New York Detour: The CIA

When we first contemplated New York (the reason we went is in the next post, I promise!) we thought about flying. Then we thought about what a pain flying is. And then we thought about taking the train (awesome! we love trains!) until we realized it turned a 6.5 hour trip into a 14 hour one. So we took the obvious and fun choice - a road trip! In november, when the leaves are still golden and the sun is still shining until *ahem* 5:30 (we smartly escaped before the time change, but returned in the dark). Since we were going to drive, and since all I did all summer was read through my virtual ipad-high stack of culinary biographies and other funny food stories, the first thing that came to mind was not 'ooh...Holland Tunnel!' or 'fall leaves. pretty!', it was more like "We MUST. GO. TO. THE. CIA."

And so we did.

For those who don't read stacks of food books, the CIA is not, in fact, the american intelligence agency. It's better!

It's the Culinary Institute of America! And it's also my new favourite place.

We decided to fit it in our return trip home so that we could (A) avoid disgusting highway food and (B) take our time and not worry about how late we were getting to New York. And it was a perfect plan.

On Monday morning, we woke up in our Park Avenue hotel, grabbed a coffee, spent some time at Kinokuniya perusing japanese craft books and hit the road. Two and a half hours (and some ridiculous Monday morning New Jersey turnpike traffic) later, we took a quick left off the highway onto Chive Street (we also exited on Parsley Lane, cue foodie eyeroll here).

First impressions are everything, and this one definitely left me wanting more time (and $160,000 for tuition for their 8-semester degree program). Breathtaking views of the Hudson, spotless gleaming hallways in gorgeous buildings, chef's jackets everywhere, and even the café looked out over an adorable little courtyard complete with a working fountain.

The campus is really lovely, but that's actually not why we detoured here. It was (no shocker) the food that was our real motivation. I had heard great things about the Apple Pie Bakery Café, the one spot on campus that's nearly always open and doesn't require a reservation. It's also more casual fare, and perfect fuel for the remaining 5 hours of our drive back to Montreal.

We perused the menu and ordered a few small plates so we could get maximum tasting opportunities. First up? Truffled grilled cheese, served with freshly made kale chips and a truffle aioli. It put every grilled cheese I've ever made to shame. Deep, deep shame. And those Kale chips? If we hadn't ordered this, I would have paid any sum of money to take a bag on the road with us (and I'd like some right now, too).

Since we were very hungry when we ordered we paired this dish with a bulghur salad (sorry! so good I forgot the photo!) and a truffled pint of freshly cut fries, sprinkled with parmesan and sea salt. I should state for the record that we couldn't finish ANY of these orders (but almost!), and I refused to leave a single kale chip behind.

We followed our moderately gluttonous meal with the quick purchase of some macarons and other treats for later, and some desperate wishes for a carb-induced nap. After a quick wander around campus and a stop into the campus bookstore, we had to hit the road. I had a hard time leaving and I'm already plotting my way back. Who's up for a 5-day pastry bootcamp?

deliciously offal


IMG_1925, originally uploaded by mintyfresh.

This all started off very innocently. A simple tweet, about a simple dinner, that somehow turned into four and a half hours, fifteen courses, and what may amount to a most fascinating dinner that I was completely unprepared for.

The short of it: I crossed something off my life list (hello, #47).

The long of it:

I've been loving this book that a friend got me for my birthday - Ideas In Food. It resonates with how I think about food, for the most part, and it's really interesting from a food science, how-things-work sense.

I also love Atelier. I've been twice and still swear up and down that both of those experience were some of the best dining experience I've had (and may ever have, they were so fantastic).

So when the two combined (as in, the authors of Ideas In Food were going to cook a 6 course meal at Atelier), I was all over it. A perfect excuse to come to town and to round up some of my favourite people.

At the last minute, it became a 12-course meal. And the start time got pushed up to a moderately-insane 9:15pm.

And then we arrived.

The great thing about Atelier is that they never show you the menu - it's always a surprise, and usually it's delightful. Having had meals there before, I had an idea of how crazy a meat-inclusive menu might be, and not wanting to change the experience (and being fairly willing to eat the meat inclusive meals of the past), I didn't opt for a veggie version. But this time around the menu was on the table. And I was instantly scared.

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Did you count them all? I did. A mind-blowing fifteen courses (sixteen if you included the popcorn starter). And most of it included offal or other unusual meats. This was most definitely not what I expected, and it was also most definitely not something I could change now. Uh oh.

