Horse for Dinner – Yea or Neigh?

I arrived in Bilegno, Italy – a hamlet of 70 people in the picturesque Appenine mountain range – for my first day as a stage at the well-known Italian restaurant, La Palta. A welcome lunch was prepared using local ingredients, and, trying out my elementary Italian, I inquired about the filling of the stuffed pasta, asino (donkey) and the meat of the tartare, cavallo (horse). With every bite, the chef and her family watched, assessing my appetite and thus, my character.  The horse tartare was deep red, glistening with extra virgin olive oil; it tasted sweet and tender, reminiscent of venison. While I worked at La Palta, one of the most popular dishes was seared tenderloin of horse, with grilled endive, lime zest and a sweet pomegranate reduction.

Historical record suggests horse has been eaten in Italy since 5th century Verona when a savage battle between King Odoric and his usurper Theodoric resulted in a mass of dead horses. Where some may have seen a mess, Theodoric saw a meal and the tradition of fresh and cured horsemeat began. In modern day Italy you are likely to see cavallo baby food at the grocery store.  Many parents give their children horse because it is lean, high in unsaturated fatty acids and is a good source of iron.

I ate horse frequently while in Italy. On my return to Canada, many of my friends were horrified and disgusted to hear my tales of eating horse tenderloin. What is commonplace in Italy is controversial in Canada. Apart from Quebec, we do not have a strong traditional relationship with horsemeat; it is taboo, repeatedly compared to eating a pet. In Toronto, horse is often on the menu at the stylish Black Hoof, and mainstays like La Palette and Beerbistro. The rise of charcuterie restaurants, like Black Hoof, serving offal and alternative meats illustrates that Torontonians are adventurous eaters, but many still have a philosophical aversion to horse.

Bill C-544 has been raised in the House of Commons to ban horse slaughter for human consumption. Last month, animal rights protestors rallied at horse abattoirs, butcher shops and restaurants that serve horsemeat. Protestors cite inhumane treatment, and that horses are not bred for consumption, given medicine humans should not be inadvertently ingesting. Horrific videos of horses being slaughtered on YouTube are surfacing to bolster the claims.

Consumers of meat are increasingly mindful about origin, medicinal inputs and ethical treatment.  Animal welfare standards are essential, but it remains to be seen if governments are competent to decide the gastronomic choices of society? 

Cavallo at La Palta
Cavallo baby food

Day of the Dead

Stefana, our kitchen Nonna, kneads the glossy dough with her strong hands. In broken Italian, I ask what she is making. Pane dei morti, she responds in thick dialect. Morti translates as dead in Italian. Why would she be making bread of the dead? Thinking that my basic Italian skills must be failing me, I ask her to repeat. She does, explaining that the bread is for a festa, a holiday, the Feast of All Souls. Miscommunication is common between us, and she laughs heartily, relating that her sister was so superstitious she wouldn’t eat the bread because she believed it to be bad luck. We laugh and I eye the bread suspiciously. 

Italian culture oozes tradition. My time as an apprentice in an Emilia-Romagnian kitchen allowed me to participate in culinary and cultural traditions on daily basis, from the shaping of tortelli to the braiding of Piacenza harvested garlic. On the second of November, the Feast of All Souls (also known as Day of the Dead) is celebrated to remember and honour the departed. Church bells ring out all over the villages and towns of Italy while families visit graveyards, bringing offerings of flowers, candles and baked goods and stories are shared with children of their ancestors. The children of the village I lived were not afraid, but happy that throughout the night, their deceased ancestors filled their shoes with candy and toys. 

Offerings of food demonstrate love to the living and to the dead. Nonna Stefana took great care in making enough pane dei morti for the whole family, kneading and allowing the almond dough to rise for two days before expertly forming it. Special meals are prepared for this holiday and in some households an extra place is set at the table for familial spirits because some believe the dead can be present among the living on All Souls Day. To commemorate the occasion, bakeries create spooky desserts such as Bones of the Dead, bone-shaped cinnamon spice cookies, and Beans of the Dead, fava bean–shaped almond cookies.

As an outsider, I was fortunate to experience the Day of the Dead in a tiny Italian village. I was not with my own family on this occasion, but shared in the communal sense of joy and tradition of All Souls Day. Did I dare eat Nonna Stefana’s pane dei morti? Certainly, and I lived to tell the tale.


