Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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A most terrible year?

The year-end reviews certainly are gloomy this year. A sort of consensus that it’s hard to find anything good to say about 2016.

And for residents of some countries, that was certainly true. Poor Haiti had yet another earthquake. Syria! A daily dose of tragedy, made all the worse because our countries were involved in trying to stop it. And the Venezuelans—suffering under an incompetent President, their economic situation already bad and getting worse daily.

But as a global aggregate, the fact is that a lot of things are improving. (These charts don’t all include 2015—and can’t include 2016 yet, as it’s not done!—but the trends shown did not reverse themselves last year.)

Extreme poverty is down, and real incomes are up.

share-world-population-in-extreme-poverty-absolute

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This one is for Canada specficially

People are healthier.

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Life expectancy is also up, globally

Education rates are much higher.

literate-and-illiterate-world-populationHomicide (and other crime rates) are down, even in gun-happy US.

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I think the source of all this gloom is the US election and its highly unfortunate result. Had Hillary Clinton won the Electoral College, Brexit would seem a weird mess the Brits got themselves into rather than part of an alarming global trend. We could celebrate the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement and some actual action on the front (carbon pricing in Canada! Mon dieux!) instead of feeling it’s all a bit for naught now. The loss of beloved celebrities, some at alarmingly young ages (had not realized just how contemporaneous George Michael and I were), would be just a sad thing that eventually happens to us all, and not a pile-on when we don’t want more bad news (on Christmas Day? Really?).

However… while the mood is understandable, it’s still troubling. Because it’s pessimism, and a nostalgic belief that things were better before, and a denial of the inconvenient fact that things are actually pretty good right now—that the President-Elect ran on and got himself elected with.

It’s not a good place to settle in, mentally. It leads to hopelessness, and inactino. This one bad event didn’t make all of 2016 terrible. (And not to bring down the room, but won’t it be worse once he’s actually in office?)

But in 2016, the US had a great President.

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The 2016 Olympics were fun and kind of inspiring.

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The number of women of colour elected to the US Senate in 2016 has quadrupled.

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After a serious health scare last year, Roger Daltrey came back with a Who 2016 tour.

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In 2016 the Canadian federal government and its gender-balanced cabinet made significant progress on trade with Europe, climate change, safe injection sites, assisted dying legislation, pipeline approvals (and rejections), and improvements to the Election Act.

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The Hamilton Mixtape, released December 2016, was awesome.

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And Saturday Night Live (and other satirical programs) provided some catharsis.

“I’m not giving up. And neither should you.”


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Welcome 2016 dinner

I vaguely wanted to do our New Year’s gourmet-ish, cooking together dinner again this year, but I was completely uninspired as to what to make.

But I had the week off before Christmas and New Year’s, and I had three-month trial subscription to Texture (formerly Next Issue) magazine app, with its multiple food magazines. So I decided to go through those virtual pages for ideas.

I hit pay dirt almost right away, in a Food and Wine magazine from December 2015. They had recipes for all these different theme parties. But instead of sticking with one theme, I picked and choosed among different ones. Preferred criteria were that they sound good, of course, but not require me to run all over town looking for obscure ingredients. And not having us slaving in the kitchen all day.

The one course not covered by this one Food and Wine issue was dessert. And I wasn’t finding much inspiration in other magazines, either. But that weekend’s Globe and Mail happened to feature a New Year’s Eve menu for two people—including a cake that made just two servings! We had a winner.

We did this on January 2. We started working around 4:00, and were dining by about 6:30.

Theoretically first up (really, most everything was ready at the same time) were marinated olives with oranges, which, at Jean’s suggestion, were served with almonds and walnuts.

Olive Apetizer

This involved frying up some garlic, orange zest, and hot pepper, to which olives were added. Then everything marinated in orange juice. So pretty simple.

I don’t how much that treatment enhanced the olives? But I was pleased to find that the Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc we’d selected went nicely with them.

The main course was a smoky mussel stew. For this one, potatoes and Brussels sprouts were roasted, while fresh mussels cooked in a mix of white wine, butter, shallots, and herbs. The mussels were then removed from the broth, and cream added. Everything then came together: potatoes, Brussels sprouts, mussels (shelled), with the addition of smoked mussels.

