Spice it up

carrot and squash soupWhen it comes to food, I have a terrible handicap. I’m Scottish.

Scots aren’t exactly known for their culinary prowess. I had a meat and potatoes kind of childhood. Growing up, the only spices I remember in my house were salt, salt, and more salt.

Today we are blessed to live in an era when delicacies and aromatic spices from around the world can be found in any market. We just need an adventurous spirit to experiment with different flavours and combinations.

My favourite “go to” spices these days are cumin, curry and coriander. This weekend I made a yummy carrot squash soup with coconut milk with these three spices from Greta Podleski’s new cookbook, Yum and Yummer. I was too lazy to roast the sweet potatoes and carrots, so just dumped them in the pot. It was spicy and delicious.

When Dave and I were in Zanzibar, we toured a spice plantation. Zanzibar is known as the Spice Island—it was a key trading route and stop in the nineteenth century for slave traders and spice merchants off the coast of Africa. We learned about the medicinal properties of spices, ate cinnamon shaved right off the tree, and brought back a treasure trove of spices in our suitcases. I still use all of these spices in my dishes.

man in coconut tree
Our guide climbing a coconut tree in Zanzibar

Most spices have medicinal properties. Cinnamon has been called a medical powerhouse, lowering blood sugar, aiding digestion and battling ailments like bronchitis. I sprinkle cinnamon on my coffee at work every day for a healthy, tasty start to my day. I even use cinnamon in some of my rice dishes and most of my baked goods.

And then there’s the Italian spices—oregano, basil, thyme. So many spices, so little time!

Four spices that I haven’t cooked with as much are cardamom, tamarind, saffron and garam marsala. If any of you have any great tips or recipes for these spices, please share.

This week’s #HappyAct is to spice it up. Put the salt shaker away and discover the spice of your life.

Inspired reading and viewing: I watched a movie a few weeks ago that will inspire you to spice up your culinary creations—The Hundred Foot Journey. It’s the story of an Indian family that starts a restaurant directly across from a French haute cuisine restaurant in the French countryside. The story centres around Hassan whose secret spice box propels him to become one of the top chefs of France. It was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time—I’m reading the book right now.

Hit the buffet

mandarin buffetEach year we have a “last in the lake” contest. The last in the lake gets to choose dinner at their restaurant of choice. Clare has won it the last two years in a row (the date was October 30th for the record) so we made the trek on Friday night to what’s becoming an annual tradition to the Mandarin restaurant.

The Mandarin is the penultimate, king of buffets. Dave and I are skeptics when it comes to buffets—usually “buffet” means mediocre food at best served at room temperature. The Mandarin is the exception to the rule. They know how to do buffet right.

We arrived and were greeted by our hostess who showed us to our seats in the F room. It’s important to remember your room number, because it is easy to get lost (Dave and I both entered the wrong rooms that night after filling up our plates).

The Mandarin isn’t just a food experience. It’s eye candy if you like people watching. You never know who you will bump into or what you’ll see. Grace ran into a high school friend. I saw my co-worker Shelli and took the opportunity to ask her what she thought of their new practice of putting the number of calories on the glass above each dish. We both decided we didn’t like it.

It’s particularly fun to see the different strategies for the buffet. Some prefer a traditional approach, starting with soup or salad, then hit the mains while others go off the board for 200 and mix it up. Some people get small dainty plates of like-minded dishes. Others pile food on their plate in a magnificent mound while you watch in admiration and fear as they wind their way back to their seat from the busy dining room.

I especially like watching kids eat. Grace was a classic example. She started with the hot, traditional Chinese food fare, filled up on a plate of waffles and French fries for her second course, went back for salmon and ice cream and finished with a plate of ribs, green tea jello (which she didn’t eat), chocolate cake and a chocolate dipped strawberry. Nothing short of inspired.

Mid-way through your dinner, as the blood rushes to your stomach to digest the copious quantities of food, your mind starts to wander.

