George’s Focaccia and a slice of history

A little over eleven years ago I was working as a nanny of two young boys, oblivious to the future I had in professional cooking and unaware of the wild and wonderful journey into the culinary world that I was about to embark on and never return from.
At the time, my family was fortunate enough to be friends with the owners of the best restaurant in our small British Columbia town. Two heads and shoulders above the Chinese buffets and truck-stop cafes that lined the highway, the Little Onion Restaurant offered succulent dishes such as Smoked Alaskan Black Cod and Jamaican Jerk Rack of Lamb. They were the best for countless reasons, among them being their homemade sorbet and ice cream, and perhaps most impressive of all, daily fresh-baked focaccia.
It usually was just coming out of the oven when the doors opened at 5-o-clock and as soon as clients were seated, it arrived at their table: warm, sliced into generous wedges and served with accompanying olive oil and balsamic vinegar. (remember the oil and vinegar of the 9o’s?)
There was no one in town eating better that night than those guests.

My path crossed with the Little Onion one day when the sous chef walked out on George, head chef and owner, hours before a busy Saturday night service. Over an espresso at the bar, George lamented to my father that he didn’t know what he was going to do and so my father offered:

“My Aimee is pretty handy in the kitchen. Why don’t you have her come in and help out?”
I guess George figured he had nothing to lose and so that evening I found myself thrust into the most thrilling environment I had ever encountered: a bustling, swinging, hot, professional restaurant kitchen.
I loved every minute of it.
At the end of the evening, George poured me a glass of chilled Riesling and spoke three words that I’ll never forget.
“You’re a natural.”
Then, to my delight -and terror- he offered me a permanent position.
The rest is history. George took me under his wing and gave me a crash course in culinary education. It was in that small kitchen where I got my first second degree burn from boiling sugar, left a piece of my palm in the mandolin, and got hooked, really hooked, on espressos.
It was the best of times.

George’s focaccia was something I never got sick of, even though I had it for dinner most nights, stuffed with some caramelized onions and homemade charcuterie. The smell of it baking never failed to make my stomach growl and it was one of the recipes I kept over the years.
It’s simple to make and always a crowd pleaser, whether you are throwing an antipasto party or just dining on a humble lasagna.

George’s Focaccia

400 ml warm water
1 tablespoon dry yeast
½ teaspoon sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Olive oil
Fresh rosemary
Coarse salt
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine water, yeast and sugar. Whisk quickly with a fork, then leave to sit for five or ten minutes until the yeast starts to dissolve and bubble.
Add half of the flour and the salt to the yeast mixture. With a dough hook attachment, beat batter on medium high until well combined. Add remaining flour and combine slowly, scraping down the dough hook and sides of the bowl as needed, until mixture comes together in a smooth dough. Knead on low speed for 3 to 4 minutes until dough is soft and elastic. You may need to add another handful of flour or two. Dough should still be slightly tacky.
Remove from bowl. Wash bowl, dry well and coat with olive oil. Place dough back in bowl and cover with a towel. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk- about 1 ½ hours.
Preheat oven to 400F
Generously oil two 8-inch round pizza pans with olive oil. Turn dough out onto counter and without punching dough down, divide in two with a sharp knife. Place a round of dough on each pizza pan and press gently with fingertips to flatten slightly and fill out the pan.
Allow to rest 10 minutes.
Drizzle a little olive oil on top of the focaccia and sprinkle with your choice of fresh herbs and a generous helping of coarse salt.
Bake about 15 minutes until bottom of focaccia is lightly golden and the top has a nice color as well.
Cool slightly, then slice into wedges and serve warm.
This focaccia is best eaten the same day it is made, but it does freeze well. To reheat, crisp in oven.

