Yearly Archives: 2010

  • A (garlic) green Christmas

    My tofurkey is beckoning, as is my carnivorous family’s bird from Kent Heritage Farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake. (They maintain it’s the best turkey they have ever eaten, so I’ll just take their word for it).

    That means I’ll keep this short and sweet. I got an early Christmas this week when my experimental indoor garlic shot up four lovely, fresh beginnings of their future incarnations (will it be actual heads of garlic or only garlic greens?) and I wanted to share it since many of you are curious what my greenish thumb will reap.

    Your guess is as good as mine, but right now, my experimental garlic seems to be doing everything it should be. That is, it’s growing. Though I won’t be eating fresh, homegrown garlic or its greens for Christmas, who knows what Valentine’s Day will bring. Goodness knows there’s nothing more romantic than garlic breath.

    Merry Christmas everyone. I wish you and yours all the best.


  • Peach Tree
  • Growing Pains: Growing garlic indoors

    I don’t have much of a green thumb, but the other day, I thought I’d experiment with garlic that turned to seed. I’ve been asked to chronicle what happens. Here’s part one.


  • Peach Tree
  • The name’s Mayer, but you can call me cheesemaker extraordinaire

    Peter and Doreen Sullivan tag-team to wrap homemade cheese in the kitchen
    of their Niagara Falls home. The couple holds weekly lessons in cheesemaking

    I’ve never been more excited to see mold growing on something in my fridge.

    For the first time, the fuzzy stuff’s presence has nothing to do with me forgetting about a tofu stir-fry that got pushed to the back of the fridge.

    Nope, that mold is there because I’ve done something right. Its presence is magical. Pure, cheesemaking wizardry, thanks to Doreen and Peter Sullivan, ultimate foodies that they are.

    Three months ago, I signed up to spend a Saturday with this Niagara Falls couple making cheese. I was beckoned by an offer from Standard reporter Marlene Bergsma, who knew such an outing would appeal to my food-curious sensibilities.

    When she suggested it in July, I figured we’d be making cheese in just a couple of weeks but no such luck. The Sullivans’ days of leading groups in proper milk-curdling techniques are in high demand and that meant Marlene and I were looking at November at the earliest to try our hands at an age-old art that seemed romantic, tasty and potentially smelly all at once.

    We pulled up to a modest bungalow in north Niagara Falls on frosty Saturday morning to find six other curious and cheese loving folk who had travelled from as far away as Port Elgin and as close as Port Dalhousie to learn how to make cheese. We were even joined by a partner in the Upper Canada Cheese Co., that popular Jordan stop that churns out the likes of Niagara Gold and the perfectly named Comfort Cream cheeses.

    Me packing curd into a cheese mold with hopes of it becoming Roquefort.

    Our reasons for being there were just as varied as our hometowns: one couple was already making their own wine with local grapes so making cheese just seemed to be a natural extension of their handiwork. Others were curious or dragged along by partners, moms, or in the case of the Upper Canada partner, the determination to finally figure out how cheese is made.

    Truth is, it’s not easy. Aside from milk, there are certain things that are required: lots of hand soap and paper towels (if you missed out on the importance of hand-washing before, a day with the Sullivans will forever cement the importance of this essential life lesson) and patience. Cheesemaking is a time-consuming, precise practice. You might not guess it, but the production of curds and whey is a pretty finicky process.

    Doreen Sullivan wraps some of her
    homemade cheese.

    We all gathered around the Sullivans’ crowded kitchen table to learn about what made them home cheesemakers. For Peter, a guy with rosy cheeks and kindly face, he was groomed to be a foodie at an early age during visits to the neighbourhood butcher and a trip to Europe after finishing school with only high school French and an intimate knowledge of cheddar — he had no idea there were other cheeses out there — to guide him.

    Given that all he could say en francais when hunger struck one day in Switzerland was ‘Une sandwich fromage,’ little did he expect that his request for sustenance would turn into a life-changing experience. What he got was some fine bread with some even finer Brie in between. And so, a sophisticated cheese connoisseur was born. It was a love that would only grow during another act of desperation 10 years ago.

    Peter was in a pinch for a Christmas present when, as luck would have it, he heard the voice of a godsend on the radio. It was a woman named Margaret Morris and she talked about her cheesemaking classes that she held in her home in eastern Ontario. It was a done deal and a merry Christmas as Peter signed up both himself and Doreen.

    They’ve never looked back and I’m doubtful they’ve bought much cheese since.

    As for Doreen, she worked as a teacher, making her a shoo-in to lead a bunch of cheesemaking greeners in a how-to session. But she also got lessons in coagulation as a dental hygenist. Yup, that’s right. Mouth cheese gave Doreen insight into the making of real cheese. After all, it’s all about bacteria to take milk from that creamy liquid to a creamy solid worthy of being called cheese and being a dental hygenist taught her the difference good bacteria versus bad bacteria can make.

