I’ve eaten a lot of great burritos during my road-food rambles.
The best? Undoubtedly, the family-run La Azteca Tortilleria, in east Los Angeles, with its sublime insertion of a meringue-battered, roasted poblano chile.
There’s a multitude of fine burrito shops in San Francisco’s Mission district, including La Taqueria and Taqueria El Farolito. And I had to track down the so-called California burrito, stuffed with French fries, at San Diego’s La Playa Taco Shop.
But I wasn’t expecting a Calgary spot to be pushing the burrito boundaries. Yet, that’s exactly what they’re doing at Oddball Burrito, in the city’s southwest Marda Loop neighbourhood.
Other than a few sides, Oddball’s menu is strictly devoted to burritos. There are 10 offerings, each an experiment in what you can toss inside a rolled tortilla. A cheeseburger? Why not? Perogies, poutine, mac and cheese? Join the party. Breakfast is even covered with the Loco Moco: fried eggs, grilled spam, ground beef and kimchi mayo… oh, and a side of gravy.
I opt for the Low Country Burrito, boasting the rather unusual combination of jumbo shrimp, Andouille sausage, potatoes, sweet corn, Cajun butter and something called comeback sauce. It’s a holy, two-napkin mess.
The large size is $17 but weighs in at a hefty 1.6 pounds. Half is plenty for a good feed.
It’s going to take me a few trips to work through the menu. Next up is probably the Alabama Picnic Burrito, featuring house-roasted chicken and crinkle fries.
Oddball Burrito is the creation of Tara Barker and Shaun Taylor, who opened last summer after coming to Calgary by way of Kamloops and PEI, where they ran a food truck. It’s another great addition to Marda Loop.
Oddball Burrito 2006 34 Avenue SW, Calgary noon to 8 pm Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, noon to 9 pm Friday. Closed Monday and Tuesday 2006 34 Avenue SW, Calgary 403-685-1444
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Back when I could freely do road trips from Alberta into the western U.S., I would often stop at Trader Joe’s, a so-called “national chain of neighbourhood grocery stores.” Among other things, I would pick up a couple of bottles of Two-Buck Chuck ($2 red wine) and a few packages of freeze-dried raspberries, for my backcountry oatmeal.
But I was most enamoured by Trader Joe’s policy of letting customers mix and match craft beers. I could fill a little cardboard six-pack carrier with individual bottles or cans. That allowed me, while travelling through a new city, to sample a diversity of local brews with a single purchase. Thus was born my joy of drinking “solo”.
While most beer vendors sell some individual cans (usually 16 ounces) and bottles (usually 22-ounce bombers), it’s rare that one can curate a selection without buying a lot of brews. And there’s nothing worse than buying a six pack and discovering, on the first sip, you don’t like it.
So I was delighted, when I started ordering pandemic grocery deliveries from SPUD, that I could a) include liquor and b) choose from a lot of individual beer cans. Indeed, most of the 80-some, primarily local beers that SPUD offers are available only in individual, 473-millilitre/16.5-ounce cans. Sure, they cost a little more individually—ranging from about $4 to $5 plus—but that’s still a lot cheaper than ye old crapshoot of a four- or six-packer. And the selection is pretty darn good, including top local brewers like Annex, Cold Garden, Blindman, Dandy, Cabin and Banded Peak.
While I’ve tasted a lot of Calgary-area craft beers, there are simply too many available to keep up with. So it’s nice that through SPUD, I can fill in some gaps without filling my fridge.
The only downside to ordering online beer is I have to stick around home for up to 12 hours on my delivery day, just so I can show proof that I’m 18 years or older. In my case, much older. But at least I can cry in a variety of beers.
Strong is not a word I associate with Calgary these days. Take your pick of metrics: the economy, oilpatch, unemployment rate, downtown office vacancies, real-estate prices. None are strong. And let’s not forget the ravages of the pandemic.
Yet there’s one Calgary sector where “strong” is not a misplaced adjective. That’s the local craft beer scene.
Even before Covid, I wondered how many of the tsunami of new local breweries would survive. Certainly, the pandemic—with its shifting closures, lockdowns and regulations—didn’t help these fledging businesses. Yet here we are, a year-plus later, and the resilient local beer business is still chugging along.
