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Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Credo Coffee and Eat Alberta - A Hearty Brew

I was fortunate to have coffee (and delicious coffee at that, but more about that in a moment) with educator, blogger and local food proponent Valerie Lugonja of acanadianfoodie.com. The nature of our talk will appear in an upcoming issue of Vue Weekly, but to give you a hint of things to come, it was about Eat Alberta.

Eat Alberta is an upcoming, hands-on conference all about the appreciation and preparation of local food.  Its theme, "A celebration of our local food heroes," refers to the many local foodies that are donating their knowledge and time to this event. It takes place April 30th, 2011, and registration is filling up very quickly.  Sessions will include apple pie making, honey tasting, pasta making, methods for making coffee at home...it promises to be an insightful day.

We indulged in frothy cappuccino at Credo Coffee. I recently wrote of Credo's raison d'etre for Vue, and spoke of Credo's deep-seeded desire to increase public accessibility to coffee itself - its origins, preparation and indescribably intricate flavour nuances. Coffee is so much more than "light roast" or "dark roast," and as proprietor Geoff Linden explained, thinking of coffee in those terms limits our perceptions to the roast itself, rather than of the beans' inherent flavour. Different varieties of coffee are as storied and varied as wine, which has a far broader public image in terms of flavour notes.

We savoured steaming cups of creamy cappuccino, each adorned with a delicate milk-froth leaf. I dunked an in-house made chocolate-chai biscotti in mine, marvelling at how the seemingly antipodal notes of chai and java worked together in a synergistic crescendo of sunny cocoa and earthy arabica. I sank into the comfy armchair, relishing the last sips of cappuccino, wishing the biscotti had lasted just a few seconds longer and not wanting to return to the raw, windswept sidewalk.

Above: cappuccino and a chocolate-chai biscotti, and the elaborate cappuccino artwork that adorn's Credo's walls.


Credo Coffee on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Nachinka - Ultimate Slavic Comfort Food

There are some heavy hitters in terms of Slavic comfort food: perogies, cabbage rolls, nalesnyky... These are all very well and good, but for me, nachinka trumps all of these. Nachinka, for those who are yet uninitiated, is a thick, baked cornmeal pudding. It may be thought of as the Slavs' answer to polenta, and many versions exist. My version is traced to my maternal grandmother's mother. As I write this, I just finished eating the last few bites of the nachinka I prepared earlier in the day, taking care to scrape up the delicious browned bits at the bottom of the pot. It's remarkably easy to prepare; detailed instructions follow. Smacznego!

Ingredients
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup yellow cornmeal
5 cups warm milk
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
4 eggs, well-beaten
1/2 whipping cream or half-and-half
1 tsp baking powder

Assemble your ingredients (cute whisk is optional).

 Saute onion in oil over medium heat until translucent.

 Slowly and thoroughly stir in cornmeal.

 Add milk, and constantly stir over medium heat until cornmeal thickens (~10 min).

 Continue stirring until mixture is very thick.


Meanwhile, whisk together eggs, cream and baking powder. Reserve 4 tbsp for topping.

Stir egg-cream mixture into cornmeal until thoroughly mixed. Remove from heat.

Scrape cornmeal mixture into a deep, well-buttered casserole. Pour reserved egg-cream mixture over the top. Bake at 325 deg F for 45-60 min, or until nicely browned.

Enjoy as a stand-alone dish or as an accompaniment to ham or chicken.

And that, dear readers, is nachinka.  Each golden forkful is a trip to my grandmother's sunlit kitchen, where a well-worn gravel road runs past the sizable garden, something always smells delicious, and peace is found.

Yellow Cornmeal on FoodistaYellow Cornmeal

Friday, 25 March 2011

Luzzara - One Fish, Blue Fish

A sizeable, blue, northern pike (Esox lucius) presides over the chic Whyte Ave coffee bar Luzzara. It hangs on the wall, gargantuan mouth agape, and watches the goings-on of this very European spot.  Behind the counter, barista Sarah Jackson pulls a mean cappuccino and crowns it with skillfully crafted milk foam leaf art. A glass jar of apple fritters and cookies beckons seductively from a corner while savoury scents sizzle from a panini press.  Luzzara, which takes its name from a town in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, is clearly a regular spot for Whyte Ave business owners; a florist and media guru drop in during my brief visit.

Whyte Avenue has experienced significant turnover during the past two years, perhaps due to prohibitive lease rates. This has meant the loss of several good restaurants. Indeed, some may argue that Edmonton's locus of fine dining is moving north of the river, reclaiming its natal territory on Jasper Ave. I agree, to some extent, but counter that one of the city's finest coffee spots holds its own on the Ave of Whyte. There are not many fish like this one.


