FOOD & THINK: Planting roots in the kitchen

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2014 at 10:48 pm


Originally published in Ottawa Magazine, Summer 2014

Standing on the lawn behind the Britannia location of the Boys & Girls Club, I notice an ugly chain link fence is all that stands between a city dump, strewn with broken furniture and car tires, and a lovingly created organic vegetable garden. In the shadow of an apartment building, children tend to towering stalks of Swiss chard. They pull weeds between raspberry bushes and sweep bugs off fresh mint and stalks of asparagus. Inside the Club’s kitchen, more kids help transform the day’s bounty into afternoon snacks. They make couscous salad, colourful wraps and kale chips to share among as many as 100 kids—most from underprivileged homes—who drop-in here to get help with homework, shoot baskets and develop leadership skills.

As I gazed upon the garden in the spring, the critical question crystalized for me: How can we ensure the next generation chooses real food when garbage is all around them? For me the fence is a metaphor for the line that exists between real food and the junk that more often fills our bellies. Research recently released by the Sobeys Inc. chain of supermarkets found that only 18% of Canadians are preparing at least one meal a day from scratch or with basic ingredients. Instead, the study suggests, we’re relying on processed and prepared foods. We’re filling up on what author Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like products”, the stuff with ingredient lists our grandmothers wouldn’t recognize. The so-called convenience food that are strongly linked to diet-related diseases, not to mention obesity and hunger epidemics.

The simplest solution to these problems starts with cooking more real food for ourselves. But let’s face it: We have an adult population that rarely cooks. If children aren’t seeing parents preparing food from scratch, what chance is there that the amount of fresh food consumed will do anything but plummet in the future? It’s a disturbing thought, yet most of us would say we’re too tired or too busy to contemplate it. The good news is, a new approach to the problem emerging. Since we cannot rely on adults, the thinking goes, we must find ways to empower children to eat better than their parents.

Everywhere I look, I see momentum building for kids to get their hands dirty in the kitchen. From Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day to the creation of children’s food festivals, we’re seeing a groundswell of cooking classes, cookbooks and cooking shows for kids. After writing two political books about food and sustainability for adults, Toronto-based author Sarah Elton, recently published Starting From Scratch aimed at wanna-be cooks aged 10 and up. She hopes to inspire kids to eat conscientiously, try new flavours and understand what’s on their plates.

In Ottawa, where I suspect the level of most kids’ culinary skills is limited to putting pepperoni smiley faces on pizzas and decorating cupcakes, kids are picking up cooking skills in unexpected places. The very grown-up Urban Element culinary arts studio offers March break and summer cooking camps for kids; Jennifer Heagle co-owner of local food shop Red Apron goes into elementary and high school classrooms to teach basic cooking skills to students. Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School in Barrhaven has a hands-on culinary arts program led by Chef Kent Van Dyk who prepares kids to feed themselves once they are living on their own. The Table Community Food Centre, Perth’s innovative answer to a food bank, offers free cooking workshops including one aimed at getting dads and kids in the kitchen. The Children’s Aid Foundation recently launched its Cooking Toward Independence Project, a new initiative designed to improve the lives of young people leaving the child welfare system across Canada by funding cooking skills workshops.

“Cooking should be something we do every day, like brushing our teeth,” says Sally Sampson, founder and president of Chop Chop, a Massachusetts-based non-profit cooking magazine and cookbook for families, “People are beginning to realize it’s an essential skill. You’ll eat better if you’re cooking from scratch.” Sampson’s magazine aims to get kids hooked on cooking, even if it means their doctors need to prescribe it by sending them home with copies of Chop Chop. Sampson says the key is starting with small steps. She’ll set up a stall at a farmer’s market and teach kids to make their own salad dressing. “We hear the kids begging their parents to buy vegetables so they can use it.”

It’s the same thing I witnessed when visiting the weekly Cooking Club the Boys and Girls Club last spring. I watched as long-time volunteer Kate Twiss patiently laid out salad spinners, bowls, and vegetable peelers for her small army of eager young cooks. The scent of fresh lemons and herbs cut through the smell of sweaty sneakers and beckoned members to the large cutout kitchen window through which afternoon snack was being prepared. That day Vietnamese springrolls were on the menu. One of the smallest participants was a shy 6 year-old girl who spent a half-hour at the kitchen counter on her tippy-toes softening rice paper in warm water, and filling it with shredded lettuce, cucumber, carrot and a drizzle of hoisin sauce mixed with lemon all wrapped up into a pretty packet. When her mother arrived, she took one of her creations for the road. A few minutes later they returned to the kitchen. The mother asked Twiss for the recipe. She said she had never seen her daughter enjoy vegetables with such enthusiasm.

