Composting: Such a Waste

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You can throw just about anything into Calgary’s compost buckets

My greatest “food” discovery in 2017 wasn’t the Instant Pot, despite my sister’s devotion and some 1,500 books dedicated to its use. Not a sous-vide contraption, either. Not the latest craft brewery, botanical distillery or chef-driven fast food.

No, the thing that most impressed me was at the waste end of the food stream. Specifically, it was the introduction of compost collection in my home city of Calgary, Alberta.

I’d always done my own backyard composting of kitchen scraps and yard waste. But it was a slow, uneven process that left me, each fall, with a couple of buckets of soil and big clumps of matted grass.

So, I was quite happy to recycle my plastic composter and instead let the city collect the compost every week. What I wasn’t prepared for was all the things I could throw in the big bin, things I could never have pitched in my old composter.

Things like meat, fat and bones. Like pet waste, which in my case are droppings from wandering neighbours’ cats. More permissible pet sheddings: fur, hair and feathers, along with rawhide bones. Not so sure about cold, dead kitty. But certainly cold ashes from fireplace and barbecues.

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Some of the things you can throw in the compost bin (no, not the plastic coffee filter)

Also paper plates, coffee filters and Kleenex…. used Kleenex. And, significantly, paper towels, which can be used to wipe dirty pots and pans instead of rinsing all that wet, greasy stuff down my kitchen sink, which has a propensity for clogging.

I can also toss into the bin things like tree and hedge branches, cones, weeds, various garden vines, avocado pits and Christmas trees, none of which would ever have broken down in my old, tepid compost pile. And everything wooden from untreated lumber to Popsicle sticks. The list goes on.

The reason you can toss all this stuff into your compost bin is that Calgary’s modern, industrial-scale composting facility operates at temperatures exceeding 55 degrees Celsius. This searing heat breaks down all those bones and pits into usable soil and kills any harmful bacteria.

At $6.50 a month, I figure this weekly compost collection is a bargain. More important, it can cut most people’s garbage at least in half, sparing the city’s overflowing landfills from more than 85 million kilograms of food and yard waste every year.

Compost collection tips

Yes, you can throw all your kitchen scraps into your old, unlined compost bucket. But when you dump that bucket into the compost bin, there’s a tendency for all the loose, wet stuff to stick to the bin’s sides and bottom. In winter, said wet stuff can freeze to the bin, leading to messy cleanups.

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The bins work throughout the winter, as long as you don’t throw loose, wet stuff in

It’s better to use some kind of bag. Do-it-yourselfers can consult YouTube for learning how to fold newspaper into a collection device that fits inside your under-the-sink compost bin. Lazier types can buy compostable plastic liners; I bought a 125-bag box at Costco for peanuts. Just don’t let them sit too long under your sink, as they start to break down and leak a bit of fluid after about a week.

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A Costco-sized box of compostable bin liners. Note: You can’t use regular plastic bags

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Meat & Bread: Simply Superb Sandwiches

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Succulent meatball sandwich at Calgary’s Meat & Bread

As a longtime Calgarian, it pains me to promote any import from Vancouver, even though I briefly lived there many years ago. But when said import considerably elevates Cowtown’s sandwich game, who am I to protest?

The sandwich shop in question is Meat & Bread, which I enthusiastically reviewed shortly after it opened in Vancouver’s Gastown district in 2010. It delivered everything I look for: delicious, innovative sandwiches, made to order yet produced so efficiently that the lunchtime line moves swiftly.

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The lunch-hour line moves quickly

Such a sandwich shop was sorely lacking in Calgary, at least until a Meat & Bread location opened in June in the historic Grain Exchange Building, along downtown’s busy 9th Avenue. While it’s a franchise (there are currently two other locations, in Vancouver and Seattle), it’s in the capable hands of Eric Hudson and wife Bao Nahn. Most importantly, the experience and quality is essentially the same as at the flagship restaurant in Vancouver.

The keys to success are deceptively simple. First, there’s a very short menu of sandwiches—on fresh ciabatta buns—including a few standards, such as the outstanding signature porchetta, with its crunchy cracklings, and a barbecue beef. On a recent Friday, I opted for the special: three substantial, moist pork and beef meatballs topped with parmesan aioli, a chopped herb condiment and kale ($9.50).

