My funny Valentine’s Day restaurant experiences

I’m happy to say that when it comes to bad Valentine’s Day restaurant experiences, I think the curse is finally broken.

Over the years my partner and I have had our share of truly terrible Valentine’s Day restaurant dates.

For instance, one year we visited a trendy neapolitan pizza restaurant in Montreal’s Little Italy. As we watched everyone else enjoy their blackened pizza, I could only taste ashes. My pizza was so charred, there was nothing delicious about it. When we complained to the server, I got flack for having eaten too much of  the pizza but they comped us with dessert. It’s been years but I can still remember the smell and taste of that burnt pizza. I felt bad for my partner for having taken such care in choosing a restaurant only to have this disappointing experience.

Burnt pizza
Burnt pizza, anyone?

A few years ago we were all set to enjoy a meal at a local haunt when soon after arriving we discovered they’d lost our Valentine’s Day reservation. We had to wait a long time for a table and it seemed the restaurant’s regular customers had the best seats. The food was mediocre. It was a frustrating night.

Our worst Valentine’s date happened at a romantic bistro restaurant in Pointe Claire Village, on the West Island of Montreal. The restaurant was lovely, in a beautiful historic house and the food looked wonderful. The problem was thanks to my “IBS” (or whatever it is I’ve had), I’ve had trouble digesting fat and every single food item was fatty in some way. The vegetarian burger might have been okay but it was accompanied by deep fried sweet potato fries. Then we polished the meal off with Croatian donuts. As I posted on Facebook:

Just after finishing dessert I felt very full and needed the bathroom. I threw up. The IBS I have is IBS-C, so I’m often feeling bloated but wow, I was sick. I don’t know what’s going on but I don’t seem to tolerate some foods at all. No more fried foods for me. I wonder too if the veggie burger was prepared in the same pan as a meat burger? Anyway…

This year’s date turned out rather well. As we headed into Montreal’s Mile Ex neighbourhood, we wondered if we’d ever find a parking spot in a city blanketed with 40 cm of snow. But we found a parking spot near our restaurant and made it in perfect time.

The Asian-inspired food at cosy Café Denise was amazingly tasty. It was affordable too and the service was terrific. We were happily surprised by their mango kimchi, slices of mango that were pickled and spicy. My partner enjoyed a pork and cilantro dish served with rice, while I chowed down on a dish that featured Udon noodles, cheese, mushrooms and oysters. I don’t normally like tapioca but their only dessert, coconut-infused tapioca topped with mango slices and tasty pumpkin seeds, was incredible.

tapioca dessert infused with coconut and topped with mango slices and pumpkin seeds
A tasty tapioca dessert/Stephanie O’Hanley

I hope our spell of bad luck is finally broken. I look forward to a future of many more happy Valentine’s Day restaurant dates with my sweetie.

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A family recipe

Baked Lemon Poppyseed Cake Icing Sugar Sweet Food
We usually bake our version of this delicious cake in a bundt pan.  Photo: Max Pixel

My family didn’t invent this recipe for poppyseed cake at but it’s something my mom used to bake quite a bit.

She’s an amazing baker and cook and can make just about anything.

I especially love this recipe. I’m a big fan of anything with poppy seeds but there’s something about this moist cake when it’s topped with a lemon frosting. It’s perfect with coffee or tea or as a snack and this cake always turns out well and keeps for days. When it comes to naming a favourite “family” recipe, I have a hard time choosing between this and my mom’s butter tarts.

Buttermilk Poppyseed Cake

¼ cup poppy seeds
1 cup buttermilk (may substitute yogurt or sour cream)
1 cup shortening
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinammon

Soak poppy seeds in buttermilk for about 10 minutes. Cream shortening with sugar, then beat in egg yolks and vanilla. Blend flour with salt, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon. Add flour mixture to creamed mixture, alternately with buttermilk mixture. Beat egg whites until stiff, then fold into batter.

Pour into greased 13 x 9 pan. Bake at 325° F for approximately one hour (use toothpick test).

Cool and serve.

This recipe was adapted from Canadian Living  magazine.

