Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Have you ever been to a place or a restaurant that invokes an incredible food memory every time you think of it afterwards? I can almost taste the beef tongue and the sake right now. I look back at my dining experiences and the one that stands out the most and the only one that I can’t get here in Ottawa is that of a drawn out family style; sake soaked izakaya night.
An izakaya is a Japanese restaurant that works kind of like a cross between a Spanish tapas restaurant - small plates that are meant to be shared family style and a rowdy pub.  Izakaya is also know for serving sake and so you will have to forgive me if my memory of the second half of meal is slightly blurred.
Having lived in Vancouver for a time, I got the change to eat at different izakayas around the city. Some are more high end than others but they all host the same good vibe deliciously fresh food and welcoming hosts that you can’t find elsewhere.
When I first walked into and Izakaya I was under the impression that it was my birthday and it was a surprise party of strangers all there for me.  Then I looked behind me to see if Madonna was standing behind me. As it turns out that the welcome committee at izakaya is just really intense. You are more or less greeted by a choral of friendly shouting. I have no idea what they were saying but they seemed really happy that I was there to dine. This is unlike any welcome I have ever encountered at any western restaurant.
After being shown to a large wooden communal table I was seated with a group of friends. We were poured copious amounts of sake and I also had a yuzu gin and tonic- amazing. They serve the sake in tiny cups making it near impossible to remember how much you have consumed.
Then comes the food....
You can order the plates as you go or a few at a time and share them at the table. Amongst my favourites were the raw plates and elaborate fresh salads of perfectly cut vegetables and crisp lotus chips. Edamame is a must to start out. After you have stuffed yourself with the raw fish and sushi come the hot plates.
The most memorable one for sure is a rock. Piping hot out of the oven on a wood board... Then comes the paper thin beef tongue that you cook at the table on the rock yourself , searing it slightly on the laser hot rock and dressing it with radish, chili bean paste and lime. Unreal!
There are infinite choices of soups and noodle preparations, charred miso stained black cod, karaage (the best fried chicken you have ever had) , tempura shrimp, chili bean tofu  and spicy grilled beef with soy. The list goes on.
Next week I will be re-living some of these classics and putting on an izakaya in hope of rekindling some of these fond food memories and sharing some awesome recipes to try at home. Amongst the recipes we will try you will find homemade pork gyoza, tuna sashimi, ramen, and ebi mayo. If you can make it to desert I will be serving a sake cream brulee to keep with the theme. See you there!
 - Resident Chef Anna March

Friday, September 13, 2013


Thanks to Heather Heagney, of After the Harvest for writing in to share with us her experiences in the urban element kitchen at our Superfoods class this past season. If this topic piques your interest we'd love to see you at our next Superfood's class on November 12!

For someone who talks about, writes about, thinks about, prepares and enjoys food at a borderline obsessive level, it’s been a while since I’ve taken a cooking class. I guess you could say that my knife skills are a little rusty. With this in mind, I decided to visit the urban element to bone up on my culinary skills. Little did I know that not only would I be boning up, I’d also be de-boning!

Due to my meat-free lifestyle and constant hunger for all things healthy, I chose a class called Summertime Superfoods featuring fresh vegetables and fruits, grains and fish. I thought to myself, “I got this. I’m a kale master!” I pictured myself dancing around in a kitchen full of leafy greens, gogi berries and nut butters.

I did not picture myself de-boning a fish or watching my fellow classmates grill squid!

Under the tutelage of urban element’s Resident Chef Anna March and Nutritionist Joanne Cairns, I learned that there is much more to superfoods than just greens and berries. Most surprisingly, I learned that mackerel is a superfood -- a super-fish, if you will. Sourced sustainably from The Whalesbone Oyster and Fish Supply, my first mackerel experience was a humbling moment involving a sharp knife, a nervous me, and, eventually, my learning how to de-bone this small fish! A challenging, yet quite empowering experience. Our maple smoked mackerel was cooked on the barbeque using soaked wood chips. In the end, the taste was well worth my close encounter with the knife and my anxiety over missed bones.

