Archives for June 2007

Vanilla Panacotta with Quebec Strawberries

They’re here! The markets are full of these red jewels and they are small, sweet and affordable. I don’t know about you, but I prefer it when my strawberries actually taste like strawberries, which they don’t throughout the winter months. These are so tasty, they don’t need much dressing up.
I don’t think I’ll make it berry picking this summer, I’m too busy planning for a trip out west. Yes, UtHC is traveling to beautiful British Columbia for three weeks in July! I hope you all will join us as it is sure to be an adventure.

Sometimes the simplest desserts compliment our Quebec strawberries the best. Here the berries are enjoyed with a plain vanilla panacotta which allows the strawberries to be the main feature of the dish.

Vanilla Panacotta

1 Liter 15% cream

150g sugar
7 gelatin leaves (2 grams each)
1 vanilla bean

  • In a heavy bottomed pot, heat cream, sugar and vanilla bean gently over medium heat until simmering. Remove from heat and let infuse for about ten minutes. Scrape vanilla seeds from pod and stir into cream mixture. Remove vanilla bean and return pot to heat. Gently bring up to a simmer again.
  • In a bowl of cold water, dissolve gelatin sheets. Squeeze out excess water and whisk into hot cream mixture. Whisk well to dissolve gelatin.
  • Pour mixture into a bowl and place in fridge to cool. (If you are using vanilla extract, you can pour the mixture right into the prepared dishes) Chill mixture in fridge until it is slightly thickened and can support the vanilla seeds. You want to have them dispersed throughout the panacotta, not gathered at the bottom of the glass!
  • Prepare 6 serving bowls, ramekins, molds, glasses, or whatever you desire to hold the panacotta. In the photo I used plastic cone-shaped molds, but I also like to serve it in martini glasses.
  • Scoop the runny panacotta mixture into the glasses and chill until set. Serve with fruit coulis and sliced fruit.
  • Interview with Aimee

