Pot au feu: A winter retreat

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For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, winter is definitely here. With the shorter days, blustering winds, occasional snow, and sub-zero temperatures, this kind of climate calls for food of a heartier kind that warms both body and soul. So earlier this week, with that in mind, I made pot au feu, a traditional French beef stew and also the origin and inspiration behind the much loved Vietnamese phở noodle soups (also pronounced the same way). Not only is pot au feu hearty, but it lends itself well to communal eating as well… if you wish.

At its heart, pot au feu is made from stewing a combination of different cuts of meats and bone. It’s up to you what you use, there really isn’t a wrong way. Select both fatty and leaner cuts of meat, along with cartilaginous bone and you’ll have a great pot au feu on your hands. You’ll also be using seasonal root vegetables to round out your stew. Again, it’s up to you what you put in. I like the combination of carrots, turnip, and onions – potatoes and celery are also popular additions.

Ingredients: (serves 4-5)

  • 1 lbs. of beef shoulder roast (preferably with the bone), leave whole
  • 1 lbs. of beef round roast, leave whole
  • 1 oxtail and or 3-5 pieces of bone marrow
  • 0.75 lbs. of beef sirloin or other lean meat, leave whole
  • 7 small to medium carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and coarsely chopped
  • 2 large turnips or 4 to 5 small turnips, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 medium spanish onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1 leek (the white part only), coarsely chopped
  • 1 bouquet garni made with thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves (Go easy on the rosemary as a little goes a long way. You should have a loose bundle of mainly thyme with about 8 to 10 small to medium stems, 1 to 2 stems of rosemary, and about 2 to 3 bay leaves, depending on the size of your leaves.)
  • 4 cloves or 1/2 a teaspoon of ground cloves if you don’t have the full ones
  • 1 tablespoon of sea salt
  • coarsely ground pepper, to taste

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Bouquet garni

IMG_9318A bouquet garni is a bundle or sachet of herbs that you assemble and add to something you’re boiling or stewing for a prolonged period of time like a soup, stock, or stew. The bundling or sachet allows you to remove the herbs quickly and easily once what you’re making has enough flavour – not unlike a tea bag. French stocks in particular strive to be crystal clear, and so the bouquet garni is key in helping to achieve this.

Ingredients:

What you include in a bouquet garni will depend on what you’re making, but generally, thyme and bay leaves are used as a base. Other herbs that can be added or asked for in a recipe include:

  • Rosemary
  • Basil
  • Parsley
  • Tarrgon

Some recipes also ask for certain vegetables like carrots, celery, and onions to also be included in the bouquet garni. For those recipes, it’s better to use a sachet method as the vegetables can break down over the course of cooking. Some also wrap everything up inside a few layers of leeks that have been halved lengthwise and tie it together.

Preparation:

Assembling a bouquet is very easy. There are two main methods:

1) Stack and bundle your herbs together and tie it tightly together with a string

2) Place them into a tea bag or cheese cloth and tie that tight with a string

Voilà, You’re ready to go!

Ryoji Ramen and Izakaya revisited

signrevisitedBack in March of this year, I posted my review of Toronto’s Ryoji Ramen and Izakaya.

It has been around five months since I was last at Ryoji and this past Thursday night, two friends and I decided it was time to pay them another visit. I’m afraid we were disappointed. In general, an experience at a restaurant gets broken down into three areas for me: service, food quality, and price. Unfortunately, Ryoji has deteriorated significantly in all three areas and this is how.

Service
I knew in advance of going to Ryoji this last time that our beloved Ai was no longer at Ryoji. However, previously, even though Ai was our favourite, there were many other good people who worked at Ryoji. The staff were friendly, helpful, and upbeat – and therefore, so was the vibe of the restaurant. Now, the crew that remains is noticeably different from the charm, energy, enthusiasm, and care that the people like Ai represented from before. As an izakaya, enthusiasm is king. Customers are traditionally greeted upon their arrival with a united chorus of irashaimase that ripples throughout the restaurant – it is no longer like this at Ryoji. Instead, there was silence after our server meekly called out the greeting. (Cue sliding trombone.) The service thereafter was similarly lack lustre and at times, even off-putting.