A favourite “healthy” recipe

We sometimes get batches of basil with the vegetables we order from Lufa Farms. Tasty pesto is the result.

This recipe isn’t mine but taken from a number of recipes I’ve found online.

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Homemade Basil Pesto

2-4 cups fresh basil leaves

3 cloves of garlic

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Optional:

1/3 cup pine nuts (I’ve used almonds or walnuts instead)

1/2 cup parmesan or romano cheese 

I’ve thrown everything together in a blender and my pesto turns out just fine. But some recipes (this one, for instance) suggest that you put the basil and nuts (if you’re adding them) in the blender or food processor first, then after blending or pulsing them, add the garlic and cheese (if you’re using it) and keep blending or pulsing. Then with the blender or food processor going, add the olive oil slowly,  and every so often use a spatula or a wooden spoon to push the mixture away from the sides.

When the pesto looks done, add salt and pepper and maybe a little lemon juice and transfer the mixture into a glass jar. It should keep in the fridge for two weeks or so. Use it on pizza, pasta, on sandwiches, put it on crackers, decorate your potatoes with it. Or eat it out of the jar. It’s delicious!

 

 

 

 

Costco’s recall woes raise questions about corporate “organic” foods

It’s been nearly two weeks since Canadian Costco customers in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador learned the bag of Nature’s Touch Organic Berry Cherry Blend frozen fruit lying in their freezer might contain the hepatitis A virus (nothing like a hep A smoothie!). Now the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is warning Costco customers in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan that their Organic by Nature frozen organic sweet peas may be contaminated with listeria. According to Consumerist, a notice from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the CRF Frozen Foods recall lists 15 types of frozen vegetables sold at Costco and Meijer stores in the United States and Canada.

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The first of these two recalls is shocking since people who consumed the berries are now at risk of contracting hepatitis A, a potentially serious form of liver disease. Making matters worse, some of the berries may have been distributed in free food samples distributed at Costco.  I nearly bought that bag of berries but instead chose a cheaper bag of blueberries, supposedly from Canada.  I can understand why people thought the berry blend was safe. After all it’s labeled Canada Organic.  I was left with the impression it was an all-Canadian product.

Apparently this is not the case.  It seems some or perhaps all the berries in the blend came from a country or countries where either the water used to clean them contained sewage or the workers handling the berries weren’t washing their hands properly after using the bathroom since the virus is found only in the stools (feces) of infected people. Costco has phoned customers who purchased the Organic Berry Cherry Blend to offer them free vaccinations for hepatitis A since being vaccinated within two weeks can prevent the onset of symptoms. People were using the frozen berries in smoothies and since the berries weren’t cooked, they ingested the virus when they drank it.  The Government of Canada’s advisory notes:

Food contaminated with Hepatitis A virus may not look or smell spoiled. Consumption of food contaminated with this virus may cause hepatitis and produce a self-limited disease that does not result in chronic infection or chronic liver disease. The illness is usually mild and starts about 15 to 50 days after the contaminated food is eaten. It generally goes away by itself in a week or two, although it can last up to 6 months in some people. It can cause inflammation of the liver, and symptoms may include fever, low appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, and yellowing in the whites of the eyes and the skin (jaundice).

In countries where hepatitis A is prevalent, people have antibodies to the disease but many Canadians lack antibodies. While most people who get exposed won’t get a chronic infection or chronic liver disease, the Mayo Clinic says in rare cases hepatitis A can cause a sudden loss of liver function, especially in older adults or people with chronic liver disease.

As for listeria, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, it can lead to “a rare but serious disease called listeriosis.” The agency points out “food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes may not look or smell spoiled but can still make you sick. Symptoms can include vomiting, nausea, persistent fever, muscle aches, severe headache and neck stiffness.”

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Those at higher risk include pregnant women, the elderly and individuals with weakened immune systems and in serious cases, listeriosis can lead to brain infection and even death, the agency warns.

A Google search shows similar recalls for organic products sold at Costco’s Canadian stores. For example, in 2013 at least 1,200 Costco customers, mostly from British Columbia and Alberta, bought a frozen berry blend linked to a hepatitis A outbreak in eight U.S. states.

