Monday, February 15, 2010

February foods.

Who's excited about February!? Dark, cold and dreary with no signs of springtime in sight, awesome. But really, at least we've got the Superbowl and Valentines Day. Two good reasons to eat well.

I love the Superbowl. It is always a fun time to get together with friends, test out great finger foods, and the audience of boys I provide for are always game. BLT's with avocado aioli, nachos grande, lamb chop lollipops, puled pork sliders and risotto spoons are just a small bite of the Superbowl repertoire that grows over the years.

My MVR (Most Valuable Recipe) award this year goes to the very simple & delicious parmesan crusted chicken fingers with marinara sauce. I make them quite often for casual parties and get togethers, and everyone always loves them. Here's the recipe, as promised!

Lately I've been experimenting with mind altering kettle corn. You can pop homestyle popcorn in a pot on your stovetop as fast as you can make it in the microwave - and it's actually pretty exciting when the kernels start bouncing around the pot. I have finally perfected the amount of sugar per cup of kernels to create a sweet but fluffy popcorn, that I then drizzle melted valrhona chocolate over, with touch of fine salt. It's an instant hit. I made it for the Superbowl and then again as Valentines Day drop offs for some clients & friends. Check out the recipe and instructions here.

While I'm not much of a Valentine's Day gal, this year I did have a low key but very memorable day. Usually, we do Chrysantheme chinese take out, some good wine, and chocolate fondu for dessert - but since they closed their doors a year and half or so ago, casual at home Vday plans have never been as easy. The general idea is that I don't cook, we avoid being out with the masses (living room couch is way more romantic), but still eat something delicious. We decided to cook together this year, since no takeout we could think of could top a good home cooked meal. On the way to the market, we worked out the menu: A pasta duo of Cappeletti pasta with olive oil, "burnt" broccoli, garlic, a few sauteed cherry tomatoes, spicy sausage & bread crumbs, and fettucini with sauteed mini portobello mushroom and a light cream and parmesan sauce. Dessert was going to be an apple filo tart (a recipe that I was trying for the first time).

We popped a bottle of Tuscan wine, put on some tunes, and we were off. Eric did most of the actual cooking for the sausage and broccoli pasta, and I stayed close with my wine in hand, giving pointers and explanations, and prepping his next ingredient. The fettucini sauce only needed to be thrown together at the last second, so I prepped Eric for what he was going to have to do to complete the pasta. I took care of the cream sauce, I needed it to be barely creamy and have the perfect consistency, so I kept that job for me. He opened and cooked the sausage perfectly, then handled the broccoli frying with ease, and impressed me with sauteeing the cherry tomatoes and putting it all together to finish the job. wow ,wow, wow. He only briefly smoked up the kitchen, and melted less than three spatulas.

Dessert was fun to make. The apple filling cooks on the stovetop for a quick ten minutes, and set aside to cool. Then begins a delicate assembly of filo sheets brushed and lightly coated with sugar, gently lowered into a spring form to eventually form a pie-like shape complete with a crust and top. A very simple but delicate job, that requires complete yogi frame of mind to take on.

The meal was completely outstanding. Perfect in every way, neither of those pastas have ever been better in our house - a real labour of love. Sounds so cheesy, but it was.

Some outtakes of the most delicious pasta throwdown in the history of our kitchen (that's a serious statement coming from a pasta freak like me). Poor Eric didn't always know when my camera was on video mode.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Masala here & there.

I just love a good Indian meal. I don't even care when my winter coat smells like Punjab fare for 3 months after. I always find people who are turned off by Indian food and are quick to associate the cuisine only with curry (which is in fact one of my favourite spices), which it so is not. I have waited a while to write this blog, because I wanted to do a fresh and current test run of some of Montreal's “best” Indian spots, and I needed time to do the field research (...can't be eating the stuff every night).
A few years back after a string of disappointing meals in Montreal, I sort of gave up on Indian. Because as good as a delicious Indian meal can be - little is more disgusting than a bad one. Then this past September while in London, the Punjab flame was re-ignited by a meal at the unlikeliest of places.
As Eric and I sat in a cafe in London, trying to map out our eating over two days (which reservations to keep, which to forgo, how to maximize the quality without letting the Sterling Pound break the travel bank), we asked my cousin, a local, for a recommendation. We had heard of a bunch of trendy Indian spots (trendy and Indian! who knew?) that sounded good. I should explain that my cousin is blessed with a business expense account that’s allowed him to eat in virtually every upscale restaurant in London. And as an international business traveler, he's tried a variety of foreign food that would make Anthony Bourdain envious. Anyway, cuz said that if we wanted to truly experience the best Indian food in London - we had to make the trek to "Lahore House" on Umberston Street in White Chapel. It was a 30 pound taxi ride in each direction, but the meal would be dirt cheap and well worth the trip. (Also note he was off to Mumbai, real deal, in the morning on business). We were sold.
We decided to behave like we live there, save the thirty quid and hit the tube to White Chapel. This tube stop was way off at the end of the line, definitely on the outside edge of our tourist comfort zone. We stepped out of the station and into sketchville. It was dark; there were a few homeless people, fewer streetlights and no retail stores to speak of. Cars whipped by the 4 lane main road at highway speeds. Nothing around seemed to be open save for a few sparse depanneurs that looked like they'd be right at home in the seedier parts of my old neighborhood St-Henri. Strange characters looked at me like I was completely wacked out when I asked them if they knew where Lahore House or Umberston Street was. Finally, we ducked into the most suspect Pizza Hut I have ever seen, and I proceeded to ask all of the patrons if they knew where we were headed. One family actually told me they didn't know how to direct me there, but they knew it was far. Sounded like we were off to a great start.