Smoked Mussel Stew!

This isn’t the prettiest dish ever, but it was some good! The slight smoky with the creamy and the butter and the roast veg… Even the fact that we had to use frozen Brussels sprouts (fresh unavailable!) couldn’t wreck this. Yum.

The side dish was brown basmati rice with coconut and turmeric; basically, rice cooked in coconut mik with turmeric and salt. And served with mint on top. It was fine, but nothing outstanding. Rice does turns a nice yellow colour, though.

The wine we had with was an Ontario Gewurtz. Great wine; not sure if it was the best possible match, however.

The salad was spinach with orange and goat wine, with a red wine vinaigrette. I wasn’t able to find blood oranges, so Jean suggested adding cranberries to make the pictures prettier. 🙂

Goat Cheese and Orange Salad

The dessert, finally, was a gâteau Basque. You make it a bit like a pie crust, mixing together flour, egg, sugar, and butter, then forming it into a disk and putting it in the fridge. When ready to bake later, you roll it out to cake pan size.

Gateaux Basque with Warm Cream!

It was served with a simple cream sauce of whipping cream, sherry, and sugar, and topped with raspberries.

It was yummy, yummy this. As was the sparkling Moscato D’Asti we had with. Though supposedly only two servings, we had enough left to enjoy the next day, also.

Happy start to 2016.


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New year’s eve in Berlin

No, not that Berlin. (Though stay tuned on that score.)

We didn’t have any New Year’s Eve plans until mere days before. Still kind of in mourning for Verses New Year’s, nothing else seemed to be working out. Langdon Hall sold out ages ago. Solé’s menu didn’t look that interesting. The meal at the club where our ballroom dance friends were going seemed even less enticing.

12362206_548974178612796_1918227964_nBut a new restaurant named The Berlin, by a former Langdon Hall chef, opened on December 21. And on December 26, they tweeted that they would be doing a New Year’s Eve dinner. Though just announced, already the only times available were 5:00, 5:30… Then 9:00 or later.

Apparently, many people were just waiting for the right dinner to appear. (We went with 9:00.)

The Berlin has a nice room, but it was packed that evening, and just the proximity of so many neighbours did make it a bit loud. And, unsurprisingly for a restaurant so newly opened, there were a few glitches in the service.

But the food, though.

On offer was a four-course menu with four or five choices at each stop, for $75. Optional wine pairings were an additional $45.

Jean started with a poached egg item, while I was intrigued by smoked roasted beets with sour cream, bread crumbs, and herbs. I don’t know how you smoke beets, but oh my God, were they delicious (as long as you like beets, I guess).

Smoked Beets! Great Dish ... yes both!

Suddenly, I don’t care so much about the noise

In one service glitch, the food arrived before our matching wines. But once notified, the Sommelier came over and apologized, and poured us each a sparkling wine: a fine champagne rosé for me and an even better brut reserva for Jean (which, by the bottle, was half the price of mine, by the way).

For the appetizer course, we did that rare thing of both ordering the same item: Potted duck leg with duck liver parfait, and apple chutney. Fortunately, it was divine. And served with a really intriguing, off-dry Niagara Chenin Blanc from Big Head winery. We did get that before the food, and had to resist drinking it all ahead of time.

Duck in a pot ... lovely duck meat under that paté

Onto the mains! (Although not before they tried to bring us some starters again, in another small glitch. But honestly, we didn’t mind a bit of wait at this point.) Jean went with the pork belly served with chick peas and cabbage stew. I had trout with wild mushroom and leek. Both were excellently prepared and flavorful.

Pork Belly ... now in my belly :)

Not the trout

Jean got a really interesting red Italian wine with this, called Etna Terre Nerre Rosso. I had a nice Riesling.

This was a good amount of food, but it’s true there’s always room for dessert. Mine was an amazing dark chocolate terrine with lavendar ice cream. It was served, believe it or not, with this spicy dark beer! Which totally complemented the chocolate!
Have to have CHocolate, with a weird spicy beer - not  a bad combination!

