Friday, April 29, 2011

A Toast To My Hometown's Better Eateries - Jean Albert

Hey everybody!

It's time to let you know about another sources of tastiness in Ottawa. So, let's into it. I present to you Jean Albert  (no Web site available).

Jean Albert (pronounced like it's an English name - I thought it was French) is Ottawa's only soul food restaurant (so far as I can tell). It's run by a couple in their late-20s/early 30s, Jennifer and LeRoy Walden,  and the recipes are from LeRoy's grandmother from back in the heart of Georgia. This is the real deal. Ribs, Catfish, Fried Chicken (including Chicken n' Waffles!), Pulled Pork, Mac n' Cheese, so on and so forth. In case you hadn't noticed, southern food and soul food have been creeping their way back into the collective foodie consciousness in recent years and it's no secret that I've developed a bit of an obsession with this kind of cooking. Well, there's a fix for that craving, and it's just a few blocks away from my apartment!

Now, Kari and I decided on a cool March night to FINALLY give this place a try, only 6 months after learning of its existence. We were greeted with lots of enthusiasm from Jennifer, our server (and co-owner). After much salesmanship, we were convinced to order the speciality spiked drinks, I had the tequila-spiked lemonade while Kari had the rum-spiked iced tea. Both were delicious and we had two rounds each. Dangerously addictive stuff!

The menu is quite loaded with choices for appetizers and mains. So, we decided to go whole hog with the appetizer and try the Pork Smothered Fries (pun utterly intended).

The pulled pork was very tender and tasty and not too overladen with sauce (a problem with some pulled pork), although I suspect the smokiness came from liquid, not actual smoking, but that's understandable in any conventional restaurant kitchen. However, I'm pretty sure the fries came from a bag. If I'm wrong, I humbly apologize!

As an in-betweener side, we got a small sampler of Sweet Water (Corn)Bread. This was very different from the only other cornbread I've had, which is Kari's. Hers uses corn kernels and is very fluffy. The Jean Albert version was sweeter and spongier, having more of a texture akin to a mix of a pancake and a polenta cake. I liked the difference. Here's what it looks like:

But if the only foray into cornbread you've had has been at Jean Albert, I humbly offer up a completely different version in this recipe:

Kari’ s Cornbread (adapted from an old Martha Stewart Web post)

- Preheat oven to 350. put 4 tbsp butter in 8" square baking pan or 9" skillet; place in oven until melted.
- In a bowl, combine 1 cup flour, 1 cup cornmeal, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp salt.
- Stir in one egg, 3/4 milk, and a can of corn until just combined.
- Spoon batter into prepared pan.
- Bake until golden. 30 minutes in pan, 20 minutes in skillet.

Next we ordered the exact same 3-piece plate of Fried Chicken each, with the same side orders of Candied Yams and Collard Greens. This was a bit funny because after discussing what we should get so that we can sample a wider variety of items, Kari vetoed me and said "Just get what you want". So I did, and it turns out we have identical wants re: soul food. I'll add that to the pile of reasons why that woman rocks all kinds of YEAH! Right, back to the food...

The Candied Yams and Collard Greens were served on the side in large ramekins

The Candied Yams has a very nice flavour, full of syrup and butter. Decadent, but what soul food isn't?

The Collard Greens were like nothing I've ever tasted, with a smoky flavouring (thanks to smoked ham hocks in the cooking pot, which the traditional way collards are done) mixed with the nutty bitterness of al dente greens was one of the most interesting flavour combos I've ever had.

I've only experimented with Collard Greens once and the version I made was anything but traditional. Essentially, I boiled them until they were almost nothing (about 15-20 minutes), sauteed them quickly in butter and garlic, and squeezed some lime juice over top. It was tasty, but not the same experience as collards done Southern-style. Of course, the traditional version would break a vegetarian's brain. At least mine could be served to herbivores.

On to the Fried Chicken! I've read a lot of negative reviews on various restaurant review site about the Fried Chicken being lacking in flavour, but I think the folks writing them are missing the point. Fried Chicken at Jean Albert comes with your choice of BBQ sauce for dipping (for 1.50$), or baked in (for 2.50$). THAT was the main "ka-pow" flavour element, the chicken is simply the vehicle. You want intensely flavoured fried chicken on its own? Go to KFC and ingest 3 days worth of sodium.

As you can tell, I really liked the less intense flavour in their chicken. Not too salty and very tender. I did find that the coating was lacking in crunch, but that's in comparison to my Mom's recipe. And no one's fried chicken is better than Mom's. (yours, mine, whomever's).

