Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Main Ingredient on CBC Radio One

It's finally...almost here.

CBC Radio's new national food show -- The Main Ingredient -- takes to the airwaves Monday June 28th. It's been years since CBC Radio had a national food show, so there's lots of anticipation.

Full disclosure: I'm one of the contributors to the show. I'll be doing on-air bits, bringing you food news from around the world.

On a personal level, I'm very excited to be doing this. Not only because this will be my national radio debut, but I will actually get to talk about food, combining my two career ambitions. I spent a lot of time in a lot of uncertainty as to where my career was going. As a non-staff member who's been working in the media machine for years, this is a very common but still very unpleasant place to be in. I'm trying to be a grownup, what with the marriage and mortgage and all...and I need a salary to keep these things going. Anyway, I digress. Very excited about not only being able to keep paying for stuff but also move my career along in a big way, in the ideal direction.

Having said all that, you probably want to know what The Main Ingredient is going to be about. It takes a look at the way people approach and perceive food...what it makes people do...and why. For example, one of the first episodes we're airing will be about "yucky" versus "yummy" food and how food frequently falls into both those categories.

There's also an episode on illegal and extreme dining. I brought Khalil to a dinner run by The Wandering Spoon folks. See my previous blog entry here.

It's NOT a cooking show. Repeat: NOT a cooking show. Not to say you can't cook to it while you're listening!

Our host, Khalil Akhtar (that's him right there), might be familiar to CBC listeners as he produces a nationally syndicated food column each week. Now he gets to take his appetite to the next level. But for those of you who don't know Khalil, I thought I'd ask him a few questions, since I have what you would call some sway with the show people.

1.What's this food show going to tell us about that we don't get from the onslaught being broadcast on the Food Network?

The Main Ingredient takes you beyond cooking lessons and lifestyle programming. Don't expect to tune in and hear about how to choose the best balsamic or pair wine with tuna. The Main Ingredient is more about food issues and food anthropology and food philosophy. We tell stories about how food impacts our lives. The other thing that I think is generally missing in places like The Food Network is the food industry stuff. The Main Ingredient will dive into stories about modern food marketing, the fast food industry and changes in agricultural practices.

2. In one of the episodes of the show, you ate mealworms. What was that like?

Mealworms are surpisingly delicious. In this case, they were quickly stirfried in butter and garlic. The texture was a bit odd. You know when you eat popcorn... and the outer husk of the kernel of corn is sort of tough and crisp? The husks get stuck in your teeth... well... that's what the outer shell of the mealworm is like. The idea behind eating mealworms was part of an exploration into why some people find certain foods distasteful. In other words why my yum is your yuck.

3.What have you eaten that you didn't think you would like...but ended up surprising you?

On the show or in general? In general... I'm open to eating anything. So I've never been surprised that I liked something... because I tend to embrace new eating experiences. I generally approach eating with a sense of cultural context. I figure if a food is part of someone's culinary culture and culinary vocabulary, then it would be offensive for me to express distaste for it.

4.What do you HATE eating?

I hate kraft dinner. Can't stand the stuff. I grew up in a punjabi household where the flavours were robust and in-your-face. When I first tried kraft dinner in university I was surprised at what all the fuss was about. I just thought... surely there must be more to this. That said... kraft dinner is vastly improved with lots of tabasco and ketchup. But at that point... why even bother. I make an amazing mac and cheese with nice aged cheddar and a bit of stilton.

5.What do you love to cook?

It changes every week, honestly. A standby, though, is something called yakhni pilau. Classic pakistani rice dish. I make it with dark meat chicken and chick peas. Make a little cucumber and tomato raita on the side... and I could eat for a week. It's a great dish because it takes a little precision to cook... which is fun. People ask for a 'recipe'... and I have to tell them it's not the kind of thing that's easily written down. There is a lot of 'look' and 'feel' in the process.

6.If you were stranded on a desert island and could only choose one meal, what would it be?

Sushi. Layers of flavour and texture. Plus the fish would be plentyful if I was on an island.

7. And if you got to pick a dessert to bring as well...what would it be?

I have a general ongoing debate with friends over the merits of cake vs pie. I'm a pie person in almost everyway. Give me a well-made double-crust apple pie with custard and I'd be in heaven.

So there you go. A little Khalil in a nutshell.

Here's the answer to your last question, which would be: "When is it on??" The Main Ingredient airs every Monday starting June 28th at 11:30 am/noon NT and Fridays at 7:30 pm/8 pm NT. We're also on Sirius Satellite 137 (you can check out that schedule here). Our website should be up shortly at and you can also follow us on Twitter at CBCIngredient.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Shellfish Paradise

This summer I'll be the "food news" reporter for a national CBC Radio summer food show called "The Main Ingredient". It's a dream come true because I get to talk about food and get paid for it. Lately the stars have been aligning for me in more ways than one.

