Sunday, 20 August 2017

Clinging To Summer: expeditions and eggplants

Ah, August. Does anyone else feel as though they have to spend every waking minute outside or else the Summer Fairy might come along and peevishly take back this good weather? I guess this feeling is exacerbated by all the free time I have because: teacher. I have another 3 weeks (exactly) of freedom, and while I have to start prepping for my various classes, I plan on continuing to spend a lot of time outdoors.

I love my home, but being in a basement suite- even one which is more of a "garden suite",  barely below ground- means that I have to step outside to really get an idea of what the weather is doing.  So that's partly it. Also, I'm still on this health kick, and nervously sure that if I take a day off from moving my body in some way, I will turn back into a dough-y couch potato for good.

This weekend has been particularly active, kind of as an antidote to feeling let-down. My sweetie and I had made vague plans to get away on a bicycle trip this weekend, but he was too busy and I was too broke to make that a reality.  So I resolved to make as much fun for myself as I possibly could, with an emphasis on things that were affordable (free, if possible), outdoors-y, and healthy.

Reader, I succeeded! In fact, it's been such a lovely weekend that I'm not even sorry we didn't get away, although I can always use more time with my love. Here's what I've been up to so far:

  • On Thursday, I biked all the way to Richmond for a job interview, Then I biked over to the Flying Beaver Pub, which is pure heaven because it is situated by two things I love: water (the Fraser River), and the airport. In case you don't know this about me, I am a giant nerd about planes, and even though I don't love flying in them, I do love watching them take off and land. The bigger the better. I biked around Richmond and back to Vancouver and then I think I slept for about 10 hours because I was exhausted. But oh, so happy. (I'm not going to review the food at the Beaver because it's pretty standard pub food; neither particularly good nor particularly lousy. I find that if you've exercised at all in order to get there, you'll enjoy the food more than if you drive.)
  • On Friday, I hiked to Quarry Rock, in Deep Cove. I made this a weekday trip as I'd heard it was a popular destination, but it was still super-busy. If you like solitude, this hike is definitely not for you. At just over an hour (round-trip, and for me, although I seemed to walk at a fairly average pace compared to others on this hike) it's not very challenging, and I saw little kids, little dogs, and poorly-shod tourists all successfully navigating the trip. The woods are green, shady, and calming, even though you might be weaving your way around children or little old ladies. Quarry Rock itself has a gorgeous view back into Deep Cove, across Indian Arm to Belcarra Park, and even back towards the city, although the sight of so many people taking selfies is a bit off-putting. I mean, I love social media, but come on! My favourite sighting was of a French family I passed on the way to the rock. Papa was clutching a large box of Honey's Donuts, which was clearly an excellent incentive for the rest of the family to follow him all the way along the trail. When they got to Quarry Rock they sat on the smooth stone ground and eagerly opened the black cardboard box. A well-earned snack! Honey's is a Deep Cove institution, and it was packed when I finished my hike. I virtuously avoided the donuts, but ordered a ham sandwich. Several dollars cheaper than at most other cafes, it came absolutely packed with black forest ham, cheddar, and not too much mayo. Perfect. And even though Honey's was so busy, it took almost no time at all. I was seriously impressed! (True story: as I was reading some Yelp reviews just now to get a feel of what others thought about Honey's Donuts, I saw one that said "Was very knowledgeable and down to earth. As well they have a naturopath on hand for any questions." This seemed odd, until I realized I was reading an add for another place altogether! Anyway, you probably won't find a naturopath at Honey's (unless they're over there on a break), but it's a must-visit if you go to Deep Cove, even if you're avoiding donuts.)
  • Yesterday was the opening day at the PNE, so I enticed my sweetie to leave his work for a while and come with. Added incentive: admission was only $1.50 with the wearing of a red item of clothing! Absurdly clad in a red dress with white polka dots (me) and a dark red dress shirt (him), we biked over to the fair with great expectations of greasy treats. I always love seeing what the ridiculous trends in fair-food are going to be. This year's seems to be chocolate cotton candy, which sounds... unappealing. We were there for Waffles With Benefits, the only time I will cop to liking chicken with waffles. However, I was underwhelmed this year. Perhaps it was because it was my third summer in a row trying them, or because the teenagers making them weren't putting a hell of a lot of loving care into them, or just... ennui? The waffles were dry, the cheese sauce on my Buffalo Chicken waffle was bland, and there was't a shred of the promised arugula. I think I have exorcised the waffle demon for good. If you're battling your sugar and deep-fry nemeses, there's not a heck of a lot you can eat at the PNE. Even the drinks are almost certain to be packed with sugar. I finally found a place selling only 2 things: blended watermelon, or blended pineapple; mixed with ice and served either in a cup (8 dollars- yikes), or in a hollowed-out melon (or pineapple) FOR A CRIMINAL TWELVE DOLLARS OH MY GOD PEOPLE HOW IS THIS LEGAL??? There's also a dim sum truck selling steamed shrimp dumplings which I love, so when I returned to the fair after a 40-minute swim at New Brighton Pool (the best-kept secret in Vancouver as far as I'm concerned), it was shrimp dumplings and melon juice for me. All in all, while I had a great time hanging with my guy and then later returning to snap pictures of cows, chicks, and other cuties in the agriculture buildings, it was a good reminder that you should eat before going to the PNE (the prices! the way all the batter tastes the same!) and maybe just indulge in one really awesome treat while you're there. 
Today I walked part of the beautiful Heights Trail with a friend, and then... actually stayed indoors once I got home mid-afternoon. My place is cool even on the hottest days, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to make eggplant dip, eat it, and relax inside for a while. Even the most dedicated outdoorsians need a little home time I guess.