    So, there is a group of friendly food bloggers who are going around tagging each other to be interviewed. I particularly enjoyed Gilly’s interview over at Humble Pie and piped up in a comment for her to interview me. I was thrilled to receive my five questions from the lovely Gillian and now you can read the full interview. As she had warned, the questions are quite personal, so you’ll be getting a glimpse into the inner workings of life around here!
    Humble Pie: Can you tell us a bit more about your experiences in the professional cooking industry – What were you responsible for? What did you like best about it? Least about it? UtHC: Well,I started working in restaurants when I was 17 and never looked back. Since then it was been a wild and wonderful ride that has taken me from a remote fly-in fishing camp on the BC coast where I was camp cook, all the way to Montreal’s fine dining scene, with plenty of bistros (and one year of cooking school) in between.
    My three-year stint at Montreal’s Toque! Restaurant (at the time, it was the best in the city) certainly honed my cooking skills and further developed my palate. It left me with an insatiable desire to search out the best ingredients possible for my own personal cooking (often more of a pain in the neck than a blessing) and to accept nothing but the best from fine restaurants that charge the big bucks. It was also during this time that my family officially labeled me a food snob! LOL! I was chef du parti garde manger, basically responsible for all the entrees. I loved the accessibility to fine ingredients such as truffles, wild mushrooms and fresh seafood and the challenges the job brought, but it was very demanding on my home life and not a job I could pursue while raising a family.
    I also worked for Montreal caterer, Philippe de Vienne, and loved every minute of it. I loved being a private chef, going into people’s homes with my mise en place, and cooking the food for these elaborate parties they threw. I met great people, saw some of Montreal’s finest homes, and was immensely proud of every plate I served.
    Humble Pie: Montreal is one of my absolute favorite cities in all of Canada – in your opinion, what makes it so special and unique in regards to food and drink? UtHC: How can I summarize? European influence; market-based cuisine; young up-and-coming chefs featuring Quebec-based products; bakeries and shops handed down from generation to generation offering the best of the old world; the rise of the low-priced-yet-gourmet bistro; Quebec’s incomparable cheeses, maple syrups, ice wines, seafood and game featured on menus around town; world class chefs who’s creativity knows no limits; the fact that after living here for eight years I am still discovering great new places to eat; and of course, the heavy competition that drives restaurants to stand out in a city packed with memorable dining experiences. Humble Pie: Walk us through a typical day in your household. UtHC: Morning: French press coffee for me and apple juice for Noah as we kiss Dada goodbye. A leisurely breakfast, then a romp upstairs while we make the beds, get dressed and then head outside. We work in the garden, dig for worms, pick flowers, mow the lawn, swing, and play. Then back in the house, it’s story time, followed by a nap for Noah, while I fly around the place, waving my magic housewife wand to clean it and get a shower in if I am lucky.
    Afternoon: Picnic lunch in the park with friends, then head over to the market for some inspiration for supper. Asparagus, strawberries and watermelon are all looking pretty good now. Back at home we play or bake something yummy with Noah standing on a chair being a big helper. After that, Noah goes down for another nap (still a 2-napper, yay!) and I brew a cup of tea, throw a load of laundry in, and sit down to catch up on emails, phone calls, blogging, and business. If I am lucky, I’ll get to play around with a new a recipe or two during this downtime. Supper is usually started by now and when Noah wakes up, we have an art or music lesson and play some more.
    Supper is on the table as soon as Danny gets home, and the whole family sits down together.
    Evening: We love walking after supper, and all too often find ourselves at the local ice cream shoppe! LOL!
    Noah goes to bed early, giving us adults a nice long evening to kick back together.
    Humble Pie: I’ve read about a couple of your traveling adventures – where all have you traveled? Is there anywhere you haven’t been that you would like to go? UtHC: Well, like you, I love to dream about far away places. I am interested in every part of the globe, (except maybe Las Vegas, I have no desire to ever go there) so you see, I still have a lot of traveling to do! My parents instilled the travel bug in my siblings and me when we were very young by taking us all to South America for a few months. Since ‘growing up’, I have traveled in Mexico, USA (including Alaska), France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Austria, Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. I have also visited United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, but haven’t spent enough time in those countries to count them as ones I have really seen. Danny and I plan to travel with our children someday…I think it’s important to show them the world in all it’s splendor–and suffering as well.This traveling family are my heros. Humble Pie: Noah is an absolutely adorable little guy! If you could be certain that he would appreciate and enjoy ONE meal you made for him, what would you make? UtHC: Thanks, Gilly! His current favorite is a bean and cheese burrito with sour cream and a side of guacamole. His aversions are mostly to meat now, and even if I were to sneak some shredded chicken into the burrito, his highly in-tune filtering system would make sure it was pushed out and into his bib.LOL. Thanks, Gilly! I enjoyed your questions and now to the readers who want to be interviewed…read on! DIRECTIONS FOR THE INTERVIEW MEME 1. Leave a comment saying, “Interview me.”
    2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. Beware, I’m not shy of asking personal questions! Please make sure I have your email address.
    3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
    4. You will include this explanation and offer to interview someone else in the same post.
    5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

    New Lettuce Leaves for Lunch

    Fresh Garden Greens with Grainy Mustard Vinaigrette and Cruton Gratiné au Saint Raymond
    I love getting out to the garden in the morning. All is quiet, it’s not yet overly hot, and it’s a good way to start out the day…Unless, of course, you have a school two blocks away that is celebrating its last day of school with hoopla and fanfare. “Mary, please report to the hot dog stand. Marie au Hot-Dog, S’il-vous-plait”. My early morning reverie was peppered with announcements like these and then the blaring music started. I soon found myself serenaded with some of the worse popular tunes out there and I surrendered, gathered my lettuce for my salad and retreated inside.
    Why the heck they have to blast
    “It’s Raining Men” to a bunch of elementary students is beyond me.
    Note to self: home schooling i
    s a viable and attractive option for the future. My little garden is starting to give the first produce of the season. A little late, granted, but I got a slow start, and tardy or not, I am just grateful to actually have a garden that is producing something. Last years lesson was that plants don’t grow in the ultra sandy soil that is my garden.
    This spring, a friend offered me as much three-year-old chicken poo from her now-silent chicken coup as I wanted, and I jumped at the chance. Free poo, now that’s what I call a good friend!
    I turned several bags of the manure into my sandy soil along with some of my own compost and the results have been dramatically better than last year.
    So we are enjoying baby spinach, lettuce, and herbs and are looking forward to a small harvest in the fall. This recipe features my red oak leaf lettuce, but can be made with any garden greens you have.