And so it began.

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Meyer Lemon Ice Cream. This was great. A little ashy, but still great. Also, salty (that's a lot of whitefish roe, that yellow blob). Overall good but not something I'd eat again.

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This looks so basic. Deep-fried something (yum!). Sauce (also yum!). Except the deep-fried something's were chicken hearts. The sauces (a coleslaw puree that would rival any southern style slaw and a tabasco-dandelion honey sauce) were exceptional. Overall I tackled this dish without feeling the least bit queasy AND it actually tasted good.

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Crispy duck tongue is astonishingly delicious. Sea urchin is mildly repulsive. But I tried them both.

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The soup looks totally innocuous (it was a delicious parsnip puree). But the fried bits? Why, they are sweetbreads (read: braaaaains).

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My mostly-vegetarian body loved this dish because it was all veggies, but the sweet potato was sweeeeeeeeet.

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This dish was destined to be pretty much everything I didn't like about food choices in china. Raw egg yolk, congee AND duck gizzards. Yes. But I tried it, too.

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I don't like squid (read: calamari) but I would willingly eat this squid dish over and over and over again. It included a papaya salad and culantro - the vietnamese version of a favourite herb.

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When the menu said "Halibut for Two" I totally thought they were kidding. Turns out they were not. This *whole* fish was eye-popping for most of us - at least at our table. There was some gasping when it arrived.

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Tripe. With Cabbage. This one was a challenge and went back to the kitchen with most of the tripe still intact.

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Beef tongue on smoked oatmal with Dr. Pepper sauce and watercress stems (which seemed like boring green onions, really). I had to talk myself down from imagining baby cows munching away in a field for this one.

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Elk loin, sunchoke hazelnut puree, green brier, and pickled milkweed pod. This was actually good, though I have to admit that I only ate around the edges. Pink meat and I do not go together.

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La Sauvagine, birch syrup, black garlic powder. All so very delicious. Now I need to hunt this cheese down in Montreal.

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Palm sugar ice cream with citrus cells (think frozen pulp bits) and grated shortbread with pop rocks. I loved this dish but it was HUGE and totally pushed me over the edge from full to bursting.

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The fifteenth and final course was a tube of chocolate pudding, and sweet cream granita (I swear that is not popcorn). Diners had to break the seal on the tube (cool!) and "created" our own pudding/granita combinations.

And that's it. Are you exhausted reading this? I was exhausted eating it. But it was one of those experiences that I couldn't say no to - especially not in the moment. I don't regret it, but I don't plan to repeat it again any time soon, either.

Special thanks to Lana, Emilie, Jen and Marnie for braving the menu with me. It would not have been the same without you all!

dinner from scratch


homemade pesto, originally uploaded by mintyfresh.

It's been hot here for so long that I've forgotten how to cook things that involve heat - using the stove for anything has been an impossibility.

But a break in the heat meant I could spend some time in the kitchen for a change, with burners on, and everything!

Today's project? Homemade pesto from the field of basil we have growing on the balcony, and fresh fettucine, the perfect use for the Tipo 00 flour I scored the other day.

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While the process takes patience, the end result is totally worth it.

dough
fresh.

dumpling day


assembly line, originally uploaded by mintyfresh.

I have been so very busy since we decided to move that I haven't had a minute to myself to blog about dumpling day! This is very very overdue.

In February and March I was "self-employed", which is pretty much a fancy description for having lots of coffee shop meetings, reading a lot of books, and not needing an excuse to skip work for a 10am yoga class. But it also means that I had a lot of time on my hands to cook, which, after sixteen months of "I have five minutes to eat" tomato sandwiches in the NAC's greenroom, was a pretty exciting prospect.

My favourite cooking project of choice is always dumplings, and when a friend asked me how to make them (since I swore they were so easy) I decided the best thing I could do would be to host a group of girlfriends at home to show them how myself! (See - this is what I do when I have free time. Fill it up.)

The planning required for an event like this is pretty much nil, though if you are me, you will make up your own custom-designed recipe cards and package up little take-home containers of homemade garlic-ricewine dipping sauce in advance. If your girlfriends are like mine, they will also roll their eyes slightly and say "of course you did".

