All posts by Rob and Maureen

Other Springtime Traditions

It never fails to amaze me how much energy is expended every April, by my frozen patch of  planet, in a renewed quest to become lush with verdant life almost over night and certainly before my very eyes. Trees literally pop to life. Sap warms and begins begins to course through veins, buds swell, a bright green haze signals the advent of a new season and an electrical surge seems to pass through the earth to ignite us humans, causing us to smile, be a little giddy and drunk with sunshine, clean out closets and share large meals with loved ones.

Spring brings us Easter and Passover. Both traditions have deeply-rooted food experiences. Our families’ Christian traditions included glazed ham with pineapple rings, maraschino cherries, studded with cloves, potato scallop, or turkey and all the trimmings. And Family. And Chocolate. And Peeps. And those horrible, pure sugar pink and purple eggs, that peg the sugar index just below maple sugar candy, which we ate anyways. My teeth hurt just remembering.

Not sure what the other side ate. It did not include the “bunny” and that was enough for me to ignore it. Now as an adult, I don’t celebrate the religious end of things but instead, I love to appreciate the beginning of things, the rebirth of my garden, city and world, with friends, family and food. This year, since we can just go to the store and buy as many chocolate bunnies, eggs, and coloured cellophane grass  as we please, Rob and I thought it might be interesting to experience some of the goodies that Passover has to offer. We are not being attentive to any religious dietary restrictions, as we are interested purely in the food experience. Chocolate bunnies will be present as my kids are still my kids at any age.

12 pm Easter Sunday: Noodle kugel is warm from the oven, and the brisket is going in for a long braise. Tzimmes (which is almost like a chutney) is simmering on the stove top, smelling oddly enough of Christmas, I think because of the cinnamon, nuts, dried fruit, vanilla and orange.

The brisket recipe is adapted from many found on the web, but mostly, I followed The Pioneer Woman’s excellent blog posting. It’s a 6-lb. brisket that’s been trimmed of excess fat and placed in a roasting pan. In a separate bowl, I mixed about 2 cups of ketchup, 1 cup of grape jelly (really!) and a packet of onion soup mix, which is then poured over both sides of the brisket. I cooked the brisket at 275 degrees F for 6 hours, turning it over  and spooning the sauce on top halfway through. When it was done, I removed the brisket to a cutting board and cut it into 1/4 inch-or-so slices and poured the sauce into a large enough serving dish to hold both the sauce and brisket slices. I then transferred the slices to the sauce.

The meal was warming and delicious. The brisket and sauce was accompanied by the tzimmes, steamed green beans and smashed potatoes. We had the Kugel for dessert although Jewish friends have since told us that the kugel, despite its custardy sweetness is a side. A real Passover meal  would likely have a choice of a couple flourless cakes for dessert. Of course, this certainly wasn’t meant to be authentic – we used butter where we shouldn’t have, for example – but it was wildly successful as a tasty exploration of another set of traditions.


Dinner Party: Southern Classics

Rob and I wanted to share some of the great southern food we have experienced on our road trips and so we sent out an open invite to fans of Happy Mouth via our Facebook page. We have done this once before and it was a great success and this time was no different. Seems people who enjoy good food and travel just naturally fit together.

Tonight’s menu did not come together until the very last minute. Here’s the menu we arrived at:

Southern Classics menu:
Lee Brother’s Pimento Cheese Dip with Stoned Wheat Crackers
Bonefish Grill’s Bang Bang Shrimp
Dr. Pepper-Braised Rib Tips in on Cheesy Grits
Green Beans sauteed with Onion, Bacon and Pecans
Homesick Texan’s Hatch Chili Pepper and Apple Cobbler with Vanilla Ice Cream

We wanted to share our new-found love of grits and what better to serve on grits than rib tips. Oh, but try and find these little scrumptious morsels in Ottawa. A call out to several area butchers was fruitless. They simply do not cut pork that way here. Then Rob got the brilliant idea to try T&T, an Asian grocer, and we lucked out. So, rib tips in hand we decided to serve rib tips braised in a Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce over cheesy grits. Southern sides present a bit of a problem because they tend to serve two or three starches and meat. Rob managed to find some inspiration on the web and come up with something greener and crunchier to serve but still with an eye to the south, green beans sauteed with bacon and pecans.

