Thanks to Groupon and similar discount sites, I’ve been to more restaurants faster, than I normally would, which has been wonderful, since going out to eat is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Since the number of restaurants in Calgary vastly exceeds my budget, it’s good to have an extra push towards something you’d visit one day anyhow, but it might take you a couple of years to get there under your own steam. And thus it was that on a lovely Monday evening I took my mother for an early supper at Vero Bistro Moderne.
Despite the ridiculous name (if you can say Moderne without sounding like an idiot… more power to you), the online reviews were mostly positive, and the menu looked like it had a good variety of dishes. Since we got there at the super early hour of about 5:30 we were able to snag a lovely table nestled in front of a large window for good light and views of Kensington. The red and black decor was lovely, heavy napkins graced the tables, and small dishes of olive oil and balsamic were waiting for an excellent bread basket.
Since we’re both on a perpetual quest to NOT OVEREAT – a condition which happens with stunning ease for both of us, we decided to order two appetizers and one main dish to share. We settled on an appetizer platter, the lobster bisque, and the 72 hour braised short rib. The first thing that I loved about the appetizer platter is the abundance. Too often the portions we see seem on the small side for the price – dwarfed by the large platters they’re served on. They force the hindbrain to go into a calculation mode, trying to equitably divide small bites into shareable pieces. This one had so many things piled on in abandon, that the calculating part of the brain relaxed, knowing there’s plenty to go around. The second thing was quality – most of the bites went very well together and were fun to nibble on. From the sundried tomatoes, to the artichokes, to a lovely lentil salad, some cured meat, olives, spicy peppers, beets… it was a mélange of good flavors.
The lobster bisque was a bit disappointing. Although lovely to look at, under a puff pastry hat, it was a shade bitter, too smoky, and just flavored wrong. Like the pot scorched that day, and the bitter flavors permeated the soup. It badly needed some cream and a touch more lobster flavor rather than the smoked undertones that it had. It was edible, just not very good.
I chose the short rib dish knowing that my mother would enjoy it, and it did not disappoint. It was an amazingly rich dish, with flavors that worked like a symphony together. The meat was fork tender, achieving that special unctuous texture that short ribs get, the sweet potato gnocchi were perfectly tender and added a hint of sweetness to the dish, the morels subtly perfumed everything, and the fried green onions added some savory crunch. It’s a magnificent, generous dish.
It was also a very filling dish, so we had no room for dessert and simply finished off dinner with a pot of tea. I highly recommend the tea that says something about apricot flavors, it was very good. The place was starting to fill up as we were wrapping up, and we vacated our wee table full and happy. Overall it’s an excellent addition to the Calgary dining scene, my mother was thrilled with the dinner, and we’ll definitely be back.
Vero Bistro Moderne
209, 10 ST NW 403-283-8988
In my desire to make a dent in the ever increasing pile of recipes that I wanted to try, I ended up with a lovely roast, and a wonderful cake.
The roast was courtesy of Marcella Hazan, whose Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is the gold standard in many kitchens. It sounded like an intriguing recipe – a pork roast slowly braised in milk, seasoned with nothing more than salt and perhaps garlic. The milk is supposed to cook down to deeply brown curds and the tenderness is supposed to be unparalleled. And then I screwed it up, as only I can do. See I had some leeks and fennel that were languishing in the fridge, and in interests of good fridge management (and haunted by ghosts of slimy veggies past), I chopped’em up and added them to the roast with the milk. It just sounded good together, y’know?
And the fennels and leekses gave off so much juice, that the cooking of the milk was pretty much not happening. A loooong braise later, I had to admit that my milk was never going to develop the dark brownness that is called for, and settled for the color along the lines of baby diarrhea. Now I should mention that I grew up in a country where the visual aspect and appeal of food ranks dead last, so this was not going to stop me in any way from trying it. And the taste delivered. It was not fantabulous by my standards, but it was rich, tender, and made for a unique meal. I rated it a 4/5 and gave the leftovers to my brother.
The second recipe – a gorgeous Mediterranean Lemon Cake was much more successful, only because I don’t know enough to mess around with baking. The only change I made is cut down on the sugar – I used about 3/4 of a cup, and next time would be tempted to bring it down to 2/3 of a cup. I should mention, that I don’t know what it is about US recipes, but man, you guys like sugar in insane proportions! I like a decent amount of sugar, enough to support other flavors, but every time I make a recipe that originates down south, I know to cut out a third to half of sugar to make it palatable. I’ve seen carrot cake recipes with 2 cups of sugar. Eeeek.
