In My Backyard: The Sandy Hill Lounge And Grill

This little neighborhood “Cheers like” spot sits smack bang in the middle of Sandy Hill, at the corner of Somerset East and Blackburn. Around the University of Ottawa campus, there aren’t too many decent eateries that are walking distance from our fairly densely populated area of town. Beyond the student crowd, Sandy Hill is a melting pot of young professionals, families, seniors, diplomats and city living.  Although most joints found alongside Laurier East near the University and the south side of King Edward service the needs of an ever-growing student population, The Sandy Hill Lounge and Grill seems to be the one establishment that continues to caters to a more diverse clientele.

We moved back to the area 3 years ago after a long, long haul in the burbs. We were excited to discover “The SHLAG” as it is lovingly called by the locals. A tiny little spot nestled on the first floor of a typical downtown brownstone apartment building. This place had a cool vibe complete with super affordable beer, really tasty & fresh food and awesome staff. It had been home to several other restaurants over the years but the current Sandy Hill Lounge and Grill has been a mainstay now for quite some time. We fell in love with it instantly and it quickly became our favourite and regular go to dining/watering hole. We brought friends, family and told everyone about SHLAG!!! It was a really happy place… SHLAG has always been super famous for its Molly Burger: a mammoth burger catering to extremely ravenous appetites, consisting of two patties stuffed with some wild combination of ingredients. Everyone loved the Molly Burger and its crazy attitude! And for the less adventurous, there was always the Super Fun Happy Bacon & Cheese Burger, a standard yet still pretty massive burger. If you wanted to sway off the beaten path, the Butter Chicken Poutine served on sweet potato fries had a cult following! And if that didn’t turn your crank, then the Cajun Marinated Chicken sandwich, the famous Tug Boat or the Bacon Wrapped Meatloaf would sure satisfy. The appies were always top-notch, especially the deep-fried pickles and the crab cakes. Everything was served with pride with an accent on local and  homemade.

Then, something happened. I don’t really know when and why. The mood changed; it was barely perceptible at a first. From having to wait at the door for a seat on weekends to find ourselves «luckily» grabbing the last table at prime time to having our pick of where to sit, it seems the crowds were slowly receding. From being served really awesome food every single time, we started to notice some slips…  It started with a change of menu which sadly got rid of some big favourites such as the Butter Chicken poutine… The food was not always up to par and neither was the quality of the ingredients. In the past year alone, the menu has changed 3 times yet it is not inspiring, it is difficult to read and quite frankly, not really worth ordering from. Most appetizers are now your run of the mill commercially prepared product which arrive frozen and ready to be deep-fried. Zucchini sticks, onion rings, jalapeno poppers, mozza sticks for instance are pre-made junk… The daily specials are inconsistent and will disappoint more often than they will please. The owner insists on hosting a Cajun Friday yet neither he nor his cook seems to have any real knowledge of Cajun cooking. I have tried several of the Cajun offerings which can  not be compared with Louisiana cuisine.  Over the past year, the quality of the food has slipped so drastically that we have stopped going regularly. Sadly, the owner doesn’t seem very receptive to suggestion or criticism, even when the comments are made in a positive manner like «we love this place but…» As a matter of fact, I do take offence that he never, ever acknowledges us when we come in.

From 3-4 visits per month (it was our Friday night ritual), we have reduced our visits to once every 2 months or so. We only go when we do not feel like going far from home yet do not feel like ordering take out. Just this past Friday evening, having not visited a several weeks, we decided to chance it: we arrived around 7pm and were surprised to find the joint quite deserted… Then again, it is not hard to see why it would be empty: beyond the decline of the food, the place needs a major scrub and update. The entire restaurant is tired and the staff is no longer fully engaged… Anyhow, I was in the mood for a burger and to my delight, Friday evening’s Cajun specials offered sliders topped with Swiss cheese and jalapeno. Now beside the fact that I have no idea how sliders with Swiss cheese make the cut under the Cajun influenced menu, I was really happy to have the choice of ordering what seemed to be a more «girly girl» size burger! We were the only table to order food, just the King and I. Yet, it took about 30 minutes for our meals to arrive; The King had ordered the Super Fun Burger, so it is not quite clear what  caused the delay… Looking at my plate, I found it odd to see the Swiss cheese stick out of the buns as solid as if it had just been pulled out of the fridge. I lifted the bread up to investigate and to my surprise, not only was I staring at mini pre-made patties (from frozen) but still raw and cold to boot. There is no reasonable explanation for this miss from the kitchen seeing the lack of clientele in the restaurant. Sure, our server was apologetic (not his fault) and the meal was replaced. And we enjoyed and overall discount of 10%, which was very, very nice. Having said that, my hubby had completely finished his meal by the time my plate was delivered. I didn’t make a fuss and the meal was fine (the fresh-cut fries are always good) yet I just shake my head at this kind of poor delivery on the part of the cook. The King, who has a very sweet tooth, ordered the featured dessert;  a weird concoction of pies baked within cakes and stacked several layers high (featured picture) which was surprisingly good! But a good dessert doesn’t a meal make and honestly, we miss the old SHLAG when the food was all homemade and always delicious…  And we miss some of our former servers who made us feel welcome every single time and were absolutely awesome! Yet, we somehow faithfully return,  just not as often…  Our running gag is this Love/Hate relationship we have with SHLAG these days.  But as the King says: if you stick to the burger, fries and a jug of beer, you will have a fantastic evening :). As for me, quite frankly, I keep hoping to find the old SHLAG back, in all its former glory!

When fall returns to haunt June weekends… Fragrant Moroccan Chicken Stew

Note: this dish can be entirely adapted to accommodate a vegetarian diet. In lieu of chicken, double up on the chickpeas and replace the chicken broth with vegetable broth.