Otherwise, it's easy:

  • Invite your guests! Figure out how many people your kitchen could reasonably accommodate on your countertop and then subtract one. Don't invite any more people than that number (and include you in that total, too).
  • If your friends are like my friends, buy wine. Maybe a lot of it. Just in case. (And snacks, but not too many because you'll soon be eating dumplings).
  • Buy all of the ingredients you'll need for two or more (you choose) batches of each recipe you want to make.
  • Remind all your guests to bring a tupperware container with them for all of the dumplings they're going to take home for their freezer.
  • Follow each recipe - either give everyone their own recipe, or give everyone a step and share in the assembly,
  • Make 1/2 of the dumplings, splitting the remaining half between all of your guests.
  • Enter dumpling coma.

We made four different kinds of 'dumplings' at Dumpling Day when I hosted it in March, including spinach & water chestnut wontons, edamame and ricotta dumplings based on this recipe from 101 Cookbooks, and some spring rolls, which are definitely not dumplings, but Tanya Skeates of Soupcon had just taught me to make them and maybe I was just showing off a little.

The one we made that I love the most at the moment, though (and the recipe I made tonight - first Montreal dumpling marathon, yay!) is this recipe for veggie dumplings (slightly adapted and adjusted; hint: add 1/4 tsp five spice powder, ignore the egg, use water instead of chicken stock and don't even bother with that oven-heating business) from Smitten Kitchen.

cilantro and tofu

filling

The process can be long, so I highly recommend accompanying it all with a glass (or two) of wine. When it gets warm, add an ice cube or two to cool it off again. Space invader ice cubes optional.

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The end result is dinner for two (and a lot of leftovers for lunch - these are great cold), dinner for more if you pair it with something else - a sesame noodle salad and some homemade ginger soda, perhaps?

end result

Everyone who came to dumpling day ended up going home with a hefty container full of freshly made dumplings either ready for the freezer or ready for the next night's dinner. New dumpling converts!

Of course, no cooking session would be complete without angus sneaking in to steal some of the ingredients (after the fact, of course!). Om nom, little kitty. He only likes the greens, but he really likes them.

om nom

nom.

It takes a special kind of chef to open up his kitchen to the paparazzi.

And no matter how you want to slice it, nor how enthusiastic our praise, that's what we were, we dozen or so camera-weilding foodies, when we stepped off of the freight elevator into Chef Blackie's kitchen on Wednesday night.

Having worked at the NAC for some sixteen months (an experience for which I will forever feel lucky), I am no stranger to the special moments that can happen within the giant walls and multiple storeys of the fortress-of-the-performing-arts, bound both to protect them and present them. But none were more special that this - a unique opportunity to not only step inside what some might consider one of the best kitchens in the city, but to participate. To cook! To tour! To plate! And to eat, in the company of the same chef who happens to be in the process of turning what has always been considered fine dining at the NAC on it's head.

From the immense Chef's Table (it can seat 24 in a pinch), to the personalized tour (if I could have snuck that new induction cooktop home in my purse, I absolutely would have), to the fabulous team of chefs who get to call the experience that we were part of on Wednesday their work, to the smiling faces of the staff, and the welcome from President and CEO Peter Herrndorf, we were spoiled, surprised, and I don't think anyone sitting around that table would have been able to wipe the smiles of glee off their faces for anything.

While we were really there to get a sense of Blackie's new Taste5 menu (which you can try yourself - and should - from Monday to Saturday on nights when there are performances in Southam Hall), this was about more than that. It was about embracing a community that very rarely gets to sit as a group and chat with some of the greatest chefs we can find and have a conversation. It was about showing a broader audience that just because a restaurant might have been around for decades doesn't mean that there aren't fresh ideas and surprises waiting for you.

The NAC should count itself lucky to have Chef Blackie blazing a trail towards something completely different (and delicious) for a place that represents, as do the NACs stages, some of the best that Canada's culinary arts scene has to offer.

If you haven't given the "new" Le Cafe a try, you should. I know, I, for one, will be back.

Check out my full set of photos and commentary from the evening here.

And to read more, check out the commentary of the rest of the very very good company I was keeping, including C'est Bon Cooking, Simply Fresh, Whisk, Shawn Dearn, Lana at Apron Strings, After The Harvest, Foodie Prints, Rachelle Eats Food, Kayahara, and of course we can't forget our lovely hosts @jcovert and @michaelblackie. The entire night was such a pleasure, I can't wait for it to happen again. I can only hope that I'll find such a vibrant, interesting, and opinionated collection of foodies in my soon-to-be-adopted hometown.

(And sidenote: did I mention that he sent us home with recipes, on top of it all?)