We stepped back out onto the street and kept walking for 15 minutes until a taxi drove past, which we called for like Tom Hanks waving down a distant ship in Cast Away.
Turns out Umberston Street is the tiniest alleyway of a street – you’d have to live on it to locate it. Doesn’t always pay to be a hero and try to travel like a local - locals would have clearly had the brains to take a taxi the whole way to Lahore.
We arrived at the restaurant, and stepped into an epic lineup of Londoners. Indian families, students, young couples, groups of dudes, and businessmen rolling up in Range Rovers illegally parking with their hazards blinking. No worries about the lineup, this place worked fast and efficiently (hosts and head waiters wearing walkie talkies with headsets, need I say more?). The place was a big and very simple, melamine tables and banquet chairs, linoleum floors, fluorescent lighting... but it was clean and there was a good energy coming from the clientele, who all seemed to be happy to be there. The kitchen was fully exposed on two sides by big glass windows - no secrets here. Fourteen or so guys working with intensity - working four dishes over four flames at once, while turning back to check on a sauce, lowering the naan dough into the fire pit with a poker, moving with amazing precision and speed. We ended up sitting in front of that window and I spent most of the meal staring into the kitchen in excited wonderment. I spotted the guy who seemed in charge (everyone who walked in knew this guy on a first name basis). As he greeted us, I told him I was on my honeymoon - all the way from Canada, and needed his advice on the menu.

He came over to our table and actually sat down with us. He was in fact the owner, and he was awesome. We went through the menu in detail, and he was extremely patient and helpful as I pointed to all the tables around me asking what they were having. We discussed and he arbitrated, and the order was settled. I wasn’t really sure what exactly I had just agreed to eat, but I felt good about it.

Lahore House is a byob (in our case bring your own beer) and is actually a mix of northern Indian but primarily Pakistani food (hence the name Lahore). These two cuisines have a lot of crossover, and a lot of the food is what we see in Indian restaurants here in North America, so I call it indian, but it's really Pakistani, or to cover all the bases and make things really easy; Punjabi.
First the chicken and lamb kebab arrived at the table. Unbelievably tasty. The flavours exploded in my mouth - it was tikka style with a splash of citrus, but better than any other kebab I've tried. AMAZING.

Next up was naan bread, raita, rice, lamb sag (lamb stewed with spices, tomato, and spinach; sag means spinach), and a spicy chicken dish that the owner told us he would "arrange".

Both of these dishes blew my mind (and the chicken almost tore my taste buds out). My lips were red and irritated and I swear there are very few times in my life I have ever been so happy eating one single meal. The lamb was perfectly seasoned, the spinach still resembled spinach - it was fragrant and salty with a hint of sweet and perfect. The chicken dish was unreal. Oily (with just the right amount of oil), tomato based and so red hot spicy - but the kind of spice where you can still taste the complex layers of flavor, which is really what Indian cooking is all about for me.

Lahore house was one of my favourite meals of all time, and I would recommend anyone headed to London check out this spot - even if your time there is limited, and even if you are thinking you want reservations at one of London’s renowned restaurants like River Café or Moro (which we did, but hit Lahore instead).
When we got back from our trip, I was set on rediscovering Indian eating in Montreal. The first thing I did was buy a fresh Indian spice kit from Epices de Cru. Epices de Cru is a spice company started by Chef and travel enthusiast Philippe Devienne and his wife Ethne. He is a great, interesting guy who I used to take cooking classes from back when I was 13 and discovering my love for the kitchen. Phillip and his wife import all kinds of high quality and obscure spices in their freshest form from all over the world. They sell them out of their store La Depense at the Jean Talon Market (where you can also get fresh hot bhajis and with mango chutney in the summer - mmm mmm good!) and The Fromagerie at the Atwater Market carries the line too - The themed sets come in a beautiful box and make for great gifts.

