Where there’s smoke…

My husband has taken up smoking again. Only this time, he smokes with woodchips and food.

After debating and researching and shopping around and hoarding Canadian Tire money for several years, we bought a Bradley 4-rack digital electric smoker about a month ago. My husband had wanted a smoker for quite a while, so this is now his new baby.

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Now I know that the purists are going to rabble here and say that the best smokers are charcoal, and that we’re settling for second best with an electric smoker. Yes, charcoal is better. If we had unlimited amounts of time to laze around waiting for charcoal to be ready to go, we’d have a charcoal smoker and a charcoal grill. However, we don’t have unlimited amounts of time, and I like eating dinner before 9pm. Therefore, we have a propane grill and an electric smoker.

The Bradley smoker that my husband ended up buying has a few features that are really nice. First, it’s digital, so setting the cooking temperature is a breeze. It will also maintain that temperature for as long as required without any babysitting. And it can be used to cold smoke things like cheese, which was a “nice to have” for my husband. (Cold smoking isn’t something that we’ll be trying in the middle of summer, but on a cool spring day it worked great.) Finally, the Bradley website has an active and friendly forum if you have questions or problems. (The forum members are also quite handy, and are willing to show off their hacks and homemade smokehouses. Lots of ideas there!)

On the downside, it takes proprietary “bisquettes” of wood for the smoke. These can be a bit pricey, since one bisquette will only burn for 20 minutes, but we’ve been keeping our eyes open for them and getting them when they’re on sale. Also, the cord is a bit short. This may present a problem if you lack convenient outdoor outlets. On that same thread, it is electric, so I wouldn’t consider it an all-weather smoker. Again, a smokehouse might be in our future when we redo the backyard.

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So far, he’s smoked cheese, tofu, a whole chicken, a pork tenderloin, and ribs. We were working up to the ribs, and boy – were they worth waiting for!

The baby back ribs were doused with the Sweet Chili rub from Bon Vivant and smoked with hickory at 275°F for two hours. We then wrapped the ribs in foil, and stuck them in the oven at 275°F for an hour. The packets were opened, the juices saved, and the ribs went back in the oven for one more hour. The reserved juices were then mopped onto the ribs, and they went under the broiler for about two minutes, just until the juices started bubbling.

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Wow! I’m not even sure what to tweak with this method, because the ribs came out so good. It helped that we started with a quality product from Frig’s, and the rub and the smoke added just the right amount of flavour to enhance, rather than cover up, the taste of the ribs.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about our smokey adventures in the next while.

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Spring is springing?

The weather forecast for the summer predicts a hot, dry summer across the Prairies.

…really? Could have fooled me. The spring started off promising, but we seemed to have settled into a rather cool, wet period for the last few weeks.

Or maybe I’m just getting impatient. See, I haven’t been able to get my garden in yet. My seedlings are started, my whole seed order has arrived… I just need to wait until the garden warms up and dries out a bit. Hopefully I’ll get that chance next weekend. I’m starting to worry about my tomato seedlings, since they’ve been shuffled in and out of the garage so much lately. I may need to start fertilizing them to keep them happy if I can’t plant them out soon.

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I did manage to get my peas and lettuce in about a month ago, though, so they are coming along nicely. They both thrive in the cool and wet, so we should have peas by the end of June, and butterhead lettuce before that.

Every year I try something new, something that I’ve never attempted to grow before. Brussels sprouts, cabbage, eggplant, broccoli and sweet melons have all made an appearance in my garden. This year, I’m attempting artichokes. Artichokes are tricky in this climate, since they won’t produce in their first year, and they aren’t hardy in this climate and thus won’t survive the winter. But the variety I’m trying can (apparently) be fooled into thinking they’ve gone through a winter by setting them out in chilly weather while they are seedlings. The cool temperatures we’ve been having have helped with this, so at least it’s helping me out that way.

But, even if the weather prevents me from getting my garden in this weekend, another sign of summer will be arriving: the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market! The first market of the year will open on Saturday, June 2 at 8am, and will run until 3pm. The Wednesday market will also open next week, starting June 6.

