Thursday, April 27, 2017

Das Lokal serves up flawless Teutonic treats

The annual A Taste for Life fundraiser in support of Ottawa's Bruce House facility, which offers housing and services for people in our community living with HIV/AIDS, is one of my favourite events. Dozens of local restaurants donate 25 per cent of their sales on a Wednesday night in April to Bruce House, which means we have a great excuse to go out for a delicious dinner and also support this amazing charity. Our friend M usually books a table at whatever restaurant her brother is "hosting" (greeting diners, telling them about the fundraiser, soliciting additional donations in exchange for a chance to win prizes, etc.) and always invites us along.

This year's location was Das Lokal, a small former chicken hut in the lower Byward Market that now serves elegant and delicious German-inspired fare, wonderful cocktails, and divine desserts in a homey, pretty room in shades of grey and white, with two walls of windows and a white upright piano tucked against a wall. Six of us crammed into one of their three huge booths and thoroughly enjoyed a fantastic meal.

A round of tasty drinks started us off right: my Orange Earl Grey Sour was a lovely balance of citrus and tea notes with vodka as its kicker. Chris tried the U-Bahn with Aperol, pineapple, and passionfruit. Other tempting choices included a smoked old-fashioned and a kimchi Caesar. The wine list is short but well-selected; I had a lovely dry rosé from southern France, and Chris enjoyed a glass of crisp white Sylvaner. German and Austrian beers are also on tap, including the rarely-seen apple Radler from Stiegl (they have the grapefruit one too).

As this was not your typical Wednesday night for the restaurant, the front-of-house staff were a little bit overworked, but their demeanour remained pleasant and helpful throughout, and we were in good company so we waited patiently for the eventual delivery of top-notch comestibles. I opted for the daily soup, a velvety-smooth tomato (vegan) kicked up with a swoosh of reduced balsamic and a restrained dollop of onion jam. I would eat tomato soup every day and night, and this one was terrific.

Knowing I'd want dessert, I kept my "main" light with a charcuterie plate, which was anything but simple. One can select three items from a list of five or six cheeses and eight or so meats and fishes. I went with Oka cheese, smoked duck breast, and salmon gravlax, something I adore and rarely see on menus. All the meats and fish are cured or smoked in-house, and it showed: the gravlax was velvety, toothsome perfection; the duck breast sliced paper-thin with the perfect amount of smooth fat around pink meat, smoky but not campfired. Even the aged Oka classique, which came sliced thinly instead of as the usual wedge, was at proper temperature. The accompanying pickles and chutneys elevated the whole thing to epic status: whatever was in the diced pickled carrot and celery concoction, I want more of it. The cherry chutney was also divine, though the squash puree with star anise leaned a little weird (but I admire the creativity!). Herby, rustic breadsticks and char-marked baguette crostini formed an adorable bouquet in a tiny bowl.

Chris, along with two other members of our party, opted for the classic pork schnitzel with mustard, spätzle, and pickles, which arrived in a fair-but-not-stupid portion, all its components beautifully executed and tasty as hell, according to him. It all disappeared with haste.

The house-made bratwurst plate with potato sauce and mustard was deeply appreciated by the gluten-free member of our company. I tried a bite of the sausage and was deeply impressed. It's great value too, easily a small main for the price of an appetizer.

One of our friends was seated with a view of the kitchen pass-through and caught a glimpse of the touted Black Forest cake, exalting in its use of whole sour cherries rather than jam, as with so many downmarket versions. Three of us ordered a slab (and I do mean slab) of the gorgeous confection, three layers of chocolate cake filled with sour cherry compote, kirsch liqueur, and softly whipped cream, the whole thing dusted with cocoa. I tried a bite and was blown away.

Myself, I can never resist a chocolate punch to the face, and ordered the house made truffle plate. Three lovely chocolate coated marbles of dense ganache, two flavoured gently with rosemary and one with bourbon, plus a mound of orange-scented ganache on its own, dotted with perfect berries atop a swoosh of crème fraîche, made for a decadent end to my meal. I don't even like rosemary much and these were awesome.

Our friend R, a very serious home cook and restaurant aficionado, was as impressed as I was with Das Lokal. We all left well-fed and watered, pleasantly sated and happy (if a tad overheated from the small room filled with warm bodies). Every one of us would return in a heartbeat. I found myself hoping to end up back in that lovely room much sooner than next April.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Again with the eggplants and the stuffing

Looking back at my last few posts, it seems clear that I am momentarily obsessed with 1. eggplant and 2. stuffing things into vegetables. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing; I figure the heart (or stomach) wants what it wants, and sometimes it's good to roll with that.

The good thing is that these stuffed eggplants are one of the most delicious things I've had the pleasure of eating for a long while, and I hope you enjoy them too. They're nearly-vegan (omit the feta and you're golden, though upping the salt factor would be needed - perhaps in the form of nutritional yeast?) and packed with protein from the quinoa, nuts, and cheese. They're pretty. They're nearly infinitely adaptable: I riffed on this recipe from The Kitchn to make these, switching out the grain, the herbs, the fruit, and the nuts, and adding the cheese, and the results were super. I would absolutely like to try this with pomegranate seeds another time, since my grocery stores were fresh out this week. Fortunately the dregs of a box of dried cranberries in my pantry rescued me.