    Garden Greens with Cruton Gratiné and Grainy Mustard Vinaigrette.
    A large bowl of washed salad greens
    Several slices of baguette
    1 tablespoon olive oil
    Cheese of your choice; I used a mild Quebec cheese, Le Saint Raymond from the Portneuf region
    Grainy Mustard Vinaigrette (recipe below)
    Sea salt

    Preheat oven to 350F. Brush baguette slices with olive oil and place in oven. Bake until crisp and brown, about 12 minutes. Grate or slice some cheese on top and return to oven just until the cheese is melted.
    Toss greens with a few tablespoons of vinaigrette and dress on a plate. Top with cheese crouton and a sprinkle a pinch of sea salt over the salad. Serve at once.
    Grainy Mustard Vinaigrette½ garlic clove
    ½ teaspoon salt
    1 tablespoon grainy mustard
    1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
    ¼ teaspoon black pepper
    ¼ cup olive oil
    Mince garlic with a chef’s knife, then mash to a paste with salt using the flat side of the knife. Whisk together garlic paste, mustard, vinegar, and pepper, then add oil in a slow stream, whisking until emulsified. Chill until ready to toss with greens.

    Montreal’s Best Cupcake and then some…

    Montreal seems to be one of the last major North American cities to catch the cupcake fever. Perhaps it is because we have such a fine selection of standard French pastries available at every corner boulangerie, that cupcakes tend to fall into the category of kindergarten birthday-party sweets.Not anymore.