For this show, the producers wanted to find an underground dining experience and do a piece on it. They wanted to devote an episode on secret dining, the whys and wheres and whats and whos.

Well, well, well...just so happens I know a group of talented cooks who run a little operation called The Wandering Spoon. I blogged about their delicious premiere meal where they roasted a whole suckling pig. Mmm.

I emailed them to see if they were interested in putting together one of their fabulous meals on the fly. When I say on the fly, they had two days to tell me whether they could put together a large dinner in less than a week. Most people probably would've told me to f@#$ off. They actually said yes.

And man...what a meal it was. They pulled off a spot prawn boil on an epic scale.

Some of the spot prawns put up quite a fight. One clung to the lid of the styrofoam cooler they came in until somebody finally pulled him off. Then another one (or perhaps the same one?) jumped right OUT of the cooler onto the floor. It's a good sign of freshness is what that is.

Spot prawn season being so short, it was such a treat. I also employed a lesson I learned recently from another prawn enthusiast. If you are taking advantage of spot prawn season, don't forget the head! Most people just throw the head away, but some of the best flavour comes from the innards in the head. Sometimes you can just suck it out, but sometimes you need the help of a utensil to get that buttery brain goodness out of there. Seriously. It's delicious. Why would I be doing that if it wasn't?

Here's what we got to eat...or at least what I remember through my wine-muddled haze.

-boiled spot prawns (obviously)
-mussels cooked with mustard greens and merguez sausage
-clams cooked in lots of butter with sauteed leeks
-"heart attack bread" -- which was bread slathered in a cream, butter and garlic mixture
-corn on the cob
-more bread
-caesar salad
-boiled potatoes with still more butter and garlic
-rhubarb and strawberry crumble with vanilla ice cream for dessert

TWENTY people showed up and apparently many more wanted to come. We got to see a number of familiar faces from the last dinner and some new ones who were clearly delighted to be a part of the shellfish free-for-all. I had tons of fun tackling my meal with my hands, as you can tell by the carnage I left behind in the top photo.

I am continually amazed at the lengths people who love food will go to indulge it. And I'm not talking about those of us pigging out at the table. Cooking 12+ hours a day apparently isn't enough for the Wandering Spoon folks. They still go out of their way to indulge a bunch of strangers -- not to mention the national broadcaster.

It was also a total steal. I saw what some other restaurants are charging for similar meals.

Thanks once again to the Wandering Spoon folks for a great meal and putting up with our microphone. Can't wait to see what you do next.

By the way, I'll keep you posted about when The Main Ingredient airs their episode across the country.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dine Out and C Restaurant

When it comes to Dine Out, there are a lot of mixed feelings.

Before I go any further, let me explain Dine Out briefly. It's where a list of restaurants across Vancouver have set menus for either $18, $28 or $38 dollars. You can find a list of them here .

Anyway, like I was saying. Mixed feelings. People working in restaurants generally dislike it because it usually means a TON more customers who aren't paying as much...which means you have to turn over a lot of volume to make up the extra money. Which means you really have to hustle. For fine dining restaurants in particular this can be very difficult, because of plating and standard of service and what have you. For the kitchen it's a massive pain too because you have to churn out so many extra meals, and with that comes a ton of extra mise en place.

However, customers love it because you can usually score a great deal, especially at some of the finer restaurants. It's an excuse to go someplace you've never tried before. And usually you can get a bigger group of people together and make it a party.

But even for diners it can be a mixed experience. I remember a couple years ago having dinner at the well-attended CinCin restaurant. Not knowing any better, I was drawn there by all the mentions I kept hearing about this celeb or that so-and-so eating there. Yeah, I really didn't know any better at the time. All I can remember is a very darkly lit dining room and this risotto that was gluey and nearly inedible. It was chalk white with some kind of cheese but it tasted a strange combination of sweet and cheesy. I didn't finish it. And I am NOT a picky eater.

Anyway, you take your misses with your hits. We headed out to C Restaurant tonight. It's renowned for maintaining ethical seafood standards and also generally being a great restaurant.

I like going to a new restaurant during Dine Out because it speaks to me about their level of service and food. If you can maintain a consistently great level on both those counts while trying to serve hundreds of people, you're really doing something right.

So here's what our dinner was like at C.

First up: seaweed bread. It had a soft, crumbly texture which I actually like. There were fresh ribbons of seaweed throughout. I don't know if I loved it, but it was an interesting concept.

First course:

Green Tea Cured Dr. Albright Trout
Origin Organic cucumber pickles, arugula, Granville island sake emulsion

You could faintly taste the green tea cure when you had the trout alone. Together, not at all, although the dish was delicious. Very acidic. Loved the pea greens in the salad. It would be a recurring theme throughout dinner.