The Year that Was

2007 was a fantastic year for cooking and I am so glad that a portion of it is documented here on Under the High Chair. Several factors helped make it the year that was…

This summer my garden finally decided to start producing and gave me plenty of fresh vegetables and herbs to work with. My son Noah was old enough to pull up a chair and obedient enough for us to try slightly more complex dishes together. Certainly being pregnant for the second half of the year gave me a voracious appetite that spurred me on to keep cooking. I didn’t crave much in particular except FOOD and lots of it (sweets in particular!)

I found inspiration in every season from the crisp asparagus and Quebec strawberries in spring to the ripe peaches and fresh fish of summer. Fall produce tempted me to start canning jams and jellies and the arrival of snow brought an onslaught of comfort food such as warm gingerbread and bread pudding.

Christmas is practically a season of its own and I got a jump on my holiday baking with an early batch of fruitcake and a successful cookie swap that even made the local paper.

Yes, I so enjoyed cooking every dish and sharing them with you, but at the end of the day, what really makes blogging worthwhile is the feedback that I get from my readers. Thank you to all who have commented and sent personal emails! They are always encouraging and great to get.
Some of the feedback never fails to really astound me. For example, Dana from the UK writes that a new resolution of hers is to try as many recipes as I post! A truly ambitious and flattering goal. New mom Michelle emailed to say that she is addicted to UtHC and her 7-month-old son loves tartiflette. Sounds like a foodie in the making, Michelle! Laura also dropped me a note from Vancouver and said she and her sister spent a few hours browsing UtHC over the holidays and they are two new hardcore fans!

These comments are much appreciated and I thank each and everyone who takes the time to drop me a note.

I hope that I can continue to inspire you to get cooking in the year to come!
Thanks for reading.