I got mine with the Whiskey BBQ sauce on the side. It was lovely and smokey with that distinctive whiskey tang that makes all food better, but a bit too mild for my taste. I likes it spicy! Still, really effing good BBQ sauce! Kari got hers with the Candy-coat Glaze baked on. That was reeeeeally sweet, a bit too much for taste.

We were too full about halfway through the chicken to finish, but it made one heck of a tasty cold lunch the next day!

More recently, I was at an event at Babyon nightclub called The Cook-Off, where I had the chance to try LeRoy's Chicken 'n' Waffles, albeit on a Stick. Imagine a carnival-style snack made with juicy fried chicken chunks and waffle batter. TASTY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

They also have an upstairs bar (I didn't see it, but I know it's there!) and serve breakfast and lunch as well as dinner.
One thing I REALLY liked about Jean Albert is that it appears to be a successful restaurant that doesn't take itself too seriously. It came across to me as being as much a labour of love as a business. I know that probably isn't the case behind the scenes, but it's the kind of food I'd like to prepare if I had my own place, and it shows there's a market for it. Not that I intend to offer competition to Jean Albert, my resto idea has always centered around a ski resort. So, Jennifer and LeRoy, your niche is safe! Well, safe from me at least...

So, do yourself a favour and get out there to enjoy some of the most comforting comfort food there is in this whitebread town! I also suggest, if you're having dinner, skipping lunch that day...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mom, COOK! (Because you're so damn good at it) - Part 1 - Appetizers

Good day all!

I'm back to tell you about the greatest cook I know and someone who always keeps my culinary aspirations soaring while humbling me with her talent. Of course, I'm talking about my Mom.

As the mother of seven children, six of whom were boys, she had to restrain herself in what she made when we were kids. Because there was a whole lot of picky in there. I admit being the one of the worst culprits. To this day, I feel a pang of guilt when I eat vegetable soup because of the royal stink I'd raise when it was on the menu when I was 7. In many ways, we were spoiled rotten by the quality of the food we ate growing up. Rare were the nights of pizza, McDonalds's or TV dinners, even with 7 mouths to feed! Mind you, this is a little bit before the days (like now) where the cost of healthy food is far greater than that of processed crap.

Just an example: When a birthday rolled around, the menu was decided by the birthday boy/girl and we could have whatever we wanted (although we always chose Chocolate Cake for dessert!). I'm pretty sure I had Southern Fried Chicken and Corn Fritters as my bday dinner of choice for about a decade straight.

Recently Mom decided to compile all her "greatest hits" into a bunch of Word documents for easy dissemination to her kids and grandkids.

And you, lucky readers, get to reap the reward along with all the rest of my siblings!

So, the plan for is to present some of my favourites amongst the recipes she's compiled over a few posts. This is the food I grew up on. Lucky me!

 Before I get into it, I'll give honourable mentions (and links) to items posted in previous entries that came from the genius of my mother:

- Doomsday Bars (from June 30, 2010) - This recipe was first given to my Mom by a colleague or student about 20 years ago. The whole clan was hooked from the get-go. Now I've made it an annual tradition at Blue Skies.

- Curry Dip (from "Classic Appetizers" - August 20, 2010) - The best, easiest way to get a kid to eat his/her veggies. A staple of get-togethers in the 70s and 80s. Addictive!

- Tourtière (from "Les mets d'chez nous - première partie" - March 24, 2011) - A staple of Quebecois cuisine and our Xmas dinners.

So, already you've had some insight into how good the eating was growing up in our house. Well, strap in, lots more to come! Today we're going to cover appetizers. Apologies for the lack of visual stimulus.


1 - Salmon Pâté

This is another classic from the 70s-80s that takes very basic ingredients and combines them into addictive treats (Mom really mastered this concept). This is pretty much a standard appetizer at every family gathering. Serve with crackers or bread/crostini.


- 1x 8 oz. package of cream cheese (the brick kind)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 2x 8 oz. cans of red (Sockeye) salmon (I suppose you could try using fresh or frozen salmon, but that would be gilding the lily, as they say)
- 1/4 tsp Tabasco sauce
- 1 tbsp of lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbsp chopped onion
- 1/2 cup pecans
- 2 tsp prepared horseradish
- 3 tbsp parsley


- Drain salmon and remove skin.

- Place all ingredients in Food Processor and mix until well blended (if you're like me and try to avoid using the food processor as much as possible, I imagine bashing this mix together with a mortar and pestle would produce an interesting result).

- Refrigerate until firm.

2 - Brandied Cheese
As with so much great food, it's a deceptively simple recipe, but I betcha dimes to donuts it would be a hit in any restaurant that served it. It will certainly impress your guests!