So, I always thought this dip was called baba ganoush until I read Smitten Kitchen this afternoon. And now I guess I should call it Moutabbal, except that no one will know what I'm talking about unless they're middle eastern. I'm more inclined to go with Catherine Newman's name: Smoky Minted Eggplant Dip.

Do I follow either of these recipes? Well, not exactly. I certainly started with Newman's recipe earlier this summer when I was house-sitting and suddenly found myself in charge of a number of eggplant plants (which is an awkward phrase. How should we say it? Egg-plants? Eggplantplants?). But unlike her, I'm not inclined to soak almonds and then blend them, all to avoid tahini, which I like anyway. Do I use as much tahini as Smitten Kitchen? Nope. I probably used 3 tablespoons, and in the past I've used less. Like Newman I use mint, but I also add a leaf or two of basil, because it's so plentiful and sun-warmed in my garden. In fact, the joy of a dip is that you can improvise! To an extent, anyway. Start with the basics, so you can add more if needed. Smokey is best, so if you can get those eggplants on the barbecue they'll be perfect. But an open flame (or the broiler at a pinch) is just fine.

It's rich, it's lemon-y, it's garlic-y... and for the first time I am eager for more eggplants, the smokey base for all this fresh summer deliciousness, and the perfect healthy dip when you need to duck back into your cool, slightly dark house to refresh yourself before the next end-of-summer adventure.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Ice, Ice Baby

I am NOT a Pinterest kind of girl.

But for some reason this summer, the idea of popsicles- in this kind of mould and no other- took hold, and I was powerless to resist.

I blame Smitten Kitchen, which has some fine popsicle recipes, and I blame the summer heat, of course, but most of all I blame my pretty-much-yearly obsession with getting control of my sugar cravings and losing some weight, dammit. It started a little late this year, but once I got going in early July, I was on fire. I sailed through my last week in Saskatoon, and came home full of resolve.