But today, I want to focus on a different aspect of strong: local brews labeled as “strong beer.” While somewhat subjective, strong beer is generally considered to have an alcohol content (or ABV) of at least 6%.
Such beers are often more intense and complex, which is why I like them, much like I prefer strong coffee or undiluted whiskey. Given the punch strong beers pack, they are perhaps best sipped at home, which is where most of us are doing our drinking these days anyways. As a bonus, many of these local breweries are currently offering doorstop deliveries.
Fortunately, local brewers—perhaps in mad-scientist mode while locked in their laboratories—are doing a fine job of feeding innovative strong beers to the market. Some of these are seasonal or even one-time offerings, so get them while you can.
Here are some of the strong local beers I’ve been sampling lately.
Annex Ale Project is one of the most innovative breweries in Calgary. Retracted Resolution is a 7.7% Belgian dubbel—a dark beer with double the amount of raw materials—with notes of dark berries, toffee and cloves; a surprisingly smooth drink. It’s already gone from the brewery website but I managed to snag a four-pack at my nearby Co-op Wines and Spirits store.
Outcast Brewing is another favourite Calgary brewery. They hit it out of the park again with The Forgetful Brewer, a double-dry-hopped double IPA (8%) with plentiful citra, mosaic and simcoe hops. Twice a Canadian Brewing Awards winner.
The Dandy Brewing Company is another bold explorer, surprising my taste buds with its Tumbling Tide, an 8.5% Belgian tripel, a high fermentation brew traditionally marked with three crosses on the barrel.
Blindman Brewing is an outstanding small-town brewery—located in central Alberta’s Lacombe—that delivers to my Calgary doorstep. Its Wet & Dry Hop Double IPA (8.8%) fabulously captures the flavours of just-picked hops.
Cabin Brewing’s flagship Super Saturation is hopped up here to produce Super Duper Saturation, a lovely 8% Imperial New England pale ale. A seasonal beer, here’s hoping it makes a return soon.
Bonus coverage: Blindman’s Perepllut (see image at top) is an extra strong barley wine ale that, weighing in at 10.35%, frankly knocked me on my ass. Fortunately, it only comes in 355-ml/12-ounce cans. And, believe me, one is enough.
Over the past pandemic-sequestered year, most of us have been primarily cooking at home. This has inspired some with time on their hands to start baking sourdough bread or scouring the Internet for chicken mole recipes. Others—especially those with children underfoot at all hours—have become streamlined at putting meals on the table.
This reality prompted the New York Times to recently ask their food editors and reporters to share their most prized home cooking tips. These included basics, like doing all your chopping and other prep work before you start cooking; it’s known as mise en place. Some tips were new to me, such as putting chopped garlic and oil into a cold pan before turning on the heat. You can read the whole list of 17 here, hopefully.
This got me thinking about what “hacks” I use to expedite my home cooking. Efficiency is my mantra, and I can usually get a meal ready in 15 minutes, unless it requires oven time, which generally needs no hands-on attention. When I see a recipe with 17 ingredients and eight steps, I definitely turn the page.
Here are my top seven cooking hacks, plus a recipe.
Good kitchenware will last a lifetime, so spend as much as you can afford… and then spend 25 per cent more. This certainly applies to cutting knives, the backbone of any kitchen. You’ll devote thousands of hours to chopping veggies, meats and fruits, so you might as well have high-end stainless steel knives that hold a sharp edge.
Amongst the Germans, I prefer Wusthof to Henckels. I do have one of those razor-sharp Japanese knives, but I’m always leery about lopping off a finger. Actually, you really need only two kitchen knives: a bigger chopping knife, with a rocker blade for fast chopping, and a smaller paring knife. Throw in a serrated knife if you’re slicing much bread. Plus a good sharpening steel.
Considering all the time we spend chopping, most of us are amazingly bad and slow at it. The best $50 I ever spent was on a two-hour knife skills class; we even learned how to cut up a whole chicken in under a minute. So sign up at your local kitchen shop, or at least check out a chef’s Youtube video or two.
One Pot/Pan Cooking
I’m a master of the one-pot stir fry. I can have a meal of sautéed veggies, meat/fish and sauce ready in 15 minutes from the time I open the fridge. The cooking is all contained, and there’s only one pot to clean.