Next up:

Octopus bacon wrapped scallops with peas cooked with bacon and leeks and a foie gras vinagrette

**This was an extra we ordered because it sounded delicious. And it was. They thinly sliced octopus and smoked it (I think) and wrapped it around these deliciously sweet scallops. In fact, both the octopus bacon and scallops were wonderfully sweet. The peas were also fantastic. I love peas.

Main course:

Pan Roasted Keta Salmon
Ragout of spring vegetables, smoked ham, lemon condiment
Parsley sauce

I really thought the salmon would be a standout given the restaurant's reputation. The dish was very good, but there was nothing particularly outstanding out the salmon. The peas (again, more peas) were FANTASTIC. Again, I love peas. And these peas were sweet and delicious. The parsley sauce didn't seem to add anything to the dish, but didn't detract from it. There was also a pile of pickled sea asparagus on the side. They tasted a lot like Chinese preserved prunes we always have for treats. They added nicely to the dish. Plus miniaturized vegetables always look so adorable.

Finally, dessert:

Chocolate brownie
Vanilla liquid marshmallow, orange Chantilly

I love chocolate cake for dessert. I'm not going to lie, I tend to order this kind of dessert at every restaurant. So I think I'm a pretty good judge of what a good chocolate cake dessert should be. The brownie was nice and dense and rich...but the combination of two kinds of cream was a bit redundant in texture. The liquid marshmallow contrast seems bourne of the molecular gastronomy trend but I don't know if it worked with this particular dessert.

Service wise, it was very efficient. However, and this is probably just for Dine Out, there seemed to be a LOT of servers. If you've ever eaten at C, there's a narrow corridor where the servers have to travel between the kitchen, the front door and the rest of the dining room. We were sitting RIGHT at the entrance of the dining room, which didn't help. I felt a bit claustrophobic. Luckily the wine helped.

All in all though, great meal. I came away happy and satisfied and that's all I ever ask of any meal. I count this among my more successful Dine Out experiences. If a restaurant like C can pull off Dine Out well, there's no excuse for any other restaurant to do any less.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Here, piggy piggy piggy...

The great thing about food is not only is it delicious, but you can shape it into anything you want it to be. Case in point, a new venture by three Vancouver cooks. They've started up The Wandering Spoon -- their take on "renegade" dinners where a lot of what happens is up in the air.

So what IS this "renegade" style meal I speak of? It's where you're told a date for the dinner and perhaps there are some details about what they'll serve. There's a fixed price, and the location changes. So basically you're agreeing to put yourself in the hands of the cooks...because you're at their mercy.

It's part of an underground dining movement that's been happening around the world for some time. It allows the cooks to bypass local bylaws and liquor laws (it's strictly BYOB) a dinner party but with mostly strangers. The appeal for the cooks is that they can serve whatever they like and let their imaginations run wild. The appeal for diners? In my case, having a completely different and new dining experience that turned out to be tremendously fun.

As you can see from the top photo, we ate our way through an entire suckling pig. Imagine walking through the door of someone's loft and seeing that face. But it wasn't merely roasted whole. The pig was butchered, its hind legs removed, ribs and tenderloin removed. The loin was wrapped in spinach and forcemeat, placed back in the pig, the whole thing to be roasted for four hours.

The ribs were cooked up with rosemary, garlic and butter. My personal favourite part, served with cabbage cooked with carrot and bacon. Everyone at the table loved it; it was the first item to go.

The legs , as you can see, were served on top of a dish of cauliflower.
I'd never had an entire suckling pig served to me before, so it was as much fascinating as it was delicious. And it really was good. To the best of my knowledge it was the first time any of the cooks had tackled a dish like this, which made it a great experience for them as well.

Besides the delicious food, most of the enjoyment of going to a dinner like this is the atmosphere. You sit with a bunch of people you don't know (yet). I met yet another Twitter follower who had seen my tweet about the dinner and thought, what the heck? He turned out to be a City of Vancouver planner who seemed to really enjoy himself. Everyone did. We all had at least one thing in common: we like to eat!

Everyone at the table was in great spirits. The wine and beer probably helped a lot. One diner even offered up her plate for this photo you see on your left.

The coziness of seeing the people making the food was also a great treat. Cooks are some of the most passionate people I know, and are always at their best when they're in their element and talking about what they do. If you get a chance to engage a cook, do it. They don't realize how much they light up when they're talking about what they love.

Dessert was appropriately homey: apple tarte tatin with oatmeal ice cream. It was warm, delicious and comfortable, like the rest of the meal.

And like other fabulous dinner parties...we got to take home some of the leftovers. Believe me, even between 11 people there are a LOT of leftovers!

I'd never done any underground dining before this, but it won't be the last. The Wandering Spoon will be hosting dinners about once a month, so keep your eyes peeled to their blog. You're going to love it when this spoon wanders your way.