Sometimes the call of the open road lures us away from the big city. We grab some water bottles, fill the gas tank to full and just drive. Most of the time we have no final destination in mind, only an idea of what direction we want to head in. When you live in Calgary, heading out to the mountains during the summer weekends can be like trading one rat race for another and when you’re dodging throngs of tourists on the sidewalks of Banff…there’s really no difference. If we want to relax, but still enjoy the joys of civilization, we head for a small town. There’s just something about a small town that makes me smile.
Our Cool Little Town adventure began on a sunny Saturday summer morning. We packed up the dogs and headed south on my favourite Alberta highway #22, dubbed the Cowboy Trail because it passes through so much gorgeous ranchland. The views along this highway begin with rolling grassland hills that give way to the mountains in the distance as this north/south highway runs parallel to the southern portion of the Rocky Mountains. I spent a lot of time with the window rolled down, trying not to drop my phone as I took photo after photo of this classic Alberta landscape.
The first small town we hit is Turner Valley. It’s a typical small town with quiet side streets, big backyards, and ball tournaments. On weekends, it’s a bit more lively, as the main crossroads between highway 22 and Mains Street contains more than a few unique stops for hungry and thirsty travellers. The Chuckwagon Cafe is often one of the first stops that anyone makes because it is truly a small town gem. Already famous locally before it’s appearance on The Food Network’s ‘You Gotta Eat Here’, The Chuckwagon Cafe serves home style all day breakfasts and one of Alberta’s best burgers (okay THE best burger in Alberta). The AAA grain finished, hormone free Alberta beef comes from the owner’s own ranch west of Longview. It’s the real deal.
Since it was a Saturday morning, there was a bit of a wait for a table at The Chuckwagon Cafe and we were all starving. Waiting for a table was not an option because the three of us were beginning to get a little hangry. We drove around looking for our next destination for quite a while, considering we were in a small town. We were just about to head out to the next small town when my son shouted, “There it is, the burrito truck STOOOOOOP!”. I had to laugh, really. This place is pretty difficult to miss Motoburrito situated right there in the yard at Motorrad Performance Motorcycle Shop. Bright Dia de los muertos adirondack chairs, Mexican flags, and all sorts of kitschy knick knacks abound at this road side food trailer. There were a few families and single biker dudes enjoying their burritos in the sunshine but best of all, there was no line! We ordered right away and the ladies got to work while we chatted away. It turns out that Claudette and Anne’s husbands own and work together at the motorcycle shop so the most logical step for them was to open a burrito stop. They are open Wednesday-Sunday and make a mean breakfast burrito if you ever want to get on the road nice and early.
I know I’m definitely not the only one from Calgary that makes the odd weekend pilgrimage to Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley. I’ve been a big fan ever since they opened their doors in November 2015. One peek into my home liquor cabinet gives you an idea of how much Eau Claire has grown over the year…I have every spirit (except for the Nectarine distillers series) including the most recently produced Apple Brandy. Home cocktail enthusiasts and professionals alike love the ‘grain to glass’ concept of locally grown grains sourced directly from farmers. While the tasting room and distillery tours are open year round, summer is the time to enjoy a hand crafted cocktail and nibble on some charcuterie on the sidewalk patio. For the kids, there’s locally crafted sodas and gelato from Fiasco Gelato in Calgary.
After our tour and cocktail at Eau Claire Distillery we were ready for coffee. A quick drive to nearby Black Diamond, an equally quaint but perhaps slightly smaller and quieter town and we hit the caffeine jackpot! The Stop Coffee House and Gathering Place is everything you would expect from a small town coffee shop, and more. They have all the classic baked treats (I had to pick up a puffed wheat square, turns out it was the best puffed wheat square I’ve ever had!) and sandwiches you would expect but they also have espresso and cappuccinos. New this year is an outdoor stage (made out of an old haywagon) for impromptu open mics and scheduled summer performances. Check out their facebook page for upcoming shows and keep in mind that they also hold indoor performances during the winter. We had such friendly service at The Stop that I want to go back and spend an afternoon there in the sun with these great folks; just check them out in the photo above…great people! Not coincidentally, great people attract great acts of kindness. One day, shortly after the outdoor stage was set up, the people at The Stop showed up at work to find a set of stairs up to the stage when before there was none. Cool little town random acts of kindness …
While checking our schedule, we made the executive decision to visit one last small town after Black Diamond. We’ve passed through Longview so many times but all we’ve ever done is admired the ‘long view’, literally. I really don’t know why it took us this long to stop in at the Longview Jerky Shop because both of our boys are huge fans. I guess we were just content with buying our Longview Jerky at the Farmer’s Market or Co-op, rather than stopping at the source. What began as a butcher shop in 1978 has grown into an established and beloved small town Alberta business.