    Enter the lectures on handwashing. If cheesemaking ever fails this duo, they would have a future with your local public health department for their stressing the importance of washing one’s hands to the tune of Happy Birthday — a good length of time to get your digits soapy and water soaked. I must have lathered, rinsed and repeated about 10 times in the six hours I was in the Sullivans’ company. My red and raw hands were assurance I wasn’t going to contaminate my cheese-in-the-making with that bad bacteria Doreen had warned us about, even if it dashed any hopes of my being a hand model.

    Marlene cuts the curd under Doreen’s watchful eye.

    On this blustery late fall day, we were going to make Camembert and Roquefort, though we were also provided with recipes to make Ricotta and cream cheese in the detailed and (I hope) foolproof instructions we were sent home with.

    As the milk was brought to just the right temperature, we were told that these vastly different cheeses, as with any cheese really, have one thing in common.

    “All cheeses are made the same way,” Doreen said. “They all start out the same way, no matter what.”

    And that is brought to the right temperature in a water bath with sterile equipment.

    We dutifully filled out our cheese diaries, penning in the time we got started, the temperature of the milk, the water bath and any interventions necessary to bring it up to the right heat at different intervals throughout the morning. We jotted down the proper bacteria to take our concoction from warm milk to the stuff that Little Miss Muffet ate on that tuffet of hers. We learned that rennet, the ingredient I have steered clear of as a vegetarian because its source can be a calf’s stomach, is best used when it’s the synthetic kind. Relief washed over me as I realized I didn’t have to worry about breaking any veggie vow I had taken.

    The Diva of Coagulation.

    Then we were told to wash up and genuflect to the Diva of Coagulation, an effigy that sits amongst all the cheese books and magazines piled in the Sullivans’ living room. The DC looks like a voodoo doll but holds the key to all cheesemaking success, Doreen swore. Too bad in my excitement I knocked her off her perch but at least if my cheesemaking ventures failed, I’d have something other than my novice ways to blame. (Fortunately, all is well so far. Thanks DC!)

    A few hours later, we lined up to cut the curd — the Sullivans were full of cheese jokes but deftly avoided that old standard ‘Cut the cheese’ — made of store-bought milk and some pure cream the Sullivans bought stateside.

    “This is when I say a prayer to the Diva of Coagulation,” Doreen said.

    Using a giant spatula, Doreen poked, prodded and stretched her curd until it made a clean break — the sign that it was ready to be further transformed into something more closely resembling Camembert.

    We sliced through the curd and then filled up our cheese molds — small, plastic porous cups to let the whey drain and the curd to form into perfect pucks.

    On to lunch, which is worthy of a post unto itself. Just listen to this menu: Chilled breast of chicken stuffed with roasted red peppers, cheese (made by the Sullivans, of course), marinated shrimp kabobs with Mozzarella and grape tomatoes, smoked salmon and gravlax with honey dill Dijon mustard, lemon mayonnaise and garlic mayonnaise, freshly baked baguettes, kalamata olive tapenade, wasabi guacomole and cucumber garlic sour cream, and salad with dried cranberries, walnuts and blue cheese dressing, again made with their cheese.

    It was all artfully displayed and better still, homemade. Every sauce, every chicken breast that had been stuffed and inch of salmon smoked or cured was done by the Sullivans. If you think you’re a foodie, you ain’t seen nothing until you meet this couple, who, aside from having two cheese fridges to age their creations, have two homemade smokers in their backyard where they add that rich, woodsy flavour to everything from fish to their own cheeses.

    Draining the whey from the Roquefort curd.

    For dessert, we got to sample some of their creations, including a two-year-old Gouda, smoked cheddar, cream cheese, herbed cream cheese, blue and Camembert. These are talented folks. And with my full belly topped up with a beautiful, peppery Pilliteri Estates Gamay, the last thing I wanted to do was go back to slaving in the kitchen. But alas, Peter’s pot of soon-to-be Roquefort was calling.

    “I really like making this cheese because you can really play with it,” he said eagerly.

    Still, it all seemed like hard work with a temperamental medium at that. Copious hand-washing and temperature checking ensued, as did curd-breaking and cutting, curd straining and cheese mold filling, all with the worry that if we made the slightest misstep, we could end up with a breeding ground for listeria or worse: A failed effort to make cheese.

    “This cheese is like a two-year-old. It’s kind of telling you what to do,” Doreen said.

    Fingers crossed I understand cheese, something that is definitely not my mother tongue.