Food quality
A far cry from the quality of food Ryoji served before. We ordered the gyoza, takoyaki, and tondo tonkotsu special ramen. The gyoza were thick, deep fried, and bubbly – more similar to a crispy wonton than the traditional pan fried dumplings we were expecting. That said, they tasted fine. (But then, so do my frozen $3 bags of dumplings from my local Chinese grocer.) Our staple takoyaki order was nearly exclusively flour and potato and contained almost no octopus. They tasted okay, but the quality was noticeably different than the last time we were in. And finally, the most disappointing of all was the ramen. How to I say this? It was not good. Don’t get me wrong, it was not bad either. It’s just that it was no longer good. The pork was dry, the broth over-salted, the egg was missing (although when we asked, we were able to get the eggs back) and the noodles did not taste like ramen noodles. Instead, they tasted a lot like wonton noodles. Again with the wonton theme! Of course, there is nothing wrong with wonton noodles – we love wonton noodles – but wonton noodles are not the same as ramen noodles. And when you are out for ramen paying for ramen, you expect ramen – especially not the kind that leaves a funny aftertaste in your mouth. Not good.

Price
The prices are more or less the same as before – around $10-12 for a bowl of ramen. There are also options now for mini bowls for around $6-9. That said, price is heavily swayed by value. And value is dependent on the quality of an experience as a whole. So now, in light of how far the service has deteriorated along with the food quality and considering all the other fantastic options for ramen in the city for around the same price (or less), I cannot recommend Ryoji Ramen and Izakaya anymore.

I’m sorry Toronto ramen friends. We’ll have to go elsewhere… and it seems many others feel the same way as the restaurant sat nearly empty on a Thursday night, compared to the packed tables it enjoyed regularly earlier this year any day of the week. I sincerely hope they improve again – I guess only more time will tell.

Kimchi made easy

kimcheeI have to confess – I’ve always been intimidated by kimchi. Not by eating it, oh no, I’ll gladly eat plenty. No, my intimidation is in making it. Kimchi has held a long-standing reputation for me as something that is both quite difficult to make and something to be revered. Friends have shared that kimchi can be a rite of passage for some, and for many, can represent a lifetime pursuit in perfecting their personal recipe and making it truly their own. I think that’s what has always intimidated me… the gravitas of it all. Kimchi deserves respect. So recently, I decided to respectfully try my hand at it and since then, I’ve been making it non-stop. So much so that I’m probably at risk of becoming the subject matter in Portlandia’s infamous “We can pickle that” skit. I digress.

The great news is that kimchi is actually simpler to make than you may think. The most important step is really the fermentation and for that, the good bacteria does all the work. (We just need to make sure we do everything to help create the right kind of environment for it to do its job.) Still, I can see how a person can spend a lifetime perfecting their recipe. The one I’m including here is a basic one that’s good to start with, which you can add to as you make more. There are plenty of more robust and complex kimchi recipes out there that include things like rice flour and an assortment of herbs and vegetables to add different flavours, but I’m going to keep it simple – since that’s what worked for me.

What will make it unique to you are the ingredients and quantity of ingredients you choose to put into it, along with how long you choose to ferment it for. The longer the time you let the kimchi ferment, the softer the cabbage and more sour the flavour. The moment you finish “dressing” the cabbage, you can already eat it fresh.

One last thing to note before we get started. Kimchi takes a long time to make not because it’s complicated, but because of the brining that needs to take place initially. What I recommend is salting the cabbage the night before you want to make the kimchee. This way, the actual process of making it will only take around 30-90 minutes (based on how fast you are at chopping everything up). Brining takes a minimum of 4 hours – but like I said, it’s best if you leave it overnight.

Ingredients: (makes about 3-4 L of kimchi depending on size of cabbage)

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  • Initial salt soak
    • 1 nappa cabbage (the larger the cabbage, the more kimchi you’ll have)
    • 1/2 cup of sea salt
    • water (approximately 3 litres) Continue reading

Buttercup squash soup to chase the howling winds away

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Winnie the Pooh: Happy “Winds-day”, Piglet.
Piglet: [being blown away] Well… it isn’t… very happy… f-for me.
Winnie the Pooh: Where are you going, Piglet?
Piglet: That’s what I’m asking myself, where? [he is lifted into the air by a gust of wind]
Piglet: W-Whoops! P-P-P-Pooh!
Winnie the Pooh: [grabbing Piglet’s scarf] And what do you think you will answer yourself?

If Pooh and Piglet were here in Toronto today, they would agree that today is most definitely a blustery day. With the gusts of wind howling around buildings and off roaring over rooftops – maybe taking a thing or two off with them – it’s a perfect day for a hearty soup. More specifically, buttercup squash soup. Buttercup squashes are a variety of winter squash with a sweet, savoury, nutty flavour to it. They taste more like sweet potatoes than pumpkin, and are perfect for roasting, and taste fantastic in a soup.