These cool little town experiences were just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of other interesting eateries, great music events, and local artisans to check out. Here are but just a handful of the fun things to do in Southern Alberta’s Cool Little Towns:
To find out more, visit the Cool Little Towns website HERE.
It’s that time of year again, YYC Pizza Week returns to Calgary offering up pizza lovers all kinds of delicious and unique pizza creations from Calgary restaurants. Now going strong in it’s third year as a Calgary-wide food festival, the event which runs from Friday, September 23 until Sunday October 2 raising money for two local and worthwhile charities; Calgary Meals on Wheels and 100 Men Calgary.
Now, it’s also MY third year of participating in YYC Pizza Week’s annual Food Blogger Pizza Challenge and this year I am super excited to hear that the challenge has grown to 14 bloggers. Choosing the ingredients and letting my creativity fly are two of my very favourite things to do (I also like smack talking with John Leung, a 2 year veteran). I like a good challenge and having 13 other participants really ups the game this year. You might remember my previous year’s Food Blogger Challenge pizzas; 2014’s Sweet 16 Pizza and 2015’s Pumpkin Spice Pizza. The Sweet 16 was a winner but the Pumpkin Spice Pizza was not. I think I may have scared some voters away with the Pumpkin Spice reference even though the flavours were not really what goes into a regular Pumpkin Spice anything…
So, it’s 2016 and as I am typing this, I can hear my pizza bubbling away in the oven. It was a bit labour intensive, but we’ll just call The Sky High Pizza Pie a labour of love! It’s more than just a deep dish pizza, it’s a pizza filled with layers of pasta and meat; it’s a lasagne! To vote: Head on over to the YYC Pizza Week website and click the old button HERE (starting Sept 23rd).
First things first, let’s work a little on our Italian shall we? There are some pretty intense words I am going to use and you should know how to pronounce them in your head as you are reading. Let’s start with one of the challenge ingredients; Guanciale. For heaven’s sake, don’t google how to say it because those robot voices just cannot mimic the way a true Italian speaks. Say it now, “Gwan cha lay” If you still aren’t sure, head down to any Italian deli (like the one at Lina’s Italian Market) and they will correct you! Guanciale is a very fatty piece of Italian cured meat prepared from pork jowl, or cheeks. I honestly had no idea what to do with it, but I had a good chat with Neil McCue, chef/owner of Whitehall Restaurant here in Calgary. We threw around some ideas and when I mentioned I might just render it and use the fat to cook onions, he suggested I used it in the actual pizza dough instead of olive oil. So I did.
The next thing I did was make a Bolognese. Say it, “bo-lo-NYeh-say“! Making the Bolognese begins with a Soffritto (sohf/FREET/toh) using three traditional ingredients; onions,carrots, and celery. This trio is diced, then added to the pan and allowed to sweat until they are soft. Next, I added some brown crimini mushrooms (another challenge ingredient) to the soffritto and allowed it all to cook further. Once, finished, I scraped it all into a bowl and began to brown the Italian Sausage (the third challenge ingredient) by taking the meat mixture out of the sausage casings. I used a ratio of two spicy Italian Sausages to four regular Italian Sausages. When the sausage was cooked through, I added the veggies/mushrooms, a jar of my homemade passata (tomato purée), and some fresh basil chiffonade (that’s a French word for finely sliced). Then I let it gently simmer for a couple of hours with the lid on.
So, if you are following, I have the Guanciale pizza dough and the Bolognese on the go. Then, I made some fresh pasta. I’ve pretty much used every kitchen appliance by this point; the KitchenAid mixer, the food processor, the pasta roller…
After the pizza dough has doubled in size, I give it a punch down, then line a 9 inch spring form pan with baking paper and grease it with the guanciale fat for good measure. Rolling out the dough was super easy because it was so fluffy. It went into the pan nicely, then I lined it with foil and blind baked it (using chickpeas) for about 20 minutes at 350 F. I took out the foil and chickpeas and baked it for another ten minutes.
Then it was time for the lasagne construction. Did you notice I didn’t say ‘Lasagna’? That’s because in Italian they say lasagne instead of lasagna. Any how, I built the layers up, with the last layer being entirely of fresh basil topped with pasta, sauce, and finally…cheese!
Concerned that the top would get too browned during the final bake, I covered the top with greased foil, removing it for the last 15 minutes of cooking so the cheese would brown.
Sky High Pizza Pie
To vote: Head on over to the YYC Pizza Week website and click the old button HERE (starting Sept 23rd).