Even worse, some of these products sport labels that offer consumers an impression the product is sanctioned and safe. As you can see in the image of the Nature’s Touch Berry Cherry Blend above, the packaging includes a Canada Organic Logo and a label indicating the product was verified by the Non-GMO Project. The Organic by Nature frozen sweet peas are supposedly USDA organic.

What you can do

  1. Know who you’re buying from. If you’re going to shop at Costco or a big supermarket, research companies and find out where exactly the food is coming from. Phone the company whose name appears on the bag and ask about sourcing. Have them list their suppliers and tell you what countries grew your food. That way you’re aware of the risk.  Or if you’re going to gamble on a frozen berry mix, don’t use it for smoothies but turn it into jam so you kill any virus lurking in the bag.
  2. Don’t trust labels. It seems with these organic fruit blends the Canada Organic logo only refers to the Canadian component of the mix. The Non-GMO Project verified label suggests it’s non-GMO but this doesn’t guarantee the food’s safety. It’s sad that you have be skeptical about the labeling but based on these recent recalls the labels means nothing. Unless rules are tightened around food safety, an unlikely scenario in this time of global trade, you can’t be sure of anything in the global supply network.
  3. A better approach to buying organic is to buy locally from small, independent stores and if possible, directly from farmers in your area. Even better, grow food yourself. Buy in season and freeze your own berries and vegetables.

That way you won’t stand in line for a “free” vaccine at the pharmacy of your local Costco warehouse worried out of your mind about hep A because you enjoyed a yummy smoothie or feel nauseous with a stiff neck and muscle aches, a headache, fever, and vomiting just because you had a hankering for sweet peas.

 

 

Budgeting in the ‘burbs, the grocery edition

veggies at market

With food prices soaring, my partner and I looked for ways to save on groceries. Our bills were insane for a family of three. I believe we were averaging more than $500 per month and one month we spent $700 and we weren’t eating anything amazing as we accumulated PC points at Loblaws (Provigo Le Marché). When I lived alone with my son in Montreal our monthly grocery bills were often $250 but we were eating a mostly vegetarian diet, I had a tight budget and we lived closer to small fruit stores with low prices.

I learned about keeping a price book in Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette and when I searched online I was surprised to see a whole movement of people keeping price books to save money. One frugal blogger, Jordan Page of Fun, Cheap or Free , takes it to the next level. Besides recording your spending in a price book, she prescribes a food budget limit of $100 per person a month ($25 a week per person) and an envelope system to keep track of groceries, which under her rules you only buy once a week, no matter what. You’re allowed half of your total weekly budget for extras but you’re not supposed to go over the limit. We don’t follow her suggestions to the letter but we’re using them as a guideline. Jordan, who lives in Utah, uses an app to find the specials she wants and then heads to Walmart to price match her groceries, something that doesn’t interest us since we don’t shop there.

It looked like the key to meeting a weekly goal of $75 for food, plus $37.50 for everything else (toileteries etc), a total of $112.50 a week, would be to shop the specials.

In January we took our first tentative steps towards slashing our grocery bills and meeting this new goal. At first we scanned printed flyers and circled what we wanted. Then we made lists of the specials and stores. This was a nightmare. It took forever to flip through the flyers. We fought over what we were buying for the week and headed to too many stores.

Around the time I found the Salewhale app, CBC Montreal’s Shari Okeke did a story about Montrealers stretching their grocery dollars. One of the people she interviewed recommended an app called Flipp for grocery shopping.

If you shop at supermarkets and pharmacies these software apps make a difference. Instead of searching for items and prices in the paper store flyers it now takes seconds to see all the sales in your local area at a glance. Flipp shows you the flyers while in Salewhale the sale items are standalone. Both let you search for items and make lists and you can email the list so grocery shopping becomes easier. The downside is Salewhale’s app isn’t currently available for Android phones so we use it on our laptops or desktop. Since Flipp is available for Android we sometimes use it when we’re in a store and want to double-check prices.

You can’t count on the advertised specials to find deals. We’ve noticed that some supermarkets, for instance, Super C and IGA, are adjusting prices to match or beat specials advertised by competitors and they don’t advertise these specials, you only discover them at the store. We buy bread at Costco and for a time it was the only place around here selling two loaves of sandwich bread for $ 4.99 but now that IGA and other stores are selling two loaves of sandwich bread for $5.