Still enjoying my newly-discovered like of quinoa, but couscous or the suggested bulgur would both be terrific here, though their lower protein content would make this more of a side dish than a main, as we ate it. Chris loved it too: "This is f**king good," he shouted up at me just now, noshing on the leftovers. Best compliment ever.

Quinoa-stuffed eggplants with feta, walnuts, and mint
Serves 3 as a main or 6 as a side

3 medium purple eggplants
5 tbsp olive oil, divided
2 tbsp za'atar
1 tsp salt
3 cups cooked quinoa
1 cup toasted walnuts or other nut of choice
1/2 cup dried cranberries (or raisins, pomegranate seeds, dried cherries, etc.)
1/4 cup packed fresh mint leaves, washed and chopped
2 scallions, green parts only, sliced into thin rings
juice of one lemon
1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese (or cotija, ricotta salata, or queso fresco)

Preheat your oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with foil. Slice your eggplants lengthwise and lay them down cut sides up. Score them in a diamond pattern with a sharp knife, being careful not to cut through skin at any point. Brush each half with 1/2 tbsp olive oil and sprinkle with salt and za'atar. Bake for 45 min to 1 hour or until eggplants are completely soft. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine quinoa, nuts, cranberries, mint, scallions, and feta. Toss to combine, then drizzle with lemon juice and remaining 2 tbsp olive oil. Toss again and taste for seasoning (I salted my quinoa generously and found that the feta took care of the rest).

Mound quinoa on top of each eggplant half (about 3/4 cup per eggplant piece) and serve hot or at room temperature. Leftovers reheat well in microwave and the flavours get even better with a bit of time.

Note that you can eat the eggplant skin; it softens with baking but retains a nice chewiness that adds flavour and texture to the dish. If you prefer not to, you can scoop out the flesh as you would with a baked potato.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Get stuffed

Lately I've been eating a lot of bell peppers. Well, I always have done so, in the warmer months when they don't cost a million dollars each at the grocery store, but this past year I've been buying the 4-pack of multicoloured ones at Food Basics regardless of the cost, every week. (Some weeks I buy two packages. Luxury!) The bottom line is that I love them. They're by far my favourite vegetable, and as luxuries go, it's a small one.

This week in lieu of putting them in my scrambled eggs each morning, or into a stir-fry or a soup, I elected to stuff them. This is a dish I used to make a lot back when we first moved into the house, ten years ago now. But it fell off my radar for a few years, for whatever reason, and this week it occurred to me that it deserved resurrection. Chris had mentioned wanting to cook himself some quinoa sometime soon, and despite my former dislike and subsequent banishment of it from my kitchen, I relented and bought a package at the store. I did some reading and discovered that in all likelihood I had not been rinsing it thoroughly enough years ago, and that's why it tasted bitter and soapy to me. I rinsed it for a full two minutes tonight, swishing it around with my hands, and then cooked it in chicken stock.

Then I mixed it with some ground pork that I'd browned quickly with some corn kernels, green onions, and spices, added grated cheese and some fresh cilantro, stuffed it into pepper halves and baked them until slightly browned and crispy on top. Both of us took one bite and then basically alternated bites with compliments to the food we were eating. It was totally delicious - healthful and rich all at the same time. A great balance. This one's a keeper.

Quinoa and pork-stuffed peppers
Serves 4

4 large bell peppers, any colour
3/4 cup dry quinoa, rinsed very well, cooked according to package directions in salted water or chicken stock (recommended)
300 grams ground pork
1 tbsp vegetable oil
salt and pepper
cumin and smoked paprika
3 scallions, sliced, white parts discarded
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, washed, dried, and chopped
1 cup grated cheddar (I used old)
1 can corn kernels, drained, or 1 cup frozen corn, thawed

Preheat your oven to 375 F and start the quinoa cooking. Wash and dry the peppers. Cut them in half carefully, cutting closely around the stems. Remove seeds and white pith. Place pepper halves in a microwavable container, add an inch or two of water, cover and cook on high for five minutes to soften. Drain and arrange in a single layer in a baking dish, ready to be stuffed.

Heat the oil on high in a large skillet. Brown the pork until no pink shows. Season with salt, pepper, cumin, and smoked paprika to taste. Add the corn and green onions, and cook three minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.

Once quinoa is cooked, stir in about 2/3 of it with the pork mixture. Add half the cheese and stir well to combine. Stuff the mixture into the pepper halves, pressing in tightly and mounding in the centre. Sprinkle each pepper half with remaining cheese. Bake for 20-30 minutes until cheese is melted and tops are lightly browned, or to taste. Serve two pepper halves to each person. Sigh with delight.

This can easily be made vegetarian by substituting veggie ground round or lentils cooked in vegetable stock until soft  for the pork.