Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Toast To My Hometown's Better Food Purveyors

Hi there!

Sometimes I get lucky timing and my girl and I get a weekday off together. Usually there's a mission to make kickass meals involved. Now, we do most of our shopping in the Byward Market, but we also figured we'd take a walking tour of Ottawa's Little Italy to see what we could find in the 'awesome food' category. It did not turn out as well as we had hoped, but we did find a lot of neat stuff. But in the end, we wound up back in our beloved Byward Market. So, while the walk was good for us and fun, we found all the foodstuffs we needed for an epic meal of Tuscan-Style Steak Salad, Mushroom Stew and Tomato Bread Pudding (recipes/inspiration courtesy of Chef Michael Smith and his Chef at Home program) in the Market and discovered that Little Italy isn't the best friend of the home chef. That being said, we ended up finding some pretty epic food over the course of our little adventure.

Off to explore!

So, our first stop was the Art-Is-In Bakery, about  1.5 kilometres from our apartment, sort of just before Little Italy proper. We wanted to get a nice, hearty loaf of bread to go with our Tomato Bread Pudding. We also thought we might enjoy a snack... Look at the tale in pictures below to understand how that snack came to be...

First stop - Baked goodness!

So much tasty bread! We picked one called "Crazy Grains"

"Hmmmm, what am I hungry for...? Wait, what the eff is that in the bottom right corner? Bread... Crème... Caramel...
FRAK YES!!!!!!"

This (sweet) Bread Pudding was soooooo tasty. It had pieces of freakin' chocolate croissant in it!!!

The spokesmodel sure likes it!

So, our bellies full of warm caramelly goodness, we continued on our voyage into Little Italy, looking for some neat spots to buy good foodstuffs. We passed by a butcher shop and took note to come back (lugging steak around for a while is not the best plan). Our first stop was a more practical one at Preston Hardware to get charcoal for the evening's steaks. I picked up a bag of Jack Daniel's "Whiskey Barrel Charcoal" which contains charcoal briquettes made from the barrels they make JD in as well as little blocks of wood from the barrels that can be used for smoking or as extra fuel. I was amazed at how easily they lit, how little chemical taste they produced and how hot the coals got! Damn near broke the needle on the thermometer! So, highly recommended for grilling, especially when going for a real nice outer sear on meat.

So, as we progressed from one end of Preston Street to the other, we noticed two things. First, there are a lot of Italian restaurants I want to try! Second, there is a marked lack of proper grocers/supermarkets in the area. There are maybe two fully appointed grocers: Casa Nicastro, which was a smurf-village version of La Bottega Nicastro in the Byward Market (more on that later), but we did pick up some lovely Pecorino Romano cheese from there, and Luciano's (mentioned earlier). But upon inspection of Luciano's, they a) were ridiculously remiss in their supply of fruits and veg, and b) didn't have meat that was any better of cheaper than what could be found in the Market. So we pretty much made up our minds to head home with what we had, hop a bus to the Market, and get our foodstuffs from people who already know our names! OK, maybe there's a neighbourhood bias leaking out, sorry...

But before we even thought of quitting Little Italy, I did want to introduce Kari to a city tradition: the Dirienzo's sandwich. Dirienzo's is a little corner store on Beech Street that sells Italian groceries, but are best known for their sandwiches. So we got a couple to go and were back on our merry way home, and then  to the Byward Market.

Coming up to Di Rienzo's

That's a big sammich!

Surprisingly, while the sandwiches from Di Rienzo's were pretty darn tasty, I found them to be inferior to La Bottega Nicastro's. Which brings us to the next stop on our journey: La Bottega Nicastro. This is pretty much THE place in Central Ottawa for Italian groceries and goodness. They're the purveyors of what I like to call the "Two Day Sandwich", which is your choice of bread, meat and cheese, the bread selection including an utterly delectable whole wheat focaccia, the meats being almost unlimited in selection (I asked for speck, which is a slow-smoked variety of prosciutto, one day - no such luck) and either provolone, mozzarella or Swiss cheese. On top, your choice from onion, hot peppers, black olives, pickled eggplant and tomato. Condiments are mayo, mustard or Dijon, or all three if you're crazy. Why the "Two Day Sandwich"? Because I could never eat the whole thing in one go and would usually save half for the next day's lunch.

La Bottega Nicastro - 64 George St. in Ottawa's Byward Market

But it isn't just the sandwiches. They provide some of the most gourmet food in Ottawa, including a little truffle stand! The place is huge and you can get pretty much anything you need there except fresh produce.

Luckily, when you're in the Byward Market, you're rarely at a loss for produce. There are obviously the fruit and vegetable stalls that populate the area between April and November (depending on weather),  which is where we found the onions and garlic for our meal.

Onions - cheap and plentiful!
We then went to one of our favourite shops for the remaining produce, specifically mushrooms and salad fixins. That shop is the Byward Fruit Market.

Byward Fruit Market - 36 Byward Market Square
This is one of those shops where you're on a first name basis with the owner. And man do they have some awesome produce! I'd never seen morel or wood blewit mushrooms before coming here. So, we picked up some lovely wood blewit, oyster and shitake mushrooms as well as a salad mix (they were out of arugula as the Tuscan Steak Salad recipe had called for).

Next, MEAT!!!

Aubrey's Meats - 59 York Street

For our steaks, we went to long-time butcher shop Aubrey's where they had some absolutely EPIC New York striploins for us, locally raised and tasty as hell. Buying meat there isn't cheap, but you really can taste the difference between what you get at the supermarket and what you get at a good butcher's. We also picked up some Beking's eggs (also local) and Cochrane's milk, fresh in a glass bottle like the old days!