Shortly after I got back, my landlords left town for two weeks and I was suddenly in charge of their large and bountiful veggie garden. (And their blind old cat, but I couldn't eat him.) I harvested: basil and garlic became luscious pesto. Small tomatoes found their way into my pasta. Cucumbers were hastily stuck into jars with water and cider vinegar. I walked into the alley behind our house with a bowl and fought the bees for the best blackberries. Little eggplants were roasted on the barbecue and whizzed into the food processor to become the best baba ghanouch I've ever tasted. Ah, the food processor! I've never been one for kitchen gadgets, but having access to two all of a sudden made me realize what I'd been missing. Once I'd made the pesto and the baba ghanouche (and once I'd cleaned very thoroughly, to remove the garlic-y taste), I realized that I could use them to make... popsicles.

The popsicles of my youth were unadventurous things (sorry, Mom). You got 2 choices: apple juice or orange juice. The tips of the popsicles would be super-sweet, because that's where the heaviest, thickest part of the concentrated juice would settle. And the last part of the popsicle would be more watery, and would inevitably melt into its plastic holder, causing you to slurp noisily in order to get at the last bits.

Now, I've yet to buy this book, but just glancing through it- hell, just looking at the cover- makes me realize that there are whole new worlds to conquer when it comes to popsicles. And I will. Conquer them. Just as soon as I get over these darn watermelon ones I keep making. Which I may never do.

I discovered watermelon-mint-grapefruit-lime juice earlier this summer in Saskatoon. It was cold there, very cold, for most of my stay. As in, spend money you don't have on a sweatshirt, because you didn't bring any warm clothes kind of cold. As in, Vancouver-style rain as you tried to bike home kind of cold. But then for the last week or so it finally got HOT, and on a couple days I mortgaged my house sold my firstborn child spent a lot of money to buy a bottle of this mesmerizing juice from Thrive. This would make amazing popsicles, I found myself thinking as I gulped the red juice. And indeed it does. In fact, the watermelon-lime combination is so magical, I haven't even added the grapefruit or mint yet.

If possible, get a watermelon with seeds. Trust me, the big black seeds are a heck of a lot easier to remove than those annoying little white ones that are in the so-called "seedless" melons. I like the mini watermelons, as those are the perfect size for popsicle-making.

The great thing about melons is their high water content. You don't have to juice these puppies. In fact if you do, your popsicles will end up too watery.
The uneven colouring in this popsicle is because I tried
to strain out the seeds and pulp, leaving the juice too
watery. Yes, that's a kiwi in there! 
You do have to remove the seeds, though. Sorry. (Unless you're really not fussy? But I feel like this would make for an annoying popsicle.) This is one reason why I buy the little melons, because de-seeding a full-sized one would drive me nuts. I favour slicing the melon and then scraping the seeds out with a spoon. Don't sweat it if you miss a few. The food processor usually misses them too, and you can fish them out once the juice is pureed.
Basic. See how much redder this one is? Not overly watery like the last guy. 

Isn't she a beaut? 
If you're very lucky, your boyfriend will buy you a golden watermelon by mistake. You will discover that the flesh is even nicer than a regular watermelon, and makes the prettiest popsicles. Especially when you add chunks of kiwi and strawberry.
In keeping with my health kick, I don't add sugar to these. They don't need it. In fact, I find that a generous portion of lime juice adds a much-needed kick. I use over half a mini melon to make 10 popsicles, and the juice of one whole lime would not go amiss. The added fruit chunks make your popsicles look simply gorgeous, and add a sweet/tart chewiness that's delightful. 

I have grand plans to make Smitten Kitchen's Strawberry Black Pepper popsicles (minus the sugar), and I'll bet you that a mango-pineapple popsicle would be divine, especially with some added heat. (Maybe cayenne? Maybe chipotle? I can't wait to try.) I've seen some recipes for cucumber-lime or cucumber-strawberry pops that sound refreshing and delicious. Next time I come back from the grocery store I promise I'll have something in my bag other than a watermelon. Thanks to my sweetie, who loaned me his fabulous food processor, my popsicle-making days don't have to be over even though my landlords are back. And if I do get stuck in a melon-y rut until the seasons change and I no longer crave ice-cold refreshment? well, there's always next year. 

