February 2010

We headed for downtown Vancouver to soak up the Olympics vibe on Valentine’s Day, and what a scene it was. From where we were standing to get a look at the then-imprisoned Olympic cauldron, masses of humanity six-deep and more filled the sidewalks as far as the eye could see.

It was a day for ambling to the various event venues where Olympics-sized lineups caused us to keep walking. A great day in all, but we weren’t sure where we might sit down for a meal on what is normally the busiest restaurant night of the year, since our trip into the city was spur-of-the-moment and didn’t include reservations.

We did end up in Gastown and were early enough to snare one of two remaining tables at a restaurant that had squeezed in extra tables to accommodate the masses. The food was okay, though a little overpriced, and the service excellent, considering how busy the place was.

If you’re planning to head in for the same kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience that includes a nice meal, check out the Globe and Mail’s take on what to go for — and what to avoid — in terms of food, both that at the national and provincial pavilions, restaurants near Olympics event sites and even restaurants and bars where you might spot a celeb or two.

What with the amazingly mild winter we’re having (the garden is already screaming at me!), plus the huge distraction of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, I’ve almost lost track of Valentine’s Day, which is only moments away.

To me, Valentine’s means chocolate, fine wine, maybe diamonds (okay, pearls are good, too) and even lovely scented bubble baths. Well, today we’re focusing on the top of the list, with the addictive dark stuff that has the power to make you feel in love (mmmm, dark, milk, sea-salted, creamy, melted — here I’m a commitment-phobe when it comes to choosing).

Two books that feature chocolate have come my way, so let’s get right to it.

Chocolate Cakes: 50 Great Cakes for Every Occasion
By Elinor Klivans
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2010, $26.95; hardcover, 143 pages

Okay, so there are really only 33 actual cake recipes featuring chocolate. The other 17 are variations on the basic recipes Klivans provides for Devil’s Food Cake and White Chocolate Cake. But that still leaves lots of choice for chocaholic cooks, whether it’s easy snack bread and pound cake, fancy multi-layer cakes, ice cream cake or cheesecake.

Need more tempting? There are recipes for Milk Chocolate Chip-Chocolate Loaf, Hot Chocolate Pudding Cake, S’Mores Cake, Chocolate-Marzipan Crunch Cake, Raspberry and White Chocolate Truffle Cake, Chocolate and Peanut Butter Mousse Cake, Chinese Five-Spice Chocolate Chiffon Cake, Banana-Butterscotch Upside-Down Chocolate Cake, Chocolate-Apricot Pudding Cake with Chocolate Toffee Sauce, Brandied Chocolate Cheesecake with Chocolate-Dipped Figs, Mocha Whipped Cream Truffle Cake, and White Mocha Tiramisu.

Klivans also provides plenty of tips for choosing and handling chocolate, making chocolate decorations, baking equipment you’ll need, and storage guidelines for your precious treats. A recipe is included at the end of this post.

Chocolate: More than 50 Decadent Recipes
By Dominique & Cindy Duby
Published by Whitecap, 2009, $19.95; softcover, 128 pages

The Wild Sweets Wizards are at it again with their latest book, this time featuring their favourite ingredient.

The Dubys, based in Richmond, B.C., are pioneering chocolatiers widely known for their Wild Sweets products, particularly their amazing chocolates. But they are also  teachers and culinary scientists, delving beneath commonplace ingredients and experimenting with  taste, texture and temperature to come up with intriguing flavour combinations and tasting experiences that could baffle the average person who might only crave a good caramel or truffle.

Here, teaching hats firmly in place, they’ve produced an accessible book for anyone wanting to increase their chocolate-making skills. They include a detailed chapter on selecting and tempering chocolate   plus they offer flavour-matching charts and wine-pairing suggestions. They also suggest that such mass-market chocolate as Lindt is a quality product suitable for their recipes, as long as it is the right type.

The recipes include chocolate-based drinks, mousses and creams, baked treats, and ganaches and creams for enrobing with tempered dark or milk chocolate. There’s no hand-holding here, however, no chatter about the method or what the end-product might look, smell or taste like, which I always find helpful as well as conducive to trying a particular recipe. Each recipe does include a photo clearly showing what you’re supposed to be making, but it would have been nice, for example, to hear a little about why they paired fresh ginger with milk chocolate in a panna cotta, or what fresh lime zest adds to the flavour and/or texture of dark chocolate pots de crème.