Much like learning a new culinary skill, learning about the health benefits of some of your favourite foods can also be very empowering. For example, pesto, avocados, chocolate and berries -- all of these foods exist in the ‘superfood’ category. Not only knowing how your food is literally healing you, but also knowing how to use those ingredients to whip up a delicious, restaurant-worthy dish is a very powerful feeling indeed! And, let me tell you, our dishes were restaurant-worthy. It was quite rewarding to see such pretty plates in front of us as we dined on the fruits of our labour.

What is a superfood, anyway? According to Dr. Frank Lipman, the qualities that make certain foods ‘super’ over others include: “few calories, low in sugar and salt, lots of soluble fibre, nutrients and health-boosting phytochemicals” []. Superfoods such as kale, mackerel, chocolate, avocados, walnuts and berries are known to be so healthy that they have even been said to help fight cancer, aid depression, prevent heart disease and improve overall mental and physical health and wellness.

We began the class by enjoying a delicious appetizer of quinoa tabbouleh salad with homemade lavash flatbreads. Hosted by the charming Barbara, we guests had time to enjoy our appetizer and get to know each other, discovering our motivations for taking this specific class. Chef Anna and Joanne introduced themselves and shared their passions for whole foods, seasonal ingredients and homestyle recipes, all focusing on a balance between health and flavour. Chef Anna then explained each dish that we would be preparing as a group so that we would know what to do once we rolled up our sleeves and set up shop at our cutting boards.

The class flowed nicely as we hopped from station to station, preparing different components of each dish that we would later enjoy paired with lovely wines. There was an eclectic mix of participants in attendance: sisters, couples, friends, busy working women; each of us there to have fun, learn more about healthy food and improve our culinary skills. Let’s be real though, we really just wanted to eat! Having said that, it did feel good knowing that even after a beautiful multi-course meal that concluded with a decadent vegan chocolate mousse, I would still fit into my jeans the next day, and most importantly, feel well.

In a time when more and more of us are investing in our health through what’s on our plate, this Summertime Superfoods class was a delightful reminder to think outside the kale box and expand my palate to include other unique healthy options.

Recipes we learned in one evening included:

Citrus-cured salmon crudo
Spiced melon and avocado salad
Watercress and summer melon soup
Honey and citrus vinaigrette
Seared Atlantic mackerel
Gluten-free corn and scallion fritters
Tomato carpaccio
Basil and parsley pesto with olive oil and toasted pine nuts
Grilled Mediterranean salad
Marinated and grilled calamari
Romesco with toasted almonds and chick peas
Roasted black olives and quinoa tabbouleh
Chocolate avocado mousse with Pascale's vegan toasted coconut ice cream and fresh raspberry salad

Monday, July 22, 2013

what makes a good cooking class? insight from guest blogger don chow of foodieprints

Don Chow (of Ottawa's foodieprints: a delicious blog that reveals stories about food, drink, cooking and eating in Canada's Capital) joined in on our Seed to Sausage cooking demonstration with Mike McKenzie in June. Below, Don shares with our readers his take on what makes for a good cooking class and captures a very tasty night in both visual and print. Thanks Don for sharing the evening with us!

There has been much written about upstart salumi producer, A Seed to Sausage, which is based out of Sharbot Lake in Southern Ontario.   Its founder Mike McKenzie is recognized in restauranteur and chef entrepreneur circles from Montreal to Toronto.  Such may have something to do with McKenzie's seeming cross-province speaking tour.  Such may have something to do with Seed to Sausage's philosophy, "local, ethical, and humble."

McKenzie believes in being able to trace his products to "the seed" that grew the grass or grain on which livestock feed, hence "seed" to "sausage."

As much as possible, ingredients are locally-sourced from family farms.  Meat tends to be purchased whole and antibiotic-free. Everything is made by hand in small batches.