Luzzara Coffee Bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Sweet [Krumblz] Dreams are Made of This

I recently wrote that cupcakes are the culinary celebrity du jour. It's true in Edmonton, and it is true in most North American cities. Indeed, Edmonton hosts a glut of bakeries specializing in cupcakes. Most are of above-average quality.  Anything that is overexposed, however, risks becoming banal, pedestrian, or predictable. Perhaps, as a result, I became jaded about cupcakes. Callingwood-area bakery Sweet Krumblz, run by the indefatigable Suzy Alcantara and Sheila Rai, changed my mind.

Sweet Krumblz offers no fewer than 14 cupcake flavours. I sampled 'Merry Cherry," which had cherries baked right into the chocolate batter. It was like a lilliputian Black Forest cake. I devoured "Coco Pinata" which wove the tropical flavours of pineapple and coconut into a airy, moist, edible vessel. I was blown away by "Blue Me Away," which featured blueberry icing studded with real blueberries. Never before have I seen blueberries in a cupcake. Well done.

Of note is Sweet Krumblz' icing. Unlike typical buttercream icings, theirs is whipped. The end product is cloud-like and ethereal, never overpowering the underlying cakes. I cannot look at creamed icings the same way again, now that I've sampled the wares of Sweet Krumblz. I had wrongfully dismissed cupcakes as the Paris Hilton of the baking world: overdone and famous just for being famous. Thank you, Sweet Krumblz, for changing my mind.



Sweet Krumblz on Urbanspoon

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Bare Necessities

There are two things that I cannot live without: good coffee and good bread. The former, formerly, was something I attempted (but rarely succeeded) to make at home. The latter, if I may boast, I could easily make at home but time constraints usually led to my purchasing it elsewhere. This past weekend was a massive, brilliant hit of the coffee-bread duet, thanks to the Italian Centre Shop and Prairie Mill Bread Co.

I procured a gargantuan cinnamon bun and a still-warm, fragrant loaf of Mediterranean sourdough bread from Prairie Mill at the City Centre Farmers' Market. I also happened upon Bella Dolce Bakery, who are producers of crisp, delicious and very tempting biscotti. It was difficult to choose just one flavour, but I left with a half-doz of cinnamon-cappuccino.

Final stop: the Italian Centre Shop to purchase a Bialetti Brikka. Finally, finally I can make espresso at home (and I must credit Teresa Spinelli for the on-the-fly espresso-making lesson). At last I sit at my kitchen table, enjoying the intermittent spring sunshine, with buttered bread, a biscotti and a divine cup of espresso.



 Addendum: I use Kimbo or Lavazza espresso.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Battista's Calzone Co. - Simplicity is beauty

Battista's Calzone Company specializes, as its name suggests, in calzone. Only calzone, and at that, only four varieties. The Classico features mozzarella, Genoa salami, cappicolo, onions, and red and green peppers. Spicy Italian showcases spicy Italian sausage, peppers and spices, all of which are sauteed in olive oil. Mama Mia encases juicy meatballs and mozzarella, and Vegetariano houses red and green peppers, onions, olives and mushrooms. I was privileged to try samples of all four flavours last week and am hard pressed to pick a favourite; all are delicious for different reasons. The Spicy Italian's spice mixture is clever and nuanced. Instead of a blast of heat, the spice mixture starts out mild and builds in a crescendo of herbs and heat. The meatballs in Mama Mia are large, lean and beefy. The recipe originates from Battista's mother. The Classico is reminiscent of a panino, except it is hot and features voluptuous homemade tomato sauce.

Rows of canned tomatoes are stacked artistically in various spots around the dining room, which boasts large windows and an assortment of tables and chairs. The building itself was once an auto garage, which Battista divided in two. The other half is presently Safron's Caribbean Cuisine and, although I have yet to visit there, the steady stream of patrons bustling down the narrow pathway bespeaks Safron's popularity.

Battista's Calzone Company is a relative newcomer on Edmonton's culinary scene, and is part of a growing restaurant presence on 118 ave. Battista demonstrates that simplicity is beauty. Instead of creating a voluminous array of edibles, he focuses on a tempting and finely crafted quartet of tomato and cheese-stuffed delicacies. I look forward to many return visits. Look for my profile of Battista's in an upcoming issue of Vue Weekly.


