January 5, 2012

The Reluctant but Enthusiastic Gourmet

Someone once said, "Restaurants are to the 80's what theatre was to the 60's." Actually, it was a character in the Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner movie When Harry Met Sally, and judging by all the restaurant scenes in the film, his comment must have been trueThe 80's were also a great decade for film, so my kids tell me, and, strange, imaginative child that I was, I think I spent half my time back then trying to emulate the scenes, characters and clothing from Hannah and her Sisters, Out of Africa, or select John Hughes movies.

When I was a teenager, a few of my friends and I would save up our spending money and go out for a fancy French meal at Justine's, an establishment no longer open in my hometown. Justine's was an airy, peach and white downtown restaurant with glass block dividers and live jazz. We would dress up in our finest 80's fashions and, I'm sure, impress and/or amuse the adult regulars with our yuppies-in-training ways. Until I found out it was raw meat, I always ordered steak tartare as my appetizer, and generally an entree with chicken or scallops. Eating out at Justine's was the epitome of elegance to we small-town kids looking for a bigger life, and the atmosphere caused us to sit up straight and use our best table manners and hushed voices.

And then there were the dinner parties. My childhood friend Molly's mother, Panny was, and I'm sure still is a phenomenal cook and she and Molly's dad had newly purchased the former Anglican manse which had a large dining room. With Panny's help Molly hosted a few dinner parties, with each of us guests supplying a dish. I remember making Greek salad. How exotic it seemed back then. Molly's mother cooked from books with names like The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, and later, opened a great little restaurant, The Wild Onion, with her sister Vicky. My own family was into good eating as well, though generally of a slightly humbler variety - one of our commonly consulted cookbooks was called More-with-Less.

When I was a child I did a fair amount of baking, but I didn't start cooking until I'd pretty much left home. When in university I lived with my sister, Clare who taught me how to make soup from scratch and other budget-friendly meals. My last year I lived with a pack of roomates and we were each responsible for our own meals. I lived on veggie burgers and stirfry. And vietnamese salad rolls from the canteen in the UBC arts lounge. When I got married a year later, I could throw together a meal of sorts, but I was far from being an artist in the kitchen. For a wedding gift, Clare bought us a subscription to Canadian Living magazine, which was perfect as a teaching tool for me. My husband had become a decent 'cook for one' from his ten years as a bachelor, but when it came to cooking for a family I was more the natural in the kitchen. Plus, I was keen. I love food, and I love good food more, so I was eager to learn all I could. Still, there were never what I would call gourmet meals issuing forth from my kitchen. We had children straight away and so it was healthy family cooking, trial by fire. Over the years, I became a fairly good children's cook. To this day, other people's children tell their parents what a good cook I am, and how they like eating at our house. While I appreciate their praise very much, I am humbled by it. I know Michelin, the organization that grants restaurants the highly valued 'Michelin Stars' would never grant me so much as a a twinkle. But I don't mind that. To me, that's what restaurants like Justine's are, and were, for - to give we family cooks a break from spaghetti and home-made pizza - and give us a taste of something fresh and exciting, which in turn will enhance our own home cooking and dare us to try something new.

In this town of few restaurants of any real quality there exist a surpising number of skilled culinary artists, and many of the best meals to be had here are cooked and eaten in the home. Our friend Marilee's husband Stefan is a fine chef who happens to run the kitchen in one of the area's major prisons (one of the largest employers here), and last weekend, they gathered twelve of their friends together for a New Year's Eve meal to remember. A week beforehand an email was sent to all the guests with the information that Stefan would be making Saltimbocca with local pork scallopini (to prevent the usual outcry against veal) with prosciutto and sage, and parsnip gratin with wilted pea sprouts.  Each couple was asked to choose a side dish or dessert to prepare. At the fashionable hour of 8:30 pm the guests began to arrive and gather in the beautifully transformed dining/ living room of Marilee and Stefan's home. The menu consisted of small and beautifully plated servings of the following courses:

mini crab cakes with dill mayonnaise

mixed greens with walnuts, goat cheese and orange sections

carrot ginger soup (my contribution)

Saltimbocca and parsnip gratin

meyer lemon granitee served in frozen blood orange halves and garnished with pomegranate seeds and candied lemon zest

triple chocolate dessert: white chocolate mousse, chocolate cassis pate and a hazelnut ice cream macaroon garnished with a champagne sauce and sugared rose petals.

And of course there were endless bottles of wine passed around during the meal.

