Optimistically Cautious

Monday, April 30, 2007

Food Notes

  • I tried the "new" Chicken Snack Wrap at McDonald's for the first time yesterday, and much to my disappointment, it wasn't very good. My dislike of ranch sauce may have contributed to my overall negative opinion, but really, given the choice, I'd have a bacon(!) cheeseburger any day.
  • While on campus last week, I headed to Edmonton's first Good Earth Coffeehouse and Bakery (8623-112 Street), a Calgary mainstay. Located in Campus Towers, occupying the old Second Cup/Great Canadian Bagel space, I was floored at the complete overhaul of the decor. With new flooring, painted walls, and sturdy wooden furniture (the old metal chairs were a deterrent to hour-long study sessions), I'm sure Good Earth will become a student favorite soon enough. The downside - the prices definitely reflect the more upscale design. As I mentioned in early March, I had read that their scones were quite good, so I bought a mixed berry one to try. It rang up to $2.75. Though it wasn't bad (the consistency was sweeter and tasted more cakey than a traditional scone), it definitely wasn't worth three dollars. I didn't have time to take a picture to do the new space justice, but this will have to do for now:

  • After brunch on Sunday, Bettina and I ducked into Culina's neighbour, Wild Earth Bakery (8902-99 Street), for a quick dessert. More of a coffee shop than a full-service bakery like Bee Bell or Cobbs, their pastry selection wasn't too extensive. We decided to each try a small tart - blueberry for me while Bettina opted for the pecan version. Preserved in a cooler, it would have tasted better at room temperature. We didn't end up staying too long, but it seemed like a nice alternative for those looking beyond mainstream coffee chains.

  • I'd love to start an indoor herb garden. Since I started cooking with fresh herbs, I realized how expensive they are. For example, to make a traditional pesto, I'd need at least 3 cups of basil. Mack and I picked up a 40g container of basil at the Italian Centre for our pizza the other day for $2.40. Similarly, even with the packaged herb sale at Sobey's this week, I'd easily spend over $10 for enough fresh dill called upon in a cheddar-dill scone recipe I'm interested in making. Who knew cooking could actually end up being pricier than eating out?

  • The outdoor City Market reopens in the downtown core in less than three weeks on May 19! This means the return of fresh produce, mini doughnuts and popcorn, and my favorite Whimsical Cupcakes on Saturday mornings. There's nothing better than brunch at Blue Plate Diner followed by a stroll at the farmer's market. Be sure to check it out!

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Black & White Affair: Culina

Ask any of my close friends and they'll tell you that I carry "the list" with me at all times. This piece of paper contains my culinary hit list - names and addresses of city restaurants I would like to try. Subscribing to the mantra of "always prepared," I know I'll have an answer to the question of "Where do you want to eat?"

So on Saturday, I finally made it to the place at the top of the list. Culina (9914-89 Avenue), based on its local recognition and critical acclaim, is the middle-income equivalent of Vancouver's Vij's. Brad Lazerenko's name is eternally on the lips of those in the business, and I had to find out if his Culina really deserved all of the hype.

I made sure to call ahead for reservations, having heard their weekend brunch was quite popular. When Bettina and I arrived just after noon, all but two tables were full. The restaurant was much smaller than I had anticipated - seating capacity couldn't have been more than 35 tops - and was decidedly chic. Stark contrasts created by eggshell white walls and curtains, black floor, and dark brown furniture translated into a modern, if not slightly cold decor. I know this is a personal bias (which I've expressed before), but an enjoyable brunch in my mind must be supplemented with sunshine and possess that feeling of kick-back casual. Amidst the rather formal surroundings of Culina's dining room with its shrouded windows, I couldn't help but think it may function better as a business lunch or dinner destination.

Our waitress was on the green side, but did her best to find out the answers to our questions. Bettina ended up ordering 'the ham and cheese' (honeyham and edam on grilled raisin bread), served with salad, while I chose the 'bacon and eggs' (slow braised bacon, mushroom frittata, potato hash, rye toasts, spicy ketchup).

Our food arrived in a prompt fashion. Bettina didn't have anything negative to say about her sandwich, except that it was really nothing special. As for my meal - it was different, and definitely showcased the creative cuisine Lazarenko is known for. In place of traditional bacon, the meat portion of the dish was fried pieces of pulled pork. It wasn't bad, but did take some getting used to. The frittata was topped with a blue cheese mushroom cream sauce, and though I initially winced at the mention of blue cheese, it turned out to be surprisingly good.

I will admit to having unbridled expectations for Culina - both because of how long it took me to eat there and all of the glowing literature I had read. So while I wasn't entirely disappointed, Culina's brunch just isn't for me. I'm willing to give their dinner a shot, but it may have to wait in lieu of their rather pricey menu.

Restaurant interior

Sugar and creamer

Water in a wine bottle

'the ham and cheese'

'bacon and eggs'

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The Cooking Chronicles: Tricolore Focaccia Pizza

Inspired by TZiN's 4-20 Pica and guided in part by a recipe I saw on Ricardo and Friends, Mack and I decided to create our own pizza on Friday.

I read in Giada de Laurentiis's cookbook, Everyday Italian, that the Margherita pizza is named after a Queen Margherita who requested several pies be made for her. The version topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil was her favorite, and thus bears her name. Note that the three colors of the Italian flag (red, white, and green, otherwise known as 'tricolore') are represented.

Armed with ingredients from the southside Italian Centre, including two 10 inch focaccia rounds, asiago and provolone cheeses (in place of mozzarella, so not a true Margherita pizza) and roma tomatoes, we added some olive oil, salt and pepper to the bread base, assembled our pizzas, and put them into the oven for about 15 minutes to melt the cheeses. Once out of the oven, we topped them with fresh basil.

The final product was fairly satisfying, though on a do-over I'd likely slice the bread horizontally in half as the focaccia turned out to be a tad thick. More tomatoes would have been nice as well. The asiago was an inspired choice though, functioning like parmesan with its sharp, creamy taste and ability to keep the softer provolone from becoming rubbery. Next time, with from-scratch dough, and utilizing the pizza stone Mack has access to, I hope to be able to duplicate the fantastic pizza from Vancouver's Bridges.