Sprinkle yeast over the surface of the warm water. Let stand for 5 minutes. Mix 2 cups flour, sugar, and salt in a mixer bowl. Add fat and yeast water, then mix well. Knead dough until it becomes smooth, using some extra flour if needed. Lightly grease a metal bowl and place dough inside, turning it to coat with grease. Cover with a cloth and let rise for an hour in a warm spot until it doubles in size. Punch it down, roll it out and arrange in spring from pan. Grease a sheet of aluminum foil and press lightly over the dough so that the dough remains on the sides of the pan. Fill with beans, etc. to weigh the dough down. Bake in a 350 F oven for 20 minutes; remove beans and foil, then bake for another 15 minutes.
Add olive oil, onion, celery, and carrot to a large pan. Sweat until they become slightly soft and translucent. Add garlic, then mushrooms and sweat further until there is no longer any water coming out of the mushrooms. Transfer to a bowl. Add Italian sausage meat to the pan and break up the large chunks using a spoon until they are quite small. When the meat has cooked through, add the vegetables/mushrooms back in, followed by the passata, tomato paste, and basil. Cover and gently simmer for 2-3 hours.
On a clean counter, mix semolina flour with salt. Mix water, egg, and oil together in a cup. Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour the wet ingredients in. Mix with hands until the dough comes together and becomes elastic. Cover and let rest on counter for ten minutes before rolling out.
Extra ingredients: 2 cups fresh basil leaves, 2 cups shredded Caciocavallo (or mozzarella), 1 cup finely shredded Grana Padano, and 1/2 cup passata.
Spread a third of the Bolognese along the base of the pizza crust. Cover with pasta sheets cut to fit the round pan. Add another Bolognese layer, then pasta. One more Bolognese, then arrange 2 cups fresh basil leaves on the surface, cover with another layer of pasta. Spread the 1/2 cup passata over top, then top with cheese.
Grease a sheet of Aluminum foil then place it loosely over top of the cheese. Bake at 350 F for 40 minutes, then carefully remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes. Let rest slightly so it slices nicely.
To vote: Head on over to the YYC Pizza Week website and click the old button HERE (starting Sept 23rd).
Humans have been using fire and smoke to cook food for millennia. There’s a totally reasonable explanation for this: It.Tastes.Bloody.Good. Add in the relatively recent (hundreds of years) acquired knowledge of spices and herbs and your barbecued meat becomes carnivore’s dream come true. I don’t know the science of why protein cooked this way turns into the tender, juicy, flavourful meat you just can’t stop shoving into your mouth, but trust me on this…it does. Calgary has, is, and always will be a meat lover’s town. Yeah, we’ve got some vegetarian and even a few vegan places but visitors and locals know that Calgary is known as ‘Cowtown’ for the simple fact that we love meat.
Trends in places to eat our favourite proteins have evolved somewhat over the years: In the beginning we had places like Hy’s Steakhouse (1955), Caesar’s Steakhouse & Lounge (1972), and Nick’s Steakhouse (1979) who serve[d] diners ‘classic steak dinners’ showcasing premium Alberta Beef. Then, we had a smattering of fine dining but still ‘meat-centric’ establishments open (Divino, Buchanan’s, Murrieta’s). Next came the modern wave of Calgary’s meat forward restaurants such as Notable, Charcut, and Modern Steak. At the same time, Brazilian churrasco barbecue restaurants became quite popular, Southern barbecue joints also hit the scene. Most recently Hayden Block Smoke and Whiskey has opened up in Kensington, giving Calgarians and visitors a tasty version of Texas-style barbecue while stoking our continued passion for whiskey (with over 150 kinds of the sipping spirit). The tender fall-off-the-bone smoked and charred meat is dry rubbed and is great to eat on it’s own…but then there’s the sauce dilemma. They give you the sauce so what are you gonna do? Sauce it up!!
Can you call rustic/barn-y/smoke-shack inspired surroundings, ‘décor’? This term seems a bit too fancy for what they’ve got going on at HBSW. Country ‘chic’ is way overused…I’m just going to call it ‘comfortable’. There’s weathered ‘barnwood’ walls, and old dairy style light fixtures, rusty knick knacks, and long bench style banquets. It’s all very monochromatic and practical, my one pet peeve is if you want to make a night of it, the seating is hard on your tushy. It doesn’t really matter anyway, because once that meat arrives at your table, you won’t give a rat’s ass what the place looks like or if you can still feel if your own ass is attached to your body.
With one look at the menu on the wall (menus are provided table side as well) my lunch date and I knew we’d have a difficult time narrowing our choices down to appear less gluttonous than we really are. So we didn’t. We each order the brisket (dry rubbed, then smoked 12-13 hours) because that was a no brainer. We agreed that we needed an order of hushpuppies and whipped honey butter STAT, and that the Three Cheese & Bacon Mac ‘n’ Cheese was taunting us but it was then that we went our separate [side]ways. If you come to Hayden Block…consider this a warning: you MUST leave your caloric worries behind and be okay with the fact that every calorie is worth it. The hushpuppies and whipped honey butter are insane.
