Saturday, April 26, 2008

History Bites: Cinnamon

Remember that crazy emperor Nero and his mad use of saffron? Well his extravagance shows up again in the history of cinnamon. In a fit of remorse, he burned a year’s supply of this expensive, coveted spice at the funeral of his wife Poppaea Sabina, whom he murdered in 65 A.D.

Now, fast forward to your 2008 Canadian kitchen where you are using cinnamon for making mulled wine, marinades and all sorts of dishes, right? Or at least, that’s what you think. But chances are you are not using the same spice that Nero burned in dramatic excess. You are probably using cassia, because that’s what’s sold as cinnamon here.

There are two interesting things you should know about cassia.

Firstly, it’s not real cinnamon. Real cinnamon is an inner layer of bark with a soft, crumbly texture. It has many thin layers like the French dessert millefeuille. In contrast, cassia has a stronger flavour and is hard with just one layer of bark, as in the illustration above and this photo from Wikipedia. Europe has a law to truthfully distinguish real cinnamon from cassia, but unfortunately Canada hasn’t yet followed suit!

And that’s a concern, because the second thing you should know about cassia is it contains a plant chemical called coumarin that in high concentrations can cause liver and kidney damage. I don’t know how much is too much, but a moderate intake of cassis is probably still okay. NPR radio’s exposé on coumarin and the case of the German Christmas cookie follows up on this.

Real cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, is native to Sri Lanka, South India and Indonesia. Its other Latin name, Cinnamomum zeylanicum is derived from Sri Lanka’s former name, Ceylon. It’s from the laurel family, the same family that bay leaves come from.

Real cinnamon was a gift fit for kings. In ancient times, finding it was a big motive for exploration. As early as 2000 B.C., it was imported to Egypt from China. Then Indonesians imported it on rafts on a cinnamon route from the Spice Islands (aka the Maluku Islands) to East Africa, where local traders brought it to the Romans who used it as incense and on funeral pyres. In the Middle Ages, the Venetians controlled trade of cinnamon and other spices to Europe.

The next time you use cinnamon, I hope its age-old history and worth will feed your imagination of eras long passed. And if you ever find a commercial source of real cinnamon, please let us know by leaving a comment!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

What's In Season for April

This summer, I've vowed to cook along with the seasons after watching Jamie Oliver frolicking all winter in his gigantic vegetable garden on the Food Network.

Here's a list of foods in season this month in various provinces in Canada. (Since this is an Ottawa blog, I've also added a section for our nation's capital.) My sources are the websites of farmers market associations. Not all of them have the same fruits and veggies on their harvest charts, hence the discrepancy between Ottawa and Ontario.

Please comment if you know of any other reliable links with harvest charts for the other provinces and territories, as I'd eventually like to list them all here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Poll Results: What country's food should the Gastronati make next?

According to beFOODled's latest poll, beFOODies worldwide would like to see the Gastronati sample "other" fare next. German and English tied for second place. A few of you did make suggestions under the Other category for Italy and Japan, which we've done, and Chile and Spain, which we have yet to do. Since this poll, we have done Mexican (our first-ever Gastronati), Russian and most recently, Indian food. We're planning to do German later this month, and possibly a middle-eastern country next, so stay tuned for more flavours of the world coming soon.

Speaking of flavours of the world, don't you think taking a cooking class in another country would be the best holiday ever? Lately, I have been dreaming of going to France with S for a week-long cooking course in Provence, hence my new poll on the right called "Where in the Mediterranean would you most like to take a cooking class?" But I'm also interested in knowing where my readers would like to go. Even if your first choice is not the Mediterranean, you can still tell me where the foods of your dreams are by typing it in the OTHER category. I'll be checking every day to see where everyone would like to go!

In the meantime, the Gastronati bid you Auf Wiedersehen! See you in Germany next!

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Antipasto platter
Antipasto platter, originally uploaded by beFOODled.

This antipasto was my special dish for S's party. It was a showpiece of hard-boiled egg, blanched asparagus, two kinds of canned tuna and chickpeas mixed with olive oil and salt and pepper, served on a bed of red-leaf lettuce. At the end of the night all the eggs were gone, but a lot of the rest remained. Maybe people were hesitant to break up the design or they didn't know how to eat it. We didn't provide much cutlery, only serving spoons, cheese knives and spreaders. The eggs and asparagus are finger foods and the tuna you can spread on crackers or bread. But the chickpeas were hard to grab. At the party I was impaling them on toothpicks, cocktail-olive-style. But after a few glasses of wine, it's probably expecting too much of guests to owlishly stack small round things on toothpicks, when they could easily satisfy their hunger for less work by reaching for something bigger. Anyways, it tasted great and I ate it for lunch the next day with a more conventional utensil — a fork!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Birthday Party Bonanza

Last night we threw a party to celebrate S's birthday. It was so much fun to see everyone and people really liked the food.