    Gourmet cupcake shops are popping up all over Montreal as fast as potholes on Decarie Boulevard, already three in just the last six months! Surprising for a city where until recently, (unless you shopped in the bakery section at Loblaws) if you wanted a cupcake, you had to make it yourself. Now that there are four bake shops scattered over the city where you can pick up one of these trendy little cakes, there is bound to be one close to chez vous.
    Google ‘cupcake New York’ and you will get about 1.3 million hits, where ‘cupcake Montréal’ will give you a little over one hundred thousand. Why is there such a cupcake craze south of the border, and how did we Montrealers end up with three new ‘boutique de cupcakes’ in a matter of a few months?
    I decided to try and find out. A cupcake tasting was needed. Urgently. Have we been missing something? Have our noses been buried so far into our napoleons, pithiviers, and tarte au pommes that we have been overlooking such an elementary delicacy as the cupcake?
    Somehow I doubted it.
    But! An afternoon of nibbling sweets sounded pretty nice, so I rounded up three of my girlfriends, each a bona fide baker in their own way and none of them watching their weight, and we stoically set out to complete our task. I think it’s probably been at least a year since I’ve made cupcakes, and even then they were only to donate to a kid’s camp. I may not be a cupcake connoisseur, but I was confident I would know perfection when my tongue encountered it. I was looking for perfection and perfection only, here’s why:
    The average cupcake in Montreal sells for $3. That’s three dollars and forty cents with tax, thank you very much. It is the equivalent of a sublime Vahlrona chocolate brioche at Olive et Gourmando, two flawless croissants from the Fromentier, or about five Polish prune paczki from Wawel.
    These had better be really, really good cupcakes. With a bag of icing sugar retailing around $1.99 and a box of cake mix the same, I can whip up a couple dozen for the cost of one of these designer cupcakes.
    New York City’s Magnolia Bakery, credited with starting the whole cupcake craze, (popular thanks to regularly screen time on Sex and the City) sells their celebrity cupcakes for $2. Other well known cupcakes shops in Manhattan, such as Sugar Sweet Sunshine, sell for even less, $1.50, so why the huge hike just six hours north? It’s not like we have to fly the frosting and sprinkles in by seaplane or anything. Come on!
    Ok, so where are these shops, you ask, and more importantly, where are the photos??At first glance at the business cards gathered from our tour, one might assume there are universal rules for owning a cupcake shop: you colors must be pink and brown. Either that, or there is cupcake mafia already and they have a hand in all these bakeries. In Montreal, it wouldn’t surprise me. Showcase at Cho’cola
    5601 Monkland, 514.485.cola. Open since: June ’07
    Price per cupcake: $2.95 Seating: indoor and outdoor
    . Cho’cola is a nut-free environment. Cho’cola was our first stop. We passed by the attractive outdoor terrace (which is sure to be a big draw even if the cupcakes don’t work out) and into the ultra-modern, girly-girly pink interior. Under the counter, an army of cupcakes stood at attention, leaving me to wonder about freshness issues. It is 3 PM on a Wednesday, folks, are you really going to sell all these cupcakes? I found the colors of frosting rather dull and the decorations very ho-hum average. (above photo)
    We chose four and it’s a good thing I jotted them down at the time of eating, because they were completely forgettable.
    Key lime had a pretty swirl of meringue topping it, but the cupcake had about as much of a citrus taste as a Ritz cracker. There was a florescent green blob of something in the middle and I am assuming this was the namesake key lime. The cake part was probably just plain vanilla, but I guess it would have involved actually reaching for a real lemon to change that, and we all know how much work that is!
    A carrot cupcake had mixed reviews. The girls used the word ‘muffin’ more than once, however, I was focusing more on the tasty cream cheese icing. It was OK.
    A ‘Chocolate Fever’ cupcake was about as low-grade as they get. This was our first stop of the day and I was dying to sink my teeth into something really, really chocolaty. Unfortunately, this light brown, hint-of-cocoa cupcake did nothing for me and its heavy icing was way overkill. Doubling the height of the cupcake, it was a disturbing pile of pasty, overly-sweet frosting that hadn’t even come close to a stick of butter.
    Finally a Chai Latte Cupcake helped smooth our ruffled feathers as we pronounced it the best, yet it was hardly more exciting than a plain vanilla cupcake with a few specks of spices. You have to wonder about a place that has row after row of bottled water with their label on it, but no website to speak of. Granted they have only been open a few weeks, but in this day and age where branding and marketing seem of paramount importance (hence the branded water), you would think that at least getting up a homepage with some contact info would be a priority.
    I couldn’t help but get the feeling that if Betty Crocker came back in a time machine from the past, she would have opened Cho’cola, as the cupcakes have that straight-from-a-box taste. Petits Gateaux.
    783 Avenue Mont-Royal Est. 514.510.5488.
    Open since: May ’07
    Price per cupcake:$2.95 Seating: yes
    Truth be told, I was rooting for this Plateau bakery. We lived in this corner of Montreal during the first few years we were married and it will always hold sweet, sweet memories for me. Unfortunately, Petits Gateaux didn’t help me make any new sweet memories.
    The decor is cute enough, minimalistic, modern and fun, but it was here we encountered the worst of our research. “You ladies choose which ones to get.” I offered, (usually the first to make my selection loud and clear.)
    “Oh, I don’t know, you decide.”
    “No, YOU!” Maybe my friends we just trying to be nice, but I kept scanning the case, desperately looking for temptation and finding none. If you looked closely, past the sprinkles and large rosettes of crusty icing, you could see the hard, cracked edges, signaling a dense, dry cupcake. Red alert! We managed to choose three: banana caramel, coconut and chocolate ganache. The bright blue coconut-quaffed cupcake looked cheery enough, but all the coconut fell off at the first bite and the baking soda taste was too overwhelming to continue eating. Too bad, because it was the fluffiest one. When cut in half, the banana cupcake looked about as appealing as a day-old Tim Horton’s bran muffin. And I hate Timmy’s. As I had predicted, it was very dry. On the flip side, the chocolate ganche cupcake was moist to the point of being messy. It fell apart the second I touched it, and more resembled a brownie than a cupcake. Tip: don’t eat this on a date where you are trying to impress. Itsi-bitsi,
    2621 rue Notre-Dame Ouest, 514.509.3926. Opened:December ’06
    Price per Cupcake $2.50, Seating: limited
    Itsi-bitsi was a slight encouragement to our sinking spirits. So far we were not finding the perfection we were looking for and our stomachs were starting to churn from the large doses of gummy icing.
    With a bright, cheery interior, Itsi-bitsi was very welcoming and the cupcake displays were the best we had seen yet. Each cupcake sat in a round hole in a notched piece of wood that slid out like a drawer for the case. It was impeccably clean and very chic looking. There were enough cupcakes on display to chose from, but not so many that you start to wonder if they have sold any at all that day.
    We chose just two to taste, as basic vanilla and chocolate ginger. If you can’t get these two flavors perfected, there’s no point in moving on!
    I loved the icing on both of these cupcakes. It was generous, yet not overdone; fluffy and creamy with a buttery taste that absolutely has to be there for me! The vanilla cupcake was tasty, very nice, but still not worth the steep price. I would probably go back for their chocolate-ginger cupcakes. Light in texture and dark with chocolate, they had bits of candied ginger throughout that livened them up somewhat.Still, the chocoholic inside of me wasn’t completely satisfied. It was looking for something better, something worthy of the title of Montreal’s Best Cupcake. A cupcake that made the world stop turning for a few seconds when you bit into it. An experience.Something like this….

