by Lauren Mote
It can become an amazing experience, especially when your holiday preparation takes an unexpected turn, each day.
On a gorgeous and bright morning in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant area, the view was picturesque – sharp snowy peaks lie in the distance, both to the north and south. I was sitting at a coffee house, on a leather ottoman by the wood-burning fireplace, I waited for my friend to arrive. All we had in mind was coffee and conversation, but as usual, our meetings often turned into some kind of gastronomical adventure – but we wouldn’t eat one thing, nor would a freshly cut evergreen be decorated with little glass balls. Down the street, we first heard the commotion; Santa Claus impersonators of all shapes and sizes stood outside an old church, luring it’s onlookers closer to the entrance; and inside a neighbourhood craft sale. Local artists, and crafts-people congregated inside, for a “one day only” event, in hopes of spreading holiday joy, and saying those two beautiful words oh so important in the artisan’s vocabulary, “sold out”.
Looking for really nothing in particular, we merged with window-shopping traffic and peruse the exhibition. Only at our final lap did we notice large airtight bags, housing one of my favourite things – mushrooms. This fungal runway show included such characters as morel, blue chanterelle, red cap, porcini and lobster mushrooms. The neatest thing about this mushroom display was that Wild Products Network owner Sequoia Lesosky had picked all of these himself, and smiled intently as I berated him with questions – I was on a constant quest for knowledge after all. All of Sequoia’s mushrooms were British Columbian, and depending on the variety, each were found in uniquely different climates, soils and locations. Sequoia told us about the unique life of a morel mushroom, arguably as popular as chanterelle and truffle mushrooms. “The morel lives in soils that have been petrified by fires, and in particular, forest fires”. Sequoia tells us that morels can only be retrieved within about a year of a recent fire, and then the soil loses the composition required for this particular rarity to survive. With inspiration from Seqouia, I found the strength to really dig into my River Cottage Mushroom handbook when I got home with my four bags of fungi. Here I learned that morels are also somewhat toxic if consumed raw – no kidding? I have never thought to eat raw morels, let alone pass up cooked, caramelized fungus for cold, bouncy, raw ones.
The artisan market was just the first stop on a two week journey to get the holiday season ready for the foodies we are, and the ones John and I would join and entertain, both at home and abroad.
At my local farmer’s market, I picked up some BC red beets, and had every intention of entertaining my friend Stephanie with them – part of my plan was to make her and I a great dinner, catch up on the gossip, and make some biscotti – it all worked out brilliantly, except for the biscotti. Why? Because I make a mean negroni (1 oz campari, 1.25 oz gin and 0.75 oz sweet vermouth, a couple drops of Angostura bitters, stirred with crushed ice, strained over 2 fresh cubes, garnish with orange peel); we didn’t make it to the wine either… The beet salad was inspired by friend chef David Hawksworth, where thin discs of red beet were acidulated with balsamic vinegar and vanilla extract, and meet on the plate, sandwiched above and below the David Wood goat cheese mousse… it was finished with baby arugula, and a toasted pine nut vinaigrette. It was a seriously good salad. For the main course, I took the dried mushrooms I purchased from Sequoia, and brought them back to life with boiling water. I reserved water from the porcini and blue chanterelle mushroom rehydration, and used it in part with some chicken stock to cook out the risotto. The process was lengthy, but a delicious outcome. It was finished with freshly grated parmesan cheese, and many, many knobs of butter.
The next stop on this holiday timeline was the Gourmet Warehouse on Hastings at Clark. Limping with my basket of sundried Osoyoos cherries, Callebaut dark chocolate, mini loaf pans, spring form pans, a replacement off-set spatula, and pie weights, I managed to grab some more crystal wine glasses without breaking anything. Once I returned home, the party began; John and I love working in the kitchen together, but because of our odd schedules, it rarely happens. Today we would make it happen. I took care of the brownies, and the bread pudding, and John took care of the Peanut Butter ice-cream. The inspiration for each of the desserts are interesting. I have spend so much time and money perfecting a brownie recipe that was easy, not heavily time consuming, “healthier”, and of course, delicious. The combination of organic cane juice crystals, 75% cocoa dark chocolate, “good for your heart” walnuts, minimal butter, and organic whole grain flour became a staple in our household, and holiday time would be no different. The bread pudding is a combination of input from Myra Maston (recently took over the pastry department from Suyin Wong at Chow Restaurant), my grandmother Florence Mote’s 50 year old recipe, and John’s current recipe. I used milk instead of cream to prevent cardiac-arrest, and whole grain raisin bread instead of wonder “white” bread, which prevented a similar artery-clogging result. I saved the heart-attack for John’s ice cream – inspired by chef Robert Kent of Niagara St. Cafe in Toronto’s West End. Cream, eggs, peanut butter… oh my. Everything we made was eventually distributed wherever there was an invitation to dine with family or friends.
