You don’t have to search for my favourite food finds. They are readily available. Please read on.
Food is a universal connector. Therefore, this blog post is about much more than food.
The global pandemic we’re living through is a mass trauma. I’ve been up and down for the past year. I sometimes have cabin fever and feel like a captive in my own home. I have floating anxiety, sometimes bordering on panic. But there’s an upside for me to these surreal and turbulent times. In a nutshell, I have slowed down.
I am in recovery — 12 years now — from a life-threatening cross-addiction to sleeping pills and alcohol. I have been an insomniac since childhood. I’m determined to face and make peace with my demons without harmful meds. And staying home gives me time to reflect, feel my feelings and keep calm.
I have time to think. I think about the emergency of so many homeless people in Canada. I think about the epidemic of addiction in the food industry. I think about my community Kensington Market in downtown Toronto and the dangers of gentrification of my beloved neighbourhood and my 40-year home. If possible, I advocate for the underdog and vulnerable people. I feel it’s my mission as a communicator and a journalist to speak out for the many who have no voice. (See and hear my audio podcast series on these topics “Sittin’ in the Kitchen®”). In addition, thinking of others quells my racing thoughts.
Back to our main theme – food. During the pandemic, I have the time to cook.
I am a perfectionist. In particular, I have a compulsion to perfect recipes. When I was food editor at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, for 18 years I felt a responsibility to my audience. I still feel it now.
I heard the famous U.S. chef Thomas Keller — his famous resto is The French Laundry in California — speaking in Toronto several years ago, say the key to cooking is: “Practice, practice, practice.” Now I have time to practice.
Repeating recipes drives me crazy but the results — eventually — are deliciously rewarding. The joy of cooking something delectable and sharing it with others releases endorphins and produces a healthy high.
Julia Child said it best: “This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless and above all have fun.”
In the kitchen, I connect with my late parents. I have fond memories of my mother baking a luscious Linzertorte: a crunchy latticed nut crust with a sticky jam filling. I recall her making European dishes like Schnitzel, Beef Stroganoff and Rouladen. My mother was a scientist and dressed in classic clothes. My sartorial preference is vintage velvet and lace. I am creative in a bohemian way. We only connected over food and cooking until I made peace with her in my 60s. See Mum and Me.
My dad, a roly-poly man who was a doctor, professor and researcher, put himself through McGill medical school working as a short order cook. I picture him standing by our small stove, having cleared all extraneous objects to one side so he had space to wield his spatula, meticulously making salami and eggs for Sunday breakfast – a ritual that was bordering on sacred.
During the pandemic, I channel my thoughts to a happy happenstance. Ruthie, my younger daughter, had a baby just before the pandemic was declared. Simone, her daughter, is now more than one year old. She is curious, feisty and intently explores the world around her. She has just started walking. Recently, she staggered around the room with a wooden clothes peg clipped on her index finger. She thought it was hilarious. Simone is life-affirming in these often dark times.
The photo on the left appeared in The Toronto Sun in 1988 accompanying an article by me called “Baking with a Babe-in-Arms.” I’m holding my daughter Ruthie, age 6 months. On the right, Ruthie is holding her daughter Simone, age 3 months.
Still on the upside, I love food shopping. I now have time. My partner Ross mentioned recently that the most exciting outing for us is to search out and visit new supermarkets.
This list is of my latest food finds — all store-bought — in no particular order. As a seasoned food journalist, I relish the opportunity to share it with you.
Food Sleuth® is my name. Food sleuthing is my game. You’re welcome!
My favourite condiment is the superb Kikkoman’s Ponzu sauce. It’s less salty than soya sauce (even the low-salt version) and has citrus flavours — lemon and orange. I put it in fried rice, stir-fries, salad dressing and sprinkle it with an equal amount of sesame oil over steamed veggies, especially green beans. They sometimes have it at downtown Toronto supermarket Fiesta Farms.
Dijonnaise — a mix of mustard and mayo — by Maille. I spread it on sandwiches and spoon it into sauces.
Cookin’ Greens is a Canadian company specializing in frozen organic vegetables, especially leafy greens, and are available in many supermarkets. I favour frozen vegetables in winter because fresh veggies grown locally are not available. Plus they are frozen at their peak of freshness. I like their chopped kale, chopped spinach and mixed kale, sweet corn and peas. I throw them into stir-fries, fried rice and make a layer of them in shepherd’s pie.
President’s Choice frozen Baby Brussels Sprouts, sold at Loblaw’s supermarkets and its affiliates, are good and locally grown. I toss them with a little vegetable oil, salt and pepper and roast them in 425F oven for about 20 minutes. Or I toss with them oil, salt and pepper and cook them in large skillet on medium-high heat until they are tender and crisp on the outside.
Irresistibles Frozen Yogourts made by Metro supermarkets. These bars-on-a-stick coated with dark or milk chocolate — I call them “choc ices” — are delicious and are only about 100 calories depending on the flavour. I especially like the Caramel-Filled Chocolaty Pieces version.