It’s been cold, damp, windy and simply unspring like over the past few days… You are not playing nice Mother Nature! This kind of weather begs for a warm hearty serving of some sort of simmer. Not that I necessarily wait for cooler days to make this beautifully fragrant dish: I do not own a BBQ in my city home therefore summer grilling is reserved for the cottage. I must admit that not having a BBQ at home is a bit of a challenge, especially when the mercury hits the sizzling hot zone. On those days, I wish I could simply throw a chunk of meat of the grill, serve it with a huge salad and call it a day. Easy grilling days not being a dinner option in the city, my stovetop remains my “go-to” cooking tool, even in the middle of the summer. When the work days wipe any dinner creative energy out of me, on those days, our go-to easy summer meal is more likely to be a sandwich or an omelet. And I am very grateful for air conditioning which permits me to cook with abandon using a hot stove or oven even during heat waves.

For the most part, I cook a full meal nearly every night of the week. Well, ok, maybe not every night, that would be a slight exaggeration! I often tend to make enough to have left overs for at least a second meal… Sometimes we even get tired of eating the same stuff a few days in a row… Oh well, even though he is The King, he can’t expect to eat like one every single day!!! Like come on now, a girl needs to do other things once in while other than working and cooking right? Although Jamie Oliver and a few others try to makes us believe a fully cooked dinner from scratch can be dished out in 15 minutes, I beg to differ. There is absolutely no such thing as a 15 minute meal unless there are little minions living in your house who gather ingredients, portion the meats, wash all the produce, take out all the required ingredients and clean up the entire mess after you. I have no such minions, do you? I consider myself a pretty skilled cook, with solid organization and planning strategies. I can handle a knife with certain ease (although not a pro) yet dinner prep in my house averages at about 1 hour. I clean up as I go usually leaving only the service dishes and pots for the after dinner clean up crew (luckily, I have one of those). I do not mind that 1 hour prep time at all. I never set myself up for disappointment since I never, ever expect to make a meal under an hour… Except when there are recipes such as this Moroccan Chicken Stew! So simple and so easy to throw together that you wonder why you don’t make it more often!!! This one truly takes maybe up to 30 minutes to assemble including prep AND cleaning up as you go. And then, it takes maybe 30 minutes to cook (which allows me plenty of time to check what is going on in the world via my beloved I-Pad). When I last made this dish, it was ready to serve in less than one hour; almost faster than firing up the grills!

In Morocco, the weather is warm nearly year round and although they can whip up some fantastic grilled meats, some of their most famous dishes are slow simmers using tagines. Tagines are clay cooking pots with lovely cone shaped lids which allow the steam to build up, get caught up at the top of the cone, condense again and the trickle back down to the food, constantly bathing what is cooking inside and infusing all the flavours and aromas. I do not own a tagine (yet) but I have had the pleasure of eating delicious Moroccan food cooked in this traditional utensil. So even though the weather is very hot in Morocco, I bet these stews are popular not only because they are so delicious but most likely because they are very economical to make: they yield large portions of food using humble ingredients while showcasing masterfully blended spices such Raz el Hanout. Here is a interesting little tidbit info capsule that may also explain the popularity of tagines: fresh bread is sacred in this country and baked daily in wood burning ovens. Although the dough is prepared everyday at home, the raw loaves are brought to a communal oven where the master baker bakes all the loaves. These ovens are quite large and will retain residual heat for a long time even after the rush of bread baking has come and gone which is where the tagines end up later in the day to simmer slowly. Such stews, served piping hot over a bed of couscous, are always a crowd pleaser! My Moroccan Chicken Stew may not simmer slowly in a tagine nestled in a wood burning oven yet it still manages to evoke images of Marrakesh, white washed homes, blue mosaic tiles frescos and bustling spice markets.

I have adapted this recipe from Everyday Food by Martha Stewart which has now become a family classic because it is super healthy, packs a ton of flavour yet is so easy to make. There is no “heat” to this recipe either, for those who are sensitive to spicy foods.

image

Moroccan Chicken Stew

serves 4 generous portions

What you need:

Don’t overlook making this dish because the ingredient list seems too long. Apart from the spices, there are very few ingredients needed and very little preparation required. You can replace Ras el Hanout with chili powder and garam masala (1 tsp each). Sumac and parsley add an extra dimension but can easily be omitted

  • 8 pieces of chicken, skinless, bone in
  • 2 cups of carrots peeled and cut into 1.5 inches long pieces then halved or quartered depending on the size of the carrots
  • 2-3 medium yellow onions, thin sliced
  • 1 small can stewed tomatoes, whole or diced (14oz or 400ml)
  • 1 small can chickpeas, rinsed or 2 cups cooked chickpeas (14oz or 400ml)
  • 2 cups chicken broth (500ml)
  • 1.5 cups dried fruits of your choice: figs, prunes, raisins, apricots**
  • 1 tbsp. fresh grated ginger or 1 tsp. dry
  • 2 heaping tsp. Ras el Hanout***
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp. sumac (optional), adds a citrusy flavour
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • Plenty of pepper
  • 2 zucchinis cut the same way as the carrots
  • The juice of 1 lemon (preserved lemon pieces would be a great substitute)
  • A generous handful of fresh chopped parsley if you like but not necessary
  • Couscous

* I like to use a combination of thighs, drumsticks and halved breasts with the bone in because it yields maximum flavour. This dish can also be done with boneless chicken pieces of your choice which will slightly reduce the cooking time.

** I like to use figs and prunes which I cut in half.

*** Ras el Hanout has become much easier to find recently although if at all possible, I strongly recommend sourcing a good blend from a small spice store instead of a grocery store. Raz el Hanout’s personality varies from one master spice blender to another. It is the North African equivalent to India’s garam masala. It evokes sun drenched spice markets of the Mediterranean.

image

How to make it:

  1. Now this is where it gets really easy: add everything to a large pot except the dried fruits, zucchinis, the lemon juice and the parsley.
  2. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 25 minutes (15 minutes if using boneless meat).
  3. Add the zucchinis and fruit, simmer for another 10-15 minutes until the meat is cooked through.
  4. Meanwhile, prepare couscous according to package instructions. Couscous is normally ready in about 5 minutes.
  5. Stir lemon juice and fresh parsley in the stew
  6. Taste and adjust salt if needed.
  7. Ladle over couscous and serve.

