Weekend in the County

I was recently the lucky recipient of a gift certificate for Countylicious 2014, courtesy of The County. It arrived and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was for East & Main, a restaurant in Wellington I had wanted to try before but had never matched up with its somewhat limited hours.

A weekend adventured ensued, complete with Saturday wine touring, a Countylicious dinner, and a fantastic Sunday breakfast at the Tall Poppy Cafe.

We spent our Saturday afternoon snaking through the wineries of Hillier, a region with too many options to cover in one afternoon, so we picked ones we had yet to visit. We took home bottles from Harwood, Hillier Creek, Stanners and Trail Estate. Two highlights were chats with wonderful wine making ladies at Harwood and Stanners, which I found was the most fun part of the tasting. I do appreciate that wine makers might want a Saturday off, but tasting is much more enjoyable with passionate people whose own livelihood is tied up in their product. The complimentary cheese pairings at Harwood and the crackling wood stove made it the best stop of the day- it is a great place to visit in the colder weather. I’m most excited to try the Harwood Pinot Noir & St. Laurent blend we took home, and the county Pinot Noir from Stanners.

We spent our evening at East & Main, where the Countylicious menu did not disappoint. $35 pp for 3 courses was very reasonable, and even better when you have a gift certificate. The service was very competent and efficient, and the place was hopping the whole time we had dinner, with a new crowd coming in as we finished. The menu was a bit different than what was on the Countylicious website, but the selection was still really good. For the appetizer I would recommend the french onion soup if they have it- very classic salty broth and cheesy broiled top. The scallop dish is decent too. Perfect November food, especially on a rainy and windy evening. The mains we had were good but not great- I wish I had gotten the lamb, as the veal scallopini I ordered was actually more like schnitzel, and the steak frites was pretty ordinary. But they won me over with the dessert- the banana and caramel bread pudding was really incredible. I can still taste it! Also the apple/berry crumble was nice- but I think the bread pudding was the star of the whole meal. We paired the meal with a bottle of Sandbanks Baco Noir, which matched the meaty main courses well, and added some coffees with dessert. Overall- really good meal with great service too- I will be back (if my timing matches their hours again!).

I tried to book us a B&B that was walkable to downtown Wellington, but everything I tried was either closed for the season or full for the weekend, even booking weeks in advance. I think it was a combo of small inventory + others with Countylicious weekend plans. We ended up staying at a guest suite in one of the small businesses in Wellington. I wish I could give them a shout out, but unfortunately the suite smelled so strongly of second hand smoke, coupled with dog hair around the suite, it really ruined our stay and I can’t recommend them. Allergy disaster! To avoid spending too much time there, we wandered over to the new Drake Devonshire hotel post-dinner. Some of the pluses: amazing waterfront property and neat architecture. The minuses: overly kitschy hipster decor (read: trying way too hard), roaring noise from dining room/bar and poor ventilation in the dining area- you will smell like whatever is cooking. What I hear about the Drake in general is that it is fine but has overpriced rooms and food, geared to a Toronto crowd. Personally, I’m looking for authentic experiences when I am in the County and I don’t see myself hurrying back here. We didn’t even get a drink as planned on Saturday evening, the bar was so loud and smelled so strongly of the kitchen, to pay $15 for a cocktail seemed masochistic. Also- dining host was not attentive (read: could not be found) and front desk staff could barely rip her eyes away from her laptop to acknowledge my existence. Perhaps a Toronto attitude has also been imported? We sat a bit in the lobby, the “eccentric” furniture was surprisingly comfortable. I think the only good reason to come back here would be to enjoy the waterfront in the summer- they have one of the only hotel properties in the County that really maximizes the beach and water.

I woke up early Sunday morning, eager to get the heck out of that smoker’s haven, and we were at the Tall Poppy before most of their staff had started their day! I love that cafe- the food is good, the atmosphere is great and the people are even better. We chowed down on the breakfast menu, honestly, everything I have ever eaten there is good, and given their 7am-3pm daily hours I eat there pretty well every time I am in the area. Also good coffee and lovely baked goods- you will not be disappointed! And it is licensed with very fair prices. It’s probably a good thing I don’t live close enough to show up daily.

The only downside to our early start on Sunday was that no stores or wineries were open by the time we were heading out, so instead of a slow meander home through Bloomfield and Picton, we had a speedy trip back home, complete with a stop for cheap gas on highway 49.

So, the moral of the story is that you have until November 23, 2014 to get in on Countylicious, and if you miss that, remember that Wassail runs the last 2 weekends of November and the first weekend in December. Plenty of time to do a little Christmas shopping in the County! There’s a bus tour every Saturday during Wassail for $15 and you just might find me back again in a few weeks.