Moving on, I found the recipe on the fabulous blog of Leslie Land, had all the ingredients, and found her description of it somehow irresistible. It comes together super quickly and it gets better on days 2 and 3. In fact, when you eat it on day 1 you may wonder what the big deal is. It’s a fine simple cake, but nothing to write home about. Yet on subsequent days some magic happens, and the faint grassiness of the olive oil comes through. This may not sound like a good thing, but it is, and it sings lovely duets with the lemon zest. A keeper of a recipe 4.5/5.
After zesting three lemons for the cake, I had three skinned lemons to put to use, so I decided to make something I’ve never had, only read about – lemon curd. I got the recipe from a book which I plan to put to heavy use this summer – Blue Ribbon Preserves by Linda Amendt. The book is a joy to read, all the recipes sound phenomenal, and lemon curd sounded easy. For the recipe you needed a double boiler, which I didn’t have, and the bowl kept hitting the water, so I had to improvise with balancing a bowl on two butter knives in a pot of water. MacGyver ain’t got nothing on me.
Again, I cut down the sugar to something like less than half of what the recipe calls for. Next time I’d use less lemon juice too. In fact, I’ll just gently flavor the butter and yolks until they taste like heaven, and call it a day. But the curd was great - like a lemony pudding, rich and creamy and great with the cake.
And that, folks, was my lovely Sunday during our last rainy weekend. Mucking around the kitchen, baking bread, trying out recipes. Pretty much my idea of a perfect weekend.
It’s probably no secret that I love food, cooking and eating probably as much as I love animals. I mean, I eat animals. Not all every day, but reasonably frequently, although I do have long vegetarian spells here and there. And like many people who enjoy food and cooking, I visit sites like Serious Eats, Urbanspoon and cooking blogs, as well as own a ton of cookbooks. And most of my cookbooks never get used.
I’ve thought a bit about this the other day, and there are very good reasons for owning cookbooks that are not cooked from. Some are visually stunning with great writing and are enjoyable on their merit as books alone. Others are so regionally oriented that to cook from them out of context seems if not sacriligeous, then at least extremely unsuitable. For instance, I have several great Southern cookbooks, and all of them are so saturated with the soul and spirit of the south, the terroir if you will, that huddled in our cold Calgary winter it seems wrong and uncomfortable to hunt out of season ingredients like okra and grits. And say what you will, but a good crabboil can only be accomplished on the coast. This happens with many California inspired cookbooks as well. Our farmers markets don’t get going until early June, and gallop through the seasonal offering SO fast, that you can’t keep up ‘seasonal’ cooking from places that have ummm seasons. For some reason few ‘seasonally’ insprired cookbooks really delve into the bounty and beauty of beets, cabbage, turnips and potatoes, being much more likely to praise tender asparagus, ripe tomatoes, and perfect figs, none of which we are likely to see for more than about two weeks out of the year.
Then there are the cookbooks whose recipes simply don’t speak my language. I’ve heard amazing things about the Barefoot Contessa recipes, yet every time I pick up a cookbook of hers, I am uninspired to the max. Either the recipes seem way too simple and easy – a salad! with tomatoes! thanks! or they are just not a good fit for the day. Every day. I also find that the more information is given about the origin of a recipe beforehand, the more likely I am to want to make it. Which is why Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries is fantastic to read and browse through, he seduces the reader before they crack a spice jar.
But every so often I look fretfully at my growing cookbook collection, and make resolute efforts to cook more from them. Or at least work my way through the piles of randomly bookmarked recipes all over my computers at home and work. Which is where my inability to follow a recipe exactly comes in. I’m a fickle cook, and typically a cookbook has one chance to impress me. I will typically choose a recipe based on a complex matrix of whether I can obtain the ingredients, how much I like the main elements, how unique it is, how much the author praised it, and whether I heard great things about it on a cooking forum.
I know that to do a recipe justice, I should make it as written the first time, then tweak it to my preferences if I make it again. But for some reason I am constitutionally unable to do so. Most of my tweaks are minute – a bit more garlic, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a hint of red wine, or a bit less sugar. But sometimes I deviate from the recipe so much, I know that I was no more than ‘very loosely inspired’ by it. I don’t know why I can’t help myself. I actually have a pep talk with myself when I first make a recipe, and still I fail, as I see my hand reaching for something clearly not written anywhere. I need a supervisor. It’s not that I want to deny myself creativity in the kitchen, but it hardly seems fair to cook from books that writers have put great efforts into, and muck about right out of the gate.
Next post I’ll tell you about three new recipes that I tried to make AS WRITTEN, and failed. Two were successes despite myself, and one – I should have smacked my hand harder. Which brings me to you, dear reader? Do you follow recipes as written, or are you an improvisational maestro? Is it possible to subvert my tinkering nature and learn to give recipes a chance?