The Ottawa Food Scene: Well Seasoned with a Pinch of Salt…

Yes, yes, yes, I am on a restaurant review rampage these days! Of Ottawa restaurants that is! The King and I have eaten out more often than usual lately and I feel I should share the experiences. We have stumbled on a few “misses” which I was quick to write about, hoping to save any of you from wasting your precious money on subpar joints. But we have had the pleasure of eating at a fair number of really, really good restaurants in recent months. This city has enough to offer to keep many of us happy, there is no need to frequent less than stellar establishments! Ottawa may be not be the Mecca of gastronomy like New York or Montreal but per capita, it sure offers a wonderful array of great restaurants: good food is up for grabs in many categories, from “fast” food to pub grub to fine dining. We are so lucky because even if this is a small town it is BIG on culinary celebrations!!

So why have I not blogged more frequently about our weekly visits since we go out so frequently? Well, the reasons are either the lack of photos or if I actually remember to snap a few shots, they are often of very poor quality pictures. In our world of Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, an image is worth a thousand word: we feast with our eyes first isn’t that right? My photos lack proper luminosity and I apologize for that. As well, writing a full blown and engaging review is rather time consuming. It is not that I do not enjoy taking the time to write reviews, it is more an issue of lack of time!!! A good chunk of my writing  is devoted to recipes, which then leaves me short on time when it comes to write restaurant reviews. Having said that, I experience as much joy cooking in my kitchen as I do going out to dinner so how can I share both passions on my blog and still manage to have a conversation with the King from time to time? Ha! I think I have come up with a solution. Instead of writing a frou-frou text about my experiences, colourful in adjectives, superlatives and imagery, I have decided to simply get to the point! Ok, I do not promise to never, ever  write colourfully frou-frou texts anymore but I will try to make my restaurant reviews easier to digest quickly (ooooo, the pun!). Following the nouveau chefs’ trends of “deconstructing” recipes by presenting each component of a dish separately on a plate where each item is its own entity, easy to identify and plated in such a way that it not only shines on its own but marries well with the others. So my “deconstructed” restaurant reviews will mostly present themselves as list of  “ingredients” which make (or break) a dining out experience.

For you the reader, I am hoping you will be able to find the info you need quickly and efficiently without having to read a novel on the subject. If you enjoy this new format, if you find it useful, if you have an opinion, please let me know because ultimately, I hope to make your experience perusing through my blog as enjoyable as possible. Now on with the first deconstructed review!

Salt

345A Preston St. Ottawa, ON K1S 1V6
Sunday through Thursday  from 11am – 11 pm
Friday, Saturday  from 11am – 1 am
Parking: surrounding streets or free underground parking (please have restaurant validate parking voucher)

Ambiance and décor:

  • Deliciously urban chic: lots of bling, plush seating, soft lighting
  • Live entertainment in the lounge area on select evenings. On the night we attended, we thoroughly enjoyed a performance by Jeff Rodgers at the piano

Menu:

  • Eclectic Fusion? I am unsure how to describe the culinary style or movement which infuses dishes with International flavours, sometimes in very unusual yet successful combinations
  • Meats including game, fish, seafood and pasta

Food:

  • Overall: a home run! All our dishes were skillfully executed, presented in a timely fashion, fresh and at the correct temperature. You could taste the culinary team’s pride in their craft.
  • Highlights
    • Cocktails: yummy, yummy cocktails! Interesting selection thanks to the talent of the in-house mixologist
    • Appetizers: Seared B.C. Albacore Tuna won this round. Followed closely by the Salmon Sashimi and the Beef Tongue Rillettes.
    • Mains: Mariposa Duck Confit took the winnings in round 2 and two thumbs up for the Bacon Wrapped Quebec Arctic Char
    • Sides: Parmesan Truffle Frites!!! You MUST order these frites. We ordered twice!
    • Desserts: none were ordered BUT we splurged with after dinner drinks which should count as dessert. Especially the Lemon Meringue Martini: OMG!!! I had 2 helpings.
  •  A bit less enthusiasm was shared by all over the Roasted Bone Marrow (which we expected would crown this course). It was good however a bit salty and missing a touch of acid to cut through the richness of the marrow
  • The boys ordered steak (the girls yawned at their choice…) and they were done well, as they should have 🙂

Service:

Above average: attentive yet not over bearing, extremely knowledgeable of the menu and wine list and able to synchronize proper course timing. We liked a lot.

Prices:

Medium to high end: expect about $100 per person if you opt for the cocktail/wine/three course dinner

Final words: Friends have highly recommended although online reviews certainly had us wondering  if Salt would deliver. Our experience was really, really positive. I would definitely go to Salt again! We particularly enjoyed the opportunity to move to the lounge after dinner and listen to the entertainment. We thought the food was delicious and the dining venue more comfortable than most. One word of advice for women: you will need a sweater or a jacket to cover up as the ambient temperature is set to cool.

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Dinner at Salt from left to right, clockwise: Duck Confit, Aphrodite’s Abbey Signature Cocktail, Albacore Tuna, Arctic Char, Steak and Truffle Frites, Sashimi Salmon
Processed with MOLDIV
Dessert: Lemon Meringue Martini

 

Relay for Life, Bake Sale Mania & Chocolate Toffee Pecan Squares

It’s bake sale season at work and it’s all for a great cause: we are baking for Relay for Life.  You see, a little bit over a year ago, tragedy struck one of our own: our friend and coworker Danièle and her husband François lost their only child to cancer. A beautiful young woman full of hopes and dreams was taken away far too soon at the tender age of 15. She had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma less than a year before that and although she fought a valiant fight, she couldn’t stop the big C from taking over.