Tricolore Focaccia Pizza

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Culinary Q & A with Bettina

Occupation: student of 18 years and counting

What did you eat today?

yogurt + fibre-1 cereal; fruit; a ridiculously expensive organic salad; pork + green veggie stir-fry; pecans + other niblets that i really should stop reaching for

What do you never eat?

hmm, difficult to answer since i eat just about anything. however, i anticipate that if i were offered a plate of organ meats or creepy-crawlies, i would walk away from the table and head to the bathroom to retch.

What is your personal specialty?


What is your favorite kitchen item?

--are we talking about utensils? the ladle, i guess? or maybe shot glasses....i'm fond of drinking non-alcoholic beverages from them, some sort of weird alice-in-wonderland fascination i suppose.

World ends tomorrow. Describe your last meal.

--why must you ask such difficult questions?? probably some sort of yellow-curry lamb + vegetable stirfry (lots of veggies)...chicken-corn chowder...deep-fried wonton...a roundtable of desserts including a half-coconut/half-pistachio gelato from A&P, some sort of chocolate sin, a slice of warm berry pie....and honeydew melon bubble tea, if i had room left in my belly. i dunno. i think this ideal meal (with the exception of the desserts) changes on a daily basis depending on what favorite dish i had most recently or am craving at the moment.

Where do you eat out most frequently?

--i don't eat out all that often, and always at different restaurants. i'd have to say i frequent asian restaurants most often...especially southeast asian (viet, thai, cambodian) and japanese, korean.

What's the best place to eat in Edmonton?

tropika if it weren't for the prices. milestones has some excellent dishes. i'm also partial to cinnzeo.

If you weren't limited by geography, where and what would you eat?

trois rivieres has this shop that has amazing smoked meat sandwiches...kingston boasts a european bakery that routinely sells out really buttery berliners (bismarcks)...bertam valley in malaysia has some amazing roti chanai....ooh, tough to say. i think i can find something in every city that i would go back for.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Theatre: "Closer and Closer Apart"

Uncomfortably full, Dickson and I headed to the Roxy Theatre for Eugene Strickland's Closer and Closer Apart. Though I usually shy away from dramas, I was intrigued by both the award-winning playwright and all-star cast. I wasn't disappointed. From the program:

"A man once renowned for his architecture can no longer recognize his own reflection. Dressed perfectly in a suit and tie, he clings to his life's details scrawled on scraps of paper. As he proudly tries to battle Alzheimer's Disease on his own, his children attempt to map out the future of a man who seems lost in a city he helped build. "

The living room set was gorgeous - strikingly modern and classic at the same time. So hip it seemed that the older, retired architect looked out of place in his own home. The backbone of a bookcase was certainly the dominating feature - both in size and representation of the crumbling state of Joe's mental organization.

Closer and Closer Apart is one of those beautifully written, character-driven plays where details are at a premium and the audience thirsts for information (e.g. tracking the timeline of the mother's death and Melody's move), a valley created that mirrors Joe's own need to fill in the blanks that he cannot recall. The opening scene with Michael, frantic on his cell phone, was brief, yet incredibly revealing. This is a sign of a deft playwright.

At intermission, I turned to Dickson and commented on how James DeFelice was "acting the crap out of his role." In the challenging character of the architect, he not only had the speech pattern and timing dead on, but everything from his shuffle to the way his shoulders hunched over conveyed the image of a proud yet fragile man. Between his mannerisms and his dated wide-lapel, double-breasted suit, buttoned just under his belly with tie astray, he bore an uncanny resemblance to the West Wing's Leo McGarry (which layered the character with even more history for me, though admittedly misplaced). Sue Huff (replacing the Sterling Caroline Livingstone) was surprisingly good, visibly torn between the choice of her father or her future. Julian Arnold had a smaller role than expected - a barrel of energy on stage, his character didn't demand too much from the seasoned actor.

Though Dickson was slightly disappointed with the ambiguous, unresolved ending, I think the play ultimately accomplished what it set out to do - raise the issue of Alzheimer's, framing it in a realistic, relatable context. Strickland mentioned in an interview printed in the program that the play provided an outlet for those affected by the disease to speak about it without having to refer to those around them. He reached this goal in spades, crafting a heartfelt, touching work about the importance of family and connection.


Un-egg-ceptional: Red Robin's

Dickson and I decided to head to the downtown Red Robin's (11215-104 Avenue) for a bite to eat before catching a play on Tuesday night. With friendly kitsch, bright decor, and unlimited baskets of fries, the restaurant is a solid choice for a casual meal.

I love their economical French Onion Soup - served with a slice of cheese toast, it's the best deal on the menu. This time around though, I decided to spring for the Royal Red Robin Burger, described on the website as, "the aristocrat of all burgers because we crown it with a fresh jumbo fried egg." Mack and Dickson order it without fail, so I figured I'd give it a shot to see what all the fuss was about.

It was certainly filling (as most of their burger meals are), but between the beef and the rest of the fixings, it was difficult to taste the egg at all. Perhaps I'd have to sample it again, but I'm more likely to stick with my tried-and-true bacon and cheese next time.

Defaced tabletop display (courtesy of Dickson)

Royal Red Robin Burger

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Monday, April 23, 2007

"The Hills": Season 2 Review

Since my mid-season review, The Hills just kept getting better. Even though the second season trailer contained a hint of the growing split between best friends Lauren and Heidi, I didn't think it would cumulate into the two ultimately not speaking to each other.

Unlike at the end of season 1, the show was renewed for a third even before the season finale aired. Thus the editors were granted the opportunity to create a cliffhanger - namely, the result of Whitney's job interview. I like the inadvertent parallel of Heidi and Spencer's new living arrangements with Lauren and Jason's summer accommodation storyline last year. Will season three open with a newly single gal too? I also have to say that the shot of a penseive Heidi in the side mirror of the moving van as she departed was so perfect you have to wonder if it was pre-planned.