UtHC Turns One: A Look Back

365 days, 115 posts, thousands of hits, hundreds of comments, many new friends, and three contented bellies: that is just some of the impact this blog has had on our home in its first year. So pour yourself another glass of wine or top up your cup of coffee as we take a journey back together. Happy 1st birthday to Under the High Chair!At the beginning, I had many doubts that blogging would stick as I am not a ‘techie’ by any means, and any attempts in the past I have made at journaling have all been wildly sporadic. However, one thing I knew for certain, was that I would never stop creating and consuming delicious food, and with that being a firm fact, I found myself with more material that I could use for this blog. How many dishes and baked goodies went eaten before they were photographed? How many excellent recipes got put together without note-taking and thus impossible to recreate? Plenty!
Still, I am thrilled with what I have been able to share with you over the past year and have enjoyed the process of this blog’s evolution from the first post
to what it is now. It would be impossible to sum up the past twelve months or try to identify a favorite post, but I have attempted to highlight some of the more memorable posts with a look back at UtHC’s first year. Just click on the links to read the posts in full. In the beginning…Getting started! Two years ago I probably didn’t know what a blog was.
One year ago I was oblivious to the wide and wonderful world of food blogging.
It wasn’t until my friend Zaak suggested I should start a blog that I realized I could actually enjoy this idea of an online food journal which would include three of my hobbies: cooking, photography and writing. ( Because, of course the blog would have to be centered around the all-important FOOD!)
That was the ‘what’ and if you’ve read my basic profile, you’ll understand the ‘why‘: I needed a creative outlet.
As for the ‘where’? Well, introducing…Noah, the inspiration for Under the High Chair. In the post What’s in a name? I detail just how my blog title came to be and vent some frustration over how my son is my harshest critic.
Also in my header I ask the question “Does my young son care who I’ve cooked for?” and I expounded on that subject in So who have I cooked for? While I name some A-list celebs, I also note that it’s a pretty pitiful claim to fame but it helps to remind my self once in a while that I used to have clients that actually enjoyed my cooking, unlike my son.And so, Under the High Chair was born….. Most Feedback:
Easily the post that received the most attention was Montreal’s Best Cupcake. A lot of hard work (eating cupcakes!) went into this revealing review of four cupcake bakeshops in Montreal. The study, combined with a lengthy write-up and some colorful pictures, drew plenty of attention from local readers. For instance, I received personal emails asking detailed (and somewhat bizarre) questions, a few cupcake themed gifts made their way into my kitchen, and UtHC popped up as a link on a Chowhound message board. The review even caught the eye of the delightful Susan Schwartz of the Montreal Gazette: several emails and an interview later, voilà, there was a blurb about Under the High Chair’s opinion on our city’s cupcake status in her article titled: Let them Eat Cupcakes. How fun to see a link for UtHC in print! Most Personal:
I’ve always been fairly open on my blog about myself, our family and the workings of under the high chair, but when I signed on for an interview with the delightful Gilly of Humble Pie, I should have known I would be giving readers an even closer look at Aimee and UtHC . Most Memorable Trip:
While my recent three week visit to my home province of British Columbia was extra special because of close family ties, I would have to say that our whirlwind weekend getaway sans bebé to the Big Apple in June was completely unforgettable. We ate and ate and ate, and in between eating, we walked. 15 kilometers, to be exact.
Let’s do it again soon.
Most Controversial:
Perhaps the most controversial post of the year was Danny Cooks: an honest narrative of a typical Saturday morning where my husband’s sincere attempt to serve me poached eggs ends with mixed results. This little glimpse into our kitchen hovered like a dark cloud over our house for two weeks before Danny finally agreed (after some editing of his own) to let me post it. While those who know him well testify to its accuracy, Danny still refuses to accept the writing as anything but pure fabrication.Best Construction/Use of Ginger:
My kitchen was never so sugar coated that it was during the few weeks leading up to Christmas where I attempted the second gingerbread house of my life and had a much easier time than with the first. I remembered how much I love working with candy and how much fun it is to be on a perpetual sugar high for several days. Best Cake:
I am not a big cake maker. I tend to drag my feet at the decorating stage unless I have a really good idea I can play around with, and even then, I like to keep it simple. For Noah’s first birthday I did a lemon cake with a lollipop garden-enough candy for a whole pack of kids. Or uncles.
Best Canapé:
I love eating finger food. Love to much and crunch, dip and sip. After three years of the garde manger station at Toque! I acquired a lot of patience for putting together delicate, bite-sized amuse bouches and still enjoy creating flavorful and pretty canapés for my own parties. Hmm, best of the best?? A tough decision, but I do make these Wilted Spinach and Garlic Crostini with Parmesan every chance I get. Best Party:
I love hosting parties be it a holiday, the Oscars, a birthday or just a warm summer evening and this year we had some great ones. I think that this wine and cheese party was the most fun- and that’s not just because many bottles of wine were consumed, either! It wasn’t a lot of work and it was worth it to splurge a little on fabulous cheese and fine wine. Best Cookie:
With two (Christmas & Valentines) successful cookie exchanges on UtHC’s resumé last year, picking a best cookie is highly controversial and entirely a matter of taste; however, I get asked for this gingersnap cookie recipe more than any other recipe ever. I love to add tonka bean for an extra-complex flavor. Worst Dining Out Dish:
The year can’t all be great food and wine…and this Trio of Crème Brulé from the Beaver Club brought me crashing down to earth pretty fast. A not-so-sublime combination of pistachio, praline and mocha brulés, served in egg shells.
Ugh. I hate to be reminded. Best Dining Out Dish:
We dined at so many great places this year: Le Jolifou, Au Pied du Cochon, Gastropod, Tapeo, L Express…it’s hard to pick a best dish, so Ive narrowed it down to a tie:
Warm Chanterelle Salad (pictured above) with fresh Favas, Sea Asparagus, Almond and Cider Vinegar from Vancouver’s Gastropod and Deep-Fried Calamari from Montreal’s Tapeo. Sublime.
It’s been a wonderful year!I have learned so much and hope to keep improving in areas such as photography, formatting, writing, and content. Thank you to my readers for all their comments-they mean a lot to me!
I look eagerly ahead to the next year for UtHC as I have a few new things planned, as well as continuing old favorites.Thanks for reading!!