Also, we’ve already started making pilgrimages down to Crampton’s Market on Waverley, which recently opened for the summer.

Have heart! Summer is on the way. We just have to be patient, right?

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Manitoba Food Bloggers (minus 1): Get Your Goodies Bake Sale

Tomorrow, May 18th, the Manitoba Food Bloggers will be having a bake sale from 10am to 2pm at Aqua Books to support Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Jamie Oliver is the adorable British celebrity chef who has taken on childhood obesity and food ignorance as his favourite cause. Jamie was the 2010 TED Prize winner; you can watch his prize speech here. May 19, 2012 has been designated Food Revolution Day, on which people are urged to teach people about food, food issues, healthier lifestyles and better nutrition. Funds raised at Food Revolution Day events will go towards food education projects run by the Jamie Oliver Foundation, such as the Food Education Box (you can a check out a sample lesson).

Chocolate Chip Cookies

In addition to the fundraiser, participating bloggers will have their eligible goodies judged as part of the Big Bake Off, sponsored by Manitoba Canola Growers. Fabulous prizes!

So, head on over to Aqua Books (still open in its Garry Street location) on Friday, May 18 to sample some goodies baked by people who know what they’re talking about, and support a good cause at the same time!

(No, I’m not participating in the bake sale. First, I’m not a baker. I have no trouble subjecting my family and even coworkers to my rather mediocre baking, but the thought of offering it up to strangers – for money, no less! – just seems like so much hubris. And secondly, I’m burningly shy around new people, and have yet to make it to any of the Manitoba Food Blogger events that have happened. I’ll go to one eventually, I’m sure, but I just haven’t been able to work up the nerve yet. Meanwhile, I’ll just feign dead over here… after I eat my cookies from the bake sale, of course.)

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We’re Digging In

This summer, Dig In Manitoba, an initiative of Food Matters Manitoba, is showing Manitoba families that eating local can be easy.

The Dig In Challenge dares local families to discover the local food possibilities this summer. Challenge participants pledge to shift at least $10 of their weekly food budget towards, try at least two new Dig In Challenge activities a month, and (optionally) to attend Dig In workshops. Also, workshop participants will be eligible to win prizes!

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Families who already make an effort to eat locally can participate in Dig Deeper. Dig Deeper participants are limited to only 100 families, but as the name suggests, they will delve deeper into the local food scene by growing their own vegetables, participating in seed-starting and seed-saving workshops, and doing more activities each month.

The Dig In Challenge kick-off is this Saturday, April 21, in the Centre Court at The Forks Market, hosted by Janet Stewart. To sign up for the challenge for free, just visit the pledge page on the Dig In Challenge website.

We will be participating in the Dig In Challenge this summer as well! Because our summer is going to be a bit busy we can’t commit to the Dig Deeper Challenge, but I’m happy to be participating even in a small way.

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The Grilled Cheese Project

Today is National Grilled Cheese Day! Or at least it is in the United States. And as I was born and raised in the States, grilled cheese (or as I used to occasionally call it, toasted cheese) runs in my blood. (Err, not literally. That would be gooey.)

To me, a grilled cheese sandwich is the ultimate comfort food. Paired with a bowl of tomato soup, it can help me can get over any wrong and make the world seem sane again, if only for a little while. It’s a wonderful slate for experimentation, or just eating straight up after a busy day. It’s fast. It’s filling. It’s portion-controlled. What’s not to love about the humble grilled cheese?

Grilled cheese.

Therefore, I took a bit of umbrage with the snotty editorial about the holiday in the Globe and Mail today… Especially the insinuation that the only grilled cheese worth talking about is one that’s been fancied up with extra-stinky cheese or caramelized onions or bourbon-soaked mushrooms or hydroponically-grown tomatoes tended by virgins.

No love for the basic butter, cheese, bread combo? Hmph. Elitist foodie jerks.