Battista's Calzone Company on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Niche & Corso 32 - A night of epic proportions

Here is a foodie fantasy come to fruition: Niche and Corso 32 in the same night. We began at Niche, the young upstart on Jasper Avenue west, which opened its doors but a few months ago but already boasts packed tables nearly nightly.  I wrote about Niche for Vue Weekly (though it is not yet in print) several weeks ago, when I was lucky enough to have a salted caramel brownie with lemon creme for dessert (pictured). Since then, I've done nothing but rave that this dessert is the stuff of legend. It is rich, chocolaty, and the salty-sweet contrast makes one long for another bite, and then another. The lemon whipped cream on top could be a stand-alone dessert. I'm already enamoured of Niche's food; the brownie just seals the deal.


We moved a few blocks east to Corso 32. The room was hopping and it was already 9:30 pm. We stole glimpses into the semi-open kitchen and lusted after every item on the menu. We enjoyed ruby-hued goblets of Scansano and indulged in house-made goat ricotta with crostini. A cloud on crostini. Our original intent was dessert at Corso, but the siren song of goat cheese ravioli with chard and hazelnuts was impossible to resist. Tender pasta, tangy cheese, earthy chard and toasty hazelnuts. A dish that exemplified the paradox of simplicity and complexity.


A night to remember. A night of epic proportions. How heartening to see the Jasper Avenue phoenix rising from the urban ashes.

Niche on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Handy Bakery - Black swan, white swan

We believe in 118. This slogan adorns the windows of countless businesses along Edmonton's avenue of ill-repute: 118th. Businesses - and their patrons - believe in 118 because this is a veritable mosaic of cafes, stores, restaurants and so forth. A unique melting pot, as it were. The 118 ave area is slowing being regentrified as young families scoop up real estate and new construction replaces decades-old eyesores. 118 ave, you've come a long way baby, but there are yet miles to go.

We walked past several ladies of the night and other sketchy-looking characters on an impulse trip to Handy Bakery (8660 118 ave), but our yen for Portuguese baking tempered any undercurrent of unease. Handy Bakery specializes in buns, bread and pastries and also retails Portuguese dry goods.

I ogled the well-lit, glassed-in pastry counter, transfixed by custard and whipped cream-filled creations. We selected several cream horns, which were filled with vanilla custard instead of cream. Each bite was a symphony of crispy pastry and smooth custard. Handy Bakery, to my knowledge, is the only place in town that makes swan eclairs. These chocolate-dipped, cream-filled morsels sport gracefully curved swan necks. They are almost too cute to eat. Almost, but not quite.

The "avenue" is yet a mix of the best and worst that society has to offer, but it is worth the trip for swan pastries alone.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Corso 32 - Braised rabbit, goat ricotta and a cold, cold night

I recently reviewed Corso 32 for Vue WeeklyChef Daniel Costa kindly invited me back for a tasting menu. His menu, on that bitterly cold night in the waning depths of winter, was the stuff of legend.  We sat in Corso's urbane, rectangular room and sipped flutes of crisp champagne, listened to smooth jazz and catchy alt-rock, and twisted our brains trying to anticipate what would emerge from the kitchen.  The kitchen at Corso 32 is semi-open; one can sort of see into the back, see the bobbing and weaving heads and eavesdrop on the chatter of chefs. Not all is visible, though, which lends an air of mystery. One could compare this to a magician's bag of tricks. It is exciting to see the physical components of prestidigitation, but one does not want to figure out the magic trick entirely. It wouldn't be magic then.

Cauliflower fritters were the first among three appetizers - auburn, crackling spheres that yielded tender cauliflower.  Beef carpaccio with pickled radishes followed.  Here, the delicate beef played off the sweet-sour radishes in a gentle tug-of-war between tender and crisp, meaty and botanical. Goat ricotta and crostini redefines the essence of goat cheese. This cheese has a predilection for musky sharpness, but here it was sultry, smooth, caressing the crisp crostini.

The first main, potato ravioli, resembled two gently-folded handkerchiefs sprinkled with grated parmigiano-reggiano. Lemon and sage added additional nuance.  A sturdy cube of braised beef shortrib crowned by shaved celery root veritably ached with flavour.  Pasta with braised rabbit, so ideally suited to this frigid night, was buttery, tender, and made me pine for it long after the meal was over.  Finally, a rotund polpettone, anointed with tomato sauce and cradled by rainbow-hued swiss chard, brought the meal to a close.

Our coda: chocolate torte with candied hazelnuts paired with a tiny glass of ruby port.  Velveteen, bittersweet and over too soon.

Corso 32 on Urbanspoon

Photos (from top to bottom): choc torte with hazelnuts, beef carpaccio with pickled radishes, braised rabbit in pasta and my arm.



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