Jean’s cheese dessert was frankly richer and creamier than the chocolate, and served with this freakin’ amazing truffle honey. The earthy truffle, plus the sweetness… Whoah. He got an off-dry wine from Spain with this.

Gobs of double creme Cheese with a truffled honey ... very very good!

We were done around 11:15 or so, so we made it home to ring in the New Year there. Cheers, everyone!


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And a happy new year

With Verses closed, we were at a bit of a loss as to what to do New Year’s Eve. We finally went with just a dinner at Marisol. And that was fine—food and service were good, as always—but it just wasn’t particularly special. Except for a salmon carpaccio starter and roast duck on duck confit main—both very good—it was just the regular menu.

But at least I got to wear a new dress.

Purple dress

Next year we might see if Haisai does anything for New Year’s. We did stop there on the drive up to Timmins, and meals there are always special!

Dessert at Haisai

The intriguing desserts at Haisai. (They tasted good, too.)

Yesterday the weather turned frightful with a winter storm, so it seemed a good day to do our new year’s cooking thing. We decided to return to some past fave items.

The starter was a tuna carpaccio with avocado quenelle, which we’d first made last year. This was the fastest, easiest item we prepared, but quite good, with its dressing of good olive oil and lime juice, And the Stratus 2010 white we had with it was complex and amazing.

Tuna starter with Stratus white

The main course took the main amount of time to prepare: Duck confit and mashed potato ravioli with white truffle sauce (first attempted in 2009). You have to prepare the mashed potatoes, and chop up and heat all the duck meat, then combine all that and stuff it into about 60 sets of wonton noodles… Fortunately, it really does taste amazing in the end.Duck ravioli and squash salad

We served that with a roasted butternut squash salad with pears and stilton, which was a new recipe. We followed the recipe except for cutting the squash a little thinner than we were supposed to (that was an accident, saved by less cooking time), using mixed greens instead of escarole (what is escarole?), and using “speck”—double smoked bacon we’d acquired from Michael Stadtlander’s farm after visiting Haisai—instead of regular bacon. It was very tasty, even when we forgot the dressing!

And the GSM wine we selected stood up well to all the strong flavors.

Dessert was chocolate souffle (from 2010). This year we got smart and only baked the two we planned to eat this night, since souffle really doesn’t hold up well to being a leftover. We served that with a raspberry wine that was less sweet than expected, but still a classic pairing for chocolate.

Chocolate souffle

And, I took the opportunity to wear another new dress. (I may have a dress problem.)

Black dress


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Early new year?

As in other recent years, plans to go out to dine on New Year’s Eve meant that we couldn’t also do our gourmet cooking thing that day. With Jean working, alternate dates to do that were either this weekend, or the first weekend of January.

While I won’t get into details here, this Christmas required on-the-fly revamping of plans due to unexpected medical issues. Somehow, this persuaded me not to wait. So though we’d only been back from vacation about a day and a half, we did our gourmet dinner yesterday.

Instead of the usual appetizer / main dish / dessert, I decided to try a “small plate” or tapas approach to the meal. We made four appetizers, and two small-serving desserts. And in keeping with that—and also because Jean was on call (fortunately, that did not disrupt things)—we just did tasting portions of wine: one white, one red, one port.

Four appetizers and two wines

Here are the four assembled appetizers and two wines

Unlike the Christmas dinner, most of these were from recipe books (as opposed to online)—three of them from a cookbook published by the Cancer Research Society:

  1. Carpaccio of red tuna with citrus and avocado quenelle: The first item I selected, because I’ve been wanting to try it for ages. Fairly easy, really. You make a vinaigrette of citrus juice, olive oil, and ginger. You mash avocado with lime juice and sesame oil, then add some tabasco. Then you get sushi-grade tuna, slice it thinly, and serve it with the vinaigrette, avocado, orange pieces, and sesame seeds. (Salt and pepper are involved throughout, as well.)
  2. Spring rolls: A bit more involved, but still not too bad. You fry up some red pepper. Then you mix green onion, fresh mint, fresh coriander, watercress (my bean sprout substitute) with sesame oil and salt and pepper. Then you roll the pepper, some enoki mushrooms, and the mixture in hot-water softened rice paper. Jean did all the rolling.
  3. Edamame with Guérande salt: Easiest recipe ever. Boil frozen edamame 10 minutes, drain, and season with sea salt.