Lastly, echoing a frustration all viewers must share, how can Heidi remain with Spencer even after his blunt playboy confession? On some level, young love can explain some of her tunnel vision, but there comes a point where the sympathy becomes exasperation at her naïveté, blindness, or at worst, docile acceptance of his cheating tendencies.

If the recent Lauren/Jason sex tape scandal or Heidi's breast implants and rhinoplasty gossip are any indication, there will be much to follow even before season 3 airs.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Earth Day at Starbucks

As I posted a few weeks ago, Starbucks stores would be offering free cups of brewed free-trade coffee today in celebration of Earth Day. All customers needed to do was bring in their own tumbler.

So before my seminar this afternoon, I popped into a nearby Starbucks for a cup of coffee. In addition to the coffee however, the barrista also gave me a small, plantable card that contained wildflower seeds. It was a nice, unexpected surprise.

My tumbler and seed card


The Cooking Chronicles: Lemon Yogurt Cake

Though my time would have been better spent testing out recipes for my upcoming dinner party, I couldn't resist testing out Barefoot Contessa's recipe for Lemon Yogurt Cake. The seminar I've been attending this weekend has been serviced by a fabulous caterer, who makes the most delectable citrus pound cake. Needless to say, I was looking to have more of such treats at home.

I used our fancy new Cuisipro Accutec grater I recently bought my Mum to zest a few lemons. With my usual tendency to be careless, I made sure to watch my fingers! I ended up doubling the recipe - baking one batch of mini loaves and one large loaf. The latter took forever to set, after over an hour ten in the oven total (though in fairness, I jumped the gun and took it out much too early). After this experience, I have been reminded of the necessity to conduct the clean toothpick test clear down the middle - at an angle just won't cut it.

The recipe called for an odd post-baking infusion of sweetened lemon juice. It really only worked for the large loaf, as the smaller portions didn't burst at the top to allow for absorption of the liquid. I'm not sure if this step is entirely needed, as I found the zest added quite a bit of flavor on its own.

I did like the overall taste, however - the yogurt really contributed to the light and fluffy nature of the cake, especially when compared with its butter-based counterparts. Combined with the freshness of lemon in general, this would be the perfect treat to have on the patio on a warm summer's night, or out on the grass packed in a picnic lunch. Ina Garten has another winner!

Lemon Yogurt Cake (I really should have taken a picture of the slices...)


Friday, April 20, 2007

Battle of the Big Three: Joey Tomatoes

As we didn't have time for their famous apple pie last week, Dickson and I headed to Joey Tomatoes downtown (11228 Jasper Avenue) after work today to satisfy his craving.

As those who read my blog using an aggregator know, I am writing this post much later than the date stamp indicates. As such, I have had the opportunity to visit Joey's a second time before drafting this review, and my opinion has changed slightly in that time for the better.

Besides menu offerings, Earls, Moxie's and Joey's - Edmonton mainstays of casual upscale dining - are indistinguishable between their use of dim lighting, dark wood, pulsating music, and club-ready hostesses. Of the three, I prefer Moxie's simply for their food selection - they have more dishes that I tend to gravitate towards on a day to day basis. I will say, however, that I like the downtown location of Joey's better than the South Common branch - the table lamps and cozy booths create the feeling of a private dining experience.

On my first outing, I insisted on "real food" to supplement Dickson's pie, so I thought the Bombay Butter Chicken was worth a try. Though I didn't expect an authentic meal, I did hope for more than what was essentially curry soup that happened to contain chicken. The sauce was indeed flavourful, but between the inconsequential pieces of meat and bok choy (which had been rendered limp and wilted in the concoction), it wasn't an enjoyable dish. The accompanying rice was all right, but why the peas weren't in place of the bok choy was beyond me.

As for the (drumroll) apple pie - on my second tasting, I can appreciate why it is so well-loved. The puff pastry really is the secret, though quite frankly, anything wrapped in puff pastry would taste better. If Dickson was a blogger, he'd have posted about the fact that I challenged the difficulty of making the pie at home. So perhaps when I have exhausted all of the other recipes I have lined up in my culinary queue, I will try my hand at this pie.

As I mentioned above, my most recent experience at Joey's was an especially positive one. Having come in from the rain that night and feeling vulnerable to a cold, I requested a mug of hot water. Perhaps it is standard practice, and I shouldn't have been as floored as I was, but the accompanying slice of lime (a la Neocitrin) was an unexpected service-oriented touch. It may have been psychological, but I didn't end up developing a cold.

Regardless of their intention, I am warming up to Joey Tomatoes. If they retool their menu, they may bump Moxie's off the top of the big three!

Bombay Butter Chicken

Apple pie!

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cheap Eats and Great Conversation: Ikea Restaurant

There's nothing better than a busy, intimate coffee shop in the evening - when you can feel the caffeinated buzz in the air, and conversations are almost instinctively spoken in a moderate hush. As great a venue as that can be, the opposite works as well - spacious, dimly lit dining areas light on patrons that breed lengthy, private discussions. The Ikea Restaurant (for dinner) in one such place.

Annie and I have been here a few times for their very economical selections. With a plate of pasta, soup or salad, and drink combo going for $3.99, and a dish of salmon and steamed vegetables priced at $6.49, Ikea offers some of the best deals in the city (this discounts the amount inevitably spent on unnecessary prints, kitchen accessories, and miscellaneous soon-to-be garage sale fodder, but my focus here is only on the food). Ikea claims the lower prices come as a result of their store mantra of self-service (no waiters to serve or clear plates), but how many people realistically pop into the store and manage to bypass merchandise completely? Food is definitely a carrot in this case.

We both ordered our reliable standby - a plate of 10 Swedish meatballs, potatoes with gravy and a dollop of cranberry sauce, accompanied with soup or salad and a drink. While not entirely filling on an empty stomach, for $5.99, it leaves enough pocket change to pick up a few 50cent hot dogs on the way out (which I did; I'm still in the wisdom teeth recovery zone of anything goes).

