The Meandering Epicurist
It seemed appropriate given its name. “What do you think this is?” I asked several amigos who were at my place for the evening, as I handed over a cut-glass snifter of pale amber liquid. It had an intriguing and assertive aroma.
A lot of swilling, sniffing and sipping followed, along with increasingly puzzled faces. They liked it. Everyone picked up hints of Scotch whiskey, but they were reasonably sure that wasn’t the right answer. Guesses included grappa and bourbon. Eventually they gave up. “It’s tequila aged in whiskey barrels!” I chortled. There was confusion. This is the same stuff gulped back by sombrero-wearing tourists on a Mexican all-inclusive? It is and it isn’t. What they were tasting was a small batch of super-premium tequila—one of the fastest growing sectors in the spirits market.
After tasting all three grades of Casamigos—the Blanco, the Reposado and the Añejo—I picked up a bottle of the last at my local LCBO. I was inspired to find out more about the market, as well as the provenance of Casamigos.
Casamigos was, until recently, privately produced by a master distiller in the remote highlands of Jalisco for George Clooney and two of his friends. For eight years, the trio refined the drink during serious “research sessions.” Their objective: To create the “best-tasting, smoothest tequila that didn’t require salt or lime to disguise the taste.” Satisfied they had perfected it, they then shared it with the wider world. And we are grateful.
The tequila is exactingly produced in the traditional manner, using hand–harvested mature blue agave grown at altitude. Its heart, the piña, is then slowly roasted and finally crushed. Lengthy distillation in copper stills follows. What happens next depends on the style and grade the master is aiming for.
The Blanco is fermented with local yeast strains for two months in stainless steel tanks. The Reposado and Añejo spend, respectively, seven and 14 months in small, carefully charred American oak barrels that have previously been used for Scotch whiskey. The taste reflects the differing maturations.
Blanco is perhaps the purest expression of tequila—powerful, with a clean but fiery bite and good length. I detect some interesting chocolate notes along with fruit on the nose. I prefer it neat with a single ice cube.
Reposado is more refined and reflects its oak-barrel ageing. I start to pick up vanilla notes from the barrels, along with caramel and slightly more subdued chocolate flavours.
My favourite is the Añejo. Its time in oak imparts a lovely golden colour and, with it, complex flavours. Chocolate is back, along with spicy notes and vanilla. There’s a lovely smooth, lingering finish. A delightful sipping drink to share with those who are near and dear.
Sapsucker Maple Tree Filtered Water
In the crowded world of specialty waters, Sapsucker, a new, locally produced entry, has caught my eye. The name only obliquely hints at what it really is: Tree sap—the same stuff that, boiled down by volume 40 times, turns into the exquisitely viscous maple syrup that Canadians are known for harvesting.
From northern Europe to China and Japan, as well as in the legends of our own First Nations peoples, sap apparently has a long history as a drink and folk remedy.
It’s also loved by certain birds. I’m shocked to learn that Canada’s native yellow-bellied sapsucker thrives on tree sap, but devastates the trees it feeds from. The neat rows of holes it drills into the bark look like the work of a machine-gun-toting Al Capone version of the birding world. But I digress.
Sapsucker Maple Tree Filtered Water has a delicate sweet taste on the palate. I choose to have mine chilled with ice as a refreshing long drink. Some prefer it mixed with Crown Royal. I decide to experiment. The right ratio of Crown Royal—enough, but not sufficient to overpower the delicacy of the Sapsucker—results in a wonderfully mellow cocktail. My new go-to for warm summer evenings on the patio.
There is a stern warning to those bold enough to park illegally in the parking lot outside the store. Will an enraged chef take a meat cleaver to my tires if I outstay my welcome? Once inside, my fears diminish. There’s laughter spilling out of the test kitchen, where a cooking class is in full swing.
On the racks and shelves are an Aladdin’s cave of all things cooking. After all, this is an “all business” professional store for the trade and a few very serious home cooks.
Andre, the showroom manager, shares his thoughts on the basics for the wanna-be pro: First, a good set of knives; second, a solid chopping board; and third, professional-quality cookware.
I gaze covetously at a German flexible boning knife. It’s not normally part of a standard knife set, but into my basket it goes. To my surprise and pleasure, that boning knife has now become my new best friend.
Cutting boards—I had never paid them much heed. Here they are in every size, colour and material. Non-slip feet, with little channels for escaping liquid, dishwasher safe, knife friendly and so on. As with almost everything, there are trade-offs. Wood requires oiling and, of course, can’t go in the dishwasher.