I had some boneless lamb loin on hand, and got the idea to try lamb skewers. That recipe I did find online, at Epicurious: Skewered lamb with almond-mint pesto. The pesto involved mixing almonds, Parmesan cheese, garlic, olive, fresh mint, and fresh basil in a food processor. The lamb was cut thin, threaded onto a skewer, brushed with olive oil and salt and pepper, then broiled two minutes per side.

So nothing was that hard, and we were fortunately able to find everything we didn’t already have on hand at our nearby Sobey’s that morning. Of course, things inevitably get a little crazy when you’re trying to finish up four recipes more or less at the same time, but we managed.

And we’re having a good year, because everything was really good. They’d all be “make again”’s (albeit probably not all again on the same day).

The wines were a Cave Spring 2011 Estate Riesling, easily available at your LCBO, and crazy good, really. The hit of the evening. The red was a 2004 (!) Argentina Cabernet Sauvignon. It was very good and smooth, but not as big and showy as we were expecting.

Blueberry pavlova, chocolate, and port

And for dessert…

Desserts were the type you could make ahead, so I did.

The blueberry pavlova was a Gwyneth Paltrow recipe, from her My father’s daughter cookbook. The meringue is made the usual way: Egg whites, sugar, salt, vinegar, beating to stiff peaks, then baking a low temperature for an hour and drying out for another hour. Those are formed into a circle with an indent. In the indent goes some whipped cream with sugar and bluberries, then served with more blueberries on top.

Though it’s certainly not blueberry season, the organic Chilean ones I bought were very good in this rather lovely, light dessert.

The other item was from LCBO Food and Drink Holiday 2009, but it’s not available on their website. For this Festive Bark, you melt 70% chocolate in a bowl over boiling water, then stir in some cashews, candied ginger, apricots, dried cherries, and anise flavor. You spread that out, then you sprinkle sea salt on top, and let it chill.

It’s really hard to go wrong with those ingredients. That was delicious. And went nicely with Fonseca port.


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And a delicious new year

We followed the usual traditions, spending New Year’s Eve at Verses…

New Year's Eve 2012 at Verses

(There might have been wine involved), only this time with a friend. A lovely four-course meal, the highlights of which were probably the cold foie gras we all started with, and the champagne-poached oyster appetizer I had to follow.

We spent a mellow New Year’s Day (well, I did—Jean actually went canoeing in the rain).

Then on Monday, we did that slightly crazy multi-course cooking thing we do. The Monday actually being the day before we had to go back to work, though, we did scale it back a little, starting the dining at an earlier time, and only attempting three courses this year.

Appetizer: Mussels and clams with lemon grass

This was from a book by Christine Ingram called Appetizers, Starters and Buffet Foods, which I took out of the library. (Did I mention we have library in walking distance now? Me likie.) Though the ingredients sounded delicious—the seafood steamed in a broth of lemon grass, white wine, lime, and coconut cream, the instructions didn’t really make sense. It said to put in the wine with seasonings and cook it until it was almost gone, then add the seafood, then take out the cooked seafood, and reduce what was left by half. How can you reduce nothing by half?

Anyway, so this ended up a free-wheeling improvisation, especially since I also had to use lemon grass in a tube, fresh limes rather than “kaffir lime leaves”, and coconut milk with coffee cream rather than coconut cream. And since we were also in the middle of cooking the main course when we had to start this (it’s just how these meals work), it was a little stressful.

Fortunately, it turned out delicious!

Mussels, clams, and lemon grass with wine

A few of the mussels and clams might have ended up a bit overcooked, but most had a really nice texture, and the broth tasted amazing. We had about three pounds of seafood here, and we ate every bite.

The wine it cooked in was an Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, but for serving, we went with a Stratus 2006 White, which is a rich white blend. It was nice and complex, and definitely involved some Chardonnay. (Website says: Also Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Semillon and Viognier.)

