BITE: Hot Smoked Salmon
When I was a kid, I thought smoked salmon was one of the four major food groups. Sunday brunch was standard at my house and “lox” was always on the menu. But I wouldn’t touch the stuff. Being a picky eater, I just couldn’t understand why all the grown-ups were so excited to pile that slippery, orange fish on top of a perfectly good bagel and cream cheese. “You’ll acquire a taste for it when you’re older,” they’d say.
I hate it when they’re right, but I have to admit I’ve come to adore salmon. Any way will do. I like it pan seared, grilled with a sweet, sticky glaze, or in the buff rolled up in a blanket of sticky rice and nori. But it wasn’t until I was introduced to the divine combination of smoked salmon draped over crème fraiche on blinis (miniature buckwheat pancakes), that I knew I had arrived.
Armed with my seasoned palate, I have discovered not all smoked salmon is created equal. This became clear as soon I laid eyes on the peppercorn speckled “hot smoked salmon” freshly made at the Pelican Fishery & Grill (1500 Bank St. 526-0995). As it turns out, “hot” refers neither to its current temperature nor its spiciness. This salmon is simply smoked on a hot grill, rather than the traditional cold curing method (although Pelican makes it that way too). That means you get the delicious mild smoky flavour, with a texture that is more like the firm, meaty filet that comes off the BBQ. It has become a staple in my house, appearing on everything from salads and pastas, to quiches and of course, the Sunday brunch. Eating a bagel, adorned just with cream cheese is, like, so immature.– Shawna Wagman
BITE: Chocolate Pecan Square
Nuts have no business in baked goods. They just go chewy and soft, release their oils when heated and well, spoil the fun. At least that’s how I felt before I discovered the more-decadent-than-decadent chocolate pecan square at Bridgehead(108 Third Ave. and three other locations).
The fact that nine-square-inches of yumminess is affectionately known around my house as a “goo-goo bar” reveals how child-like is its appeal. There’s something instantly nostalgic about biting into sweet, sticky, gooey layers of nuts, chocolate and buttery caramel on a cookie crumb crust. At the same time, there’s something rather sophisticated about its topping of glazed pecan halves and dark bittersweet chocolate disks (not to be confused with the less stylish chocolate chunks) that gives this dessert a whisper of adults-only appeal.
Perhaps the best thing about Bridgehead’s chocolate pecan square is the extent to which it is deliciously incongruent with the coffee shop’s otherwise earnest, admirably responsible persona. Ordering a fairly traded, organic and shade-grown soy latte with a lick-your fingers, close-your-eyes and moan dessert, is like a weight-watcher ordering a Diet Coke with his Big Mac. Talk about having the angel and devil perched on each shoulder.
With a Bridgehead just down the street, my husband and I have had to construct a few goo-goo rules to help us refrain from over-indulgence: 1. Thou shalt put the square on a plate before eating it. 2. Thou shalt cut the square into quarters; and 3. Thou shalt eat no more than two quarters in one sitting.
On second thought, it seems rather silly to try and put restraints on a plateful of unbridled sinfulness. Forget about “doing the right thing” during your next coffee break. Let loose, Order a goo-goo bar. Go ahead, I dare ya. Eat the whole thing. – Shawna Wagman
BITE: Parma Rosa Linguini
Don’t say I didn’t warn you: This might be the most addictive dish you’ve ever tasted.
I still remember my first bite of Parma Rosa linguini. Fresh strands of al dante pasta covered in creamy rosé sauce, tiny bits of tomato, sliced chives and prosciutto . At my house it’s topped off with obscene amounts of grated parmasean cheese, but that’s optional.
O.k. I admit it, I was underwhelmed. That first bite was pleasant, but lacked any kind of discernable zing. It was just a big bowl of mellow – a plate of comfort food that rated a notch above Kraft Dinner. That’s until those little bits of prosciutto started to work their magic. Suddenly I found myself digging for those tiny morsels of air-dried Italian ham like they were chunks of brownie in a pint of Trip Brownie Haagen Dazs. Something primal had emerged.
Thank goodness I wasn’t out in public because that would’ve prevented me from licking the plate. But that’s part of Parma Rosa’s appeal. There’s no red and white checked tablecloth, this is an Italian feast you toss together and eat in front of your television ( The Sopranos DVD optional). Two pots, some boiling water, a pair of kitchen tongs and five minutes later, you’re laughing. Nothing this good should be this easy.