At precisely 11:58 pm pink champagne was served and we toasted the new year in high spirits, to say the least. The platter of 'Lady Jane', 'Castle Blue' and 'Cranberry Caerphilly' cheeses was then brought in with a bottle of port and most of us found a bit more room for them. It was during the dessert course when I looked up from my incredibly delectable chocolate pate and said to its creator, the local cheesemaker seated opposite, "I'm wondering how I got here!" And she said,

"Well, you must have done something good this year!"

The conversation flowed as quickly and as richly as the incredible meal deserved and soon it was time to organize rides home with sober drivers. I am not much of a drinker, so I had enjoyed my usual small amount of wine and could drive my husband and I safely home to our house across town. In fact, when we were toasting the new year, Marilee asked us to proclaim our resolutions. I don't tend to make resolutions, so I made a joke instead: "I'm not going to drink anymore!" to which there were resounding 'boos'. "I'm not going to drink any less either!" which brought forth cheers and laughter from the crowd before I admitted the joke was a favourite line from a movie.

Meryl Streep's character in Postcards from the Edge says another favourite movie line of mine: "I don't want life to imitate art, I want life to be art!" Every once in a while I will reflect on an event in my life and think it has come pretty close to being art, or at least come close to being a scene in a good film.

If my dreaming, sixteen year old self could have looked forward into New Year's Eve, 2011 she would have thought the future looked promising indeed.


  1. Not long ago in Ireland and the UK you could get olive oil in the chemist only. For your ear. Now, I have 4/5 bottles of the stuff for different styles. EV for salad and so forth. And that's only the OO. I've another plethora of noble oils, walnut etc just for decoration, it would seem.

    I will say this though; there is nothing to make me feel truly gypped than the certainty that the meal I paying for in a restaurant I can do at home only better.

  2. =) sounds like a fairy tale evening and a wonderful beginning to a new year. Happy 2012!

  3. Vince: It is interesting that so many foods, once considered peasant fare, like olive oil, garlic and rustic breads have come to symbolize all that is fine about good eating, isn't it! I like to eat out simply because I do it so rarely!

    E.P.: It was a very fine evening! Thanks for reading...and wishing you the best of the year, too.

  4. Wow, sounds like a great party! I love the film quotes, particularly Meryl Streep's!

    This year is taking on a food theme for me so far. I'm "resolved" to cook better in 2012, but sometimes it's tough to get organized. I have secretly dreamed of working in the kitchen of an elegant restaurant a la Justines!

  5. very cool....i love when harry met sally...one of my favs...and we are always looking for new restaurants and learned much about the michelin stars through gordon ramsay...smiles...happy new year smiles.

  6. You captured the magic of the evening very well. We were very happy to be part of that group and will remember that as one of our very favourite New Year's Eves.

  7. What a lovely way to end one year and welcome in the next. Who needs Michelin Stars when you are enjoying good, wholesome food with lovely people round your table?!

  8. sounds like a great way to start 2012! you are lucky to have such wonderful friends!

  9. wonderful "foodie" quips Rebecca...we had such amazing meals at the Disney resorts...best lettuce cups ever at the Yak and Yeti Restuarant in Animal Kingdom, Best French onion soup in The Chef de France in Epcot, where the beautiful french girl let me practice my french...much to the amusement of the other 7 guests who met my challenge to order their dessert in french, best calamari Brent and I shared since Vancouver days at Mama Melrose at Hollywood Studios, and best Chocolate Mousse in a triangle shape plated with swirls of rasberry coulis and chocolate glaze inside the Disney Castle at Cinderella's Royal Table...there I felt like a child gazing at the castle walls, tapestries, stained glass windows so authentic..ruined just a little by our obviously speedy waiter whipping us through our meal for the next party.
    Yes we ate our way through Disney World...even Chloe ate her best meal at the French restuarant sampling the cheese plate, devouring her roasted chicken with mouth watering sauce and roasted potatoes Julia would have been proud of as France is her favorite placed in the whole world. New Year's resolution? Eat world food more and walk more.

  10. Rebecca this post was absolutely refreshing! Such a wonderful tribute to meals and wonderful food/company shared!
    Happy New year to you!

  11. You have quite a history with food! I used to envy "the natural cook" because I struggle in that area. But I stopped telling people how hard it is for me to cook, because I'd immediately get a lecture on how it really "is" easy. They start, "You can cook! All you have to do is..." Right. lol

    As with most things that we're successful with, you gotta love it. I haven't felt the love yet, so to quote a friend of mine, "That shipped has sailed." :)

    I enjoyed reading about your cooking, dining, and socializing. You really know how to blend it all and make it special.

    Have I told you Happy New Year yet? Well, here it is again - Happy New Year! Here's to more recipes and good food.

  12. Oh what a sweet post! I LOVE to throw dinner parites and having guest bring a side dish sure does help take the pressure off. Sounds like your latest evening out was fabulous!


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