Main course: Cider and honey roast leg of lamb with crisp roasted potatoes and caramelized Brussels sprouts

Three recipes here. The meat was a Gordon Ramsey offering (and also a library acquisition), and never having cooked leg of lamb before, I followed the recipe pretty much exactly. It basically involved roasting the leg with garlic, thyme, and apple, and basting it with honey and cider. Really not too difficult; you just have to allow 2—2.5 hours to get it done.

The only thing that didn’t particular work was the gravy, which he claimed could be produced from the leftover cider with added chicken broth—with no thickener. He claimed that it cooked down to the proper consistency, but there was a ton of liquid! So we just used it runny. It tasted good, but was definitely more bouillon than gravy, to me.

The potato recipe was from Cook’s Country magazine. In their usual method, they had tested and experimented until they came up with the perfect technique for producing a crispy texture on the outside, and a creamy texture on the inside. But we couldn’t follow that, because we had only one oven, and I decided that it was more important that the meat cook at the proper temperature than the potatoes.

And the Brussels sprout recipe was courtesy of Gwyneth Paltrow’s My father’s daughter, a Christmas gift. It was a quick recipe we could do after eating the seafood, while awaiting the meat: You basically steam the Brussels sprouts for seven minutes, then cut them in half and sear each side in olive oil, and serve with lemon juice, more olive oil, and coarse salt.

Lamb, potatoes, and brussel sprouts with red wine

We had a good year; this all turned out well also. (Though I couldn’t eat that entire plate, above.) Despite their lack of perfectly crispy exterior, the potatoes were very good—Jean thought they were the highlight. The meat was tasty and tender. And strangely, it tasted even better the next day, when we had it as a leftover.

The Brussels sprout recipe was intended to make converts of those who don’t like Brussels sprouts, and I could see that. As Jean said, they kind of ended up not tasting like Brussels sprouts very much. They were good, but since we actually like Brussels sprouts, maybe they didn’t need all the disguise.

We served it with a wine that we picked up in California, a 2004 Bartholomew Park Cabernet Sauvignon. It was very nice, full and fruity but still with some tannins.

Dessert: Praline cream pie

This is from Cooking Light magazine. It wasn’t difficult, but it was involved, as you had to make the crust, then let that cool, then make the praline layer, and let that cool, then make the cream, and (you guessed it) let that cool, then put the whole thing together and chill it for a long time. So I started that in the morning, and we ate it around 8:30 or 9:00, and it still wasn’t completely set.

On the other hand, it was nice to have dessert out of the way early, so that last part of dining could be quite relaxed. And slightly runny or not, it was really very good. Like a lighter sugar pie, maybe?

Praline cream pie with Ice cuvee

We had that with a Peller Estate Ice Cuvée, a lovely blend of ice and sparkling wine.


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And a foodie new year

Our annual new year gourmet dinner was held January 2, giving us a day’s break from New Year’s Eve dinner, and the day following (today) to rest up before heading back to work.

First course: Wild mushroom toasts

Originally my idea was to have lobster bisque as the first course, but I changed my mind based on:

  1. Feeling that soup might be too heavy a starter for also fairly heavy main course.
  2. A sense that I didn’t really want to kill anything to ring in the new year, but that frozen lobster might be sub-par.

So, we went back to a fairly standard item at these dinners, wild mushrooms. But a new recipe, from Fine Cooking magazine.

The one ingredient I wasn’t able to find was crème fraîche. But I did find instructions on how to make your own. Basically, it’s this:

  1. Add 1 Tablespoon buttermilk to 1 cup slightly warm whipping cream.
  2. Let that sit on your kitchen for about a day and half, stirring every once in a while, til it’s thick.
  3. Put it in the fridge.

Isn’t that weird? You’d think leaving dairy products out at room temperature for so long would be a bad thing, but we did eat that yesterday with no ill effects, so I guess not. (I also don’t understand why that’s called crème fraîche, which literally means fresh cream.) It didn’t seem to impart that much taste to the dish, which mostly tasted of mushrooms. I think it was more about adding texture.