Besides shopping the specials, we signed up for a bi-weekly basket of organic vegetables from Les Jardins de la Montagne, a Community Supported Agriculture Farm organic farm in Rougemont, Quebec. The $25 basket is meant for one person but we stretch it over two weeks, partly because we supplement with deals on canned tomatoes (sparingly used – we know about the BPA risk) and vegetables. It reduces the hassle of grocery shopping. And because you can change the contents of the basket and add or subtract items so long as you don’t go below $15, it’s a fun way of trying all kinds of organic food. This week our basket includes maple syrup from Erablière du Chevreuil, a private sugar shack in the Laurentians.

Is our experiment working? Yes and no. We’ve mostly met the $75 weekly goal though we dip into the $37.50 set aside each week for “extras” and we’re not tracking everything quite the way Jordan Page does. We could probably do better and I don’t consider us to be frugal superstars. But we’re meeting our budget goal and setting aside the savings for a family vacation or something fun. The price book helps track the going rate for different goods. We can tell if something is actually a deal or if the “special” is the same as the regular price or even above the regular price elsewhere. We could save more if everyone in the house ate the same food and liked the same things. My partner and I alternate making weekly grocery lists and meal planning and we don’t always want the same foods. IBS makes things complicated because there are foods I just can’t eat and my son and my partner love meat so we’re balancing the grocery list to give everyone a bit of what they like.

While we try to limit the number of stores visited each week, we often end up at three different stores, racking up air miles and loyalty points where they’re offered. Since I don’t drive and we’re in Vaudreuil, I’m counting on my partner to do the driving and he’s not crazy about going from store to store.

We’re not alone in taking a frugal approach to grocery shopping and it seems the big box grocery stores are taking notice. Last week IGA (Sobeys Québec)  announced it was chopping regular prices on 8,500 products by 5 to 7 percent. This “permanent price drop” affects mostly dry goods but doesn’t include fresh products or meats, leaving critics to suggest it’s just a marketing ploy.

I say bring on the grocery wars, we’re ready for them.

 

 

 

 

Cheap & free Montreal cabane à sucre happenings

If this time of year has you thinking about maple syrup, crêpes and sugar taffy (la tire d’érable) but getting to a cabane à sucre (sugar shack) is a hurdle, here are a few ways you can enjoy the food without leaving Montreal.

Cabane à sucre events at Montreal markets

Urban Cabane à sucre at the Jean Talon Market

At 5 p.m. today (a rainy St. Patrick’s Day, no less!) you’ll find the entire market transformed into an urban cabane à sucre featuring maple syrup served all kinds of ways and traditional Québécois music from La Belle et Brette. For $5 you get a pass that lets you try all sorts of food. There will also be a lounge where you can enjoy maple cocktails. A dollar from each pass sold goes to the Maisonnette des Parents.

The tastings menu includes:

  • fèves au lard with pork
  • maple syrup pie
  • maple beer
  • fiddleheads in garlic and maple syrup
  • a wild mushroom & maple tisane
  • smoked salmon with maple syrup
  • maple syrup croissants and éclairs
  • maple bagels
  • maple cider

The list goes on and on.

When: March 17, 2016 (today),  5-8 p.m.

Where: Jean Talon market, 7070 Henri-Julien Avenue, metro Jean Talon (blue line)

Cost: $5,

Facebook event page

Parcours gourmand de l’érable at the Atwater Market

On March 18 the Atwater Market is offering people a chance to taste all sorts of maple products and enjoy some music (also from La Belle et la Brette). You can try fèves au lard and cretons, or oreilles de crisse (deep-fried pig’s jowls, a traditional Quebec dish), maple beer, ham, rabbit, maple chocolates, maple pecans, maple butter and of course, maple syrup.

Passes cost $5 and for each pass sold, one dollar goes to Garde-Manger Pour Tous.

When: March 18, 2016, 4-7 p.m.