Looking back on the photos, I can’t believe I didn’t try the chicken. My date did and said it ticked all the right boxes; juicy, tender, and well seasoned. I was so entrenched in my brisket and pulled pork that I barely looked up from my plate and had eaten half of everything before I remembered there was sauce. As was recommended, I tried the ‘Espresso Yourself’ with the brisket and the ‘House Barbecue’ with the pulled pork. Of all three, I enjoyed the ‘Espresso Yourself’ sauce the most and I was happy to hear it’s made from hyper locally made cold press coffee. Why do I say ‘hyper local’? One of the bartenders has a small cold brew coffee business and his cold brew makes up the bulk of the sauce. The third sauce was not my favourite but if you like an ultra vinegary hot sauce, this is the sauce for you. I was more than happy to much on the crispy pile of pickles provided on the side of my plate in between meats as they act like a bit of a palate cleanser so your mouth doesn’t get meat fatigue.
My date had the Pork Spare Ribs with his brisket and I just ended up with rib envy. Next time, my friends! I didn’t get a chance to try his ribs but he made my try his Baked Beans and I’m glad he did because they were the perfect combination of savour, sweet, salty, and sour with a bit of a kick at the end. He didn’t try my Smokehouse Corn in spicy queso because he’s a touch lactose intolerant (though come to think of it, this didn’t stop him from eating the mac ‘n’ cheese!) but I thought it was a great side, though I would generally share such a rich side dish.
I’m going to stop right here and give you a little lecture on expectations vs. reality. What is the first thing that pops into your head when you see the words ‘turkey breast’ on a restaurant menu? If you’re like most people (Date and myself included) you think ‘Oh Hell no, I’m not giving that dry tasteless piece of meat the time of day…bring me the brisket!’ And you would be WRONG my friends! Don’t forsake the turkey breast like we did because you won’t be fortunate enough to have general manager, Ian Walsh take pity on you and bring you slices of the succulent poultry even though you didn’t order it (though he does recommend it to most diners). It was so good, I have no photographic evidence that we ate it. Sorry.
This being a Southern Style restaurant there’s no escaping dessert. You can choose from Peach Cobbler or Pecan Pie. Not too many choices there, but you may not have much room for dessert anyway. If you must end the meal on a sweet note, I recommend the Pecan Pie to share. It gets two thumbs up from this self confessed pie junkie.
Hayden Block Smoke and Whiskey is a unique place in Calgary. It brings our city’s love of meat to a whole other level. I can’t wait to visit again and bring my boys because, wow they can eat a lot of meat. Word is, they sell out of meat every night by midnight (not whiskey, just to clarify) and if you have a late night meat craving the best time to visit is between 10 pm-12 am when the meat is half price until they run out.
***mustaches and beards not required, but most certainly are welcome***
Hayden Block Smoke and Whiskey (website)
1136 Kensington Road NW; 403-283-3021
And so it begins again for another year; school. New beginnings for many, some of the same old for others. While my son is in his second year at the same high school, my daughter is just beginning her first year of university. In fact, as I sit here typing, I am at my sister’s kitchen table in Vernon, B.C., slightly halfway to our destination at the University of British Columbia. I’m going through all the emotions right now; dread, sadness, desperation (lol), and always…hope. I mean, we can always hope that as parents we have done the best job possible raising our children. The real test comes when they leave home for the first time and are entirely on their own. She’s pretty bright, thrifty, friendly, confident, and most of all, independent. I think those qualities alone will get her far in life.
Back to the beginning of the school year…that means the beginning to many after school activities as well. Dance classes, swimming lessons, and sports. For our family, it’s football. After a long day at school our 15 year old is ravenous! He comes home and immediately polishes off any leftovers within sight. Then, I usually scramble to get something quick and nutritious on the table before practice. Pasta is best, of course, and I like to keep it healthy by using Catelli Ancient Grains, made from all natural 100% whole grain Canadian wheat and 5 ancient grains including Amaranth, Teff, Quinoa, Sorghum, and Millet. Each serving contains 12 g of protein, 8 g of fibre and 25% of your recommended daily iron intake. My recipe uses fusilli, but you could use the other Ancient Grains ‘short cuts’ rotini or macaroni. I bet you could even use the ‘long cuts’; spaghetti or spaghettini.