After the last of the springrolls were served, Twiss walked me out to the garden. She recalled bringing her daughter to the Club for swimming lessons more than a decade ago when hot dogs were given out as snacks. She told me the garden project is beginning to thrive thanks to restaurateur Steve Beckta who sits on the Club’s Board of Directors. Last summer Beckta recruited his staff as volunteers to help build the beds and plant the garden. He donated the $1000 prize money he had received for a hospitality award last year and another $4000 raised at his restaurant’s tenth anniversary
celebration. He consulted with on of his restaurant’s treasured suppliers, Matt Vandenberg, of Rideau Pine Farms for advice on building a thriving organic garden in the city.“It’s so important for kids to learn where healthy food comes from,” Beckta says.

We are happy to keep kids busy with hockey, piano lessons and gymnastics, and then reach for packaged granola bars or head to the drive-thru when the game or meet is over. I believe we are missing an opportunity to feed them another set of skills required to build confidence, independence and the kind of resilience they will need to resist the falling into the same traps as their parents. Initiatives like the ones at the Boys and Girls club hit home the idea that the ability to cook is an essential life skill. Putting kids in the position to prove it to the adults how good it feels to cook may not just be the best way forward for a healthy future – it might be the only way.

Kitchen accident unveils new cult egg dish

In Uncategorized on April 21, 2014 at 7:17 am

Special to The Globe and Mail

Molten eggs have become a modern-day short-hand for delicious; a nod to both wholesomeness and pure sensual pleasure. It’s no wonder the cover of Yotam Ottolenghi’s must-have cookbook Jerusalem features four glistening golden egg yolks in reflective pools of barely cooked whites, and why superstar food writer Michael Ruhlman’s new book is dedicated to eggs. Chefs, home cooks and greasy-spoon-lovers alike are endlessly enamoured by the novelty and nostalgia of the sunny, runny, oozy egg.

The most famous egg dish in the culinary world is the L’Arpège egg. Created by Chef Alain Passard 25 years ago, the “hot-cold egg” is still being served as an amuse-bouche at his Michelin-star restaurant L’Arpège in central Paris. The golden yolk, poached inside its own delicately decapitated shell, is enriched with a dollop of crème fraiche whipped with sherry vinegar and finished with a drizzle of maple syrup.

Itself a take on oeuf à la coque, this dish continues to be reverse-engineered and reinterpreted around the world. Devotees include Josef Centeno, one of Los Angeles’s most influential chefs, and Mark Best, owner of Marque, a top fine-dining spot in Sydney, Australia. The recipe, which is Google-able, was published in Patricia Wells’s The Paris Cookbook and takes up an entire chapter in trailblazing California Chef David Kinch’s new cookbook, Manresa: An Edible Reflection. You might say it’s the thing for which the term “signature dish” was created. You might also say it’s a reminder that in the world of food, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

It was only a matter of time before another soft-cooked number achieved cult status. The idea for the Rebel Within – a runny-yolked egg baked inside a savoury cake – came via one of those happy kitchen accidents. About five years ago, William Werner, co-owner of the San Francisco patisserie Craftsman & Wolves, was running a pop-up stall at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. He asked an intern to hard-boil some eggs while he filled moulds with stiff batter studded with asiago cheese, sausage and green onions. “The eggs came out undercooked but we baked them off anyway and cut into the cake and the yolk was still kind of runny,” says Werner. “That was the aha moment.”

When Jo-Ann Laverty, the chef and co-owner of Ottawa’s Red Apron food shop, visited California on a research trip in January, the Rebel Within was on her hit list. When she cut it open – as instructed – she swooned as its melting heart of gold was revealed. “I thought it was brilliant,” she says, “I loved the wonder of figuring out how you could bake a muffin without cooking the egg inside too much.”

She began experimenting with her steam-injecting oven, working on the timing and combination of ingredients. She customized the recipe by using a cornbread muffin batter and added sharp cheddar, chives and chopped bacon. Eating it is reminiscent of the best of the sunny-side-up breakfast sandwich crossed with the ultimate moist buttery muffin. In a word: irresistible. It took about two months and at least four test batches before Laverty landed on the “sweet spot” of doneness to achieve the supremely soft interior. “You can’t use a toothpick to test it because you’d pierce the egg,” she says.

Chefs always experiment with concepts gleaned from other chefs (just look at the Cronut fad). Laverty argues, though, that the inventors of truly novel ideas deserve recognition. She credits Chef Werner and even sent him a message to let him know about what she’d come up with. “I wanted to tell him that we were so inspired by what he was doing. I wanted him to feel it was a compliment to what he created.”

Laverty and her staff had fun brainstorming names for their version of the Rebel, eventually landing on the bilingual pun: M’oeuf-in. It is available in her shop this week and by pre-order by the half-dozen until Saturday. While the M’oeuf-in is scheduled to disappear after Easter, the Rebel Within remains a signature dish at Werner’s shop. He sells about 200 of them every weekend and limited quantities means it’s often sold out by 11 a.m. “I like the idea that we’re making something that people want to recreate,” says Werner. “And I love the name M’oeuf-in – it’s awesome.”