This is the fruit of my Summer labour (of love). Over 125 jars put-up for the off-season. Although, there really isn’t an off season for preserving. I plan on making winter meyer lemon preserves, seville orange marmalade and winter squash pickles. I am addicted to the Ping! That wonderful noise that confirms your bounty will be air tight and sealed until eaten. The ping is victory! I wait in the kitchen expectantly for the ping. When I don’t get a chance to hear it,  I tap the lids gently the next day to hear the telltale tinny hollow noise that confirms the seal. I had only one jar this Summer that didn’t seal properly, a jar of tomatillo salsa that is being eaten quickly from the safety of my refrigerator. My adventures is farmers market sourcing and preserving this Summer have been beyond rewarding. Why buy ketchup or relish when I could make it myself? 

I went on a day-trip to the St. Jacobs Farmers Market. The rain was treacherous, but I was willing to tough it out in order to buy beautiful turban squash, ontario garlic, leeks, grassfed beef, farm fresh eggs, unpasteurized apple cider, blueberry honey and my first brussel sprouts of the season. Compared to the markets in the city, the vendors at this market had a lot of bulk bushels of just about everything available. The canner in me was ecstatic. I saw a roma tomatoes and had to have them. I bought just about 70 lbs of roma tomatoes to can. The great tomato canning of 2010 was about to begin. The lengthy process of blanching, peeling, hot water packing and 45 minute water bath made me hope and pray to hear the Ping! at the end. They pinged and I rejoiced. 

Chicago – a study in high class/low brow eating.

Chicago is home to many famous food institutions. Whenever I travel, I like to check out the famous foods of the area. In this case, it was a study in extreme low/high brow eating. One night we ate at the famous molecular gastronomy temple, Alinea, and then stuffed ourselves silly on Garrett’s popcorn, deep dish pizza and chicago dogs the next. 

Here is a run-down of the triumphs and disappointments in Chicago low-brow dining. 

Chicago Style Deep Dish Pizza 

Chicago Style Deep Dish pizza was a must-eat while we were in the windy city. I have high pizza standards. In Italy, my first calzone made me cry. I am passionate about pizza. I was coming to this pizza experience not expecting it to mimic my Italian pizza experience, but to come close in terms of food revelations. We chose to go with the original deep dish pizza location, Pizzeria Uno, where a chef in 1943 first served this mammoth creation. 

We ordered  the ‘numero uno’ pizza with the works. We waited in anticipation for 45 minutes while the pizza cooked. It arrived and I was hopeful. The crust looked flaky and buttery, as it should be. The toppings were deep, real deep. This was certainly not an italian pizza. We bit into the pizza, hoping for an explosion of pizza fireworks, and….nothing. This pizza might have made me cry for the wrong reasons. The crust was dry and flavourless, the sauce was nothing special, the cheese wasn’t gooey enough. A pizza that should have been messy and molten was dry and boring. 

Garrett Popcorn

I had read of Garrett Popcorn in my multiple guidebooks but was skeptical. In Canada, we have Kernels popcorn chain in just about every mall and while I have been known to enjoy the double butter flavour at Kernels, I would not rave about it. I would and will rave about Garrett Popcorn. In the span of three days we visited Garrett’s twice. On the first visit we tried the caramel crisp, on the second, we had the much lauded “Chicago Mix”. The mix is both the caramel crisp and cheese corn flavour. The mix is heaven in a popcorn. The sweet and crunchy caramel coated popcorn combined with salty, soft and cheesy popcorn was the perfect snack for a savoury-sweet lover such as myself. My only regret is that I didn’t bring more home with me. 

The Chicago Dog

I was at the airport on my way home and had not yet had a Chicago Dog, I looked up and saw a sign with the most dapper well-dressed hot dogs I had ever seen. Surely this was a good sign, the perfect chance to have a Chicago Dog before making my way back to Toronto. The Chicago Dog is an all-beef hotdog on a poppy-seed bun, dragged “through the garden”with yellow mustard, green relish, onion, tomato slices, a pickle spear, hot peppers and celery salt. This dog did not disappoint. My husband, who does not like too many condiments even thought it was delicious. I say drag all my future hot dogs through the garden. 

bumper crop & punk rock bakeries

I have only one zucchini plant in my backyard. One is enough. Mammoth zucchini appear overnight, forcing me to use them at a pace that I would never voluntarily eat zucchini at. I made a delicious zucchini relish earlier in the Summer, we have been grilling it and eating it ribboned in salads.