    After flipping our cheese pucks a few times, we were sent on our way, some of us with our own cheesemaking supplies to try this at home. But I have to admit, there is so much that could go wrong and so much that could cause serious illness if I’m not careful. As someone who lacks patience because they just want the gratification of a successful culinary venture, I’m very likely to be a candidate to seriously screw up making cheese at home.

    Fortunately, Marlene bought the goods and we’ll try out creating seemingly easier cream cheese with goat’s in her kitchen on Saturday.

    In the meantime, I’ll delight in the mold growing in my fridge and a food experiment gone right, all the while praying to that deity of congelation, the Diva of Coagulation.

    I’ll find out in four to seven weeks if she has deemed my pleas worthy of response.


  • Peach Tree
  • In defence of dining solo

    Rumour has it I was risking more than indigestion when I sat down to dinner tonight.

    According to Claude Fischler, a French food sociologist, I was doing something far more detrimental. I was “negating humanity.”

    It was nothing on my plate throwing the existence of every upright biped into a tailspin. Nope. It was the company I was keeping while chowing down.

    It was just me, myself and I gathered around the dinner table tonight. Oh, and one senile feline who briefly warmed a seat across from me until he realized, yet again, that there was no meat on my plate and left.

    I was alone and apparently, as Fischler recently pronounced, I neglected society and “commensality” by dining by myself. Food, you see, is to be enjoyed with others and the act of eating well, at least in the eyes of many cultures, including Fischler’s, requires more than just nutrients on a plate. It requires good company around the table.

    Eating by my lonesome flies in the face of the social rules established when we dine and goes against everything that we human beings are as social creatures.

    Truth is, sometimes, I enjoy eating alone. Sometimes, I even crave it.

    The remnants of a recent meal, enjoyed alone.

    Food just tastes better when I can devote all my attention to it — to enjoying each facet of its flavour, texture and smell. I can relish in the hard work of the chef instead of half-heartedly acknowledging it while trying to keep up a conversation between bites and be good company to whomever is at the table with me.

    Often, I just want some quiet time to reflect, to contemplate the day I had or decompress from it entirely. Nothing says taking care of yourself like indulging in a good meal. Me time is good, no matter what’s being done to pass the moments.

    Still, there are those who have a hard time with my requests for a table for one. Most of the time, maitre d’s don’t flinch. But there have been cases when I’ve been treated like a social pariah for opting to fly solo at the dinner table. There are a good many wait staff made uncomfortable by those of us who have the confidence to take a bite out of life — and whatever is on the menu — on our own and they’ll go out of their way to make you, the diner, feel it, too.

    Take the time after cramming for a final when I was in university. I was headed home after crashing in a study carrel for several hours on campus and didn’t delight in the thought of cooking, even if it would have likely been instant noodles.

    I craved a burger from a feeding spot that I usually went to with friends — friends who were too busy cramming for their own tests of academic prowess to join me. So, in I went.

    I may as well have told the waitress I had a communicable, incurable disease when I said I’d only need one menu. She sat me at a corner table, far away from the other diners. She also wouldn’t come anywhere near me, asking from a good 10 feet if I needed anything. And yes, that’s where she stood as she took my order.

    I certainly wasn’t feeling uncomfortable when I walked into the restaurant sans sidekicks. It wasn’t long into my meal before my waitress’s behaviour started to make me feel a tad self-conscious. These days, I’d chalk it up to bad service. Back then, it took me a while to dine solo again.

    My worst experience as an unaccompanied eater was in Fischler’s homeland. Reading his pronouncements now, I have some insight why. But back then, as I was rushed through a sub-par meal and spoken to in short, curt sentences by a good garcon, I took it as confirmation that Paris wasn’t gay. It was downright grumpy.

    It was my fifth week of travelling — alone — through Europe and I picked this spot to eat near the Champs Elysees because it was packed with French speakers. If the locals were eating there, it must be good, I wagered.

    Within moments of being seated, though, the other place setting at what could have been a table for two was noisily removed. Minutes later, the empty chair across from me was dragged loudly across the cobblestone patio to accommodate an overflowing table for five nearby. My neighbours gawked at me. So much for any chance of a handsome French stranger spotting me from afar and joining me. In that moment, I felt my aloneness, my independence, was rather unattractive, if not outright repulsive.

    I ate quickly and barely got an acknowledgment as I left the restaurant.

    I get that table was valuable real estate and the restaurant could be earning higher rent with more bums in the seats surrounding it. But lone diners are still paying customers and not an excuse for bad service.

    Sure, I’ve had pity parties, too. You know, the servers who feel they have to talk to you every time they pass your table. They probe you with ill-timed questions just as you fill your mouth with food because even though you’re eating by yourself, you can’t possibly want to be alone.

    Actually, sometimes I do. It doesn’t mean humanity is in any danger because of it, either.

    And I can’t help but think I’m not alone in feeling that way.