For people who like to mix it up, Il Negozio Nicastro (792 Bank St) offers six or more shapes of fresh pasta and at least that many different varieties of tomato and cream sauces. Go nuts: mix-and-match. Or do what when the withdrawal symptoms set in: ask for one container of Parma Rosa and two bags of linguini. Grab a bottle of red and go home and toss it together for someone you love. Just make sure they don’t hog the prosciutto . — Shawna Wagman
BITE: Bulgarian Feta
Feta is one of my desert island foods. Its ability to compliment everything from olives and figs to lamb and legumes puts it at the top of my shopping list. Most of the time I crumble it on cucumbers and tomatoes, but let’s be honest – feta never met a vegetable it didn’t like. It’s the perfect briny foil for fresh green beans, asparagus and spinach. Lately I’ve become enamoured with the colourful contrast of snowy white chunks of feta and thick wedges of ruby red beet. I love how the tangy cheese transforms the humble root into a dazzling sweet and savoury salad.
But for all of its versatility, its many personalities can be baffling. Supermarkets and deli counters might offer several fresh white cheeses with varying tastes and textures. Even different batches of the bulk variety can be saltier or more prickly-tasting from one week to the next. Then there are all of the packaged fetas to choose from-Greek, Macedonian, French, Canadian; low-fat, double-cream, marinated with sun-dried tomatoes. It’s reached the point that I’m bringing home a different feta every week in a kind of cavalcade of hits and misses.
One day I wandered into Alpha Food (196 Main St. 238-3837), a small Middle Eastern grocery store that specializes in Persian teas and spices. When I inquire about feta, the shopkeeper assures me that the Bulgarian feta he sells will be the best one I’ll ever taste. I take home a half-kilo block ($7.49) and in spite of my initial skepticism, quickly confirm his prediction. Breaking off a creamy piece, it crumbles and almost melts between my fingers. The texture is perfect, but taste? Mellow with a slight tang and a delectable herby flavour. It’s also less aggressively salty than many others. As I savour this delicious discovery, I can’t help wonder – are their any desert islands off the coast of Bulgaria? — Shawna Wagman
BITE: Peanut Butter Cups
For as long as I can remember, Reese’s peanut butter cups have been my guilty pleasure. As a kid, every doorbell on my Halloween route symbolized the possibility that the beloved bright orange wrapped confection would be added to my bounty. I coveted those tiny ridges, the sweet, creamy milk chocolate and the delightful contrast of salty, crumbly peanut butter. Over the years however, my pampered tastebuds, exposed to plenty of good quality chocolate, eventually lost their taste for the sugary-sweet, industrially-made stuff. When I spotted a pyramid of handmade giant peanut butter cups at a local chocolatier (Truffle Treasures 348A Richmond Rd., 761-3859) I nearly yelled, “Trick or Treat!” Instead, I bought one and pulled it out of the bag immediately. The delicious ridged cup, made from top-quality Belgian chocolate, began to melt in my hands, as real chocolate should. Inside, a generous dollop of smooth peanut butter was topped with a surprise layer of real caramel. This is a guilty pleasure of grown-up proportions. — Shawna Wagman
BITE: Snow Pea Tips
It is rare indeed to stumble across a new vegetable, so I was immediately intrigued when the words “snow pea tips” began appearing on the specials board at my Chinese food haunt, Jadeland (625 Somerset St., 233-0204). Of course, snow peas are nothing new, but what are the tips? And how do they taste? As it turns out, snow pea tips are the tender, leafy top few inches of the pea plant that are traditionally grown in Asia. Increasingly available in North America, they are sometimes called pea vines. Apparently they can be eaten raw, but at Jadeland, the dish arrives steaming hot and sleek with oil from the wok, pungent with garlic. The vegetable is barely wilted, sweet and astoundingly green-tasting, as though it had been freshly picked that day. I once heard someone refer to this dish as catnip for humans, but I’d say that’s an understatement. Meow. — Shawna Wagman
BITE: Lemongrass Ribs