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Ontario Peach Pie

IMG_0015The year has been passing by at light speed, taken up with work, a few vacations, and all the little things that use up a day. I’ve gotten quite a few questions lately about my blog. Why haven’t I posted much this year? What am I drinking? The truth is probably two-fold- I’ve amassed quite a portfolio of favourite wines and recipes and don’t always have new food and drink to share, and having a computer-heavy day job can be a drain on the creative juices.

But if there’s anything that might get a cook’s energy back up, it is late summer and early fall in Ontario. Having grown up a prairie girl, I am amazed every year here when the bounty begins to roll in. Niagara peaches are one of my very favourite treats, but they tend to come in huge baskets and ripen all at once. Every August at this time I search for a random peach pie recipe, and then think, why haven’t I posted this so I’ll know what to make next year?

IMG_0017This year I found two good recipes: One for the #1 Best Pie Crust Ever and the other for Mama Thornton’s Peach Pie, both from the Food Network. The pie crust uses butter and shortening and has definitely replaced my old standard Crisco recipe. The butter makes the dough less crumbly and easier to work with, and browns up so beautifully I could hardly wait for the pie to cool before slicing through the crisp crust into the peaches below. The peach filling is fantastic- gooey but not runny and just the right amount of sweet. The only change I made was to double the lemon juice and add a splash of vanilla extract.

So, if you have peaches ripening en masse at this very moment- I hope a peach pie is in your future.

Sunday Night Soup

I looked in the fridge tonight, which is a bit bare at the moment, and saw some lovely local corn that needed a home. A glance in the veggie drawer revealed the makings of soup, which may be a bit much on a hot day, but a nice clear broth with fresh summer veggies seemed right.

I sauteed the onions, celery and carrots in a bit of olive oil, added in 2 handfuls of red lentils for a bit of protein, and got them glossy in the oil. In went 6 cups of water and a healthy sprinkle (1-2 tsp.) of Vegeta (the MSG free kind); chicken or vegetable stock would work too. After about 10 minutes, the veggies and lentils had soften up and I added the corn (cut off the cobs), some canned diced tomatoes and a sprinkle of parsley. That simmered for about 10 minutes, and combined into a wonderfully simple pot of summer flavours. Two bowlfuls for dinner were just the ticket.

Accidentally Organic Beer Braised Beef

My recent blogging hiatus has finally come to an end. Thankfully my soul crushing and creativity squashing workload has eased up slightly, just enough to allow me a smidgen of extra energy to plan and execute a delicious meal. Earlier this fall, we bought a mixed pack of beef from a local organic farm, and a giant prime rib roast has been haunting my dreams (and my freezer) ever since. This high quality piece of meat had to be treated right, and braising came to mind.

Melt in your mouth tenderness.

We love roast beef. This is actually my third post on the subject, and I think I have reached the pinnacle of beefy perfection this time.

I found a simple recipe on Epicurious for Beer Braised Beef and Onions, and the reviews did not lie. This 6 ingredient recipe is amazingly easy, low maintenance and DELICIOUS. Basically: brown the meat, saute some onions, add in some beer, put this in the oven for 2-3 hours, and voila. Please try it the next time you have a hunk of beef in your fridge, a cheap cut would certainly suffice. The prime rib roast was falling off the bone, tender, juicy and full of flavour, but I wonder what I could achieve with a less fancy cut. A future challenge!

The only beer I had around was Mill St. Organic, and although the recipe called for pilsner, the lager was fine. It is coincidentally organic, along with my beef, and while everyone who knows me will laugh at the idea of me trying to be healthy, it was a happy accident. I don’t know that the taste was any better or worse, but I felt slightly virtuous while chowing down on a plate of red meat.

I paired the beautiful roast with yorkshire puddings, something no roast beef dinner should be without. Roasted veggies, done on a Silpat mat came out golden and toasty, calling out to be soaked with the onion gravy I made out of the remaining braising liquid.

Just before it goes in the oven.

A few tips for dinner perfection:

  • Don’t be afraid to brown the heck out of your roast before braising. This will ensure flavour perfection.
  • Use the parchment circle under the lid as they recommend in the Epicurious recipe- it will keep all the juices in the pot as they will condense on the parchment and drip back onto the roast.
  • Cook the yorkshire puddings at 450F for about 30 minutes, they will be huge and perfectly crispy on the outside.
  • To make the gravy, bring the remaining braising liquid to a boil, whisk plenty so that the onions disintegrate and thicken the sauce. Add a bit of beef stock or bouillon for flavour and some flour or cornstarch that you have pre-mixed with water, and you’ll have excellent gravy in 5 minutes.