  • How many items are in their buffet? 150
  • What’s the most anyone has eaten? I suggested to the waitress they should have a contest. Give contestants a two-hour window and have designated calorie counters track their every calorie. It would be an amazing marketing campaign for the restaurant.
  • How much food do they go through in one day?
  • The kids wanted to know what happens to the leftovers—do they get donated to shelters?
  • What’s the profit margin on each meal? Our waitress told us it’s just $1 for lunch and a bit higher for dinner—we found that hard to believe but then thought maybe they make profits on the drinks
  • How many people do they serve each day? The room we were in held 64 people for example, and gets turned over 3-4 times during dinner. Our restaurant had six rooms—you do the math
  • When Clare started to slump over in her chair after her fourth plate of dessert, we asked our waitress if anyone has ever fallen asleep at the table before? The answer was yes.

My only regret on Friday night was I didn’t have my phone to take any pictures, well and maybe that fourth plate of dessert.

This week’s #HappyAct is to hit the buffet at the Mandarin. But give up on the calorie counting—it’s just not worth it!

You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy chocolate

sign that says you can't buy happiness but you can buy chocolate which is basically the same thingI’ve discovered a new favourite haunt in Kingston, Cacao 70 on King Street. This popular chocolateatery franchise has several locations in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver and opened a restaurant in Kingston last summer.

Cacao bills itself as a unique place to drop by after a hectic day at work or school and relax and share a moment with friends. In addition to its heavenly decadent chocolate menu, it serves sandwiches, salads and boasts a great brunch menu.

Cacao 70 didn’t disappoint.

The minute you walk in the door, you know you’ve entered chocolate heaven. The melding smells of sweet milk and dark chocolate stick to your nostrils and you immediately forget about lunch. Just bring on the dark stuff.

I’ve been to Cacao two times in the last two months, once with my girlfriend Elaine for her birthday, and once with the girls. Elaine and I ordered sandwiches. My chicken salad sandwich was one of the best sandwiches I ever had. Cacao makes their sandwiches on thick, toasted delicious homemade bread. The chicken had an amazing mix of flavours.

chocolate wafflesWe made sure we had room left to split a chocolate birthday fondue. Cacao’s fondues come with fresh fruit, waffle squares and brownie chunks for dipping. One piece of advice: don’t overdip! While it looks like you have this huge bowl of chocolate, it’s really a half-bowl, but in the end we discovered it was the perfect amount as we mopped up the remaining drops of chocolate with our fruit.

The second time I went to Cacao, I took the girls after we packed hampers for the Salvation Army before Christmas for a special Mommy daughter lunch. This time I had a chocolate strawberry crepe. Grace went for it, ordering two chocolate dishes, the chocolate waffles with whipped cream and a chocolate fondue. Everything was decadent.

kids eating chocolate treatsI’m already planning my third trip. Maybe this time I’ll try the chocolate banana pizza, a volcano ice cream cup or a vintage hot chocolate. Oh, the choices.

This week’s #HappyAct is to indulge in a chocolate fantasy meal. Because as the sign says, “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy chocolate which is basically the same thing.”

Ed. note: I know writing this at the beginning of January may seem cruel for those of you who hope to lose weight in 2017. I’ve got the perfect solution. Use your chocolate extravaganza experience as an incentive and reward. Stick to your weight loss regime. When you successfully meet your first goal, whether it’s a month of healthy eating, or your first few pounds off, treat yourself to a Cacao dish!

Friends eating chocolate fondue

chocolate crepes

Sip, swirl and swallow

Man holding two bottles of wine
Dave with our bounty from Keint-He Winery

Yesterday, we spent the day in Prince Edward County in Bloomfield and Wellington with my brother and his wife who were spending the weekend at the Waring House. It was a grey, cold November day with the wind whipping off the lake. We warmed up the best County way, by sipping, swirling and swallowing the latest vintages at some of Ontario’s finest wineries.

The first winery we toured was Chadsey Cairns, a beautiful old barn with a tasting room overlooking their vineyard. We’d been to this winery several years ago, and I remember being enchanted by its charm. (It’s for sale, by the way—yes, you could be your own vintner for a cool $3.8 million). A bottle of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir later, and we were off to our next winery, Keint-He.