Second, everything is freshly made each day by skilled “chefs, not sandwich artists,” featuring quality ingredients. Indeed, there’s no freezer on the premises.

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A friendly, efficient crew

Finally, and crucially at lunch hour, there’s a highly efficient crew assembling these four or five sandwiches. Such that our counter order is delivered to a high table in scant minutes.

The sides are similarly limited—a daily soup and a salad and a handcrafted chocolate bar for dessert. Nice to see a small selection of beers from Calgary microbrewers.

“It’s simple,” the company’s mantra goes, “we make sandwiches.” What more do you need?

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An innovative way of labelling dry provisions

Meat & Bread
821 1 Street SW, Calgary, Alberta
Monday to Saturday 11 am-5 pm. Closed Sunday

Revelstoke’s La Baguette the Perfect Road Food Stop

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The quick-serve counter at Revelstoke’s fabulous La Baguette

The drive from Calgary to Vancouver is a 975-kilometre, 10-hour-plus push that I endure a couple of times a year. To relieve the tedium and replenish the batteries, it’s nice to have a few go-to places along the way for good coffee and a quick, wonderful bite to eat.

One such place that I nearly always stop at is La Baguette, in Revelstoke, B.C. It ticks all my boxes for what constitutes great road-food dining on a long-distance drive.

First is its location. Revelstoke is about a 4.5-hour drive from Calgary, an ideal distance for a break, coffee refill and snack or meal. Second, La Baguette is just a couple of minutes off the Trans-Canada Highway, with on-street parking.

Third is the flexibility. La Baguette is both a bakery and café/restaurant. That allows me to quickly pick up an Americano, a fresh croissant or a hearty turkey-yam wrap from the counter (my only complaint is sometimes the line moves a little slowly). La Baguette has recently expanded, adding a little sit-down restaurant with largely the same menu, if you want a longer break.

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The bar in the new, sit-down restaurant

None of this would matter if the food wasn’t memorable. As I’ve stated in previous posts, La Baguette is one of my favourite bakeries/cafes in western Canada. The food is exceptional, the prices are reasonable (that turkey-yam wrap is about $7 and satisfies two reasonable appetites) and, most difficultly, the high standards are consistently met.

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The “healthy bread” might be the best toast I’ve ever had

And despite a relatively short menu, there’s always something interesting and unusual to try. Like the exquisite healthy toast (featuring spelt flour, coconut and dates), poached eggs over crispy potatoes, pulled siracha chicken on a brioche bun or a Montreal-style bagel topped with pork rillette.

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Montreal-style bagels loaded with interesting goodies

Did I mention the new restaurant has a little bar, featuring well-curated craft beers on tap, like the exceptional Twin Sails offerings from Vancouver suburb Port Moody?

That’s the only problem I have with this new sit-down café. It’s creating havoc with my driving schedule.

 La Baguette
607 Victoria Road, Revelstoke, B.C.
Daily 6:30 am-7 pm (8 pm in summer)
250-837-3755

Sauce Italian Kitchen & Market Does It All

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Our terrific server, Melissa, presiding over the restaurant at Calgary’s Sauce Italian Kitchen & Market

My typical formula for a successful independent eatery can be boiled down to three words: Keep it simple.

Do a few, signature things very well. Don’t have a long menu. Stick to your expertise, don’t stray into other areas.

It’s a good thing Jenna Bazzana doesn’t listen to the likes of me.

The owner of the rather new Sauce Italian Kitchen & Market, in southwest Calgary, happily tackles all sorts of businesses under one, expansive roof. There’s a market. There’s a café. There’s a full-fledged, elegant restaurant. There’s a bakery. There’s a coffee roastery. There are evening events, as well as catering. Need I go on?