But as in many of my reviews, food comes second to the setting. I adore the dining area in the restaurant with its simple, stylish decor - quintessential Ikea. Single pendant lamps, sleek rows of light wooden tables, and a breathtaking wall of windows create a perfectly understated, minimalist aesthetic. And in the evening, as the sun sets, the ambiance is equivalent to that of a friend's kitchen - cozy, comfortable, with unending refills of coffee.

Though their $1 breakfasts are great - give Ikea a try when you're looking for a South Common dinner alternative.

Quiet Corner (I like this shot for the visibility of the Ikea sign, as well as the overview of the parking lot; many have said the store looks resembles a mini-airport)
Swedish meatball special

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Maher Arar: Civil Liberties & National Security

On Wednesday, May and I attended a lecture by Maher Arar at the Winspear Centre sponsored by the University of Alberta Political Science Department. I know it's a formality at such events to have people of high academic ranking precede the main speaker to, in a sense, soften up the topical ground with grand introductions of the subject at hand, but to me it unnecessarily lengthens the event.

Julian Faulker, Mr. Arar's counsel during his civil suit against the Canadian government, provided his insight into what needs to change in the system in order for rights to be fully protected, not simply paid lip service to.

Mr. Arar followed, and essentially recounted the highlights of his experience, both the good and the bad. In all honesty, I had scanned the headlines and articles earlier this year when he had received his $2 million dollar settlement from the government, but I didn't know all of the details surrounding his deportation, torture, and subsequent return to Canada in 2003. He told of a time in Syria as a boy when a Canadian recognized the maple leaf on his shirt; this friendly recognition was the moment he decided he wanted to immigrate to Canada. Hearing him speak of his ordeal really personified it, and was much more powerful than reading the account in the papers. Still, I found it interesting that Mr. Arar chose to repeat the fact that he was found to be innocent three times. I'm sure some in the audience may have been suspicious of his alleged involvement, but the aural reminder almost worked against his rhetoric of ultimate exoneration. That said, I would like to echo Dr. Trimble's comment that Mr. Arar was very brave in his quest to educate the public by retelling his painful story.

(A brief aside - the Department of Political Science indicated that it wanted to make the event accessible to everyone, so had sign language interpreters as well as a screen transcribing what was being said set up on stage. I'm not sure if it was just me, but these fixtures actually made it difficult for me to focus on the speeches. I think I need to learn how to block out what's visually unnecessary and irrelevant.)

On my way home, it wasn't an epiphany per se, but the enveloping thought that the problems in the world are so vast that disillusionment really becomes the easy way out. On the heels of attending speaking engagements by Stephen Lewis and Maher Arar tonight, and my current reading of Romeo Dallaire's Shake Hands with the Devil, I'm feeling overwhelmed, even though the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the obstruction of civil liberties, and genocide are only three of the many multi-lateral issues plaguing society today. I know a general awareness of these challenges is vital, and I'm doing what I can to learn more, but most days, it doesn't seem like enough. At the same time, where does one start, besides the civilian duty of "rocking the vote?" There is no easy answer, but this will be something I will be grappling with as I continue to educate myself as a global citizen.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Central and Satisfying: Three Bananas Cafe

May and I had been to Three Bananas Cafe (9918-102 Avenue) just after it opened a few years ago, but haven't been back since. Strange, especially since we had a positive experience and it has such a great location - right on Churchill Square. Well, before an event at the Winspear Centre tonight, we decided to grab a quick bite to eat there, knowing they would be fairly efficient, but in the worst-case scenario, we were just a stone's throw away from our target venue.

A modern yet inviting space, the 'seat yourself' mentality lends itself quite well to the casual cafe atmosphere. Lined with windows - a great feature for warm weather people-watching on the Square - the dim lighting is more conducive to catch-up conversations than solo reading in the evenings. There are even a few flat screen televisions mounted on the wall, typically projecting sports programs.

I always marvelled at the fact that what appears to be an upper-scale coffee shop would also have a decent food menu. May ordered the Deli Combo Panini (turkey, smoked ham, pickles, cheddar cheese, dijon mustard and mayo), while I ordered (what else) a Hawaiian Pizza (finally!).

The food arrived after a bit of a wait, though understandable given they only had one cook on shift (who also served as the busperson). May said her Panini was all right, but expressed a preference for the sandwiches served at Booster Juice. My pizza was just what the doctor ordered - the multigrain crust was thin, crunchy and light, and served as a great base to a generous topping of ham, pineapple, and cheddar and mozarella cheeses.

So if you're in the mood for a coffee or a light meal, Three Bananas sure beats the food court funk.

Right on Churchill Square!

Deli Combo Panini with Organic Chips and Salsa

Ham and Pineapple Pizza

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Random Food Notes

  • I've been using the Food Network (U.S.) recipe index quite a bit lately, and for those of you who haven't perused the website before, I would encourage you to do so. The recipes duplicated on the website are the same ones that are published in cookbooks (e.g. Ina Garten, Giada de Laurentiis), and being the selectively frugal gal that I am, I have amassed quite a collection of paper. Better yet, most of the recipes have accompanying comments written by the general public who have tried whipping up the dish themselves, and often provide insightful shortcuts or helpful modifications.

  • Speaking of the Food Network - I saw boxes of Ina Garten's dry dessert mixes on sale at Chapters the other day, for $15.99 a pop! Paying for convenience is one thing, but when some ingredients are still necessary to create the final product at that price? It's a little ridiculous. It seems a trend nowadays for television cooking personalities to brand anything and everything. From Jaime Oliver's Flavour Shaker to Christine Cushing's olive oils to Mario Batali's kitchen accessories and Rachel Ray's cookware, I'm half-expecting to see, at a store near me, Bobby Flay Throwdown! mats.