Adding crème fraîche to the mushrooms:

The wine we had with this course was a 2007 California Beringer Pinot Noir. We’d bought it that same day, in the “last chance” bin, just on the thought that Pinot would be good with mushrooms. Turned out to be a very nice wine.

The soundtrack for this course was my Get Happy! playlist. Looks like it worked:

Dining on mushrooms and Pinot

Second course: Seared Scallops with Spiced Mango Coulis

The recipe we used here was from the New England Culinary Institute, and we picked it up while on vacation in Vermont. It was super-easy, though; the most challenging part, which Jean took on, was peeling and slicing the mango. Half a mango decorated the plates, and the rest was blended with ingredients like ginger, white wine, and clove, to make a coulis.

Happily, we were able to find some beautiful, large sea scallops at Sobey’s, and then you don’t have to do much to them. Salt, pepper, sear in a bit of grapeseed oil, then drizzle on a bit of olive oil.

Scallops and Chardonnay

The result was just delicious… My second-favorite dish of the night. (And Jean’s number 1.)

Zoe, me, and scallops

The wine was a French Chardonnay we had on hand, that wasn’t spectacular in itself, but went quite nicely with this food (which you really didn’t want to upstage). Moments after this shot, a bit of an accident occurred. It made us really happy this was a white wine:

Tower of wine

I guess the soundtrack for this portion—the Thoughtful playlist—wasn’t quite as effective.

Third course: Venison Osso Bucco with side of Vegetable Barley

This was the one course planned well ahead, when I spotted the venison osso bucco cuts at Brady’s. I then scoured the Internet for recipes, since I’d never made any kind 0f osso bucco before. I finally settled on a recipe from cdkitchen.com, which involved cooking it with lemons, oranges, carrot juice, red wine, juniper berries (which I couldn’t find, so I substituted gin), chicken broth, and various veggies. It wasn’t too hard at all.

Unfortunately, the results were disappointing. For whatever reason—having to scale down the recipe size, not using the best pots, whatever—the meat just wasn’t tender enough. It was tasty, but lacked that “falling off the bone” quality. If I try it again, I think I’ll go for a slow cooker method.

Osso bucco and Zinfandel

The barley side dish, though deliberately unexciting, was quite nice. I started with a recipe from Taste of Home, but made some changes: Cooked it in chicken broth instead of just water, used carrots instead of red peppers, and reduced the amount of green onion.

The California Zinfandel wine we had with this was a Christmas gift this year, and man, that was a lot of wine. Big and fruity. Nice, though.

Soundtrack was an old standby for dining, my Beautiful Ones playlist.

Dessert: Chocolate soufflé

I wanted a light (tasting) dessert to round things off, and what could be lighter than soufflé? I’d never made it before, either, so again I had to search online for recipes. I ended up with a highly recommended one from Epicurious.com, which had the added bonus of being fine with making everything ahead and just baking it right before eating.

The ingredients were really simple: eggs, milk, sugar, and 10.5 ounces of “extra-bittersweet chocolate”. It was easily the most fun dish to prepare, starting with the need to round up six soufflé ramekins when we had no idea what those were. And the word just struck us as really funny, so we were giggling the whole time we gathered a dog’s breakfast of custard dishes, small corningware, and oven-safe storage containers we figured could substitute for ramekins.

Then it was all beating egg whites and melting chocolate and buttering and sugaring the faux ramekins, not to mention really enjoying licking all the bowls and spoons.

After baking, the moment of truth: Would the soufflés rise? But, they did, they did! (The photo is of them inside the oven.)

Souffles in oven

While we considered port, we decided to open a Cabernet France ice wine from Stratus (a gift we received last Christmas) to serve with the soufflé. It was lovely.

Souffle and ice wine

What I wasn’t expecting, and loved, was the molten chocolate pool lying under the floating soufflé top:

Inside the souffle

This (unsurprisingly for me) was my favorite dish of the night. (And Jean’s #2.) The soundtrack for this portion of the evening was, of course, “Love, the sweetest thing” (that is, romantic songs).

Happy 2011, all.