Cookware—I already own a set of decent All-Clad pans, built like Sherman tanks. But I fall in love with the neon colours of the virtually indestructible Le Creuset casserole dishes and select one…A present to myself. Like the elderly dish with a raw cast-iron base that threatens to mar the surface of my new cooktop, these iconic pieces are worthy of being passed down through the family.
I’m on a roll. I pick up a cut-resistant glove, a half-sheet baking tray (so much more useful than the large ones) and plastic squeeze bottles for ready-at-hand essentials such as olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I catch myself gazing wistfully at long-handled wooden pizza paddles and chef’s toques, and realize it’s time to go to the checkout before I end up with enough professional ware to start a small restaurant.
Thiru’s Thakkali Soup
“A first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting.” So said psychologist Abraham Maslow, renowned for his legendary “hierarchy of needs.”
I’m certain that Maslow was not top of mind for Waterloo-based Chef Thiru when he cooked up his first batch of thakkali soup. But this delicately spiced yet complex, Indian-inspired broth is a creative masterpiece. Like the very best of Indian food, it entices and teases rather than overwhelms the palate. The list of all-natural ingredients includes spices and herbs, sourced locally to add a little zing and way beyond anything that a time-harried home cook would consider. Not surprisingly, Thiru admits his principal ingredient is tomato (“thakkali” is the Tamil name for it), but to call it an ordinary tomato soup would be a sure-fire insult to its depth and complexity.
Chef Thiru served in kitchens from India to Bahrain before eventually settling in Waterloo. In 2000 he opened his classic Indian restaurant where, as his website touts, his passion for the unique flavours and spices of India (and this soup) speaks for itself. Not only delicious but healthy, his thakkali soup carries the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s HealthCheck certification. I was delighted to find it stocked by Scheffler’s Deli in St Lawrence Market.
A tale of two Chinese restaurants
Chinese food long ago slipped into my acquired gastronomic heritage. And while some of the finest can be found in the north part of Toronto, it seemed like a good idea to revisit two very different downtown old favourites: Pearl Harbourfront and New Ho King on Spadina.
Delicate wood screens on the upper level blend easily with the light earth-tones décor—the result of recent renovations that have added a relaxing, intimate feel that’s enhanced by well-spaced tables with white linen tablecloths and black chopsticks with silver ferrules.
The lower level has floor-to-ceiling windows, making it the prime go-to seating area with stunning views of the city’s inner harbour. You can almost see the Porter flight crew on their final descent to the Toronto Island airport.
I confess to a Pavlovian preference for dumplings—the Har Kau (shrimp) and Siu Mei (pork and shrimp). Both are well-executed classics. Another favourite is the delicately steamed BBQ pork bun and, for something different, the steamed and deep-fried duck egg yolk bun. Large, light and golden in colour, this shimmering treat turns out to be creamy, rich, indulgent and, dare I admit, dangerous. One bite and the bright-yellow filling oozes. A messy effort but more than worth it.
Another must-devour is the “rainbow chop in crystal fold”: Finely chopped pork, Chinese sausage, mushroom, water chestnut, celery and carrots, over oyster sauce on halves of iceberg lettuce. Folded up like a burrito, it is crisp and savoury with sweet and sour notes. A perfect mouthful.
We follow with lamb, ginger and spring onions on a sizzling hot-iron plate. Crispy beef in a slightly spicy sauce is next, along with General Tao chicken. Snow peas with two types of mushroom provide a delicate counterbalance.
Every dish at The Pearl has its own pleasing voice, as does the new wood-bathed décor.
New Ho King
In still slightly Spartan digs, New Ho King could not be more opposite to The Pearl in style. It can be noisy and, in the winter, drafty. There are no tablecloths and little space between tables. Yet it’s here that you get what my Chinese friends call the best of home cooking. New Ho King has dishes that are difficult or impossible to find elsewhere: Szechwan green beans sautéed with pork, lobster in black-bean sauce and a duck egg deep omelette-like dish with pork. And in a nod to the U of T student patrons, some of the most delicious deep-fried chicken wings I have ever tasted. The portions are huge, and take-out boxes are routinely given out.
I hesitate over the spicy chili-crusted calamari, which I haven’t ordered in a while, but opt for an off-menu salt cod fried rice (westerners should beware, according to a waiter, but I can’t fathom why). Those in the know request house soup, which is wonderful and at times indeterminate. But, like the house dessert, it’s free if you know to ask.
If you can look beyond the décor, New Ho King will reward you with a very different, authentic meal.
Homefront’s man about town is suave, debonair, charming and, best of all, extremely curious. He hunts, sleuths, discovers, explores and tells all.