  • There was an interesting article in the Globe & Mail today about a Toronto city counsellor's motion to allow for a greater variety of food to be served by local street vendors. I had thought that hot dogs were a favorite, but had no idea the logic and allowance for them had to do with the decreased health risk that comes with precooked meat. From the article by Jeff Grey: "In New York, for example, the streets are teeming with culinary diversity: knishes, spicy chicken on a pita, Sri Lankan dosas and Columbian arepas, as well as enormous, warm salt-encrusted soft pretzels. Multicultural Toronto should have a similar buffet on its streets, said board of health chairman John Filion: 'We should be defined by that, not by the hot dog.'" I missed out on my opportunity to snack on an outdoor vendor-cooked hot dog during my last trip to TO, but perhaps the next time I'm in that neighbourhood, I'll have more selection. When will Edmonton start its own proliferation of roadside snacks?

  • My family and I went to the Plum Flower Cafe (10417-67 Avenue) a few weeks ago, a non-descript Chinese restaurant attached to a roadside hotel. There was nothing exceptional about this small, family-run establishment, so I didn't feel the visit warranted a full review. They did, however, have Singapore Noodles of reasonable quality:

The Cafe was notable for an eye catching sign up in one of their windows:

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Monday, April 16, 2007

The Cooking Chronicles: More-Peas-if-You-Please Penne

Slowly edging up the solid food chain, I decided to satisfy my pasta craving with Rachel Ray's More-Peas-if-You-Please Penne. Eye-rolling recipe name aside, I know I give Ray quite a bit of flack for her grating on-screen personality, but I must say, she does have a knack for creating quick and easy weekday supper savers, of which this is a prime example. I've also been on the lookout for pasta recipes that don't use the more run-of-the-mill bottled marinara or alfredo sauces (though don't get me wrong - I know I'd always have a few stored in my pantry, just in case).

Save omitting the basil, I followed the directions as written. The result was a satisfying, semi-creamy pasta dish celebrating the versatility of peas - in both the "sauce" and as a vegetable additive (I had really forgotten how good peas are). Next time, I'd hold off on some of the ricotta in favor of even more peas, and have the foresight not to discard all of the pasta water (oops...).

This recipe is definitely worth a try if you're out of dinner ideas!

More-Peas-if-You-Please Penne


Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Cooking Chronicles: Smoky Roasted-Potato Chowder

I've been itching to make soup from scratch, in particular one that would make use of the immersion blender my Mum unearthed. So when the March 2007 issue of Chatelaine came with a gorgeous-looking Smoky Roasted-Potato Chowder on the cover, I knew exactly what would be on the menu.

The most time-consuming aspect of the recipe was allowing the vegetables to roast in the oven, but it was a hands-off process, so I shouldn't complain. The stewing process with chicken broth and water was fairly straightforward as well. When it came time to blend the concoction, however, perhaps a food processor (as listed in the recipe) would have made a better equipment choice, as the red onions put up quite a fight against the tiny fitted blade of my hand blender.

In the end, I was rather disappointed with the dish. Though filling due to the starch content provided by the potatoes, the soup lacked the depth of flavor I was hoping for. Spices and herbs are not my forte, so I'm at a loss as to possible substitutions, except to suggest the addition of red pepper flakes to the vegetable mixture for some heat.

But not to worry, I won't let this experiment discourage future soup creations!

Smoky Roasted-Potato Chowder


Friday, April 13, 2007

"Laguna Beach": Season 1 Review

As I've been immobile over the last few days, I've finally had the time to watch, from beginning to end, the first season of Laguna Beach.

In contrast to season 2, the drama really wasn't as entertaining, and the storylines were slim - reduced to the Kristin-Stephen-Lauren love triangle. As a whole, the season demonstrated an expected learning curve for its inaugural year, as in my opinion, it didn't hit its stride on manipulative editing, music selection, and episode-to-episode cliffhanger creation until the penultimate "The First to Go" (including a heartbreaker of a scene between Kristin and Stephen, who surprisingly end up as the show's emotional anchor).

Other thoughts:
  • I was impressed with Trey's thirst for activism, especially in the face of Laguna's stereotypical consumerist culture and seemingly apathetic climate.
  • Though they weren't billed characters, I really hoped to see more of Dieter and Jessica (as a couple or as individuals) - before Jessica's descent into the land of the jealous and needy in season 2 (and really, how cute was Dieter's prom-posal?).
  • I loved Lo(!) and thought she was edited to be one of the most grounded girls in Laguna.
  • I enjoyed the "foreshadowing" of Lauren's interest in fashion (the producers really couldn't have set up The Hills better if they tried), but I really can do without hearing her utter the phrase "best friend" ever again.
  • Based on the deleted scenes, the editors really could have highlighted Trey and Morgan's college selection processes, especially since they were both initially rejected by their first choices. This would have been a great opportunity to expose the very impressionable 14-16 sect of the audience to post-secondary applications, but this plotline was likely shafted in favor of more time for the aforementioned love triangle.
  • For anyone who hasn't had a gander at the DVDs, they are worth a look purely for the sequence of "Laguna Beach Interviews" on the third disc. Questions such as "What does hooking up mean?" or (to Lo), "Did you ever tell Lauren to just get over Stephen?" are granted a mock-serious tone with its white-on-black panel display format.

Some may think I wasted precious hours of my life, and while I will admit that an entire season in two days was a bit much, Laguna ultimately shirked my need for painkillers.


A Little Less Wise

Yes, the title is a bad joke, but one I'll only use once in my life, so it's permissible.

I won't subject anyone to the gritty details of my wisdom teeth extraction, but I will say that the entire procedure only took 40 minutes or so (I didn't even get to watch #1 on the noon-hour MuchMoreMusic Countdown!).

I had been dreading the appointment (as I've heard my share of stories - both good and bad - over the last few weeks), but it occurred to me halfway through, sitting in that chair, that the extraction was routine for everyone else involved. So much so that the dentist and his assistant started conversing about last night's episode of Lost (could also be a tactic to convince the patient that everything is going well).

Long story short: I'm not as swollen as I had anticipated; I won't be eating anything substantial for a while; and I look forward to a return to normalcy (also known as being able to eat pizza, chips, steak, etc.).

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

My Last Supper

My Mum was sweet enough to make me one of my favorite dishes (and one of her specialties) before my wisdom teeth extraction - sweet and sour pork (with tomatoes, bell peppers, and loads of pineapple). Her thoughtfulness was reason enough for a blog post:

Sweet and Sour Pork


Stephen Lewis: "Canada's Status in the World: How Does It Measure Up?"