Recently, Seed to Sausage was chosen by Ace Bakery to participate in its Artisan Incubator program, which is part of a twentieth anniversary celebration.  Judges felt McKenzie's love for his craft and unwavering commitment to quality can be tasted in his cured and smoked meats, especially his chorizo and saucisson sec. 

McKenzie also believes in sharing the expertise he amassed, moving from hobby salumi-making to supplier for restaurants, fine food shops, and small-chain grocery stores.  You will find him and his team teaching a series of workshops at their facility in Sharbot Lake.  Everything from water and pressure canning to sausage-making is planned. In June, McKenzie will host sausage-making workshops out of the Cirillo’s Culinary Academy in Toronto (4894 Dundas Street W.) with Chefs Lynn Crawford and Lora Kirk.  Crawford and Kirk own and operate the highly acclaimed Ruby Watchco, located in between trendy Riverdale and Leslieville neighbourhoods.  Being one of the 20 chosen Ace Bakery artisans, he also has Food Network segments to film.   

On Monday evening, he taught an exclusive 12-person sausage-making course at The Urban Element in Ottawa (424 Parkdale Avenue). 

Owner Carley Schelck offers demonstration-based and hands-on cooking classes at her stylish learning kitchen, located in a renovated former fire station on Parkdale Avenue. 

It was a good class.

So, what makes a good cooking class?  the Urban Element's open concept kitchen is outfitted with several convection ovens, professional-grade ranges, ample refrigeration, and lengths of marble and granite counter-top that doubles as work surfaces for chocolate and pastry.

Level of Complexity
Schleck arranged for McKenzie to teach two courses; an in-depth one with advanced topics for members of the restaurant industry who already practice the craft of salting, smoking, and curing meat, which Michael Ruhlman rightly calls charcuterie; and a more introductory one for general enthusiasts who just want to learn sausage-making.

Schleck has cooks and servers available to support instructors.  Both demonstration and hands-on classes include multi-course plates, paired with craft beer and wine.  Cooks actively help with prep, plating, and cleanup.  Servers serve and clear plates.  Sometimes, for larger classes, Schelck's resident chef, Anna March, formerly of Mariposa Farms is on-hand.

Duration and Pacing
Schleck works with instructors, usually restaurant chefs, to establish lesson plans.  This way topics are scheduled so they can be delivered at a pleasant pace.

After having everyone attending his evening "general enthusiast" class introduce themselves, McKenzie asked us what we wanted to learn.  Then, he tailored his class to match.  Moreover, besides sharing much insight, McKenzie encouraged questions.  Attendees ground meat and stuffed sausage casings, working with a grinder and stuffer.  We made a batch of fresh sausage.

Urban Element courses tend to include a meal.  For hands-on courses, materials (ingredients) and equipment are provided.  When you consider the value-proposition, think "edu-tainment."

To summarize, good cooking classes convey expertise, share insight, and tell a compelling story. 

Attendees were already familiar with Seed to Sausage, several big fans.  Some were gifted the course on occasion of Father's Day.

Seed to Sasuage's Jalapeno Cheese Curd Smokies on Carrot Slaw

Seed to Sausage Charcuterie Tasting Plate; Hunters Salami, Northern Italian, Speck, Calabrese, Chorizo, and House Cured Ham

Some insight McKenzie shared:   
  • In order to ensure good "particle separation" (essentially well distributed meat, fat, and seasoning), ingredients need to be kept cold, so freeze as much of your equipment as you can; cut your meat into strips so the auger of the grinder can carry the meat through, eliminating the need to plunge the meat, which creates friction; chill your hands in ice water before handling the meat or mince; if you don't have separate equipment for grinding and stuffing sausage, you may need to let your grinder cool after it processes your meat.
  • Minimize air pockets in your sausage.  Air pockets can lead to bacterial growth.
  • If you plan on making sausage-making a hobby, invest in disposable gloves meant for food handling.  They make cleanup easier.
  • When cleaning your meat grinder, feed bits of stale bread through.
  • Let freshly made sausage age overnight.  The ensures the meat binds with the casing, minimizing the risk of it escaping out of the ends of the sausage when cooked.

