9 Best Things I Ate in Toronto

I recently traveled to Toronto for the first time. I'm not sure if it was a work trip or an eaiting trip, but it was delicious. Over four lunchtimes and three dinners, I managed to squeeze in plenty of fantastic bites. Here are some of the best. Classic Poutine at Poutini's House of Poutine

Okay, so poutine is really from Quebec, but I wasn't going to go to Canada and not have their national French fries dish. This was a size small and it was packed with crispy fries, rich gravy and cheese curds. Disney's "Hercules" soundtrack played throughout my time here, and yes, I did go the distance and eat the whole thing. Right before dinner.

Marshmallow Latte at Redline Coffee

The latte was delicious, but even moreso because they torched mini-marshmallows on top! Every sip went through a crisp, gooey marshmallow layer, making me question my devotion to Starbucks handcrafted beverages.

Panko-crusted Tofu Bao at Banh Mi Boys

The banh mi here looked fantastic, but I wasn't even hungry, so obviously, I went with a smaller option. The panko-crusted tofu was crispy and soft in the middle and oh so perfect with the fluffy boa and crisp pickled veggies.

Cherry Pie Doughnut at Glory Hole Doughnuts

So the name of the shop is questionable, but actually I'd put any part of my body in these doughnuts because they were amazing. Like Dough's pink hibiscus doughnut amazing. Cherry pie was notable, but the buttered toast was also excellent. Plus, the owner seemed cool. Support her dessert business.

Green Beans with Preserved Olives at Luckee

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After ordering 1400 dishes, including a tasty off-menu chilled soba salad, one of the ladies dining next to me leaned over to my table and asked "Are you a food critic or something?" Just really hungry. She said I needed to have the green beans, i.e. the best vegetable dish in the whole world. I wouldn't give it that superlative, but the dish was pretty amazing: salty and satisfyingly crisp through. Plus, the veggies made a great cold snack later on in my hotel room, alone watching House Hunters.

Mushroom Gemelli at Drake One Fifty

Everything on the menu looked good here, but after a tasty beet salad and oysters with fresh shaved horseradish, I was craving pasta (obviously). The homemade gemelli had mushrooms in the pasta dough, as well as in the dish with grilled raddichio. So. Good.

Parsley Root Risotto at dbar

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Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 3.59.08 PM

I've been a huge fan of Daniel Boulud since we met in 2008 and every time since he pretends to know who I am. Merci. Anyways, I had to check out Boulud's restaurant in Canada and it was pretty excellent. From the charcuterie platter to the deceptively simple risotto, I was beyond thrilled with my meal there.

Peameal Bacon Sandwich at Carousel Bakery

peameal
peameal

Not counting a Starbucks gingerbread latte, this was the very first thing I ate in Toronto. I imagined something like mushy peas on breakfast food, but this was actually juicy cuts of back bacon that had been brined and cured in cornmeal. It was really, really tasty, especially to a recovering vegetarian.

Oysters at Momofuku Daisho

momofuku oyster
momofuku oyster

Canada has really good oysters. The oysters at Momofuku tasted especially fresh and came with a nice mignotte-- made with rye, not wine -- on top. In addition to my raw appetizer, the roasted rice cakes with Chinese broccoli and tofu were another fantastic dish here. I should mention that they came with sausage, but my server astutely noted that, like a three-year-old, I managed to eat around the sauce. I will always choose carbs over meat, even when David Chang is involved.

For an extensive list of everything I ate in Canada (important stuff), you can check out my Instagram. Or you can live without knowing, which is probably fine. 

Onion Chips on the Plane: A Horror Story

I recently had the privilege of enjoying several international flights. International flights often come with the promise of a free meal or two, and sometimes wine, if we're lucky.  On these past few flights, I've eaten my pre-packaged airplane meal without complaint, saving my food criticism tendencies for when I wasn't 50,000 feet elevated above any Zagat recommended restaurants. Mushy lasagne made from frozen ravioli and individually wrapped rolls with "buttery spread"  are not my usual fare of choice, but part of the allure of travel is experiencing the uncomfortable, or maybe just the unpreferable. Whatever sadist put these on a plane should be appropriately punished

However, on a recent flight from Paris to New York, I was dismayed to find that our evening meal was a pre-packed ham and cheese sandwich with a box full of, well, junk food. Do apples and bananas not travel well on planes?  The absence of fresh food on most airlines has always puzzled me.