This past week, inspired by an amazing bakery I visited in Chicago, I made zucchini cupcakes. The bakery, Bleeding Heart Bakery, was everything a bakery should be, fun, quirky, delicious and hot-pink!

zucchini explosion.
At the bakery I had a wonderful peach cupcake topped with tiny corn kernels. Very tasty. 
I loved the wire whisk light fixtures, tin roof and hot pink walls. 

I think my favourite zucchini application so far is the spiced zucchini cupcake. Any cupcake iced with cream cheese, candied walnuts and crystallized zucchini is okay by me.
I thought the cupcakes needed some colour on top, so I candied finely julienned zucchini skin. 
Zucchini Spice Cupcakes with Candied Walnut & Zucchini  

L20 & a fine dining hang-over.

We had an Alinea hangover. How could any fine-dining meal top Alinea? And back-to-back, it hardly seemed fair for the other restaurant. Due to a $200 cancellation policy, we went to Laurent Gras’s fish and seafood focused restaurant L20

Here are some of the terrible photos from the quite tasty meal.

Amuse Bouche – Lobster. 
Appetizer – Medai, Ume, Sudashi, Fried Garlic
Cold Appetizer – Peekytoe Crab, Avocado, Kaffir Lime, Lemon Oil 
Warm Appetizer – Octopus, Coconut, Olive Oil

I had a lobster bisque with chestnut and lobster dumpling, but did not photograph it.    

Warm Appetizer – Prawn, Saffron Pappardelle, Zucchini Blossom, Tomato
Main – King Salmon, Baked In Clay, North African Spices, Grits, Date
Main – Halibut, Corn Chowder, White Asparagus, Chorizo, Toast
Dessert – Orange and Grand Marnier Souffle & Peanut Butter and Whiskey Souffle
Amuse Desserts – Passionfruit Marshmallow & Beeswax Cake

Alinea – or a trip down the rabbit hole.

Chicago is a delicious city. We planned our short trip to Chicago with two things in mind, architecture and food. And…secretly I thought of Oprah (a lot). The overwhelming choice of delicious food options was terrifying. Do we go to Alinea? Charlie Trotters? L20? Graham Elliot? Avenues? Where do we choose for the classic deep dish pizza? or the Chicago dog? And is the Garrett’s popcorn really worth the hype?

After much humming and hawwing (more hawwing then humming, really), I called Alinea. I bit the bullet and decided that if we were going to Chicago we had better try to get into Grant Achatz’s molecular gastronomy temple of eating, and the 7th best restaurant in the world, AlineaSo I call…..and there is no availability. I am crestfallen. My husband calls again the following week and gets us on the waiting list. Two weeks go by. Two nights before we are set to leave, Alinea calls. We have a seating for the 5:30 (early bird special) on Sunday. Victory! 

I had heard about the entrance to Alinea. How strange the dark hallway was, and disorienting the seemingly wavy pink-lit walls are. And then, a metal door opens and you are welcomed into the restaurant. 

We are down the rabbit hole. 

The serene, and empty, dining room and army of servers make me feel slightly uncomfortable. We have no menu, there is only one per evening, a 22 dish tasting menu. We opt for the wine pairings, as well. 

And we’re off. The cavalcade of playful, witty, strange and delicious food begins. Thank goodness they gave us a commemorative menu at the end, because I could have never remembered all of the courses. 

A welcome champagne and elderflower cocktail. Notice the “flags” on our table, to be eaten later, but used as table decoration for now. (but, of course)

Our 1st – 3rd course. 

Three cocktails synthesized into three bites. 
“Lemon – don cesar pisco, cane juice, frozen and chewy’  
Cucumber – plymouth gin, rose, mint” 
 “Cherry – buffalo trace, carpano antica, maraschino”

This course is exactly what I expected of Alinea, playful bites, masterfully thought out renditions of the originals. What we were actually thinking at this point was…. Are we going to be hungry at the end?