It’s a happy day, indeed, when a new cookbook finds it’s way onto my bookshelf. Like many self proclaimed ‘foodies’ I like to explore the nuances of many cuisines, preferably first hand in their country of origin. When travelling is not an option, print is the next best thing. Kan Lam Kho’s Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking is a gorgeous book packed full of almost everything you need to know about Chinese cuisine. It is highly approachable to the uninitiated reader (me) and reading it made me realize that there are many aspects to Chinese cuisine that I didn’t know about. At most, my connection to Chinese cuisine has been through dining out at Dim Sum and Szechuan restaurants. To date, the only recognizable Chinese dish I have attempted at home has been Red Cooked Pork. I don’t even remember where I got the recipe from but I do remember it was a comforting dish on a cold night. It was the first time I realized that there is a way to eat comfort food in every cuisine.
Kan Lam Pho is a food writer, instructor, and food consultant who specializes in Chinese cuisine. His blog, Red Cook, was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award and his first book, Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking has already received the Julia Child First Book award from the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals). His experience in teaching at the Institute of Culinary Education and Brooklyn Kitchen is reflected in the pages of the cookbook. Kian has thoughtfully included descriptions of pantry essentials, equipment, and techniques within the book, as well as intriguing history and family anecdotes. These inclusions make Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees more than just a cookbook, but a labour of love.
Today, I am happy to be part of a group of bloggers joined together to celebrate Mid Autumn festival, the second most important Chinese holiday (after Chinese New Year) by cooking from the pages of Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees. Like the universality of comfort food dishes, harvest feasts occur worldwide with the gathering of families around one table to enjoy a feast under the harvest moon. Since the Mid Autumn Festival is for lunar worship and moon watching, mooncakes are offered between friends or on family gatherings during the festival. There is no recipe for mooncakes in PCJT but there are several ‘how to’ posts on Kian’s blog for reference (here’s a link to one of them: Making Mooncake with Love).
There were several recommended recipes to choose from (out of the 158 included in the book) and I longed to try one of the stir fries. Stir frying is a technique that many people, like me, try to imitate but fail because they do not have the proper equipment. For years I’ve been using a flat bottomed non-stick basic frying pan which does cook the meat and vegetables but doesn’t really give the dish that ‘special something’ that every authentic Chinese stir fry has. That special something is called ‘wok-hay‘ or, breath of the wok. It is an indescribable presence that accompanies an authentic stir fry, much like the fifth sense of ‘umami’ that you have while eating a tomato. Like I said, it’s difficult to describe but ever so essential. I wanted that ‘wok-hay‘ in my dish so badly that I finally searched out a carbon steel wok of my own and attempted to season it. Do you see the gorgeous black patina on the wok pictured above? Despite my best efforts (and a great deal of time) this is what I ended up with:
From what I have heard, I can still salvage the wok but not in time to try the Stir Fried Beef with Black Pepper from page 118. Instead, I’ve turned to the most basic recipe in the book (and one that I am surprised to learn I have made before!), a refreshing Cucumber Salad with Garlic (page 336).
Quarter the cucumbers lengthwise and slice off the centre portion to remove the seeds (for large hothouse cucumbers you may want to further cut the quarters lengthwise into eighths). Then cut the lengths into 2 inch long pieces. Put the cucumbers in a bowl, sprinkle with the salt and garlic and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes. When you are ready to serve the salad, drain the juice that the salt has extracted from the cucumber pieces, retaining as much of the garlic as possible, and arrange the cucumbers on a plate. Pour the sesame oil over the cucumbers and serve cold.
Now for the GIVE AWAY! You can receive your very own copy of Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking from Clarkson Potter. All you have to do is click HERE and enter your name and a valid email address. Then, comment on my post and tell me about one of your most tragic kitchen adventures (come on, we all have them!). This giveaway is open to all Canadian residents until October 2, 2016. The official draw date is October 3. Good Luck!
Do you ever get fixated on something and can’t block it out of your mind? Even though I’m pretty good at juggling or multitasking, I always go back that one intense fixation, like when I was determined to find the perfect pastry recipe. Even though there are hundreds of recipes that all give a similar end result, I wanted to find the one that worked for me one hundred percent of the time. I wanted to be sure that if someone called me up in the middle of the night and asked me to bake a pie, I could do it while half asleep. Not that this has ever happened, but you just never know when the need for pie will arise.
If you read my previous post, you will know that I was recently invited to a special dinner which was the kick-off to an entire educational weekend (sponsored and mediated by The Lodgepole School of Wholistic Studies) that celebrated the world of Fungi. At the dinner I had the privilege to meet Robert Rogers, a naturopath and herbalist whose many talents include identifying mushrooms in Alberta and using them as edibles or as medicines. It has been my dream (fixation) for the last 5 years to learn more about Alberta mushrooms but I hadn’t had any real opportunity to go foraging with an expert until I met Robert at the dinner. When I heard that he was leading a forage on the last day of the fungi filled weekend, I made plans for hubby and myself to go along with the foraging group. Then I began to wonder what I would bring for our lunch. It had to be portable and able to survive at room temperature (or slightly higher) until lunchtime, plus it had to be tasty and slightly healthy.Here’s where my pastry fixation, meets my mushroom fixation: After a quick look in the fridge, I noticed the large container of mini portabellos that needed to be used up, along with Swiss chard and some old-ish brie cheese…one look at the butter and I immediately thought of making hand pies. It didn’t matter that it was 6 pm because it was finally time for all that pastry making practice to pay off! I had the pastry made in less than three minutes and the finished hand pies really only took a couple of hours in total. In the end, we had a delicious lunch to share (because I truly believe that the first rule of picnic-ing with others should be ‘always bring more than you really need’) and it’s a good thing too…because Robert had forgotten his lunch back in his hotel fridge. It made me so happy to share my food with someone who truly inspires me.