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The coffee shop and bakery is just one of the businesses Sauce operates under one roof

And by all appearances, this little food empire is a smashing success. At mid-week lunch, the restaurant is buzzing, with the open kitchen churning out plates of wood-fired pizza and house-made pasta featuring Rosie’s (Jenna’s mother) Bolognese sauce; you can also buy it in the deli to take home. Two of us dig into flavourful bowls of clam linguini (a great deal at $12), while I savour a roasted vegetable and eggplant parmigiana ($15), which comes with a large, mixed-greens salad—almost a meal in itself.

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Big bowl of clam linguini

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Eggplant parmigiana with a monster side salad

It’s a friend’s birthday, so we score a complimentary piece of house-made cannoli. And as I’m leaving, I pick up a pound of fresh-roasted coffee, while eying all the cold cuts and cheeses that go into the deli’s paninis. Next time.

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Finishing things off with some house-made cannoli

Sauce Italian Kitchen & Market
3326 17 Avenue SW, Calgary, Alberta
Restaurant: Sunday to Thursday 11 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-11 pm
403-727-7627

$18 Breakfasts Still Abound in Calgary

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Good, upscale breakfast at Calgary’s Blue Star Diner

I’ve lived in Calgary since 1980 and have thus witnessed numerous booms and busts. So while a number of food and drink places invariably fold with each crash, especially downtown, I’m no longer surprised when much of the restaurant scene chugs along as if nothing’s happened.

So it is with the most recent oil-price collapse, especially at breakfast. Calgary has long been one of the more expensive places to order breakfast in western North America. Think $15 for a good, though fairly standard morning feed. And yet people are perfectly happy to line up for these breakfasts, especially on weekends and even in winter.

An outsider might think such lineups would disappear and prices cut in the wake of this latest recession. No such luck. A quick survey of popular Calgary breakfast spots shows prices of $16 to $19 for more upscale morning offerings like lox waffles, meatloaf hash and tofu scrambles. One place even charges $14 for a breakfast sandwich and $15 for pancakes.

Thus it was when we recently visited Blue Star Diner in the city’s trendy Bridgeland district. At 8 am on a Saturday, it wasn’t lined up but still busy.

I often like to order breakfast offerings that venture well beyond the tried-and-true bacon and eggs. Blue Star certainly delivered on originality, and we were soon happily munching on slow-cooked brisket and grits ($17.50) and corned lamb hash and cornbread ($18.50).

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Corned lamb hash and poached eggs

I must say it was delicious, with lots of locally sourced ingredients, excellent execution and attention to detail. I’ll always happily pay a little more for quality. Still, $45 for breakfast and coffee for two? Sheesh.

Blue Star Diner
809 1 Avenue NE, Calgary, Alberta
Daily 8 am-10 pm
403-261-9998

Great Ramen Shop in Edmonton

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There’s a lot of delicious complexity in this pork ramen bowl at Edmonton’s Prairie Noodle Shop

I’m a big fan of eating at restaurant counters, because it gives me a front-row view of the kitchen.

At Edmonton’s fabulous, newish Prairie Noodle Shop, I’ve discovered another benefit of sitting on a high counter stool: it’s only a few inches from bowl to mouth. All the better to slurp up that liquid and noodle goodness without wearing it.

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A fabulous chunk of roasted pork belly goes into my ramen bowl

Really, there is no elegant way to attack these gorgeous ramen bowls. Just lift your chin occasionally to admire the beautiful composition and then dive back into exploring all the complex flavours and textures.

The big plastic spoon is needed to savour the rich pork broth, simmered for 16 hours and, in my case, jacked up with miso, garlic and house-made chili oil. The chopsticks are required to grab the slender ramen noodles, the tender chunk of roasted pork belly, the smoked, shredded pork shoulder and the half umeboshi egg. Then it’s back to the spoon to scoop up niblets of sweet sesame corn.

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The spoon is one of the tools needed to attack this big bowl of goodness

There’s a lot going on in this big bowl forged by chef/owner Eric Hanson—a bargain really at $15.50 for this much originality and quality.

Prairie Noodle Shop
10350 124 Street, Edmonton, Alberta
Monday 11 am-2:30 pm, Tuesday to Saturday 11 am-2:30 pm, 4:30 pm-10 pm. Closed Sunday
780-705-1777