Our 4th course.
“English Pea – iberico, sherry, honeydew”

I think this was one of the most beautiful dishes we ate during the meal. It looked like an english  garden, with flower petals, liquid nitrogen cold peas on burrata with iberico ham, sherry and honeydew jellies. This course had me worried, was the whole meal going to be like this?  It looked beautiful but the flavour was so intense and rich I did not want to finish it. In truth, I didn’t like this course. 

Shhhh, let us never speak of this again.

Our 5th – 8th course. 

“Shrimp – fermented black bean, cinnamon aroma” (Do not eat the cinnamon stick)
“Yuba – shrimp, miso, togarashi” (Eat the entire thing)
“Chao Tom – sugar cane, shrimp, mint” (Only chew the sugar cane – do not swallow)

Oh no. On the heels of the last worrisome course comes Yuba, or tofu skin. I am not a picky eater, but I do not, do not, do not, like tofu products. Guess what? Delicious, at Alinea, not at the local thai restaurant, though. I will only eat tofu when Grant Achatz deems it necessary. 

This course was a bit strange, but fun. The cinnamon stick held a high class deep fried shrimp ball. The Yuba was gorgeous. The sugar cane, which was vacuum sealed with shrimp stock was shrimpy. Overpoweringly shrimpy and sweet. But interesting. 

Our 9th course.
“Tomatoes – pillow of fresh cut grass aroma”

This course excited me to no end. I had heard of the aroma pillow and now I got to experience it. A pillow filled with grass aroma was put down in front of us. The plate of tomato heaven was placed on top, releasing the fresh cut grass aroma slowly as we ate. I wondered where they got the grass. Was it organic? Is it synthetic grass smell? How do they do that? 

The tomato course was one of my favourites. The heirloom tomatoes were perfectly ripe and surrounded with the most amazing powders and crumbs and greens. Balsamic powder, italian bread crumbs, olive oil powder, parmesan cheese. Micro greens I had never seen before. Sublime and gorgeous. 

Our 10th & 11th course. 
“Distillation – of thai flavours” 
“Pork belly – curry, cucumber, lime”

This course was fun. Our decorative flags would finally become food. We were asked to assemble our serving dish and place our rice paper flag on top. Berkshire pork belly was added to our rice paper and we were told to assemble our own spring roll with all the gorgeous ingredients they laid out for us. Delicious, “simple” and fun. Easily, the best spring roll I’ve ever had. 

Our 12th course. 
“King Crab – plum, lilac, fennel”

This was an interesting course. One serving dish, like a matryoshka doll, with a crab mousse on top, cold crab in the middle and a warmed crab in a fennel custard on the bottom. Each dish had the same ingredients used in a different way. The crab mousse was again, too rich for me, but beautiful. The middle course was my favourite, the sensation was crisp and fresh, the antithesis to the richness of the first layer. 

Our 13th course. 
“Hot Potato – cold potato, black truffle, butter”

also known as: The course that made me gag at Alinea. 

This tiny course packed a huge punch. I actually gagged at Alinea. The waiter came over and said “Is everything okay?” Luckily I had drank enough of the delicious wine offerings to not feel as mortified as I might have otherwise. I have a bit of an aversion to truffles. This is not the first time I have done a “shot” of black truffle and gagged. This course was tiny, a small amount of potato soup, a hot potato, a  black truffle and butter released when you pull the pin, pop it into your mouth. And swallow. Or not, in my case. 

Let us never speak of this again. 

Our 14th course. 
“Lamb – reflection of elysian fields farm”

Please excuse the blurry photo, after the embarrassment of the previous course, I was trying to be inconspicuous. This course involved delicious lamb and foam and sweet corn soup and one of the best bites of my life – a crispy piece of lamb fat. Doesn’t sound appealing?  It was. 

Our 15th course. 
“Black Truffle – explosion, romaine, parmesan”

uh oh. truffle explosion? I did it, it was okay. I swallowed. 