Anyway, I figured today would be a good day to launch my Grilled Cheese Project (GCP). This project will be two pronged. First, I’ll be using the GCP tag to document my own homemade grilled cheese adventures. I’ve been making my standard grilled cheese sandwiches ever since I moved out on my own, but I also like experimenting with the basic recipe. A blog I follow called Grilled Cheese Social has some great ideas for twists on the old-school sandwich, and I may try some of her recipes. Also, Winnipeg is lucky to have several awesome cheese shops (as well as several locally made cheeses) so I must try some of these cheeses out in a grilled cheese.

Second, I will use the GCP to look at and write about what is available for grilled cheese in restaurants around Winnipeg. You’d be surprised how many places serve grilled cheese that you wouldn’t expect would have it. Sometimes it’s right on the menu, but sometimes you just have to ask. When evaluating the grilled cheeses I find around town, I will use a modification of the Grilled Cheese Invitational classification system:

  • Basic: The ingredients can only be cheese and bread, and a fat of some kind (usually butter).
  • Fancy: A grilled cheese sandwich that has a variety of ingredients, while still staying recognizable as a grilled cheese sandwich (the Grilled Cheese Invitational rules state that the interior ingredients must be 60% cheese).
  • Dessert: A sweet grilled cheese sandwich that has a variety of ingredients, while still staying recognizable as a grilled cheese sandwich (the Grilled Cheese Invitational rules state that the interior ingredients must be 60% cheese).

This won’t necessarily be a competition, though. I just want to know what Winnipeg can do in terms of a grilled cheese.

So what’s your favourite grilled cheese in Winnipeg? What do you put in the ones you make at home?

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Urban Bees… for the Birds?

I’m experiencing a wave of déjà vu.

Back in 2010, the city turned down a request from residents to study allowing backyard chicken coops (and chickens!) within city limits. Despite chickens being legal (within stated limitations) in several US cities, Canadian cities have balked at allowing residents to keep a small number of hens.

Today, Winnipeg city council’s protection and community services committee voted to review the bylaw that prevents residents from keeping honeybees within city limits. At least this time, the idea has gotten further than the chicken proposal did.

Juneau Bee

However, I’m feeling rather pessimistic about the whole thing. To being with, the NIMBYs (or rather, the NIMNBYs – Not In My Neighbours’ Backyards) are already crying. They (or their kid) are incredibly allergic to bee stings. They want to be able to continue to use their backyard without getting invaded by their neighbours’ bees. If their neighbours get bees, they’re getting a can of Raid… and so on.

These are very similar to the pre-emptive complaints leveled against the backyard chicken proposal. Unknowledgeable opponents alleged that chickens are loud, smelly and unsanitary. However, if they’d actually read the proposal, they would have seen that the limitations and regulations proposed along with the by-law change would have mitigated a lot of those concerns. The proposal to allow beekeeping has similar provisions, but I expect those provisions to get shoved aside as people who assume rather than research rant and rave their way to City Hall… And end up getting their way.

First, we’re talking about honeybees here, not wasps. The aggressive wasps that invade your backyard picnic in the late summer are not bees. Honeybees tend to keep to themselves, and only get angry if you pester them or mess with their hive. Honeybees are looking for nectar, not your burger. They will typically sting only as a last resort, because if they sting you they will die.

Wasps, specifically yellow jackets, on the other hand, are predators. They are after your burger because it tastes good to them. They are aggressive, and will sting with little provocation. They can also sting multiple times, since using their stinger will not kill them. Wikipedia has a nice table on the differences between different types of bees and wasps to make it even more clear. I think most of the fear of honeybees is actually misplaced fear of wasps. Wasps don’t produce honey, so no one will voluntarily be keeping those anyway!

Charles Polcyn, the president of the Red River Apiarist Association and the origin of the request to the city, also had several ideas that would make any urban beekeeper a better neighbour. These restrictions included certification of the beekeeper, fresh water located on the property for the bees, a minimum lot size of at least 50′ by 100′, and a six-foot barrier around the hives (such as a shrub), which would force the bees to fly up to look for nectar rather than through a neighbour’s yard.