100th Post: Adventures in Prince Edward County

Fabulous view at By Chadsey's Cairns.

To celebrate 3 years of togetherness, Kevin and I took ourselves to Prince Edward County to indulge in fabulous local scenery, food and drink. I’m always amazed that this jewel of a county is only an hour’s drive away, complete with lake views and a quaint ferry ride. It seems fitting that this weekend of gourmand-ness would coincide with the 100th post on La Gourmandesse!

We began the adventure with a wise choice: we stayed 2 nights at the Merrill Inn in Picton, a lovely B&B that knows how to feed and pamper its guests. Our room, in a third floor gable, was cozy and calm, and just what you would expect from a historic inn. They have a restaurant in-house that serves an amazing breakfast spread and gourmet dinners with local wine. We indulged there on our first night, pairing local wines with gazpacho, sauteed calamari, perch and prime rib. We followed that up with house-made peach pie, and declared the evening a locavore’s delight.

Another hilight of the weekend was our wine tour with PEC Wine Tours. We went on an afternoon tour, which was informative and fun, not to mention deluxe due to our limousine ride! The driver and guide, Gilles, was full of great info about the wines of the region, as well as quite a few back stories on the vineyards and personalities of PEC. The tour company’s owner, Bev, also happened to be on the tour that day with some family members for their own enjoyment, and made a lively addition to the day.

My top 3 vineyards of the day were Karlo Estates, By Chadsey’s Cairns and Sandbanks Winery, each for a different reason.

Karlo Estates' multi-purpose barn.

At Karlo Estates, we got to meet the winemaker and owner, Richard Karlo. Tasting wines with him was the best part of my tour, as he is warm, funny and articulate, explaining each wine as we moved through at least 5 tastes. He clearly loves what he does, and it comes through in the character of his wines. We came away with a bottle of the Frontenac Gris Rose, and are on the waiting list for the upcoming Petit Verdot. Can’t wait! I plan to go back soon to soak up the atmosphere and check out the dry stone bridge on the estate.

By Chadsey's Cairns tasting room.

By Chadsey’s Cairns is incredibly picturesque. The land comes complete with a loyalist graveyard, a few historic barns and an apple storage house converted into a wine tasting room. With views of the lake to the south and vineyards to the north, this is a beautifully peaceful place. I enjoyed tasting their wines and discussing them with one of their cheerful tasting staff, but walked away empty handed. It could be that we visited late in the day when my palate was fairly overwhelmed, but nothing grabbed me as something I had to drink again. But I would definitely return to grab a few quiet moments on their deck overlooking the vineyard.

Sandbanks Winery's new indoor/outdoor tasting building.

My other favourite of the day was Sandbanks Winery, one I have visited before. We are already big fans of their Dunes blend and Baco Noir, and had an enjoyable time on the gorgeous patio with one of their fun, young staff. We tried their new Shoreline blends and several others, and came away with a few bottles of Rose, the Shoreline Red, and the Winter Harvest dessert wine. I enjoy Sandbanks’ approachable wines and reasonable prices. It is a bit more commercial than Karlo Estates or By Chadsey’s Cairns, but brings something different to the table. What it may lack in boutique style, it fully makes up for in drinkability and affordability.

We managed to fit in a few other indulgences: lunch at the Tall Poppy Cafe in Wellington and some sweet treats at Miss Lily’s. A trip to Sandbanks provincial park capped off the weekend, and we headed home with 6 local bottles of wine, plenty of good memories, and plans to head back again soon.

 

Hot & Sweet Freezer Pickles

I heart pickles.  Pickles are a wonderful invention. They’re really a bit strange when you contemplate soaking tiny cucumbers in vinegar and salt, for months (or years), and then eating them as a snack.  But I won’t think too much about the process, and just focus on the sour, salty, crunchy delight that is a well made pickle. In the summer of 2009, Kevin, his parents and I made 50 jars of dill pickles.  These pickles are so good, friends beg for jars, and we no longer have store bought pickles in the house. However, I cannot share the recipe, it is a family secret, and you’ll just have to get invited to my house to try their magnificence. We didn’t make dill pickles this year, as there are still about 10 jars left, but I’m sure the summer of 2011 will see us repeating the pickle sweatshop at the family cottage.

