Kat eats local

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Eating

This year I’ve had the amazing opportunity to judge the Ontario Culinary Tourism Awards, which celebrate “Ontario’s best and brightest in culinary tourism”. From a large pool of worthy applicants, we chose a list of finalists earlier this year, and have been researching each one with the goal of picking a winner in each of three categories, to be announced at a gala on November 14.

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

gloryhole

Today, I got to play tourist in my (adopted) home town, a nice break since I’ve spent only 10 days here out of the past seven weeks. (Yes, I just counted.) Fellow judge Rod Charles and I joined a group of local and international food lovers on the signature 501 (Queen) streetcar food tour put on by local operator Foodies on Foot. The tour fee (around $79, I think, including a TTC day pass, less if you have your own) includes respectable food and drink samples at multiple stops along the route as well as a bottle of water and a tote bag. Trust me, you’ll need it.

The route technically starts in the west, at the corner of Queen and Roncesvalles, at 11 am. I was running late and arranged to meet the group in Parkdale, at Glory Hole Doughnuts. I rarely make it to Parkdale and while I’d heard of Glory Hole, I’d never had the chance to sample their goods. Tour leader Steve gave us a bit of history of the restaurant – owner Ashley Jacot de Boinod started Glory Hole as a wholesale business then opened the storefront in August 2012 – and then set us free to grab a doughnut of choice and a coffee. With flavours like toast & butter, Nanaimo bar, margarita glaze and piña colada it was hard to pick, but I ended up with a Viva Puff doughnut – yes, a giant glazed topped with chocolate, marshmallow and jelly. If you’re on this tour, do yourself a favour and don’t finish your doughnut. There’s plenty more food to come.

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I knew in advance that our next stop was Queen and Strachan, but had been wondering where we’d stop in: Clafouti, perhaps, White Squirrel, or Nadege? Turns out, it was none other than raw vegan takeaway Feel Good Guru, one of my favourite spots on the West Queen West strip. Three food samples helped our digestive systems recover a little from the doughnut, and we got to hear a little about the Trinity Bellwoods area and the support Feel Good Guru has had from the community. They’re now serving up their fresh, healthy fare seven days a week. If you’re in the neighbourhood, come by for lunch and borrow a picnic blanket to take to the park. And if you balk a little at the prices (“I’m paying what for nothing but vegetables?!”), remember that they buy organic and support local farmers as much as possible, a business model that comes with higher overhead but just as high dividends in the community.

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We hopped back on the streetcar, which was being surprisingly reliable today, and kept going east toward Spadina. Every time we entered the car, Steve would tell us the next stop in case we got separated. But this didn’t prove to be a problem, and our group held together well, chatting about food experiences and theorizing about the next sample. At Spadina, it turned out, as we exited the streetcar?

banh-mi-boys-menu

Yes, none other than Banh Mi Boys, a spot that has been on my list for ages but which I’d never gotten around to visiting. Steve kindly got me the vegetarian (and very tasty) Panko Tofu Steamed Bao, while the others each enjoyed half of what I think was a beef Banh Mi.

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banh-mi-boys-beef

Back on the streetcar and heading further eastward, I knew for sure I’d be trying new places – like many Torontonians, I have a bad habit (fueled to a great degree by bad traffic) for staying on my side of the city, and I rarely venture to the East End. After so many carbs I was getting sleepy, so I was happy when we got off at Queen and Parliament and went kitty corner to Redline Coffee, appropriately named after the streetcar line itself and known for making its own flavoured syrups.

redline

While they had kindly whipped up a batch of pumpkin spice for us, earlier than its scheduled seasonal launch on September 21 (aka the first day of fall), I resisted its allure – they make it with their own fresh pumpkin puree, apparently – in favour of the toasted marshmallow latte, a vanilla latte (I had mine with almond milk) topped with marshmallows that they, yes, roast with a blowtorch. And it’s every bit as good as it sounds. If you think that’s not enough sugar, don’t worry – we each got to pick out a cookie as well.