The evening began around 4 pm when our guest began to arrive. Rob prepared sazeracs as a starter cocktail while guests nibbled on pimento cheese dip and crackers and I prepared bang bang shrimp. The sazerac is a New Orleans institution and bars, establishments, restaurants and foodies argue over who makes the best one, same as they do over the po’boy sandwich,or almost any famous New Orleans dish. The first time we visited NOLA we were informed that Clancy’s had the best sazerac. Clancy’s closes (smartly) during the heat of a New Orleans summer, so we didn’t have one. This past trip I was determined and so I ordered one at the Rib Room.

Making a sazerac is a ritual. The glass is chilled with ice. The ice is dumped out and the glass is seasoned with a swirl of absinthe which then too is dumped out. In another glass, a sugar cube is muddled with Peychaud bitters. Whiskey is added and then that is strained into the seasoned glass and a twist of lemon is tossed in. Peychaud bitters are apparently essential but are utterly unavailable in Canada. We substituted angostura bitters which are a bit more spicy. The drink is a softened slightly sweet whiskey with a hint of lemon, cinnamon and clove. Our sazeracs didn’t taste as I remembered them in the Big Easy, but part of that may have been the missing French Quarter view.

With our drinks we served a couple of appetizers, pimento cheese and bang band shrimp. Pimento cheese is a simple and thrifty dip that can also be used as a spread for sandwiches. It’s essentially a mixture of roasted red peppers, mayonnaise, cream cheese and sharp cheddar, along with some chile flakes and salt and pepper to taste. It’s very good with come simple crackers.

Our other app, bang bang shrimp is an intriguing Southern take on an Asian dish. It’s a cornstarch battered, deep-fried shrimp in a spicy, sweet chili sauce with the mandatory Southern addition of mayonnaise. It’s all tossed together and served as toothpick food. We’ve had this as the centerpiece of an main meal at Myrtle Beach’s excellent Mr. Fish.

For the Rib tips, we didn’t really follow a recipe, but here’s the basic blow-by-blow description:

  • Dredge the tips (we used about 4 pounds of these) in seasoned flour (add your favourite BBQ rub and black pepper, the rub is salty enough) and brown tips all sides in a hot braising pot with a couple tablespoons of oil. Do this in batches until complete. Set aside in a bowl.
  • In the pot with the leftover oil, sauté a chopped onion. When translucent, add about a litre of Dr. Pepper (not DIET Dr. Pepper), about 1/2  a bottle of your favourite non-smoky BBQ sauce and a teaspoon each of dried thyme, oregano, pepper, chili powder and about 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper. Stir, bring to a boil, add the rib tips (they should be almost covered by the liquid), reduce heat and simmer for 3 hours. The cartilage in the rib tips will dissolve into the liquid and thicken it, and you’ll be left with tangy, sweet, saucy morsels that are perfect to sit upon rice, potatoes or in this case, beautiful, creamy, cheesy grits.

And then we come to the raison d’être of the evening’s meal – to introduce frost-bitten Canadians to a true treasured staple of the South, grits. Most Canadian’s who have tried grits, have tried bad grits, usually lukewarm, unseasoned, clumpy grits at a breakfast buffet when they were vacationing in Florida. Those grits are to real grits like a McRib is real BBQ.

Dessert on this crisp fall evening was the Homesick Texan’s Hatch Chile Pepper and Apple cobbler, with vanilla ice cream. I’ve made this before and it is  sweet and spicy and different. Once again, an essential ingredient was unavailable to us. Hatch chillies are grown in New Mexico and are the most famous chili in the Southern US. We substituted poblano peppers, which are nice and provide a little green zing. The only problem using poblanos is that the heat level is unreliable. They can be mild to medium in heat.

All in all the recreations worked and we had a great evening entertaining our friends, reminiscing about our travels, and despite several major and minor kitchen disasters, including a pitcher of boiling water for iced tea exploding and the resultant flow shutting down our electric starters on the gas stove (blow dryer to the rescue!) and a broken wine glass, and forgetting the awesome, flaky, cheesy biscuits in the microwave, the night was a great success. Thanks to Barry, Terry, Brad and Carole!


Best Ever Mushroom Soup

I’ve made this rustic soup for many years now as the autumn season draws to a close and the evenings make me want to cocoon inside by the fire. This quick soup can be made with chicken stock or with vegetable for an entirely vegetarian meal. Buy pre-sliced mushrooms and a baguette for a fast weekday dinner. If you love cream of mushroom soup, I doubt you will find a tastier one.