How good are these popsicles? Let's just say that since my 30-day no-dessert challenge came to an end, I have have had ice cream exactly twice, and both times it seemed overly sweet and far too sticky and milky, not to mention leaving me with pangs of regret and guilt. The simple, juice-packed beauty of these popsicles, on the other hand, is guilt-free. Eat as many as you want. Hell, eat all ten in one sitting if you like! Even if you do, you will simply have eaten the equivalent of part of a mini watermelon, plus some other fruits. And what could be better for you than that? 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

A Weekend of Decadence

I didn't mean to write again so soon, but damn! I've been eating out all weekend (and it was a long weekend, too). And everything was so good, I feel like I need to share it with you. Plus now I'm sick, and the cats have finished their morning battle and are curled up in strategic warm spots all over the house and we are being quiet and sleepy all together, so it seems like a good time to sit and write. I have taken over the living room because my roommates are away and my bedroom is full of boxes. I got so excited about my upcoming move that I'm practically all packed, but my new landlady called this morning and hinted that they miiiiight need a little more time because they're painting and reno-ing down there and... So I'm going to keep calm (I REALLY don't want to delay my move, because I'll be flying to Saskatoon mid-March, which means there's a good chance I'll have, like, a WEEK to settle in before I have to leave noWHYblerggnashteeth) and I'm going to tell you all about the amazing food I ate this weekend instead of getting sad. 

First up: Bows x Arrows on Fraser is incredible, and you should really drop everything and go there RIGHT NOW. J and I rolled out of bed on Saturday and heard the siren call of Breakfast Cooked By Somebody Else, and I took a chance on BxA because I'd seen a brunch menu in their window one night as I walked by. Don't be put off by their coffee shop aesthetic: they DO serve real food, and they ARE licensed. (Although, should you only want a coffee, their cappuccinos are very fine.) For breakfast, J had the Welsh Rarebit: basically cheese-on-toast. BxA serves theirs with roasted mushrooms and a fried egg on top, and it was rich and delicious. I chose the smoked salmon scramble: delicate pink house-smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, thin slices of that very seed-y, heavy rye bread, and a side salad that was bursting with lemony dressing. I'm not usually a fan of salads with breakfast, but this one was so good I scarfed the lot. (It helps that they use some kind of green- watercress? that's much more interesting than lettuce.) While we waited for breakfast to arrive, we also shared a small almond-flour cake with a generous dollop of chocolate icing, and it was chewy and dense. The rest of their pastries looked just as good- definitely a cut above the usual coffee-shop fare.  
In fact, everything was so good that the very next day I took my mother there for our semi-weekly brunch date. We missed the brunch cut-off by minutes, but decided to stick around and order Happy Hour snacks. (Here's how it works: BxA serves brunch from 8:30-11:30 weekdays; 8:30-3pm on weekends. After that, there are snack-y things, and then they do dinner Wednesday-Saturday as well.) 
While we waited, we drank Caesars. 
Someone else's Caesars in the background, while my mom wrestles with an olive, and the herring tartine sits patiently. 

I'm not a giant fan of tomato/clamato juice, so I'm not a connoisseur, but these were very good, made with house-spiced jalapeño tequila and house-made anchovy tomato juice;  garnished with pickled onions and fresh-grated horseradish. In fact, that's the secret to BxA's success: they seem to make as much of their food as possible in-house, so you're going to taste the difference. Then came the snacks: smokey, creamy potato-ham soup, smoked herring tartine, homemade pickled veggies, and a lovely little heirloom potato salad. Everything was bursting with flavour. 
Look at those cute purple potatoes!

Potato soup with ham.

Oh look, there's a record with a naked Prince on the cover, nestled by the beer taps! 