1 recipe butter pastry (from Inspired Taste) as follows:
5. Flip over hand pie so that the cheese is on the bottom and make a couple of slashes for the pie to breathe.
6. Brush egg wash over top of hand pie.
7. Place on baking sheet and bake at 375 F until golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before eating OR eat cold in a picnic lunch the next day.
There are plenty of restaurants in Airdrie; a small (but steadily growing) town North of Calgary. Many are mediocre chain type places that serve quick, efficient, but not necessarily tasty dishes. In recent years, Airdrie has become a bit of a ‘hub’ for American chains like Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Nathan’s Hot Dogs but there are also some really outstanding ethnic restaurants such as Paros On Main, Sushi Haru, and Thai Charm. What the town was really missing was a comfortable yet upscale spot with a menu that features all the best seasonal produce and proteins from local farmers and producers. Hayloft Restaurant’s Owner/General Manager, James Hoan Nguyen, wanted to pay homage to the agricultural history of the area as well as recognizing the potential in Airdrie’s close proximity to prairie farmlands. He found a chef, Jason Barton-Browne, who has the ability to take these simple, yet top quality ingredients and transform them into uncomplicated dishes with world class flavours. Truly having an appreciation for quality and sustainability, coupled with cultivating relationships with local farmers and producers, are of utmost importance in giving diners the ultimate experience of regional cuisine.
Recently I had the great fortune to be invited to Hayloft for a special dinner involving wild foraged mushrooms. I didn’t have all the information (because I was actually a plus one) so when I heard this special dinner was the kick-off to an entire educational weekend (sponsored and mediated by The Lodgepole School of Wholistic Studies) that celebrated the world of Fungi, I was ecstatic! All day Saturday, there were to be medicinal mushroom workshops led by the wonderful folks at the Light Cellar in Calgary and renowned Edmonton herbalist Robert Rogers. Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend the Saturday sessions, but hubby and I went on the Sunday mushroom foray led by Robert and we were amazed with the diversity and knowledge that was shared that day. I’m going to do a separate post on the forage, along with a recipe for mushroom hand pies just because there is so much information to share.
Here are (more than) a couple of my thoughts on Hayloft Restaurant. This being a special event, I cannot comment on the regular menu items, but I will say that the dinner we experienced has definitely left me wanting to return for more.
The restaurant is somewhat difficult to find as it’s located within a condo complex but once you’ve enjoyed your first meal at Hayloft, you’ll be glad you didn’t give up. Throughout the restaurant, the gorgeous heavy wood features like the front door (with the iron cow’s head bell) and the re purposed barn wood which decorates the main bar and kitchen pass come from the family homestead. There are country touches throughout, like an old wood wash stand which has been given new life as a record player stand, vintage mismatched china, and prairie flower arrangements. It’s just enough to make you feel like you are visiting your gran on the farm, but without the kitschy candy dish filled with 2 year old humbugs.
Drawing on his executive chef experience at Teatro Restaurant, Jason Barton-Browne began the dinner with an Italian favourite, arancini. These glorious deep fried balls of rice and cheese were a perfect vehicle to showcase our first mushroom of the night, the morel. Nestled on top of crushed sweet peas and mint, they were surely a sign of good things to come.
Our next dish consisted of handmade cauliflower and mushroom tortellini over which a light mushroom and onion broth was poured. Light green drops of cilantro oil dotted the surface of the dish, enlightening the dish visually and lending a bright finishing note to the the flavour.
The Lobster Mushroom salad was served ‘family style’ on a large platter. The perfectly sautéed mushrooms had an intense seafood flavour, which was heightened by the snowy white salt cod purée below. The fresh mizuna greens were lightly dressed and added a bit of bitterness to the dish. I think people often discount how much adding a bitter element to dishes can really make a dish spectacular. Some of our dining party used the puffed wild rice crisps to scoop up the salt cod purée, while others decided that licking the platter was more effective.