In April 2014, following her diagnosis, a community rose at once : classmates, family members, work colleagues, friends, friends of friends and even strangers put their efforts together to help however they could. Various fundraisers were held to support local and National organizations that offer help and hope for cancer patient and invest in cancer research. One of the fundraising organizations selected by our gang at work was Relay for Life: a 12 hour team relay walk  which happens in late Spring and early June in many communities across the country.  In total, 3 teams were formed to support our young fighter Flavie. We all hoped she would be doing the survivors victory lap the following year but sadly, Flavie left her loved ones in January 2015… As devastating as her passing was, it only rekindled the team’s will to raise even more funds. Our team members rolled up their sleeves and went to work raising funds. There were craft sales, silent auctions and other activities. It was also the birth of  Scone Monkey: a marathon of  weekly bake sales held nearly every Thursdays in May and early June. It went viral at work!!! Each week, the donations poured in while people happily munched on home baked deliciousness. We had no set price, simply accepting donations. If my memory serves me right, I think we collected nearly $900 in 2015 thanks to Scone Monkey. It was so successful that our colleagues started to ask if we would be doing bake sales again this year.  And so without hesitation, a bunch of us volunteered to be the dedicated bakers. I am always happy to bake goodies to share with my friends and family but I feel even more joy baking  to support such a worthy cause!  All proceeds go directly to team HopFlavie and donations are always welcome and greatly appreciated. Baking is my only way of participating this year as I cannot join the walking team due to an important life event in our eldest Prince’s life: his graduation ceremony from Cordon Bleu culinary school is happening on the exact same date (yeah, proud mama, had to plug that one in!!!).

On Scone Monkey days, bakers bring in muffins, scones, sweet loaves and treats of all kinds. Everyone has their own yummy favourite recipes and it is difficult to resist!!!  Seems my recent decadent contribution created a bit of a sugar buzz In our department and a few have requested the recipe. So What better place to share than right here on my blog!  Now before anyone gives me a bunch of flack on this one, I admit right off the bat that the ingredients for this recipe are not as “clean” as what I normally cook with at home. A few years ago, I made the switch to organic and local for health reasons. However, I do have a few old family favourites & classics  recipes that simply cannot be converted  to organic. Skor™ bits, Oreo Cookie Crumbs™ and sweetened condensed milk have just not yet made the leap. I stay hopeful that some day, they will but until  then,  you know, everything in moderation and without guilt…

These scrumptious squares have been in my repertoire now for over 20 years; they are definitely “special occasion” squares. I cannot quite remember the source of the recipe but I believe it was from a culinary magazine pop-out calendar. The original recipe calls for graham cracker crumbs only and slivered almonds. I introduced the Oreo™ cookie crumbs about 12 years ago and I have not gone back. As well, whether I choose almonds or pecans, I always toast the nuts ahead of time. The recipe will also work with raw nuts as well if you are short on time. When toasting the nuts, make sure they have cooled off completely before using.

This recipe, like many I share here, is super duper easy to make and requires simple equipment. If you have a bowl, a spatula, a cake pan, a measuring cup, an oven and some parchment paper, you are good to go! But don’t even try doing this without parchment paper: you NEED parchment paper!!!

CHOCOLATE TOFFEE PECAN SQUARES (or almond)

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What you need

  • ½ cup butter, melted
  • 1 cup graham cookie crumbs
  • 1 cup Oreo™ cookie crumbs (see note below recipe)
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup each: chocolate chips, Skor™ toffee bits and toasted pecan pieces or slivered almonds

How to make it

  1. Heat oven at 350°
  2. Grease 9X13 pan with butter and line with parchment paper (very important to line pan with this recipe).
  3. In large microwave bowl, melt butter.

    Melted butter and all the ingredients
    Melted butter and all the ingredients
  4. Stir in graham and Oreo™ cookie crumbs until well blended
  5. Spread in prepared pan. Press preparation evenly and firmly using either the back of a measuring cup or palm of your hand

    Pressing the crust firmly into the pan
    Pressing the crust firmly into the pan
  6. Pour condensed milk evenly over crumbs

    Add the condensed milk
    Add the condensed milk
  7. Mix chocolate chips, Skor™ bits and nuts. Sprinkle evenly over condensed milk
  8. Press preparation down gently

    Processed with MOLDIV
    Press gently not to disturb the crust
  9. Bake for 22-25 minutes or edges and center start to bubble gently. DO NOT OVERBAKE otherwise, the caramel becomes very hard
  10. Using small spreader, quickly loosen edges from pan while preparation is still hot
    Let cool completely before slicing
  11. To slice easily: cool pan in fridge. Once cooled through, flip onto cutting board. You may have to loosen edges again, but the lined parchment should make this easy to do. Cut the squares while the crust is facing up to reduce crumbling of the crust. Cut in 16 slices: 4 cuts on the width and 4 cuts on the length.

Note: Depending where you live you may not have access to these brand name items: Oreo Cookie Crumbs™, for instance, is a fine crumb made of dark chocolate wafer cookies. Graham cookie crumb is the same type used in making cheesecake base. You could easily make your own cookie crumb base by using any type of dry cookie wafer. In Canada, Skor™ bits are little bits of toffee derived form a candy bar of the same name. These bits are sold in the same aisle as baking chocolate chips or morsels. If you do not have access to such a product, I guess you could use brittle toffee and smash it into little pieces. Or you take a plane and come and visit me: I’ll be happy to bake some for you LOL!!!

Avocado Buttermilk Dressing

Ohhhh just another recipe ok? This one is quick and easy. I am home nursing my little me, waiting for antibiotics to take effect;  a bit of an impromptu day of R&R allowing me some play time on my blog between naps! YAY!!!