Now, fully loaded with ingredients, it was time to end our little road trip by getting back to the kitchen (or as Kari has dubbed it on foursquare, Cucino del Unicorno). Now, I'll admit I only had to take care of the steak, but the meal was pretty epic all around, except maybe the Tomato Bread Pudding, but mostly because we burned it. Whoops...

So, even though they're available from the links provided above, here are the recipes we made after our culinary trek.

Tomato Bread Pudding (by Michael Smith - Chef at Home)


- 1 loaf of rustic whole grain bread, cut into large cubes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 onions, large, peeled and chopped
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 can (28 oz) crushed tomatoes
- 1 cup 35% whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 8 ounces grated parmesan cheese
- 2 eggs
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil


1.Preheat your oven to 400°F. Put bread onto a baking sheet and toast it in the oven for 15 minutes or so. Remove when it is golden brown and crispy. This adds tremendous flavour and dries out the bread which helps it absorb the pudding mixture. Cool the bread until you can handle it.

2.While the bread toasts sauté the onions in a large skillet with the olive oil. Sauté until softened and golden brown then add the garlic which would burn in the time it takes the onions to brown. Sauté for another few minutes.

3.Pour the tomatoes and onion mixture into a large bowl along with the cream, oregano, cheese, eggs, salt and pepper and whisk well. Toss the toasted bread into the mixture and let it rest a few minutes allowing it to soak up all the liquid. Oil an 8 x 8-inch baking pan and pour the mixture into it. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes. NOTE: DO NOT OVERBAKE! We did and well, look at the result:

Yeah, the top is not supposed to be black. D'oh...

The next item, the Steakhouse Mushroom Stew turned out much better, it was quite tasty. The only drawback with this was that there was so much going on flavour-wise that we couldn't quite taste all the different mushrooms we were using.

Steakhouse Mushroom Stew (by Michael Smith - Chef at Home)

- 1 pound mixed mushrooms, shiitake, oyster, portabello, button and cremini (we added the wood blewits and reconstituted some dry ones
- 1/4 cup butter
- 2 onions, peeled and sliced
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
- 1 tablespoon soya sauce
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 cup 35% whipping cream

1. Trim the mushrooms as needed, removing any tough stems. Cut larger mushrooms into smaller pieces. Smaller mushrooms may be left whole or simply halved to show off their form. Rinse them well then roll in a towel to dry them off.

2. Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat then add the butter and onions and garlic. Sauté for a few minutes until they’re golden brown. Add the mushrooms and continue. Once they release moisture and become a bit "soupy" add the soya sauce, thyme and pepper. Continue cooking until the mushrooms are tender and most of the moisture has evaporated, concentrating the flavour. Add the cream and stir until the sauce has thickened.

Mmmmm, shroomy goodness!

What REALLY made the meal was the main course. The Tuscan-Style Steak Salad was one of the tastiest mains I've had in a very long time and I'll definitely be using this recipe again:

Tuscan Grilled Beef Salad (by Michael Smith - Chef at Home)


- 1 large striploin steak, 24 ounces or more, 4-inches thick, bone-in if possible (it's pretty hard to find steaks like this pre-cut, so we used a couple of 1-inch thick 10 oz. striploins. As long as you cook them rare to medium-rare, they'll be fantastic.)
- 8 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 bottle of premium extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pound baby arugula, or more (as mentioned, we could only find a spring salad mix, so I'm curious as to what the flavour would be if we used arugula)
- 8 ounces fresh basil leaves (optional)
- 1 lemon, juiced and zested
- Coarse sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper peppercorns
- 8 ounces chunk of authentic Parmigiano Reggiano (we might have used Pecorino instead, it was still DAMN tasty!)


1.Preheat your favourite grill to high. Meanwhile puree the garlic and oregano with a few splashes of the olive oil. Slather the marinade all over the steak.

2.Once the grill is hot, season the steak with salt and pepper and begin slowly grilling it. Take your time and keep an eye on the grill heat, adjusting to prevent burning. A large steak takes longer to cook as heat penetrates to its center, enough time for the exterior to brown and potentially scorch. Flip as it sears, once it has browned, flip it frequently to further prevent burning. Use your best judgment to gauge doneness. Poking, prodding, pinching, probing even peeking. A meat thermometer works well even a sneak peak at the interior is better than guessing. A piece of beef this large should be cooked to medium rare or rare to maximize its juiciness, well done would be criminal! It may take 20 minutes or more. When it's done rest the steak for ten minutes or so, give the meat a chance to relax and reabsorb its moisture. Pre-mature slicing releases agitated hot moisture that is lost as juice. Rest before slicing.

3.As the beef grills get everything ready for the tableside presentation. Mound the arugula and basil leaves in the middle of a large festive platter. Present the steak to your table on a wooden cutting board with a sharp knife. Once the steak has rested slice it very thinly and arrange the slices around the arugula. Sprinkle everything with lots of olive oil from a special bottle. You may theatrically zest the lemon over the salad then squeeze on the juice. Season with liberal sprinkles of coarse sea sat with lots and lots of freshly ground peppercorns, coarsely ground. Last but not least, using a vegetable peeler, garnish the works with shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Pretty and tasty!
So, in the end, not every culinary adventure ends up quite the way we expect it. But isn't the journey itself the important part? Or maybe it's a simple matter of this: No day that ends in steak can ever be considered disappointing.
Till next time! Enjoy!

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