Where: Atwater Market, 138 Atwater Ave. , metro Lionel Groulx

Cost: $5 (cash only). Passes available at a stall facing the Geneviève Grandbois stall

Facebook event page

This weekend: Verdun hosts giant lumberjack camp on Wellington St.

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Photo credit: Promenade Wellington/Cabane Panache et Bois Rond 2016 Facebook page

In its sixth year La Cabane Panache et Bois Rond promises to be quite something for the eyes and taste buds. On March 18 and through the weekend Wellington St.  (Promenade Wellington) will become a lumberjack camp of sorts complete with a small farmhouse, a Welling’titem, barbershop, Parks Canada photo booth, a shoboy cauldron, wood sculpture and maple legends. But the demonstrations alone promise to be eye-popping since they include a godendart (a huge saw operated by two people), tug-of-war match, a skiing race or even hockey crottin (with a puck made from frozen horse poo) and juggling with axes.

Friday’s events are geared to adults and feature Virée carreautée Beau’s party with music, traditional dancing, maple taffy, drinks and snacks from bars. But the rest of the weekend is all about families. Starting Saturday morning local restaurants will serve all sorts of maple-inspired food (can you say grilled cheese with maple bacon and cheddar?), there be activities and demonstrations and a general store selling local products and crafts. There will be stroller parking available for families with young children.

When: Friday March 18, 2016 through Sunday March 20, 2016. On Friday the Virée carreautée Beau’s party goes from 5-10 p.m. and includes a jig and set carré and music from La Cantinière and the Winston Band. Saturday and Sunday’s Campement de bûcherons (lumberjack camp) happens from 11 a.m.- 5 p.m.

Where: Promenade Wellington, on Wellington St. (metro De l’Église, green line)

 

Ongoing

Cabane à sucre at the Mont Royal metro

Step outside the Mont-Royal metro and you’ll find a mini cabane à sucre, complete with maple taffy on snow, crêpes and a kiosk with maple syrup, sugar, pies, cookies and doughnuts.

When: From 10 a.m.-6 p.m. It’s unclear when it ends but it’s definitely going on till the end of March.

Where: Mont Royal metro (orange line)

Maple taffy for only $2

Café 92’s Cabane à sucre

Until March 31st this NDG café will be serving maple-inspired drinks and desserts, including cheesecake with maple syrup, maple pound cake and maple cappuccino.  Yum!

Where: Café 92°, 6703 Rue Sherbrooke St. W.

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My favourite cookbook these days

goodandcheap

I’ve blogged about being sick. A few months ago I finally found a family doctor and I’ve been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

For over a year now eating has been a game of sorts. I feel I’m becoming Marian McAlpin, the main character in Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Edible Woman. I’m never entirely sure what my body will accept. Being sick affects my productivity. I don’t always have a lot of energy. Just before the Christmas holidays I took a short-term gig filing for a medical clinic to pay the bills but finances have definitely been tight.

I love Leanne Brown’s Good and Cheap; Eat Well on $4/day.  Seeing tasty recipes that you can make on a budget appeals to the frugalista in me. And I’m especially grateful to find a cookbook with many recipes that soothe my crazy digestive system.

Leanne Brown is a Canadian ex-pat (originally from Edmonton) living in New York City and her cookbook impresses me on many levels. It’s all about helping people living on U.S. food stamps survive, thrive even, living on a food budget of four dollars a day. Some of the recipes I was already familiar with – for instance, carmelized bananas, or quesadillas, but the cookbook is well designed and creative and Brown infuses her book with energy and enthusiasm.

I’m a huge fan of Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette newsletter and books. Brown’s approach reminds me of Dacyczyn – besides helping you save money, she taps into your creativity too.

Good and Cheap is available online as a PDF, free of charge. I urge you to check it out.

After her PDF went viral, Brown launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a print run and the cookbook made the New York Times bestseller list. I have the printed version – it’s gorgeous. Brown’s website says there’s an even better second edition available in bookstores (Note, Jan. 28, 2016: I just noticed my copy is a second edition. The first edition was the self-published Kickstarter edition. The copy in stores now is a second edition with 30 added recipes). If you buy one, for each cookbook purchased Brown promises to donate a copy to someone in need.