As I pawed through the flimsy box to see if anything in there was remotely edible, I was pleased to find a not so tiny bag of potato chips.  Crisps, yay! I was so happy I wanted to tweet my excitement, but alas, I was all alone on an airplane crossing the Atlantic.

Out of habit, I flipped over the bag to read the ingredient list (I used to do this religiously when I kept Kosher, and I still like to know exactly what's in what I'm consuming).  Ingredients in these particular chips included onion powder and dehydrated onions, as well as cream powder.  Cream powder?!  Like milk fat that's dried and put on a deep fried potato. Ew.

Upon close inspection, I realized that the bag of chips was not merely chips, but Onion Flavored Chips.  Anyone who has ever eaten anything knows that Onion Flavored anything stinks.  And anyone who has ever been on a plane (which I hope the crew and caterers of my flight had before my trip) knows that smells don't escape an enclosed area with 8-hours of recycled air.

Onion Flavored Chips.  I now had every angry things to tweet, but again, 50,000 feet elevation.  I tucked them into my box along with the sandwich and silently cursed the fact that I'd be eating raisins for dinner.

One by one, the bags started opening, and the crunching of the chips started drowning out Thor, the in-flight movie on this now decrepit flight.  And as the crunching continued, the stench began.  Within minutes, the entire aircraft smelled like an onion farm, in which half of the onions had been minced and chopped and forgotten about in a giant pile of dehydrated cream.  Not only did the popping open of each bag release a disgusting smell into the thin air, but each passenger slowly got a more vibrant form of onion breath with each crunchy bite.

I rushed to the bathroom to hopefully escape the stink for a few minutes.

It says a lot about a food when you have to run to an airplane bathroom to escape it.

Even with the traditional cart of tea and coffee following "dinner", the onion aroma barely disappeared.  The rest of the flight was an exercise in inhaling and exhaling, convincing myself not to eat all of my Duty Free chocolates in order to eliminate at least some of the culinary awfulness that was this flight.

Of course, I survived the flight and was able to sate my appetite afterwards, but the experience left me with truly negative feelings towards in-flight cuisine, and chips.  If you're in charge of travel meals for any airline, I beg of you, please hold off the onion chips.  We will all thank you.

Cheddar Crusted Salted Caramel Apple Pie

Chicago style popcorn mixes both cheddar corn and caramel corn, and although the combination may sound odd, it's delicious and satisfying of almost any craving-- sweet, salty, crunchy, cheesy... This pie riffs on that fantastic combination with another added element: apples! Served warm, this is the perfect winter treat.

applepie

Prep and cook time is about 5 hours, so it's an ideal perfect project for a day stuck inside during the cold weather.

Ingredients:

Crust

  • 1 2/3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4.5 ounces butter, cold and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
  • 1/2 cup grated white cheddar cheese, frozen
  • 3 tablespoons ice water

Filling 

  • 10 apples (I used Fiji), peeled, cored, and cut into thin wedges
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup)  unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine flour, sugar, salt, butter and frozen cheese in a food processor. Pulse until no dry flour remains and dough begins to break up.  Transfer to a bowl and sprinkle with ice water. Form two equally sized dough balls, wrap with plastic, and chill in the refrigerator for 90-120 minutes.  

Roll one ball into a disk, and shape into a 9-inch pie pan. Chill for 30 minutes.

But while your dough is chilling, you can make your filling!

Cook sugar and water together over low heat until just dissolved. Add butter and bring to a slow boil. Continue cooking at a low boil until the mixture turns a deep, golden brown.  Once the mixture has turned a copper color, remove from the heat and immediately add the heavy cream. Whisk the final mixture together over low heat and sprinkle in sea salt. Set the caramel aside while you make the apple filling.

Put apples in a bowl and toss with spices until all of the pieces are coated. Pour the apples into the shaped bottom crust and top with the caramel sauce.

pie w apples

Roll the second ball of dough to create a flat shape, about 1/8 an inch thick.  Use a pizza cutter to slice 10 strips about 1/2 inch thick and 10+ inches long.