At a recent HIV/AIDS session I attended, each participant was asked who their inspiration was that brought them there that day. I can't remember what my ultimate response was, but had I answered honestly, I would have said Stephen Lewis. At the time though, his name seemed much too cliché and pedestrian for that particular forum. It was a personal travesty for me to have missed his 2006 International Week address, so when I found out he was coming back to Edmonton to deliver another lecture, I jumped at the opportunity.

So after dinner, Dickson and I headed down to the Timms Centre at the University for his lecture titled "Canada's Status in the World: How Does it Measure Up?" It was nearly a packed house, and after quite the score of introductions, Mr. Lewis was welcomed on stage.

He framed his speech with a list of five provocations - nuclear proliferation, genocide (in particular, the current Darfur crisis), the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, and of course, the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Although I respect him as a knowledgable man with perspective on a wide variety of issues because of his travels, experience, and obvious appreciation for big-picture implications if inaction remains, Mr. Lewis's lack of personal connection really weakened his discussion on the first four issues. He really did sound like he was posturing to the crowd.

By the time he reached his final topic, however, the rest of the address fell away immediately, and I was reminded of the fact that I was in awe of being in the same room with him, breathing the same air (I am not worthy!). His passion, intensity, and humanity resonated from the stage as he talked, among other things, about orphans, grandmother-headed families, the potential for a viable microbicide, the need for gender equality and sexual negotiation, and Canada's own failed legislation allowing for a warehouse of ARVs to sit idle. Though many of the stories were included in Race Against Time, it was better hearing them from him in person.

Like Art Spiegeleman, Mr. Lewis possesses a vocabulary that puts me to shame. He was expectedly long-winded, but I don't think anyone seemed to mind - the audience was clearly rapt throughout surreal pin-drop hour and a half (though really, all in attendance were likely already holding him in a state of public reverence, even before he ever had to open his mouth). I really liked how he managed to pull current media headlines and made them relevant to his topics (e.g. the War Crimes trial in Montreal, a UN negotiation with Turkey over the semantics of their Armenian genocide). He also had a genuine sense of humor (with regards to his time with the NDP, and I'm paraphrasing, but "the only difference between a cactus and a caucus is that with a cactus, the pricks are on the outside").

Since most of the talk was decidedly apocalyptic, I was surprised that he was able to bring about an optimistic ending of hope. He even recommended a book, Stephanie Nolen's upcoming 28, a collection of narratives centering on persons living with HIV/AIDS, that he believes is good enough to increase mainstream consciousness about the subject.

Perhaps I should have taken the reception as an opportunity to meet Mr. Lewis, but it's more my style to admire from a distance, so we left almost immediately after the conclusion of the event. He's a wonderful speaker, and I would not hesitate to attend another one of his lectures in the future.

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Dwarfed Expectations: Bua Thai

Since Dickson had expressed a desire to have his favorite apple pie dessert from Joey's Grill, I figured it was a good time as any to satisfy my craving for the best pad thai in the city. Located across the street from the downtown Joey's, Bua Thai (10049-113 Street) is a small restaurant renowned for its abrupt service and great food (in that order). I know that when I've talked about my past dining experiences there, I usually draw attention to their rather rude way of greeting patrons (involving a quick, "Reservation?" in place of a typical, "Good evening" or "Hello"). At the same time, I think I have reached a point where I am nearly expecting that abuse, equating a meal there to a dinner theatre for sado-masochists.

I made sure to call ahead for reservations, despite knowing that we were dining early on a Tuesday night. When we reached the restaurant at 5:30, we were, not surprisingly, the only customers there. The dining room is simply and tastefully decorated, with Asian artifacts clustered near the order counter, a few plants scattered throughout, and colorful tapestries set underneath the glass countertops of individual tables.

Bua Thai boasts quite an extensive menu, but I didn't need any guidance to head straight for the phat thai. To supplement the noodles, we also ordered the baked lemongrass chicken. The phat thai, as anticipated, was fantastic. I'm not sure what it is about their version that makes it so much better than others, except to say that the dish reminds me of Chinese char kway teow. As for the chicken - the serving was fairly generous (though for the price, it had to have been), and though the chili-lemongrass sauce flavored the meat nicely, the chicken was on the dry side.

And the report you've all been waiting for - the service was actually fine. Our host/waiter could have even been considered friendly! Is it wrong to say that my dwarfed expectations lessened my experience somewhat? I'm really not easy to please.

Overall, I enjoyed the food. Though I must admit that I didn't recall how steep the prices were. Bua Thai is by necessity an infrequent destination.

Restaurant interior

Phat Thai

Baked Lemongrass Chicken

Dickson eating his veggies (Mabel would be proud!)

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Quotable Women: Installment Three

  • "I am what is mine. Personality is the original personal property." - Norman O. Brown
  • "Okay, so God made man first, but doesn't everyone make a rough draft before they make a masterpiece?" - Courtney Huston
  • "Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart." - Erma Bombeck
  • "How happily a woman may be married, it always pleases her to discover that there is a nice man who wishes she were not. " - H.L. Mencken
  • "There are no good girls gone wrong, just bad girls found out." - Mae West
  • "To keep your character intact, you cannot stoop to filthy acts. It makes it easier to stoop the next time." - Katharine Hepburn
  • "I'm extraordinarily patient provided I get my own way in the end." - Margaret Thatcher


Monday, April 09, 2007

The Cooking Chronicles: Strawberry Scones

I've always been a fan of scones, but I've never before attempted a from-scratch recipe without the aid of Bisquick. After seeing Ina Garten's Strawberry Scones on Barefoot Contessa, however, I figured it was time to give it a try.

Besides choosing to use a pastry blender over my KitchenAid mixer, and substituting milk for the heavy cream, I followed the recipe word for word (though really, in the face of 3/4 pound of butter, what's a little cream?). For the additive, I used a small package of dried strawberries I had bought on a recent trip to Vancouver.