What is this gorgeous electric green creamy liquid? It is  Avocado Buttermilk Dressing! It is really oooooohhhh and aaaaaahhhh worthy! This is a no non-sense recipe and super quick to execute  if you have everything on hand, such as a ripe avocado!!! Grab your favourite squisher/pulverizing tool: power blender, Nutribullet™, food processor, it don’t matter. Throw in the flesh of 1 avocado (peeled and stoned of course), ½ cup buttermilk (or: yogurt, kefir, nut milk, you get the drift), 2 tbsp good oil, 1 medium garlic clove, the juice of one juicy lime (use 2 if the limes are juice stingy), a handful of fresh cilantro, stems and all, plus salt and pepper. Crank the power on until smoooooothhhh. You can add water if it’s too thick to pour. Ta da! I will be smothering my shrimps and salad with this hot number. Or dipping my crudités in it. Or dropping by the spoonful over tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas… Olé!

Surprisingly enough, this dressing will keep about 5 days in the fridge without browning…

Avocado Buttermilk Dressing
Avocado Buttermilk Dressing

 

Glorious Carrot Cake: it really is a salad in camouflage…

Of all the blog posts I publish, desserts are by far the favourite ones! There is something so attractive about everything «sweet»! I think most of us show some restraint when it comes to eating desserts but I think of all the recipes available in the world, dessert recipes draw the most attention, drools and yummy thoughts! I suspect it is because sweet endings are viewed as naughty foods right? Just looking and dreaming right? I mean, we really should eat vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and good oils daily for optimal health…  And for us omnivores, meat should be consumed in moderation… And we really, really should not eat dessert!?! Sugar has become the evil child recently (with reason) but nevertheless, I think we will always have this love hate relationship with sweet stuff! And just like with the consumption of red meat, I say sugar should be consumed in moderation (and not everyday). Yes, in moderation… AND when we do end up eating dessert, it should be delectably, sinfully delicious!! Forget factory made cakes with a questionably long shelf life and a never-ending list of weirdo ingredients. Nooooo, let’s not eat those, they are nasty LOL! Instead, splurge and dive right into the heavenly goodies your mom, grandma, auntie, sister, best bud (the male equivalent of all these titles as well) or your favourite neighborhood sweet shop have lovingly baked! Let’s face it, even those who do not have a real sweet tooth can’t help but be lured by the smell of freshly baked desserts!

In the heydays of my café ownership life, we lured (yes, we were sneaky like that) our clientele in with 2 things: the aroma of freshly baked goodies and bacon! Yup, bacon was as famous back then as it is now although the internet makes us believe it is a new fad or concept. Whatever: we oldies have known the power of sizzling bacon for a very long time. Anyhow, I digress… Back when I worked 14 hour days 6 days a week running my little shop, fresh «out of the oven» treats were my claim to fame. Lucky for me, I not only had my own arsenal of yummy recipes to pick and chose from, I also had access to a slew of amazing dessert recipes shared by my right hand woman, Laura SC. I have mentioned Laura’s talent and amazing recipes in past articles. I think she deserves a lot of kudos for her ability to whip up some of the best food I have eaten. As a matter of fact, some recipes that Laura has shared with me back then have become family classics such as this unbelievably moist carrot cake. And if you knew Laura, not only would you want her to bake for you, you would want to become her bud: she has that «bigger than life» magnetic personality,  is full of «joie de vivre», has a contagious laugh and is loved by everyone!!! Since you may not have the opportunity to be served one of Laura’s awesome treats, you will have to enjoy her baker’s touch by osmosis by baking yourself this carrot cake!

You can trust this recipe: it has been whipped together more time than most recipes are tested for any publication. It is quite easy to make but beware: once served to your loved ones, it will be requested over and over again. Until you can make it in your sleep LOL! Yes, the pictures are sparse: I only took a picture of the cake coming out of the oven and of a piece covered in sinfully delicious cream cheese icing.

Scrolling down beyond the recipe, I have included a few shots on how to easily line a rectangular (or square) pan with parchment baking paper. As usual, your comments on my recipes are always appreciated.  And frankly, since 2 cups of grated carrots and crushed pineapple are used here, I think this recipe should really be labelled salad, not cake!!! Happy baking to all.

Laura's Carrot Cake

Laura SC’s Infamous Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Icing

What you need: (icing recipe follows)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2½ tsp baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1½ tsp cinnamon
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1 cup oil (choose a neutral tasting oil, avoid coconut or olive oils)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 can crushed pineapple, drained (14oz or 398ml)
  • 2 cups grated carrots

How to make it:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350ºF and set rack to middle position
  2. Grease and line with baking paper a standard size rectangular pan, 9X13 (pictures follow at the end of the recipe)
  3. In one bowl, mix together using a whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon and set aside
  4. In a large bowl, with a hand-held or stand-up electric mixer, cream together the oil and the sugar until fluffy.
  5. Add the eggs one at a time until well combined and fluffy.
  6. Add the flour mixture and blend until incorporate.
  7. Gently fold in the grated carrots and drained pineapple on low-speed or by hand
  8. Spread batter in prepared pan.
  9. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until tester comes out clean
  10. Let cool completely before taking out of pan and icing

image

Cream Cheese Icing

What you need

*this recipe makes enough to ice the top of two cakes or to fill and ice a layered cake. It keeps well in the refrigerator for a few weeks and taste awesome on top of muffins and cinnamon buns…

  • 1 standard package or 1 cup of cream cheese, at room temperature (the type of fresh cheese used for making cheesecake. In some places, it is called Neufchâtel cheese)
  • ½ cup soft butter
  • 4 cups icing (powdered) sugar
  • 1 tsp real vanilla extract

How to make it:

In a large mixing bowl, using a hand-held or stand-up electric mixer, cream together the cream cheese and the butter until well combined and smooth. Add icing sugar and vanilla and starting at the slowest setting, gently mix in the sugar, increasing the speed as the sugar incorporates. Starting slow will prevent a puff of white sugar to pop out of the bowl and mess up the entire kitchen! Once the sugar is well incorporated, whip the icing at a higher speed until creamy and fluffy! Refrain from eating by the spoonful until you have iced your cake!