Flashback: Okanagan Valley, 2006

When we started our decent along the switchbacks from high in the Cascade Mountains down into the Okanagan Valley, all we knew was that we were headed for a town between two lakes at the heart of British Columbia’s wine country, and to the home of our friends who lived in this place called Pentiction. We weren’t expecting to gape in awe at the scenery, as we drove our rented Montana along a breathtaking wine route that wound around the lake, providing beautiful views of vineyards co-existing along the sloping hills and growing nearly right down to the shimmering, clear waters of Okanagan Lake.
In short, we never expected to fall in love with this bewitching place.

Located about five hours east of Vancouver, the Okanagan Valley stretches over 100 kilometers with Okanagan Lake at it’s center. This is Canada’s warmest region and one of it’s premiere wine appellation, thanks to the many unique micro climates and soil types in the various pockets of the valley. One could say that this area is experiencing a boom as in the past five years the number of wineries has doubled in size bringing to total up to 132. We decided that was enough to keep us happy doing wine tours for an entire summer. Unfortunately we had to settle for considerably less than that during our two day stay.

Our cheery, enthusiastic hosts Cameron and Dana were more that happy to give us the tour around the valley where they have settled and set up their business, Joy Road Catering.
Two of the best chefs I know, we’ve kept in touch over the years since working together a few years ago at Toqué!

After a swim in the lake to cool us down, our friends got on their cell phone and called their contacts to let them know that they were on their way with some food and wine lovers in tow! We were in for a rare treat: a gourmet excursion along the captivating benchland known as Naramata with our own personal guides.

Danny and Noah enjoying the river-fed Okanagan lake with it’s mountain views and sandy beaches.

Although wineries are predominant in the valley, plenty of orchards and produce farms take advantage of the rich terrain. The air is heavy with the scent of ripe apricots and roadside stands showcase the best of what the valley has to offer: peaches, pears, plums, apricots, cherries, and apples. This is fresh fruit at its finest, bursting with flavor and warm from the lazy suns rays.

Our van lurched along a winding driveway alongside a cherry grove and we tumbled out at Claybank Lavender Farm. We walked down a sloping hillside overlooking the lake (everything overlooks the lake here!) and into fields and fields of ripe purple lavender. Absolutely magical.

Dana’s friend Pati runs this second-generation lavender farm and makes her own one-of-a-kind luxurious products for body and home. She was as pleasant as can be and invited us to pick cherries from her trees, which we were hoping she would, and gave me a bundle of fresh lavender that scented my suitcase all the way home.

Fresh cherries are amazing and all, but we were getting hungry and eager to sample some wine. So while Noah succumbed to the warm sun and dozed in his stroller, we did a wine and cheese tasting at Poplar Grove Winery. This establishment produces four different kinds of absolutely stellar cheese that are sold on site and various local markets. Also, from what I have read, many of BC’s fine dining restaurants are featuring Poplar Grove cheese on their menus. Their wines weren’t bad either. Miranda picked up a bottle to bring home to her boyfriend, but to be kind, let’s just say he was M.I.A. when she returned home to Montreal and she drank it herself.
He didn’t deserve it anyway.

View from Poplar Grove Winery

Next up was Elephant Island Orchard Wines, who’s driveway carved through dense orchards scattered with Quebecers busy harvesting the fruit. (OK, maybe there weren’t all from Quebec, but the word is that the majority of fruit pickers in the summer come from Quebec!) Here we found no elephant and no island, but a tantalizing selection of fruit wines: raspberry, apricot, crabapple, black currant, cherry, pear…Just reading the wine list made my mouth water. We sat in their shady garden and sample five or six. We left with a case.
This sun was sitting low in the hills as we dropped in to visit Heidi Noble at Joie Farm Cooking School and Winery.