I have more recently graduated to sheet-pan cooking, in which seasoned veggies, meats and even cubed tofu are scattered on a rimmed, heavy-duty aluminum pan and oven roasted, generally at about 400 F (a cast-iron frying pan also works). I usually line the pan with a reusable silicon mat or parchment paper to prevent sticking. The roasting takes longer and requires knowing when to add different ingredients i.e. beets generally take 50 minutes, potatoes 35 minutes and Brussels sprouts or cauliflower 30 minutes. Once you’ve tasted the caramelized sweetness of roasted vegetables, there’s no going back.
Bathed in Butter
When I do steam or boil vegetables, such as pea pods or broccoli, I drain them, add a pad of butter, and maybe a sprinkling of sea salt, and put the pan back on the still-hot burner for half a minute until the veggies are hot and lightly bathed in melted gold.
I’ve recently become a fan of blistered vegetables. Here, you heat a pan (ideally cast iron) to high and add a splash of oil, your veggies and maybe a bit of salt and red pepper flakes, pushing everything around for a few minutes with a spatula till things are nicely blistered and still a little crunchy. This works great with green beans and also with sliced carrots, broccoli or even grape tomatoes. Just remember to turn on your stovetop fan to disperse the smoke.
Make double the quantity of your usual meal recipe. Other than a bit of extra chopping, there’s no more work involved, and you’ve got a second meal of leftovers that just needs to be heated in the next few days. I know of people who cook their whole week’s meals on, say, a Sunday and then freeze them, but that’s a little too organized for me.
Clean As You Go
Use the energy you generate from cooking to clean pots, bowls, knives, cutting board, counters etc. while stuff is sautéing or roasting. That way you’ll only have a couple of things to clean at meal’s end.
Add Some Sauce
A stir fry needs some sauce. Near the end of cooking, pour on some cream, salsa or even jarred pasta sauce and cook till slightly reduced. I often make a quick, fabulous tomato sauce in my Instant Pot, though stovetop cooking also works fine. It takes about 30 minutes and lasts for several meals, including as a fine sauce for pasta or rice. Here’s the recipe.
Instant Pot Tomato Sauce
Fine chop some onion, bell peppers, a stalk of celery and a medium-large carrot and cook with a tablespoon of olive oil in the Instant Pot, using the “Saute” function. Add salt, pepper, fresh or dry herbs and maybe a couple of bay leaves. After about five minutes, you can add about a pound of ground hamburger, chicken or pork for a meatier sauce, stirring till browned.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, ½ a cup or more of stock or water (or even a splash of red wine), 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, mixing with a whisk. Pour over the sautéing veggies (and meat), and throw in a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes.
Turn the Instant Pot to the high pressure setting for 10 minutes and then let the pressure naturally release for 10 more minutes. Done.
Those are some of my favourite cooking hacks. What are yours?
Last week, I investigated meal-kit deliveries, which have boomed in popularity during the pandemic. I awarded them an overall thumb’s down—too expensive and labour intensive.
Now, I’m exploring online grocery shopping, especially as Covid variants make me rather leery about venturing into stores, even with a mask. I’ve tried curbside pickup from Superstore, which works reasonably well but can be chaotic, with longer waits, unanticipated substitutions and quality issues. Costco’s grocery delivery service is a little complicated for me, with higher prices and fewer choices (such as cheeses) than shopping in store.
But I think I’ve found a winner in SPUD.ca, a Vancouver-based company delivering groceries to doorsteps in major B.C. and Alberta markets. It ticks nearly all my boxes: fresh, local and often organic groceries. As my sister says, it’s like having a personal grocery shopper.
The prices are a little higher than in large grocery stores but easily in line with health-food stores. Plus, there are lots of sale items that bring prices down considerably. Indeed, more than half my recent order was on sale: $2 for a head of organic cauliflower, $1 for an organic avocado and $3.50 for a fillet of wild sockeye salmon. Plus I got a $30 credit for signing up, bringing my first order’s total bill down to about $50.