For the lattice top, lie five strips across the pie crust all in the same direction. Fold back strips two and four. Weave in the remaining five dough strips horizontally, which may sound confusing, so reference this awesome tutorial from The Kitchn.

pie2

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Chill the shaped pie for another 30 minutes.

pie3

Place the pie on the center rack of the oven for 20 minutes, rotating halfway through. Turn the oven down to 325°F, and move the pie to the bottom rack and bake for an additional 20 minutes rotating halfway through, or until the filling is bubbling and the outside is golden brown.

Allow pie to cool for 30 minutes before serving.

Serve with slices of cheddar cheese and/or a scoop of vanilla ice cream, if desired.

applepie

Recipe inspired by Four & Twenty Blackbirds and Serious Eats.

 

The Starbucks Skinny: An Open Letter

While indulging in my afternoon holiday beverage today, I had a rather unpleasant encounter.  And I'm sure I'm not the only one. Here's a letter I sent to Starbucks after my experience.  Dear Starbucks,

I’m writing to you from your location on 78th and Lexington on New York City’s Upper East Side, a store I frequent almost daily for your addicting holiday drinks.

Today, after ordering my venti soy Gingerbread Latte I had a rather unpleasant encounter with a barista.

He asked if I wanted whipped cream on my beverage (I still don’t understand why this is offered to soy-opting customers, but that’s another story), I politely declined.  He then informed me that the whipped cream was “free” but I didn’t need the calories.  His words scalded me more than a 500 degree vat of Pike Place Blend.

Firstly, I ordered a venti latte packed with sugar and your new molasses syrup. I have an Ivy League education and pretty decent reading skills; I’m aware that I could have had a lower-calorie lunch, but these holiday drinks are my winter indulgence. If I didn’t need the calories I would have ordered an iced coffee with sugar-free syrup.  Telling a customer to “save” her calories is just bad business.

But that aside, I do not think it’s the place of any Starbucks employee, or any Starbucks customer, to tell me how many calories I do or do not need.   The mainstream media, women’s magazines, and plenty of uncouth New Yorkers already do more than enough to inform me how a woman “should look.”

Further, I don’t believe that the inappropriate comment would have been relayed to a man, or perhaps even a heavier woman (I came in wearing a size 2 Betsey Johnson dress, and I’ll fit into this outfit as long as I desire to, sipping my lattes along the way).  But just because I look a certain way does not mean that I don’t struggle with the body image insecurities of any other woman in the western world.

I’ve watched plenty of friends struggle with eating disorders, temporarily destroying their lives over something as trivial as weight, and had this comment been relayed to one of these women (maybe it has been?), I would be even more irate.

Maybe it was just an offensive joke, a one-off line to try and bond with a customer or make me laugh, but I’m sitting here completely offended.  If it weren’t for the deliciousness of your gingerbread latte (which I was tempted to throw in this particular barista’s face, I kid you not), I would not return to this location.  In fact, I will now return to this location armed with a variety of responses to the potential chauvinistic, offensive, or hurtful comments I may receive based on my order.  Should I be entering Starbucks ready to protect and defend myself?  As a young woman living independently in New York, I work hard, and I come to Starbucks to relax and enjoy a beverage, not worry about my waistline or other people’s opinions of me.

The Starbucks mission statement is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”  I did not receive my gingerbread latte feeling inspired and certainly not nurtured, and I believe that every one of your employees should strive to fulfill the mission of your company on a constant basis.

Thank you for your time.

Warmly,

Melissa, Proud Consumer of 400 Calorie Lattes

I recently married a peppermint mocha, come on, Starbucks...

 

On Being a Professional Eater

As of recent, I've noticed that I've become that person at dinner parties who actually wants to talk about work.  I don't look forward to the weekends like most of my office-bound friends: I hate the Friday and Saturday crowds at restaurants and bars and I'm usually not able to review venues during the hectic weekend rush.  So, all bragging intended, I love my job(s).  But a lot of people don't understand what I do.  "Is it like writing Yelp reviews?" No. Firstly, I am a food writer.  I'm not a restaurant critic.  While I am a professional, I'm also only 22 years old, and I've only been working in this field for a couple of years.  I personally don't think that I have the grandiose knowledge or experience that it takes to be a truly effective critic.  Sure, I've been eating out for almost 22 years of life, but only recently have a taken a professional interest in the subject, and from that I have learned how to share my experiences via writing.  Sure, one day I'd love to be a Pete Wells or Ruth Reichl, but I have a lot of learning to do first.  And probably a few pants sizes to grow...