View of Joie’s outdoor kitchen

Haidi and her partner, Micheal Dinn, seem to lead a pretty idyllic life, at least one that I would covet. Hmm, let me see, own a small winery, a few orchards, a modest cooking school run out of a top of the line outdoor kitchen, and in the winter months, work on a cookbook. It was a pleasure to meet the vibrant Heidi, and we realized we had more than one thing in common: we both held the same position at Toqué, but she was there several years before I. Small world. They showed us around their charming farm and we picked ripe peaches as large as grapefruits from their trees. Look for their cookbook, Menus from an Orchard Table, coming in May. The word is out that both of our friends, Cameron and Dana, are featured in it.

Soon afterward, following a quick stop for coffee’s, we said our goodbyes, thanked our splendid hosts and hit the highway toward Vancouver, where we would catch our flight home. The van was oddly quite as we watched the beauty of the Okanagan Valley fade away as the miles passed under our wheels. Soon the fast food joints started popping up on the sides of the road and we began to see all the usual signs of the approaching sprawl of suburbia.
We had experienced a rare side of Canada’s natural splendor and it was going to be hard to get back to normal everyday life.
We had had a glimpse of a world where a peach tastes so good, it’s the best thing to happen to you all day-and you’re having a great day. A place where people care about their environment, get to know their neighbors, take pride in their land, and live life to it’s fullest.

The fragrance of lavender perfumed our Montana, reminding us of where we had been.
As if I would ever forget.

Flashback: Thailand, 1999

Koh Phan Ghan, Thailand. Eight years ago

We’re looking for the perfect restaurant. Darkness has fallen by now. Here, halfway around the word from home, and closer to the celestial equator than I have ever been, I search the sky for familiar patterns in the stars. I don’t find any. A group of us walk along a muddy road, following the lights of the guesthouses and bars that line the beach for miles. It’s been three days of nonstop rain on this island and no boats can get in or out. I exasperatedly wrote in my journal this morning: “72 hours of solid torrential rain. Ok, I’m impressed. Can you stop now?” With nothing to do but sit in our guesthouse restaurant, watching the rain carve channels in the sand, we’ve formed friendships with the good folk we are now stepping out with. Since we’ve tried everything on our menu, it’s time to venture out in search of something new, and tonight’s break in the rain is the perfect chance. A giant mud puddle yawns in the road before us and I can’t even make out the other end in the darkness. Joe offers me a piggy back ride and I accept, since my brother Josh has already veered off into the jungle and is bush-whacking his way around the puddle. That’s ok. We’re only two weeks into our three month backpacking trip together and I can tell I am going to have to look out for myself. Joe is a tall, tanned Kiwi who’s been traveling for months with his girlfriend, Andrea. They’re giving New Zealanders a good reputation with their easygoingness, big smiles and charming accents. We met up with them a week ago in Bangkok and have been having a blast touring temples, snorkeling, watching Thai boxing and eating out together. Two British blokes make up our party of six: Churchy and Snaksy. I don’t think I know their real names-or their relationship to each other, for that matter. Both are thirty something’s, always ready with a joke for the occasion, and speak what I imagine to be Cockney. Snakesy, the short one, never takes off his cutoff jean shorts, rain or shine, swimming or sunning, and perpetually has a fag lit. Churchy, the tall one, seems to be the more educated of the two and likes to rag on Snakesy. From three different countries-different continents for that matter-we are united by a love of good food and that is our quest tonight as we stop and peruse a menu posted in a bamboo case on the side of the road. Down a windy path, the lights of the restaurant beckon and I can smell ripe pineapple. “Nope, not this one” I declare, after a quick look at the menu. “Look, they have hamburgers and Wiener Schnitzel”. Obviously the place couldn’t be authentic Thai if it is catering to the tourists so blatantly.

