Corn & Crab Chowder

The kitchen smelling of celery, onion and bacon frying. A childhood memory. This simple chowder was quick and cheap and a favorite. With everyone but my dad. He had a curious dislike of this inoffensive soup. I was recently reminded of it when we visited New Orleans this August. We were sitting in Acme Oyster House waiting for po’boy sandwiches after a long flight in from Ottawa. I ordered a cup of their crab bisque, a cream based soup full of fresh corn and crab meat.

The crab corn bisque at the ACME Oyster House in NOLA

The small cup of soup also prompted a conversation around what exactly is the difference between a bisque and a chowder. From what I can discover, bisque is a fancy French word for chowder in everyday use where the terms are interchangeable and floated about fast and free. There are some essential differences purists would argue. Both are milk or cream based. Chowder is a little thicker and and chunkier, bisque is a little thinner and strained to be smooth. Bisques are more layered in flavour, time consuming to make and reduced to intensify flavours. Chowder is considered more of a poor man’s stew where ingredients are merely combined. Both are usually fish based but you will find vegetable and tomato based ones.

My mom has no memory of where she got this recipe, or even if it was a recipe. I am using her base and adding crabmeat and fresh corn, as inspired by Acme’s crab bisque.

Corn & Crab Chowder
1 can potato soup (Campbell’s)
1 can creamed corn
1 can milk (use soup can to measure)
1 rib celery, diced
1/4 pound bacon, diced
small onion, diced
2 ears fresh corn, corn taken off cob
1 cup crab meat
salt and pepper to taste

Render bacon for about a minute then add celery and onion. Sweat until vegetables are tender. Turn heat down low add potato soup, can of milk and then creamed corn. Heat through for 15 minutes on low. Add fresh corn and crab. Heat through. Serve with baguette.

Click HERE for a printable version of this recipe.

The ONLY good use for canned cream corn.
Tip: Use a bowl when cutting kernels off a cob… no runaways!
Good crab meat is hard to find in Ottawa, but don’t give up. It’s out there!

Toronto in September

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.  ~Albert Camus

We are headed to Toronto to visit our eldest and her SO, Matt.  Late September, Indian Summer in Ontario. There is no better weather or view.  Blue sky gives way to  steely cloud fronts. The breeze carries a balmy 23 degrees. Great day to hit the road. Highway 416 is ablaze with scarlet sumac, bouquets of goldenrod, amethyst purple Michaelmas daisies, and the tired, faded beauty of spent cornfields. The deciduous trees are beginning to flaunt their fall colours and the conifers intensify in contrast.

The Rideau River hosts a fishing boat or two and reflects the darkening sky. Median grasses welcome with their feathery plumes, umber bulrushes stand tall, denuded, charcoal cedar trunks lean helter skelter amid the jack pines with their horizontal tresses towering above, arresting against the fall sky. 416, the Veteran’s Memorial Highway, is at its best this season, and I proudly note that the wild beauty delivers an impressive drive for American tourists entering Canada’s capital city. After 40 minutes we turn on to highway 401 which will take us directly into Toronto, Ontario’s capital. The 401 slashes through the Canadian Shield. Soon we begin to pass rocky outcroppings that eventually turn into stone faces in shades of grey, rust, slate and ochre and topped with the hardiest of saplings and other green finery.

The rugged beauty of Eastern Ontario features every colour of nature in its fall landscape from the dullest buff of dried hay to the flashes of silver poplar leaves shimmering in the wind, and every shade in between. In two weeks this scenery will hit its peak and the views will be spectacular. Today we are content to enjoy the soft beginnings of the fall season, dotted with horses, Black Angus cows, hawks whirling overhead, weathered barns and the occasional stone Loyalist house.

We are staying at the Pantages Hotel in downtown Toronto. We settle in after a brief visit with the kids. Saturday is forecasted to be cold and rainy and we are surprised with another beautiful, warm sunny day in the morning. After a little downtown shopping, we are lunching at Delux which serves a Cuban lunch. Delux’s menu is short and served up on a tiny clipboard. Rob and I first had Cuban food last winter in Miami. We were told we must have a pressed Cuban sandwhich, medianoche. We had them and were underwhelmed. I have oddly craved one ever since. This was my opportunity.