Right now, chickens and bees are both included in Winnipeg’s Exotic Animal By-Law, even though they are hardly exotic. With some forethought and care, both can be just as good neighbours – if not better – than the neighbor with the large, loud, but perfectly legal dog… And put Winnipeg alongside cities that allow apiaries, such as Vancouver or Calgary.

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Unburger (aka, Drippilly Delicious)

I know burger joints. They are in clean but well-worn locations, and decorated with the detritus of the era in which they were founded: licence places, bicycles, autographed photos from celebrities, and so on. Their colours are muted, possibly faded by time, and the menu is either permanently scratched onto a chalkboard or read from laminated menus that are curled at the corners. They are uniformly quirky places, and fit well into their neighbourhoods.

Burger joints aren’t supposed to be minimalist spaces, painted a brilliant white with red accents and decorated by QR codes. The menus aren’t supposed to be shown on flatscreens over the counter. However, Unburger is all of these things, and it works. In fact, it works really well, because it is still a quirky place that fits in perfectly with its Osborne Village neighbourhood.

Table Marker at Unburger

Unburger specializes in burgers that are fresh, locally-sourced, and hormone-free, and you can tell by the taste: quality ingredients means a quality taste. You can choose between a variety of beef, chicken and vegetarian burgers, and any beef burger can be made out of bison for an additional $2.75.

I’ve sampled several (many!) of their burgers, and have yet to be disappointed. The Bella, made with a portabella mushroom cap instead of a patty, was delicious, dressed with lettuce, tomato, onions and blue cheese. I also really enjoyed Caeser’s Offering: basically a chicken burger topped with a crispy caeser salad. But my favourite, and the one I keep going back to, is a classic: the bacon cheddar burger. Smoked bacon, Bothwell cheddar, lettuce and tomato – how can you go wrong with that?

Caeser's Offering

For a unique taste, try one of their burgers that are impossible to eat in a dignified manner. I especially like recommending The Drunken Aussie to friends, if only to watch them try to eat it. It is delicious but messy: beef burger, bacon, cheddar, lettuce, grilled pineapple, sliced beets, and topped with a fried egg. (Another burger, The Donald, is also topped with a fried egg, but isn’t nearly as drippy.) I’m not knocking these burgers – in fact, I highly recommend them – but you probably shouldn’t wear your best shirt while trying to eat one, if you get my drift.

The Drunken Aussie and Fries

Sides are ordered separately but there is a nice selection of fries and salads. A friend tried the “Hal Johnson and Joanne McCleod 8-Grain Energy Salad” and pronounced it “yummy.” I’m afraid, however, that I’ve been stuck on the fries ever since my first visit. Our usual MO is to order a “Shareables,” which has an order each of regular and sweet potato fries accompanied by two dips. The fries, while good, are essentially vehicles for getting the dip into our mouths. We always get the rosemary garlic aioli and the chiplotle aioli, and never look back. (Seriously. Try the rosemary garlic aioli. You will not regret it.)

Unburger obviously subscribes to my notion that pop tastes better when it’s drunk directly from a glass bottle, so they have miniature bottles of Coke products in a cooler near the door. They also have a small selection of beers and wines. They carry Fort Garry, but Half Pints is notable in its absence.

Unburger is located on Stradbrooke between The Happy Cooker and Segovia. There is parking behind the restaurant, but we’ve always been able to find street parking. Unburger is open Monday through Saturday, from 11:30am to 10:00pm.

Unburger on Urbanspoon

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First Impressions: Dhoom

My husband visited Dhoom recently with some friends and gave me his impression of the place.

If you ever went to the current location of Dhoom when it was still a Pizza Hut, you will not recognize the place. They have divided it down the middle, with a lounge on one side (complete with VLTs), and a restaurant on the other. The restaurant was tasteful and quiet, though I can’t vouch for the noise levels later in the evening when the lounge fills up.

All three of us ordered the lunch buffet, which includes complementary fresh, hot naan bread served at your table. Other restaurants have larger buffets, but this one covered all of the basic dishes; rice salad, assorted hot pickles, rice, navratram korma, aloo gobi, beef curry, lentil dhal, goat curry, butter chicken, tandoori chicken, and chilli-lime chicken wings all made an appearance.