                                          Cutting the Pork Butt into Strips

                                          Grinding the Pork Butt

                                          Putting the Sausage Mince Together

                                          Stuffing Sausage Casings

"You'd be surprised.  Three pairs of gloves can save your marriage when making sausage," explained McKenzie.

"When you make sausage, you don't need a lot of ingredients!"

Seed to Sausage's sausages tend to include 5 ingredients or less. 

To cook his fresh sausages, McKenzie recommends heating them up in an oven set to 225F for 30-40 minutes.

The sausage we made included boneless pork shoulder, pickled jalapenos, cheese curds, crushed dried chiles, and salt (generally 2% by mass).

Good food! Engaging instructor! Great class!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

out with the lard, in with the olive oil

Try as I might to avoid it, the fact of the matter is that healthy eating is taking over. In the hospitality industry we seek to please our clients and guests, and in order to stay up to date with the current trends and food styles I am going to have to stop cooking with lard and start cooking with olive oil.
I am making this sound as if I am opposed to the healthy food choices, but the truth is that as classically trained French cook, I am just used to resorting to butter to make food delicious.
For the longest time in the restaurant industry, cooks and chefs have leaned on the classic ingredients,dishes and techniques to produce elegant, rich and flavorful food. Butter, sugar, carb heavy and meat heavy dishes with thick reduced red wine sauces were in the spotlight. If you ate at a fancy restaurant you were likely to find words like foie gras, butter basted, red wine jus and fried on the menu but as we roll into the spring and summer season of 2013 I am seeing these trends being replaced with terms such as salads, raw, vegetarian and gluten free.
Certainly when you visit a book store, the overwhelming majority of the books highlighted in the food section are based around healthy eating, diet trends, and what is local and seasonal. So if this is what the people want to eat, this is what I need to cook!
Recently the urban element hosted two Chefs from Montreal for a sit down tasting menu and I was pleasantly surprised by their menu. The dishes were mainly based around vegetable preparations, and had a big focus on light and balanced courses. What surprised me the most was the salad course. Not that they had a salad course but the fact that they served two of them and one of them was after the main course. This is a bit contrary to the classic tasting menu design and I was intrigued. When I asked the Chef why he decided to have a salad as a course after a main he responded “When I dine out I love to eat tasting menus, I just don’t want to feel over full and sick when I leave” Good point!

I can recount many times that I have eaten out and left feeling like I needed a nap and maybe some tums. As amazing as a dinner at peid de cochon can be, eating an entire stuffed pig trotter and chasing it with a heavy rich red wine was not the best decision I ever made. He was right. Food should be enjoyed for being delicious but also allow you to leave still feeling great.  With this in mind I am on a new mission. My mission is to provide balances menus and meals which are not heavy and rich, but provide meals that are still flavor packed and elegant.
With all of the interest in vegetarian food, smaller portions, gluten free and low fat options, I need to get in gear and trade out the butter basted steak for something lighter. Cooking without these heavy staples does provide a new challenge, and I am game.
Sourcing lovely raw products, working with farmers and choosing the healthier options for menus are on the agenda.
Here is where I am looking at you the reader for support. In order to broaden my spectrum of recipes and menus, I would love to hear from you. What healthy options do you love to cook at home? Got a recipe? Got a meal idea featuring delicious superfoods like kale and beans? Let me hear 'em!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

the tiffins are here! the tiffins are here!

why are we so exited?! the tiffins have arrived! 
and - what is a tiffin, you ask?

in Indian English, tiffin means “lunch”, or any light meal. 
tiffin boxes are unique containers – stackable lunch boxes - that Indian people carry their lunches in. ideally, they contain a variety of items (but are not limited to): rice, vegetables, salad, curries, dal and spicy meats. each course is separated in its own individual container.
and, the tiffin box is urban element’s fresh new take on delicious lunch delivery service.... 
so you can see why we were excited to receive that great big cardboard box from mr. fed ex - all our tiffins were hand-picked by tara's aunt in india, from markets throughout the city. we can't wait to fill them up and let you taste all our delicious new offerings!  