I have a bad habit when it comes to dining in Thai restaurants. I tend to order the same tried-and-true dishes every time. On a recent visit to Khao Thai (103 Murray St. 241-7276) however, I ordered lemongrass ribs on a whim. They were so astonishingly delicious that I devoured them before I had a chance to figure out what made them so good. But for you, dear reader, I was willing to return a second, and third time to inspect and analyze this delectable dish, and report back. The beautifully balanced flavour begins as a marinade that includes honey, lemongrass, ginger, soy and garlic. The sweet nectar caramelizes the baby back ribs when deep-fried, rendering a dark golden glaze on the exterior, while the meat inside remains juicy, tender and bursting with flavour. A final hit of ‘yum’ comes from time spent on a charcoal grill. Each order is served under slivers of fried lemongrass. Welcome to my repertoire. — Shawna Wagman
BITE: Bytowne Popcorn
If the folks at the Bytowne Cinema ruled the world, the word “topping” would never be used in the same sentence as popcorn. The fact that it is one of the only theatres left in the city that adorns the uber movie-munchie with real butter, rather than that goopy, gag-inducing melted margarine topping, is only half the reason their popcorn is so good. While the chains have buckled under pressure (from dieticians? Becel?) to switch to canola oil as their popping fat of choice, the Bytowne Cinema (325 Rideau St. 789-3456) in all of its rebellious, nacho-free glory, has stuck with good old-fashioned heart-clogging coconut oil. The mere fact that it is not uncommon for people to come in off the street and order a bag of buttered popcorn – with no intention of catching a flick – attests to just how yummy and addictive this stuff is. Feeling naughty? Ask them to put butter in the bag half-way down.– Shawna Wagman
It can be difficult to say what makes one pierogi better than another. When you’re talking about little more than plain pasta dough stuffed with pureed potato, the distinction is subtle. Sure pierogies, those comforting eastern European moon-shaped dumplings, fall under the category ‘fresh is best’, but often times a frozen supermarket pierogi will be just as satisfying as one that was freshly made. At Saslove’s Meat Market (1333 Wellington Street 722-0086), the big bowls of homemade pierogies displayed on the counter, come stuffed with mushrooms, potato and cheese or cheese and bacon. I’ve never met the woman who makes them, but the staff call her “Mamma”. I am convinced that she’s the X-factor that makes these pierogies better than any I’ve ever tasted. With a quick toss in some butter in a fry pan, and a big dollop of sour cream, these pierogies takes me back to the childhood kitchen I never had. Thanks Mamma.– Shawna Wagman
BITE: Carmelised Onion Chutney
The Japanese term umami is used to describe something that achieves the ultimate balance of tastes – something beyond the usual sweet, sour, salty or bitter. When I was first introduced to the term, I wondered if I would be able to detect foods in this “fifth sense” category. When I tasted the Carmelised Onion Chutney produced by the British gourmet food purveyor John Lusty (how great is that name?), I knew I’d done it. The onions are cooked until the natural sugars are released and combined with spiced vinegar, apples and dates. The results are positively umami . When spread on a slice of bread, instead of mustard or mayo, it transforms a simple turkey or ham sandwich into a delicacy. Spoon it on a cracker with goat cheese or Brie and prepare to swoon. Try it as a base for homemade pizza, serve it alongside pork tenderloin – the possibilities are endless. I guarantee these are the most inspiring onions you’ll ever meet. — Shawna Wagman
BITE: Bryson Farms Greens
Mesclun, field greens, spring mix, oriental greens – whatever you call them, a wide variety of newly popular greens is on offer in today’s produce sections. But if you’re like me, you may have noticed that these lettuces taste more like the cellophane bag or the one slimy black rotten leaf you usually find at the bottom of the bag. Enter Bryson Farms (www.brysonfarms.com), the Shawville, Quebec guru of greens that delivers right to your door. The comapny’s organic salad greens range from sweet and lemony to mustardy and spicy. And because you’re digging into nature’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get: mache, endive, frisee, kale, arugula, cress, sorrel, beet tops, chards. Bryson Farms grows over one hundred varieties throughout the year in their fields and greenhouses. Every mix is unique depending on what was harvested the day before they ship. Best of all, each leaf is picked, washed, dried and inspected by hand so you never have to worry about finding a slimy one. — Shawna Wagman