We left feeling very satisfied, but not in that overstuffed, uncomfortable way, and to top it all off? The total for everything: four snack orders, 2 Caesars, and a glass of beer for me, was just over 40 dollars.
Bows x Arrows is at 4194 Fraser St @ 26th

Back to Saturday, where after brunch, the decadence was just beginning. Big Rock Brewery was having an open house, so J & I headed straight there (hey, at least we walked). In an impossibly generous bit of marketing, Big Rock had decided to open their doors from 12-5; giving away 2 beer tickets to each customer, as well as a free growler (with a gift certificate for a free fill), free canapés, and a brewery tour! Although we were still stuffed from brunch, we enjoyed our porter (a full pint for free!), and I also had a (free) pint of their Rock Creek cider, since I'm not much of a beer drinker. The tour was informative and fun, with a free sample of their Midnight Rhapsody porter and a chance to meet the brewmaster at the end of it. 
My sweetheart, being all cute and handsome. 

And as we left, the hostess urged us to take not one, but two growlers each! They were too busy to fill them up then (hence the gift cards), but I'll definitely be back to make use of them soon. It's about time as a Vancouverite that I learn to obsess about beers. 
Big Rock Brewery & Taphouse is at 310 W 4th Ave.

Finally... yesterday. I was hired to do a few hours of session work on someone's album, which is pretty much my favourite way to spend a day. Since the studio is in east Van and it was a gorgeous morning, I decided to walk there, but changed my mind as I saw the #22 bus approaching. My reasoning? If I jumped on the bus, I could probably fit in breakfast at Yolk's before my session began. Unfortunately I'd totally forgotten that it was Family Day, and even though it wasn't yet 9am, the lineup was already out the door. Oh well. I walked north and east, remembering that Scandilicious Waffle House was nearby and on the way. Ha- no lineups there! Just a cosy table in the corner, counter service, and the best waffle I have EVER had. No joke. I ordered the Valhalla, which came with maple-bacon jam, crunchy bacon pieces, and a generous slice of back bacon. Amazing. 
The Valhalla steals my heart by being so... bacon-y. 

I also had a cappuccino. Before I left, I had to try one of their double-chocolate cookies, which tasted as incredible as it looked: almost black; chewy and sweet and melt-in-your-mouth. The rest of the baked goods looked just as good, so it was with some disappointment that I realized I didn't have to do another recording session later in the week, as we got through all the songs that needed a backup singer. Good thing I'm moving closer to Scandilicious... whenever I do move. Sigh.
Scandilicious is at 25 Victoria Drive

Lest you think that my life is one big date with my plate, l must tell you that 
a) it's not 
b) I've just started up a bit of a support group for me and some friends who want to start eating better and getting healthy. My patterns are fairly predictable (and common): Get healthy in the summer: cavort and run and bike and play outside and eat all the good stuff, and then pack on the pounds each winter as I eat starches to stave off the wet, grey, cold weather and indulge my sweet tooth far too often. It's a pattern I'd love to break- I'm realistic enough to know that I'll never be perfect, but I'm hoping this'll be a step in the right direction. 
(Totally going back to Scandilicious for that lemon krinkle cookie though. Just sayin'.)

Thursday, 9 February 2017

You Eat Where You Are.

Living in Mount Pleasant is great for so many reasons. MP is one of those 'hoods that, if you were a tourist from another country, let's say, you might not make it to, because it's not flashy like downtown, or ritzy like West Van, or famously alternative, like Commercial Drive. But it's definitely got a thing going. And one of the things that give it a thing, so to speak, is the food. 
I'm doubly lucky, because I also work in Mount Pleasant, so my commute is as, well.. pleasant as my neighbourhood. I seldom even have to get on a bus, unless I'm running late. And when I'm on a break, or after a long day of teaching music, or when I'm just mooching around the neighbourhood on a day off, I know the 'hood always has my back when it comes to places to eat.

Which is why moving away is a mixed blessing.