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

the coldest months

chef anna march herding the geese back to the barns
urban element staff party, january 2013

town restaurant paid us a visit in frosty february
pairing up with paul perugini wines 

the collaboration created a spectacular 
southern italian dining experience

above: scallop crudo/spiced yogurt/charred grapefruit/horseradish gelatina/mint

town & paul perugini wines, february 2013

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

summer road trip

summer arrives and wine country beckons me. each year oliver and i try to make a pilgrimage down to either niagara on the lake, or even closer, prince edward county. this time the latter won our hearts. spring and summer in the county is magical and this particular weekend did not let us down. honestly, i can't remember a weekend that has not given us glorious weather and that's just the icing on the cake when you are touring around such magnificent landscape.

so, the twist on this year's jaunt is now we have a toddler in tow. planning travel around naps, meals and bedtimes takes on a different approach but i was determined to enjoy as much of the county as we could!

truly, it's so easy to get to i wonder why we don't spend more time here. on the drive in we swung by our favorite take-out food shop, pan chancho, in kingston. picking up a few delicacies we pulled a blanket from the car and dined al fresco in a park not too far down the road. spontaneous summertime picnics are always welcome in our family!

what a breath of fresh air to find grey stone return - which fit the bill for our family of four - one of which being our furry family member. an addition to the century farmhouse, the suite has a separate entrance and boasts enough room for all so we don't go twitchy. ok - back to the food - we arrived to fresh banana muffins, farm fresh eggs, bakery bread, yogurt, fruit, the neighbour's freshly preserved strawberry jam and the owner's homemade granola. we were set.

(above: table for three at norm hardie winery)

the weekend took a slower approach than what we'd usually try to accomplish in 48 hours in the county (which would typically consist of whirlwind winery tours and extravagant food fests) - this year we had to pick and choose where we wanted to spend our time since we were sharing it with our young son. top of our list was norm hardie winery - he has built a beautiful patio complete with an impressive wood-burning oven. delicious pizza, freshly cropped greens, and wine - all with a beautiful vista in view. a little slice of heaven. we wanted to linger longer but the beach was calling... a short jaunt up the road and this is what we arrived to:

(above: does this say summer or what?)

dinner was take-out burgers and lamb kebabs at tall poppy cafe in the village of wellington - a return visit will next bring us to dine at east and main or at the newly opened pomodoro (same owners).

the next day it was all about the trek for peach cider at the county cider co (waupoos) and lunch overlooking a bay. en route was a stop at the black river cheese company for some aged cheddar, and their new artisan cheese edwardsburg. just minutes down the road from the cheese company turn left and venture to vicki's veggies - an endearingly adorable self-serve organic veggie "hut" - absolutely a must! i managed to nab the last bag of sugar snap peas - it was a sweet succulent bag of "candy" for the drive home.

(above: how adorable is this self-serve veggie shed?)

i think, however, most memorable for me this time was the driving and the time spent exploring. we went from north to south, east to west, up rolling hills, down into quaint hamlets, discovering rural roads, breezy county roads - with blue skies from end to end. names like cherry valley easily persuading me to want to own a slice of this heaven on the island. each charming home has its own special curb appeal. every single property perfectly tended to! it is a very magical place indeed.

so, this season, our trip to the county - where did it rank for us? well, it definitely was short, but definitely sweeter -we found that the county really does have it all - breathtaking scenery, warm inviting beaches, stunning wineries, top notch eats, and warm county hospitality.

see you again prince edward county, we're truly smitten.