Ontario beach at sunset
A stroll at Wellington beach is a great way to clear your head after a day of tastings!

Here we tried a few red samplings, ending with a lovely Gamay Noir. I’m not a wine connoisseur, so I can’t describe all the wonderful flavours we were experiencing like the wine experts do. I just know what I like, and I liked all the wines we sampled yesterday (go figure!) For me, it’s as much about the ambiance. At Keint-He, they had a magnificent huge tasting table and stone fireplace. We sipped away watching the sun set over the fields.

Our last stop was Karlo Estates. This was our favourite stop. Their tasting room was bustling with dozens of revelers. The 100-year old barn beams, and white twinkly lights, coupled by now with our eighth or ninth tasting made for a wonderful end to the day. Howie and the boys behind the bar served us pairings of onion chips, blue cheese and chocolate as we sampled their reds, ending with a sweet, delicious Port.

Woman sipping wine
Sampling the Lake on the Mountain Riesling at Karlo Estates

Where were all the kids during all of this you ask? Out in the car. We shared a few jokes about that—hey, they’re country kids. They know what to do if the fishers or coyotes come after them.

This week’s #HappyAct is to warm up on a cold winter’s day by touring some wineries. The next two weekends, the wineries of Prince Edward County are celebrating Wassail, where you can sample mulled wines with food pairings. Short on funds? Touring wineries is a great day outing even if you’re on a limited budget. All three of the wineries we visited offered single taste samplings for a $1 each.

Four bottles of wine
Some of our bounty from yesterday’s outing

The Great Canadian Debate

poutineElection season is in full swing. There isn’t a day goes by where you don’t see Justin, Stephen, Thomas or Elizabeth promising some tax cut or infusion into the local economy at their latest whistle stop on the campaign trail.

There are some very real, important issues this election—the looming recession, economic growth, health care, separatism, the environment.

Today I want to address one of the greatest debates this country has ever seen: who has the best poutine.

I discovered the answer to this question of national importance a few weeks ago when our friend Tony brought us the brisket poutine from The Big Smoke food truck on Highway 38 in Harrowsmith.

It was poutine heaven. Huge white curds melting on crispy, perfectly-cooked fries with smoke-infused beef gravy dripping with flavour. The piece de resistance was huge chunks of tender Texan-style brisket that melted in your mouth. I inhaled it in minutes.

This week’s #HappyAct is to take part in this national pastime and vote for your favourite poutine. Visit my new friends at The Big Smoke and tell me what you think. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed–and that’s one campaign promise you can count on.

Here’s just something for fun. Find out your taste in men, based on how you like your poutine, from Buzzfeed. I got the lumbersexual bad boy— “a badass dude who has a majestic beard and makes homemade french fries using a manual potato slicer”. See what your taste cooks up!

Savour more than just the meal

Morrison's Sign

Special guest blog

I could have went to Tim Horton’s this morning. I could have ordered a breakfast bagel and a double cream large Dark Roast. Yeah, I could have done that. Hell, I could have went through the drive through. Wait, there’s also Rotten Ronnie’s as an option, they have great coffee.

I went to Morrison’s Restaurant. That unassuming nook across from Market Square with the flashing sign reading Sea Food and Steaks.

A place where Nutritional Information need not apply. This is the place that could have been up the road from that nuclear bomb shelter, Ford Fairlane parked out front, a couple of “Hoods’ leaning against the car making plans that end in Daddy -O listening to a radio warning of a Cuban Missile crisis.

It’s not. It’s in Kingston. Downtown. Today.

I read the menu, but didn’t have to. I knew exactly what I wanted. “

Give me the Three Egg Special, over hard.”

The old lady in the white T-Shirt wrote it down. She wrote it down? Yeah, that’s exactly what she did. She didn’t have to. Everybody orders that.

I swear it was five minutes later when she came back.

The breakfast came with home fries. Not the frozen McCain’s crap. This was the real thing that resembled quasi mashed potatoes.