Lining a cake pan
Grease pan first with butter or oil
Grease pan first with butter or oil
image
Trace the shape of your pan on a piece of baking parchment paper
Fold at the lines
Fold at the lines
using a scissor, make one cut at each of the four corners. This will create a small flap.
using a scissor, make one cut at each of the four corners. This will create a small flap.
Fold again, this should give a nicely shaped rectangle that will fit your pan perfectly
Fold again, this should give a nicely shaped rectangle that will fit your pan perfectly
Dab a bit of oil or butter on the «flaps» to secure them in place. Your pan is now ready.
Dab a bit of oil or butter on the «flaps» to secure them in place. Your pan is now ready.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Navarra on Murray: an Ottawa Culinary Destination

For our eldest Prince’s birthday, and upon his suggestion, we went to celebrate at Navarra’s on Murray. As a culinary school (and nearly graduate) student, it seemed befitting to give our first born carte blanche on his choice of a good Ottawa table.  For a girl who is always snooping the Ottawa foodies scene, I am almost embarrassed to admit I HAD NO idea that this place is what it is! Top Chef Canada Season 4 winner, Rene Rodriguez, is Navarra’s Executive Chef. Really? How did I not know that a Top Chef winner was actually operating a restaurant in my home town??? Shame on me LOL. I have not kept up with Top Chef because I don’t have a PVR and I normally go to bed at the gawd awful hour of 9:30pm… I know, I know, such a party animal!!!

Back to the subject under review here and enough about my old person’s sleeping habits. Navarra is a real, true and true, culinary experience. It is what you see on TV shows and hope to have the opportunity to someday «try something like that»… It is the type of restaurant you would expect to find in Montreal, Toronto, New York for instance… Yet, here it is, right in downtown good old Ottawa!!! Yes, dining at such a fine establishment is a real luxury and I am grateful life has me in a spot I can partake in such pleasures. Navarra is completely off the wall: intricate dish composition, unusual yet successful ingredient pairings, spectacular plate artistry and top shape service make this tiny little stop on the Byward market one of the most memorable culinary experience we have had in recent years. In recent months, we have discovered several really, really exquisite little gems of restaurants here in the Nation’s Capital (I have unfinished reviews of these spots still to come). But Navarra is one of those places, in my absolute humble opinion, that is in a league of its own… I am surprised not to see 5 star ratings across the board on online review sites. Maybe this type of cuisine doesn’t suit every palate? I am not saying this in a condescending way either: to enjoy the dishes of Navarra, I think you have to be an adventurous diner. If the simple thought of chomping on rabbit, octopus and pig’s cheek make you queasy, then for sure your experience will not end up being the same as mine. In order for a restaurant evening to be entirely successful, the guest must feel the meal met the palate’s preferences and expectations.

Now what about each particular dish we had the pleasure of dining on and nearly licking every single morsel of the plates? I could write colorful and vivid descriptions of each one but I think the fare at Navarra needs to be experienced, not described in a lengthy blog post… In a nutshell, it was all F.A.B.U.L.O.U.S.! We each ordered 2 sharing plates which were brought to us in a perfectly synchronized order. As I have already mentioned, the service was stellar: each dish delivered with a great description of what we were about to dive into.

The Prince’s birthday dinner menu:

  • Confit Rabbit Chilaquiles
  • Ceviche de Vieiras
  • Patatas a la Rioja
  • Carbonara Pasta
  • Deviled Pig “Buffalo Cheeks”
  • Pulpo Gallego
  • Dark Chocolate Coulant
  • Dulce de Leche Mousse

If the boys really had to pick their top faves, they would oscillate between the Pig Cheeks and the Carbonara but then would feel bad about leaving all the others out of the lead. As for me, I think my biggest crush competing fiercely with the Pig Cheeks was the Confit Rabbit. I found the Carbonara extremely tasty as well but a bit over the top “too rich”, which is what won the King and the Prince over. To each’s own!!! The order of delivery was fantastic as well: the ceviche was served in between 2 rich and bold flavoured plates and acted as a true palate cleanser. Although I thought I really couldn’t fit another bite in after such delectable tapas, dessert was offered and ordered…  I will tell you this: I usually decline partaking in sweet endings as savoury courses are more my thing but the Dulce de Leche Mousse, OMG!!! I will be craving this dessert sure. Like right now! Actually, as I am writing this, I am craving the entire dinner! It really was that good.

So go ahead and splurge here at Navarra, it is without a doubt 100% worth it! Standing ovation for chef Rene Rodriguez and his crew!

 

 

 

 

A Taste of the Sunny Far East: Coconut Lime Chicken with Mango Salsa

Sometimes, it really doesn’t take much to bring home flavours of exotic cuisines… Of course, some specialty meals are so complex it may be a much better idea to go out to a restaurant to enjoy instead of making them at home. I have shied away from making certain dishes because the ingredient list alone is daunting, let alone the techniques used and the equipment required. I don’t think I will ever attempt to make those Asian «pulled» noodles for instance… But there are other dishes, like this Coconut Lime Chicken, that is a reminiscence of fragrant dishes from Thailand or Cambodia yet is extremely simple in its preparation. I created this dish a few years ago wanting to enjoy a «Thai like» meal without leaving my house… I am sure I must have been inspired by a recipe I saw somewhere but honestly, I cannot remember what the source was or how much I deviated from it…  As well, the ingredients are very easily found in any grocery store. This dinner is bright, fresh, easy to make and relatively healthy depending on what your thoughts on good fats are. If you do not cringe at the fat content of coconut milk, then you will enjoy every single bite of this dish; I prefer to use whole coconut milk although I presume it would still taste great if it was swapped for light coconut milk.