Our second ‘family style’ platter was heaping full of JBB’s amazing hand cut pappardelle. This tomato-free pork ragu had so much flavour, I was sad that I had to share it with my table mates. Pork ragu can be so rich and intimidating…it definitely needs an acidic element such as tomatoes or, in this case an acidic, but fresh gremolata. We enjoyed the tiny Saskatchewan chanterelles with a generous amount of shaved Mountain Grana Padano, and fresh pea shoots.
With yet another large family style placed before us, I was starting to feel a bit overindulgent. However, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to try braised Maitake ‘Chicken of the Woods’ mushrooms for the first time. They were so meaty and delicious; the perfect wild mushroom to serve with grilled garlic scapes, roasted carrots, and perfectly seared Alberta beef sirloin.
Of course, it’s not the end of a great meal…until dessert is served. I bet you are wondering if our dessert contained mushrooms and how…that would taste. Well, I’m pleased to say that yes, our dessert did contain mushrooms and it was very tasty, indeed. Dried and ground porcini mushrooms were mixed into the layer of chocolate ganache which sat upon the layer of cheesecake semifreddo. This dessert was rich and surprisingly, I didn’t mind the rich umami flavour that the porcini provided. It was all really well balanced by the dark sour Okanagan cherries and the port.
Hayloft Restaurant may be a bit of a drive from the usual Calgary city core hangouts but getting out of the city and enjoying a this bit of country flavour is worth it.
Hayloft Restaurant – website
5101 – 403 Mackenzie Way SW; Airdrie AB; 403-980-8123
Most Canadians never want summer to end. We see so few snow free days, that we really try to make the most of the season. Getting out and being active in the Rockies isn’t just for winter. The world class summertime hiking, golfing, rafting, and mountain biking have become a draw for locals and tourists from other countries as well. Summer season at The Fairmont Banff Springs is high season and while it’s often difficult to book a stay during the summer, the Banff Springs welcomes hungry and thirsty travellers to dine among the 13 on site restaurants, pubs, and lounges. There’s something for every appetite, whether you’re looking for a more substantial meal (see previous post), lighter fare, or just pre or post dinner cocktails. There are several summer menu culinary options available at Fairmont Banff Springs, where the ‘lighter fare’ is anything but boring, it’s specifically designed to take you on a flavour journey…a ‘staycation’, if you will.
The Lookout Patio – Pick a gorgeous sunny, summer’s day and have lunch on the Lookout Patio, so named for the gorgeous views of the mountain valley. Chef Kate Symes has taken her love of Mexican cuisine and created a tempting menu filled with the spices and flavours of Mexico. Don’t worry, there are tacos, guacamole, and nachos but you will be pleasantly surprised at the unique flavours chef has captured in these dishes. Some notable dishes to try are the Rocky Mountain Trout Ceviche made from locally caught trout ‘cooked’ in a tequila cilantro vinaigrette and served on a tortilla chip, Charred Sugar Cane Chicken Skewers served with pickled red onion and cabbage slaw with mint green chile vinegar sauce for dipping, Carnitas Tacos with slow braised pork shoulder on a tortilla with salsa, pickled onion, radish, crema, cilantro, lime, and jalapeno, and to finish a Spicy Lime Cucumber, and Coconut Paleta. (Open Daily – 11:00am to Sunset, Weather dependent)
Upper Rundle Lounge – Back by popular demand at the Upper Rundle Lounge is the tantalizing Indian Summer menu inspired Vancouver chef Vikram Vij. Delhi born Chef Gaurav Gaba has always been fascinated by the combinations of Indian spices and enjoys layering flavours in his dishes over time. The Indian summer menu includes appetizers such as spicy veggie Subz Samosas, Achari Paneer Tikka (a beautiful dish of cottage cheese with peppers, onions, pickled spices), Murgh Tikka, and chef’s favourite, Dahi Papdhi Chat (savoury discs topped with yogurt, tomato, onion, mashed potato). Each dish is a feast for your eyes, as well as your soul! There’s a great selection of traditional curries and even some sweets to end your meal. Do try the Pistachio Kulfi and Gulab Jamun, they are most recommended! Adding to the menu’s authentic flavour experience is the well equipped table side ‘Chutney Cart’ which delivers the accompanying chutneys, cucumber raita, and spicy pickles that complete every Indian table. (Open daily from 6:00pm to 9:30pm)
I only just realized that my grandmother had never really loved cooking when she moved into the seniors home and breathed a sigh of relief. I’m still a bit shocked, but not entirely. Now that I think back, I remember her being very rushed, always trying to get the cooking done and ‘out of the way’. It was always basic, but delicious and hearty fare; the best kind for feeding a large growing, farm family. With all the bread baking, pickling, preserving, and gardening, I don’t think she had much time for kitchen experimenting or recipe development. Birthdays were celebrated with a simple sheet cake or home baked pie, and nothing more because that’s what was expected. Life was much simpler back in the days when my dad grew up, the oldest of 6 kids, on a farm in the middle of nowhere Saskatchewan.
