culinary arts is rather extensive.  Costs are quite a bit pricier, but because they're taught over several weeks.  Advantage here is the cache of learning in a true teaching facility, with PLENTY of hours to hone your skills.  The list of courses is almost limitless, from food writing to knife skills to gluten-free cooking to dim sum.  Prices range from about $100 to $600, but can vary greatly.

LCBO  not only offers wine tastings, but also a pretty robust array of cooking classes.  They're held in a variety of LCBO flagship locations, and they're actually pretty darn good.  Most of their classes are demos, but what that means for you is they're also AFFORDABLE!  Added bonus: shop for booze while you're there (um, helloooo, who doesn't want booze?!).  Most classes range from $50 to $85, with the odd hands-on for around $225.

Niagara College, besides their full-time enrollments, offers cooking classes for the amateur home cook.  Taught at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus, it's a bit of a jaunt if you're travelling from Toronto, but make it a weekend and visit some wineries and stay at a B&B!  Bonus: you can book online. Prices range from about $130 to $170.

Bonnie Stern School of Cooking.  Well, who hasn't heard of Bonnie Stern?!  She founded the school in 1973, has developed recipes for major food companies, has written several cookbooks, has had national TV shows, and the list goes on.  I admit I have not personally been, so I can't comment on the space or the style of class.  There are many guest chefs (don't expect it to be Bonnie, herself) and the class list looks decent.  Hey - check it out and let me know what it's like! Prices range from $135 to $225 per person.

Well, there you go.  I'm sure I'm missing a few, but if you can't find what you're looking for from this list, you are either trying to cook with dead babies or are the most finicky person on earth.  Thankfully, I'm certain my readers are neither psycho nor totally lame.  So good luck, and happy cooking!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Picnic At The Brick Works - Another Successful, Belly-full Year!

On a somewhat dreary fall day, Toronto and beyond's culinary best showed up at The Brick Works on Bayview for another incredible year of delightful food and wine.  The event is a fundraiser for Evergreen and Slow Food Toronto (why not support sustainable, local food, plus bringing more green to our cities?!); this year was its third annual.

The place was abuzz with foodies, locavores, farmers, chefs, shutterbugs and the odd super-weird person (yes, you, girl dressed like mother earth gone wrong).

Our first stop was a delightful amuse from C5 - open fire cooked lamb with harissa duck egg mayonnaise on cornbread.  Moving on, the chicken liver pate with fried chicken skin and manischewitz reduction on chala from Chezvous was incredible.  I am definitely finding a way to work friend chicken skin into just about everything I do.  The elk stew at Langdon Hall was succulent and bursting with flavour.  Right next door to it were pillowy gnocchi with comfort cream sauce from Zucca.  Gnocchi does know the way to my heart ...

Though I wasn't in the mood for sweets, I couldn't resist Epic's home made honey ice cream with rye marinated blueberries in a brandy snap basket.  Not to mention the chef let me come behind the table to take some pics of the honey comb, complete with happy, honey-making bees.

There were a few misses for me, including the Korean ribs that sadly didn't get enough cooking time to break down the meat enough (read: I couldn't even tear off a bite).  I was proud of myself for having tried the tongue, but found it to be a mushy, somewhat bland and grey version of corned beef.

At a price of $110 per ticket ($90 in advance), Picnic at The Brick Works is not a cheap way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but it's helluva good food and drink.  I promise you won't regret it ... so be sure to sign up to email updates from Evergreen so you can be reminded to go next year.