Out in Pitt Meadows on December 23, there was a different celebration happening. John’s cousin Jocelyne was home from Shang-hai with her new baby, Olivia. As Olivia’s first Christmas, she had a few requests – more drool, more sleep, and more sweet potatoes. For us adults, our requests were granted too – Chinese food and crude conversation.
After dinner, Uncle Laurence started to unload his liquor cabinet to show me his “prized” items. A splash of Bowmore 12 yr single malt Islay Scotch aids and abets my interest – Don Julio Reposado Tequila; Tequila Corralejo Reposado – a great tall blue bottle; Courvoisier XO Imperial; Hennessey XO; Remy Martin XO Excellence. The coolest bottle he had, pulled out from the very back, was marked 1948 in pencil above the Hennessey XO label. Holy cow – this bottle had never been opened, and had become something of a family heirloom – it was being passed down the line, through the family. “This bottle was smuggled off a shipment in Asia, and somehow found it’s way into the hands of my uncle a long time ago” said Laurence.
The following night, John and I were snowed in. John’s interpretation of Christmas eve dinner? Roasted pork loin, braised cabbage with pork lardons, and confit carrots in duck fat. Wine – IGT Negroamaro from Southern Italy (wasn’t suited with food, too hot and flabby, so it was consumed afterwards on the couch), Lucien Albrecht 2006 Riesling (with the pork – really wonderful). Dessert – brownies slathered in peanut butter ice cream!
On Christmas day, John was at work, but would join me afterwards at the European Snow Castle in West Vancouver, also known as Ben & Maria Mirabelli’s home. I packed up the bread pudding with its fixings, Manhattan ingredients, and waited 45 minutes for a taxi. It was nice of our good friend Luca to invite us to his parents place from Christmas dinner this year. In West Vancouver, their home sits on a little snowy perch amongst the hot real estate on all sides. The home’s layout is what you would come to expect from modern Europeans (Maria from Switzerland; Ben from Italy), however it’s been tastefully renovated, and the kitchen quite impressive – Ben Mirabelli is a chef which explains a lot about it’s blueprint. Ben was the man behind restaurants Venezia (Toronto) and Mirabelle (West Vancouver), we knew we were in for a “food marathon, so pace yourselves” Luca said with a grin. John bounced through the front door just in time for a big Christmas bowl of chocolate mousse and a beer.
After the first course of cheese, crackers, endive with smoked BC salmon tuna and anchovy, the beef came out. Huge portions of medium-rare roast beef sat in thick mushroom gravy, with roasted potatoes and carrots. Wine – Grey Fox California Chardonnay (with antipasto) and Los Primos Argentina Malbec (with beef). Next course, more cheese. Out comes Roux Père et Fils (Bundundy brandy, made from Pinot Noir) and the grappa. Amongst the hub-bub, Maria’s infamous chocolate mousse made its way to the table, and her homemade Linzer Torte (Austrian dessert) with a thick raspberry filling, nestled under the traditional lattice diamond design on top. My bread pudding was the finale before a long nap was required – it was served warm, with a crumble topping, and a brandy-spiked chantilly cream.
It felt as if the holiday food and drink feast was coming to a close, but I knew John and I had another left in us. Early in the morning, we traveled to Granville Island Public Market to visit Armando’s Fine Quality Meats for beef short ribs, followed by Oyama Sausage Co. for a whole Saucisson Sec, and cheeses Alsatian Munster and Quebecois Oka. We headed home to start preparation for the last epic dinner of 2008. To start, the “stand up course” where friends crowded the bar to grab a cocktail, and indulged in the “Assiette du charcuterie”. John’s homemade duck prosciutto and duck rillette (a preparation where the duck meat is cooked out slowly, while duck fat is slowly poured in until consistency allows the meat to be shredded, then almost formed into a paste or pâté) sat on the wood block next to a basket of homemade rosemary foccacia. The small plate course was frisée salad, with seared pork belly, radish, apple and a sherry vinaigrette – a spin off from Frisée aux lardons – arguably one of the most popular salads in the culinary world; this course was paired with Herder BC Chardonnay, followed by Cakebread Napa Valley Chardonnay. The large plate course was braised short ribs, celeriac purée, buttered savoy cabbage, and short rib jus; this course was paired with Chateau Charmail, Haut-médoc Cru Bourgeois 2001 Bordeaux, followed by Cakebread Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. For dessert, we had Aberlour 10 yr single malt Speyside Scotch.
As our stomachs try to resist temptation for the next three months, we come to realize the same thing year after year: the holiday season is gastronomical in every way. Everyday there is another dinner, another shortbread, and another glass of wine. The result? The exact same list of New Year’s resolutions, where just the date changes, and another gym membership. Out in the valley of Vancouver, the holidays are just as rejuvenating as anywhere else, perhaps with exception of skiing right around the corner, and that riveting backdrop of snow-covered mountains and milder weather.
Bon voyage 2008.