So though I'm not assigning star ratings to fine dining establishments, I've somehow been able to "make it" as a food writer.  Note: making it in NYC/any creative profession means not being in extravagant debt and having a roof over your head.

Since graduating in May, I've taken a pretty untraditional path.  I co-founded a website, and work as a freelancer for various New York City and food publications.  For the NYC publications, I'm a food correspondent,  and for the food publications, I often write about food in NYC.  Funny how that works.

How does that work?  One of two ways: either an editor will send me out on assignment, usually to a restaurant or event, or I'll eat somewhere or see something and pitch that story for the editor.  After the piece is written and published, I'll receive a check of a two-figure value. No complaints though, I'm getting paid for eating.

Where does all this food come from?  Again, there are a variety of ways.  I'm not covered by the expense report of a major publication nor am I fiscally prepared to pay my way through secret reviews.  Therefore, I rely on invitations or reach out to businesses that I want to visit, in order to research my pieces.

Is this totally ethical? Well, yes and no. When a restaurant knows a reporter is in its midst, you're going to be treated much better (think constant wine refills and edible gifts being personally delivered to your table by the chef) and definitely not have the pedestrian experience.  I observe other diners and often speak with them about their meals to try and average the experience.  Also, if the meal is truly excellent, I'll most likely return soon as a regular, paying customer and get a better gage on the food and dining experience.

And how do I get these invitations? I'm very popular, so really from everywhere! International governments have invited me to eateries that specialize in their cuisines, public relations representatives contact me with story ideas- food is a good exchange for press, and I'm often visiting local venues and introducing myself as a writer usually to warm hospitality and gracious thanks for featuring their business.

I love my ability (and power!) to profile local businesses that I believe in and want to promote, helping them out as much as they're helping me out by providing me with publishable material to help boost my career!

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Issa Cooks: Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Banana Bread

Now that Starbucks has retired its pumpkin loaf in the Metro Area, I had to take matters into my own hands and create a sweet fall treat desirable enough to eat before my mid-morning Pumpkin Spice Latte (RIP $5.17). After my lovely friend Merritt made me a fabulous apron from fabric we'd picked out together in Nantucket, I had no choice but to go into my kitchen/living room and make her something delicious.

apron

The recipe is vegan, one of my roommates is vegan, and I wanted to share.  Alternate version: I'm too cheap to buy eggs.

bakin

Ingredients:

3 cups white flour 2 cups white sugar 1 teaspoon baking powder 2 teaspoons baking soda 3 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice 1 banana (I microwaved mine for 45 seconds, for softness) 1 can pumpkin puree (15oz) 1 cup vegetable oil 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/3 cup water chocolate chips (optional) oatmeal (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Mix dry ingredients together in bowl. Whisk in the wet ingredients.  Stir until all clumps are removed.  Stir in chocolate chips, if desired.  Pour into two pre-greased loaf pans (or one, if you are too poor to buy a second and want an extra large loaf) and sprinkle with oatmeal.  Put in the oven for an 60-95 minutes, checking with a toothpick every so often to see if the batter sticks.

Let cool and enjoy!

fresh out of the oven!

Issa Cooks: Green Magic Soup

Cold and flu and perpetual strep throat season is upon us, and of course I was blessed with the first round of illness.  After a day of ordering canned soup online (what a world we live in...) I felt well enough to actually stand over the stove without wanting to rest my head on a steaming pot of Progresso.  Plus, all the salt was making me feel worse than if I had just stuck to tea... this was my diet for 36 hours

So I mustered up my energy to scavenge through my pantry and fridge, and developed a recipe for healthy, tasty soup that's easy enough to make when you're dying of the plague.

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons olive oil garlic powder and onion powder 2 small potatoes, cubed (peeling optional) 4 quarts of boiling water mixed with 2 tablespoons bouillion 1/2 a bunch of kale, chopped (I used purple kale, just for funsies) 1 zucchini, diced 2 cups of baby spinach, washed salt and paper to taste

Directions:

Heat a soup pan with oil.  Add cubed potatoes and stir in with garlic and onion powder (because you're sick, you can't even tasted the aromatics anyway, they may as well be from a jar...)  After about five minutes when the potatoes start to soften, stir in the kale. As the Kale wilts, stir in the zucchini and and boiling water. Add salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The veggies will have lost a bit of their green color, but don't worry- the spinach will bring it back!