That hard work ethic was passed on to my dad who, by the age of ten, was driving the small farm tractor and helping out with farm chores. To those that aren’t farmers, the hard work and dedication of farming life often goes by unnoticed. There were times during harvest when I barely saw my dad for weeks at a time while he combined into the wee morning hours until the dew fall-finally signalled bedtime.
Now that he is retired (to be honest, farmers never retire…) he and my mom have been able to visit us in Alberta more frequently. I was ecstatic that they could be with us to celebrate their granddaughter’s graduation, since it was also my dad’s birthday, pleased to be able to finally be able to bake my dad a well deserved cake. I really wanted to go all out because man, does this guy have a sweet tooth! When I took it out of the fridge, he was so tickled that I had baked him a cake. With a big smile, he marvelled, “It has FOUR layers!” and then I realized he had probably never had such a cake, ever. My mom, while an amazing bread baker, just could never manage to bake sweets including, cookies, pies, and cakes.
Lemon Cardamom Layer Cake with Strawberries and Mascarpone
Mascarpone Cream – Mix two tubs mascarpone cheese with 4 cups icing sugar and 1 teaspoon ground cardamom.
Some thoughts on baking the cake…2 cups of sugar is A LOT. I knew the cake would be quite sweet, so I didn’t want the toppings to add even more sweetness. The mascarpone cheese worked well in this respect and had enough integrity to keep it’s shape. The cake is even better the next day…as cakes usually are.
Stepping into Cassis Bistro is like stepping into another dimension of time and place. For me, that time and place is May 2013 and our family trip to France. For the most part, I had carefully researched many tiny bistros to ensure that we had as much of an authentic ‘French’ experience as was possible. I found, during the course of this research that the French, for whom complaining is an acceptable past time (yet another reason I believe I was meant to be French) are both quite vocal about the decline in traditional restaurants and quick to latch on to the newest thing at the same time. They staunchly mourn the loss of the traditional bistros while standing in line for le sandwich Grec (gyro). Here’s an interesting take on France’s ‘globalization’ by David Lebovitz who is, an American living in Paris. In modern days, it seems that change is inevitable, but upholding traditional roots is even more necessary.
On Bastille day, an invitation to join others at Cassis Bistro in celebration of all that is French was an honour. Not only does this day celebrate the storming of the Bastille (in 1789) leading to the abolition of feudalism, but one year later, made possible the unification of the French nation or Fête de la Fédération. The moment I heard about the terror attack in Nice at the Promenade des Anglais, I was hesitant to attend the celebration but I realized that the courage and spirit of the French people could not and will not be crushed by these acts of terrorism. Now, more than ever we must remember the sacrifices of those that have gone before us and celebrate those that yet remain.
And so, I bring to you, our French feast from Bastille Day at Cassis Bistro. It began in the best way with cornichons, chicken liver pâté, baguettes, butter, and a Kir Royale. Then we shared some duck rilettes because I am a HUGE fan of rilettes. To ease our digestion, a soft jazz duo played sets of soothing live music out on the tiny patio while black and white French films were projected onto a nearby wall. The servers were lively and accommodating, but most important of all, quick to suggest their favourite wines and keep our glasses filled. At this point I realized that Linda Garson, Editor in Chief and publisher of Culinaire Magazine; Canadian wine examiner, etc.) was dining by herself at the bar so I invited her over to share our table (and her olive tapenade!) Later we were glad to reciprocate by sharing our small plate starter, Ravioli aux petite pois (ravioli with garden peas, fresh morels, brown butter, pea shoots, tomato confit) because that meant that we had more room for dessert.
When our mains arrived, we realized that both Linda and my hubby had ordered the special of the day, Lapin a la Moutarde. This Alberta farmed rabbit arrived with a lively mustard sauce that paired so nicely with the rich rabbit meat.
I wished in the worst possible way to recreate my favourite French dining experience at Chez Dumonet by ordering the Duck Confit. It also came with the mustard sauce as the rabbit and duck are very similar in taste and richness. Thankfully my dish did not arrive with zucchini, but some delicious sautéed haricot verts and sliced potatoes. I found the duck a bit on the salty side so it might have been a touch over brined before being confited.
Any celebration dinner would not be complete without something sweet. My chocolate éclair was memorable but hubby’s special cherry dessert was absolutely outstanding. It consisted a crown of house made lady fingers filled with crème pâtissière and topped with seasonal fresh cherries. The cherry sorbet and braised sour cherries were perfection.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little teaser of French cuisine on my blog and if you want to have your own French dining experience, I am more than happy to recommend Cassis Bistro.
Cassis Bistro 105 2505 17th avenue SW; 403-262-0036