The scones baked up very quickly, browning at 12 minutes instead of the suggested 20. And because of the mass quantity of butter, the dough resembled flaky pastry more than what's typically expected from a breakfast biscuit. I'm not sure I'm a fan of the dried strawberries, however, as they're slightly chewier than I originally expected. I think I'd much rather use frozen blueberries or perhaps dried cranberries and a hint of orange zest next time (the latter being Garten's idea). I did really enjoy the sweetness provided by the dash of sugar on top though - it transforms the scone into a treat in itself.

These strawberry scones would make a lovely tea time indulgence, and really are worth the extra effort!

Strawberry Scones


Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Cooking Chronicles: Almost-Cutie Pies

I received my first free issue of What's Cooking magazine last week, and though I didn't need an occasion to make the adorable Cutie Pies, Jane's gathering on Saturday was a handy catalyst all the same. Mack lent me the use of his kitchen and a helping hand.

The recipe seemed easy enough, simply calling for muffins made from cake mix to start, with a supplementary mixture of pudding and Cool-Whip to serve as the filling for the cupcakes. Well, the muffins themselves turned out fine, but the filling was another story. I'm not sure if we just didn't let the pudding mixture stand long enough to congeal, or if it was the use of no-name whipped topping that killed us, but regardless, we ended up ditching the "cream" portion of the recipe all together, as spreading the water-like substance would have been counter-intuitive. We did however go ahead with the melted chocolate topping, and to dress it up a bit, I made some shavings from a square of baking chocolate.

I'm a perfectionist when it comes to cooking, and needless to say I'm disappointed that the Cutie Pies didn't turn out. We did make the best of what we ended up with though!

Almost-Cutie Pies


Film: "Jesus Camp"

I watched Jesus Camp over the weekend. I remember Roeper and his guest critic of the week giving the film two thumbs up, but I can't say I would have done the same.

The movie suffered from a lack of clear storytelling direction - it began with a look at a one-week Bible camp organized by an Evangelical Children's Preacher, with some interviews with the kids attending the camp. I was expecting the directors to use this event as the main plotline of the movie, with, in typical documentary fashion, several linked peripheral stories told here and there. But this wasn't the case, as the screen randomly jumped to Mike Papantonio, a radio talk show host commenting on the radical nature of some Evangelicals, and then to a sermon by Ted Haggard in Colorado Springs. Unlike anything by Michael Moore (arguably not the gold standard of documentary makers, but undoubtedly very good at ensuring the audience understands the point he is trying to make), the movie ended without a clear message. Perhaps the directors wanted the audience to judge for themselves, and simply wanted to capture and present a day in the life of these children, but to me, it felt as if the movie didn't know its own purpose.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Comfortable and Without Pretension: Route 99 Diner

Like Barb & Ernie's, I passed by Route 99 Diner (8820-99 Street) innumerable times, always remarking how I wanted to eat there. I loved the juxtaposition between upscale and "down-home," so for our real meal of the evening, I suggested that we head to the diner. From the outside, Route 99 looks every bit like a traditional roadside stopover - boxy, bright, lined with windows, and dotted with "all day breakfast" signage. Inside, complete with cozy booths, a jukebox, working traffic light and rescued licence plates and gas station memorabilia, the space definitively screamed "diner" (I particularly enjoyed the meta Nighthawks wall hanging).

The menu contained nothing unexpected, with a mix of requisite breakfast and dinner items, including omelets, pancakes, sandwiches, and pizzas. Mack decided upon the evening-appropriate Diner Burger, while for the sheer novelty of it, I asked for a plate of French Toast and Sausages (and thankfully, no Grand Marnier in sight). We also agreed to split an order of poutine.

Our food came relatively quickly (though as Mack noted, the dishes shouldn't be that difficult to pull together). First of all, the serving of poutine was huge! Even between the two of us, we weren't able to finish it (photo evidence below). As for our individual orders, Mack found no fault with his burger, but I wasn't as impressed with the French Toast. Though complete with a nice dusting of powdered sugar, the bread was a bit tougher than ideal. The sausage was prepared in an interesting fashion, however - flayed, which would not only encourage a faster cooking time, but also allow for a more even crisp on the outside. It's a technique I will try myself sometime.

With good service and not an ounce of pretension, Route 99 is a friendly, not-off-the-beaten-track option for the hungry.

Restaurant interior

Counter (with working traffic light above!)




Mack's Diner Burger

Condiment Stand

My French Toast and Sausages

Leftover Poutine

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Pricey but Pleasant: TZiN Wine and Tapas

If you've been paying some attention to my blog, then you'll know that I've been eagerly awaiting the opening of TZiN Wine and Tapas (10115-104 Street). Between the rave reviews and the several notable mentions in the food literature I peruse, I was foaming at the mouth to try it. So on Friday, with Mack in tow, I was excited to finally give it a go.

Anyone else who had ever visited the previous tenant would probably be wondering, like I was, how they would manage to squeeze a full-service restaurant into a space that functioned primarily as a takeout place before. Well, I'm happy to say the designer pulled it off in spades. Though the entire restaurant seats only about 20-25 patrons, the dining area is more intimate than claustrophobic in my opinion. The black and red color scheme is sleek, with the banquette along the left side making the most of the small space. I'd like to think it was deliberate, but the pulsing dance music served as a cover of sorts, allowing for some conversational privacy between tables.

The food menu is definitely not for the frugal at heart. Tapas ("small plates") start at $8, with most in the $11-$13 range. There were some interesting selections, including frogs legs (cheekily named "Miss Piggy's Revenge"), scallops, and raw fish. Their lunch appears to be the most economical, with sandwiches priced at between $12 and $14 (I'd order the ExBoyfriend - made with jerk chicken!). We decided to split the 4-20 Pica, a rather elaborate pizza made with artichoke, oven dried roma tomato and asiago drizzled with organic hemp seed oil.