Delux is a small bare bones resto with a few booths, tables, bar at the rear and artsy lighting. A cozy vibe presides with a Beatles sound track. I ordered an avocado, citrus, green olive salad and a medianoche. The others ordered a pressed Cubano sandwich. Heather ordered fried plantains, which were fresh and perfectly fried to a sweet caramel, and Rob asked for red beans and rice on the side.

My salad contains several ingredients I love: fresh orange segments, grapefruit, avocado and green olives slivered thin. However, I’m not sure these items worked in combination. Presented on a bed of young arugula and dressed lightly with a good quality vinaigrette, the salad was visually pleasing but fell short on the palate.

My sandwich featured cider roasted pork, excellent ham, gruyere cheese and a tiny bit of cornichon pickle on a soft, rich bun. The sandwich was an excellent sandwich but in no way resembled a medianoche.

The others ordered the pressed Cubano which appeared to be closer to the Cuban sandwhich I remembered in Miami, but it too, fell short. The panini style bread is no substitute for the eggy, toasty bread used in a traditional Cubano. Secondly, the layer of pickle was missing. Pickles were present but not in sufficient quantity. Overall, the quality of the ingredients at Delux was superior to the Cuban fare we experienced in Miami, but the mark of authenticity was missed.

Dessert was coffee and homemade donuts served with whipped cream and caramel. They arrived in a paper bag and were simple, sugar crusted and delicious.

We spent the afternoon cruising the St. Lawrence Market before heading back to our hotel to relax and dress for dinner at Scarpetta. “Chopped” judge Scott Conant opened this fashionable eatery late last year on the ground floor of the trendy Thompson Hotel.

The atmosphere is dark chic basked in warm low light with a friendly, knowledgeable staff. We are seated for our 7 pm reservations immediately and peruse the menu. The bread basket arrives with a plate of olive oil, eggplant tapenade, and marscapone butter. Digging in the basket under the excellent crusty Tuscan bread, revealed even better goods: stromboli stuffed with salami and mozzarella.

I order Strozzapreti, a pasta dish with seafood, scallions and chilis and forego an app. I have seen the cheese plate on the menu and it looks awesome, so I will save a little room. This turns out to be an error because the portions at Scarpetta are well designed, and allow you to indulge in three to four courses. Oh well, I had planned to steal a bite or two of whatever Rob ordered anyways. Rob chose Crispy Fritto Misto to start. The Misto app was wonderful. Lightly battered calamari, shrimp, vegetable strips and herbs, rosemary being prevalent, were deep fried and brightened with fresh lemon. No dipping sauce required. Fresh flavour.

His main was a Basil Scialatelle with Nova Scotia lobster, chili & tomato. The freshness of good tomato offset the richness of the lobster and the sweetness of the basil.

Heather ordered an app of deep fried mozzarella in stewed tomatoes with a basil oil finish and for a main, Duck and Foie Gras Stuffed Ravioli with a marsala reduction. Normally I avoid ravioli on a high-end menu as they are always stuffed with decadent, expensive ingredients that are pulverized into a stuffing and lose their identity. These however were tiny and full of rich duck flavour highlighted by the delicate sauce.

Matt chose scallops to start and roasted chicken, with sweet corn, greens and a pine nut gremolata for a main. The scallops were perfectly done and accompanied by a pesto with sunflower seeds. I did not get to try his chicken but it looked delicious.

My pasta (Strozzapreti) was well made, perfectly cooked with a sprinkling of calamari and shrimp, scallions and some nice chili heat.

The cheese course selection at Scarpetta is small but well thought out. Each selection comes with its own suitable accoutrement. We chose four along with a ten year Graham’s port. Our cheese selection:

My only complaint about this most excellent course was the cracker accompaniment. The round, donut-like hard bread sticks were awkward to eat. Crostini, or a light thin cracker, even baguette would have been preferable. Dessert followed. Scarpetta’s dessert menu is small but impressive. More than one thing grabbed my attention but I settled on the coconut panna cotta with guava soup because I love all things coconut. It was excellent with the silky creaminess of the panna cotta and juicy chunks of coconut in the ice cream and a toasted coconut wafer, but can’t compete with the buttermilk pana cotta at Town in Ottawa. Nothing can. Other desserts at the table included the chocolate cake selection and Scarpetta’s tiramisu.