Our 16th course. 
“Tournedo – a la Persane”

This course blew me away. It was perfection on a plate. The setting of heavy silverware and an antique crystal glass with the gold rimmed plate was perfect for this homage to Escoffier’s classic dish. Australian wagyu sat atop banana and tomato. Banana! Amazing. This was one of my favourite dishes. The sauce was crystal clear and gorgeous. 

Our 17th course. 
“Bacon – butterscotch, apple, thyme”

A bacon swing. Childhood dreams come true. 

Our 18th course. 
“Lemon Soda – one bite”

It all happened so quickly I didn’t take a photo. They brought over two tiny little pill-like squares. We ate them. Fizz. Lemon. Yum. 

Our 19th & 20th course. 
“Transparency – of raspberry, yogurt”
“Bubble gum – long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche”

The raspberry transparency was fun. It tasted like crunchy raspberry. It complemented the tube of “bubble gum” we were instructed to slurp back in one shot. It tasted like bubble gum, very fancy bubblegum. 

Our 21st course. 
“Earl Grey – lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate”

A terrible photo of a delightful course. The base was a creme earl grey crumb with lemon “yolks”, pine nuts and white chocolate. 

Our 22nd course. 
“Chocolate – coconut, menthol, hyssop”

This was the show stopper, a last course I never dreamed possible. As we ordered coffee and drank our tawny port from 1968 (!!!), our table was covered in a silicone tablecloth. One of the chefs came over and began painting our table with coconut sauces, menthol sauce, micro-mint and perfect circles of chocolate pudding. In the centre of all this craziness, a block of nitrogen frozen chocolate mousse was placed, and cracked open, cold air streaming out of it. We ate and ate and laughed and ate. Until we could not eat any longer. 

What a trippy meal. 

We were happy to have taken the trip down the rabbit hole, until the bill sent us reeling back to reality. 
Wonderland ain’t cheap. 

Doctor, Doctor, we have a case of bottom end rot.

Bottom/Blossom end rot. Powdery mildew. Early summer blight. Late summer blight. Bacterial speck. 

These diseases strike terror straight into my tomato growing soul. Almost all of my tomato plants have a case of powdery mildew. The days have been so humid and wet, it has been almost impossible to keep my tomato plants well ventilated and dry. When I saw the tell-tale white powdery specks on the leaves I knew I needed to break out the milk. Yes, the milk. Apparently, a solution of 1 part milk to 9 parts water will help in the fight against powdery mildew. Why? Scientists are not sure (says the internet). My friend, an actual Doctor of Plant Genetics (fancy!) had never heard of this before, but thought it would have something to do with pH levels. She also suggested that I grow roses in my tomato gardens next year as an indicator species. The roses will get the powdery mildew first and I will be able to safeguard my tomato plants before they too get sick. Great suggestion, Doctor, great suggestion. In vineyards, at the end of each row you will see a rosebush for this very same reason. 

Plants are amazing. 

Small bit of powdery mildew. I trimmed the plants before I could get a photo of really bad mildew. 

Now, the case of bottom end rot. What can I do? This disease is caused by a deficiency of calcium in the soil when the plant was developing. I have been saving my eggshells all summer to add to the soil of my plants and have fortified the soil with a calcium rich green fertilizer. I think I might have to just give up, let those bottoms rot and hope for the best. 

Blossom End Rot. Sigh.
Feuerwerk, Lemon Boy & Eva’s Purple Ball Tomatoes
Greens, greens, greens.
Very trimmed tomato plants.
Delicious cherry tomatoes.
Tastiest tomato of the garden to date: tiny little coyote yellow tomatoes from matchbox garden and seed co.
Broccoli gone to seed, all the pretty yellow flowers.
Mixed spicy greens.
Mixed italian greens.

Busy, Busy, Busy.

I have been busy. I just started my new job. I soon hope to fall into a more normal routine that includes going to work AND making delicious dinners, preserving, walking my dog and blogging. For now, I need a few weeks to get used to the daily grind.

At work, I have been busy making agnolotti dal plin*:

At home, I have been busy pickling asparagus….

And pickling garlic scapes…

And pickling a carrot onion sandwich slaw….

And, I won’t lie and admit I succumbed to buying another 7 litre bushel of sweet cherries from the market. I’m thinking they might need a good pickling. Pickled cherries are supposed to be delicious. We’ll see!