Cream of Mushroom Soup
Adapted from Harrowsmith Magazine

2 lbs. mushrooms, sliced
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 tablespoons Butter
6 tablespoons Flour
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups cream
2 cups skim milk

1. Melt butter in a stock pot. Saute mushrooms, onions, and garlic for about 5 minutes.

2. Remove vegetables with slotted spoon and set aside, leaving behind the butter and liquid.

3. Put flour into a bowl and slowly whisk a little of the melted butter liquid from the pot into the flour to form a paste and then a little more to make it fluid. Add the flour mixture back to pot and whisk to mix over medium heat. This will prevent the flour from clumping.

4. Add thyme, pepper and soy sauce. Cook, stirring for 3 minutes. Slowly stir in stock, then cream and milk. Cook until mixture is thickened and heated through. Return vegetables to pot. Serve with crusty bread or baguette and a salad.

Click HERE for a printable version of this recipe.


RT14: Hot Diggety Dog!

As American as hot dogs and apple pie. That’s what they say, right? For such an iconic American food, there seem to be really only a few places throughout the United States that see hot dogs as elevated cuisine. New York has Coney Island dogs and Gray’s Papaya. Cincinnati has the venerated chili dog, and Chicago has something else, again.

The proper Chicago dog with everything has a very specific make-up. To vary from this can be grounds for arrest and jail time, or at least a slew of bad reviews on Urban Spoon. lays down the law this way:

A Chicago Style Hot Dog is more than just a Hot Dog; it’s a taste sensation with the perfect blend of toppings. So, what exactly is a Chicago Dog? A Chicago Style Hot Dog is a steamed all beef Hot Dog topped with yellow mustard, bright green relish, onions, tomato wedges, pickle spear or slice, sport peppers and a dash of celery salt served in the all-important steamed poppy seed bun.

The toppings are just as important as the order they are applied to the Hot Dog. Add toppings in the following order:

  1. Yellow Mustard
  2. Bright “Neon” Green Relish
  3. Fresh Chopped Onions
  4. Two Tomato Wedges
  5. A Pickle Spear or Slice
  6. Two Sport Peppers
  7. A Dash of Celery Salt

Remember: When adding toppings, dress the dog and not the bun!

I’ve seen scathing reviews on restaurant sites where the vendor has elected to toast the bun instead of steaming it, or serve chopped tomatoes instead of sliced. An outsider may ask, “does it really matter?”. To the initiated it certainly does. And having now had a Chicago Dog done the right way, all I can say is that it’s a mighty tasty tradition.

The place we wanted to go to to experience the tradition for ourselves (Hot Doug’s Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium) decided to take a protracted Labour Day holiday and is currently closed. We do hope to swing by there for lunch tomorrow when they re-open, so there’ll be no “I wonder” moments over what it would have been like.

Today we chose to visit another place that makes the top 3 list: Portillo’s Hot Dogs. This business is now an empire, with locations opening in other big cities, but their reputation remains intact.

We pull up at about 12:15pm and there’s a line-up that extends from the back of the restaurant to the front door. That’s just to order. There’s another line just as long to pick up your order. Maureen scoped out a free table and camped there while I worked the lines. This place had an amazing system in place, a staffer took my order while still well back in the first line and gave me a paper bag with the order written on it in code, so when I went to pay, the cashier immediately processed it and gave me an order number on a receipt. Line one took all of about 90 seconds.

In line 2, a counter worker was calling our order numbers fast and furiously. My wait must have been only about 2 minutes. In the time I spent in both lines, at least 60 orders must have been filled. I had ordered two dogs with everything each and a small french fry (krinkle cut – yay!) to split and couple bottles of water.

The hot dogs were a sight to behold. When you look at the list above you wonder how they get all that on a hot dog, and they do and it’s gorgeous, surprisingly easy to pick up and eat, and a perfect combination of flavours and textures.

The “snap” of the all-beef frank, the freshness of the tomato, brightness of the pickle and heat of the sport peppers combine against the more expected backdrop of mustard, relish and onion. The steamed poppy-seed bun was soft and served to provide both architectural support and flavour.

One side note: while it’s customary to forgive those who are under 18 years of age for putting ketchup on their hot dogs, it is simply “not done” by adults here. They have ketchup pumps available for your fries, but I got the impression that an alarm would go off and security would be called if you put it on your dog.

Portillo's Hot Dogs (Chicago) on Urbanspoon

I feel like pasta and a nice glass of red tonight. I talk Rob out of BBQ. I’m sure Chicago BBQ is awesome and I would love to explore it another time, but I’m a little BBQ’d out right now. We make reservations for Rosebud Trattoria, a pleasant short walk from our hotel.  The ambiance is typical Italian, white table cloths and silverware, warm, friendly, homey.