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shortbread2Feeling more and more stuffed and hyped up on sugar and caffeine, we crossed the Don River and made a quick stop at Toronto institution Mary Macleod’s Shortbread for a sample of their buttery goodness. The chocolate crunch is the classic flavour but I couldn’t resist the old-fashioned wedges of plain shortbread, perfect to nibble on with a nice afternoon cuppa. If you’re looking for edible gifts, this is one place to consider shopping at.

shortbread

With no streetcar in sight but not much farther to go, we keep walking toward Leslieville for half a grilled cheese sandwich and our choice of dip at Leslieville Cheese Market. I was convinced this would be our last stop and regretting the small bowl of yogurt I’d eaten before leaving the house this morning, but no, Steve kept us going a little farther, to none other than Leslieville Pumps, yet another new-ish Toronto eatery (I hate that word, but you can’t really call it a restaurant, nor a gas station) I’d yet to have a chance to visit. Leslieville Pumps is, indeed, a gas station, but it’s a gas station with a southern-style takeaway inside.

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We settled in on the picnic tables outside and listened to Steve explain the business’s origins until he lost our attention to our final samples of the day: a sandwich, corn fritter and fried pickle, the latter both with dip. The sandwich was beyond my capabilities, but the fritter and its creamy parsley dip were the perfect blend of fresh, flavourful and fried, a perfect end to a day packed with new eating experiences.

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I like to think I’m somewhat up to date on Toronto’s food scene, and yet this tour, which took us along 8.4 km (the distance from Glory Hole to Leslieville Pumps, according to Google Maps) of one of Toronto’s most interesting and diverse streets, included only one spot I’d been to before. Clearly, I need to get out more – though, judging by the number of locals that regularly take Steve’s tours, I’m not the only one. And while the Queen streetcar can be frustrating when you’re trying to get somewhere, it’s nice to remember that when you’re not in a hurry, it’s a lovely way to get around and see the city, better than any hop-on, hop-off bus tour.

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But the real highlight of the tour was tour-guide Steve himself, who is clearly passionate about the city and its neighbourhoods. Toronto’s not the easiest city for tourists to get to know, and it can be overwhelming for food-loving travellers to choose where to eat. The beauty of a tour with Foodies on Foot is they do the hard work for you, letting you just enjoy the eating.

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The restaurants we visited today were some of Steve’s favourites, but they’re far from the only businesses he works with, so don’t think the tour’s not worth it if you’ve visited many of them before. Let Steve know ahead of time and he can customize the route for second-timers and local experts, as well as for special meal requests – today was easy to vegetarian-ize, but it might have been challenging to do gluten-free, though I’m more than sure that’s doable given advanced notice.

Last but not least, some tips to avoid rookie mistakes? First, don’t feel like you have to finish everything you try, and take it with you if you can so you can fully enjoy everything along the route. (I have three-quarters of a doughnut in my kitchen right now.) And second, have a light (or no) breakfast and don’t make serious dinner reservations on the day of your tour. You will not be hungry. Finally, book ahead. These tours sell out fast and if you leave it too late, you’re likely to be left hungry, forced to choose your own places to eat.

Thanks, Steve!

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Yesterday while shopping at Karma I noticed some interesting nuts in the corner, next to in-shell walnuts and hazelnuts: heartnuts, they were called. Michael, the produce manager, happened to be in the store so I asked him about them. He said they were similar to a walnut but without the astringency – and that they required a hammer to open. Sounded interesting, so we packed a few up to take home and tried them today.

Michael was right. You do need a hammer, and like all nuts, some will be easy to open and some end up in crumbs.

According to information on the interwebs, heartnuts are a variety of Japanese walnut. The tree apparently doesn’t grow true to seed, so certain varieties have been developed for grafting. According to this website, a variety called Imshu is grown in the Niagara region – perhaps this is the one I tried?

In any case, they do taste like a non-bitter walnuts, and bonus: they didn’t make my mouth itchy, like walnuts tend to do (although I eat them so rarely that they don’t do it as bad as they once did). And perhaps most important: how gorgeous are the shells? I can’t bear to throw them in the green bin.