After a lovely evening at Scarpetta, we returned Heather and Matt home and made the long trek back into downtown Toronto for some shut eye before returning to Ottawa in the morning. We woke rested and to another glorious Indian Summer day. Our trip up the Highway of Heroes and beyond was a little more vibrant on the return journey and hinted more strongly at the glorious fall splendor which was slowly unfolding towards its peak in mid October.







Heather Takes On: Gordon Ramsey

I have here, Gordon Ramsay’s Healthy Appetite. We bought this book as a coffee table decoration in mid-2009, before we even had a coffee table of our own. It was read in the car on the way home and haven’t really opened it since. Also, I spilled Diet Coke on it.

We are rabid Gordon Ramsay fans and watch all of his shows: Hell’s Kitchen, Masterchef, Kitchen Nightmares and The F Word. I also have a couple of his books, including Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen: Temper Tantrums, F Words, and the Pursuit of Perfection which is an autobiographical rant about his upbringing and getting started in the kitchen. This book also points out that at one point, he was a very unhappy, overweight chef and knows a thing or two about healthy cooking.

Amazon reviewers note that the book seems to closely follow the Mediterranean diet. Lots of fish, meat and vegetables with a few pasta entrees and light cakes and roasted fruit for dessert. Entrees for kids even look great, with stir-fried duck in lettuce cups, chicken burgers, sweet potato wedges and baked eggs in ratatouille.

It consists of bright, clean photographs, a wide range of healthy recipes, features scattered throughout the book on things to do with tomatoes, oily fish or summerberries, as well as a section in the back about making your own stocks, entertaining, cooking for kids, healthy snacks, and even squeezing in exercise. Browsing through any cookbook, I can hum, haw and sticky note a bunch of pages to check back on later. All of the food in this cook book looks delicious and relatively affordable, but nothing jumps out as something I need to make right now.

I will close my eyes and flip to a random page in the center of the book, although hindsight says maybe I should have flipped a little further to the back where all of the desserts are.

Beef Burgers with Beet Relish and Cucumber Raita – Page 119 of Gordon Ramsay’s Healthy Appetite. This makes four servings.

The burger derived all its flavour from the smoked paprika, which made it semi-tasty considering it was just a lump of ground beef with only four seasonings. Not pictured is the slice of mozzarella placed on top once the camera was put away. It was paired with pinot grigio despite the fact that all my wine knowledge consists of is that I like drinking it and red wine goes with red meat. Matt works in a condominium, and residents are always feeding him… leftover cake, food their parents made, wine, etc. So I happened to have a random bottle of white. Matt doesn’t like wine, so ownership is automatically transferred over to me. Also, my mom said I could.

Suspiciously, when perusing the internet for an easy to copy link so I wouldn’t have to type the whole recipe out, I found the exact burger and beet relish recipe on a different website – but with other ingredients added to the burger such as Worcesececestershire sauce, Tobasco sauce along with – gasp – buns and toppings. Instead of the raita, there’s oven roasted potato wedges. This one can be found here.

It wasn’t amazing, but I thought it was good. (Matt: “I can see why British food isn’t very popular”). I’ve never in my life bought capers, I had no idea you could buy pre-cooked beets in a can and I stalked produce department people throughout Metro trying to work up the courage to ask them if the bunch of greenery I had in my hand was indeed arugula (it was not). Other than that, his directions are extremely easy to follow and I enjoyed myself quite a bit. This was a great experience and the perfect date night idea – to pick a recipe at random, go gather the ingredients and come home to make it.

Beef Burgers with Beet Relish and Cucumber Raita

1 1/2lb (600g) good quality lean ground beef
1 tsp smoked paprika
pinch of cayenne pepper
sea salt and black pepper
olive oil, to cook and drizzle
8oz (250g) cherry tomatoes on the vine
splash of balsamic vinegar

Beet Relish:
8 oz (250g) cooked beat in natural juices, drained
3 tbsp capers, rinsed and drained
handful of italian parsley, roughly chopped
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil

Cucumber Raita
1 large cucumber
handful of mint leaves, chopped
3-4 tbsp plain yoghurt
squeeze of lemon juice, to taste

Seasoning the burgers:
Put the ground beef into a large bowl and add the paprika, cayenne, 1/2 tsp salt (or less to taste) and 1/2 tsp pepper. Mix well with your hands, then shape into 4 neat patties. Place on a plate or tray, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for at least 30 minutes to set the shape.