Now owned by Sobeys, Farm Boy is an Ontario chain of supermarkets in Ontario specializing in organic produce and food products with an emphasis on farm-to-table. I like Farm Boy supermarkets and I like their products. Farm Boy Rainbow Veggie Fries is a medley of carrots, parsnips and beets shaped like french fries. I bake them in the oven and they are good.
My buddy and fellow food writer Mairlyn Smith touts fibre in her brilliant book “Peace, Love & Fibre.” She introduced me to ground flaxseed. I start my day with my creation – a bowl of mixed cereal: Red Mill Flaxseed Meal, old-fashioned rolled oats, Kellogg’s All-Bran Buds, Special K Protein Multigrain Clusters, dried cranberries and milk.
I always keep fresh thyme, parsley and cilantro in my fridge.
PC Crepes are tiny rectangular cookies coated in dark or milk chocolate imported from France. They are lusciously light, crisp and delicate. They are perfect at the end of a meal. President’s Choice items are sold at Loblaw’s supermarkets and several affiliated stores.
When I was growing up in London U.K., I recall my mother using tomato paste in a tube. I recently discovered several varieties at my favourite Toronto independent supermarket Fiesta Farms. It freed me of using small cans of tomato paste. I never use a whole can and I am forced to freeze the remainder. Wow and whew!
Aurora brand of 398-mL cans of cherry tomatoes is another find. They have more flavour than plum tomatoes — that’s why I buy them.
I prefer Montreal-style bagels – more chewy, crisper and with a bigger hole than New York-style bagels. I go to Kettleman’s in Etobicoke to get bagels fresh out of the oven. Warning: Montreal-style bagels must be fresh put of the oven or they get stale quickly. Bagel House has a few Toronto locations. Their bagels look like a New York bagel — thicker than Montreal bagels — but they are soft and chewy inside and crisp on the outside. Bagel House has a good bagel.
Campbell’s Seafood Broth replaces homemade stock or a fish cube in soups and in the Seafood Stew below. It’s good and is a nifty shortcut.
Selection Mincemeat. A few months ago, I searched everywhere for bottled mincemeat for the apple galette I was intending to bake. As I was about to give up, a person told me that they have it a local Food Basics. On the bottom shelf in the baking section, there it was!
Hibiscus flowers are available at most health food stores. I steep them in a glass carafe with boiling water plus a slice of fresh gingerroot and a little maple syrup and sip the soothing tea while I sit at the computer, read or watch TV. It is tasty and is supposed to lower blood pressure.
Here’s an excellent dish that incorporates at least two of my food finds: Campbell’s Seafood Broth (a recipe for homemade stock is below) and canned cherry tomatoes.
Here’s a dish that is healthy, low in fat, high in protein and a treat for the tastebuds. I often serve it to guests accompanied by a yummy loaf of wholegrain bread and a big salad.
Campbell’s Seafood Broth is a recent food find — and it’s handy for making this dish. You can also use canned cherry tomatoes, another recent food find. Or you can use fresh tomatoes in season. The croutons are mandatory – they add crunchy texture – add them just before serving. You can use fresh or frozen seafood or whatever kind you like and/or is available.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
19-oz (540 mL) can tomatoes with juice, chopped
2 cups fish stock (recipe below) or storebought seafood broth
1½ cups dry white wine
1 tbsp each: chopped fresh basil, oregano and thyme OR ½ tsp each dried
½ tsp hot pepper flakes
Pinch saffron (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 oz (250 g) cod, haddock, bluefish or grouper, skinned, boned, cut in chunks
8 oz (250 g) salmon, skinned, boned, cut in chunks
8 oz (250 g) monkfish, skinned, boned, cut in chunks
8 oz (250 g) scallops
8 oz (250 g) large shrimp, peeled, deveined
Croutons (recipe below)
Sour cream or thickened plain yogurt *
Fresh sprigs basil, oregano or thyme
In large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat; cook onion and garlic 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until softened. Stir in tomatoes, fish stock, wine, basil, oregano, thyme, hot pepper flakes and saffron (if using). Bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes or until thickened slightly. Add salt and pepper. (Stew may be made ahead to this point.)
Stir cod, salmon and monkfish into simmering stock mixture; cook, uncovered, 3 minutes. Stir in scallops and shrimp; cook, uncovered, 2 to 4 minutes or until fish flakes when tested with a fork, scallops are opaque and shrimp are pink. Taste; adjust seasoning.
Ladle into large soup bowls. Top with croutons, a dollop of sour cream and herb sprig.
Makes about 6 servings.
In large bowl, toss 6 cups bread cubes with ¼ cup olive oil and 4 finely chopped garlic cloves. Spread on baking sheet. Bake in centre of preheated 350F oven 15 to 18 minutes or cook in a large skillet stovetop, stirring occasionally, or until golden and crisp.
In large saucepan, barely cover 1½ lb (750 g) bones and heads (gills removed) of lean white fish with cold water. Bring just to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to simmer; skim any froth from surface.
Add ½ cup dry white wine, 1 small onion, 1 stalk celery, 1 clove garlic and a pinch of thyme. Simmer 20 minutes. Strain, discarding bones and vegetables. Freeze leftover stock.
*To thicken yogurt, drain in paper-lined coffee filter about 1 hour or until of desired consistency