    Montreal’s Best Cupcake: Chocolate-Chai from Cocoa Locale

    Cocoa Locale.
    4807 Park Avenue. 514.271.7162. Opened: Summer ’05
    Price Per cupcake: $3 Seating: a bench
    I knew our mission was accomplished the second I bit into one of Reema Singh’s cupcakes at Cocoa Locale. Owner of the teeny-tiny Mile-End shop, Reema does all the baking herself and alongside other assorted baked goods, offers three kinds of cupcakes: vanilla, lemon and chocolate-chai. Of course we took one of each.
    We knew this was the end of the search for the best cupcakes; we didn’t even have to say anything. Seated on the grass at Parc Jean Mance, we collectively nodded our heads, sighed and licked our fingers. Perfection was found. What a relief!
    The delicate lemon cupcake tasted exactly as it should: like lemon! With a fine crumb, produced only by a cake made from scratch, and a thinned-out lemon buttercream icing, this cupcake is the ultimate garden party confection.
    The vanilla cupcake, usually the most basic of flavors, was actually the most complex. Whatever trick Reema has up her sleeve must be working, because this was the best vanilla cupcake I’ve ever had!
    However, the ultimate part of my day was my first bite into the chocolate cupcake. It was the kind of deep, dark, rich chocolate flavor that makes a chocolate-lover’s knees go weak. I wanted to rub that cupcake all over my body. Mmm, let me just sit here for a minute and remember it. Cocoa Locale only uses the best chocolate: Valrhona, and I heartily approve! Also, the subtle chai compliments the chocolate beautifully, taking this cupcake up another level. That now puts it way, way above any other cupcake we tried that day.
    Now I know I am not the first to sing the praises of Cocoa Locale. It’s been around for a few years, I am just sorry that I am only discovering it now. We were all charmed by this little shop-around-the-corner and agreed that it certainly made a trip up to Mile-End worthwhile. It’s interesting how all these new copy-cat designer cupcake shops can’t hold a candle to Montreal’s own original little bakery. It’s not that the other cupcakes were terrible, they were just not worth $2.95 each. The quality of ingredients and the care just wasn’t there. Sure there was plenty of pretty packaging, fancy lighting, style and more than one Joe/Jane who knows their way around a piping bag, but ultimately in the end there was always flaws that no amount of icing -or sprinkles- could disguise.
    Montreal is already widely known for its gastronomic strengths, perhaps once our cupcake bakeshops (with the exception of Cocoa Locale) work out their kinks, our city will have yet another feather in it’s culinary cap.