When it comes to good food, I’ve found that Ottawans can be a secretive bunch. So don’t expect the New Edinburg neighbours to come right out and tell you about their favourite corner spot for quick dinner solutions, fabulous sandwiches and sinful sweets. You’d have to stumble upon it yourself, as I did. Perhaps you’ll be taking a detour or looking for a place to park so you can stroll through Rideau Hall. Quite innocently, you’ll find yourself admiring the lovely houses along Crichton and there it is: Delish (42 Crichton 613-746-9880). This tiny catering operation seems to have perfected the art of fresh and yummy fare (service and proper ventilation is another story). Among other things, I’m addicted to their spanokopita, crispy filo pastry wrapped around a flavourful mélange of spinach, onions and herbs, with the tang of lemon juice – topped with a sprinkling of black and white sesame seeds. What can I say? It’s Delish! — Shawna Wagman
BITE: Crunchy Almond Butter
Breakfast is a tricky one. I’m tired of bagels and bored with cereal. And don’t even get me started about the texture of oatmeal! I go through phases with yoghurt. Eggs are for weekends – and that goes for you, too, bacon. So what’s a girl who wants a good, satisfying start to the day to do? The answer is almond butter. Its gritty texture and earthy flavour provide substance and pair nicely with the nutty notes in a toasted slice of multigrain and a long espresso. I marvel at its natural balance between savoury and sweet. But imagine my horror when I went to The Wheat Berry (206 Main St. 235-7580) to refill my bulk container and found the steep price of my morning staple had nearly doubled to $30 a kiloggram! Some quick research revealed the price hike is due to torrential rains in California earlier this year that ravaged the almond crops. Time to quit the habit? Forget it Cap’n Crunch, just call me an almond butter junkie. — Shawna Wagman
BITE: Banoffee Pie
The funny thing about Banoffee Pie is that you’ll swear you have memories of eating it as a kid. Unless you’re British, it’s unlikely you’ve actually tasted it before, but its brand of sheer sweet-toothed delight seems to be universal. At Allium (87 Holland Ave. 792-1313) Chef Arup Jana pays homage to his roots with an plate-sized mini-pie: a crumbly graham cracker tart filled with layers of creamy toffee, sliced bananas and loads of barely sweetened whipped cream topped with chocolate shavings. Witness what happens when this delicious dessert hits the table: everyone is instantly transformed into six-year-olds, giddy and giggly and begging for seconds. The secret to Banoffee lies in its sticky-sweet toffee layer. The truth is, it’s what you get when you boil a can of sweetened condensed milk for 5 hours (warning: do not try this at home). In Colombia, this delicious milk caramel is a childhood staple called arequipe and in many Latin countries it’s dulce de leche . Welcome to Ottawa, sweet friend. — Shawna Wagman
BITE: Black-and-White Cookies
The key to eating a black-and-white cookie, according to Jerry in one episode of Seinfeld , is to get some black and some white in each bite. A specialty of New York delis, the black-and-white cookie is more of a culinary curiosity than a simple confection. Any New Yorker will tell you that only he/she know the best place to buy one. It begins with the basic cookie ingredients: flour, butter, sugar, eggs, etc. but its one-of-a-kind personality is revealed with its perfectly divided two-tone shiny coat; half chocolate (black) and half white icing. I once heard these cookies described as flat, thinly frosted cakes, like a cupcake that someone has sat on. And while the black-and-white cookies at the Rideau Bakery (384 Rideau Street, 789-1019) are more crumbly than moist and without the hint of lemon I remember from a recent trip to Manhattan, they are Ottawa’s most authentic rendition of the big-city classic. — Shawna Wagman
BITE: Aubrey’s Rotisserie Chicken
In the lexicon of a foodie, there is nothing more comforting than those three little words: simple roast chicken. Each chef and cook seems to have a special technique – a little trick that ensures the ultimate combination of juicy, flavourful meat and crispy golden skin. While most people develop a fondness for the taste that comes from family traditions (unfortunately my grandmother liked her chicken gedempte -Yiddish for pot-roasted with onions and fat), mine comes from the butcher. Every day Aubrey’s Meats (59 York Street, 241-4093) makes -to my tastebuds– the perfect bird, the quintessential simple roast chicken. I know it sounds crazy, but if ever a chicken could taste like it led a happy life, this is it. The meat is juicy and succulent, adorned with little more than a sprinkling of rosemary and thyme on its crisp, delicious skin. Now I have something to strive for as I learn how to make it myself. My butcher will be so proud! — Shawna Wagman