We start off with a shared app of burata mozzerella, pesto, roasted tomatoes and crostini. It  is beautiful to behold, but we are two diners short. This app could easily feed four. We dig in. The crostini is perfect – crispy, yet chewy in texture, slathered in good quality olive oil.

The pesto is good and the hot roasted tomatoes are salty and slick with oil. The burata itself is less liquidy than we are used to but is delicious. My only comment would be that the burata was cool and it would have benefited further if it was at room temperature.

Our mains arrived with a bottle of full bodied Chianti Ruffino. Rob ordered the Brasato: braised beef short ribs and pork, San Marzano tomatoes, ruota pasta and whipped ricotta. I selected the Penne Diavola which featured lobster, shrimp, Asiago cream, lobster butter, crushed chillies and penne pasta.

The pasta was perfectly cooked. My diavola was creamy and redolent of lobster and roasted garlic. The shellfish was good but the pasta and cream sauce was the star of the show. It could have used a healthy dose more of crushed chillies. It was a diavola but I detected no heat.

Rob’s short rib pasta was inspired, with the rich meaty braising liquid forming a sauce that coated the pasta. The braised beef melted in your mouth, and the ricotta provided a light creamy finish as a contrast to the more robust flavours from the braised short rib. Portions at Rosebud are overly large. This is fine if you are not traveling and can take it home. I would have appreciated smaller portions.

Rosebud Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Our server, despite being a Flyers fan from New Jersey was awesome but even she could not talk us into dessert. We saw the tiramisu get trucked by. It would take me three days to eat it even if I hadn’t just eaten most of that pasta.

Go Sens!

RT9: Backwoods Tennesee Cajun

We are up early this last day we are to spend in Nashville, so that we can head into the pretty little town of Franklin for breakfast and to explore a little. We are breakfasting today at Merridee’s Breadbasket. It is a very busy place on a Saturday.

The atmosphere is warm and homey with blue-checked oilcloth covering the tables, rustic worn oak floors, brick walls and exposed rafters. We manage to snag a just-vacated table and take our spot at the end of a very long line to place orders.

After a long wait of twenty or more minutes our number is called. Both of us are having egg, ham, and cheese biscuits and one of their famous cinnamon rolls to split. The house coffee is fine but has a distinct hazelnut flavour. The orange juice is bottled from concentrate. Our sandwiches are made on an excellent, buttery ham and cheese biscuit which is too crumbly to eat by hand and we have to resort to fork and knife. The thinly sliced ham has been lightly pan fried and has a nice sweet-to-salty ratio. The processed cheese and fluffy egg omelet are delicious.

We savour the soft sweet buttery cinnamon roll that has a nice, loose, icing sugar topping which we prefer over a hard glaze. Overall the atmosphere at Merridee’s is one of hustle and bustle and noise. It’s clearly THE place to be for locals on a Saturday morning, but it is not the spot to enjoy some quiet time with a newspaper. Take your cinnamon bun home and enjoy it in the shade of your front porch. Or hotel.

Merridee's Breadbasket on Urbanspoon

We spend 45 minutes walking Main Street and enjoying the shops before heading over to The Factory, a 12-building complex that is a converted factory most notable for manufacturing stoves. One shop of note in the plaza is a well appointed antique store with numerous relics from the American Civil War. Oh how I would love a cannonball but my luggage was already over the weight limit on the way in. Instead we purchase some frames which contain small bits of the conflict and personalize it and let you feel the ghosts of a time gone by. A bit of pipe, a hand struck nail, buttons, dice, a harmonica reed, a bullet…

As we are leaving to meet our friends, Josee and Trevor for lunch, we get a surprise phone call from a another friend who I have known since she was just 1 year old. We did not think we would get to visit with her this time, but she caught us just as we were leaving the Factory and tells us she lives just three minutes away. After a short but sweet visit we head into town and have a refreshing lunch at Calypso Cafe, which specializes in Caribbean fare and makes a great salad.

Calypso Cafe on Urbanspoon

We are a little early and pop into the Dog and Cat Shoppe around the corner. I am in kitty heaven. They have three cats and multitudes of kittens roaming free and sleeping everywhere. I spend 15 minutes with an adorable baby tortie sleeping in my arms while I look for “presents” to bring home two my two kitties. After lunch the boys head on out to shop at Nashville’s Guitar Center and us girls go on a two mile hike on the lovely walking trails in Nashville.