- 1x 8oz package of cream cheese, softened (again, brick kind)
- 1x 8oz carton of sour cream
- 3 tbsp brandy
- 1 ½ cups [6oz] shredded Edam or Gouda cheese


- In a bowl, stir together cream cheese, sour cream and brandy.
- Stir in shredded cheese.
- Transfer to an 8 inch oven-proof dish.
- Bake in a 350 degree oven about 30 mins or until lightly browned.
- Serve warm with crackers or French bread.

Quote Mom: "I think that I have given this recipe to 256 people." - Make that a few more now...

3 - Mushroom and Seafood Tarts

Sheer, utter guilt-inducing decadence. This was my absolute favourite treat as a kid around the Christmas holidays, and that's including the 12 or so different kinds of cookies! Mom hasn't made these much in recent years, probably because there are a lot of really impressive appetizers out there that aren't nearly this involved in making (see above). But, some day I'm going to give them a go. On a side note, I remember more than once scooping a seafood tart fresh out of the oven and snarfing it in one bite, thus completely burning the inside of my mouth. The filling in these things is like gourmet napalm.

So, basically these are small (2-inches in diameter) puff pastry cups with a hot, gooey, cheesy, creamy filling based on either mushroom or seafood. Soooooo tasty!

Pastry Cups

To make your own cups: Roll out pastry (from whichever source works for you, the dough recipe for tourtière works here, as does any pie or pastry recipe), cut out circles {about 2 ½ inches in diameter}. Fit pastry circles into small muffin cups. Pierce pastry 4-5 times with fork. Bake at 400 degrees for 5 mins. Lower heat to 350 degrees and bake for about another 15 mins. or until browned. Cool pastry rounds on wire rack.

OR: pastry cups can be purchased at most grocery stores or delis.

Mushroom Filling


- ¾ lb chopped fresh mushrooms
- ¼ cup chopped green onions
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp dry bread crumbs
- 1 cup béchamel sauce [recipe below]
- 1 tbsp grated Swiss cheese
- 1 tsp finely chopped fresh parsley


- In a heavy, 8-10 inch skillet, cook the green onions in the butter over moderate heat, stirring constantly, for 2 mins or until they are soft.

- Add the chopped mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 mins, or until all the moisture has evaporated and they are beginning to brown lightly.

- Transfer mixture to the bowl of a food processor. Process, using pulse mode until the mixture is finely chopped. Do not over process.

- Transfer mixture to a large bowl. Stir in the béchamel sauce and parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper.

- Spoon the mixture into the pastry cups. Top with a pinch of breadcrumbs and cheese.

- Place tarts on baking sheet. Heat in 350 degree oven until mixture starts to bubble.

Béchamel Sauce


- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 cup hot milk
- 3 tbsp flour
- salt and pepper


- In a heavy 2-3 quart saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat. Add the flour, mix well with a whisk. Reduce the heat to low, and heat for 2 mins stirring constantly. Add the milk, turn heat up to med-high and stir constantly with a whisk until mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook for 2-3 minutes, still stirring. Remove from heat.

Makes about 1 cup.

Seafood Filling


- 1 lb medium-size shrimp ground nutmeg to taste
- 1 lb scallops
- 1 can crab meat
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tbsp brandy or sherry [optional]
- bread crumbs
- cheese (something sharp, like an extra-old Cheddar or a Swiss, usually works well to contrast the richness)
- 1 cup Béchamel sauce [as per mushroom tarts]


- Bring about 2 cups of water to boil in large frying pan. Add scallops and cook until done [about 5 mins].

- Remove scallops with slotted spoon, chop and place in large bowl. Add shrimp to pan and cook until pink.

- Chop and add to scallops in bowl. Drain crab meat, chop and add to bowl. Add the Béchamel sauce, seasonings to taste and brandy or sherry if using. Mix well.

- Spoon filling into pastry shells. Top with pinch of breadcrumbs and cheese.

- Heat as for mushroom tarts.

To Make Ahead

- After filling tarts, place them on a baking sheet. Either refrigerate them, if using in 1-2 days, or if freezing, place baking sheets in freezer. Once tarts are frozen, put them in an airtight container and keep in freezer.

- To reheat, place tarts on baking sheet and put in a 350 degree oven for about 20-30 mins until mixture is bubbly.

- Each recipe will fill about 30 tarts or so.

So, that's just a sampling of Appetizer madness. Last night was the family Easter dinner at my Mom's, where she unleashed hot crab dip, artichoke-cheese spread, and a gourmet refried bean dip. And, as always, deeeeelicious!

'Til next time!

PS: On a side note, I've been missing the charger for my camera for months now, which meant I wasn't able to take pictures of some of my cooking projects. Finally found the damn thing as I was packing up my apartment, so I'll be including pictures of any goodness I produce and blog about in the future.