I ended up making made my own Garam Masala (way different than store bought), and spent hours over the next few days putting together a couple of Indian meals. It was fun, but if you dare to cook Indian, be prepared to spend a lot of time and have everything in your house smell intense for a week.
As for the restaurant search, I scoured internet chat rooms dating back to 2005, making my "hit list" of places including some very close to home, some a little further, mostly dives, and a few on the "higher" price scale. I am going to continue on this Punjabi journey, and add to this post as I go. Do you have a favourite Indian spot I should hit? Please share your comments and suggestions below!
I took a few photos here and there, but the lighting and general ambiance of the places don’t produce very exciting photojournalism. So please believe me when I say its a go.
My faves so far:
Pushap 5195 Pare, Montreal. Cash only
Pushap has always been a consistently good and delicious spot for Indian. It is vegetarian, but as much as I love a good Chicken Jalfrezi, Pushaps dishes are one better than the next and more than makes up for the lack of meat on the menu. Don’t be deterred by the metal tableware (that may make you feel like you are eating on a prison tray): The metal tray with various compartments is called a “thali” and is simply the traditional way to eat Indian food, and how the people of India have been eating their food for centuries.
The food is amazing and not oily or greasy. We both started with samosas, they are flavourful and fresh. Eric’s meal: Some fiercely hot and green peas with paneer (which he loved, too bluntly hot for me), lentil curry, and a sweet eggplant and tomato dish that we both had and loved. I had my Pushap favourites: cauliflower and potato curry (so aromatic and even more tasty), the eggplant dish, and raita for us to share. You can also get naan to ways- fried or not fried (my head says go not fried, but my heart says fried). I used to stop here sometimes to pick up a box of their well-known and very scrumptious sweets to give as cool hostess gifts. They package them in a beautiful & colourful patterned box, and it's always been a great and different gift I love to bring along to any dinner party. Our meal was top quality. We walked out of there satisfied and stuffed. $17.50 for the two of us.

Mysore 4216 St Laurent, Montreal
This was the first stop on my journey to rediscover Indian in our fine city. Everything we tried was delicious. Delicious Tandoor chicken, The sag lamb was the favourite of the table and I liked the chicken Jalfrezi in particular, it was well seasoned and the chicken itself was very good quality. The onion bhajis arrived hot and crisp. It was on the higher price scale for Indian, but it gets my #1 vote for all around (not vegetarian) quality and taste. The only thing I didn’t LOVE was the raita, which is perfect if you want to take out, you can make your own with some plain yogurt, cucumber, and a box grater.
On St Laurent and Laurier, if you don't look carefully, you will miss this place. The doorway is so narrow it looks like you are going to be led upstairs to a larger space, but this place is in fact the size of a small narrow hallway. It gets rave reviews online from Montréal foodies, and was jamming when we got there (which I guess isn't too hard when the entire restaurant is made up of 7 tables). Anyways, it didn't live up to my high expectations. It was solid, nice and fiery. The food was all good, and I'd head back to try more. Points for two kinds of Indian beer on tap for a little extra authenticity - but I may have been happier if I hadn't felt all hyped up from "Montréal Indian restaurant" chat forums where fellow foodies seemed to be going bonkers over this place.
I haven’t been here is a very long time- over 5 years. But I really loved it when I did eat there. They still seem to be up and running, and if nothing drastic has changed in ownership- I suspect they should be churning out the same delicious food. They are open daily for lunch, but only certain days of the week for dinner. Again, a little more of a "dining" experience, not a hole-in-the-wall type of place, and the menu is quite limited so call or check it out online. They also offer cooking classes.
The just "okay"
Taj Mahal 5026 Sherbrooke West
On Sherbrooke and Claremont, this place is good when you are looking for a bite in the neighbourhood (if NDG or Westmount is your hood). Food was clean, the tikka was tasty enough and the prices were reasonable. Nothing blew my mind away but I'd eat here again and continue to explore the menu.
The Bad
Ganges 6079 Sherbrooke West, Montreal
Another reason not to trust what you read in chat forums. Every one rants and raves about Ganges on Sherbrooke in NDG. I ate there about a year ago and I can honestly say it was a reminder to me as to why I thought one could never find good Indian in Montreal. I will go back soon (just in case the 5 dishes we ordered were all miss-orders and the food really is good), but the place was disgusting and the food was greasy and tasted pre made and reheated. Bad news.
Places I’d like to hit soon: Bombay Choupati, Star of India, Indian Curry house.
To be continued & please share below! Jai ho!