SPUD covers most of the non-produce bases including canned goods, bakery items, fresh and frozen meats, milk and eggs, and local fresh-roasted coffees and craft beers. Most of the items in Calgary are locally produced by topnotch firms like Valbella (sausages), Sidwalk Citizen (bread), Pie Junkie, Rosso coffee, Annex beer and Springbank cheese. SPUD’s website even lists the distance each item travels to its warehouse.
Like any grocery delivery or curbside pickup service, SPUD does use a fair bit of packaging. Foil packing and ice bags can be picked up by the delivery truck. But during Covid, the large cardboard box that many orders arrive in must be recycled by the customer. And I’m pretty sure the coated butcher paper surrounding a couple of produce items cannot be recycled.
But these are small quibbles, outweighed by an easy-to-navigate website and the ability to add items to an order up to a day before the weekly delivery date. Unlike the subscription model used by most meal-kit services, I can order when I want.
With SPUD, I’m liking what I see, and taste. I think it could well outlast the pandemic and become part of my regular grocery shopping routine.
P.S. Ironically, while writing this post, I was phoned by a most friendly SPUD employee, wanting to know what I thought of my experience. Had to say it was all good.
I used to think nothing of driving several thousand kilometres from, say, Calgary to San Diego just to sample excellent cuisine along the way. Then the pandemic hit, and I was suddenly banned from not only crossing the border but also from entering many restaurants near and far.
Indeed, I went from road-food trips where I ate out three-plus times a day to venturing, a few miles, once a month for curbside pickup. Largely sequestered at home, I tried Door Dash and deliveries of groceries and craft beer.
My latest experiment is the delivery of meal kits, specifically from Hello Fresh, a German-based conglomerate. I got an introductory week’s delivery of three meals for two. It was free, so who was I to turn it down?
With meal-kit services—booming in popularity during the pandemic—all the ingredients you need to make dinner are delivered to your door. Then you do the chopping, the cooking (following detailed instructions) and the cleaning up.
It’s a subscription service, meaning a box of three meals is sent every week, unless you cancel. The fact I cancelled after the first meal tells you I don’t think it’s really worth it. But let’s go through the pluses and minuses.
Let’s start with the pluses. The Hello Fresh website is easy to navigate, order various entrees and track deliveries. The fresh meals are actually quite tasty and had me expanding my cooking horizons, such as shredding zucchini into stir-fry ribbons.
Now the bad. The most egregious—a real deal breaker—is the waste. The week’s meals come in a big cardboard box, with two frozen, plastic water bags to keep everything chilled. Inside are the three night’s proteins, all in sealed plastic bags, and three paper bags each containing the meal’s other ingredients, plus large recipe sheets. The worst of it are all the little plastic bags containing, say, mustard, mayo, tahini and marinara sauce, all of which can’t be easily cleaned for recycling.
The second is the time and effort involved. I’m a fairly efficient, one-pan cook, who can typically produce dinner in about 15 minutes. These recipes frequently take 30 minutes to prepare.
The sizzling pork fajitas recipe, for example, requires me to 1) chop peppers and onions and roast them in the oven, 2) make a salsa fresca, 3) make a crema, 4) stir fry the pork and 5) warm the tortillas in the oven. So, I’m using the oven and the stovetop, plus a bunch of equipment—skillet, baking sheet, various bowls, knife, cutting board—all of which must be washed at meal’s end.
I guess I don’t really see the point. I thought the idea was to save me time and effort. And while meal kits save a trip to the masked-up store to buy all the ingredients, they don’t eliminate the need for a weekly trip to pick up basic groceries.
And I haven’t mentioned the cost. The three meals normally cost about $70, plus $10 for shipping. Each meal is supposed to feed two, but after a 20-kilometre cross-country ski day, I easily hoovered down the entire two-serving Mediterranean beef meal.
And did I also mention these meal kits are delivered on a subscription basis, meaning the three meals arrive every week? Unless you cancel, which requires a bit of website hunting to do.
The Globe and Mail’s Alexandra Gill does a nice job reviewing the meal-kit business. Living in Vancouver, she has the option of ordering from locally owned meal kit providers (such as Tractor at Home), which do most of the prep work for you.
And that’s what I’d like to see where I live, in Calgary. If I’m going to pay a considerable amount for a meal kit, I don’t want to do this much work. I’d just rather order a pizza.