Although the chicken would probably benefit spending a bit of time in the marinade, it is also possible to infuse enough good flavour even if it only marinates during the time it takes to pull together the other components of the recipe. The mango salsa is pretty amazing on its own; as a matter of fact, it could be used as a condiment in many preparations. I suggest serving this dish with basmati rice however, you could also use the coconut milk poached chicken in lettuce wraps and instead of making the sauce using the carrots and zucchini, you could top the chicken lettuce wraps with  mango salsa and the grated vegetables.

If you decide to make this recipe, I would be thrilled to hear how it turned out :)!

Coconut Lime Chicken

COCONUT LIME CHICKEN WITH MANGO SALSA

What you need:
Marinade:

  • 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breast cut in thick strips
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • Zest and juice of 1 lime
  • Salt and pepper

Mango Salsa

  • 1 ripe mango cut in small cubes
  • 1/3 large red onion finely chopped
  • ½ red pepper, finely diced
  • Zest and juice of 1 lime
  • 2 tbsp minced fresh cilantro
  • Salt and pepper

Sauce:

  • 1 each grated carrot and zucchini, yields a generous cup of each vegetable
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • fresh cilantro

Cooked basmati rice

How to make it:

  1. In plastic airtight container, toss together chicken with coconut milk, lime zest & juice and salt & pepper. Let marinate in refrigerator while you prep the rest of the recipe or up to 12 hours.
  2. Meanwhile, toss all the ingredients for the salsa together. Adjust seasonings and let sit in refrigerator for a few hours if possible. Adjust seasonings again to taste as flavours will evolve while resting.
  3. Pour chicken and marinade in large skillet or stove top pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and poach gently until chicken is cooked through.
  4. Remove chicken and set aside. Add zucchini, carrots and honey to cooking liquid and simmer until sauce has reduced and thickened. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
  5. Spoon basmati onto serving platter. Pour half the sauce over the rice. Add chicken strips to rice. Pour remainder of sauce. Sprinkle with fresh cilantro and serve cold salsa on the side.

Variations:

  1. Making wraps: why not marinate and poach a little extra chicken breast to use later in wraps? Grate a little extra carrots and zucchini too. Refrigerate this extra chicken; once cooled, take large lettuce leave, rice wrapper or tortilla. Add chicken, top with some grated carrots & zucchini,  add salsa and voilà! Lunch in a jiffy!
  2. Playing with flavours: why not add green, red or yellow Thai curry paste for a completely different meal? Any curry for that matter will radically change the meal. The base is simple yet so versatile.

Das Lokal on Dalhousie – Das Ist Gut!!!

The King and I love to go out and explore restaurants in the surrounding Kingdom. My perfect week includes a lot of playtime in the kitchen AND gallivanting the Ottawa foodies scene. The King shows patience when I pull my phone out to take pictures but I can tell he finds this practice a touch amusing if not slightly annoying, especially when he is really hungry and just wants to dig in!  I therefore  often refrain myself from capturing plate art, but not always… Sadly, when I actually do decide to take pictures, they often do not turn out very well and poor light is often to blame. I find using a flash distorts the true colours of the food. Not having pictures to share is the main reason I have not posted more restaurant reviews on this blog. Since we visit restaurants regularly, I feel I should make a better effort at sharing our experiences. Ottawa has evolved drastically over the last 2 decades. Although the city still has more pubs than it really needs, there is emerging culinary talent that is not afraid to showcase bold gastronomy. Ottawa is reaching beyond the stuffy steakhouses and the limp nachos!

Das Lokal is exactly that: bold, big, creative flavours! It is not your typical German “Gastshaus” although the Germanic influence can be felt throughout  the menu. Hand crafted marinades, preserves, charcuteries and cheeses really shine here; the menu is big on meats. Young, hip and fresh, it offers an interesting “nouveau” twist on very traditional German cuisine. Even with some very liberal interpretations of traditional Deutschland fare, the King found it pretty darn cool and so did I! The charcuteries were outstanding. The Das Lokal Board is offered at $19 for 3 items but of course, you may add as many more as you wish. To calm our ravenous appetites, we opted for a complete smorgasbord of every type of meat and cheese they were offering that evening. I strongly encourage you do the same as it was the star of the meal. The meats, paired with well-balanced homemade jams and pickles, were extremely well executed, particularly the cured duck breast. Since the charcuterie board  was rather massive, we opted for two dishes from the appetizer menu as our main entrées. Hubby took the sausage board with warm sauerkraut and mustard tomato jam ($14) to which he added an order of butter and cheddar Spaetzle ($9): we both felt the sausages and the soft buttery dumplings were a home run. I ordered the Zwiebel Kuchen ($14), an caramelized onion and leek tart served with arugula salad. It reminded me of the famous Alsatian onion tart  I absolutely adore; although the tart was a fierce competitor to the beloved Rhine valley specialty, I felt the tomato sauce was a bit of a clash… But I am nit-picking here as the entire meal was spot on: delicious, served hot & fresh, abundant and satisfying. You can taste the pride of the craftsman in each dish. Only the sauerkraut left us a bit indifferent: coming from a family of sauerkraut makers, we have very strong opinions on what makes a great one! We both felt maybe the chef was trying too hard to make this dish his own at the expense of the true nature of salted fermented cabbage… Although it was good,  it lacked some of the “brininess” that make sauerkraut, well, sauerkraut!

The service was equally charming and efficient. As for the ambiance, well it is a tiny spot and the tables are crammed in close proximity to one another. Having said that, we found it tastefully decorated, cozy & inviting and although it seemed the next table was close enough to be part of our own little bubble, somehow we never felt that they were infringing in our space. Maybe the live piano entertainment had a role to play in muting conversations between tables, I can’t say… But we felt very intimate in our little space, enjoying each other’s company as much as the melodies offered by a very talented piano man.