Let cool for about an hour.  Stir in raw spinach leaves and add soup to a food processor or use an immersion blender to throughly blend all ingredients. Re-heat and you're ready to eat!

magic green soup

Delicious on its own or topped with crumbly cheese or alongside a crusty bread/saltines.

You'll be feeling better before you know it!

Get Your Politics Out of My Pasta, Barilla

The worst has happened: I have been betrayed by noodles. There are not enough ways in Italian to say "WTF" to  Guido Barilla, chairman of Barilla pasta, who declared this yesterday:

We won’t include gays in our ads, because we like the traditional family. If gays don’t like it, they can always eat another brand of pasta. Everyone is free to do what they want, provided it doesn’t bother anyone else.

I read and re-read that sentence several times this morning, shocked that anyone could be so terribly insensitive, downright cruel, and certainly disgustingly homophobic.

Come on, Barilla, even pasta isn't straight!

Gay and nontraditional families already have such a terribly low media and commercial presence, but times are changing. Wouldn't it be better for business to the outstanding thing and actually feature a family with two parents of the same-sex enjoying some a hot, steamy bowl of spaghetti?

Prince/De Cecco/Whole Foods- this is your chance!

I love pasta and noodles more than the average carboholic, but when it comes down to issues of human rights and equality, there's no way in a hell full of boiling water without any noodles in it that I'm going to turn my back on my values.  Barilla doesn't have to promote LGBTQ rights, nor does it have any obligation to, but I feel that as a loyal consumer of Barilla products for countless years, a spaghetti fork has been stabbed in my back.

I wish I could take back every penny I've ever invested in Barilla products. I wish I hadn't served their penne with roasted tomatoes to a girlfriend, or used their orzo in a pasta salad at a college LGBTQA potluck. I wish I didn't slurp up an entire bowl of angel hair with butter after I was exhausted from Pride this year. But I did.  And I'm angry.

Let's be proud of our pasta!

My pantry is full of Barilla products that I now have to shamefully eat my way through, because I value not wasting food, for better for for worse.

In order to clarify his words, Mr. Barilla issued this awesome follow-up statement:

With reference to statements made yesterday, I apologize if my words have generated controversy or misunderstanding, or if they have hurt the sensibilities of some people. In the interview I simply wanted to highlight the central role of the woman in the family.

Keep it in the kitchen, ladies, hopefully serving some steamy al dente linguine to your man.

And in case you were wondering, Barilla is sorry that you feel bad.  But sorry, they're not sorry.

**This piece was sent to Barilla.  Feel free to do your part and give them a piece of your mind.  Or whip them with a wet noodle.

Issa Cooks: Kale and Corn Salad

For approximately $5 at the farmers' market you can make a delicious lunch, or several! kale-corn-salad

Ingredients:

1 bunch kale 2 tbs olive oil 2 ears of corn salt and pepper, to taste

Heat oil in hot frying pan.  Cut kale into one-inch slices.  Add to pan and saute until leaves begin to wilt.  Remove from heat and slice kernels off the corn cob and add to greens. Toss and season to taste.  Yum!

Salad lasts up to three days in the fridge and is delicious cold or room temperature.

Issa Cooks: Cheddar Mac and Cheese

I recently read (or completely made up in my head) that Americans spend just as much time cooking pre-prepared foods as they do when starting from scratch, so I decided to put time to the test when making Macaroni and Cheese on my daily half hour lunch break.  Results?  More delicious, slightly more timely, but making enough for leftovers certainly helped with the time crunch for the next few days! IMG_6709

Recipe:

12 oz rotini pasta (not homemade, I used Barilla) 2 teaspoons flour 3 tablesppons butter 2/3 cup milk 8oz extra sharp cheddar cheese (also not homemade, I bought it at the farmers market) 2 teaspoons mustard powder 1 teaspoon garlic powder 1 teaspoon paprika salt and pepper to taste breadcrumbs (optional)

Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a boil and cook pasta according to directions.

In another pot melt butter, flour, and milk in the pot over low heat. Once combined, slowly melt in small pieces or shreds of cheese. As small bubbles start forming, stir in seasonings.  Drain and rinse pasta, reserving some of the cooking water to use in cheese sauce, if necessary.  Mix pasta and cheese sauce together. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs, if desired, and dig in.