If you are looking to increase your repertoire of great home-made chocolates, there are recipes here for the following fillings: Cigarette Cookie Almond Praline; Fleur de Sel Soft Caramel; Almond, Sesame & Vanilla Praline; Maldon Salt Ganache; Candied Orange Marzipan; Passion Fruit, Coconut and Cardamom Ganache; Crystallized Ginger Ganache; Lemon Macadamia Praline; Espresso, Fennel and Sambuca Ganache; and Four-spice Cocoa Nib Truffles.

Here are two recipes, one from each book. Happy Valentine’s Day! (more…)

“I was able to confirm earlier reconnaissance: Vancouver is among the best eating towns in the history of the Winter Games.” SAM SIFTON, The New York Times

Okay, so it’s partly because Vancouver is one of the largest cities to host the Winter Games, so there are “a lot of people cooking here,” he points out. But Sifton, who was in Vancouver and Richmond in late January, literally swoons at the wide variety of great food that we who live here mostly take for granted. He lists the usual suspects (Vij’s, Tojo’s, Sun Sui Wah) plus a few places you might not yet know. Don’t be too hungry when you check out the multi-media offering on the left side of the page showing some of the restaurant dishes mentioned. Most of those photos are done by local pro Kim Stallknecht, who could make dirt look appetizing. You’ll be tempted to lick your computer. Oh, for one of those Celebration Rolls. . .

Black garlic. Wenzel duck. In-house smoked bacon and in-house dry-aged beef.

These are just some of the fabulous playthings in Kris Kabush’s new culinary sandbox.

Kabush, 27, took over the reins as Executive Chef at Burnaby’s  Hart House Restaurant last month, and black garlic — originally a Korean and Japanese fermented health food that’s recently become all the rage with North American chefs for its unusual, intense and sweet flavour — is on the menu in several of his dishes. “It’s delicious,” he says.

Kabush, born and raised in Surrey, grew up in a family of foodies. His mother taught cooking and other home ec arts in the Surrey school district, and his dad, he says, is an avid cook as well, particularly when it comes to barbecuing.

Although he began making pancakes for the family when he was four years old, Kabush didn’t discover a real passion for cooking until high school, when he got his first restaurant job. Once he graduated, he began working as an apprentice at the Wedgewood Hotel, finished the Red Seal program at Vancouver Community College and completed his apprenticeship at Vancouver’s Four Seasons Hotel before working in the kitchens of such highly rated restaurants as Lumiere and Cioppino’s. It was the passion and the drive for excellence he saw in the people he worked with that inspired him to go for the gold himself.

His mission now is not only to update HH’s menu but to obliterate the fusty perception that the restaurant is “a place to take your grandma” as he oversees a range of inventive dishes that are Mediterranean in spirit and flavour — “Italian, Spanish, with a kick of French influence,” is how he describes it. That black garlic? He buys it at South China Seas Market on Granville Island in Vancouver, and the Wentzel duck is  an Indiana farm product he prefers because “I find the quality and flavour of their ducks superior to any other available to me.” (more…)

French Taste: Elegant Everyday Eating
By Laura Calder
Published by HarperCollins 2009, $39.95; hardcover, 309 pages

If you think really good French food should be left to five-star chefs and followers of Julia Child’s masterworks, you need to meet Laura Calder. The Food Network star has nailed it for anyone who wants to prepare tasty French dishes without the need to have either tons of time or several assistants to do all the prep work.

In fact, the subtitle sums up what I know about French food from my travels there. I ate mostly at home tables, and the food was prepared by ordinary French cooks, not chefs. All of it seemed simply prepared, and maybe it had to do with the French vibe around the table — the “passion for pleasure,” as Calder describes it, that infuses French life and sets its food apart as special — that made those meals so fabulous. Interestingly, most of those home-cooked French meals ended with sublime bakery-made desserts, not hard to understand since there’s a fabulous bakery there every 10 feet or so. Why kill yourself whipping up a gorgeous apricot tart or chocolate mousse cake when the bakery’s only minutes away? That seemed to be the general consensus. (more…)