Dinner tonight has been suggested by Trevor and Josee. They tell us it is really a backwoods hole-in-the-wall which serves pretty good cajun food. We are game, especially if it is a hole-in-the-wall. That’s where you will find some of the best cooking.

Papa Boudreaux’s Cajun Cafe is an hour and fifteen minute drive from Franklin to Santa Fe, Tennessee (the locals pronounce it “Santa FEE”) mostly on a winding two laner through gorgeous country. Rolling green hills, pretty mansions and beautiful more modest bungalows, horse farms and fence rows and even the occasional beat up trailer add spice and variety to this drive. We hit two detours and are completely lost to the backwoods of Tennessee save for Stella 3000, our GPS. She finally pulls us up at a small, yellow building. The parking lot is full of cars and trucks. It is a surprise because I have no idea where they all came from. There is not the kind of population in the area it would seem, to support a restaurant here. We enter, give a name and go outside and wait to be called. No waiting time is given. Several more people show up and put their names in. Some of them are smarter and have brought coolers of beer knowing they will have to wait in the heat for a table.

We sit outside and enjoy a pleasant, warm Tennessee evening. After about twenty minutes we get called in. Papa Boudreaux’s is small, boasting only seven tables. The entire place inside and out is decorated in yellow and purple, with a side of beads and football memorabillia. A flattie on one wall is showing a game between Oregon and LSU. “Papa” alternately yells with approval and swears his disgust at the TV.

Right beside our table, Ronnie Fruge serenades us on his Gibson, and chats between folk, country and cajun tunes and some of his own. Trevor and Rob are a tough audience being guitarists/singers themselves. Ronnie is a treat and is the genuine article. Papa’s is old school and accepts only cash or cheques. There is no alcohol for sale but you are welcome to bring your own in.

As we peruse the small menu on the chalkboard, people continue to pour in and put their names on the waiting list before heading back outside to wait. Our waitress returns to our table with our drinks and some warm baguette and butter to take our food orders. I ask her what the best thing on the menu is as I am tempted by several things. She tells me it’s the crawfish-shrimp etouffee. I order that and skip apps because I want to have dessert here. Rob orders some boudin balls and pasta with chicken and andouille, Trevor orders fried scallops and garlic shrimp and pasta, Josee gets the shrimp creole.

The apps arrive first. Both the scallops and the boudin come with a chunky, spicy, tomato, onion, pepper relish. The scallops are large and perfectly fried. No greasy residue and great scallop texture. The boudin balls are fried as well,  have strong pork flavour and go well with the tomato relish.

Boudin balls with a perfect, lemony, garlicky tomato relish.

The mains arrive shortly and I am not disappointed. My etouffe is homemade, honest, authentic cajun food. The portion is quite large and I’m glad I skipped apps. The dish is chock full of plump Gulf shrimp and tiny crawfish tails. The creamy sauce is delicate yet contains a mild heat, cooled by the rice it is served over.

Shrimp and Crawfish Etoufee.

Rob’s pasta had a light barely there cream sauce that nicely tied together the flavours of the smoky andouille, the chicken and a little cajun heat.

Chicken & Andouille Sausage Pasta.

I tried Josee’s creole and it was a classic, rich, smokey tomato sauce with onion and pepper and a good kick of heat, the kind that makes you sweat a bit eating it. Trevor enjoyed his pasta but I never got a taste. It sure looked good!

Shrimp Creole

I’m glad we saved room for dessert. Louisiana chocolate bread pudding. And four spoons. It is a big portion with warm, rich, not overly sweet chocolate bread pudding with a fudgy sauce and a large scoop of vanilla ice cream all ready melting it’s descent into the goo.

Under all that is Chocolate Bread Pudding. The cuisine of Louisiana has given us new appreciation for Bread Pudding. We’ve had it three times at Cajun restaurants. All were magnificent.

Papa Boudreaux’s is an incredible treat in the backwoods of Tennessee and serves Cajun food as good as any you will find in the bayou state.

Papa Boudreaux on Urbanspoon

 Here’s a local Tennessee TV bit on the place:

 We had a great 3 days in Nashville and in Tennessee. It was a great mix of music, food and friends. The area is captivating and beautiful. Tomorrow finds us moving on to unfamiliar turf as neither of us have been to our remaining road trip destinations before, not counting Rob’s occasional overnight business trips, which are definitely not the way to discover a region and its offerings. Tomorrow the road leads through Kentucky, on to Evansville, Indiana. Goodbye to Nashville.