We were slightly surprised at the very limited beer selection; I think beer is to Germany what wine is to Italy and France. Could be that lack of space at the bar might be the reason for the minimalist beer menu. Overall though, our visit at Das Lokal was more than enjoyable. We have recommended to many friends and we are looking forward to return in the very near future.

Das Lokal 2

House Sausages with potatoes, sauerkraut and buttery cheddar Spaetzle
House Sausages with potatoes, sauerkraut and buttery cheddar Spaetzle
Onion tart with arugula salad
Onion tart with arugula salad

 

Empty Nesters and Corn Chowder

The youngest Prince has left the nest… I thought I was ready yet tears flowed freely and frequently over the last few weeks. As long as the “child” (he is turning 21 in May) was under my roof, I could pretend he was still a child. As tall as he is, broad shoulder, bushy beard and all, it is not that picture I see when I look at him. I still see my little bright eyed baby; “mon petit rayon de soleil” as I have been calling him since forever. My little ray of sunshine… Once the most difficult and sloppiest eater ever, he is now my partner in crime when it is time to dig into sushi, pho, biryani and anything smothered in black bean sauce. He is my noodle maniac and chocolate thief; he has found every single secret hiding spot for my private chocolate stash and can deplete my jar of chocolate chips rather quickly which drives me insane because he never leaves enough for me to make a batch of cookies! He is my baby… Always will be! He is now ready to fly solo… I should be happy! I will no longer rip his head off for leaving his dirty dishes on the counter instead of dropping them in the dishwasher. I will not have to nag until the cows come home that he should eat some piece of fruit, any fruit as long as it is a fruit not a fruit flavoured gummy! I will no longer trip over his back pack he insists on leaving in the front entrance. There will be room for boots and shoes in the front hall too and empty drawers in the main bathroom.  Although it is time for him too to be who he needs to be, I can’t help my heart from being twisted all around.

My friends tease me a lot about my «sad mommy» reaction since he only moved next door. Literally! He moved in with his brother in the apartment right next to ours! Yes, drama queen mother here… Whatever hahaha! I still think that it doesn’t matter how far they move away: once they leave the parental home to fly on their own, it means my role as a mom is completely changing; it is taking a brand new direction and throwing me in a brand new category of parenting… Eeeeek, not sure if I am even ready for that stage in life since I am still trying to figure what I will do when I grow up!!!

Hard to believe he is almost 21
Hard to believe he is almost 21
Messy Eater
Messy Eater

And so the last few weeks have been a bit of a blur and flurry of activities getting our young man settled into his new space. It has also been a month of exploration of Ottawa’s foodie scene for the King and I: Ottawa sure has a lot to offer and although there are many exquisite restaurants. I really, really should take the time to talk about some of the amazing local restaurants we have had the pleasure of visiting recently. Crazy few weeks it has been! Between going out a lot on weekends, getting things sorted out at the house with our young lad and also going through competition for a new position at work, I have not taken the time to play much with new recipes. Instead, I opted to focus on some of the Prince’s favourite dishes. And even at that, I had to restrain myself from spoiling him with too much of “mom’s cooking” as he has diligently been following a weight loss program. For the most part, and when I was cooking,  I stuck to familiar foods like roasted chicken, homemade soups, favourite pastas and muffins. Although I am not afraid of trying  new and intricate recipes, my culinary strengths revolve around comforting «slow» foods such as braised meats and soups. I love those recipes that have survived the test of time, that have been lovingly passed on from one generation to another and that evoke, in one sniff or one mouthful, the joy and memories of sitting at a family table, surrounded by loved ones. This corn chowder fits the bill for comfort food; it has that «stick to your rib» quality that makes everyone reach for a second ladle full. And since I am a tad sad (to say the least) at closing this chapter of my adventures in motherhood, I feel the need to cook up some “wrap me in a blanket” kind of food. The stuff that sooths the soul and brings everyone back home in their heart!

Corn Choder

Corn Chowder

Although it is not easy to find fresh corn on the cob at this time of year in the North Hemisphere, I have seen some recently grace the produce aisles from those countries on the other side of the equator. If you can’t find any fresh corn, frozen is solid option: you may simply have to skip steeping the naked cobs in the milk as suggested in the recipe.

What you need:

  • 4 cobs of fresh corn
  • 3 medium to large potatoes peeled and diced to yield 4 cups
  • 5 slices of thick cut bacon, cut in small cubes. Double smoked bacon is even better
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 red pepper, chopped in small dice
  • 3 tbsp butter, at room temperature
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme
  • Salt and pepper

How to make it:

  1. With a sharp knife, slice kernels. Set the kernels aside
  2. Placed naked cobs in a saucepan with milk and water. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn heat off and let sit with cobs until ready to use.
  3. Chop the onions and bacon; dice the potatoes and red peppers, setting each aside separately
  4. Make a «beurre manié» by mixing butter and flour until well combined. Set aside
  5. In a large pot over medium heat, cook the bacon pieces until they start to brown slightly without becoming crisp. Add onions and cook to soften. Then add the corn, potatoes and thyme. Cook 5 minutes while stirring frequently.
  6. Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer until the potatoes are cooked. Skim the foam that forms on top of the broth: this may have to be done a few times.
  7. Add red peppers
  8. Pour 1-2 cups of the hot broth over the beurre manié and whisk until smooth. Pour this mixture back to the pot whisking until well combined.
  9. Remove and discard cob ears from milk then add the liquid to the soup. Bring back to a gentle boil, reduce heat and simmer a bit more
  10. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.

Note: you can make this soup even if corn on the cob is not in season. You can use canned or frozen corn instead. Simply skip the step which infuses the naked cobs in milk and water.

Use fresh or frozen corn
Use fresh or frozen corn
Cobs taking a milk bath
Cobs taking a milk bath

Red potatoes

All that is left is to thicken it up and add the warm milk
Before the milk is added