I put together a fruit plate with a giant mutant strawberry on top :) There was a mutant baby carrot around, too, but somebody ate it before I could take a picture. One of our guests told us the real story about baby carrots - they lathe down rotting normal-sized carrots to the core and market them as baby carrots! It's ironic that the carrots most often served at parties are, in fact, salvage. Good thing they have their cute looks.

We also served paté, several dips (hummus, baba ganoush, roasted red pepper and a black olive tapenade with anchovies and capers), various cold cuts (Genoa salami, spicy sopressata and prosciutto) and five kinds of cheese (cambozola, brie, goat's cheese, cheddar and spiced gouda). I also made crostini and an antipasto platter, which I'll blog about soon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Foolish Chicken in Ottawa

Who can resist a restaurant named The Foolish Chicken? I decided I just had to go and see what this was all about. Now I have started to think of it as my friendly place-around-the-corner. It's a chicken-and-ribs restaurant in the Parkdale area of Ottawa, and one of my favourite places to eat.

The BBQ meats are delicious because the sauce is homemade. You can tell after the first bite that they use very high-quality ingredients, even in the desserts, which the owners bake themselves. That sauce is a secret recipe, but I'm willing to bet that clove is one of the seasonings. It's so so good!

So far, I've had their quarter chicken dinner twice and pulled pork sandwich once. Both are really tender and have wonderful flavours. Entrees usually come with cornbread and another choice of side. When S and I go, we order two big entrees (S usually gets ribs), two pints and two desserts, and the bill only comes to about $55.00.

The atmosphere is very inviting. The couple that owns the place also serve, and they are very friendly and attentive. Plus the restaurant is decorated in warm mustards and reds, which adds to the coziness.

There's history and culture here, too. The bar has nickel panels that were reclaimed from the old library roof on Parliament Hill. Paintings for sale by local artists also adorn the walls, so The Foolish Chicken is not just a restaurant but also a gallery.

I know you're probably wondering about the name - yes, there's a story here, but I won't tell, so you'll have to actually go to find this one out! Trust me, you won't be disappointed :)

The Foolish Chicken
79 Holland Ave, between Scott St. and Wellington Ave.
Ottawa, ON K1Y 0Y1

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Quail masala

Quail masala, originally uploaded by beFOODled.

Here is PB and J's recipe for quail masala, which they brought to our last Gastronati evening. It was our most beautiful and photogenic dish. Unfortunately Squeaky was a bit squeamish and couldn't eat these little quails because they reminded her of her chihuahua, Webo :) If you are like Squeaky, feel free to substitute another kind of meat, such as chicken. The garnish of cucumber, mint and mango was also delicious. In larger quantities it would make a refreshing salad.

Quail Masala

serves six

six quails of 150 g (5 1/2 oz) each

2/3 cup blanched almonds
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 cm (1 1/4 inch) piece of ginger, grated
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala
2 Tbsp mint leaves, finely chopped
3/4 cup plain youghurt
1 tsp chopped mango

Rice stuffing:
1/4 cup rice
1 tsp amchoor powder
1/3 cup chopped pine nuts
1 1/2 tsp lemon juice

2 young banana leaves or aluminum foil
3 Tbsp lemon juice
cucumber slices
green mango slices
mint leaves

Clean the quails by rinsing them well and wiping them dry. Prick the flesh all over so the marinade will penetrate the meat.

To make the marinade, grind the almonds in a food processor or finely chop them with a knife, then mix them with the remaining marinade ingredients. Coat the quails evenly with the marinade, then cover and marinate for four hours or overnight in the fridge.

To make the rice stuffing, preheat the oven to 200 C or 400 F. Cook the rice in boiling water for 15 minutes or until just tender. Drain well and allow to cool. Combine the rice, chopped mango, pine nuts and lemon juice and season with salt. Just before cooking, fill the quails with the rice stuffing and brush some of marinade on the quails. If you are making the stuffing in advance, make sure you refrigerate it until you are ready to use it.

Cut the banana leaves into neat pieces big enough to wrap a quail. Soften the leaves by dipping them into a pan of hot water. Wipe them dry when they become bendable. (If you cannot use banana leaves, use foil.)

Wrap each quail individually in a piece of banana leaf, drizzling with any excess marinade. Tie firmly with a piece of kitchen string. Place the parcels, with the seam side up on a rack above a baking tray and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Check to see if the quails are cooked by opening one. The meat should be slightly pink but the juices should run clear when pierced. If necessary, cook the quails for another five minutes. Open the packets completely for three minutes at the end of cooking to brown quail slightly. Sprinkle a dash of lemon juice over each quail. Serve in package garnish with sliced mango and cucumber.

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