We pass pub after pub, place after place and we’re starting to get hungry. There’s the unspoken feeling that this is our last night together and we’ve become better friends than we thought we would. Tomorrow the weather will be calm, the ferries will be able to cross from the mainland and we will be off, each to our different destinations. This meal had to be memorable. A feast. We would order Som Tam (green papaya salad), Chicken with Red Curry, Pork Satay with Peanut Sauce, Fried Rice with Veggies and Cashews, Coconut Curry Shrimp with Thai Basil, Fish Soup with Vermicelli and Sweet Potatoes, Curry Prawns with stir-fried Baby Corn and Lime, and mounds of sticky rice. Finally, just as certain members are starting to mumble about “buggerin’ off” under their breath, I see it. The perfect place. A large thatched roof bungalow rimmed with swinging lanterns. Guests seated outside, at low tables that are scattered amid the trees on the shoreline where the willows meet the sand.. The sign says it all: “ The Nice Place for Your Nice Time”. The menu sends shivers up my spine and I announce that this is IT. No one argues. I think they are all to hungry. What time is it anyway? Nearly eleven. Wow. No wonder we’re starving; we’ve done more walking tonight than in the past three days. A bowing waitress escorts us to our table and I can hear the THUD of coconuts dropping around us. This small island exports about one million coconuts a year; it’s biggest industry after tourism. As we take our seats, which are large pillows on the ground, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with the beauty of the moment. The surf gently laps the shore just a few yards away. The moon is rising over the South China Sea and it’s reflection is splintered by the waves. Strong, gnarled trees seem to grow right out of the sand and form a canopy over our table. A few lanterns swing above us in the night breeze, illuminating a couple sitting a few tables away. They sit close, their heads together over a bowl of rice. They don’t talk, but just look into each others eyes. I think of Danny and wish for the millionth time that he was here with me. I’ve just remembered, it’s Valentine’s Day.

Our menus arrive and I cheer up. We order drinks. Singha beer for the guys, fresh pineapple juice for Andrea and I. The food sounds amazing and I can’t believe our good fortune at finding a spot like this. The blokes have cheered up too and the jokes are rolling. Josh looks tired, his contacts are probably bugging him. A long way down the beach, firecrackers pop and explode in the air from a nightclub. Laughter drifts down the beach and I can hear the pulse of Thai techno as a Valentine’s party gets under way. People certainly know how to party here; I can see them in the light of the moon, flocking to the club from all over the beach. It’s taking a long time to get our drinks and Joe jokes that we should have brought a pack of cards. All we’ve done for the last three days is play Butt hole and sip lemongrass tea.

A shy, bowing, young Thai man finally comes out to take our order. He kneels on one knee next to our table and smiles and nods about 50 times as we painstaking relate ALL our dishes to him. When we fold our menus, he stands up quickly to collect them. Too quickly. THWACK! He bashes the back of his head on a low branch and drops (‘Like a sack-o-potatoes’ said Churchy, later) onto the sand. For a few seconds we all stare in disbelief, and then immediately feel stupid for not responding, as two restaurant staff come running and kneel next to him. He is conscience, but hurting, and they gently carry the man inside. We sit in stupefied silence for a while. I have the horrible urge to giggle and hate myself for it. Then we talk in low voices, fidgeting with our drinks, wondering how he is and what happens next. It’s not long before we find out. A lovely, but distraught looking Thai lady approaches our table and in her broken English explains that the restaurant is closing and we have to leave. “ No food” she says. Puzzled, we enquire after the health of the waiter and discover that he isn’t a waiter, he is the cook, and that he may not be cooking again for a long time. Since they no longer have a cook, they can no longer serve food, and that is that. It’s like a bad joke, but we have no choice but to leave. As we collect our things, I see the poor man, lying on a bench just inside the bungalow. He has a bandana wrapped around his head and he’s pale.

No one feels like walking around anymore -or even eating for that matter- so we drift down the beach in the direction of the party. We’ll get in line for a plastic cup of the popular party drink, a ghastly combination of whisky, Coke and Red Bull, join the throng of all-night revelers, and will probably make some memories of a different kind tonight. I don’t know if we did or not. I don’t remember.

Editor’s Note: “Flashback” is a new feature on UtHC, relating travel stories, memories and wisdom from past experiences. Where are we going next? Turkey. Maybe the Yukon.