My Year in Food
This was going to be a Top 5 list of things that impressed me in 2011, but then I realized that I had lots of delicious highlights this past year, and lots of favourite things. There are a few random things that I fell in love with this year—Swissmar’s citrus squeezer, which has ended my days of depending on the pathetic strength of my clenching fists, and desperate fork mashing and screwing to maximize juicing of my beloved limes, the fizzy convenience of the Soda Stream, and a bunch of iPad apps, like Speakeasy Cocktails, How to Cook Everything and the wonderful Gourmet, Jamie Magazine and Saveur Magazine apps—but ultimately I decided to mainly stick with great discoveries and experiences. So here they are!
I spent 10 wonderful days traipsing around the hills and valleys of southern Ireland this fall, which included a visit to the incomparable English Market in Cork and an afternoon on the windswept, butter-loving island of Valentia. Dairy culture is pretty strong in Ireland, from cheeses, like the wonderfully sharp Coolea, to the most luxurious milk I’ve ever had, and delicately unctuous butters and ice creams. I have literally never seen so many cows in my life. Cows in the fields, cows on the roads, cows on the cliffs. Cows, cows, cows. Ironically, what was perhaps my favourite discovery in Ireland was goats butter. Pale and creamy, with a slight tang and playful grassy notes on the palate, it’s a sort of spry take on the regular ol’ spread. It’s wonderful. And if you’re lactose intolerant, it’d be a real game changer.
My Big Day Downtown at Chives
There’s no need to go on and on about this, but the day that Kristina and I spent at Chives with Chef Craig Flinn gamely trying something new so we could, too, is a true highlight for me. My big day downtown ended up as a day I happily ate one of the best meals I had all year, and as a truly memorable, wonderful experience. To be able to do something like that made me feel very lucky that anybody ever reads the products of all the plinks and plunks on my poor, battered keyboard.
Cuetzala Gro & Cemitas Puebla in Chicago
Authentic Mexican food is something that Halifax just can’t seem to wrap its head around. (The first person to say “but… Mexico Lindo!” gets a slap in the mouth.) After months of cravings, I was lucky enough to find myself in Chicago, where I hit up a couple of rad tacquerias—Cuetzala Gro in Rogers Park and Cemitas Puebla in Humboldt Park.
Cemitas Puebla specializes in Poblano food, notably (and obviously) cemita sandwiches with toppings like mouthwatering carne asada and fresh, crumbly Oaxacan cheese. Cuetzala Gro reels you in with crispy homemade nacho chips with fresh, fiery salsa, and then wins your heart with dynamite salsa verde and an intensely good, deeply addictive mole. And don’t even get me started on the Mexican Coke. I guess Grant Achatz recently catered a Christmas party for his staff with some of the fine food from Cemitas Puebla, so I’ve got good company in my fan club.
TIBS: Family Dinners & TIBSbits
It’s no secret that one of my favourite culinary experiences in Halifax is the monthly dinner series at Two if By Sea Café, presented by Renée Lavallée and an assortment of incredibly talented cooks, bakers and servers that are at the root of what has become a pretty expansive TIBS family tree. But I can’t forget the other infrequent delight that Two if By Sea offers: TIBSbits. Those damn things have turned me into k.d. lang: I have a constant craving for them. It’s pretty wonderful that there is now a second TIBS location at Historic Properties in Halifax. My first coffee-shop coffee of 2012 was at that very location. And even better that apparently TIBSbits will be a pretty regular thing there. So, hooray!
Foxhill Gelato & Dee Dee’s Ice Cream
While a little piece of my heart will always miss Halifax’s gelati OG, Dio Mio, if I’m totally honest the ice cream scene in Halifax has never been better. And, oh, do I have a weakness for ice cream. First of all, Foxhill Cheese House has the first seriously amazing gelati that I’ve ever had here. It is the only gelati that is so deeply luxurious that it brings me back to devouring creamy cones on the streets of Modica and Rome. At the top of my list is the crostata flavour at Foxhill; it’s a delicately cakey, citrus fruity gelato flavour that is hard to beat. Meanwhile, Dee Dee’s is serving up some of the best ice cream around. The banana cardamom flavour is ridiculous, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of creative, wonderful flavour. Do yourself a favour and hit up their shop in Halifax or their stand in Peggy’s Cove.
Cheeseburgers & Shakes at Peter Pan in Charlottetown
When my parents were married in 1969, they honeymooned at the Rodd Royalty in Charlottetown, and popped over to Peter Pan, the incredible A-Frame take-out joint that is quite literally on the corner of town for some burgers and fries. How it took me this long to eat there is beyond me. I’ve always been interested in trying it since it’s basically the stuff of legend in my family, and there had always been vague statements about how they made great burgers or the best shakes in Charlottetown… but I just never did it. This summer, I finally did. And you know what? The burgers are great and the shakes just might be the best in Charlottetown. So, duh, me. (Well, honestly, it’s nothing super special, but I’m so glad I finally ate there and it was a totally tasty burger.)
Another great discovery in Ireland—and one that is supposed to catch on over this-a-way sometime in the next year, if you believe food trend forecasts—was the use of honeycomb, often called yellowman in Ireland, in desserts. You might know it as sponge toffee. Usually reserved for corner stores, country markets and fair grounds, this is a pretty versatile sweetener, and adds some great crumbly, sticky texture to creamy and milky desserts. I was sold the first time I had it crumbled in ice cream.
This year I became more obsessed than ever with tomatoes. Red, green, big small: I’ve always loved ‘em. But I was eating them with abandon this summer, especially entranced with the sweet, meaty heirloom tomatoes during the short, bright burn of their quick season. I’ve also been using canned tomatoes more and more—there are some lovely San Marzano tomatoes at Costco, which make up about 80% of the reason I have a membership… though the recently discovered super creamy soft-serve and pretty awesome foot-long hot dog & soda for $1.50 don’t hurt. I make a mean basic tomato sauce, and a delicious tomato soup, if I do say so myself.
I feel pretty darn lucky that I was fortunate enough to have my first pasta-making lesson from an Italian grandma in her kitchen in the Liri Valley. It’s a skill that was well worth learning, and It’s seriously the easiest food to make. Even without a pasta maker, it just takes a flat surface, patience and a little bit of upper body strength to roll it out. And since it’s just two easy ingredients that basically everybody always has on-hand—flour and eggs—it’s a pretty simple way to do something that feels indulgent.
There’s almost nothing I like more than a champagne cocktail—any variation, really—so this year I tried Aperol, an Italian aperitif in the Campari family, which has a lower alcohol content, but offers the same bitter orange and herbal notes. Since it’s a glowing orange colour, it makes for a lovely mix. And it’s nice to make a proper Italian Spritz. If you’re looking for a way to mix up your liquor cabinet a bit, and you like a simple, retro-looking bottle, this is the aperitif for you. I know the St. Germain Elderflower liqueur has been a popular liqueur choice with a lot of my boozey pals lately—thanks, in part, to the amazing Sour that the Brooklyn Warehouse has been mixing up—but this is a nice choice on the bitter end to help round out your bar. I actually like using either a bit of Aperol to round out a gin or champagne cocktail with my St. Germain. (Or, if I want something a little more honeyed, I turn to my old friend Lillet.)
So, perhaps I should have titled this section “Aperol, Lillet Blanc & St. Germain.”
Colville Bay Oysters