The beet relish:
Roughly chop the beet and place in a food processor along with the capers, parsley, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. Pulse until the mixture is roughly chopped – you don’t want to puree the beet. Season to taste and transfer to a bowl.

The cucumber raita:
Peel the cucumber and quarter lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon and discard. Roughly chop the flesh and place in a bowl. Add the chopped mint and toss with enough yogurt to bind. Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cooking it all up:
Heat the barbecue or heat a little olive oil in a nonstick skillet. Brush the burgers with olive oil and cook on the barbecue, or pan-fry. Remove to a warm plate and let rest for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes to the barbecue or skillet and drizzle with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Cook for 1-2 minutes until the tomatoes are soft but still retain their shape.

Serve and impress:
Serve the burgers with the tomatoes, beet relish, and cucumber raita. For a neat presentation, spoon the raita into lettuce cups and garnish with a handful of arugula.

Click HERE for a printable version of this recipe.


RT 16: Road Trip 2011 Wrap-up

Another monster road trip is in the books. Now we move our attention to planning next year’s extravaganza. But first we’d like to take some time to reflect on the places we visited, the people we met, and the food we ate.

New Orleans
Such a rich, cultural history. There really is no place like New Orleans – it wears its influences and its survival instincts on its sleeve. This is our second visit to the city and we still feel like there is so much more to see. This time around we got to visit a wider range of locations, from the soul food shack to the fine dining establishment, and each still conveyed the indomitable spirit and culinary history of the city.

  • Coolest experience: having fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House. It’s such a symbol of hope for post-Katrina recovery.
  • Most memorable character: The three-legged, battle-scarred bulldog we met outside a tavern in the French Market area.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Treme District
Met this guy walking back to the car. We hope he’s in retirement from his career as “dog put through the wringer”. He seemed content to hang outside a bar and enjoy the breeze.

Natchez, MS
Our last trip through Mississippi left a terrible impression: A soulless interstate and stops that were fairly devoid of charm. This time around, the “No interstates” rule worked in Mississippi’s favour and Natchez was a tremendous start. A colourful, picturesque town in the mighty Mississippi river with a very clear sense of its history and cultural roots. In addition to its quaint tradition, its people were very friendly and welcoming.

  • Coolest experience: A horse-drawn carriage tour of the historical downtown district with Mike (the guide) and Mack (the horse).

Natchez Trace
We have to mention the Trace. It was really a feature player in our road trip. It’s a beautiful parkway, peppered by historic sites and things to see along it’s 445 mile length. There were moments where we felt truly connected to its past travelers. For this trip, it connected Natchez, Jackson, Tupelo and Nashville.

  • Coolest experience: It’s a tie — The graves of 13 unknown Confederate soldiers buried along the Old Trace in the woods and the Windsor Mansion Ruins.
This is along the “Old Trace” a path through the woods that was THE road for almost 1000 years.
Only the columns and some metalwork remain…in the middle of nowhere.

Jackson, MS
Jackson is a hurting city, with sections of the city just outside its downtown core being burned out, boarded up and abandoned. But we so looked forward to reprising our E&L BBQ experience, that it was a “must stop” anyway.

Tupelo, MS
Visiting Elvis’ birthplace was a stop was a sequel to last year’s stop at Graceland in Memphis. People were nice and they were clearly very proud of their native son.

  • Coolest experience: sitting in the “Elvis booth” at Johnnie’s Drive-in for dinner.
Sitting in Elvis’ favourite booth!

Nashville, TN

Nashville was treat for us because, not only is a great and vibrant city, but the company was so darn good! Tennessee was the prettiest state to drive through, based on our last two Southern excursions.

  • Coolest experience: Rob got to jam with Trevor Finlay and some great Nashville players.
  • Most memorable character: “Papa” Boudreaux, our dinner host at his small Cajun restaurant in the backwoods of Tennessee, pouring sugar in his wine and yelling at the LSU game on the big-screen. But, boy, could he serve a mean etouffee.

St. Louis, MO
We had an all-too-brief time in St. Louis, and would have loved to explore it more. It was clearly a diverse city with tremendous civic pride. We stayed in the West End, a university district that definitely deserved another look.

  • Coolest experience: SNOOTS!