I’ve always enjoyed bread and butter pickles, and have been thinking about the merits of these with cheese and crackers, as we have been eating nothing buts dills for a year now.  I saw freezer pickles on the Everybody Likes Sandwiches blog a few weeks ago, and have had some sweet and crunchy cukes in my sights ever since. This weekend on the grocery run, I grabbed an English cuke and a package of mini cucumbers, to make some sliced pickles and some pickle spears. We had some small hot peppers from Kevin’s father’s garden, and a ton of onions from our now finished CSA box. A rummage in the pantry turned up salt, vinegar and sugar, and without much fuss, I had my pickle ingredients.

Most freezer pickle recipes recommend using freezer containers, like ziplocks or leftover plastic tubs, but I just couldn’t face the esthetics of that approach. I put some of my empty glass pickle jars (from last year’s home made dills) through the dishwasher and decided to risk the glass in the freezer.

Every freezer pickle recipe starts the same way: Thin-slice your cukes and an onion, cover them in salt and let them mingle in a bowl for 2-3 hours. I guess this dehydrating process helps them stay crispy- get rid of some juice before you add the brine.  Many of the recipes called for celery seed, pickling spice, mustard seeds, or tumeric, but I had none of these in my cupboard. So….living dangerously….my hot peppers had to take the lead as flavouring agent.

I was a bit torn about the vinegar to sugar ratio….some had 2:1 sugar to vinegar, some had 1:1, others had some water in the mix. I decided to try the 1:1 ratio, with no water.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups sliced cucumber
  • 1 onion, thin sliced in rings
  • handful small hot peppers
  • 2 tbsp sea salt
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 2 cups white vinegar

Instructions

  1. Thin-slice your cukes and an onion, cover them in salt and let them mingle in a bowl for 2-3 hours. Drain liquid and do not rinse.
  2. Boil sugar and vinegar together.  Arrange cucumbers and onions in jars while the brine cooks.
  3. Pour hot brine into jars, leaving 1 inch room at top of jar. Seal jars.
  4. Freeze for up to 6 weeks. Thaw in fridge before serving.

Because I used canning jars with proper lids, and poured the brine over while still very hot, my jars actually sealed themselves. I feel like this defeats the “freezing” step, as that seems to be for preserving them when using plastic containers that don’t seal like a jar does. So, I put one jar straight into the fridge and left it over night. Because I have no self control, I then opened it the next day to go with a lunch of crackers and cheese. The results? Fantastic! So delicious: crunchy, sweet, a bit spicy, and totally already pickled. I think because the pickles are sliced and then salted, they are primed to suck the vinegar and sugar right up. We leave our traditional dills for 6-8 weeks before eating, which makes sense because the cucumbers are pickled whole. But this method appears to be instant gratification.

I did freeze my 2 remaining jars, and the glass did just fine because I left a lot of head room. I thawed out a jar after the fridge version rapidly disappeared. The taste is really no different, the pickles are just as crunchy, but the pickle itself is a bit more transparent. I think the unfrozen ones are prettier. My guess is that freezing is only necessary if you’re using a container that you can’t seal with a traditional canning method. But who knows! It’s difficult to unravel the mysteries of canning- an age old process with much oral tradition.

Linguine with Meatballs, Mushrooms and Fresh Tomatoes

My fridge has been bursting with fresh ingredients lately, and I’ve been feeling inspired to try new ways of using common items. I was reading another blogger’s recipe for a fresh tomato-basil sauce a while back, and have been thinking about fresh tomatoes and pasta.

At the market, I picked up some ground beef and fresh pasta, and then threw some portobello mushrooms into the mix to make sure I didn’t fall back on the same old tomato sauce. The roma tomatoes, garlic and plethora of CSA onions waiting for me in my fridge rounded out my ingredients.

I started with the meatballs, using my go-to recipe, only changing the onion and garlic to grated instead of finely diced for better texture. I cooked them until nice and brown on all sides, and then set them aside while I worked on the pasta and sauce.

For the sauce, I sauteed 3 cloves of garlic and 1 diced onion in olive oil until translucent, then added 3 sliced portobello mushrooms. Once everything was nicely browned and softened, I added 3 large diced romas to the pan. I put a lid on it, let it all come together with some salt and pepper, while my linguine cooked. Once that was al dente, everything went into the sauce pan (meatballs included) for a few minutes to get acquainted. A dusting of fresh parmesan finished the masterpiece!

The sauce was nice and chunky yet simple, which partnered well with the meatballs.  Lots of textures and flavours and colours. I look forward to trying another fresh tomato sauce someday soon. It probably would have been more ideal to get inspired with this a little earlier in the year, when I had tomatoes growing on my back deck, but the hot house variety will do me fine until spring.

Roasted Lemon & Garlic Chicken and Autumn Vegetables

Roast veggies.