Citric acid: How sour is becoming a chef’s new weapon

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2014 at 3:34 am

citrus08lf1SHAWNA WAGMAN

Special to The Globe and Mail

As far as It ingredients go, citric acid is an unlikely one – it’s the stuff found at the bottom of the bag of sour gummy candies. But the grainy, white powder’s ability to heighten flavours and bring balance to a dish – the supreme goal of good cooking – is turning it into an essential tool for the contemporary chef.

When Toronto chef Rebekah Pearse was a contestant on Top Chef Canada in its first season, she chose to include citric acid as one of just 10 items she was allowed to bring from home. She used it to make fresh ricotta and last-minute buttermilk by adding one teaspoon of citric acid to a litre of milk. Appealing to Pearse’s inner-science nerd, she says it has become one of her favourite ingredients: “People say, wow, how did you do that?”

Citric acid occurs naturally in such fruits as limes, pineapples and gooseberries. The dry, powdered citric acid used as an industrial food additive since the early 19th century, however has a less appetizing source; it is manufactured using a mould that feeds on corn syrup glucose.

Found in supermarket staples from sodas and teas, to juices and jams, it’s widely revered for its anti-bacterial, preservative and stabilizing qualities. Chefs have long held a stash of it, for instance to keep fruits and vegetables from oxidizing and turning brown while travelling from cutting board to table. But more and more chefs are wielding citric acid’s sour strength – the fairy dust of flavour amplification – in creative new ways.

Chef Kevin Mathieson, owner of Ottawa’s industrial-chic gastronomic café and patisserie Art is in Bakery, first experimented with citric acid back in 2000 during his apprenticeship at Peltier, a prestigious pastry shop in Paris.

He sprinkles a mixture of citric acid, icing sugar and salt over orange peel or wild blueberries before drying out the fruit for a week.

Using a coffee grinder, he blends it all into a powder that gets added to jellies inside chocolate truffles, infused into marmalade that gets slathered on brioche for a duck confit BLT sandwich, or dusted over crème fraîche as a garnish for a bowl of soup.


“It gives everything a bright, zesty taste,” he says. “It also preserves the fruit’s natural colour.”When it comes to popular taste, sour is no longer a four-letter word, so to speak. An increased appetite for pucker-inducing and tangy flavours seems to run alongside several other major food trends including the rise of artisan sourdough breads, the new-to-North America sour beer sensation, ongoing interest in fermented and pickled foods that happen to be the perfect foil to the rich and fatty flavours of charcuterie, as well as the growing popularity of sour flavours associated with Asian and Mexican cuisines. “Look at the tamarind in pad Thai,” says Mathieson of the ubiquitous Thai noodle dish, “It’s got those same sour qualities as citric acid.”

At Bar Buca in Toronto, Chef Rob Gentile uses citric acid to brighten the taste of a low-acid berry sorbet. “It opens up the flavour,” he says. He also mixes it with water to make a solution that prevents finicky artichokes from oxidizing while they are being prepped and cleaned for artichoke crudo. Citric acid adds tartness where you don’t want to add liquid, he says, “We add lemon juice at the end so we can control the flavour.”

The popularity of citric acid among chefs doesn’t surprise Colin Leach, owner of the Silk Road, an online spice merchant with a shop in Calgary. He says he sells a “surprising amount” of citric acid and also uses it himself to create the shop’s spice blends. He sees the pursuit of perfect balance – a quest for capturing all five tastes in everything we eat – as the new orthodoxy in cooking. “If you making a barbecue rub for instance,” he says, “and you taste it and it feels like something’s missing, it’s usually something sour that’s needed. That’s where we’d use citric acid.”

Chef Robert Belcham, owner of Campognolo in Vancouver remembers using citric acid more than a decade ago to create a less-sweet “neutral” caramel and melting it into a lacy cage that lay over top of tuna tartare. These days he tends to use it directly on a dish as a flavoured salt to give food a dose of agrodolce, sweet and sour flavour. At Belcham’s bar, Campognolo Upstairs, nuts are cooked in simple syrup and tossed with butter, salt, two kinds of chili and citric acid.

“It’s a chef’s tool,” he says, explaining how citric acid allowed him to reinvent a popular bar snack. “First you taste sweet and nutty, then a bit of sour as you chew and it finishes with salt and heat. It transforms the way the dish plays out in your mouth.”

Greek ‘Vinaigrette’

“When I tasted this salad dressing for the first time, I didn’t know what citric acid was,” says Carlotte Langley, chef de cuisine of catering at the Storys Building in Toronto.

“I thought it was one miraculous vinaigrette.

“It’s super zingy and coats everything without being too wet. I was taught to make it by a Lebanese Parisian woman, the mother of the owner of a tiny café on Murray St. in Ottawa where I had my first kitchen job.”

500 ml of the loveliest olive oil in your cupboard

2 tbsp dry oregano

1 tbsp fresh oregano

1 tsp citric acid

250 ml of feta liquid

Whisper of pepper

Blend on high speed until smooth.

No salt is required thanks to the feta juice.


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