Chicago, IL
Shopping! Photos! Boots! Guitars! Food! River! Tall buildings! We LOVED Chicago. It has its own deeply-rooted food traditions to explore. As well, we got to eat in the flagship restaurant of a chef we admire. It was a welcome change of pace for the previous several days of cornfields and country roads. We got in such shopping – Maureen finally got her cowboy boots and Rob got his guitar, which makes it the most expensive stop on the tour by far.

  • Coolest experience: Getting to try the famous Chicago hot dog and real deep-dish pizza.
  • Most memorable character: The amazing Chicago-style architecture!

The “Trippy Awards”

Best Meal: It’s a toss-up: Papa Boudreaux’s Cajun Kitchen in Santa Fe, TN and Frontera Grille in Chicago, IL

Biggest Surprise: The BBQ sandwiches at Big John’s Smokehouse in Hohenwald, TN.

Nicest Drive: Natchez Trace from Natchez, MS to Jackson, MS.

Gotta-go-back-to: Chicago, Nashville, St. Louis, New Orleans

Best supporting role: “Stella 3000”, our Garmin 3790LMT






RT15: Tepid Italian Beef

We don’t get it. We’re prepared to admit it. It sounded good. We liked the IDEA of it. We never stopped to really think about it, though. We know people will say, “You didn’t have it at (INSERT FAVOURITE PLACE HERE)” and maybe that’s true, but we went for the top of the list and one that places highly in most “best of” lists. Remember though, we are prepared to admit that this one is beyond us.

High on this list of iconic Chicago foods is the Hot Italian Beef, a sandwich featured on most surveys of Chicago favourites. Debates rage about who makes the best and the best way to enjoy the sandwich. I’ll let Wikipedia do the explaining:

“An Italian beef is a sandwich of thin slices of seasoned roast beef, dripping with meat juices, on a dense, long Italian-style roll, believed to have originated in Chicago, where its history dates back at least to the 1930s.[1] The bread itself is often dipped (or double-dipped) into the juices the meat is cooked in, and the sandwich is typically topped off with Chicago-style giardiniera (called “hot”) or sauteed, green Italian sweet peppers (called “sweet”).”

We selected Al’s Italian Beef as our place to visit for this sandwich. It places highly on “best of” lists, and seems to be the largest. There are some out of the way joints that probably have raised it to an art form, but they are across town.

Al's #1 Italian Beef on Urbanspoon

There is an expectation raised by the idea of the Hot Italian Beef: A rich, beefy filling, accentuated by peppers, and heightened by the dip in the au jus.

What you get is another thing entirely. This may be the point at which we differ from the Chicago natives. What you get is EXACTLY what the hot Italian beef is: Roast beef, sitting in a “au jus gravy ” for who knows how long and then served on bread that’s soaked in said au jus.

Maybe that’s the point at which we part ways with fans of the sandwich. The beef is soggy, the bread is soggy, the peppers are overdone leaving a soft soggy mess unto themselves. There seems to be a point of pride about how incredibly messy this sandwich is, but what’s missing is real, unique flavour. There is absolutely no reason the crave this sandwich and to NEED one the future. Truly GREAT sandwiches demand a repeat performance. This one left us scratching our heads as to why anyone would want one in the first place.

Is our experience sullied by bad execution? Who knows, but the difference would have to be huge to make us order a Hot Italian Beef in the future. It’s all subjective, we know, and this blog entry won’t change the iconic status of this Chicago favourite. We don’t get it, and we’re prepared to admit that it’s our lack of…something, that prevents us from understanding the allure.

After an afternoon of major purchases, a couple of pairs of cowboy boots for Maureen and a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster for Rob, and then some serious reflection in the hotel bar, we ventured out to Harry Caray’s for steaks – not so much for the Chicago food tradition, but for the Chicago sports tradition. As Canadians who are somewhat removed from the authentic Harry Caray phenomenon, it’s hard for us to separate the real Harry Caray from the outrageous portrayal of him by Will Farrel, given that it’s the only exposure we have.

We arrive at Harry Caray’s and get the traditional steak house experience – decent steaks and sides, albeit some broccoli that’s underdone (better than overdone, though), and good, friendly service.

Harry Caray's on Urbanspoon

But, we are ready to go home. It’s been an eventful two weeks. We’ve covered a lot of ground and New Orleans seems like MONTHS ago. Now to start planning the next one!