Once we were seated after our first trip to the buffet, one of the chefs emerged from the kitchen with complimentary hot naan bread for our table. As we were getting ready to head up for seconds, another chef and one of the serving girls made the rounds from table to table offering complimentary pizza. Apparently they kept the oven in place when they remodeled. It was a vegetarian pizza, and I think that it was the highlight of the meal. The crust was darn near perfect, and it had a rich blend of vegetables, with just enough peppers to give it a pleasant little bite. I am normally not a fan of vegetarian pizzas, considering the anemic ones you get from most pizza chains, but this place showed that it can be very very good if done right.

Desserts included coconut burfi, kheer and gulab jamun. The kheer was a bit light on the cardamom, and the gulab jamun was (as expected) cloyingly sweet. The burfi was a pleasant surprise, being nowhere near as rich and sweet as I was expecting.

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The plates available at the buffet are a slightly arty, square shape with edges that rise and fall in a shallow sine wave. It looks neat, but it’s a trap for sauces on the plate. I nearly wore a rivulet of butter chicken sauce before I realized it was spilling and managed to stop it with my thumb before it left too large a spill on the carpet. Also due to their shape, the plates hold deceptively little, which is good and bad. Since it’s a buffet you can go back as many times as you like, but there is the annoyance of getting caught behind some schmuck on his cell phone who is more interested in conversing with his mouth-breathing cousin than actually loading food onto his plate. On the other hand, forcing one to take smaller portions also helps one to avoid overeating, which can often be a problem for me at one of these places.

The food was all good (especially for the price), the atmosphere was pleasant, and the service was prompt and attentive. I plan to go back, though the next time in I am tempted to skip the buffet and just try their pizza.

First Impressions is just that – my first impressions of a restaurant. I adhere to the Food Blog Code of Ethics, and prefer to only do a full review of a restaurant after I’ve visited it at least twice, whenever possible. If I write a full review of this restaurant at a later date, I will add the link to this post.

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Christmas Goose

I hope everyone had a good and safe Christmas. Ours was, in turn, very exciting and very laid-back. My husband broke a bone just before Christmas, so the days leading up to the holiday were filled with crutches, casts, and trips to the hospital. Things are starting to settle down a bit (knock on wood), and I’m hoping there are no more disasters in the few days leading up to New Year’s.

This year for Christmas dinner I decided to make a goose. My last experience with goose was many years ago when my mother decided to do a “traditional Dickens Christmas,” ala A Christmas Carol. We had goose and plum pudding and Christmas crackers and all the other trappings you’d find when dining with Bob Cratchit and family. Unfortunately, the only tradition that survived that Christmas was the Christmas crackers. The goose, while tasty enough, was a bit of a hassle and just didn’t have enough meat for a family of five. My family has since gone back to a Christmas ham or turkey.

Christmas Dinner

However, here in Winnipeg there is only my husband and me to feed. With that in mind, we found ourselves a 4.2kg (about 9 lb) goose, and I started researching how to cook it.

I used my experience with the duck several years ago as a starting point. Waterfowl are naturally fatty birds, with a layer of fat just under the skin to keep them warm in chilly water. The first thing I found when I unwrapped our goose a few days before Christmas was just how much fattier the goose was compared to the duck. I pulled great handfuls of fat out of the bird’s cavity, and plunked it down into a saucepan to render.

Next, I used the tip of a wooden skewer to prick the goose’s skin all over, making sure not to poke into the meat. These holes provide lots of tiny channels for the fat to run off while the bird is roasting. Then, I boiled the bird.

No, it’s ok! Several recipes recommended either steaming the bird or submerging it in boiling water for two minutes, and then letting it dry in the fridge for two days. This was supposed to help crisp up the skin. (It also made the bird a bit goose-pimply, which I found funny.)

Roast Goose, pre-roasting

On the big day, I pulled the bird out of the fridge and rubbed the skin all over with a mix