Ingredients: (serves 4-5)

  • 750mL of beef stock (you can substitute with chicken stock for a lighter flavour or vegetable stock if you’re vegetarian or vegan)
  • 2 buttercup squashes, chopped
  • 5 large carrots, chopped
  • 1 ear of corn, halved
  • 1 Spanish onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of ginger, chopped (optional)
  • 3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme (or dried, if you don’t have fresh)
  • 1 tablespoon of oil (your choice, I used hazelnut oil)
  • 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • Salt and pepper to taste

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Hong Kong’s 001: A Speakeasy worth the search

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I love Hong Kong. I love the energy, the accessibility, the sights, and… most of all, I love the food. From hole-in-the-wall noodle shops and open air street dining to luxurious world’s finest (and highest) rooftop restaurants, the city has it all. Locals and visitors alike can enjoy a never ending array of anything you can imagine wanting to eat – even things you can’t. All within steps of an MTR stop and available in just about any price range you want. If you seek it out, you’ll likely find it.

One of the latest gems that had landed on our foodie hit list on our recent trip there was 001. My hubby and I had heard a lot about this little underground speakeasy cocktail bar that had been getting a lot of international attention. As a speakeasy, it was hidden: tucked away deep in one of the oldest areas of Central behind one of Hong Kong’s last remaining wet markets. The only challenge – it was a speakeasy, so it wouldn’t be easy to find.

Armed with the map on my phone and obscure instructions I’d picked up somewhere, we started our quest. Luckily, we happened to be in the area earlier that afternoon, so decided to locate it in advance while it was still light before we would head back later in the evening for cocktails. I’m glad we did. As later, in our usual form, we were running late, and it was far easier to navigate the old winding streets of old Hong Kong when we knew where we were going.

The good news is that if you have a general idea of where to look and what to look for, 001 isn’t nearly as difficult to find as you may be led to believe. The trick is knowing the intersection: Wellington Street and Graham Street. The cocktail bar is on Graham Street on the left, just before Wellington Street (if you are facing Wellington). Keep an eye out for the black door with the bronze doorbell. You may need to sleuth around behind some of the vegetable vendors.

For my husband and I, our visit was well worth the extra effort and ended up being one of our favourite experiences on our trip. Sporting a hushed 1920s art deco decor and ambiance, the feeling you get walking in is like you’re being ripped back in time a 100 years or so. From the custom bronze coasters and small lanterns on the table, muted lighting throughout the bar, marble tiled floors, and backlit bar, 001 aimed to impress and it did.

001

As expected, their cocktail menu was enviable. I tried the Earl Grey Martini first and was blown away by its flavour: aromatic, soft, and downright delicious. We also tried a few other cocktails, like the Blood and Sand, lychee martini, and Elderflower Caipirinha. All fantastic, but the Earl Grey was by far my favourite. As for food, we had heard that 001 is known for its cocktails, rather than the food – and by all accounts, we agreed with our sources. While the food was good, it also wasn’t particularly memorable or special. Although if you do get food, the grilled cheese is supposed to top the list. (We had the fried chicken.)

So if you’re ever in Hong Kong and happen to have a free night – definitely try 001. They only seat up to 40 people; however, so it’s best to reserve in advance at +852 2810 6969. You won’t regret it.

Gom Bui!

Mentsuyu: a multipurpose base

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If you’ve ever had Japanese tempura, udon noodle soup or zaru soba, you’ve had mentsuyu. It’s a multipurpose soup base that is used in two ways: either cool as a “dipping soup” (tsuketsuyu) for chilled noodles such as zaru soba, or warm as a soup base (kaketsuyu) for hot noodles like udon. If you are using mentsuyu as kaketsuyu, the hot form, you will need to dilute it even further than the cool tsuketsuyu type.

Mentsuyu is flavourful and can either be purchased ready made from your local Japanese grocery store, or can be easily homemade as well. It gets its flavour from bonito flakes, kelp, soy sauce, mirin, and sake, and as with any sauce or soup base, you can adjust the proportions of the ingredients to your liking, depending on what you’re making. You may want it a touch sweeter with a stronger sake flavour for your zaru soba, but saltier, with more emphasis on the kelp for your udon soup.

The recipe here is one I like as a base, and you can adjust from there.

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup of bonito flakes, packed
  • 1/2 cup of soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup of mirin
  • 1/3 cup of sake
  • kelp (a small cut piece, approximately 2 inches wide)

Preparation

1. Place your sake into a medium-sized saucepan and bring it to a boil, let it reduce slightly and add your other ingredients. Give everything a quick stir.

2. Reduce the heat to a medium low heat and let the mixture simmer for a few minutes. Leave the cover off.

3. Remove your pot from the heat and let everything cool to room temperature.

4. Strain your mixture through a sieve. (You can keep your kelp and bonito flakes to use for onigiri or as a rice or noodle seasoning by dry roasting it in a pan with some sesame seeds. Yum!)

5. You can now use your mentsuyu right away or bottle it. It should last in the fridge for about a month.