The days are getting colder and darker, and more and more I find myself wanting to pull a hot meal from the oven. Over the past few weeks, our CSA veggie box has contained a lot of root vegetables and squash. When I came upon a local and affordable whole chicken at the market, I knew exactly what was for dinner.


Ready to carve.

I like to keep roast chicken simple. Cut up a lemon, peel a few cloves of garlic, grab the olive oil and S&P and you’re set. I stuff the cavity of the chicken with most of the lemon wedges and 3-4 cloves of garlic. Then I rub the chicken with a lemon wedge and grated garlic, finishing with a coating of olive oil and salt and pepper.  I start the oven off at 450F, but reduce it to 350F as soon as the chicken goes in. A medium chicken takes about 1.5-2 hours to be juicy and cooked through, and if you keep an eye on it and keep spooning the juices over it, the skin will be perfectly crispy. The juices end up really garlicky and lemony, I didn’t make gravy, but I think if you did it would be tasty.

Time to eat!

For the vegetables, I chopped up 2 carrots, 2 parsnips, 1 onion, 15 mini potatoes and a small squash. I have a new roasted veggie technique: you grate onion and garlic over them, toss them in lots of olive oil and S&P, and roast them for 45 minutes at 375F. The onion and garlic really gives flavour to the vegetables, and the mix of sweet from the squash and parsnips and the savoury from the rest is a nice combination.

This hearty fall dinner made my house smell delicious, and also made me feel a bit old fashioned. I wondered how many farm women would have cooked a meal like this 100 years ago during the harvest season. What was wholesome then is just as delicious today.

Curried Squash Soup

Ready to eat.

This week, a very fat and sassy butternut squash came home in our CSA veggie box. Since it has been quite rainy and cold lately, soup has been on my mind, and the squash was begging to be part of it.

I’ve been making this recipe for so many years, I forget which cookbook it comes from, and it is definitely a cold weather standby. It’s got a great mix of flavours- the curry, the cream, the honey and cinnamon, it’s a little savoury and a little sweet.


Squash puzzle pieces ready for roasting.

Time for the wine.

Curried Squash Soup

  • 1 butternut squash, quartered and roasted
  • 1 package sliced mushrooms
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 tsbp. curry powder
  • 2 tbsp. flour
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • 1 pinch cinnamon
  • 1 pinch nutmeg
  • 1 cup light cream or milk
  1. Roast the butternut squash cut-side down on a baking sheet at 400F for 30 minutes. Peel it and mash the flesh.
  2. Saute onions and mushrooms in butter until tender in a large soup pot.
  3. Add curry powder and flour, cook a few minutes.
  4. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, then add chicken stock. Simmer ingredients 10 minutes.
  5. Add in mashed squash, honey and spices, cook another 15 minutes.
  6. Once the soup is fully cooked and the squash is mixed in and smooth, add the cream or milk and cook a few more minutes.

Tasty Treats from the ‘Net

Isn’t recipe surfing on the internet the best? I have to say that I am almost always satisfied when I follow random recipes I find on the internet.

I am part of a community shared agriculture (CSA) group, and this week we received delicata squash in our box. They are small, striped and oblong, and I must confess I saw no use for them beyond a Thanksgiving centrepiece. Luckily, the CSA organizer sent us a link to a recipe for these little guys.

You can find the recipe for Delicata Squash Rings here. I made them tonight, with a bit of skepticism, and must admit that these are a delicious idea. The skin is thin, and it gets pretty tender while roasting, so you can actually eat the whole ring, skin and all. I would recommend roasting each side until very crispy and brown; the contrast of the crisp outside and the sweet, soft innards is wonderful. I’d love to get a few more delicatas this week in my veggie mix.

Another lovely recipe I tried this week was for Cheddar Buttermilk Biscuits. I was making beef stew and wanted a quick partner for that, and these were perfect. I halved the reciped, and baked 4 medium biscuits in my toaster oven for about 15 minutes on 400F. I switched the buttermilk for plain milk and added some parmesan cheese.  Also, I was too lazy to roll them out and cut them, so I made them into biscuit shaped lumps, which turned out just fine.

Finally, I was chilly this weekend and thought that nothing warms a house up quicker than turning on the oven. So, in order to put that hot oven to good use, I baked up a batch of Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies. This recipe comes from the Canadian Living test kitchen, which has yet to let me down. As an aside, the host of their cooking show (Best Recipes Ever) is like nails on a chaulk board, but the food always looks good. These cookies are chewy and moist, and semi-sweet chocolate chips go well with the sugary vanillaness of the cookie dough.

Those are just a few of my recent web recipe successes. Please pass your favourites on!