I'm admittedly not much of a wine-drinker (especially when compared with Mack), but it would have been a waste to visit a wine bar and not order at least a glass. We went one better and chose the "Mile High Club" Heaven trio - for $12, three 2oz. samples of whites, including a 2005 Paul Zinck Pinot Gris (France), 2005 Alois Lageder Pinot Blanco (Italy), and 2005 Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris (Canada). If anything, I now know that I prefer Pinot Gris - there isn't as much of a stinging aftertaste when compared with Pinot Blanco or (blech) red wines. Mack also ordered a fraction of Edmeades Zinfandel, but despite his raw enthusiasm for this type of red, I couldn't bring myself to enjoy it.

Our pizza arrived after some wait (curious as there are a number of service people in the restaurant but only one cook), likely a ploy to increase drink orders between course delivery. Still, it was a fairly decent dish. I disputed the fact that the tomato was at all oven dried, but I enjoyed the arugula, asiago, and foccacia-eque bread base. It wasn't worth the $11 charged, but I agreed with Mack's observation that outrageous prices are necessary because of the lack of seats in the restaurant.

TZiN is not the place for a full dinner, but I can see it becoming a destination spot for an after-work drink or post-show bite.

Novel hours

Kitchen (located right next to the restaurant's entrance!)


Heaven trio (when the waitress saw that we were eyeing the "Mile High" selections - either "Heaven" or "Hell," she asked, "Ready to go to Hell?" then quickly countered, saying "That's probably not the question you want to hear on Easter weekend...")

4-20 Pica

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Fringe's New Frontier: Online Ticketing

An article in the Edmonton Journal today revealed an exciting new development for this year's Fringe Theatre Festival. It seems the new executive producer wants to jumpstart ticket sales by releasing "100 per cent of our inventory on sale right off the bat" in a brand new online system. The rest of the piece was unclear with regards to how exactly they intend to balance between what Liz Nicholls describes as "spontaneous hustle and administrative convenience." A meeting was called on Tuesday night to solicit the opinions of local Fringe artists, but no concrete resolutions were arrived at.

I understand the reasoning behind allowing potential audience members to surf ticket availability before heading down to the grounds, but I'm not sure if ease of use will translate directly into higher numbers. This conundrum has been talked about to death, but Fringe organizers have always had trouble luring those who go exclusively for the "free" busker entertainment, food and retail stalls, and festive outdoor atmosphere into the theatre venues. As I'm too far down the rabbit hole to know what it's like on the "other side" (for non-theatre goers) I'd still like to think that lineups outside of random buildings scattered across the site would make some of the wanderers curious as to what the hype is all about, and potentially buy a ticket to try it out.

At any rate, I'm willing to keep an open mind about this for now, and at the very least, an online ticketing system is quite a significant milestone for our little festival that could.


Culinary Q & A with Doug

Occupation: Teacher, Facilitator of Resumes, Cover Letters and Interview Skills, Procrastinator plus anything else I feel like that day.

What did you eat today?

Morning --> pankcakes and chocolate
Lunch --> Home made chili from the night before and chocolate
Supper --> Chicken breast, corn nibblets and (for a change of pace) chocolate

What do you never eat?

Apples and asparagus - I shouldnt have any milk products but I keep forgetting until the pain kicks in.

What is your personal specialty?

I like to personalize my ordering of others to do my cooking for me - failing that I love to order in Chinese food.

What is your favorite kitchen item?

Other then my phone ... spatula - only because I saw on The Hour with John Strom ,, op ,,, you know ,,, the other night that the baby naming bureau in Quebec will not allow a Quebec couple to name their child "Spatula". Cowboy and Lucifer was also not allowed for use.

World ends tomorrow. Describe your last meal.

My dad has always made breaded minute steaks and it has always been my "feeling blue with the world - run home to the family" meal that is cooked for me. The next day is the best with some Hys-salt sprinkled on top. Corn on the cob would be a must as well!

Where do you eat out most frequently?

Recently (and perhaps due to Jarets influence) - it seems to be Quiznos subs. I have no idea why we go as the staff at the Oliver Square location scares me and makes me mad at the same time. PLUS the fact that one shouldnt use their debit cards there as your entire bank number is printed on the slip. We must start a revolution and put a stop to this.

What's the best place to eat in Edmonton?

Dadeos on Whyte Avenue. Reminds me of Pop Tate's diner from the Archie comics.

If you weren't limited by geography, where and what would you eat?

I loved living in China due to the places to eat around my college. Eating communially ws an interesting idea and one that I grew to love. Perhaps it was the people and conversation I miss moreso then the food.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

"Prison Break": Season 2 Review

Based on my excitement early on in the season, I don't think the rest of the episodes this year fulfilled the expectations that I had built up. I don't know if I like the fact that Michael ended up, full-circle of sorts, back in prison. Nor am I sure about the descent into science fiction or X-Files territory as Megan said (if that's what the white-light was supposed to allude to). And poor Kellerman...it took a while for me to believe that his 180 degree turn was genuine, but Paul Adelstein really sold the performance at the end.

Even more disappointing, TPTB at FOX decided to renew the show for a third season. It's really hard to take the show seriously now when it is common knowledge that Prison Break was conceived as a 44-episode run - all subsequent material is a stretch. Though I guess I really won't be able to judge the quality until it airs, and the creator, Paul T. Scheuring, is right to some extent about how networks tend to commodify successes, and I'm sure he will do the best that he can with the opportunity he has been given (from a recent panel interview - scroll down to 8:51pm).

The long wait until the fall begins...


Starbucks Notes

I think I'm cheating with the number of "Notes" posts I've written as of late, but they're so much easier to put together than a full length post...
  • Starbucks will be offering free brewed coffee to those who bring in a tumbler on Earth Day, April 22. Too bad it falls on a Sunday this year.
  • I tried a Black Tea Latte a few weeks ago. Expecting something similar to the tea-based offerings at Blenz, I wasn't sure what to make of the rather odd aftertaste. Has anyone else had one lately?
  • I sampled the new Dulce de Leche Latte today. It tastes like a Cinnamon Dolce Latte with a hint of caramel.
  • It was great catching up with my workmates at the 109 Street Starbucks today. Smile everyone!

Happy and mostly caffeinated