Boo freakin’ ya!

I sat there and savoured the bacon bliss. Inhaled it before my fork sliced through the cholesterol carnage.

Then I sipped the coffee. No flavoured wussy latte stuff. This could have stripped the paint off of that Fairlane. I thought about putting ketchup on my eggs. It was tempting but I wanted it straight up, no frills, just a slathering of salt and pepper. Ok, a lot.

My world is all black and white today. Salt and pepper. Today, I’m getting my news from the Globe and Mail print edition. When the news was as current as yesterday.

For a moment, that coffee tasted sweeter than my wife’s kisses.

The toast? Wonder Bread. Nothing from Texas style. it was either white or brown.

She put butter on it. Not margarine. Butter tastes great!

Sitting there staring at the empty plate waiting for the bill to come, I thought about those mornings when my grandmother would make me bacon and eggs. The sun shining through the kitchen window, the dog licking up a fallen piece of bacon and the smell of Maxwell House instant coffee. Yeah, those were the best days of my life.

Then I think about my wife’s kisses this morning. I think about our son’s wave and smile as he crosses the gate leading into the school yard, ”Bye, Daddy!

No, the best is yet to come.

I asked the old lady what kind of coffee it was.

“Mother Parker’s. We only serve the best here.”

This week’s #Happy Act is to go get a Two Egg Special and savour more than just the meal.

Mark is a dad, husband, screenwriter, brew master and die hard Cubs fan who was recently named the “Unofficial” blogger for the Chicago Cubs in Canada. You can check out his blog or follow him on Twitter @canuckcubbie.

Chow down on a big greasy breakfast

bacon and eggsThere are times when all you really need in life is a big ol’ plate of greasy food.

Last week, while waiting for my connecting flight in the Philadelphia airport, I dug into a heaping plate of eggs, bacon, home fries and rye toast. When you’re up at 4:30 in the morning, a big greasy breakfast really hits the spot.

A big breakfast is more than just a meal. It’s a cultural experience and has always been a big part of my life (I know that sounds funny so let me explain).

As a kid, I had a Sunday Sun paper route. After delivering all my papers, I’d crawl back into bed and would wake up to the smell of bacon frying through the house—a wonderful memory of my Mom. After my Mom passed away, my Dad, my brothers and I would go every Sunday to the Orchard Family Restaurant at Dundas and Highway 10 in Mississauga—still one of the best breakfasts around. In university days, Sunday greasy breakfasts became the culmination of a weekend of partying at my friends’ townhouse in Waterloo. Life is more sedate these days, and now my favourite big greasy breakfast (other than when I’m on the road) is camping trips with Dave and the girls.

This week’s #HappyAct is to chow down on a big greasy breakfast. Don’t count the calories; count the memories. What’s your favourite greasy spoon? Start a list by leaving a comment. If anyone knows of a good one in the Kingston area, let me know.

Have a double s’cream day

Girl eating ice cream sundaeOne of my favourite weeks of the year is our annual family vacation. Each year we pick a region in the States, set up base renting a home from vrbo.com and then go exploring. This year our home base was Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Here’s the house we rented this year—it was beautiful.

As always, we had a super week. We visited Gettysburg, Hershey’s Chocolate World and amusement park, Longwood Gardens, Herr’s potato chip factory, and spent a day swimming in the ocean in Chesapeake Bay and tubing on Pequea Creek, a beautiful little tributary of the Susquehanna. Everyone had horses, and we felt very privileged to be there just twelve hours after our neighbour’s horse gave birth to a beautiful black foal.

Coming home is always bitter sweet, but we made it extra sweet by having a double ice cream day yesterday. We stopped in Jim Thorpe, PA for a walk about and an ice cream cone, then had sundaes at Friendlys for dessert for our last supper on the road. I can’t think of a better way to end a vacation.

This week’s #HappyAct is to have a double ice cream day. Throw caution and your waistline to the wind just once. Why not today? After all…wait for it…it is sundae!

Empty sundae dish