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First row: Coffee with alfajorcitos and a mini banana; chicha morada; chocolate cake taste-off
Second row: Passionfruit and lucuma desserts; bruselina de naranja; sacks of potatoes at the market
Third row: Cooking choclo and papas fritas (corn and fried potatoes); animal-shaped alfajores; tequeños

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Not Far From the Tree is a Toronto group that organizes volunteer pickings of residential fruit trees when the owners are unwilling or unable to do it themselves – and you wouldn’t believe how many trees there are in this city. This is, I think, my third year volunteer-picking for them – I never do tons of picks, just a few to keep in the loop and get some fruit.

This morning I helped out with a cherry pick at a house near Bloor and Christie. There were seven of us plus two kids helping out. The tree was huge, and we knew when we started we would have to leave some for the birds.

We always start by clearing the ground of branches, windfall and fruit half eaten by birds or squirrels. Then it’s time to pick. This morning involved a lot of reaching:

And climbing:

And sorting:

But we all agreed the result was worth it.

One-third of the cherries picked go to charity, one-third to the homeowner (though they often give that up), and one-third to the volunteers. I ate many cherries today.

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Home from a weekend away with no time to buy groceries, I was left to prepare lunch with what I found in my fridge or could buy on my way in to work. (Lots of travelling leaves little lunch money in my budget.)

Plan B delivered collards and shiitake mushrooms last week, so I started with those – collard wraps, inspired by Choosing Raw, were the clear choice as they’re easy to put together at lunchtime. First step was to soak some cashews for the nut paté. Cashews only take a couple of hours, as opposed to harder nuts like almonds. I processed them later in the evening with lemon, salt, miso and sundried tomatoes, and the last shreds of arugula hanging around. Next, I chopped the mushrooms and tossed them in a container with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and tamari. Voilà – this morning, marinated mushrooms.

I picked up alfalfa sprouts (grown in Ontario) and a red pepper from Longo’s this morning, and made up the wraps with all the ingredients, and extra red pepper on the side. Healthy, delicious and filling, albeit messy – I need to work on my technique.

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Purple kale salad, squash/leek/corn/wild rice salad, and farro with lentils, caramelized onions and feta (I made mine with spelt and red onions). Looks very wintry – appropriate for the first week after daylight savings ends.

Kale, squash, leek and onions from Plan B. Feta from Ewenity and beluga lentils from Mountain Path both via Fiesta Farms.

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I went to the Green Barn market on Saturday and stocked up on some deliciousness from Vicki’s Veggies, including bags of spinach, arugula and kale and a giant butternut squash. The squash was so big I used it for two squash salad recipes (both from Smitten Kitchen) that I’ve been enjoying for lunches all week: one with lentils and goat cheese (although I used a soft sheep’s cheese from Monforte) and one with chickpeas and a tahini dressing. It’s the latter that you see in the picture and that I’m eating for lunch today, alongside my standard kale salad.

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Just started my lunch and snapped a photo to share. It’s a meal I’ve been enjoying all week and (with a bit of prep work) it’s super easy.

I got two acorn squash in my organics box last week so on Sunday, I cut them in half and roasted them in the oven until tender. I also washed, tore and spun dry a bunch of black kale to keep in the fridge all week. Kale keeps well without dressing – I will often just put the whole salad spinner in the fridge as I find greens keep well in it, but sometimes I’ll transfer to a reused plastic container that I’d bought greens in from the store. Also make sure you have on hand some goat cheese and some nuts or seeds to sprinkle – I used a blend of hemp and chia but I could see using squash/pumpkinseeds, pecans or walnuts as well.

The morning of (or the night before, which is less ideal), make your kale salad for that day. Put the leaves in a bowl and drizzle over it some oil (I used hemp), the juice of half a lemon and a bit of maple syrup or honey. Then massage the kale until the dressing coats it and it wilts a little bit. To measure, I stuff the kale leaves into the container I intend to use before I put them into the bowl. Then I know they’ll fit.

Bring to work your salad, half a squash (or more if you can store in a fridge at work during the week), the goat cheese and the seeds/nuts. Then, at lunchtime, just microwave or heat your squash for a minute or so, mash on some goat cheese and sprinkle with seeds, then serve with salad on the side.

This is a light lunch so I’ve been finishing with a dessert of yogurt. This week I’m eating maple sheep’s yogurt from Ewenity, but Greek yogurt is also a good choice as it’s high in protein so very filling.

Enjoy!

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