    WFD? Shrimp and Asparagus Summer Rolls with Avocado Puree

    Last weekend the air was filled with the sounds of revving engines as it was Grand Prix weekend and all the Formula 1 cars were blowing smoke around Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Even though we live a good 20 kilometers from the racetrack, I can hear the cars from my own backyard. As Noah and I got dirty in the garden under the warm sun, I tried to think of another sound that signaled the start of summer in Montreal, but the F1 cars seemed pretty significant.
    Every year around here we ask each other “It’s Grand Prix all ready??” as if we can’t believe the spring rains are finally over and the summer is here for a while.
    For those hot days where you don’t want to turn the oven on or even stand over a barbeque, there are spring rolls- or summer rolls as some of us call them. (I’ve even been known to call them ‘clean-out-the-fridge-rolls’ when they end up being way to use up scrap vegetables). They are refreshing, enjoyable to make and usually disappear as fast as I can roll them around here!
    Quebec asparagus is cheaper than many other green veggies right now and I had a fat bunch sitting in my fridge. I found some frozen shrimp I had forgotten about, pinched a mango from Noah’s stash of fruit, and the filling for these rolls just came together.
    If you’ve always had spring rolls just with peanut sauce, you must try this avocado puree for something different. It’s rich and feels almost decadent, but is simple to make. Make sure the avocado flesh is void of any brown parts.

    Summer Rolls
    12 medium shrimp, (about 6 ounces), peeled and deveined
    3 ounces rice vermicelli
    2 tablespoons rice vinegar
    1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
    Salt to taste
    16 round 8-inch rice-paper wrappers
    1 medium carrot, peeled and julienned
    1/4 cup packed fresh mint leaves
    2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh basil leaves, preferably Thai,
    2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves,
    1 mango, peeled, seeded, and julienned
    Juice of 1 lime
    6 ounces (about 16 spears) pencil asparagus, blanched and trimmed to about 4 inches
    micro chives, for garnish

    1. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Add shrimp; cook until pink and cooked through, about 2 minutes. Slice cooked shrimp in half lengthwise. Cool, then toss with lime juice and a few pinches of salt. Set aside.
    2. In a medium bowl, cover rice vermicelli with hot water by 2 inches; let soak for 10 minutes. Drain, and rinse under cold water. Toss with basil, cilantro, rice vinegar and sesame oil. Set aside.
    3. Have all ingredients ready for rolling the spring rolls: carrot, mango, seasoned rice noodles, shrimp, asparagus and mint leaves.
    4. Fill a dish or your kitchen sink with warm water. Working with 1 rice-paper wrapper at a time, soak in water for 30 seconds; immediately lay flat on a damp towel. Smooth to remove wrinkles, than fold up the bottom quarter toward the top. Working with your hands, place about two tablespoons of the rice noodles on the folded up part of the wrapper. Place a few asparagus spears, carrot, mango and shrimp on top of the noodles. Add a mint leaf slightly above the rest of the filling.
    5. Fold sides of the wrapper in toward the middle and roll the summer roll up, keeping the filling tightly pressed together. Tuck a few mini chives in to the side before you roll it all the way. Place roll on a plate and cover with a damp towel
    6. Repeat with remaining rice-paper sheets and filling. Chill summer rolls until ready to serve. Slice summer rolls in half to show the vibrant colors inside and serve with avocado puree or peanut sauce.

    Avocado Puree

    1 ripe avocado
    2 Tablespoons whole milk
    salt to taste

    Divide avocado in half and remove seed. With a spoon, scoop out flesh in to a glass measuring cup. Add milk and using a hand held blender, blend until smooth. Try to keep the blades submerged at all times so as to incorporate as little air as possible. Season with salt, cover top with plastic wrap and refrigerate until used. May keep up to six hours before starting to discolor.