It's time to have my own place, at long last. I like to think of myself as an independent woman, since I left home at 18, but the truth is, very few of my adult years have been spent living alone. There was a mostly blissful 5 years in a basement suite off Main Street (also in Mount Pleasant, come to think of it). A year or two in my university days in a cute little Kitsilano bachelor suite, for which I think I paid a whopping $375 (it was a long time ago). Three months in a wonderful sublet just before I moved to my current location. But mostly it's been sharing: with roommates, friends, and even, for the last 3 years, family. 
So I've found the perfect place, and I love the neighbourhood: it's in east van (gotta be east van!), it's right off Commercial Drive (so much good food!), it's got a gas stove (lots of meals at home!)... But I'll truly miss my Mount Pleasant haunts, so I'm extra glad that I'll still have to come here all the time for work. Here are some of the places I know I'll keep coming back to: 

I'd been eyeing this cute little restaurant for a while, but it took a really snowy Saturday to propel me through its doors at last. I walked all the way from my house to the farmers market in some very odd (for Vancouver) weather... and all the way back, too. When I was almost home, hunger- and the need for warmth- hit hard. I wanted someone to coddle me just a bit. Well, I picked the perfect spot, because Oka-San has comfort food. It didn't take me long to choose the Carbonara Udon to warm me up from the inside out. If the idea of Japanese-Italian food strikes you as odd you're probably not alone, but it was delicious. Cream sauce, generous hammy pieces, and a sprinkling of seaweed garnish over udon noodles, with a nice green salad besides. I'm definitely going back to try the Spam Musibi as well... and that's the cool thing about Oka-San: there's definitely a Hawaiian vibe (think Poke bowls and the aforementioned Spam) as well as the Japanese food at play here. 
Oka-San is at 3578 Fraser Street

Carp has been my go-to lunch spot when I'm working ever since I discovered one of my colleagues eating one of their rice bowls. The bright red salmon, crispy cucumber and smooth avocado looked so pretty! And they taste even better. Yes, they have sushi as well, but I'm a sucker for the rice bowls, especially since you can have a mini one for a mere $6. A mini will satisfy anyone looking for a light lunch; a full-sized one is great for those HUNGRY days. There's tuna, salmon and a few other options as well. I still love the spicy salmon bowl best (it's not very spicy), but I've loved everything I've had at Carp. The best thing is that their food always makes me feel great, since it's protein-rich and not greasy. Only one slight caution: they are not currently debit card-friendly, so bring cash or credit. 
Carp is at 2516 Prince Edward Street

Speaking of greasy... I have to give a shout-out to PEACEFUL RESTAURANT, which is just too damn close to my workplace to be safe for my waistline. I have loved northern Chinese food ever since I discover Shaolin Noodle House years ago, and Peaceful does it even better. Highlights include the green onion pancakes, which always burn my mouth because I can't wait for them to cool; the wonderfully-named Peaceful Beef Roll (beef rolled in flatbread with Hoisin sauce), and the Dan Dan noodles. But recently I discovered something even better there. It was another snowy day, and classes at the music school were cancelled, allowing me to leave four hours early! Another comfort-food day for sure... so I walked a few blocks to Peaceful. But what to have? I needed something warm and soothing as the day was dark and snowy. Not too much spice, not too much grease... I decided to try the Xi'an White Lamb Stew. "It's traditional Chinese dish," warned my waitress sternly as she took my order. "No noodles!" "That's okay," I said brightly, and quailed as I waited for my order to arrive. Would I not like it? Would it be filled with something that my Western pallet would find unpleasant? 
When the lamb stew came, the only problem was how to cool it fast enough to get it in my mouth. A light broth, packed with little chunks of lamb, cabbage, wood ear mushrooms (my favourite!), and many small pieces of flatbread, all flavoured with large sprigs of cilantro. It was a large bowl, and I ate the whole thing. 
Peaceful Restaurant is at 43 east 5th, among other locations

There are many more places I love to go in Mount Pleasant, and I hope to write about them in the future, after I cover some of the best nibbles on Commercial Drive. Stay hungry, everybody!